I do not own any of the Bonanza characters and I am not making any money off of this! A special thanks to No1 for helping me! Please read and review!
Ben Cartwright sat in a chair in the corner of the room. Wasn't there anything else he could do? His boys were so full of life that morning. A feeling of despair shot through his heart like a knife. Words, soft and tender flitted through his soul. "To despair is to turn your back on God." He looked at his three boys, all lying next to each other in separate beds. It was in God's hands. There was nothing left for him to do but pray.
Earlier that day ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"There ain't anymore strays in that section," Hoss called to his brothers, as he rode up. Sweat dripped down the side of his face, a testament to his hard work.
"Hoss, we've got trouble," Adam yelled.
Hoss leaned forward in the saddle and glanced around.
"There's a break in the fence, about half a mile up," Joe shouted.
"Rustlers?" Hoss asked. From the dark looks on his brother's faces he didn't even need to ask. "How many steers did they take?"
"Looks like about eighty, at least," Adam answered, anger etched into his words.
"Let's go see where they're headed," Joe said. "They couldn't have gotten too far."
"Wait a minute, Joe," Adam said. "We don't know how many there are."
"I didn't say that we should ambush them or anything, but it wouldn't hurt to see what direction they took." Joe shifted in his saddle so he could look at Adam.
Adam frowned. "Guess we could take a quick look."
Urging their horses forward they rode toward the break in the fence. They were able to follow the tracks down in by a sharp looking cliff. Rocks jutted precariously out of the side of the mountain. Joe prompted Cochise to go a little faster. Shivers played up and down his spine as he gazed at the jagged rock face.
It was twenty minutes later when Adam pulled Sport to a halt. "We should go back and get Pa and the sheriff now," he announced. Hoss nodded his head in agreement.
"Yeah, it's best to let the law take it from here," Hoss agreed.
"Let's turn back when we get to that ridge," Joe insisted, pushing Cochise forward. He didn't bother to wait for a response from Adam or Hoss.
"No Little Joe, lets.." Adam words were cut off by a deafening boom. The earth shook and the horses reared. Adam could feel dust falling in his hair. He vaguely wondered about it as he was thrown from Sport. Rolling over on his side, he groaned.
"Adam!" Hoss yelled. He had managed to keep his seat on Chubb, but leaped off when he saw the glint of metal in the hills across from the cliff. He hit the ground with a thud and raced towards his stunned brother.
Grabbing Adam's vest he hauled him up and started to drag him toward a boulder. His eyes scanned the area for Joe. He could see Joe dive behind a large rock directly across from Adam and Hoss. "Are ya hurt, Adam?" Hoss asked, as he whipped out his gun. Dust was still floating in the air, and Hoss could see that it was from a large chunk of rock that had fallen off the side of the cliff. It wasn't accidental either, he noted.
Adam rubbed his shoulder. He had landed on it when he fell. "I'll be fine. Where's Little Joe?"
"He made it behind them rocks over there," Hoss said, peering around, hoping to spot someone.
"You see anyone, Joe?" Hoss shouted.
"No," Joe yelled back. He had seen the glint in the hill too, but that was all. That's when he saw something red flash through the air. His heart sank, and his mouth went as dry as sawdust when he realized what it was. He tried to shout a warning to his brothers, but the words clung to his throat like cotton, and all that came out was a strangled gasp. His eyes told him what had been thrown was a stick of dynamite, but his brain didn't want to believe it. Even when the inevitable boom came and he watched in horror as the rocks crashed down, he couldn't believe it was happening.
With a yell of fury that shook his whole body, Joe leaped out from behind the rock and made a dash for what was now a pile of rubble. Somewhere underneath it all, was his brothers. Bullets streamed down. He managed to see one of the men who was shooting at him. With a quick movement of his wrist, his gun was out and he fired back. The earth shook again as the hill the man was standing on seemed to melt away. Joe realized he must have hit a stash of dynamite that the rustlers were carrying. They had probably been miners that became disillusioned after finding no gold, and decided to try their hand at cattle rustling.
He ran for the pile of rumble he had seen his brother's disappear under, and began digging frantically. Dust flew around the air, until the whole world around him felt like it was one big dust bowl. Much to his relief, he didn't have to dig far to find Adam. Much of Adam's lower body was covered, but he had managed to protect his head from getting the worst of it, by ducking under a small cleft in-between the ground and the boulder that Hoss and him had been hiding behind. Joe groaned when he saw Adam's leg twisted in a strange way. Adam's eyes flickered open, and in a raspy voice he asked, "Where's Hoss?"
"I'm looking for him now, Adam," Joe answered, immediately setting to work. His stomach lurched, as he thought about what he might find. Trying to push those thoughts out of his head, and think only about his brother's survival, he continued digging with renewed energy. His fingers hurt, and his back strained as he continued throwing rock after rock. Tears sprung to his eyes as he felt the cold fingers of dread gripping at his heart. His heart skipped a beat when finally spotted Hoss' arm. In less then a minute Joe has uncovered his head.
