Summary: WHN for “The Last Viking.” Sometimes, protection can come from unexpected sources.
Rated: K+ WC 5500
The crash from upstairs startled, but did not surprise, Ben Cartwright. His older sons jumped at the noise and exchanged glances as their father threw down his napkin.
“What the devil is he doing now?” snapped Ben, leaving his half-finished breakfast behind as he stormed up the stairs to his youngest son’s room, Adam and Hoss in close pursuit.
In the four days since Little Joe had been shot while he and Carrie McClain were escaping from the comancheros, the boy had tried to get out of bed three other times, despite the doctor’s strict orders to the contrary. And each time, he’d somehow seemed to be surprised that he ended up sprawling on the floor.
It wasn’t that Joe was usually a compliant patient, but this reaction to being confined to bed was odd, even for him. As a general rule, he didn’t start fussing about being laid up until at least a few days had passed. This time, though, he’d begun insisting that he was fine almost from the moment he first woke in his own bed.
It was true that his injuries could have been much, much worse. Through sheer providence, the bullet hadn’t hit any major organs, striking instead against a rib that diverted it upward to lodge behind the boy’s collarbone. While the location created a bit of a challenge for the doctor, it was infinitely preferable to the alternative: had the bullet entered an inch lower, it would have gone between ribs, straight into Joe’s lung, likely killing him within minutes. And though Ben knew enough to be grateful to the Almighty for such protection, Little Joe’s obstinacy was beginning to raise a faint question in Ben’s mind as to whether an injury ever so slightly more serious might not have been preferable, since his youngest son seemed to consider a bullet wound and broken bones to be mere inconveniences, insufficient to warrant bedrest.
“Joseph!” bellowed Ben as they burst through the doorway to see Little Joe trying to pull himself up from the floor. With left ankle sprained, right shoulder wounded, rib broken and collarbone cracked, the boy was having a hard time figuring out which body parts could withstand enough weight and pressure to enable him to stand. He was clutching his right arm tightly against his side with his left hand, but he released his grip as soon as he saw his family.
“What in tarnation do you think you’re doing now!” his father demanded.
It wasn’t really a question, but Joe responded, “Just thought I’d get dressed and come down to breakfast.” He tried to sound bright and casual, as if he were routinely found lying on his bedroom floor.
Ben closed his eyes and exhaled hard. He never swore, but this was one of those rare occasions when he almost felt that he could let rip with some choice phrases. Roughly, he took hold of his youngest son’s left arm, prepared to haul the boy to his feet and back into bed. Before he could speak, though, he saw the blood.
“What the-” He knelt and unbuttoned the placket of Joe’s nightshirt as if his son were a child. He pushed the shirt aside to see that the wound was indeed open and bleeding. Controlling his temper only by great effort, Ben said, “Adam, would you kindly fetch the doctor and tell him that your young brother has somehow managed to pull out his stitches?”
“Sure, Pa,” Adam said. He shook his head as he squeezed past Hoss. The kid was lucky he was both injured and seventeen years old. Otherwise, a trip across Pa’s lap would probably have been in his immediate future.
“Hoss, would you give me a hand here?” Ben’s middle son was still standing in the doorway, watching. “Hoss!”
“What? Oh, sure, Pa. Here, lemme have him.” Ignoring Joe’s protests that he could get up by himself, Hoss scooped up his brother and deposited him unceremoniously on the bed. “You need me for anything else, Pa?” he asked as Ben reached past him to draw the blanket up over Joe.
Slightly surprised by the question, Ben said, “Would you just get some bandages? We don’t know how long it’ll be before the doctor gets here.”
“Sure, Pa.” Hoss darted out of the room as if it were the last place in the world he wanted to be. Joe watched him go, green eyes dark with concern.
* * * * * * * * * *
Doc Martin came down the stairs, rolling down his cuffs. “Well, hopefully that’ll hold him for a day or so,” he said.
“Appreciate your coming out here-again,” said Ben.
