Word Count: 8951
Ben Cartwright wondered if they had ever had a cattle drive where everything had gone smoothly. If so, he couldn’t remember it. but he didn’t think there had ever been one as bad as this one was proving to be and to make things worse, they hadn’t even started the round up yet!
The first problem was the weather. It had been raining solidly for a week. It was cold and none of the men they had hired had wanted to sleep on the ground while the round up was in progress. It wasn’t a prospect that filled Ben with joy either, but the cattle had to be watched to stop them from straying.
The second problem was actually hiring men. With the mines going full blast day and night, there were precious few men willing to sign on to work the round up. The wages offered by the mines were much bigger than Ben could pay his hands. It was a continual problem, but one that was exacerbated by the extra men needed at this time of year.
The third problem was… Well, Ben wasn’t sure there was a third problem as yet, but he was sure there would be one cropping up any minute, given the way things had gone so far. He needed to have the herd moving towards Sacramento by this time next week if he was to get there before the best deals were gone. Ben’s thoughts drifted slightly as he pondered once more Joe’s idea. “Why don’t we negotiate a contract before we drive the cattle down?” he had asked. “Then we’d have a definite contract and wouldn’t have to push so hard.” It was something Ben had never thought of doing, but now that it had been suggested, he couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t thought of it before.
There was also the thorny problem of who to leave behind. Hop Sing had grudgingly agreed to go along as cook and Ben knew that old Charlie, the foreman, wouldn’t be up to a long journey, but he needed to leave behind at least a couple of younger men, too. Ideally, one of them should be Joe or Hoss, but Ben needed them both with him. He shook his head. He had another few days to work things out; perhaps the answer would come to him while he was doing something else. Ben sure hoped so.
The front door opened and Ben looked up from his musings to see his sons come into the house. They were both wet, despite the slickers they shed, and looked exhausted. Ben felt a pang of guilt. He knew that both his sons would work themselves into the ground to make sure that this round up went well. He had brought them up to be hard workers, although neither of them would ever object to a day off in which they could do nothing if that was what they wanted. But today, they had been out in the wind and the rain working with the men and they were beat.
“How are things going?” Ben asked, rising to walk over to join them.
“The north section is cleared out,” Joe replied, his voice weary. “We went through there twice and we’ve definitely got them all. We drove them down to join the main herd at the South Forty. Tomorrow, we’ll go to the East Meadow.”
“Good thinking,” Ben praised. It was a long way from the north section to the South Forty and more than Ben had expected his sons to do. If they had got the cattle down to the east section, it would have been good work; this was above and beyond the call of duty.
“It were Joe that done it,” Hoss told Ben, giving the credit where it was due. “I helped the boys comb the brush while Joe pushed them cows down alone.” He dropped his hat on the credenza and sighed heavily. “Then the boys an’ I brung down the strays we found. Weren’t many.”
“Thank you for doing that, son,” Ben praised Joe, touching his arm. “That’s saved us a lot of time.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” Joe replied and Ben saw how white his youngest son’s face was. Pushing cattle alone was no one’s idea of fun and Joe had done miraculously well to have moved that number of cows in such a short space of time. No wonder he looked exhausted. Joe summoned a smile. “Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll be ready to go by next week.”
“I’m sure we will,” Ben agreed, cheered by Joe’s optimism. “Why don’t you boys go and put on dry clothes and by then, supper will be ready.”
“Sounds good ta me!” Hoss exclaimed. He hurried across the room to the stairs and Joe and Ben exchanged a fond smile.
“Sounds good to me, too,” Joe admitted and followed in his brother’s footsteps, but more slowly.
Watching Joe go, Ben smiled ruefully when he realized he was getting ready to cluck over his youngest chick. It was a hard habit to break, but Joe was constantly proving that he was a man to be proud of. Since Adam had left the previous cold season, Joe had stepped into his oldest brother’s shoes without being aware of it and he had more than filled them. Although Adam was sorely missed, Joe had taken on many of the jobs that had been Adam’s and had tackled them successfully. Joe had matured into a man of great depth. Doting father though Ben was, he had to admit that the maturation process had been more marked since Adam had left. With Adam no longer there, Joe had come into his own and it hurt Ben to think that, however unintentionally, Adam had stunted Joe’s growth.
Supper was a quiet meal that night. Both Joe and Hoss were too tired to make casual conversation and shortly after supper was over, Joe went to bed. Hoss stayed for a while, but the warmth of the fire soon had him dozing on the sofa and Ben finally shook him and told him to go to bed, too. He followed shortly after, but it was some time before he fell asleep, still mulling over the problem of who to leave behind.
Morning saw a slight lightening of the leaden skies and there wasn’t actually any rain falling just for a change. In response, the Cartwright’s spirits rose and they were smiling when they rode out to begin rounding up the portion of the herd in the East Meadow.
The better weather seemed to be a good omen. The strays were few and easily found and the whole herd was moved down to the South Forty in a remarkably short time. Ben began to think their luck had changed. He continued to think so when two men who had worked for them previously turned up looking for jobs. Ben knew they wouldn’t stay for one minute longer than it took them to get their money, but he understood their need to keep moving. He was even more relieved when the day after that, another two men came from the town looking for jobs.
