The Final Sacrifice (by Rona)

Summary:  The love that makes, undaunted, the final sacrifice.

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,069


 

 

“Hoss?” Joe frowned as he looked at his older brother. “Hoss, are you all right?” He went over to where Hoss was resting against the fence they were repairing. It was a warm afternoon, but Joe was surprised by how much Hoss was sweating. “You don’t look too good,” he added, concerned.

“I’m fine!” Hoss snapped and Joe was instantly sure that Hoss was ill. It wasn’t at all like his brother to snap at people.

“Have a drink,” Joe offered, holding out the canteen he had just refilled at the stream. “It’s cool.” Joe wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve while Hoss drank deeply from the canteen. Joe reached to take the canteen from Hoss and almost flinched as his hand touched his brother’s hand. “Hoss, you’re burning up!” Joe exclaimed. He reached out to feel his brother’s head, but Hoss was having none of it.

Irritably, Hoss smacked Joe’s hand away, and looked surprised when he almost knocked Joe off his feet. Joe looked at Hoss in surprise. “I’m fine,” Hoss protested, although he felt dreadful. He was tired, hot, his eyes were running and he felt like he had a bad cold. In fact, it felt like the worst cold he had ever had.

By now, Joe’s slim store of patience had run out. “Look, Hoss, I know I can’t force you to go home, but I really think you should,” he stated firmly, his green eyes snapping. “If I looked as bad as you do, you’d throw me onto my horse and make me go home. All right, I can’t do that, but you need to go home!”

The vision of the slightly built, if deceptively muscular, and smallest Cartwright forcing him, the tallest and biggest built Cartwright, to go home raised a slight smile. It made Hoss realize that he was being foolish. He glanced at his younger brother, who was standing there, his hands planted on his hips and his chin jutting in that determined manner he had, and smiled again. “All right, Shortshanks, you win,” Hoss capitulated. “I’ll go home.”

“Good,” Joe responded, relieved. If Hoss had collapsed on him, Joe had no idea how he would have got the larger man home. As it was, he had no intention of letting Hoss ride off alone. Moving quickly, Joe packed away the equipment they had been using and turned to help Hoss get onto Chub, his horse.

It seemed an interminable journey home to the worried Joe. Hoss wavered in the saddle, and Joe dreaded him coming off. However, they made it back to the house with Hoss still sitting upright, although looking unutterably weary. Joe jumped down from Cochise and hurried round to Chub to help Hoss.

That his brother needed the help was no secret. Hoss could barely stand, and Joe slung one of Hoss’ arms around his own shoulders, and put an arm around his brother’s waist as they headed for the house. Hoss leaned heavily on Joe, and Joe doubted that he would make it all the way to the house. Hoss outweighed him by a great deal, and Joe, although very strong, was struggling under his brother’s weight. “Pa!” he shouted. “Pa!”

The door opened, and Ben Cartwright stood there, looking out, clearly perplexed. His heart contracted as he saw Hoss and Joe staggering towards him and he hurried to give assistance, only belatedly realizing that the person who needed the most help was actually Hoss, not Joe.

“What happened?” Ben asked, feeling the heat coming from Hoss. “Hoss, you’ve got a fever.”

“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. “I don’ feel so good.”

“Help me get him upstairs,” Ben panted to Joe, who was now too winded to speak. Joe simply nodded and they eased their way across the great room to the stairs. Although the stairs had not been designed for three abreast, somehow they managed to negotiate them, and soon had Hoss sitting on his bed.

Kneeling, Ben pulled Hoss’ boots off, while Joe bent over, leaning his hands on his knees while he drew in great draughts of air. Ben glanced at him. “Joe, get the doctor, please.”

“Sure thing,” Joe panted. “Hoss, you take care now.”

“I don’ need the doctor,” Hoss objected.

“How like Joe you sound,” Ben observed and Hoss cracked a small smile.

“Thanks,” Joe commented, as he left the room. “I’ll get the doctor and I hope he gives you some really nasty-tasting medicine!” He hurried downstairs and out to his horse.

Meanwhile, Ben persuaded Hoss into a nightshirt and pulled back the covers to allow his son to lie comfortably on the bed. He was very concerned about Hoss’ temperature, which was very high. “How long have you been feeling unwell?” he asked, offering Hoss a drink.

Sipping the water, Hoss shrugged. “I dunno fer sure,” he replied. “About a week.”  Handing his father the glass, Hoss put his head down on the pillow with obvious relief, and closed his eyes. “I jist thought I had a cold. Pa, could ya pull them drapes? It’s real bright.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, going over to pull them closed. The room dimmed at once, and Hoss seemed to find that a relief. He kept his eyes closed and after a few minutes, he drifted off to sleep, signaled by a raucous snore.

There was nothing more Ben could do for Hoss right then, so he left him to sleep and went back downstairs to his neglected correspondence. He left Hoss’ door ajar, so that if his son called for him, he would hear him at once. But Ben’s mind was not on the letters he was writing. He was going over Hoss’ symptoms in his mind, knowing that they were familiar, but unable to come up with what was wrong with his son. He sighed. He would just have to wait for the arrival of Paul Martin, the family physician.

*****

“Doc?” Joe said, as he entered the doctor’s rooms.

Looking up in surprise, for Joe was the last person Paul Martin expected to see in his surgery willingly, the doctor replied, “Hello, Joe. What brings you here?”

“Pa sent me to get you,” Joe explained. “It’s Hoss. He’s really sick.”

“Tell me more,” Paul demanded, as he got up and started to check through his Gladstone bag.

“He’s got a high fever,” Joe replied, “and he’s really irritable. I had to help him into the house.”

Frowning, Paul added something else to his bag, and snapped it shut. “Let’s go,” he suggested and Joe shot out of the office at high speed, much the same way he’d come in, Paul noted with fleeting amusement. The symptoms Joe had described could cover many conditions. Paul just hoped it was one of the lesser conditions, and not the one that he was dreading.

*****

Banished from Hoss’ room while Paul made his examination, Ben and Joe each paced around the living room. Joe had put Cochise away, hoping against hope that Paul would be back with Ben by the time he had finished. His concern mounting with every moment, Joe could not sit still and Ben was soon afflicted with his son’s restlessness.

“What’s taking so long?” Joe burst out at last, totally frustrated.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied, his voice low. It was so unlike Hoss to be unwell, and a dark foreboding was growing in Ben’s mind.

But at last, Paul called them upstairs and there was almost an undignified scrum at the bottom of the steps as Joe and Ben both wanted to be upstairs first. Joe was undoubtedly quicker, but he acknowledged Ben’s rights as parent, and let him go first.

“Well?” Ben asked, as they entered the room. His eyes flew to Hoss, who was lying quietly on the bed, a cold cloth on his forehead. “What’s wrong, Paul?”

 The momentary hesitation immediately notched Joe’s anxiety up even higher. His green eyes fixed beseechingly on Paul’s face, willing the physician not to give them bad news. He was to be disappointed.

“Hoss has the measles.”

