Alone (by Rona)

Summary:  After an accident, Joe finds himself facing a long wait for possible rescue, alone and injured, while his family race time and the weather to find him.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9764


 

For one hideous instant before it happened, Joe knew he was going to fall. There was nothing he could do about it, and he didn’t even have time to try and relax his muscles. Then it was too late and he fell down and down, until, mercifully, blackness took him before he hit bottom.

*****

It was the rain on his face that brought Joe back to consciousness. He had no idea how long he’d been out for, and he lay there, unmoving, for several minutes, feeling too pulped to do anything. Then memory returned, and he remembered the fall down into the ravine, and he tried to move. Pain shot through his body and he groaned aloud.

Gradually, the pain settled until it was concentrated in his left leg. Moving slowly and carefully, Joe sat up, closing his eyes until the world stopped spinning crazily on its axis. Bits of Joe ached, and he guessed he would have a motley collection of bruises to show for his fall. He wasn’t too concerned about them. His main worry was his leg, and as he forced his eyes to focus, he realized, with a pang of fear in his gut, that the leg was broken.

Breathing deeply, Joe forced himself to remain calm. Panicking would get him nowhere, he reasoned, trying to kid himself that he wasn’t in a dire situation. He was 20 miles from home at the least, and wasn’t expected back for several days. He would have to try and get himself home somehow.

Looking round to take stock of the situation more thoroughly, Joe’s heart sank when he saw the carcass of his horse lying about 10 feet away. The animal’s neck was clearly broken, and Joe was only thankful that he hadn’t been riding his beloved Cochise that day. But no horse could have kept its feet as the trail suddenly crumbled away. Joe shuddered as he remembered the moment he knew he was going to fall, and he resolutely forced his mind away from the thought.

“If my saddlebags are still there,” Joe muttered to himself, “I might have a chance.” Galvanized by the thought, Joe started to drag himself along the ground, but a shattering pain in his leg forced him to stop. He sat and panted until he had caught his breath and the pain had subsided slightly. He wiped rain and sweat from his face, and it was only then that he realized that he had a head injury, too. His hand came away red with blood.

But Joe didn’t have a reputation for being stubborn for no reason. He set himself the goal of reaching his dead horse, and took it inch by inch, enduring the pain it caused him, because he knew he needed the food, rain slicker and blanket he’d been carrying on the horse. When he reached the horse, he was exhausted, and he reckoned that it had taken him over three hours to make the 10 feet. The rain had poured down continuously, and Joe was soaked through.

Leaning against the bulk of his horse, Joe wondered how on earth he was going to find the energy to get into some sort of shelter. For he knew he had to have shelter and a fire, or he wouldn’t survive the night and he was already exhausted. Fumbling with the ties of his saddle bags with frozen fingers, he finally got them free. He wrapped his bedroll round his shoulders and drew his rain slicker on over the top. He felt slightly warmer. After resting again, he hunted around for his canteen and was hugely relieved to spot it lying a few feet away.

After retrieving it, a feat which took almost all his remaining energy, Joe looked around for somewhere he could shelter. There was a dry spot under the rocky overhang of the ravine side, but Joe didn’t want to go there. That was the side of the ravine where he had fallen from, and he wasn’t convinced that he would be safe there.

The only other place he could see was a large tree, whose branches shaded the area. It was a good distance away, and Joe cringed from the effort it would take to get there. He was exhausted, his muscles shaking from exhaustion as well as cold, and the pain in his leg was taking its toll, too.

“Eat something,” Joe told himself, although he felt slightly queasy at the thought. “You must eat, or you won’t be able to do this,” he chided himself, and pulled some jerky from his bags. He had some fresh food with him, but needed a fire to cook it. After eyeing the unappetizing dry strip, he resolutely tore off a bit with his teeth and chewed. “I hate jerky,” he muttered to himself. Once he had finished eating, he leant against a rock and closed his eyes for a moment. He was asleep in seconds.

*****

“That sure is some rain,” Adam complained as he came into the house. He took off his slicker and shook it. Drops of water flew in every direction, and Hoss, who was already comfortably ensconced in front of the fire, exclaimed, “Hey, watch it!”

“Sorry,” Adam responded, and hung the slicker up behind the door. “Where is everyone?”

“Pa’s still in town,” Hoss replied, “an’ if he’s got any sense, he’ll stay there tonight, an’ not come home. An’ Joe’s still away. He ain’t expected home till tomorrow at the earliest.” He looked at the tide-mark of damp on Adam’s black pants. “You better get changed,” he suggested. “You’ll catch yore death o’ cold in them wet things.”

“If you thought I was going to sit down here in wet pants, you really don’t know me that well, brother,” Adam replied sarcastically. “How long till supper?”

“Long enough fer you ta get changed,” Hoss said, placidly. “Providin’ you don’ take all night, that is. I ain’t waitin’ too long. I’m getting’ plumb puny sittin’ here.”

“You look it,” Adam jested, climbing the stairs.

Hoss ignored him.

*****

The rain was still coming down in stair rods when Adam bolted the front door for the night. Hoss had gone up to bed an hour or so earlier, but Adam had been reading, and hadn’t noticed the passage of time until the clock struck midnight. It was obvious that Ben had decided to stay in town that night, and as he locked the door, Adam spared a thought for his youngest sibling, who was having to endure this weather camped out somewhere along the trail home from Reno, where he had been conducting some business for the ranch. He hoped Joe had found somewhere sheltered to spend the night.

*****

Joe had no idea how long he had slept, but the light was going when he slowly woke. For a moment, he hoped it had all been a horrible dream, but the rain still running onto his face told him that this nightmare was true. Sitting up slowly, Joe looked around, trying to remember what he had been doing when he fell asleep. When his eye fell on the tree, he remembered, but for several more minutes, he just sat there in the rain, looking at it. The thought of moving, and causing himself more pain, was almost too much for him. “I don’t know if I can do this!” he cried aloud, uncaring that the only living things around were the wild creatures.

