Winter at Tahoe (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9757


 

 

Snow had been threatening for weeks, but had never come to anything. The Cartwrights were as prepared for the bad weather as they could be. During the autumn, Hop Sing had been incredibly busy canning fruit and vegetables, storing the items that would dry and building up the supplies of sugar, flour and oatmeal, so that if the weather proved really inclement and prolonged, they would not run short.

It was a good thing he did. They woke up one morning to a complete whiteout. The wind howled around the house, making the normally cozy great room seem draughty and ill finished. Breakfast was eaten mostly in silence as they gazed out through the windows at the swirling whiteness.

However, chores had to be done, and Joe was soon tying a rope around his middle and preparing to go to the barn. Hoss was doing the same. They anchored them to the stout posts supporting the porch roof and set off into the teeth of the gale. Luckily, they knew roughly how many steps it would take to get to the barn and if they hadn’t got there by that number of steps, they would follow the ropes back and start again. Fortunately, Joe hit the edge of the barn and called to Hoss, barely visible two steps away, and they secured the ropes to the barn before going in.

Although cold, the barn was not freezing, due to the number of horses in it. Usually, there were only the family mounts and maybe another two or three horses stabled there. Most of the working stock would be in the corral. But with the onset of particularly cold temperatures and Hoss’ insistence that snow was on the way, the horses had been brought inside and rugged up.

By unspoken agreement, Joe and Hoss set to work, each taking a side of the barn. Before long, they had shed their heavy winter coats as they mucked out and fed each animal, the manual work warming them up thoroughly.

“It’s a thought to go out again,” Joe commented to Hoss as a particularly strong gust of wind shook the solid structure. He was fondling the mole-soft nose of his beloved Cochise, reluctant to face the storm again.

“Sure is,” Hoss agreed. “But since the food is in the house, I ain’t staying here if’n I don’ have ta!”

Snugging the blanket tighter around Cochise’s neck, Joe laughed. “Trust you to come up with that argument,” he grinned.

“Jist bein’ practical,” Hoss replied placidly. “Don’t know about you, Little Joe, but I ain’t too keen on eatin’ straw!”

“No more am I,” Joe agreed. He gave his horse one last pat, shrugged on his jacket and looked at Hoss. “Ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Hoss nodded. Joe blew out the lantern and joined Hoss at the door.

To say they were surprised to find someone outside the barn was something of an understatement. Two men, slumped on their horses, were there in the yard. They were coated in snow, the horses’ heads hanging dejectedly. The men were wavering in the saddles and Hoss acted immediately.

“Quick, Joe!” he urged and grabbed the nearest bridle and began to lead the horse back into the barn. Joe copied his actions, guiding the half-frozen horse into the comparative warmth and blessed stillness of the barn.

They didn’t need to talk to divide the work up. Hoss pulled the two men from the horses and propped them on bales of hay before wrapping them in spare horse blankets. Joe quickly tethered both horses, stripped off their tack and threw a rug over one while he worked to brush down the other. After a few minutes, Hoss joined Joe and by the time both exhausted horses were munching on hay, their riders were much more with it, looking around them, but not yet ready to ask questions.

That came later, once they had thawed out, changed into warm, dry clothes and had had something warm to eat. “We were out looking for land,” Robert Peterson explained. “We’re looking to buy. The snow caught us unawares.” He shrugged and contrived to look embarrassed. “I thought we weren’t greenhorns, but I suppose everyone thinks they know what they are doing until reality hits.”

“We’re very grateful for your hospitality, Mr. Cartwright,” the other man, Jonathan Bartle added. “We’ll head back to town as soon as the snow lets up.”

“You could be waiting for several days,” Ben replied, courteously. “We get a lot of snow around here when it comes. In fact, you could be waiting for a few weeks.”

A look of alarm flashed across Peterson’s face for a split second. “Oh, we wouldn’t want to put you out for that long,” he protested.

“You may not have a choice,” Adam commented dryly. “We can’t control the weather.”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed, won’t we?” Bartle said, smiling. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go to our room and rest for a while.” He feigned a yawn behind his hand.

“That sounds like a good idea,” Peterson agreed. “Thank you again.”

“We’ll wake you for lunch,” Ben told them, rising politely. All three of the Cartwrights watched as the men went upstairs and they heard the bedroom door close. Ben looked away and returned to his seat.

“That’s the weakest story I’ve ever heard,” Joe scoffed as he sat down on the sofa again. Hoss slumped down beside him and nodded agreement.

“It were blowin’ a blue Northern well afore dawn,” he agreed. “But all the same, them fellers were lucky to find us.”

“I tend to think that if they hadn’t been mounted, they wouldn’t have found us,” Adam added. “I have no doubt the horses sensed the shelter.”

“And they weren’t in the best of condition,” Joe added. “They were already poorly cared for before they were out in a blizzard.” He glanced at Hoss for agreement and the middle brother nodded.

“Clearly our guests aren’t telling us the truth,” Ben agreed, “but they are entitled to keep their business private. It has nothing to do with us.”

“That we know of,” Adam concluded.

*****

Upstairs, the two men sat down on their beds. They were exhausted from their close brush with death and they were grateful for the warmth of the house and the offer of somewhere to see out the storm. What they weren’t grateful for was the actual location. As wanted men, on the run across Nevada from Utah and heading over to either California or up towards Oregon, they wouldn’t have chosen to hide out in a big place like this. They had spent a few short hours in Virginia City, long enough to discover that the wanted posters had followed them this far and to learn of the Ponderosa ranch and the Cartwrights – who happened to be close personal friends of the sheriff.

“What’re we gonna do?” Bartle fretted.

Sighing tiredly, Peterson fixed him with a firm stare. “We’re going to enjoy our hosts’ hospitality until such time as we can leave, presumably to head back to Virginia City and we’re not gonna panic!”

“What if they already know who we are?” Bartle persisted.

