Word Count: 8295
It was irrational; Ben Cartwright knew that. However, it didn’t stop him thinking that the last thing on earth he wanted his sons to do was go and hunt this big cat. But the circumstances surrounding the need to hunt down this animal were such that Ben was reluctant to let his sons out of his sight, however needful it might be for them to go.
As Joe hopped lightly into his saddle, his feet never so much as touching a stirrup, Ben couldn’t help himself. “Be careful, son,” he cautioned.
“I will, Pa,” Joe responded. “Don’t worry.”
Smiling slightly, and keeping to himself the thought that parents worried all the time, even when their sons were grown up, Ben stepped back. The need to track down this cat had become urgent, literally overnight. That morning, they had found the cat’s tracks in the corral by the house. The beast was becoming bolder and it was purely chance that had left the corral empty the previous night.
The cat had been plaguing them for weeks. Adam and Joe had been out hunting it when Joe’s bullet had ricocheted and blinded a young woman. As Tessa had recuperated, Joe had decided that he had to marry her, convincing himself that he was genuinely in love with her. He was unwilling to admit the relief he felt when they discovered that Tessa had regained her sight and he didn’t have to marry her after all.
In the aftermath of the revelation and the departure of the unwanted guests, the cat had largely been forgotten. However, the previous night had been a brutal reminder and they had simply been lucky that none of their horses had been in the corral. They had to do something about that cat.
Watching as his sons rode out of sight, Ben tried to quell the uneasiness he felt.
It was a long day for the Cartwright brothers. They followed the tracks, criss-crossing back and forth across the near ranges by the ranch house. The tracks were not fresh, but they didn’t dare abandon them for fear they would lose them altogether. By the time dusk started to fall, they were less than 10 miles from home.
It didn’t take them long to set up camp, each brother taking on certain chores from habit. Joe settled the horses fairly close to camp, not wanting to take a chance on the lion fancying prime Ponderosa riding stock as its next meal. Adam went to fetch more water and Hoss built a fire. When Adam came back, he spread out the bedrolls by the saddles Joe had set near the fire. Hoss was cooking.
The meal was simple, filling and hot. The boys didn’t need any more than that. Replete, and now tired, they lounged back against the saddles and watched the stars come out. The night was going to be very cold, and Hoss rose to throw some wood on the fire. “How long’re we gonna keep this up?” he asked.
“Hoss, we’ve only just started the hunt,” Adam pointed out. “Are you tired of it already?”
“No, it’s just…” Hoss began, but Joe interrupted.
“We’ll keep it up until that cat is dead,” he declared flatly.
Uneasily, his two older siblings exchanged a glance and then looked at Joe. “We might not get the cat,” Adam ventured.
“I’m not going back without killing it,” Joe stated firmly. “Its cost me too much already.”
That much was true. When they had first encountered the cat, Joe’s bullet had blinded a young girl. She had then regained her sight but, at her father’s urging, hadn’t said anything to the Cartwrights. Chance had allowed Ben to see the young woman primping at the mirror and he had realized that she could see. Concerned by Joe’s bride’s capriciousness, he had sought Joe out and told him the truth. Joe had been devastated that Tessa was lying to him and had broken his hand taking out his grief and anger on a post. While Joe was at the doctor, Tessa, who had guessed that Joe knew, had run away.
Everyone searched for her, but it was the next day before she was found by Joe. And it was then he had had another close encounter with the cat – this time, it had clawed Joe before running off. Joe had had a lucky escape.
Concerned, Adam put a hand briefly on his youngest brother’s arm. “Joe, if we don’t get the cat now, we’ll get it in the spring,” Adam reminded him. “We’re not going to put our own safety at risk over this.”
For a moment, his brother’s green eyes were shadowed by something that made Adam feel very uneasy. Joe sometimes had a darkness about him that made him seem very dangerous. And then, in a heart beat, the shadow was gone and Joe just looked very tired. “You’re right, Adam,” he agreed. “It’s not worth putting ourselves at risk for it.” He sighed. “I just want to see the back of it, you know? Put an end to everything.”
“I know, little brother,” Adam replied, patting Joe’s arm in unconscious imitation of Ben’s habit. “I know.”
The sky was cloudy and grey the next morning and Hoss, sniffing the air in much the same manner as the horses, announced that rain was on the way. This was something of a blow, as only dry weather would keep the tracks that they were following intact. With no time to spare, they ate a cold breakfast and set off as quickly as they could.
As ever, Hoss led the way, peering down at the ground in concentration while Adam and Joe scanned the surrounding landscape on the chance that they might spot the cat on one of the high ledges. They saw nothing. The clouds continued to gather over the mountains and the tracks continued to lead them ever higher.
The noon break was short and Joe looked at the jerky in disgust. “Eat it, young’un,” Hoss ordered. “Its all yer gonna git till this evenin’.”