“All right, this is what I think we should do,” Ben declared. He was sitting behind his desk, with Joe perched on one corner and Hoss sitting in a chair beside him. “Charlie will stay here, along with Hank and Walt.” Both Hank and Walt were older men. “That means this place is kept up and we have the younger men on the cattle drive with us. What do you think?”
“Sounds good,” Joe nodded. “Those two drifters coming back have made a lot of difference. They’re experienced enough to know what needs done without having to be told all the time.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed. “An’ them two new fellars from town is workin’ out real well.”
“All right,” Ben smiled. “Then that’s what we’ll do. Tomorrow, we’ll gather the last of the supplies that we need and then we move out the next morning.”
The relief was palpable in the air as the three rose. Joe and Hoss started teasing each other about the forth coming trip, but Ben wasn’t listening. He was just relieved that everything seemed to be under control and going his way. It didn’t occur to him to touch wood or do any other superstitious thing to keep the good luck.
It was raining again as they rose in the pre-dawn darkness to leave on the cattle drive. They were silent, yawning widely, none of them fully awake. They ate in the same silence and prepared their mounts. By the time dawn broke, the Cartwrights were down at the South Forty, looking at the four hundred head of cattle that they were going to push all the way to Sacramento.
The beasts were as reluctant to get going that dreary morning as the men were. There were curses – although not many, the men knowing that Ben didn’t approve of swearing – and grumbling, but within an hour, the herd was on its feet and moving slowly.
In that hour, the weather had deteriorated. The skies had darkened and the wind picked up. The cattle were unsettled, the horses spooking at nothing. Hoss looked anxiously at the sky. There was definitely a storm on the way.
The thought had barely crossed his mind when there was a tremendous flash of lightning. It split the dark sky and struck the ground nearby. A stink of ozone was left behind. The rumble of thunder was directly overhead.
The effect on the herd was immediate. The cattle panicked and ran. The cowboys set their horses into a run, trying desperately to stop the herd, to turn it, anything to contain the panic. But the cow ponies were spooked, too and it seemed that this drive was doomed before it ever got begun.
Regaining control of his horse before almost anyone else, Joe sent Cochise towards the front of the herd. If he could just get the herd to turn, they would slow automatically and disaster would be averted. Cochise was an experienced mount, and after his initial shy at the lightning, he was once more responding to Joe’s commands. The air was filled with mournful bellows, whistles and cries. The storm almost seemed quiet in contrast.
Cochise’s speed was an advantage. Joe reached the front of the herd and set about trying to turn the cattle. He knew what he was doing was dangerous, but he didn’t have a choice. If the stampede wasn’t brought under control, it could mean financial disaster for the ranch. He knew one bad year wouldn’t break them, but bad luck seemed to run in streaks and Joe was in no mood to see the Ponderosa hit a run of bad luck.
It seemed as though the cattle would never turn. Joe rode himself and his horse ragged, twisting and turning, snapping his quirt in the faces of the lead beasts, shouting and whistling, seemingly to no avail. And then, slowly, they began to turn. Joe knew that this was the most important moment. He couldn’t afford to flag now, although he felt exhausted.
And then they were all turning and Joe knew his job was done. He pulled Cochise down to a walk and patted the sweating neck in front of him. His eyes, however, were still on the cattle and he saw one steer that was not turning. Time seemed to stand still. He couldn’t get out of the way. Then disaster struck.
The steer hit Cochise full on, one horn skewering the pinto in the shoulder and the other sinking into the flank. The pinto had no chance, its foreleg broken instantly, and it went over onto its side, trapping Joe as it writhed in pain.
Joe screamed as they hit the ground, but there was nothing he could do. The pain went on and on until darkness claimed him.
“Joe!” The cry was ripped from Ben’s lips as he saw his son go down. All other thoughts were driven from his head as he spurred his horse to a gallop, ignoring the milling cattle. Others could worry about the herd.
From the other side, Hoss had also watched with a sickening sense of inevitability as Joe and Cochise went down. He had Chubb moving at once, but he knew that it was useless. He was too far away to get there before disaster struck.
Hauling Buck to a stand still, Ben froze in horror for several seconds before feeling returned to his limbs. His eyes were riveted to the sight before him. The steer still had its horns stuck in Cochise’s side, shaking its head frantically, shaking the horse, too, and the horse was bleeding profusely, writhing in agony. Ben knew that there was only one thing he could do and his heart sank. Hauling his gun from its holster, Ben put a bullet into the steer’s brain and then put Cochise out of its misery.
By then, Hoss was there and Ben glanced up at him as he raced around Cochise to kneel by Joe’s side. “Hoss, get that animal butchered!” he ordered. With the dead weight of both animals pinning Joe to the ground, there was no way Ben could pull him free. “Joe, can you hear me?”
There was blood on Joe’s head where he had stuck it off a stone in the mud. The gash was not deep and the bleeding had almost stopped, but it still set Ben’s heart fluttering with panic. The rain had washed the blood down Joe’s face, making the wound appear more deadly than it actually was. Ben frantically felt down Joe’s arms, concluding that they weren’t broken, which was a relief. Joe’s left leg, which still lay astride Cochise, the foot still in the stirrup, was also all right. Ben looked fearfully at Joe’s right leg. He had no way to tell if it was injured or not until they got the carcasses removed.