"Joe, look out!" Adam shouted, with as much strength as he could muster.
Joe had been so engrossed in trying to find Hoss, that he hadn't heard anything until Adam yelled. His head snapped up, and a dark shape filled his vision. The rock hurtled down and with a thud smashed into his forehead. The world turned fuzzy, as he fell back clutching his face. He felt something warm underneath his fingers, and then everything melted away into nothingness.
"Joe!" Adam cried out. He had seen the rock coming, but was too late in warning his brother. He watched as he brother crumpled over in the pile of broken clay. With a mighty heave he tried to drag himself over to his unconscious brother. As soon as he started to move pain shot up into his mangled leg, and he cried out. Gritting his teeth against the agony, he pushed out with his good leg. It felt like the broken one was being pulled out of the socket. He clenched his hands into fists, and tears of pain, and worry for his brothers, rolled down his dusty cheeks.
"Joe! Can you hear me?" Adam shouted. "Joe, you need to wake up!" Adam was able to drag himself painfully over to where his brother lay. He tried not to shudder as he saw the gash on Joe's scalp. Blood trickled out of the cut, and into his hair. Adam glanced over at Hoss. The big man hadn't moved since the whole thing had occurred. Adam looked up into the clear blue sky. How he wished this was all a dream. He shook his head. "Pull yourself together!" He told himself sharply. Here he was stuck between two hurt brothers. He didn't even know how bad they were hurt. He needed to do something, but his leg was throbbing so badly now, that any movement cause him start seeing black dots. He sighed in relief when he saw Joe lift his head.
"Adam?" Joe asked in a quavering voice.
"I'm here, Joe," Adam said.
"My head hurts," Joe groaned. His eyes flickered open, but he shut them again quickly. "How come there's no stars out tonight?"
"What?" Adam asked, startled. He stared into his brother's face. "What do you mean?"
Joe opened his eyes again. "It's dark, and there's no stars." His voice shook. "No moon either! Adam, what's going on!" He winced. Raising his voice caused the pain to jump around in his head. He sat up carefully.
"Joe, can you look at me?" Adam asked cautiously.
Joe opened his eyes slowly, and glanced around. "Adam, where are you?"
Adam saw a look of panic sweep over his brother's face. He reached out and grasped Joe's arm. "I'm right here."
"I can't see anything," Joe said. He raised his hands to his face, and tried to rub out any grit.
"It's probably just temporary," Adam said. He hoped the words were true.
"Adam, your leg…" Joe began.
"Yeah, it's broke, but don't worry about that right now." Adam glanced over to where he could see Hoss lying halfway out of the rubble. "We have to get Hoss out of there somehow." He laid his hand on Joe's shoulder. "I can't do it, Joe."
"Just tell me what direction to take," Joe said, in a determined voice. There was no way on earth that he was going to let his brother stay buried underneath those rocks, when he had the use of his legs. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and he paused for a second and waited for it to pass. When it did, he listened carefully to Adam's directions and finally his fingers brushed Hoss' face. His skin felt clammy. Joe swallowed a lump in his throat, and ran his hands along his brother's neck and checked for a pulse. With a quick thanks to the Lord, he said, "He's got a pulse, Adam." He could hear Adam let out a sigh of relief.
What felt like hours later, Joe had managed to uncover most of Hoss' body. The sweat dripped off of his body, and his head felt like someone had ran a stagecoach over it. At least in his current condition, that's what he imagined it felt like.
"Adam, how does he look?" Joe asked collapsing onto his knees. He rubbed his eyes, wishing fervently that he could see something. His fist clenched and he wanted to hit something. He felt so helpless. He could here a scraping noise coming from the direction of Adam. He jumped when Adam let out a yell of pain. "Adam! Are you okay?"
"Why does everyone ask that when the question is obviously useless!" Adam snapped. Upon seeing Joe's reaction to the words Adam felt sorry he'd let them slip out. Joe's shoulders slumped and he tried to run his fingers through his hair. He drew his fingers back with a yelp. Hair was matted to his head with blood, and touching it, at cause tremors of pain to shoot through his head.
"I'm sorry, Little Joe. For what I said, and that I can't get to Hoss."
Joe would have nodded, but any movement hurt now. "Don't be, Adam.
Do you think Pa heard the explosion?" He asked, hopefully.
"I don't know," Adam mumbled. Joe couldn't see his face, but he could hear that Adam's breathing was becoming labored. If he could see, he would have known that Adam's eyes had taken on a feverish look, and he was dripping with sweat.
Joe once again headed for Hoss. He was felt for his face, and patted him on the cheek. "C'mon, Hoss!" he pleaded. He sat down beside his unconscious brother, and buried his face in his hands. What were his options? Sit here with his brothers and wait, hoping that his Pa would come. Or he could start out for the ranch, and at least try to get help. He couldn't even begin to believe that he would make it without being able to see. His mind snapped back to the horses. In the middle of the explosions they must have taken off. Pa would come as soon as he saw the empty saddles. But would it be too late?