“D’you think they’d have been as nice if they knew who we are?” Peterson shot back. “We’d be tied up someplace, under guard, not in this room.” He rose and moved restlessly around the room, picking up knickknacks and putting them back down again. “They’ve got some nice stuff,” he mused. “I’m sure they won’t miss some of it.” He sniggered.

“We can just help ourselves when we leave,” agreed Bartle, beginning to relax at last. He laughed as well. Although petty thievery wasn’t their usual vice – murder was more in their line – they didn’t turn their nose up at a golden opportunity like this. Every penny helped when on the run.

*****

The next morning brought no respite from the storm, nor did the day after. The Cartwrights’ uninvited guests kept to their room for most of the time. They were unfailingly polite when joining the family for meals, but remained aloof.

It annoyed Joe. It really annoyed Joe. It especially annoyed Joe when he was out in the barn tending to their neglected horses and fighting the wind to bring in firewood for the house. While he knew that not everyone cared for their horse in the same way he did, he couldn’t understand their total disregard. They never even asked about their mounts. It was almost, Joe mused angrily to himself one evening while checking the horses, as if the men were staying in an hotel and simply expected the service as their due.

His temper came to a head as he stumbled in the front door, blown in by the wind, covered from head to toe in snow and feeling half-frozen at the least. Bartle and Peterson had clearly just come downstairs for supper and Bartle made an exclamation of distaste as some snow splattered the sleeve of his sweater as Joe removed his coat. “Watch it!” Bartle growled.

“Oh sorry!” Joe replied, in tones that told the other man he was anything but sorry. “I didn’t mean to bring snow in with me, but it’s impossible to avoid.”

“What on earth were you doing outside anyway?” Peterson asked, trying to diffuse the situation. “It’s hardly the weather for a walk.”

That was enough. “Someone has to tend to the horses – yours included,” Joe snapped. “You obviously haven’t given them a single thought since you got here, but don’t worry; Hoss and I have been making sure they got fed.”

“Why you…” Bartle began and for an instant, he looked very dangerous.

“Joseph!” Ben thundered and Joe knew that tone of voice only too well indeed. He had stepped over the boundary and Ben was furious with him.

“I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled, curbing his temper with difficulty. “I didn’t mean to be rude.” He clamped his mouth shut and kept his head down.

By this time, Peterson had his hand on Bartle’s arm, obviously calming him. “I’m sorry we haven’t helped with the chores,” he said smoothly. “I guess we just didn’t think.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ben replied. He shot Joe another warning look, for he knew his son well enough to know that he was still fuming under the seemingly meek face. Joe met his eyes for an instant and Ben could see the sparks of anger in the depths of those emerald orbs.

“Suppah ready,” Hop Sing announced and thereby eased the tension. The meal was eaten in relative speed and silence and as soon as it was over, Bartle and Peterson went straight back to their room.

Ben glanced at Joe, whose head was down over his plate. “Joe, I don’t want to hear another word out of you about the horses or anything else, do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Pa,” Joe replied. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m well aware that our guests have not done anything to check on their horses, but they did have a close brush with death the other day and that does shake a fellow up.” He glanced at Adam and Hoss, too. “We have to make allowances for them and hope the weather breaks soon.” He sighed and placed his hand on Joe’s arm. The muscles were knotted with tension. “Don’t think I don’t understand, son,” he went on, his tone softer. “Lord knows, we all feel the strain.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe repeated and this time managed a small smile.

“I know.” Ben patted Joe’s arm and they all knew the incident was closed.

Well, it was closed for the Cartwrights.

*****

Upstairs, Bartle was pacing back and forth, trying to ease his frustration and anger. Peterson stood with his back against the door. He looked relaxed, but he was ready to counter any rash act Bartle might make. “When is this snow gonna let up?” Bartle snarled. “I’m gonna kill that snotty kid if we don’t get out of here soon!”

“Calm down,” Peterson advised.

“I don’t want to calm down!” Bartle snapped. “Who does that kid think he is?”

“He’s a rich man’s son,” Peterson said, softly.

The significance took a moment to sink in, but when it did, Bartle stood perfectly still, his gaze sharpening on Peterson’s face. “So he is,” he nodded.

“He might well want to come with us when we leave, don’t you think?” Peterson suggested, a feral smile on his face.

“Oh definitely,” Bartle agreed and laughed. “No question.” His bad mood gone as though blown away by the wind, he sat down so they could plan their exit from the Ponderosa – with Joe along for ‘company’.

*****

There was no let up in the weather over the next few days. The storm had been raging without cease for a week now. The snow was several feet deep, making trips to the barn hideously difficult. The Cartwrights were also hoping that their cattle were surviving out on the range. There was nothing they could do that hadn’t already been done – the herd was in as sheltered a place as was possible – but that didn’t make them less anxious.

There was no let up in the tension in the house, either. Neither Bartle nor Joe seemed able to hide their dislike of one another, although they both managed to keep a grip on their tempers. That didn’t mean that their politeness was not cutting. Asking for something to be passed at the table, bidding each other good morning or good night seemed to be pushing to the limits and it made for an uncomfortable time for everyone incarcerated in the house. It was actually a relief when Joe went out to the barn, as the tension dropped slightly then.

Little did the Cartwrights suspect that Peterson and Bartle were intentionally keeping the tension high, as they didn’t want any hint of what they were planning to do to be given away by their actions. With their past experience of kidnapping, extortion and murder, they knew that Joe’s struggles would allow them to vent their frustrations upon him, which in turn would make Ben more willing to pay up quickly. There was nothing like blood and bruising to coerce an anxious parent. Of course, they had no intention of letting Joe go alive, but Ben wouldn’t know that until it was too late. It was the kind of scenario that the pair preferred.

*****

It was the lack of sound that woke them that fateful morning. The wind had dropped and was no longer howling like a banshee among the eaves. The snow was not threatening to scour the surface off the log walls and pour into the house. It was eerily still.

