They'd only just got back inside the house, Doctor Jons, his wife and Ben when they heard a horse and cart pull up outside and Adam ran into the house after them. The young man was sweating badly and breathing heavily, and Ben could tell by the look on his eldest son's face that something was terribly wrong.
"What are you doing here Adam?" He asked him, going to his side immediately. He knew all of his sons well enough to know by the look on Adam's face that something was seriously amiss, and it made his heart skip a beat. Doctor Jons and his wife, along with Danny Culp stood in the corner of the room and just watched, and listened to what the young man had to say. "Has something happened?" Ben asked, registering the absence of his youngest son with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"It's Little Joe Pa." Adam told him, confirming his father's fears. "I'd have come sooner, I noticed him looking a little peaky this morning but I didn't pay much heed, with what happened to Hoss. I'm afraid he's coming down with one hell of a fever now though."
"Well, where is he?" Ben pressed him.
"Back at the camp." Adam explained. "I wanted to bring him with me, but I couldn't get him to come. He said he didn't want to risk infecting Hoss with whatever it is he's got, but I'm afraid it seems to be getting worse by the minute. I stayed with him for as long as I could but Pa, he needs a doctor."
"Adam, Hoss is going to be fine." Ben told him, but as he said it he turned away with a sigh – his heart laid down heavy. He'd spent hours fraught with worry, not knowing whether Hoss was going to live or die. He had just been told that his one son was going to be alright, and now it seemed as though he had Little Joe to worry about too. There seemed to be no reprieve.
Suddenly the doctor was by his side, a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"It gets awfully cold in these parts at night Mr Cartwright." He told him. "If your boy's sick you'd better go to him and bring him back here. I'll have Karen make up a cot for him for when you get back."
"Thank you." He smiled gratefully. "I know. We spent a few nights out there before Hoss was injured, and we had to come looking for help."
He looked to Adam. Every fibre of his being wanted to go to Little Joe – he knew he had to. He could tell by the look on Adam's face that it wasn't for want of trying that he hadn't brought his younger brother with him. The young man needed his father right now to make the right decision for him – to tell him what to do – but then his gaze came to settle on Hoss who was still sleeping in his bed in the middle of the room, and he realised that he still needed him too. His heart felt so torn.
"We'll take good care of your son until you get back." The kindly doctor reassured him – following his gaze and reading his mind. "He's still in some pain, but I'm pretty sure the danger has passed. He'll probably sleep for the next few hours, and your other boy needs you now."
Ben knew the man was right, he nodded. Adam took one look at his father and the doctor and hurried from the house to ready the horse and cart for the journey back to the camp. It was a good half hours hard ride – forty-five minutes with the cart – and neither of them had any idea what condition Little Joe would be in by the time they got back.
When the two of them finally reached the camp Ben flung himself off his horse and ran to Little Joe, who was sitting as close to the small fire as he could without sitting in the middle of it. He noticed that the young man's eyes were closed as he approached, and Ben thought he seemed to be breathing rather heavily. As he bent down beside his youngest son and gently cupped the man's cheek in the palm of his hand he could feel the fire burning beneath his touch. Adam had been right in his observations of his brother's condition – Little Joe was burning up with fever, and his clothes were drenched in sweat.
"Joe?" He asked him, trying to rouse him gently. He could tell that his son wasn't really asleep, and that he was probably just weary from fighting such a high temperature for most of the day. He looked back to see Adam already beginning to ready the cart to transport Little Joe back to town – just as they had all done with Hoss less than twenty-four hours before.
"Pa?" The young man cracked his eyes open weakly, and Ben turned back to look at his son with eyes wide and glistening with concern. "Pa, what are you doing here?" He asked him.
"Adam came to fetch me Joe." He told him. "We need to get you back to town to see the doctor."
"No pa." Joe tried to grab his father in protest as he went to lift him. "I can't… don't want to give whatever this is to Hoss." But he was too weak to prevent Ben from gathering him up into his strong arms – in just the same way he'd used to when he'd been a little boy and had fallen asleep in front of the fireplace.
"Joe, Hoss is going to be just fine." He told him, trying to reassure him as he transported him over to the makeshift bed of blankets Adam had just laid down for him. "And if you're sick we've all already been exposed anyway, so let's just get you back into town and see what the doctor has to say shall we?" He smiled. Little Joe looked back at him through half open eyes – and nodded weakly. He hadn't forgotten what a comforting presence his father could be, but he hadn't wanted to divert any attention away from Hoss, no matter how awful he'd felt.
"I'm cold pa." He shivered.