“What’s eating you, Joe?” Adam asked. He tore off a mouthful of jerky with his teeth. He hated the stuff almost as much as Joe did. “You’ve been in a perfectly foul mood all day. I don’t think you’ve said two words. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine,” Joe grumbled. “There’s nothing wrong.” He kept his eyes down so that Adam couldn’t read his expression. Joe wasn’t telling the truth. Something was wrong – he just didn’t know what it was. He was just uneasy, out of sorts.
“Joe, if’n ya ain’t feelin’ well, ya gotta tell us,” Hoss implored his brother earnestly. “Ain’t nobody gonna say nuthin’ about it.”
“I’m all right,” Joe insisted and made an effort to wipe the frown off his face. “Come on, let’s go.” He shoved the last of the jerky into his mouth and walked over to his horse.
Shrugging, Adam and Hoss followed. Both silently vowed to keep a close eye on Joe.
At the end of another fruitless day, they set up camp in much the same way as they had the night before. Joe didn’t know if he was imagining things or not, but the horses seemed restless and unsettled. Given that that was his frame of mind, too, Joe wasn’t sure if he was infecting the sensitive animals or not. He glanced around, but there was little to see in the growing darkness.
They were camped under a rocky overhang, which gave them meager shelter from the rain that still threatened but hadn’t yet fallen seriously. Hoss had lit a couple of small fires, one of them right against the wall of rock and the heat reflected nicely back at the chilled men. They ate the bacon and beans that Hoss cooked as though none of them had seen food for months and savored the aromatic coffee that followed it. Warm inside and out – for the time being – they snuggled down tiredly into their blankets.
None of them had any idea what time it was when the world erupted into chaos. All they knew was that it was still dark, the fires burned down to glowing embers, shedding little light. Rain was pouring steadily down and the horses were screaming.
Leaping to his feet, still more awake than asleep, Joe grabbed his rifle and raced towards the horse line. He had once again kept the horses fairly close to the fires, in the hopes that they would be safer there. But apparently they weren’t and Joe did not want anything happening to the horses when they were so far from home.
It didn’t occur to him that it was foolish to run, barefoot, at a line of panicky horses that most likely were being worried by a mountain lion. Joe hadn’t had time to think at all – he simply acted. He ran to the horses and found them milling around anxiously, neighing and stamping, pulling sharply at the ropes that kept them tethered.
The lion was there – there was no question about that. The hot rank smell of the beast hit Joe as he neared and he squinted in the darkness to try and see where it was. A dark shadow moved near the horses and Joe fired.
The lion was doomed that night. Its reign of terror over the livestock of the ranch was over as three shots rang out practically simultaneously. The beast jerked and tumbled head over heels before collapsing to the ground, unmoving.
But the danger was not over. The horses, despite being used to gunfire, spooked. The ultra-dependable Chubb snapped his tether and fled, brushing past Adam and knocking him into the smoldering embers of the fire. Hoss made a grab for Adam, burning his hands in the process as he hauled his brother away from the fire.
Unaware of his own injuries, Hoss snatched up a canteen and poured the contents over his brother. “Adam, are ya all right?” Hoss cried.
“Yes,” Adam panted. “I’m all right.” He knew he had been very lucky. He had landed on his back, but the only part of him that had been on the embers had been his butt, which was still encased in his heavy denim jeans. Although he was sore, he had not sustained any serious burns. “What about you?” Adam hunted around for the lantern and finally managed to light it. “Hoss, you’re burned.”
“It ain’t bad,” Hoss denied. He couldn’t keep the pain out of his voice. Adam knew from past experience that even minor burns were very sore and he reached for the other canteen.
“We’ll need more water, Joe,” he stated calmly, as he began to pour water over Hoss’ hands. There was no response. “Joe?” Adam repeated, looking around. “Joe!”
The lantern had allowed Adam to see Hoss’ hands, but it effectively blinded him to everything more than a few feet away. Joe and the horses had vanished into the darkness.
“I’m here,” said a low voice, laden with pain.
The older brothers looked at each other and then Adam rose carefully to his feet. Lifting the lantern, he walked towards the voice, with Hoss at his heels. And they found Joe at the remnants of the horse line, lying on the ground. Of the horses, there was no sign at all.
“What happened to you?” Adam asked, dropping to his knees by his youngest brother. “Where are the horses?”
“The horses are gone,” Joe replied. He bit his lip, clearly in pain. “Chubb snapped his tether. Sport kicked Cochise and Cooch stood on me.” He tried to relieve the pain by moving, but it didn’t work. “They all high-tailed out of here.”
“Where did Cochise get you, Joe?” Adam asked, trying to keep the worry out of his voice. They were in big trouble now.
“My foot and leg,” Joe answered. He lay back on his elbows and watched his brother’s face with morbid interest as Adam pulled back Joe’s pants’ leg.
Joe’s right foot was bleeding slightly where the sharp edge of Cochise’s hoof had cut the flesh. But the skin was visibly darkening and swelling even as they looked at it. The foot was definitely broken and badly broken. Adam’s heart sank even more. With his heart in his mouth, he drew the pants’ leg back even further and surveyed the bruised, misshapen ankle that also seemed to be broken.