*****

For a long moment, there was silence. Both pairs of eyes flew to Hoss, horror reflected there. Measles was highly contagious, and often fatal to an adult. Joe had had the measles when he was a child, and so had Ben. Hoss had not caught them from Joe, because he had been away on a short trip with a school friend and his family. Ben had been grateful at the time, for his hands were full nursing his youngest son.

“Are you sure?” Ben asked, looking back at his friend.

“Yes, positive,” Paul replied, quietly. “When Joe came and told me Hoss’ symptoms, I hoped it wasn’t measles. But there’s been an outbreak in town, Ben and it looks like its spreading.”

“What do we do?” Joe asked.

“Keep cold compresses on his head,” Paul answered. “Give him as much fluid as you can. Clear broth to eat, because his throat is sore and he’ll find it difficult to swallow. Keep him propped up as much as possible to stop fluid gathering on his lungs. Pneumonia is a very common side-effect, I’m afraid.”

“Pneumonia?” Joe echoed.

“Yes,” Paul nodded. “I’m not really too sure why, but I suppose the body’s defenses are down, and I often see pneumonia in measles patients. But hopefully it won’t come to that. Keep the room warm, but with a little air coming in, and make sure Hoss stays in bed.”

“We will,” Ben assured him. He glanced at Hoss again. “But, Paul, are you sure? There aren’t any spots.”

“Yes, there are,” Paul contradicted him. “They are on his chest right now, but tomorrow, you probably won’t be able to put a pin head on him.”

“Isn’t there any thing you can give him?” Joe asked, almost angrily.

“No,” Paul sighed, knowing that Joe’s anger stemmed from fear. They all knew what could happen in a measles epidemic. “Later, there might be some things I can give him, depending on what happens, but right now, Joe, the best thing for Hoss is rest, quiet and fluids.”

“He’ll get them,” Ben vowed, putting his hand on Joe’s arm to calm his son. “Joe, see Paul to the door.”

Reluctantly, Joe did as he was asked, while Ben went over to change the cold compress on Hoss’ head.

*****

For the next few days, it seemed to Joe that tending to Hoss was all that Ben did. Not that Joe begrudged his brother the attention. It was just that it seemed to Joe that his father was not eating or sleeping at all. Whenever Joe went into Hoss’ room, Ben was there, mopping his fevered body, or spooning broth into him.  Joe had willingly taken on the running of the ranch, but he was now beginning to fear that his father would collapse if he didn’t get some rest soon.

“You’ve got to get some sleep,” Joe argued, as he coaxed Ben to come down to eat something solid. “Pa, you won’t do Hoss any good by making yourself ill, too.”

“I think I might know what I’m doing,” Ben replied, stiffly. “After all, I have done this on numerous occasions for you, young man.”

For a moment, Joe just stared at his father, unable to believe that Ben had thrown that up at him. But he kept a hold on his temper, for this was a sure sign that his father had indeed past his limits of sleeplessness. “I know that,” Joe responded, exasperated. “But you had to sleep then and you have to sleep now, Pa. How am I going to cope if you become ill, too?”

“The men will run the ranch,” Ben replied. “Charlie can keep things ticking over for a few days.”

“Perhaps he could,” Joe snapped, “if half the men hadn’t come down with measles, too!”

The moment the words were out, Joe could have bitten his tongue. He had worked hard to keep that knowledge from his father, who had enough to worry about. But Joe was worrying about it and that worry had his temper honed to a fine edge. Ben looked shocked. “I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled. “I didn’t mean to tell you like that.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Ben demanded, angrily. “I am still in charge here, you know.”

“Yes, I do know,” Joe retorted. “But you have enough to do with looking after Hoss. Charlie has a couple of the men who’ve had the measles organized to nurse the ones who’ve got it now. So we’re short-handed, Pa, and I can’t afford to have to stay here all the time and nurse both you and Hoss. So will you please get some sleep and let Hop Sing look after Hoss for a while?”

Looking at his son’s handsome face, flushed with his pent-up anger, Ben realized that he had to do as Joe asked. He was exhausted! Joe had turned into such a fine young man, and had just dealt with this situation, sparing Ben from further worry. He swallowed down a lump in his throat. “You’re right, Joe,” he sighed. “I do need to rest.”

The look of utter relief on Joe’s face told Ben just how tired Joe was, too. “You get some sleep,” Joe told him, “and I’ll see you later.”

“And when are you going to get some sleep?” Ben asked, as he rose with Joe.

“Tonight,” Joe replied, smiling. “After I get these cows sorted out.” He patted Ben’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about me, Pa.”

“I’ve always worried about you,” Ben retorted.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Joe teased, moving smartly towards the front door. “Worrying about me gave you grey hair! I’ve heard it all before, you know!” He exited quickly, hearing his father’s laugh before he closed the door. It was a sound that had been missing from the house for too many days.

*****

One of the plus points of Hoss’ illness was that the big man was lucid, despite the very high temperature he was suffering from. Occasionally, he was out of it, but for the most part, when Hoss was awake, he knew what was going on. That fact made it easier for Ben to go and lie down, knowing that his son would understand when he wasn’t at his bedside.

For the first while, Hop Sing sat dutifully by the bed, but Hoss did nothing but sleep and so Hop Sing decided that it was quite safe for him to go back to the kitchen and finish up some of the never-ending chores that awaited him. On silent feet, he left the room, and went down to deal with the pile of washing that seemed to have been breeding recently.

When Hoss woke, he was surprised to find the room empty apart from himself, but he didn’t have the energy to worry about it and closed his eyes. But the persistent thirst that had wakened him in the first place grew worse and when Hoss hauled himself upright enough to reach the glass by the bed, he discovered it was empty.

Sighing, for every movement cost him a great deal of effort, Hoss stretched to get the pitcher. It was empty, too.  Sighing once more, Hoss wondered what would be best to do. If he shouted for Hop Sing, he would waken Pa, and he knew how tired Ben was. He could, of course, just wait for Hop Sing to come back, but who knew when that would be? No, Hoss decided, there was only one thing for it. He would have to go and get some more water for himself.

It was surprisingly difficult for Hoss to get himself upright, but he managed in the end, fighting down the need to scratch furiously at his spots. Picking up the pitcher, he began to move slowly in the direction of the doorway.

Pausing for breath half way down the hallway to the stairs, Hoss reflected that he hadn’t realized how far it was from his bedroom to the kitchen. “I’m feelin’ plumb puny,” he muttered to himself, and tried to laugh. But he really did feel very ill, and his breath was panting away from him as he padded silently onwards on bare feet.

It was hard to say who got the bigger shock – Hoss, or the five men robbing the Ponderosa ranch house. The pitcher slipped from Hoss’ hand to shatter on the stairs, and the men swung round, rifles up. “Come down here,” one of them ordered, and Hoss shakily obeyed.

“I can’t git the safe open,” another cried in frustration, glaring at Hoss as though it was his fault.

“We don’t have time to worry about it now,” replied the first man. “Let’s just get out of here. Ya stay put, fatty.”

Hoss didn’t need to be told twice. His unwise sojourn out of bed had cost him more than he had expected and he wasn’t sure he could put one foot in front of the other.

