Wagon Train to Hell (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9795


 

The young driver of the wagon was cold and wet. His hands were almost numb despite his gloves and sleet poured down relentlessly. It was no consolation that everyone else was in the same boat. The sudden, unexpectedly early arrival of winter had caught them all unawares, and the chances of them getting safely down off this mountain were growing smaller with every minute that passed. The rutted trail they were following was swiftly becoming a bog and the horses were beginning to slide.

Glancing up, the driver saw that they were nearing the next pass. The trail opened out again after that, and they might make better time. But the pass itself was tricky, with lots of overhanging boulders and an eerie echo. Horses regularly spooked there and the driver could only hope that the lead Waggoner knew this. If there was a wagon crash in the pass, they were in deep trouble.

Up ahead, the wagons in front came to a stop. Carefully, the driver drew his team to a halt and the horses stopped willingly, stretching their heads down. A rider emerged from the mass of bodies and approached his wagon.  “Any advice about what’s ahead, Cartwright?” the leader asked.

“This pass is tough on the horses. It might be a good idea to lead the teams through. There’s less chance of runaways if that happens,” Joe Cartwright replied.

“Can we ask you to lead the teams?” Jake Fox asked. “You’ve got the most experience of any of the folks on this trip.”

The thought of slogging through the mud with half a dozen teams made Joe want to groan, but he had volunteered to go along on this trip and he didn’t want to be responsible for anything going wrong now. Most of the other drivers weren’t horse men; they were store-keepers or tradesmen. “All right,” he agreed. “Someone stay with my team, and I’ll get the others through the pass.”

Jumping down from the wagon seat, Joe reluctantly relinquished his rain slicker. The wind was getting up and he knew that it blew through the narrow pass like a gale. He didn’t want to spook any horses with the flapping slicker.

Walking forward, Joe cautioned each teamster not to shout at his team, or anyone else, while they were in the pass. Everyone seemed to understand. Joe just hoped that everyone would remember when push came to shove.

Coming to the lead wagon, Joe fondled the horses’ noses for a moment, before taking the reins and leading them slowly forward. The footing was horrific and the horses slipped and slid. Joe had no idea how he was going to get all the wagons through. But they had to. A whole town was relying on them, and they had to get through.

It took a lot of patience and some time, but Joe got the team through safely. Drawing a deep breath and wiping the sweat from his brow, Joe went back for the next wagon. He repeated this several times before every wagon but his own was through the pass.

Of all the teams Joe expected to have trouble with, his own was not the one that crossed his mind. Grasping the bridle in his frozen hand, Joe urged his team on. The off-side horse baulked, and Joe forced himself to relax. His muscles were tense from the uncertain footing, and things were just getting worse. Joe was caked in mud up to his knees and he was soaked to the skin.

Reassured, the off-side horse took a step forward and its foot slid out from underneath it and struck Joe. Joe was knocked over and his last conscious thought was ‘I’m dead!’

*****

“Joseph!” thundered Ben Cartwright, as his youngest son galloped into the yard and hauled his horse to a stop by the hitching rail. “How many times do I have to tell you not to race into the yard like that?” Ben had lost count of the number of times he’d said it, yet it never seemed to register with Joe. After losing his wife, Marie, to a similar accident, and then Joe being injured when his horse fell as he galloped into the yard, Ben could hardly believe that Joe was still forgetting this rule. Ben’s heart leapt up to his throat every time he saw Joe do this.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe panted. He looked singularly unrepentant, Ben thought, with his hat tipped at a rakish angle and his face flushed with excitement. “Pa, you know Watson’s Crossing?”

Perplexed, Ben nodded. “The new township over the mountains. Yes, what of it?”

“There’s been a fire,” Joe explained. “The whole town has burned to the ground! A telegraph message came through from the next town along. People have been hurt, and Virginia City is getting up a collection and sending stuff over by wagon. I said I’d go along and help, and perhaps we could send something, too?”

“Calm down!” Ben ordered. “A fire? It sounds bad. When are the wagons leaving?”

“In the morning,” Joe answered. He eyed his father closely, wondering what the reaction would be when Ben realized that Joe had volunteered to go along.

After a moment’s thought, Ben did indeed realize what Joe had said, and he eyed his son askance. “You volunteered to go?” he asked, quietly and Joe nodded.

“The people who are sending things and going along to drive the wagons don’t have a lot of experience with horses, Pa, and certainly not traveling with heavy loads over the mountains. Jake Fox is going to lead the way, but he hasn’t got any experience with wagons.” Joe had rehearsed his plea until he was word perfect, but some instinct made him add only one more thing. “And you know Maria and her husband have just moved there.”

“All right,” Ben said, slowly. Maria had been a school friend of Joe’s and they had remained close, even after her marriage. It was typical of Joe to want to help his friends. He knew that he couldn’t have made Joe stay, if his son was determined to go. Joe was a grown man, and could make his own decisions. However, this didn’t mean Ben was happy that Joe was going to risk a late autumn crossing of the mountains. There was another road, but it took three days longer to go that way than across the mountain pass. “I’ll get Adam and Hoss to slaughter a couple of beeves, and there’s some dressed timber we have spare. You can take that.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe cried and hugged his father. “You’re the greatest!”

“Never mind the compliments!” Ben scolded, although he was delighted. “You go and get packed and I’ll get things organized here.” As Joe bounced towards the house, he called, “Joe.”

Turning, Joe gave his father a sunlit smile. “Yeah, Pa?”

“You will be careful in those mountains, won’t you?” Ben had promised himself he wouldn’t say that, but it was too late now; the words were out.

Sobering, Joe nodded. “I’ll be very careful,” he promised.

*****

The rest of the afternoon was spent in hurried preparations. Joe packed his saddlebags and then Hop Sing re-packed them, muttering all the time. He also gave Joe supplies for the trip, enough to feed several people for quite a number of days.

