Thank you once again for your kind reviews. My apologies to the guest reviewers that I can't reply to in person, but thank you anyway. I have been trying to find names for my characters and since I'm not American, I have no idea if I have missed the mark. Sorry if I have and no offense is intended. The first few chapters of this rolled out so easily and then this last one put up a fight. I hope it was worth the wait.
Running Wolf watched his brother beginning to stir from his sleep and he smiled as the boy stretched and yawned in the same way he did every day. Morning was not his time and he tried to pull the heavy pelt back over his eyes, shading them from the sunlight that had woken him in the first place. It was the second morning they had woken in Grey Feather's teepee as the strangers had all but taken over his mother's lodgings. He would return when needed to translate, but otherwise he chose to avoid the place as much as possible. He could not tell anyone that the fever that stalked the one they called Joe was too like the one that had taken many in his tribe, including his mother and father. His rambling words were just how they had sounded before they had walked into the next world. He was almost a man now and such things were not allowed to frighten him, but still, it was better if he was not there. He knew enough to know the fever could not carry over to others as had happened with his tribe, but it did not change the deep dread that rose up within him every time he allowed himself to think about it.
Little Eagle had often found that words were not necessary to communicate and she silently observed the white men who had gathered in her teepee. Their medicine man had already ridden away with the older one not long after the first pink streaks of dawn had appeared on the horizon. Her son had told her he was leaving to obtain more medicine and she had nodded in understanding. Their medicine man often went in search of the plants he needed when one of the tribe was ill. The older one with the grey hair had returned some time two nights before and sat quietly with the others. She understood how a tribe came together when one was in need and she was surprised to discover that the white men knew it too. She had spent so long fearing them and being angry at their savagery that it surprised her how similar they were in some ways. The one she had cared for as a son needed their strength and she almost wept as she observed them. If it were up to them, he would not walk the path into the next world, but she still feared he may. The fire burned deep within him and her son told her that his words still carried little meaning to those around him. She feared the markings on his face were the cause and she knew only too well that such a mark could kill. She had never seen inside, but the medicine man had told her once that sometimes blood flowed inside the skin where it should not. It made the mind sick and the body would follow after it. More blood marked ugly mottled patches underneath the skin of his chest and stomach and he fought her touch every time she tried to sooth him with cool river water.
Tears welled in her eyes as she looked at the men gathered around. Their bodies betrayed their hearts as each of them struggled to stay awake. The one they clung to so desperately had not awoken and she could hear his rasping breaths as he slept. The steaming scented water her sister brought in each time helped to ease the rasp, but he still could not draw a peaceful breath. The soft sounds of her singing carried throughout the teepee and she noted more than once that the white men smiled at her when she caught their eyes. Suddenly the tent flap peeled back and Grey Feather stepped inside, carrying baskets of food. The sounds of the camp waking up outside carried through and the shrill squeals of a small child drifted across from somewhere. Little Eagle would have smiled on any other day, but the sound seemed to disturb the young man beside her and she hurried over to close the flap. It was too late to block out the sounds and he shifted underneath the buckskin, as if trying to get up.
Hoss kept screaming at him, but there was no sign of the cat anywhere. He guessed it must have climbed back up the ridge and was hiding somewhere in the rocks above them and that's what Hoss was trying to warn him about. He twisted back to check over his shoulder and felt the cat's claws sink into his side. No matter how hard he tried, he could not shake the puma as it ripped his skin and sunk its claws in deeper still. He felt the breath in his lungs disappearing and he tried desperately to draw another breath. The cat seemed to have settled on top of him and he fought to shove it aside, but it would not budge.
"Joe! Easy now, easy!" Ben pressed both hands against his son's shoulders and prayed he wasn't hurting him. "Joe, please. Stop fighting me. Please!" He knew his pleas were going nowhere as Joe swung a wild fist at him. There was no strength in the swing and he easily deflected it. Out of the early morning darkness, he saw Adam grasp at the wayward hand and pin it down. He was almost at the point of desperation after Joe had reacted the same way several times and had even considered tying his son's hands down if it would stop him from hurting himself. None of his words were getting through and he felt entirely helpless as Joe battled against some unseen enemy.
