Despite his overwhelming sense of fatigue, Little Joe's sleep was not a peaceful one that night. The cold seemed to seep deep within him until he could scarcely stop from shivering. The only heat present was that from the fever that still burned within him.
By dawn's early light, Joe opened slightly glazed eyes to greet the day. He was feeling incredibly light headed from lack of food and sleep. The pain in his hand had dulled to a constant throb but as the boy gazed down at the injury itself, he truly began worried.
The skin was now grotesquely swollen and the bruising more prominent in the early sunshine, varying from dark black and purple to a motley shade of gray where the skin was least discoloured. Joe gathered all the strength he could muster and walked slowly down to the small waterhole he had taken a drink from the night before.
Luckily for him, the water was icy cold due to the over night chill. He winced slightly as he placed the injured limb in the frigid water and almost made a move to pull his hand back out again.
But Joe was truly afraid of his hand's appearance and was worried what sought of damage had been done to his hand. He was a little frightened that the doctor wouldn't be able to fix it properly and he might lose some permanent use of his left hand.
Joe looked up from his submerged hand when the chestnut horse made a soft noise as if gesturing good morning to his young master. Although the night had been cold for both animal and human, the horse seemed to have come through it better. He showed very little sign of any distress from the previous night and now nibbled at some green grass shoots underneath the tree he stood beside.
It was only now that there was a movement amongst the rocks over yonder that the horse now made noises towards the pair of eyes it could see peering back at it. At first the eyes made the horse take a few steps backwards as if ready to flee, but it was only as the creature started to stir further and moved forward that the horse determined he was of no real threat.
Joe looked towards where the horse keep it's attention and noted a small animal coming out from the niche in the rocks. It took a few seconds to recognize the animal as a cat of some kind.
A few more seconds and Joe was able to tell that it was a mountain lion cub. A very young one, possibly only three or four months old at the most and that's why the horse had decided that the cub's size was of no real threat.
Joe's dull, bloodshot eyes lit up slightly at the small fuzzy animal and he held out his right hand and made slightly clicking noises with his tongue and teeth, gesturing for the cub to come forward.
At first the cub took a couple of steps backwards, a bit wary of the human boy's presence. It was now on closer observation that Joe was able to see that the cub was injured.
Instead of having a normal inquisitive like tail that didn't stay still, this little cub only had about a foot long stump of a tail. There was dried blood on the end signalling that the injury was only very recent.
Joe beckoned for the cub to come closer again and this time after hesitating and almost taking a step back, the mountain lion put the foot in front of him and moved closer to the smaller human.
The cub was finally close enough for Joe to reach out with his uninjured right hand and place it on the soft fur of the cub's back. The cub made a small mewing sound at the strange touch.
Joe now began to stroke the little cub's back in an attempt to gain it's trust. The cat began to relax and enjoy the boy's hand through his fur. Joe now pulled the cat's small furry body onto his lap and continued the stroking action, finding it therapeutic for both the cat and himself.
The cat's fur felt so soft under his fingertips Joe said inwardly to himself. The little cub began making slight purring noises as it lapped up the attention it was being afforded.
As the trust between animal and human grew, Joe's hand moved from the cub's back to the top of his head and down his front legs. Joe was careful to avoid the injured tail, knowing that it might be still hurting the cub. There were no flies around the wound due to the coolness of the morning, but he could still see the dried blood and pieces of torn skin surrounding the stump.
"I think you should be called Half Tail Joe whispered to the cub. But the cub didn't hear the words spoken as its eyes began closing and the small body began fully relaxing at the boy's touch.
After a few minutes, Joe realised that the cub was asleep. He gently moved the cub from his lap and placed it on top of the pile of leaves he had used as a pillow the night before.
Joe now looked over towards the horse he had ridden and noted that it was happily munching away at some grass it had found not too far away. "Well at least one us is getting breakfast this morning," Joe said grimly as his stomach grumbled loudly at it's emptiness.
Joe decided to sit back against the large rock while he waited patiently waited for the horse to eat his fill. He was in no particular rush to get going this morning even though he had had definite plans the night before. He began wondering whether he should turn back despite the trouble he would find himself in.
The pain in his wrist flared again, only adding to these feelings. At least if he went home he could sleep in a nice soft warm bed. The nice soft bed may be even more inviting if he got the tanning he almost expected off his father when he did get home.
Looking down at the little mountain lion cub, Joe's attention was drawn away from his own pain and loneliness to the cub's injured tail. It really did look as if it needed some attention to stop it from getting infected. He didn't have any supplies with him to use, but the water in the stream had been nice and cold when he had submerged his own hand.
Joe now slowly got to his feet, the weariness and heat his body felt still very evident as he used the rock briefly to steady himself. Joe now tore a piece of cloth from the right sleeve of his shirt and dipped it into the cold water. He wrung out the excess moisture and walked back to where the little cub was peacefully sleeping.
Joe knelt beside the little furry ball and gently placed the damp cloth on the bloodied stump of what was left of the cat's tail. He was unprepared for the reaction he was about to receive.
Without warning, the little cub suddenly came awake with a start at the pain that the cold, wet fabric caused to his tail. He used the only instincts he knew and lashed out with his claws at the source of the discomfort. The cub had yet to grow any adult claws, but the ones he had were sufficiently sharp to slice easily through the young skin of the boy's arm.
