Word Count: 4032
“That was the week,” Hoss said, expansively, “when the only person who didn’ git bruised or broken was Joe.”
“You’re kidding,” Candy Canaday replied, looking at Joe, who was already laughing.
“No, he’s telling the truth,” Ben Cartwright, Candy’s boss, assured the young cowboy. “We didn’t believe it ourselves, and yet we lived through it!”
A short silence fell as the three Cartwrights looked back. Outside, they could hear the wind howling and the snow scouring against the windows. They were snug in the house and it was good to know that they were stocked up against the blizzard that raged outside.
“Well don’t stop there!” Candy exclaimed. “Tell me all about it!”
It was the height of summer. Calving was over and branding hadn’t yet started. The hay was almost ready to cut and Joe had a string of horses to break for the army. Adam was complaining that Joe should be helping them round up the herd for branding, instead of “playing with his horses.”
Overhearing, Joe snapped back and before Ben could draw breath, his oldest and youngest sons were involved in a slanging match. Sternly, he stopped them and sent them off to do the jobs they had been assigned to, noticing as he did so that Joe shot Adam a triumphant look, as though he had won that battle. Ben sighed. It looked as though it might be a long summer.
As he shooed his sons away, Ben saw a line of gypsy caravans trailing across the edge of his vision. His heart contracted. “Please, don’t let it be Tirza come back for Joe,” he prayed. He had understood Joe’s infatuation with the beautiful, troubled young girl, but he had really been horrified when Joe announced he wanted to marry her. Ben had almost choked on his coffee! Since to forbid the marriage (which he was perfectly entitled to do; Joe was under age) would only have made Joe want her more, he had gritted his teeth and told Joe she was a fine girl, although anything less like the truth he had never uttered. Fortunately, Tirza herself had refused to marry Joe and although the boy was heartbroken for a few days, he soon bounced back.
Squaring his shoulders to meet whatever came, Ben went across to greet them. “I’m Ben Cartwright,” he introduced himself, thankful to see that this was a different group of gypsies. “This is my ranch, the Ponderosa, that you are on. What can I do for you?”
“We have heard of you,” announced the man in charge. “We were told you were kind to Tirza.” Beside him, a grey-haired woman dressed in powder blue smiled benignly at him. Ben kept his face neutral and just nodded. Tirza! How he hated that girl! “We are only passing over your land; we do not intend to stop here.”
“I have the gift of seeing,” the woman intoned in a sepulchral voice. “Beware! Bad things will happen to your family this week.”
“Bad things?” Ben gasped. He didn’t really believe in second sight, but to hear it stated as baldly as that gave him quite a turn. “What do you mean?”
Sighing and slumping down, the woman shook her head. “I can see no more. Just beware!” The man shook up his team and the whole caravan passed by, each one nodding his head as he passed. Ben nodded back automatically, feeling rather dazed. He watched them vanish into the distance and made a mental note to have someone check that they really had gone, and that they hadn’t taken anything they shouldn’t with them. Ben didn’t for a single instant believe that all gypsies were thieves, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
By the time he reached the house again, he had dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.
“I’m quite sure it’s all rubbish,” Ben concluded the story, without mentioning Tirza at all. “But I would like you boys to go after them and make sure that they didn’t decide to borrow half the herd or all of our spare horses on the way through.”
“Well, if bad things are meant to happen, Joe should stay at home,” Adam jibed. He and Joe still hadn’t settled their quarrel. “Things are always happening to him!”
“You’re just jealous because you lead a boring life!” Joe jibed back. “Accidents can happen to anyone!”
“Yeah, but they happen ta ya more often, Shortshanks,” Hoss teased.
“That’s enough,” Ben reproved mildly. “Just do as I ask in the morning, all right?” They all knew it wasn’t a question and muttered replies, although Adam and Joe kept throwing each other dark looks all evening.
They set off in surprising amity the next morning. Joe seldom was bad tempered for long and the prospect of a couple of hours doing nothing more than riding appealed to them all. It was easy enough to track the caravan and Joe couldn’t help wondering about Tirza. How glad he was now that he hadn’t married her! How could he not have seen that she was crazy? Why had Pa agreed to the wedding? Joe had never liked to ask.