Meanwhile, Ben organized the loading of the dressed timber into a wagon and Adam and Hoss slaughtered some beeves, packing the meat carefully away. All was in readiness by the time the early darkness fell and supper was on the table.

“Ain’t supper a mite early?” Hoss asked, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

“Are you complaining?” Adam retorted. “You were telling me just a short time ago that you were starved.”

Frowning at Adam, Hoss tried his best to look annoyed. “I ain’t complainin’,” he replied. “I were jist askin’, is all.”

“Lil Joe eat early, go to bed early, get up early,” Hop Sing answered, in his most enigmatic manner, that he knew drove the Cartwrights mad. “Boy do important work.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied, feeling rather dazed. He suddenly wasn’t so sure he wanted to go on this trip, but when he remembered the people who were out in this cold weather, with no homes and precious little food, he thanked his lucky stars that he had a roof over his head and enough to eat. He felt renewed determination to do whatever he could for them.

“Do you think one of us should go with Joe, Pa?” Adam asked, as they ate.

“I think Joe’s capable of managing on his own,” Ben responded, glancing proudly at his son. “But I need you here, Adam. We have that timber contract to finish before the weather turns, and it didn’t look too promising this afternoon.”

“An’ I’m movin’ the herd down ta winter pasture,” Hoss added, although he felt the same protective urge as his older sibling. “Joe can manage on his own.”

Outnumbered, Adam shrugged. “Okay, okay,” he allowed, holding his hands up in surrender. “It was just a suggestion.”

“I appreciate it, Adam,” Joe assured him. “But I’ll be fine.”

*****

It was still dark as Joe hitched the horses to the wagon the next morning. A thin, cold rain was falling and Joe shivered inside his oiled rain slicker. As he checked the traces one last time, Hoss came out of the house and tossed his saddlebags under the wagon seat. “All set?” he asked.

“Yeah, thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied. He crossed back to the house to bid goodbye to his family. “I’m ready to go, Pa,” he told them.

“Be careful,” Ben admonished him once more. “We’ll be waiting for you here when you get back.” He pulled Joe towards him and hugged him hard. Joe hugged back.

“Take care, squirt,” Adam joked, touching Joe’s cheek briefly.

“Be good, Punkin,” Hoss advised. He gave Joe a bear hug, which was the only kind he knew.

“I’ll be home as soon as I can,” Joe promised. “You all be careful, too, you hear?” Smiling, Joe headed out to the wagon, climbing onto the seat and gathering the reins. He let the brake out and waved to his family, who stood together under the shelter of the porch roof.

As he drove towards the town, Joe felt unaccountably lonely.

*****

It was still dark when Joe arrived in town, but the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten, suggesting that dawn was on the way. The other wagons were ready, and Joe fell in behind them. Jake Fox was leading the way and Joe was just as happy to let him. He parked his wagon and went along the line, surreptitiously checking the traces and hitchings. A few people noticed, but no one took offence. They would be the first to admit that they weren’t very experienced at this kind of thing.

The cavalcade moved out at dawn. One of the cafés had opened early and provided coffee and hot food for the people who were leaving, and Joe had taken advantage of the coffee. He was quite chilled by his journey from the ranch. He felt a good deal warmer by the time they left.

Traveling by wagon was a tedious business. The wagons could only move at the pace of the slowest, and because they were going into the mountains, the journey was mostly uphill. Some of the heavier wagons, Joe’s included, had to stop frequently to rest, which slowed them down further. At noon, they had a cold bite to eat and a short break before pushing on.

Standing beside his wagon, Joe looked up as Jake Fox walked over. “You seen the mountains?” Jake asked, in a low voice.

“Yeah,” Joe replied, equally quietly. He resisted looking in that direction. “Or should I say, I haven’t seen the mountains?”

“Think that’s snow up there?” Jake went on, looking anywhere but the direction they were soon to be going.

“I’ll be surprised if it isn’t,” Joe answered. “This rain is pretty sleety down here, and we’ve got quite a bit to climb before we get to the pass to Watson’s Crossing.”

“D’ya think I should say anythin’?” Jake asked.

“No point worrying anyone,” Joe replied. “We can’t afford the time it would need to go round by the road. By the time we get that high, the weather might have changed. We won’t reach the passes tonight, that’s for sure.”

“Guess you’re right,” Jake agreed. He straightened. “Let’s get movin’!” he shouted. “Time’s a-wastin’!”

*****

They made camp that first night at the upper edge of the tree line. The passes were a few hours ahead, but it was too dark to risk going further. The trees gave them some shelter, and as camp was set up, Joe went along, making sure everyone had tended their horses and that all the animals had had some grain. The sleet had stopped about mid-afternoon, but Joe, looking at the mountains in the growing gloom, thought that it wouldn’t be long before it started again.

They were all too tired to talk. Hot food was handed out, and if the cooking was basic, that didn’t matter to any of the men. They were just glad it was hot. As the food was tidied away after eating, and the few tin plates were washed, Joe walked over to Jake. “I’ll take first watch,” he offered.

“You reckon we need a watch?” Jake asked.

“Better safe than sorry,” Joe replied. “I doubt if any self-respecting Indian would be out on a night like this, but we’ve got plenty of stuff they could use, and I’d hate to lose any of it, never mind any person. Set up a rota, and get the others to watch in pairs; that way they can keep each other awake.”

“I’ll watch with you,” Jake offered, but Joe shook his head.

“You take last watch, Jake,” Joe suggested. “That way both of us are quite fresh. We’ve both stood watch alone before, and can keep awake.”

“All right,” agreed Jake. He glanced up at the sky as the first drops of rain began to fall again. “Don’t look like there’ll be a lot of sleep for any of us,” he commented.

Shrugging resignedly, Joe went over with Jake to organize a watch rota. He agreed with Jake; it didn’t look like any of them would get much sleep.