Joe yelped out with fright as he attempted to jump back from the agitated cub. He felt something warm and sticky on his arm and now saw three long gashes down his upper arm where his shirt had been torn.
Joe dropped the piece of sleeve he had been using on the cub and attempted to pick it up with his injured left wrist. He was going to use the other end of it to stop the blood coming from the claw marks but stopped up short at the sudden wave of pain that he caused my moving the injured wrist.
Joe looked up slight, his damp curls falling over his forehead due to his fever, to where the cub was now sitting. The cub had moved quite a few feet away from the boy but had briefly stopped and sniffed at stump of his tail. He now looked back at the human who had caused the pain.
As the brown eyes of the cub met and locked with the glassy green ones of the boy, there was a look of understanding between the two. The boy didn't speak and the cat didn't make any noise. There was no further physical contact between them, but somehow both of them felt a distant connection with each other.
With that the cub turned and ran back into niche it had been hiding in the night before.
The little chestnut horse that Joe had been riding, now walked over towards his young master who was still kneeling on the ground, gritting his teeth at the pain through his wrist and the dull ache from the scratches on his arm.
Joe's head was hurting from the headache he had caused by the fever that was present. And whilst his forehead felt hot to the touch, the rest of him felt incredibly chilled still.
Joe now started to realise that all of the symptoms he was feeling was due to his injuries. It was about now that Joe made the decision he should mount the horse and try heading back to Virginia City and his family.
The little horse wasn't standing too far away from Little Joe and when it recognized, the gestures from the boy's hand, it obediently walked towards him. Joe was grateful that he didn't have to walk any sort of distance to get to the horse. At the moment, the world was very hazy to him indeed and he found himself leaning against the wide berth of the horse's rump just to stay on his feet.
Joe used a similar method to mount the horse as he had used at the livery stable, with three fingers inter-twined in the horse's mane to gain the steadiness he needed. But as soon as he was on the animal's back, the boy found that from this height, the world only seemed to spin more.
Little Joe put his right hand to his temple and tried to massage the throbbing away with his fingers. With a gentle nudge with his feet, the horse began to walk forward, back through the trees that they had passed the night before. Joe watched through glassy eyes to make sure the horse was headed back towards the town, his strength was quickly waning and he hoped that he reached the town and his family very soon.
a few miles away:
Ben and the search party had not had much sleep the night before but where determined to get started at first light. They had forgone breakfast to save time and only had last night's brewed black coffee to fill their bellies as they mounted their saddled horses and headed out once again in search of Little Joe.
They had only gone about ten miles past their campsite when they spotted a lone horse standing alone the long, quite a way in front of them. There didn't appear to be a rider at first, but then upon second glance, it looked as though there was. The rider however, looked to be laying over the horse's neck rather than sitting upright in the saddle.
Ben's heart filled with anxiety and anticipation that this might be his son they were looking for. If it was truly Little Joe and his horse, Ben's worry now only doubled at the sight of the motionless rider. Ben now spurred Buck into a full gallop to get closer to the horse in front of the search party.
Adam, Hoss and Roy had quickly followed Ben as they saw him race towards the inert rider and mount. It looked so out of place to see a horse just standing there on the roadway, in the middle of nowhere.
"Joseph," Ben shouted as he jumped off his horse before it had barely pulled up beside the chestnut one. He could see the curly head slumped over the horse's neck did indeed belong to his missing boy. He was alarmed even more though when there was no response to his call or his shouting.
Ben was now close enough to reach out for his son and immediately felt the warm radiating from the small body. Adam and Hoss were now standing beside their father, both equally concerned by the lack of response from their younger brother.
"Joseph can you hear me boy?" Ben asked, almost pleading with the boy to open his eyes. "Oh boy, what has he done to you?" he added when he saw the streaks of dried blood down the boy's right arm and the torn sleeve of his shirt.
Ben tried to gentle awaken his injured son again and was rewarded by the curly head lifting slightly and looking back at him with dull, glassy green eyes. "Hi Pa," Joe managed to croak, the effort almost too much for him.
"He didn't mean to do it Pa," Joe now said, meaning the cat's scratches to his arm. He didn't want Ben to get angry at the little mountain lion cub. The cub had only been doing what came naturally to it when it felt threatened or hurt.
Ben looked back at the boy with astonishment at first. He thought the boy meant Mr Watson the teacher. But before he could ask another question, Joe's strength finally came to an abrupt end and he gasped out loud as Joe all but tumbled out of the saddle and into his father's arms. Ben had scarcely recovered enough to catch his son as he fell.
"Quick boys, give me a blanket to wrap him in," Ben cried out as he looked down at his son's unconscious face. He could see beads of sweat forming on the boy's forehead from the fever that was present, but he could feel the trembling from the rest of his body, signalling he may have caught a chill from the overnight temperature.
Hoss quickly untied his bedroll and tossed Ben his warm blanket to wrap around Joe's body. "Is he alright Pa?" he now asked, knowing it was a silly question before the words left his lips. He could see the blood on his brother's arm and noted the fever glazed eyes before he had fainted.
