Summary: Dedicated to Mac the horse, who broke my coccyx, but gave me a gift I’ll be forever grateful for.
Word Count: 9947
For days, the sun had been beating down relentlessly onto the corral, baking the ground to rock. The land shimmered when you looked towards the horizon, offering an illusion of wetness that just reminded you of how hot it really was.
Conditions were not ideal for breaking horses, but time was Joe’s enemy and he had no choice but to do it. The heat was punishing for both man and beast and the hard ground made the inevitable falls much worse. But there was nothing for it but to push on, and at last, after several days of hard graft, the end was in sight.
“Got the hammerhead ready for ya, Joe,” Jeb called over to where his young boss was resting in the shade.
“All right,” Joe called back, climbing wearily to his feet. He had done the majority of the work himself, but one of the other hands had taken first ride on the black hammerhead and had had an ignominious end to his ride when he was dumped within a few seconds, to the accompaniment of raucous catcalls from the other men.
The horse’s shoulders were wet with sweat as Joe climbed the side of the chute. Slowly, Joe eased himself down onto the trembling beast and patted its neck reassuringly. Over at the other side of the corral, Joe saw that his father had just arrived, but he didn’t have time for anything more than a tight smile in his direction. “All right, let me have him,” he said, quietly and the gate to the chute swung open.
For all that he had watched the last ride on this horse and had seen how powerful it was, Joe was slightly surprised by the power in the first buck. The horse had its head down to its knees as it bucked on stiff legs across the dusty ground. Joe hung on, his body going with the horse’s movements.
Over at the fence, Ben admired Joe’s grace as he rode the mustang. He hated to watch his sons breaking horses, knowing only too well the dangers that were involved. It was something that he had never done, feeling that when he arrived out west, he was really a novice horseman and was perfectly content to let others do this. It had amazed him when Adam had first begun breaking, and then Hoss had followed in his brother’s footsteps, but neither of them had really enjoyed doing the job and were only too happy to back away and let Joe get on with it. They all agreed that Joe was a natural horseman.
Suddenly, Ben was dragged from his daydreaming as Joe let out a shout. The black, tired of bucking, was now running at full pelt towards the railings. Joe was hauling ineffectually on the halter the animal wore, knowing that there was very little he could do to stop the creature.
At the last possible second, the horse turned sharply away and Joe swayed wildly in the saddle. Ben’s heart lurched, but his son regained his balance. Ben breathed again. But his relief was short lived. The horse bucked wildly, almost throwing Joe from the saddle. And before Joe could get back properly in the saddle, the horse bucked again. The cantle of the saddle smacked Joe firmly in the butt, catapulting him over the horse’s shoulder. For a long moment, Joe teetered there, then gravity took over and he plummeted to the ground.
“Joe!” Ben scrambled through the railings and hurried over to where Joe was lying on his back on the ground. Before he could reach him, however, Joe rolled onto his side and pushed himself into a sitting position. “Are you all right?” Ben asked, for it had been an unforgiving fall.
“I think so,” Joe replied, shakily, rubbing at his butt, which felt rather numb. Joe knew there was going to be a huge bruise there the next day.
“You didn’t bang your head, did you?” Ben went on.
“I might,” Joe admitted, not completely sure. He shook his head, but everything seemed to be in working order. He smiled at Ben, although the smile was still shaky. “I’m all right, Pa,” he assured him. Slowly, Joe rose to his feet, with Ben hovering anxiously over him. “Where’s the horse?” Joe glanced down at his left hand as he spoke and hauled back on the partially removed glove, which had almost come off when Joe hadn’t let go of the rope fast enough.
“Shouldn’t you call it quits for today?” Ben asked, brushing dust off Joe’s back.
Wincing slightly, Joe removed himself from his father’s reach. “No, I need to get this horse finished today. The major from the army will be here day after tomorrow and we’ve got to have these horses ready. This is the last one, and I want it done today. That way, we have time to do a little more work with it.”
Since the horses were Joe’s area of responsibility, Ben deferred to his judgment on this matter, although he would have preferred Joe to return to the ranch house with him. “All right, but you be careful, you hear?”
Smiling, Joe nodded. “I’ll be careful,” he agreed, all the while knowing, as Ben did, that careful horse breakers didn’t manage to break horses. He glanced at the men, who had ridden down the black. “Get him back in the chute!” he ordered. “I’m comin’ again!”
By the time he arrived home that night, Joe knew that his seemingly innocuous fall had done a lot more damage than he had first suspected. He hadn’t noticed the pain to begin with, but after his second – successful – ride on the black, Joe began to feel the odd twinge in his butt. Now that he had arrived home, Joe was sure he’d done himself some real damage.
Getting down from his horse was an experience that Joe could have happily lived without, and his initial relief at no longer being on the horse soon gave way to a grinding soreness that erupted at every movement. Cochise received a very cursory rub-down that evening and Joe walked slowly towards the house, wondering why, if he had landed on his butt, he couldn’t stride out in his usual fashion.
As he already knew, Adam and Hoss were both home before him. Joe sighed, knowing that he faced an inevitable barrage of jokes about his fall. He took off his jacket and gun belt and laid his hat on the credenza. The great room was deserted for the time being and Joe hoped he would have the chance to go up and get changed before he had to face his family.
However, his luck ran out as Adam appeared at the top of the stairs and saw Joe. “Well, it’s about time you were getting home,” he commented tartly. “Pa was about to send out a search party for you.”
Forcing a smile that he didn’t feel, Joe walked carefully across to the stairs and began to climb then. He hadn’t gone more than two steps when he found himself wishing that he slept on the ground floor. He passed Adam on the landing and Adam grinned when he saw the dust coating Joe’s clothing. “Don’t sit on anything until you’ve taken your pants off,” he advised and gave Joe a teasing swat on the butt, intending to see how much dust he could raise in doing so.