“What’s going on?” demanded a familiar voice, still hoarse with sleep. Hoss’ heart sank. The pitcher shattering had obviously woken Ben, and he was about to walk into an horrific situation.

“Pa, watch out!” Hoss shouted, and he paid the penalty, as one man hurried over to him and put a pistol to his head.

But his warning had come a fraction too late. Ben had already emerged from the top landing and stood, frozen in horror, at the scene in front of him. “Hoss!” he exclaimed.

“Back off, Cartwright!” the leader growled, dragging Hoss towards the door. “I’ll leave yer son further up the road as long as ya don’t come after us.”

“No, please, leave him alone!” Ben begged. He knew how ill Hoss was and he was terrified for his son’s safety.

“Keep back!” the man snarled and Ben froze as the gun was cocked. He could only watch helplessly as Hoss was dragged away.

*****

But things didn’t go any more smoothly for the men outside than they had inside. As they forced Hoss onto a horse, Joe came riding into the yard, unawares. He was dripping with mud from the waist down, having had to drag a cow out of a watering hole. He knew he couldn’t continue working while soaked through and had returned home to change.

“Hold it!” ordered the leader, pointing his gun at Joe. “Drop yer gun and get down from that horse, slow and easy.”

Seething, Joe did as he was told, his eyes glued to his older brother, who slumped on the horse’s neck. “Leave Hoss alone,” Joe told them. “You want a hostage, I’ll go.”

For a moment, the leader was tempted, but he could see that Joe was angry enough to cause them problems, whereas Hoss, although big, was too ill to resist. “Tie him up,” he ordered one of his men, who dragged Joe across to the corral and tied him there firmly. “Ya’ll get your brother back when I’m ready,” the man told Joe and the gang rode out, leaving Joe trussed against the fence, soaking wet and as mad as could be.

*****

Luckily for Joe, he didn’t have long to wait for rescue. As the sound of the hooves faded, the door to the house opened, and Ben catapulted out. “Joe!” he cried, as he spied his son, twisting fruitlessly against his bonds. “They’ve got Hoss.”

“I know,” Joe replied, relaxing slightly as his father struggled to untie the knots that held him captive. “I offered to go in his place, but they wouldn’t let me.” Ben loosened the rope and Joe brought his hands round in front of him and massaged his wrists absently. “Thanks, Pa.”

“Who were they?” Ben asked. “Did you recognize them?”

“I’ve never seen them before,” Joe replied.

“Better get Roy Coffee,” Ben worried.

“I’ll get changed then get him,” Joe promised. “If I meet a hand, I’ll send them and come back here at once. If not, I’ll be back with Roy, all right?” Ben nodded, and Joe hurried into the house to change his clothes. He was out again in a few short minutes and leapt onto his horse, galloping off at top speed.

*****

“I thought we was gonna leave him behind?” moaned the man who had been forced to ride double with Hoss.

“If we hadn’t a run inta the youngest Cartwright,” the leader growled, “we would’ve. But he’ll git the sheriff, an’ we can’t risk goin’ back ta jail.”

“That don’ make no sense,” whined the man.

“Use yer brain,” the other snarled. “They’ve got a lot o’ hands on this ranch! They could use them as a posse, an’ the sheriff would make it legal whatever they done, even if he weren’t there ta see it. Once we get them ta back off, we leave fatty there behind.”

“He’s real sick,” the other moaned, backing down. He had always been scared of his oldest brother’s temper.

“Don’ make no odds ta us, boy,” replied a third. All five men were brothers, and all were wanted for robbery across many states. Unfortunately for them, they never got away with much money, but they usually managed to kill someone, and so were wanted men. They had arrived in Nevada a few weeks before, and on arriving in Virginia City, had learned about the Cartwrights, and had decided that this seemed like a nice, easy job.

They pushed on towards their camp. Hoss was too sick and tired to care where they were going. His temperature soared again and he slipped into a stupor.

*****

“Fred!” Just the man! Joe thought in relief as Fred slowed his horse and waited for Joe. Fred might not be the brightest man they had working for them, but he certainly was the most reliable. “Fred, get into town and fetch Sheriff Coffee out here at once! Hoss has been kidnapped, and we need him. I’m going back now…” Joe’s voice trailed off as he realized that Fred was riding Chub, his brother’s usual mount.

Flushing to the roots of his hair, Fred muttered something about the big black needing exercise. But that wasn’t what Joe was thinking of. He knew Chub needed exercise. It was just that Cochise was a good deal faster than Chub, and if they swapped horses, Fred would get to town a whole lot sooner. Brushing aside Fred’s mumbled apologies, Joe quickly explained what he was thinking, and they exchanged mounts. Joe preferred not to let others ride his horse, but this was an emergency.

Mounting the big black, Joe turned him towards home. It wasn’t often that Joe rode Chub. The big black had plenty of life about him, but he had a placidness of temperament that matched well with his owner. Joe smoothed down the horse’s neck, wishing the men had agreed to take him instead of Hoss.

A movement where he wasn’t expecting any suddenly had Joe on the alert, and he peered in that direction. For the moment, all was still, and Joe was almost ready to believe it had been a deer when there was movement again, and this time, he was sure it was a man.

Cautiously, Joe rode on, making it look like he was headed for home. But further along the road, it wound through some trees, and Joe used this opportunity to turn off the road and head in a round about direction to where he had seen the man.

It took him several minutes to draw near. He dismounted, hitched Chub’s rein round a bush, and drew his gun. Moving slowly, Joe crept forward. He could suddenly smell a camp fire, and his grip on his gun tightened. He had found the outlaws’ camp! Perhaps he had a chance of rescuing Hoss.

Something round and hard dug into Joe’s back and he froze. A hand reached round and took Joe’s gun from him, the barrel of the shotgun never moving from his back. Slowly, Joe put his hands up. “Get movin’, boy,” the man ordered. Joe had no choice but to do as he was told.

*****

There was a chorus of surprised remarks as Joe was shoved into the camp. Joe paid them no heed. His eyes were immediately drawn to his older brother, who lay huddled by the fire. Hoss was only clad in his nightshirt and Joe feared for his brother.

“What are ya doin’ here, boy?” asked the leader. His name was Virgil Sommers.

“I saw your man moving about out there,” Joe replied. “So I came to see if I could rescue my brother.” He gestured to Hoss.

“Well, he’s a real hero, ain’t he, Virgil?” sneered the youngest brother, who his parents had christened Zebedee.

“He’s sick!” Joe protested, fighting to keep his temper under control. He would be of no use to Hoss if he lost it.

“Tell us somethin’ we don’ know,” jeered a third, Isaac. “Let’s jist kill him, Virg.”

Feeling the gun at his back dig into him a bit more, Joe knew he had to do something to save both his life and Hoss’. “He’s got the measles!” Joe cried.

There was silence. Joe looked round the faces he could see and saw there the understanding. “We gotta get rid o’ him, quick!” cried Zebedee.

“My horse is over there,” Joe said, quietly, trying not to let his desperation show in his voice. “Put Hoss up on the horse, and send it towards home. I’ll be your hostage.”