*****

Next morning saw all the wagon drivers grainy eyed and tired. Jake had been right; none of them had had much sleep, as the rain fell non-stop. Gazing gloomily into his coffee, Joe watched a flake of snow dissolve in the hot liquid. He hoped that wasn’t a harbinger of worse weather to come. “Stop borrowing trouble,” he scolded himself silently. “The trip is going as well as can be expected so far. Why should anything change?” But he knew why; the most difficult part of the journey was in front of them.

All too soon, the horses were hitched up and the men climbed reluctantly onto the wagon seats again. Jake, seeing everyone was ready, gave the signal and they all moved out. Shaking up his team, Joe thought that with any luck, they would reach Watson’s Crossing by nightfall.

*****

By mid-morning, the string of wagons had arrived at the first of the passes. This one was easy to negotiate, and the drivers went through without pausing, and some barely noticed. The second pass was a little narrower, but again, caused no problems.

The leather he was gripping in his frozen hands was wet and slippery and Joe was feeling miserable. The snow had so far kept off, but the sleet seemed at that moment to be the worst option of the two. The ground was so wet, that if snow did begin to fall, at least it wouldn’t lie immediately.

Up ahead, the wagons in front came to a stop. Carefully, Joe drew his team to a halt and the horses stopped willingly, stretching their heads down. A rider emerged from the mass of bodies and approached his wagon.  “Any advice about what’s ahead, Cartwright?” Jake asked.

“This pass is tough on the horses. It might be a good idea to lead the teams through. There’s less chance of runaways if that happens,” Joe replied.

“Can we ask you to lead the teams?” Jake asked. “You’ve got the most experience of any of the folks on this trip.”

The thought of slogging through the mud with half a dozen teams made Joe want to groan, but he had volunteered to go along on this trip and he didn’t want to be responsible for anything going wrong now. “All right,” he agreed. “Someone stay with my team, and I’ll get the others through the pass.”

Jumping down from the wagon seat, Joe reluctantly relinquished his rain slicker. The wind was getting up and he knew that it blew through the narrow pass like a gale. He didn’t want to spook any horses with the flapping slicker.

Walking forward, Joe cautioned each teamster not to shout at his team, or anyone else, while they were in the pass. Everyone seemed to understand. Joe just hoped that everyone would remember when push came to shove.

Coming to the lead wagon, Joe fondled the horses’ noses for a moment, before taking the reins and leading them slowly forward. The footing was horrific and the horses slipped and slid. Joe had no idea how he was going to get all the wagons through. But they had to. A whole town was relying on them, and they had to get through.

It took a lot of patience and some time, but Joe got the team through safely. Drawing a deep breath and wiping the sweat from his brow, Joe went back for the next wagon. He repeated this several times before every wagon but his own was through the pass.

Of all the teams Joe expected to have trouble with, his own was not the one that crossed his mind. Grasping the bridle in his frozen hand, Joe urged his team on. The off-side horse baulked, and Joe forced himself to relax. His muscles were tense from the uncertain footing, and things were just getting worse. Joe was caked in mud up to his knees and he was soaked to the skin.

Reassured, the off-side horse took a step forward and its foot slid out from underneath it and struck Joe. Joe was knocked over and his last conscious thought was ‘I’m dead!’

*****

As he opened his eyes, Joe realized that he couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a few moments. Jake was leaning over him, worry in his dark eyes. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine, help me up,” Joe replied. He stifled a groan as he extended his arm. Pain shot along his ribs and Joe recognized the signs. His ribs were badly bruised. He raised his other hand to his head and felt the bump there. He had been unlucky, for his horse had knocked him onto the only hard rock in that whole sea of mud.

The other men had realized that something was going on and were starting back towards Joe. He waved his hand, indicating he was all right. “Let’s move on,” he told Jake.

Nodding, Jake remounted his horse and went to the front of the wagon train. Joe checked out his horse, amazed to find the animal uninjured. Bending over made his head spin and he was soaked through. Climbing onto the wagon seat, Joe donned his slicker once more, reflecting that he could hardly get any wetter. He was also thankful that his father wasn’t there, for if he had been, Joe would not have been allowed to just climb back on the wagon as though nothing had happened. Ben was too adept at seeing through Joe’s claims to being ‘fine’. If Ben had been there, he would have instantly seen that Joe was anything but fine. The simple fall had left Joe in a great deal more pain than he thought he ought to be, but he tried to put it out of his mind. He was miles from home and a township was relying on the help he was bringing to them. His own comforts would have to come later.

Much later.

*****

The arrival of the wagons in the charred remains of Watson’s Crossing was greeted with joy and gratitude by the people there. They had begun to salvage what they could from the fire, and a few make-shift shelters had sprung up. It was too dark to unload much from the wagons that night, but they handed out the food and blankets they had brought and then set up their camp.

While Joe tended to his horses, Jake set up the tent Joe had brought along. “You sure you’re all right, Cartwright?” Jake asked, as Joe walked wearily over to the shelter. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine,” Joe assured him. “I’m just wet, cold and tired, same as everyone else.” He looked at his friend more closely. “You don’t look so hot yourself, Jake. You okay?”

“Like you said, cold, wet and tired,” Jake replied. “I set your tent up for you. The lady over there at the big fire says there’s gonna be food ready soon.”

“Great,” Joe responded, brightening. He could use a hot meal, he thought. “I’ll just get changed, first,” he added, looking at the lamentable state of his clothing. The mud had dried here and there to an uncomfortable hardness, but most of Joe’s clothes were still wet. Grabbing his saddlebags, Joe ducked into the tent.

Joining the rest of the men by the cook fire once he was changed, Joe looked round at them. They all looked tired out, but no one had been injured on their trek across the mountains. No one but him, that was. Joe’s ribs and head were still aching and he counted himself lucky that he didn’t have a concussion. Joe glanced over his shoulder, but it was too dark to see them. He suspected that the mountains were well coated with white by this time.

