Protective Urges (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,347


 

“Honest, Pa, I feel much better,” Joe protested. “I’m fine.”

“Hey, listen, Pa, if Joe’s volunteering to go back to work, don’t stop him,” Adam joked. “It’s a novel occurrence and we might as well get the most out of him while he’s willing!”

Shooting Adam a look, Joe tried very hard not to sniff, or wipe his nose. He had had a cold for over a week now, and although he had only taken time off work when it was at its height, he had been restricted to light duties around the yard and barn and he was desperate to get out and about again. His cough had gone and his head wasn’t quite as stuffed, even though his nose was still running continuously, much to his disgust.

“All right,” Ben agreed, reluctantly. “We do need every hand for the branding.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe grinned and managed to get in a surreptitious swipe of his nose while Ben wasn’t looking.

As they went out to the barn, Joe stuck his finger in his ear and swallowed hard in the hopes that he might get his right ear to pop. The left one had obligingly cleared the previous day, but the right one was holding out. It was so blocked that Joe sometimes didn’t catch everything that was said when the person talking stood on his right side.

“Do you have to do that?” Adam asked, sounding disgusted. “The sniffing is bad enough without you pulling faces and poking your ears!”

“Sorry,” Joe retorted. “I was trying to make it pop, but it won’t.”

“Then leave it alone,” Adam snapped. “Poking it won’t help.”

“Thanks for the advice, doctor Adam,” Joe sneered. “I’ll be sure not to sniff when I’m near you.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Adam muttered. “Try blowing your nose; it might help.”

Glaring at his older brother, Joe did as he was bid, finding that it just made his ears more blocked than they had been and did nothing to stop the continuous drip from his nose. “That’s the last time I take your advice,” Joe grumbled as he saddled his horse.

“Listen, you were the one who said he was fit to work,” Adam told him. “Don’t start trying to weasel out of it now.”

“I’m not!” Joe protested. “I was poking at my ear quite happily without bothering anyone when you stuck your nose into things!”

That was true, Adam reflected as he led his mount out of the barn. Joe hadn’t actually complained until he had done as Adam suggested. Ah well, he thought, Joe would no doubt start complaining before the day was out and they needed every hand at the branding. He rode off as Joe came out of the barn, shooting his sibling a single glance.

“I accept your apology,” Joe mused to himself, and smiled slightly.

*****

Branding was hot, hard work. Adam and Hoss supervised at the fire, Hoss roping the calves while Adam branded them. Joe rode out with the men looking for strays. The cattle all seemed to know when branding was coming up and took to the brush. But Joe and the other cowboys were determined, and soon the calves were being brought in with their mothers in penny numbers.

Bringing in two bawling calves, with their mothers not noticeably quieter, Joe consulted with the hand doing the tally at the pen and found that they were down to a handful of beasts missing in that section. He rode over to where Hoss and Adam were having a drink and stepped down from the saddle before turning to tell them the good news.

As he turned, Joe’s head became suddenly light and he staggered wildly, almost falling into the branding fire. Only Hoss’ quick reactions saved him from a nasty burn. “Hey, slow down there, little brother!” Hoss scolded. “Joe, are ya all right, boy? What made ya stagger like that?”

“I must’ve turned too quick,” Joe replied, shaking his head. “I’m fine, Hoss, honest.” He sniffed, for his nose still hadn’t stopped running.

“When did you last eat?” Adam asked, moving up to stand beside his brother. He thrust a canteen into Joe’s hands and he drank deeply.

“At lunch,” Joe replied. “Adam, I’m fine, I just turned too fast.” He smiled. “We’ve got almost all the steers from this section. I’m going out to look for the last few.”

“Maybe ya should take a break,” Hoss ventured, but Joe just rolled his eyes at him.

“Hoss, I’m fine.” He mounted Cochise in one fluid leap and grinned at his brothers. “You guys just worry about gettin’ these calves branded, ‘cos I’ll be comin’ along with the rest real soon.”

“He’s ill,” Adam stated with conviction as Joe rode away.

Hoss shot his older brother a concerned look. “How d’ya reckon that?” he asked. “He looks all right.”

Returning the look with amusement, Adam replied, “He’s working hard. He must be ill!”

Making a face, Hoss turned his back on his grinning older brother. “Let’s get on,” he grunted. “Or Joe’ll be back with them calves jist ta shut ya up.”

*****

The last few animals, not surprisingly, were more difficult to find. Joe began to cast his net wider, moving to the outer limits of this section of grazing. He was drawing closer to the lake when he heard the terrified bawling of a calf and the frantic lowing of its mother. Heading in that direction, Joe was surprised to find Cochise suddenly playing up. When he heard the growl of a mountain lion, he understood.

Breaking through the brush, Joe saw the lake stretched out before him. The calf was fleeing towards the water, with the big cat on its tail. The cow was struggling unsuccessfully to get to its feet. Joe took all this in at a glance and drew his rifle from its scabbard. He fired at the cat and although he didn’t hit it, he diverted it from its purpose. The calf, terrified by the shots, kept running, and charged straight into the lake.

Joe didn’t have time to worry about the calf right then. The mountain lion had turned and was looking at him, its ears laid flat against its head. Cochise danced nervously, but Joe held the horse as steady as he could while he aimed at the cat.

He fired at the same moment that the cat lunged at him. Cochise reared, the shot went wide and Joe was dumped onto the ground. His rifle clattered from his hand and went off once more. The bullet gouged dirt into the big cat’s face and it decided enough was enough, turned tail and fled.

More relieved than he was willing to admit even to himself, Joe dragged himself upright and whistled piercingly for Cochise. The horse hadn’t run far, for which Joe was thankful. It would’ve been a long walk back to the branding pens!

Catching and soothing the horse, Joe went to see how the cow was and discovered that it had a broken leg. There was nothing Joe could do for it, apart from put it out of its misery. He did that and then turned, remembering the calf.

The little animal had managed to get itself out far enough that it was having trouble standing, but not so far that it would be difficult to catch. Or so Joe thought. But the stubborn little beast was thoroughly spooked by the lion and the shooting and Joe’s every attempt to rope it fell short. The calf kept retreating, step by step, further out into the water.

Suddenly, it floundered, and Joe realized that although every animal can swim, this one was too young and too scared to realize that. He couldn’t stand by and let the calf drown, so he hastily shucked his hat, jacket, gun belt and boots and dived into the water.

With the snowmelt still swelling the streams, the lake was icy. The cold water snagged the breath from Joe’s body, but he kept going. In a few moments, he was beside the calf and dragging the little creature towards shore. At long last, the calf found its feet and, finally headed in the right direction, it trotted out of the water. Joe staggered after it and collapsed to the ground, worn out.

It was far too chilly to stay there for any length of time and Joe slid his jacket and boots on and retrieved his hat and gun before mounting Cochise and roping the calf. He shivered all the way back to the pens as he dragged the orphaned calf behind him.

