The Breaking Game (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   9282


 

 

Looking at all the horses milling about in the make-shift corral, Joe Cartwright knew that he had his work cut out for him this time. There was a mixture of mares, foals, yearlings, and some older horses. The herd stallion was still somewhere in there, and he would have to be separated before he killed one of the young male horses.

Luckily, the stallion was distinctive enough that Joe had no problems recognizing him. The fact that he had also once tried to break the stallion meant that he knew him well. Joe whistled piercingly, not at all sure if Satan would respond to the whistle, but a moment later, he saw the familiar brown-and-white coat of the skewbald stallion and had his rope sailing towards him.

Joe’s aim was true, and he used his pinto horse to help him pull the stallion over to the gate, although Satan fought him every step of the way. But, with some help from the hands and some big whips, Satan was soon outside the corral and Joe was faced with the daunting task of removing the rope.

It was all too apparent that the big stallion was angry. Joe dismounted from his horse and walked slowly towards Satan, talking quietly and soothingly all the time. The hands wisely kept their distance and watched. Even those new to the ranch knew the stories about Joe and Satan, and were curious.

This was a scene that Joe remembered only too well. Joe had separated the foals from the mares and had had to restrain the stallion while that was happening. As Joe set the horse free, it had turned on him, biting a chunk out of his shoulder, and striking Joe’s leg with its hoof. Nor was that the last occasion that the stallion had ravaged the man. Joe had almost died setting the horse free. Yet later, Satan had saved Joe’s life. The animal was completely unpredictable.

“I’m just gonna let you go, fella,” Joe soothed, allowing the rope to loosen slowly. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna keep you this time. Not that I’d mind, but I know it’s not for you.” The horse shook its head, unknowingly helping Joe. In one smooth movement, Joe had the rope over Satan’s ears and the stallion was free again.

For a long moment, man and horse just looked at one another. The rope lay in loose coils on the ground and Joe made no attempt to gather it up. He just looked at his horse and thought of what might have been. Then Joe dropped his gaze, and, as though that action had been holding Satan captive, the horse realized it was free. It turned in one graceful movement and galloped off.

A hubbub of chat broke out from behind Joe as he began to coil up the rope. Joe let it all wash over him as relief made his muscles tremble slightly. Sub-consciously, he had been expecting the horse to turn on him, as it had done the previous time.

Drawing a deep breath, Joe started to give out his orders.

*****

It was dark when he arrived back at the house and he was sure supper would be long over. Not that Joe was unduly worried about that. He was more tired than hungry and bed was calling more loudly to him than food was. Slowly, he untacked his horse and bedded it down for the night, yawning convulsively throughout.

The house was brightly lit and welcoming as Joe opened the front door. Ben, his father, was seated in his red leather chair by the fire, reading. Adam and Hoss were playing chess on the table in front of the fire. Joe smiled at them all as he paused to unbuckle his gun belt and take off his hat.

“How did it go?” Ben asked, smiling.

“Great, thanks,” Joe responded. “We got all the horses we wanted and we’re ready to start sorting them out tomorrow.” Joe made a face. “I’ve got quite a few to geld, too.” Gelding was a job Joe hated, but he knew it had to be done. Stallions were unpredictable and working a stallion more often than not led to trouble, one way or another. Geldings were much more reliable all round, but the process of gelding was unpleasant.

“You look tired,” Ben noted, rising from his seat and going over to Joe. “I was a little worried that you were so late.”

Recognizing the oblique question, Joe grinned. “I’m fine, Pa. I had to get Satan away from the mares, and that took a little bit of time.” He forestalled the next question by adding, “And he didn’t give me any trouble, although he wasn’t very pleased.”

Patting Joe’s shoulder, Ben gave him an understanding smile. “Well, why don’t you get cleaned up while Hop Sing makes you some supper?”

“Pa, I’m really tired,” Joe replied. “I think I’ll just go straight to bed.”

“If you’re sure,” Ben agreed, doubtfully. He looked into Joe’s face and saw the exhaustion etched there. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine,” Joe replied. “Honestly.” He smiled at them all. “Good night, everyone.”

As Joe’s back view disappeared from sight, Adam commented, “He’s always tired after he sees Satan.”

“I know,” Ben sighed.

“He sure do love that horse,” Hoss agreed.

After a moment, they all went back to what they had been doing. Upstairs, Joe fell into his bed and went straight to sleep, to dream about his brown-and-white horse.

*****

The next morning, the real work began. All obviously pregnant mares were set loose again. Joe knew that Satan was still hanging around, and that he would soon have the mares rounded up. The foals were separated from the mares, and the air was filled with their pitiful cries. Joe set some men to turn the foals loose in the big pasture near the corrals and relative peace was soon restored.

The next job was to get the young stallions apart. Although they had been together in a herd, they were all full grown and would soon start to fight. Joe had to get them isolated, then gelded. That would be the first job, he decided. While they were recovering from the gelding, he could break the mares.

By late afternoon, the young stallions were all isolated. One hand had been bitten, and another kicked, but both had been lucky in that their injuries were minor. Joe was nursing a sore wrist, where a rope had twisted around it suddenly, but he hadn’t said anything to anyone, in typical fashion.

“Let’s call it a day!” he called and heard relieved mumbles from all around. “Tomorrow, we do the gelding.” It wasn’t something he looked forward to, but it had to be done.

As he rode into the yard, Hoss came out of the barn. “Hi, Joe,” he greeted his younger brother. “You sure are dirty, ain’t cha? You’ll have to get a bath before supper, or Hop Sing won’t let you at the table.”

“I know,” Joe replied, sighing. “Just let me get Cochise settled and I’ll get right onto it.” He dismounted and led Cochise into the barn. Hoss followed him, chatting away about his day.