Joe did his best to make Adam and Hoss comfortable. In between dizzy spells, he pulled rocks away from Hoss. Twice Hoss moaned while Joe was tossing rocks away from Hoss' body. Each time, Joe stopped what he was doing and called out to him, but there was no response. Joe couldn't tell how many minutes had passed since the first explosion. It felt like hours, but he was sure that it couldn't have been that long. Adam hadn't spoken to him in what seemed like forever.
"Adam," Joe ventured. Hearing no response, he tried again. "Adam, are you awake?" He sighed when silence met his ears. Maybe Adam fell asleep, he thought. The sun baked down on his head and he wished that he hadn't lost his hat in all the commotion. What he wished most of all was that he hadn't put his brothers in danger. He felt around for a rock large enough to sit on. Finding one, he dropped down on it and waited.
He hadn't waited long when he heard rocks falling. They sounded like they were falling from the direction he had seen the rustler. He shot off the rock he was sitting on and flung himself to the ground. He listened as stones slid and scraped down the mountain side. Drawing his gun out of his holster, he wondered how many bullets he had left. The debate he had with himself about whether or not he should get Hoss' gun was cut short when he heard the unmistakable sound of boots crunching on the ground. His heart sank as he realized that there were more than one person.
"Do ya see what I see?" one of the men asked.
"Looks like they're dead, Mark," the man replied.
"Good" Mark growled. Joe tightened his finger around the trigger and tried to flatten himself into the ground more. Sweat dripped down his forehead and into his eyes, making them sting.
"Shoot em' just to make sure," Mark said, bitterly. There was the click of a hammer being pulled and Joe was up in an instant.
"Touch him and you're dead," Joe pointed his gun in the direction he had heard the click.
"Lookie here, Mark," the man called. "We got us a live one!"
"Step away from my brothers," Joe ordered.
"Ain't that strange?" Mark snickered. "What's the matter, sonny, don't ya know how to aim your gun at a man?"Joe pointed his gun a little higher. "Good job," Mark said, mockingly. "I'm sure the rock is very scared! What's the matter, boy? Can't you see?"
"Didn't your parents know the danger in giving a blind person a gun?" the other man chuckled. Joe wanted to lunge at the man.
"Just don't touch them," Joe hoped that the man was bluffing and that he was actually pointing the gun at one of them. There was a scraping sound from behind him, but, before he could do anything, Mark barreled into him. There was a whoosh as he landed on the ground and the air was knocked out of his lungs. The gun clattered from his grasp and he reached for it. A boot landed on his wrist.
"I wouldn't if I were you," the man said. The cold barrel of Mark's gun was pressed against his cheek. "Do you know what you did?" Mark asked, icily. He didn't give Joe time to answer. "You killed my brother! That explosion killed him." He grabbed the front of Joe's shirt and stood up, dragging Joe along with him. "All I found was his head and one of his hands!" Mark shouted, holding back an angry sob.
"You stole our cattle," Joe responded. "And you were shooting at us! What did you want me to do, give you a medal?"
"Ain't that just like a spoiled rich kid?" the other man said. "Begrudging a couple of measly head of cattle to some poor starving miners."
"If you had come to the house my Pa would have given you food," Joe said. He tried to pull away, but Mark's fingers were entwined with his shirt.
Mark laughed. "You here that, Jake? His pa would have given us food."
"I hear it, but I don't believe it!" Jake muttered.
"I'll cut you a break, kid," Mark announced. "I'm not going to kill you. But seeing as you killed my brother or one of them did." He motioned to Adam and Hoss, even though Joe couldn't see the movement. "I'll kill your brothers instead of you."
"No, wait!" Joe shouted, but Mark gave him a violent shove and he flew backwards landing on the ground. "I shot at your brother!" His heart about stopped as he heard the hammers of the men's guns being pulled back. "They didn't kill his worthless hide, I did!" The only response was two gunshots. Joe yelled and darted forward."Adam. Hoss," he moaned. His head felt light, as if it were going to float away from him. His fingers dug at the rocks as he went forward on his hands and knees.
"It's ok, Joe," Adam's voice rang loud and clear into his ears.
"I'm here," Adam said. Joe pushed past the prone body of one rustler to get to his brother."Woke up just when they were about to cut you a break," Adam laughed, but his voice held no humor in it.
"Some break, huh?" Joe grinned. "Are they…?"
"They're both dead," Adam turned toward the dead rustler, felt for his shoulder, and rolled him onto his back to get him away from Adam. Then, standing up, he went to check on Hoss.
"Mr. Cartwright! come quick!" one of the hands yelled from the front of the house.
Startled, Ben dropped his account book and leapt up from his desk. Making it over to the door in a couple of seconds, he flung it open, and stepped onto the porch. He was just about to ask what was going on, when he saw the ranch hand was leading Sport. His heart sank as he saw Chubb and Cochise being led by a couple of other ranch hands.