*****

“What happened to you?” Adam asked, rising to his feet. Hoss, glancing up, swiftly followed him.

“It’s a long story,” Joe hedged, handing the rope to one of the hands.

“You’re soaked and filthy,” Adam observed. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m all right.” Joe slowly told his story while Hoss sent a hand to get some hot coffee for his brother. Joe was glad of the warmth. The spring day had been fine, but it was afternoon now and it was cooling down, and the water had been freezing.

“You’d better get home and have a hot bath,” Adam ordered. “We don’t want you coming down with another cold.”

“No, that might slow the branding down,” Joe agreed and twinkled at his brother. He sniffed pitifully.

“Go on, Joe,” Adam urged. “We won’t be long. Thanks to you, we’ve accounted for every head.” He watched critically as Joe mounted his horse and rode off carefully before he sent a few hands to retrieve the carcass of the cow. There was no point in feeding all the vermin of the neighborhood.

******

Riding on a wet saddle was not a pleasant experience, Joe reflected as he jogged homewards. He really wanted to travel faster, but knew that with the saddle being so slippery, he might well be heading for another fall. But that didn’t make the ride any warmer and Joe was shivering well when he arrived home.

The barn felt warm as Joe’s chilled fingers struggled with the buckles on bridle and cinch. But he soon had Cochise settled, even if the grooming didn’t last as long as usual. Then, with a martyred sigh, Joe headed for the house.

At first glance, the place seemed deserted and Joe began to tiptoe across the room. He had shut the door very deliberately so as not to alert Ben, who might possibly be in the kitchen, but he hadn’t got more than one foot on the stairs when Ben exclaimed, “What in heaven’s name happened to you?”

Sighing, Joe turned and gave his father a smile before launching once more into his story. Ben listened intently, his eyes searching Joe for signs of injury, but even he had to admit that his accident-prone son had come off lightly this time, with just a few bruises and a soaking.

“Better get out of those wet things,” Ben suggested, when Joe had finished. “I’ll ask Hop Sing to heat some water for a bath.”

“That would be nice,” Joe agreed. “Thanks, Pa.” He was relieved to have got away without a lecture, but just before he turned the corner of the stairs, Ben’s voice floated after him.

“Next time, be more careful!”

*****

Despite the warm bath and a roaring fire in his room, Joe still felt a little chilled when he went down to supper later on. Adam and Hoss had come home and over supper, the talk was of the mountain lion Joe had seen. Adam and Hoss had gone and scouted the tracks.

“He was a big one, Joe,” Adam told him. “Almost 9 feet long, I’d guess. You were crazy taking him on alone.”

Swallowing down some chicken pie, Joe muttered, “I didn’t think he looked that big from where I was.”

“We’ll have ta go lookin’ fer him,” Hoss sighed. “Adam said he’d come back an’ eaten a good bit o’ that heifer.”

“When were you thinking of?” Ben asked.

“The sooner the better,” Adam replied. “A cat that big could decimate the calves if he got half a chance.” He frowned. “We’ll be finished the branding in a day or two. Perhaps, since Joe is feeling better, we could hunt the cougar tomorrow, and then help the men finish up the next day?”

Chewing thoughtfully, Ben thought this through. Nodding, he agreed, “That sounds feasible. You boys can go hunting it tomorrow and I’ll go down and help the men at the pens. I’ve done all the paperwork I have to for the moment. But I can’t spare you more than one day and please be careful, all of you. We’ve got far too much to do for one of you to get injured.”

“Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll be careful,” Adam assured him. “And I won’t let Joe out of my sight, I promise.” He grinned at Joe, expecting a stinging retort, but Joe just gave him a bland smile in return, not having heard exactly what Adam had said.

With the prospect of the hunting trip in the morning, none of them lingered by the fire that night. Joe was the first one to go up to bed. His right ear felt even more blocked than it had earlier in the day and Joe poked at it as he went into his room. His ear felt slightly hot and Joe hoped fervently that his unexpected duck in the lake wouldn’t make his cold come back.

*****

It was an early start the next morning. Joe’s right ear was still blocked and he discovered that he couldn’t hear anything out of it. He put it down to his dip in the cold lake but thought no more about it and didn’t mention it.

Breakfast was soon over and the boys went out to saddle their horses. Ben hovered, not wanting to show his anxiety, but unable to hide it all the same. As his sons mounted up he said, “Be careful.”

“We will, Pa,” Adam assured him and cast a glance at his youngest brother. Ben understood completely. Adam would be watching out for both his brothers, but for Joe especially, as they had all noticed that he wasn’t hearing properly. Ben had wanted to make Joe stay at home, but as Joe seemed to be all right otherwise, Adam persuaded him that Joe would come to no harm. After all, both he and Hoss were there to look after him, and all of them knew better than to split up when hunting a big cat.

There was a cold wind blowing that day and although the sun shone, it wasn’t warm. They all had their jacket collars turned up.

They started the hunt down by the lake where Joe had seen the cat. The tracks were easy to follow and by mid-morning, Adam thought they must be getting close to the cat’s den. As the tracks led into the rougher high ground, they dismounted, tethered their horses securely and went on foot.

A sudden, rank smell hit Adam’s nostrils and he stopped, reaching out a hand to halt his brothers. They looked at him questioningly, until the wind shifted slightly and they, too, smelt the stinking remains of rotting meat.

Scouting the area, Adam skirted around the carcass of a deer and spotted a dark depression that could be a cave. He signaled silently again and pointed to what he had seen. Hoss and Joe both nodded and they went on, ready in case the cat should smell them and come out fighting.

They were only about a foot from the cave when the cat appeared. It dived out of the cave, knocking Joe, who was nearest, off his feet, and fled down the hill. Adam pivoted and fired at it at exactly the same moment as Hoss. The cat had no chance and tumbled head over heels down the slope to lie dead at the bottom.

Joe had tumbled a bit down the slope, too and was just sitting up as Adam and Hoss reached him. “Are you all right?” Adam demanded, fear roughening his voice.

“Sure,” Joe replied, grinning. “He dead?” He craned his neck to try and see the cat, and had to gulp hard as his head suddenly swam.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Adam asked, as Hoss caught Joe and supported him. Adam began to feel through Joe’s curls, sure that his brother had banged his head in his fall. “The cat didn’t claw you?”

“I’m fine,” Joe assured them, shaking Adam out of his hair. “Where’s my hat?” Spotting the errant headgear, he jammed it back on his unruly curls and scrambled to his feet, with Hoss assisting him. The bigger man didn’t let go of Joe until he saw that his brother was steady on his feet.

“Let’s go home,” Adam suggested and as Joe led the way, he nodded to Hoss, who nodded back. They would both keep a discreet eye on Joe, just in case. Twice in two days, Joe had had a lucky escape from the big cat. They were determined that he wouldn’t have a third mishap while they were around.

*****

It was mid-afternoon when they reached the branding pens. Ben diagnosed success, both from their earlier than expected arrival back and the big, smug grins they wore. Going across, Ben smiled at them all. “Good hunting?” he asked.