What he hadn’t expected was Joe’s reaction. His youngest brother all but went into orbit, jumping and letting out a cry that sounded remarkably like pain. Surprised, Adam blinked. “Surely its not that sore, Joe?” he teased. “A bit dramatic, wasn’t it?” He laughed and walked off, leaving Joe clutching the banister and breathing shallowly though his mouth as he tried to control the pain that was spreading up his spine.
At a snail’s pace, Joe crept up the remaining steps and met his father at the top. Ben’s face immediately registered concern as he saw the pain etched on Joe’s face. “Joe, what’s wrong?” he asked.
Trying not to alarm Ben, Joe replied, “I’m sore from that fall, Pa.” He took the last step up, trying not to wince.
“It looks like more than that,” Ben returned. “Did you come off again?”
“No,” Joe replied, truthfully. He found a smile, small but genuine. “I broke that black, Pa.” He sounded justifiably proud of himself.
“How about I get Hop Sing to bring you some water for a bath?” Ben suggested. “That’ll take the aches out.”
He was surprised when Joe looked alarmed. “No, never mind,” Joe blustered. “I’ll be fine.” The truth was, he didn’t know if he would be able to get into the bath, and the thought of sitting in it was enough to set his tail aching anew. In fact, the longer he stood there, the more it ached. He smiled once more and detoured round Ben to go to his room.
With a sigh of relief, Joe closed the door and looked at the bed. A soft seat seemed to be just the thing he needed and so he hobbled over and sank down, wincing at the pain as he reached the point of critical bend. But that was nothing to the pain of his buttocks actually hitting the softness of the bed. The pain was excruciating and Joe couldn’t contain his scream. He rocked over onto his right buttock, his arm leaning on the bed to help support his weight while his left hand shot round to gently cup his injured part.
The thunder of feet outside in the hallway ought to have alerted Joe to the fact his scream had not gone unnoticed, but he was so deep in the pain that he didn’t actually hear them and he was quite surprised to see the door to his room being flung open and his father and brothers all dash in. “Joe, what’s wrong?” Ben gasped, looking wildly all around as though expecting to see an armed intruder.
“Sorry,” Joe responded through gritted teeth. The pain was beginning to ease slightly, but when Joe tentatively tried to sit back down on both cheeks, it flared up again, and he swiftly regained the more ‘comfortable’ pose. “I just didn’t expect it to hurt so much.”
It took Hoss a moment to realize what was wrong with Joe but when he did, he let out a great bellow of laughter and within a moment or two, both Adam and Ben were laughing along with him. Joe regarded them in hurt silence. He had expected this reaction to the news that he’d landed on his butt, but given the amount of pain he was in, he failed to see the funny side. “I can do without the audience,” he announced curtly. Still laughing, the others back out and shut the door.
But Joe’s problems didn’t stop there. Sitting down and bending over to take off his boots was almost worse than just sitting had been and he discovered that he couldn’t do it. Nor could he bring his leg up and rest it on the opposite thigh and haul his boots off that way. Tears of frustration and pain rose in Joe’s eyes, but they didn’t fall.
Thinking that if he stood up, he might be able to pull his boots off by putting the opposite toe on the back on his boot heel, Joe discovered that the act of sitting was preferable to the act of rising. He clung to the bedpost, panting his way through the pain and groaning softly. The only time Joe could remember experiencing such excruciating pain was when he had had broken limbs.
“But I can’t have broken anything there, can I?” he murmured. “It’s just my tail b…” Joe’s voice trailed off as he remembered a conversation with Ben when he was just a little boy, asking why his bottom was sometimes referred to as his tail when he clearly didn’t have a tail. Ben had explained that there was a bone called his tail bone. Remembering, Joe winced anew. Perhaps he had broken it.
Eventually, Joe managed to get changed, but he felt slightly nauseous by the time it was accomplished and he knew he was perilously close to being late for supper. Joe didn’t know if he was hungry or not, but the thought of sitting at the table was one that wasn’t easy to face. Slowly, Joe made his way down the stairs, and grimly set his jaw against the burst of laughter that greeted his arrival.
Seeing that Joe was really upset, Ben soon put a stop to the teasing. He watched with growing concern as his youngest son eased himself onto his seat with an expression of extreme pain on his handsome features. Somehow, he didn’t think Adam’s assessment of Joe seeking attention was accurate. If anything, Joe usually made light of his injuries. His attention seeking was always much more direct. Not wanting to start his other sons off again, Ben said nothing, but he watched Joe chase the food around his plate for a while before Joe announced that he wasn’t hungry, just tired and could he pleased be excused.
“All right,” Ben agreed. He watched Joe’s face closely as he got to his feet and heard the muffled groan Joe couldn’t quite contain and saw the spasm of pain that crossed Joe’s pale features. Hoss snorted indelicately into his napkin and Ben threw both his older sons a hard glare as he realized they were both laughing again. They did their best to subdue their glee, but didn’t quite succeed. Furious and offended, Joe made his careful way across to the stairs and paused there for a moment before beginning the painful upward climb.
As soon as Joe was out of sight, Ben rounded on his other two sons, who were now both laughing openly. “That’s enough!” Ben declared sternly. “Can’t you see your brother’s in a lot of pain?”
“He’s sure making a meal of it,” Adam cackled.
“Joe’s dignity sure is painin’ him some right enough,” Hoss sniggered.
“For your information,” Ben said, icily, “I don’t think he is ‘making a meal of it’! He’s in a great deal of pain, and if you don’t know by now that Joe plays down any problems, then you’ll never know your brother!” Glancing down at his own meal, Ben discovered that he had lost his appetite. He threw his napkin down and rose, giving his sons another glare. They both tried their best to look repentant, but neither succeeded and as Ben rounded the corner of the stairs, he heard another burst of laughter erupting from them.
For a moment, Ben hesitated outside Joe’s closed door, then he raised his hand and knocked briskly. “Joe? Can I come in?”
“Sure,” came the dispirited answer from the other side and Ben entered to find Joe leaning on his dresser with both hands, his head hanging down. He turned his head to look at Ben and slowly straightened up. “Hi, Pa. Come to laugh some more?” His tone was bitter.