For a long moment, Virgil just looked at Joe. “All right,” he replied, abruptly. “Tie him up, Isaac.”

After a momentary pause, Isaac fetched a rope. “Put yer hands ahind ya,” he ordered Joe, who did as he was told. The noose was dropped over Joe’s head and pulled tight around his waist, before his hands were tied tightly behind his back. Isaac made Joe clasp his hands together, so that there was no way Joe could reach any knots, then he carried the lasso down and bound Joe’s legs just above the knees and at the ankles. Laughing, he shoved Joe to the ground.

As Joe already knew from past experience, he wasn’t going anywhere. He lay there watching as Caleb, the brother who had caught Joe, and Daniel, the remaining brother, hauled Hoss to his feet and supported him out of sight. Joe strained his ears and heard some grunts and swearing as they levered Hoss onto Chub, and then he heard hooves walking slowly away, fading into the distance.

It was only then that the magnitude of what he had done struck Joe.

*****

Hearing hooves in the yard, Ben rushed over to the door and sighed with relief when he saw Roy Coffee, the sheriff. He didn’t know what Roy could do, but it helped to have someone else to talk to. “Roy, thank you for coming,” Ben said, stepping back to let Roy in. “I was beginning to be a little worried about Joe, because I thought he would find one of the hands, and not have to go into town for you himself.”

“Ben, what are ya talkin’ about?” Roy asked, frowning. “I ain’t seen Joe. It were Fred who came ta git me.”

“Fred?” Ben echoed, looking past Roy into the yard, still expecting to see Joe there. “But that’s Joe’s horse,” he protested, seeing Cochise’s black tail vanishing into the barn.

“Yeah,” Roy agreed. “Fred said he was ridin’ Chub, an’ Joe told him ta take Cochise instead, cos Cochise is faster.”

“There where’s Joe?” Ben worried.

Taking Ben’s arm, Roy guided him over to his chair. “Start from the beginnin’, Ben,” Roy urged. “Tell me all about it.”

Slowly, Ben told of wakening to the crash of what he now suspected was Hoss dropping the pitcher. He had taken a few moments to come to himself, then had gone to see what was going on. He explained about the men leaving virtually empty-handed, but for Hoss, and their promise to leave him outside. “But Joe rode into the yard,” Ben explained, “and I think they must have panicked. Joe had offered to go in Hoss’ place, but they didn’t take him. They tied Joe to the fence and left.”

“And Joe weren’t hurt none?” Roy probed, anxious to make sure there wasn’t another reason that Joe hadn’t come home.

“No,” Ben replied. “He got changed and went to get you. Where can he be?”

A very nasty suspicion was creeping into both men’s minds, but neither of them wanted to give voice to it. “Where was Hop Sing?” Roy asked, hoping that the Chinese factotum hadn’t been hurt, too.

“Hanging out sheets in the garden, and doing laundry in the wash-house,” Ben replied. “Hoss was sleeping and Hop Sing thought he would take a chance to catch up on some chores. He didn’t see anything.”

 “What did these men look like?” Roy asked and as Ben described them, his heart sank. Reaching into his vest pocket, he drew out a wanted poster. The likenesses weren’t that good, but good enough.

“That’s them,” Ben confirmed.

“The Sommers brothers,” Roy murmured. He didn’t know enough about them to know if they were likely to kill their hostage, so he kept quiet about that. There was no point in giving Ben more to worry about. “Ben, I’m gonna go back ta town an’ raise a posse,” Roy decided, standing up. “We’ll git yer boy back, don’t worry.”

“I can’t help it,” Ben muttered. “And where is Joe?” He sincerely hoped his youngest son hadn’t done something stupid. Opening the door, Ben gave a start of surprise, for coming into the yard was Chub, and there was a rider slumped over his neck.

For a fraction of a second, Ben thought it was Joe, as Joe had been the last person seen on Chub. And then he realized that it was Hoss and rushed over to his son’s side, feeling the heat coming from him and hearing the breath rattling in his chest. “Hoss! Can you hear me, son?”

Slowly, Hoss lifted his head. His eyes were glazed with fever. “Joe,” he muttered. “They done taken Joe.” And with his message delivered, Hoss slid off the horse, out cold.

Joe’s gun belt was slung around the saddle horn.

*****

For the most part, Joe was ignored. He lay and listened to the men talking among themselves, learning from their conversation that they had been in Virginia City for about a week, and had decided on the Ponderosa being an easier target for a robbery than the bank. It was clear they had been misled about how much money Ben kept in the house.

It also became apparent quite quickly that none of the men had had the measles. To Joe’s eye, Caleb and Daniel already looked unwell, although the men were so thin and unkempt that it was difficult to be sure. Not surprisingly, they were scared.

“What are we gonna do, Virg?” Zebedee whined. He had a grating, nasally voice which Joe had already learned to hate.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Virgil snapped. “There ain’t no way to stop catchin’ measles, Zeb.” He looked at Joe. “How long’s your brother been sick?” He grabbed the front of Joe’s jacket and shook him when there was no answer. “You tell me, boy, or I’ll pound ya!” he threatened.

“A few days,” Joe replied. “There’s an outbreak of measles in town.”

“How come you ain’t sick?” Zebedee demanded, then glanced at Virgil again. “Perhaps he is sick! Then what?”

“I’ve had them,” Joe replied, disgust in his voice. He was thoroughly fed up of Zebedee! “Anyway, if you’ve been in town as long as you say, you’ve been exposed already. Your brothers don’t look too good,” he added.

“Shut up!” Zebedee shrieked and kicked Joe hard in the stomach. Joe curled up involuntarily, biting back a groan.

“Aw, leave the boy alone,” Virgil shouted, dragging Zebedee away. “It ain’t his fault.”

Catching his breath, Joe looked over at Virgil. “What are you going to do with me?” he asked, his voice not revealing his misgivings. He was completely at the mercy of these men.

“Tell you the truth, kid, I ain’t decided,” Virgil replied. “I wasn’t gonna keep yer brother, but you showed up. I guess you’ll jist have ta come with us till we git rid o’ the posse. You Cartwrights is important round here.”

Looking down to veil his thoughts, Joe wondered why on earth they were wasting time in camp when their best chance of out-running the posse was now. But it was almost as though Virgil had read Joe’s thoughts anyway, for he shouted, “All right, let’s get mounted up!” He gestured to Joe. “I’ll take him with me.”

Frustrated, Joe began to struggle against his restraints, but the ropes did not give at all. When the camp was tidied, Virgil came over and untied Joe’s feet and legs and yanked him upright. “Don’t try anything,” he warned Joe. “There’s enough rope here to hang ya from the nearest tree!”

Although he thought the threat was an idle one, Joe held his tongue. He was helped onto Virgil’s horse and the oldest Sommers son mounted behind him. They rode off at a steady pace. Joe schooled himself not to look back.

*****

It was clear that Hoss had taken a turn for the worse. The hands helped Ben carry him into the house and one was sent for the doctor. With Hop Sing’s help, Ben propped Hoss up on every pillow they could find, hoping that would help his breathing. It was more difficult to get Hoss comfortably and securely propped up than it was Joe, for example, as Hoss was so much taller and heavier, but they succeeded in the end.