"I know you feel cold Joe." Ben sighed sympathetically. "But you're burning up son. I daren't give you anymore blankets and risk making the fever worse." He jumped into the back of the cart and sat down next to him, whilst Adam took the reins to ride them all back into town.
When they arrived Doctor Jons and his wife were ready and waiting for them, and Ben carried his youngest son straight into the house and laid him down in the bed Mrs Jons had made up for him in a back room. The doctor followed them both in, and then Ben joined Adam in the front sitting room, where he'd spent time with Mr Culp just hours before, waiting to hear news of Hoss following his surgery. The two men sat, and waited, both of them doing their best to control the worry which had settled in each of their hearts. After just a few minutes Doctor Jons appeared to beckon his wife into the back room with him, and it was another half an hour before he re-emerged to deliver his findings on Little Joe's condition.
"I've examined your son Mr Cartwright." He told him. There was a small smile on his face as he spoke, which reassured Ben slightly. He felt sure that the doctor certainly wouldn't have been smiling if Little Joe's condition had have been serious. "It's true he has one devil of a fever and my wife is working to try and bring it down now, but his symptoms don't appear to be due to disease." He explained. "He does however have quite a nasty gash on the back of his hand. I've spoken to him about it, and although he's weak he did manage to tell me he got it last night trying to get the horse off his brother. I suspect that is the source of the infection."
"Can we see him?" Ben asked. Doctor Jons thought about this for a moment – seeming to consider his response carefully before giving it.
"Well," He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully, "I can't stop you Mr Cartwright, nor would I want to try, as the boy's father you have every right, and probably the devil of an urge to be by his side, but as a physician I would strongly advise against it at this time." He explained. "He is bordering on delirious, and it's important he gets plenty of rest. I'm afraid that if he sensed you were near it might unsettle him at the moment."
Ben considered this – he really didn't want to admit it to himself. Every fibre of his being was screaming – he needed to be by his son's side – but he also had to concede the man was making a fair and valid point. If it had been anyone else he may have been more inclined to argue – to contest that what his son really needed now was his father – but Doctor Jons had saved Hoss's life. The trials of the day had proven him to be a fair and upstanding man, and he trusted his judgement implicitly. He looked at him, and nodded.
Meanwhile Hoss stirred in the adjacent room and Ben instinctively made a move to go to him. Doctor Jons followed – eager to check on his other patient now that he was awake – whilst Adam trailed along behind. He wanted to see his brother – to speak to him properly for the first time since his accident – but his heart was still heavy. As the eldest of the three brothers Adam had always seemed to feel things so much deeper than the other two boys, and had taken on the weight of responsibility for his two younger brothers as well as himself. Losing his mother so young had meant that he'd had to grow up so much faster than other children his age who still had both parents. He hadn't wanted Hoss and Little Joe to suffer the same way he had when they had lost their mother's too.
Doctor Jons observed the distance and pain in the young man's eyes. Now that the threat to his own life had passed he was free to go on doctoring again, and had all the time in the world to spend with his patients and their families – it was a luxury he had so often taken for granted in the past. He took a step back in the doorway to Hoss's room and placed a reassuring hand on Adam's shoulder, whilst Ben knelt down at his other son's bedside.
"Pa, is Little Joe alright?" Hoss asked him.
"I don't know Hoss." Ben shook his head, preferring honesty over his desire to shield the man from the truth. "Doctor Jons' wife is with him now. They're working to try and bring his fever down but at this moment I'm afraid Joe is a very sick boy."
"I need to see him pa!" Hoss said, trying to sit up. Doctor Jons quickly stepped forward and Ben made to try and push his son back down on the bed again, but there was no need as it very quickly became apparent that he was still too weak even raise his head fully off the pillow, and Hoss slumped back down with a frustrated sigh.
"Hoss you need to rest!" Ben insisted. "You get up now you could kill yourself. You've got more sense than that!"
"I have to see Little Joe pa." Hoss insisted weakly. "I have to know he is going to be alright. This is all my fault!"
Ben frowned – he didn't understand what his son was talking about.
"Your fault Hoss?" He asked him, confused as to where the man could possibly have got an idea like that. "How do you make that one out son?"
"I heard the doctor tell you that Little Joe got the infection from a cut on the back of his hand. He got the cut trying to get the horse off me last night." Hoss explained. The sight of the doctor's incision and his broken ribs were evidently beginning to pain him, and he was breathing somewhat heavily, and sweating a little from his exertion.
"I know he did." Ben nodded. "Little Joe told Doctor Jons that too whilst he was examining him."
Hoss's hand reached to rest upon his throbbing side.
