Progress? (by Rona)


Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5144



“A what?” Joe asked, trying not to look as dumb as he felt.

Behind him, Hoss mumbled, “I were jist gonna ask that.” They both looked expectantly at their older brother, Adam, who assumed the air of a college professor.

“A McCormick’s ‘Old Reliable’ Mowing Machine,” Adam repeated, giving each capital letter its full weight. “They are transforming the way this country is cutting hay, wheat, oats, barley…”

“You got him started again,” Joe muttered to Hoss, who looked indignant.

“T’weren’t jist me!” he objected. “Ya asked as well!”

“Are either of you two listening to me?” Adam asked, realizing that he had lost his audience. “Hoss, I thought you’d have been interested; you’re always talking about machines.” Hoss shrugged. Pursing his lips, Adam went on, “You should listen; after all, the men will expect you to know how it works, too.”

“Us?” Joe protested. “Why us?”

“Because you’re a Cartwright,” Adam explained patiently. “The Cartwrights are introducing this machine, so they expect you to be au fait with it.”

“Oh what?” Hoss asked.

“Up to date,” sighed his older sibling, wondering what he had done to be the one to introduce his brothers to this machine. Oh yes, he thought, it was my idea. Well done, Adam!

“It looks dangerous,” Joe ventured, as he walked around the mowing machine, examining it closely.

“It can be, if you aren’t careful,” Adam admitted. “That’s why you’ve got to know how it works. Safety first.”

“Explain it then,” Hoss requested. He leant in for a closer look as Adam started to tell them how it worked.


If his brothers’ reactions had been less than enthusiastic the previous day, they were nothing compared to the downright hostility that greeted him when he showed the machine to the hands. His words were met with a deafening silence and stony looks. It was fair to say that the mowing machine was less than a resounding success.

Protective of their older brother’s feelings, both Joe and Hoss had gone to town on trying to sell the machine to the men who worked for them, but they met with no better luck. In fact, by then, there were distinct mutterings coming from the men; mutterings about how new-fangled machinery would put them all out of a job. It hadn’t seemed to occur to any of the men that the ranch had hired just as many men for the busy season as it usually did.

The only thing that put an end to the mutiny over using the mowing machine was Ben’s appearance. He diagnosed the atmosphere inside a second and announced that anyone who was unwilling to work with it was surplus to requirements and could pick up their pay at the house. There were one or two takers, but with the mines going through a quiet spell, most of the men had no option but to stick with the ranch or starve.

“People are always going to be afraid of progress, son,” Ben consoled Adam as they watched the horses being hitched to the machine. “And in a remarkably short time, the very people who objected will forget that this is ‘new-fangled’ and rave about it, accepting whatever it is as though its always been there. Look at the railroads.”

“I know,” Adam smiled, although he wasn’t really mollified. He was still hurt that he had had to fight so hard to get the machine introduced to the ranch. He had seen them back east in their infancy and had kept a close eye on the way they progressed. Adam had expected that the others would recognize his interest in the new technologies around and understand that if he said this was good for the ranch, they would instantly accept it. He grimaced as he realized that it was his pride that was hurt. Lifting his chin, Adam set about proving that this machine was as good as he said.


The first day went by quite peacefully. Nobody complained too much, mindful of Ben’s offer that morning. But there was always one troublemaker and this particular man went by the name of Hank Lopez. Hank’s mother was American and his father Mexican and he had spent his life being bullied by both sides of his culture, accepted neither by white or Hispanic people. As a result, Hank was a most discontented man, never at home, unable to make friends and rapidly becoming an alcoholic. He had been working at the Ponderosa for a few weeks, initially enjoying being made welcome by the Cartwrights, but finding that his employers’ tolerances didn’t apply to the workers’ attitudes. Hank was rapidly falling back into depression and old habits. Despite knowing Ben’s disapproval of drinking on the job and the outright ban on drink that ruled the bunkhouse, Hank had brought in a flask of cheap whiskey. That night, he had had just enough to make him talkative.

“It ain’t right that the Cartwrights are tryin’ ta replace us wi’ a machine!” he declared. “Everyone knows a man’s better’n a machine any day!”

“Hear, hear,” muttered a voice from the dark recesses of the bunk area.