The puma's weight on top of him crushed the breath out of his lungs and he tried to shout a warning to Hoss before it killed him.
"Hoss … run!" Once again, the words Joe muttered made no sense, but Ben tried to reassure him anyway.
"It's alright, Joe. Hoss is just fine. He's right here."
Joe only groaned in response and Ben watched as his middle son reached a tentative hand towards his younger brother.
"I'm right here, Joe. Not goin' nowhere, little brother."
The puma disappeared into a shadow in the rocks and he could hear Hoss calling back to him. His brother was still safe, at least for the moment. The pain where the cat had clawed him seemed to lessen as he turned to seek out Hoss's face. He wondered why his brother would hide from him, but then he guessed he was keeping out of sight of the cat.
"Keep a lookout. He's still there."
Hoss frowned at the words, but reached out a hand to pat Joe's shoulder. "It's alright, Joe. I'm watching."
He had no idea what he was watching for, but his words seemed to have the right effect and Joe stopped straining against him. Somehow the tension seemed to finally ease out of his body and Joe slipped back into a relatively calm place. His heart was still pounding wildly under his father's firm hands and Ben turned to look up at the faces around him.
"Why does he keep sayin' that? Tellin' me to run and to keep a lookout. What's he think is after me? Don't make no sense." Hoss stared at his father as if willing him to have a logical answer.
"His words have made no sense since he came here." Hoss shifted his focus to the young brave standing in the shadows and shook his head.
"Nothin' at all?"
"No. He was saying many things, but none of it made any sense to us. My mother said it was the marking on his face that caused it."
Ben agreed with the assessment, and noted with dismay that the ugly bruising had only turned darker since they'd first seen it. The swelling had gone down a little, but he still feared the woman's words about bleeding inside the injury. So little was known about how the head worked, but he knew that bleeding inside the head could and often did kill people.
"Paul already said that head injuries can be complicated. We just need to give it time for it to settle and the swelling to go down."
"Remember, Hoss when you were hit in the head and forgot who you were?" Adam shifted and slowly stood up. "It took a while, but it all came right in the end."
Hoss frowned as he considered his brother's comment. It had been many days and he had no idea who any of his family even were. He almost left them to follow two strangers. The idea that Joe could leave them terrified him and he unconsciously reached out a hand once again to grasp at his brother's arm.
"He ain't goin' nowhere!"
"Of course he isn't." Ben's words felt hollow to his own ears and he tried to reassure them all. He wasn't at all sure that Joe was coming back to them and he swallowed down the fear that clawed at his throat.
"Besides, Joe's got a hard head! Harder even than mine. " Ben felt a twitch of a smile as his eldest son tried to lighten the atmosphere by using Joe's favourite joke against himself.
The conversation slowly petered out as each of them wandered off into their own thoughts. It had been another long night, but none of them had really felt like sleeping. Paul had promised to return as soon as possible, but Ben had not been able to shake the irrational fear that his son still might not make it through. His breathing had not really eased and his wild ramblings only served to increase his distress.
"We need to rest. We aren't doing Joe any good if we are all exhausted." Ben glanced across at his two sons and half expected an argument in return. In an effort to forestall it, he pointed to the pile of pelts that Little Eagle had laid out the night before. "Why don't we have something to eat and then each take turns and catch up on some sleep? Joe isn't going anywhere and we need to stay strong if we are going to help him once he wakes up."
The argument was logical, but Adam hesitated to move. They had all slept in their beds while Joe had wandered alone in the dark and he could not bring himself to close his eyes just yet. Little Eagle moved so quietly that he was surprised to find her beside him before he knew it. He almost jumped when she handed him a warm barley loaf from inside the basket her sister had delivered.
"Thank you." He nodded at the woman and she smiled in return. He had noted the way she cared for his brother and he felt a wash of gratitude that she would care for a complete stranger and in doing so, save his life. Thank you seemed so very little for all she had given them. He looked up to see her son leaving the shelter and could not make out the words they spoke between them.
