Wrapped in Wild Snow (by Rona)

Summary: Going to try and rescue a neighbour,  the Cartwrights find themselves to be the ones in need of rescue. Can the courage of one of them save the others?

Rated:  T  (5,865 words)

 Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

 Wrapped in Wild Snow

 
“Avalanche!” Fred panted, pointing behind him. “Avalanche!”

Turning, Ben Cartwright followed Fred’s out-stretched finger and his heart sank. He knew all three of his sons were headed in that direction to check on the health and well-being of an elderly neighbor who refused to move into town for the winter, despite having only one horse to care for on his five acres of ground. “Where?” Ben gasped.

“Adam sent me ta tell ya,” Fred hurried on. “He says it looks like ol’ Dobbin’s cabin might be buried.”

The relief flooding Ben left him momentarily weak. At least his sons were safe. “Go back to the ranch and bring a buckboard with shovels and blankets,” Ben ordered. He knew there was very little chance of Dobbin having survived, but he had to do everything in his power to search for the man. “I’ll go and join the boys.”

************************

Looking up as they heard hoof-beats, none of the Cartwright sons was surprised to see their father arrive. The area where they stood was devastated, the familiar contours of the land obliterated by the force of the avalanche that had ripped through the area. Thirty foot tall pines trees lay twisted and snapped like kindling, and the ranch home of Jeremiah Dobbin was gone.

“Hi, Pa,” Adam greeted his father, wiping sweat from his brow. “I think we’re too late. From what I can tell, a huge slab of snow broke free from the mountain. It’s set hard. Jeremiah didn’t stand a chance.”

Wiping a hand over his face, Ben glanced around. He knew from bitter experience that Adam’s assessment of the situation was right. When a big slab of snow broke off like that, it always set hard and sometimes they had to use dynamite to clear the roads, as picks and shovels got them nowhere.

“I’ve sent Fred back to the ranch for tools,” Ben replied. He could see that his sons had all been digging in the snow with their hands. It was useless, but they couldn’t give up hope right away.

“Good,” Hoss panted. “Maybe we can git somewhere’s then.”

“Come on,” Joe growled. “Time’s a-wastin’.” He resumed scrabbling in the snow, his face showing the fierce determination that he brought to most tasks that he tackled. Of them all, Ben knew that Joe would be the last one to admit that they had arrived too late to save Jeremiah and would take it the hardest.

Ben’s assessment proved correct. By the time the buckboard arrived from the ranch with the tools necessary, they all knew that they would not find Jeremiah alive. Joe had clawed at the unyielding snow until his fingers had been bleeding and his gloves torn. When at last he had heeded his father’s pleas to stop, he had risen slowly to his feet and walked away to stand over near the horses, his back to his family.

Looking down at his hands, Joe barely felt the pain. Jeremiah had been a constant presence all Joe’s life, acting as a substitute grandfather to the growing boys, letting them play on his small patch of land and teaching them what he knew about animals, wind, weather and life. Although Joe had known that Jeremiah was growing frailer and frailer with each passing day, he had been unable to conceive of a time when the old man was not there to welcome him with a smile and a cup of coffee. It seemed especially unfair to Joe that Jeremiah should lose his life in this manner. He should have died peacefully in his bed.

Sighing, Ben exchanged a glance with Adam and started to walk towards Joe. He couldn’t stand by and watch one of his sons suffering.

There was a sudden shout from the hands who stood over by the wagon, beyond the devastation left by the avalanche.  Whirling, Ben turned, looking instinctively up to the mountains and seeing – to his unutterable horror – another wall of snow sweeping down towards them. The next second he was running, crying out a warning to his sons, knowing that it was far too late for any of them to escape.

And then it hit him.

*********************************

The world turned into a roaring white maelstrom. He could no longer tell which way was up, he could no longer breathe. The force of the white wall drove him tumbling head over heels, as though he was a child’s toy, dragging him helplessly hither and yon, heedless of the hurts it was causing him.

At length, the battering ceased and Ben lay there, gasping for breath. He forced his eyes open and coughed out the snow that had somehow entered his mouth. It was dark all around him and Ben felt a thrill of fear as he realized that he was buried in the snow.

The urge to hurry was overwhelming, but Ben fought back the panic. If he moved too fast, he could aggravate injuries he knew nothing about. He felt pulped, but he wasn’t sure if anything was broken, or if he was just badly bruised. Slowly, he freed his right hand from under his body, wincing as he did so, but although his arm ached – in conjunction with everything else – there was no deeper pain suggesting that there was a serious problem.

Working carefully, Ben pushed away the snow in front of his face and rejoiced in the fact that it moved quite easily. Perhaps he might be able to escape this icy tomb! Adrenalin surged through his veins and he had once again to school himself to caution, although every nerve ending was screaming at him to hurry, hurry!

Ben began to dig.

***************************

The impact took the breath from his lungs and when he could finally draw breath again, he inhaled snow and began to choke. For what seemed like hours to the panic-stricken man, he thought he was going to suffocate as he fought to clear his lungs of the foreign substance. At last, the obstruction cleared and he was able to draw breath.

No longer sure which way was up, Adam remained lying still, with his eyes shut. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so pulped and hoped he would never feel that way again. He was lying face down, with his left hand flung out above his head and his face protected beneath his arm. The air pocket had undoubtedly saved his life, but Adam knew that the icy air wouldn’t last for long. He had to do something to get free. He lifted his right hand and pain screamed down his arm. The cry escaped his lips before he could prevent it.