“Well, you’ll be getting a short break, anyway,” said the doctor. “I gave him a good slug of painkiller before I started, and he should sleep for at least a few hours.” His expression grew serious. “Ben, what’s this all about? Have you talked to him?”
“What do you mean?”
“The boy’s stubborn as a goat, but he’s not stupid. He argues about staying in bed, but he usually ends up doing what he’s told, at least for the first few days. But this time-it’s only Tuesday, and this is the third time I’ve been here since I took that bullet out last Friday, and every time, it’s because he’s been up when he shouldn’t be.”
“You think there’s something else going on?” To be honest, Ben hadn’t considered the question. There had been so many other things to occupy his attention-Gunnar’s burial, moving Abe McClain into town where Carrie would have assistance in caring for him, helping Hoss to deal with his uncle’s death and the knowledge of the life the old man had led.
Gunnar Borgstrom was the brother of Hoss’ mother and the only person who shared her blood. He and Hoss had never met until a week earlier, when Gunnar showed up unexpectedly. Over the years, Ben had told Hoss what little he knew of Gunnar, but Gunnar was not one to keep in touch. As children, Hoss and Little Joe had filled in the blanks by making up tales of outrageously dangerous escapades in which Inger Borgstrom Cartwright’s wild younger brother had been always emerged triumphant, the hero who battled tirelessly on the side of right.
The discovery that Gunnar had not been a hero, but one of the comancheros-a group of outlaws who raided, stole and killed-had been very difficult for Hoss to accept. Even harder had been the comancheros’ raid on the neighboring McClain ranch: the comancheros had beaten old Abe McClain badly, and they kidnapped his niece, Carrie, as well as Little Joe, who had been visiting with them. Gunnar had assisted Joe and Carrie in escaping, but even so, Joe had been shot by one of Gunnar’s men. In the end, Hoss watched helplessly when the same man shot Gunnar as the old viking sought to protect both Cartwright brothers and Carrie, and it was Hoss who held his uncle as he died.
Among the images seared in Ben’s brain from that night was the sight of Hoss, leading his horse while Joe swayed in the saddle, barely conscious, and Carrie walked alongside, her hand resting on Joe’s leg. The bloodstain on Joe’s shirt was spreading even as they drew closer to the place where Ben and his older sons had agreed to meet. What riveted Ben’s attention, though, was the expression on his middle son’s face. Grief, anger, and devastating loss showed in the set of his jaw and the marble-blue eyes.
It had fallen to Carrie to tell the story: Hoss was focused on caring for his little brother, to the exclusion of all else. As she recounted the facts of their abduction, Hoss lifted Little Joe down from the horse, gently laying him on the ground and barking instructions about what he needed to care for his brother. While she spoke of their escape, describing how Joe had forced her to keep going after he hurt his ankle and couldn’t run, Hoss held the canteen to the boy’s lips and encouraged him drink. She told of Gunnar’s sacrifice, and Hoss was so intent on cutting off the boy’s boot to strap up the ankle that he didn’t appear to hear a word.
Ben forced his attention back to the issue of his youngest son’s curious behavior. “You don’t think-Joe’s not doing this for attention?” He couldn’t picture such a thing, especially with the household still reeling from Gunnar’s sudden appearance and violent death.
“No, he wouldn’t,” agreed the doctor.
The doctor shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “What I do know is that he needs to be quiet and to stay in bed. I don’t want that wound getting infected, and it may well be starting already-he’s running a bit of fever, and the area feels warmer than I’d like. I cleaned the wound out again when I closed it back up, but you need to keep a close eye on him.” He picked up his bag and met Ben’s gaze squarely. “Ben, he’s putting himself at risk of serious complications. If you don’t think you can keep him down, I’m willing to sedate him.”
“Do you really think that’s necessary?” It sounded extreme to Ben.