Shaking himself, he began to drag his injured body across the ground towards the tree. Each inch he gained cost him untold agony, and by the time he reached his goal, he was sobbing steadily, and completely unaware of doing it.

Sheltered from the rain at last, Joe leant wearily against the tree. He knew he couldn’t afford to go to sleep without building a fire first. He would die from exposure if he did that. Sighing, Joe stripped off the soaked slicker and tipped the water from his hat brim. He hugged the damp bedroll closer to himself as he scrabbled around the base of the tree for the fallen branches lying there. Before long, he had enough to keep a fire burning through the night, and set about laboriously lighting the fire.

Once the fire was established, Joe rummaged through his saddlebags for dry clothes. He spread his bedroll by the fire to warm and dry it, and slid out of his wet shirt. There was a tiny towel in amongst his clothes, and he used it to dry as much of himself as he could. It felt good to get into dry clothes, although when it came to his pants, Joe was unsure what he should do.

He tugged off his right boot quite easily, but knew that getting the other boot off might be more than he could manage. Yet, he knew that if his leg swelled, and the swelling was restricted by his boot, he might end up losing the leg at best, or dying at worst. Swallowing resolutely, Joe set about cutting his boot off.

Later, he had no idea how often he had to stop as the pain became too bad, but finally, the boot lay free of his leg, and Joe got his first look at his injury by the light of the fire. It was fully dark by then, but the flickering firelight provided Joe with enough illumination to see that the break was serious. The broken ends of the bone poked through the skin of his shin, and the wound had clearly been bleeding. Joe wrapped the towel loosely around the wound, hoping that would keep it clean. He split the leg of his pants to get them off, and did the same to his dry ones before slipping them on.

Exhausted, he rolled his bedroll around himself and snuggled down by the fire. Out in the darkness, the rain continued to patter against the canopy of leaves that gave him shelter. The pain in Joe’s leg was worse, now that he had exhausted himself. He wondered how long it would be before he was found. The answer – days – wasn’t comforting.

It was some time before Joe slept.

*****

“Well, at least the rain’s gone off,” Adam commented as he ate his breakfast. “We might get a start on the branding today.”

“It ain’t gonna be nice,” Hoss grumbled. “The ground’s soaked.”

“Well, we can’t help that,” Adam replied, philosophically. “The herd’s been cooped up down there for the past few days and we need to get this done. Once the weather clears properly, we’ll be into haying.”

“We ain’t gonna git it done sittin’ here,” said Hoss, decisively. He cleared his plate and rose to his feet. “Let’s go.”

“I’m right behind you, brother,” Adam answered, gulping the last of his coffee.

*****

Morning brought no joy for Joe. He had slept badly between the cold and the pain and he wasn’t feeling very well. He was suffering from mild exposure, after his soaking the day before, and although the fire and food had helped him, he was increasingly at risk. The damp had crept into his body through the blanket over night, and what Joe needed most was a warm, dry bed. Normally, a soaking wouldn’t have affected a healthy young man, but with the added complication of his badly broken leg, Joe was feeling the wet weather.

“I’ve got to eat,” Joe muttered, as he built up the fire again. He rested, then checked his supplies. He had enough food for at least another day, but when he shook the canteen, he realized that his water was dwindling fast.

Leaning back against the tree, Joe knew he would have to get water. He could ration his food slightly, and eke it out longer, and probably could get some game. But he had to have water, and that involved moving about hunting for it. It was a bleak prospect. Every movement sent shivers of pain through his leg, and Joe could see that it had swollen a great deal overnight.

“I need water,” Joe told himself. “I’ve got to get water.” He looked round, hoping to see something that would help him, and his eye fell on two of the branches he’d gathered for his fire. They were long and fairly straight, and Joe realized that he could use them as a make-shift splint for his leg. He obviously couldn’t set such a bad break himself, but if he could stabilize it slightly, perhaps the pain might not be so bad.

Cutting strips out of his pants leg, Joe set about fashioning the splint. By the time the final cloth strip was tied around the branches and his leg, Joe was shaking from the pain. Flopping back against the tree, Joe shut his eyes and breathed hard though his mouth until the pain began to settle slightly. Still sitting there, he fell asleep.

*****

“That was some rain,” Ben commented, as he joined his sons by the branding pens. The air was filled with the cries of the calves as they were separated from their mothers, thrown to the ground and then branded. The smell of searing cowhide wasn’t pleasant, but the Cartwrights were used to it.

“We thought you’d decide to stay in town,” Adam commented. “How was the Cattleman’s meeting?”

“Oh, much the same as usual,” Ben replied. “We finished a bit earlier than normal, but when I saw the weather, I just went and checked myself into the hotel.” He glanced up at the darkening sky. “I hope the rain holds off. Joe will get terribly held up if it doesn’t.”

“That trail ain’t a good place when it’s wet,” Hoss observed. He, too, glanced at the sky. “I reckon we ought to git this done afore the rain comes on, Pa.”

“Good,” Ben said. “That’ll be one less job to do.” He crossed to his horse and mounted up. “I’ll see you at supper, boys. Perhaps Joe will be home by then.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Adam commented. “I think it’ll be tomorrow before he gets back, at the earliest.”

“Maybe,” Ben responded. He lifted a hand and rode off.

*****

The splint didn’t make as much difference as Joe had hoped, but he couldn’t let that deter him. He had to have water, and he wouldn’t find it sitting on his behind under the tree. Finding another long limb, Joe used it as a walking stick, and hopped his way painfully over the uneven ground.

This was the first time he had seen the ravine from his feet. It was quite broad, and had a lot of grass and some trees in it. The big sycamore tree he was sheltering under dominated the landscape. A flash of a white scut showed Joe that getting game wouldn’t be too hard. But first, he had to get water.