“Very good,” Adam agreed. He succinctly told the story, with Joe and Hoss nodding and adding sounds of agreement. Ben eyed Joe askance as Adam told of his youngest son’s brush with the cat, but Joe just grinned at Ben, clearly unhurt.

“Well done,” Ben praised. “Now, do you think you could do some real work here for a while?”

“Sure thing,” Hoss was quick to agree, while Joe and Adam exchanged resigned looks. They went to tether their horses before mucking in to lend a hand.

By the end of the afternoon, Joe had decided that he was coming down with another cold. His nose was still running, although not quite as persistently as it had been for the past two weeks, and he was very hot, despite the cold wind. Spring, always a capricious season, was now threatening to turn back into winter and the rain that began to fall held a suggestion of sleet. They were all soaking when Ben called a halt for the day.

The hot stew that Hop Sing had waiting for them was most welcome and they continued the thawing process in front of the fire with coffee. However, Hoss was quite perplexed when Joe didn’t want to play checkers that night. “Ya all right?” he asked. “Ya didn’ bang yer head when ya fell after all, did ya?”

“No,” Joe replied, impatiently. “I’m just tired. I’m fine.” He aimed this last comment at his father, who was frowning at him. “Honest, no bump, I’m just tired.”

“All right,” Ben replied, mildly. “No need to jump on us, son, we were just asking.”

“Sorry,” Joe apologized. He stood up and wavered slightly. “I’ll see you all in the morning.” With a bright grin that belied his light-headedness, Joe went steadily upstairs to fall, exhausted, into his bed.

*****

Ben always cherished those first few minutes at the table alone in the mornings. Adam was usually next to appear, then Hoss, and lastly Joe. He smiled into his coffee as he saw Adam coming downstairs, with Hoss on his heels.

As there was usually a hiatus before Joe appeared, Ben wasn’t too surprised that there was no sign of his youngest son. Putting his napkin onto his plate, Ben thought he would go and wake Joe when there was a horrendous smashing sound from upstairs. “What on earth?” Ben exclaimed, jumping to his feet. Exchanging glances, Adam and Hoss quickly rose and hurried in their father’s wake.

Throwing open the door to Joe’s room, Ben looked in stunned disbelief at the scene that greeted him. Joe was hunched on his knees, retching painfully into the basin from his dresser. The ewer lay smashed in a pool of water around him.

Hurrying over, Ben knelt carefully by his youngest son. “Joe? What happened?”

Lifting a pale, sweaty to face to Ben, Joe squinted at him. “Pa?” he whispered. “I don’t feel so good.” His body heaved again and Joe was sick once more.

Glancing at his other sons, who stood frozen in the doorway, Ben ordered, “Get Doc Martin. And bring me another basin and something to clear up this mess.” He tenderly held Joe while his son retched hopelessly.

Finally, Joe’s sickness eased and Ben wiped his mouth with the damp cloth Adam had brought. “Come on, Joe, let’s get you back to bed,” Ben suggested, trying to lift Joe to his feet. Joe was hot, and there was blood on the back of his left hand where the flying porcelain from the ewer had caught him.

“I can’t… stand,” Joe panted, resisting with all his might. He had his eyes closed, Ben saw. “I’m too dizzy.”

“Adam,” Ben nodded and between them, they carried Joe over to his bed. As Ben tucked him in, he saw that Joe had cut his foot, too. Adam removed the noisome basin and came back with an empty one that he positioned strategically on the bed before he set about sweeping up the broken ewer and mopping up the water. Joe lay back, looking pale and wan. Ben stroked his head gently. “How do you feel now, son?” he asked. “Less dizzy?”

“No,” Joe replied. The whole room seemed to be spinning around him and he had double vision that made everything worse. “And there are two of everything, and it’s a bit blurry, too.”

“Have some water,” Ben suggested, at a loss to know what else to suggest.

“’k,” agreed Joe, and allowed Ben to lift his head while he took a couple of cautious sips. It was a relief to be lying down again, as he at least knew that he was staying in one position when on the bed. Otherwise, his vertigo made him feel as though he was moving in a different direction to the walls.

*****

It seemed an interminable wait for Hoss to arrive back with Doc Martin and was in fact all of four hours. The doctor hadn’t been in his office and Hoss had had to go hunting for him. Joe roused from a restless sleep as he sensed the movement in his room. He groaned horrifically as the room immediately swung into motion around him. His hand groped for the basin and if Ben hadn’t helped him, Joe would have brought up the water he had drunk all over his bed.

Once the spasm was over, Paul Martin crowded in close to examine Joe. “Keep him sitting up, Ben,” he instructed as he looked Joe over with a professional eye. Ben began to tell Paul all Joe’s symptoms.

From what he had seen, Paul already had an idea what was wrong with Joe, but he checked him out thoroughly to be sure. But Joe’s right ear was bright red, hot and tender to the touch. Peering in, Paul could see the delicate membranes were badly inflamed, suggesting a severe ear infection. He looked closely into Joe’s eyes, but saw nothing out of place there. Allowing Joe to lie down again, Paul continued his examination by checking carefully around Joe’s abdomen, but apart from a slight tenderness over his stomach, caused by the hopeless retching, Joe’s abdomen was fine. He looked at the cuts Joe had on his hand and foot, but they were superficial.

“All right,” he started, straightening up. “Joe has a very severe ear infection, which is causing the vertigo – dizziness,” he explained to Hoss, who looked puzzled, “and is probably also responsible for his double vision. Joe’s eyes are fine; there’s nothing wrong with them. The dizziness should settle as the infection starts to clear.”

“What can we do for him?” Ben asked.

“Ginger tea should help a bit with the nausea,” Paul began, thoughtfully, his eyes still on Joe. The young man was desperately pale. “You need to keep his fluids well up if he keeps throwing up. Don’t offer him anything solid in the meantime. Let his stomach settle. The ginger should help with that. Tincture of goldenseal dripped warm into his ear three times a day should help with the infection.” He sighed. “But really, with an infection as bad as this, time is the only cure. Keep him warm and still.”

“No gruesome tasting medicine this time?” Joe whispered, trying valiantly to appear more like himself.

Everyone smiled. “I didn’t say that!” Paul protested. “In fact, here it comes now; some quinine to help with that fever you’ve got.” He glanced at Ben. “Don’t be too worried if it doesn’t stay down; Joe’s fever isn’t that high and I don’t expect it to get any higher.”

After searching in his bag, Paul found a small vial of the goldenseal tincture and showed Ben and the others how to heat it up. “Test the warmth on Joe’s arm,” he explained. “The ear is very sensitive and the tincture must be the same temperature as Joe’s body. It’s a bit like testing a baby’s bottle. If Joe doesn’t feel it particularly, it’s the right heat.” He demonstrated and soon was dropping the solution into Joe’s ear. He popped a tiny bit of cotton into the outer part of the ear to stop the tincture running out. “I’ve only got a small amount, so you’ll have to go into town for some.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben replied, his relief almost overwhelming. He had thought there was something dreadfully wrong with Joe. An ear infection seemed quite minor.