Thus encouraged, Hank went on to spread dissent. “It ain’t right ta take away a man’s job an’ give it ta a machine,” he slurred. “I say we don’ want ta work with no machine! If them Cartwright boys is so keen on it, let them work it, I say!”

“Yeah, ain’t none of them Cartwrights touched it ‘ceptin’ Adam,” agreed a skinny youth of about 17. This was his first real job. He had seen the way the other men gave Hank a wide berth and assumed it was because Hank was dangerous when crossed and Elijah – who had not had an easy life because of his name – decided that he ought to stick in with Hank. It was probably safest.

This observation was actually quite true; neither Joe nor Hoss had been near the mowing machine after the first little while, as they had been working elsewhere. Ben had had a meeting in town. Adam, being the expert, had been left to supervise.

The murmurings were spreading as the men realized that this was true. Suddenly, even the ones who had worked for the Cartwrights before and knew that they wouldn’t hesitate to do anything they ordered anyone else to do had doubts about the safety of this machine.

Well satisfied with his progress, Hank rolled over and went to sleep, allowing the other men to imagine themselves into trouble.


“We ain’t touchin’ that machine!”

Slightly stunned by the hostile reaction he was getting, Joe surveyed the men standing before him, noting the arms crossed over their chests and the body language that told Joe he was on a hiding to nothing. Still, that didn’t stop him from trying.

“You men worked with the mowing machine yesterday,” he reminded them sharply. “What’s changed?” He shot a challenging glance at Elijah.

“If its so danged safe, how comes ya Cartwrights ain’t touched it?” Elijah responded.

Frowning, Joe knew now that someone else was at the back of this. Elijah wasn’t smart enough to come up with this thought himself. Joe rather liked Elijah, seeing in the skinny youth something of himself at a similar age, determined to prove that he was a man at all costs. He had tried to take the youngster under his wing, but Elijah was wary of all the Cartwrights – or had been until now.

“Adam worked it yesterday,” Joe replied. “And I’m about to start working with it today. I still don’t see what the problem is.” He frowned at Hank, who had sniggered. “You got something to say, Hank?”

“We all know what yer doin’ here, Little Joe,” he replied. The sneer in his voice was perfectly plain as he accorded Joe the nickname that Joe had hoped he had grown out of. “Yer gonna replace us with that machine – but only once yer sure it’s safe. Ya don’t want ta git yer hands dirty, now do ya? If’n an accident’s gonna happen, it’d be better happenin’ ta one o’ us, not one o’ ya blessed Cartwrights. Ain’t that the truth?”

“No it isn’t!” Joe snapped. He drew in a deep breath to control his temper. Getting mad wouldn’t accomplish anything. “If we were going to replace men with a machine, we wouldn’t have hired any of you! As it is, we’re hoping the machine will help us so that we can get the haying over more quickly so that we have more time for other ranch work. Summer is our busiest season; you all know that. Now, let’s have no more of this nonsense and get back to work!”

Satisfied that he had kept his temper under control and that the men would listen to him, Joe turned away, walking purposefully towards the mowing machine. Why couldn’t Adam have been there that day? Joe wondered to himself. He signaled to the driver to start the machine.

“That ain’t good enough!” Hank protested and pushed through to grab at Joe.

Startled, Joe stumbled as Hank grabbed him. Instinctively, he flailed his arms in the air to regain his balance, a task made more difficult because of the way Hank was shaking him. Elijah, the closest to Joe, realized that his young boss was dangerously close to the mowing machine. He moved quickly to grab Joe and as he did so, Hank yanked Joe around and punched him and Elijah lost his balance and fell into the machine.


There was nothing anyone could do. Elijah’s scream of pain halted everyone in their tracks. Joe lay at Hank’s feet, blood pouring from his nose and mouth, too stunned by the blow he had taken to react to anything. The other cowboys simply watched. It was all over too soon.

As Joe regained his senses, he became aware of the unnatural stillness of the men around him. He pushed himself dazedly to his feet, his head still swimming from the blow, and followed the stunned stares. He immediately wished he hadn’t.