“I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t,” said the doctor. “I know that wound didn’t look like all that much to you, but the fact is that, by the time I got to it, the bullet had been in there for more than twelve hours. Hoss tried to clean it out on the trail, but there’s only so much anybody can do under such circumstances, and then the boy had that long ride home, and I wasn’t in the office when Adam got there. And after all that, the way I had to dig to get the bullet would have been hard on Joe even if I’d gotten to him right away. Ben, this is a serious situation, and you all need to treat it that way.”
Ben considered the doctor’s comments. The truth was that he’d seen-and sustained-much more serious injuries in his time. It hadn’t occurred to him that there was much to be concerned about with this particular injury, beyond keeping the wound clean and the pain under control. He admitted as much to his friend.
“A gunshot wound is always serious,” replied the doctor. “More so when you can’t get the bullet out right away, and much more so when it gets infected. An innocuous wound can kill a man if infection sets in hard enough. I’ve tried to tell Little Joe this, and I don’t know why he’s not listening, but it’s up to you to see that he does. He has to give his body a chance to rest in order to heal, and I’ll sedate him if that’s what it takes.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said Ben. “I’ll have another talk with him when he wakes up.”
“That probably won’t be until around suppertime,” said Doc Martin. At Ben’s raised eyebrow, he shrugged. “He needed something for the pain. I had to poke around a bit to make sure the wound was completely clean, and he was hurting pretty badly even before I started-not that he’d have told anybody,” he added. “I strapped the arm in place to keep the shoulder still. I’ve left some medicine that should help if there’s any infection, and I want you to start it tonight, regardless-just follow the directions. There are some powders and a bottle of laudanum on his bureau, too. The powders are to help him sleep. Keep a close eye on him, and if he gets worse, send for me.” He picked up his bag and started for the door. “How’s Hoss doing?” he added almost casually.
“He’s holding up,” said Ben. “It’s been hard for him. This was the only time he’d ever met Gunnar. He’d have liked to have known him longer.”
“That’s understandable,” said the doctor. “I take it there are no other relatives on Inger’s side?”
“None,” said Ben. “But Hoss is handling it. He always does.”
“Well, give him my best,” said the doctor. “And let me know how Joe’s doing.”
“Of course.” Ben walked the doctor out to the yard and watched him drive off. As he headed back into the house, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something just wasn’t right.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was nearly nine o’clock that night before Joe awoke. Even then, his lids were heavy and his eyes were bleary.
“I wondered when you might join us again,” said Ben gently. He smoothed back the boy’s hair from his forehead and frowned. Joseph was definitely running a fever. He laid a hand against a flushed cheek. “How’re you feeling?” he asked as he poured water into the china bowl and soaked a cloth.
“Fine,” said Little Joe, teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. He pulled the blanket up to cover his chin as his father wrung out the cloth and laid it, neatly folded, on his brow. Without comment, Ben fetched an extra blanket from the guest room, spreading it over his son.
“Is that better?” he asked. Joe nodded reluctantly. “Let me take a look at your shoulder,” he added. Joe lay as still as possible while his father uncovered him, unbuttoned his nightshirt and lightly ran his fingers over the wound. Somberly, he rebuttoned Joe’s nightshirt and pulled the covers back up.
“Well?” Joe tried to sound nonchalant.
“You’ve definitely got some infection starting,” said Ben. “Doc left some medicine, and I’m going to have Hop Sing prepare a poultice. In the meantime, I know he’s got some soup on the stove, and I want you to try to eat something.”
“I’m not really hungry,” said Joe, knowing as he said it that he had no chance in this particular battle.
“Even so, you need to eat,” said Ben. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
His older sons looked up as he came down the stairs. “How’s he doing?” asked Adam, one long finger holding his page.
“There’s some infection starting,” said Ben.
“You want me to ride for the doctor?” Hoss looked nervous and troubled. If his father hadn’t known better, he’d have said that Hoss also looked guilty.
Ben smiled. “I don’t think that’s necessary at this point,” he said. “Doc left medicine, and I’m going to have Hop Sing prepare one of his poultices. Hopefully, that’ll take care of the problem.”