“Is your ear sore, Joe?” Paul asked, observing the tightened lips of his patient.

“Mm,” Joe agreed, closing his eyes again. It was much easier when he couldn’t see two of everything.

“I’m going to give him something to help him sleep,” Paul told Ben. “When he wakes up, give him the ginger tea. If the nausea abates, then you can think of offering him some food. Otherwise, keep to fluids only.” Paul mixed up a sedative which Joe drank, then waited while it took effect. Joe was soon slumbering peacefully.

“You could be in for quite a task looking after him,” Paul mentioned as they went downstairs. “Ear infections can be unpredictable in how long they last. Don’t let him wander about alone, whatever else you do. The danger of him losing his balance and falling downstairs is very real.”

“We’ll watch him,” Ben promised and Paul nodded, knowing that they would.

*****

This time, it was Adam who went into town with the doctor and he eventually returned home with the goldenseal solution. He found Ben alone in the house, apart from Hop Sing. “Where’s Hoss?” he asked, looking around, although his middle brother was hard to miss when he was in a room.

“He went off to help with the branding,” Ben replied. He rose and took the tincture from Adam. “Thank you, son.”

“How’s Joe?” Adam asked. He tossed his hat onto the credenza.

“Still sleeping,” Ben sighed. “Hop Sing has made up the ginger tea for him and there’s some broth there if he feels up to it.”

“Did Paul give you any idea how long this might last?” Adam asked. “He didn’t say much to me.”

“There’s no way to tell,” Ben replied. “But this complicates things, Adam. We’ve still got the branding to finish and we’re behind now. Plus, we need to move the herd to fresh grazing soon.”

“You let Hoss and I deal with that,” Adam told his father firmly. “You concentrate on getting Joe better. Do you suppose this has anything to do with him getting wet the other day?”

“Paul said it’s more likely because he hasn’t quite been able to shift that cold he had, but I’m sure the soaking in icy waters didn’t help.” Ben sighed again. “I know this isn’t Joe’s fault, but the timing is bad.”

“Well, I do have some good news,” Adam ventured. “I hired a couple of new men while I was in town. They came into the store looking for work. They are experienced with cattle, so I offered them jobs. We could do with them.”

“That’s fine,” Ben approved. “I trust your judgment. Bring them up to the house when they arrive and I’ll get their names put in the book.”

“They should be here by dark,” Adam replied. “I told them to come here. Their names are Bart and Nathan Connelly.” He smiled at Ben. “We’ll get through this, like we’ve got through everything else, Pa. Don’t worry. Joe’ll be as right as rain in no time, you’ll see.”

Smiling, for Adam was offering hope, Ben nodded. “You’re right, son,” he agreed.

“I’ll go and give Hoss a hand,” Adam smiled, picking up his hat. “See you at supper.”

As Adam left, Ben took the tincture into the kitchen to leave beside Joe’s ginger tea. Then he made his way upstairs and sat down at the bedside of his slumbering son, waiting patiently for him to waken.

*****

Joe’s awakening didn’t show any improvement in his condition and he was hopelessly sick again, just moments after opening his eyes. Ben shouted for Hop Sing to bring the ginger tea, but the pungent smell made Joe retch again.

After a bit, Joe’s stomach settled and he was able to take a sip of water. By experimenting, he discovered that his sight was marginally better if he kept one eye closed. Any movement of his head brought the nausea back, but eventually, he was able to sip the tea. Ginger wasn’t his favorite flavor, but after a time, he did feel a little less sick.

“I’m sorry for being a nuisance, Pa,” Joe whispered.

“You’re not a nuisance,” Ben assured him. “This isn’t something you could help, Joe.”

“But you’re so busy,” Joe went on. “You don’t have time to mollycoddle me.” His tone was curiously bitter.

“The only time I mollycoddle you is when you’re ill,” Ben pointed out. “You don’t give me a chance, otherwise!”

“I bet Adam wouldn’t agree,” Joe muttered, almost under his breath. He had heard Adam accuse Ben of mollycoddling him the previous week, when he had been off work. Adam had got a flea in his ear that morning.

“Adam doesn’t like to be mollycoddled,” Ben pointed out. “Not even when he’s really ill. But just in case you hadn’t noticed, Joe, you and Adam are different people. As I pointed out to him last week. I gather you overheard that conversation.”

“Yeah,” Joe murmured. He only remembered at the last possible moment not to nod his head. Even the thought made him feel sick. He closed his eyes, as fighting to make sense of the blurred, duplicated world he now inhabited was making his head ache. “When am I going to feel better?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that, son,” Ben told him, regretfully. “It seems to be a pretty bad infection. Hopefully just a few days.”

A sigh was his only response. Joe didn’t want to voice the thoughts circling in his head. He didn’t know if he could bear a few days of this. His ear hurt all the time and the vertigo was appalling. The double vision was just the last straw. It meant he was unable to even read to pass the time. Joe wanted to scream out about the unfairness of it all, but he couldn’t. Complaining wouldn’t get him anywhere; it would just use up the energy he needed to keep still. He could feel tears burning behind his closed eyelids and he willed them away.

Watching Joe, Ben could almost read his thoughts. He knew that he’d once had earache as a child; time had robbed him off the memory of it, but he was sure it hadn’t been as severe as Joe’s was now. That Joe felt extremely ill was plain to see and Ben wished with all his heart that he could do something to help his son. “Is there anything I can get you?” he asked, softly.

“No, thanks,” Joe replied, briefly, but Ben could hear the tears in his voice. He put his big, warm, hand onto Joe’s arm and moved his thumb in small, comforting circles. Eventually, the tense muscles under his hand relaxed, and Joe slept once more.

*****

“Mr. Cartlight!” Hop Sing opened the door to Joe’s room and beckoned imperiously to his employer. Ben had been trying to read, but he put his book down and went out of the room. Joe was still sleeping.

“What is it, Hop Sing?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing wrong. Men come to see you.” He gestured to the stairs and Ben remembered Adam saying he had hired two new men.

“Oh, yes, thank you.” With Hop Sing following behind, Ben went downstairs. He paused a moment to look at the men, who were gazing around. He smiled at them as he descended the stairs. “I’m Ben Cartwright.”

“Bart Connelly,” said the oldest looking one, doffing his hat. “This is my brother, Nathan.”

Offering the men a seat, Ben went over the wages he offered. Both men nodded. “You’ll take orders from my son Adam, who hired you, my middle son, Hoss, myself, or my youngest son, Joe.” Ben frowned slightly. “You can’t miss Hoss; he’s a big guy wearing a tall white hat. But right now, Joe is laid up, so it might be a while before you meet him.”

“All right, sir,” Bart agreed. He seemed to talk for them both, Ben thought, amused.

