Stocking Up (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8931


 

“Don’t forget, you’re not going out there to have fun,” Adam chided his brothers as they packed the last of their gear onto their horses. “You’re out there to bag a few deer to help with the stocking up for winter.”

“Land sakes, Adam, we know that!” Hoss responded in disgust, wrinkling his nose at his older brother. “We ain’t that stupid, ya know.”

“You aren’t stupid at all, son,” Ben told him, throwing Adam a ‘look’. “I know that you’ll have a good time, but you won’t let that interfere with your hunting, will you?”

“No, sir,” Joe responded, as he swung himself smartly into his saddle. “We sure don’t want to go hungry this winter.”

“You two be careful out there,” Ben admonished them as they rode out of the yard. Joe was leading the packhorse.

“See you in a few days!” Joe called back, cheerfully, waving to his father and Adam.

As they clattered out of sight, Adam looked at Ben. “Do you really think they can keep out of trouble while they’re gone?” he asked, wryly.

Shrugging, Ben dug his hands deep into his pants pockets. “Miracles do happen,” he responded and they both went back inside the house.

*****

This was the kind of hunting trip that the Cartwrights really enjoyed. There was no pressure of time against them, expect perhaps in the form of the weather. There was the promise of an early winter, which was why Ben wanted a supply of smoked venison to be ready. It wouldn’t be the first time that the ranch had been totally cut off for long periods of time and Ben always liked to be fully prepared.

The best area for hunting was a couple of days ride from the house.  The autumn weather was so far staying fair, with a hint of Indian summer. However, there was a cold edge to the wind and the sky was a shade of blue never seen in summer. Joe and Hoss set up a camp for the night, with Joe tending to the horses and Hoss seeing to the evening meal.

“I wanna git a ten-pointer,” Hoss murmured as he and Joe drank coffee after they had eaten.

“I don’t care how many points its got as long as there’s plenty of meat on it,” Joe replied, sleepily. “You can’t eat points.”

“Naw, but they’d look good up above the fireplace,” Hoss told him. “Real impressive.”

“Perhaps,” Joe grunted. “But first you’ve got to find a ten-pointer, then you gotta shoot it!” He twinkled sleepily at his brother. “Besides, Hoss, do you really think Pa would take down them horns he’s got over the fire? They’ve been there forever.”

“Huh!” Hoss retorted. “Seems ta me it’s about time we redecorated.”

“You’re the expert, are you?” Joe asked. “You ain’t planning’ on making the Ponderosa look like some o’ them places we ain’t supposed to talk about are you? I don’t think Pa would like that.” He ducked with alacrity as Hoss threw his empty coffee cup at him. Joe sniggered. “Good night, big brother,” he chortled and rolled himself in his blanket as Hoss went to retrieve his cup.

*****

There was a touch of frost on the ground in the morning. Joe was not always a morning person, and especially not when it was a cold morning. However, there was nothing for it but to get up and get on with the day and by the time the second cup of coffee was going down, Joe was beginning to feel more human. His breakfast was warming him nicely from the inside.

“Its kinda early fer frost,” Hoss said, as they saddled their horses. “I don’t reckon we oughta linger, Joe.”

“Nor me,” Joe agreed, blowing on his stiff fingers before drawing on his leather gloves. “Next thing you’ll be tellin’ me you smell snow on the way.”

“Hush up, young’un,” Hoss chided him. “Don’t tempt fate!” Hoss cast a dark look at the cerulean sky above them.

“You’re worrying over nothing,” Joe replied and swung into the saddle. “Let’s get going. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get back.”

*****

They reached the area they were going to hunt shortly before dusk. The sun had shone all day, but there was precious little warmth in it. Both boys were glad they had decided to bring their big winter jackets for wearing during the evening. They soon had their camp laid out. Joe picketed the horses and then went and caught a rabbit for supper.

“I wunner what Hop Sing was makin’ fer supper tonight,” Hoss mused as they watched the rabbit cook.

“Dunno,” Joe replied. “Something nice, anyhow.” He smiled slightly. “It always is.”

“Sure enough,” Hoss agreed. “Ain’t that rabbit ready yit?”

“You’re not hungry by any chance, are you?” Joe asked sarcastically, although the roasting meat smelled good to him, too. He had a look and decided that it was done. “Get the bread,” he told Hoss, who did so and they hungrily tucked in. “Next time, I’ll get two rabbits,” Joe commented, as Hoss looked round for more. “That way, we can get one each.”

“Sounds good,” Hoss agreed. “Your turn fer the dishes, little brother.”

“What?” Joe retorted indignantly. “I caught the supper and I cooked it!”

“I did breakfast an’ washed them dishes,” Hoss replied, complacently. He cast Joe an amused look. “D’ya really think ya can make me do them dishes?” he asked, and folded his arms over his chest.

Muttering under his breath, Joe made his way down to the stream to wash the dishes. He knew an immovable object when he met one, but he vowed to get his own back on Hoss before the trip was over!

*****

They set off on foot the next morning, carrying only the essentials with them. Hoss took the lead, scanning the ground for tracks with the casualness of an expert. Joe was content to follow, since Hoss was the better tracker. Each man was relaxed within himself, but ready for action when the need arose.

By lunchtime, even Hoss was beginning to feel rather discouraged, since they had not seen a single deer. There were tracks a-plenty, but not a deer had they spotted. “Where’d ya reckon they are?” he asked quietly, as they ate the cold food they had brought with them.

“I don’t know,” Joe replied, exasperated. “If I knew that, we’d have found them by now, wouldn’t we? Don’t worry, Hoss, we’re bound to get one this afternoon.” He grinned slightly. “But I don’t think you’ll be bagging a ten-pointer, though.”

“Don’ look like it, do it?” Hoss agreed, sighing heavily.

“Cheer up,” Joe said, quietly. “You can’t eat antlers anyway.”