“You dun hurt yourself, Joe?” Hoss asked, as he saw his younger brother wince as he struggled with the cinch.

“No, not really, just a twinge in my wrist,” Joe told him, finally getting the cinch undone. He gritted his teeth as he reached to pull the saddle off, only to find Hoss’ hands there before him.

“I know you an’ your ‘twinges’,” Hoss commented. He gently lifted Joe’s bruised and swollen wrist. “You git that strapped up after yer bath,” he ordered. “If’n you don’t do it, I will.”

“All right,” Joe capitulated. “You go tell Hop Sing to heat the water and I’ll be in in a minute.” With his good hand, which was fortunately his left hand, Joe began to energetically brush down his horse. Hoss eyed him for a moment, before going off to the house.

*****

Between them, Ben and Hoss were going to drive him to drink! Joe thought, as Ben gently checked the bandage on his sprained wrist the next morning. As far as Joe was concerned, it was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and he had the decided impression that it wouldn’t be the last. He had no intention of keeping the bandage on while he was actually doing the gelding, but would put it back before he got home, and they would be none the wiser.

Gelding was a nasty, bloody job, but it had to be done. The horses were secured with a twitch initially (a device that looped over the horse’s top lip and held them still) then were forced down, legs tied, then castrated. The animals were then allowed back to their feet and turned into the corral. Joe knew that it was for the best, because a lot of stallions around the place would cause all sorts of problems, but it didn’t make the job any more pleasant.

There were eight young horses to do, and by noon, they were half way through. Joe washed the blood off his hands, but was unable to eat more than a few mouthfuls. Few of the men were. After a while, Joe said, “I’ll do the chestnut first, then that bay. Can you get them ready?”

A couple of the men rose and went to collect the colts. As Joe rose to go over to the place where he was working, he heard the scream of an angry horse, and looked round in time to spot the chestnut break free from his handler and dive towards the bay.

Without being aware of what he was doing, Joe began to run in that direction. The man leading the bay tried his best to get his charge to turn away, but with only a headcollar for control, he had no chance. The bay stallion dragged him along as it rose to meet the chestnut’s challenge.

There was a solid thud as the two horses collided with each other, both on their hind legs, teeth and hooves flashing. Chet, the hand, was knocked to the ground.

“Get out of there, Chet!” Joe yelled, as he raced towards the horses. The man didn’t move.

Throwing himself bodily into the fray was perhaps not the wisest thing Joe had ever done, but he did it anyway, yelling like a banshee. For an instant, the horses parted, distracted by the unexpected noise, but it was only for an instant. As Joe grabbed the headcollar of the bay, he was struck by one of the flying hooves, and thrown aside.

Undeterred, Joe scrambled at once to his feet, and this time dived for Chet, grabbing his jacket and pulling him away from the danger area. Unfortunately, the horses were circling and pawing and no matter how fast Joe worked, they seemed to keep pace with him. Teeth sank into his side, biting through the material of his shirt. Joe let out a howl of pain, but kept working to save his man.

By now, the other hands had their ropes out, and had the horses lassoed. It took several men to drag the fighting animals apart, and just as they thought they had succeeded in parting them, the chestnut broke free.

It lunged for its rival, but missed, thanks to the tug on the rope around its neck. Frustrated, it reared, higher and higher, until its balance was thrown off. With a startled scream, the horse staggered slightly on its hind legs before it crashed to earth.

One hoof hit Chet. The other struck Joe.

*****

When Ben arrived at the corrals, Joe was on his feet, gazing at the lathered chestnut horse. He was covered with blood. Ben felt a cold hand clutch at his heart. Dismounting quickly, he hurried over to Joe. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked.

Slowly, Joe’s head turned until he was looking at Ben. “Chet’s dead,” he said, tonelessly.

Aghast, not sure if he was more shocked by his son’s tone than by the information he passed along, Ben looked at the blanket-covered body. He swallowed convulsively, his heart going out to the young man who had died, but relief swamping his body that it wasn’t Joe who was laying there.

But that didn’t blunt the edge of his worry. Joe was chalk white; a graze ran down the right side of his face, down his neck and down his arm. The sleeve of his shirt was ripped, revealing the lacerated skin beneath. Blood soaked through his shirt just about waist level.

Looking round, Ben saw Jeb, and ordered, “Take the body back to the house, Jeb and get those horses seen to. Send someone for the doctor, too.”

“All right, Mr. Cartwright,” Jeb replied. He glanced uneasily at Joe. “It were the hoof that done all that,” he explained, gesturing to the graze that ran down Joe’s body. “Joe was tryin’ to save Chet. An’ then the horse bit him, an’ all.”

“Thanks,” Ben answered. He carefully took Joe’s uninjured arm. “Come on, son, let’s go home,” he urged. After a moment, Joe followed him, mounting Cochise with a little help. As they rode home, Ben kept close, but Joe, although he reeled in the saddle once or twice, kept his seat.

*****

It was the silence that was the most worrying, Ben thought. Joe had spoken not a word the whole ride home. As they arrived in the yard, Ben hastily dismounted so he could hurry over and help Joe. “Son?” he ventured, when Joe showed no signs of moving. “Let me help you.”

Joe’s gaze came back from whatever vista of hell it had been contemplating and he focused on Ben. “What did you say, Pa?” he asked.

“Come on,” Ben urged, pulling gently on Joe’s arm. This time, Joe realized what Ben wanted and slid off his horse.

As his feet hit the ground, his knees began to buckle and Joe came back to reality with a jolt. He blinked and looked around. “How?” he began. “What?”

