Synopsis: A careless act of Little Joe’s puts his life in danger and that of his beloved horse Cochise
Rating: G (19,000 words)
This story is dedicated to Jenny my Bonanza ‘Best Friend’ who encouraged me to write it
The sun was dipping below the hills and the shadows from the tall pine trees were disappearing in the approaching dusk as the young rider urged his horse towards the house at a gallop. Little Joe Cartwright pulled to a halt outside the barn and dismounted before his horse Cochise had time to stop. He pulled on the reins to keep control of the pinto and grinned. ‘Come on boy, let’s get you rubbed down.’ He began to lead the horse into the barn, only to be met at the door by his older brother Adam. ‘Hi Adam.’ He signalled with his hand as he attempted to pass his brother and continue into the barn.
‘Hi yourself. You are very lucky, buddy, that Pa is not around to see you come into the yard like that. How many times has he told you not to?’
‘Don’t know, I’ve lost count.’ Joe grinned at him. ‘Anyway, what he doesn’t see doesn’t hurt him.’ He pushed the door of the barn open wider and led Cochise into a stall.
Adam shook his head. ‘Well, just don’t let Pa hear you say that. He’d have your hide.’
Little Joe lifted the saddle off the horse, and began to rub him down briskly.
‘Where is Pa anyway? In the house?’
Adam nodded, as he leant against the side of the stall and watched his younger brother. ‘He’s inside organizing the paperwork for the contract he’s taking with him tomorrow.’ Their father was due to leave the next day for Reno to deliver the timber contract. ‘I think you’d better hurry up, he’s not in a very good mood.’
Before Adam could answer, the front door was flung open and their father, Ben Cartwright, peered out into the dusk. ‘Joseph, is that you? Get in here immediately!’
Little Joe rolled his eyes at Adam. ‘What did I do?’
Adam shrugged and grinned. ‘How do I know? The list is probably endless.’ He ducked as the brush left his brother’s hand and whizzed past his head.
Little Joe turned and left the barn, followed closely by his older brother. As they reached the front door, they heard the voice of Hop Sing, their Chinese cook. ‘Supper is ready! Everyone eat now.’
‘In a moment, Hop Sing.’ Ben turned to face his two sons, with his hands on his hips. Behind him, Hoss held up his hands in a gesture as he shrugged his shoulders. ‘Well?’ asked Ben. ‘What do you have to say for yourself, Joseph?’
Little Joe looked at his father, not sure what reply was expected of him. ‘Pa?’
‘I’m waiting for you to tell me, Joseph, why you find it necessary to ignore every instruction you are given, and persist in doing what you want rather than the job at hand?’
‘Pa, I haven’t …..’ Little Joe’s voice trailed off as he remembered. Adam joined Hoss sitting on the settee behind their father to enjoy the show.
‘Yes?’ Ben queried.
‘Well, I sort of …. I was going to get to the tack room, but I ….’
His father waited. When Little Joe did not continue, he finished for him. ‘But you forgot!’
Little Joe gave his father one of his wide grins. ‘Guess I did. Sorry Pa.’
Ben glared at him. ‘And what, pray tell, did you do after school this afternoon instead?’
‘Just rode around.’
‘Really? Just rode around. Why was that more important than cleaning out the tack room?’
‘Well it wasn’t more important, it was just more…….well interesting.’
‘Joe, its time you realised that you have responsibilities around here. You are fourteen years old, not four!’
Little Joe hung his head and stared at the floor. ‘Sorry Pa.’
‘Sorry Pa! You’re always sorry, Joe, but you don’t do anything about it. I have a good mind to ban you from riding that horse of yours until….’
‘Pa no!’ Little Joe’s head shot up and he looked at his father in disbelief. ‘You can’t stop me from riding Cochise! He’s my horse, you told me that when you gave him to me!’
‘Yes, of course he’s your horse, but you’d better start earning the privilege of owning him.’
Joe breathed a sigh of relief and grinned at his father. ‘OK Pa, I’ll try harder next time.’
‘See that you do. Now get upstairs and wash up for supper.’
As Little Joe bounded up the stairs, Hoss laughed. ‘You’d better be prepared for one almighty battle if you ever follow through with that threat of not letting him ride Cochise, Pa. You know how he dotes on that animal.’
‘Yeah.’ Said Adam. ‘There are times when I think he feels more for him than he does for any of us.’
Ben laughed. ‘I think you might be right. Still it’s good to see that he takes his responsibilities for him seriously at least.’
‘Takes them to extremes, you mean.’ said Adam. ‘Honestly, I’ve never known anyone to be so wrapt up in a horse as that boy is! I think he’d probably move in with him in the barn if you allowed him to. He sure spends enough time in there with him.’
And that was just where Ben found his youngest boy later that evening when he was out for a stroll in the chill air after supper. ‘Joe?’ he asked. ‘What are you doing out here son? It’s much too cold for you to be here at this time of night.’
‘Just saying goodnight to Cooch Pa.’ Little Joe grinned at his father as he rubbed the horse’s nose. ‘Ain’t he beautiful Pa?’
Yes he is a beautiful horse Joe, but it’s time for you to be in bed now son.’
Little Joe jumped down from the top rung of the stall where he had been perched. ‘OK Pa, night.’
‘Pa?’ Joe turned back towards his father.
‘Do you think it’s right what Hoss says about animals understanding what we say to them?’
‘I don’t know Joe. I like to think that it is.’
‘I think it’s true. Cooch and me understand each other.’
Ben smiled. ‘I’m sure you do, now bed!’ He stroked Cochise’s nose as he thought. He was sure that Little Joe was right. Since the moment Ben had given him the horse two years ago he had sensed a bond between them that was difficult to explain. Ben had insisted that Joe train him by himself, with Adam’s guidance. He felt that in that way the boy would establish the rapport that was so important between rider and horse. He laughed. They had certainly done that!
The boy and the horse were a beautiful sight to behold when they were together. Joe rode Cochise as if they were one. Ben had never seen such a style as his son had on a horse. He was a natural horseman, and had been ever since he was old enough to be held on a saddle. Ben remembered his wife’s anxiety as she watched Little Joe as a toddler crowing with excitement as he sat in front of his father or one of his brothers on their mounts, bouncing up and down trying to urge them on faster.
A momentary sadness crossed his face. How Marie would have loved to see her boy now, and delight in the way he had grown. Strange how it was her who had worried all those times about Little Joe’s safety on a horse, when she was the one who was eventually killed from a fall during a ride. Ben knew that was why he constantly worried about Joe on horseback, yet knew he had no real need to. If anyone could handle themself on a horse it was that boy. Still, it was a father’s right to worry.
Cochise nuzzled against Ben’s shoulder and he patted him. ‘Night boy.’ he whispered, and turned to shut the barn door against the bitter wind outside.
‘Now remember what I’ve told you, Little Joe.’ said Ben. ‘You mind your brothers while I’m away, and do as you’re told. Adam is in charge, and you are to listen to him and Hoss and obey their instructions as if they were mine.’
Little Joe smiled at him. ‘Of course I will Pa. Don’t I always?’
‘You really want me to answer that?’ his father asked. ‘Just remember, stay out of trouble and behave yourself.’
‘Yes Pa.’ Little Joe grimaced as he submitted himself to one of his father’s hugs. ‘Pa, people are looking!’ At fourteen, he still enjoyed his father’s displays of affection, but objected to showing that he did in front of others. Ben ruffled his curly hair before turning to his other two sons.
‘Boys I should be back in a few days, depending on how the exchange of contracts goes. I’ll wire you from Reno when I know.’
‘Sure Pa.’ Said Adam. ‘Don’t you worry about anything here. Hoss and I will keep everything under control, including this little guy.’
‘Don’t call me little!’ objected Joe.
Hoss leant over and put his arm around his brother. ‘Don’t get so riled up, Joe. Adam don’t mean anything by it. It’s just that you’re not as big as us.’
Ben interjected before his youngest could make an issue of it as he usually did. ‘I’m sure everything will go well. I’ll see you in a few days.’ He leant over and gave Hoss a quick hug around the shoulders, then did the same with Adam. ‘Look after each other.’ He boarded the stagecoach and sat down. His last glimpse of his three boys was of Adam leaning against the support post of the porch grinning at his two brothers who were engaged in a mock fistfight.
‘Come on you two.’ Adam instructed as soon as the stagecoach was out of sight. ‘We’ve got supplies to load Hoss, and you,’ he pointed at Little Joe, ‘are due at school.’
‘Aw gee, Adam ….’ began his youngest brother.
Adam held up his hand. ‘Don’t even say it Joe. There’s no way you’re missing school today. Now get!’
Joe sighed and mumbled just loud enough for both his brothers to hear. ‘Pa’s not even out of town yet and I’m being bossed around.’
Adam and Hoss grinned at each other as their little brother led his horse up the street towards the small schoolhouse. They both knew that school was not Little Joe’s favourite place. ‘And don’t be late home!’ Adam yelled after him. ‘You’ve got chores to get done don’t forget!’ Little Joe raised his shoulders in an exaggerated sigh and continued to drag his feet in the dust as he continued to walk.
Later that afternoon chores were the last thing on the boy’s mind as he galloped toward home. Even though he knew that his father would not approve of the speed with which he rode, Little Joe couldn’t help himself. He loved the feel of the wind against his body and feeling the power of his horse beneath him. Instead of keeping to the track that linked Virginia City with the Ponderosa he turned towards the more difficult hills and the challenge that they presented, and urged Cochise upwards.
The horse responded quickly to his light touch, and the two moved into the thick cluster of trees that covered the hill above them. As he reached the crest of the hill, Little Joe paused to survey the land below him and to give Cochise a rest. He grinned to see his brother Hoss in the distance working at the fence line of the north pasture. ‘Come on boy,’ he urged the horse. ‘Let’s go say hello.’
The rider and the horse gathered speed as they raced down the hill. As they approached the bottom, Little Joe turned Cochise’s head and raced towards the spot where his brother was working, without lessening his speed. As they neared the high fence, Hoss lifted his head, only to observe his younger brother sail over the fence a few yards from him.
‘Little Joe, you crazy kid!’ he yelled. ‘What do you think you’re doing!’
‘Just come to visit, older brother.’ Joe pulled the mare to a halt near his brother. ‘Ain’t I allowed?’
‘Don’t be so stupid! If Pa saw you riding like that, he’d half kill you. What’d ya want to go and jump the fence like that for?’
‘No reason. Just to see if I could do it.’ Joe grinned at him.
‘Well don’t. That’s just foolhardy.’
‘Why? I made it, didn’t I?’
Hoss shook his head and turned to his fence repairing again. ‘Ain’t you supposed to be at home doing your chores? Adam will be furious with you if you don’t get there on time.’
Little Joe shrugged. ‘He’ll get over it.’
‘I wouldn’t push the point with him Joe.’
‘Don’t worry about it. I can handle ……..’
‘Handle what?’ his oldest brother interjected from behind him.
Joe turned quickly and swallowed as he replied. ‘Oh, um, hi Adam. I didn’t know you was here.’
‘Obviously not.’ Adam glared at the boy. ‘You might like to explain to me though why you aren’t at home doing your chores.’
