The Last Straw (by Rona)

Summary:  A What Happened In-Between for the episodee ‘Tommy’

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  3629


 

Sheriff Roy Coffee split the men up so that they could cover more ground. Jess Miller was somewhere on the Ponderosa and Roy meant to see to it that he was found before he could cause more trouble for his estranged wife Allie, who was staying with the Cartwrights.

Turning, Joe rode away from the other men alone. He didn’t think twice about it and neither did any of the others. After all, this was the Ponderosa and it had been Joe’s home for all of his life. Rifle in hand, Joe rode at a slow lope, scanning the surrounding countryside.

But all his vigilance was for nothing. Joe passed the stand of trees without seeing a darker shadow within the deep shadows of the foliage. When Joe had passed by, Jess Miller stepped forward and aimed at his back. He squeezed the trigger and with a burst of glee, saw Joe arch backwards and fall sideways from his horse, which galloped off.

For a long moment, Joe simply lay on the ground, dazed and unsure what had happened. Then he tried to rise and the world went dark around him. He didn’t remember hitting the ground.

*****

“Where’s Joe?” Roy fretted, as the men gathered at the designated meeting point. They had each had an hour to search before they met up to report their findings. “He should a bin here by now.”

“He’ll be along,” one of the others assured Roy. “He’s likely found a girl somewheres.” There was a chorus of raucous laughter. Several of the other men began to make crude suggestions amongst themselves. Roy ignored them.

However, as another quarter hour ticked slowly past and there was no sign of Joe, Roy began to get really alarmed. “We’d better go look for him,” he decided and they hurriedly retraced their steps to the point where they had parted company. By now, Roy was more than anxious – he was deeply worried.

“Look!” It was the same man who had made the obnoxious comment earlier. Roy followed the direction of his pointing finger and saw a dark figure sprawled on the ground. As the sun came out from behind a cloud, Roy recognized the green of Joe’s jacket. He spurred his horse on.

“Joe?” Roy knelt by the fallen man, unable to remember getting off his horse. He fearfully reached for a pulse, relieved when he found it.

At first glance, it seemed that there was no injury to be seen. But then Roy noticed a discoloration on the shoulder of Joe’s green jacket. Slowly, he pulled the material away and exposed a bloody mess around Joe’s right shoulder. To Roy’s inexperienced eyes, it looked as though Joe’s shoulder had exploded when the bullet hit him.

“Get the doctor!” Roy yelled. “Bring him to the Ponderosa! You, Jack, help me with Joe.” As someone galloped off to fetch Paul Martin, Jack hoisted Joe into his arms.

*****

The journey back to the ranch had to be taken at a slower pace than was good for Roy’s heart rate, but he knew it was important for Joe. The young man had lost a lot of blood – was still losing a lot of blood. He had not regained consciousness at all, which terrified the elderly lawman. That surely wasn’t a good thing.

When they arrived in the yard, Joe was eased down into someone else’s arms and Roy hurried across the yard to throw open the door to the ranch house. “Ben!” he cried. “Ben! Come quick!” He gestured to the man bearing Joe. “Upstairs!” He ushered the man across the floor as Ben came down the stairs, his face paling as he saw Joe lying limply. “He’s bin shot in the back,” Roy told Ben excitedly, as though Ben couldn’t see that for himself. “I sent one of the boys fer the doc.”

“This way, quickly,” Ben urged, as he gently supported Joe’s head, which was bobbing uncomfortably on the end of his neck. He didn’t notice Allie coming into the room from the kitchen. All his attention was focused on his injured boy.

*****

It seemed a long wait before Doc Martin arrived. By then, Joe was conscious and in a great deal of pain. His temperature was rising, and Ben didn’t know if that was caused by an infection or simply by the trauma. He gave Joe small sips of water and bathed his forehead in an effort to cool him down. Allie, her face set and white, did everything she could to help, as did Hoss, who had been summoned from his work.

“I heard what happened,” Paul said, as he stepped into the room. “How is he, Ben?”

“I’m not sure,” Ben confessed. “He’s very hot, Paul and very weak. He’s lost a lot of blood.”

“Let me have a look at him.” Paul bent over Joe and examined the young man. “Joe, can you hear me?” he asked, for Joe’s eyes were closed.

“Yeah,” Joe responded, his voice light and breathless sounding as he panted quietly to control the pain that radiated from his shoulder down his arm and across his chest.

“Good,” Paul smiled. “Joe, did you hit your head when you fell from your horse?”