"Where did you find them?" Ben asked. He could feel his heart pounding and his hands tremor slightly.
"They came ridin' into the yard just a few minutes ago," the ranch hand holding Chubb said. The other men nodded in agreement.
'Something must have went terribly wrong,' was the only thing that rang through Ben's mind at that moment. "I'm going to saddle up my horse," Ben stated. "Tell the rest of the men to do the same, and then tell them to meet me outside of the barn." The men ran off, and did as they were told.'Lord, please keep my boys safe,' Ben prayed silently as he ran toward the barn.
The sun was getting lower in the sky, sending streaks of dark blue and pink across horizon. It was breath-taking, but Ben couldn't dwell on the beauty around him. His mind was a nonstop whirlwind of worries. Nudging Buck along at a faster pace, he scanned the area. His eyes drooped slightly and his hands lessened their grip on the reins.
"Sir, maybe you should rest for a little while," One of the hands suggested.
"I'll be alright," Ben replied. He didn't want to stop. "Look over there!" He pointed. It was the break in the fence. Riding through it, he peered carefully at the ground. He could just make out the hoof prints in the dying sunlight. Hope grasped at his spirit and he hurried Buck forward. Ben and the hands had ridden along, keeping an eye on the hoof trail, when Ben looked up and spotted something red. His heart sank as he got close enough to see what it was. All three of his boys weren't moving.
Practically flying off of his horse, he ran to them almost as soon as his feet hit the ground.
"Adam," He groaned when he saw Adam's broken leg. Adam opened his eyes slightly.
"Pa, check on Hoss," he whispered, urgently. Turning, he saw Hoss' body stretched out on the rocky surface.
"Pa!" Joe called out, relief coming through in his voice. Joe was leaning up against the boulder that Adam and Hoss had originally hid behind.
"I'm here, Joe," Ben said. He noticed, at a glance, that Joe had a gash at his hair line. It was still seeping blood, although not much. "Who are these men?" Ben asked about the rustlers as he dropped down beside Hoss. He got a weak reply of, "Rustlers," from Joe.
The smile faded as soon as he saw Hoss. His middle son was pale, and his breathing was shallow.
"How is he, Pa?" Joe asked. He raised himself up and leaning against the rock for support.
"I don't know," Ben said, gravely. The cowhands gathered around. "We need the buckboard and someone to fetch the doctor." He turned to Joe. "Little Joe, you take Buck and ride along with Slim and have the doctor take a look at that head wound."
"He's gonna have to check out more then that, Pa," Joe mumbled.
"What?" Ben asked. He looked at Joe in the face. His boy's eyes where everywhere but on him. "Joseph, look at me! What do you mean?"
"That's just it, Pa!" Joe dropped his head. "I can't see you!"
"A rock made that cut, Pa." Adam spoke up, a bitter edge creeping into his voice. "It flew down the mountain and hit Joe in the face. He can't see because of it."
"Joe, could you ride Buck, if someone led him?" Ben asked.
"Yeah," Joe agreed. Slim grabbed his elbow and Joe allowed himself to be led over to his father's horse. Lifting himself carefully up onto the saddle, he felt a surge of dizziness try to overtake him. He leaned forward on Buck and prayed that it would pass before they started moving. He knew he would be no help out here and he would just be something else for his pa to worry about. 'At least he wouldn't be a bother at the doctors office,' he thought. He could feel the warmth from Buck and hadn't realized until right then how chilly the night had gotten. Shivering involuntarily, he snuggled up closer to Buck's warm neck. He felt something warm fall across his back and then his father's hand giving him a comforting pat on the knee. Joe recognized the source of warmth as the jacket he had placed over Hoss. "What about Hoss?" he asked, worriedly.
"Hoss will be fine," Ben replied. He tried to sound reassuring. 'After all, wasn't that what parents are supposed to do,' he thought, as he watched Joe and Slim ride away. He wished that someone could reassure him.
"How is he, Doctor?" Ben asked as he stared down at Hoss. The big man had been silent for too long.
"It's too soon to tell," the doctor replied. "He has quite a few broken ribs and a nasty bump on the top of his head."
"Internal bleeding?" Ben asked. He waited, fearing the Martin rubbed his eyes. Two babies delivered, a couple of gunshot wounds, and now this. He was overworked, underpaid, and dead tired. "I can't say at the moment," he said shaking his head. "All I can suggest is that you pray." Ben nodded, deciding not to mention that he had been doing that all night.
Adam's leg was set and Doc Martin had given him a sleeping powder. Ben had laid out three beds in a row to accommodate his three injured sons. He wanted them under his watchful eye, and he figured the easiest was to get that was to keep them all in the same room.
Ben could feel a wave of tiredness rush over him. "Ben, why don't you lie down for a bit?" Doc suggested. "I'll wake you up if anything happens." Ben shook his head.