"But I knew." He groaned. "I knew Little Joe was hurt pa, and I didn't say anything. He insisted that it wasn't too bad, and when you all finally got the horse off me I was hurting so bad that it just went clear out of my mind… but I still should have said something as soon as I remembered, and I would of, if only I'd known how bad he was."
Ben stroked his son's forehead reassuringly – which was damp with perspiration, and just a little warm – trying gently to quieten him as he spoke. There wasn't anything any of them could do about Little Joe's condition at the moment, and he didn't want Hoss getting himself all upset and tying himself up in knots over something he couldn't change. It wouldn't do any of them any good – least of all Little Joe.
"Now Hoss, you just put that thought clean out of your head." Ben told him. "This is not your fault, you hear me son? On this occasion I don't think we can even blame Little Joe for what's happened. We could have lost you last night. There was a brief moment when I saw that horse fall, and you trapped underneath it, that I thought we might have. He was just worried about you, like any loving brother ort to have been."
"Even so pa…" Hoss started to protest, but was interrupted by a sudden and rather violent coughing fit. Doctor Jons made his way over, and together he and Ben managed to lift Hoss slightly to ease the pressure in his chest.
"Little Joe is strong Hoss. He's a fighter." Ben did his best to reassure him, once the coughing fit had subsided a little. "He'll be alright, we just need to give him some time."
"We'll see how your son fairs as the evening goes on." Doctor Jons told him, reaching down to take Hoss's wrist and checking his pulse against his wristwatch once the man had completely recovered from the coughing fit and was breathing normally again. He gave Hoss a slightly crooked, sideways smile. "If there's no change in his condition in the next few hours I might have to open up the area at the point of the laceration to try and relieve some of the infection." He told Ben, before adding. "Your other son on the other hand has a strong pulse. There's no further sign of internal bleeding. I would say he's in much better shape than his brother is at this moment."
"Hoss always has had the constitution of an Ox." Ben said, smiling down at the man in the bed before him. "It takes a lot to keep him down, but what Little Joe lacks in size he makes up for in determination."
"Some might even call it stubbornness." Adam added. He forced a smile as he made his way further into the room, and his gaze came to settle on Hoss.
"Hey Adam." His brother whispered, with as much strength as his recent exertion would allow. The effort of trying to get out of bed had depleted him more than he cared to admit.
"Hey yourself." Adam responded.
"The lad certainly has a very high tolerance for pain." Doctor Jons agreed. "There's no real indication that there's been much bleeding, which is quite surprising given the depth of the wound, but that was probably what worked against him, contributing to the infection. The blood would have washed much of the poison away. At the moment the pus currently remains trapped under the skin, causing the pressure to build up, and it would have been causing him quite a considerable amount of discomfort."
"When you've had cause to have a bullet dug out of you as many times as Joe has, perhaps that does somewhat dull your receptiveness to pain." Ben sighed – although he didn't really believe this. He'd witnessed his son's distress on too many occasions, as he'd writhed and groaned in protest of the surgeon's knife.
"Has he been shot many times?" The physician asked, merely out of interest.
"Once is one time too many in a father's eyes." Ben responded. The doctor noticed that there was a sadness in his eyes as he said this, and he nodded – quite understanding his point. All three of his boys were grown men now, but being a parent hadn't seemed to get any easier for Ben. He'd just swapped the cuts and grazes, and bruises from playground brawls for far worse beatings, gunshot wounds, and farming accidents like the one the night before.
Doctor Jons diplomatically decided to withdraw, leaving the three men alone for a while, and not question Ben any further on what was evidently a difficult subject. He had no children of his own to speak of, but he could imagine how he would feel in the same situation if he had of done.
Ben knelt down by Little Joe's side as Doctor Jons carefully made the first incision at the sight of the deep gash on the back of his hand. The shock and pain of it made the young man cry out. As the evening had worn on it had become clear to everyone that he wasn't getting any better. His fever had continued to climb and he was now quite delirious. He no longer recognised his father and brothers, and had been unable to keep anything down since supper time. Doctor Jons had concluded that in order to break the fever he had no choice but to operate.
"Shhh, it's alright Joe. It's alright." Ben instinctively moved closer, trying to comfort his son in the same way he had when he was a small boy, stroking his clammy forehead gently and taking him by his one uninjured hand. "It'll all be over soon." He soothed him.
Further incisions helped to release some of the pus which had built up around the sight of the infection, but caused Little Joe's cries to turn into frightened whimpers when he found he was being prevented from pulling his hand away from the source of the pain – someone had his arm in a tight hold – and tears started to mingle with the sweat on his face.