His thoughts weren’t very different from Adam and Hoss’. They had both thought about Tirza the moment Ben said gypsy. Adam had barely met the girl and was more than thankful. Hoss had kept his distance, absolutely terrified that she would suddenly, and without any warning, turn into one of the creatures she kept burbling about. He’d been ready to kidnap Joe and take him far away until he agreed not to marry the mad woman, but luckily, she had decided that since Joe was a tree (Hoss couldn’t figure that one out, either!) and she was a fish, they really weren’t suited. It seemed impolitic to throw a celebration party after she left, but Hoss surely was tempted!
A sudden, capricious, gust of wind whisked Hoss’ hat off his head and deposited it high in the branches of a tree. “Dadburnit!” Hoss cursed. “Dad-blamed hat! How’m I supposed ta git that down?”
“You could always ask Joe,” Adam drawled. “Pa always used to say he was half monkey.”
“At least I’m not too old to climb a tree,” Joe retorted, dismounting lithely and handing Hoss his rein.
“Maybe ya’d better not go up there,” Hoss fretted.
Already a few feet from the ground, Joe looked at Hoss. “Why not?” he asked, since he had spent a great many years perfecting the art of climbing trees. “Don’t you want your hat back?”
“It ain’t that,” Hoss denied, looking sheepish. “But what if’n one o’ them bad things happens an’ ya fall outa the tree?”
“Is that all?” Joe scoffed and continued to climb. It only took a few minutes for him to reach the thinner branches where Hoss’ hat was resting. He stretched out to get it and the branch he was standing on creaked ominously.
“Joe!” Adam warned sharply. “Get out of there.”
“Almost got it,” Joe replied, stretching even further. His fingertips brushed the edge of the hat and he leaned over slightly.
The very next moment…
“Don’t stop there!” Candy cried and Hoss laughed, shaking his head. “Joe fell out of the tree, didn’t he?” He glanced at Joe. “Didn’t you?”
Thus appealed to, Joe shook his curly head. “No, what happened was…”
With a crash, the branch Joe had been standing on splintered away from the trunk. Hoss’ hat fluttered down to the ground. Adam and Hoss both lunged forward to try and catch Joe and cracked heads so forcefully that they were both knocked off their feet and saw stars for several moments.
However, when they could both see clearly again, they realized that Joe was still in the tree. He had felt the branch giving way and had nimbly stepped back to safety just seconds before the branch fell. He was looking down at his brothers with a curious expression on his face. “Are you all right?” he called, his voice strained.
“Yes, fine!” Adam assured him, climbing to his feet and rubbing his forehead, where a knot was rising. Hoss also seemed to be fine. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Joe replied and immediately started to laugh.
He laughed intermittently all the rest of the morning while they checked that the gypsies had gone and not taken anything they shouldn’t. Everything appeared to be intact, so they repaired home for lunch with Joe still laughing away merrily. By the time they got back, both of Joe’s older brothers would cheerfully have throttled him.
Even Ben’s sympathy seemed rather constrained to the two, as Ben obviously thought the whole thing was funny, too. However, he doled out ice and sympathy and if he laughed himself sick out of earshot, at least he didn’t do it in front of their faces.
Next morning, a load of hay was delivered to the barn and there was the usual wrangle about who was going to do which job. As ever, Joe ended up in the hayloft, guiding the bales in through the big doors, Hoss did the actual work and Adam put the hook into each bale. Hoss had never figured out how he ended up pulling the rope each time, but one day, he vowed, he would get Adam’s job.
“You watch you don’t fall out of there, Joe,” Adam warned as Joe missed bale and teetered on the edge for a second.
“I’ll try not to,” Joe responded, glancing down at the drop. He wasn’t that keen on heights and he never could figure out why he always ended up in the loft. “And don’t you strain your bad back positioning that hook, now.”