Feeling sick to his stomach, Joe drew his pistol with a shaky hand and fired off the three shots that signaled trouble. He forced himself to walk over to Elijah’s remains, although it was the last thing he wanted to do. He felt for a pulse in the youth’s neck, but there was none. It was no surprise to Joe and it was a blessing in a way. It would have been awful for Elijah to have lived.


When Ben arrived, he found Joe slumped in a heap a short distance away from the group of men. His youngest son was splattered with blood and for a moment, Ben’s heart missed a beat. But it was all too obvious what the trouble was and Ben didn’t have a single glance to spare for anyone other than the unfortunate youth who had met his demise working for Ben.

“One of you men go to town,” Ben ordered. “Bring back the doctor and the sheriff. Someone find a blanket. Someone else get Adam and Hoss from the South Forty.” Ben gave Elijah another last look and swallowed hard.

Turning away, Ben walked over to Joe and crouched by him. “Joe? Are you all right?” he asked.

Lifting his head, Joe looked at Ben through swelling eyes. “I guess,” he whispered. His nose hurt very badly and his head was throbbing along to every beat of his heart. Joe had managed to control his stomach, but it had been a close run thing. His nose had bled profusely and had been reluctant to stop. Joe was feeling rather light-headed and the gory sight close by had not helped that feeling.

“What happened?” Ben asked, reluctant to make Joe relive it, but needing to know.

“I’m not sure,” Joe confessed. “The men refused to work with the machine – Elijah…” Joe swallowed and forced himself to continue. “Elijah said that none of us had used it because it was too dangerous. Then Hank said we were going to replace the men with the machine. I told them that wasn’t true and then told them to get to work.” Joe stopped and rubbed his face. “Hank came after me and grabbed me. He punched me. Elijah had hold of my arm…” Joe stopped and buried his face in his hands. Ben ineffectually patted at his shoulder.

“Easy, son,” he soothed, knowing that nothing could take away from the horror Joe was feeling. Ben knew it was something they would never forget.


The morning was over before Roy Coffee and Paul Martin arrived. By then, Joe had been sent back to the house with Hoss. Both his eyes had swelled shut and were already turning black and blue and it was evident that Joe was in a great deal of discomfort. Ben and Adam stayed to oversee the clear up.

It didn’t take long to establish that it was an accident, albeit caused by Hank’s desire to lord it over Joe. All the men agreed that Elijah had lost his balance as Hank punched Joe to the ground. No one had tried to save Elijah – none of them had had the least idea what to do. But as Paul Martin explained to them all, it was unlikely that anything could have been done. Elijah had torn an artery and had bled to death in a very short time. And with the kind of injuries he had sustained, it was unlikely that he could have survived in any event.

Although Hank had been cleared of any involvement in Elijah’s death, Ben was determined that he wasn’t going to get away with causing trouble and insisted on pressing charges for him beating up Joe. Roy and Paul followed Ben back to the house while Adam was left with the unenviable task of supervising the removal of the body.

The first thing Paul did when he saw Joe was give him something for the pain. Joe looked dreadful, his face pale around the riotous bruising and his nose and eyes swollen. Luckily, Joe’s nose, although broken, was not out of alignment and Paul set about packing it with cotton. Once that unpleasant business was over, he looked into Joe’s eyes, finding, as he had expected, that they were very bloodshot.

“But the good news is the pupils are reacting to the light, so I don’t think there’s any lasting damage. Meantime though, I’m going to bandage your eyes to protect them while they are so swollen. I don’t want you trying to look at anything, Joe. That might indeed hurt them, all right?”

“I guess,” Joe agreed. He sounded sleepy, the pain medication at last taking effect. “How long are the bandages going to be on, doc?”

“A few days,” Paul replied, laying gauze gently on each eye before he set about winding a bandage around Joe’s head. “It depends on how fast the swelling goes down and how your eyes look after that.”

Once Paul was finished his work, Roy came up to speak to Joe about the incident, but there was no question that it was an accident. Ben still wanted Hank charged with assaulting Joe. Joe, by that point, wanted only to be left to sleep and his wordless murmur was taken by all to be agreement to Ben’s plan.


“The men ain’t gonna work with it now, dadburnit!” Hoss exclaimed. “An’ I cain’t say I blames them no how! I don’ wanna work with it!”