"What's the matter with Joe, Adam?" Hoss asked the eldest of his brother's in the adjacent room, looking with great concern in the direction from where the sound of the young man's whimpers were coming from. Adam too hated to have to sit and listen to the sound of his brother's cries, but he realised that the procedure was a necessary one if he was going to get any better. His fever would have broken by now if it was going to do so naturally, and if they continued to leave the wound to fester his temperature was only going to continue to climb.
"They're having to cut Little Joe's hand to release some of the infection." He explained.
"Little Joe's hurting bad." Hoss observed, and the pain he too felt at hearing his little brother's distress was evident. "Can't they give him something to help with the pain? It doesn't seem right – him being made to hurt like that."
"I know Hoss." Adam nodded sadly. He didn't like the situation any more than he did – but he accepted that they had to do something. "Doctor Jons said that his temperature is too high to give him ether, Pa's with him though. Little Joe is burning up with fever and the doctor knows what he's doing."
"Even so," Hoss grimaced, "I don't like to hear him cry like that."
"He's delirious." Adam told him, hoping this observation might reassure Hoss slightly that at least Little Joe was so deeply affected by the fever it was likely he was not aware of what was happening to him. "He probably won't remember any of this when he wakes up."
Meanwhile Doctor Jons had finished making the cuts to Little Joe's hand and had released what he could of the poison. Thankfully the infection was still relatively near the surface of the skin, and so the incisions he'd made were relatively superficial. He compressed the wound until the blood ran clean, and then tightly bound it to try and stem the rest of the bleeding. He'd been sure to drain the pus away from the sight of the original laceration, and put off stitching the wound whilst his fever was still so high – wanting to leave the infection to drain rather than risk trapping the fluid further. When he was finished he gave Little Joe a small injection of morphine to help with the pain. The young man was still whimpering slightly but Ben continued to hold his son's hand, and stroke his sweaty forehead tenderly, muttering reassuring words in his ear.
"It's alright Joe." He soothed, doing what he could to comfort his son, and ease his distress. "It's over now. Doctor Jons has given you something to help with the pain."
He felt so helpless – the role of a parent was to protect their children, to keep them safe and shield them against any potential harm. Ben had done his best to take care of his boys and raise them well, it hadn't been easy being a single parent – balancing work and domestic life. He'd never been much of a cook and feeding three hungry boys had been difficult when he hadn't had the hours to spend slaving over a hot stove. He'd gone through a long line of cooks and housekeepers before Hop Sing had come along. He'd felt as though he'd let Adam down the day he'd discovered that he'd been helping his brothers out with their homework – after all the supervision of schooling was also a parent's responsibility.
He felt as though he'd let Little Joe down too. He should have noticed that he was hurt.
"Pa?" Little Joe whimpered, and Ben leaned in closer, squeezing his son's hand gently, which he was still holding in his own.
"I'm here Joe." He told him. "Your pa's here."
"Hurts… pa… hurts…" Joe wined, falteringly.
"I know Little Joe." Ben tried to comfort him. He cupped his youngest son's head in his hands. He could still feel the heat of his fever beneath his palm – the boy was burning up, and he hoped that that would improve now that the infection had been drained. Ben reached for the clean cloth, soaking in a bowl of cold water on the bedside table. He wrung it out and gently placed it to his son's forehead, feeling as Little Joe leaned into his touch. The cold cloth wasn't welcome – Joe's internal thermostat was already tricking his body into believing that it was too cold, and the compress to his forehead made him shiver even more, but Ben suspected that his son found the physical contact comforting. Doctor Jons put the back of his hand to Joe's forehead to feel the heat of the young man's fever for himself, before dabbing the beads of sweat from his face with a dry washcloth. He sighed and took a step away from the bed when Little Joe whimpered and started trying to bat the physician's hands away.
"Shhhhh." Ben soothed him, taking him by his flailing hands and gently placing them back down by his side. "Rest now Little Joe." He told him.
"I'm going to give him a sedative." The doctor explained, and as Ben looked up he was already preparing a solution of laudanum for Joe to drink. He began to make his way back over to the bed, and as he did so he gestured with a hand for Ben to help hold his son's head up so that he didn't choke on the formula. Ben positioned himself on the bed beside Little Joe, gently lifting him up by the shoulders. As he did so Doctor Jons brought the brim of the glass up to Joe's lips, but in his delirious state the young man immediately tried to push the medicine away, whimpering in fear.
"Shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, it's alright Joe." Ben again attempted to sooth him, stroking more stray strands of sweat soaked hair away from his forehead with the palm of his hand. "It's alright, there's no need for that son, the doctor just has some medicine for you, that's all."
He waited for Little Joe to settle slightly before indicating for Doctor Jons to try again, and this time it came as a relief to his father that the young man didn't immediately try to push the doctor away, but he also didn't immediately drink from the glass when it was offered to him either.
"Pa… Pa…" He whimpered.
"Drink it son." Ben coaxed, taking the glass from Doctor Jons and gently placing the brim to Little Joe's lips himself. Little Joe took a small sip, which made him cough weakly and recoil at the bitter taste, but with a little more encouragement from Ben he continued to drink from the glass until all the laudanum had gone.
"That's it Joe." He soothed, gently lowering his son's head back down onto the pillow, and taking a step back from the bed with a relieved smile on his face. He handed the now empty glass back to the doctor, who accepted it graciously and returned the smile.
"He's in a lot of pain." Doctor Jons observed, looking down at the shivering form of Little Joe in the bed before him. "But I'm more concerned about his fever. It's dangerously high. Hopefully the laudanum will take the edge off enough to help him sleep."
"Let's hope so." Ben sighed. He knew that they could only hope. He stood where he was and looked down at his youngest son with a sadness in his eyes, which didn't escape Doctor Jons' notice. The man looked utterly exhausted – his eyes dark and sunken and his usually tanned skin paled by fatigue. He looked as though he could fall asleep where he stood, and the doctor noticed his legs wobble slightly as his weary muscles struggled to support the deadweight of his tired body. The doctor frowned as he observed Ben with the keen eye of a physician.
"You need to rest yourself." He told him. "You look worn out."
"Ah, I'm alright." Ben dismissed the man's concerns with a half-hearted wave of his hand.
"But you won't be if you remain on your feet much longer." The doctor said. The laudanum had done its job, and although still quivering beneath the blankets, Little Joe had finally stopped whimpering and had relaxed back into bed. Ben looked about ready to do the same.
"There's not a great deal more we can do for him tonight. I'll have Karen make up a bed for you on the sofa." He said, already taking it upon himself to gently guide Ben away from his son's bedside. He'd seen it before within families – the sight of a sick child, no matter how old, seemed to send a parent into an almost hypnotic trance, unable to see the bigger picture especially when it came to matters concerning their own health. He'd seen parents, themselves at deaths door, even refuse treatment – such was the hold the parent-child bond had over them.
Ben looked at him and, realising the doctor was right, finally relented. This would be the second night in a row he'd been without proper sleep and, as much as he hated to admit it to himself, he wasn't as young as he'd used to be. He wouldn't be of any use to anyone if he ended up making himself sick – least of all Adam, whom he realised would be expected to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of two sick brothers and a sick father, and get them all home safely.
He pulled away from Doctor Jons, bending down to whisper in Little Joe's ear. "I'll be outside if you want me son." He told him. "Sleep now. I'll see you in the morning."
Doctor Jons stayed with Little Joe throughout the night. His wife too stayed with him until the early hours of the morning, but her health was already fragile and she tired easily. She hadn't slept properly since the day of her husband's arrest, and although she'd insisted that she was alright he'd eventually managed to convince her to go and get some sleep. Adam had spent a rather uncomfortable night in a chair at Hoss's bedside – the brothers had kept each other company most of the evening, both united in their concern for their youngest brother – until Karen Jons had popped her head around the door to check on them on her own way up to bed. Adam had been dozing restlessly, but Hoss had still been wide awake and starring at the ceiling when she'd entered to gently cover Adam with a blanket. Ben had hardly slept at all that night, but Doctor Jons had given him a blanket too, and he'd managed to grab a couple of hours of broken sleep on one of the big chairs in the sitting room.
Joe had been pretty unsettled all night – tossing and turning in the grip of his raging fever. His forehead had been slick with sweat, and whilst the doctor had dabbed at his brow with a cold washcloth to try and bring his temperature down and encourage his fever to break, the sheets on which he lay had wrapped themselves tightly around him, and he fought fiercely against their restraint.
"Shhh… shhh… shhh, settle down now." Doctor Jons had tried to sooth him as he'd cried out in a panic. Little Joe had initially tried to bat the hands holding the cool compress to his forehead away weakly, but after a couple of failed attempts it seemed to have dawned on him that whoever they belonged to posed him no threat, and he'd eventually drifted off into an unsettled, but relatively deep and unbroken sleep.