“Take it easy,” Ben advised him. “You’ve had quite a knock on the head, Joe. Come inside so you can sit down.” Looping his arm carefully around Joe’s waist, he assisted his son across the yard.

By the time they reached the sofa, Joe was visibly trembling. Ben helped him to sit down and swung his legs up onto the sofa. “Chet’s dead, isn’t he?” Joe asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Ben replied. “But it’s not your fault, Joe. You did everything you could to save him.”

“It is my fault,” Joe insisted. “I sent him to get that horse.”

“Him specifically, or just someone in general?” Ben asked.

“What difference does it make?” Joe snapped. “I sent him and he died because of me!” He moved convulsively, as though he was going to stand up, and a shaft of pain rocketed through his side. He blanched.

“Easy, Joe,” Ben soothed. “You’ve been injured, so just take it easy. The doctor will be here soon.” He kept repeating this mantra while they waited for the doctor to arrive. He did what he could to make Joe more comfortable, but there was so much blood, Ben was afraid to do too much.

It seemed to Ben that Joe was going into shock, for he was pale, cold, sweating and his pupils were enormous.  He was relieved when Adam and Hoss arrived home and so were able to help Joe up to his bed, where Ben made him lie down, covered him warmly with a blanket and got his other sons to raise the foot of the bed. He then spoke calmly to Joe while they waited for the doctor to arrive. Adam and Hoss looked on anxiously, but Ben indicated to them not to speak and so they contained their worry.

Finally, Dr Paul Martin arrived. Ben met him at the door and briefed him on Joe’s injuries. “You’ve done the right thing, Ben,” Paul assured him. “That’s the best possible thing to do for shock. Now, you go down and drink something hot and sweet while I tend to your boy.” He practically pushed Ben out of the door.

The hot sweet coffee did help settle Ben’s nerves slightly while he waited for Paul to come to them. It didn’t take as long as Ben had feared. “How is he?” he asked anxiously, the moment Paul appeared.

“He’s asleep,” Paul replied. He sat down on the sofa and accepted a cup of coffee. “His injuries are mostly minor, Ben. That was quite a bite he got on his side, and it had bled a lot. I haven’t had to take stitches, though. I cleaned it up and it should do well enough. He’s going to be incredibly bruised and sore for a while though. He was lucky that horse wasn’t shod, or he might have died. Keep him in bed tomorrow, then let him up. He’ll be too stiff to do much for a few days. He’s slightly concussed, as well.”

“Did he say anything?” Ben asked.

“About Chet?” Paul replied. “Yes, he did. I told him that it wasn’t his fault. I don’t think he believed me, but if you keep repeating it often enough, he should come round.” Paul sipped his coffee. “He’s bound to be a bit depressed, though, Ben. It’s only to be expected.”

*****

Next morning, Joe was indeed stiff and didn’t object to staying in bed. In fact, he didn’t complain at all and seemed to have no opinions on anything. Every time Ben went into his room that day, Joe was gazing into space. He made an effort to bring his thoughts back to the room while Ben was there, but it was clearly an effort, and as Ben left each time, he saw, with growing dismay, that Joe’s gaze had become unfocused once again.

“Do you want to talk about it, Joe?” Ben asked gently, as Joe picked at his supper.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Joe replied, tonelessly. “I killed Chet; what more is there to say?”

“You did not kill him, Joseph!” Ben hissed. “Chet’s death was an accident!”

“An accident I caused,” nodded Joe, still without the passion that Ben associated with his youngest son. “I told him to get that horse, and I killed him.”

“The horse killed him,” Ben snapped. “You told the men to get the horse. Chet was an experienced wrangler; you had no reason to think that anything might happen.”

“Its very kind of you to absolve me from blame,” Joe said, politely. “But there’s no need to pretend, Pa. I know I killed Chet.”

Shaken, Ben could only stare at his son. He knew then that the words he had said had not registered with Joe at all. Would repeating them make Joe hear them any better? “You didn’t kill Chet!” he reiterated.

Giving Ben a meaningless smile, Joe replied, “Whatever you say, Pa.”

Cajoling Joe into eating some more of his supper, Ben continued to repeat that Joe was not responsible for Chet’s death. Every time, Joe agreed with him politely, but it was clear that he didn’t believe a word of it. As Ben left with the tray, he wondered how on earth he was going to get through to Joe.

*****

“How are you feeling this morning, son?” Ben asked, as Joe arrived down for breakfast the next day. To Ben’s critical eye, he still appeared pale, but that was understandable.

“Fine, thank you, sir,” Joe replied. He glanced at his brothers, but there was no mischief lurking in those green eyes that morning.  “Morning,” he offered, as though unsure what to say to them.

“Good ta see ya up, Shortshanks,” Hoss beamed.

“Feeling better?” Adam enquired.

“Yes,” Joe replied. He began to help himself, but he put barely any food on his plate.

“Is that all you’re having?” Ben asked, anxiety making his tone sharper than he had intended.

“I’m not very hungry,” Joe responded indifferently.

“Ya need ta eat more’n that ta git yer strength up,” Hoss protested, looking at the lone slice of bacon and single egg on Joe’s plate. “Ya ain’t nuthin’ but skin an’ bone as it is!”

As he opened his mouth to say something, Adam caught Joe’s eye, and was shocked by the blank look he saw there. He subsided, not sure what to say. Joe didn’t care, he saw. It didn’t bother him that he was causing his family worry by not eating. In a flash, Adam realized that at that moment, Joe didn’t care if he lived or died. It was all the same to him and he wasn’t going to make any effort either way.

Catching Ben’s eye, Adam frantically shook his head, and Ben subsided. It took a moment or two longer for Hoss to catch on, but he, too stopped getting at Joe and they watched as he ate his meal without the slightest signs of interest or enjoyment.