The sky could not be described as ‘clear’; the clouds still shrouded the tops of the mountains. Hoss, standing at the edge of the porch and sniffing deeply, declared that the snow wouldn’t return for a couple of days. The top of the snow was soft, for there had been no frost to make it dangerously sharp and Hoss was sure a quick trip to view the herd would not be out of the question.

It was something of a relief to think that his sons would be out of the house for a couple of hours at least, Ben admitted, but only to himself. He loved the company of his sons but after more than a week of the tension that had plagued the house, a respite seemed just the thing. He watched, over a second cup of coffee, Hoss and Adam throw on jackets, hats and gloves while Joe, having been slightly tardy down to breakfast, finished eating. “Be there in a minute,” Joe called after his brothers as he began to pull on his own jacket as the other two left.

If only he had been a minute earlier at the table, or had not taken the few seconds to reassure Ben that they would be careful out there, things might have been different. As it was, Peterson and Bartle came down before Joe left, packed and ready for travel.

“Mr. Cartwright, Joe, we’d like to thank you once again for your hospitality. We’ll be on our way.” Peterson thrust his hand at Ben, who shook it automatically.

“I really think you would be better waiting another day or two,” Ben protested, but got no further.

“We’re just going back to town,” Peterson replied. “We’ll be fine. If I could just prevail on Joe to take us back to the road? I confess, I don’t know my way to town from the ranch house, here.” He gave Joe a charming smile, which Joe did not return.

The last thing he wanted to do was go anywhere with those two losers, but if showing them  the road to town was the way to get rid of them, then Joe was all for it. “I’ll go and saddle your horses,” he agreed, and turned on his heel.

Adam and Hoss were waiting just inside the barn. “Don’t bother waiting,” Joe told them. “I’m taking our guests to the Virginia City road. See you back here later.”

“You be careful, Joe, hear?” Hoss chided him as he led Chub out. He felt an inexplicable unease at the thought of Joe alone with those men.

“I’m always careful,” Joe protested, which provoked a hearty laugh from his brothers. “You two be careful, too!” he called after them.

It didn’t take long to saddle horses usually. Joe started with Cochise, his own mount, because he had learned from bitter experience that the two broken down, neglected horses belonging to their guests were very bad tempered. He had not had a good time looking after them and today was no different. He adroitly dodged the vicious kick the stringy bay gelding aimed at him as he entered the stall, but he wasn’t as fortunate in avoiding the bite. It caught him on the arm, but was mostly deflected by his warm winter coat. The other horse, a thin chestnut with a staring coat, snapped at him from the neighboring stall.

He was still wrestling with the chestnut when the men arrived in the barn. “Hurry up,” Peterson snapped. “We want to get back today.”

That was the last straw for Joe. He dropped the cinch he had been endeavoring to fasten and walked out of the stall. “You want out of here faster?” he challenged. “Then you saddle your own horse. I’m not your servant!”

To say Joe was astonished when Bartle’s open palm struck his cheek was something of an understatement. He wasn’t expecting a blow and it staggered him slightly. He caught himself, and his temper, and glared at Bartle. “That’s enough,” he growled through clenched teeth.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Bartle sneered and side-stepped as Joe threw himself at the man who had annoyed him so much for the last week. As Joe hurtled past, Peterson tripped him. As Joe hit the ground, the others jumped on him.

It was a pretty good fight, considering Joe had been caught by surprise and was outnumbered. All the same, the ending was never in doubt. He ended up face down on the floor, his hands tied behind him, blood dripping from his lip and nose, with one eye slowly swelling shut. Even barely conscious, Joe was struggling slightly. Peterson pinned him in place with a boot on his back.

Opening his saddlebags, Bartle took out a pistol. “Let’s go.” He smiled as Peterson hauled Joe to his feet.

Leading the bay and Cochise, they paused in the yard. “Mr. Cartwright!” Bartle shouted. He waited with pleasurable anticipation for the door to open and Cartwright’s jaw to drop. He wasn’t disappointed.

“Joe?” Ben gasped and took a step forward.

“Stay right there!” Peterson warned and shoved his own pistol to Joe’s head. “You’ll get your boy back, Cartwright, once you’ve done what you’re told. You’ve got three hours to gather together as much cash and valuables as you can fit on a pack horse. It’ll be ready and waiting for us. We’ll take it away and you’ll wait another hour. Then you can come and get Joe. Do you understand?”

“Oh I understand all right,” Ben growled. He didn’t notice the cold seeping into his clothing. All he could see was his son, injured and bound, being held with a gun to his head. “We saved your lives.”

“And that was real nice of you,” Peterson agreed. “Let’s get one thing straight here. I don’t care how many lives you’ve saved over the years. But if you don’t do as we tell you, you’ll get your son back dead.”

“I understand,” Ben nodded.

“Pa, don’t!” Joe shouted. “Don’t do it!”

“Shut up!” Bartle yelled. Peterson swung Joe around and clipped him across the jaw with the hand holding the gun. Joe crumpled to the ground, moaning.

It was agonizing for Ben to watch as his son was manhandled like that and to be unable to do anything to help him. He could only watch as Bartle mounted, and kept his gun trained on Ben as Peterson hauled Joe to his feet.

They were all startled when there was a shout from behind them. “What d’you think you’re doing?” demanded a voice – a very familiar voice.

It was Adam!

*****

There were two things that saved Adam’s life that day. The first thing was that he wasn’t mounted on Sport’s back, for the rangy chestnut had thrown a shoe and Adam had walked him home. Bartle had automatically aimed for a man on horseback. The second thing that saved his life was Adam’s swift move for cover which took him back behind the edge of the barn, a move that was purely instinctive.

However, he didn’t get off scot free. The second bullet that had come winging his way burned along the outside of his calf, gouging a deep furrow in his flesh.

“Adam!” Ben cried and took another step forward. A bullet splintered the porch post by his head and he froze again.