Whilst he'd slept Doctor Jons had packed ice around his body to try and help bring his fever down. He'd wrapped him in another sheet to prevent freeze burn and ward off the inevitable hypothermia if he brought his temperature down too quickly. Although a last resort this seemed to do the job where the cold compresses had failed and to his relief Joe's body temperature started to gradually recede until, come the early hours of the morning, he had finally passed the danger point and was no longer at risk of any permanent, irreparable damage. Doctor Jons remained cautiously optimistic that barring any unexpected spikes they'd managed to avoid any complications which could result from a fever as high as Joe's had been – such as a febrile seizure, or major organ damage – and by sunrise the following morning he was able to give Ben, Adam and Hoss the good news that the fever had finally broken.
"Who are you?" Little Joe asked him as he opened his eyes a few hours later, and laid eyes on the stranger. It was nearly noon when he regained consciousness. After breakfast Doctor Jons had given an exhausted Ben a small dose of something to help him sleep – it having become evident that he hadn't had any real rest in days, and would continue so without it – and so whilst the young man's father had slept he'd continued to keep watch over Joe until he woke up. Little Joe looked around the unfamiliar room – a slight trace of fear and apprehension painted by the frown on his face, as he tried to see if he recognised anything which might help him identify where he was. Although clearly disorientated however, the doctor noticed that his eyes were bright, and quite clear of the fevered haze which had filled them the day before.
"I'm Doctor Jons." He told him with a warm smile as he reached down to take the wrist of Little Joe's one remaining good hand in order to check his pulse. "I'm the one who treated your brother when your father brought him to my office yesterday."
"How is he?" Joe asked.
"Well, I operated to set some of his broken ribs and stop the internal bleeding." Doctor Jons explained, keeping an eye on the second hand of his watch as he counted the frequency of the faint beats beneath his fingers. "He's sore but he's made a remarkable recovery. I'd go so far as to say he's doing better than you are at the moment. He's already polished off a bowel of breakfast this morning. You on the other hand have had quite a rough night. Your father and brothers have been very worried about you."
Little Joe smiled, despite how sick he was still feeling it was a relief for him to hear that Hoss already had his appetite back – it was all the proof he needed that his older brother really was on the mend. "Well, that's Hoss for you." He chuckled weakly. "Largest appetite in Virginia City."
"How about you though?" The doctor asked him. "Think you can manage some breakfast too?"
Little Joe's reluctance was obvious. He suspected that he already knew what the young man's answer would be so it came as little surprise to him when he shook his head, but as a physician he had a responsibility to ask. Good nutrition was as important to the man's recovery as rest and medicine.
"Perhaps you'll feel more up to something to eat a little later then." He remarked kindly, and Little Joe nodded, although somehow he doubted it. "How's the hand feeling this morning?" He asked.
The young man looked down at his heavily bandaged limb – a small amount of blood had seeped through the layers of dressings leaving a patch of crimson staining.
"It hurts like hell." He confessed. "But not as bad as it did yesterday. What happened?"
"What do you remember about last night?" Doctor Jons asked him, and Little Joe shrugged and shook his head.
"Not much." He confessed. "I remember Adam trying to convince me to come back to town. When I refused to he said he was going to fetch pa, next thing I remember pa was in front of me telling me I needed to see a doctor. It's all a bit of a blur after that."
"Well," Doctor Jons sighed seriously, "it's a good job they brought you back when they did. You've had a pretty high fever, and a deep gash on the back of your hand seems to have been the source of a rather nasty infection."
"Yeah." Little Joe nodded. "I remember I injured it trying to get the horse off Hoss. It hurt bad, but it really didn't seem too serious at the time, and I cleaned it thoroughly. I didn't tell anyone, it really didn't seem that important, especially after seeing how badly injured Hoss was."
"I understand." Doctor Jons sympathised. "You were almost delirious with fever by the time your father got you back here last night, but you did manage to tell me that much whilst I was examining you. The thing is, whilst I agree that your brother's injury was more severe, he has responded well to treatment whilst you on the other hand have developed a pretty serious infection. I had to operate last night to release some of the poison."
"Operate?" Little Joe sounded slightly alarmed.
"It was a relatively minor procedure." The doctor reassured him with a small smile. "I had to cut the hand to release some of the infection and relieve the pressure. There was an extra complication in that the laceration was still bleeding slightly so I had to be careful not to introduce any of the pus into your bloodstream, but your fever has broken which is a good sign, and I'll be able to stitch the wound up as soon as your temperature drops a little more."
"How's Pa and Adam?" He asked.
"They're fine." Doctor Jons nodded. "Between the strain of worrying about you and your brother your father was pretty exhausted, but I've given him something to help him sleep and it seems to have helped him a little."
