Summary: Rumours of a new gold strike on the Ponderosa bring problems for the Cartwrights. But who started the rumours, and why? Can Ben find out before Joe pays with his life?
Rated: T (10,800 words)
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
Riding disconsolately back home through the bakingly hot summer afternoon, Joe Cartwright thought of all the work he would have to catch up on the next day. He had been fencing with Adam and Hoss down by the South Forty. Hoss’ hand had slipped on the wire, and the sudden release of tension had caused the part Joe was trying to fix to slip through his hands at high speed.
Fortunately, none of the barbs had become lodged in Joe’s palms, but the cuts he suffered were deep and painful. Adam and Hoss had tied them as best they could with neckerchiefs and the like, but the cuts bled stubbornly, and Adam decreed that it would be better for Joe to go home, and have his hands properly seen to. Dumping his ruined gloves, Joe did as he was bid.
Movement where there shouldn’t be any, further up the stream, attracted Joe’s attention. Frowning, Joe reined Cochise to a stop, and looked at the man bending over the stream. He urged Cochise in that direction, his left hand straying to his gun, and hoping that he wouldn’t have to use it.
“This is private property, mister,” Joe said.
The man, dressed in dirty clothes that had seen better days, looked up. Joe saw that he had been panning the stream. “I ain’t goin’,” he stated. “I aim to get my share o’ the gold outa this stream!”
“Mister, I’m not going to tell you again,” Joe declared. “This is private property. Get off the Ponderosa.”
Glaring at Joe, the man slowly straightened. “All right, I’m goin’. But you ain’t gonna run me off again, sonny. I’ll be back, and I’ll get my share!”
“If we catch you here again, we’ll get the sheriff,” Joe warned. “Now, pack your gear and leave.”
“I’ll leave, you don’t haveta watch me,” the man declared. “I was about ready to head home fer the night anyhow.”
“I’m in no rush,” Joe responded. “I’d rather make sure you’re gone.”
“You cheeky young pup!” the man spluttered, and heaved his gold pan at Cochise’s nose.
The horse startled, and reared. Joe suddenly had his hands full trying to calm his horse, and he didn’t see the man make a grab for him. Joe was pulled from Cochise’s back, and a large, dirty fist crashed down on him from above. Joe fought back, but the gold hunter had the advantage, and swung his pan at Joe’s head. The clang it made as he crashed it down echoed off the hills, but it was effective. Joe was knocked out.
There was no telling how long he had lain unconscious. Joe stirred, rolled over, and groaned. His head throbbed, and his hands were on fire. Looking round, still on the ground, Joe saw that he was alone. The gold hunter had gone. Cochise was standing a few yards away, peacefully cropping the grass.
His hat lay nearby, and Joe retrieved it as he clambered to his feet. His head throbbed, and not, Joe suspected, just from the thump he’d received. He’d been lying in the full glare of the hot sun for quite some time, and he could feel his forehead tight with sunburn. Wincing as he jammed his hat back on, Joe made his way over to catch Cochise. It took a lot of effort to pull himself into the saddle, but he got there eventually, and rode slowly home.
Hitching Cochise to the rail, Joe staggered over to the door. His canteen had been gone from his saddle, and he was desperately thirsty. The few mouthfuls of water he drank from the stream seemed a long time ago. He winced as he opened the door, and the coolness of the great room rushed over him like a balm. Despite himself, he groaned in relief.
There were footsteps, and Joe turned his head to see Ben coming from the office area. “Joe? Good Lord, what happened to you?” Ben hurried across to his accident-prone youngest, and touched his shoulder.
“A couple of things,” Joe answered. He was feel a little light-headed, and swayed slightly. “Got my hands cut up when Hoss let go the wire, and met a guy who hit me on the head.”
Sliding an arm round Joe’s waist, Ben took Joe’s hat off with the other hand, and saw for himself the sunburn and gash on Joe’s head. There wasn’t much blood, but Joe was obviously concussed. “Come on,” he urged, and walked Joe over to the couch, where he laid his son down. “Joe, who was the man, and why did he hit you?”
“He was panning for gold,” Joe explained, and told Ben the story. When he finished, Ben called for Hop Sing to bring him water and bandages. He gently bathed Joe’s injuries, while Joe drifted in and out of sleep. Ben talked to him, to try and keep him awake, but Joe only grunted in answer. It wasn’t until Ben dunked Joe’s hands into a medicinal salt solution that Joe roused. The stinging from the cuts was agonizing, and even as the healing properties of the salts kicked in, the pain was still biting hard.
Fighting Ben, Joe tried to draw his hands away from the basin, but Ben held his wrists firmly, and Joe could see the dirt and dried blood being drawn out. Although the wire that the boys had been using was new, Ben was terrified of the threat of lockjaw, and he was taking no chances. After several minutes, Ben asked Hop Sing to bring fresh water, and he soaked Joe’s hands in this, then gently dried and bandaged them.
“You’re not going to be doing much manual work for the next while,” Ben commented, as he wrapped the gauze round Joe’s hands.
“Pa, that hurt worse than when it happened,” Joe complained. His head was throbbing, but Hop Sing had smoothed a cool paste onto Joe’s head, and he could feel the tight skin easing.
Smiling, Ben gave Joe a small dose of laudanum, and urged him to lie down. It didn’t take long for the painkiller to kick in, and Joe slid into sleep. Ben rumpled the youth’s curls, and went to clear away the things he’d been using. He was frowning; thinking about the man Joe had caught panning for gold. They would have to go into town and find out what was going on. They didn’t have enough men to prevent a full-scale gold rush on the Ponderosa. If there were one, the land would be ruined. Glancing at the clock, Ben wondered if he ought to go into town straight away, but he finally decided against it. He needed to talk to Adam and Hoss, and perhaps one of them should go into town with him. Gold made people lose their wits, and Ben didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
When Adam and Hoss returned a few hours later, Joe was still sleeping. He wakened as Hoss loudly called a greeting to Ben, who was hurrying downstairs to try and prevent just such an outburst. Sitting upright abruptly, Joe’s head reeled as he looked round, startled. He caught the back of the settee for support, and lay down again very gingerly. His headache was pretty much gone, but his hands still throbbed quietly.
“Sorry, Joe,” Hoss said, still not realizing that there was more wrong with his brother than there had been earlier. “Didn’t think you’d be sleeping.”
“Boys, we need to talk,” Ben said, motioning to them to sit down. He sat on the table and looked closely at Joe. Now that his head was down again, Joe looked a bit better. Ben touched his cheek, and felt a slight warmth there. It wasn’t surprising. Joe had had too much sun that afternoon, but Ben was fairly confident that his son wouldn’t get worse. If he was suffering from serious sunstroke, Joe would have shown signs before this.