As Hop Sing cleared the table, Ben said, “Joe, we have to go into town, but we won’t be too long. Will you be all right here alone?”

“Whatever,” Joe responded. “Have a nice time.” This last sentence seemed to be quite an effort for him.

“We’re going to Chet’s funeral,” Adam told him, quietly, eyes searching for a reaction.

For an instant, Joe’s eyes opened wide, and tears began to form. Then his face closed down again, all the life going out of it. “I’d better come, too then,” he stated. “After all, it was my fault.”

“It weren’t your fault!” Hoss declared. “It were an accident!”

“You don’t have to worry, Hoss,” Joe told him, kindly. “I know it was my fault.” He rose unhurriedly from the table and went over to the stairs.

“You’re not going to let him come, are you?” Adam asked Ben, as Joe disappeared from sight.

“What do you suggest I do?” Ben returned. “Tie him to his bed?”

“It might get a reaction from him,” Adam shot back. “I don’t think he’s up to it. Look at him!” He gestured dramatically to the stairs. “He’s as stiff as an old horse, looks like his own ghost and you’re not going to stop him from coming?”

“Don’t you think I can see that?” Ben whispered. “But I’d far rather he was under my eye, so I can see what he’s doing. Adam, don’t you see? I’m afraid to leave him here alone.”

There, it was out; he’d put into words his darkest fear. And looking at his sons, Ben saw that they had instinctively feared the same thing. Nothing more was said as they shrugged on coats and harnessed the buggy. Joe joined them a few minutes later, looking like a faded copy of himself. As Adam had said, Joe could barely walk, he was bruised and sore yet he was acting as though nothing had happened to him.

Conversation was short on the ride into town. They parked the buggy by the cemetery gates and went in. The hands were gathered there already and they all looked surprised to see Joe there. Joe kept his eyes down throughout and barely heard the short service. As he gazed at the plain coffin, his thoughts beat through his head louder and louder. You killed Chet. You killed Chet. You killed Chet. As the first clods of dirt were thrown onto the lowered coffin, Joe could take it no longer. He turned abruptly and ran towards the gate.

Quick as a flash, Adam followed him, but still wasn’t in time to catch Joe as he collapsed in a heap by the side of the buggy. Pulling Joe into his arms, Adam saw that his brother’s face was pale, his eyes were closed and he was sweating.

“Let’s get him home,” Ben said, from beside him, in a concerned tone. He helped Adam lift his unconscious brother into the buggy as Hoss joined them, and they rode away, leaving the hands and some friends muttering speculatively to each other.

*****

“I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” Joe muttered. He felt dreadful, but welcomed the misery. It proved to him that he could feel something other than the crippling guilt that had dogged him since Chet’s accident. What Joe couldn’t understand was why all the things he said came out sounding like he was parroting some foreign language that he didn’t understand.

“You didn’t embarrass me,” Ben repeated, patiently. “But I am concerned. I think you overdid it. Why don’t you have a lie down?” he suggested.

“All right,” Joe agreed, listlessly. He wondered if he would feel better if he had a sleep. Sleeping was good; he didn’t have to think or feel while he was asleep. He dragged his sore, weary body upstairs and lay down carefully on the bed. He closed his eyes as tears seeped out beneath his lashes.

When Ben checked on him a short while later, Joe was sound asleep.

*****

Unfortunately for Joe, as his body began to heal, he found that it was impossible to sleep all the time. He had grown to hate the litany that all his family repeated to him. “The accident wasn’t your fault.” As he sank deeper into depression, he began to believe that nothing he did was worthwhile. The repeated assurances, instead of giving him the boost he needed, just convinced him that he was generally so inept that he couldn’t be trusted to do anything.

From being silent, Joe became angry; angry that they wouldn’t leave him alone with his misery. He could barely put a foot outside the door before one or another of his family would follow him. When he wanted to go riding, he couldn’t go alone, just in case he felt dizzy, Ben said, but Joe thought it was so he wouldn’t go and do something else stupid. “Don’t worry, Pa,” he snapped. “I’m never going to break horses again, so I’m not going to run off there alone!” Shaken by the venom in Joe’s voice, Ben could only stare at him.

“Joe…” he ventured.

“Never, Pa! I mean it! Never again!” Joe had raced upstairs and slammed his door on that occasion. Ben had not known what to say, so had said nothing.

Deep down inside, Joe knew that he wasn’t useless, but his grieving over the death of Chet wasn’t being allowed to fully run its course. What Joe needed, more than anything, was time alone to work through his thoughts. Unintentionally, his family was smothering him.

It all came to a head a few days later. Joe had managed to get as far as the barn alone and was just beginning to relax when the door opened and Adam came in. “Joe? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine!” Joe replied, through gritted teeth. He thought that if anyone else asked if he was all right, he would probably scream.

“Are you going riding?” Adam asked, which was a really stupid question, given that Joe was in the process of saddling Cochise. “I don’t think you should go alone.”

That was the last straw for Joe. “You know what, Adam?” Joe asked, slowly, turning to face him. His horse side-stepped uneasily. Joe’s voice began to rise. “I don’t care what you think. If I want to go riding alone, then that’s what I’m going to do! I can’t even go to the outhouse alone these days. Someone always follows me to ask if I’m all right! Well, guess what? I’m not all right! Got it? Now leave me alone!”

“Joe, hang on,” Adam protested. “That’s not fair; we’re just concerned for you, buddy.”

“Fair or not, it’s the truth!” Joe shouted. “Now I’m going riding, alone!”

“Not when you’re mad!” Adam stated firmly, and found, to his shock, that Joe had decked him! Slightly dazed, he just lay there in the straw as his irate youngest brother mounted up and galloped off.