It was several hours later that the young man reappeared, followed by Paul Martin. The doctor smiled as he saw Joe's family laid out around the teepee, at least attempting to sleep. He noted Ben's unwillingness to leave his son and wondered at how sore his neck would be when he woke up. The unnatural angle he had squeezed his tall frame into meant that he had one arm wrapped across his son's legs and the other being used as a pillow. Joe had his face turned into his father's chest and if it were not for the ugly purple bruising down the side of his face, he would have looked peaceful.
Hoss had finally succumbed to exhaustion and lay curled on his side in the cramped space. Adam leaned up against a wooden post with his eyes shut, but the instant that he heard movement his eyes snapped open. Paul nodded as he knew Adam had not been sleeping, but was on self-appointed duty.
"Any change while I was gone?" Paul dropped to his knees and spoke quietly, hoping not to wake either Ben or Hoss.
"He seems less agitated. Not muttering as much as he was."
Paul reached out a hand and brushed it against Joe's chest. "He seems a little cooler. I think this fever has finally broken. And that swelling is definitely going down." He frowned as he leaned back on his haunches and Adam quickly moved forward.
"So what's wrong?"
Paul smiled to alleviate Adam's obvious concern as he nodded at the two men sleeping. "I'm wondering how I'm going to examine him without waking your father."
"Not asleep." Paul almost laughed as Ben blinked against the brightness of the open flap. "Do whatever you need to do." He made no attempt to move and his hands stayed wrapped around his son.
"Did you say the fever's broke?" Adam swung back to see Hoss pulling himself upright while rubbing at his lower back.
"He's definitely cooler than when I left here." As Paul began to probe the length of Joe's torso, he held his breath when he reached the most blackened and bruised area across his abdomen. If the area was still rigid, it didn't matter about the fever as the bleeding was going to take his patient anyway. Surgery techniques to deal with bleeding in the abdominal cavity were still very new and there were far too many blood vessels and organs that could bleed and cause death. He'd tried before to save patients and only managed to keep one alive. Even then he felt it was more by the grace of God than his own skills. As his fingers moved gently, he slowly let out a breath as the muscle gave way beneath his prodding. Joe bucked against the examination and Ben reached to try to hold him still.
The puma had appeared again out of the rocks and leaped down on top of him while he wasn't looking. Its claws sunk into his belly and he tried to shove it off. He couldn't see his brother anywhere. Hoss. Where was Hoss?
"Right here, Joe." Hoss scrambled across the floor and grasped at his brother's flailing hand. "I'm right here."
"He's back." Joe pushed feebly against his father's hands and tried to wriggle out from under his firm grip.
"Who's back, little brother?" Hoss was stunned to see Joe finally open his eyes and look wildly around the teepee, as if searching out a pursuer.
"Where is he?"
"Who, Joe? Who?" Ben reached to pull his son's face towards him and frowned at the wild-eyed fear in his son's eyes.
"Puma! It was chasing Hoss." Joe's breathing was growing more desperate as he struggled against his father's grip.
"No, Son. There's no puma here. Hoss is safe. He's right here. Look!"
As Hoss loomed into his line of sight, Joe's eyes filled with tears of relief. The words stuck in his throat and the pounding in his head once again overwhelmed him. Ben felt his son sag back against his arm and he gently lowered him back to the ground. "Easy now. Easy, Joe."
Hoss rubbed a hand across his face as he recalled tracking a puma weeks before. "We saw a puma up on the ridgeline above Johnson's Canyon and we tracked it for a bit, but we lost it in the rocks. Why'd he think a puma was chasin' me?"
"Fever does things to the mind, Hoss." Paul stared at the anxious faces around him. "At least now we know what he was rambling about."
"All this time he's been worryin' about me and I was never in no danger." Hoss felt a strange sense of guilt that he'd caused his brother such concern, but he could not shake the sense of anger that arose. He'd missed the shot that day and shouted a warning to Joe who was higher up the rocks. For a brief moment Joe thought the puma had got him. He'd said so later in a kind of joke, but Hoss knew it had rattled his younger brother, whether he'd admit it or not. His own carelessness with the shot had caused his brother no end of distress.