Quickly, Ben told Adam and Hoss what had happened to Joe. They looked startled, as Hoss hastily apologized for wakening Joe. Smiling wanly, Joe waved the apology away. “You didn’t know,” he said.
“We didn’t see anyone as we rode home,” Adam said. “What are we going to do, Pa?”
“First thing tomorrow,” Ben said, “we’re going to ride into town and tell Roy about this. We need to quash any rumors of a gold find here on the ranch. You know what gold hunters will do. This is our busiest season, and we can ill afford to spare hands for anything other than normal chores, but we’ll have to keep watch, to make sure that no one comes back onto our property.”
“We’d better tell the men,” Adam said, rising. “I’ll do it.” He crossed over to look down at Joe. “How are your hands?” he asked.
“I’ll swap them for yours,” Joe joked.
Laughing, Adam went outside. Hoss stood by the empty fireplace, his genial face frowning. “Wonder what began rumors of a new gold strike this time?” he mused. “There ain’t been any new strikes in a coon’s age.”
“I don’t know,” Ben said. He glanced at Joe, and saw that his son’s eyes were closed again. Joe clearly wasn’t asleep, as he was biting his lip. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked, quietly.
“Yes,” Joe replied, unconvincingly. “My hands are a bit sore, that’s all.” He gave Ben a smile, but his father saw through it. He knew that the salts he’d used – Hop Sing called them ‘Epsom’ salts – would make Joe’s hands sting for quite a while, but they were very effective in treating cuts, scrapes and sore muscles. “I was thinking about that man,” Joe went on, not giving Ben the chance to speak. “He wasn’t from round here, I’m sure.” Joe looked thoughtfully into the distance. “I don’t remember seeing him before.”
“You can tell Roy about it in the morning,” Ben said. “Let’s get you something to eat, and up to bed.”
Waking Joe the next morning wasn’t as hard as everyone had feared. Joe struggled into his clothes, but appeared at the table with his shirt untucked and unbuttoned. It had taken him all his time to fasten his pants. Reluctantly, Joe realized that he would need help to get properly dressed. Adam began buttoning Joe’s shirt, unasked, while Joe blushed, feeling useless.
“How are your hands?” Ben asked, watching as Joe struggled with his fork.
“Better than yesterday,” Joe said, finally laying down the utensil and using his fingers. “Pa, that stuff you used on my hands was dreadful.”
“But hopefully effective,” Ben responded. “After breakfast, we’ll hitch up the buckboard and ride into town.” He looked at Joe. “You can see Doctor Martin while we’re in.”
“Yes, sir,” Joe capitulated, heaving a martyred sigh. Even using his fingers, the tips of which peeked out of the bandages, Joe was finding it difficult to grasp things. He shoved the last of his bacon into his mouth and looked at the eggs with disgust. He wasn’t going to eat them with his fingers, that was for sure.
Intercepting a glance from Ben, Adam and Hoss rose and went to hitch the buckboard. Ben forked up the eggs, and offered them to Joe, who ate them. He found it embarrassing to be helpless. After he had finished eating, Ben tucked Joe’s shirt in for him, and helped him on with his boots and jacket. The angry red sunburn on Joe’s head had died down, and the temperature he’d been running the night before had gone. “How’s your head?” Ben asked, plonking Joe’s hat on at a rakish angle.
“It’s still attached,” Joe said, and grinned. Ben smiled back, and kept Joe’s gaze. Sighing again, Joe added, “Its still a bit sore, but nothing like yesterday.”
“Good,” Ben said. “You’ll ride with me on the buckboard. I don’t want you using those hands too much until Paul has checked them out.”
“All right, Pa,” Joe agreed, as if he’d had a choice in the matter, Ben reflected, amused. They went out together. Joe found it very odd not to have his holster on. He looked down at his bandaged hands ruefully. Bandages and gun butts didn’t go together very well, he supposed.
It was another scorching day. Ben parked the buckboard in the shade, and he and Joe got down. Adam and Hoss hitched their horses to the rail, and they all went into Roy’s office. As expected, the sheriff of Virginia City was there, reading some new reports and wanted posters that had come in from other towns. “Howdy, Ben, boys,” he greeted them. His eyes fell on Joe’s hands. “What happened to you this time, Little Joe?” he asked.
“That’s what we’ve come to see you about,” Ben said. They all took seats, and Ben and Joe told him about the incident the previous afternoon.
“This is the first I’ve heard about a gold strike on the Ponderosa,” Roy said, slowly. “What did this man look like, Joe?”
“He was dirty, and bearded,” Joe said, thinking back. “His clothes were quite ragged, and he was very thin.”
“How tall?” Roy asked.
“I’m not sure,” Joe responded. “I was on Cochise, and he was on the ground, and when he pulled me off, he seemed to loom over me.” Joe frowned, trying to gauge the man’s height. “He had quite big hands,” Joe remembered. “Perhaps he was about Adam’s height. But I’m just not sure.”
Pursing his mouth Roy frowned at the description. “Its not much to go on,” he said. “I certainly don’t remember anyone around who fits that description, but I’ll keep my eyes open. Meantime, it might be an idea to spread the news that there isn’t a gold strike on your ranch.”
“I was planning on doing just that,” Ben said. He rose, and the boys followed him. “I just thought we should keep you apprised.”
“I appreciate it, Ben,” Roy said, rising also. “Take care of yourself, Little Joe,” he added.
“Thanks, Roy,” Joe said, smiling. He followed his family outside. He was surprised at how tired he felt, but his persistent headache took its toll, as did the throbbing from his hands, even if they weren’t as bad as the day before.
“I’ll go with Joe to the doctor’s office,” Ben was saying. “Adam, you go to the Territorial Enterprise, and see if we can get them to print something. Hoss, you go and start with the supplies, please.”
There was no one waiting at Paul’s office, and Ben was pleased that he was in. Paul smiled at them, and immediately began to undo Ben’s handiwork. He examined Joe’s hands, smoothed on some cream and re-bandaged. “They’ll be fine in a few days,” he said. “Just keep them covered meantime, and use them as little as possible. Once the cuts are scabbed over and healing, you can leave the bandages off. You’ll be back at work in a couple of weeks, Joe.”
“Thanks, doc,” Joe said. “Just in time for haying, huh?”