“But how’d it happen?” Hoss seemed almost agitated.
“According to Doc, a number of factors-including the fact that your young brother wouldn’t take proper care of himself. Hopefully, this will convince him to take it easy for at least a few days.”
“Is he going to be all right?” Hoss demanded.
Ben smiled. His two younger sons were so close. “We’ll need to keep an eye on him, but right now, I think he’ll be fine.”
“Pa, you sure you don’t want the doc?” Hoss was on his feet.
“I’m sure, son,” said Ben. “Why don’t you go on up and see your brother?”
Hoss looked as if he’d been slapped. “I gotta see to the stock first,” he said. He was out the door before his father or brother could respond.
“What do you suppose that was about?” asked Adam, one eyebrow raised.
Ben shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “But your brother’s had a rough week, and I think it behooves us all to be a little patient with him.”
“Of course,” said Adam. “You want me to get the poultice while you go back up to Joe?” he added softly. He could see the look in those deep brown eyes: no matter how much he claimed that there was nothing serious going on, Ben wanted to be by his son’s bedside.
“I-thank you, son.” Ben cut off his obligatory protest almost at once. He and Adam had been through this too often for pretense. “I’m just going to get him some of that soup that Hop Sing has on the stove,” he added.
“I’ll get it,” said Adam, as his father knew he would. “You go on back up.”
And neither of them said any more about how odd it was that Hoss chose checking the stock over checking on his little brother.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dawn was just breaking when Adam felt himself being roused. “Adam! Wake up!” his father whispered.
“Huh? Pa, what is it? What’s wrong?” Dreams of a certain lovely young woman in his arms competed with the reality of his father shaking his shoulder.
“It’s Little Joe. The fever’s higher. I want you to ride for the doctor right away.”
The woman was instantly forgotten. Adam yanked on his pants and boots and threw on his shirt, buttoning it as he pushed past his father and ran down the hall.
“Pa? What’s up?” Hoss stood sleepily in his doorway, flyaway brown hair mussed and eyes not quite focusing.
“Little Joe is sick,” said Ben. “Adam’s gone for the doctor.”
All traces of sleep vanished. Hoss’ eyes grew wide with trepidation. “Is he gonna be all right?”
“I hope so,” said Ben. “Would you have Hop Sing make up another poultice and then bring up some cold water and ice?”
“‘Course,” said Hoss. Barefoot, he padded down the hall as his father went back to Joe’s room.
Ben poured the last of the water into the bowl and resoaked the compress that had lain across Little Joe’s brow. He wiped the boy’s hot face and then turned to place the cool side on his forehead. “How’s that?” he asked softly.
“Nice,” Little Joe managed.
“You just rest,” said his father. “Adam’s gone for the doctor, and Hoss is going to bring up another poultice for you.”
Little Joe jerked as if startled. “You told them I’m sick?”
Ben frowned slightly at the peculiar question. “Son, they already knew,” he said gently. “You’ve been sick for a few days.”
“I’m fine,” Joe insisted weakly.
More of this. “Yes, Joe, you’re going to be fine,” said Ben patiently.
“Tell Hoss I’m fine,” said Little Joe in a voice so weak that his father could barely understand him.
“You just rest now,” said Ben. He wasn’t about to be drawn into a pointless argument, not when his son was so sick. “Close your eyes for a little while. The doctor will be here soon.”
“Don’t need a doctor,” mumbled Joe. “I’m fine.”
Hoss came into the room in time to hear the last part. He shot his father a questioning look as he carefully poured water into the pitcher and dropped chunks of ice from the pail he carried into the bowl on the bedside table. “Hop Sing’ll have that poultice ready in a minute,” he said to Ben.
“Hoss.” The boy’s voice was barely audible, but Hoss heard him.
“How’re you doin’, Shortshanks?” the big man asked with forced jollity.
“I’m fine,” said Little Joe. “Really.”