Wordlessly, Adam sat back, wincing as his sore butt contacted his heels. They were in even deeper trouble than he had first thought…
The night passed – well, it passed. Joe dozed intermittently, the pain robbing him of much-needed rest. Hoss also was restless, not accustomed to pain as his bedfellow. The only one who got more than a few minutes of solid rest was Adam and even he spent a lot of the night awake, worrying. His own discomfort was mild compared to what his brothers were suffering and he didn’t like to complain. That made him no less sore, however; he was able to push the pain aside with wondering how on earth they were going to get home.
As dawn broken, Adam rose and went to fetch more water. The stiff carcass of the lion seemed to be leering at him as he hobbled past and Adam remembered Joe’s seemingly inexplicable desire to see the animal dead. Now, it didn’t seem at all unreasonable or over the top. One way or another that animal had caused the family a whole lot of grief.
Breakfast was forced down somehow. Joe had little appetite, his face pale and his eyes ringed with dark circles. Hoss struggled to feed himself, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to ask for the help his brothers would willingly have given him. Adam leaned against the rock wall, far too uncomfortable to sit.
Once they had all eaten, the doctoring began. Hop Sing always put a couple of bandages into a saddlebag, just in case of accidents, but they weren’t going to go far between the three of them. Adam took his spare shirt and tore it into strips, winding them carefully around Hoss’ hands. The big man’s palms were blistered and red, but Adam knew that they could have been so much worse. It seemed likely, from what little Adam knew of burns, that they would heal without leaving a scar, as long as they were looked after and didn’t get infected.
For himself, it took a bit of persuading on Hoss’ part to get Adam to drop his pants, but it seemed that Adam had got away lightly for someone who had landed seat down on a fire. His skin was red and tender, like a bad sunburn, but there were no blisters and quite likely within a few days, he would never know anything had happened.
On the other hand, Joe’s foot and ankle were a mess. They had swollen dramatically during the night and the bruising was spectacular. Adam knew he had to get a splint on to keep the bones as still as possible, but he was not going to make any attempt to set the injuries. He wasn’t a doctor and he didn’t want Joe ending up crippled by some blunder he might make. “I’ve got to splint this, Joe,” he warned.
“Go ahead,” Joe replied. He knew it was going to hurt – more than hurt – but he knew it had to be done. He braced himself as best he could for the pain, but at the first gentle touch, he screamed and blacked out. Shaken, Adam continued his work, berating himself because he had caused Joe such pain, and yet knowing that there was nothing he could have done differently.
While they waited for Joe to regain consciousness, Hoss looked at Adam. The older man was pale and worried looking. “Adam, what’re we gonna do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Adam admitted, sighing heavily. “I guess I’d better go for help and leave you and Joe here.” He looked up into the distance, as though looking for something. Subconsciously he was – he was looking for their horses. “I’d hoped that the horses might have come back last night and then we’d have a way to get home.”
“How long d’ya think it’ll take ya ta git home?” Hoss asked, his tone carefully neutral, but Adam heard the worry underlying the query.
“Too long,” Adam responded. He checked Joe again, glad to see that his youngest brother was moving his head slightly, a sure sign that he was regaining consciousness again. “We really can’t leave Joe’s foot for long, or he won’t ever get the use of it back.” Adam made eye contact with his middle brother for the first time. “And you can’t really look after him or yourself, can you? You can’t carry and Joe can’t walk. Leaving you alone would be a recipe for disaster.”
“So what… do you… suggest?” queried a gravelly voice. Joe forced himself onto his elbows, ignoring the way his head swam for a moment.
Silence was his answer as Adam once more studied the distance. There was rain on the way – heavier rain than they had so far faced. It would make traveling difficult and life more uncomfortable for those left behind with no shelter. Adam didn’t know whether he ought to suggest the idea that was in his mind or not. He wasn’t sure that it wasn’t pure madness, brought on by a night of worry and sleeplessness.
“You two go without me,” Joe proposed. It had taken all his strength to keep his voice steady as he spoke, for he knew the difficulties, loneliness and pain that lay in front of him.
“No!” Hoss’ vehemence was echoed by Adam’s just a split second behind him. “We ain’t leavin’ ya, Shortshanks, so jist git that idea out o’ yer head!”
That was what Joe had feared they would say and he marshaled his arguments. “But, Hoss…”
“But nothing,” Adam interrupted swiftly. “We’re not leaving you alone, Joe and that’s the end of it. We’re all going to get out of here. Its not going to be easy, but we either all go or we all stay.”
“What cha got in mind?” Hoss asked and Joe blinked back tears, relieved beyond anything he could admit that he would not be left alone and injured.
“This,” Adam replied, and set out his idea.
It took the rest of the morning before they were ready to move on. Adam had had to do the most of the work, cutting down a couple of straight branches and hauling them back to the campsite. It was then that he realized that this was going to be much harder than he had anticipated, but he said nothing to his brothers about his sudden misgivings.