“I know it’s your favorite time of year,” Paul said, grinning. “Just be careful, though. Hay stalks can be very sharp, as I’m sure you know, and if the scar tissue is the least bit soft, then keep well away. You don’t want deep scars on your hands. Lucky you had gloves on, Joe. Otherwise, it could have been a whole lot worse!”
Outside, Ben and Joe walked over to the store to meet Hoss. Joe was feeling like a sit down by then, but he didn’t say anything. Ben went into the store, and Joe leaned on the buckboard. He wouldn’t be allowed to carry anything, even if he’d wanted to, which he didn’t.
The street was quite busy, as usual. Joe touched his hat to a number of the ladies, and said hello to the men. No one who stopped for a brief chat mentioned gold. Joe began to wonder if he had been imagining things. With Ben still deep in conversation with the storekeeper, and Hoss loading the supplies, Joe thought about strolling across to the saloon. However, the thought of Ben’s caustic comments when he was found there was enough to deter Joe. So he climbed up onto the seat and leaned back.
Tipping his hat over his nose, Joe watched the world go by. He saw Adam emerge from the offices of the newspaper, and walk back towards the store. Joe wondered what Adam had asked the editor to say about the gold rumor. With a smile, he remembered when Mark Twain had been writing for the Enterprise, and all the wild stories he had made up. He thought briefly about Rosemary, the girl they had found living on the ranch, and who had gone to stay with relatives back east.
Something about the way Adam was walking made Joe think he was angry. Sitting up, Joe slid his hat back to its normal position to watch Adam more closely. Adam saw someone he knew, and friendly smile creased his face, even though he looked as angry as ever to Joe. “What is it, Adam?” Joe asked, as his brother came within earshot.
“Not here,” Adam said, glancing round. “Where’s Pa?”
Slinging a thumb over his shoulder, Joe looked round in time to see Ben emerge from the store. He looked annoyed, too. “Let’s go,” he said, and climbed onto the seat. He snapped the reins without waiting for Adam and Hoss to mount.
“Pa?” Joe questioned.
“Not here,” Ben said, shortly, and with that, Joe had to be content for a few miles.
When they reached Ponderosa land, Ben pulled the team to a halt, and allowed them to drink. Adam and Hoss dismounted, and also watered their horses. Hoss looked as confused as Joe, and the youngest Cartwright felt a sudden flash of anger. Pa and Adam were at it again. They knew something, but they were keeping Joe and Hoss out of it. He opened his mouth to say something, but Ben spoke first. “Adam, what did you find?”
“United Mines have placed an advert for workers at the new Ponderosa gold mine,” Adam said, tightly. “The ad was placed yesterday, and will appear in tomorrow’s paper. It clearly states that gold has been found near the South Forty of the ranch, and although a few nuggets have been found in the stream, the company will be digging a mine, and requires experienced miners at once.”
“Wilson at the store asked me why I hadn’t warned him to get in more prospecting equipment,” Ben said, angrily. He slammed his hand down on the wagon seat, and the team startled slightly. “Adam, you and Hoss go back to town, and check out United Mines. Find out if there’s anyone staying at the hotel connected to them, or where their office is.”
“All right, Pa,” Adam said. He picked up Sport’s rein. “I took out a front page ad, stating that there was no gold strike on the ranch, and that we had never heard of, or dealt with, United Mines.”
“Nobody will believe it,” Joe said, bitterly.
“A few will,” Adam said. “We’ll see what we can find out, Pa.”
“Be careful,” Ben said. “I don’t know who’s at the back of this, but I don’t want anything to happen to any of you.”
“We will, Pa,” Adam said, and he and Hoss rode off back the way they had just come. Ben remained standing by the buckboard, gazing into space. Joe wondered what he was thinking about.
“Pa?” he said, softly, reluctant to break into his father’s thoughts.
However, Ben hadn’t been that far away, and he refocused his eyes on his youngest son. “What is it, Joe?” Ben asked. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Joe said, although he was tired. “Pa, we’re going to have to fight, aren’t we?”
For a moment, Ben was silent. “Yes,” he said, straightening up and heaving a deep sigh. “I think we are.”
Although he didn’t like to unload supplies, Joe felt downright guilty that he couldn’t do even this small thing to ease his father’s burden. Joe was urged to go and sit down, as Ben and Hop Sing dealt with the supplies. Joe was glad to do so. The house was cool after the heat of the day, and Joe was tired. As he stretched out wearily on the settee, he knew that part of his tiredness was the disturbed night he had had the night before, and part of it was the persistent headache, and throb of his hands. However, Joe decided there must be another reason he always became so tired when he was hurt, and finally came to the conclusion that it was because his body healed itself when he was sleeping. Joe made a wry face. It wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering conclusion, but Joe tended to ignore his injuries as much as possible, and so wasn’t given to introspection about them.
He looked up as Ben came into the house, and slowly took off his hat and gun belt. Joe felt an intense pang of hatred for the person whose maliciousness had given his father this new trouble to bear. Joe knew there were a lot of day-to-day stresses involved with running a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. Ben didn’t need any additional stresses.
“Do you need anything, Joe?” Ben asked, smiling down at his youngest. He wondered who Joe was aiming that ferocious frown at, and just hoped it wasn’t him.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said, smiling back. “Don’t worry about me. I can manage.”
“Well, remember what Paul said,” Ben warned. “Don’t try and manage too much alone. We don’t mind lending a helping hand when and where required.”
“I know that, Pa,” Joe said, slightly embarrassed. “But I’ll be fine here if you need to go talk to the men. Hop Sing is here, and if I can’t do something vital, I’m sure he’d help.”
“I know he would, Joe,” Ben said. “I’m sorry you had to get hurt for us to find out about this.”
“I’ve got a hard head,” Joe quipped. “And its better that we found out, than that we didn’t, until it was too late.”
“That’s true, I suppose,” Ben said, doubtfully. He stroked Joe’s hair. “You rest easy, son, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Do what you have to,” Joe said. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
It was evening before Adam and Hoss returned to the ranch. They both looked tired and out of sorts. They didn’t have to say that their errand had been fruitless. “There’s no one at the hotel who’s connected to the company that we can see,” Adam began, as they sat down to supper. “They haven’t taken an office in Virginia City as yet.”
“Roy suggested we wire San Francisco,” Hoss took up the story. “He’d heard talk that the company is based there. I went an’ done that, but we ain’t had any reply.”
Sighing, Ben rubbed a hand through his hair. “I’ve organized a rota for the men to stand watch, but we’re going to need every hand we have in a couple of weeks’ time. The haying must be done, and the herd has to be rounded up prior to getting them to market.”
“We’re not going to be hiring anyone new, either,” Adam commented. “Anyone we signed now would be coming to hunt for gold, not push cows.”