‘I was on my way. Just stopped off to say hello.’ Little Joe gave him one of his widest smiles, then dropped it as he realised that it wasn’t going to charm his brother much at all. As Adam continued to stare at him, he sighed and turned his mount towards the ranch. ‘Guess I’ll keep on going then.’ he muttered.
‘Before you go.’ said Adam, and Little Joe turned Cochise hopefully. ‘If I ever catch you doing a stupid thing like jumping a fence that high again, I’ll take you over my knee. Don’t think just because Pa is away you can go around taking risks like that again.’
Little Joe glared at his brother. ‘I don’t see why you both get so cranky with me just because I’m the best rider in the family.’
‘First of all that ain’t true.’ interrupted Hoss. ‘And second of all, you never will be the best rider anywhere if you insist on carrying on like that.’
‘I like it, and so does Cochise. Don’t ya boy?’ Joe bent to pat the horse’s neck. ‘Any way, if you think that was high you should have seen……’ his voice trailed away as he realised what he had been about to say.
‘Yes?’ asked Adam.
‘Nuthin.’ Little Joe turned again and headed towards home at a gallop.
Hoss shook his head. ‘Do you think he knows how to walk a horse at all?’
‘Probably not.’ Adam replied. ‘Come on, let’s get finished here. I have a feeling I may need to check on one certain youngster before too much longer. I should head for home.’
The next day was Saturday, and Adam was determined that his younger brother would be kept so busy all day that he would not have time to get into any mischief. Consequently, tempers flared at breakfast when he outlined the day’s tasks that he had allocated for the youngster.
‘How come I got to do all that?’ was Little Joe’s response.
‘Because I said so. You know that Pa would expect you to do your share while he’s away, and I’m not asking you to do any more than he would.’ his brother replied.
‘It’s not fair! Today’s Saturday and I wanted to go riding. Hoss, tell him he can’t make me stay around here all day.’
Hoss looked up from the plate in front of him. ‘Listen short shanks, you know very well that you’ve got chores to do. Tomorrow is Sunday and we’ll go fishing or something, OK?’
Little Joe slumped down in his chair, crossed his arms in front of him and sulked. He had expected support from his middle brother at least.
‘And you can get that look off your face as well.’ Adam warned. ‘No one’s taking any notice of you, and you’ll just end up making it harder for yourself.’ When his younger brother did not respond, he added. ‘Come on Joe, we all have to pull together when Pa’s not here, you know that. It’s what he’d expect.’
Joe continued to glare at the table. ‘Well, I’ll do the chores, but I don’t have to like it!’
‘I never said you had to. It’s time you realised none of us really like work, but it’s what keeps this place going.’ replied his brother. ‘Come on, brothers, the day awaits!’ He stood up from the table and headed towards the door, followed by Hoss. Little Joe stayed in the same position until he realised that his brothers had left the room and there was no one to see his performance, and then he dragged himself up with an exaggerated sigh and followed them.
Later that morning as he worked in the barn forking hay into the stalls, his mood hadn’t improved. ‘It’s just not fair.’ he muttered to himself. ‘Having to work on a Saturday just ain’t right!’ Cochise answered him from his stall with a whinny and Joe turned to stroke his back. ‘You don’t think it’s fair either do you boy? You don’t get to go out either.’ He leaned against the side of the stall and watched the horse. ‘Dumb old Adam, what does he know anyway? I bet he wouldn’t even know if ……’ Little Joe’s green eyes lit up. ‘Hey boy, I bet he wouldn’t! I’ve got all the chores for the morning just about done, so how would he know? He’s over finishing that fence he and Hoss were working on yesterday, so all we have to do is keep away from there.’
He threw the pitchfork into the empty stall next to him and picked up his saddle. Moving quickly he had the horse saddled in a moment and began to lead him out into the yard. As he mounted he pulled on the reins and Cochise reared. Joe felt the exhilaration rush through him as he usually did when he mounted up. ‘Come on boy.’ he shouted with joy. ‘Let’s have a run!’ They moved as one out of the yard and galloped off down the trail.
After a short gallop, he pulled the horse to a stop and reached down to pat his neck. ‘That’s more like it, isn’t it boy? Now let’s try something interesting.’ He turned off the trail and galloped across the pasture, deftly avoiding the small rocks in his path. Both rider and horse plunged downwards across a small creek and then upward to the nearby hilltop where they paused. Far below him, Little Joe could see his brothers in the same place as yesterday, once again working on the fence. ‘Come on boy’ he urged. ‘Opposite direction for us.’ But as he commenced to turn, he noticed Adam mount his own horse, and head him towards the trail that led to the ranch. ‘Uh oh! Bet he’s going back to check on me. I’ll show him!’
The boy turned Cochise back the way he had come and galloped down the hill again, riding full pelt across the paddock, back in the direction he had come only moments before. But as he neared the trail near the ranch he veered off to the left, intending to take a shortcut across the small field there. Urging the horse even faster he gathered speed as he approached the fence bordering it, but as Cochise’s front legs lifted off the ground to leap the fence he stumbled in a small depression and his balance shifted. Little Joe acted quickly and kicked out from the stirrups as they sailed through the air, and was immediately thrown from the horse. He landed on his back, momentarily winded, and lay still.
For a few moments it seemed as if he would never get his breath back, and he lay concentrating on trying to do so. Finally he opened his eyes and stared at the sky above him. Joe had been thrown from horses many times and knew that it was important to move slowly at first to try and get a sense of whether or not he was hurt. He slowly tried to move both his arms and then his legs, and was relieved to feel no pain. As he slowly lifted his head, he heard the sound of another horse approaching, and sensed rather than saw the rider dismount.
Suddenly, his brother Adam’s face appeared in front of him, staring intently into his eyes. ‘Joe can you hear me? Joe are you OK?’ Little Joe nodded, still too winded to reply. ‘Keep still for a minute while I check you out.’ Adam instructed while he felt his brother over for any injuries. Joe lifted his head slightly and groaned.
‘My head hurts.’
Adam reached around the back of his brother’s head and felt the large lump that was forming there. ‘I’ll bet it does. Keep still.’ Little Joe pushed his brother’s hands away and tried to lift his head again. He immediately felt dizzy and swayed slightly. ‘Joe I told you to keep down, now do as you’re told.’
Adam reached for his gun and, pointing it in the air, fired three shots – the Cartwright signal for danger. At the sound the horse behind him moved and he turned. Little Joe lifted his head again. ‘Cochise.’ he whispered, and moved to sit up, but Adam held him down.
‘I said to lay still’ he ordered.
Little Joe struggled against his brother’s grasp. ‘No, let me up. I need to check on Cochise.’ Adam continued to hold on to him as the sound of horses behind them signalled approaching riders and Hoss appeared with two ranch hands.
‘Little Joe, buddy,’ Hoss cried. ‘What have you done?’
Little Joe tried once again to sit up, but Adam held on to him firmly. ‘Hoss, I need to check on Cochise. Let me up Adam!’
Hoss turned to the horse laying a few yards away from them and shuddered. The horse was pinned to the ground, trapped by a heavy beam from the fence. Worse though, was the tangle of barbed wire that was wrapped around him, made worse by the threshing of his body as he had tried to disentangle himself. The sharp points were embedded deeply into his flesh at various places along his hide where they had ripped long gashes, and he was half covered with blood. He lay still, and Hoss could not tell if he were even alive.
Adam broke the silence. ‘Frank, get into town and get the doctor to the house. Matt, get a buckboard. We’re going to need it to get Joe back to the house.’ Both men sprang into action at once.
Hoss turned back to his brothers. Adam was cradling Little Joe’s head in his arms, and the boy was attempting to break free of his brother’s grasp. ‘Cochise! He’s not getting up, he’s hurt!’ he cried.
Hoss positioned himself between his little brother and the horse to block his view. ‘Lie still little buddy. We need to make sure you’re all right.’
‘I’m fine! Check on Cochise will ya Hoss? Please?’
Hoss’ eyes met Adam’s. ‘Don’t you fret none about that horse – he’s tough. You know that.’
‘Then why isn’t he getting up?’
‘He’s tangled in some wire is all. As soon as Matt gets back with that buckboard we’ll get him free. We need to get you fixed up first, though.’
Little Joe’s eyes glazed over and he slumped forward. He reached his hand to his head and moaned, before passing out. Adam and Hoss gazed down at him, not speaking for a moment, each of them thinking the same thought – that it would now be easier to move their feisty little brother. The three brothers waited for a few moments until the sound of the approaching buckboard roused them. Adam lifted his younger brother in the back and continued to hold him there, as Matt turned the horses’ heads back towards the ranch house. Hoss followed on his horse, leading Adam’s behind him.
As they pulled up in the front yard of the ranch house, Adam lifted his little brother down and began to move swiftly towards the house. Before following him, Hoss turned to Matt and instructed. ‘Get some wire cutters and a couple of men to help you. See if you can get the horse back to the barn, and I’ll come and check on him as soon as I can.’ Matt nodded and moved off as instructed, while Hoss turned to follow his brothers into the house.
‘He seems to be fine apart from a concussion caused by the blow to the head.’ Paul Martin said as he straightened up from the bed. ‘He’s a lucky boy.’
‘Do you think there’s any need to call Pa back?’ asked Hoss.
‘I really don’t see why you should worry your father. The boy just needs sleep for a while and he should be fine. Keep your eye on him tonight and wake him every few hours so prevent him from slipping into too deep a sleep, keep him in bed tomorrow, and in a day or two he’ll be up and around as normal.’ Paul replied.
‘Thanks, Doc.’ said Adam. ‘We’ll make sure that he stays in bed.’
‘See that you do, although I know from past experience just how hard that may be to do.’ laughed Paul as he turned to leave. ‘Call me if you need to boys, but I’m sure everything will be OK.’
‘Well?’ asked Adam when they had been left alone in Joe’s bedroom with their little brother. ‘Do you want the first watch or do you want me to take it?’
‘You take it.’ replied Hoss. ‘I want to go check on Cochise.’ Adam nodded and turned to sit on the bed next to his slumbering brother.
As Hoss entered the barn he sensed the horse’s pain before his eyes even adjusted to the light. When they did, the sight before him caused an ache in his heart, for he knew what this would do to his little brother. The horse had been cleaned up some by the hands who had brought him in, but the deep cuts were still very evident across his sides and down his legs. He was lying on his side, his flank heaving as he struggled to breathe against the onslaught of pain that must have been washing over him. As Hoss approached him, he attempted to move without success and his eyes rolled back in their sockets, although whether with fear or pain it was difficult to tell.
Hoss bent to him and gently stroked his head. ‘Easy boy, easy. No one’s going to hurt you. Keep still there.’ He crooned the words over and over to the horse as he felt his legs for any breaks. Relieved to find none, he set about disinfecting the wounds and bandaging those that he could on his legs. He then set about mixing a poultice to apply to Cochise’s other wounds, and when this was done, sat back and observed the pinto. Not knowing what else to do for him, he instinctively did what his little brother would have done if he had been able to be there, and sat for a long time stroking the horse’s neck and speaking softly to him. Cochise seemed to calm down under his light touch and gradually settled.
After a couple of hours of tending to the horse Hoss returned to his little brother’s bedroom, to find Adam sitting exactly where he had left him. ‘How’s he doing?’ he asked as he entered the room.