“Dunno,” Joe admitted. He could barely remember; the pain was all-consuming and it took all his concentration to keep it under control.

“Well, never mind. Joe, I’m going to put you to sleep so I can fix up your shoulder, all right?” Paul was already getting the chloroform out of his bag. Joe grunted. He knew that the question didn’t need an answer. His shoulder had to be sorted and he didn’t want to stay awake for the procedure.

Once Joe was safely asleep, Paul ushered them all out, accepting help only from Hop Sing. Ben and Hoss were too worried to help and Allie had Tommy to care for. The little boy had been kept away from Joe and didn’t know what was happening and if Allie didn’t go back to him soon, there was a chance he would come looking for his mother. Ever since Allie had sent him to the ranch, not arriving herself for a few days, Tommy had been reluctant to let his mother out of his sight, for all the attachment he had developed for Hoss. Hoss was his pal, but Allie was his whole world.

Pushing thoughts of the little boy out of his mind, Paul rolled up his sleeves and set to work. The wound had stopped bleeding, but as he cleaned away the blood, it began to seep again. Paul wasn’t too worried about that; he would deal with the bleeding as soon as he could see the full extent of the injury.

Although Joe had been shot in the back, he had been extremely lucky, Paul noted. The bullet had entered through Joe’s shoulder and ricocheted off his collar bone before exiting through almost the same point it had entered. En-route, it had not damaged any significant nerves, had severed no arteries and had missed Joe’s lung by about an inch. The collarbone, however, had cracked. Joe was very lucky indeed, although Paul doubted if he felt lucky. However, the injury was serious. Joe’s shoulder had basically exploded inside. The muscles were badly abused, some damaged, but there was nothing irreparable. Given time, Joe’s arm would be virtually as good as new.

Finally, the last stitches were put in and Paul bandaged Joe’s shoulder. The arm would be out of use for some time to come and Paul made a mental note to tease Joe that this injury wasn’t on his dominant hand – Joe often claimed that he never lost the use of any hand but the dominant one.

Settling Joe on his stomach – it would be several days at least before Joe would want to sleep on his back – Paul allowed the family back in. It would be a while before Joe would come out of the anesthetic completely, but he was already on the way up, mumbling slightly as he neared consciousness. “Joe can you hear me?” Paul asked.

“Wha…?” Joe mumbled.

“Joe, wake up,” Paul urged. “Open your eyes for a minute, then I’ll let you sleep.”

There was a petulant-sounding sigh and Joe cranked open bleary green eyes. He squinted wearily at the doctor and then allowed his eyes to slide closed again. Paul smiled. “All right, you sleep,” he responded. “I’ll give you something for the pain.” He injected into Joe’s hip, raising a wince from the injured young man, but Paul knew that the shot of morphine would keep Joe asleep for most of the night.

“How is he?” Ben asked, his eyes fixed worriedly on his too pale youngest.

“He’s as healthy as a young bull,” Paul replied, bracingly. He reached for his jacket and shrugged it on.  “We should be glad Jess Miller isn’t a better shot. One inch lower and there would have been nothing I could do. He’ll be fine, Ben.”

“I’ll sit with him, Pa,” Hoss offered.

“All right,” Ben agreed. “One of us should stay with him.”

“I’ll stay, Ben,” Allie insisted. “It’s my fault this happened.”

“No its not!” Ben insisted. He ushered Allie out of the room, leaving Hoss to sit with Joe.

*****

A vigil was kept over Joe all night, but the young man barely moved. Come morning, Joe was awake and sore, feeling lousy, but alive and on the mend. The temperature that had worried Ben so much the previous afternoon had been caused by the trauma of the injury and then being moved. There was no obvious sign of infection in the wound. Paul had left Joe some pills for the pain and when Joe agreed to take one, Ben knew that his son was indeed very sore.

Leaving Joe dozing, Ben went down to tell everyone that Joe had had a good night’s rest and discovered that Allie had disappeared, leaving Tommy behind. The little boy had clearly tried to follow his mother and his bare feet were in a bad way. While Ben and Hop Sing did what they could, Hoss hurried to town to get the doctor again.

Try as he could to keep the morning’s happenings from Joe, Ben knew that it wouldn’t be possible. For a start, Hop Sing had announced his intentions of making bacon and eggs and who knew what else for Joe that morning. Obviously, that went by the wayside, even if Joe could have eaten it anyway. But it did mean that Joe didn’t actually get anything to eat until well into the morning.