Returning his gaze to Joe’s pale, dirt-streaked face, Ben saw his son’s eyelids flutter and a moment later, Joe groaned. “Joe? Can you hear me?”
With what seemed to be a great deal of effort, Joe forced his eyes to open and squinted into the pouring rain. “Pa?” he whispered. “What…?” Although Ben had made an effort to hide his worry from Joe, he wasn’t entirely successful and Joe turned his head before Ben could stop him. The last thing he wanted was for Joe to see the mess.
“No!” Ben was too late. Joe grabbed his father’s arm and tried to drag himself up, but he was firmly trapped and there was no way he was going anywhere.
“Pa, no! Please, no!” Joe looked up at Ben’s face, but saw that the thing he feared was true. His beloved horse was dead. Joe had known from the second that he saw those horns in the black and white flesh, but he couldn’t admit it to himself straight away. “Cochise!”
“Joe.” There was nothing Ben could say. He simply gathered his son into his arms and held him, offering the comfort of his presence. Joe clung to Ben in dry-eyed despair.
After a few minutes, Joe slumped down in Ben’s grasp and Ben moved slightly to see Joe’s face. His son was still as white as a sheet and his skin was clammy. “Joe, are you in pain?” he asked, dreading the reply.
Until then, Joe hadn’t been aware of any pain, apart from the pain in his heart. But with Ben’s words, his leg began to throb to the beat of his heart and Joe winced. “My leg,” he muttered and reached to grasp the top of his thigh, as though that would do any good. He tried to move to ease things slightly and the bolt of white-hot pain that lanced from his leg into his body brought sweat to his brow and tore a cry from his throat. “Oh, Pa, the pain!”
Looking away from Joe, Ben saw that Hoss had got the axe from the chuck wagon and was roughly butchering the steer. Blood spurted everywhere, but the big man didn’t seem to notice. His face was shuttered and grim as he worked as hard as he could to free his younger brother.
Beyond Hoss, Ben could see the other men. The herd was under control again and the men were coming over to offer their help. It would be more than welcome, Ben knew. “One of you men get me a blanket,” Ben ordered, for Joe was now shivering and Ben knew he was going into shock. “Someone go into town and get the doctor!”
A blanket was thrust into Ben’s hands a moment later and he tucked it carefully around Joe without letting go of his son’s head and shoulders, which he still cradled in his arms. Cold from the ground was seeping steadily into his pants, but Ben barely noticed, so focused was he on keeping Joe as comfortable as he could.
“Pa.” Joe’s teeth were chattering, despite the blanket. He couldn’t remember feeling so wretched in a long time. “Pa, Cooch didn’t… suffer much… did he?”
“No, son, he didn’t suffer much,” Ben soothed, knowing it wasn’t true.
“He… was he… bad hurt?” Joe stuttered. It wasn’t the first time Joe had seen a horse put down. He had done it himself when required – and for an instant, Joe was back in the Arizona desert, cradled in Ben’s arms, apologizing for having to shoot the horse that he and his brothers had bought for Ben’s birthday – but it was the first time he had lost one of his own mounts. Sure he had outgrown ponies when he was a boy, but that had been different, since the ponies had gone on to other homes. But this was the first time Joe had lost his personal mount and it hurt. Cochise had been with Joe through thick and thin for years and they had a partnership that was the envy of many. Joe longed to touch that silky coat one last time, to say goodbye, but he knew that by the time he was free and could reach Cooch to touch him, the warmth would be gone. A sob broke free.
“Yes, I’m afraid he was,” Ben replied, sadly. The boy and the horse had grown together, for Cochise had barely been full grown when Ben got him for Joe. Ben had often feared for Joe when he saw his son doing something risky on a horse, but he knew that Cochise was as reliable a mount as it was possible to get and Joe would miss him sorely.
Looking across at his brother, Hoss hurried his movements even more. It was bad enough that Joe was trapped, without him being trapped beneath his own dead horse. Things would get worse before they got better, Hoss knew, for he was pretty sure that they would have to dismember Cochise to get Joe free, for rigor mortis was setting in fast.
All in all, it was one of the longest mornings that anyone could remember. Hoss had worked as quickly as he could, but it was still almost two hours before Joe could be moved. They commandeered the chuck wagon to take him back to the ranch and by then, Joe was unconscious, chilled to the bone, despite the number of blankets that had been tucked around him. Ben was very nearly as cold, since he had sat in the mud with Joe the entire time, holding his son in his arms, soothing him.
The journey to the ranch was of necessity slow, to avoid jolting the injured man too much. Joe was pale to the point of transparency, a faint blue tinge around his lips. Ben knew that they were returning to a house without a fire, a house that would be chill on a day like this and that worried him. Joe needed to be warm, but Ben could not ask Hoss to ride quickly to the house to light fires. His older son had done so much already that day. It was a grim task that Ben did not envy and he was sorry he had had to ask Hoss to do that. The memories would stay with them for a very long time.
Riding at the back of the wagon, Hoss could smell the blood that stained his clothes and knew that the first thing he needed was a bath. But would there be time for a bath? Joe came first and Hoss was determined to do whatever was needed to help his brother.