Adam was also worried about his brother's condition, but his attention was drawn to the injured wrist that was now very discoloured and swollen. He swallowed hard to think that they may have been too late in finding Joe before further injury was caused to his hand. Would he ever be able to write with it again, left- handed or not Adam found asking himself secretly.
"Here Pa, try and get some water into him," Adam suggested, noting that there was no canteen tied to the chestnut horse. He wondered how long Joe had been without food and water. Probably most of the night and certainly since he left Virginia City he reasoned.
Ben took the canteen from his eldest son and whilst Hoss helped to hold Joe, gentle trickled the water over the boy's lips and into his mouth. Only small amounts at first due to the boy's unconscious state. He didn't want him choking. That would only sap his already depleted strength.
Thankfully, the group could see Joe's throat working slowly to swallow the water. Ben stopped the process when he was satisfied that Joe had enough in him to see him through to Virginia City. It was only a relatively short distance, but Joe was obviously in need of urgent attention.
"I'll ride back as fast as I can and tell Paul to get ready Ben," Sheriff Roy Coffee now offered and spurred his horse into a gallop towards Virginia City at Ben's slight nod of gratitude.
Hoss held his brother for Ben while his father mounted, then making sure that his sons was safely secured on the saddle in front of him, tucked the blanket tails around Joe to keep him warm for the remainder of the ride into town.
The trio of horses now rode as quickly as Ben dared to Virginia City. Joe's small sleeping form was almost invisible as he laid against his father's embrace and under the cloak of the blanket. The whole family just prayed that the boy would be okay once they got him back to Paul.
The time was approximately 10 am that morning, when Ben and his boys rode down the street of Virginia City towards the doctor's office. The ride though only a short distance in miles, had been a very long one for Ben's heart to bear knowing that his son was sick and hurt.
"Here they come," Roy Coffee shouted to Paul, who quickly strode out of his office and stood on the edge of the wooden decking.
Ben pulled up along side of the hitching rail in front of the doctor's office. Adam got of his own mount and now tied both horses to the railing.
"He hasn't moved at all since we started riding back here Paul," Ben found himself explaining to the doctor as Adam now took his unconscious brother from Ben's horse and began carrying through to the doctor's office.
"Lay him down here Adam," Paul said quickly, forgetting all about idle conversation and concentrating on the condition of the patient in front of him.
Adam did as he was requested, he too alarmed at the amount of heat he could feel through the blanket. The shivering Ben had felt earlier had now been entirely consumed by the fever in Joe and he wasn't quite sure whether that was a positive sign or not.
"Has he been conscious at all Ben?" Paul asked.
"Only for a few seconds back when we first found him doctor. It took a few attempts to get him to rouse. We found him slumped over the horse's neck. I am not sure how long he and the horse had been standing there before we arrived." Ben explained.
"Did he seem to recognize you at all?" Paul enquired.
"Yes Paul he did, you won't believe it but he asked me 'Not to be angry at him' Ben said as he repeated the few brief words Joe had spoken. "That's all he said and then collapsed and fainted into my arms."
"Don't worry Ben, we will fix him up, you'll see," Paul said, trying to reassure his friend. He could see that Ben was almost beside himself with guilt and worry over Joe's condition. "Hoss and Adam why don't you see if you can get something to eat and then wait outside while your father and I attend to Joe."
Hoss and Adam were about to object, wanting to be there to help out as much as possible. "And get something for your father as well, he looks as though he could use it too," Paul said as he saw the lines of tiredness around Ben's eyes.
Hoss and Adam reluctantly agreed, for their father's sake. Because like them, they knew all too well that Ben would even consider taking time for himself before Joe was better again. They now left to go to the hotel and get some meals ordered up for themselves and their father.
For the next half an hour, as Adam and Hoss waited impatiently outside for news of how their brother Joe was doing: Inside Ben and Paul worked together as a team to assess the injuries of the little boy and make him as comfortable as they could.
"These gashes here were made by an animal Ben," Paul said as he expertly examined the claw marks the mountain lion cub had made on Joe's arm. "They are not very deep fortunately, but they need cleaning out thoroughly all the same to avoid infection. Animals bites and scratches can be quite nasty if they are not treated quickly."
"It makes my blood run cold to think that Joe was out there all alone Paul and was anywhere that he could have come across a wild animal," Ben said as he gently used a ball of cotton wool in a solution the doctor had prepared to clean the scratches.
"It's not your fault Ben," Paul said, trying gently to admonish his friend and get him to let go of the guilt he was holding onto with an iron grip. "That teacher has a lot to answer for as far as I am concerned. We are just lucky that you found Joe so quickly."
While Ben went about cleaning out the scratches on Joe's arm, Paul now could go about taking a look at the boy's wrist. It obviously needed the most attention and was more than likely the cause of Joe's fever.
Paul noticed that the wrist itself was still protectively held against Joe's chest, even in sleep. He looked quite concerned at the amount of discolouration and swelling, but didn't voice his opinion out loud. He used his finger and thumb to try and carefully pry it out in the open so he could take a closer look.
But even that slight movement caused Joe to release a moan at the pain that resulted. He started to turn his head from side to side as it rested on the pillow and attempted to pull his injured wrist away from the doctor's probing touch.