"Paul?" Ben looked to his friend for further answers.
"I'd say he's finally on his way back to us. The bleeding in his stomach has stopped and seems to be on the mend. He recognised you just now, so I think we can stop worrying about that blow to the head. Fever's going down and you've been getting water into him."
Ben felt his fingers curl of their own accord against his son's shoulder and he felt almost light-headed at the doctor's words. It had been too many days where they had not known the outcome. He'd seen the fear on his friend's face each time he'd examined Joe's stomach and he did not need to be told what was behind it. Gut shots were almost always fatal and any serious injury in that area was often a death-sentence. Paul had avoided saying it directly, but Ben knew his friend well enough to read between the lines and know what was not being said.
"What about his ribs? He's still not breathing right." Adam watched as Joe still drew in rasping breaths rather than breathing freely.
"I'm afraid that's going to take some time yet. Those ribs will be weeks before they heal and he's still got an infection going on there inside him. Whatever these ladies put in that water is doing him a world of good and I want to know what it is."
Running Wolf whispered the compliment to his mother and she smiled at the words, to know she had done something to help. Her heart leaped to see the young man finally open his eyes and acknowledge his family, while also knowing he would soon leave to return to his own home.
Darren Macklin sat on the edge of the verandah and swung his legs against the wooden step. It was chilly and he wrapped an arm around his younger brother's shoulder. Robbie had managed to keep his emotions in check while inside, but once his father had dismissed them and allowed them to escape outside, he could not contain it any more. Memories of the raging river waters kept rising up and he gulped as he recalled Joe leaping in after him and grasping at his shirt collar. He barely had time to react as Joe hauled him up onto the rock and then was suddenly swept away behind him. He'd screamed for his father when the big timber had rolled over Joe and he disappeared from sight. That memory had woken him night after night and he'd found himself screaming in his dreams. He could not forget or shake that day and yet somehow Joe's pa said he had no memory of it at all. That made no sense to him, but he'd been mighty happy to see Joe tucked up in his bed. When word came through that Joe had been found, his pa wanted to ride out and see him, but something was wrong. Robbie didn't quite know what, but Darren did. He said Joe was sick and nobody could go see him. Just like when their ma got sick, he'd said. Robbie barely remembered that time and he'd almost said so. Darren sure did and he didn't think it would help if he said he'd forgotten what their ma looked like. It didn't make any sense to him that Joe could have forgotten almost drowning in the river, but it also made no sense that he could have forgotten his ma.
By the time Harry walked out onto the porch to gather his sons, he was looking very serious. He limped as he headed for the buckboard and hoisted his youngest son aboard. His heart thumped in his chest as he considered his friend beside him. Ben Cartwright had almost lost his youngest son to save his son. He frowned as he recalled the frantic search along the edge of the river and the sickening fear that Joe was gone. His relief at holding his own son had been overshadowed at the possible cost.
"Thanks for dropping in, Harry." Ben clapped him on the arm as he climbed aboard the buckboard. "Joe appreciates it and I do too."
"Least we could do, Ben."
Adam leaned on the porch post and waved as the Macklins headed out of the yard. Young Robbie looked like he was going to bolt when he'd first seen Joe. It was still surreal to think that Joe had no memory of the events that had almost claimed his life and he wondered if the sight of Robbie would jolt something free. So far it hadn't.
As the two of them headed back upstairs, they could hear Hoss's voice, but not the words. Suddenly Joe's raised voice cut in and both of them found themselves hurrying to get to his room.
"What if it never comes back? What else is messed up in my head?" Joe was getting agitated and Hoss had shifted onto the bed to try to calm him.
"Nothing is messed up with your head, Joe. Paul said it could take some time for it all to come good. From what young Robbie said, that crossbeam caught you full on and you're lucky it didn't kill you outright!"
"I could hear screaming." Joe's voice trailed away as his memory strained to catch up. "Hoss, you were screaming at me." The words were barely a whisper and his brother reached out a hand to grasp his wrist.