“Joe!” He glanced round and a genuine smile lit his tired face as he saw Maria hurrying towards him. He swallowed a wince as she hugged him vigorously. “It’s so good to see you! How was the trip? You look exhausted.”

“I’ll be fine once I’ve had something to eat,” he assured her, hoping that Maria wouldn’t see beneath the lie.

“You eat,” Maria told him. “We’ll talk tomorrow.” With a last pat on his arm and a smile, Maria hurried off.

The meal was basic, but tasty. Joe ate slowly, relishing the warmth. He was hungry. Coffee was served after the meal and the men stood around, talking quietly as they drank it. Joe soon drifted off to his tent to sleep. He was still shivery and cold, even after the meal and hot drink. Sliding into his bedroll, Joe pulled his rain slicker over the top of the blankets to add extra warmth. It hurt to breathe when he lay down, and when he began to cough a while later, it hurt even more.

But eventually, Joe was warm enough to fall asleep, although he woke frequently as he coughed painfully through the night.

*****

The hard work began the next morning. The men broke their fast in the frosty air round the big cook fire before starting to unload the wagons. Food stuffs were handed over to the women. Lumber went in one pile and assorted supplies in another.

As he worked, Joe found himself having to stop often to catch his breath after a coughing fit. Jake came over. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’ve got a chill,” Joe sniffed in reply. “Must have been that mud bath I had yesterday. I’m all right.”

“Good,” Jake smiled, and went back to his job. Joe wiped his nose on the back of his glove and carried on moving lumber. His ribs screamed with the effort, but Joe refused to admit he had a problem. Nobody apart from Jake asked him if he was all right, and that suited Joe perfectly.

By the middle of the afternoon, he and the other men were engaged in building the second ‘shanty’ type house. A family with two young babies had been given the first house, and although it was tiny, it was dry and would soon be warm. Two men were nailing tar paper to the outside.

The second house was finished, but for the tar paper, by dusk. It had been dry all day, but now the rain came on, just as cold, wet and sleety as it had been the previous couple of days. Once again, a communal meal had been cooked and after it, everyone went straight to bed. They had worked non-stop from daybreak and were tired.

As they ate supper, Joe at last had a chance to talk to Maria. “You and Jack weren’t hurt in the fire, were you?” Joe asked, concern evident in his eyes.

“No,” Maria assured him. “We got out in plenty of time, and I even managed to save a few things. But it’s been hard, Joe. That’s why we’re so grateful to you all for what you’re doing for us.”

“All this help has given us a real, boost, Joe,” Jack, Maria’s husband added. “We can face the winter now that we have somewhere to stay.” He glanced at Maria, who nodded. “We’re expecting our first baby in the spring!”

“That’s great!” Joe cried, and to his horror, set off a bad coughing fit. Jack helpfully pounded Joe on the back, which made his sore ribs hurt more than ever.

“Jack, stop it!” Maria ordered, leaning forward and peering into Joe’s face. “Joe, are you all right? You look ghastly.”

“It’s just this cough,” Joe replied, in a strained voice. “My muscles are sore from it.”

Troubled, Maria said, “Joe…”

“Drop it, please,” Joe begged. “I’ll be all right.” He met Maria’s eyes and she subsided. She knew Joe well enough to realize that he was anything but all right, but she could also see that they didn’t really have the means to care for an injured man. Joe was an adult and knew what he was doing. If he said he was fine, she wouldn’t argue.

As she headed off to sleep that night, Maria made a mental note to keep an eye on Joe the next day.

Lying in his tent after bidding Maria and Jack goodnight, Joe found it difficult to get to sleep. His whole chest ached and his cough had grown worse. He couldn’t tell if he was running a temperature or not, but suspected that he might be. “I’m fine,” he told himself. “I’m just used to Pa fussin’ over me, that’s all. There’s work to be done here, and no one has time to deal with somebody who’s sick.”

Exhaustion closed Joe’s eyes that night but his sleep was shallow. When Jake came in and woke him at dawn, he was just as tired as he had been the night before.

*****

Over the next three days, the work continued. Watson’s Crossing hadn’t been a big township, and so they were able to rebuild quite quickly. Although it would take some time for the people to get the township back to where it had been before the fire, most of them had had very few possessions to lose. They were also all pioneers and so were determined to succeed. Most of them could not afford to return to the East, where they had come from.

Maria did her best to see that Joe rested, but she was busy helping the women move their pitifully few belongings into the newly built houses and couldn’t be down with the men all the time. Joe shrugged off her attempts to make him sit down, and when she pressed him at one point, Joe snapped, “I’m all right!”

Seeing the girl’s wide eyes, Joe dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry,” he added in a lower voice. “But don’t you see, Maria? I don’t have time to be sick. I’m fine, really. It’s just this cough. We’ll be going home soon and I’ll rest then.” He tried a smile. “This is your house we’re building here. You don’t really want me to stop, do you?”

“You really are the most infuriating man I’ve ever met!” Maria declared and Joe smiled again, and kissed her cheek.

“I dare say, but at least I’ve got you a roof over your head,” Joe coaxed. “Maria, I’ll be fine.”

“The last house is standing!” came the cry and a cheer went up. The last house was indeed standing and the men hurried to fix the tar paper.

“We can head for home tomorrow,” Jake shouted at Joe, over the noise.

“Good!” Joe replied and coughed.

For a moment, Jake eyed Joe worriedly, for the other man looked dreadful. His face was pale and there were dark circles under his eyes. Joe was grimy and unshaven and his clothes were so filthy they could probably stand up themselves. But then… Jake glanced down at himself. He was in no better condition. Joe surely had a bad cold, but everyone was as tired and dirty as he was. No, Joe was all right, Jake was sure.

“Joe, which way should we go back?” Jake asked, pulling Joe away from the noise a bit.

Stifling a wince, Joe shrugged. “By the road, I’d say,” he replied. “The weather isn’t as bad as it was when we came across, but it could still change without warning when we’re up there. We aren’t in such a rush to get home, so let’s go by the road.”