“You sure ’bout that?” said Hoss.
“I’m fine,” Joe insisted. “Shoulder’s nothin’. I’ll be up in no time.”
“Joseph, you’re not going to be getting out of that bed again until Doc Martin says it’s all right,” said Ben sternly. He would have gone on, but his youngest son shot him a glare so startling that words failed him for a moment. Just as quickly, Joe’s expression softened, and he turned his attention back to his big brother.
“I’m fine,” Joe said. “Really, Hoss. I’m fine. Honest.”
The brothers’ eyes locked. For a long moment, neither of them spoke or moved. Finally, Hoss laid a hand on his brother’s uninjured shoulder.
“‘Course you are,” Hoss said hoarsely. “You’re jest fine. But you better let Pa bring the doctor in, ’cause otherwise he’ll fret himself to a shadow.”
“I mean it,” said Joe. His eyes were straining to say more.
Ben didn’t understand, but Hoss clearly did. “I know, Little Brother,” Hoss said quietly. He looked away from the boy for a moment, and his eyes were as sad as Ben had ever seen. Ben watched as his middle son assumed an encouraging expression and turned back to his brother. “I gotta go and tend the critters,” he said. I’ll see you later.” He patted Joe’s shoulder again and left the room without another word.
Little Joe had fallen into an uneasy sleep by the time Doc Martin came into the room. Ben was wiping the boy’s face with the cool, wet cloth. “Adam said the fever’s up,” said the doctor without preamble.
Ben nodded. “Even more since he left to fetch you,” he said. “And Joe still insists that he’s fine.”
The doctor shrugged. “Well, I’ll do my best to make him right,” he said, unbuttoning Little Joe’s nightshirt. His fingers skimmed the taut, inflamed flesh, and he shook his head as Joe woke. “There could be an abscess forming,” he said. “I’m going to have to open this up. I think we’d better put him under this time. I’m going to need to go in pretty deep to make sure everything’s clean.”
“No! I’m fine.” The boy’s voice was shaky. “Pa, tell him I’m fine.” Tears welled up in Joe’s eyes. “Tell him, Pa.”
“Son, I don’t know what this is all about, but you’re not fine,” said Ben. “Your shoulder’s infected, and Doc needs to operate. Then you’ll be fine, I promise.”
“No, I don’t need an operation, I’m fine,” Little Joe insisted. He blinked hard, but the tears spilled over.
“Joseph, what is it?” Ben moved from the chair to the edge of the bed, brushing back his son’s curls from the feverish brow. “What’s the matter?”
The boy scrubbed at his eyes with the cuff of his nightshirt, and Ben suppressed a smile. Little Joe had been out of school since the spring, and he’d been working side by side with his brothers for years, but every now and again, there came a reminder that the seventeen-year-old hadn’t quite finished all his growing up. Ben stroked his son’s forehead as fatigue, fever, pain, youth and something else the father couldn’t identify combined to break down Little Joe’s attempts to hold back his tears.
Ben looked up at his friend. “Paul, would you give us a minute?”
“Of course,” said the doctor. He closed the door behind him as he stepped into the hallway.
“Now, what’s all this about?” Ben asked gently. “Doc’ll take good care of you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid,” insisted Joe.
“Then what is it?”
“I’m fine,” the boy repeated. “I’m fine. Have to be.” He turned his face away from his father to hide his tears.
“You will be,” said Ben soothingly. “I promise.” Gently, he turned the boy’s face back to him and wiped the tears that had spilled over. “But Doc needs to take care of that shoulder now. Okay?”
The boy’s eyes were pleading. “Don’t tell Hoss,” he whispered.
“What?” It was the last thing Ben expected him to say.
“Don’t tell him I’m sick,” he murmured.
“Son, Hoss already knows you’re sick,” Ben said, honestly confused now. “Remember? He was just here a little while ago.”
“Tell him I’m fine,” begged Little Joe. “Promise.”
“Joseph, what’s the matter?” asked his father. “What are you talking about?”