“I reckon you’re right there, Shortshanks,” Hoss nodded. “Ya finished? Let’s go then.”

The afternoon hunting went much better and they managed to get a well-fleshed buck with antlers big enough to please Hoss, although nowhere near the 10 points that he craved. They lugged the buck back through the forest to the campsite, where they roughly butchered it and put the meat into the cache they had created the night before.

“What d’ya think?” Hoss asked. “One enough, or should we try fer another?”

“I think we should try for another one, at least,” Joe replied. “The packhorse can carry three at a push, and that would be plenty of meat for the winter.” He straightened his aching back. “But we don’t have to decide right now,” he reminded Hoss. “We can do it in the morning.”

“Sure enough,” Hoss agreed, sounding more cheerful. “How’d ya fancy venison fer supper?”

“I’ll build the fire,” Joe replied, grinning.

*****

“Isn’t it quiet without Joe?” Adam observed as he and Ben sat by the fire reading after supper.

“Hmm,” Ben agreed, absently. He took another puff at his pipe. “Never mind, they’ll be home maybe the day after tomorrow.”

“I wasn’t complaining,” Adam protested quickly. “I’m enjoying it.”

“Of course you are, son,” Ben nodded, his tone one of complete skepticism. “You’re not missing your brothers at all.”

“I’m not!” insisted Adam. He met Ben’s eye. “Pa, honestly, I’m not.” He sounded exasperated.

“Keep digging, son,” Ben advised him solemnly. “You’re almost out of sight.”

Struggling to keep a straight face, Adam swallowed hard, but the weight of his father’s gaze was too much and he had to laugh. “All right, I miss them. Satisfied?”

“It’s always best to be honest, even with yourself,” Ben told him. “Especially with yourself.” He smiled. “I miss them too. You’re right – it is quiet without Joe.”

*****

“Hoss!” Joe hissed, quietly. “Hoss!” He beckoned to his brother and Hoss turned around and retraced his steps.

“What is it, Joe?” he asked, also keeping his voice down.

“Are those the kind of tracks I think they are?” Joe asked, pointing to the ground near his feet. He looked apprehensive.

Peering down at the soft earth, Hoss caught his breath. “What do ya think they are?” he asked.

That just confirmed Joe’s unease. “Grizzly,” he replied, grimly. “And more than one.”

*****

It took them a while to sort out the tracks, which were quite muddled, but Hoss eventually decided that there was a mother and two cubs. “They’s probably about eight months old,” he explained to Joe. “Ol’ Mama bear must be thinkin’ about gettin’ ready fer winter. Don’t reckon they’ll trouble us none.”

“Not as long as we don’t trouble them, huh?” Joe replied. It wasn’t commonplace to meet a grizzly, but it wasn’t unheard of either, and both Joe and Hoss were well versed in bear-avoidance tactics.

“You wanna go on?” Hoss asked.

“Yeah, Mama bear’s probably long gone from here. We haven’t been exactly quiet for the last little while, have we? Let’s try and get one more deer…” Joe turned away from the bear tracks and walked away. Hoss followed. Before long, they had all but forgotten about the bears.

Which was a mistake. A big mistake.

*****

The stag was well grown and fleshed out and his crown showed that he was a mature buck, but not yet the dominant stag. He stood with his head raised proudly and for a moment, regret touched Joe’s heart that he had to kill such a magnificent beast. Then he gently squeezed the trigger and the shot echoed around the woods. The stag collapsed soundlessly.

“Good shot,” Hoss praised as they walked through the undergrowth towards the fallen stag.

“Thanks,” Joe replied. Together, he and Hoss picked up the dead animal to carry it back to their campsite. Luckily, they weren’t too far away from it. The stag had circled back towards the camp as Joe and Hoss tracked it.

Suddenly, Hoss, who was in the lead, stopped. “Did ya hear that?” he breathed.

“Did I hear wha…?” Joe started, then heard the sound that had halted Hoss. “Oh no!” It sounded suspiciously like a bear cub. Moments later, his guess was confirmed as a fearsome roar echoed out of the trees. “Run!” Joe cried, dropping the deer, hoping against hope that the fresh meat would distract the bear.

Risking a glance over his shoulder, Joe saw the mother bear galloping out of the woods towards them. The cubs were on their other side, cut off from their mother by the men. Joe knew that grizzlies normally avoided humans, but when a mother perceived that her cubs were in danger, she would attack – and that was what this mother was doing.

“Climb a tree!” he screamed at Hoss and saw his brother climbing into a tree. Nimbly, Joe swung himself into another tree and closed his eyes for a moment, relieved that grizzlies were not tree climbers.

“Ya all right, Joe?” Hoss called, moving to a more secure posture.

“I’m fine,” Joe replied, looking down on the bear. “You?”

“Fine,” Hoss assured him moving again to peer down at the bear, which was now turning around and heading back towards the cubs. “That was…AAGGHH!!!!”  The branch that Hoss was sitting on suddenly snapped and he crashed earthwards again.

In total horror, Joe saw the bear turn around, clearly startled and fearful for her cubs. “Hoss!” Joe cried, but his brother simply lay there, stunned.

Without hesitation, Joe jumped down from the tree he was in, not even aware as his ankle twisted painfully beneath him on landing. “Get out of there! Leave him alone!” Joe cried, oblivious to what he was actually shouting, just determined to get the bear to notice him and leave the helpless Hoss alone.

As the bear turned, Joe stumbled and then she was on him. Joe felt claws raking his arm and down his back and he let out a piercing scream as the world went black.

Raising himself up, Hoss saw the bear looming over his brother. He grabbed up the broken branch and lobbed it at the bear. It struck the rampaging ursine on the back and although the blow didn’t hurt her at all, it convinced the bear that she should get her cubs out of there, post haste.