“I’m sorry I laughed earlier,” Ben apologized, for he was sorry now that he’d seen the depths of Joe’s distress. “I didn’t realize how much you were hurting. After all, you got straight back onto that horse.”
“It wasn’t really sore then,” Joe explained. “Just numb. And I had to get the horse broken, Pa. It was only later, as I got down from Cooch that I realized how sore everything was. Standing isn’t good and sitting is worse and that point between standing and sitting is just…” Joe’s voice trailed off, because the only adjective that sprang to mind was an expletive that Pa would not approve of – hell. He swallowed. “And I couldn’t even get my boots off, Pa! And then I had trouble with my socks; in fact, I didn’t put any more socks on because I couldn’t face it.” Joe lifted a very woebegone face to Ben. “I’m in agony, Pa, and all Adam and Hoss can do is laugh at me!”
Putting his arm around Joe, Ben was troubled. Joe so seldom admitted to any physical weakness. Ben had often wondered if it was because he was the shortest member of the family, or because Joe had often felt, as a youngster, that he had to push harder to catch up with his older brothers. But whatever the reason, Joe usually told everyone he was ‘fine’. “Your brothers don’t realize that you’re so sore, Joe,” Ben soothed him. “I didn’t realize at first either. Please forgive me. Now tell me; what can I do to help?”
“Take my boots off?” Joe suggested, trying to laugh off his misery. He failed.
“Sit down then,” Ben urged and saw at once that he had blundered. “Joe, I’m sorry.” Ben cursed himself for his thoughtlessness as he saw the anger flaring in Joe’s face. “Let me get you something for the pain, and then we can see about getting your boots off.”
“All right,” Joe muttered sulkily. He leaned over again, because that position gave him marginal relief from the pain.
“How is he?” Adam asked, as Ben came down stairs.
Glaring at his older sons, Ben paused. “I’m going to get him some laudanum,” he replied. “Because otherwise, I don’t think he’ll be able to sleep tonight. Did either of you two actually look at your brother? He’s like his own ghost! He took a really bad fall out there this afternoon and I think he’s really hurt himself.” Without another word, Ben marched into the kitchen to locate the laudanum.
Sobered by Ben’s displeasure, Adam and Hoss looked at each other. “I thought he was putting it on,” Adam ventured at last.
“Yeah, me too,” agreed Hoss. “I thought he’d have a bruise like that time Satan bit him an’ when he got that corker when ya was back….” Hoss’ voice trailed off and he looked at Adam. “When Tom tried ta kill him when ya was back east visitin’ that time.”
“I remember Joe telling me about the bruise, and your story of him climbing on the dresser to look at it,” Adam nodded. He hated hearing of the time Tom masqueraded as him and came close to killing both Joe and Ben. “I thought it was just a bruise, too. I think we’ve got an apology to make, brother.”
“I think you have, too,” Ben nodded as he came back into the sitting room. “But give me a few minutes first to get Joe settled into bed.”
“We’re right sorry, Pa,” Hoss replied contritely.
“I’m sure you are,” Ben responded and carried on upstairs. The shortness of his response told both his boys that they would have some serious fence mending to do – and not just with Joe.
When Adam and Hoss went upstairs a little while later, neither of them was keen to be the first to go into Joe’s room. Adam knocked and Ben bade them come in. He had given Joe the laudanum, then helped him out of his boots and into a nightshirt. At Joe’s bidding, he discreetly looked for bruising, but there was nothing to see, although the whole area looked a bit swollen.
“Can I help you get into bed or are you better doing this yourself?” Ben enquired.
“I think I’ll need to do it for myself, thanks,” Joe replied. He could feel the laudanum taking a hold and although he really didn’t like to take drugs, the resulting numbing of his butt was the nicest sensation he could imagine. Unfortunately, as he sat down on the bed, he realized that he wasn’t going to be totally pain free. He managed to bite back the cry that rose to his lips and swung his legs gingerly into bed, immediately sliding down and rolling onto his right side, facing away from the door. After a moment, his breathing eased as the pain died down.
As his brothers came in, Joe gave Ben a pleading look. He hoped his brothers were there to apologize. He didn’t think he could face any more teasing. Perhaps when the pain died away he would be able to see the funny side; and he would be the first to admit to laughing at others who had had a similar incident, but he vowed never to do that again.
“Um, Joe?” Adam decided to go first and get it over with. After all, he had added the additional insult of swatting Joe on the butt. “I’m really sorry I didn’t take you seriously. I didn’t think you were really hurt. I thought it was just your pride that had suffered. And I’m sorry if I made things worse by swatting you like that. I didn’t mean it.”
“All right,” Joe replied, somewhat ungraciously. He glanced at Adam, who had moved round the bed so he was facing Joe. His brother really did look shame-faced. “I know you didn’t mean it,” he relented.
“I’m sorry, too, Shortshanks,” Hoss added. “I was jist rememberin’ that bruise ya got on yer butt afore.” For once, Hoss exercised a great deal of tact and didn’t remind Joe of the horrible chain of events. “I don’t guess ya’ll be climbin’ on yer dresser ta look at this one, will ya?”
“I don’t suppose so,” Joe smiled, for Hoss looked so mournful that Joe couldn’t stay mad. He was feeling sleepy now that the laudanum was hitting him and he slid a little further down the bed, dismayed to find that even that simple movement hurt.
With a smile, Ben indicated that his older sons should go and leaned down to pull the blankets up to Joe’s shoulders. Joe’s lashes brushed his cheeks and he could barely drag his eyes open again for long enough to whisper, “G’night, Pa.”
“Night, son,” Ben whispered in reply, but he was sure Joe didn’t hear him. Ben gently stroked Joe’s curls for a moment before going out and softly shutting the door.