As they worked, Hoss gradually came back to consciousness. “Pa,” he whispered, and clutched weakly at Ben’s sleeve.

“Take it easy, son,” Ben soothed, catching Hoss’ hand. His son was burning up with fever. “Don’t try to talk.”

“Joe,” Hoss gasped, ignoring his father’s stricture. “Came to camp.” He paused to catch his breath again. Ben was torn. He didn’t want Hoss to go on, as it was clearly so difficult for his son to speak, but he was desperate to know what had happened to Joe. As he opened his mouth to exhort Hoss not to speak again, his son went on. “Made them…take him…for me.”

A dozen questions tore at Ben’s brain, but he forced himself not to ask any of them, even the one that concerned him the most; was Joe hurt? “Rest, Hoss,” he urged again. “Save your breath.”

Resting his head back on the pillows, Hoss shut his eyes. “Feel like…I’m drownin’,” he whispered, and Ben’s heart skipped a beat. His eyes met Hop Sing’s and they shared a moment of worry before Hop Sing hurried off to see what he had in his stock of medicines.

It seemed an interminable wait until Paul Martin arrived. Ben was too pre-occupied with his own thoughts to see that his friend looked exhausted. He waited anxiously while Paul examined Hoss. “Yes, its pneumonia,” Paul announced wearily.

“What do we do?” Ben asked, feeling a cold hand clutching his heart.

“Well, a few years ago, I’d have stuffed him with calomel,” Paul replied. “But I have to be honest and say I don’t know how much good it does. I’ve seen people die when they’ve taken it, and others survive who haven’t been able to afford it, so I’m torn. I know that quite a few doctors back east now think it’s harmful in itself.” Paul sighed and dragged a hand over his face. “Keep him sitting up; he’ll breathe easier this way. I’d get a couple of kettles boiling continuously in here. Steam seems to help breathing and I’ve found that sage and pine help ease breathing, too.”

Rising, Paul staggered slightly and Ben realized that he was near collapse. “Paul, you look awful,” Ben exclaimed, catching his arm.

“I’m all right,” Paul denied. “Just a bit tired. You make sure that you and Joe get enough rest while you look after Hoss. I don’t need any more patients.” Paul was trying to joke, but the smile slid off his face as he caught the look of anguish that crossed Ben’s face at the mention of Joe’s name. “Ben, what is it? Joe can’t have the measles; he had them years ago. What’s happened to him? Ben?” Paul was growing more and more concerned as he watched his friend.

Drawing Paul away from Hoss’ bedside into the hall, Ben told him the news. “We had a break-in,” he told Paul. “Hoss had got up without either Hop Sing or I noticing. I was asleep and Hop Sing had left Hoss to do a few chores. Hoss must have wanted some water, because I found his pitcher lying broken on the stairs. The men who broke in took him hostage when I came down.” Ben drew a shaky breath. “They said they would leave Hoss outside, but Joe rode in and…”

For a moment, Paul was sure that Ben was going to tell him that Joe had been shot and was dead. “Is Joe…?”

“They tied Joe up and rode off with Hoss,” Ben went on, not seeing the color coming and going in Paul’s face. “I sent Joe to get Roy, and he never came back. Hoss did, though, and told us that Joe came across them and took Hoss’ place.”

“Take a deep breath,” Paul advised Ben. “I take it that was why I saw Roy hightailing it back to town? To gather a posse?”

“That’s right,” Ben nodded. He looked up and met Paul’s eyes. “And I can’t leave Hoss to go after Joe, Paul. I want to be in two places at once, and I can’t!”

“Of course you can’t,” Paul replied, briskly. “Roy will find Joe safe and sound. You concentrate on Hoss. The good thing, Ben, is that although Hoss sounds bad, not all of either lung is involved. That’s a good sign. I think Hoss should be all right, given time.”

That was the first positive news that Ben had had for days and he found a shaky smile. “Thank you,” he responded.

“Nothing to do with me, really,” Paul replied. “Hoss’ constitution will bring him through, I’m sure. You take care of yourself, Ben, and if you need me…”

“And you get some rest,” Ben ordered and Paul laughed.

“Don’t worry, I intend to!”

*****

Although Joe wasn’t sure where the Sommers brothers were heading, he was fairly sure that the trail they were currently following wasn’t the one they had meant to follow. It gave the appearance of leading towards the mountains and California, but in actual fact would meander around until it was headed back towards Virginia City. And they weren’t making much progress. Virgil’s horse was carrying two, which meant they couldn’t travel as fast, and Caleb and Daniel were both looking worse and worse, and finally, Virgil was forced to stop for the night, earlier than he had intended.

At least, Joe thought wryly, Virgil hadn’t dragged him off the horse to crash painfully to the ground. He tried to flex his sore shoulders, but the bonds on his wrists prevented him. Isaac knew his knots. And no sooner had that thought crossed his mind when Virgil beckoned to Isaac. “Tie him up, an’ make sure he ain’t gonna get free.”

Giving his oldest brother an unfriendly look, Isaac took the end of the rope and tugged Joe over to a tree. He looped the rope once round the tree before reaching for Joe’s ankles. Joe couldn’t help drawing his feet away, and Isaac glared at him before backhanding him brutally across the face. Joe’s head snapped back, and he tasted blood in his mouth. Isaac wound the rope round Joe’s ankles and savagely tightened it. He checked the ropes and gave Joe a malicious grin. “Ain’t nobody gets out a my knots,” he hissed. “Unnerstand?”

Slowly, Joe nodded. The threat was implicit. Isaac would kill him without a second thought.

*****

The rain started soon after dusk. From his position tied to the tree, Joe got some shelter, although his limbs were cramping painfully. He watched with amusement as the Sommers scrambled to get out of the rain and lost most of their meager supper in the process. Joe was hungry, but he was under no illusions that he would be fed. It seemed to him that the Sommers had barely enough to feed themselves.

Finally, they managed to get another fire going under the shelter of the trees and Virgil looked at Caleb and Daniel with a mixture of compassion and disgust. “You’re pretty sick, ain’t ya?” he asked, kneeling by his brothers’ sides. He shot a glance at Joe. “They’re gonna get sicker, ain’t they?”

“Yes,” Joe replied. He was finding it difficult to have compassion for the sick men, given what they had done to Hoss in taking him hostage when he was clearly so sick. His own cramped position wasn’t endearing the outlaws to him, either.

“Could they die?” Virgil demanded, going over to loom menacingly over Joe.

“It’s possible,” Joe allowed.

“What’s the cure?” Virgil asked. Joe hesitated, and received a heavy kick in the ribs. “What’s the cure?”

“There isn’t one,” Joe panted. “Just give them fluids and pray.”

“You’d better be tellin’ me the truth, boy,” Virgil growled.

“What would I gain by lying?” Joe demanded.

“Nuthin’,” agreed Virgil. “Ya thirsty?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied, for he hadn’t had anything to drink for more hours than he cared to remember. Virgil picked up a canteen and helped Joe to drink. The water tasted great, but he couldn’t help but wonder when he would get more.