He had got as far as his knees when Ben appeared in the barn, a questioning look on his face. “Adam?” he queried, hurrying over to help his son. “Are you all right? What happened?” He glanced around. “Where’s Joe?”

“Joe is what happened,” Adam answered, wryly. He felt his face gingerly. “He lost his temper with me and thumped me before riding off.”

“I’d better go after him,” Ben worried. He moved towards his horse, but Adam put out his hand and stopped him.

“Don’t, Pa,” he said, and told Ben what Joe had said to him. “He’s right, you know? Thinking about it, whenever Joe went off alone, we went after him, even to the outhouse.”

“But we’re worried about him,” Ben protested frowning.

“Yes, but I think perhaps Joe needs to be alone. By the time he’s gone off to bed at night, he’s tired and probably doesn’t have time to think before he falls asleep.” Adam shrugged. “For you, me and Hoss, keeping close is probably the right thing to do. But not for Joe. We have to give him time alone, Pa.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Ben replied, but the frustration was clear in his tone. He looked at Adam more closely. “You’re going to have a terrific bruise there, son,” he commented and Adam grinned.

“Your baby son can sure pack a wallop,” he agreed.

*****

The sheer exhilaration of riding his horse at a flat-out gallop made Joe feel human for the first time in over a week. It felt good to be on his own at last. He allowed Cochise to slow, until they were walking. He didn’t try and guide the horse; instead he just let Cochise pick his own direction. Out of habit, because Joe went there so often, Cochise took Joe to his mother’s grave. Joe wondered if, subconsciously, he had directed the horse to come here. This was the place he came to sort out his thoughts.

Dismounting, Joe sat for a long time gazing at the lake. His mind played over and over the events of the day that had led, ultimately, to Chet’s death. And as he played it through, Joe began to cry, relieving the bottled-up feelings inside. Finally wiping his eyes on his sleeve, Joe came to understand that he wasn’t to blame for Chet’s death. It had been a horrific accident that no one could have foreseen. He had done everything he could to save Chet, including risking his own life. The burden of guilt lifted and Joe lay back, relaxed for the first time in a very long time.

Not surprisingly, after the catharsis of tears, Joe fell asleep. He was awakened about an hour later by a booming crash of thunder. Glancing round, Joe saw that an autumn squall was moving in across the lake. Right now, there was no rain, but that would come later, Joe guessed. Rising, he caught Cochise, who was grazing nearby and mounted. He had no intention of getting wet if he could avoid it.

The very air seemed to crackle with electricity, and Cochise was nervous. Joe soothed the horse as he glanced around. There was a flash of lightning just ahead, and Cochise reared. “Easy, fella,” Joe soothed, tightening the reins and stroking the black-and-white neck. “Take it easy, Cooch, its just lightning. You’ve seen storms before.”

However, Joe was slightly concerned. He and Cochise were still in amongst the trees and he knew only too well that lightning was attracted to the trees. “Let’s go,” he urged, allowing the horse to stretch into a lope.

They had barely traveled any distance when there were two lightning strikes in quick succession in the trees ahead. With a roar, the trees caught fire. Startled, Cochise reared, higher and higher. Joe clung to his saddle horn. After a moment, the horse crashed back to all four legs, but it danced around uneasily as Joe tried to calm it. Realizing that this was hopeless, Joe was preparing to dismount and lead Cochise when lightning stuck the tree right beside him. A flaming branch plunged to the ground, striking Joe and knocking him from the saddle. Cochise fled.

*****

He was on fire! Frantically, Joe rolled over and over, extinguishing the flames on his sleeve. Overhead, the fire crackled on. Panting, Joe lay face down on the ground, becoming aware, now that his immediate danger was past, that his arm was throbbing with pain. As he tried to move it, he realized that as well as being burned, his arm was probably broken.

As he forced himself to his knees, Joe suddenly realized that bits and pieces of fire were raining down on him from above. His face stung here and there as embers floated past. And then the worst happened, the ground, tinder dry, ignited. Joe was trapped in a circle of flame!

*****

“Look at that lightnin’!” Hoss exclaimed as he and Adam rode back into the yard.

“Let’s hope there’s rain on the way,” Adam replied. “Otherwise we’re going to lose a lot of timber!” He drew rein and looked harder. “Hoss, look! Fire!”

Moments later, they were raising the alarm.

*****

Snatching off his jacket, Joe began to beat frantically at the flames. Smoke billowed into his face, making him cough, but he didn’t stop; his life depended on him putting the flames out. Joe knew that he was probably fighting a losing battle; one man was not going to stop a forest fire.

With another crash of thunder overhead, the rain suddenly came deluging down. Joe could hear the flames hissing as the cold rain struck them. “Thank you, God!” he shouted against the noise.  There was a sudden gust of wind, fanning the flames momentarily, and Joe inhaled a lungful of smoke. He choked, and spluttered as tears ran down his grimy face.

When he had regained his eyesight, he glanced up, squinting through the rain. The treetops were smoking now, no longer blazing, and Joe sent up another thankful prayer. But his troubles were not yet over. The canopy of leaves was so thick that the grass and undergrowth still burned fiercely, as the soaking rain had not yet penetrated that far. Joe was still in trouble.

There was nothing for it but to carry on fighting the flames with his jacket. Joe was coughing steadily now, and feeling light-headed as the oxygen content of the air he was breathing decreased. He staggered and fell to his knees, the landing sending a jolt of pain through his injured arm.

Dragging his sleeve over his face, Joe forced himself to rise once more and begin beating at the flames. His arm ached from the continuous unaccustomed movement, but Joe resolutely didn’t allow himself to stop. He mechanically kept going, until he was no longer able to continue. The smoke was thicker than ever now, and Joe could barely breathe.