A stream ran along the far wall of the ravine, and Joe made his laborious way over to it. By the time he reached the cool, refreshing water, he was soaked in sweat and trembling from the exertion. Flopping to the ground, he lay back and closed his eyes for a minute while he caught his breath. When his breathing was back to normal, he leaned over and drank straight from the stream. The water was icy cold and took his breath away, but he relished it.

Once his canteen was filled, Joe washed his face, seeing the dried blood swirl away on the current. The stream was high after the previous night’s rain, but it didn’t show any signs of bursting its banks, for which Joe was truly thankful. If the ravine should flood, he had nowhere to go.

Later, Joe wasn’t sure how long he sat by the water, but as the sky began to darken, and threaten rain once more, he reluctantly struggled to his feet to make the journey back to his camp. On the way, he went back to the body of his horse and retrieved his rifle and ammunition. He wanted to take the saddle, so that it wouldn’t be ruined by the rain, but there was no way he could carry it, so he just had to leave it. He saw, with distaste that a bit of one of the animal’s legs had been eaten by predators. Well, that was nature’s way. Nothing was wasted.

Slowly, he hopped back to his tree, and before he allowed himself to settle down again, he made himself go round collecting the fallen branches for his fire. The less walking he had to do, the better, he reasoned.

Seated once more by the fire, Joe kept an eye out for game, and a while later was rewarded when he shot dead a rabbit. He skinned the creature and spitted the meat for his meal, but as he watched it cook, he realized that he was exhausted. The pain was taking a huge toll on his stamina, and Joe guessed that he was extremely lucky that his head injury hadn’t given him a bad concussion, too. He sipped at his water, and decided that the next day, he would only move to get water, and would use only the food in his saddlebags. His physical resources were scarily finite, and he had to keep alive until such times as his family came looking for him.

*****

“I really thought Joe would have been home tonight,” Ben said, as he and his sons relaxed in front of the fire. It was raining again outside, and the fire felt good. “The weather must have held him up.”

“Did he say for sure that he would be home today?” Adam asked.

“No,” Ben admitted. “The wire I got just told me he was leaving Reno, and I just figured that today was the day he was most likely to get here.” Ben didn’t like to admit that he had had a bad feeling all day about Joe. He knew that his youngest son would have been slowed down by the rain, but logic didn’t quiet the voice of his intuition.

“If he had any sense,” Adam muttered, “he’ll have found somewhere to hole up till the weather clears.”

“This is Joe we’re talkin’ about here,” Hoss parried jokingly. “He ain’t got no sense.” He laughed at his own joke.

Adam laughed, too, but Ben stayed silent. His mind wasn’t in the room with his sons, it was somewhere out in the wet and dark, with Joe. He was becoming more and more uneasy about his youngest son’s absence, and vowed to go looking for him come daylight, regardless of what anyone thought. He didn’t even care if he met Joe an hour’s ride down the trail, just as long as Joe was safe. That disquieting little voice that alerted parents to illness or danger for their children would not be silenced.

“Pa,” Adam repeated, louder this time and Ben shook himself out of his reverie.

“What?” he asked, aware that he had missed something.

“I said you aren’t really concerned about Joe, are you? I’m sure he’s all right.” Adam frowned at Ben. “He’s just been held up by the weather.”

“Yes, probably,” Ben muttered. He glanced at his sons, and saw they were both watching him, neither one fooled for a moment by his assumed nonchalance.

“You are worried,” Hoss stated, flatly. “You think somethin’s happened to Joe, don’ cha?”

“Yes,” Ben admitted. “I don’t know why, but I’m very uneasy. In the morning, I’m going to look for him.”

“Then so are we,” Adam insisted, and Ben smiled at him.

“Thank you,” he said, simply.

*****

Joe’s second day in the ravine passed much as the first. He made an effort to get fresh water but found, to his dismay that he tired more quickly this time. It took him hours to just get water. The pain in his leg was constant, and when he looked, he saw that his leg had swelled even more, and he was forced to remove the splint. For a time, that helped, but then the sickly throbbing returned, and Joe had a closer look.

His leg was infected. Joe knew he was in for an even harder time of it. He forced himself to rest and conserve his strength, but he had to have wood for the fire and he had to have water, and both those things could only be obtained if he moved about.

For the first time, Joe allowed himself to despair. He was finding the loneliness difficult to deal with. Never before had he been alone with a serious injury, and little prospect of being found. He had no one to talk to apart from himself, and no living creature to derive comfort from. “Oh, please, God, help me!” he cried and burst into tears.

When the tears had stopped, Joe sat up, feeling thoroughly ashamed of himself. What good did crying do? he demanded, and was surprised to find he felt a little better after the catharsis of tears. Joe took a drink and lay back, hoping to be able to sleep.

However, his mind was too active for sleep, and Joe found himself thinking about the cry he had just made to God. Normally, Joe didn’t think overly much about religion. He believed in God and said his prayers, but he wondered now just how much of a ritual his praying had become. He tended to just repeat the Lord’s Prayer and not add anything else. But now, when trouble had come to him, he cried out to God.

Puzzled, Joe thought about this. It took his mind off his leg, and the growing malaise he felt. All his life, Joe had had bible stories read to him, and he had loved those stories. Samuel, Daniel, David and Goliath and Noah had been among his favorites. He realized that, in all those stories, the person had trusted implicitly in God to save them.

With a start, another story from Daniel came to him. The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace. They had stood firm for their belief in God. However, the part which stuck in Joe’s mind was when they said, “Even if God does not lift his hand to save me, I believe in him.” As a child, Joe had been puzzled by this, until Ben had explained to him that the three men believed that if God thought they should die, then that would be what happened. God was not at their beck and call. They believed in him absolutely and believed that his judgement was best.

“Lord, please, help me get out of this,” Joe prayed. “I know I shouldn’t be afraid, but I am, Lord. I’m alone and afraid. Please help me. I do believe in You, and whatever You will for me be done. Amen.”