“Guess you’re right,” Jake allowed. “I’ll ask the others.”

“No, Jake,” Joe protested, but he was too late. Jake had already moved off and was talking to the first of the men. Joe sighed, then winced again, before breaking into another bout of coughing. The men were all tired and wanted to get home to their families again. Joe felt the same way, but he was experienced enough to know that when winter showed signs of settling in this early, they should play it safe with the return journey. But if everyone else wanted to go back the way they had come, he would have to go with them, to make sure nothing untoward happened.

Sitting down heavily on a log seat, Joe watched as Jake worked the crowd and knew that he would be outnumbered. The others had all, to a man, pointed to the mountains. Closing his eyes briefly, Joe wondered if he was up to another trip over the passes. He hadn’t had a single minute without pain since his fall and was physically exhausted. He had done his share and more of rebuilding Watson’s Crossing.

Jake bounced across to Joe’s side and slapped him on the back. Joe bit his lip to stop the cry that rose to his lips. Not noticing, Jake grinned. “The mountains it is, buddy!” he caroled. “Everyone’s a mite keen to get home quick.”

“All right,” Joe responded, almost inaudibly.  He rose and went over to his tent to try and sleep before starting the trek home.

*****

The Virginia City cavalcade left Watson’s Crossing shortly after sunrise. Joe had wanted to send a wire to let everyone know they were on the way, just in case they ran into trouble, but the nearest telegraph office was almost a day’s ride away, and he was out voted. Everyone just wanted to get home to their families and warm, dry beds.

Joe was able to snatch a few minutes with Maria before they left. She was deeply concerned by the fact that Joe looked so pale, but he told her he was just tired from his cough, which seemed to Maria to shake him to his very foundations. Small wonder he was tired! she thought.

Looping her arm around Jack’s waist, Maria and the rest of the townspeople stood watching the men from Virginia City leaving. “What’s wrong?” Jack asked, as they turned away. “Are you worried about Joe?”

“Yes,” Maria replied. “Very. I think there’s more wrong with him than just that cough.”

“I don’t know,” Jack answered. “He did more work than everyone else. He helped with every house, you know, and didn’t hold back from doing the heavy lifting. Would he have done that if he was hurt?”

“Yes, he probably would,” Maria told him. “I’ve known Joe all his life. He’s the most stubborn cuss ever. None of his family is good at admitting weakness. Jack, are you going to be going for supplies soon?”

“I could,” Jack replied. “Why?”

“Because when you do, will you wire Virginia City and ask how Joe is?”

Seeing how worried his wife was, Jack felt a sudden pang of unease at letting Joe go off. “Of course I will,” he agreed.

*****

The journey up into the mountains went much more quickly than coming down, since the wagons were now empty and lighter. Joe had to remind them that the horses still needed to rest regularly, even if they were going further between rests.

They had their noon break just before the first, and worst, of the passes. Joe looked at it long and hard, remembering the fall he had taken. The few days in between hadn’t allowed his body any chance to rest and heal and Joe wondered how on earth he was going to manage to take each team through the pass. Nobody had directly asked him to repeat this chore; they had all just taken it for granted. Still unwilling to admit that there was anything wrong with him, Joe had simply agreed.

His appetite having deteriorated as his cold progressed, Joe was first finished his lunch and began leading the first of the wagons through. He took his own team first and led them well clear of the pass before tethering them and going back for the next.

He got the next two wagons through safely. Disaster struck with the third one. As Joe was gently leading the horses through the narrow gap, one of the men, Ed Flannigan, whose team was already through, turned and shouted, “Billy! I’ve left my canteen!”

The shout echoed from the rocks round about and there was an ominous noise from above. One of the horses snorted explosively and that echoed back at them like a gunshot.

The horse reared, dragging Joe off the ground. He clung to the bridle desperately, knowing that if he let go while off the ground, he would fall under the trampling hooves. The other horse in the team was thrashing around in its traces and from the corner of his eye, Joe saw Ed running towards him. The horse reared even higher and one of its flailing hooves brushed the side of Joe’s body, knocking him away. Joe fell heavily to the ground and rolled over and over down the side of the mountain until he crashed into a tree a short way down the slope. The horse dropped to the ground, thoroughly terrified, and bolted. Its harness-mate had no choice but to go with it, but with the team being off balance, the wagon swung out wildly, crushing Ed on the way past, before it dragged the team helplessly over the edge of the mountain and they fell, screaming, to their deaths.

Pandemonium broke out. Several of the men jumped down from their wagons and ran towards the scene of the disaster. The horses, all spooked by the terror of their herd-mates, milled about anxiously. None of the men were experienced enough to try and calm the horses and within a short time, the remaining wagons on the Watson’s Crossing side of the pass were reduced to little more than matchwood.

*****

From a long way away, Joe could hear someone calling his name. The voice seemed familiar, but Joe couldn’t immediately place it. He tried to ignore the voice and sink into the pain-free darkness where he had been, but he couldn’t manage it. Reluctantly, Joe opened his eyes and a face swam into focus. “Jake?” he whispered.

“Are you all right, Joe?” Jake asked, anxiously. He had pulled Joe up the side of the mountain with some help from the other men, but he was at a loss to know what to do now.

“My head hurts some, but I’m all right,” Joe assured him. He closed his eyes for a moment, to try and overcome the pain that screamed down his left side. He could hear relieved voices from all around and forced his eyes open again. “Help me up,” he ordered, extending his right arm.  Jake pulled him up, looking at Joe anxiously all the time.

After a pause to catch his breath and allow his head to stop swirling, Joe looked round. “What happened?” he asked, appalled at the scene of devastation.

With a few short words, Jake told the whole sorry tale. Joe looked at the splintered remains of the wagons and then briefly at Ed’s body. He wanted nothing more than to sit down and rest, miraculously finding himself at home, but looking at the faces around him, Joe knew that he was still in charge.