"It's alright son," Ben cooed to his son as he brushed the damp curls away from his forehead, trying to help him cope with the pain but allow the doctor to do his job.
"No don't!," Joe said in his fevered sleep as Paul attempted to examine his wrist again. "You can't do this." he said caught somewhere between reality and his subconscious about what Mr Watson had done.
"I need to examine this wrist Ben," Paul said in a serious tone of voice but understanding that Joe called out because he was in pain. "I will give him a light sedative which should give him a break from the pain and allow me to set in while he sleeps. When he wakes it should be splinted and bandaged and the pain should not be so bad."
Ben nodded his head in agreement to the medication being administered to his son and watched as Paul prepared a small amount of clear liquid in a syringe. He gently held his boy's right arm still as the doctor inserted the needle and injected the fluid into Joe.
It didn't take long for the medicine to work and although Joe never opened his eyes, his slight struggles ceased all together and his head lolled to one side on the pillow, signalling he had fallen asleep. It almost brought tears to Ben's eyes that he had to adopt harsh methods against his son because of the abuse and cruelty of others.
With his patient now sleeping soundly and oblivious to any examination, Paul now got on with the examination of the injured wrist. He still took every care to be as gentle as possible although he knew that Joe wouldn't be able to feel very much.
"It is definitely broken Ben, that's why there's so much swelling and discolouration to the skin," Paul now commented as he continued his doctoring. "It looks as though it has lost some of the inflammation around the bone. That's a good sign because it means that the break may only be a small one."
"Will you need to splint it?" Ben asked, remembering the general cause of remedy for a broken bone.
"Yes, and with a boy Joe's age that's the best thing to do. He may feel a little poorly now, but knowing this young man, once he is beginning to recover, he is undoubtedly going to knock his hand around by just doing general day to day activities," Paul stated in earnest.
A little while later, Adam and Hoss could no longer stand to just stand outside and wait for news of how Little Joe was doing. Adam silently turned the door knob and pushed the door open slightly to gaze in and watch what their father and the doctor were doing.
"What are you two doing in here?" Ben asked in mock sternness. Paul could see the worried looks on two older boy's faces and didn't have the heart to send them back out of the room.
"We were just wondering how he was doing Pa," Adam said for the both of them. Hoss's eyes were wide with concerned as he saw the amount of bandaging around his little brother's hand. He seemed so still. Not the little brother he was used to.
As Ben looked down at his youngest son, Joe appeared to be still sleeping very soundly so he saw no reason that Adam and Hoss couldn't see how their brother was doing, so long as they remained quiet and didn't disturb him.
"He's doing okay boys," Paul answered for Ben. "He needs a lot of rest and care over the next few days. But he will okay after a while."
"What about this fever Paul? Is that anything to be overly worried about?" Ben now asked as he felt his son's forehead and noted the fever still holding on.
"It's probably a little higher than it should be for such an injury Ben, but given that he has spent a very cold night out on his own with no food and little water, it's not out of the question. I think he is suffering from a little bit of exposure to the elements but after a day or so the fever should be sufficiently lower if not gone altogether." Paul said.
"Will he have to stay in town tonight doctor?" Hoss now asked. He didn't like the idea of his little brother having to stay in the doctor's office. Hoss wanted him back home in his own warm bed where the rest of the family was.
Paul looked briefly at Ben and winked slightly before giving his reply, "Well Hoss, normally I would say yes he would have to stay here. He is still a quite sick little boy. But given the amount of stress that he has been under the last couple of days, I think a strange environment such as this office or even the hotel would be unjust." "What he should have is his own bed with lots of good food and rest. But there will have to be somebody watching over him, maybe more than one," Paul suggested with a grin and a sparkle in his eye.
"Oh me doc, me," Hoss declared with excitement. He wouldn't have thought of anything more he would like to do than to take care of Little Joe when he was sick and hurt. He was sure that big brother Adam would be there to help out too and Pa.
Adam smiled at his larger younger brother and then at the doctor and his father. He knew that the doctor was trying his best to cheer Hoss up as well as the rest of the family about taking care of Joe. Hoss was well known for his care of injured and sick animals.
Adam was sure that Hoss's care for Little Joe would benefit both Hoss and Joe. And he knew that if he and Hoss helped out, then their father would have an excuse to get some rest of his own and take care of himself too.
"Adam you go down to Charlie at the livery stable and tell him that we found Joe okay and to pass the word around. After that can you organize to get a wagon from him to take your brother home," Ben now instructed.
"Hoss I want you to go and collect Joe's horse from the school and bring it back here. We can pull him along with the other horses as well," Ben continued. "While you two are doing that, the doctor and I will finish up here and get your brother ready to go home."
Adam and Hoss just smiled at each other and then went to do exactly what was asked of them. They were both bursting with happiness that Joe was going to be alright and home very soon. This day was certainly turning out to be a happier one than yesterday had been.
After Adam and Hoss had gone to do their assigned tasks, Paul concentrated on making sure the splints around Joe's wrists were in place correctly and the bandaging around them tight enough to prevent movement of any kind.