"Doc says your head's got two things all mixed up. I wasn't there Joe. It was Robbie screaming for help.
The water was over his head and pulling him under. The puma leaped on top of him and sunk its claws deep into his flesh. As he tried to scream for help, his lungs filled with water and he found himself struggling to breathe.
"Joe! Look at me, Joe!" Ben shook his son by the shoulders and watched with relief as he seemed to refocus. His breathing was wild and Joe clutched at his ribs as if he could make the pain go away.
"I was in the water! Puma got me."
"No, Son. You were in the water and the rocks cut you up badly. There was no puma there."
Joe stared at his father as his mind scrambled to get some order. Images swirled wildly in front of him. "No puma?"
"No, Son, no puma. That was weeks ago." Joe sagged back against the pillow and blinked at him. He shook his head as if to clear it of something, before sliding back down again. "Now, I think you need some of this medicine Paul left you and you need some more rest."
When Joe didn't argue with him, he wasn't sure whether to be relieved or more concerned. When he was finally sure his son was asleep, he slipped from the room and crawled into his own bed. It was good to know he finally had his son back under his roof, but he wasn't entirely sure they had gotten him all back just yet.
For days after, Joe slept fitfully and dreamed of pumas and water and screaming voices that called to him out of the darkness. Paul offered sleeping draughts to help him rest, but Joe fought against them. He knew the answers were buried in his dreams and he needed only dig deeper to find them. If he drugged himself out of dreaming, the answers were blowing loose somewhere. By the time he finally felt well enough to descend the stairs and eat a meal at the table, the effort took such a toll on him that he could not climb back up the stairs. Instead he settled for reclining on the couch and watching as Hoss took on Adam in a game of checkers. He was too tired to take note of the progress of the game and found his eyes closing of their own accord. He briefly wondered if he would ever feel strong and whole again as he slipped into a fitful sleep.
The water swallowed him and somewhere up on the rocks he caught a glimpse of Robbie's face. His last thought was that at least the child was safe, but why didn't he stop screaming? Darkness closed in and he allowed it to take him wherever it chose since he had no energy to resist. A woman's voice called to him in the darkness and he turned towards it. He could not make out the words, but the sense of love behind them wrapped around him and drew him along. Suddenly he felt hands grasping at him and he tried to fight them off.
"Joe! Wake up, Joe." Adam knelt beside him on the floor and grasped at his hands. "It's alright."
It took a moment to register the fire in the hearth behind his brother and Joe blinked to try to clear his head.
"I saw Robbie up on the rocks. He was screaming at me, but I couldn't answer."
Adam nodded at him, relieved that something seemed to be coming back. "He said you went under the water after you hauled him up onto the rocks. You couldn't have answered him."
"It was black … so dark." The fear behind the words was almost palpable and Adam squeezed his arm to reassure him.
"I could hear her in the dark."
"She was singing."
Adam recalled how frequently Little Eagle had sung to Joe as she busied herself tending to his injuries and he nodded in agreement. He leaned forward as tears spilled down Joe's cheeks.
"I thought it was Ma," he whispered. "I couldn't understand the words, but I thought it was her." The raw pain in his voice was evident to them all. No matter how many years had passed, Joe still talked of his mother with deep affection.
"When I woke up, she was gone."
Adam found himself unable to answer, but he didn't loosen his grip on his brother. Ben was standing behind him and he felt his stomach lurch at his son's words.
He'd almost allowed himself to believe his son was gone. He'd wrestled with that enemy as he slept and struggled not to succumb to the fear.
"Son, those we love are never truly gone."
Adam shifted sideways to allow his father to crouch beside him.
"I thank God every day that he brought you back to us." He watched as Joe fought to keep his eyes open and he reached up to pull the blanket back across him. "Go back to sleep, Son. We'll all be right here when you wake up."
The song was buried deep in his memory and he struggled to recall the words. They were familiar, but he could not remember what they all meant. As the voice crooned a lullaby into his dreams, he could see her face smiling at him and the words didn't need any meaning. After all, he knew that the language of the heart needs no translation.