‘Much the same.’ replied Adam. ‘I woke him up for a few minutes about half an hour ago, and he’s slept since then. He seems peaceful enough. How’s Cochise?’
Hoss sat down on the chair by the window. ‘Not good. He has quite a few cuts, and they’re pretty deep. I don’t know if there are any internal injuries from the beam that fell on him either. I’ve done what I can for him at the moment, we’ll just have to wait and see if he develops a fever I guess.’
Adam nodded. ‘Darn fool kid! Why’d he have to go and do it? He’s been warned so many times to be careful. Pa’ll have his hide when he finds out.’
Hoss shook his head. ‘I’m more worried about how Little Joe’s going to react when he finds out about Cochise being hurt. You know how he feels about that horse.’
‘Well, we’ll just have to pray that he makes it through.’
‘Sure hate to see a horse in pain like that, though.’
During that night the two brothers took it in turns tending to their little brother, with Hoss making intermittent trips to the barn to check on Cochise. Every couple of hours they roused the boy from his sleep as the doctor had instructed them to, and each time Little Joe co operated with them sleepily. They took turns to snatch a few hours rest each, so that by the time morning came they at least felt partially rested.
At dawn, Hop Sing appeared and shooed them both away. ‘Brothers rest now! Hop Sing sit with Little Joe!’ Neither Adam nor Hoss argued with the diminutive cook. They knew that their brother would receive the best of care in his hands, and they were both longing for their beds. It was well into the morning before the shouting coming from his brother’s room roused Adam.
‘I am so! You can’t stop me!’
As Adam appeared at the door, he was met by Hoss, doing up his shirt as he stumbled out of his room. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Well from experience I’d say that our little brother has decided that he’s been in bed long enough.’ replied Adam dryly. They entered the room together to see Hop Sing holding Little Joe by the shoulders while the boy attempted to get out of the bed.
‘Let me go. I am so getting up!’ Little Joe turned to his brothers. ‘Tell Hop Sing I’m allowed up.’
Adam shook his head. ‘You just stay where you are. Doc Martin said you have to stay there until tomorrow. Hop Sing, could you get Joe something to eat please?’
Little Joe immediately put out his bottom lip and crossed his arms over his chest in his customary sulking position. ‘I am fine! There’s no need for me to stay in bed, and I’m…’
‘Not hungry.’ Hoss finished for him. ‘Yeah, we know little buddy, you never are.’
Little Joe glared at him and continued to sulk. ‘Anyway I have to get up now, cause I need to let Cochise know I’m all right.’
Adam glanced at Hoss. Their little brother had obviously forgotten the possibility that the horse may have been hurt. ‘You’re not going anywhere near the barn, so you can just forget it. The doctor said you are staying in bed, and that’s exactly what you will do even if I have to tie you here.’ He reached over to feel the back of Little Joe’s head. ‘You’ve still got a bit of a lump there.’
‘It’s nothing! And I’m not eating that!’ Little Joe declared as Hop Sing entered the room carrying a tray.
‘If you want to get out of bed by tomorrow you are.’ replied Adam. They all knew what a bad patient Little Joe could be, and none of them were prepared to stand any nonsense from him. Hop Sing sat on the edge of the bed and handed the bowl of soup to the boy, who scowled as he took it.
‘Hey Hoss,’ he said between mouthfuls. ‘How’s Cochise? He isn’t cranky with me is he?’
Hoss shook his head. It amazed him how his little brother assumed that everyone else felt about the horse as he did. ‘How would I know? Just because you two seem to communicate in some kind of boy/horse talk, doesn’t mean that everyone can, you know.’
‘Yeah but, I mean he wasn’t upset or nothing was he? He is fine?’
Hoss turned away, not quite knowing how to respond. Adam interrupted ‘Just worry about yourself for now and finish eating.’
Little Joe stared at both his brothers. ‘He’s not fine is he? Did he get hurt?’ When neither of them answered he continued ‘He did, didn’t he? Well that settles it, I’m going out to see him.’ He put the bowl on the nightstand and flung back the covers.’
Adam immediately flung them back again. ‘Stop acting like a baby and stay in that bed like you’ve been told to. Hoss will look after Cochise until you are well enough to get up.’
Little Joe stared at Hoss with an anxious look on his face. ‘What’s wrong with him? How bad hurt is he?’
Hoss turned back to the bed. ‘He got pinned under a beam from the fence and caught up in some wire. He’s got some cuts on him, but I’ve cleaned him up and bandaged them.’
‘Will he be OK?’
Hoss shrugged, not wanting to lie to his brother but not wanting to get his hopes up either. ‘Don’t know for sure, we’ll just have to wait and see.’ When Little Joe continued to stare at him, he continued. ‘I’ll go check on him now and give you an update, OK?’
Little Joe nodded and laid back on the pillow as Hoss left the room. Adam picked up the bowl and handed it back to his younger brother. ‘Now eat.’ Little Joe took it and began to eat automatically, his mind on what was happening in the barn. Adam could not help but feel sorry for him, even though he was still angry about the way he had acted the previous day.
‘Look Joe,’ he said, ‘Hoss will do the best he can, you know that.’ His brother nodded silently while his heart cried out for his best friend to get well.
Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing certainly had their work cut out for them during the remainder of the day to keep Little Joe in bed. Once Hoss had come back with the report that Cochise had developed a fever, the boy had done everything in his power to persuade them that he was well enough to get out of bed and into the barn. By the time night fell, they were at their wits end as to how to keep him still. Finally, Adam and Hop Sing decided to take it in shifts in his room again during the night, as they knew that the moment he was left alone he would try to escape outside. Hoss spent part of the night in the barn tending to Cochise’s needs, trying to bring down the horse’s fever by applying cold compresses to his wounds.
By the time morning arrived, everyone’s nerves were on edge. In the early morning light, Adam sought refuge in an early cup of coffee on the front porch, while he savoured the chilly air and the scent of the pines that surrounded him. He glanced over to the barn where he knew Hoss would still be tending to Cochise. ‘Damn that Little Joe!’ he thought. ‘Always causing problems for everyone because he just had to go and do his own thing. Why couldn’t the boy follow instructions for once instead of insisting on getting his own way?’ Not only had the boy nearly injured himself and caused problems for both his brothers, but also he had damaged one fine horse with his irresponsible ways. Adam knew his brother hadn’t meant to do it – God knows he would be the last person on this earth who would have wanted Cochise hurt – but it still didn’t excuse him.
The silence was broken by the sound of the door banging behind him, and his younger brother’s footsteps as he ran full pelt out of the front door. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ he asked.
Little Joe slowed down and looked at his brother. ‘To the barn to see Cochise.’
‘Who said you could get out of bed?’
‘You said yesterday that I could get up tomorrow, and it’s tomorrow now.’
Adam couldn’t fault his logic. ‘OK, but you’re not going anywhere without any….’ His words trailed away as he realised he was talking to the thin air.
‘…breakfast.’ he finished as he followed his younger brother towards the barn.
As he entered the barn, he saw Hoss kneeling by the side of Cochise applying some wet bandages and Little Joe lying beside the horse clutching him around the neck. Hoss looked up at Adam with a weary and somewhat forlorn look.
‘Hoss, I think you need to get some sleep now, why don’t you let Little Joe watch Cochise for a while?’
Hoss nodded as he stood and stretched. ‘Yeah thanks. I’m bone weary, that’s for sure. Think I’ll get some shut eye for a few hours.’
Little Joe raised his head and looked at his brother with pleading eyes. ‘But Hoss,’ he began.
Adam interrupted him before he could continue with what he knew would be a plea for Hoss to stay. ‘Joe, let Hoss go to bed. He’s been here with that animal for the best part of two days now, and he needs some sleep. You can watch him for a while.’
‘But Hoss is so good with helping sick animals, and Cochise needs him!’
‘Well you should have thought about Cochise before, and then maybe you wouldn’t have done such a stupid thing! He’d be all right now if it wasn’t for you!’
Little Joe paled at his brother’s words, and bent his head back down onto the neck of his horse. ‘I’m sorry Hoss, I know you need some rest. I’ll look after Cochise now.’
Hoss looked at Adam and turned to leave the barn. Little Joe continued to stroke the mare’s neck and crooned softly to her, and as Adam sat next to him, he looked up and whispered. ‘I’m sorry Adam, I didn’t mean to hurt Cochise.’
‘I know you didn’t mean it Joe, but you’ve got to learn to think before you do things.’
Little Joe swallowed. ‘He’s hurt real bad, isn’t he?’
Adam knew that his brother needed to hear the truth. ‘Yes he is. I don’t know that even Hoss really knows what to do for him. He’s tried to keep the fever down, but the cuts have become infected and it’s hard to fight against that.’
Little Joe directed his next comment to his beloved horse. ‘Don’t you worry Cooch. You’re going to be all right. I won’t let anything happen to you now.’
Adam shook his head. ‘Try and get him to eat something if you can, while I get you some breakfast. I guess there’s no point insisting you eat it inside.’
Little Joe shook his head. ‘I’m staying here.’
Later that morning, Hoss descended the staircase to find Adam poring over the account books at their father’s desk. Adam looked up and smiled. ‘Sleep well?’
Hoss nodded and grabbed an apple from the dish on the coffee table as he walked over to the study. ‘Yeah. How’s Cochise?’
Adam looked back to the books in front of him. ‘Joe’s still out there with him. He looks worse to me though, his fever’s still high and the wounds don’t seem to be healing.’
Hoss turned towards the door. ‘I’ll go and stay with them both for a while.’
‘Hoss?’ Adam asked. ‘Is that horse as bad as I think he is?’
Hoss sighed. ‘He’s not good that’s for sure.’
‘Well I think we’d better start letting Little Joe know how serious it is. If this goes on much longer we’re going to have to act on it.’
Hoss widened his eyes. ‘Adam, you can’t be serious! You know what that would do to the boy! We just can’t!’
Adam glared at his brother. ‘I’m not thinking of Joe at the moment, I’m thinking of the horse. Just how fair is it to keep Cochise in pain because we’re trying not to hurt Joe? You and I both know that if he weren’t involved in this, we probably would have already shot the animal. You of all people should know that it’s getting to the stage where it’s just plain cruel to keep this going.’
Hoss hung his head and shuffled his feet. He knew that Adam was speaking the truth and the animal deserved to be allowed to be put out of its misery, but everything in him did not want to do that to his little brother. ‘I agree with what you’re saying Adam, but I just couldn’t do it!’
‘Well then I’m going to have to. This can’t go on much longer Hoss.’
‘Just give me a bit more time with him, for Little Joe’s sake.’ Hoss looked at his brother pleadingly.
‘All right, but if you get the chance start talking to Joe about it. He may just have to get used to the idea.’
Hoss nodded as he walked towards the door. Adam sighed and placed his head on his hand as he tried to turn his thoughts back towards the books in front of him. ‘Oh Pa!’ he sighed. ‘I sure wish you were here! I’m not looking forward to tackling that kid over this, that’s for sure.’
As Hoss entered the barn, he was distressed at the sight before him. Little Joe was huddled next to Cochise stroking his neck, tears falling down his face. The horse was breathing heavily and was in obvious pain. When Joe saw Hoss framed in the doorway of the barn, he sprang to his feet and ran to his brother. ‘Hoss, you gotta help him! He’s real sick Hoss, what can you do for him?’