It was an impasse. Bartle had Ben covered. Peterson had his gun aimed the other way, waiting for Adam’s next move. Ben wasn’t armed. Adam was, but a quick draw was Joe’s forte, not Adam’s, even when he was unencumbered by a heavy winter coat. Plus, the shock of being shot made Adam’s mind work more slowly than usual. He was lying on his right side, on his gun. He fumbled for the weapon, all the while wondering who he should shoot first.

Typically, it was Joe who ended the impasse. He was still not quite sure how Adam had ended up on the scene, but he knew that the thugs who were holding him prisoner were threatening both his brother and his father. There was no sign of Hoss, but who knew when Hoss was likely to blunder into this mess? Wouldn’t the shot carry? Joe did not want Hoss getting mixed up in all this, too. He threw his entire body weight against Peterson’s legs.

The move was sudden enough to catch the man unawares. He stumbled, even though he didn’t go down. His grip on Joe’s arm loosened. Joe swung around and kicked snow at Bartle and using the resulting spray as cover to run towards Adam.

He almost made it. Normally, Joe was a swift runner, lithe and agile. Today, he had been beaten and brutalized and his hands were tied. There was deep snow on the ground. Joe didn’t stand a chance. Bartle’s shot caught him high in the back of his shoulder. The impact was enough to knock him off his feet entirely and he landed face down, about 5 feet away from where Adam lay.

“Joe!” Ben’s face was white and he took another step forward before Peterson’s gun swung around to cover him again.

“That’s far enough!” Peterson warned.

“Far enough for you!” replied another voice and a shotgun went off, very close to where Ben was standing.

For a moment, Ben thought he was imagining things. He simply stood there, his eyes fixed on Joe’s unmoving form, while the air around him was peppered with gun shots. And then silence fell and he realized that both of his former guests were lying, bleeding, in the snow. Close by, Hop Sing stood at the side of the house, a shotgun in his hands. It was smoking slightly in the frigid air. On the ground by the barn, Adam had his gun in his hand and it was smoking slightly, too.

That broke the spell. Ben found himself charging through the snow towards his sons, heedless of the fact that he was wearing his carpet slippers and the snow was soaking through them. He was oblivious to the cold that was making him shiver. He fell to his knees at Joe’s side, his numb fingers fumbling with the cords that bound Joe’s wrists.

“Is he all right, Pa?” Adam gasped. He had dragged himself on his hands and one knee, since his left leg had resolutely refused to support him.

“I hope so,” Ben muttered. “Joe? Can you hear me? Joe!” His fumbling fingers finally managed to loosen the knots binding Joe’s hands and he gently turned Joe over.

There was no exit wound.

*****

Later, Ben marveled at how they had coped with the initial stage of the new crisis they found themselves facing. Hop Sing had come to help Adam to his feet as Ben carefully picked Joe up. Ben had not looked at his erstwhile guests; Hop Sing had already told him they were dead.

Stripping the wet clothes from Joe’s inert body, Ben found himself dwelling on the diminutive housekeeper. He had not known that Hop Sing kept a loaded shotgun in the kitchen – he had never seen the weapon in there. He had not known that Hop Sing was such a good shot and he was impressed with the smaller man’s sangfroid. From what he had seen, his housekeeper was dealing very well with killing two men. While Hop Sing often threatened the Cartwrights with violence when annoyed – playfully, Ben had always thought, and usually with a meat cleaver, not a gun – he had never really thought the other man would really kill someone. But then, the Cartwrights were his family and Bartle and Peterson had been threatening his family.

A shudder ran down Ben’s spine as he realized that Hop Sing could well have landed himself in very big trouble. He was Chinese and the law didn’t look kindly on the Chinese killing white men. He shook his head. Somehow, they would work things out so that nothing happened to Hop Sing.

Briefly, Ben wondered what Hoss would think when he returned home and found 2 bodies lying in the yard, with clear signs of a scuffle close by. He wondered if anyone had thought to put away the horses and then his random thoughts scattered as he focused in on the injury to Joe’s shoulder.

There was no chance of the doctor getting out.

Joe needed a doctor.

After several moments of feeling intensely sick, Ben smoothed his hand over Joe’s damp, tangled curls and went to prepare himself to become a surgeon.

*****

Although both Hop Sing and Adam had offered to help Ben, he had decided to do this alone. Adam’s leg was not badly injured, but badly enough that he would be off his feet for several days. Hop Sing had prepared boiling water and bandages for Ben and had then gone to see what he could do about the horses (who had sensibly taken themselves back into the warmth of the barn) and the corpses.

Alone in the bedroom with his son, Ben arranged his instruments one last time and then turned to smile at Joe. “Ready for that laudanum now?” he asked, and picked up the glass. He was pleased to see that his hand wasn’t shaking.

“I don’t need it, Pa,” Joe insisted. His face was pale and his eyes seemed huge.

“You may not think so, Joe,” Ben replied, “but I still want you to take it. It won’t kill the pain entirely, but it will help a bit. For me, son,” he added, as he saw the protest rising again to Joe’s lips.

“All right,” Joe agreed, listlessly. He drank it down, making a face at the bitter taste. “How’s Adam?”

“He’s going to be just fine,” Ben soothed. “His leg’s a bit sore, but he’ll be up and about again in no time.” He smiled.

“Those men…” Joe started and then stopped. “I don’t understand.”

“Nor do I,” Ben admitted. “But I expect that when we can get into town, we’ll find something out about them.”

“I think they would have killed me,” Joe mumbled. The laudanum was making him sleepy. “Are they really dead?” he went on.

“Really dead,” Ben assured him and vowed once more to himself that Hop Sing would not suffer in any way for what he had done to save Ben’s sons. It was better that Joe did not know who had killed those men. Not yet, at any rate.

*****

Ben had done many things as a parent that he had never previously thought he would be able to do. Cutting into his son’s flesh was the hardest by a very long way. Despite the laudanum, Joe had writhed under his hands, muffling his cries in his pillow as best he could. Ben had hoped that Joe would pass out, but it wasn’t to be.