Back at camp, Joe helped Adam lace their lassos together to create a travois. Initially, he had been against the idea, for they didn’t have horses to pull it, but Adam assured him that both he and Hoss would take turns. Hoss was quite enthusiastic about the idea, feeling that he was contributing nothing to their rescue. He didn’t want to admit how sore his hands were and he had no real idea how much pulling the travois was going to sap his strength. Adam, who was beginning to have an idea, didn’t say anything.
Finally, the travois was made, along with a rope harness. Knowing how rope could cut through flesh, Adam padded the ropes with their spare clothing and placed their saddle blankets over the ropes for Joe. One set of saddlebags with food was given to the youngest Cartwright to keep an eye on, and the canteens were tied to the poles. Then Adam pulled their saddles close against the rock wall of their campsite to give them what little protection he could and Hoss put out the fires.
“I think we’re ready,” Adam announced, unable to find another thing to do to postpone what was now inevitable.
Wincing, Hoss picked up the harness and fitted it over his shoulders. Adam went over to help him settle the material comfortably and patted his brother’s shoulder. “If you’re doing the pulling, we go at your pace,” Adam instructed him. “Don’t think you have to hurry on our account.”
“I won’t,” Hoss promised, but Adam somehow doubted his middle brother would keep that promise. He knew Hoss wanted to get Joe home as soon as possible and although Adam wanted that, too, he didn’t want it to be at the cost of Hoss’ health or strength. If Hoss went down, Adam could not hope to rescue both of them.
“Let’s get you on board, Joe,” he said, bending down to help his brother to his feet. He winced as the sore skin on his backside stretched to accommodate the movement.
Joe tried to ask Adam if he was all right, but the pain of moving was too much for him and it took all he had to simply hop the couple of feet to the travois without passing out. He flopped down gratefully and bit back a scream of pain as Adam lifted his injured limb onto the netting. Dimly, he was aware of Adam saying something, but he had no idea what it was. By the time his grip on consciousness improved, they were underway.
There was no doubt it was hard going. Hoss had to stop far more frequently than he anticipated and Joe was heavier to pull than he expected for someone so slender. Adam tried several times to take over from Hoss, but the big man wouldn’t hear of it. “I can manage,” he declared each time.
Subsiding for the moment, Adam resolved to keep a close eye on Hoss and to stop for a proper rest in a little while. They could probably all do with something to eat, although when he looked down at Joe, his brother’s set, white face told him Joe most likely wouldn’t want anything. A travois was not the most comfortable of contraptions to ride upon, for every bump in the ground was magnified. It was not an ideal solution, but Adam hadn’t – and still couldn’t – come up with another idea. “How’re you doing, Joe?” he asked, softly.
Looking up at Adam, Joe sought for a smile to reassure his brother. “I’m okay,” he replied, but he sounded anything but convincing. “Don’t worry about… me.”
Smiling back, Adam chided, “I always worry about you, Joe. All those women chasing you…” He allowed the smile to broaden to a grin and was relieved to see Joe’s smile brighten, too.
“How far have we come?” Joe asked, fatigue coloring his voice. It seemed to him that they had been traveling forever and the pain was wearing him down. He didn’t want to complain – his brothers were doing everything they could for him and they were hurt too – but the constant movement was getting on top of him. Joe didn’t know how long he could keep going.
“I’m not sure,” Adam lied. “We’ll be stopping for something to eat soon. Are you hungry?”
“Not really,” Joe admitted. “I’m just tired.” He forced a smile. “I’m all right, Adam, really.”
“Sure you are,” Adam responded, hearing an odd sense of déjà vu in their words – an echo from another time when Joe and been hurt and Adam had looked after him. He shook off the chill that ran down his back bone and rejoined Hoss. “We need to find somewhere to stop. Joe needs a rest.” He didn’t add that Hoss needed to rest, too.
About 10 minutes later, Hoss found a spot shaded by a large tree and they put the travois down there. The rain had been falling in earnest for the last few minutes and they were all wet. Adam knew it was pointless to try and light a fire and that they would just have to eat jerky and drink water for their noon meal. He rummaged in the saddlebags, but by the time he had found the food, Joe was already asleep. Adam decided to leave him.
He and Hoss ate in silence. What was there to say, after all? How long would it take them to get home? How was Joe really holding up? Were they wise to be attempting this, or would they have been better off waiting at their campsite to be found?
A cold wind swept in under the trees and the men shivered in their wet clothing. “We’d better go on,” Adam suggested, although Hoss looked like he could join Joe in a nap. “It’s my turn to pull.”
“I ain’t tired!” Hoss protested, untruthfully.
“Yes you are!” Adam retorted. “And even if you weren’t, it’s my turn to pull.” He rose to his feet, once more wishing that he could sit somewhere other than on his backside. Lying on his belly only worked when he wasn’t actually eating.
Adjusting the harness around his shoulders, Adam set off as gently as possible, but Joe was jolted from his sleep, a cry escaping his control. Hoss soothed him, urging him to go back to sleep, but although Joe closed his eyes, sleep eluded him. He drifted in and out of a twilight state that sometimes allowed him to escape the pain for a moment or two, but it was an elusive place and each new bump and jolt brought him back to hellish reality. By the time Adam was forced to stop to rest, Joe was at the end of his tether.