Silence fell. Ben, looking up from his plate, realized that Joe wasn’t eating. “Joe? Are you all right, son?”
“Yes, Pa, but I could use a little help cutting my meat,” Joe said, plaintively.
“I’m sorry, son,” Ben said, contritely. “I didn’t mean to neglect you.”
“Its all right, Pa,” Joe said. He hadn’t meant to make Ben feel bad, he had just been waiting for them to finish the discussion before saying anything. He had been thinking about Adam’s comment about being unable to hire anyone new. This was something he hadn’t realized, and he was feeling guilty for being laid up at a time when every hand was needed. That was why he hadn’t spoken up sooner.
As the meal continued, with Adam and Ben discussing the rota that had been organized, Joe and Hoss became progressively more silent. It soon impinged on Ben’s consciousness that neither had said more than “pass the potatoes” for most of the meal.
“What’s wrong with you two?” Ben asked, glancing between them. “You’ve hardly said a word.”
Joe looked at Hoss, and Hoss looked at Joe, and neither of them appeared to be keen to start. Joe ducked his head, and color rose in his cheeks. “I fell pretty bad for being hurt right now,” he admitted, wretchedly. “The timing was rotten. Sorry, Pa.”
Blinking in surprise, Ben opened his mouth to speak, but Hoss forestalled him. “ Dadgum, Little Joe, its all my fault,” Hoss said. “I was the one holdin’ that wire, and its my fault your hands was all cut up.” He pointed his fork at Joe for emphasis. “You ain’t done nothin’ wrong, so don’t go round feelin’ guilty. It ain’t none o’ your blame.”
Blinking again, Ben looked at Adam, who hid a smile in his napkin. “I wasn’t aware anyone was blaming anyone for anything,” Ben said, dryly. “Accidents happen; we all know that. And in a sense, Joe’s accident was fortuitous. If it hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have been riding home just then, or seen the prospector.”
“It weren’t very fortuitous for Joe,” Hoss mumbled, determined to take the blame himself.
“My hands don’t feel nearly so sore,” Joe assured him truthfully. Paul Martin’s salve had soothed the pain. “Besides, as Pa said, we wouldn’t know otherwise, and what are sore hands compared to the Ponderosa being over-run with miners and prospectors?” Hoss was looking at Joe now, trying to read the veracity of his younger brother’s statement, having learned the hard way that Joe could pull the wool over his eyes every time.
“You ain’t joshin’ me, are ya, Joe?” Hoss asked, suspiciously.
“No, I’m not,” Joe responded, quietly. “I mean every word. I just hope that I can do my bit to help out, whatever needs done in the next few weeks.”
Moved by his son’s declaration of love for his home, Ben reached over and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder, squeezing gently. Those wonderful eyes turned his way, a little questioning, and as Ben smiled slightly, Joe’s marvelous smile lit his face. “Thank you,” Ben whispered.
Conversation broke out as normal across the table, but Ben didn’t join in. He was shaken anew by his sons’ love for each other, and this land they lived on. His thanks had been aimed at Joe, for saying, unasked, exactly what Hoss needed to hear, but they had also been aimed at the Almighty, for giving him such special gifts as his three sons, and for reminding him of how lucky he was.
The influx of miners began the next day. Despite there not being any signs of anyone from United Mines, the prospectors and get-rich-quick merchants were quick off the mark. Only Ben’s vigilance had prevented them getting onto the land and starting digging and panning. This didn’t mean that things went off smoothly. There were a few exchanges of fire, but the cowhands were determined, and they eventually won. The first wave of gold hunters was deterred.
Riding into town, Adam and Hoss were jeered and booed by the crowd of drunken miners later that morning. Ignoring them, the Cartwrights went first to Roy Coffee’s office, to report the trespass, and what they had done to prevent it. Roy, it was clear, already knew, and he went off to have words with one or two people.
From the sheriff’s office, they went to the telegraph office, and there were rewarded with their first bit of good news. United Mines was a legitimate company in San Francisco, but it had no plans to mine in Nevada, and had not placed the ad in the paper. They confirmed that they were contacting the paper direct to confirm this, and apologized to the Cartwrights for any inconvenience this might have caused.
“It’s a start,” Adam said to Hoss, “but it still doesn’t tell us who is at the back of this story.” He pocketed the telegram, and they went down to the newspaper office.
The editor was looking stressed when they arrived. “I know,” he said, before Adam had even drawn breath to speak. “I’m setting this wire as the front page of tomorrow’s paper. But nobody’s going to believe it, any more than they did your ad. I’ll get the blame!”
“Nobody thinks this mess is your fault,” Adam said. “After all, you can only print what you’re asked to.” He wasn’t sure he entirely believed that, but Ben had told him to go easy.
“From now on, I’ll double and triple check everything!” the editor vowed, and went back to his typesetting.
The crowd of miners had broken up into clumps of two or three, but the mood was still unhappy, as the Cartwrights mounted up and rode out. A stone thumped painfully off Adam’s back as they passed one crowd, but Adam, beyond giving a grunt of surprise, didn’t slow his horse any. Hoss shot a glare into the group, and a few looked away.
“You all right, Adam?” Hoss asked, as they left the city.
“Yes, I’m fine, thanks,” Adam responded, rubbing his back slowly. “We’d better warn Pa that going into town alone is a bad idea.”
“I sure hate to see Virginia City all riled up against us,” Hoss agreed, gloomily.
“Gold makes fools out of men,” Adam commented.
And so it continued over the next few days. The story in the Enterprise didn’t deter prospectors; it just made them all the more determined that there was gold on the Ponderosa, as anyone who would go to such lengths to deny a story obviously had something to hide.
Ordinary ranch work had to carry on, despite the prospectors, and there were often one or two caught on other parts of the ranch. As Ben said, when you were working that much land, it was almost impossible to keep everyone off. In the main, the invaders kept away from the herd, which was a relief. There was enough going on without worrying about rustling, too.
The Cartwrights no longer went into town alone, and since Adam and Hoss were needed out on the range, the chore of fetching supplies fell to Joe and Ben. Joe’s hands were healing well, and Paul Martin had taken the bandages off. The scar tissue was still delicate, but Joe was now able to cut his own food, albeit carefully, and had started carrying a gun again. The weather was holding, and Ben estimated that they could begin haying the following week.
When haying began, there was still an armed watch in place. The miners weren’t deterred for long, and every day, a handful or so would appear, hoping that Ben had given up, and was no longer vigilant. There had been no sign of anyone pretending to be from United Mines, and the Cartwrights were none to wiser as to who had set the story going. The original wire had been traced to Sacramento, but there were no details as to who had sent it.