As darkness came down once more, Joe found his mind lingering on the bible stories where one man had to endure alone. Recalling them helped him endure alone, until sleep finally laid claim to him.

*****

Shortly after dawn, Ben, Adam and Hoss set out to look for Joe. Ben was driving the wagon, and Adam and Hoss were mounted. Ben had packed some food and blankets into the back of the wagon, and was praying that he didn’t need them. But with every hour that had passed, his unease had grown, and he had found himself up and dressed long before dawn broke. Not far behind him came his sons, and they broke their fast early and made their preparations.

The weather seemed to be clearing at last, after the rain of the last few days, and it looked as though the weather was going to set fair again. “Dying up just in time for haying,” Adam observed, as a distraction.

It didn’t work. Ben simply smiled and nodded, and Adam guessed that Ben hadn’t heard anything that he had said. Ben’s gaze was mostly fixed on the distance, and he knew that his father was hoping that he would spot Joe riding towards them, and see the cheeky grin before his youngest brother told them they were fussing over nothing. Adam knew this, because he was hoping the same thing. But they rode on, and there was no sign of Joe anywhere.

At noon, they broke for a quick, cold lunch. None of them ate very much. Even if Joe had been slowed down by the weather, they ought to have met up with him by then. Scary possibilities began to present themselves for inspection in the quiet of their minds. Had Joe been held up? Had his horse cast a shoe? Or had he met with an accident? They didn’t have an answer for any of those questions.

After only a short break, Ben pushed on. When night fell, the rain had been falling for hours and they still hadn’t found Joe.

*****

When the third day dawned, Joe woke and gazed round dully. His whole body ached, his head was thumping and there was a nasty taste in his mouth. Reaching for the canteen, Joe was shocked to discover that his hand was shaking. He took a drink, careful not to spill any of the precious liquid, for he knew he wouldn’t be able to get more water for himself that day.

He fed the few sticks he had left to the fire and wrapped the bedroll round him. He was freezing, shivering with cold. “I guess I’m sick,” he told himself hoarsely. His throat was scratchy, despite the water, but Joe didn’t drink any more. He lapsed into a half-sleep, where he dreamed that he was at home once more.

Jerking awake, Joe threw the blanket off. He was so hot, why had he wrapped himself in the blanket?  He inched a little further away from the small fire. It was hot! Had the sun come out? Joe turned his head slowly and peered beyond the canopy of trees. The sun was shining, but there was a hard quality to the light that suggested more rain to Joe.

Around about mid-afternoon, Joe had a period of lucidity, which made him realize how unwell he had been earlier in the day. It was raining again by then, and the soft pattering of the rain on the canopy of leaves had a soporific effect on the injured youth. Joe’s thoughts were on his family.

He wondered how they would react when they found his body – if they ever did. Of course, they would all grieve. Hoss and Ben would be the most able to share their grief, Joe thought. Adam would probably bottle it up inside, as he did a lot of things. How would Ben cope with another tragedy? Joe wondered. Could his father, once more, say “Thy will be done,” and mean it?

Deep within himself, Joe had found a core of belief in God, which gave him comfort. But he didn’t know how he would react if he lost the people he loved. His greatest fear in life was that Ben would die, and Joe would find out that he was just a child, forever destined to be looked after by someone else; that his façade of adulthood would be stripped away to reveal the truth beneath. What Joe didn’t realize was that the truth beneath was that he was a man, not a boy, and he would prove to himself over time that he could deal with everything life sent him, and come out whole and strong. At that point, Joe didn’t know how self-reliant and strong he was. He only knew that he wanted his father and brothers more at that moment than he had ever wanted anyone or anything. He didn’t realize that he had been caring for himself with a self-sufficiency that many an older person might envy.

As his temperature rose again, Joe slipped back into that half-sleep, where a shadowy figure of a woman stroked his brow and sang lullabies to him.

*****

If anything, the next day was wetter yet. Silently, the Cartwrights cleared up their camp and headed out. Adam was leading the way, ranging far from the track as he looked for any signs the rain might have left that his brother had passed that way.

Pulling Sport to a halt, Adam surveyed the steep track in front of him. Would Joe have traversed it? He wasn’t sure. Then he remembered that Joe would have been coming up, and Adam dismounted and started forward, leading his mount.  Moments later, he scrambled backwards, as the path crumbled beneath his feet.

Strong hands hauled him to safety, and Adam looked at Hoss gratefully. “Thanks, brother,” he panted. “I wouldn’t have wanted to fall down there.”

Hoss’ face was white and pinched from Adam’s near accident. “Ya don’ think…” he ventured, hesitantly.

At once, Adam knew what was in Hoss’ mind, and he pulled himself from his brother’s grasp to peer at the trail. There was another bit, further down, that had clearly fallen in the last few days. Fear gripped Adam’s heart, and, like Hoss, he was suddenly convinced that Joe was in that ravine.

Taking the rope from his saddle, Adam quickly tied it around his waist while Hoss secured it to the saddle horn. Going as close to the edge as he could, Adam shouted, “Joe!” Silence. “Joe!” he cried again, going a bit nearer, and peering through the sheets of rain to the ravine bottom. “Joe! Can you hear me?”

By now, Ben had caught them up, and Hoss explained what they were thinking. Fear leapt into Ben’s brown eyes and he swallowed convulsively. “The stream in there is really high,” Adam said, coming over. “It could burst its banks at any time. I’d better go down and have a look.”

He and Hoss began to tie all their ropes together. Ben put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Adam,” he whispered, and Adam paused to look at his father.

“I’ll be careful,” he promised.

*****

It wasn’t easy finding a place where Adam could go over the edge, but they did find one at last. Hand over hand, Hoss played out the rope, and he and Ben watched anxiously until they couldn’t see Adam for the overhang of the rocks. “I’m down!” Adam called, finally, his voice faint.