“Very well, come and make your mark.” He opened the book at the right page, wrote their names and pushed the book towards them. He was interested to see that they could both sign their names, as many of the men he hired could neither read nor write. Their handwriting was rounded, and clumsy, as though they hadn’t had much schooling, but you didn’t need an education to push cows. Ben pointed out the bunkhouse to them and shut the door behind them, promptly forgetting about them completely.

*****

“Nice house,” Nathan commented to Bart as they went over to the bunkhouse. He had a thin, whiny-sounding voice.

“Real fancy,” agreed Bart. “What we heard in town was right; the Cartwrights got plenty o’ money.” He sniggered. “I reckon this place is gonna suit us.”

Looking at his brother, Nathan grinned. “I reckon it is,” he replied and they went off down to the bunkhouse.

*****

“Did you see those two men?” Adam asked, over supper.

“Yes, I did,” Ben replied, reminded. He was a little preoccupied as he ate, thinking about Joe, who had been violently sick a short time after eating some of Hop Sing’s broth. The ginger tea didn’t seem to be helping and he had winced miserably as the drops of tincture were put into his ear. “They seem all right.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on them, until they’re settled in,” Adam assured him.

“How did it go out there today?” Ben enquired, making an effort. He felt dog-tired. They all did.

“Another day should see us through it,” Adam responded.

“But we sure do miss Joe bringin’ those cows in,” Hoss remarked. “He’s right good at findin’ their hidin’ places.”

“The men are doing fine,” Adam replied.

“I didn’ say they wasn’t,” Hoss agreed. “I jist said they ain’t as good at it as Joe, is all.”

Silence fell for a few minutes, then Ben spoke up again. “I’m going to send over to Bill Haynes’ place and ask him to wait a few weeks before he sends those horses over to be broken.” He chewed for a moment as Adam and Hoss looked at him, waiting for him to go on. “He said it wasn’t urgent, but if Joe shouldn’t make a quick recovery, and Bill needs those horses done, will you do them, Adam?”

Having seen where his father was going, Adam was prepared for the question, but it didn’t make it any easier to agree. “Of course,” he replied and applied his attention to his plate. Adam would never admit to anyone – sometimes not even himself – how relieved he had been when Joe showed such talent for horse-breaking. Somewhere along the line, Adam had unknowingly hurt his back doing it, and now found that even one ride per day left him limping painfully for days. Since aches and pains were associated with old men, Adam never admitted to having any, but he always knew when it was going to rain.

“I’ll help ya, Adam,” Hoss volunteered and Adam smiled at him.

“Its all right, Hoss, you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Adam told him. “Besides, Joe will probably be driving us nuts tomorrow, insisting that he’s well enough to get out of bed.”

“It won’t be tomorrow,” Ben sighed.

“No,” Adam joked, “it’ll be the day after branding is over!”

But Ben’s sense of humor wasn’t working too well right then. “Are you implying that your brother is lazy?” he demanded, angrily.

Taken aback by the tone, Adam gazed at Ben open-mouthed for a second before remembering he had food in his mouth. He shut it with a snap and swallowed hastily. “No, I wasn’t!” he protested indignantly. “I was making a joke.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben apologized.  He looked down at his empty plate in surprise, for he couldn’t remember eating more than one bite. “I’m tired, I guess.”

“Let me sit with Joe this evening, Pa,” Adam offered, trying to make amends for his bad joke. “You go and get some sleep.”

“I’m not that tired,” Ben objected. “Besides, you’ve been working hard today, too.”

“If you go to bed now, I’ll waken you at midnight,” Adam promised. “And that way I’ll get a decent sleep.”

“All right,” Ben accepted. “I’ll do that. But you waken me, son.” He wagged his finger threateningly at Adam before rising and going upstairs to sleep.

*****

A short time later, Adam made his way to Joe’s bedroom. As he went in, one green eye opened and Joe looked at him without any expression. Then the eye closed again and Adam tried not to feel hurt, as Ben had said that Joe was mostly shutting the world out so he didn’t have to see it spinning and doubled.

“Pa’s getting some sleep,” Adam said, conversationally as he sat down with a book. “He’ll sit with you again later. Hoss has gone to bed, too. We’ve hired a couple of new men, but Hoss says no one’s as good as you at finding the cows.”

“That’s nice,” Joe replied, tonelessly.

“Hop Sing is bringing you up something to eat,” Adam went on. “And Pa says its time for your drops, so Hop Sing is bringing those up as well, once he’s heated them.” The only answer to this was a grunt.

Disgruntled, Adam settled in to read until Hop Sing appeared a few minutes later with the tray of soup and the hot tincture. Carefully, they helped Joe sit up and Adam fed him the soup while they waited for the drops to cool enough. Later, Adam would regret his decision, but it seemed eminently sensible at the time.

Putting the basin aside, Adam gently pulled Joe over to lean against him as Hop Sing administered the medicine. Joe clutched Adam’s arm throughout, as he felt like he was liable to fall off the bed any moment.

“All done,” Adam assured him as he allowed Joe to lie back down.

But he hadn’t been quite as slow and careful as he should have been and Joe heaved upright, desperately spewing over the side of the bed. He mostly missed the basin that rested by Adam’s feet, but he sure didn’t miss Adam’s boots!

Leaping to his feet, Adam let out a disgusted yelp. Joe flopped back on the bed, oblivious to what he had done, just knowing that he felt very ill once more. His left hand clutched the edge of the bed as it seemed to gyrate wildly in circles, threatening to spill him out.

The door opened and Ben came charging in, his hair disheveled, and his dressing gown only partially closed. Hoss was hot on his heels. He still wore his pants and boots, but had shucked his shirt, in preparation for going to bed. “What’s wrong?” Ben demanded, clearly still half asleep.

“It’s all right,” Adam denied, realizing that Joe had not meant to throw up all over him. “Joe just lost his supper, that’s all.”

Following his older brother’s disgusted gaze, Hoss couldn’t restrain a whoop of pure glee as he realized the source of Adam’s discomfiture. “He got ya good there, big brother!” he cried, as tears of glee filled his eyes.

Glaring ferociously at Hoss, Adam hissed, “Get a cloth, will you?” He sent another glare to Ben, who, having come awake enough to grasp what had happened, looked as though he might laugh, too!

The only person who did not know what was so funny was the cause of the whole thing. Ben went round to the other side of the bed to clean Joe up and offer him a sip of water as Adam eased out of his boots and went to take them outside.

“I want it to stop!” Joe cried in anguish, as Ben stroked his head. “Why won’t it stop?”

The cry almost broke Ben’s heart. It was then that it occurred to him that Joe didn’t just have a sore ear; he had a very serious condition that was making him very ill. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have a throbbing ear, appalling vertigo and double vision. All three things were alien to him. Ben had thought that the worst that might happen was that Joe’s hearing was slightly impaired. But now, the vision of Paul Martin’s grim face came back to haunt him, and he began to wonder if this was something that Joe would get over, or if he would be left like this forever. There was so much they didn’t know about the working of the ear. How would Joe cope if his balance was forever disturbed?