Hoss crouched next to the horse and spent a few minutes checking his wounds, before he turned to his little brother. ‘We need to change those bandages again, and keep the wet cloths on him to try and get that fever down.’ Little Joe nodded and reached for the bucket of water next to him that he had been soaking the cloths in. While he continued to exchange the cloths, Hoss began to replace the bandages, while watching his brother out of the corner of his eye. The boy was obviously distressed, and the tears fell unchecked down his face as he worked.
After a few moments, Little Joe whispered. ‘I did this to him Hoss. What kind of friend am I?’
‘Aw buddy, you didn’t mean it. He knows that.’
‘It doesn’t matter. It’s like Adam and Pa always tell me, Hoss. I cause trouble because I don’t think about what I do. And now Cochise has to pay for it.’
‘Joe, stop blaming yourself. There’s nothing you can do about it now.’
‘Well I can make sure he gets better at least.’ Joe said as he placed a cloth with a flourish on the horse’s flank.
Hoss thought about what Adam had said. ‘Joe, you know sometimes we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we can’t make someone better just by wishing it.’
‘It’s not just wishing it, we’re doing something about it. If anyone can make him better Hoss it’s you. Pa always says you’re the best there is in the whole territory with animals.’
‘Well it doesn’t mean I can make an animal better just because I want to. Think of all the horses and cattle we’ve had to put down. I never want to do it, but sometimes it just has to be done.’
‘Well not with Cochise it doesn’t! We’ll make him better, won’t we?’ Little Joe looked at his older brother with trusting eyes. ‘You can do it, I know you can. Besides, he’s my best friend, Hoss, I can’t let him down.’
Hoss sighed. ‘Buddy, you might just have to.’
The tears streamed down Little Joe’s face as he clutched the horse’s neck. ‘No! There’s no way I’m going to let him die!’
‘Joe, it’s not a matter of letting him, sometimes it’s out of our hands. You know that as good as Doc Martin is, he sometimes loses patients. Well it’s the same with animals. You’ve seen horses die before, sometimes it’s kinder to them to let it happen rather than have them suffer.’
‘No! Don’t you dare say that! If you don’t want to help him, then leave me to do it!’ Little Joe sprang to his feet and pushed his brother. ‘Why don’t you just get out! You don’t love Cochise like I do, so maybe you should just get out of here!’ He pushed him again as he continued to yell. ‘Get out and leave us alone!’
Adam appeared in the doorway of the barn. ‘What’s all the yelling about?’
Little Joe turned on him as well and continued to yell. ‘You get out too Adam! Both of you leave me and Cochise alone. I can make him better all by myself, and I don’t need your help at all. You just both want him to die!’
‘Buddy you do need us, whether you like it or not. Now stop the whining and just calm down. You should be thanking Hoss, not carrying on like this!’ Adam admonished him.
Little Joe’s hands dropped to his sides. ‘Hoss said Cochise might die. He’s giving up on him, but I won’t!’
‘Hoss is not giving up on him. What he means is that sometimes it’s better to end it before the horse suffers too much.
Little Joe stared at his eldest brother. ‘You don’t mean it! You can’t!’
Hoss stood between them. ‘Listen to me Joe. I know you love that horse. I know you don’t want him to die. But it’s just not fair to him buddy. Look at him – he just doesn’t deserve to be in that much pain. No animal does!’
Little Joe stood still, his arms hanging by his sides and his eyes fixed on the floor. Adam stepped forward, and knelt in front of him. ‘Joe buddy, we’ve all got to do hard things in life. None of us want to, but sometimes it’s just the way it is.’
Little Joe lifted his head and looked at his brother while the tears fell unchecked down his face. ‘No. I understand what you’re saying Adam, but no. If I was sick Pa wouldn’t give up on me, and I can’t do it to Cochise.’
‘Joe. You don’t have a choice.’ Adam leant over and took his brother by the shoulders, but Little Joe shook himself free.
‘Yes I do! You can’t make the choice for me, cause he’s my horse not yours! Pa gave him to me and he’s my responsibility!’ He flung himself back onto the floor next to Cochise and continued to place the wet cloths on the horse. Hoss looked at Adam and shook his head as they both left the barn.
Outside in the yard, the two brothers spoke softly to each other. ‘What are we going to do Adam?’ asked Hoss miserably. ‘He’s not going to give in.’
Adam scratched his head. ‘I’ll do it when he’s asleep tonight.’
‘He’s gunna hate us for this!’
‘I know, but we really have no choice.’
As darkness fell, Adam once again approached the barn, and found his youngest brother in the same position that he had left him. ‘Joe you’ve got to come in now. It’s getting late and you have to eat.’
‘I’m staying with Cochise.’
‘Joe you are coming inside to eat even if I have to carry you in there! You’ve only been out of bed for one day, and I’m not prepared to face Pa when he gets home tomorrow to explain why you’re sick. Now move!’
Little Joe knew that tone of voice that was so like his father’s. It held a challenge in it that Joe knew was futile to argue against. ‘All right, but I’m coming straight back out again as soon as supper is finished.’ He stood and stretched before pushing past his brother and walking towards the house. Adam followed him across the front yard, carefully avoiding the fresh falls of snow that were beginning to appear on the ground around them.
As the brothers entered through the front door, Hoss looked up from the settee. ‘Hop Sing said that supper will be about fifteen minutes.’ he announced.
Little Joe turned to face the door again. ‘I’ll wait outside with Cochise.’ he muttered, but Adam held him firmly by the shoulders. ‘No you won’t! You’ll sit here where it’s warm until supper is ready!’ He propelled his younger brother towards the settee and pushed him firmly down onto it. Little Joe glared at him, but sat still as instructed. Hoss glanced and opened his mouth to speak, but at a look from Adam closed it again. The three brothers sat in silence for a few moments listening to the sound of the crackling fire in front of them.
Much as he would not admit it to his brothers, Little Joe was content to sit for a few moments in the warmth. His head was still throbbing slightly from the fall, and his day in the barn had exhausted him more than he had realised. As the silence and the warmth enveloped him his eyelids grew heavy and his head gradually came to rest on the back of the settee. Adam stood and lifted the boy’s legs up and settled a cushion under his head, and Little Joe did not stir at all.
Without speaking, Hoss moved to the staircase and picked up the Indian blanket that hung on the banister. As he turned with it in his hand, he jerked to see Adam reaching for a rifle from the gun cabinet next to the fireplace. ‘Adam no!’ he whispered. ‘Not now!’
Adam looked over at him as he checked the rifle. ‘No better time. You know what he’s like, once his head hits a pillow he’s out to it. He probably won’t wake up now until morning, and we can get up early and get the horse buried then. It’ll be all over for him and he won’t have to deal with that side of it at least.’
‘I suppose so, but it just seems so ….’ Hoss’ voice trailed off. He didn’t know how to express his feelings about something that would hurt his little brother so deeply.
Adam placed his hand on Hoss shoulder. ‘I know.’ He said. ‘I just think it’s best to get it over with. The longer this goes on, the more he’ll be hurt in the long run.’ Hoss nodded miserably. ‘Stay with him Hoss, I won’t be long. We’ll get him up to bed as soon as I get back.’ Adam turned and shut the front door behind him.
As the door closed, Hop Sing entered the room and yelled ‘Dinner is ready!’ as he banged on a pan. The sound startled Hoss he turned sharply ‘Hop Sing!’ he said ‘Be quiet!’ But it was too late. Little Joe, also startled by the noise, raised his head and looked around. He sat up rubbing his eyes, then stared at his brother.
‘Is supper ready?’ he asked.
‘Yeah buddy, but get a bit more shuteye first. There’s no rush.’ Hoss replied, trying to stop him waking up too much. But Little Joe was not to be sidetracked.
‘Where’s Adam? He was here before.’ He looked around the room, searching for his older brother. When Hoss didn’t answer, he sprang to his feet. ‘If he’s gone out to the barn I’ll get him! I told him Cochise is my horse not his, and I’ll look after him myself.’
Hoss moved to grab his arm, but Joe pulled back away from him. ‘Just stop it Little Joe. Adam only wants to help, you know that.’
‘What do you mean help? What’s he doing?’ Joe ran to the door and began to open it, but Hoss slammed it shut and held onto him. ‘Let me go Hoss! What’s going on? What’s Adam doing out there?’ Little Joe swung around to face his big brother, and as his eyes looked past him to the gun rack realisation dawned in them. ‘Oh my God! No!’ he screamed, and flung Hoss’ hands away. He struggled with the door handle again, and Hoss made another lunge at him. Little Joe kicked out at him startling him and catching him off guard. By the time he regained his balance, the boy was out the door and running swiftly across the yard towards the barn.
Adam looked at the horse sweating and heaving in the straw before him and whispered. ‘Sorry boy.’ As he drew the rifle up to his shoulder and levelled it at the animal’s head, he was startled by a noise behind him. His youngest brother threw himself on him, knocking him off balance, then grabbed hold of the end of the rifle. ‘No!’ Little Joe screamed. ‘Get away from him Adam! Leave him alone!’
Adam struggled to free the rifle away from his brother. The end of the barrel was pointed directly at Little Joe’s chest and he was terrified that it would discharge in the struggle. ‘Joe let go! Don’t touch the gun!’ he yelled at him, but his brother was beyond hearing.
‘Don’t do it!’ Little Joe continued to scream. ‘You can’t do it! I won’t let you!’ He continued to pull on the barrel of the rifle, causing Adam to be pulled off balance again. ‘Give me the rifle Adam, you can’t use it on him!’
Suddenly Hoss appeared and grabbed his younger brother in his arms, pulling him back and away from Adam. Adam managed to get his balance, and breathed a sigh of relief as the rifle fell out of Little Joe’s grasp and he gained control of it again. ‘Keep hold of him Hoss!’ he yelled above the noise of his little brother’s screams. He put the rifle down well out of reach, and turned to face his two brothers. Hoss had his arms tight around his little brother’s waist and was holding him firmly. Little Joe was kicking and screaming for all he was worth, and trying to dislodge Hoss’ hold on him at the same time.
Adam held Little Joe’s head in his hands and turned the boy’s face to his. He stared intently into the green eyes and said firmly. ‘Stop it Joe! Stop and listen to me now!’
‘No! You get out of here!’ Joe kicked out at him. ‘I hate you Adam! I hate you so much! You just leave my horse alone or I’ll kill you!’
Adam kept his gaze on his brother, trying to make him focus. ‘Joe, I said to stop it!’
‘Let me go Hoss! Let me get him! I hate both of you!’ They could both see the boy was beyond reason by now and was not capable of hearing either of them.
‘Hoss we have to get him out of here. Keep hold of him.’ Adam instructed as he grabbed his little brother’s legs. They walked awkwardly out of the barn with their brother swinging between them screaming at them the whole time, as they manoeuvred him towards the house. A light snow had begun to fall, and the snowflakes settled on them as they slipped and slid across the yard.