There was a breathless wait, as Adam began to pick his way along the ravine. The stream there was roaring, and Adam wasn’t sure if his voice was carrying up to his family at all. Suddenly, Adam came across the carcass of Joe’s horse. The saddle was still strapped round the animal’s belly, but it had been nibbled. A good deal of the horse had been eaten as well, and Adam swallowed the bile that rose in his throat at the sight of it. He felt a surge of emotion, but couldn’t tell if it was hope or fear.

“I’ve found his horse!” he cried, and a moment later, heard Ben’s voice.

“And Joe?”

“Not yet!” he called back, and set off again.

It seemed to Adam that the thing Joe would have needed most was shelter and he made for the only shelter in sight, the huge sycamore tree dominating the ravine.  He half expected to hear Joe’s voice, but the only sound was the water. Adam cast an anxious glance at it, and saw that it had risen again since he came down. He hurried his steps.

Under the overhang of the tree, he found Joe. His brother was unconscious, burning with fever. The ashes of his fire were still warm, but his canteen was empty. Kneeling by Joe, Adam shook him gently, but Joe didn’t stir, apart from to groan.

Relief and anxiety warred within Adam. Joe was alive, but he was badly injured. Adam could see the head wound, and when he spied the discarded boot, he looked at Joe’s leg, wincing when he saw the festering injury and the bones sticking through the skin.

Rushing back into the open, Adam cried, “I’ve found him! He’s alive!”

*****

Getting Joe out of the ravine was going to be difficult. Adam decided that he had better tie Joe to himself. That way, he could be pulled up by Hoss, and Adam could protect Joe’s injuries as best he could. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but as the water in the creek was rising fast, they had no option.

First of all, Adam sent up Joe’s saddlebags, rifle and the saddle from the horse. When the rope came down again, Adam wrapped Joe more firmly in the blanket and tied the rope from Joe’s saddle round Joe before hoisting his brother into his arms, and making the other rope secure around himself too.

Adam’s first attempt to climb the wall failed. Joe’s head was bouncing uncomfortably backwards, and Adam was terrified he would bang his head on the rocks. So he re-thought his strategy and changed Joe’s position. Now, Joe’s head rested heavily on Adam’s shoulder, where Adam could protect it should it be necessary.

“Ok, ready,” he called. Hoss took up the slack, and Adam began his climb.

They were no more than a foot from the ground when Adam heard the sound he’d been dreading. There was a huge roar, and with a crash, the ravine became a river. Adam was swept round to collide painfully with the rocks, protecting Joe as best he could. Water broke over their heads, and Adam spluttered to catch his breath.

The water brought Joe to consciousness, and he coughed and gasped for breath as the first force of the water subsided slightly, and Adam managed to catch his breath. “Easy, Joe,” he panted. “I’ll get you out of this.”

He wasn’t entirely sure that his promise could be kept. There would be more water coming any moment, and Adam had to get them higher up, or they would both drown. Fighting the heaviness of the water, and the pain in his side, Adam began to climb. After a moment, there was a steady pull on the rope, helping him along.

When the second wave of water came, they were high enough to escape it.

*****

The world had taken on a nightmarish quality to Joe. He coughed the water from his lungs and tried not to groan. Adam panted out reassurances when he could find the breath, but that wasn’t very often. However, Joe was too ill to struggle against the confinement of his limbs. His head throbbed so hard he could barely see and his leg was just misery.

At long last, loving hands brought them to safety and Joe forced his eyes open. “Pa?” he whispered, unable to believe his eyes.

“I’m here, Joseph,” Ben said, huskily. He was horrified by the way his son looked. Joe’s skin was waxen, his color poor. As they disentangled the ropes that bound his sons together, Ben discovered for himself Joe’s head wound and broken leg. He and Hoss looked at it for a long moment, silently, before they gently lifted Joe and placed him in the back of the wagon.

“Are you all right, Adam?” Ben asked, going back to where his eldest son still sprawled on the wet ground.

“I’ve hurt my side,” Adam admitted, reluctantly. The crash off the wall of the ravine had done more damage than he had first thought, and the climb the rest of the way up had just compounded it. “I think I might have broken some ribs.” His face was pale and drawn and breathing was difficult.

“Let’s get you in the wagon, too,” Ben suggested. They had put the cover on the wagon at the first signs of rain and Ben was very glad that they had. Together, he and Hoss helped Adam carefully to his feet, and assisted him into the wagon.

While Ben tended to his brothers, Hoss quickly made ready to leave. He stripped the saddles from their horses and passed them into the wagon for his brothers to lean against. Then he hitched the horses to the back of the wagon and climbed onto the seat. “All ready, Pa?” he asked, his face grim.

“Yes,” Ben responded. “But take it slow and easy, son.”

*****

It was a nightmare journey home. Hoss kept the team at a walk, although his every instinct told him to race them. Joe drifted in and out of consciousness, and Hoss suffered agonies of guilt as his younger brother cried out at every jolt of the wagon.

Tending to Joe, Ben was very concerned. He wasn’t sure if he ought to touch Joe’s leg or not. In the end, he decided to leave well alone. He concentrated on getting fluid into Joe, to try and bring his temperature down. Adam watched, stoically stifling his groans, so that Ben wouldn’t have to worry about him, too, but sometimes, a jolt would catch him unaware, and a groan would escape before he could stop it.

The rain stopped as night fell, but Ben insisted that Joe and Adam should sleep in the wagon. He didn’t want either of them sleeping on wet ground. He bundled them in blankets, and he and Hoss traded keeping watch over them while the other slept.

All through the next day, Joe’s temperature continued to climb. He muttered in his delirium, calling out Ben’s name often. “I’m gonna fall!” he panted at one point. “Oh noooooooooo.” His voice trailed away into nothing.

“His horse’s neck was broken,” Adam offered, quietly, seeing the look on Ben’s face. “I think the trail must have crumbled beneath their feet, Pa.” His face was solemn. “Joe was lucky.”