*****

“Joe!” Hoss cried, staggering to his feet and stumbling across the short distance that separated the brothers.  He collapsed to the ground, wincing as his knees struck the ground harder than he had intended. “Joe,” he whispered, appalled, as he stared at his brother’s still form.

Blood was soaking into the sleeve of Joe’s green jacket and Hoss hastily ripped off his coat and wadded it against the wounds. Joe didn’t move. Anxiously, Hoss turned his brother’s head and found a large lump rising on Joe’s head. “Must a knocked hisself out when he fell,” Hoss reasoned, trying to calm himself and not succeeding.

Rising once more, Hoss went to retrieve the canteen that had fallen from his hand when he fell from the tree. It was only when he gained his feet that he discovered that he hadn’t escaped totally unscathed from his fall. His left pants leg was ripped all the way down, his leg was grazed and bleeding, and his knee was swelling. Other bits of him ached painfully, too, but Hoss ignored them as best he could and bent over to get the canteen.

Back by Joe’s side once more, he gently lifted Joe’s head to trickle water into his brother’s mouth. He was relieved when Joe swallowed it, and he quickly retrieved his bandanna and soaked it, bathing the dirt off Joe’s face.

The cool water brought Joe mumbling back to consciousness and he opened his eyes to look at Hoss blankly. “Hoss? What happened?” he murmured. He tried to move and let out a cry of pain.

“Easy, careful!” Hoss soothed. “It’s all right, Joe. Everythin’ll be jist fine, I promise ya.”

“The bear,” Joe breathed, panting against the pain. “Got…me, didn’t she?”

“Sure did,” Hoss agreed. “She clawed ya down yer arm.”

Grimacing, Joe swallowed before adding, “And my… back, too.” He bit his lip to contain a groan of pain. He felt incredibly unwell and a moment later began to shiver.

Hoss knew that he had to get Joe back to camp at once. “Can ya walk, Joe?” he asked, for he wasn’t sure that he would be able to carry his brother, as he was feeling pretty rotten too.

“I’ll try,” Joe panted and braced himself as Hoss helped him to his feet. For a moment, the world spun crazily around him and Joe thought he was going to throw up. However, he managed to get his stomach under control and blinked the sweat out of his eyes.

“Come on,” Hoss urged, sliding his arm around Joe’s waist, and pulling Joe’s arm over his shoulders. “Slow an’ easy.”

At the first step, Joe cried out as he put his weight on the ankle he had twisted. It buckled under him and he would have fallen, but for Hoss. “Easy, easy,” Hoss panted. “Jist take it slow.”

It was a nightmare journey. Hoss estimated that they were no more than half a mile from their campsite, but it took them nearly three hours to get there. By then, Joe was barely conscious and he had lost quite a lot of blood. Hoss was limping badly, too, but he knew he had to get them both back to camp, where he could start dealing with their hurts. The imminent panic he had felt had worn off now that he was doing something.

Gently laying Joe down on his bedroll, Hoss tucked the warm blanket tightly around his shivering brother and collapsed to the ground beside him. All Hoss wanted to do was sleep, but he knew he had to take care of Joe – and himself – and the first order was to get the fire built up. They would need it that night. The day was too far advanced to even think about setting off for home. Soon, Hoss had the fire going, and he rested for a moment again.

After a few minutes breather, Hoss retrieved the medical supplies – such as they were – from the saddlebags and went over to Joe. It broke Hoss’ heart to disturb his brother, who was in a light sleep, but he knew Joe needed to have those wounds cleaned and bandaged to prevent infection, if at all possible.

“No, don’t,” Joe begged as Hoss began to ease off his green jacket. “Hoss, please! It hurts!”

“I know it does, Punkin,” Hoss replied, soothingly. “But I need ta clean ya up. Ya just rest agin me an’ let me do the work.” His tender heart ached at having to hurt Joe, even though he knew he had to.

The claw marks were worse than Hoss had anticipated and they began to bleed sluggishly as he peeled Joe’s shredded shirt and jacket off. The marks extended from Joe’s shoulders to his waist, leaving the flesh swollen and red. As gently as he could, Hoss cleaned those dreadful marks, causing the clotted blood to break open and more blood to ooze out. Joe shuddered and cried out and finally succumbed to the darkness again, slumping against Hoss.

Working steadily, trying to ignore the shaking of his hands and the blood staining them, Hoss tore up his spare shirt and wadded it against the injuries on Joe’s back and right arm, bandaging them tightly. He didn’t have enough bandages for all the injuries, so he simply bound Joe’s arm across his chest, wrapping both back and arm together. Finally, when he had done everything that he could, Hoss slid Joe’s spare shirt up his left arm and hooked it around his shoulders, buttoning it as best he could. On top of that, he put Joe’s sheepskin coat and then tucked the blanket around Joe again.

It was only then that reaction hit him. Hoss dropped his head into his bloodstained hands and wept.

*****

Taking care of his own injuries was almost an afterthought. Although Hoss felt that his grazed leg and numerous bruises were as nothing compared to Joe’s injuries, he knew that he had to take care of them, so the he would be able to take Joe home next day. He cleaned the dirt out of the graze, wincing miserably at the discomfort and chiding himself for reacting like that. How could he be complaining about the pain he was in when Joe was so much worse off? Yet Hoss was in pain, even if it wasn’t as bad as Joe’s pain. The fall from the tree had been hard and Hoss hadn’t escaped totally unscathed. The worst injury was to his knee, which had swelled like a balloon. Hoss used the remnants of his pants to bandage it up and slid on his spare pair of pants.

Once more survival kicked in and Hoss knew that he had to try and get some food into Joe, and make sure his brother got enough water. “Joe?” he whispered, but Joe appeared to be asleep. Hoss took the opportunity and went to the stream to replenish the canteens. He got back to the camp before Joe woke and set about cooking some bacon from their supplies. When it was ready, he gently woke his brother.