When he woke the next morning, Joe realized that he had been allowed to sleep in. He grimaced as the sensation of being hung over hit him. The laudanum always did that to him and Joe hated it. He rolled over and thought with immense relief that his butt didn’t hurt any more!
Energetically, Joe threw back the covers and swung his feet onto the floor. Pain rocketed up through his coccyx and Joe groaned aloud. What was he going to do now? he wondered. He longed to roll back into bed, but now he was awake, his bladder was making its presence felt. Joe bent over to reach under the bed for the chamber pot, but that action proved to be too agonizing to complete and he sat back gingerly.
Finally, Joe slid onto his knees on the floor and managed to reach the pot from there. Standing proved to be less of a nightmare from that position than Joe had feared and he was able to stand without too much pain.
With his bladder relieved, Joe turned to his morning ablutions and quickly washed himself and slid on a shirt. Although standing produced a feeling of discomfort, Joe found that by swaying to and fro, it was eased slightly. Pulling on his pants, Joe decided that there was no way he was going to sit down and attempt to put on either socks or boots, so he headed downstairs in his bare feet.
He wasn’t terribly surprised to find Ben downstairs, although his father was reading the previous day’s newspaper, not working on the books. “Morning, Pa,” he smiled.
“Morning, son,” Ben replied. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“About the same,” Joe admitted, dispiritedly.
“Is the pain no better?” Ben asked, worriedly.
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Joe replied, trying to be as up-beat about it as he could manage. He walked steadily over to the table and looked at his chair for a moment before lowering himself gingerly onto it. Again, the moment of maximum bend was the moment of maximum agony and Joe bit his lip to stop crying aloud. When the pain was once more under control, Joe looked at Ben, who was regarding him with great sympathy.
“Tough, huh?” Ben murmured and briefly cupped the nape of Joe’s neck with his big warm hand before he went into the kitchen to ask Hop Sing to bring Joe some breakfast.
It wasn’t until after Joe had finished eating that Ben broached the dreaded question. “Don’t you think you ought to see Doc Martin?” he enquired, neutrally.
The look of alarm on Joe’s face was almost comical, but Ben also thought it was a trifle overdone. “No, it’ll be fine!” Joe protested hastily.
“Joe.” Ben put his hand down on top of Joe’s to prevent his son escaping, not realizing that Joe was dreading the thought of rising to his feet. “This is your back we’re talking about here. You know the risks with back injuries just about as well as I do. I’m concerned about this and I want you to come into town with me this morning and we’ll see Doc Martin and pick up the supplies.”
“On the buckboard?” Joe squeaked and Ben nodded impatiently.
“Yes, of course in the buckboard. How else am I meant to get the supplies back….” Ben’s voice trailed off as he suddenly understood why his son was so determined to stay away from the doctor. It wasn’t just Joe’s habitual distrust of the medical profession; it was the thought of sitting on the seat of the buckboard. “Oh, yes, I see.” If Joe found sitting on an unmoving, quite comfortable chair so awful, how would the hard plank seat of the unsprung buckboard feel? Ben quite understood. “That is a problem,” he admitted. “I still think you should get checked out though.”
No one could live with that level of pain without wanting to do something about it. “I’ll ride Cochise,” Joe replied. “I was okay when I was on him.”
Frowning, Ben asked, “Are you sure?”
Nodding, Joe managed a real smile this time. “That’s one bit of you that isn’t really on the saddle,” he reminded his father, who thought about it and agreed.
“Well, if you’re sure.”
“I am,” Joe nodded. He made to get up, and the pain had him groaning aloud and gritting his teeth as he reached that hellish point once more. Ben hastened to help Joe, but there was very little he could do for him, except offer him sympathy and someone to lean on until the worst was past. “Thanks, Pa,” Joe said, gratefully as the world came back into focus. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
Although the ride to town was something Joe was in no hurry to repeat, he knew it beat hands down trying to sit on the buckboard seat. He was quite relieved to arrive outside the doctor’s and didn’t even mind when Ben came round to help him dismount. For a moment, Joe just stood, leaning against Cochise, and allowing everything to settle. Ben went in to see if Paul Martin was there. Coming back to the door, he nodded to Joe, who straightened gingerly and went in.
It took only a few moments to tell his story to Paul. “I’m sorry to ask you to stand, Joe, but I need to examine you,” Paul told him. “I’ll be as gentle as I can be, but this is going to hurt.” He helped Joe to his feet and delicately felt the bottom of Joe’s spine.
The tiniest bit of pressure had Joe almost jumping his own height in the air. Fortunately, that was about it for the examination. “I’m sorry, but I need to look at the pattern of bruising. Could you lower your pants, please?”
Blushing, Joe did as he was asked. He normally didn’t suffer from much modesty and frequently didn’t wear underwear at all, but he was glad he had today, although since that had to be lowered as well, Joe couldn’t decide why he was glad he was wearing it! But Paul’s examination was brief and Joe was soon being eased back into a seat.
“All right,” Paul said, sighing. “Joe, you’ve broken your coccyx – your tailbone,” he added, seeing Joe frown. “There’s a little movement there. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do for it, apart from give pain relief, which I’m sure you’d appreciate right now, judging from your face?” Joe nodded mutely, and Paul rose to mix something up for him. “I’ll give you a prescription for this,” Paul told him as Joe drank it down. “But I’m afraid you’re looking at about six to eight weeks before it’s healed. Assuming it does heal.”
“What does that mean?” Joe asked, shooting an apprehensive glance at Ben.
“Well, coccyxes often don’t heal well,” Paul explained. “I don’t really know why. Something to do with their position, I suppose. At the moment, some of the discomfort is because of the level of bruising, Joe. Your butt cheeks aren’t marked, but between them…” He trailed off for a moment, before smiling sheepishly at the look of horror on his young patient’s face. “I know, it’s a charming topic, isn’t it? However, that part of your anatomy is black right now, and it could be black for some time to come. Some of the pain will ease out as the bruising eases, obviously. But for now, don’t carry heavy weights. Don’t stand too much, or walk too much. Keep riding to a minimum until the bruising is down. Try lying on your stomach, not sitting, and don’t sit on the floor! I’ve found that makes everything much worse!”