The bullet wasn’t too hard to find, but getting it out was easier said than done. Ben had none of the specialist instruments that Paul Martin habitually carried in his Gladstone bag and he found his fingers were not delicate enough to work through a small opening. He sweated as he tried to gently extract the small piece of metal that had lodged against the back of Joe’s collar bone.

It was only when the bullet was lying beside the knife Ben had employed that the enormity of the task really hit him. Yes, he had got the bullet out. He had wiped away more blood than he had ever had to deal with, he had cleaned the wound, yet it still bled and he realized that he was going to have to sew the gash up.

It had to be done and Ben knew that. He drew in a ragged deep breath and looked down at his blood stained hands. Before he could do any more, he had to have clean water to wash his hands, find a suitable needle and thread and Ben simply didn’t think he had the strength.

He lifted the wad of cloth he had been pressing against Joe’s shoulder in the hopes of staunching the flow of blood. Thankfully, it had slowed, but Ben knew the wound had to be stitched. As it was, it would leave an ugly scar. He looked at his hands again. They were shaking.

At that precise moment, the door opened and Hop Sing came in. He had fresh water in a basin and a small box in his pocket. “I finish, Mr. Cartwright,” he announced. “Food downstairs. Mr. Hoss home. You go.”

“No, I need to…” Ben began, but Hop Sing interrupted.

“Father need rest,” he announced imperiously. “Hop Sing sew up boy. Father see to Mr. Hoss and Mr. Adam.” He made a shooing motion with his hands. “Rest, eat.” He turned his attention to Joe, leaning over and murmuring something that Ben was sure was Mandarin. Joe responded with a sleepy smile and Ben knew that he would be all right.

Nonetheless, he too leaned over the prostrate figure on the bed. “I’ll be back in a while, Joe,” he said. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Joe lied unconvincingly.

“Father go, wash, rest, eat.” Hop Sing glared at him. “Now.”

Bowing to the inevitable, recognizing an immovable force when he saw one, Ben went.

*****

When Hop Sing came downstairs, Ben had eaten and he and Hoss had dragged the frozen corpses into the small shed where they kept spades and the like. Hoss had been horrified when he arrived back from checking the herd and found two dead bodies, blood stained snow and all the signs of a serious fight. He had rushed into the house and Hop Sing quickly brought him up to date with the happenings before ushering Hoss outside to tend to the horses. Once he had done that, Hoss went in to see Adam and heard the story from Adam’s point of view. Now, he went up to see Joe, while Ben popped in on Adam for a minute.

The gunshot wound to Joe’s shoulder was bandaged up and hidden from view and Hoss was glad. He didn’t want to see the evidence of their guests’ duplicity. If they hadn’t already been dead, Hoss would have been tempted to tear them limb from limb with his bare hands. As it was, he clenched his fists until his knuckles were bone white as he tried to control his anger when he saw Joe’s pale face.

“How’re ya doin’, Shortshanks?” he asked.

“I’ve been better,” Joe allowed, which was quite an admission for him. He felt ghastly, queasy, shaky and decidedly, comprehensively, ill. It was not a feeling he cherished.

Dubiously, Hoss looked at his brother, trying to decide if humor was appropriate at this moment and decided no. Telling Joe he’d looked better, too, wasn’t really going to cheer his brother up. So instead, Hoss said, “Adam’s all right. Hop Sing cleaned up his leg and put a bandage on it. Dadburnit, Joe, I wish I’d bin there!”

“If you’d been there… who knows,” Joe wanted to shrug, but knew better. His shoulder was throbbing. “Why was Adam there? You’d only just left.”

“Sport threw a shoe,” Hoss explained. “I went on alone.” He looked the picture of misery sitting beside Joe’s bed. A small smile crossed Joe’s face. “What?” Hoss asked defensively.

“You do love a good fight,” Joe smirked. For someone so downright peaceable, it was odd that Hoss always admitted he liked a good fight.

“Well… yeah, I suppose I do,” he agreed and smiled as well.

“I don’t know if the fight was a good one or not,” Joe admitted wearily. “I didn’t see it. But the fight in the barn first wasn’t up to much.”

“I see ya lost the fight with the bay, too,” Hoss noticed, pointing at the bite-shaped bruise on Joe’s bicep.

“As ever,” Joe agreed. He moved uneasily and winced. There didn’t seem to be a single position that was comfortable for him. His shoulder was agonizing and he knew he had had all the laudanum that Pa was going to give him for a while. It just didn’t seem to be working any more, although that wasn’t entirely surprising either, given what he had just gone through.

“Lemme help ya,” Hoss offered and settled Joe onto his right side, propped up with pillows to allow him to relax and before long, Joe drifted into an unsettled slumber. Hoss watched him, knowing that it was going to be a long few days for Joe before he started to heal.

*****

As dusk fell, Joe’s temperature began to climb. He had refused all offers of food. It was obvious to anyone looking at him that Joe felt dreadfully ill. It seemed the only color in his face were his eyes, until hectic patches of pink appeared on his cheeks.

Between them, Ben and Hop Sing had unwrapped the bandages and looked at the wound. It didn’t appear infected, but it was still sore looking and caked in dry blood. Ben was impressed with the neat stitches Hop Sing had put in and horrified by the number of them. There were far more than he had expected and more, he knew, than he himself would have put in.

“What do you think?” Ben asked. It was difficult to tell if the wound was hot to the touch or not, because Joe was hot to the touch.

“I think need get poultice,” Hop Sing replied. “Get for Mr. Adam, too.”

“Adam?” Ben looked alarmed. “He wasn’t hot when I was through a little while ago. Is he sick, too?”

“No,” Hop Sing denied. “But do no harm. I make.”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe sighed, as Ben wrung a cloth out in cool water and put it on his head.

“What are you sorry for, Joe?” Ben asked.

“For being sick when the doc can’t get here.” He squinted at Ben. “For being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again.”