The doctor then wrapped a light bandage around the scratches that Ben had cleaned. He gave Ben a small bottle of the solution he had prepared and instructed Ben to use it twice a day to continue cleaning out the scratches on a daily basis.
"I will give you some powders for any pain Joe might have over the next day or so Ben, but after the swelling goes down on that wrist, I think he should be fine. Give him only a small dose and see if that helps. I have also given you two sleeping powders, just in case the trauma of what has happened starts making him have bad dreams or sleepless nights. He really does have to rely on rest to get him back on his feet now. It is the best medicine I can prescribe other then a great deal of love and understanding over the next few weeks," Paul said to Ben.
"How much of an effect do you think this whole teacher thing will have on him Paul?" Ben asked honestly. Apart from the physical injuries he had been asked to endure, Joe had been humiliated in front of his class mates and made to feel an outcast. He wanted to know how long before he got his Little Joe back again.
"I can't answer you that right now Ben," Paul replied truthfully. "Only time will tell how he handles the memories and flashbacks. He may be jumpy around people at first, particularly strangers, so try and limit the number of visitors until he is fully recovered. Just try and include him in the normal everyday activities of the household and I think he should bounce back fine."
"I will come out to check on his wrist late tomorrow Ben," Paul said as Adam and Hoss arrived back at his office, informing their father that the wagon was ready. "I think he will sleep most of today and tomorrow anyway. You might want to try and get some food into him once you get him home. The roughness of the wagon might be enough to wake him gently once he is in his own bed. Just a bowl of meaty broth or something light but filling at the moment. He can have something more substantial once he has had a good sleep."
"Thank you for everything Paul, truly," Ben with meaning in the words. Lord knew that this family had come to rely on the good doctor's services and advice more and more all the time lately.
Ben now very gently lifted his deeply sleeping youngster from the treatment table and carried him close to his chest. At the moment he felt as if he never wanted to let his boy out of his sight again. He had felt so guilty about what had happened to Joe over the last few days and now had everything to be genuinely thankful for.
"You just get that boy home and show him how much he is loved Ben," Paul answered. "That's all I ask in return," he added. Sometimes being all alone had it benefits. He had always been made feel welcome and part of the Cartwright family. He hoped that tradition continued for a good many years to come.
On the journey towards the Ponderosa, Ben had used his hat as much as possible to shade Joe's face from the harsh sunlight that prevailed. It was now just after 1pm and the sun was right over head as they made their way back to the ranch.
Adam had driven the wagon team with Hoss opting to ride beside the wagon on his own mount. From time to time he would look back into the wagon to make sure his brother was doing okay. Ben saw his son's attempts and would gesture with his hand to let Hoss know that everything was just fine.
When they got to the ranch itself, Hop Sing came out at the sound of the wagon pulling up out front. He had heard the conversation between the Cartwrights, Mr Scott and Joe's friend Johnny. When the family hadn't returned that night, the little oriental man had lain awake much like the rest of the family out of worry for them all.
"Hop Sing will you get Joe's room ready for me please," Ben asked as he got down from the wagon and immediately went to lift his son out.
"Room already Mr Cartwright," Hop Sing said with a smile. He had made sure
that the boy's room was already prepared yesterday after they left for the school. He also had a pot of broth already heating on the stove. If it had turned out that it wasn't needed then so be it, but Hop Sing knew from experience that it wouldn't go to waste.
"Thank you Hop Sing," Ben said, returning the smile. He didn't know what he would do without the little helper at times. Hop Sing was more than just their house keeper and cook. He too was a member of the Cartwright family.
Ben now walked through the front door as Adam opened it and made his way up the stairs towards Joe's bedroom. Making sure that he didn't jostle the boy too much. He hadn't come fully awake yet after the Doctor's medication, but like Paul assumed, the ride in the wagon saw him open his eyes a few times just before they pulled up in the front yard.
Ben laid Joe down onto the bed and then went about removing the boy's shoes. After he unwrapped his son from the blankets, he removed what was left of his torn shirt and threw it towards the door to be discarded later.
Hoss had gotten a bowl of cold water from Hop Sing after his father and Adam had taken Joe upstairs. He also had a cloth and now, as the other went about making Joe more comfortable in the bed, in between their fussing, Hoss tried his best to help out by wiping Joe's still warm forehead with the damp cloth.
The coolness of the cloth seemed to revive Joe just that little bit more and he now moaned audibly for everyone to hear as he moved about slightly on the bed and tried to become with his surroundings.
Once Joe was dressed in a clean night shirt and his wrist was elevated on two pillows beside him, Adam helped prop him up into a sitting position. Ben took the bowl of just warm broth from Hop Sing and tried to get his son to each some before he got too tired again.
Ben only managed to get about half a dozen spoonfuls across Joe's lips before the boy's head bowed, signalling that he was asleep again. He had only opened his eyes to slits the whole time and made no attempt to talk to his family during that short period of half wakefulness.
At least they had gotten some nourishment into him Ben conceded. They could try again when the boy was more awake and alert. For now his stomach was satisfied and Joe seemed content enough just to sleep and regain his strength.
"Joe, are you okay?" Hoss asked, not able to keep from asking the question. He knew that getting his brother to talk might be too taxing for him right now. But he still needed to know for his own peace of mind. His father hadn't voiced any objections to his asking and neither had Adam.