“How ya doin’, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked tenderly, leaning over Joe to give him some water. He was instantly concerned, for his younger brother was so pale, he was practically transparent. “Sore, huh?” he fumbled with the canteen, spilling some on Joe, but by then, they were all so wet, Joe barely noticed.
“Sore,” he mumbled in agreement. Now they weren’t moving, he was regaining some of his control, but he didn’t know how he could bear it when they started walking again. Something in his tone must have conveyed his feelings to Hoss, for the older man looked away, anguish on his face.
“Sure wish I could do somethin’ fer ya, Joe,” he admitted, as though the situation was his fault. “I’d carry ya if’n I could, ya know that.”
“I’m… all right,” Joe insisted. He was breathing heavily, fighting back the pain and nausea. “Don’t worry… about me.”
“Ya jist take it easy,” Hoss soothed, feeling the utter inadequacy of his words, knowing that there was nothing they could do for Joe.
“Sure,” Joe sighed. He closed his eyes so that he didn’t have to see the worry on Hoss’ face.
Silently, regretting his decision, Adam braced himself and started pulling once more.
Exhaustion stopped them eventually. Adam didn’t know how far they had come – not far enough, he was sure. He couldn’t force his tired brain to make the rough calculations to tell him how much nearer home they were. What did it matter? He doubted if any of them could go on the next day. Joe had been unconscious for some time, the pain finally beating him down. Adam’s backside was extraordinarily uncomfortable – he hadn’t realized that the muscles used to pull something went down through his butt. Hoss was worn out by his distress at not being able to do more.
Eventually, a camp was set up, a big fire roaring at the front of the shallow cave they were resting in. They were all soaked to the skin and spare clothes were not to be had. Adam wished he had thought of the dangers of exposure, but the fact he hadn’t told him how much his injury had affected him.
“You should eat, Joe,” Hoss coaxed, holding the plate of bacon close enough that the scent tantalized his younger brother’s nostrils.
“I’m not hungry,” Joe mumbled, turning his face away. He was still pale, but there was growing color in his cheeks, but Adam didn’t like the looks of it. It wasn’t healthy color – it was fever. Pain and exposure was taking its toll on the younger man.
After Joe fell into a restless sleep, Hoss crept closer to where Adam was lying on his stomach trying to relax. “Adam, we ain’t gonna git home, are we?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Adam replied, untruthfully. He closed his eyes, hoping Hoss would take the hint, but he didn’t.
“Come mornin’, I’m gonna set off fer home,” he announced. “I think ya oughta stay here with Joe. He’s in a bad way, ain’t he?”
“I don’t want to make him go on,” Adam admitted, “but I don’t think he should stay here, either.” He dropped his head into his hands. “Hoss, I’ve made a mess of this. I think I made the wrong decision in moving Joe.”
It wasn’t often that Hoss saw his self-assured older brother so uncertain. He reached out to pat his brother’s shoulder and stopped short, looking at his bandaged hand. “Adam, ya done what ya thought were best,” Hoss comforted him. “Maybe Joe’ll be better in the mornin’.”
“But what if he’s not?” Adam demanded. “I’ve done the wrong thing!”
“Ya don’ know that!” Hoss snapped. “Adam, ya done the best fer us that ya could,” he went on more gently. “Tomorra, Pa might find us. Someone might go by – ya jist don’ know.” He rested his hand carefully on Adam’s shoulder, taking care not to wince aloud. “Ya git some sleep an’ things’ll look better come mornin’.”
“I hope so,” Adam replied despairingly. “I hope so.”
By morning, Joe was coughing relentlessly. The rain had veered around to come at them from a different direction and their small shelter was sheltering them no longer. Water dripped from the rocks and the fire was soon extinguished. Adam and Hoss did their best to protect Joe from the worst of the rain, but it was a hopeless task and they were soon all chilled and wet.
As dawn broke over a sullen, dripping landscape, Adam realized that his decision had been made for him by the weather. They could not leave Joe in that cold, wet place; the sooner he was home the better for him. None of them could stay there – the exposure would kill them.
It was much harder for them to get going. They were all exhausted and cold and moving around sapped their energy and they didn’t have much energy to spare. Adam took first turn at pulling the travois. He didn’t think Hoss’ hands looked very good when he had examined them that morning and he didn’t want to tax his brother too much. Admittedly, Hoss was a big strong man and a bit of infection shouldn’t do him much harm under normal circumstances. But circumstances weren’t normal and Adam didn’t want to make Hoss ill.
“Just go without me,” Joe objected, as Adam eased him onto the travois. The last thing Joe wanted to do was go anywhere. He just wanted to slide into oblivion, where he couldn’t feel the pain from his foot and where the cough didn’t bother him.
“I don’t think so, buddy,” Adam panted. He resisted rubbing his butt; he thought it was probably sorer than it had been the day before and wondered if it was strain or a mild infection setting in. Either way, he didn’t mention it. They had enough problems.