“It’s not the machine’s fault that Elijah died,” Adam responded, his voice tight with exasperation. “It was an accident. Everyone is acting as though the machine was alive. It’s an inanimate object unless we set it in motion! It’s perfectly safe as long as everyone is careful.”

“I know that,” Hoss agreed. “But I still don’ want ta work with it! An’ can ya really tell me ya could ask Joe ta go anywhere near it? Can ya, Adam?”

For an instant, Adam wanted to deny what Hoss said and insist that Joe wouldn’t feel any differently towards the mowing machine, but in all honesty, he couldn’t. Adam knew that Joe would not want to go anywhere near it ever again, and he couldn’t blame him. It had taken quite a bit of Adam’s steely determination to get himself near the machine again after what had happened. Adam decided to evade that point at the moment.

“Since Joe is unlikely to be going out to the hayfield at all, I don’t see that that is relevant,” he argued. “But the point is, I spent a lot of money on that machine and it’s going to be of great value to the Ponderosa.”

“But it ain’t if’n the men won’t work with it,” Hoss parried. He crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow. “Or are ya gonna do all the drivin’ an’ operatin’ an’ everythin’ yerself?”

Thoroughly exasperated, Adam glared back at Hoss. “You could help!” he shot back.

Shrugging, Hoss turned away and sat down placidly in front of the fire. He knew his actions were deliberately provocative, but Hoss wanted to see how far his brother was willing to go. “Ya tellin’ me the two o’ us could do the hayin’ ourselves with this thing?”

“Yes!” Adam insisted.

The challenge was there. Hoss turned around and met Adam’s eyes. Not a word was said and they were still standing like that a few minutes later when Ben came downstairs, helping Joe. “What was the shouting about?” Ben asked, disapproval clear in his voice.

Beside him, Joe made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “Pa, they were shouting so loud we heard every word!” he reminded his father, blithely unaware of the tricks of parenthood.

His comment served to break the spell. Adam was the first to look away, but there was nothing in his demeanor to suggest that he was backing down at all. Hoss eyed first Adam, then his father. He flashed a quick glance at Joe, disturbed as always to see his younger brother looking so battered.

“We were talking about the mowing machine,” Adam admitted.

Wincing at Adam’s bluntness, both Ben and Hoss looked at once to Joe, who seemed suddenly paler and his grasp on Ben’s arm tightened until his knuckles showed white against the dark purple fabric of Ben’s shirt. “It’s not safe,” Joe muttered. “Stay away from it!”

“Joe…” Adam began, but Ben cut him off with a savage gesture.

“We will not discuss it over breakfast,” Ben decreed. He was tired, as they all were, for none of them had slept well. Images of the previous day’s horror had kept them all awake. No wonder that everyone’s temper was short that morning. Ben did not want Joe reminded again. He guided Joe to the table.

“Pa, I don’t mind if Adam talks about it,” Joe assured him, although the lie was obvious to them all.


“No, Pa,” Joe interrupted. “You can’t treat me as though I’m going to break. What happened yesterday was… horrible… worse than horrible, but we can’t pretend it didn’t happen.” Joe drew in a deep, calming breath; it didn’t work. “And we can’t pretend that we don’t have the mowing machine.” Joe turned his head towards Adam’s usual seat. “So go ahead and say what you were going to say, big brother.”

But it wasn’t Adam who spoke; it was Hoss. “Adam an’ me are gonna do the hayin,’ jist the two o’ us,” he announced and fixed Adam with his clear blue gaze.

“Just the two of you?” Ben echoed. “How are you going to accomplish that miracle, may I ask?”

The quiet answer ended the talk for the entire meal.

“We’re going to use the mowing machine.”


Ben didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t often that he couldn’t find words of some kind, even if he lamented that those words often weren’t the founts of wisdom and knowledge that he craved. But he simply didn’t know what to say and so he said nothing. Talk at the table was confined to telling Joe what was on his plate and offering him more food when he ate the meager amount he asked for.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Ben was surprised by Adam’s determination. He wasn’t. But he was surprised by Hoss’ agreement – in a way. Ben knew that his sons were unusually close. Joe and Hoss were best friends as well as brothers and although Joe and Adam could butt heads with the best of them, he knew that they would each lay down their lives for the other. Adam and Hoss had an ‘older brother’ club that sometimes excluded Joe and came from the experiences they had shared before Joe was born. But it wasn’t like Hoss to go along with Adam’s schemes as easily as he went along with the mischief that Joe dreamed up.