Little Joe sighed.
"He worries about us too much." He said, and the older man thought he detected a slight shimmer of sadness in his eyes. "He'll make himself ill one of these days. We're not little boys anymore."
"He's your father." Doctor Jons reasoned. "It's a parent's job to worry about their children. Be them babes in arms or grown men and women, it's an instinct which doesn't fade with age – in fact in my experience it only seems to get harder. You're a close family?" He asked him, and Little Joe nodded.
"Pa's been both mother and father to all three of us for as long as I can remember." The young man explained. "Never such a thing as women's work in our house growing up, he's done it all – fed us, bathed us, clothed us, sat up all night worrying about us when we were sick before working the land the following day. He made sure we got a good education. We've never been apart for more than a few weeks at a time… well, apart from when Adam went off to college." He said. "I think that was particularly hard on Pa – but it's like he said to Hoss and me at the time, that's what he raised us for. He taught us to be strong, self-governing men. He said it had to be Adam's choice to leave, but it was also his choice to come back to us in the end. It's love that keeps us together, rather than any sense of duty!"
"That's the way it aught to be." The doctor smiled, and this time it was Little Joe's turn to notice a flicker of something pass over the older man's face. He couldn't quite make it out though – it was only there for a moment, and then it was gone – perhaps some sense of sadness, or regret maybe.
"Did you not have any children?" He asked him.
Doctor Jons shook his head.
"No, my wife was never strong enough." He told him. "Her health has always been fragile, and having children might have killed her. It's our one greatest regret I suppose, but we've been happy, and I'd rather it this way than risk losing her." He said. "It wasn't easy though. We both wanted children so badly. She pleaded with me once to let her at least try – she said simply living was a risk." He smiled. "But being a doctor I knew I had a choice to make. I knew she couldn't possibly survive carrying a child for nine months, and even if by some miracle she did the labour would surely have killed her, and when it came down to it I couldn't let her do it. She never held it against me, and we never spoke about it again."
"It must have been hard though." Little Joe reasoned. "To have want for something you knew you could never have."
"I often find that when we want for something denied to us there is a tendency to turn it into a dream… a fantasy." The doctor considered with a sigh, and a small crooked smile upon his face which made his eyes twinkle. "The only real way to live is to appreciate the true value of what we already have. I found everything I ever needed in Karen. In that way the good Lord blessed me and I am grateful." He smiled. Little Joe thought that there was great wisdom in the man's words. He may have still been young but he'd never had much desire to travel beyond that which was required of him. He'd joined his father and older brothers on cattle drives but he's experience of travelling independently through the desert and hostile landscape bordering the Ponderosa was that you were just as likely to be killed as reach your intended destination. He'd always assumed that Hoss felt the same as he never ventured far beyond Virginia City unless it was absolutely necessary. Adam had travelled the furthest away from home but even he had come back in the end.
"Lean forward Joe." Doctor Jons smiled kindly as he quickly changed the subject and went back to focusing on his jobs as a doctor. "Let's have a little listen to your chest."
In his wisdom Doctor Jons decided to keep Little Joe and Hoss separated for the next few days, concerned that being in the same room as each other would prevent each from resting. Adam booked a room for Ben and himself at the nearest Inn. The Doctor and his wife offered them both the continued use of their home – it was not very big but the Doctor said that they were welcome to bed down where they could – but neither wanted to intrude on the family any longer than they had to, and Ben was finding it increasingly difficult to rest with his two injured sons in the adjacent rooms. He'd lay awake for the three nights they'd spent in the doctor's home, listening in the silence for any small sound that either Little Joe or Hoss might make. Considering the seriousness of his injuries even Doctor Jons had had to confess that Hoss's recovery had been nothing short of remarkable, but until his incision had healed and his sutures had been removed he was still at risk of bleeding, and so he was confined to his bed until the danger had passed – much to his frustration.
Little Joe on the other hand hadn't fared as well as his brother. Despite the doctor's best efforts the infection had spread to his blood and he'd remained very weak and frail for several days. Between them the husband and wife team had managed to bring his temperature down to a much safer and far more acceptable level, but it had proven a far harder task to break it completely, and his sleep had been plagued by fever dreams. Every moan, every groan and every whimper had sent Ben running to his youngest son's bedside – so much so that by the time the sun arose on the third morning he looked close to exhaustion himself.