The only plus of the journey was that the ground was softer, making it less bumpy for Joe. On the down side, the mud tended to accumulate around the bottom of the travois poles and they had to stop frequently to clear it away. The delays added to the stresses and strains of the day in general.
Stopping to swap places with Hoss at last, Adam took a good look around as he gulped some water from the canteen. He was suddenly feeling more cheerful, for he was sure he knew a shortcut home from where they were. “Have some water, Joe,” he coaxed, kneeling by his brother’s side.
Sighing heavily, Joe sipped a couple of times and then turned his head away to cough. Worried, Adam put his hand on Joe’s forehead and felt the heat emanating from him. Joe batted the hand away in irritation. “I’m fine,” he protested and coughed hoarsely.
Joe looked up at Adam and the older man saw at once that Joe knew how badly off he was. He didn’t say any more.
Rising, Adam went up beside Hoss. “If we go over that way, won’t we meet the track that leads right to the house?” he asked, pointing.
Looking around, Hoss nodded enthusiastically. “I reckon so,” he agreed. “We’re closer ta home than I figgered.”
“Think we can get home in time for supper?” Adam joked.
“Ya bet!” Hoss declared and Adam laughed, surprised that he could do so. But he felt better somehow, more hopeful. Help was closer than they had realized. “Let’s go!” Hoss set off at a brisker pace than he had managed in the last two days. Adam followed, no longer feeling totally exhausted.
It was nearly dark by the time they stumbled into the yard. It had been raining all afternoon and none of them could remember ever being this wet or cold before. But the anticipated warm welcome was not forthcoming. In fact, the house was dark and when they went in, the fire in the hearth was almost out.
“Where is everyone?!” Adam cried out. He had been looking forward to relinquishing his burden and letting his father take over so that he could sink into a long, deep sleep. But Ben was not there and there was no one to take charge. Adam felt so bereft, he could almost have cried.
Equally exhausted and equally disappointed, Hoss just stood, his shoulders slumped. “I dunno,” he replied. “Think they’s out lookin’ fer us?”
“Of course they are!” Adam agreed almost angrily. “Why didn’t I think of that?” He looked around. “Let’s get Joe upstairs and then we can see what’s to be done.”
“Just leave me here,” Joe objected. He was lying on the sofa, something that he usually hated, as it had not been designed for a man to lie on it. But the thought of moving yet again was enough to make him want to scream. He didn’t know how he had managed to get home without losing control and he didn’t want to lose it now they had reached their goal. That seemed the height of ingratitude.
“You’ll be more comfortable in bed,” Adam replied briskly. “And we’ll be able to get that foot up properly.”
“What difference will it make?” Joe asked wretchedly. “We both know it’s been too long. I’ll never walk properly on it again.”
“Don’ say that!” Hoss protested, sounding frightened. That was the first time anyone had put that particular fear into words and yet Joe had said it in so matter-of-fact a manner that it chilled his brother. “Yer foot’s gonna be jist fine.”
“You don’t need to try and fool me, Hoss,” Joe told him kindly. “I know the truth.” His voice sounded hoarse and he coughed wetly at the end of his sentence.
“You’re still going upstairs,” Adam responded in his ‘no nonsense’ voice, hoping the gruffness would cover his fear. “And your foot will be fine.”
The heavy sigh and the cough that followed told Adam that Joe didn’t have the energy to fight him. Together, he and Hoss maneuvered Joe off the sofa and he hopped slowly and painfully up the stairs between his brothers. He was long past the end of his endurance by the time they reached his room and Adam stripping off Joe’s wet clothes was the last straw. As Adam started cutting up Joe’s pants leg, he slid away into darkness.
“We’ve gotta get help,” Adam muttered, intent on finishing his task. “But how?” He tenderly tucked Joe into bed, lifting the swollen and discolored leg onto a cushioning pillow.
“I dunno,” Hoss admitted and they both stopped and stood there, neither looking at the other, unable to make any kind of decision.
“We’ll start again at first light,” Ben muttered to his foreman. “We’ll have to spread out a bit more. This rain has really made things difficult.”
That was an understatement, Charlie reflected, but he didn’t say it out loud. They had no idea where the boys had ended up – they only knew there had been trouble of some sort because the horses had meandered into the yard that morning. They were all skittish and none of them had a scrap of tack on apart from a halter. Cochise and Sport had their tethers still dangling, but Chubb’s had broken off short. Ben had immediately ordered the men to saddle up, and they had spent all the remaining daylight hours searching, but there had been no trace of the boys.
“Sons be fine,” asserted Hop Sing, who had also ridden out to search. Ben hadn’t really been aware that his diminutive cook could ride, but he was grateful for the man’s stalwart support and endless optimism. It was a quality that Ben was finding to be in extremely short supply in himself.
“Of course,” he agreed, wondering again at the uneasy feeling he had had when the boys had left home. Had it really been a premonition of some kind? Or did he just think so because his sons were in trouble?
“Boss!” Charlie’s voice was excited and Ben glanced at him, surprised that the man could have found some extra energy. “There’s lights on in the house!” he exclaimed, pointing.