“You gotta tell Hoss I’m fine.” Joe’s voice broke. “He’ll believe you. Tell him I’m fine. Please, Pa. . . .” His slim body trembled as his father stroked his hot forehead. Ben was no closer to understanding what was troubling his son than he had been before, but it was clear that Little Joe’s fever was higher than they had thought. The boy was past making sense. It was time to get the doctor back in here.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hoss was forking fresh hay into the stalls when Ben entered the barn. He didn’t appear to hear his father approach as he broke open the bale.
“There you go, you jest have some lunch,” said Hoss as Adam’s chestnut, Sport, began to munch greedily.
“Hoss,” said Ben quietly.
Hoss wheeled around. “Pa! How’s Little Joe?”
“He’s sleeping,” said Ben. “He came through the operation just fine. Turns out there was an abscess forming, so Doc cleaned it out.”
“Did Doc have to put him out?” When his father nodded, Hoss asked hesitantly, “How’d he do?”
“Pretty much as usual,” Ben said. Little Joe always had a difficult time with anesthesia. Both ether and chloroform tended to make him violently ill upon awakening. “But he’s resting now. Adam’s with him.”
“So, he’s good as new?”
“Not for a while,” said Ben. “Doc couldn’t close up the wound because of the infection. For now, he’s just packed it and left it open. It’s likely to be a week or more before he can close it. Between that and the broken bones, Doc seems to think Joe’s probably looking at the better part of a couple of months before he’s fully recovered.” As he delivered this news, Ben watched his middle son’s face closely.
Hoss did not disappoint. His expressions were just as fluid as Little Joe’s. As his father spoke, Hoss’ eyes darkened, and his smile faded to a grim, tight line. His usual optimism was nowhere to be seen.
And there was something more. The same look he’d worn the night before-the combination of trepidation, nervousness and guilt-flooded the normally genial features, mingled with the sadness his father had seen in the big man’s eyes as Little Joe had insisted that he was fine.
“He’s going to be fine,” Ben said gently. Hoss grunted, turning his attention back to the barn chores. When he said nothing more, Ben stepped forward and placed a hand on Hoss’, stilling the pitchfork. “What is it, son?”
Hoss moved away from his father and tossed a forkful of hay into the next stall, and the next one. Just as Ben began to wonder if his son would answer him, Hoss said, “It’s all my fault.”
“I said, it’s my fault,” said Hoss, his attention focused on the hay. He started to throw another forkful, but Ben stayed his hand.
“What’s all your fault?” he asked.
“Little Joe,” said Hoss, not looking up. “Abe, Carrie. What happened at the McClain ranch. All if it.”
“How is it your fault?” Ben asked, honestly perplexed. “You had nothing to do with it. You didn’t even know what the comancheros did until after it was over.”
“Uncle Gunnar came here to see me,” said Hoss, still not looking at his father. “He even said so-he said he came to see his sister’s boy. He wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for me.”
“But that doesn’t make you responsible for what he and his men did,” said Ben. Gently, he took the pitchfork from his son’s hand and leaned it against the wall. “Gunnar was a grown man, and he made his own decisions. You’re not responsible for what he decided to do with his life.”
“He was my uncle,” insisted Hoss. “He was here to see me. If he hadn’t come, none of the rest of it would have happened. Nobody would have been hurt. Everybody would have been fine.”
“Including Little Joe,” Ben said slowly.
Hoss nodded. “Pa, every time I look at him, all I can think of is how he wouldn’t be in that bed, hurtin’ and sick, if it warn’t for me. I know it don’t make sense, but it’s true.”
“No, son, it’s not true,” said Ben, as the realization dawned fully. Somehow, Joe had understood what no one else had seen, that it wasn’t the comancheros, or even his uncle, that the big man blamed for his little brother’s injuries. And so, Little Joe had done everything in his power to show Hoss that he had nothing for which to blame himself-because Joe was fine.