By then, he was wide awake and grumpy. Joe hated being in pain and he hated being helpless. When he woke, needing to use the chamber pot, he was horrified to discover that he could get out of bed – with difficulty – but couldn’t stand unsupported. When he stood up, his head swam uncontrollably and with a clatter, Joe fell to the floor.

The bedroom door opened with shocking suddenness and Ben gaped at the unexpected sight. “Joe!” With a jolt, Ben realized that he had temporarily forgotten about Joe. Guilt spiked through Ben’s gut, but he had had no choice but to tend to the injured child. “Joe, are you all right?” Ben leant over Joe and carefully helped him to his feet. “What did you want?”

Rolling his eyes, Joe managed to make his needs clear without embarrassing himself any further. Ben chuckled quietly in understanding and went about assisting his son as discreetly as he could. He soon had Joe settled back into bed. Joe looked pale and tired, but his gaze was keen as he caught Ben’s eye.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Ben evaded. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t worry?” Joe echoed. “Pa, you look worried and there’s obviously something going on. Its nearly 10.30 and I haven’t been offered any breakfast. Please tell me. What’s happened? Its not Allie, is it? Jess hasn’t found her?”

It wasn’t the first time Ben had found himself cursing Joe’s perception. He didn’t want to burden the young man, yet Ben was well aware that if he didn’t tell Joe everything, then Joe was quite capable of torturing himself with his imaginings. And the bustle in the house would have been hard to miss. Sighing, Ben perched on the end of the bed.

“Allie’s gone.”

*****

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Ben asked again for the umpteenth time.

“I’m all right,” Joe replied, listlessly. It wasn’t true, but Joe figured that Ben didn’t need to hear about his son’s woes. He had enough of his own, worrying about Allie and Tommy. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ben soothed. He tucked the blanket more securely around Joe and smiled. “Ready to sleep now?”

“Yeah,” Joe admitted. He had made another unwise sojourn from his bed, this time to see to Tommy when he heard the sound of sniffling from the little boy’s room. Joe’s bedroom door had been left open so that if he shouted for assistance, Ben and Hoss would hear him. It was now well into the afternoon and Joe knew that Ben and Hoss were coordinating the search for Allie. Not sure if the rest of his family was in the house or not, Joe decided to see what he could do for Tommy. Sheer determination had got Joe as far as the door. Stubbornness got him two or three steps into the hall, but weakness had dumped him to the floor before Joe could do anything to help himself. He had struck his head on the doorjamb, but apart from a darkening bruise on his cheek, he was uninjured.

It was the noise of Joe’s fall that had alerted Ben to something being wrong upstairs. The child’s muffled sniffing had not reached the great room. Ben, wondering what on earth had happened, had been unprepared to see Joe sprawled in the hallway. Rushing along the hall, he knelt by Joe, seeing the red mark on Joe’s cheek and seeing the renewed bleeding from his shoulder. “Joe?” he breathed, anxiety flaring.

“Tommy,” Joe panted. “Crying.” He gritted his teeth against the pain in his shoulder.

At those words, Ben became aware of the muffled sobs emanating from the room that had once been Adam’s. Torn, he did the only thing he could in the circumstances. “Hoss!” he called. “I need your help.”

It took the big man only moments to hurry up the stairs. He was as shocked as Ben had been to see Joe lying on the floor and he rushed over, expecting that Ben needed his help in getting Joe back to bed. “I’m here, Pa,” he panted.

“See to Tommy,” Ben urged. Although Tommy was happy with any of the Cartwrights, he was especially attached to Hoss.

Giving Joe another worried glance, Hoss did as he was bid, hurrying into the bedroom to take the distressed boy into his arms. He wished there was some way to explain to Tommy that they were doing everything they could to find his mother. None of them realized that Tommy had seen Allie ride away with Jess, that Tommy had chased his mother until his strength had given out. All Hoss could offer – all any of them could offer – was the comfort of their presence and Hoss was only too aware that it was no comfort at all.

Ben got Joe back into bed and cautiously unwrapped the bandages on Joe’s shoulder, afraid of what he might find. However, although there was some superficial bleeding, Joe hadn’t done any further damage to his shoulder and Ben had put on fresh bandages with a thankful heart.

“Now listen to me, Joe,” Ben warned as he tied off the bandages. “Next time you hear Tommy crying, or need anything – anything at all – you call, all right? Either Hoss or I will be in the house. I don’t want you getting out of bed alone again until you are a lot stronger, understand?”