Sure enough, there was a light showing at the office alcove and Joe’s bedroom window. Ben glanced at Hop Sing, who shook his head, indicating that he had not left a light burning. “Who…?” Ben started, but he was spurring Buck to a faster pace, knowing that it could be no one but his sons.
Abandoning his horse without a backward glance, Ben hurried into the house, glancing blankly at the travois lying on the floor without registering it. “Adam? Hoss? Joe?” he called.
“Here,” came the faint reply from upstairs.
Hurrying up the steps, Ben could feel a big grin breaking out. They were home! He practically ran into Joe’s room, but there his delighted enthusiasm ran out as the harsh reality hit him. “What…?” he gasped.
Joe was lying in bed, his eyes closed. His face was pale, dark circles under his eyes and hectic patches of fever flushing his cheeks. His right foot was cradled on a pillow, with the covers pulled back and the foot was swollen, bruised and deformed.
Raising his horrified eyes from Joe’s foot, Ben realized at once that his other two sons were little better off than Joe. They were both wrapped in dressing gowns and looked equally as exhausted as their younger brother. Hoss had his hands covered by what looked like a torn shirt and Adam was leaning against the wall – a not unusual position for the oldest son, but he looked uncomfortable.
“What happened?” Ben demanded. He hurried over to put a hand first on Hoss’ shoulder, then Adam’s before bending over his youngest son and brushing the unruly curls back from his forehead. He flinched at the heat coming from Joe.
Slowly, stumbling over his words, Adam told Ben what had happened. Ben listened carefully, not interrupting, his eyes often drawn to one son or another as the story unfolded. As Adam reluctantly recounted their injuries, he found himself still embarrassed by his own and did his best to brush over it. However, Hoss was having none of that. He quickly broke in and told Ben what had happened to Adam. Ben was horrified.
“You need the doctor, all of you,” he declared.
“Doctor coming,” Hop Sing assured him. He had made hot chocolate, hoping that it would lull the sons to sleep until the doctor came. Joe was drifting in and out of sleep, stirring enough to give Ben a weak smile of welcome, but not participating in the conversation at all. “Hop Sing send.”
“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben replied. The genuineness of his tone was not missed by the Oriental and he nodded.
“Sons need bed,” he prodded gently.
“Now you’re here, I could sleep for a week,” Adam admitted, not realizing how much he had given away with those words. Ben smiled.
“Then go right ahead,” he invited. “I won’t waken you.” He patted his oldest son on the shoulder. “Thank you,” he murmured.
Adam understood him. He glanced at Hoss, then Joe. “You’re welcome,” he replied.
Left alone with Joe, Ben could not keep his eyes from the grossly misshapen foot. Would Joe ever regain full use of it again? It seemed impossible. 48 hours had passed since it happened. Was it already too late to do anything about it? Ben wished he knew more.
Eventually, Dr Paul Martin arrived. Ben had eaten something and spooned some of Hop Sing’s broth into Joe, although his son had not eaten more than a few mouthfuls. Joe was asleep again, but his sleep was restless. Ben hoped that the doctor would be able to do something to help his son.
“I came as soon as I could, Ben,” Paul apologized as he entered the room. “How is Joe?”
“Not good,” Ben replied. He watched as Paul took his son’s pulse and then got out his stethoscope and listened to his lungs. Joe slept through it.
“He’s got a good going cold,” Paul remarked as he straightened up. “No sign of pneumonia, thank goodness, but I’ll keep an eye on that.” He stuffed his stethoscope back into his Gladstone back and turned his attention to Joe’s foot.
Anxiety shortened Ben’s breath as Paul examined the ankle and foot closely. Joe was awake, and Ben held his hand, knowing that even the doctor’s feather-light touch was excruciatingly painful. The little color there had been in Joe’s face leached away, but Ben noticed that his son’s fever was down. He smiled encouragingly as Joe bit his lip.
“It hurts, Pa,” he whispered.
“I know, son,” Ben replied.
“I bet it does, Joe,” Paul agreed. “I’m going to give you something for the pain before I set your ankle.”
“I’m gonna have a bad limp, aren’t I, doc?” Joe asked. “Just tell me straight.”
Frowning, Paul said, “Who told you that?”
Pushing himself onto his elbows, Joe looked down the length of his nude body and stared at the offending foot. “Nobody had to tell me,” he rasped. “I just used my eyes. It’s been two days since this happened. Look at it!”
“Since when did you become a doctor, Joe Cartwright?” Paul demanded. “Yes, your foot is swollen and it’s going to take some time for the swelling to come down, but once it’s set, you’ll start to see an improvement.”
“Don’t try to kid me, doc!” Joe cried. “I’m gonna be lame, aren’t I? Please – just tell me the truth.”
Ben was close enough to see the tears clinging to Joe’s lashes. He put a comforting hand on Joe’s arm, but the young man barely noticed, so over-wrought was he.