Doctor Jons had lectured him on the importance that he take care of himself – that he would be of no good to his boys – Adam included – if he worried himself into a state of malaise, but Ben's instincts were just too strong for him to resist. In the end Doctor Jons agreed that it was in the best interests of all involved that Ben and Adam should check-in to the local Inn, where they could both retire to at the end of the evening, leaving himself and his wife to take care of Hoss and Little Joe.
Their recovery was slow, as might have been expected, but as the days passed and a week came and went, turning into two both men gradually grew in strength – due in large to the excellent care they received. Whilst Karen kept a close eye on Hoss, taking care to observe all necessary precautions to keep the ever present threat of infection to a minimum the doctor did what he could for Little Joe – he being the sicker of the two men. After a couple of weeks Doctor Jons conceded that he and Karen had done everything they medically could for them however – and Ben and Adam decided that once Hoss was no longer confined to his bed the time had finally come to return home. The call of the Ponderosa sang strong within their hearts. They were indebted to the two of them for their weeks of care but Doctor Jons had insisted that it was the least he could do after Ben had saved him from the snag of the hangman's noose.
Both Hoss and Little Joe had still been too weak to return to the work they'd been engaged in before Hoss' accident, and so the decision had been made to leave the responsibility of the herd to the ranch-hands who'd joined them on the cattle drive – Ben knew that he could trust the men to get the animals home safe. Even so it took a few days to prepare for the long journey ahead – Hoss had been declared fit enough to ride, but Little Joe would be too unwell to mount a horse for a while yet, and so the cart needed to be laid out with blankets and pillows to keep him comfortable and warm throughout the long journey ahead of them. There were supplies to be procured – at least enough food to keep them going until they reached the next town – and flasks to be filled with as much fresh drinking water as they could carry. Adam purchased bread and beef for them, along with vegetables to boil down and make a weak broth for Little Joe, and Doctor Jons had prepared a prescription of laudanum for him – he'd shown Ben how to mix a few drops of the bitter liquid with water to give to his youngest son, but he wouldn't take money for either his services or the expensive prescription when Ben offered it.
When the day of their departure arrived Ben assisted Hoss, who was still a little stiff, into the saddle of his horse whilst Adam carried Little Joe out to the cart. Hoss was very glad to see that his steed had managed to escape any serious injury in the accident which had nearly resulted in him being crushed to death, and whilst Ben had then settled Joe beneath the blankets and made sure that he was comfortable the gentle giant of a man had taken a moment to appreciate the feeling of being back in the saddle again. He'd hardly set foot outside since his surgery, and the feeling of the gentle breeze in his hair made him smile. Meanwhile Little Joe too was also grateful for the waft of fresh air which caressed his face after two weeks spent confined to his bed in a backroom of the doctor's house.
The fact that his youngest son was still so weak was a great cause for concern for Ben, but Doctor Jons had reassured him that it always took longer to recover from an infection when the poison had spread to the blood. Little Joe no longer had a fever, his face was now cool and dry, and he'd shown no further signs of sickness – all he needed now was plenty of rest and time to allow his body to recover the strength sickness had stolen from him.
"Thank you doctor – for everything." Ben said, holding out his hand to shake the man's hand – Adam had already mounted his horse Sport, with Hoss riding Chub beside him. Ben's horse Buck had been harnessed to the cart, with Joe's beloved Cochise tethered alongside. "And you too Karen." He added, regarding the doctor's wife with a smile. "I can't thank you both enough for what you've done for my sons."
The young woman smiled. "It is we who are indebted to you Mr Cartwright. It's thanks to you that I still have my husband and am not standing before you a widow woman now." She told him and Ben smiled as Doctor Jons wrapped his arm around his wife's shoulders and kissed her tenderly on the forehead – they were good people. Ben was glad he'd been able to intervene in the doctor's execution. He nodded, as he turned to leave, smiling as he took a moment to reflect on the kindness of the two strangers, without who's excellent hospitality and care his two sons probably wouldn't have survived.
He thought of the lesson he'd tried to teach Little Joe just a few weeks before, remembering his youngest son's confusion as he'd given him a pile of sticks and asked him to break them – his words on that occasion resonating in his mind.
"When they're together like this," he'd told Little Joe, holding the sticks out in the palm of his hand and attempting to snap them in two, "you can't break them, but singularly they can be broken." He'd said, as he'd demonstrated the fragility of a single stick. "By himself each one of us can be broken…"
But together we are strong, he thought to himself as he mounted his horse, and took the reins. Digging his heels into Buck's sides the horse took off in a plume of dust and sand – Adam and Hoss following in suit of their father. Doctor Jons and Karen waved them goodbye, watching them go with an element of sadness in their hearts, until they turned a corner and they could see them no more.