*****

The sound of Hoss’ heavy breathing filled the room, which felt uncomfortably damp to Ben, thanks to the kettles that were boiling in it. Outside, it had been dark for many hours. Ben knew that the posse were in his bunkhouse, ready for an early start in the morning, but he had no thoughts to spare for them right then. Hoss appeared to be approaching some sort of a crisis. He was no longer lucid, having lapsed into delirium as his temperature climbed some hours previously. Ben worked tirelessly to fight the heat radiating from his son’s body, but he wasn’t sure if he was winning the battle and he was exhausted.

“Mistah Ben rest,” Hop Sing declared, imperiously, as he came into the room with more water. Some of it he tipped into the basin that Ben was using for bathing Hoss’ head. The rest he used to top up the kettles and keep them boiling.

“I can’t leave him, Hop Sing,” Ben protested.

“Not say leave,” the other contradicted him. “Rest!” He pointed to a chair and gave Ben a hard look. “Or Mistah Ben be ill, too.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, wearily. He sat down and leaned his head against the back of the chair, closing his eyes. He slid into sleep almost immediately.

He woke instantly, almost two hours later, when Hop Sing touched his arm. “Boy reach crisis,” Hop Sing told his employer and Ben leapt to his feet, hurrying over to Hoss’ side.

His son looked dreadful. Hoss’ eyes were closed, and his mouth hung open as he tried desperately to draw precious oxygen into his lungs. Ben could see the struggle his son was having, and noticed that his lips were slightly blue. It seemed entirely possible, even likely, that Hoss would die.

Reaching frantically for a cloth, Ben bathed Hoss’ brow, as though he could make a difference, all the time praying that he would not have to face the grief of losing a child. “Thy will be done, Lord,” he prayed. “But let him live, please! We have such need of him!” Hoss had been the easiest child of the three to raise, since he lacked a good deal of the Cartwright temperament and stubbornness. Ben loved each of his sons dearly and didn’t know how he could face each new day if Hoss – or Adam or Joe – were not there to share it with him. He would go on, somehow, but everything would be a struggle.

Suddenly, Hoss opened his eyes and looked at Ben. “Pa!” he whispered, and slumped over.

*****

It had been a long night for Joe, too. The cramping of his limbs robbed him of sleep and when dawn came, his eyes were grainy and burning. He watched as the camp stirred into life; as Virgil discovered what Joe had suspected all night; Caleb and Daniel were not going to be going any further that day. They were both burning with fever and covered in spots.

“What we gonna do, Virg?” Zebedee asked. He didn’t look very well that morning, either, continually wiping sweat from his brow with a filthy sleeve.

“I don’t know!” Virgil snarled, rounding on his younger brother. “We can’t stay here, but they can’t ride. What do ya think we should do, Zeb? Why do I have do decide everything?”

“Ya always want to make the decisions!” Zebedee shouted back. “None o’ us is ever allowed to say what we want.” He took a step back to avoid a blow, and saw Joe watching them with interest. “What’re ya lookin’ at?” he demanded, going over.

Saying nothing, Joe glanced away. He didn’t know the Sommers well enough to know if they fought amongst themselves as a matter of course, or if this was a symptom of the measles. Either way, he didn’t want to get caught up in it.

Too late. Zebedee saw red and kicked Joe viciously in the ribs. He managed to get in three or four solid kicks before Virgil dragged him away. “Leave the kid alone! This ain’t his fault!” Virgil gave Zebedee a shove. “Saddle the horses. We’re gonna ride!”

While Zebedee saddled the horses, Isaac untied Joe and dragged him to his feet. Although he kept the noose firmly around Joe’s waist, he allowed the young man relative privacy while he relieved himself and took the chance to rub a little life back into his hands. His wrists were raw, Joe saw, and he shuddered as Isaac’s patience ran out and he was ordered to put his hands behind him again.

This time, it was Isaac who saw red. Reeling Joe in like a fish, he grabbed the front of Joe’s jacket and ploughed his other fist into Joe’s face. Hampered as he was with the rope around his waist and arms, Joe fought back as best he could, but Isaac gave him a comprehensive beating and Joe was bleeding and barely conscious when Isaac flipped him onto his stomach and bound his hands behind him again.

*****

The first one to lose the battle to stay in the saddle was Daniel. He quietly slid sideways off his horse to land in a semi-conscious heap on the ground. As Virgil dismounted to go and look at his brother, Caleb slithered down, too.

“We can’t go no further,” Virgil told his other brothers. “We gotta stay here till Daniel and Caleb can ride again.”

“What about the posse?” Zebedee demanded, furiously.

“We got him, ain’t we?” Virgil reminded his brother. “That’s what we brung him for.” Joe was once more riding on Virgil’s horse and he knew that his captor would be glad of a chance to stop, for the heat coming from him was impressive. Joe shivered slightly. He felt quite ill and his body ached where Isaac’s fists had marked him. “Get camp set up,” Virgil ordered and went over to pull Joe down. He watched disinterestedly as Joe crumpled to his knees. “Tie him up, Isaac,” Virgil added and walked away.

*****

“I’ve found their trail!” Clem Foster, the deputy, told Roy Coffee as the posse scouted around the camp site.

“Let’s go then,” Roy replied. “Lord knows, Ben could use some good news about now.” He had not seen Ben that morning, but they all knew Hoss was sick even unto death. Roy felt a pang of worry about both Cartwright boys. He had known Joe all his life and Hoss for most of his. He hated the thought of anything happening to them.

The posse mounted up again and followed Clem along the outlaw’s trail, hoping they would find them – and Little Joe – quickly.

*****

An attempt was made to keep watch, but Isaac, who had drawn the short straw, didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what was going on. Joe finally realised that he was sleeping. The thought provided a momentary amusement, but Joe was unable to keep his thoughts focused on the laughter; he hurt too much.

Caleb was now groaning steadily and the green wood that Zebedee had thrown on the fire was smoking and making his brother cough. Not for the first time, Joe wondered how Hoss was doing. He did not regret, even for a moment, swapping places with his brother. Joe just hoped that Hoss had arrived home safely and was all right. Not knowing was highly frustrating.

Against his will, Joe slipped into sleep. He dreamt of Hoss, seeing his brother lying serenely in his bed, eyes closed, seemingly asleep. It took him several moments to realize that his brother’s chest was not moving and Joe threw himself on Hoss, shouting his brother’s name, and striking him with his fists, begging Hoss not to die. He knew that it was to no avail; Hoss was already gone.

With a scream that proved only to be a gasp in the real world, Joe jerked awake. All was quiet in the camp, but a great fear had gripped Joe’s heart. Hoss was strong – surely he would be able to survive the measles? Yet Joe knew that more adults died from the measles than survived them. Joe blinked back the tears in his eyes. It was only a dream, he chided himself. There was no point borrowing trouble. He didn’t know how Hoss was, and wouldn’t know until he got home.

But the fear didn’t lessen.