“Oh, shut up!” Adam responded. He shoved the hook into another bale and stood back as Hoss hoisted it aloft.
But the bale wasn’t properly tied up and the rope suddenly gave way. Hay fluttered to the ground and the sudden change in weight distribution caused Hoss’ pulling to lose its rhythm and the bale swung in a huge circle.
“Look out, Joe!” Adam cried as the bale spun crazily towards his youngest brother.
Darting backwards, Joe avoided being hit, but Adam wasn’t so fortunate. The bale swung back, slipped down and caught Adam in the chest, knocking him off his feet. Hoss lost his grip on the rope and sat down abruptly. “Adam!” Joe cried and, grabbing the rope, swung neatly to the ground.
“What’s going on?” Ben’s voice called as he came outside to see what all the shouting was about.
“Are you all right?” Joe asked, jumping onto the wagon beside his oldest brother.
“Just winded,” Adam panted in reply. He’d been very fortunate. He had landed flat on his back on top of the rest of the hay and the bale had broken open and scattered on top of him. He wasn’t hurt.
“Will you boys stop playing around out here?” Ben snapped, as he saw the hay scattered all over the yard. “I hadn’t planned on making this your life’s work, you know!” He turned on his heel and went back inside.
“No, honest, Pa, I’m quite all right,” Adam assured him wryly as he got to his feet with a hand from Joe.
Round up for branding got underway the next morning. To begin with, everything went well, but about mid-morning a familiar pattern began to reassert itself. Adam, Hoss and Joe were part of a group that were guiding in a big bunch of cows. Joe was positioned up the front, with Adam mid-way along one side and Hoss on the other.
All of a sudden, one of the cows baulked at being herded and turned abruptly across in front of the others, her month old calf following closely. The cattle she cut off objected and before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’, the herd was milling about uneasily.
Irritated, but not worried, Joe turned to try and start sorting out the mess. Hoss moved up a bit and went in from the other side. But the recalcitrant cow was not for turning! It began trotting back the way it had come.
“Dadburned cow!” Hoss muttered. He sent Chubb into a lope and snapped his quirt in the cow’s face. The startled animal turned, bumped solidly into Cochise and knocked Joe and the horse off their feet.
Suddenly, it was absolute pandemonium! The cow that had started the whole kafuffle took off in fright, now running the way it had been traveling to begin with. The rest of the herd, not sure what was going on, but uneasy just the same, followed at a good speed.
“Joe!” Adam’s first instinct was to check on his brother’s safety, but the herd was between him and Joe, and Hoss was already right there. Instead, Adam turned his attention to slow the stampede, knowing that the men at the branding fires were in genuine danger, too.
Thanks to skilful riding by the cowboys, the herd was slowed in enough time to allow them to be penned safely and securely.
The moment the last cow was in the corral, Adam turned his horse and urged Sport back the way they had come. It wasn’t like Adam to let his imagination get the better of him, but it kept presenting him with ever-more horrific pictures. Adam had seen men killed in stampedes before. He had seen them knocked off their horses and gored. None of the pictures was pretty.
To his immense relief, he had gone no more than a few yards when he saw both his brothers riding towards him. Joe appeared to be unscathed, but it wasn’t until they were all back at the fire that he had the change to check this out and discovered it was true.
“How did you manage that?” Adam demanded, for he would have given odds that Cochise had landed on Joe and that one or both of them had broken a leg.
“Must have been my guardian angel,” Joe replied lightly. “Or else my flying practice is coming along nicely.”
“You never take anything seriously, do you?” growled Adam, unable to show his relief in any other way. He turned away abruptly and slipped, landing heavily on his backside in a large, fresh, steaming, juicy cowpat.
The howl of laughter from his younger brother convinced Adam that wherever his own guardian angel was that week, it wasn’t keeping an eye on him! Snorts and sniggers of laughter came from all around and Adam then discovered that to get up, he would have to put his hands in the stuff too.
“Need a hand?” enquired a voice and Adam looked up into Hoss’ studiedly innocent face. He extended a hand.