Contrite green eyes peered at Ben through thick sable lashes. “I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe replied, wretchedly. “But when I heard Tommy crying, I just wanted to help the little guy.”

“I know,” Ben softened. “But you need to look after yourself right now, Joe. You could have died out there the other day. You’re weak and it’s going to take some time to get your strength back. Tommy is going to need us all in the days to come while we look for Allie.” He patted Joe’s hand. “Now, you get some rest.”

Obediently, Joe closed his eyes and although at first his mind churned, exhaustion soon won out and Joe slipped into slumber. Ben sat with him until he saw the lines of pain and strain relax. When he was asleep, Joe looked a defenseless 16. Ben hated to see his son sick and injured and he wondered if Joe’s shooting had been the final straw that sent Allie back to Jess Miller. “Where are you, Allie?” he whispered, as he rose to his feet.

There was no reply.

*****

Over the next week, as Joe made strides towards recovery, Tommy began to slip away from them. Despite all that Ben and Hoss could do, Tommy ate less and less each day. Worried, Ben sent for Paul Martin, who could find nothing wrong with the child. Tonics were prescribed to try and give Tommy a boost, but they made no difference. The only thing that could cure what ailed Tommy was miles away – his mother.

*****

“All right, Joe, you can start going about a bit more, but keep that sling on for another month anyway,” Paul smiled, as he helped Joe back into his shirt. The heaviest bandages were off and only a light dressing covered the healing wound. He adjusted the black material that the Cartwrights always seemed to use as a sling and reflected that he had seen them all wear it at some point in recent years. “Just don’t overdo things!” Paul warned as he reached for his bag. “I’ll go in and see Tommy now.”

Rising, Joe walked slowly downstairs, where he perched on the coffee table while Hoss paced. Joe longed to copy his brother, but he simply didn’t have the energy. They didn’t have long to wait, though. Ben and Paul came downstairs together and it was obvious from their faces that Tommy was no better that day.

“That little boy’s dying of a broken heart,” Paul mumbled and headed towards the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ben.” Paul knew he had to make the effort, but he wasn’t sure that there was anything he could do for the child.

Left alone, the three Cartwrights exchanged a glance full of concern. They were therefore a bit startled when the door opened and Paul popped his head in. “Ben there’s… someone… to see you,” he offered, uncharacteristically hesitant.

Puzzled, Ben went over and saw a monk standing there. Still curious, but as courteous as ever, Ben invited the man in, seeing the same confusion on his son’s faces as he read the little note the man held out to him, informing the boys that this was Brother Nicholas, a monk from Mexico. This introduction did nothing to clear up the confusion.

But things at last became clear as the note from Allie was handed over and Brother Nicholas made it clear to the Cartwrights that the note wasn’t telling the truth. Allie wasn’t happy with Jess and she missed Tommy dreadfully. They now knew that Allie was all right and just as importantly, they knew where she was.

*****

Later, as they ate supper and made preparations for Ben, Nicholas and Tommy to leave at first light, Brother Nicholas watched the family. Allie had told him quite a lot about them, in their snatched conversations in the church. Nicholas did not like Jess Miller and he knew that many of the villagers felt the same way. But Jess was a dangerous man and it took courage to cross him. Nicholas could see that the Cartwrights didn’t lack courage and he knew that Allie was right to have put her trust in them. It warmed his heart to see that Joe, the young man Allie had told him about, was on the road to recovery, eating almost as much as his bigger, older, brother, even if he required help to cut up the food.

As he knelt by his bed in prayer that night, Brother Nicholas gave thanks to the Almighty that he had found this family so quickly and that they were ready and willing to help him. He rose from his prayers feeling that they had God’s blessing. Somehow, he knew everything was going to turn out right.

*****

When they returned from Mexico ten days later, Nicholas was delighted to see Hoss and Joe waiting to greet them at the stage depot. Joe’s arm was still in a sling, but he was looking better, his color good and the fatigue gone from his face.

Tommy dashed up to Hoss and beamed all over at his friend.

Watching, Ben swallowed down the lump that appeared in his throat. Joe was fine, assuring his father of his good health with a smile that warmed Ben’s heart; Allie was safe and reunited with Tommy, who was once more the picture of healthy childhood. Jess Miller was out of their lives once and for all and Allie was coming back to live in Virginia City.

The last straw might have broken the camel’s back, he thought, but it hadn’t broken any of them.

***End***

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