“Joe, nothing that happened is your fault,” Ben assured him. “And Hop Sing is sure he knows how to help you. We’ve relied on him in the past, haven’t we?”

“Yes,” Joe admitted, slowly. “But you had to operate when you’d rather the doctor did it and I’m sorry.”

“Stop talking rubbish,” Ben chided him gently. “Like I said, none of it is your fault. I’m just sorry I couldn’t do it without hurting you so much, Joe. I’m not a doctor and I just hope I haven’t done you any damage.” He summoned a smile, although he didn’t feel much like smiling. Joe was left handed and Ben sincerely hoped he wouldn’t suffer any loss of use of his arm because of Ben’s actions.

It seemed like an interminable time before Hop Sing came back, bearing a tray with boiling water and a bowl that contained a thick, noxious-smelling paste and some cloth. “This gonna hurt, Lil Joe,” he informed the young man. “But just for minute.” He dipped the cloth in the boiling water, put some of the paste on it and placed it onto the wound on Joe’s back.

There was an immediate response as Joe’s back arched and he nearly leapt from the bed. Ben caught his shoulders and held him in place as Hop Sing relentlessly bound the bandages over the wound again, keeping the poultice in place. “Leave for hour, then see,” he announced, once the bandages were secure. “I see Mr. Adam, then bring tea. Tea will help, too.”

The initial heat was rapidly dying out of the cloth on his shoulder and Joe gradually relaxed. The poultice smelt bad and Joe was already feeling queasy. He wondered if his rebellious stomach would be able to tolerate a tea that, while no doubt doing him some good, would unquestionably taste vile. He swallowed convulsively, for the very thought made him want to heave.

“Joe?” Ben was eyeing him, familiar with the signs of an imminent bout of vomiting.

“I’m okay,” Joe assured him at length, when he was sure he was back in control. He felt quite wrung out and his eyes dipped shut.

“You rest for a while,” Ben suggested. “We’ll be back shortly.” He tucked the covers around Joe and tousled his hair before leaving.

The minute he was gone, Joe shucked the covers off. Feeling slightly cooler, he drifted to sleep.

*****

 “But I feel fine,” Adam protested, as Ben explained what Hop Sing had in mind. He kept a firm hold of the covers.

“I’m sure you do,” Ben agreed. “But I want to see your leg again, anyway, Adam, just to be sure.”

“I think I’d know if there was a problem,” Adam retorted. “It’s my leg and I’m not Joe.”

“True,” Ben agreed, while grabbing the covers and turning them back. “But you’re just as bad as he is at admitting when you’re hurt.”

“Pa!” Adam wanted to protest more, but it was already too late. Ben and Hop Sing were bending over the injured leg and removing the bandages. Heaving a martyred sigh, which made Ben look up and grin, Adam resigned himself to the fussing.

It seemed to Adam that his leg didn’t look too bad. Yes, it was red, but bullets tended to be hot and there was bound to be some redness. Yes, it was rather sore to touch, but what did they expect? You didn’t get shot and not feel it! He mentioned this, quite coolly and calmly, he thought and was ignored. Hop Sing slapped on the hot poultice and Adam all but jumped out of the bed.

“Just like Joe,” Ben commented and the older men grinned. Adam didn’t think it was all that funny and he would have bet Joe didn’t, either.

“Can I go through and see Joe?” Adam asked, once the worst of the heat was gone. Hop Sing had gone off to make his medicinal tea and Adam was determined he wasn’t going to be drinking any of it. He also knew, although he couldn’t quite admit it, even to himself that he was going to be drinking it!

“In the morning,” Ben answered. “He needs to rest right now, Adam.”

Nodding, Adam glanced down. “How is he doing – really?” he asked. “Was the wound as bad as we feared?”

“As bad – maybe worse,” Ben admitted. “And I know I hurt him, but what could I do?” He sighed heavily and suddenly looked a lot older. “If we lived in town, we could have had the doctor. But with this much snow lying, there is no way for Paul to get out here.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I just hope I’ve done right.”

“You did your best, Pa,” Adam assured him. “We all know that, Joe most of all.”

“Hop Sing sewed him up,” Ben admitted. “I swear, I was going to do it, but he came in and told me to rest. So I did.”

“It’s not the first time Hop Sing has put in stitches,” Adam reminded his father. “He does a good job. Stop beating yourself up, Pa, you’re not a doctor, but you had to cut into Joe. He would likely have died otherwise.” He saw that Ben already knew what Adam was saying, but hearing it from someone else made his decision sit more easily. “Pa, let me sit with Joe while you get some sleep,” he suggested.

Summoning a smile, Ben shook his head. “You got shot this morning, Adam,” he chided his oldest son. “Stay in bed and tomorrow you can sit with Joe. Hoss is going to sit with him for the first part of the night, and then I’ll get up.” He patted Adam’s thigh. “I’ll be back to see you drink your tea and say goodnight.”

“I don’t actually need to be tucked in,” Adam said. “But if it makes you feel better, go right ahead.”

“Well, thank you, son,” Ben responded, fighting to keep his face straight. “I’m glad I have your permission.” He went to the door, then hesitated and glanced round. “Of course, the only reason I’m going to watch you drink your tea is so I can tell Joe about the face you’re going to make.”

“Get out of here!” Adam growled and laughed. He could almost feel the ‘face’ coming at simply the thought.

*****

It was difficult to tell if the poultice was working or not. Joe, although cooler without his covers, was still warm and the wound as red as before. Hop Sing changed the poultice, making Joe gasp as the hot fabric touched the tender injury. This time, the smell did make Joe sick and Ben tenderly held his head.

“I can’t… drink the tea,” he told Hop Sing.

“Boy can,” the housekeeper corrected sternly. “Boy must. Boy very sick. Tea help.”