Sitting on the wagon seat, Joe watched as the men sweated with the scythes, cutting the hay. His hands were greatly improved, but not up to handling a scythe all day. So he had been relegated to driving the wagon. Once the wagon was full, he would drive it back to the ranch, and some hands would unload it. Then, he would drive back to the hay fields, and the whole process would begin again. It was hot, hard and tedious work, but necessary. Come winter, they would need almost a ton of hay for each horse, and a similar amount for the cattle.
Haying took much longer that year, because of having hands on watch for gold hunters. The man Joe had tangled with had never been found, and Roy guessed that he had just drifted onwards without ever reaching Virginia City. How he came to be the first to hear the rumor of a gold strike, they were never to know.
By the end of the fourth week of haying, Joe was taking his turn with a scythe along with everyone else. It felt good to be back in the swing of things, although he wasn’t as fit as usual, and had to take more rests than he cared for. Adam and Hoss, relieved that Joe was feeling more like himself, were teasing him mercilessly about being feeble, but Joe took it all in his stride. For all that he took any excuse offered to him not to work, Joe felt guilty when he couldn’t help out.
“I’m glad that’s over!” Adam said, emphatically, straightening a kink out of his back. “No more haying for another year, but it’s a good crop.”
“Yup,” Hoss answered, absently. He was counting the scythes, making sure they were all there, before they were carefully wrapped in oilcloth, and stored safely away for next year. Recognizing his brother’s preoccupation, Adam didn’t say anything else. He continued to massage his back.
“We’re one short,” Hoss said, standing up.
“You’re kidding,” Joe groaned. He, too, began counting, as did Adam. They looked at each other, and nodded grimly. They were one scythe short. Both Hoss and Adam looked at Joe. Joe gazed back, until the meaning of the look became clear. “You want me to get it?” he asked, pointing at himself.
“Uh-huh,” Adam confirmed. “You’re the youngest. All the dirty jobs fall to you.”
“That’s right, Shortshanks,” Hoss agreed. “’Sides, you had it light this year.”
“You two always gang up on me,” Joe grumbled as he swung himself lightly onto his horse. “Okay, I’ll go and get it, and you tell Pa I’ll be back for supper as soon as I can.” Still grumbling under his breath, Joe rode out of the yard.
The hot weather had yet to break, and the air was heavy and still. Joe cantered Cochise gently towards the hay field where they had been working last. He was in no hurry. The hot weather had taken the edge off all their appetites, even Hoss’. Joe wasn’t perturbed about missing supper.
He tethered Cochise loosely in the shade, and started quartering the field. The stubble was long enough to hide the scythe, so he had to cover each inch of the field on foot. The evening sun was casting long shadows over the mountains when he finally found it, over in the furthest corner of the field, of course.
Picking a few strands of hay carefully off the blade, Joe walked back across to his horse, and leant the scythe against the tree. He unhooked his canteen from the saddle, and drank deeply of the warm, slightly stale water. He took his hat off, and offered the horse some, too. “It ain’t coffee, Cooch,” Joe commented, but the gelding didn’t mind.
Sticking the damp hat back on his head, Joe carefully took the scythe in his hand and prepared to mount. He froze, his foot not yet in the stirrup, as the unmistakable sound of a gun hammer cocking sounded from behind him. “Don’t move!” a voice warned him.
Heeding the warning, Joe stood still, and felt his gun being lifted from his holster, and the scythe was removed from his hand. He still had his rein in his right hand, and the pinto sensed the tension, and began to sidle away. Joe’s hand moved, automatically, to soothe his horse, and the next moment, something crashed down on his head.
As Joe’s legs gave way underneath him, his vision blurred, and the last thing he felt was the rein being jerked from his hand. Joe was unconscious before he hit the ground.
“Well, I’m for bed, even if Joe isn’t home!” Ben Cartwright declared, getting stiffly to his feet, and trying to hide a yawn. The light was dimming outside, although it would linger long into the night. The heat had diminished slightly, and a gentle breeze was stirring the curtains.
“I don’t think I’m going to be long either,” commented Adam, who had been reading. “Joe’s certainly made the most of his little jaunt, hasn’t he?”
“D’ya suppose he found the scythe?” Hoss asked. “We didn’t all miscount, did we? That scythe isn’t out there now?”
“You know its not,” Adam answered impatiently. “There was an empty oilskin. You saw it. The scythe is there somewhere. Joe’s just likely enjoying his evening ride home.”
“He has been a long time,” Ben said, looking at the clock. “Its past 9.30.”
“I didn’t realize it was that late,” Adam said, glancing at Ben. He saw the worry growing in his parent’s eyes. “Pa, I’m sure he’s all right. Maybe Cochise cast a shoe or something.”
“Maybe, “ Ben agreed, but he didn’t sound convinced. He paused at the bottom of the stairs, obviously thinking about going out to look for Joe, and wondering if he was panicking over nothing.
There was a flurry of hooves in the yard, and Ben hurried over to the door. Charlie, the foreman, all but fell into the house. “Mr. Cartwright, the miners are back, and they’ve managed to set up a camp.”
“I’ll get the guns, Pa,” Ben heard Adam say. He nodded.
“Sir, there’s more,” Charlie said, and Ben felt a pang of fear in his belly. He knew, instinctively, what his foreman was going to say.
“They’ve got Joe,” he breathed, and Charlie nodded, his face as pinched and drawn as Ben’s now was.
Stirring back to consciousness, Joe felt an uncomfortable jolting through his whole body. He cranked open his eyes, and almost vomited as he saw the ground rushing past him where the sky should be. He slammed his eyes shut, and allowed the sensations and noises to penetrate his brain. He was slung belly down over a horse, and his hands and feet were tightly tied. All that, Joe could feel. What he didn’t know was who had knocked him out, or where he was going right now.
His head was throbbing from the blow, and he groaned once or twice against his will. No one came near him. Gradually, Joe realized that he was actually tied to the saddle, to prevent him falling off. After a time, Joe came to think this was a pity, for at least if he had fallen off, the world would have been still. He was finding it harder and harder to control his nausea.
However, the journey soon ended, and Joe could hear a lot of loud voices. He risked cranking open an eye. The horse he was on was still at last. A body appeared in his field of vision, and Joe was untied from the saddle and pushed to the ground. He tried to catch himself as best he could, but he still landed with a bruising impact. There was a chorus of drunken laughter.