He toppled to the ground, and for an instant in the clearer air felt better. Then the wind changed and blew smoke into his face and Joe, unable to breathe for coughing, passed out.

*****

“Looks like the worst of the fire is out!” Adam called over the noise of the storm.

“We’d better make sure it’s all out!” Ben called back. They continued riding towards the fire site.

This was a familiar scenario to the Cartwrights and their hands. They had brought large wet sacks with them and they dismounted, hurrying towards the smoldering ground, ready to beat out any remaining embers.

“Look!” Hoss cried, and plunged into the smoke. Adam and Ben exchanged a startled look and hurried after him, neither of them having seen whatever it was he had seen.

The smoke was eddying about, but as far as they could see there were no flames left.  Ben tugged his damp bandanna over his nose to try and give himself some protection from the smoke. Adam was doing the same.

Spying Hoss kneeling on the ground, Adam and Ben hurried over. Ben was horrified to realize that Hoss was kneeling by a man. Some drifter caught out by the flames? Ben wondered as he approached. So it was with a distinct sense of shock that he recognized the curly hair belonging to his youngest son. “Joe?” he gasped and pushed his way past Hoss to feel frantically for a pulse. “He’s alive, get him out of here,” Ben ordered, and Adam and Hoss carefully lifted Joe between them. Their younger brother was black with soot and barely seemed to be breathing.

Carrying him away from the fire, they carefully set Joe down on a patch of untouched grass. Joe began to cough almost at once. “Look at his arm!” Adam said, in almost a whisper. Joe’s thin shirt had been burned away, leaving some red places on his skin.

“Get a canteen!” Ben ordered, as he ripped off his bandanna. He began to wipe the soot from Joe’s face with the damp cloth as Adam hurried over to the horses to retrieve a canteen. He was soon back and managed to trickle a little water into Joe’s mouth. His brother coughed again, reflexively, but his eyes, swollen and red-rimmed, cracked open.

“Fire!” he whispered, urgently. “Pa, fire!” His voice was hoarse.

“Easy, Joe,” Ben soothed. “The fire is out.” He glanced over his shoulder at the blackened patch of ground where they had found Joe. The rain, which still was pouring down in torrents, had killed even the smoldering embers. Joe looked at Ben blankly before starting to cough again. As his cough eased, Joe slumped unconscious in his father’s arms again.

“Come on, we’ve got to get him home,” Ben urged. He glanced at Adam. “Get the doctor, quickly! Hoss, help me.”

As they put Joe onto Buck, his jacket fell from his hand. Hoss bent to scoop it up and froze. “I was wonderin’ how come the flames was out, when the rain hadn’t reached the ground, Pa,” he began. Ben frowned at him, not knowing where Hoss was going with this. “I reckon Joe done beat those flames out. Look at his jacket.” The familiar green twill was scorched and blackened, with smoking holes here and there.

“Never mind that now!” Ben exclaimed. “We’ve got to get Joe home.” He mounted behind his son and set off for the ranch.

*****

They were soaked to the skin by the time they got home. Cochise was standing patiently in the yard when they arrived and nickered softly as he saw his stablemates. One of the hands took the Cartwrights’ horses as Hoss and Ben carried Joe into the house. He had roused during the ride home, but he was unable to speak, and coughed almost continuously.

While Ben removed Joe’s soaking, blackened clothes, Hoss went to dry off and change. When he returned, Ben went to change. Joe hadn’t spoken, apart from to cry out when Ben pulled the remains of his shirt over his broken arm. His eyes were now so swollen that they wouldn’t open at all. Ben was worried sick. He fed Joe small sips of water while they waited for Paul Martin to arrive.

*****

Almost three hours passed before Paul came. By then, Joe was exhausted, and appeared to be sleeping. His face was spotted with tiny red marks that Ben correctly assumed were burns. Remembering a previous occasion when Joe had been burned, Ben had placed cool cloths on Joe’s injured arm, and wiped his face continuously with cool water.

After examining Joe, Paul turned to Ben. “We’re going to treat him as though he has pneumonia,” Paul told him. “Joe has inhaled a lot of smoke, and he’s got minor burns to his arm and face. I’m slightly concerned that he might have burned his eyes, too, but until the swelling is down and Joe can open them, I can’t confirm that. Keep him quiet, keep the bandages damp and he should recover in time.”

“What are you going to do about his eyes?” Ben asked, fearfully. “Will he be…blind?”

“Right now, I’m going to bandage them up. Keep it damp, and we’ll know more when I can see into them.”  Paul patted Ben on the shoulder. “He’ll be fine, Ben, I promise. Yes, he’s inhaled a lot of smoke, but he’s in pretty good shape apart from that. I’ll set his arm now, then we can let him sleep.”

Going back over to the bed, Paul cajoled Joe into taking a couple of spoonfuls of a mixture he produced from his bag. Joe’s cough was settling slightly and he was able to talk in a hoarse whisper. “Pa?” he whispered and Ben went over to take his hand. “Why can’t I see?”

“Don’t worry about it, Joe,” Paul replied, soothingly. “Your eyes are just puffy from the smoke. I’m going to bandage them up for a few days, all right? So don’t worry. Right now, I’m going to give you something for the pain and set this arm. Keep taking the medicine I’ve left for you and you’ll be all right.” With his eyes, he warned Ben not to say anything to Joe about his eyes.

“It’s horrid,” Joe complained, making a face after he had swallowed it.

“Then its good for you,” Paul shot back. “All good medicine is horrid.” Joe gave a theatrical groan, which relieved his father’s mind immensely. Ben squeezed Joe’s hand, and the pressure was returned. Paul gave the morphine and gradually Joe’s grip loosened as he slipped into a drugged sleep.