"I want to stay right here." The truth was, he was afraid to sleep. Hoss had show no signs of waking up and his breathing sounded strange. He wasn't a medical man by any means, but he knew enough to know that anything could happen. Adam was resting, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. Especially if they weren't careful, it was possible infection could set in. Then, there was Joe with a head wound. Doc Martin had tried to be reassuring when he examined Little Joe, but even he didn't know if Joe would be able to see again. There was no telling how much damage there was until the swelling went down. How could he explain to the doctor that if anything happened while he was sleeping he didn't know if he could live with himself. He needed to be there for his boys, any which way this whole thing turned out.
He glanced over at Joe, who was lying on the bed with his back turned to Ben. He was glad that Joe was able to sleep. What he didn't know was that sleep wasn't coming to his youngest son.
Tears squeezed out of his eyes and he held back a sob. He didn't want anyone to know he was awake. Doc would probably try to stuff something down his throat to make him go to sleep anyway. He tried to keep his mind blank. He didn't want to think about Adam suffering with a broken leg. He didn't want to think of the possibility that Hoss could die. It hurt so bad, to have those thoughts in his head, that he though his heart might tear in two. His fists clenched in anger at his own stupidity. He should have listened to his brothers. If he had, their lives wouldn't have been endangered and they would be sitting at home right now. Adam would probably be reading a book. One of the thick ones that was written by someone over a hundred years ago. Both him and Hoss would be playing checkers. The games weren't always honest, but they weren't ever boring. Pa would be sitting behind his desk, going over figures in his books. Even Hopsing would pop in the room once or twice with coffee and goodies that Hoss would scarf down. Nothing like that would happen now. 'Hoss might never wake up,' Joe thought. He couldn't stop the sobs that racked his entire body. He felt a pressure on the bed and a hand on his shoulder.
"Little Joe," his father's voice said. It was soft and tender. Joe savagely wiped away the tears with his left hand.
"Yeah, Pa?" he mumbled.
"What happened today," Ben said, "wasn't your fault."
Joe didn't answer. How was it Pa always seemed to know what he was thinking. He wished he could be comforted by those words, but the events of the day played back in his mind and wouldn't allow him believe them.
"Son, did you hear me?"
"I'm blind, Pa," Joe snapped. "not deaf." In an instant regret washed over him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"
"Never mind, Joe," Ben sighed. "It's alright." He gave Joe's shoulder a gentle squeeze and stood up.
Ben Cartwright sat in a chair in the corner of the room. Wasn't there anything else he could do? His boys were so full of life that morning. A feeling of despair shot through his heart like a knife. Words, soft and tender, flitted through his soul.
"To despair is to turn your back on God."
He looked at his three boys, all lying next to each other in separate beds. It was in God's hands. There was nothing left for him to do, but pray.
Joe woke up the next morning and felt the sunlight streaming down on his face. He opened his eyes, expecting to see a bright blue sky from the window and, instead, saw nothing. The events of the previous day came rushing back to him and so did the feeling of guilt. Throwing the warm covers off of himself, he stood up from the cot. His head reeled and his thoughts went fuzzy for a second. Taking a couple of deep breaths seemed to help and he ventured forward. He felt ahead of him for Adam's cot and, then, for Hoss. touching Hoss' foot, he followed it up until he felt his chest. Gently placing his fingers on Hoss' chest, he was relieved to feel his heart beating. His mind went back to the day before. He had wanted to go look for the rustlers, but Hoss and Adam didn't make too much of a fuss about it at first. 'I didn't order them to go,' Joe reasoned. Adam could have put his foot down and told him they weren't gonna go. Right? He nodded, slightly. Yes, he could have done that. If he had, then none of this would have happened. Joe wouldn't have argued. Well, maybe a little, but his brothers wouldn't be lying in this bed right now if Adam had spoken up! He shook his head. Putting the blame on Adam wasn't going to make it right. He was the one who wanted to keep going and no amount of reasoning was going to take that knowledge away. Sighing, he made his way out from between the cots. Putting his arms out, he felt along the wall so he could make it to the door easier. By doing that he bumped into his father, who was sleeping in a wooden chair near the door.
Ben raised his weary head and saw his son inching past him. "Joseph, what are you doing out of bed?"
"I can't sleep," Joe replied. "I'm sorry about waking you."
Ben stood up. "Joe, you need to get back in bed."
"My body is aching from lying down and my head hurts too much to try and nap," Joe insisted.
"Fine, I'll get Hop Sing to bring up something to eat."
"I'd rather go downstairs, Pa." Joe said.
"Joe," Ben said, grabbing his arm. "Any change at all?"
"No, Pa," Joe muttered, softly. "I can't see anything." Letting go of Joe's arm, Ben checked Hoss and Adam quickly and then helped Joe downstairs.