Grabbing it, Adam wasn’t even surprised when Hoss managed to let go of him and Adam sat back down with a vengeance. The ‘splat’ sound he made spoke more than eloquently of the consistency of the thing and Adam just wanted the earth to open up and swallow him. He could feel embarrassed color burning up his neck and creeping into his cheeks.
“Oops, sorry,” Hoss said, insincerely. Adam grasped his brother’s hand once more, and this time Hoss helped him to ‘safety’.
By now, Joe was on his knees, arms hugging his ribs as he whooped for air. Tears poured down his cheeks. He was clearly incapable of saying anything and even the black look Adam gave him didn’t dampen his hysteria.
“Ya’ll need ta go home an’ git changed,” Hoss offered, his voice suspiciously quivery. “Only…”
“Only what?” Adam snapped, testily. He didn’t see the funny side of this.
“Only, better not sit down,” Hoss suggested, his blue eyes not entirely guileless. “Ya’ll never get that muck out a the fancy bits o’ yer saddle.” He tried to hide the smile but his self-control failed him as Adam glared at him. The worst thing was, he reflected miserably, Hoss was right. He would have to walk home and the stuff would set hard and the smell…
Joe was rolling on the ground kicking his feet in the air, wheezing horribly as he tried to get in enough air to continue laughing. Adam hoped he’d choke, as he took his horse’s rein and turned towards home. It was going to be a long, long walk…
“You wouldn’t let him in the house?” Candy gasped, looking at Ben as Joe whooped and hollered once more.
“I could smell him coming!” Ben defended himself. “If he’d brought those pants into the house, you would smell them yet!” He smiled. “Adam was furious!”
“It weren’t fair to laugh at him like that,” Hoss admitted, soberly. Then he grinned. “But it were really funny!”
“And you weren’t even bruised?” Candy asked Joe, who was wiping away tears of glee.
“Nope,” Joe replied. “Not a mark on me. I wasn’t even stiff.”
Come morning, Adam could see the funny side of his mishap, although he didn’t think it was half as funny as the rest of his family. The only other person who didn’t seem to think it was funny was Hop Sing, to whom Adam had presented the filthy pants, only to be told – in no uncertain terms – that Hop Sing wouldn’t even consider washing them and how dare Mr. Adam insult him like that! He’d go back to old China. The pants were quietly thrown away.
With everything that had been going on, Ben was beginning to wonder if perhaps the gypsy had overheard his thoughts about Tirza and had cursed the family. Perhaps Tirza had known his thoughts about she and Joe marrying and had sent the curse after them! Nonsense! He scolded himself. It was all just coincidence.
And at that moment, Hoss came down the stairs, skidded and crashed through the railing and onto the floor. “Hoss!” Ben cried and raced over to him.
Too late, he realized that Hop Sing had polished the floor and been rather over-zealous. The rug beneath his feet moved as though it were alive and Ben found himself moving without moving his feet. It was horribly disconcerting!
He landed with a thud on top of Hoss, who had managed to get part way to his feet, and knocked him over again. They lay there, their faces inches apart, both wide-eyed and waiting for catastrophe number three to occur.
They weren’t disappointed. Adam had heard the crash and dashed into the house. His feet began moving in different directions and a moment later, he crash-landed beside the rest of his family but not, luckily for Hoss, on top of them.
“Stay there, Joe!” Ben cried, hearing footsteps, but it wasn’t his youngest son come to their rescue, it was the cause of all the mayhem; Hop Sing. Wordlessly, he helped Ben to his feet and then left.
“Are you both all right?” Ben asked his sons.
“I dunno,” Hoss admitted.
“Oh, my back,” Adam groaned. Pain was shooting through his back and shoulders.
“What happened?” asked Joe’s voice from the doorway.
“Get the doctor,” Ben ordered. “And tell him to be careful when he comes in. This floor is a death trap.”
“Hoss has broken his arm,” Paul Martin said. “And Adam has badly strained his back. He’s going to be in bed for at least a week, Ben and to begin with, I don’t want him doing anything for himself – and I mean anything!”