Nodding, Ben put his hand on Adam’s arm. “He was lucky you went down for him when you did,” he said, softly.

“His guardian angel was watching out for him this time all right,” Adam agreed, shrugging off the praise.

“I thank God he’s alive,” Ben murmured. He had indeed thanked the Almighty several times since Joe had been found. He also begged the Lord to allow his son to survive the ordeal. He didn’t know how he would cope if Joe died.

*****

At last, they drew to a stop in the yard, and Hoss was down from the seat in a twinkling to help Adam from the back of the wagon into the house. The sun had been beating down on them all day, and they were glad of the shade from the wagon cover, even if it was like an oven underneath.

“I can manage,” Adam assured him. “You help Pa with Joe.” He walked carefully cross the yard and into the house. Hop Sing met him, and saw at once how things stood. He hurried back to the kitchen to put the water on to boil. Adam eased himself into his blue chair, unable to face climbing the stairs right then. A few minutes later, Ben and Hoss came in, carrying Joe carefully between them. Joe’s head dangled from his neck and Adam thought that it looked as though he was dead. He closed his eyes.

After a few minutes, Hoss came back down to help Adam up the stairs. The last thing Adam really wanted to do was go anywhere, but he knew he would be more comfortable in his bed. “What about the doctor?” he asked, as they slowly mounted the stairs.

“I sent Fred for him,” Hoss replied. “Pa needs me here.” He opened the door to Adam’s room and they went in. Adam sat carefully on the bed and Hoss pulled his boots off. “Ya want any more help?” Hoss asked, knowing Adam’s prickly pride.

“No, I can manage the rest, thanks, Hoss,” Adam replied, with a smile. “You go and help Pa. I’ll be all right.” As his big little brother went out the door, Adam began to slowly unbutton his shirt.

*****

In the other room, Ben was gently stripping off Joe’s clothes. Joe was conscious, although not talking. His eyes followed Ben’s movements around the room, and when Hoss came in, he glanced over at his brother. He couldn’t quite manage a smile, but his eyes, dulled with pain and fever, shone slightly.

“Sit up, Joe, and I’ll get this shirt off,” Ben said, helping his youngest to sit. Joe leaned against his father’s chest, too weak to assist. Ben slid the sleeves down and tugged the material away. As he did so, his eyes fell on Joe’s back and he saw that it was covered in huge, deep scratches, mute testimony to the force of Joe’s fall. His back looked slightly infected, too. Exchanging an appalled look with Hoss, Ben laid Joe back down. Joe didn’t even seem to feel the pain from his back, and Ben reasoned that the pain in his leg demanded all Joe’s attention.

“Joe,” he murmured, and those green eyes turned in his direction. “Did your horse fall? Do you remember?”

“The ground gave way,” Joe mumbled. He sounded infinitely weary. “We went down and down…” He shut his eyes abruptly. “Then I woke up and my leg was broken.” Joe’s voice was full of pain. “I was alone, Pa. Just me and God down there.” He fumbled for Ben’s hand and when his father took his hand, he squeezed tightly. Ben returned the pressure, stroking the boy’s hair back from his forehead, being careful to avoid the gash by his hairline. After a moment, Joe’s grip slackened and he slept.

“Poor Joe,” Hoss commented. “I hate to think on it, Pa.”

“Me, too, son,” Ben agreed. “Even more, I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn’t found him today.” For a moment he was silent, thinking the unthinkable. Giving himself a shake, Ben glanced at Hoss. “How’s Adam?” he asked.

“Sore, but he’ll be all right,” Hoss replied, his eyes still on the pale face of his younger brother. “If’n you want to go an’ see him, I’ll sit with Joe.”

“Thanks, son,” Ben answered and gently disentangled his hand from Joe’s. As he left the room, he saw Hoss pick up Joe’s hand.

*****

When Paul Martin arrived, Joe was once more thrashing about in delirium. Paul was horrified when he saw the severity of the break in Joe’s leg and ordered Ben and Hoss out, so he could operate on the leg at once. “Hop Sing can stay,” he allowed, as he all but pushed Ben from the room. “But you couldn’t take it, Ben, believe me. Go and get on some clean clothes and eat something. You, too, Hoss. I’ll tend to Adam as soon as I’ve seen to Joe.”

It was a long and tricky operation. Paul cleaned out the wound, washing the ends of the bone with particular care. He was relieved to find that none of the dirt appeared to have gone into the bones themselves. He feared that a bone infection would result in Joe losing his leg. Once he had cleaned the wound out, he had Hop Sing hold Joe down while he manipulated the bones back into place. Then he proceeded to cut away the infected tissue, before stitching closed the wound and bandaging the whole thing tightly. He would have preferred to put on a plaster cast, but with the infection and swelling, that was not an option.

After a momentary breather, he then tackled Joe’s scratched back. The infection wasn’t bad there, and Paul flushed each scratch with alcohol, before bandaging them up to keep them clean. “You can take the bandages off his back in a day or so, Hop Sing,” Paul told him. “They’ll just keep him comfortable after having them cleaned.”

The only thing left was the head wound, but it wasn’t bad, and Paul simply cleaned it, and put a bandage on it. “Same with the head wound,” he instructed. “It’s bleeding a little bit again because I disturbed it, but you can take the bandage off tomorrow.” Sighing, Paul reached into his bag and drew out the morphine and gave Joe a shot. “That should see him through for a while,” he said. “Right, let’s go and see the other patient.”

It was no surprise to find Ben and Hoss in Adam’s room. They had both done as Paul had told them and eaten and changed. “How is he?” Ben asked, as the door opened.

“He’s pretty sick right now,” Paul replied, truthfully, “but I think he’ll pull through. We’ll just have to take each day as it comes.” Paul kept his worries about bone infection to himself. “Now, Adam, let’s see you.”

“I think its just broken ribs,” Adam replied. “My breathing is all right, provided I don’t take a deep breath.”