So it was a very pleasant surprise to arrive in the yard and find Paul Martin waiting for them, with the fire blazing in the hearth. Paul had been quite near by when he heard about the accident and had arrived at the house before anyone else. With the familiarity of a long-time friend, he had let himself in and taken it upon himself to make the house more welcoming. A stone hot water bottle was warming Joe’s bed, although Paul planned to keep to himself the length of time it had taken him to find the hot water bottles! Water was boiling on the stove and a lamp was lit in Joe’s room to banish the gloom.
Together, Ben and Hoss carried Joe into the house. Joe had been essentially silent throughout the journey, but whether sleeping or unconscious, Ben wasn’t sure. He knew that Joe’s right leg was badly broken and worry stalked his heart in case the head wound was more serious than it appeared.
“Hoss, go and have a bath!” Paul ordered. He patted the big man on the back of the shoulder. “Have something to eat, sit down and catch your breath,” he advised. “Doctor’s orders!”
“But Joe…” Hoss protested.
“I’ll look after Joe,” Paul assured him. “Why else do you think I’m here? I don’t get the chance to do any social visiting with you people!” He laughed and Hoss smiled slightly. “Go on, Hoss. Your father will be following you to the table in short order.”
“I’m staying,” Ben stated flatly, his eyes riveted to Joe’s pale face.
“You’re going to put on dry clothes,” Paul replied, with a hint of steel in his voice. It wasn’t often he stood up to Ben like that, but when he did, the soft spoken, jovial doctor could rival the patriarch of the Ponderosa in determination. “What good would it do Joe if you got sick, too?” He held Ben’s gaze, unblinking. “Go and change, Ben, or I’ll sedate you and that’ll be the end of it.”
Knowing that Paul would indeed carry out this threat, Ben did as he was told, looking back over his shoulder before leaving the bedroom. Hoss clapped Ben awkwardly on the shoulder. “Joe’ll be fine, Pa, I jist know he will,” he offered.
“Of course he will,” Ben smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it. Fear filled Ben’s heart for no reason that he could fathom. He hurried to get changed.
It was a relief to be in clean, dry clothes. Ben hastily ate the sandwich Hoss had made for him and hurried back upstairs. Paul was feeling gently down Joe’s leg with a distracted frown on his face. Joe’s clothing lay in a muddy heap on the floor and the warm water in the basin was distinctly murky. Ben took the basin downstairs, emptied, rinsed and refilled it. Carrying it back upstairs, he came into the room as Paul straightened up and sighed heavily.
“What is it?” he asked, the anxiety clear in his voice.
“It’s a bad break,” Paul replied. “At least two places, maybe three. I’m not sure. As you can see, Joe’s shin is broken and out of alignment. The skin is broken, too and that means I can’t put the leg in plaster until we’re sure there’s no infection.”
It hurt Paul to look into Ben’s dark, worried eyes, seeing the other’s heart lying there, ready to be torn open by the words he had to say. But there was no point in lying. Joe was gravely injured and a broken leg could prove fatal. It was something Paul didn’t even want to contemplate.
“What else?” Ben asked, and there was barely a hint of a quiver.
“He’s been lucky,” Paul replied, knowing that the term ‘lucky’ was relative. “The head wound is nothing, and apart from some bruises, he’s unmarked.” Paul glanced at Joe, who still had his eyes shut. “I’ll give him something and then set the leg.”
“Why is he still unconscious?” Ben asked, despair flooding his voice. Joe hadn’t reacted to anything that had been said in the room at all.
At those words, Joe’s eyes opened and the misery in those emerald depths caused Ben a new wave of grief. “Joe?” he whispered and went to sit by his son, taking his hand.
“It…hurts, Pa,” Joe breathed. “It… hurts… so bad.”
“I’ll do what I can to make you more comfortable, Joe,” Paul promised. He quickly administered the chloroform and set about redeeming his promise.
When Joe initially came round from the anesthetic, he felt a bit better. The worst of the grinding pain in his leg was gone, but as he drifted sleepily, he realized that he had had quite a lot of some painkiller. He made an effort to speak to his family, but he could barely form words and soon drifted off to sleep.
Ben, although exhausted from the emotional strain, insisted on sitting up with Joe all night, despite the fact that Paul was staying on. Paul was quite concerned about Joe, for he had been very cold when he was brought in and it had taken a while to bring his temperature back up to normal and the breaks in his leg were serious.
During the night, Joe started to run a temperature and by morning, a fever was raging out of control. As Paul had feared, infection had set into the leg and they began to fight a battle that was to last several days and sap the strength of everyone concerned. Paul did everything he could, leaving only to go home, change clothes and tend to the most urgent of his other patients. Ben and Hoss barely left Joe’s side, bathing him in cold water, administering the quinine that Paul left behind and praying hard.
For Joe, caught in a world where delirium held sway, things were confusing. He had to be kept still, for his leg was supported only by splints, which would not keep the bone straight should he thrash around too much. Many times he wrenched awake to find himself pinned to the bed and to his fevered mind, it was all too reminiscent of the accident. His grief over the death of his horse came out time and again as he screamed out, “Cochise! No!”
“Easy, Joe, easy,” Hoss soothed, distressed by Joe’s distress. Hoss was half-convinced that he should have worked faster, freed Joe sooner, although he wasn’t sure how. He had wept when he had allowed himself to think of what it was he had had to do to free his younger brother. What he had done had needed to be done, but now that he had the time to think, Hoss was very upset. Cochise had been like a member of the family, in an odd way, as all the family mounts were. His death had been bad enough, but what had happened thereafter was just… Hoss couldn’t think of a word bad enough. Even ‘dreadful’ didn’t sound bad enough.