Pushing the unwelcome thought away, Ben glanced up to see his two older sons standing there, open mouthed, looking at Joe. He realized that this was the first inkling they’d had that Joe was very ill.

How blind they had all been.

*****

Eventually, they got Joe settled for the night. He had been unable to stomach any more food and hadn’t drunk enough water to please Ben, who was terrified that Joe wasn’t getting enough fluid. However, as his son’s body finally relaxed into sleep, Ben slumped back into his chair, exhausted.

“Go and get some sleep,” Adam insisted. He had cleaned up the mess on the floor and Hop Sing had kindly taken his boots away to clean up for him. “I’ll be fine for a few hours, Pa. But you’re exhausted and need to sleep.” As Ben looked as though he would put up a fight, Adam added the clincher. “You can’t afford to get sick, too. Joe needs you.”

“You’re right,” Ben whispered. “Thanks, son.” He rose and left the room, reflecting that Joe did indeed need him right then. He was too ill to even manage to use the chamber pot alone and Ben was well aware of how much that embarrassed his fiercely independent youngest son.

Adam sank into the seat Ben had vacated and looked at Joe. His brother’s face was pale and there were dark circles under his eyes, as though he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Remembering Joe poking at his ear a few days earlier, he wondered if he shouldn’t have sent Joe to the doctor then, and perhaps the infection wouldn’t have been so bad. But Joe had seemed well – and then Adam’s head lifted. He remembered Joe staggering and almost falling into the fire, and his dizziness after being knocked over by the cat. Were those signs he had missed? Adam silently berated himself for not seeing, but in truth, he had never known anyone with an ear infection and couldn’t be expected to know the symptoms.

As the night wore on, Adam fell asleep in the chair and the next thing he knew, Ben was shaking him awake and dawn was lighting the sky. “Have you been there all night?” Ben whispered.

Rubbing his eyes, Adam glanced around the room and nodded. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but exhaustion had taken over. Joe was lying on his side and a grimace of pain suggested that he was close to wakening. Adam hoped that the good night’s sleep might have helped his brother’s condition.

Rising stiffly to his feet, Adam stretched out the kink in his back and winced. Sleeping in a chair wasn’t the best thing for his back. At that moment, Joe’s eyes opened and he peered blearily at Adam and Ben.

“How’re you feeling, Joe?” Ben asked, going over to him.

Closing one eye, Joe replied, “The same.” His fist tightened on the covers and he winced as his ear started throbbing again. In actual fact, Joe wasn’t sure that the room hadn’t slowed its whirling slightly, but as he still felt nauseous, he couldn’t swear to it.

He lay there with his eyes shut, listening as Ben and Adam walked about the room. He had no idea what they were doing and at that moment, didn’t care. “I’ll be back in a minute, Joe,” Ben told him.

“Okay,” Joe replied, still with his eyes shut. He listened until he heard the door close, then cautiously opened one eye to make sure the room was indeed empty. Only then did he allow the tears to come. Joe didn’t think he could ever remember feeling as bad as this before. Even though he knew that it had only been a couple of days since this started, to Joe it seemed as though it had always been this way. Despair washed over him. Ben had said it might be several days before he began to feel better. What if Pa was wrong? What if this lasted more than several days? Joe didn’t know if he could bear it.

Overwhelmed with despair, Joe threw back the covers and staggered to his feet. The room was spinning faster now, and Joe risked opening his eyes for a moment. His vision was blurry and distorted and he desperately wanted to get away from it. He thought that if he could just get outside for a few minutes, he would feel much better.

Somehow, Joe made it across his room without falling, although he had to lean heavily against the wall for a moment before he opened the door.  He swallowed hard before he lurched in the direction of the stairs, still stubbornly determined that fresh air would make him feel instantly better. Joe knew in his heart that it wouldn’t, but he felt he had to try.

Luckily for Joe, Hoss came out of his room at that moment and saw his brother stagger drunkenly towards the stairs. “Joe!” Hoss didn’t hesitate. He thundered down the hallway and grabbed the back of Joe’s nightshirt just as his brother’s balance gave way at the head of the stairs.

For a horrible second, Hoss feared that the fabric wouldn’t hold and he frantically reeled Joe in while Ben and Adam raced across the great room to see what was going on.

And then Hoss had him, and wrapped his arms around Joe, who went limp, leaning into Hoss’ comforting bulk. He knew that Hoss was not actually gyrating and allowed himself to relax into his warmth. His despair began to ebb away and he admitted to himself that he had just been incredibly foolish and if it hadn’t been for his brother, he would have had an unfortunate accident.

“You all right, Punkin?” Hoss demanded, clutching Joe as tightly as he could.

“Gonna be…sick,” Joe responded and Hoss moved with speed stunning for a man of his build. He had Joe whisked off his feet and back in his bedroom, and the basin thrust under his chin in a matter of seconds.

“What were you thinking of?” Ben demanded, as he tucked Joe back into bed after his sickness had eased. “You could’ve broken your neck.”

“I know,” Joe replied, wretchedly. “But I just couldn’t stand it any longer and I thought that if I could just get some fresh air, I would feel better.” He ran a shaky hand over his eyes, blotting away the tears that threatened. “I’m sorry; I know it was stupid.”

Ben’s first reaction had been anger, but it drained away as he got an idea of how wretched Joe was feeling. “Its all right,” he soothed. “No harm done, thanks to Hoss. But, Joe, promise me you won’t do that again. Please.”

“I promise,” Joe replied, such a depth of hopelessness in his voice that Ben felt tears in his eyes.

Glancing at his older sons, who stood in the doorway, Ben saw that Hoss was blinking back tears of his own, while Adam looked angry. Ben could understand that anger; it was the natural response to fear and he was railing against the fates that had laid his brother low.

*****

Nothing much changed over the next few days. Joe grew progressively thinner as he was unable to keep anything down. Paul Martin had come out a few times, but there was little he could do. The odd thing, as he explained to Ben out of Joe’s hearing, was that Joe’s ear was now looking much better. His hearing in it had returned properly, and the redness was dying away nicely. So why were there still signs of infection? It was a complete mystery.

While Ben struggled to keep cheerful in the face of Joe’s despair, Adam and Hoss managed to finish the branding and were now preparing to move the herd to fresh grazing. The two new men, the Connelly brothers, were working out better than they could have hoped and it wasn’t long before Adam decided they didn’t need to be supervised all the time.

*****

“We’ll be gone until after dark,” Adam told Ben over breakfast.

“Fine,” Ben nodded. He looked tired, Adam thought, feeling a pang of pity. Ben was having to deal with the brunt of Joe’s illness alone. “Be careful, won’t you?”

“Yes, sir, we will,” Hoss promised. He, too, was worried about Ben. At the moment, it seemed like they were away from dawn to dusk and although Joe no longer needed anyone sitting with him at night, he knew that Ben often got up and went through to check that Joe was all right.