*****

Wakening some time later, Joe struggled futilely to open his eyes. His body ached in places, but he couldn’t remember why. A cough broke from his lips and Joe felt like it was coming from his boots. As he lay panting as the cough eased, a familiar voice asked, “Would you like a drink, Joe?”

Nodding, Joe wondered why he couldn’t see. He tried to raise his hand to his face, but a hand caught his and prevented him. A moment later, his head was raised and he felt a glass at his lips. He drank gratefully and the cool water soothed his aching throat. “I can’t see,” he whispered.

“Your eyes are bandaged,” Adam reminded his brother gently, holding his hand all the while. “You were caught in a fire, do you remember?” Paul had warned them that Joe might be a bit confused.

“Oh yes,” Joe croaked, the memory coming back. He tried to free his hand, but Adam held on, and Joe attempted to move his other arm, remembering only too late that it was broken. The plaster cast on his right arm weighed it down. “Where’s Pa?” he asked, next.

“He’s asleep,” Adam soothed. “It’s about 2 am, Joe. Pa was worn out.”

“My head aches,” Joe complained.

“That’s from the smoke,” Adam assured him. “It’ll pass. Why don’t you try to sleep?”

“Am I hurt bad?” Joe asked, after a moment of silence.

“No, not really,” Adam responded. “You’ve broken your arm, and it’s a little burned at the shoulder, and your face is a bit pink, like you got too close to the fire, but no, you’re not hurt bad.”

There was silence while Joe digested this. “So why are my eyes bandaged if I’m not hurt bad?” he demanded.

Sighing, Adam shook his head. Joe was nothing if not single-minded. “Because your eyes were all puffy from the smoke and Paul thought this would help them recover more quickly.”

“Take the bandages off,” Joe demanded. “Adam, please, I hate not being able to see.”

“I know you do, Joe,” Adam replied, patiently, hiding his own fear. “But Paul says this is best for just now. Be patient. You won’t be alone, I promise. It’s just for a day or two. You can manage that, can’t you?” Adam bit his lip, wondering if that last sentence had sounded too patronizing.

But Joe was too sleepy to notice. “I guess I can,” he agreed. “You won’t go away, will you?”

“Someone will always be with you, Joe,” Adam assured him, and a few minutes later, Joe’s deep breathing assured his brother that he slept again. But Joe’s grip did not loosen.

*****

Over the course of the next day, Joe’s cough gradually disappeared, thanks partly to Paul’s medicine. By evening, Joe was sitting up in bed, eating a light meal. His eyes were still bandaged, as Paul Martin had not returned that day and Ben was afraid to remove the bandages without him there. Consequently, Joe was being fed, something which he hated.

After he had finished eating, Joe asked, “Did we lose much timber?”

“No,” Ben responded. “None at all, luckily. The rain began just in time.”

“Pity it didn’t begin a bit sooner,” Joe commented. “Then maybe I wouldn’t have been in that position.”

“How did it happen?” Ben asked. This was the first time Joe had shown any signs of wanting to discuss what had happened to him, and Ben was agog with curiosity.

Slowly, Joe explained about the lightning striking the tree and the limb falling on him, knocking him from the saddle. “When I sat up, and I realized that I was trapped, I took my jacket off and began to beat at the flames. Oh, I knew I had no chance, but I couldn’t just do nothing.”

A big, warm hand was on his forearm, the thumb making comforting circles on the skin. “Joe, if you hadn’t done that, son, I think that we might well have lost some timber. Maybe even a lot of timber. It took the rain some time to reach the ground.” Ben hesitated for a moment. “Joe, you seem much better. Are you…?” Ben didn’t want to go on.

However, Joe didn’t pretend to misunderstand his father. “I do feel better,” he replied. “I needed some time alone to come to terms with Chet’s death. I can see now that it was just an accident. Like this was just an accident.” Joe sighed. “I’m sorry I was so rude to you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ben denied. “And I’m sorry we didn’t realize that you needed to be alone. Joe, it’s sometimes difficult with you, knowing what’s best. Sometimes, you want people with you; other times, you want to be alone, but if you don’t tell us, how are we to know?”

“I’m sorry,” Joe replied, wretchedly. “I’ll tell you next time, I promise.” He winced slightly as Ben replaced the cloth on his shoulder with a wet one. “When is Paul coming to look at my eyes?” Joe had promised himself he wouldn’t ask that, yet it slipped out before he could stop it. He wondered if Ben could hear the tremor in his voice.

“I don’t know,” replied his father. “I thought he might have been out today, but he’s a busy man. I’m sure he’ll come tomorrow.”

There was a long silence. Ben thought that Joe had fallen asleep. He was about to move his son into a more comfortable position when Joe spoke. “Do you think my eyes are burned?” he asked, in a low voice.

“No!” Ben protested vehemently. “Joe, your eyes were just swollen, that’s all. They didn’t look in the least red to me yesterday. I’m sure they’ll be all right.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Joe answered and slid down the bed, snuggling under the blankets. But his tone was anything but convincing, and his hand clutched Ben’s tightly.

*****

The next day passed without any sign of Paul Martin and Ben asked Adam to ride into town. When the oldest son arrived home, he found Ben in the kitchen. “The storm caused a huge fire at Johnston’s ranch,” Adam explained, in an undertone. “Paul has been out there for the last 2 days treating the injured. He hasn’t slept at all, as far as I understand. Sally Johnston has been in labor for the last 36 hours and I don’t think she’s gonna pull through.”

“Oh no!” Ben breathed. “What can we do to help?”

“Everything is under control now,” Adam replied. “There isn’t much to do. They lost everything. Sally is at Doc Martin’s office now. He said he’ll be out as soon as he can. Meantime, keep Joe in bed and keep his eyes covered.”