When they entered the house again they deposited Little Joe on the settee, and Hoss held him firmly. Adam reached for the brandy bottle and poured out a glassful. Holding Little Joe’s head firmly, he forced his mouth open and poured a couple of swallows into it. Little Joe spluttered at the taste of the liquid in his throat and was still for a moment, and that moment was just long enough for Adam to get another couple of swallows down his brother’s throat before he commenced kicking again. Hoss held on to him firmly all the while, muttering in his ear for him to stop it.
After a few moments, the brandy began to take effect, and the boy stopped kicking and attempting to free himself. He looked at Adam, the tears rolling down his face unchecked, took a deep breath and said in a calmer voice, ‘Adam, you can’t do it! Please don’t!’
Adam bent forward and stroked his curly hair. ‘Joe, I didn’t mean for you to see that and I’m sorry you did. But you know it has to be done, and the sooner it happens, the easier it will be for the horse. Just try to calm down.’
‘I can’t, Adam please!’ He clutched his brother’s arm beseechingly and stared at him with tear filled eyes. ‘I’ll do anything, please! He’s my best friend, and you can’t betray your friends. I just want to help him.’
‘Buddy, the only way you’re going to help him is to let him go.’
‘I can’t! Adam, I’m begging you, please!’ Adam looked at Hoss miserably, who shook his head.
‘Buddy, Adam’s right.’ Hoss ventured from his position on the settee behind Little Joe. He hugged the boy tighter. ‘There isn’t a choice any more.’
Little Joe’s began to cry uncontrollably, his thin body shaking with the sobs. ‘It’s not fair. I haven’t even had the chance to say goodbye to him. Please give me that chance. Please.’ His eyes began to close, heavy with the brandy, which was now taking effect, and his speech began to slur. ‘Please don…’t. Plea….se le…t me….’ His head slumped forward and his body became limp.
Adam looked at Hoss, and both of them sighed. Hoss asked ‘Well, what now?’
‘We get him into bed for a start.’
Hoss lifted his little brother into his arms and carried him up the stairs, followed closely by Adam. As they undressed the sleeping boy and placed him under the covers, they discussed the situation. ‘Adam, I don’t know how you can do it after all that.’ said Hoss. ‘Maybe we should leave it until Pa gets back tomorrow, after all he does have a point. I think he deserves to say goodbye to the horse.’
‘I don’t know Hoss. I sure wish Pa were here now to make the decision. I just don’t feel right about leaving this any longer, yet I hate to do it to him. All I know is the horse has to be put down. I just don’t know whether to do it now or in the morning!’
‘Well let’s have supper first and think on it.’ They left the room, and as they did so the boy in the bed stirred. He was in a semi conscious state, and through the haze of the brandy he had heard snatches of the conversation. The words ‘goodbye ….decision….. put down….. do it now…… in the morning’ were racing around his brain, and he fought to stay awake. Little Joe knew that Cochise needed him now more than anyone had ever needed him in his whole life, and he fought to stay conscious so that he could do what he had to do to help him.
With a great effort, he sat up in the bed, and shook his head. Groggily he managed to swing his feet over onto the floor and reached for his clothes. It took quite some time for him to dress himself, and when he had finished he opened the bureau drawer and took out a bundle of extra clothing that he placed in the bed. Pulling up the covers, he plumped them up to make it look as if there was a body lying in the bed, and then he smiled sleepily. After all, this was not the first time he had done this. He was an expert at fooling his father and brothers into thinking he was in bed when in actual fact he had snuck out of his room a number of times to get to the barn or somewhere else when he was confined to his room.
With a great effort, he stood up unsteadily and took some hesitant steps towards the window. For a moment he worried that he might not be steady enough to do what had to be done, but as soon as he opened the window and the cold air gushed into the room he felt somewhat clearer in the head. The chilly wind sent a few stray snowflakes into the bedroom, and he was careful to shut the window as soon as he had climbed out onto the roof. Sliding down the roof was an easy task, but when he looked still somewhat groggily at the drop before him, he hesitated. Normally, his method of exit was to hang from the edge of the roof and swing out to the tree branch that hung around the side of the house, but tonight from some reason the branch seemed an awfully long way away.
He shook his head and began to move down until he was dangling by his fingers, and then launched himself outwards. His foot caught hold of the branch and he rested for a moment before trying again. After several attempts, he managed to hook his other foot around the branch, and held on while he gradually lowered his arms. Clutching hold of the branch for a few seconds, he kept still while his breathing gradually slowed down. After a few moments he descended the tree and finally planted his feet firmly on the ground. Breathing a sigh of relief, he moved unsteadily towards the barn and Cochise.
As he entered the barn, he could hear the laboured breathing of the horse and he headed straight for him. He dared not light a lamp in the dark for fear that his brothers would see it, so he felt rather than saw Cochise beneath him. ‘I’m here boy.’ he said. ‘I’ve come to help you. Don’t worry Cooch, no one’s going to get you, I won’t let them. You and I are going away where they can’t find us, and I’m going to get you better.’
He felt for a halter in the dark, and slipped in over the horse’s head. ‘Come on boy, you’ve got to get up now.’ He pulled on Cochise’s head, but he didn’t move. ‘Come on Cooch I know it’s really hard, but you have to do it! You just have to!’ He pulled again, and the horse lifted his head. ‘That’s it boy! I know you can do it. Come on.’ He stroked the horse’s neck and he nuzzled into him with a small whinny.
After several more pulls, he began to get desperate. ‘All right Cooch, I’ll help you.’ He bent down and attempted to lift the horse, and when unable to do so, got hold of him and tried to drag him across the floor. ‘Come on boy! Move!’ The horse moved his legs, and with a supreme effort managed to sit up. ‘That’s it, come on Cooch.’ Cochise responded to the sound of the voice that he knew so very well. In his delirium he swayed, and lent on the slight frame of the boy beside him who buckled under the weight of the heavy animal. ‘Watch out Cooch, I can’t support you.’ Joe pushed him, attempting to get him on his feet, and he swayed again. Pulling on the halter frantically, he succeeded in lifting the horse’s head so that he was beginning to be dragged upwards, and his legs responded.
With a strength that came from a response to the boy’s insistence, the horse pulled himself to his feet, and swayed unsteadily. Immediately Little Joe began to pull him towards the door a few feet away, but as they slowly made their way into the yard the horse buckled and crashed down onto the ground pulling the boy with him. He lay in a mound of snow, panting heavily and sweating, while Little Joe clung to his side and wept. ‘Good boy Cooch. We’ll try again in a minute. Get your breath back and then we’ll get moving again.’
After a moment, he tried once again to move the horse, but it was obvious even to Little Joe that he had nothing left to give. He leant on Cochise’s neck and sobbed his frustration out as he wept for his best friend. ‘I’m so sorry Cooch! I didn’t mean to hurt you like this, truly I didn’t! I’m sorry!’ Cochise lay still in the snow, the boy’s body wrapped around him.
Hoss and Adam ate a silent meal, each lost in his own thoughts about what do. At the end of the meal Adam stood up and paced up and down in front of the fireplace for a while, while Hoss watched him. Finally he stopped and faced his brother. ‘I guess the kid deserves to say goodbye. But it’s going on no longer than the morning.’
Hoss nodded, relieved. ‘I’ll just go and check on Cochise before I turn in.’
Adam interrupted him. ‘What’s the point? If he dies tonight it takes matters out of our hands and if he doesn’t, then I’ll take care of it in the morning. Pa will be home by tomorrow night, and I guess Joe will really need him by then. Leave him Hoss, you’ve done all you can.’
Hoss shrugged. ‘I guess you’re right. We’d better check on Joe before turning in, though.’
The brothers climbed the stairs wearily. ‘I think we’ll all be able to cope with this a lot better after a good night’s sleep.’ Adam said to his brother as he opened the door to Little Joe’s room and peeped in. In the darkness he could see what he thought was the still form of the boy huddled in the bed. ‘He’s out to it, we’d better get some sleep as well. Night Hoss.’
‘Night Adam.’ The brothers closed the doors of their respective rooms.
Outside the snow continued to fall, the patches in the yard growing higher and gradually spreading towards each other. In the middle of one particularly large patch the still form of a boy lay huddled close to his horse. As the snow fell around and on top of them it cooled the wounds of the horse and gradually helped the fever to ease a little. He licked at the wetness around him and nuzzled the neck of the boy beside him, but he didn’t respond.
Little Joe’s temperature fell with that of the air around him, until he was shivering uncontrollably. He pressed against the warmth of the horse’s flank trying desperately to keep warm, all the time muttering to himself and the animal. ‘We’ll try again. Just rest a minute. We’ll try again.’ Gradually even his words stopped, and he surrendered himself to unconsciousness.
The crisp air was a tonic to Ben’s soul as he rode along the trail towards his home. What a wonderful word that was, he thought. Home! After a few days in Reno he was aching to be back with his sons again, and be part of the closeness that they all shared together. Even though they were grown now (well two of them were, and the other one thought he was!), he still found it difficult to be away from them for any length of time and always relished the times they could all be together.
That was the reason he had taken the opportunity to come back a little early. After he had wired Adam from Reno to let him know of his arrival date, he found that it had been possible to wrap up his business a bit early, and had taken the opportunity to catch the stage that got him to Virginia City late tonight rather than to wait for tomorrow’s one. It meant that he had to get a horse from the livery stable and endure the late night ride to the ranch, but he felt it was well worth it. The boys would be long asleep by the time he made it home, but he would be able to get in a few hours sleep and still surprise them at breakfast.
Ben breathed in the crisp, clean air and thought about his boys. He had no doubt that he would find the ranch in perfect running order and that Adam and Hoss would have carried on as if he had been there personally giving the orders. He hoped that Little Joe had managed to behave himself this time and not cause his brothers any grief, then he chuckled to himself. That would certainly be the day when that youngest boy of his could possibly get through a whole week without causing some kind of trouble for himself or someone else!
As Ben rode silently into the front yard of the ranch he glanced at the still and dark ranch house. Yes it was good to be back! He dismounted and led his horse into the barn, then unsaddled her and took his time rubbing her down. Tomorrow he would have one of the boys return her to the livery stable. As he closed the barn doors, it suddenly occurred to him that they had been left open, for he had not had to open them when he entered. That was strange! It wasn’t like Adam or Hoss to be so disorganised, and they certainly would have made sure that the horses were well looked after on such a cold night. He would have to remember to ask them about that in the morning.
As he walked carefully across the yard he noticed just how deep the snow had piled in some patches. Why, there was a patch of it near the barn door that was so high it almost looked as if ….. He stopped to get a better look and was shocked to see a movement in the middle of the white pile of snow. As he bent closer he realised it was Little Joe’s horse Cochise. Unbelievable! The way that boy looked after his horse, there was no way he would have accidentally been allowed to wander out into the yard unless something was wrong. He knelt next to him and began to scrape the snow away, when he realised that he was indeed hurt. He was covered with many deep cuts and he could see a bandage had been placed around his neck, as well as…
‘Oh my Lord!’ Ben exclaimed. There around the horse’s neck was an arm, and it was …. ‘Joseph! Son, what on earth …..!’ he exclaimed as he frantically began to dig in the snow. As he uncovered the still form of the boy he began to panic. Little Joe’s lips were blue and his skin was as white as the snow that surrounded him. He was trembling uncontrollably and he felt deathly cold to the touch. Ben scooped him up into his arms and ran with him towards the house, and as he did so the boy’s head fell back across his father’s arm and his body lay limp.