"Fine Hoss, just a little tired is all," came the mumbled reply. "Didn't get my homework done yet Hoss, sorry," he added. "Will do it in the morning before school, promise. Don't tell Pa on me yet," the boy said just as sleep stole him once again.
Ben couldn't help but grin at the boy's incoherent speech. Obviously Joe had no idea of where he was at the moment and what had happened earlier in the day. He certainly didn't remember that it was school holidays tomorrow and that there wouldn't be any homework for a few weeks at least.
"Don't worry Hoss, it's just all the medicine working in him that makes him sound a little confused," Adam now said to Hoss. Hoss however hadn't even heard much of what his brother had said. He was just happy to have him home again in his own bed and be with his family who loved him. Starting tomorrow, Hoss made a solemn vow to show Joe just how much he meant that and make time to be with him.
For the rest of the day, Joe was left to rest as much as possible just like the doctor ordered. Hoss had offered to spend the first few hours with his brother and try and cool him down slightly.
Adam and Ben had agreed mostly due to them seeing the desire and need for Hoss to get over his selfishness and guilt. They too would have to do that themselves but they could do the late and early morning hours while Hoss slept.
By dawn's early light the next day, Adam was dozing in a chair beside his brother's bed after relieving his father some hours ago.
Joe had remained asleep throughout the night and with the constant application of cool compresses to his forehead, his fever was now almost gone completely. His forehead only slightly warm to the touch and part of that was probably due to his cocoon of blankets during the night.
Joe opened his eyes slowly and tried to focus his mind on where he was. He turned his head slightly and now could make out the familiar looking furniture and ornaments that decorated his own bedroom. He could scarcely hold back the gasp of relief that he felt once he realised where he was.
He looked over at the figure beside him and noted Adam sleeping in the uncomfortable chair. His brother looked as though he had been there for quite some time and would wake up with a sore back and neck no doubt.
To get a better look around without waking his brother, Joe now attempted to pull himself up into a sitting position. When he had first awoken, he had momentarily forgotten about his wrist or the scratches on his right arm.
Unfortunately he had mistakenly tried to put his weight instinctively on his left arm as was normal for him. But he bit his lip and couldn't hold back the cry of pain that he emitted when the wrist collapsed underneath him and fell back against the pillows.
Adam was startled awake by the cry of pain from his brother. He immediately tried to put a restraining gentle hand on his brother to stop him from attempting to get up any further. Joe was holding onto his bandaged arm with his eyes squeezed shut and a few tears were now trailing down his cheeks.
"Joe, are you alright buddy?" Adam asked softly with fresh concern over his brother. They hadn't quite counted on the fresh pain that Joe would feel first thing this morning when he awoke from his long sleep. The medication that Doc Martin had given him had long since worn off.
"Yeah," Joe said shakily as he tried to put the pain out of his mind. It was very hard to do so though and he could help but wince quite a few more times as Adam helped to prop him up higher in the bed again.
Hoss now appeared at Joe's bedroom door, drawn in by the sound of his pain. He repeated the same question as Adam, "You okay Little Joe?" he asked as he sat on the other side of Joe's bed.
"Thanks Hoss, yeah I will be okay," Joe replied, but his face showed a very different truth. Even after a long sleep, Joe's eyes were still blood shot and his face still drawn at the mouth and eyes in tiredness.
"How about I get you some breakfast Joe?" Hoss now offered, sensing his own need for food but putting Joe first this morning.
"Maybe a little," Joe admitted, as his stomach grumbled slightly at the mention of food. "Thanks Hoss," he added and gave an award winning smile that sent Hoss's heart into cartwheels. Hoss was so happy that his brother was a getting better. He could scarcely hold all the happiness inside. Hoss now went downstairs to get Joe's breakfast.
"How else are you feeling Joe?" Adam now asked, knowing that the wrist was already brothering him. He waited patiently for Joe to take check of all of his hurts before answering.
"Arm hurts some where that cat scratched me," Joe now said in a uninterested tone of voice. "But the rest of me feels okay. Just a little tired still." he admitted.
"What cat scratched you?" Adam asked now in confusion. It was the first time he had heard anything about any animal being near Joe yesterday.
"Well while I was camped out near those rocks a little mountain lion cub came out. He had had his tail partly chopped off, that's why I called him "Half-tail" Joe explained as he spoke all in a rush. "I tried to clean the area up with a piece of my shirt, but he got a bit frightened and that's when he scratched me. He didn't mean to. He was just hurt. Anyway he ran off into the rocks again and I haven't seen him again."
Adam tried to take in everything that his brother was telling him. At least now they had a plausible explanation for the torn shirt sleeve and the scratches on his arm. Somewhere in Joe's story there was the whole reason behind it all. Joe just spoke too fast for Adam to fully understand what had happened out there while he was all alone.
Hoss now walked back into the room, holding a tray of freshly made toast, a boiled egg and a glass of orange juice. He placed it in front of Joe and waited to see if his brother approved of the morning menu.
Joe gave his thanks in return and to show his appreciation, started eating what was on the tray. Whilst he was eating, Adam reiterated to Hoss, the parts of Joe's story that he had understood.