Shivering, Joe looked at him in abject misery. He was well aware of the impact his ‘puppy dog’ look had on people, but he genuinely didn’t want to try drinking the tea and simply couldn’t help using it. Throwing up was not pleasant at the best of times, but made worse by the shoulder injury. “Please,” he croaked, knowing that he sounded pathetic, but not caring.

“Drink!” the imperious Chinaman ordered. He cast a glance at Ben that forbade the other man to say a single word that would support Joe. Ben kept his mouth shut, although he did feel a great deal of sympathy for his youngest son. He was pretty sure that nothing on earth would make him drink that concoction. Unless, of course, Hop Sing was looking at him just the way he was looking at Joe at that moment.

“Try,” he coaxed and Joe shot him a glance that ably implied that Ben was not playing fair, but he sipped the tea obediently.

It took several minutes for the tea to go down, but it stayed, despite the faces Joe made at every mouthful. Hop Sing nodded in satisfaction when it was gone. “Mr. Adam’s turn now,” he announced. “Boy sleep. Feel better when wake.”

“How come,” Joe asked, his voice full of sleepy petulance, “Adam and Hoss are both ‘Mister’ and I’m ‘boy’?”

“Foolishment,” Hop Sing sniffed and exited the room to get fresh tea.

“Try to sleep, son,” Ben urged. “Hoss and I will be here if you need anything.”

It took Joe no more than a few minutes to slide into sleep.

*****

The tea was every bit as disgusting as Adam had expected and he dutifully drank every drop as quickly as humanly possible. He also agreed to take some laudanum to please Ben and soon felt himself sliding off to sleep, just as Joe had done. Ben did adjust the covers around Adam’s shoulders, telling himself that he wasn’t tucking his son in even though he knew he was.

He popped his head back into Joe’s room. Hoss was sitting by his brother’s bed with a book in his hands. Joe was sleeping on his right side, pillows supporting his back, so he wouldn’t roll onto the wound. At the moment, he was sleeping peacefully and his temperature was down slightly.

“Call me if you need me,” Ben told Hoss and the big man smiled.

“Sure will, Pa. An’ you get some sleep. Ya need it.” He glanced at the door. “Adam asleep?”

“Yes.” Ben stifled a yawn. “Good night, Hoss.”

It only took moments for Ben to follow his sons into sleep.

*****

 Sometime about 2am, Hoss woke Ben. “Joe’s getting real hot, Pa,” he reported. “He’s callin’ for ya.”

Throwing on his dressing gown, Ben followed Hoss through to Joe’s room, wiping sleep from his eyes. Joe was awake, his face flushed again, his eyes mutely conveying how wretched he felt. Heat radiated from him. “Get me some fresh cold water please, Hoss,” Ben requested. “Then go and get some sleep.”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss replied. He smiled at Joe. “You’ll feel better in a bit, Punkin,” he assured his brother, although he wasn’t sure if he truly believed it. Joe seemed so very sick.

The cold water on his body made Joe shiver violently, but as it evaporated, it felt wonderful. He wanted to talk to Ben, to reassure his father that he had done nothing wrong in removing the bullet, but he couldn’t find the words. His thoughts kept sliding away.

“Do you want a drink, Joe?” Ben asked. He had some laudanum ready, and hoped it would take Joe back into healing sleep. He offered that first when Joe nodded, then gave him water. He continued to sponge his son’s body as Joe dozed restlessly.

It was a long night. Joe’s temperature continued to defy everything that Ben tried and when dawn came, both father and son were hollow-eyed with exhaustion. Ben wondered if he should open up the wound again to see if that would help. He wondered if he should risk sending someone to town for the doctor. He wondered if he should have just left Joe’s shoulder alone. He couldn’t make a decision.

With daylight, both Hoss and Hop Sing came. Hoss urged Ben to have something to eat and a nap and Hop Sing told him that he would bring another tea and poultice to help Joe. Ben resisted both of them, insisting he was all right and would help Hop Sing. Hoss backed down and went off to see Adam and take his older brother his breakfast.

When Hop Sing returned, he bore another tea and a bowl with bread in hot water. Ben knew of this old remedy and wondered why he hadn’t thought of it himself. He positioned himself to hold Joe’s shoulders, but Hop Sing shook his head. “First Lil Joe take tea,” he proclaimed. He smiled at the youngest Cartwright. “This tea help you sleep, too,” he went on. “Not taste so bad.”

Although weary beyond belief, and feeling utterly wretched, Joe found a small smile. “I thought… only things… that taste… bad… helped,” he joked weakly, his voice no more than a whisper.

“Hop Sing be kind,” the cook replied and winked. He held the cup to Joe’s mouth, knowing the younger man was too weak to hold it himself and Joe sipped the hot liquid until it was all gone. It didn’t take long before Joe was drifting off into a deeper sleep than he had managed during the night.

Once the poultice was in place, Ben wincing in sympathy with the sleeping young man, Hop Sing went off, only to return a short time later with Adam, who was limping on a stick that Hop Sing had found somewhere. “Mister Adam want sit with Lil Joe,” Hop Sing declared. “He sit while Mister Ben eat and sleep.”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Adam assured his father before Ben could protest. “My leg feels a lot better and I brought my book. Don’t worry, I won’t tire myself out.”

“Why do I feel this is a conspiracy against me?” Ben asked, too tired to summon a real protest. He knew he needed some more sleep.

“Because it is?” Adam replied, and smiled. “Go on, Pa. Joe will be fine.”

*****

It was obvious to Adam why everyone was worried about Joe. His brother looked dreadful, pale and frail. His left arm was bound to his body to prevent movement and sweat pooled in the hollow of his throat. Adam wrung out a cloth in the cool water and laid it gently on Joe’s head. His brother mumbled something unintelligible and moved slightly wincing as he did so. However, the coolness seemed to sooth him and with a sigh, he moved into a deeper sleep.