*****

“Wake up!” Virgil shouted, shaking Isaac roughly by the shoulder. “You’ve been sleeping!”

With a start, Isaac came awake and his temper flared in a moment. “So I was sleeping!” he retorted. “So what? I didn’t see you staying awake and keeping watch!”

Goaded, Virgil struck Isaac in the face. Isaac tumbled to the ground, landing on top of Joe. Roughly, he shoved himself off Joe, without any regard for the injuries he’d inflicted earlier. Joe groaned and tried to roll away from the fighting men, but he had no chance. Once more, Isaac staggered back and stepped on Joe.

“Just hold it right there!” a hard voice ordered and Joe lifted his head, sure that he knew the voice.

He did. Clem stepped into view, his gun aimed at Virgil and Isaac. “Don’t move!” he told them. The rest of the posse stepped out of the trees.

As Roy Coffee knelt by Caleb, Isaac took the slim chance offered by the sheriff’s distraction and dropped to the ground, right on top of Joe. In the second it took for Clem’s gun to swing round to cover him, Isaac had Joe in a choke hold, with his gun at Joe’s temple, and using Joe’s body as a shield.

“If ya want Cartwright alive, drop yer guns,” Isaac told them. He tightened his arm slightly and Joe struggled helplessly against the pressure on his windpipe. Slowly, reluctantly, the posse dropped their weapons.

“Good thinkin’,” Virgil praised his brother. “Let’s get out o’ here.”

As Virgil spoke, Roy, still crouched by Caleb, snatched up his gun and fired at Virgil. The bullet struck him in the right arm, and he dropped his gun. Isaac reacted instantly, swinging Joe around and firing back at Roy. But the wily old sheriff was no longer there and Isaac’s bullet hit his brother, who died instantly.

The rest of the posse dived for their discarded weapons. Zebedee was shot in the back as he tried to escape. Daniel was too far gone in fever to be aware of what was going on. That left only Isaac, who held the trump card – Joe!

But he had forgotten one thing. Joe was tightly tied and would not be walking anywhere. Isaac had tied those very knots himself and knew how secure they were. Frantically, his thoughts skittered round his brain. There had to be a way out of this situation. And suddenly, he thought he knew what it was.

Grabbing the front of Joe’s jacket with his gun hand, Isaac swung Joe round and ploughed his fist into Joe’s face, letting of him as he did so. As Joe fell backwards, unable to catch himself, Isaac shot him from point-blank range and turned to run. He hadn’t completed the turn when half a dozen bullets bit into him.

“Joe!” Clem and Roy dead-heated to Joe’s side, terrified of what they would find. It was entirely possible that Joe had just been murdered in front of them.

“He’s alive!” Clem exclaimed, examining Joe closely. Due to the fact that Joe had been falling when he was shot, the bullet had not gone into his chest; it had ploughed a deep furrow up the left side and sailed over his shoulder. The resulting wound was bleeding profusely, but was undoubtedly less serious than they had feared.

As Clem sliced through the ropes that had kept Joe captive, Roy organized the men into making a couple of travois to take the injured men back and sent one off to get the doctor to meet them at the Ponderosa. The trip home would be much quicker than the time it had taken them to track the gang and Joe should be home by dark.

A groan from Joe drew Roy’s attention back to him. Clem had opened Joe’s shirt and was trying to staunch the blood from his injury. Silently, he pointed out the red marks on Joe’s side that would soon be very ugly bruises. Roy’s mouth tightened. Gently, he moved the fabric aside and saw the other marks of abuse on Joe’s body. “Take it easy, Joe,” Roy soothed. “We’ll get ya home.”

“How’s… Hoss?” Joe whispered.

“I dunno. He was pretty poorly, boy,” Roy told him, regretfully. “But yer Pa’s right proud of what ya done fer him, takin’ his place.”

“I had to,” Joe whispered. He caught his breath as Clem put pressure on the still bleeding wound. “Can I…get…a…drink?” He gulped eagerly at the canteen put to his lips, but wasn’t allowed nearly as much as he would have liked. “Thanks.”

“Just rest easy, Joe,” Clem replied. “We’ll get you home.”

“Home,” Joe breathed and slid into unconsciousness.

*****

“Ben!” The voice jarred Ben out of his uneasy sleep. He sat up, wondering why he was sleeping on the sofa and looked round. Roy Coffee was holding the door open as another man carried someone into the house. As sleep left his brain, Ben realized that it was Joe who was being carried.

“Joe!” Ben was on his feet and moving over to his son’s side to peer into his pale, bruised, face. “What…?”

“Let’s get him settled,” Roy suggested and gestured to the man to take Joe upstairs. Ben and Roy followed closely on his heels. “There were a bit o’ bother when we caught up with them, Ben, an’ Joe got shot.”

“Oh no!” Ben breathed, fear clutching his heart even tighter than it had been already. “How bad is it?”

“I dunno,” Roy replied. “The bullet didn’t go inta him as such, but it bled plenty. He’s been real beat up, too.”

Hurrying to Joe’s side, Ben smoothed the hair back from his forehead and felt the growing warmth there. “Joe,” he whispered. “Can you hear me?”

“Pa?” Joe muttered, weakly. He struggled to open eyes that seemed to have ton weights on the lids. He finally succeeded and squinted at Ben. “How’s…Hoss?”

“You worry about you right now,” Ben replied. “I’m just going to make you more comfortable Joe, by taking off these dirty clothes.”

“Pa,” Joe breathed, but Ben was already working and Joe surrendered himself to the darkness again. He had lost a lot of blood and his body was reacting to the shock.

As he carefully removed Joe’s torn, filthy and bloody clothing, Ben was horrified by the extent of Joe’s injuries. The furrow from the bullet ran for over 6 inches and was still seeping a little blood. Joe’s body was marked all over by forming bruises and he winced as Ben accidentally put too much pressure on his ribs. There were bad rope burns on Joe’s wrists and he bore a nasty black eye and several scrapes on his face.

“We need the doctor,” Ben muttered.

“He’s comin’,” Roy replied. He had been badly shaken when Ben refused to tell Joe about Hoss and feared that the big man was dead. He didn’t dare ask, for he knew Ben would not want to risk Joe overhearing.

As Ben bathed Joe’s face, his son regained consciousness again. “Pa,” he breathed. “I don’t…feel…too…good.”

“The doctor’s coming,” Ben replied. “He’ll be here soon.” He lifted Joe’s head to help him drink.

“I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled.

“Hush,” Ben coaxed.

“I didn’t…mean to…worry you,” Joe went on. His hand tightened around Ben’s. “But I…couldn’t let them…hurt Hoss.”

“I know that, Joe,” Ben replied, steadily, although his heart was hurting him. He swallowed over the lump in his throat. “Don’t worry about it; I forgive you.” He brushed the hair back from Joe’s damp forehead once more.

“Here’s the doc,” Roy said, and Ben looked round to see Paul coming in. He still looked tired, but was clearly more rested than he had been the last time Ben saw him.

 “Let’s see now,” Paul declared, leaning over the bed. “Hello, Joe. In the wars again?”