Joe pushed the scrambled eggs around on his plate. His father had disappeared back up stairs, but not before he had asked Hop Sing to keep an eye Joe. He could hear the sounds of Hop Sing's footsteps every time he stepped out from the kitchen to check on him.
Joe stayed sitting at the table for some time. His eggs got cold and Hop Sing came out and brought them into the kitchen. This was one time he didn't complain that Joe had barely touched his food. Before he disappeared into the kitchen he said one thing. "Number Two Brother, be alight."
Joe placed an arm on the table and rested his head. It was more comfortable in this position. His head ached and occasionally flashes of pain bounded through his skull. 'It had been worse when he was laying in bed,' he thought, grateful that Pa didn't insist on him staying there for the whole day.
Leaning on the table, he drifted off into a restless sleep. The sound of footfalls woke him up some time later. Lifting his head, he called out, "Pa?"
"Yes, Joe," Ben said.
"How is Hoss and Adam?" Joe asked, pushing himself up into a straight sitting position.
"Adam is awake," Ben said, tiredly.
"What about Hoss?" he asked. Not being able to see his father's face frustrated him.
"Nothing yet," Ben said. "I'm going to get some broth for Adam."
Joe listened as Ben walked into the kitchen. Removing himself from behind the table, Joe stepped carefully over to the stairs, clinging tightly to the banister on the way up.
"Little Joe." He heard Adam's weak voice as soon as he felt his way into the room.
"Hey there, Big Brother," Joe responded, a smile moving across his face. "Feeling any better?"
"Some," He said, with a wry grin.
Pa is getting you some broth," Joe informed him.
"I know," Adam said. "You made it up here on your own. You can see?"
"No," Joe said. "I was fine coming up, though." He tried to sound confident.
Adam sighed, "I'm sorry."
Joe shrugged. "What for?" He asked. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"Joe, what happened out there wasn't your fault."
"You're beginning to sound like Pa."
"Maybe that's a good thing," Adam chuckled. Then he winced. Right then, he made up his mind not to laugh for about two weeks, if not longer. Maybe then every time he moved it wouldn't feel like someone was taking a sledge hammer to his leg.
"How does Hoss look?" Joe asked coming in between where is his brothers were laying. Rubbing his eyes in frustration he blinked, but there was still nothing. He wanted to be able to see for himself how Hoss was doing. Having to be satisfied with someone else' description of him was beyond exasperating for Joe.
"He's breathing is much better," Adam said, choosing his words carefully. "His skin has a healthier shade to it, too."
Joe found Hoss' hand and patted it gently. Grasping his older brother's meaty paw, Joe could feel the rough calluses that had been formed by hard work around the ranch. His hands had done so much. From helping build the Ponderosa, to posting fences, and taking care of his family. But it was his heart that helped the house to be a home. Joe figured he had the biggest heart in the territory, if not anywhere in the country. He never passed by an ailing creature and always tried his best to comfort and patch it back up. Even when the situation looked hopeless.
Hopeless. There was that word again. His mind flashed back to a time when Hoss had taught him what that word meant.
"Hoss, what are ya doin'?" a seven year old Joe asked his brother. He gazed in rapt attention at the limp body of a baby raccoon that Hoss was cradling in his arms.
"I found this here baby lying behind the barn," Hoss replied. His voice was gentle and he kept it to a low pitch. "It looks like it's mama's gone."
Joe had to stand on tip toes to see the black button nose and tiny paws. He marveled at the strange markings on the baby's body.
"Where did she go?" Joe questioned.
Hoss hadn't wanted to say that he thought the baby's mother was dead. "She probably had to, um…" He grasped around for an answer.
"Did she go where Mama went?" Joe asked, sadly.
"I suppose so, Little Buddy…" Hoss didn't know if animals went to heaven but he hoped they did.
"Poor thing," Joe murmured. "Can I touch it?" He looked up at Hoss, hopefully.
"You can if'n your careful," Hoss said, moving down slowly, to one knee so Joe could reach. Joe pet it carefully with his finger.
"It's so small," Joe said. He jumped back as it raised it's head, unexpectedly. Much to his dismay it's head flopped back down.
"Hoss, I don't think it's gonna live," Joe said. Tears slid down his face and he wiped them away with the back of his hand and sniffed loudly.
"I ain't givin' up, Joe," Hoss stated. He walked over to the barn and went inside, with Joe on his heels. Grabbing an old blanket, Hoss wrapped the baby Coon as carefully as he could. "It ain't hopeless," he muttered.
"What, Hoss?" Joe piped up.
"It ain't hopeless," Hoss repeated, this time loud enough for Joe to hear.
"What does hopeless mean?" Joe asked. Looking up into Hoss' blue eyes, he waited for an answer.
"Hopeless means there ain't a chance of something happening."
"So, there's still a chance of the Coon baby being okay?"
"Joe," Hoss said, seriously. "It ain't ever hopeless. No matter how bad it looks, there's always a chance."
Little Joe nodded in understanding
"There's always hope," the little boy said to himself.