The front door crashed open as Ben ran into the downstairs living area. ‘Adam, Hoss, Hop Sing!’ he yelled as he moved swiftly towards the stairs. ‘Get out here quickly!’ As he made it to the top of the stairs with Little Joe in his arms, Adam and Hoss appeared to greet him, their mouths open in surprise. ‘Pa!’ called Adam. ‘What are you doing back? We thought you …..’ his voice trailed off as he realised what his father was carrying. ‘Oh my God! Where did ..’
‘I found him in the front yard with Cochise, lying in a mound of snow. The boy is just about frozen! Get into town and get the doctor quickly.’ Adam turned and ran to his room without a word to get dressed. Hoss stared at his father as Ben entered Little Joe’s room and lay his youngest boy carefully down on the bed. As he began to strip his clothing from him, Hop Sing entered the room then turned back silently to the linen cupboard from which he commenced to take a pile of blankets.
As Ben worked on the boy, he spoke to Hoss. ‘I’d like to know how on earth your younger brother happened to be outside on a night like this, and both of you were unaware of it!’
Hoss sat on the edge of the bed. ‘It’s a long story Pa. Cochise got hurt and I guess Joe was trying to help him.’
‘Hurt! The horse is just about dead! How on earth could you both have allowed him to get to that state Hoss!’
Hoss hung his head. ‘I’ll explain it all to you Pa. We were only trying to help Little Joe.’
‘Help him! For God’s sake Hoss, look at the boy! Do you really think this is helping him?’
‘Pa … I…’
‘Don’t say any more. The important thing at the moment is your brother. We need to concentrate on getting him warm. Hand me those blankets. Hop Sing, we are going to need a couple of warming pans.’
Hoss heard the sound of a horse leaving in the yard below. ‘Adam has just left Pa. I’ll go down to see to Cochise.’ He hesitated. ‘What do you want me to ….’
‘Shoot him! Get it done now. It looks as if this has gone on far too long, and the animal should have been put out of his misery days ago.’
Ben looked up at him. ‘Shoot him Hoss! If you can’t do it, then get one of the hands to do it for you.’ He turned back to the shivering boy on the bed and began to cover him with the blankets, while Hoss turned and left the room.
The large living area was darkened and quiet as Hoss made his way towards the gun rack and reached for a rifle. He stood in the darkness for a moment, his hand clutched around the barrel, then walked slowly towards the front door. As he opened it a blast of cold wind slapped against his face, and he shuddered. Out in the yard he could see the prone figure of the horse surrounded by snow. ‘Please let him already be dead.’ he prayed silently. ‘Don’t let me be the one to have to do it. I don’t want to have to let Little Joe know that I was the one.’
But as he approached the animal his heart sank, for he detected a movement and knew that he was still alive. As he neared him, Cochise lifted his head and looked at Hoss, and he swallowed as he bent over the horse and stroked his neck. ‘Strange’ he thought to himself. ‘He doesn’t feel as hot as he did before.’ He took a closer look at the horse, patting over his wounds with his hands. ‘Well I’ll be!’ he said out loud. ‘If that don’t beat all!’
The horse’s fever had definitely lessened brought down by the cold snow in which he had laid for the past few hours. His skin had more colour in it, and his eyes were definitely brighter. He loosened the bandage covering the wound closest to him, and inspected it, amazed to see that it was not quite so red and swollen.
For a moment he hesitated, then turned to look up at the bedroom window where a lamp was shining brightly. Slowly he straightened, then took the rifle in his hand and fired a shot straight up into the air before moving quickly to the barn to find some rope.
Upstairs Ben worked quickly, sponging Little Joe’s face with tepid water. The boy was still shivering, but Ben knew that it was only a matter of time before his temperature began to rise and he would be in the midst of a fever to match the chill that he was currently experiencing. He drew the wet cloth across the boy’s forehead and bent close to him. ‘Joe son, can you hear me?’ The youngster on the bed tossed his head on the pillow and muttered incoherently as he did so. Ben frowned and continued to wipe his face.
He turned sharply as the sound of a rifle shot rang through the air. ‘Good.’ he thought. ‘That was something that should already have been done. Best for everyone that it’s over with, and the boy can stop worrying about it.’ Ben turned his attention back to the sleeping boy next to him, unaware that his other boy was at that very moment engaged in an act that would greatly displease his father if only he had known.
Hoss tied the rope around the body of the horse and dragged him towards the barn. Once inside he quickly undid the bandages that he had placed there earlier and collected two buckets from the hooks on the wall. In a few moments he was back with them and tipped onto the still form of the horse a small amount of snow that he packed around his wounds. During the next couple of hours he repeated these actions until he had literally covered the horse. As the snow melted he replaced it with fresh supplies.
By the time he heard the noise of two approaching riders in the yard outside, Hoss was covered with sweat from the exertion of his task. He glanced outside to see Doctor Martin walking swiftly towards the house, then bent back over the sleeping animal next to him. A sound behind him made him look up.
‘What on earth are you doing Hoss?’ Adam stood behind him with the two horses reins in his hands, his eyes wide.
‘Helping get the fever down.’
‘Are you crazy? The horse is beyond it.’
‘No Adam he ain’t. When I went to check on him I noticed that the snow had lowered his fever. I think he’s got a chance.’
‘Hoss he hasn’t. He’s beyond it, even you said it yourself.’
‘Well that was before. Anyway, I don’t care any more, I’m not willing to give up on him. I owe it to Little Joe. After what that kid did and all, I mean who knows if he’s going to make it now, and he’d want …..’ Hoss’ voice trailed off and he bent his head. His shoulders heaved as the sobs racked his body.
Adam took two steps forward and put his arm around his brother. ‘Don’t you think like that Hoss, of course he’s going to make it. He’s a tough kid.’
‘Adam, you didn’t see him up close. I could tell from the way he looked …… and Pa, well you should have seen the look in his eye. I’ve never seen him so worried.’
‘Hoss the doctor’s here now. I’m sure Joe will pull through.’ Adam spoke with a confidence that he honestly didn’t feel.’
‘Well whatever happens, I just can’t abandon this horse now. Not when he’s showing the first sign of any improvement. And definitely after what Little Joe did. I have to do it for him, Adam.’
Adam nodded. ‘What can I do to help?’
Hoss wiped his sleeve across his eyes and smiled at his brother as he handed him the two buckets. ‘Get out there and collect some snow.’
Upstairs in Little Joe’s bedroom, a very different conversation was taking place. As Doctor Paul Martin entered the boy’s bedroom and took his first look at the youngster on the bed, he knew with certainty that he was desperately ill. Ben stood to greet his friend. ‘Paul, I’ve never been so glad to see you!’
‘Adam told me what happened.’ Said the doctor as he took out his stethoscope and placed it on Little Joe’s chest. He listened for a few moments before straightening up and observing the boy. ‘How long was he out there?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t heard the details yet. Probably a few hours by the look of him.’
Paul nodded. ‘I won’t lie to you Ben, we’ve got a fight on our hands. This boy is going to develop one almighty fever, and we’re going to have to probably battle pneumonia as well if it gets to his lungs.’
Ben nodded ‘Just tell me what to do.’
During the next few hours Ben learned very well what had to be done as he and the doctor constantly sponged the boy with water. As the time wore on, Little Joe stopped shivering as Ben had predicted and his temperature began to climb with a rapidness that was alarming. His head tossed on the pillow and he muttered incoherently at times, although Ben could pick out the occasional word or phrase.
‘No …..no don’t …..Adam no!’
Ben leant closer to the feverish boy. ‘It’s all right now Joe, shhh.’ he whispered.
‘No …..please Adam …..please ….. You’ve got to move boy.’ Little Joe’s hands waved frantically in the air, and his fevered eyes looked around the room as if searching for something. ‘Cochise …..Pa, where’s Cochise.’ he implored his father. ‘Pa, I’ve got to get him out…No..Adam!’
‘Shh son. Cochise has gone now.’ Ben assured his boy.
‘Gone?’ Little Joe looked up at his father.
Ben smoothed the curls off his son’s forehead. ‘He’s dead son. You don’t have to worry about him any more. He’s gone now.’
Little Joe’s tears made tracks down his hot cheeks. ‘Dead? He’s gone?’
Ben held him close. ‘Yes. You have to let him go now, Joe. Rest for Pa now, Little Joe.’
Joe slumped back onto the pillow and closed his eyes wearily. He trusted his Pa, and if he said it was over, then it must be. He surrendered himself to a world of dreams.
Downstairs in the barn, Adam and Hoss sat and watched Cochise. ‘I told you so.’ said Hoss. ‘His fever’s going way down now, and just take a look at those wounds.’
‘Well they certainly look a little better.’
Hoss held the horse under the chin and lifted his head. ‘He’s brighter too, ain’t ya boy?’ Cochise looked back at him and tossed his head slightly.
Adam stood up. ‘Hoss I’m going upstairs to see what the doctor says about Little Joe. I’ll be back in a few moments.’
‘Don’t tell Pa about Cochise.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He might get real mad if he thinks …. Well it’s probably just best if he doesn’t know.’
Adam looked at his brother intently. ‘Hoss what are you trying to say?’
‘Well it’s just that Pa might ask you if Cochise is, well, gone.’
‘Are you trying to tell me that Pa thinks you’ve already shot him? Did he tell you to?’
‘Hoss! He ordered you to shoot him, and you didn’t do it? I didn’t know that when I said I’d help you.’
‘And wouldn’t you have helped anyway?’
Adam hesitated. ‘Yes I would.’ He paused again ‘But I’m not going to lie to him Hoss.’
‘I’m not asking you to. Just don’t volunteer any information. Please?’
Adam nodded before leaving the barn. As he entered the room upstairs he saw his father and the doctor both bent over the bed attending to his little brother. They were propping the boy up on pillows to raise his body to a semi sitting position. ‘Keep him there Ben while I put this one right under him.’ instructed the doctor. ‘We have to try and make it easier for him to breathe.’ Adam looked at the boy who was gasping for breath as his hands frantically clutched at his father. His eyes were closed and beads of sweat dripped down his face. The sheet covering him was saturated.
Ben turned as Adam stepped quietly across the floor. ‘I guess I don’t have to ask how he is.’ Adam said.
‘It looks like pneumonia is setting in.’ said Ben patting Little Joe’s head comfortingly. ‘He’s having trouble breathing. Where’s Hoss?’
‘He’s in the barn’. Adam hesitated. ‘You know how he feels about Little Joe Pa. He’s real upset.’
Ben nodded. ‘Stay with him son and help him.’
Adam nodded as he turned to go. ‘I will.’
‘Pray for your little brother.’
Adam swallowed and nodded silently as he left the room. Outside in the hallway he stopped for a moment and laid his head against the wall. Inside the room he could hear Little Joe’s laboured breathing as he struggled for each breath that he took.
Throughout the long hours of that night two battles were waged at the Ponderosa ranch. One in the barn as the two brothers fought to save the cherished best friend of their little brother, and the other in the small upstairs bedroom where the two men fought to contain the breathing and temperature of the young boy.