“Bury Ed,” he ordered. “Get those horses together. The men without wagons can ride them. Once Ed is buried, we’ll go a bit further and make camp.” He turned slowly and walked away, leaving the others with the chore of burying their friend.

Sitting down on the back of his wagon, Joe gingerly felt down the left side of his body. The pain that was coming from his arm almost made him sick and he feared that it was broken. As well as that, feeling surreptitiously under his coat, Joe guessed that he had broken ribs on that side and there was blood oozing from a cut by his armpit. The muscles of his stomach were sore, too, but Joe didn’t know he’d fallen over the edge, as he’d been unconscious at the time. He just knew that he was in bad shape and there wasn’t anyone with him who could care for him, or any of the others, for that matter. Jake knew the way home, but he was young and inexperienced. They were all relying on Joe.

Taking a deep breath, Joe vowed that he would get this wagon train from hell safely home.

*****

When the shocked survivors made camp later that day, Joe was exhausted from the pain. He delegated chores, so that every man was busy and went and sat down against a tree, where he could see all that was going on, yet rest at the same time. Jake seemed to have realized that Joe wasn’t quite himself, but it still hadn’t occurred to him that Joe was badly injured.

It was a long, cold, night. The sleet returned with darkness and by about midnight, snow was falling in earnest and lying. Joe had been unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, and he was deeply concerned by the snow. The temperature was dropping fast and he urged the man on watch to add more fuel to the fire.

Joe estimated it to be about 3am when he decided that they couldn’t risk staying there any longer. He roused everyone, which wasn’t difficult to do and they quickly hitched the wagons and climbed aboard.

The few lanterns they had wouldn’t help with visibility and would just ruin their night vision, so Joe didn’t bother lighting them. Jake led the way, with the two remaining wagons between him and Joe. It was slow going, but better than freezing to death, Joe thought. By the time dawn came, they had traveled about 8 miles, Joe guessed. He was more than willing for them to stop and make some breakfast.

“Think we’ll make it home today?” Jake asked, quietly as he handed Joe some coffee.

“We should do,” Joe responded. He coughed heavily. “I’m tired of being cold and wet.”

He meant it as a joke, but there was precious little for them to laugh at. Joe was glad he’d roused them early, for the snow was almost as thick at the lower altitudes as it had been at the higher ones. If he had waited those few hours till dawn, they would almost certainly have died on the mountain. “Jake, next time you arrange this kind of shindig, don’t invite me, huh?” Joe suggested.

“I’ll remember,” Jake assured him. “But Joe, what if you volunteer?”

“Shoot me!” Joe told him and they both smiled sadly.

“You’re hurt, ain’t you?” Jake asked.

“I’m all right,” Joe lied. “Let’s just work on getting everyone home.” As Jake went back over to the fire, Joe reflected that Jake had grown up in the last 24 hours. They had all grown up in the last 24 hours.

*****

The journey went on. Joe was now feeling light-headed and the throbbing pain from his arm was constant. He could only hold the reins in his right hand, and it felt frozen. The snow was wetter again, and pelted them like pellets. The air was so cold that it sometimes felt like they were breathing in pure ice. It scalded their lungs and set everyone to coughing, not just Joe.

At noon, no one suggested stopping. They kept going, heads down into the snow, which was blowing into their faces. Jake checked regularly that they hadn’t strayed from the track. Thanks to his vigilance, they didn’t.

Joe was past caring what time it was when the wagons in front came to a halt. He looked up as Jake appeared at his side. The other man was caked in snow all down his front, as was Joe. “Joe, this is the turn off for the Ponderosa. Are you going that way or coming back to town with us?”

“I’m going this way,” Joe replied, hoarsely. “It’s quicker. I’ll probably be home long before you guys. Can you manage from here?”

“We know the way,” Jake nodded. As the other man began to turn his team, Jake added, “Joe? Thanks – for everything. We wouldn’t have survived without you.”

Unsure what to say, Joe just nodded and continued turning his team. Luckily for him, the team knew where they were and were eager to turn away from their fellows. He glanced over his shoulder and dimly though the pouring snow he saw the others move on.

Alone at last, Joe no longer had to keep up a strong front. He slumped down in the seat and a low moan escaped his lips. Joe didn’t think he could go another step along the way home, but the horses were moving more swiftly now and Joe, one-handed, simply didn’t have the strength to stop them.

By the time they arrived in the yard, Joe was barely conscious.

*****

“Did I hear a wagon?” Ben asked, looking up from his book.

“I think so,” Adam replied, putting his book down. “It must be Joe, but he’s days earlier than I expected.”

“We’d better give him a hand, he’ll be tired,” Ben suggested and together they went to the door.

Looking at the wagon, they were stunned to see Joe slumping in the seat. As they hurried towards him, Hoss came out of the barn and arrived at his brother’s side first. “Joe!” he exclaimed and Joe slowly raised his head.

“Hi, Hoss,” he slurred.

“Get him inside,” Ben ordered, seeing that Joe was soaking wet. He reached up to take Joe’s arm, but Joe jerked back out of his father’s grasp and a cry of pain escaped him. “Sorry,” Ben cried, not sure how he had hurt Joe, only knowing that he had. “Carefully!”

Somehow, Adam and Hoss maneuvered Joe from the wagon seat and began to help him across the yard.  Joe could hardly support his own weight, but he valiantly did all he could to walk. Ben rousted a couple of hands from the bunkhouse to see to the team and to ride to town for the doctor.

In the house, he found Hoss carrying Joe upstairs, while Adam dropped Joe’s wet slicker and hat on the floor by the credenza. “I’ll get some hot water,” he told Ben and vanished into the kitchen. Ben hurried across the room and followed Hoss upstairs.

“He’s real cold, Pa,” Hoss told Ben, as his father came into Joe’s room. “His clothes are soaked.”