“Ya gotta eat somethin’,” Hoss chided Joe, when Joe refused the food.

“I’m not hungry,” Joe protested, weakly. He was in constant pain and wished Hoss would leave him alone to sleep.

“It’ll make ya feel better, Joe,” Hoss coaxed. “I dun made it fer ya.”

“All right,” Joe relented, although just the thought of food made him feel nauseous. He fought against dizziness as Hoss gave him a few bites to eat and although Joe ate very little, he did feel slightly better afterwards. “Hoss?” he asked, as his brother continued to eat slowly.

“Hmm?” Hoss replied, his mouth full.

“Are you… all right?” Joe enquired. “You fell… out of that tree… The bear… didn’t get you, did she?”

“I’m all right,” Hoss insisted stoutly. “That ol’ bear didn’ look near me.”

Blinking furiously to help keep himself awake, Joe protested, “But you’re… limping, Hoss. I… saw you.”

“Its nuthin’,” Hoss stated quietly. “I’m fine. Ya try an’ git more sleep, Joe. I’m gonna go back an’ git that deer, or what’s left o’ it and rig a travois fer ya fer tomorra.”

“I can ride,” Joe claimed, automatically.

“No, ya can’t!” Hoss declared bluntly. “Joe, ya lost a lot o’ blood. There ain’t no way ya’ll be able ta stay on a horse!”

“I can!” Joe argued, pushing aside the blanket that covered him and trying to get to his feet. He got about as far as his knees when first of all his ankle gave a painful twinge and then his head began spinning and when Joe tried to reach down with his right arm to catch himself, he discovered that he couldn’t use it and would have fallen if Hoss hadn’t been there.

“Easy, Joe, easy!” Hoss cried, distressed that Joe had tried to get up. He eased aside his brother’s coat and shirt and saw, as he had dreaded, splotches of blood on the bandages. “Ya done started the bleedin’ again!”

“I’m sorry,” Joe whispered, miserably. He didn’t realize that Hoss wasn’t really angry – he was frightened. Joe had lost a lot of blood and to Hoss’ horror, he was beginning to feel very warm to the touch.

“Have a drink,” Hoss urged, totally at a loss. Joe gulped the cool liquid eagerly. Gently, Hoss laid him back down. “Ya git some rest, Joe, an’ let me get ready fer the mornin’. If’n I don’, we won’t be ready ta start at first light.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe repeated. Hoss mussed his curls affectionately.

“Don’ ya fret none,” he told his brother with a confidence he didn’t feel. “Ol’ Hoss’ll git ya out a this.” He waited beside Joe until his brother was asleep once more, then got stiffly to his feet and went over to the packhorse. Leaning heavily on its back, he made his way back to collect the deer and the things he would need for a travois.

*****

The forest scavengers hadn’t eaten much of the deer and Hoss struggled to get the carcass onto the packhorse’s back. He did eventually manage, and sat down for a rest, leaning against the closest tree. However, despite the weariness of his body and the grinding soreness he felt, Hoss couldn’t let himself rest until they were ready to travel the next day. He knew Joe needed medical attention soon and in the meantime, Hoss was determined to do everything he could to help his brother, even if it was just by preparing.

The effort required to cut down a couple of slender trees surprised Hoss, but he put it down to being tired. He plugged away at his self-imposed chore and finally had the branches removed and the poles ready for use. He attached them to the horse’s harness and limped his way back to camp.

It was virtually dark now, but Hoss wouldn’t allow himself more than a few minutes rest. Joe was sleeping, but he was restless, tossing and turning. Anxiously, Hoss felt his forehead and found that Joe’s fever had increased slightly. Soaking his bandanna, Hoss placed the wet cloth on Joe’s head, hoping that would help bring down the fever. Joe mumbled something unintelligible before settling down slightly.

Sighing, Hoss took a drink himself and uneasily felt how light the canteen was. They would have to have more water, he thought and limped his way down to the stream to replenish it. Coming back, he checked Joe once more, then sat down to butcher the deer. When that was done, he packed all the meat, ready for their departure in the morning, and lay down to rest.

He was asleep in seconds.

*****

Guilt rocketed through Hoss as he woke the next morning. He glanced all around, seeing that the fire had burned out and that he hadn’t made the travois, as he had intended. Sitting up, Hoss groaned as the pain in his knee came to life and he gingerly felt the injured joint, wincing at the heat that emanated from it.

A groan from Joe brought Hoss to his feet and he hurried over to Joe, who was awake, but looked ill. Hectic patches of color burned in his otherwise pale face, but he was lucid. “I… don’t… feel… so… good,” he whispered.

Gently, Hoss helped Joe to sit up and gave him a drink. Joe gulped the cool water ravenously, for his thirst was overpowering. “That better?” Hoss asked, as Joe pushed the canteen away.

Nodding, Joe said, “Hoss…” But his brother didn’t allow him the chance to go on.

“Ya jist rest, Joe,” he urged. “I’ll git the travois ready an’ we’ll leave real soon, I promise.”

“Hoss,” Joe tried again, but got no further.

“It’ll only take me a few minutes ta make,” Hoss rattled on. “I got all the gear here.”

“Hoss!” Joe repeated, with more force and his older brother looked at him silently.

“You go and get help,” Joe suggested, weakly. “I’ll stay here. I’ll be all right.”

“I ain’t gonna do nuthin’ like that!” Hoss objected furiously. “Jist put that foolish notion right out a yer head, Joe! I ain’t leavin’ ya an’ that’s an end ta it!”

Tears sprang into Joe’s eyes at his brother’s harsh tone. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he admitted in a whisper. “It hurts so much.”

“I know it does, Punkin,” Hoss soothed, immediately remorseful for shouting at Joe. “But I cain’t leave ya here, Joe. Ya’d die alone! I gotta git ya back home.” He smiled. “Ya jist lie there an’ let me sort things, hear? I’ll take care o’ everythin’.”