Hoss's worry had turned into envy when Adam told about Joe's encounter with the young mountain lion cub.
"Well Good Morning all of you," came a voice from the bedroom door. Everyone turned their gaze towards the source and found Ben smiling back at them. The sight of his three son's sitting around enjoying each other's company for the first time in weeks was one to behold indeed.
"And how are you young man?" Ben asked his youngest as he walked over to Joe. He was grateful to see that Hoss and Adam had been taking extra care of their brother and that they had already seen to his breakfast needs.
"Fine Pa," Joe said quietly before putting another piece of toast in his mouth.
Adam once again found himself telling Ben about Joe's encounter with the mountain lion and how he had gotten the scratches on his arm. Ben then informed Adam what the doctor had said the day before about keeping them extra clean and bandaged for the next few days.
Ben was about to motion for some time alone with his youngest son when Hop Sing appeared at the door. "Sheriff Coffee need to see you downstairs Mr Cartwright."
"Thank you Hop Sing," Ben replied. "Joe I will be back to talk to you in a minute, I promise." He briefly even contemplated whether he should talk to Joe first and ask the Sheriff to wait or come back later. Especially seeing the promise he had made to himself about spending more time with the boys and putting them first from now on.
Upon consideration though, Roy didn't come out to the ranch very often just for a social call. He had better see what it was all about. Then he could spend some quality time with Joseph without being interrupted.
"Good Morning Roy," Ben greeted the lawman, stepping aside from the door to let him in. "What brings you out here this early in the morning?"
"Sorry to disturb you so soon again Ben, I know Joe only just came home from the doc's yesterday," Roy said, playing with the brim of his hat out of nervousness of the news he had come to deliver.
Ben could see that Roy was having a difficult time getting out whatever was on his mind. "Okay Roy, out with it, what's got you all tongue tied?" Ben asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Well Ben, I know you got your hands full getting Little Joe better at the moment, but I thought you might like to know...," he started to say, leaving the question unfinished.
"Like to know what?" Ben asked good naturedly. Something inside told him that whatever it was, it couldn't be particularly good news. But Roy was only the messenger, not the source.
"The judge spoke to me about that teacher Mr Watson this morning," Roy said, leaving it for Ben to digest that part of the conversation first. "He said that even though he assault Little Joe, he didn't think it was very likely that the man would get any real jail time for it," Roy now continued. He could see the look on Ben's face change a dozens times during that sentence. A dozen different emotions, but only one outcome: anger and disappointment.
"He's not going to let him get away scott-free is he?" Ben said, trying to keep his temper in check like had taught his sons. He didn't even want to think that all the pain and anguish that Little Joe had gone through was for nothing.
"No Ben, he will get some hefty fines for his deeds and probably ordered to do a good deal of community work when he gets back home," Roy said, indicating that the man would go free.
"He's letting the man go back to his former life?" Ben said as he felt the outrage pouring out of him but not willing to put the feelings into words or actions. "Doesn't he realise that the man will only go back teaching the way he has to Joseph's class?"
"Yes, and the judge said that he would do everything he could to see that the man didn't teach again anywhere. But he also said that in reality that was totally out of his jurisdiction and he doubted be could get the school board to just sack the man. There are a lot of other teachers in the system that victimise their students for various reasons including left-handedness." Roy said as he gave the judge's speech.
"I am more sorry than I can say Ben, I really am," Roy stammered, not really not knowing what else to say that would make the situation more just for the family.
"Thanks Roy, I appreciate you coming all the way out here to tell us," Ben said knowing that it wasn't the lawman's fault. It was supposed to be called a justice system but right now that sense of "justice" seemed a long way off.
"How is Joe Ben?" Roy asked, genuinely concerned for the boy. He had seen the sick state they had found him in earlier on the road out of Virginia City.
"Well he's awake a few hours earlier than the doctor said he would be Roy,"
Ben replied, thankful for the change of topic. "I don't think that will last long though. I was just about to talk to him about what happened when you knocked on the door."
"I will let you get back to him then Ben. Sure glad he is going to be okay. Tell him I said hello for me and hope he gets well real soon," Roy said as he went towards the door and bid Ben good day.
Although he wasn't happy with the outcome, he didn't want to keep his son waiting any longer. They would just have to deal with the outcome of the teacher's fate as time went by. For now he decided to keep the information from his young son until he was doing better physically and able to understand why people made the decisions they made.
Ben now climbed the stairs towards Joe's room again. As he got nearer, he could overhear the two voice of his two older son's still in the room. He then could hear the sound of giggling and laughing and that brought a smile to his face and made his heart feel a little lighter before he walked through the door.
"I told ya to keep still Little Joe," came Hoss's voice.
"Both of you aren't making this any easier," came the deeper baritone voice of Adam.
Ben decided now was the time to see exactly what his three sons were up to.
"It would be better if you weren't tickling me Hoss," Joe exclaimed and then began giggling again. Ben could now see all three sons sitting on the bed. The tray that had held Joe's breakfast was still sitting on the boy's lap, but now there was a large sheet of white paper covering the surface.
In Adam's left hand was a large pencil. Hoss was gently holding Joe's right hand splayed onto the paper and Adam was trying to trace around the little boy's fingers.