“Looks like it,” Joe croaked. He closed his eyes and winced miserably as Paul’s fingers probed gently around his ribs.

“Nothing too serious this time,” Paul stated finally. “A couple of broken ribs, and you’ll need stitches in that shoulder, Joe. A few days in bed and you should be raring to go.” He produced a syringe and drew up some morphine. “You just sleep and make up that blood loss and you’ll be as right as rain.” He smoothly shot the drug into Joe and before long, Joe’s eyes closed.

The stitching didn’t take long, and Paul bandaged Joe up thoroughly. “Keep him warm, give him fluids and get him eating as soon as possible,” Paul told Ben. “And get some sleep! Joe shouldn’t stir all night. You look dreadful, Ben.”

Anxiously, Roy shot a look at Paul, but the physician didn’t look at him. Once more, Roy wondered if Hoss was alive or dead, and once more, he didn’t like to ask. He hoped that when they got downstairs, the chance would arise, but he was mistaken. Paul went straight out to another call and Roy was summoned into town.

*****

Come morning, both Joe and Ben were looking better. Joe had regained a little of his lost color and Ben had been able to snatch a few hours sleep back-to-back and felt almost human again. He crept into Joe’s room and sat down beside his son. Joe was still sleeping, although he was moving about slightly, indicating to Ben that he was beginning to feel discomfort from his injuries and would soon be waking up. And within the hour, Joe’s eyes opened and swiveled round to fasten on Ben. “Have you been there all night?” Joe whispered.

“No,” Ben assured him. “How do you feel this morning?” His hand went to Joe’s head to check for fever, but there was none.

“Sore,” Joe admitted. “And thirsty.”

“As it happens, I can remedy both problems at once,” Ben joked and picked up the pain medicine he’d prepared earlier. Lifting Joe’s head, he helped his son drink until it was all gone. Joe sighed with relief when he lay down again. “Are you hungry?” Ben asked.

“I think so,” Joe replied. “I haven’t eaten since… I don’t know when.”

“Something light then,” Ben muttered to himself. “I’ll get Hop Sing to rustle something up.” He started to rise, but froze as Joe’s hand shot out and snagged his sleeve.

“Pa, please,” Joe whispered. Ben saw, to his horror, that Joe’s green eyes were drowning in tears. “How’s Hoss? He isn’t …?” Joe couldn’t bring himself to say the word ‘dead’.

“No, son, no!” Ben assured him. “Hoss is going to be just fine!”

“Then… why didn’t you tell me yesterday?” Joe demanded. He strained his ears to hear his brother’s familiar snoring, but couldn’t. “Why aren’t you with him? Has something happened?”

“Not the way you mean,” Ben replied, smiling. His hand drifted to Joe’s head again. “The first night you were away, Hoss had a crisis.”

“I don’t understand,” Joe admitted. “What do you mean by ‘a crisis’?”

“Your brother had pneumonia,” Ben explained. “And he was pretty sick. But he reached a crisis that first night, Joe and his fever broke.” The smile grew bigger. “He was able to get out of bed for a while yesterday.”

A faint smile hovered on Joe’s lips. “And he’s all right?” Joe whispered.

“He sure is,” Ben nodded. “When I looked in on him this morning, he was reading a book and eating his way through a pile of bacon and eggs like you’ve never seen!”

“But why didn’t you tell me yesterday?” Joe persisted. “Pa, while I was away, I dreamt Hoss was dead. When you didn’t answer me, I assumed he was… gone.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben apologized. “I thought you weren’t well enough to worry about anyone other than yourself. I didn’t realize what you thought.” A sudden picture of Roy Coffee entered Ben’s brain and he wondered if the sheriff, too, had thought Hoss was dead. He decided he’d better do something about that later in the day. “And Joe, I hadn’t had much sleep myself, remember. I wasn’t really functioning too well.” Seeing Joe’s eyelids drooping, despite the big smile he wore, Ben added, “You get some rest and I’ll waken you for breakfast. All right?”

“’kay,” Joe agreed, drowsily. The sheer relief of knowing that Hoss was alive left Joe feeling even more drained than his injuries did. He fell asleep in an instant.

*****

When Joe was wakened a couple of hours later, Hoss was sitting by his bed. “Hoss!” Joe cried and tried to sit up to hug him. He got his head and shoulders off the bed before his injuries kicked in and he groaned aloud.

“Easy, Shortshanks,” Hoss chided, leaning over carefully to push Joe down again. “You ain’t ready for acrobatics yet!”

“I dreamt you were dead,” Joe told him, tears standing in his eyes. “I was so afraid!”

“I think I was near dead,” Hoss admitted. “I was real sick, Joe.” He stretched out one huge paw and clasped Joe’s hand. “An’ I would’ve died if’n ya hadn’ taken ma place. I won’ never forgit that, Joe. Them outlaws could a killed ya, boy.”

“I know,” Joe admitted. “But you were too sick to leave there, Hoss. I couldn’t have ridden away and left you there.” He tightened his grip on Hoss’ hand, and the big man squeezed Joe’s fingers gently. There were no more words needed between the brothers. Each knew and accepted that they would make the final sacrifice for the other if need be. It was unspoken, but true nonetheless.

“Why don’t you have breakfast now?” Ben suggested and Joe started, for he hadn’t realized that Ben was in the room.

“I’m starving!” Joe agreed, and Ben helped him sit up. He kept a wary eye on Joe as he ate, just in case his son decided to stuff the food down his throat as fast as possible. That would’ve made Joe sick, and with broken ribs, that was the last thing they wanted! But Joe ate sensibly, appreciating each mouthful and lay down to sleep again after that.

Ben helped Hoss through to his room, for the big man was tired, too, although convalescing rapidly. “I’m sure glad ya took me ta see Joe,” he told Ben. “I thought fer sure that he’d died this mornin’ when ya wouldn’ let me near him.”

“I seem to have got this very wrong,” Ben commented, lightly. “I thought I was protecting both of you by not saying anything and in fact, I was making it worse. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Hoss admonished Ben. “Ya jist forgot Joe an’ me’s grown up now.”

“I won’t forget again,” Ben promised.

*****

Later still, when Joe was awake again, Roy Coffee arrived, to tell Joe that Virgil and Daniel were going to stand trial for robbery and kidnap. Zebedee, Caleb and Isaac had not survived. Joe couldn’t honestly say he was heart-broken.

For his part, Roy was relieved and delighted that both the Cartwright boys were going to be all right. He rode back to town in a more cheerful frame of mind.

*****

That night, as Ben sat down to write his weekly letter to Adam, he wondered what would have happened if Adam had been home, too. Would he, like Joe, have been willing to make the final sacrifice?

Putting pen to paper, Ben inscribed the first words – To my dear son, Adam,

Ben had no doubt that Adam would. He dipped his pen in the inkwell and began the letter.

It’s been a busy week here, Adam. Your brother Hoss contracted measles at long last. Let me assure you that he is fine…

 

***End***

 

Quote from Cecil Spring-Rice ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’. 1918

Calomel is a mercury based compound used for treating pneumonia. It killed more people than it cured, due to the large doses that were used.

 

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