Looking round, Joe saw a lot of men around a large fire. The night sky was growing dark, but there was still enough light to let Joe see that he was on the ranch, near the disputed South Forty area. With a sudden sinking feeling, Joe realized that these men must be miners, who had managed to breach the ranch’s defenses.
“You’ve got one then?” said a voice, and Joe looked at the man before him. He seemed vaguely familiar, but Joe couldn’t place him. The man’s hat was drawn low over his face, hiding his features. “Oh good, that’s Joe, the youngest. We’ve got real leverage over Cartwright now!”
With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Joe realized he had just become a hostage for the non-existent gold!
“I think we should have waited for Roy,” Adam said, peering across the range at the huge fire burning by the stream. They could hear the men singing and shouting at each other.
“One man more isn’t going to make that much difference,” Ben said, his eyes also glued to the fire. “All right, Roy wears the sheriff’s badge, but how much good is that going to do out here? This is our land, Adam, and we have to protect it. Besides, they’ve got Joe.”
They’ve got Joe. It always came back to that, and Adam couldn’t argue with his father over that one. Beside Adam, Hoss heaved a deep, melancholy sigh. “I sure ‘nuff hoped Charlie had it wrong about Joe,” Hoss muttered. “But findin’ his pony, and then the scythe, an’ his hat, there ain’t no doubt.”
“Charlie saw them with Joe in the camp,” Adam reminded Hoss. “He couldn’t take them on himself.”
“I sure hope Joe’s all right,” Hoss went on. “You don’t think they’d hurt him, Adam, do ya?”
“I don’t think they’ve hurt him,” Adam soothed, but Ben could clearly hear the ‘yet’ in Adam’s voice, even if Hoss was unaware of it. Adam glanced at Ben, and saw that he had heard that unspoken word. “What are we going to do?”
“We’ll have to talk to them. Convince them that there isn’t any gold.” Ben knew that this strategy had little chance of success, but he had no clear idea of what else he could do that wouldn’t place Joe in any further jeopardy. “You and Hoss stay here. Charlie can come with me.”
“Pa,” Adam protested, but the look on Ben’s face stopped him before he went any further. He knew that Ben feared something happening to either him or Hoss, and he couldn’t say any more. “Be careful,” he said.
Nodding, Ben gestured to Charlie, and they rode across the range towards the light.
“Don’t come any closer!” a voice called, and Ben and Charlie pulled up.
“I’m Ben Cartwright,” Ben said, unnecessarily. “Who’s in charge here?”
“United Mines,” said a voice, and a tall man stepped forward. His hat was pulled down low, obscuring his face. “I’m their representative. What can I do for you, Mr. Cartwright?”
Swallowing, Ben said, “I want you to leave my land. We know that United Mines isn’t interested in mining here. I don’t know who you are, but I’m asking you to please leave.”
“I know there’s gold here,” the man replied. “I assayed the land myself.”
“That’s impossible,” Ben said, blankly. “The land was assayed years ago, and no traces of gold were found…” His voice trailed off as he peered more closely at the man by the fire. “Jim?” he asked, doubtfully. “Is that you, Jim?”
“Well, you’re brighter than your boy, Ben. He didn’t recognize me.” The man laughed. “All those years ago he called me Uncle Jim, and he didn’t recognize me.”
“Is Joe all right?” Ben asked, apprehensively.
Jim gestured, and one of the men bent down and dragged someone into the light. Joe was thrown to his knees, where he looked up at Ben. He was bound hand and foot, and gagged, but he didn’t look as though he’d been hurt. Ben started to dismount, but froze as Jim placed a gun against Joe’s head. “Stay there, Ben,” he advised. “Now, the boys and me are going to do a little digging, and you’re going to stay away. If you don’t, I’m going to blow your boy’s brains out. We’ll take the gold from the land, and then you get the boy back.”
“There isn’t going to be any where big enough for you to hide if you hurt Joe,” Ben warned. “And when you do ride away, I’ll be coming after every single one of you!”
Callously, Jim cocked his gun. Ben saw Joe swallowed convulsively. “If you want your boy to carry on breathing, I’d leave,” he suggested.
Unable to face the alternative, Ben did as he was told.
Watching Ben ride away, Joe’s heart ached for his father. He wished he had been able to call out, tell Ben to do what he must to protect the Ponderosa, and not worry about him, and the frustration of being unable to do that made him grind his teeth. He shot a glare at Jim, and wondered how it was Ben came to know him.
Seeing the look, Jim laughed. “Still don’t remember me, huh, Joey?” he asked. He gestured to the men, and Joe was dragged back to the tree where he had been lying, and a rope was tied round his waist and attached to the tree. Jim crouched by his captive’s side, studying him. “You’ve grown, Joey,” he went on, and Joe growled. If there was one thing he hated, it was being called ‘Joey’. “I don’t think you were more than 8 when I last saw you. Perhaps that why you don’t remember me.”
Repelled by the stranger, Joe turned his head away. Jim reached out and grasped Joe’s chin, forcing his head back round. “Look at me when I speak to you, boy,” he warned. “You used to call me Uncle Jim, and followed me around everywhere. I spent the summer out here, assaying any metals found on the ranch.”
Silently, Joe struggled to free himself from Jim’s grip, but failed. He did vaguely remember them assaying on the ranch, but it was very vague. He had a blurred memory of a tall man, with fair hair, but he couldn’t see the man’s face. He glared at his captor.
“You had spirit then, too, boy,” Jim laughed, and let go of Joe’s chin. He pushed back his hat, and Joe saw the face he remembered. His eyes opened wide for a second, before he swiftly looked down, masking his thoughts.
He was too late. Jim had seen his reaction. “So you do remember me, Joey. Good. Well, just remember this one thing now. I’m not your uncle, and I will do anything I have to do get the gold out of this land!” He stood up, and kicked Joe hard on the hip. “Anything, Joey! Anything!”
The digging began the next day. Joe lay under the tree and watched as the men began to dig on the little knoll there. Some of the men panned in the stream. Joe had tried to refuse the food he was offered that morning, but Jim had been there, and he forced Joe to eat. The meal had ended with Joe receiving another kick on his hip. He knew they were warnings for him to behave himself.
It was a long slow day for Joe. He dozed on and off as the heat rose. For part of the day, he was in the shade, for another part, he was in the sun. No one came near him. As evening came, the men stopped work, and began to drink again. Someone cooked some unappetizing beans, and Joe was once more forced to eat them. He could feel Jim watching him, so choked down what he could.