“Anything else?” Ben asked.
“Regular pain relief,” he replied. “Certainly for the first week, and after that, you can judge for yourself if you need anything, Joe. However, this isn’t a license to loll around the house and not do anything at all. No exercise is just as harmful as too much.” He scribbled the prescription for painkillers. “Try to keep the getting up and down to a minimum to begin with,” Paul added as Joe got to his feet to leave. “That’s the point when the damage is exacerbated the most.”
“You don’t say,” Joe commented dryly. “Thanks, doc.”
Outside, they stood for a moment beside the buckboard. “Do you want to mount now, Joseph, or walk down to meet me at the store?”
“I’ll walk, thanks, Pa,” Joe replied. “I’ll meet you down there.” He took Cochise’s rein and began a slow walk down the street. Ben watched him for a moment, then got into the buckboard and went down to the general store.
By the time they got home, Joe could appreciate the stricture against not riding too much. It wasn’t the sorest position he had found, but it wasn’t the best, either. With Ben’s help, he slid carefully down from Cochise and made to take him into the barn, but Ben wasn’t having that. “I’ll see to your horse,” he announced. “You go inside and make yourself comfortable, all right?”
“All right,” Joe agreed, for he was sore enough and tired enough to want to rest, but he had been taught from childhood to take care of his mount before he saw to his own comforts. “At least you didn’t tell me to sit down,” Joe quipped.
Ben laughed. “Get out of here!” he scolded lightly and watched as Joe walked carefully across to the house.
When he came inside, Joe was stretched out on his side on the sofa gazing dreamily into the flames in the fireplace. “If you want to sleep, I won’t stop you,” Ben remarked.
“No, I don’t really,” Joe replied. “I am a bit tired, but I’m not sleepy, if you see what I mean.” He rolled his head round to smile at Ben. “I was just thinking.”
“What about?” Ben asked, his tone carefully neutral.
“What do you think?” Joe replied ruefully. “I was just thinking of the number of falls I’ve had over the years from horses while I was breaking them. Sure, I’ve had my share of broken bones, but this is one I never thought about. I didn’t know you could break your tail bone.”
“Nor me,” Ben agreed. “Although I do know men who have had an injury there, but a lot of them wouldn’t trust a doctor, or have the money to consult one in the first place, and so they just had to get on with things. Not every rancher is willing to give men paid time off if they get sick or hurt, Joe.”
“I know,” Joe replied, soberly. A few of his father’s rancher friends had followed Ben’s example of giving men pay if they got hurt doing ranch work, but they were still in a minority. “I’d hate to have to work through this pain, Pa.”
“I’m sorry you have to have it at all, Joe,” Ben answered him.
“It’s not your fault, Pa,” Joe frowned, sliding himself up so he wasn’t lying quite so flat. “I would never hold anyone else responsible for something I did on a horse.”
Ben regarded Joe for a moment, struck anew by how handsome his son was. “Is that your way of telling me that you sometimes aren’t as careful as you ought to be, young man?”
The look on Joe’s face was comical as he reviewed what he had said, and wondered how on earth Ben had drawn the conclusion he had. “Um, no,” he ventured and glanced at Ben’s face. It was with considerable relief that Joe saw the laughter there. He had always known that Ben had a certain fear about Joe’s fearless attitude to horses, stemming from Joe’s mother’s death. The fear had come to a head when Joe’s horse had fallen in the yard as Joe rode in at a canter, eager to tell Ben about the big cat that he had seen up by the herd. Joe had had a nasty head injury, but he had escaped with a minor concussion only. Joe decided to try and dig himself out of the hole he had managed to dig himself into in the first place. “But since I’m in charge of the horses, nobody can be held responsible for me.” He smiled brightly.
“It’s still my ranch,” Ben reminded him, but he couldn’t begin to keep his face straight and laughed. “I know you know the risks, Joe, but I’ve never broken horses and I don’t know how you can climb onto a mustang, knowing that there’s a pretty fair chance it’s going to throw you.”
“I don’t really know, either,” Joe replied, thoughtfully. “It doesn’t really worry me. Generally, you hit the ground and walk away. The times when you don’t are the minority, after all. Even this; I did walk away from it, Pa. It was just one of those things.” Joe shrugged.
“Well, I’m quite happy to leave all the breaking to you, Joe, if that’s what you want,” Ben replied. He slapped his knees and got to his feet. Joe envied him the ease with which he accomplished the move. “Lunch should be ready soon. I’ll go and have a look at the mail.”
There was no improvement in Joe’s condition over the next few days. He took the painkillers regularly as he had been told and with no complaint and that alone was enough to tell his family how bad things were. Joe never took painkillers unless they were forced on him. Adam and Hoss were quite contrite about their initial amusement at Joe’s predicament and went out of their way to entertain Joe, or get things for him. Joe swiftly became aware of this, and took full advantage of it for several days until Ben put his foot down. Thereafter, normal behavior was restored.
Hop Sing had been giving Joe something called arnica and Joe found that after he had taken it for a full day, the bruising on his butt began to ease. By the end of the week, Joe was finding he could go without the painkillers most of the time, although there were still times he needed them.
As Joe improved, so the family relaxed and Ben found himself going out more often to supervise tasks, or take a more active hand in the activities that were going on around the ranch. The range of light chores that Joe could do was understandably limited, so he found himself relegated to collecting the eggs once more, and feeding the pigs. Joe didn’t mind feeding the pigs so much, but he hated collecting the eggs. The chickens seemed to have it in for him, pecking at him viciously and he was apprehensive that one would land a direct hit on his sore behind! It never came to pass, but Joe could not shake off this disquieting thought.
About three weeks after the accident, Joe was out in the yard, petting Cochise in the corral when Fred, one of their long-time ranch hands, came riding in full pelt. “Joe!” he cried, spying his young boss.