A smile spread across Joe's face. Hoss never gave up on that little Coon. Even when things were looking bleak. He stayed up most of the night, nursing that baby back to health. Come sun up, Joe had raced out to the barn and discovered Hoss giving the baby some milk, and the Coon sucking happily away at Hoss' makeshift baby bottle.
"There's always hope," Joe found himself repeating.
Joe felt his fingers being squeezed together and gasped in surprise and delight. "Hoss?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Hey, Joe," Hoss wheezed.
"Hoss, glad to see you're coherent again!" Adam said. Joe could here the joy in his voice.
There was a noise at the door.
"Hoss, You're awake!" Ben cried, as he stepped inside the room holding a bowl of steaming broth. He placed it on the table and quickly went over to Hoss.
"Howdy, Pa," Hoss mumbled. "Feels like someone ran a wagon over my chest."
"It's going to feel like that for a little while, Hoss. You have a couple of broken ribs, not to mention a nasty lump on your head." Ben stopped for a second and quietly thanked God, his son was awake. "The doctor had an urgent call but he'll be over later to check on you. All of you." Ben spoke the last sentence with emphasis.
"How are you, Adam, Joe?" Hoss asked. Coughing once, his eyes scrunched up as sharp pains stabbed at his chest.
"I'm gonna be laid up a bit with a broken leg," Adam grumbled. Then he grinned good naturedly. "Means I'm not going to be mucking out the stables. Even if it is my turn."
"What about you, Joe?" Hoss questioned.
"I got knocked on the head," Joe replied.
"I guess it could be worse," Hoss sighed, in relief.
"What, Little Brother, seems to have forgotten to mention, is that knock on his head took away his eyesight," Adam explained.
"Joe…" Hoss began, in a worried tone.
"Don't worry, Hoss," Joe said quietly. He shot a glare in the direction of Adam's voice. "The Doc didn't say it was permanent. I'm just glad you're awake," Joe smiled.
The Doctor arrived later and after a brief examination of all three injured Cartwrights, he motioned for Ben to accompany him into the hall. After shutting the door behind him, he said, "Hoss doesn't have any internal bleeding."
Ben who had been holding his breath, started to breathe again. "That's wonderful!" He exclaimed. What about, Adam?"
"His leg is coming along nicely," the Doctor said. "Keep taking care of it like you have been, and I don't see any cause for alarm."
Ben was elated. "And, Little Joe?"
"I don't know how to tell you this, but…" the Doctor hesitated.
"What is it?" Ben asked, alarmed.
"I don't know if his sight will come back or not," the Doctor said.
"It's that serious?" Ben asked.
"Only time will tell," the Doctor said, with a shake of his head. " There's no way for me to tell how seriously the rock affected his vision. It could be only temporary, or he could be blind for the rest of his life."
When the Doctor left, Ben didn't return straight to the room. Sitting down on the settee, he rested his head in his hands, trying to let the news sink in. He knew had to go upstairs and say something.
He opened the door to the room, and saw Adam raise his eyes, expectantly. Joe sat straighter in the chair, a worried expression flitting across his face. Ben tried to smile but it didn't quite make it to his lips. The piercing gaze from Adam, told him that Adam knew something was wrong. Hoss' eyes were shut, and there was a steady rise and fall of his chest.
"Hoss isn't bleeding internally," Ben said. A smile spread across Joe's tired features, and Adam nodded. "And thankfully Adam, you don't have an infection. As long as we keep taking care of your leg the way we have been, then you'll be up and mucking out the barn in no time!" He managed a laugh.
"That's a relief!" Joe said, loudly. "About you and Hoss. Not about the barn."
"Keep your voice down, Joe," Ben instructed. "Hoss is sleeping."
"Sorry," Joe mumbled.
Adam looked directly at his father and then motioned with his head over towards Little Joe. Ben shook his head slightly. Adam closed his eyes in dismay.
"Pa," Joe started. "Did the Doc say anything about…" his voice trailed off.
"Well, Joe," Ben said. "He says that there hasn't been quite enough time to know what's going on with your eyes." Ben's heart sank as he watched the face of his youngest, fell. "But that doesn't mean anything," Ben said, quickly.
"Sure, Pa," Joe said, his voice catching. He didn't say anything else.
"Why don't you go sit outside?" Hoss suggested to Joe. "it would do ya some good."
It had been a week since the whole thing happened, and Little Joe made it his duty to sit in the room with his brothers, every chance he got.
"I'm fine," Joe replied, carelessly.
"You ain't fine," Hoss said.
"What do you mean?" Joe asked, frowning.
"There's something eatin' away at you," Hoss said. "And it's gonna continue to eat away, until you give it up."
Joe leaned back in his chair. He wondered if Adam was sleeping. He hadn't spoken up when Hoss started to talk.
"Your gonna be able to see again," Hoss continued. "I just know it!"