"There all finished," Adam declared and Hoss let go of Joe's hand so he could lift it from the paper. They all stood staring at the outline for a few seconds. One or two of the fingers looked slightly on the too skinny side and the thumb looked way too long. They all looked at each other and began laughing at the time they were spending together. Joe didn't care what they were doing, so long as he was doing it with the two brothers he adored most.
Ben now looked at Adam for a second, their eyes locking so that Adam knew his father had some information to share with him later on with the younger two boys were not listening.
Whatever it was, Adam could see that it didn't sit well with his father, but Ben was trying hard to make an effort for his brother Joe. They all had to pour their efforts into helping him get over this ordeal and becoming a family again.
"Come on Hoss, you and I can start on those chores outside," Adam said, slightly prodding his younger brother so that Pa and Joe could talk. Or Joe could get some more sleep, which ever came first.
"Sure Adam," Hoss replied, sensing the need for his younger brother and his father to have a father and son chat.
Hoss and Adam now walked out Joe's bedroom, but curiosity got the better of both of them and what Pa might say to help Joe through his emotional pain and distress. They now stole up beside the door, thinking that neither of them could be seen. They almost held their breaths so that their father wouldn't hide them either.
However, Ben smiled to himself. He knew all three of his sons better than they thought he did. He knew perfectly well Hoss and Adam were listening outside the door. He didn't mind though. He hoped that somehow he could help his youngest son to start the healing process, but some of what he was going to say would be relevant to all of them.
Ben sat on the bed, but he waited for Joe to say the first words. He was a little worried about what his son's first question might be. He could see the fatigue etch on the young boy's face and knew it wouldn't be long before Joe was needing to sleep again.
"I am sorry you had to come and find me Pa," Joe said, his bottom lip trembling slightly as he said the words. "At first I wanted to run away, but then after I did, I knew it was wrong and I didn't want to do it anymore. But by then I wasn't feeling too great and it was harder than I thought trying to get back to town."
"Tell me something Joseph," Ben asked, trying to respond to his son's comments. "Why did you run away from the livery stable. I know you were hurting son because of what Mr Watson did to you, but that wasn't the whole reason you ran away was it?"
Joe could only look back at his father with amazement and shock at first. How could this man come to know so much about him. More than Joe could ever say he knew about himself. He couldn't remember saying anything about running away before his hand was hurt. He decided it best to answer the question with honesty.
"I ran away because I heard those men talking about you being angry. I thought you might be mad at me for leaving school early and then for taking the horse without permission," Joe replied. There were probably a few other reasons he had thought of back then that escaped his memory right now.
"Joseph, I know that you have been feeling a little bit lonely around here lately. Maybe a lot lonely right?" Ben now asked and saw his son nod his curly head in a silent yes.
"And I am right in thinking that you were beginning to feel a little unloved around here?" he now added. Again the boy nodded in reply.
"Well let me tell you a little secret son," Ben began, knowing that his other two sons were listening intently. "This was something that my father said to me when I was about your age. And he said that it was a secret just between me and him, just like I am telling you now."
"Daddy's just don't love their children every now and then Joseph," Ben continued seeing tears coming into his son's eyes as he spoke the words. "It's love without end amen."
"I will always try to be there for you Joseph," Ben now said. "And if I am not, I want you to remind me, okay?"
Little Joe couldn't hold his tide of emotions back any further and collapsed his father's broad chest, wrapping his good arm around him and snuggling against him as close as he could get.
In response, Ben wrapped his son with both arms and allowed his son to dwell in the safety of his embrace for as long as he needed to. Ben could hear a few soft sniffles from the boy. A few moments later when all was silent, he looked down and could see that Joe had fallen asleep. Ben didn't release his embrace straight away though. He wanted to hold his boy. Hold him through the good times and the bad. Through all the happy times and the not so happy times.
Love without end... Amen
THE END - Except for the author's notes below...
Firstly, I finally reached the end YAYYYYYYYYYYY.
Secondly, a few people may not be entirely happy with what did or didn't happen to Mr Watson. Let me explain why I wrote that he didn't much of a punishment: My Dad was born in 1938 and was left-handed, as was all of his family. Even during his school years in the 1950's, there was wide- spread victimisation of students who didn't fit in, lagged behind a little in their studies, had the wrong skin colour or were left-handed. Most of the teachers during that time and well before then, right back to Little Joe's time were bound by their own sense of what was right and wrong with little or no fear of any reprisals or repercussions should they over step the mark between teacher or abuser. And I still believe strongly that even back then there would have been little or no retribution for a fictional character like Mr Watson.
Sorry if I disappointed some of you readers about him getting his just deserts and a good smack in the mouth by Ben and his boys.
Thirdly, hope you enjoyed this story and hope you will read future one.
Fourthly and finally - the little mountain lion cub Half-Tail will make a come-back. The story will be called The Mountain Lion. It is not a sequel to Dead Man's Canyon and will commence about 12 years from now when Joe is 19 or so. I needed a way to introduce him when he was younger and thought this story was the perfect way to do just that. He will survive his severed tail but will he remember the boy who afford him some tenderness when he was only a cub. They find themselves as foes rather than friends.