“What’s wrong?” Joe asked, diagnosing immediately that something was wrong, simply by looking at Fred’s face. Normally of placid temperament, Fred now looked agitated and it usually took quite something to agitate Fred.
“Stampede!” Fred cried and Joe paled.
“My family?” he asked, grabbing the older man by the arm.
“I dunno,” Fred panted. “Mr. Cartwright sent me ta get some ropes, take them back an’ then go fer the doc.”
“Where are they?” Joe demanded. “Tell me what happened!” He listened in growing horror as Fred told Joe of the sudden stampede. No one knew what had started it, but suddenly the herd, which was being moved to fresh grazing, had broken into a run. Some of them had plunged into the fast-running creek by the track they were following and had become bogged down. Others had kept on going and Fred had been grabbed by Ben and ordered to get help.
“All right,” Joe nodded, his worry only marginally appeased. “You go and get the doc and I’ll go with the ropes.”
“But you ain’t…” Fred began but Joe interrupted him.
“My butt isn’t the issue here,” he retorted. “Just get going, Fred!” He hurried into the barn to get his saddle as Fred did as he was told.
Anxiety ate into Joe as he rode at a gallop towards the herd. He barely noticed the pain in his butt as the worry for the safety of his family consumed his mind. Even though he knew Ben had been all right when Fred left him, that didn’t mean things were still all right. Anything could happen in the aftermath of a stampede.
He could hear the bawling of the steers long before he could see them. Joe slowed his headlong pace, knowing that appearing at a gallop was the worst thing he could do, even though it was what his instinct urged him to do. At a cautious trot, he came face to face with disaster.
Most of the herd was milling about anxiously as the cowboys rode around them, trying to calm them down. In the creek, Joe could see a number of beasts still stuck there. He was pretty sure at least a few had drowned. The air was full of dust, but Joe didn’t think about putting on a bandanna. He had to find his family.
“Joe!” The voice sounded surprised and disapproving but was no less welcome to Joe because of that. “What are you doing here?”
“Adam, are you all right? Where’s Pa and Hoss?”
“They’re ok,” Adam assured Joe, seeing how pale his younger brother was. But at that bit of good news, color began to creep back into Joe’s face. “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to ride this far.” The disapproval was back.
“I brought the ropes,” Joe announced, wondering why Adam needed to ask. Cochise’s saddle was festooned with ropes. “And I’ll help if I can.”
Frowning at Joe, Adam was tempted to try and send him back to the house with a few well-chosen sharp words. But he knew that they needed every hand they could get to help get the steers out of the creek. “Keep away from the heavy stuff,” Adam ordered curtly and took the ropes from Joe, riding off to distribute them where they were most needed. Joe watched him go, relieved that Adam hadn’t tried to send him home. Moments later, Joe spotted his father and other brother and, relieved, went off to help soothe the herd.
A few of the hands lay on the ground and Joe grimaced in pity for them. One man was clearly already dead and another looked to Joe as though he would soon be joining his comrade. But there was nothing Joe could do for them. Another hand was tending them with rough sympathy. Joe rode on past, wishing there was something he could do.
Gradually the herd began to calm down and the remaining hands got the animals moving in the correct direction again. Seeing that they had things under control, Joe turned Cochise and headed back to the scene of the disaster. As he arrived, he saw that the first of the steers was being hauled up the banking from the creek. It reached the top, shook itself while Hoss untwined the rope from around its horns, then staggered slowly away, following its herd mates. One down, Joe thought, but there were still several to go.
Even as he relaxed, Joe saw disaster strike once more. The next steer panicked as the one beneath it struggled to free itself and get up. The creature clearly had a couple of broken legs and was trying to get up. Hoss continued pulling at the top steer while Adam slid around it to put the underneath one out of its misery.
But before he could even draw his gun, the creek bank crumbled under the flailing cloven hooves of the steer and the big animal began to slide back down the bank, with Adam right in its path.
“Adam look out!” a myriad of voices shouted, but there was no time for Adam to get completely clear. 1200lbs of steer slid backwards onto Adam.
There was no time for anyone to react to this disaster. The steer panicked as its hooves slipped and it threw its head up. The movement shifted its whole weight, which began to topple backwards. Hoss was pulled off his feet and before he could catch himself, the steer fell back and landed across the creek, where it struggled to free itself. Hoss was lost somewhere down the side of the banking.
Joe didn’t wait to see any more. He snatched up the rope that was still tied to his saddle and leapt off Cochise, sliding down to the edge of the river. Ben was looking frantically for his sons, while the hand beside him went to put the both steers out of their misery.
“Hoss!” Joe cried, as he threw himself down on his stomach on the grass. He could see his brother at the bottom of the bank, floundering around trying to regain his feet. He didn’t seem to be hurt, but Joe knew that any moment, one of the flailing feet of the steer could strike him. “Catch!” he called, and threw the rope down to Hoss.
Quickly, Hoss looped the rope under his arms and did his best to help his rescuer as Joe hauled, hand over hand, to help Hoss up the bank. It didn’t take long for Hoss’ head and shoulders to come into view, and a moment later, Ben’s hand was there helping Hoss up the last part. “Are you all right?” Ben asked.
Too winded to speak, Hoss simply nodded. Joe glanced at Ben. “What about Adam?”
“He’s trapped between the bank and that injured steer,” Ben replied, in a distracted tone. He hadn’t seemed to realize that Joe shouldn’t be there. “I can’t get down to him.”
“I can,” Joe announced and after patting Hoss on the shoulder, he got to his feet and hurried over to the place where Adam lay. He threw the rope down first then slid down after it, hearing his father calling his name in protest.
There was no time for Joe to waste waiting for help he realized at once. Adam was lying in the water, his face barely above it and Joe knew only too well that there was a risk of Adam drowning before help could arrive. He drew his pistol and put the injured steer out of its misery, then turned his attention to Adam.
“Where are you hurt?” he asked, putting his hand on Adam’s arm.