Around dawn, Ben lifted his weary head and looked at his friend slumped in the chair next to the bed. ‘Paul? His temperature seems to be climbing higher.’ The movement of his youngest son tossing on the bed interrupted him. ‘Pa? …… Pa?’
‘I’m here Joe. Lay back and get some rest now.’ He reached for a cloth in the bowl next to the bed and wearily began to sponge the youngster’s face again. Little Joe continued to moan softly and toss his head on the pillow. ‘I can’t….Pa? Pa, I’m so hot …..please….drink.’
Ben lifted Joe’s head and put a glass of water to his lips. The boy drank thirstily for a few moments, and then leant back on his father’s arm. Ben continued to stroke his forehead as he looked at the doctor. ‘He’s getting worse.’
A movement behind them caused him to turn. Adam held a cup of coffee out to him and one to the doctor. ‘Thought you could both do with these.’ he said. The two men accepted them gratefully. ‘Any change?’
Paul stood up and stretched. ‘His lungs are very congested, but the worst is that we can’t seem to get the fever down. He’s becoming very weak.’
Adam looked down at his brother. ‘You both look as if you could do with a rest. Let me sit with him for a while.’
Ben shook his head. ‘Thank you son, but I’m not leaving him. You get yourself some rest, and you too Paul.’
‘Come and get me if you need to Ben.’ said Paul and laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Ben nodded.
‘I’ll show you where you can rest, doc.’ said Adam as he gestured towards the door, and the grateful doctor nodded as they left the room.
Left alone with his son for the first time in hours, Ben slumped forward and rested his head in his hands. ‘Help him Marie.’ he prayed. ‘Our boy needs your help.’ Beside him Little Joe continued to toss in the bed, feebly clutching at the sheets and moaning softly. Ben continued to stroke his hair as he prayed for his son. Around them the household slept, each of the inhabitants exhausted by their long vigil, and outside in the barn Hoss slumbered next to Cochise. Ben kept a solitary watch with his boy.
It wasn’t until near noon that Adam finally persuaded Ben to leave Little Joe’s bedside for a while. He managed to convince his father that he would not be able to help the boy if he did not get some sleep himself, but Ben only agreed on the condition that Adam woke him if there was any change in the boy’s condition. Adam took his place next to the bed, and it was there that Hoss found him an hour later when he entered the room.
‘I thought you were staying downstairs with Cochise?’ Adam commented as he wiped Little Joe’s face once again.
‘He’s a lot better now, so I left him for a while. You won’t believe this, Adam, but I really think that he’s turned a corner.’
‘You mean he’s going to make it?’
‘Well it’s too early to say for sure, but at least he has a chance now. I just wish I could make this little guy understand that.’
‘Pa told him Cochise is dead, hoping that he wouldn’t be so keyed up about it. It seems to have worked, he hasn’t mentioned the horse’s name at all for ages. He needs to concentrate on getting well Hoss, not about that horse.’
‘Doesn’t look like that’s happening.’ Hoss gulped. ‘He’s worse Adam, at least he looks like he is!’
‘I know. I think the doc is really worried.’
‘Is he going to make it?’ Hoss asked, not really wanting to know the answer to his question.
Paul answered from behind them as he entered the room. ‘No one can say Hoss, he’s a very sick boy.’ Both the brothers stared at him as he continued. ‘Boys I have to say something while your father’s not around. Ben’s going to need you both to be strong for him if the worst happens. You need to prepare yourselves in case it does.’
The three men were silent, and the only sound in the room was the laboured breathing of the boy in the bed. Adam sat and stared at his brother lying in front of him, and Hoss moved over to the window and stared out at the falling snow outside. Paul looked at each of them, his heart breaking for the sons of his dear friend. He took the cloth from Adam’s hand and wet it in the bowl before applying it to Little Joe’s chest and torso.
‘It’s my fault.’ said Adam in a low voice. ‘If I had shot the horse in the first place this never would have happened. Little Joe would never have been out there in the snow and got sick.’
‘It’s not your fault Adam.’ said his father’s voice behind him. Adam turned to face him, his face mirroring his feelings of despair. ‘No one knows more than I do just how stubborn that boy can be. You acted in his best interests, and no one blames you for what happened.’
‘I blame me.’ Adam continued in the same low voice.
‘Well don’t! I don’t want to hear you say that again. It’s over and done with now, the horse is dead and nothing either of you did was with the intention of hurting your brother.’ Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance. ‘We have to work together now to get him better, not dwell on the past.’
Little Joe stirred again, and Paul bent over him. His worried look said everything to the three men watching him, and no one needed to say a word. Finally, Paul himself broke the silence. ‘He’s becoming very weak, and I don’t know how much longer this can go on. If there was only some way to bring down the fever.’ He shook his head and sighed.
‘Snow.’ said Hoss as he continued to stare out of the window at the falling flakes.
‘What?’ asked Paul.
Hoss turned to face them. ‘Snow. If we packed some around him, it would help.’
They looked at him.
‘Well it worked for … I think it’s worth a try, don’t you?’
Ben interrupted him. ‘Hoss, Joe lying in the snow is what caused this in the first place. I don’t see that …..’
Adam interrupted him. ‘Pa Hoss is right. It’s worth a try isn’t it?’
Ben looked at Paul. ‘All right, at this stage I’m willing to try anything.’
A half hour later, Little Joe was lying with clumps of snow packed around his thin body. As his father and brothers looked down at him, Paul echoed what was in all their minds. ‘I hope to God this works.’
‘It’ll work.’ said Hoss.
‘What makes you so sure?’ asked Ben.
‘Cause it has to. This boy can’t die Pa, he just can’t.’ Tears streamed down Hoss’ face.
Ben put his arm around his middle boy. ‘I know how you feel Hoss. None of us are ready to let him go, are we?’ he smiled at both his boys.
Hoss shook his head. ‘I’ll do whatever we have to Pa. Just tell me what to do!’
‘Be patient Hoss, that’s all we can do now.’
Throughout the long night their patience was tested to the limits of their endurance. As each batch of snow melted, they replaced it with fresh clumps, until the boy in the bed showed signs of cooling down. Then they removed it to give his body a chance to stabilise before they repeated the process. By the time the dawn broke, they were all exhausted and Little Joe and his bed were saturated. Paul lent over the boy’s body and put his stethoscope to his chest. ‘His lungs are still very congested, but at least his body can fight a bit with a lowered temperature. Good suggestion Hoss.’
Hoss smiled at the doctor. ‘Does this mean that he’s got a chance?’
‘Don’t get me wrong, there’s always a chance. However, the lowering of the temperature is artificial at the moment. His body is responding to what we’re doing, but he isn’t yet capable of maintaining the lower temperature by himself. So we have to keep this up for a while longer. His breathing is still the same unfortunately, and there’s just no way to help that at the moment, apart from positioning him to help clear the lungs.’
‘It’s listening to that breathing that’s just so hard.’ said Ben as he gazed at the boy. Little Joe’s chest heaved with every breath as he struggled to maintain a flow of air into his lungs. ‘He’s fighting so hard, but how long will he have the strength to keep this up?’
Paul shook his head. ‘That’s not up to any of us to know, Ben. It’s in the Lord’s hands now. We have to continue to keep his temperature down, and hope that he can do the rest.’
The Lord was looking kindly on the Ponderosa ranch that day, as Little Joe continued to improve slightly. Gradually his body maintained a stable temperature, and the threat of him succumbing to a dangerously high fever lessened with the passing hours. However, there was still the problem of his breathing and the doctor continued to hover over him as he fought for each intake of life-giving air.
Ben sat on the bed holding up his son in a propped up position to allow him to breath a little easier, as Paul placed the stethoscope on the boy’s chest. ‘Still tight.’ he said. Little Joe lay in his father’s arms looking at the doctor with green eyes that were glazed with the effort of concentrating on his breathing. Ben stoked the curly hair on the boy’s forehead and spoke gently to him.
‘Just relax Joseph. That’s the boy, concentrate on breathing slowly.’ Little Joe tried to do as he was told, but the effort of doing so just did not seem worth it. Why wouldn’t his Pa just let him go to sleep? It seemed to Joe that every time he drifted off someone insisted he concentrate again. It was all too much of an effort for him, and one that he just wanted to forget. What Little Joe did not realise was that it was the effort of breathing that was keeping him awake, and not the insistence of those around him. His body was craving to just let go, and he wanted to sink down into unconsciousness along with it.
Paul spooned into the boy’s mouth some of the medicine that they had been attempting to get into him over the past few days. ‘Hold his head still again Ben, he needs as much of this as possible to break up the congestion in his lungs.’ But Little Joe was beyond fighting them as he had done in the past. He held still and allowed the doctor to give him a spoonful without moving his head at all. It was as if he had no more energy to fight, and that was what had Ben worried more than anything.
‘Paul he seems like he’s given up. The Little Joe I know has always been a fighter, but this boy is just so different.’
‘I don’t think he’s consciously doing it Ben, he just doesn’t have the strength to fight any more.’
Ben hugged his boy tightly and whispered in his ear. ‘Keep going Joe. Come on, son. Breathe deeply for Pa. That’s it.’
Little Joe slumped back in his father’s arms and closed his eyes again, too weary to care any more. He drifted off into a light sleep again.
‘Unbelievable!’ exclaimed Adam as he slapped Hoss on the back. ‘You’ve done an incredible job.’
‘It’s not me, its Cochise that’s done it.’ said Hoss with delight. Little Joe would be so proud of him if he knew.’ His voice caught as he spoke his little brother’s name, and he unconsciously glanced towards the house and the window of the boy’s room. ‘I just hope he gets the chance to find out.’
There was silence in the barn as the two brothers watched the horse. Cochise had lost quite a bit of weight during the last few days and they were pleased to see him chomping on the oats that they had offered him. His fever was a thing of the past now, and the cuts were beginning to scab over. They were very sure that the horse was out of danger.
‘Strange isn’t it, how Little Joe was the one so worried about Cochise, and now that he’s getting better Joe is the one in danger. It’s kind of like they’re on a balance – when one goes up, the other goes down and vice versa. Like their lives are connected.’ said Adam.
Hoss frowned at him, not quite sure what he was getting at. ‘Well all I know is that Little Joe would have wanted us to do what we did.’
‘Have you thought about what you’re going to say to Pa when he finds out?’
‘I’ll just tell it like it is I guess. I don’t care how mad he is with me, I’d do it all again for that boy up there.’
‘Hoss I think we should tell him.’
‘What good would it do at the moment? He’s too busy concentrating on Joe.’
‘I don’t mean just tell Pa. I meant tell Little Joe.’
Hoss stared at his brother. ‘But Pa told him Cochise is dead. He ain’t going to take it kindly if we stir the boy up again in his condition.’
Adam bent forward and pulled his knees close to his chest as he sat against the wall of the stall. ‘It’s exactly his condition that I’m thinking about. You’ve seen the way he just lays there.’
‘That’s because the doctor says he’s exhausted.’
‘I know, but that’s just my point. He is exhausted that’s true, who wouldn’t be after what he’s been through? But you know that little brother of ours. If he’s got something to keep him going, then he’ll fight. He needs something to fight for.’
‘He’s got Pa, you and me to fight for. He knows that.’