Joe appeared to have sunk into a kind of unconsciousness. Ben took the chance to strip his son’s wet, filthy clothes off. As his gaze fell on Joe’s chest, he drew in a sharp breath. Hoss had been rummaging for a nightshirt for Joe, but he turned quickly and he too gasped. “What happened to him, Pa?” he cried.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied, troubled. Joe’s stomach was black and blue with bruising. There was a rusty blood stain down the left side of his chest, but the cut wasn’t bleeding any longer. It was quite long and deep, but the edges were very clean. Ben could now see that Joe’s left arm was broken just below the elbow. His son’s legs were covered in cuts and bruises, too, but they were much more minor than the injuries to Joe’s torso.

As Joe stirred back to consciousness, he began to cough and the change of atmosphere made the cough long, deep and painful. There was nothing Ben could do, except gently support Joe until the spasms died down, and then he offered him a drink from the glass Hoss held out.

Since Adam had arrived with some warm water, Ben took the chance to start bathing some of the mud from Joe’s face. The water helped Joe clear his mind and he looked a bit brighter for a few moments. “Hi, Pa,” he whispered. “It’s good to be home.”

“Can you tell us what happened, Joe?” Ben asked.

Nodding, Joe told his story in fits and starts, interrupted often by coughing fits. His voice was hoarse, but he described the journey to Watson’s Crossing, their time there and the hellish journey back in graphic detail. His family listened in silence, stunned by Joe’s bravery in helping the others. Ed’s death shocked them, for he had been a good man, and Adam briefly interrupted Joe’s story to ask why they hadn’t brought the body home for his wife to bury.

Looking at Adam, Joe replied, “It wasn’t something she’d have wanted to see.” Those calm words did nothing to hide the horror that lay behind them. Adam swallowed. He was glad he hadn’t been there to see that. He was sorry Joe had been there.

Taking another drink, Joe whispered out the rest of his story. His voice was almost gone, his head ached, and his body was sore all over. Joe just wanted to lie down and sleep.

“But what happened to you?” Ben asked, gently. “Joe, you haven’t told us how you ended up like this.” He gestured to the injuries on his son’s body.

“On the way over, I got knocked down by the team,” he explained. “I hurt my ribs, and banged my head.” He indicted his right side, where there was some bruising. “Coming back, Ed shouted, like I told you. The horse I was leading reared and pulled me off my feet. Its hoof struck me and I fell. I don’t remember anything else.”

“One last question,” Ben said, gently. “Joe, did you tell anyone you were hurt after the first fall?”

“No,” Joe responded. His eyelids were drooping now. “There was too much work to be done. Those folks in Watson’s Crossing needed our help. We didn’t have time for anyone to be sick.”

“What about Maria?” Ben persevered.

After a pause, Joe admitted, “I told her I was fine.”

“Oh, Joe,” Ben sighed.

Before any of them could say more, they heard hooves in the yard. Hoss went across to the window to look. “It’s the doc,” he reported, relief in his voice. He headed over to the door to go down and greet Paul Martin.

“Stay awake, Joe,” Ben chided. “Paul needs to see you and then you can sleep.”

“I’m so tired,” Joe whispered.

“When did you last sleep, buddy?” Adam asked. “Properly, I mean.”

Focusing on Adam with difficulty, Joe tried to think back. “The last night I was home, I guess,” he mumbled. “It was too cold to sleep that first night, and I was too sore to sleep much after that.”

“Eight nights,” Adam breathed, appalled.

At that moment, Hoss came in with Paul Martin, who hurried over to the bed. “Hello, Joe,” he greeted his patient cheerfully. “I was hearing in town what a hero you are.”

“Who told you that?” Joe asked, frowning.

“Jake Fox,” Paul replied, looking into Joe’s eyes. “He told me how you helped everyone down the mountain after Ed Flannigan died, and that was after you’d fallen over the edge yourself! Joe, you were quite right to insist that they bury Ed up there. That was no sight for his family to face.”

“I fell over the edge?” Joe asked, more interested in that than the praise he was getting. “I don’t remember that.”

“No, I wouldn’t have thought you’d want to,” Paul remarked. “Jake said you landed against a tree.” Paul moved the covers to look at Joe’s stomach. He gently felt all over, and Joe winced several times. “You’ve been lucky, Joe,” Paul told him. “There’s no internal bleeding. Mind you, if there had been, you’d have likely died by now, anyway.”

That raised a smile from Joe, even if his family did exchange appalled glances. Ben was thankful he hadn’t known that this was a possibility. He hadn’t realized how close he had come to losing his youngest son.

His examination finally complete, Paul sat back. “Joe, I’m going to give you something to make you sleep while I set your arm and bandage your ribs. You’ve got broken ribs on both sides. I would think, from what you’ve said, that you probably broke the right side ones that first time you fell. You were lucky that you didn’t do yourself any further damage while you were helping build all those houses.”

“We all built them,” Joe muttered. His head was thumping and he just wanted to close his eyes. He didn’t even blink as Paul gave him a painkilling injection and brought out the ether mask. For the first time in his life, Joe did not fight as the drug carried him off to sleep.

******

After his initial wakening from the anesthetic, Joe slept for almost 24 hours straight. The morphine injection that Paul had given him kept him comfortable and Ben found he was able to spoon the cough mixture Paul had left into Joe’s mouth while he was sleeping and he swallowed it easily.

While Joe slept, the others discussed what he had told them. “I don’t know why Joe didn’t tell them he was hurt!” Ben exclaimed. He looked distressed.

“Well, aside from the fact that he won’t admit it to us, never mind strangers, I think I can see why he wouldn’t,” Adam replied.

“Go on,” Ben urged, frowning.

“Well, think about it, Pa,” Adam replied. “Apart from Jake, Joe didn’t know those other men. They were all older than him, and all less experienced. It would have been hard enough for Joe to convince them to accept his suggestions, or even downright orders, without admitting that he was sick, too. Plus, they might just have panicked. Up in that pass with an injured man, who could blame them?”