Too tired and too sore to argue any further, Joe simply nodded, closing his eyes to try and hide his distress. But the tears seeped out beneath his lashes and Joe despised himself for his weakness. Normally, he didn’t care if he shed tears, but now, when Hoss was trying so hard to help him and was hurt himself, it seemed to Joe that he was showing incredible ingratitude and weakness and he was ashamed of himself. Wiping away the tears with his one good hand, and wincing miserably as the movement hurt his back, Joe vowed to make no more complaints.

*****

They made very good progress that first day, mostly because Hoss rode on well into the evening, welcoming the full moon that shone from out of a cloudless sky. They travelled for several hours after dark by the light of the moon and only stopped when Joe could no longer control his groans of pain.

It had been a nightmare journey for Joe. He was running a good going temperature now as infection started creeping through his body. The wounds on his back and arm burned relentlessly and every jolt of the travois caused him untold agony. He bit his lip until it was bleeding to muffle any sounds of distress and it was only when exhaustion added its dangerous contribution to blood loss and fever that he was unable to keep quiet any longer.

For Hoss, the day had been just as difficult and he was thoroughly exhausted, too.  His sore knee had made mounting his horse a real trial and getting down again had proved no better. But despite his exhaustion, Hoss would have ridden all night to get Joe home, had Joe not needed to stop.

Working as quickly as his bad knee would allow, Hoss made a rough camp and settled Joe as best he could. “Sorry,” Joe whispered, as Hoss tucked the bedroll around him.

“I’m tired, too, Shortshanks,” Hoss soothed him. “Ya try an’ git some sleep, now ya ain’t movin’. Do it feel better when yer still?”

It didn’t really, but Hoss was trying so hard to help him that Joe felt bad about admitting the truth. “A little,” he lied and saw a smile cross his brother’s tired face. “Can I get a drink?” he asked, and eagerly gulped the water. Joe had no desire to eat and neither did Hoss that night. He simply lay down next to Joe and they both fell asleep quickly, knowing that tomorrow, they would be home.

*****

“I’m going into town to do a few things,” Ben told Adam the next morning at breakfast. “Want to come along?”

“All right,” Adam agreed. “There are a few things I could do in town, too.”

Smiling, Ben added, “I might even treat you to a beer if you play your cards right.”

“What, you mean you don’t mind if I have a game of cards?” Adam retorted and saw Ben’s eyes widen.

“Very funny!” Ben said, trying to sound repressive and not quite succeeding. “You know my views on gambling.”

“I surely do,” Adam replied. “Think Hoss and Joe will be home today?”

“Maybe,” Ben replied, doubtfully. “But I think it’s more likely to be tomorrow.” He smiled. “We’ll find out later. Let’s go.”

*****

It can’t be morning already, Hoss thought as he wakened. He still felt exhausted. He rolled over, hoping to get back to sleep, but one look at Joe pushed all thoughts of sleep from his mind. Joe was horribly pale, apart from the spots of hectic color burning in his cheeks. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open as he dragged in rapid, shallow breaths.

“Joe!” Hoss cried, shaking his brother. “Joe, wake up!”

For a long moment, Hoss thought Joe wasn’t going to respond, but at last his brother stirred and Joe peered at Hoss, his green eyes glazed with fever. “Hoss?” he breathed. “Where’s Pa?”

It was the question that Hoss had been dreading. He knew that Joe wanted his father; for that matter, Hoss wanted his father, too. But they still had a few hours of travel in front of them before they reached home and Ben’s tender loving care.

“Pa’s at home, Joe,” Hoss replied. “We’ll see him when we get there. Here, have some water.” He lifted Joe’s head and his brother drank slowly. Hoss was discouraged by how high Joe’s fever was. “I’ll git movin’ an’ ya’ll soon be home, Joe.”

“Good,” Joe sighed. He desperately wanted to be home to see his father. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so ill. It seemed every breath was a struggle and the pain from his injuries sapped Joe’s dwindling strength even further. The thought of having to lie on the travois as he was transported home was almost more than he could bear. Yet even at this low ebb, Joe didn’t think of dying. He just wanted to get home to his father, the chief source of comfort he could remember, and he knew he would begin to feel better. He listened to Hoss moving about the campsite and finally opened his eyes to squint at Hoss, seeing that his ears hadn’t led him astray – Hoss was limping very badly. “Hoss!” he called, suddenly frightened.

“What is it, Joe?” Hoss asked. He had found it a severe struggle getting going that morning. His knee had stiffened to the point where it almost wouldn’t bend and he ached all over.

“Hoss, you’re… hurt,” Joe cried, distressed.

“I’m all right,” Hoss denied. “Its jist ma knee that’s a bit stiff. I’m all right, Joe, honest.”

Despite the sincerity in Hoss’ voice, Joe didn’t believe a single word. He had a long and intimate relationship with telling untruths about his health and it gave him a radar with which to determine the veracity of others. However, he couldn’t refute what Hoss was saying, for his brother was ignoring his own suffering to help Joe and Joe couldn’t belittle that noble effort. “If… you’re…sure,” he breathed.

“I’m sure,” Hoss replied and smiled.

“Good,” Joe muttered and closed his eyes again. He couldn’t bear to watch Hoss make a liar of himself.

*****

“Almost there, almost there,” Hoss mumbled. He was talking only to himself, for Joe had slipped into a kind of unconsciousness and Hoss thought it was probably kinder to leave him alone for now. At least he wasn’t feeling any pain.

He blinked and rubbed his tired eyes and realized that Chub had stepped up his pace slightly. It was a sure sign they were nearing home and for Hoss, home couldn’t come soon enough. He was feeling a mite feverish himself and the cold wind that was now blowing steadily from the north seemed to cut right through his winter coat. Catching himself almost nodding off again, Hoss rubbed his eyes once more.