The previous night, Ben had had a long talk with Adam. His oldest son had returned from the hayfield and immediate shut himself in his room. Ben had left him alone for a time, but then decided that he couldn’t leave Adam to brood.

“Pa, it’s my fault this happened,” Adam insisted when Ben asked what was wrong.

“You didn’t tell me you were the one who pushed Elijah,” Ben replied, calmly.

Glaring at Ben, Adam snapped, “Don’t treat me like a fool, Pa. You know perfectly well what I mean! I pushed to buy that machine, persuaded you that we needed to progress. And look what happened! A man died! This is my fault.”

Watching Adam pace restlessly, Ben wondered for a moment if his oldest son knew how alike he and his youngest brother were. Then he reached out and stopped Adam, pulling his son down to sit next to him on the bed. “This is not your fault,” Ben told him in a ‘no nonsense’ tone of voice. “You know perfectly well that I had been thinking about introducing some modern techniques to the ranch. If I hadn’t been already of the mind that a mowing machine would be useful, not all the pleading or persuasion on earth could have moved me. You know that, don’t you?” This last was thrown at Adam in a challenging tone. “Or am I that easily led?”

“No…” Adam began, uncertainly, but Ben ploughed on.

“If I thought that a machine would be too dangerous for my sons to handle, would I have let my men work with it? Well, would I?”

It was well known that Ben didn’t ask any man to do something he was not willing to do himself. That wasn’t the way Ben worked. Adam half-smiled. “No.”

“So stop blaming yourself.” Ben looked at Adam. “This isn’t just about Elijah, is it?” he asked, his voice loving and understanding. “It’s about Joe, isn’t it?”

An involuntary shudder ran down Adam’s back. “Yes,” he admitted, in a barely audible tone, as though there was something shameful about worrying about his family. “It could have been Joe lying there instead of Elijah…” Adam’s voice trailed off and for a moment, his gaze blurred as he gazed at an inward vista of hell.

“And do you think you’re the only one who thought that?” Ben went on, his voice still soft. “Do you really think that neither Hoss nor I thought the very same thing as you thought?” This time, it was his turn to shudder. “When I saw Joe, covered in blood, I thought the worst. How could I not?”

“I know.” Adam’s voice was still just above a whisper.

“But Adam, accidents happen. How many times have we had to bury a man because of something that happened at the timber camps, or on a cattle drive? Too many. But there is no way to make the world a completely safe place. It just isn’t possible.” He risked a quick hug. “I still think the machine is a good idea.”

As Ben rose and crossed to the door, Adam looked up. A smile twitched his lips. “Thanks, Pa.”

Ben smiled back. “You’re welcome,” he replied.


Immediately breakfast was over, Adam and Hoss went out. Together, they hitched the team to the mowing machine without a word to each other and then they headed out to the hayfield. The hands watched silently until Ben appeared and sent them about their business with a sharp word.

All morning, Ben worried. Hop Sing went out with their lunch and returned wearing his usual expression, which Ben took to mean that both his sons were quite well. Joe, not hearing any bad news, ate slightly more for lunch than he had for breakfast.

Shortly before supper, Adam and Hoss returned, tired, sunburned, but unharmed. Hoss didn’t say much, apart from assuring Joe that he was fine and when would supper be ready. He went to wash up looking happier than he had the previous night or that morning.

But haying was hard work, however it was done and both Adam and Hoss had an early night.

“Hoss seemed happier, didn’t he, Pa?” Joe asked.  He sipped carefully from his coffee cup.

“Yes, yes he did,” Ben agreed, wondering as always at the amount of meaning Joe could read from the atmosphere. He studied Joe’s body language. “So do you, son,” he commented.