And however bad it had been for Hoss, he was sure it had been that much worse for Joe, trapped and in pain, knowing his horse was dead and then… Hoss refused to allow his thoughts to go down that road. It was bad enough that he was having nightmares about it without thinking about it while he was awake.
Desperate to distract himself, Hoss wondered what was happening with the herd. He had not seen any of the hands since bringing Joe home. His world had contracted to the interior of the house and more often than not to the interior of Joe’s bedroom. Hop Sing had not gone with the drive, assuming it had somehow gone ahead, although Hoss didn’t know if it had or not. What difference did it make in the long run, if Joe was to die?
The thought – one he had not allowed himself to think – scared Hoss. Joe was so vital, so alive. How could he possibly die? Hoss knew, of course, that any mishap could cause death. Living to an old age was not a given. Three score years and ten was a biblical age, but not one that was common in every day life. Life was fragile and Hoss knew that. Yet, until that moment, he couldn’t conceive of Joe dying.
The door opened and Ben entered the room. He looked old and haggard, robbed of sleep by worry. Hoss barely recognized him. But then, he didn’t recognize himself when he looked in the mirror. That unshaven man with the wildly tousled hair was not him…
“How is he?” Ben asked and the weariness in his voice made Hoss wince.
“About the same,” he answered, reluctantly. “Pa…” Hoss hesitated. “Have ya thought o’ wirin’ Adam?”
“I’ve thought of it,” Ben admitted and Hoss was startled. Wiring Adam was tantamount to admitting that Joe might die. “But what good would it do? Adam wouldn’t get here before …” Ben allowed his voice to trail off. He had always known that death dealt its hand indiscriminately, whether the person was needed or not, but he had always hoped that he would not out-live his children. That seemed unutterably cruel to him. But to lose Joe at barely 25 years of age was a thought Ben could not entertain at all. And saying it aloud… Ben couldn’t do that. “Joe will be all right,” he went on. “He must be, Hoss.”
“He’s bin like this fer two days, Pa,” Hoss muttered. Joe was, at that moment, lying still, sweat beading his face and chest, glittering like diamonds in the late afternoon sunshine. The weather had taken a turn for the better after the accident. It seemed grossly unfair to Hoss. When bad things happened, the weather should be dismal and when happy things came along, the weather should be fair.
“I know,” Ben muttered. “But we can’t give up on him, Hoss.”
“I ain’t givin’ up!” Hoss protested. “I jist thought…” What was it he had thought? Hoss wondered. He wasn’t sure. “I jist thought Adam should know,” he concluded lamely.
“Go and have something to eat, son,” Ben suggested. “You’re tired.”
“All right,” Hoss agreed, although his appetite was gone.
Left alone with Joe, Ben prayed, kneeling by his son’s bedside and clutching Joe’s hot, dry hand in his older, gnarled ones. Joe was still very, very hot to the touch and Ben didn’t want to admit that he was frightened. Joe was, literally, sick unto death. Summoning Adam would be admitting that, in Ben’s mind. And he wasn’t altogether sure exactly where Adam was.
Glancing up, Ben saw that Joe’s eyes were open. “Joe?”
Lucid for the moment, Joe looked at Ben. His leg hurt really badly and he was so thirsty. “Water,” he whispered, his voice barely audible. He drank deeply when offered the glass, wondering why he was too weak to hold it himself. When he finished, he lay back, feeling slightly better.
Joe knew he was ill; knew that things were bad. “Pa.” He snagged Ben’s sleeve. “Sorry.”
Whatever else Ben had expected Joe to say, that was not it. “Sorry?” he echoed. “Sorry for what, Joe?”
“Holding up… cattle drive.” Joe swallowed with difficulty. He was so tired and it was so hard to keep his thoughts focused. His eyes dipped shut and he relentlessly dragged his lids open again. “Just go.”
The door to the room silently opened as Hoss brought Ben a cup of coffee. Ben didn’t even glance at Hoss as he concentrated on Joe. “Go?” He shook his head. “Joe, I couldn’t go away and leave you. Anyway, don’t worry, Dave is in charge of the drive and I don’t have to go anywhere. Everything is settled, don’t worry.” Dave was the assistant foreman. He had been at the ranch for several years and Ben knew he was utterly trustworthy. Yes, it would be hard work for the men, but none of them grudged it, after seeing what had happened to Joe.
“I… feel bad,” Joe admitted. It was a sweeping understatement, but it was the most Joe could say. He had no words to describe his misery. “So… hot.”
“You’ve got a fever,” Ben replied, as though Joe didn’t know that. “Have some more water, Joe.” He helped Joe drink again. “Does your leg hurt much?”
Silently Joe nodded. The ache in his leg seemed to be the only constant in his world. “Am I…? “ Joe faltered and then forced himself to ask. “Am I… gonna lose it?”
Ben didn’t pretend to misunderstand. It was a thought that had been in his head for the last 48 hours. If Paul couldn’t get the infection under control, Joe might well lose his leg and if that happened, he would probably lose his life too, since the infection would have weakened him. “No, Joe!” he cried. “No, it won’t happen, I promise.”