Never had the ranch house looked more welcoming to Hoss than it did that afternoon. “We’re home, Joe,” he said aloud. “We made it.”

There was no response, but Hoss hadn’t expected one. He all but fell from his horse, catching himself before his bad leg could thump down too hard on the ground, but all the same, it was hard enough to make him pause to catch his breath.

“Pa!” Hoss shouted and began to limp towards the house. “Pa!” No response.

Throwing open the house door, Hoss shouted again. “Pa! Adam!” Still there was no response and Hoss found himself on the verge of tears as he realized that there was no one home and he would have to go on coping and doing the best he could for Joe, despite being on the point of collapse. “Pa!”

But the house wasn’t totally deserted. “Mistah Hoss?” asked a familiar, puzzled, voice. Hop Sing came into view and looked at Hoss curiously. “Mistah Hoss, what happen?” he demanded. “Sit down. Where Lil Joe?”

“No, can’t sit down,” Hoss protested. “Joe’s outside, Hop Sing. He’s hurt real bad. Where’s Pa an’ Adam?”

“Father and Mistah Adam go to town this morning,” Hop Sing responded. “Say they not be back for suppah.”

“Oh no!” Hoss cried, despairingly. “Joe’s hurt real bad an’ we need the doc. What am I gonna do?”

“Sit down!” Hop Sing ordered. “Hop Sing sort out.” He pushed Hoss towards a seat and then hurried out of the door.

Joe looked worse than he had anticipated, but Hop Sing kept his head. He hurried to the bunkhouse and roused the hands who had not long finished for the day. One man was sent galloping into town to get the doctor and Ben – in that order – and another three were roped into helping Hop Sing get Joe and Hoss to their rooms.

“Mistah Hoss rest,” Hop Sing instructed him. “Hop Sing take care of Lil Joe.” He ushered the curious hands out and ordered them to take care of the horses while he gathered up the supplies he thought he might need.

*****

There was no mistaking the infection in Joe’s body. The claw marks were red, swollen and crusted with pus. Heat radiated from Joe’s body and he moaned softly.  Hop Sing was very concerned. He began to bathe the wounds again, softening the crusts.

“Pa?” Joe’s voice was barely more than a breath.

“It me, Lil Joe,” Hop Sing replied, as steadily as he could. Joe was lying on his stomach, so that the Oriental could more easily treat his injuries. He moved over so that Joe could see him. “Father in town. Be back soon.”

“Oh,” Joe replied, and the breathlessness of his tone worried Hop Sing even further. Joe’s eyes moved, looking around the room for something. Hop Sing wondered what it was. After all, he had just told the youth that Ben was not at home. Surely Joe wasn’t so far into delirium that he had already forgotten what he had just been told? Fear clutched at Hop Sing’s heart. “Where’s Hoss?” Joe asked.

The relief was overwhelming and for a moment, Hop Sing couldn’t speak. However, that state of affairs didn’t last for long and he replied, “Mistah Hoss in bed, resting.”

“He… all right?” Joe wanted to know.

“He be just fine,” Hop Sing declared firmly, although he hadn’t had a moment to look in on him. “He need rest, just like Lil Joe. Doctor be here soon.”

“Hoss… is limping,” Joe went on, his breath panting away from him.

“He rest,” Hop Sing repeated. “He be just fine. Lil Joe sleep now.”

“Thirsty,” Joe muttered and Hop Sing tenderly held his head to help him drink. He fervently hoped that the doctor would arrive soon.

*****

For once, Paul Martin had been easier to find than Ben, who had fallen in with a companion in town and had ended up having a meal with him at the hotel. Fred, the hand that Hop Sing had sent into town, finally tracked Adam down in the Silver Dollar saloon and Adam took in Fred’s bad news very fast. “I’ll get Pa,” he declared. “You get our horses from the livery!”

Adam ran from the saloon. Fortunately, the hotel was close by and Adam raced into the dining room, ignoring the startled looks he got from the hotel patrons. “Pa!”

Alerted by Adam’s precipitous entrance, Ben was already on his feet, his face paling as Adam panted out the news. “Joe and Hoss are home and Joe’s seriously ill.”

“Paul…?” Ben asked, dropping his napkin on the remnants of his meal.

“Already on his way. Fred’s getting our horses.” Adam turned away, knowing that Ben was following on his heels. Together, the two men hurried outside and found the faithful Fred waiting with their horses.

“Don’t wait fer me,” Fred told them. “I’ll git back by an’ by.” His horse was tired after racing into town and he knew the Cartwrights wanted to get home as fast as possible. Barely nodding, Ben and Adam put their heels to their horses and galloped out of town.

*****

The only comfort for Ben as he raced home that night was that Paul Martin had about 20 minutes head start on them and should already be there tending to Joe when they arrived home. However, the details that they had were sketchy at best and Ben’s imagination was soon providing him with one lurid explanation after another for the cause of Joe’s illness.

When they arrived in the yard, there were hands waiting to look after their horses, and another man was walking the doctor’s buggy horse around, cooling it out. Ben noticed that subliminally as he threw his reins at the nearest man before racing into the house.

“Joe!” Ben practically fell into Joe’s room, snatching off his hat and throwing it carelessly onto Joe’s dresser as he hurried to lean over his son’s bed. “Joe!” he repeated, his voice hushed with horror. Glancing up at Hop Sing, he asked, “What happened to him? Where’s Hoss?”

“I’d say he was attacked by a bear,” Paul replied as he continued his ministrations. “Hoss is in his room. Hop Sing tells me he’s limping badly, but I haven’t had the chance to go and get the story from him. Hop Sing, I need some more hot water, please.”

“Yes, doctah,” the Oriental replied and hurried out of the room.