“I’ve been thinking,” Joe offered. He started to reach out to put down his cup and then hesitated. Ben took it form him, idly noting that it was empty. Joe smiled. “Thanks, Pa. I was thinking that this wasn’t my fault – it wasn’t even entirely Hank’s fault either. He didn’t mean to push Elijah. But accidents happen; people die in all sorts of horrible ways.”

“That’s true,” Ben encouraged.

Not quite sure how Ben felt about the mowing machine, Joe decided to plunge on regardless. “I think Adam’s right to try and prove how good this machine is. If it works, it’ll make a big change to the way we manage getting the hay in.”

“I agree,” Ben smiled. He was slightly surprised; he had half expected to have to talk Joe around to the idea, after the nightmare Joe had had the night before. But then, he had seen, as they all had, something horrific and perhaps nightmares were the normal reaction to that. Perhaps it wasn’t the machine that had worried Joe, as Ben had assumed.

“You do?” Joe sounded so surprised that Ben had to laugh. “Then why is Adam working so hard to convince you?” he asked.

“He’s not,” Ben replied. “He’s working hard to convince himself and Hoss is helping him. Hoss thinks it’s a good thing, too.” Ben smiled again when he saw Joe’s bewilderment, but he wasn’t going to repeat either of the conversations he had had with his sons the previous evening. “Suffice to say, Joe that Hoss was playing Devil’s Advocate this morning.”

“Ah!” Joe sounded no less mystified, but he guessed from his father’s tone that Ben understood what was going on, even if Joe didn’t.


The next day, Doc Martin came and removed the bandages from Joe’s eyes. Although they were still puffy and every color under the rainbow, they were open once more and no damage had been done to them. Joe’s demeanor brightened considerably, which in turn cheered the rest of the family.

Adam and Hoss were still working away, not saying much, but exuding an air of satisfaction that was unmistakable. And now that Joe was free to move about carefully, Ben suggested that they go out and view the progress that had been made. Joe was all for it.

On the short journey out to the hayfields, Joe felt a pang of apprehension. He wasn’t sure how he was going to feel, seeing the machine in motion again, and visiting the site where the tragedy had happened. Joe had had plenty of time to think about what had happened and knew that he wasn’t to blame. But still – it was daunting.

It was barely lunchtime of the second day and both the hayfields had been cut. Drying hay lay in neat piles and both Adam and Hoss were having a well earned break. They looked both surprised and delighted to see Joe, although neither could resist making a comment about the matching black eyes.

“You’ve done all this in two days?” Joe asked, stunned.

Punching Joe affectionately on the arm, Adam replied, “We don’t all try and avoid working at haying time, kiddo!”

“You just aren’t inventive enough,” Joe retorted, grinning. “Adam this is great! All this work done in a couple of days, and we’re ahead with the other work, too.” He grinned once more. “And all without my help…”

“Yes, Adam, I think the machine is well worth it,” Ben added.

“Me, too,” Hoss nodded. “What do ya think?”

“I think you’re right,” Adam smiled.

“’Bout time, too,” Hoss grumbled good naturedly. “I didn’ expect ta do all the hayin’ with jist us two ta prove a point ta ya, Adam.” Hoss sighed and shook his head. “Sometimes, I cain’t believe that ya went ta college – I thought ya were the brother what liked new-fangled things.”

He choked on the mouthful of hay that his staid, respectable, sober, older brother threw at him.

Ben smiled. They would never forget Elijah, or what happened to him. But now that Adam had proved the worth of the new machine to himself, Ben knew that in no time at all, all three of his sons would have sold the idea to the men. Sure, some of them would never accept it, convinced that it was there solely to put them out of a job, but there would be others, more progressively-minded, who would see the advantages and soon, Ben was sure, such machines would be the norm.

Had the circumstances of the accident been different, Ben realized that his family might have been torn apart by it. Both Joe and Adam were inclined to want time alone to work things through and although Ben would never hold one of his sons on the ranch if he wanted to leave, he hated the thought of them leaving when something bad had happened. Incidents didn’t get much worse than this one.

But it hadn’t happened that way. Adam had proven to himself that he was right and Ben was sure that the men would agree, even if it was agreement given grudgingly. It didn’t matter. All that mattered to Ben was that his family was safe, secure and believed in themselves. That was his job as a father.

So far, he thought modestly, he was doing an all right job.


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