‘Sure he does. But maybe Cochise is the something extra that he needs. You know how we always said he lived for this horse. Maybe this time Cochise is the one thing to really make him live!’
Hoss thought for a moment. ‘I don’t quite know what you’re getting at, but if you think telling Little Joe is going to help, let’s do it. I’ll do whatever it takes to give that boy a chance to get well.’
‘I’ll come with you while you tell Pa.’
Hoss gave him a small smile. ‘You’re damn right you will! I’m not facing this alone.’
As the two brothers entered the bedroom upstairs, they were dismayed to find their father slumped in a chair next to the bed, tears streaming down his face unchecked. Ben sat up straight when he saw them in the doorway, and wiped his sleeve across his eyes quickly. Embarrassed, Adam cleared his throat and waited for his father to regain his composure.
‘I’m sorry boys, guess I’m just tired.’ Ben said.
Hoss nodded ‘We all are Pa. But none of us as much as Joe must be.’
They glanced at the boy lying so still in the bed. The only movement was the rise and fall of his chest and the only sound his raspy short breaths.
‘Yes.’ Said Ben. ‘He just isn’t responding to much at all now. I just wish …..’ his voice trailed away and the silence stood between the three of them.
Adam looked at Hoss who cleared his throat. ‘Pa, there’s something I have to tell you.’
Ben looked at him. ‘Yes?’ he asked when Hoss didn’t continue. ‘What is it son?’
‘Pa it’s …… When you told me to …… Well, I think you should know…..’ Hoss found it difficult to get the words out, and looked at Adam for support.
‘What is it son? You can tell me.’
‘Pa I didn’t do …..that is I …. Pa, Cochise is still alive.’
Ben raised his eyebrows and stood up. ‘What?’
‘I couldn’t do it Pa. I know you told me too, but I just couldn’t. I went down to do it the other night and he was ….well his fever had gone down and …..I just thought he needed the chance. Little Joe would have wanted me to help him.’ Hoss looked at his father, willing him to understand.
‘Do you mean to say you let the animal continue to suffer?’
‘Yes ….I mean no …..he was beginning to get better Pa. I just helped him along.’
‘Pa, you just wouldn’t believe it.’ interrupted Adam. ‘You should see him. He’s up and eating, Pa. The cuts are healing and he has no sign of a fever at all.’ He stopped as his father continued to stare at them both, his expression difficult to read.
‘Pa.’ continued Hoss. ‘I know I did wrong. But I did it for Little Joe Pa. I had to do it.’
Ben’s eyes misted over and he took two steps forward to hold his middle son by the shoulders. ‘And thank God you did son.’ He drew him forward in a hug.
Adam stared at his father. ‘You mean you’re not mad?’
Ben shook his head. ‘Mad? Boys I’ve been sitting here thinking how wrong I’ve been. If there’s one thing I know it’s how much this boy loves that horse. All I can think of is how I wish he were still alive, maybe then Little Joe might have the strength to keep going. I so regret telling him he was dead, but at the time I felt I had no option. Now you come in and tell me that the horse is still alive! Boys,’ his eyes drifted back to the bed. ‘…..no I’m not mad.’
‘Pa, Adam thinks we should tell Little Joe that Cochise is still alive.’ said Hoss.
Adam interrupted. ‘It might help him to fight Pa.’
Ben nodded. ‘I agree.’ He sat down on the edge of the bed and held his son tenderly in his arms. ‘Joseph, son….. Joe, it’s Pa. Open your eyes son.’ But the boy on the bed did not respond. Ben tried again. ‘Joe listen to me boy…. It’s Pa. I need to tell you about Cochise…’ They waited for a response, but the boy was still.
‘Tell him anyway Pa. He might hear you.’ said Hoss.
‘Joe son, Cochise is alive. He wants to see you Little Joe, so you have to get better for him now. Open your eyes son and look at me. Cochise needs you to get better.’ The boy still did not respond.
Adam sat on the opposite side of the bed. ‘Hoss helped Cochise to get better Joe. He’s up and around now, and waiting for you to go down and see him.’
‘Hoss knelt by the bed and took hold of his little brother’s hand. ‘Hey shortshanks. Open your eyes, will ya? Cochise needs to see you now. Come on little buddy.’
The three men tried over and over again to will the boy back to consciousness. They talked far into the night over his bed, telling him how much his friend needed him, and how much he needed to get better to see him again. They talked of Cochise and how Joe had trained him when Ben had first given him to the boy as a birthday present. They talked about the things they had done together with the pony. They talked of anything that they felt might will the boy back to them and his best friend.
As Little Joe opened his eyes and blinked in the strong sunlight that was coming through the window, he took a moment to focus on the scene in his bedroom before him. Sitting slumped down in a chair next to his bed was his father, head resting on his hand with his eyes closed. Adam was curled up on the end of the bed fast asleep and Hoss was stretched out on the floor snoring softly. Little Joe closed his eyes again and sighed. He felt so tired and thirsty, yet couldn’t think why that might be so. As he lay there he tried to remember why he was in bed in the middle of the day, and why his family might be there with him. It was all too much for the boy.
He moved his legs slowly and wondered that even that small movement made him ache. Turning his head, he saw the water jug on the nightstand beside the bed, and yearned for a drink, but even the thought of lifting his head wearied him. He licked his lips and sighed softly. His hand moved slowly towards the edge of the bed as if to reach out, but even that movement was too much for him and he dropped it again.
The small movement was enough to startle Ben out of his light sleep. As he looked at Little Joe and saw the flutter of his eyelids, he bent forward and stroked the curls off the boy’s forehead. ‘Joseph? Can you hear me son? It’s Pa, Joe. Time to wake up now.’
Little Joe opened his eyes again and looked up at his Pa. He licked his lips again and tried to speak, but all that came out was a soft sigh again. Ben watched him intently and noticed his eyes turned towards the nightstand. ‘Are you thirsty son? Here….’ He reached out for a glass and held it to the boy’s mouth as he lifted his head tenderly with his other hand. Little Joe drank greedily, his eyes closed.
Adam stirred at the foot of the bed, and his movement also woke Hoss who sat up quickly in surprise. ‘What …..?’ he asked in surprise, then grinned as he saw Little Joe drinking the water. ‘Well hello there shortshanks. It’s about time you woke up.’
Adam sat up, rubbed his eyes and smiled at Little Joe. ‘Hi there buddy.’
Joe allowed his head to rest back on his father’s arm as he sighed deeply again. Ben moved over so that he was sitting next to his son on the bed, and gathered him in his arms as he felt his forehead. ‘Still cool.’ he said. ‘Hoss go next door and wake up Paul please. Well now young man, you had us very worried. Glad to see you’re back with us again.’ But his eyes did not reflect the optimism of his voice. The boy still looked extremely pale and drawn, even though his breathing seemed to be a little easier.
Paul entered the room followed by Hoss. One glance at the boy on the bed was enough to prompt him to get his stethoscope out and place it on Little Joe’s chest. He listened for a few moments as the three men clustered around the bed, willing him to say something positive. ‘Well,’ he said when he finally straightened up. ‘His breathing is easier, that’s for sure. It sounds like the congestion has broken up some.’ Ben smiled at the boy in his arms, the relief evident in his face. Hoss and Adam grinned at each other.
‘Well that’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.’ said Ben, clutching his boy tightly in his arms and planting a kiss on his head. Little Joe frowned up at him and whispered softly. ‘Pa …….people are looking!’ The four men laughed out loud, the tension in the room melting with his statement.
Paul picked up his bag. ‘Well it looks as if I might be able to sneak back to town for a while. Ben, I’ll come back out tomorrow morning, but don’t hesitate to send one of the boys in if you need me before then.’ Ben nodded his thanks, his eyes saying more to his friend than he could ever say. ‘And you, young man,’ said Paul ‘go back to sleep and rest.’ But his words fell on deaf ears, as Little Joe already slumbered in his father’s arms once again.
During the remainder of the morning, each of them took turns watching Little Joe, while the others took some well-earned rest. By the time lunch was over the mood of the household was considerably lighter, and they felt a lot more positive about Little Joe’s progress. He had slept the morning through, waking at intervals to drink before slipping back into sleep once again and Hop Sing had even managed to get a few spoonfuls of soup into him.
Early in the afternoon, the boy roused himself again and looked at his father sitting in his usual position next to the bed. ‘Pa?’ he asked.
Ben leant forward and placed his face close to that of his son’s. ‘Yes Joe?’
‘Is Cochise all right?’
Ben smiled at him and patted his head. ‘Yes son, he’s fine. I’m sure he can’t wait to see you again.’
Little Joe smiled up at his Pa. ‘Can I see him now Pa?’
‘The doctor wouldn’t be happy with you getting up yet Joe. You’re still too weak. You’ll have to wait a while longer yet son.’
Little Joe turned his head to away from his father and bit his lip. ‘Pa I hurt him. I did the wrong thing again, Pa.’
Ben stroked his son’s hair. ‘Joe, that’s over with now. Cochise is better and so will you be. We’ll talk about it later.’
‘No Pa, I need to talk about it now. He was real sick Pa, and I did it to him. Adam told me not to, but I still did.’ Tears glistened in his eyes. ‘He’s my best friend Pa, but I hurt him.’
‘Joe, we all do things we regret. The important thing is that we are sorry. Cochise knows that you didn’t mean to hurt him.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Of course I do. And when you’re better you’ll have the chance to tell him so yourself.’ Ben looked down at his young son lying in the bed with tears running down his cheeks. He hesitated, then bent to lift him into his arms, complete with bed coverings. Wrapping them tightly around the boy’s frame he turned and walked towards the window. ‘Look.’ he said, and Little Joe turned his head. Down below them in the corral was the pinto.
Little Joe leant forward and touched the windowpane. ‘Hi Cooch.’ he said softly and smiled. As if sensing their presence, the horse lifted his head and neighed as he pawed the ground in front of him. He tossed his head, his mane flying. Horse and boy stared at each other, lost in thought.
‘I told Adam and Hoss he’d be all right. I knew he would be.’ Little Joe said to his father. ‘Cooch and me are best friends, so I couldn’t give up on him could I?’
‘No Joseph, you couldn’t give up on him.’ Ben turned towards the bed again and placed his son down on it. As he tucked the covers around the boy he said a silent prayer to God for not giving up on his boy either.
Ben leant against the corral fence and watched his youngest son skid to a halt in the yard pulling on Cochise’s reins as he did so. ‘Joseph how many times have I told you to slow down when you come into the yard?’ he asked.
‘Gee, I don’t know Pa. Lots I guess.’
‘Well don’t you think it’s about time that you started paying attention?’
Little Joe grinned at his father. ‘I can’t help it Pa, it’s Cochise. Seems that the more I tell him to slow down the more he just likes to run. He just doesn’t take any notice of me.’ Little Joe stopped and looked at his father. ‘Um, I guess I should be more careful though, shouldn’t I?’
Ben nodded. ‘I guess.’
Little Joe turned to Cochise and patted his neck. ‘Come on boy, let’s get you rubbed down.’ He started to lead the horse into the barn, and then turned towards his father again. ‘Pa?’
‘Do ya reckon me and Cochise could enter the Virginia City horse race next month?’
Ben smiled to himself. One thing was for certain, life with this youngest boy of his was never meant to be dull.