Rolling his head on the pillow, vainly seeking a cool spot, Joe knew that Ben was afraid and that frightened him, too. He didn’t want to lose a leg – his life would never be the same after that. But Joe didn’t want to die, either. “Pa.” He was panting now, with the effort of staying awake and talking. His strength was draining away fast. “I want… to live… Take the leg… if I can… live.” Joe clutched Ben’s arm and squeezed with the little strength he had. “Promise.”
“Joe…” Ben couldn’t say anything. How could he make that promise?
“Promise!” The whisper was fierce and Joe’s determination burned as brightly as the fever in his eyes. “Promise!” The desperation was clear in his voice. “Promise!”
“I promise!” Ben cried, unable to watch Joe becoming agitated. “But it won’t come to that, Joe. It won’t.”
Drained, Joe slumped down, his hand slipping from Ben’s arm. “Sure,” he murmured, but he sounded anything but convinced. His eyes closed of their own volition and within moments, he was sleeping once more.
Looking up at Hoss, Ben saw that his son was crying. “I had to promise him,” he whispered. “But it’s a promise I don’t know if I can keep,” he admitted.
Slowly, Hoss reached out and wiped a tear from Ben’s cheek. “I know,” he replied. “I know.”
It seemed to Ben that Joe’s brief spell of wakefulness had drained too much of his strength, for he began to go downhill after that. His temperature climbed relentlessly and he muttered and thrashed around in his delirium. Paul Martin, returning from a short trip home, was horrified.
“His temperature is dangerously high,” he warned Ben. “We’ve got to get it down right now. I need some ice. Hoss, get me a couple of wet sheets, please.” He began to strip the covers off Joe, throwing aside the blankets and sponging down the young man’s naked body, which glistened with sweat.
Packing someone with ice was a drastic measure. When a person was that ill, the sudden shock of the ice could stop their heart, but Paul felt he no longer had a choice. Joe’s temperature was so high that he was in danger of having convulsions.
Hoss was back with the wet sheets before Ben returned with the ice from the spring house. Paul had draped one sheet over Joe, but now he pulled it aside again and packed the ice in Joe’s armpits, at his groin and behind his neck. The rest he dumped all over and wrapped the wet sheets around Joe. Joe groaned aloud as the first bit of ice touched his red-hot skin, but it was only as the cold penetrated his burning flesh that he let out a huge shout, his back arching off the bed.
“Hold him still!” Paul cried, catching Joe’s shoulders to pin him to the bed.
At once, Ben grabbed Joe’s ankles, being careful of his injured leg, and Hoss leant across Joe’s abdomen. Joe fought with a demonic strength, flailing his arms before they could be caught and pinned down. Still Joe struggled until suddenly, without warning, he went completely limp.
“Joe!” Ben let go of Joe’s legs and looked frantically at the doctor. “Paul?”
Calmly, Paul felt for Joe’s pulse in his throat, although he could see it throbbing away. He kept his fingers in place for several long moments, but as he did so, he could feel Joe’s heart rate dropping back to a more normal level. “He’s all right, Ben,” he reported. “His heart is slowing. That’s good,” he added quickly, before Ben could draw a more sinister conclusion from his words.
Slowly, the hectic flush died out of Joe’s cheeks and left him simply pale. Ben watched Joe’s face anxiously all the time until Paul said they could remove the ice. The last thing they wanted was for Joe to get chilled.
When Joe was eventually secure in a clean, dry bed, Paul checked his leg again. The site of the infection was still slightly pink, but the bright red colors that had marked it for the last couple of days had gone. Paul felt a spark of hope. Perhaps Joe had beaten this after all. However, he didn’t say anything, just in case his optimism was unfounded. Just because Joe’s fever was down to manageable levels didn’t mean that he had won the war.
Later, Joe woke briefly, long enough to drink some water and smile weakly at Ben before he slipped back into sleep. Ben couldn’t help but wonder if Joe would have enough strength to keep on fighting. He seemed so weak.
Rising, Ben stretched and walked over to the window to join Paul. Hoss had gone to lie down and sleep. “Paul? Is Joe going to be all right?”
“I don’t know,” Paul answered. “His leg has improved, but if the infection doesn’t get eradicated soon, then things look pretty bleak, Ben. Joe isn’t strong enough to survive an operation, even if I thought it was worth going into the leg. I’m sorry, but right now, we just have to wait. At least we have his temperature under control for the moment. I wish there was more I could do.”
Unable to say anything, Ben went over and sat down beside Joe once more. Paul remained where he was, gazing out of the window at the autumn sunshine. It was another beautiful day. Outside, Hop Sing was hanging up sheets to dry. Paul wondered how they would have managed without the Chinese man’s stalwart help. He never seemed to sleep, although he didn’t appear in the least tired, and he always had coffee ready for them and meals were produced regularly. Paul knew that there was broth waiting for Joe to be strong enough to eat it. And now Hop Sing was doing the washing. Paul didn’t know how he did it, but assumed that this was his way of coping. They were all grateful for everything he did.
At length, Paul moved silently across the room to check on Joe. He glanced at Ben and saw that exhaustion had finally caught up with him and he was sound asleep in the chair. Paul didn’t disturb him, for he knew that Ben needed sleep as much as Joe did. Ben would do himself no good by staying awake.