Closing his eyes, Ben said a prayer for the woman in travail and thanked the Lord once more for Joe’s deliverance.

*****

As the now familiar protests began, Adam gently explained to Joe about the Johnstons. A shocked silence followed and Joe made no further complaint. Late that evening, word reached them, via one of the hands, that Sally Johnston and her baby had both died.

*****

It was early the following evening before Paul Martin arrived at the Ponderosa. He looked tired, but made an effort to smile at his old friends. But he was understandably subdued. When Ben expressed his condolences for Sally’s death, Paul replied, “Thanks, Ben. She suffered a great deal, but there was nothing I could do. Bill Johnston died this afternoon. Sally’s death just took the heart right out of him.”

There was nothing to say to such somber news. Paul straightened and made an effort to look cheerful. “Let’s go and see to this boy’s eyes. If I know Joe, he’s been driving you mad for the last few days.”

“You could say that,” Adam agreed, dryly.

Climbing the stairs, Ben was aware of a mounting tension in his chest. He didn’t know how Joe would react if he lost his sight, or how any of them would cope. He drew in a deep breath as he opened the door to Joe’s room.

“I tol’ you that sounded like the doc,” Hoss said to Joe.

“About time too,” Joe joked, smiling in the general direction of the doorway. “I thought you’d abandoned me, Doc.”

“Its not that I’m not tempted, Joe,” Paul cracked back. “But the world isn’t big enough for me to hide in if your Pa thought that I wasn’t coming back to see to you.”

Joe laughed. Paul ignored Ben’s good-natured grumbling and began to unwind the bandage from Joe’s eyes. Ben took Joe’s hand, and found himself holding his breath.

The swelling had gone down, and Joe’s eyes were not as red as they had been three days previously. “Open them,” Paul urged and Joe did just that.

“I can see,” he breathed and the relief in the room was palpable.

“Excellent,” Paul replied, briskly. He peered closely into Joe’s eyes, and was relieved to see that his eyes had received no burns at all. Nodding, he checked the burns on Joe’s shoulder and saw that they were recovering well, too. “All right, young man, I think you can get up, as long as you don’t overdo things.”

“When can I get back to breaking those horses?” Joe asked and Ben shot a sharp look at him.

“Not until I say so!” Paul declared. He smiled at Joe and rose. “I’m going home to bed,” he announced and Adam and Hoss, after a glance at Ben’s face, followed Paul, ostensibly to show him out.

Sitting slowly into the chair beside the bed, Ben had yet to take his eyes from his son’s face. “That came as a surprise, huh, Pa?” Joe asked, grinning mischievously.

“It sure did,” agreed Ben. “Weren’t you the young man who shouted at me last week that you were never going to break horses again?”

Shame-faced, Joe nodded. “I wanted to hurt you, to shock you,” he explained. “I felt so bad, so confused, and I had to let it out somehow. And I did mean it – then.”

“And now?” Ben asked.

“Now, I feel I’m ready to go back to it. Or I would be but for this arm.” And he raised his cast slightly, giving it a rueful look. “You see, Pa, I never thought about the risks involved in the breaking game. Even after all the spills I’ve had, I never gave it a thought. I know there’s a chance that I could be badly hurt, but I’m willing to accept those risks.” He glanced at Ben.

“Too willing, I sometimes think,” Ben scolded him, gently.

“But I’m good at it, Pa,” Joe went on, earnestly. “I know I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. What I had forgotten is that the men out there are also willing to take the same risks as me. Okay, some of them will never break horses, but they all work, day in and day out with them, and they know as well as me that there is always a risk. Especially when working with wild horses.

“But you know, the point isn’t to break the horses’ spirits. It’s to show them that men aren’t their enemies.  I use patience to wear them down, to make them realize that I’m not going to go away.” He shot a smile at Ben. “That’s crazy, isn’t it, when I have so little patience? But that’s how I do it. I use patience. And perhaps I didn’t use enough patience that day; I don’t know. But I have learned, these last few days, that Chet’s death wasn’t my fault. I did everything I could for him out there. And I didn’t let it break me. Because the breaking game can work both ways; it can break men as well as horses. And I don’t want that to happen to me.” He looked at Ben, relishing in having his sight back, but trying to see if his father had understood what he said. “I almost let it break me this time. And if it had broken me, it would have broken this whole family, wouldn’t it?”

“I know,” Ben agreed. He fell silent, thinking over what Joe had said. He knew he would never stop worrying about his boys, whatever they did, but he also knew that they knew the risks and accepted the fully.

Very softly, Joe quoted, “No man is an island, entire of itself… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Startled and deeply moved, Ben looked into his son’s shining green eyes and felt tears prickling. “I didn’t know you liked John Donne,” he whispered, huskily.

Blinking back the corresponding tears from his own eyes, Joe replied, “I don’t much. But I like that. I like that very much. And Adam read it to me last night, which reminded me of it.” He tightened his fingers around his father’s hand and they sat that way for a long time.

*****

Three months later, Joe dashed into the house. “Pa!” he cried, as he threw open the door. “Pa, where are you?”

“I’m here,” Ben replied, coming from the study area. “And you don’t need to shout, son, I’m not deaf. Yet!”

“You know that chestnut gelding?” Joe was clearly very excited.

That one?” Ben questioned. “The one that caused all the trouble? Yes. I know it.”

There was a huge grin on Joe’s face. “I just sold it for a hundred and fifty bucks!”

“Well done!” Ben praised as they grinned at one another. Both of them knew that the money could never make up for losing a man’s life, but the fact that the horse had proven so good seemed to go some of the way to making things right.

***End***

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