“I’ll see to Hoss,” Adam told Ben, touching his father’s arm. He didn’t want to admit to Ben that he could hardly bear to look at Joe’s lacerated back.

“How is he, Paul?” Ben asked, coming closer.

“Pa?” Joe breathed and Ben instantly crouched by his son’s side, one hand automatically stroking the curls back from Joe’s forehead.

“I’m here, Joe,” he replied.

“Tangled… with a… bear,” Joe panted, squinting at Ben. “Hoss…?”

“Hoss will be just fine,” Ben replied, although he didn’t know that. “Adam is with him.” He found a smile from somewhere, although his heart was sore. “You just rest now and let the doctor treat you.”

“No… bad… tasting…medicine, doc,” Joe breathed and tried to laugh. The effort clearly hurt and the laugh ended on a gasp of pain.

“What?” Paul demanded, jokingly. “Bad tasting medicine is my stock in trade, young man and I don’t intend to stop using it now!” He saw the smile flitting across Joe’s face and took heart from it. Joe might well be in a vast amount of pain, but he was still lucid and hadn’t lost his sense of humor. That was encouraging. “Joe, I’m going to give you something for the pain and then I’m going to put you to sleep to work on your back, all right?”

“Do I… have a… choice?” Joe whispered, but his humor was clearly forced as his strength ran out. He reached out with his hand, despite the pain in his arm and Ben took his hand.

The touch of his father’s big, warm hand was the last thing Joe was aware of for quite a while.

*****

“Hoss?” Adam whispered, as he approached the bed.

“I’m awake,” Hoss replied. He sounded utterly exhausted and when Adam perched on the edge of the bed, he could see huge dark circles under Hoss’ eyes. “How’s Joe?”

“The doc’s with him,” Adam replied, unable to put his feelings into words. “What happened, Hoss?”

“We got between a mama bear an’ her cubs,” Hoss mumbled. “She chased us an’ we both climbed trees.” He moved uncomfortably at the recollection. “The branch I was on broke an’ the bear came fer me. Joe…” Hoss stopped and swallowed. “Joe jumped down from his tree an’ distracted her. I dunno ezzactly what happened, but Joe couldn’ git out a the way an’ then she was on him.” Hoss wiped a hand over his eyes, guilt eating him up. “I chased her off, but it was too late, Adam. Joe was hurt ‘cos o’ me.”

“Hoss…” Adam began, uncomfortably, but Hoss went on.

“I got him back ta camp, but it took hours, Adam. I did what I could fer him, but we couldn’ leave that afternoon ‘cos it was too late. An’ I meant ta make the travois, but I fell asleep, so we was later settin’ off fer home than I wanted.” He sighed. “It took us two days ta git here, Adam. Two days when there wasn’t nuthin’ I could do fer Joe.”

“Stop blaming yourself!” Adam ordered, harshly. “You did everything you could for Joe! He’s alive and you got him home.”

“But he’s real sick!” Hoss objected.

“And if you hadn’t been there, he’d be dead!” Adam shouted, immediately regretting his outburst. He glanced at his sibling, and saw, to his amazement, that Hoss actually looked thoughtful, not upset.

“Yer right,” Hoss nodded, slowly. “I hadn’t thought o’ that. I was jist thinkin’ about the things I didn’ do. I even brought home the deer we shot, Adam.”

Shaking his head, Adam smiled. “Hoss, you did wonderfully out there! Now, let’s take a look at your leg. I’m told you’re limping.” He examined his brother’s leg, knowing that Paul would have to take a look at it later, especially the knee, which was red and swollen, the skin shiny and hot to the touch. “I’ll get the doc in to see you when he’s finished with Joe,” Adam concluded, pulling the blankets up round Hoss. “Why don’t you get some sleep?”

“Reckon I might,” Hoss agreed. He was snoring before Adam had even left the room.

*****

The atmosphere in Joe’s room was tense. Ben paced restlessly while Paul worked over Joe, cleaning up the wounds and stitching them closed. Adam leant on the wall by the door, keeping out of the way. Ben sent him an enquiring glance and Adam quickly up-dated them on what had happened, Ben listening in silence, his mouth hanging open as he visualized the scene.

“Thank heavens Hoss was there,” Ben breathed when Adam was finished. “If either of them had been alone…” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought.

“Done,” Paul announced about half an hour later. He tied off the last of the bandages and they gently turned Joe over so he was resting on a pile of pillows. “I’m going to have a look at Hoss. Call me when Joe wakes up, all right?”

“I’ll stay with Joe, Pa,” Adam offered, happier now that the damage was covered up. “I know you want to see Hoss.”

“Thanks, son,” Ben replied and followed Paul through to the other bedroom.

Hoss’ injuries weren’t as serious as Joe’s, but his knee was badly sprained and walking about on it had just made things worse. Paul cleaned up the graze and bandaged it, splinting the knee to prevent further damage. “You must keep off that leg entirely until the knee has healed,” Paul warned Hoss. “No more heroics!”

“Joe’s the hero,” Hoss objected. “He saved my life.”

“And you saved Joe’s life in return,” Paul pointed out. “Then you brought both him and your winter venison safely home. I’d say that was heroic, wouldn’t you, Ben?”

“Yes, I would,” Ben replied. He squeezed Hoss’ shoulder and the big man beamed, blushing furiously at the same time.

“Shucks, Pa, ya’d have done the same fer us.”

“Yes, I would and I know Adam would have done no less for any of us, had the need arisen,” Ben agreed, soberly. “You rest now, son. You deserve it.”

*****

By next morning, Hoss was looking much better, the circles gone from beneath his eyes and his appetite returning. The fever he had been running when he had arrived home was gone and apart from being confined to bed, Hoss felt pretty good.