Shortly after that, Ben appeared again. Joe stiffened, terrified of what would happen to his father. The miners were incredibly drunk, and Joe didn’t think Jim would prevent Ben being injured if trouble started. He squirmed in his bonds, trying, as he had done periodically all day, to get free. The ropes still resisted him. However, tonight he wasn’t gagged, and he intended to make the most of it.
“What do you want, Ben?” Jim called. “We’re not going to leave, and you’re not going to get your boy back, you know that.”
“Sheriff Coffee has a warrant out for your arrest,” Ben said. “There are soldiers coming in from Fort McCabe to arrest you all. You have 2 days.”
“Soldiers?” Jim snarled. He made a gesture, and Joe was swiftly untied from the tree, and dragged forward. “I’d re-think that decision if I were you, Ben. Your boy will suffer if them soldiers come here.”
“The decision has nothing to do with me,” Ben said, steadily, his eyes on Joe. “Sheriff Coffee made that decision, not me.”
Turning, Jim grabbed Joe by the shoulder, and hauled him to his feet. “I just told you, Ben!” he warned. He ploughed his fist into Joe’s stomach, and let go. The youth tumbled to the ground, gasping for breath. “See, Ben?” Jim taunted. “See what I can do?”
Catching his breath, Joe lifted his head. Ben was staring at him appalled. “Pa, do what you have to!” he shouted. “Don’t let them win!” He rolled over, frantically, to avoid another kick. “Get away, Pa!” he screamed. “Do what you have to. I’m all right!”
Still rolling, Joe crashed into a boot, and then Jim was on him. Dimly, he heard hoof beats, and hoped that Ben hadn’t seen the miners fall on him, like a pack of mangy dogs. When Jim finally stood up, Joe was unconscious, and bleeding from innumerable cuts and bruises.
“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked, alarmed by the expression of Ben’s face.
“Get the men together. We’re going in just before dawn. I can’t leave Joe there any longer. We’ve got to get him out.” Ben rubbed his face roughly. “I should’ve gone in for him yesterday, but I was afraid that they would hurt him.” Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. Adam had one hand on his father’s arm. Hoss looked grim. “Well, they’re going to hurt him whatever we do. We’ve got to get Joe out of there.”
“We’ll be ready,” Adam said. His hand tightened on Ben’s arm, giving comfort and reassurance. He nodded, and turned away, calling the men to him, to outline their plan.
Consciousness came slowly back to Joe, and he lay for a long time with his eyes closed, trying to deal with the pain. It was relentless, and throbbed through every part of his body. Once in a while, a groan would escape against his will. He tried hard to keep silent, but it was too much for him. The slightest twitch sent up a chorus of agony, and after a time, Joe sank into a sort of daze.
It was voices that roused him. “Do you think we hit him too much?” asked a rough voice. He felt someone turn his head, and a moan slipped out.
“I don’t care,” said another voice, which Joe recognized as Jim’s. “I was gonna kill the kid anyway. I always hated him. Spoiled, snotty little brat! Ben Cartwright really though he was something in those days. Still does, I guess.” Jim snorted. “I almost wish there had been gold under this pasture! Then we’d have seen his sanctimonious attitude change, I bet! He’d have had this place dug up faster than you can spit! His principles would’ve been worthless!”
“Keep your voice down!” the other urged. “We don’t want them to know there’s nothing here!”
“We’d better get out of here,” Jim urged. “We don’t want to be around when the soldiers come. Pity we can’t take the boy along. He’d be worth a pretty penny!”
“Naw, the way he’s hurt, he’d slow us down, and he might die on us.” The man holding Joe’s head let it go, and Joe moaned louder. He wanted to open his eyes, and scream out what he’d just over heard, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. He heard the men walking away, and sank back into dim nothingness.
Time had passed. Quite a lot of time it seemed, although Joe had no way of knowing. There was noise all around, shouting and firing, people running past. Joe groaned at the sudden assault of sound. He still hurt all over. He wished they would all go away and let him die in peace.
But his innate will to live forced him to open one eye, and look at what was going on around him. For several seconds, it made no sense, then Joe realized that the miners were being attacked, and when one familiar person ran past, screaming like a banshee, Joe realized the Ponderosa cowboys were coming to his rescue. He felt weak with relief, and his muscles released a tension he didn’t know was in them. The release set up shivers down his abused muscles, and Joe cried out, for the pain, the worst he had ever known, got worse. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath, and pain stabbed along his ribs.
Then, just as he thought he might ride out this storm, someone touched him, and this was the last straw. Joe let out one scream, and fell into deep welcoming blackness.
“My God!” Ben said, appalled. “Joe! My God!” He looked at the battered body of his son, and wondered if they had come too late.
Time had become irrelevant. None of them knew how long it had been since Joe had been brought home, and Paul Martin had started working on him. None of them know, or cared, what had become of the miners who had been on their land. None of them knew what they would do if Joe died. None of them knew how they could go on without him.
Slumped in his chair by the fire, Ben’s mind wasn’t on the scene before him. It was in the bedroom upstairs, where his youngest son fought for his life, breath by bitter, painful breath. It cut Ben to the quick that he couldn’t be there, but Paul had been adamant that none of them should be there while he stitched Joe back together. They had all seen how badly injured Joe was. There was no need for them to see him being repaired as best as Paul could.
Sunk in their own misery, Adam and Hoss sat quietly. Adam had a book open, but he wasn’t reading. Hoss gazed off out of the dining room window.
There was a knock on the door that none of them heard. It was repeated, then the door opened, and Roy came in. He took in the atmosphere at a glance, and wondered if he should leave. However, the movement had attracted Adam’s attention, and he looked up. “Roy,” he said, with difficulty. “What are you doing here?”
Taking off his hat, Roy looked unusually nervous. “I thought I ought to tell ya,” he said, and hesitated, as Ben swung a tortured gaze onto him. “Ben, that fella Jim was shot trying to escape. He died a short while ago. I caught another fella along with him, and he’s locked up tight in the jail.” Roy cleared his throat. “I arrested some of them miners, but there ain’t room in the jail for all o’ them. Some of them got clean away.”
“Thank you, Roy,” Ben said, distractedly. He went back to staring into the fire.
There were footsteps on the stairs, and the Cartwrights were on their feet as one. Paul looked exhausted, and he sat down wearily on the settee. Roy moved closer.
“Ben, I won’t lie to you,” Paul said. “It was touch and go there for a while. Joe’s lost a tremendous amount of blood. He’s going to be a long time before he’s over this. He’s broken 4 ribs, his left hand, and his left thigh. He has a bad head injury, but I’m fairly sure there isn’t a skull fracture. But he’s severely concussed and that will add problems if he gets nauseous. He’s black and blue all over, and I’ve had to stitch over a dozen deep cuts. He’s suffering from exposure, too, and is dehydrated. All in all, he’s a very sick boy.”