“You’ll have a limp initially once you’re back on your feet,” Paul conceded. “But I don’t expect it to last long.” He knew how stubborn Joe could be and he leaned forward earnestly. “Joe, believe me; you will walk again, no matter how bad it looks right now.”
Exhausted, Joe slumped back down and furiously blinked back the tears. He was still convinced that he would be left permanently lame and he was perilously close to losing control.
A sharp pinprick in his thigh brought Joe back to reality. “What?” he gasped, but almost immediately, he could feel sleep sweeping over him in long, warm waves.
“Just rest, Joe,” Paul advised, as the morphine took the young man. “It’ll be much better when you wake.”
“Paul – will it be better?” Ben asked, hesitantly, when he was sure Joe could no longer hear him.
Smiling, Paul patted Ben’s arm. “I promise,” he replied.
By the time Joe woke again the next morning, both Adam and Hoss had been treated, too. Adam was right about his injury. It was no worse than a sunburn and in all honestly, his pride hurt more that day than the burn did. His muscles were all sore and aching from dragging the travois and he was more than glad to stay in bed and rest up. He slept on and off, secure in the knowledge that Ben and Paul were there to take care of Joe and Hoss.
Hoss’ hands were more badly injured than Adam’s rear end, but they could have been much worse. Adam had done the right thing in pouring water over then, stopping any burning and then wrapping them to keep the dirt out. Hoss’ hands were already healing and Paul simply put on clean bandages, urging the big man to keep his hands clean and dry until the blisters had healed. Hoss was also glad to stay in bed and catch up on his rest. The ordeal had taken more of a toll on the older brothers than they had realized.
On wakening, Joe had not immediately realized that his foot was less sore. He drifted pleasantly on the wings of the morphine he had received a couple of times during the night and it was only when he heard his father’s voice that he roused himself enough to open his eyes.
“So you’re awake at last,” Ben scolded teasingly. “I thought you were going to sleep all day.” He tousled Joe’s hair. “How do you feel?”
“A bit better,” Joe replied. His head still felt as though it was stuffed with cotton and his nose was blocked. He struggled to sit up a bit and felt a twinge of pain from his foot. Lifting his head, he looked down.
The toes that he could see poking out of the top of the splints and bandages were still bruised and swollen, but they had a reassuring underlying pink tone to them. Although it was clear the ankle and foot were still swollen, they appeared to be in a better position and the pain was less. “My foot…” Joe started.
“It’s been set, a few stitches were put in and Paul thinks that if you keep it up, you might be able to get a cast on it next week sometime,” Ben replied. “The breaks were not as bad as they appeared and he is predicting a full recovery.”
The good news shredded Joe’s control in a way that the difficulties of the previous couple of days hadn’t quite managed. He slumped down on the bed and tears leaked from his eyes, despite his attempts to prevent them. The relief was so overwhelming that Joe felt quite wrung out. He opened his eyes to look into Ben’s face, not in the least surprised to find himself in his father’s arms, cradled against his chest, safe and secure, like he had always been.
“Thanks, Pa,” he whispered, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Any time, son,” Ben replied.
“How’re Adam and Hoss?” Joe asked. He didn’t think he could move even if he wanted to. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so relaxed and comfortable.
“They’re fine,” Ben assured him. “Tired, a bit sore, but okay.” Ben smiled at him. “How are you feeling?”
“Apart from this cold? Much better.” Joe made a moue. “I feel a complete fool for sounding off at Doc Martin like that last night.”
“It’s understandable. You really weren’t well last night.” Ben made a face. “I thought you were coming down with pneumonia.”
“No thanks,” Joe smiled. “A cold is bad enough.” Reluctantly, he moved out of Ben’s embrace, because his back was cramping. “So, did Adam show Doc Martin his butt?” He sniggered.
Trying to keep a straight face, Ben replied, “But of course…” He couldn’t keep it up and a smile broke out. “We shouldn’t laugh,” he admonished Joe.
“I know,” Joe chortled. He laughed and started to cough. “I won’t laugh when I see him Pa; promise.”
“I don’t believe a word of it!” Ben scoffed. He knew that somehow, Joe would manage to poke a little fun at his oldest brother’s misfortune, but in the nicest possible way.
Sobering suddenly, Ben realized that his sons were going to be all right. Despite the dire circumstances they had found themselves in, they had worked together to get home and he knew – just knew – that they were all going to be all right.
Sensing the change in mood, Joe put his hand on Ben’s arm. Ben retrieved his thoughts and smiled down at Joe. Something in Ben’s dark eyes told Joe that his father wasn’t sad and his own, heart-stopping smile lit his face. Ben reached over and cupped a hand round Joe’s cheek.
It was a timeless moment, one shared only between Joe and Ben, but somehow not excluding Adam and Hoss. It re-affirmed their ties as a family, their joy that they were together again and relief that they had survived a dangerous time.
At last, they moved apart. Joe spoke quietly. “Its over at last, Pa,” he declared.
Nodding, Ben thought of all he had been told about the hunt. The lion was dead, but his sons were all alive and whole.
“Yes,” he agreed. “It’s over at last.”