Through the wall, progress was much slower. Joe had lost a lot of blood in the initial attack and yet more during the surgery to suture his back and was very weak. His temperature had risen to begin with but it gradually dropped through the night, until it was only a couple of degrees above normal. He slept deeply, barely rousing for the fluids Paul insisted he had to get regularly and Ben eventually resorted to giving them to Joe without wakening him.

It was mid-afternoon before Joe roused properly. He blinked bleary eyes and glanced at the side of his bed. As he expected someone was keeping him company, but it wasn’t Ben, it was Adam. “Hi,” Joe breathed, unsure of his voice.

Glancing up from his book, Adam smiled. “Well, look who’s awake at last,” he teased. “I thought you were going to sleep all day.”

“Where’s… Pa?” Joe asked. He could barely move, he felt so weak.

“He’s been sleeping,” Adam responded. “He sat up all night with you, and I sent him to bed. I think he’s getting something to eat right now.” Adam rose and got a glass of water and helped Joe to drink. “How’re you feeling?”

“Tired,” Joe admitted. He knew there was no point in trying his standard answer – ‘fine’ – because he was obviously anything but fine! “How’s Hoss?”

“All right, apart from a sprained knee.” Adam lifted one eyebrow. “Did you know you have a sprained ankle, by the way?”

Frowning, Joe wriggled his toes gingerly and immediately felt a twinge surge through his left ankle. It seemed to be the signal for all his other pains to come to life and he winced as he sorted through his few memories of the bear attack. “I think I hurt it… jumping from the tree,” Joe sighed.

“I expect that would do it,” Adam agreed, reaching for the painkiller that had been left for Joe. He gave his brother the pill and watched as Joe swallowed it down. “Do you want something to eat?”

“I don’t know,” Joe hesitated. Right now, he felt too sore to eat, but his insides did feel rather hollow. Thinking back, Joe couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.

“I’ll go and get Pa,” Adam offered, “and see what Hop Sing has cooking for you.”

“No need to get me, I’m here,” came Ben’s deep voice and Joe swiveled his eyes round to see his father coming in the door.  He went straight over to the bed and leaned one hand on the headboard as he bent over to study Joe closely. “How’re you feeling, son?” he asked and the love in his voice caused tears to spring into Joe’s eyes, although they didn’t fall.

“Tired,” Joe admitted again. “Adam says Hoss… is all right.”

“Yes, he is,” Ben smiled.

“He saved… my life,” Joe reported. He was annoyed that he couldn’t finish a sentence in one breath, but taking a deep breath hurt too much.

“And you saved his,” Ben replied. He sat down on the edge of the bed as Adam went down to tell Hop Sing that Joe was awake. Ben knew that he had cooked up some chicken soup just for Joe.

“I couldn’t let the… bear get him,” Joe whispered, the remembered fear coloring his voice. He swallowed. “I’m sorry about the meat,” he went on. “We did get… a couple of deer…” He frowned in confusion as Ben held up his hand.

“Hoss saved the deer, too,” Ben told Joe. “It’s in the smokehouse as we speak and Fred is making sure that there are enough hickory chips to do the job properly.”

“But… how?” Joe asked, plainly confused.

Smiling, Ben told Joe the story that Hoss had related to him that morning, about getting the second deer while he was collecting what he needed for the travois. Joe smiled. “Trust Hoss,” he grinned. “Always thinking… about his stomach,” he joked.

At that moment, Adam came back in with Joe’s soup and they helped him sit up. Joe winced a number of times, and his head spun dizzily for a few seconds, but he had to admit that the soup smelt good and he ate most of the bowl before exhaustion claimed him. Ben helped him lie down again, and Joe soon drifted off to sleep.

Sitting watching him, Ben gave a silent prayer of thanks that his sons had both returned home safely.

*****

The first snows of winter had fallen before both Joe and Hoss were up and about again. Hoss had gained his feet first, his sprained knee healing much more quickly than Paul Martin had feared it might due to the amount of walking Hoss had done on it to get Joe home and his weight, for however you looked at it, Hoss was a big man. Joe took a little longer to recover fully, due to the amount of blood he had lost.

It had been many weeks since they had all sat at the table together, Ben thought as he looked at his three sons. He had come very close to losing both his boys and he was grateful that they cared enough about each other to put their lives on the line for each other. Of course, he reflected, ruefully, he’d much rather that they didn’t get into situations where they had to put their lives on the line!

“What’s for supper?” Hoss asked, eagerly, as Hop Sing put a steaming dish onto the table. “It sure smells good!”

“Suppah thanks to Mistah Hoss an’ Lil Joe,” Hop Sing beamed and bustled back into the kitchen to bring out the vegetables.

“Huh?” Hoss grunted, confused. He glanced at Joe, who looked no less confused than his big brother. Adam and Ben exchanged a look.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, as the cook came back with another couple of dishes.

“Mistah Hoss an’ Lil Joe bring suppah back with them,” Hop Sing explained, but nobody had the least clue what he was talking about until Ben dished up and had a bite.

A smile spread over his face, but he said not a word until everyone had tasted it. By then, they were all grinning.

“Smoked venison,” Ben remarked.

Nodding, Joe winked at Hoss. “Well, I guess we did bring it home with us, didn’t we, big brother?”

“Guess we did,” Hoss agreed doubtfully. “But it were me what remembered it. Joe didn’ have nuthin’ ta do with it.”

“I shot one of those deer!” Joe objected vociferously.

“I brung them back,” Hoss retorted.

“And normality reigns,” Adam commented to Ben.

“Thank goodness,” he agreed and they smiled as Joe and Hoss broke off from arguing to cast each of them an enquiring look.

Blandly, Ben and Adam returned to their food, while Joe and Hoss exchanged glances.

“Don’t ask me,” Joe told him.

“I wasn’ goin’ ta,” Hoss replied. “An’ I did bring that meat back.”

“Yeah, but I shot one…”

***End***

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