“Broke my leg,” Adam replied. His face was white with pain and his lip tight.
“Joe!” Ben shouted. “How’s Adam?”
“He’s broken his leg, Pa,” Joe called back. “If I loop this rope round the horns, can you and Hoss move this carcass?”
“Yes,” Ben cried back and Joe patted Adam before he scrambled off to attach the rope to the dead steer. He made sure it was good and tight.
“Here it comes!” he called and threw the rope to the top of the bank. Ben caught it easily and handed it to Hoss, who wound the ends around his saddle horn.
“Joe! Put this rope on too!” Hoss hollered and threw down another rope. His throw was excellent and the rope struck Joe in the side before he had time to put up his hands to catch it. Standing almost ankle deep in the cold water, Joe worked as quickly as he could.
“All right!” he called. “Haul away!”
Moving out of the way, Joe leant over Adam to protect him from anything untoward that might happen. He watched over his shoulder as the steer began to move very slowly. Adam groaned and Joe transferred his attention to his brother. He saw at once that the steer’s movement would cause Adam to sink deeper into the water. Joe scrambled around until he was by Adam’s head, then sat down in the creek, gradually easing his brother’s head and shoulders up until they rested on Joe’s chest.
“Joe, I’m all right,” Adam protested weakly. “You’re getting wet.”
“Well, I don’t shrink,” Joe replied cheerfully, although it wasn’t so much the wet that was the problem as the coldness of the water. “How’re you doing?”
“It hurts,” Adam grunted. “Joe, your butt…”
“It’s still attached,” Joe replied. He hadn’t felt it at all before then, but suddenly, reminded, the pain came back with a vengeance and Joe realize that he had managed to hurt himself, as the pain was much worse. He bit back a groan. Adam didn’t need to know that Joe was suffering, too. He needed to think Joe was in charge – which he was.
Suddenly there was a shout and the steer splashed back into the water, spraying both Joe and Adam and making Adam cry out in pain. Joe’s own pain at the suddenness of the movement was bad enough. He couldn’t imagine what Adam was feeling. “You all right?” he asked, wiping the water off his brother’s face. He could feel Adam beginning to shiver and his flesh was cold to the touch.
“Hmm,” Adam replied, clearly anything but all right. His weight of his head increased as his ability to keep it held up decreased as the pain increased. He slid into a sort of stupor.
Later, Joe would never know how long they sat there before the steer was finally dragged clear; all he knew was that it was too long. But finally, Hoss slid down the banking to his brothers and carefully picked up Adam and carried him over to the side where willing hands pulled him to safety. Hoss turned round to make a comment to Joe and was shocked to see his brother still sitting in the water. “Joe? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t think I can get up,” Joe replied. His legs were numb where Adam’s weight had rested on them and his butt was screaming in agony from sitting on the rocky creek bed for so long. He tried once more to get up and a river of agony shot up his back and down his legs. He cried out.
In an instant, Hoss was at Joe’s side and he bent over and picked his brother up as though he was a child. Joe protested to no avail, yet he could feel Hoss’ muscles quivering with strain. “Hoss, you can’t,” he whispered through the pain.
“Jist hush up,” Hoss panted. He knew he was nearing the end of his strength, but he had to get Joe out of there. Again, willing hands reached for Joe and hauled him to safety.
When Hoss scrambled onto the banking once more, he realized, with a sense of shock, that it was getting dark. They had been by the creek all afternoon. Doc Martin had been there for some time, but there had been very little he could do for the most badly injured hand except ease his pain and the man had slipped away peacefully. The other men had been patched up and dispatched back to the ranch in the wagon that Fred had been sent to get. Now, Paul examined Adam and Joe, hoping that Fred would hurry back with that wagon.
Both men were very cold. Adam’s broken leg was quite straight forward and Paul was able to reduce it right there and then, also cutting off Adam’s boot to prevent the swelling spreading up his leg. There were no blankets there, and the Cartwrights hadn’t even a coat between them. Joe groaned and Paul hurried over to give Joe a painkilling injection as he had done to Adam.
“I wish Fred would hurry,” Paul commented to Ben in an undertone. He glanced at the two men. “Joe, try and lie still,” he urged as Joe attempted to roll over onto one side. “I know it hurts, but right now, lying flat is the best thing you can do.”
“How’s Adam?” Joe asked, his teeth chattering. He clenched his jaw to try and stop them, but it didn’t work.
“He’ll be all right, just as you will,” Paul replied. He smiled slightly at Ben, who came to kneel between his two sons.
“Here’s Fred!” Hoss declared, his tones tinged with relief.
“At last!” Joe responded, tartly. “Where did he go with those men? The moon?” He tried to laugh to ease Ben’s anxiety slightly, but it didn’t quite come off.
Adam was deep in a drugged sleep when he was moved and Joe envied him. He couldn’t quite drop off, although he was exhausted. Each jolt of the wagon kept him in sheer, hellish wakefulness and he was never so glad to arrive home as he was that day.
While Paul plastered Adam’s leg, Ben helped Joe have a bath to warm him up and clean off some of the mud. Sitting was a nightmare, but the warmth of the water did loosen some of Joe’s muscles and he felt slightly better after it was over. He was embarrassed that Ben had to dry his feet and legs, as he simply couldn’t bend over to reach them, but Ben was quite matter-of-fact about it and slid a nightshirt over Joe’s head without comment.
Finally lying on his side in bed was a great relief for Joe. The painkiller was really working now as he relaxed and Joe was drifting on the outer edges of sleep when Paul Martin came in. Reluctantly, Joe dragged his eyes open again.
“All right, Joe, tell me exactly what happened out there,” Paul requested.
Sleepily, Joe related the story of Fred’s arrival with the bad news, his own journey out there, and then the steer falling on Adam. “I helped Hoss get up the banking,” Joe replied, “then I went down to help Adam.”