As they rode off after breakfast, Hoss muttered, “Dadburnit, Adam, I feel right bad about leavin’ Pa alone all the time.”

“So do I,” Adam agreed. “But what can we do?”

“We could get Charlie an’ Dave to finish the last of the move, an’ we can come home early.” Hoss beamed at Adam and his older brother couldn’t help but smile back. Hoss looked like a little kid.

“Why not?” Adam replied. “There have to be some perks to being the boss, apart from working all the hours of daylight.”

They both felt better knowing that they could do something concrete to help their father, even if it was just to insist he have an early night.

*****

“Much as I hate to say it, seeing as how it’s a huge risk,” Ben commented, “I feel constrained to point out that you haven’t been sick at all today, young man.”

“Neither I have,” Joe agreed, sounding surprised. He risked looking at Ben with both eyes open. His vision was still blurred, but it was better than it had been. “I don’t think the room is spinning now,” he added. “But it’s still kinda tilted over to one side.”

“Which side?” Ben asked, as though that made any difference.

“It depends which eye is open,” Joe replied, solemnly. He wondered why on earth Ben started laughing.

Seeing the indignant look on Joe’s face, Ben spluttered, “I think you might be on the mend, son!”

A great hope sprang onto Joe’s face and caused his green eyes to sparkle like peridots. “Do you really think so?” he cried and the mixture of hope and despair were almost too much for Ben to bear.

“Yes, I do,” he replied, softly. He gently ruffled Joe’s hair, a pleasure he had been denying himself for the last week while Joe was so ill. “You haven’t been sick, your ear isn’t sore any more and now you say that the room isn’t spinning. That seems like an improvement to me, Joe.” He smiled ruefully. “Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be an instant cure, so you just stay in bed, young man! No more escapades at the top of the stairs. My heart isn’t up to it.”

Joe smiled. It was the first time Ben had seen his smile in a week and he delighted in it. After a few minutes, he noticed that Joe was beginning to look sleepy. As that was the  first meal that Joe had been able to keep down since he became ill, Ben reasoned that his full belly was making him drowsy and quickly suggested that Joe have a nap. Joe agreed without any resistance and snuggled into the pillows.

“I’ll be downstairs doing some paper work,” Ben told him. “I’ll leave the door open. Shout if you need anything.”

“All right,” Joe agreed and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long for sleep to sweep over him.

*****

Charlie and Dave agreed to Hoss’ plan so quickly that the brothers wondered if they shouldn’t have taken the whole day off! However, they were cheered by the thought of stopping early and surprising Ben. They divided the men up, some staying with the main body of the herd and others scouting around for strays, and got to work.

Safe behind the foliage where they had been sent, Bart and Nathan watched as the Cartwrights rode out with the herd.

“We’ll give it an hour or two,” Bart instructed his younger brother. “Then we’ll mosey on back ta the house an’ help ourselves. Adam said Joe’s still sick an’ his pa’s takin’ care o’ him. Joe ain’t gonna be well enough ta stop us, an’ we can give the old man what for.”

“Sure thing, Bart,” whined Nathan. All his life, he had done what his older brother told him, because it was safer that way. Bart could get riled, and there was often no knowing what had annoyed him. Nathan had discovered that it was easier to just do as he was told because that way he wouldn’t get the blame. Somehow, it never quite seemed to work out that way, but Nathan had decided that as a child and believed in it.

They had a leisurely morning, dozing in the warm spring sunshine, then, after eating some jerky for lunch, they rode off towards the house. They dismounted before entering the yard, and went quietly across to the front door. Bart drew his gun, so Nathan copied him. Nodding approval, Bart boldly threw open the door and went in.

Ben was sitting by the fire, reading a book. His paperwork was done and since Joe was still asleep, he had decided to take the chance to relax for a while. In fact, his head was starting to nod when the door burst open, and he looked up, disorientated, into the barrel of Bart’s gun.

*****

As they stopped for lunch, Charlie, the foreman went over to Adam and Hoss. “Look, why don’t you two go back now? Give yer Pa a real break. We can manage.”

Frowning, because he was indeed tempted, Adam began to protest, “But, Charlie…”

“Go on,” Charlie chided kindly. He jerked his head in the direction of the house. “Scoot!”

“Come on,” Hoss urged and Adam gave in gracefully. They turned their horses and rode off at a ground-covering lope, feeling like kids let out of school early. Hoss glanced at Adam and a moment later, both horses stretched out into a gallop as the brothers raced each other home.

*****

“What’s the meaning of this?” Ben demanded.

“Jist shut up,” Bart advised him. “That way you won’t get hurt an’ we won’t have ta hurt yer boy upstairs.”

Anger flared within Ben, but he kept control of his temper, knowing how vulnerable Joe was right then. He couldn’t risk them hurting Joe. He eyed Nathan for a moment, but the younger man was waiting for instructions from his older brother. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Money,” Bart replied, scathingly. “What do you think?”

“I don’t have much money in the house,” Ben ventured. “But you can take what I do have and get out.”

“You don’t give orders here, old man!” Bart shouted. His face flushed dangerously as he became quickly angry.

There was something in Bart’s eyes that told Ben he was dealing with an unpredictable killer. He suddenly realized that neither he nor Joe would be alive when Bart and Nathan left. “Please just take the money and go,” Ben said, in a reasonable tone.

The bullet buried itself in the floor by Ben’s foot and he flinched. “I said, you don’t give the orders!” Bart repeated. “Now get that money!” He grabbed Ben by the arm and hauled him out of the chair. He gave the older man a push towards the desk and Ben stumbled across, hoping desperately that Joe hadn’t been wakened by the shot.

Upstairs, Joe had been lying awake for a while, just drifting. It was such a relief not to feel the room spinning around and Joe felt his body relaxing. Sleep was tugging at him again when the shot sounded from downstairs.

Panicking upright, Joe had to pause for a moment as his head swam dizzily. He breathed deeply through his nose until the sensation passed. For a moment, he thought of shouting to Ben, but quickly discarded that idea. Ben would not be so foolish as to clean a loaded gun and the only other reason Joe could think of for shooting in the house was not comforting. There was trouble!

Moving as quickly and quietly as he could, Joe found some clothes and quickly dressed. He didn’t bother with socks or boots, as he wanted to stay silent. When he was dressed, Joe cautiously made his way to the door, alarmed by how much his head swam when he was upright.

There was no one in the hall and Joe went on silent feet to Adam’s room, where he knew his brother kept his favorite rifle. Joe picked it up, surprised to feel the rifle heavy. He realized that his muscles were shaky from all the time he had spent in bed. He quickly loaded the rifle and stuck some more bullets into his breast pocket. Then he made his way to the stairs.

From his vantage point in the shadows, Joe could make out two people by the desk. How he wished his eyesight was back to normal! One of them was Ben, Joe was positive, by his father’s white hair. He had less than no idea who the other man was, and at that point it didn’t matter. What did matter was saving his father’s life.