Leaning over the bed, Paul took Joe’s wrist between his fingers, feeling the pulse there. It was steady and strong and Paul nodded, pleased. But it was only when he had put Joe’s wrist down that he realized there was something different. He put his hand on Joe’s forehead and it was definitely cooler. Deciding not to trust to just touch – which was rather subjective anyway – Paul got out his thermometer and popped it in Joe’s mouth. He found himself waiting with an unusual lack of patience for the minute to be up, but as soon as it was, he quickly looked at the mercury.
At last! It was all Paul could do not do indulge in a victory dance around the bedroom. Joe’s temperature was back to normal! Moving quietly still to avoid disturbing the sleepers, Paul checked on Joe’s leg again and found that all signs of infection had gone. The wound still looked pink, but it was now a normal, healthy pink color of new scar tissue.
Tucking Joe back in, Paul quietly left the room. He went through to the guest room where he had been snatching some sleep and sat down on the bed. His sense of victory was ebbing away to simple thankfulness and he was surprised to find himself crying. By the time his tears were spent, he was asleep.
As it had with Paul, Ben and Hoss’ jubilation gave way to tears. However, they shared their tears of joy and relief with each other and Paul kept his to himself. Joe continued to sleep deeply, but the improved color in his face kept Ben from worrying too deeply. As Paul told him, “Joe has been fighting off this infection, Ben. His body is drained and the only way he can get better is for him to sleep. Don’t worry, the next thing you know, he’ll be eating every time he wakes up. Broth to begin with, then onto soft foods tomorrow and then anything he fancies the day after. I’m going home now, to get a proper sleep and tomorrow, I’ll come and put a plaster onto that leg. I’m afraid he’s going to be bed bound for a while, until he gets back enough strength to get about, and even then it won’t be easy, for his plaster will be from toes to hip. But in time, he’ll be as good as new.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Ben replied.
“I don’t know how much good I did,” Paul responded honestly. “You need to thank Joe’s constitution and the good Lord more than me.” He yawned suddenly. “Oh, sorry.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay the night here?” Ben asked. “You’re more than welcome.”
“Thank you, Ben, and I am tempted, but I do need to go home to get one or two things.” Paul smiled. “But I’ll be back here tomorrow morning, so you won’t have time to miss me that much!” The two friends laughed together and Paul took his leave.
By morning, Joe had been awake a couple of times. Ben had insisted that he eat the broth waiting for him and both times he had managed a few mouthfuls before dropping off again. But by dawn, Joe was awake and hungry. He was shocked to find himself so weak and had to accept Ben’s help to sit up.
As Ben came back into the room with the broth, he found Joe peering under the covers. “Is something wrong?” he asked. “Is your leg hurting?” Panic flared in Ben’s heart again, for Joe had come too close to the valley of the shadow of death for Ben to be complacent.
“Not too much,” Joe replied, but the deep ache had died down a good deal. It still hurt, but no worse than any other broken leg Joe had had. Well, he amended silently, perhaps a bit worse but the pain was less than it had been for the last few days. He dropped the cover with obvious relief and looked at Ben. “I was looking to see if my leg was still there.”
Joe’s simple statement almost had Ben dropping the tray. Why hadn’t he thought to tell his son that his leg was going to be all right? Joe had been so out of it, no wonder he didn’t know that the infection was gone! “Oh, Joe, I’m sorry!” Ben cried, putting the tray down on the table by the bed. “I should have said! I didn’t think…!”
“Its okay, Pa, honest,” Joe replied. He smiled. “I knew it still hurt a bit, and I thought everything must be… all right, but I’ve heard…” Joe’s voice faltered as the fear he was trying to deny crept up and overwhelmed him. “I’ve heard that amputees can have phantom pain – that the missing leg still hurts.”
“I should have said something,” Ben insisted, overcome with remorse. “Joe, as you can see, your leg is still there. Paul is coming out to put a plaster on it later.” He drew Joe close to him and Joe rested his curly head on Ben’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, son.”
“Don’t be, Pa,” Joe replied. He sounded tired again. “I didn’t think to ask while you were still here.” He drew in a deep breath and sat up. He sniffed. “That broth smells good. I’m starving!”
Blinking back tears, Ben smiled. “Well, eat it while it’s hot, then.” He handed the tray to Joe and watched as his son slowly ate the soup.
Over the next few days, Joe slowly regained his strength. He found the plaster – from toes to hip as Paul had promised – very cumbersome, awkward and uncomfortable, but his leg hurt less than it had in the splints. It took about a week before Joe was able to get up and hobble about on crutches and he had to rely on Ben and Hoss to help him negotiate the stairs, but by the third week after the accident, he was spending most of every day downstairs.
At the end of the fourth week, the hands arrived home from the cattle drive. It had been a success and there were bonuses for all the men. Joe was relieved that his accident hadn’t prevented the drive.
But it was also about then that grief for Cochise kicked in. Joe had several nightmares where he relived those dreadful hours trapped beneath his dead horse and he pondered what had happened, wondering if there was any way he could have prevented it. His appetite dropped off and Ben grew worried.
“Joe?” Ben had spotted that his youngest son was gazing into space one afternoon. “Are you all right?”
Blinking, Joe came back to the present. “I guess,” he agreed, but his tone was less than convincing.