Ben’s recent frustration with Joe melted away. In its place came unexpected pride. He couldn’t say for certain, but this might have been the first time he’d ever witnessed Joe trying to protect one of his older brothers. Just a few hours earlier, he’d seen Little Joe’s tears as a sign that the boy was still a boy. Now, he wondered if his youngest son might be a whole lot closer to grown up than he’d realized.
He rested his hand on his son’s arm. “Hoss, you told me after the burial that you’d been able to look into Gunnar’s soul right before he died. Tell me something, son. What did you see?”
Hoss was silent. At last, he said, “I saw a man who was sorry for what he done.”
“Did he ask you for forgiveness?”
“And did you forgive him?”
Hoss nodded wordlessly.
Hoss looked at him as if the question made no sense. “He was my uncle,” he said. “An’ he asked me to.”
It was Ben’s turn to nod. “Hoss, if you could forgive Gunnar, knowing he’d done wrong-how is it that you can’t seem to forgive yourself, when you’ve done nothing?”
“If it hadn’t been for me, Little Joe wouldn’t be hurt, ’cause Gunnar wouldn’t ever have been here,” said Hoss stubbornly.
“Gunnar came here because you’re Inger’s son,” said Ben. He tried to meet his son’s eyes, but Hoss’ gaze was fixed on his boots. “Son, he didn’t come here to hurt you. I promise you that. There was no one in the world that Gunnar loved more than your mother. He wouldn’t want her boy to carry his guilt-and especially not now, when he’s already been forgiven it himself.”
Hoss stood silently for a minute, eyes still cast downward. Then, he turned and picked up the pitchfork. Ben stepped to one side as his son methodically tossed hay into each stall. He wasn’t certain whether to wait or to leave Hoss to consider the matter on his own. Just as he was about to head back to the house, Hoss turned to him.
“Tell me straight, Pa,” said Hoss. “Is Joe gonna be okay?” His blue eyes, usually so gentle, were fiercely serious.
Ben smiled. “Yes, son,” he said. “Little Joe’s going to be just fine.” He reached for the pitchfork. “Why don’t you go and see for yourself?” he suggested. Hoss hesitated, and Ben cocked his head in the direction of the house. A smile crept over Hoss’ face-smaller, and more tentative than usual, but a smile nonetheless. “Go on,” his father said, taking the pitchfork. The smile spread into a full-blown grin, happiness tinged with relief. The big man began to walk toward the barn door, but then he started to pick up speed.
And by the time Ben reached the doorway, Hoss was running toward the house just as fast as he could.
* * * * * * * * * *
The crash from upstairs startled the three Cartwrights at the breakfast table. Ben threw down his napkin.
“Joseph!” he thundered. It had been only five days since Doc had operated on the boy’s shoulder, which meant three more before he was allowed out of bed. They’d spent the past two days using every means at their disposal to keep him in bed, and their collective patience was wearing thin.
Ben started to shove back his chair, but Hoss was already on his feet. “I’ll handle this,” he said. Without waiting for an answer, the big man stormed across the living room to the stairs, bellowing, “Dadburnit, you better get your ornery little hide back in that bed right now, Little Brother, or so help me, I’m gonna tie you to the bedposts! You know better than to be up! What the devil’s the matter with you, boy?” And on and on, until Ben and Adam heard the door to Little Joe’s room slam so hard that the crash reverberated through the house.
Ben’s eyes met Adam’s. For a minute, neither spoke. Then, Adam leaned back in his chair and drawled, “Well, I think that situation’s under control. Like some more coffee, Pa?” He tried to remain deadpan, but they both dissolved into laughter.
Wiping his eyes, Ben held out his cup. “Thank you, son,” he managed. And that goes for you two, as well, he added silently, directing his thoughts to the young men upstairs who were, as always, watching out for each other.
Other Stories by this Author
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- A Quiet Legacy (by pjb)
- Missed Chance (by pjb)
- Grateful (by pjb)
- Brothers (by pjb)