"It ain't that," Joe mumbled. "not everything anyway." He rubbed his eyes. He wanted to see. He wanted it in the worst way. Every time he heard his father or his brothers speaking, he could picture their faces and his heart would ache. To think he might never see them face to face was something he tried not to dwell on. Every morning he would open his eyes, expecting to be able to see. Every morning he was disappointed. He figured Doctor didn't know what was wrong. His pa tried to keep it from him, but Joe knew.
"I know," Hoss acknowledged.
"What do you mean?" Joe's voice was sharp.
"C'mon, Joe," Hoss said, sounding hurt. "I've known ya long enough to tell what's really eating at you." He lifted himself a little more on his pillow. "Joe, don't ya think if me and Adam had no interest at all in going after those rustlers, that just maybe we would have stopped you?" He waited as Joe lifted his sorrowful face and shrugged. "Well if'n you don't know then I'll tell ya!" Hoss insisted. "If'n we didn't want to go after those rustlers, then we weren't gonna do it. Your not the only one who cares about the livestock!"
"No is right. I can't believe ya would think that we needed your help to decide if we wanted to see where those thieves were going," Hoss derided.
That's when Adam, who had been listening to every word, spoke up. "It's just like him, Hoss. Acting like he's the only one who decides things for himself."
"I didn't say that," Joe said, getting a defensive edge to his voice.
"You're implying it," Adam said.
"Just remember that you don't control Adam's or my actions," Hoss said. "Ya understand that?" he would have pointed at Joe for emphasis if Joe could have seen his finger. He satisfied himself with a loud grunt that meant he wasn't messing around.
"Yeah, I got that!" Joe snapped, flinging himself up from the chair.
"Good!" Adam and Hoss said, in unison.
"Hey, where ya goin'?" Hoss called, at Joe's disappearing back.
"I'm going to get some fresh air," Joe grumbled.
Hoss snuggled back into his pillow, a contented smile playing across his face. He threw a triumphant look at Adam, who was grinning smugly.
They knew their baby brother wouldn't stay mad long.
Joe had finally made it outside and plopped himself in the old rocking chair on the porch. He was fuming. The nerve of his brothers! He crossed his arms and rocked back and forth, the chair creaking with every movement. 'Let someone find you feel responsible for something that happened, and all you get is a bad reaction,' he thought. Hoss could have at least let him talk, instead of butting in and accusing him of things. His rocking slowed to a stop, and a lopsided smile spread across his face as something dawned on him. Hoss and Adam didn't blame him for what happened. Relief washed over him like a tidal wave. He wanted to go right in and hug his brothers. He thought about it for a second, but the fresh air felt good, and he could hear birds singing. He wanted to enjoy it for a few minutes before he went back.
Pushing of the ground, he started to rock again. The chair protested as it moved back and forth, but instead of the sound grating on his nerves, it relaxed him and soon he drifted into a peaceful sleep. The first peaceful sleep that he had since that day.
"Joe, it's time to eat," Ben's voice intruded on Joe's nap. He stood in front of his sleeping son, gently shaking his shoulder to rouse him.
Joe wasn't sure how long he had dozed. Lifting his head when he heard his father's voice, he yawned and stretched his arms. He felt refreshed and hungry. The aroma of Hop Sing's cooking caused his stomach to growl in anticipation of the fine meal that he would soon be eating. It was a good feeling to have his appetite return.
"Pa, you look tired," Joe observed, his still groggy mind not fully comprehending what he had just said.
"I'm okay," Ben replied, "I just need…" As the full extent of Joe's words dawned on Ben, a hopeful feeling settled into his chest, causing it to constrict with anticipation. Leaning over, he gently cupped Joe's face firmly between his hands, his words soft, shaken, yet hopeful. "Joseph, w-what did you just say?"
"I said . . . " Joe's voice trailed off as realization came to him and his eyes widened in surprise at their meaning. "I-I said you look tired." As if needing to say it aloud, Joe swallowed hard and, voice breaking, he announced, "Pa, I can see." Ben let go of his face, and he stood up.
Ben's eyes watered, as he whispered an earnest prayer of thanks to God, for the return of his son's sight.
Joe stood looking at his father. At that moment he couldn't remember a time when seeing his father had filled him with as much joy as it did at that moment. His eyesight was still a little fuzzy around the edges, but with each second that passed it became a little better.
A loud voice came from the inside of the house. "Where Mr. Cartlite? Dinner getting cold!"
With a hearty laugh, Ben clapped his son on the shoulder. "Seems like we better get in and eat before Hop Sing decides his cooking talent is wasted on this family!"
Joe grinned. Heading for the door, he said, "Pa?"
"I'll bring the dinner trays up to Adam and Hoss, okay?" he couldn't wait to see the look on his brother's face's when he walked in carrying their dinner.
"You can carry one," Ben replied. Joe's face fell for a moment. A broad grin took over Ben's features as he said, "I'm carrying the other one. I wouldn't miss your brother's expressions for the world!"