“You don’t sound it,” Ben replied. He sat down and touched the plastered leg which rested on the coffee table. “Is it your leg that’s bothering you?”
“No, its fine,” Joe replied. He frowned slightly. His memory of the accident was admittedly blurry and Joe had been debating with himself whether he should ask his family about it or not. That day, Joe had reached the point where he could no longer keep it to himself. “Pa, was there something I could have done to save Cochise?”
“Joe, there was nothing you could have done differently,” Ben replied immediately. “The situation was on you so quickly that there was no chance for any of us to react. Cochise’s death was tragic, but it wasn’t your fault, Joe. Bad things do happen and this was awful. But the main thing is you’re going to be all right. Grieve for your horse, son – you’d be hard hearted if you didn’t. You had Cochise a long time. Grieve and then move on.”
“Why has it taken me so long to get to this stage?” Joe whispered as his paroxysm of grief abated. “It’s been weeks.”
“Up until now, you were still dealing with basic day to day survival,” Ben reminded him. “You were still weak, but now you’re really getting better and your mind is able to cope with other thoughts. It’s quite normal.”
“I feel better now,” Joe admitted. “But I’ll miss him, Pa.”
“I know,” Ben comforted. He could have told Joe that there would be other horses in his life, but there was no need. Joe knew that and now was not the time. Joe wasn’t ready to hear that yet. He still had a long recovery in front of him.
“So when can I ride again?” Joe demanded. The plaster had been off for three weeks now and Joe had been working hard on rebuilding the muscles in his leg. His limp was almost gone and if it ached slightly at night, that was something Joe was going to keep to himself.
“Next week,” Paul temporized. “After I’ve seen you again.” He wagged a finger at Joe. “And not before I give you the all clear, is that understood, young man?”
“All right,” Joe agreed grudgingly. He reported this to Ben, who simply nodded.
During the next week, Joe worked harder than ever at his exercises and he could really feel the difference. It wasn’t often that Joe was keen to see the doctor, but the following week didn’t come quickly enough for Joe and he was so eager to get into town that he didn’t question the fact that Ben was riding in on Buck, while he took the buggy.
“Well, doc?” Joe asked, eagerly, as Paul straightened. “Can I ride?”
Laughing, Paul nodded. “You can ride, but take it easy. You haven’t ridden for almost four months and your muscles are all going to be stiff!” He patted Joe on the back. “Take it slowly, huh?”
“Sure thing!” Joe agreed with a blinding smile and he bounced out of the office. “Pa, guess what? I can ride again!”
“Well, that’s just fine, son,” Ben approved, but his enthusiasm sounded muted. Joe felt deflated. “I’ve got an errand to run, Joe, so don’t wait for me. Go on back to the ranch, all right?”
“All right,” Joe agreed, puzzled and a bit hurt. He couldn’t understand why Ben didn’t sound more pleased. Slowly, he left the office and headed for home.
“Ben, that was cruel,” Paul chided his friend, but he couldn’t keep the grin from his face.
“I know,” Ben replied, blandly. He exchanged a grin with his friend before leaving the surgery.
There was no one home when Joe got there and he felt even more deflated. However, he wasn’t going to be thwarted in his desire to ride again, even if the only horse in the corral was Sport, Adam’s mount. Joe had ridden Sport as second horse regularly since Adam’s departure, but the bad tempered chestnut gelding was not his idea of a good mount. However, the need to ride was paramount and it wasn’t long before Joe had Sport saddled. He swung carefully into the saddle and trotted round the yard.
There had been a time while he was recovering that Joe wondered if he was going to be afraid to ride again. He knew people it had happened to after a bad accident. But as soon as he was settled, it felt like coming home. Sport hadn’t been ridden for a while and was fractious, fighting the bit, but Joe was more than able to deal with his foibles and soon had the gelding responding well.
As he put Sport away, Joe debated about which horse he would ride regularly now. If he put in some time working with Sport, perhaps the gelding would make a decent mount, although he was more high-strung that Joe really liked. But the biggest obstacle to Joe riding Sport all the time was the fact that the horse was Adam’s. Joe had been hurt by Adam’s decision to leave and he was convinced that his older brother would never return. Riding his horse day in and day out would be a very hard thing to do. Deep in thought, Joe left the barn.
He had been so involved that he hadn’t heard the hoof beats in the yard. But as Joe emerged, he saw one thing only – a pinto, black and white and looking so like Cochise that Joe’s heart skipped a beat. Puzzled, he glanced at Ben, who had the horse on a lead rope.
“I hope you like him, son,” Ben said, softly. “Because he’s yours.”
Unable to say anything, Joe took the lead rope from Ben and reached out to allow the pinto to smell him before he fondled the mole-soft muzzle. The horse, reassured by the smell of other horses on Joe’s clothes, nuzzled him and snorted softly. “Hi, fella,” Joe crooned. He felt tears in his eyes as he looked at the horse. If asked, he would have said that he didn’t want another pinto, that he didn’t want a horse of his own again so soon. Now, he knew he was wrong on both counts.
Joe never knew how long he stood there, stroking the horse over and over again. He knew that he would name this horse after Cochise and in those few minutes, they began to forge a partnership that would rival the one Joe had had with the original Cochise.
At length, he looked up at Ben with shining eyes.
Thanks as ever to Claire, for help with the title. Honest, sis, I do occasionally think up one for myself!