“Yes, I suppose,” Ben agreed. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.” He rose to pace in front of the fire. Adam and Hoss exchanged sympathetic glances. “But why wouldn’t he tell Maria?”

“I don’t reckon that’s so strange, Pa,” Hoss answered. “After all, Maria had just lost her house an’ hadn’t nowhere to nurse a sick man. None o’ the folks in that place had anythin’ ta help him, I don’t reckon. Joe wouldn’ a wanted them worryin’ over him; they had enough ta worry about anyhow.”

Sitting down again, Ben reflected on his sons’ words. “Why didn’t I see that for myself?” he wondered aloud.

“You’re jist too worried about that scamp up there, I reckon,” Hoss told him. “Adam an’ me – we’re jist hard-hearted.”

At these words, so patently untrue, Ben and Adam let out a great guffaw of laughter. Hoss grinned, delighted that he had been able to lighten the atmosphere.

*****

Having slept himself out on his first day home, Joe was keen to get up and about, but Ben vetoed the plan. In truth, when Joe got up for a few minutes to sit in a chair while Ben tidied his bed, he was surprised at how weak he felt. The cough he’d developed was still bothering him, although it had settled slightly. But with the tight bandaging around his ribs, Joe sometimes felt as though he couldn’t get enough air in.

“I don’t understand why I feel like this,” Joe complained, as Ben helped him back to bed.

Finishing tucking the covers in, Ben straightened and looked at Joe, an amused smile quirking his lips. “You don’t?” he asked.

“I just said I don’t,” Joe responded, a trifle crankily.

Drawing his chair closer, Ben sat down. “Well, I’ll tell you, son,” he agreed. “You went 8 days without proper sleep. That’s just for starters. During those eight days, you did a lot of hard, physical labor, when you should have been resting. You had a bad cough during that time, and broken ribs. You fell down the side of a mountain, got cut by a horse’s hoof,” he touched Joe’s chest gently above the cut, “and saw a man die. Plus you did all this in wet, cold weather. Now, what is it you don’t understand again?”

“All right, I give in!” Joe capitulated. “When you put it like that, I guess I can see why I feel so bad.” Leaning his head back on the pillows, Joe asked, “Where are Adam and Hoss?”

“They went into town for supplies,” Ben replied. “They should be back soon. Why?”

“I just wondered,” Joe answered. “Pa, you aren’t mad at me, are you?”

“No, Joe, of course not,” Ben answered. “Of course, I would have preferred that you didn’t push yourself as hard, but I can see why you did it. No, Joe, I’m not mad at you. I’m proud of you, son; so proud I could burst! Jake wasn’t joking when he said you were a hero. Everything you did makes me proud of you.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied, moved. “I just didn’t want you to be mad with me.”

******

Later, Adam and Hoss came up to join Joe and Ben. Adam silently handed Ben a wire, which Ben read quickly once, then again more slowly. Joe began to look anxious. “What is it, Pa?” he asked.

“It’s from Maria and Jack,” Ben answered.

For a moment, Joe thought his heart had stopped beating. “Nothing’s happened to them, has it?” he enquired. “She hasn’t lost the baby?”

“No, she’s fine,” Ben replied, a trifle absently. He put the wire down and looked at Joe. He squirmed under the intensity of his father’s gaze, then realized that his brothers were staring at him too.

“What is it?” he demanded. “Why are you all looking at me like that?”

“Although Maria and Jack sent the wire, it’s from all the people at Watson’s Crossing,” Ben answered. “They want to honor you and the men who went to help them. They haven’t anything to give, and have asked the town council here to give you some sort of official honor as heroes.”

As Joe gaped blankly at Ben, Adam took up the tale. “I saw the Mayor in town and he had already read the wire. He asked me to pass on the news that you and the others are to be made special citizens of Virginia City and that a holiday is to be held every year to remind people of what you all did.”

“But, but…” Joe stammered, then fell silent again, not sure what to say.

Then Hoss took up the tale. “Its gonna be in tomorrra’s Territorial Enterprise, right plumb on the front page!”

“We only did what anyone would have done,” Joe protested, finding his voice at last.

“That’s not the best of it,” Adam added, and he could no longer hide his grin. “The others who went with you were told the news, and they insist that the holiday be called ‘Joe Cartwright Day’ in your honor.”

“Tell me you’re joking,” Joe pleaded, in a barely audible whisper. “Please!”

Adam shrugged, still grinning in that infuriating manner he sometimes had. Hoss, seeing the look on Joe’s face, and remembering that he really wasn’t well, gave Adam a sharp did in the ribs. “Tell him!” he insisted.

“No, they aren’t calling it that,” Adam admitted. “But you should’ve seen the look on your face, buddy!” He burst out laughing.

It took Joe a minute or so to see the funny side of things, as his sense of humor was just as unwell as its owner. However, he was soon giggling away, but gently, as laughing hurt.

“I sent a wire back, letting Maria and Jack know that you’re all right,” Adam concluded. “’Joe Cartwright Day’ – I can’t believe you fell for that!”

“Just wait!” Joe vowed.

*****

The next day, Adam collected the paper from town and the headline read:

Virginia City Heroes!

The story had been told by Jake Fox and the other men. The Cartwrights read it together and when they had finished, Adam, Ben and Hoss all looked at Joe. They were all solemn and tears shone in Joe’s eyes. For the other men had generously lauded Joe’s work and word had got out that he had been more badly injured than he had let on. Adam’s teasing from the day before had almost come true. Joe was a hero.

They were all silent for a time. Then Joe spoke.

“I’m not a hero,” he insisted. “We only did what anyone would do in a similar situation.”

“Say what ya like, Punkin’,” Hoss told him, as he reached over to give him a hug. “You’re a hero at us!”

***End***

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