Just as he was about to step forward and challenge the intruder, another man spoke from out of Joe’s sight and he froze, barely breathing. This complicated things, but Joe was still determined that they wouldn’t harm Ben.

As Ben slowly rose from in front of the safe, some bills in his hand, the second man came into view. Joe didn’t hesitate. He stepped boldly into view and ordered, “Hold it right there!” His voice was calm, cold and menacing.

Caught off guard, Bart gaped up at Joe. Ben took the chance and crashed his hand down on Bart’s gun hand. The gun clattered to the floor. Ben backed away, ready to bend down and reach for it.

At that moment, the door opened and Joe was distracted. His gaze swung round to see who the newcomers were. Bart threw himself at Ben, knocked him out of the way and dove for the gun. Nathan paused, looking in horror at Adam and Hoss and began to lift his weapon. Adam drew and fired his gun in one swift motion. Nathan went down, bleeding from the leg.

Reaching his gun, Bart turned it on the person who had destroyed his plans, and even as he pulled the trigger, Ben launched himself at him.

Bart’s first bullet went wide. Joe flinched away from the sound and lost his tenuous grip on his balance. He toppled forward as the second shot was fired and tumbled head first down the stairs, stopping in a crumpled heap on the landing.

Furious, Ben hit Bart with all of his might, and the younger man slumped down. Then Adam was there, pulling the gun from Bart’s hand, and Ben staggered to his feet. “Joe!” he cried and hurried across to the stairs.

Hoss had reached Joe first, but he gladly relinquished his position to his father, who knelt tenderly by his son and looked anxiously at the blood on his head and shoulder. “Joe, can you hear me?” he demanded, but Joe was unconscious.

While Adam and Hoss tied up the Connelly brothers, Ben continued to exhort Joe to waken and he was rewarded a minute or so later by a groan as Joe came back to consciousness. “Pa?” he muttered.

“I’m right here, son,” Ben assured him, taking his hand while Joe squinted vilely.

“Are you all right?” Joe asked. He wished he could see more clearly. Then he winced as his head began to throb.

“I’m fine,” Ben replied. “More to the point, how are you?” He pushed aside Joe’s curls and looked at the bleeding bump on his son’s head. The second bullet had gone into Joe’s right shoulder and Ben ripped Joe’s shirt open to assess the damage. The bullet had gone straight through, and although Joe’s shoulder was a mess and bleeding heavily, it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Ben breathed a sigh of relief and sent a silent prayer of thanks to heaven.

“How’s he doing?” Adam asked, coming over and peering at Joe over the banisters.

“I’m recovering,” Joe responded, dazedly.

“Help me get him upstairs,” Ben smiled and between them, he and Adam helped Joe back to his room.

*****

Later that night, Ben sat once more by Joe’s bed. His son was just coming round from the anesthetic he had had while his injured shoulder was put back together. Earlier, Adam and Hoss had taken the Connellys back to town, where Paul Martin had been obliged to operate on Nathan to remove Adam’s bullet from his leg. It had been quite a long operation and it had been early evening before Paul had reached the Ponderosa.

“Joe’s going to be just fine, Ben,” Paul assured the anxious father as he tidied up his instruments. “And I gather he’s feeling much better, since he was once more demonstrating his protective urges towards you.”

“Yes, he hadn’t been sick at all today, and he said the room was spinning less,” Ben agreed, slightly absently. “Will this bang on the head make any difference to that?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure,” Paul replied. “It might, it might not. I can’t say. This isn’t like any ear infection I’ve dealt with before. I’ve never known the symptoms to linger for longer than the actual infection.” He turned back to the bed as Joe groaned.

“Easy, son,” Ben urged, capturing Joe’s hand as it drifted towards his shoulder. “Don’t touch that!”

“Pa?” Joe whispered. He opened his eyes and peered at his father.

“How are you feeling, Joe?” Paul asked, watching his patient’s breathing and gauging if there was any concussion from the bump on the head.

“Fine,” Joe replied. He licked his dry lips and Ben helped him to drink.

“What exactly does ‘fine’ mean this time?” Paul enquired, dryly, all too familiar with Joe’s attempts to divert people away from his problems.

“The room is still!” Joe announced, triumphantly. “My eyes aren’t as blurry and there’s only one of you now, Pa!”

It was indeed a cause for celebration, but Joe had been ill and soon the after-effects of his accident that afternoon and the excitement got the better of him and he fell asleep. Ben went down to see Paul out. “Thank you once more,” he said, as he shook hand with his friend.

Grinning, Paul replied, “I was going to say any time, but I would like the chance to sleep before I’m called out here again?” Ben laughed.

“How is he?” Adam asked, as Ben shut the door.

“He’s a lot better,” Ben replied. “Oh, he’ll be sore for quite a while with that shoulder, but Paul hopes he’ll be back on his feet soon. His balance and his eyes have settled down.” He accepted a brandy from Hoss. “Anyway, that reminds me. What were you two doing back here so early? Some disaster you haven’t mentioned?”

Exchanging glances, Adam and Hoss sighed in unison. “That’s what you get for coming back early to lend your father a hand,” Adam complained.

“Lend a hand?” Ben echoed. “With what, exactly?”

“With Little Joe,” Hoss replied, earnestly. “Ya’ve bin lookin’ real tired lately, Pa, an’ Adam an’ me thought ya might like an early night.”

Looking at Ben’s scowling face, Hoss suddenly realized that he had been rather less than tactful. Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and resisted groaning aloud. He just knew that they were going to get the lecture about him being in the prime of life, and perfectly capable of handling his side of things… Adam could almost recite it word for word.

But it wasn’t to be. Shaking his head, Ben muttered, “I wish you boys would learn to curb your protective urges a little bit. It almost got all three of you killed this afternoon.”

Glaring at Ben indignantly, Adam retorted, “We’ll curb ours when you curb yours, Pa!”

“Yeah!” Hoss agreed.

“It’s a deal,” Ben twinkled. He rose and stretched theatrically. “But since you boys were kind enough to offer me an early night, I think I’ll take you up on it.” He stopped half way up the stairs. “Oh, and, boys?”

“Yeah, Pa?” Hoss replied, suddenly anxious that there was something else they should have said, or not said.

“Don’t bother to wake me in the morning. You fellows just get your breakfast and go out to help with moving the herd. I’m sure Charlie and Dave would like a day off, too.” He smiled benevolently and disappeared from view before his laughter could escape.

Glumly, Hoss looked at Adam. “It ain’t bin much o’ a day off,” he moaned.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Adam contradicted him. “Its not every afternoon you get to fight with gun-wielding thugs in your own home, watch your little brother falling downstairs or get hoodwinked into giving the foreman and assistant foreman the day off.”

“I never thought o’ that,” Hoss responded, starting to smile.

Adam made a quick getaway.

***End***

The infection that Joe had is called labyrinthitis. It is severe and can last anything from days, to weeks to months. Luckily there are much more effective antiemetics available these days.

 

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