Later on in the morning, when Adam was ready to admit he needed to rest some more, Hoss came in with Hop Sing and as Hoss helped Adam back to bed, Hop Sing put fresh bread onto the injury. There seemed to be a slight improvement, but the housekeeper decided to keep that to himself until he saw if it continued. He had more of the medicinal tea ready and knew that it would be more potent for having steeped a bit longer. He would give some to Joe later, when the youth woke again.

Leaving Hoss to watch over Joe, Hop Sing returned back to the kitchen, where he was making preparations for lunch. He was grateful that he worked for the Cartwrights, and not for some of the people his friends worked for. The Cartwrights had always treated him just the same as everyone else, which was not normally the case. Most Chinese were treated like second class citizens and spoken to as though they were unable to understand. No, Hop Sing knew that he was considered one of the family and that was why he had gone after those men who were threatening his family. He knew it could get him in trouble and he didn’t care. It was worth it to save everyone’s life.

He also knew that any other family wouldn’t allow him to use his knowledge, such as it was, of Chinese medicine to treat Joe. He wondered if the other white men thought that somewhere in China there was an American doctor who treated the Chinese. He shook his head at that foolish thought. Chinese medicine had been around for thousands of years and he was sure that he would be able to get rid of the infection that was currently making Joe so sick.

*****

By evening, the improvement in Joe’s wound was obvious to everyone – except possibly the patient. Joe still felt lousy, if no longer as queasy and hot and the wound was still very painful. He once more drank the tea Hop Sing gave him, although he hated sleeping all the time. Yet more bread was put on the wound and when Hop Sing retired for the night, he made sure Ben had a small brazier in Joe’s room so that he could boil a kettle and replace the poultice during the night. There was also more tea left.

This night was much quieter than the previous one and Ben had just finished his nursing duties when Hoss came through to relieve him. Joe’s temperature had dropped to almost normal and his color looked better. Ben went to bed with a lighter heart than of late and slept soundly.

When he went back into Joe’s room later that morning, it was clear that the young man was much better. Joe was sitting propped up on pillows and was looking brighter. His temperature was down and Joe admitted to feeling a bit hungry – for the first time since the shooting.

Changing the bandages left Joe feeling a lot less chipper, but he managed to retain the broth he had been given for breakfast and he was pleased to see Adam come through, for he had slept through his older brother’s visit the previous day. Today, Adam was dressed, although he would continue to use the stick for several more days. While Ben slept, Adam read aloud to Joe for a while before his younger brother once more fell asleep.

It was Adam who suggested a reason for Joe to still be feeling so uncomfortable when Ben was changing the bandages again later. “Pa, could Joe’s collarbone be broken?”

Looking up from his task and pausing, Ben stared at his son. “It could be, Adam,” he replied. “I never thought of that, but it could be.” He looked at Joe’s pale face. “I’m sorry, son, but I’ll be as gentle as I can,” he apologized in advance. He tentatively felt the bone.

The break was obvious. When Ben looked again at the line of the bone, he could see it and shook his head. He seemed to be missing a lot of obvious things. “Yes, it is,” he reported. “Joe…”

“Don’t be sorry,” Joe grated, his teeth already clenched against the expected pain. “Just do it, Pa.”

Only a small movement was necessary to align the bone again, but the pain was enough for Joe to break out in a cold sweat and to have to swallow repeatedly against the nausea. A moan escaped him as Ben wound the bandages in a figure 8 around his shoulders to hold the broken bone in place, but after it was done, and he was propped on pillows once more, with some laudanum slowly spreading through his system, Joe had to admit that it felt much better.

For another two days, Joe’s temperature went up and down regularly, but he was definitely on the mend. Hop Sing kept plying him with various different teas, some tasting nice, some downright revolting and they helped. The weather moderated during those two days and although there was still a lot of snow around, Hoss made the trip into town to get the doctor.

Normally, Paul Martin only allowed one other person to be there when he examined Joe. This time, he said nothing as all three Cartwrights and Hop Sing filed into the bedroom at his back. Ben explained what had been done as Paul checked the wound over.

“You’ve done everything right as far as I can see,” Paul told them, after a time. “The wound is clean and healing well. Joe’s collarbone is set. Hop Sing, your stitching puts me to shame. You must show me your technique sometime. And whatever you’ve been giving him has certainly done the trick. Joe is definitely on the mend.”

Bowing slightly, Hop Sing left the room to fetch the doctor a warming cup of brandy-laced coffee before he went back into town. He didn’t show the pleasure he felt at the praise he had received.

Later on, they all gathered once more in Joe’s room. Joe had had his first solid meal since the shooting that evening. His left arm was supported in a sling. Adam, who had also been examined by Paul and declared on the mend, had been sitting keeping Joe company while they ate, leaving Ben and Hoss to eat downstairs.

“I asked Hoss to speak to Roy,” Ben told the others, after he finished telling them all exactly what had happened that fateful day. “As you know, Hop Sing saved all our lives with his quick thinking.” He smiled at the diminutive cook once more. “I can’t thank him enough for saving my boys and I didn’t want there to be any repercussions because of his actions.”

“What did Roy say?” Joe asked anxiously.

“He done said them fellars was wanted,” Hoss replied. “Hop Sing is due a reward, ‘cos they was wanted dead or alive. Of course, they don’ usually do that, Hop Sing bein’ Chinese, but Roy is just gonna tell the authorities in Utah that the men were killed an’ leave it at that. There ain’t gonna be no trouble.”

“Good!” Joe cheered. “Hop Sing, you’re the hero of this whole mess.”

“Foolishment,” Hop Sing denied.

“No, Joe’s right,” Ben contradicted him gently. “Without you, I don’t know where we would have been and we have a lot to thank you for.” He clapped the smaller man on the shoulder before grasping his hand and shaking it firmly.

Furiously embarrassed, Hop Sing backed away. He blinked the moisture from his eyes. The family was all looking at him expectantly. He knew he had to say something; something that would let them know how he felt. He made it as far as the door and paused. He had to say something now.

“Foolishment!” he declared and slipped out of the room.

***End***

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