“Listen, I’m the doctor,” Paul joked. “Let me do the diagnosing!” He ran sensitive fingers over Adam’s rib cage and soon confirmed his patient’s diagnosis. “Yes, you’re right, Adam,” he said, straightening. “Three broken ribs on the right side. Take it easy for a few weeks, until they’ve had time to heal.” He helped Adam sit up so he could tightly bandage his ribs.

The relief on Ben’s face was tangible. He patted Adam on the shoulder before heading back to see to Joe. Hoss, smiling, followed. Adam sat passively until Paul was finished, then put his hand out to keep the physician there. “Paul, tell me the truth,” he requested in a low voice. “Is Joe at risk of losing his leg? I’ve never seen such a bad injury.”

“Don’t go borrowing trouble,” Paul advised. “At the moment, Joe is in no danger of losing his leg, and I don’t want you to repeat that to your father.”

“At the moment,” Adam repeated, his tone bleak. “So you think that is a risk?”

Cursing the slip of his tongue, Paul wasn’t sure what to say. He couldn’t lie to Adam, but he didn’t want him to worry. However, he realized that staying silent would only fuel Adam’s fears, and he nodded. “If the infection sets into the bone, Joe will lose his leg,” he admitted, wretchedly.

“If only we’d found him more quickly,” Adam muttered.

“Don’t beat yourself up over this,” Paul advised. “Only prompt treatment, the moment it happened, would have prevented this risk. But the bones look ok. Joe is young and strong and healthy; he’ll be fine.”

Settling himself on his pillows more comfortably, Adam said, “You’ll forgive me if I continue to worry until we know he’ll be fine.”

There was nothing Paul could say to this, as that was what he was going to do as well.

*****

The morphine kept Joe resting peacefully for several hours, during which time, Ben was able to snatch some sleep. It was a commodity that would be in short supply for several days to come. The weather, after the dreadful rain that had caused Joe’s accident and hampered the search for him, had turned nice, and the temperature rose relentlessly until Joe’s room was like an oven.

As the painkiller wore off, Joe became increasingly restless. Ben bathed him with cool water, trying to keep his temperature down, but to no avail. His temperature didn’t shoot skywards, but it remained at a dangerously high level. Paul practically lived at the ranch, terrified that Joe would suffer from convulsions. He checked Joe’s leg every day, but there was no way, yet, to tell if the infection had spread to the bone. Until Joe either recovered, or became worse, Paul would have to keep his worries to himself. Adam, now going gingerly around the house, had dark shadows under his eyes as the worry robbed him of much-needed sleep.

It was almost impossible to coax Ben from Joe’s side for sleep and food. All his attention was fixed on his youngest son. Fear crawled through Ben’s belly and was reflected in his dark eyes. He looked suddenly old.

“You’ve got to rest, Ben,” Paul argued, as he returned to the ranch on Joe’s second night at home, to discover that Ben had not slept in over 24 hours.

“Not until I know he’s going to be all right,” Ben responded, wearily.

“By then, you could be ill, too,” Paul snapped. “What good will that do Joe?”

“I can’t leave,” Ben replied. “I can’t.”

Sighing, for he understood Ben’s point of view, Paul rummaged in his bag for his stethoscope. While he was in there, he drew up a dose of sedative, too, and as he went to Joe, he casually plunged the syringe into Ben’s arm.

“What?” Ben shouted, rising to his feet and looking furiously at Paul. “What have you done?”

“Sit down,” Paul said, forcing his friend into the chair. “Hoss! Come and help me.” He watched Ben closely as he waited for the middle son to come up. When Hoss did appear, he said, “Help me take your father through to his room. He is going to rest, and when he wakens, you have my permission to force feed him, should he be unwilling to eat. Is that clear?”

“Clear,” Hoss replied, helping Ben to his feet. The sedative was starting to take effect, but it didn’t dampen the glare Ben shot at Paul.

“Traitor!” he slurred and Paul couldn’t help grinning. He assisted them through to Ben’s room, and within a few minutes, Ben was sound asleep.

“D’ya really want me t’ force feed him?” Hoss asked, as they went back to Joe’s room.

“You could,” Paul evaded, trying not to laugh. “You’re big enough.”

“I might be big enough,” Hoss responded, “but I ain’t anythin’ like old enough!”

“Now, Hoss, you aren’t afraid of your father, are you?” Paul teased.

“Naw,” Hoss denied. “But I ain’t never tried to force feed him neither!”

*****

Checking Joe’s leg, Paul wasn’t surprised to find Adam leaning over his shoulder. “How is it?” he asked, in a low voice.

“He isn’t any worse,” Paul said, “but that’s all I can say right now, Adam. The leg looks less red, so I think the infection is clearing. I hope his fever will break soon.” He felt Joe’s head, which was now clear of bandage, and nodded. “His temperature hasn’t risen,” he commented.

“It hasn’t dropped, either,” Adam responded, acerbically.

Silently, Paul lifted Joe’s head to get him to drink. There was nothing he could say to Adam’s observation, and he didn’t blame the man for taking his fears out on the doctor. He was supposed to know if Joe was going to be all right, and he didn’t. Sometimes it seemed to Paul that the medical profession knew very little more now than it had in the Stone Age. He wished he could look inside Joe’s leg to see how the bones were knitting, but he couldn’t. It was very frustrating.

“I’m sorry, Paul,” Adam offered, after a moment. “I shouldn’t be taking it out on you.”

“I do understand,” Paul assured him. “I wish I could tell you more.” He rubbed his eyes and stretched. “I’ll be back later, Adam. Make sure your father eats when he wakens up. Oh, and I’d appreciate it if you kept his gun far from his hand when I do get back.”

Laughing, Adam nodded. “I’ll do my best,” he promised.

*****

As the day wore on, Ben slept peacefully in his bed, and Adam sat with Joe. Gradually, Joe’s restlessness gave way to a more peaceful rest, although his temperature was still high. Adam continued to bathe him regularly, and offer him drinks.