“So in other words, you lifted a saddle, which is heavy, and helped pull Hoss up a bank – and Hoss is heavy! – and then supported your brother’s weight in a cold creek while sitting flat on your behind. Is that correct?”
Blinking at the sarcastic tone, Joe nodded. “Sound about right,” he admitted.
“Well, I’m not surprised you’re in pain,” Paul remarked. “Everything you did this afternoon hasn’t done your back any favors. I’ll just have a look at it.” He probed gently at the swelling at the base of Joe’s spine and was rewarded with a couple of hisses, a groan and a yelp. “Well, it’s badly swollen again, Joe, and I’m afraid you’ve put yourself back with this. Any one of those things you did this afternoon would have been bad for your back, and all of them together have really made a mess of things. I want you to stay off your feet completely tomorrow, and you can get up carefully the day after. But you won’t be riding anywhere much, or doing anything much. Time is the only cure.”
“All right,” Joe muttered, sulkily. He’d been aware that he shouldn’t be doing any of those things, but he couldn’t sit back and let his brothers suffer. “How’s Adam?”
“Thanks to you, he’s fine,” Paul replied, in a softer tone. “Joe, I was harsh with you just now, but you needed to understand that you’ve hurt yourself badly again. But I have to say, it was incredibly brave of you to do what you did.”
“It wasn’t brave,” Joe protested. “I was just doing what had to be done.”
Above Joe’s head, Ben and Paul exchanged glances, then Paul patted Joe’s shoulder. “Well, whatever, Joe, I think it was incredibly brave. Now you rest tomorrow and keep off your back as much as possible, all right? And take it easy. I’ll see you in a few days when I come out to check on Adam.”
“I’ll be back, Joe,” Ben said, as he rose to see Paul out.
Another bout of shivers ran down Joe’s back and he dragged the covers up over his shoulders. Once more, he was on the outer fringes of sleep when the door opened and Ben came back. Seeing the sleepy expression on Joe’s face, Ben wasn’t going to linger, but Joe’s eyes opened as Ben slipped a hot water bottle under the covers. “Are you mad at me, Pa?” Joe whispered.
“Mad at you?” Ben echoed. “Why, Joe how could I be mad at you?”
“Well, what Doc Martin said,” Joe replied. “Everything I did this afternoon was wrong.”
“Not everything, Joe,” Ben denied. “The things you did this afternoon were bad for your sore back, but there was nothing wrong with the impulse that made you do them. Joe, a lot of men wouldn’t have put themselves out for another in that dangerous situation. And I’m very grateful that you did, even though I am sorry that you’re hurt again.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Joe replied. “I had to help Adam and Hoss.” His eyes were drooping with exhaustion now.
“I know,” Ben soothed. “You go to sleep now, Joe. I’m not mad at you.” He sat beside Joe for several minutes until he was sure his youngest slumbered deeply, then he rose and went downstairs.
He could hear Hoss’ voice in the kitchen talking to Hop Sing, but Ben didn’t go to join them. He sat down in front of the fire and held his hands out to the blaze although he wasn’t really cold. He was thinking deeply about his three sons. Each of them would be willing to give their lives for the others, Ben knew. It was an awesome thought. Even though Ben had instilled the notion of family above all into them since they were small boys, he hadn’t realized how far the boys were willing to go with it. Ben was so proud of them all that he could have burst.
“Hey, Pa, supper’s ready,” Hoss announced, coming into the great room and seeing his father’s silver hair. “Reckon Adam an’ Joe’ll want some?”
“Well, I don’t know about Adam,” Ben replied, “but Joe’s sound asleep.”
“All the more for us then!” Hoss exclaimed gleefully and seated himself at the table.
That night, Ben’s thanks to the Lord was more heartfelt than it had been for some time.
Adam and Joe were soon up and around. Adam’s leg seemed to be healing nicely and after the first few days, Joe’s sore butt had finally begun to ease and he was noticing a difference in the way he could walk and stand. It seemed that despite his exertions, he hadn’t done himself any lasting damage.
One afternoon a few weeks later, Adam and Joe were alone in the house. Putting his book down, Adam glanced at Joe, who was fathoms deep in a luridly illustrated book. Another dime novel, Adam sighed. When would he grow out of them?
“Joe?” he ventured.
“Hmm?” Joe responded, his nose still in the book.
“I want to talk to you,” Adam persisted and Joe regretfully laid the book down.
“Whatever it was, it wasn’t me,” he protested automatically and smiled angelically.
Smiling as well, Adam shook his head. Joe always said that. “I just wanted to thank you for what you did that day,” he muttered. “I know it was painful for you and you didn’t have to sit with me.”
“If I hadn’t, you’d have drowned,” Joe replied bluntly and then saw from Adam’s face that his brother had known that nugget of information. “Adam, I would’ve done it even if you hadn’t been in danger,” Joe hurried on. “You were in pain and needed someone with you.”
“I’m sorry I made such fun of your injury to begin with,” Adam went on, having digested that piece of the story. “But I think I know what it cost you to sit there in that water with me. Thank you doesn’t seem enough, somehow.”
“Its more than enough,” Joe returned, his face crimson. “I was just doing what had to be done.”
Realizing that to say any more would force Joe into leaving the room, Adam smiled. “I hope you keep on ‘doing what has to be done’,” he concluded.
“So,” Ben asked, his face wreathed in smiles as Joe dismounted from Cochise with his usual graceful step, “how was your first full day back at work?”
Grinning with his normal vivid enthusiasm, Joe replied, “It was great, Pa!” He led Cochise into the barn, talking all the time, telling Ben the minutiae of his day. Ben listened with delight. It had been three very long months for Joe, but at last his coccyx had healed and he was now back into the swing of things.
“Well, I just hope you’re this keen when we start the cattle drive next month,” Ben smiled as Joe finally ran out of things to tell him.
“Pa, everything sounds good to me right now!” Joe declared. He finished brushing his horse and patted him. “So, is supper ready yet?”
They both laughed and Ben draped his arm over Joe’s shoulder as they walked back to the house.
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