“Surely he can feed himself…” Ben objected, but his voice trailed off as he saw his friend shake his head firmly.
“Nothing!” he repeated. “The worst of the strain appears to be around his shoulders and moving his arms will cause him great pain. I’ve given Hop Sing instructions for hot poultices and massages that will help, but for two days I don’t want him doing anything for himself.” He rose to leave and paused at the door. “And that includes his bodily functions!”
As the door closed behind Dr Martin, Joe swallowed an hysterical giggle with difficulty. It wasn’t funny. Both his brothers were in pain and Joe knew how embarrassing it was to be helped to pee. It had happened to him more times than he cared to remember. But the thought of Adam having to accept help for that almost had him creasing up again.
Adam could be – and usually was – a sensitive nurse, discreetly assisting his youngest brother. But there had been times… “I can help Adam,” he offered but his voice gave him away, squeaking up into a higher register as he fought to control the laughter. “I know all about it.” He spluttered momentarily, but Ben threw him a black look that quelled the imminent hysteria for a few seconds.
“He’s going to hate it,” Ben sighed, and another squeak escaped Joe’s control.
“I know,” he agreed, but he couldn’t control himself any longer and gave way to a fit of laughter.
“It’s not funny!” Ben chastised him.
“I know!” Joe snorted.
“Your brother’s in a lot of pain!” Ben reminded him, but the suggestion of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. He could just see the expression on Adam’s face when Ben told him he wouldn’t be able to do anything for himself.
“I feel for him,” Joe sniggered.
“We mustn’t laugh,” Ben tried again.
“Too late,” Joe chortled, and Ben let go.
“No way!” Adam declared, glaring at his father and brother. He could see nothing but sympathy on their faces, although there was a hint of something on Joe’s face… He tried to sit up, but another shaft of pain shot up his back.
“Don’t move!” Ben chided him, with a marked lack of sympathy. “You’ll just make it worse!”
“It’s only for a couple of days, Adam,” Joe told him. “It’s not that bad, honest.”
“Oh yeah?” Adam sneered.
“I can help,” Joe offered, sincerely. “I have experience at this, remember.”
Suddenly, all Adam could remember were the times when he had been somewhat less than sensitive helping Joe; when he had slapped the cold porcelain under his brother’s buttocks and urged him to “hurry up”. Oh lord! Peeing was bad enough, but what if he had to move his bowels? Adam closed his eyes and groaned. How much worse could this week get? Much worse, he thought. Much, much worse! Why he might get constipated and have to have an enema! Oh no!!! Bed rest, painkillers – he was doomed!
“It won’t be that bad,” Joe told him and if Adam could have thrown something at his grinning brother, he would have!
“What about you, Mr. Cartwright?” Candy asked, his face alight with laughter.
“Oh, I had bruises on my bruises,” Ben replied. “If I hadn’t landed on Hoss, I might have really hurt myself.”
“And the only person who didn’t have a mark on him was ma little brother,” Hoss concluded. “We ain’t done figgered out yet how he managed it.”
“It was a miracle, given what else happened,” Ben added.
“Surely was,” Joe replied, for the memory of Adam sitting in the cowpat and of being helpless in bed was one he would cherish forever.
Before long, they all drifted off to their beds.
Two guardian angels had been sitting on the horns above the fireplace listening in. One was Joe’s angel; the other looked after the rest of the Cartwrights. “And you assured me you could handle keeping Joe out of trouble, too,” Joe’s angel sighed. “Wasn’t exactly your best week, wasn’t it?”
“I thought you were exaggerating,” the other replied. “But every time I saved yours, I would sit back and sigh with relief and not pay attention to mine.”
“Don’t worry,” the first angel told his companion. “The Boss knows you’ve learned your lesson and I won’t be getting any holidays again any time soon.” He sighed. “I’d better go upstairs. Knowing my luck, someone is about to climb in the window and smack him on the head with a gun butt.”
“An angel’s work is never done,” the other retorted, knowing that his Cartwrights were safely in bed.
Or were they?