“Will he be all right?” Ben asked.
Biting his lip, Paul sighed. “I hope so,” he said. “But he’s starting to run a temperature already, and I don’t know if his body has the resources to fight an infection. He’s young, Ben. That’s on his side.”
“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said. “I’ll go and sit with him.”
“Get some rest,” Paul advised Adam and Hoss. “You’re going to need it.”
Over the next 24 hours, none of them slept. Joe was delirious, crying out in pain, even though he was unconscious. Sometimes, after Paul had given him morphine, he seemed to sleep, but he never opened his eyes. He talked a lot, but his ramblings were incoherent; sounds rather than actual words. Ben bathed his head constantly, fighting the fever the only way he knew how.
They had never seen anyone as badly beaten as Joe. That first night, as Ben went to be with Joe. Roy explained that the miner with Jim – a Virginia City man they knew slightly called Stan Pearson – had told him that most of the miners had had a kick or a punch at Joe. The ones who were being held were charged with a variety of offences. Riot, trespass and attempted murder, to name but three.
It was Adam who filled Roy in on Jim’s background. “He came here with a mining company about the time I went to college,” Adam said. “I can’t remember the name of the company, but they wanted to know if there was gold on the Ponderosa. Pa said they could look, but he wasn’t having a mine on the ranch. After the assay was done, it came out that there might be traces washing down from the mountains, but we’d never make our fortune from it. Jim stayed here while the work was done. Joe was a little kid, and he began calling him uncle Jim. I think it was a joke at first, but it stuck. After the assay was done, Jim left. I always had the feeling there was more to it than just a finished job. When I got back from college, Pa told me Jim had said that he thought there was a lot of gold on the ranch, and if Pa cut him in on the deal, he wouldn’t tell his company. Pa said no, of course. Jim was furious, and threatened to get Pa, so Pa wired the mining company, and told them what Jim had said. He was fired, and we never heard of him again.”
“Until this came up,” Hoss added.
“Well, I’m glad to know that, boys. Thanks. I hope Joe’ll be all right.”
As Joe’s fever crept higher, it seemed more and more unlikely that he would be all right. Adam and Hoss constantly brought fresh cool water and cloths, and took their turn bathing Joe’s bruised body, being as gentle as they knew how.
All through the next morning, the fever crept higher and higher, until, shortly after noon, it broke in a drenching sweat. Working together, all three Cartwrights lifted Joe carefully as Hop Sing changed the bedding as quickly as he could, then Joe was carefully resettled. He seemed to be sleeping now, and Ben sent Adam and Hoss to get some rest.
About 4 pm, Joe opened his eyes. He gazed blearily around the room, until his gaze settled on Ben. His father had fallen asleep in the chair by the bed. Joe just looked at him for a long time, drinking in a sight he thought he’d never see again. Finally, his insistent thirst forced him to whisper, “Pa?”
For a moment, Joe thought Ben hadn’t heard him, and was just gathering his resources to speak again when his father stirred. He blinked, then looked at once to the bed. The sight of Joe with his eyes open brought a smile to his tired face, and tears sprang into being in his eyes. “Joe!” There was a world of thankfulness in that one word. “How do you feel?”
Only a croak emerged from Joe’s parched throat, but Ben understood immediately. He gently lifted Joe’s head and let him drink. Joe winced at the movement, but he was less sore than the last time he could remember. It didn’t occur to him that he’d had something to kill the pain.
“How long?” he whispered, unable to summon the energy to talk any louder.
“We brought you home yesterday morning,” Ben answered. “Its afternoon now. You’ve been very unwell, but you’re on the mend. Its so good to see you awake, son.”
He must have drifted back to sleep, because the next time he was aware, Joe realized that Adam and Hoss had come in, and he had missed it. “Hey, fella,” Adam said. “About time you woke up!”
“I’m right glad to see them green eyes o’ your open agin, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, beaming broadly.
A smiled creased Joe’s battered face, and it gave the whole family joy to know that he could smile so soon after what had happened. Joe tried to ease his position on the bed, and winced as stabs of pain hit from all over. “Easy Joe,” Ben said, stroking his head. It was then that Joe became aware that his head was bandaged. His look of puzzlement was almost comical.
“You’ve got a few injuries,” Ben said, and quickly catalogued them for Joe, so he knew what to expect.
“Let me see?” Joe asked, and gestured for the cover to be thrown back. Reluctantly, Ben did it.
Looking down the length of his nude body, Joe was astounded by the stitches, and the bruises and the bandages. His left leg was in a cast, and so was his left hand. “No wonder it hurts,” he whispered, and the others laughed. They had been unsure what Joe’s reaction would be. His joke gave them a huge sense of relief!
His recovery wasn’t as quick as that, of course. His temperature rose again a few times, although never to dangerous heights. He battled constant pain for the first few days, until the abused muscles and tissues started to knit. There after, he was plagued by itches as well, and could barely resist scratching. His short-term memory was a little patchy, and forgetting things made him testy. Joe was never a good patient anyway, but all these irritations made him worse than normal.
It was six weeks before Joe was back on his feet. During that time, the miners came to trial and all were sent away for long stretches. Adam and Hoss handled the cattle round-up and drive to market, allowing Ben to stay and nurse Joe. By the time they came back, he was being carried down stairs for an hour or two every day, and was bothering Paul to get the plaster off his leg.
The great day finally came, and then Joe had to work to build up the weakened muscles in his left leg. He was by nature very determined, and so did the exercises Paul prescribed for him relentlessly, pushing himself constantly to get over his injuries. By the end of three months, apart from a slight limp, which Paul assured them would go soon enough, Joe was almost as fit as ever.
Watching Joe swing himself into his saddle, Ben gave thanks to God once more that Joe had survived his ordeal. They had talked late into the night more than once, as Joe told Ben of the things he’d seen and heard in the miners’ camp. He even unburdened himself about the beating, very late one night, after he’d awakened, screaming, from a nightmare. The words had poured out of him, as he had forced the images away. After that, the nightmares had lessened, although Ben had had a few sleepless nights in consequence.
But those dark days were far in the past now, and Joe’s nights had been peaceful for many weeks. The smiling, handsome young man sharing a laugh with his brothers as they left for work was thankfully whole once more. Ben knew he had a lot to be thankful for.
Laughter floated back to Ben on the morning air. It was high-pitched, unique. He smiled as he heard it. It could only have come from Joe. “Thank you, God,” he said, simply.
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