Joe was dreaming. He dreamt that he was by his mother’s grave. He could see the headstone, and smell the scent of wild flowers. There was a presence sitting next to him, and Joe wasn’t at all surprised to see it was his mother when he turned his head. “It’s peaceful here,” he said.

“Yes, my darling, it is,” Marie agreed. “And you need a little peace in your life, Joseph.”

“I suppose I do,” Joe admitted. It didn’t seem at all strange to him to be having this conversation with his long-dead mother. “But I can’t help living my life at full speed, Mama.”

“I know that,” she replied, smiling at him. Joe caught his breath, for she was so beautiful. “We never know what’s round the corner, Joe. Injury and death lie in wait everywhere. But trust in God, and you will always have whatever you need to meet each crisis as it comes. You are strong, Joe. You can handle whatever life sends to you.”

“What is life sending me, Mama?” he asked.

“I can’t tell you that, son,” she told him. “But bear it bravely, whatever comes.” She leant forward and kissed his brow. “I love you, Joe. But you belong with your father right now.”

A tremendous feeling of calm permeated Joe’s soul, and he closed his eyes. The ultimate plan for his life was already mapped out in heaven, and there was nothing he could do to change it. Joe smiled. He would continue to live his life the way he always had done. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to see his father.

******

The peaceful sleep had done Joe good, Adam thought. It was very unlike his youngest brother to be at peace even when asleep, and Adam just hoped this was not a prelude to something bad happening. He still feared that Joe would lose his leg.

Suddenly, Joe made a convulsive movement with his arms, and let out a sigh. “Pa?” he called, groping with his hand.

Quickly, Adam took hold of Joe’s hand. “I’m here, Joe,” he told him. “It’s me, Adam. Pa’s asleep right now.”

“Pa!” Joe called, dropping Adam’s hand. His eyes were still shut. “Pa!”

“Shh!” Adam soothed, but Joe fought off Adam’s hand again.

“Pa!” Joe suddenly sat up, his eyes wide open. He didn’t appear to be focusing on anything, and Adam suspected Joe was still ensnared in sleep. “Pa!” He slumped back on his pillows, as limp as a rag doll. Frightened, Adam felt for the pulse at his throat, and realized that Joe’s fever had broken in a drenching sweat.

Shattered by the relief that swept over him, Adam dropped his head to Joe’s bed and wept.

*****

When Ben came through some hours later, he was greeted by Joe’s green eyes turning his way. A tired smile lit Joe’s wan face, and Ben hurried over to stroke the curls back from the boy’s head, and feel for himself what his eyes had already told him. Joe’s fever was down and he was on the road to recovery.

“Hi, Pa,” he whispered.

“Hi yourself,” Ben returned, smiling. “You’ve given us quite a fright, son.”

“Sorry,” Joe replied.

“You’re safe, that’s all that matters,” Ben told him. He looked around, surprised to find Joe alone. “Where are your brothers?”

“Adam’s gone to have a sleep,” Joe replied. “Hoss went to get me something to eat.”

“You need to eat,” Ben agreed. “It’s been days since you had anything.”

“So I was told,” Joe remarked, dryly, and Ben took heart from his son’s joke.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Better,” Joe responded. “My leg doesn’t hurt so much.” He craned his neck to look at it. “I thought…” he stopped and swallowed, and Ben offered him a drink. Joe took it, although he wasn’t very thirsty. “I thought I might lose my leg,” he admitted, in a low voice.

“Why?” Ben cried, aghast.  “What made you think that?”

“It was infected,” Joe replied. “I was alone there, apart from God, and I knew that if I didn’t get help soon, I could lose the leg. The infection could have got really bad.” He blinked back tears. “But there was no way for me to get out of that ravine alone.” Joe broke the eye contact and glanced down. Ben kept his hand on Joe’s arm until his son looked up again.

“You didn’t doubt that we would come and look for you, did you?” he wanted to know.

“No, I didn’t doubt that, Pa,” Joe replied. “But I did doubt that you would find me soon enough. After all, I might just have been held up by the rain.”

“We did consider that,” Ben admitted. “But a little voice inside my head told me to go and look for you.”

“I’m glad it did,” Joe said. He fell silent again. After a time, his voice tinged with tiredness, he said, “Pa, do you think that voice came from God?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “I think God gives each parent a sense of when their children need them, and that little voice comes direct from him.”

“I always believed in God,” Joe murmured. “But somehow, I believe more now. He was there with me, Pa. Do you always feel him near you?”

“Yes, I do,” Ben replied. “But there are times when it’s more difficult to feel God with you, especially when something bad happens to you. You cry out ‘why me?’ and the answer is ‘why not me?’”

“I hadn’t thought of that one,” Joe admitted. “But somehow, I knew that God was looking after me. And even if I should die, God would still look after me.” Joe stopped talking, for he found it difficult to articulate his feelings in this matter.

“Yes, God is there for us, whether we’re aware of it or not,” Ben agreed. “Now, I think its time you had some sleep, don’t you?”

“Not yet,” protested a voice from the doorway. “He ain’t eaten anythin’ yet, Pa!” Hoss came in, carrying a tray. He put it down beside the bed, and Joe could smell something delicious.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Fish chowder,” Hoss replied. “Hop Sing thought you might like it, since he was makin’ some for us anyways.”

“That smells good,” Ben agreed, sniffing deeply.

“Good, cuz Paul said I had to force feed ya when ya woke, so go an’ git it while its hot. I’ll help Joe here. I done had mine,” he explained, helpfully.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Ben asked, as he rose. He glanced at Joe. “Will you be all right?”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe replied. He grinned at Hoss. “Big brother here is gonna force feed me, I can just tell.”

As Ben left the room, smiling, he heard Hoss say, “You’re plumb puny, Shortshanks. Ya could do with force feedin’, I can tell ya!”

***End***

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