It was several moments before the pain subsided back to a more manageable throbbing. Adam groaned. His right arm was badly injured – probably broken – but he had no way to tell for sure. If he had one bad injury, he might have more. He would have to move very carefully while he tried to free himself.

Reaching out with his good arm, Adam began to dig.

*****************************

Reaching out frantically, the man tried to grab his brother, but he was too slow. His grasping fingers closed scant inches from the other man’s sleeve; it might as well have been miles short for all the difference it made. It never occurred to him that he wouldn’t have been able to keep hold of his brother even if his hand had made contact.

The avalanche swept him away as though he was as light as a feather. He cried out as he felt a collision with something solid – a tree perhaps? Snow poured into his mouth, but luckily, he was able to spit it out before he swallowed or breathed any in.

And then it was over, as suddenly as that. Lying there under the snow, Hoss was reminded of the earthquakes that he had his brothers had lived through in San Francisco a few years before. Those had been the most terrifying few minutes of Hoss’ life – until now. Hoss mentally checked himself over, wriggling his toes and fingers and finding that he was still in contact with every part of his body.

As he began to dig himself out, Hoss wondered how the rest of his family had fared.

***********************

The snow hit and swept the young man away. He half-saw the horses rearing up in terror and before he blacked out, he hoped that none of them had been injured.

When Joe opened his eyes, all he could see was darkness. It took him a long, terrifying moment to realize that his hat had been knocked askew and was lying over his face, effectively blocking out all immediate light.

Reaching up, Joe knocked his hat aside, pain lancing through his already torn, chilled fingers. But he didn’t care about that. What about the rest of his family? Had they, too, been caught in the avalanche?

Frantic with worry, Joe began to dig.

*****************************

Further down the slope, the hands saw the avalanche coming and ran for it. It was a wise move. It wasn’t a slab of snow that fell this time, just loose snow and although it made a mess and knocked the Cartwrights off their feet, a lot of the momentum was gone by the time it reached the area where the hands had been. Even so, it still knocked the buckboard onto its side and the trapped horses whinnied and thrashed about in the traces.

Frozen in horror, the hands gaped at the places where their bosses had vanished. It was Fred who finally made the first move. “Jack, get those horses sorted out!” he snapped. “Don, Pete, see if you can find those shovels, we’re gonna need them. Ted, you come with me!”

It was impossible to know exactly where the Cartwrights had ended up. The snow covered everything. All the men knew the consequences of avalanches. They might not find the Cartwrights’ bodies until the spring thaw. Fred’s breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t believe they were all dead; he couldn’t! He wouldn’t believe it until he saw them with his own eyes.

“Look!” Ted pointed. Out of the snow, a strange creature appeared to be rising. Ted was superstitious enough to wonder if it was some kind of evil snow spirit, but Fred was made of sterner stuff.

“Come on!” he scolded and dragged the reluctant young hand after him.

The snow creature turned into Joe Cartwright as they reached him. He was caked in snow from head to foot and the only color was from the blood steaming down the side of his face and on his hands. One of Joe’s fingernails was ripped in half, hanging grotesquely from his finger. Blood ran across the back of his hand. He seemed completely unaware of it. “Where’s Pa?” he gasped, as Fred reached out to steady him.

“I don’t know,” Fred admitted and was horrified when Joe tore himself free from Fred’s supporting grip and staggered off down the snowfield. “Joe!” he cried and hurried after his young boss. “Joe, don’t!” Fred urged, as he caught Joe’s arm again. “You need to rest.”

Shrugging Fred off, Joe gave him a savage look. “I need to find my father,” he grated and Fred didn’t argue any more. He had seen that look on Joe’s face before and he knew that anyone that stood in Joe’s way would pay the penalty. He let go and watched as Joe stumbled over the snow, seeking his father and brothers.

***************************

“Here!” Joe called. He had fallen to his knees several minutes before, unable to stand upright a moment longer. Blood still ran freely down his face, but Joe was oblivious to it. He had one thought, and one thought only – he had to find Pa!

Not waiting for Fred to arrive, Joe began to dig at the snow with his bare hands. It was sheer chance that had led Joe to the spot where Ben was buried. It was only the briefest glimpse of color – one end of Ben’s green neckerchief blowing gently in the wind – that had alerted Joe to the fact his father was here. Now, he had to get him out. Joe wouldn’t allow himself to think that Ben was dead. He scrabbled in the snow, but his hands were very cold, his fingers stiff from their previous abuse and he wasn’t making much headway.

Dragging Joe aside, Fred and Ted carefully began to dig. The snow, luckily, had not set to the consistency of concrete and the digging went quite fast. Joe sat on the snow and watched, not noticing the cold soaking through the seat of his pants and unaware that he was shivering.

With shocking suddenness, Ben’s face was uncovered. His eyes were closed and his lips were slightly blue. Joe felt a jolt of fear in his heart, but as Fred reached in and touched his boss, Ben’s eyes opened.

“Pa!” The relief in Joe’s voice was unmistakable. He crawled across the snow and threw his arms around his father. “Pa, are you hurt?” he asked.

“No,” Ben mumbled, clearly dazed.

“Get a blanket over here!” Fred shouted and looked back to beam down at Joe, but Joe was already gone, moving on to his next target – finding his brothers alive.

********************

Quite how neither of the buckboard horses had been injured, none of them were sure. Jack had managed to get them both back onto their feet and he and Don had retrieved the precious blankets.  Only one was wet, but fortunately, Fred had brought as many blankets as he could find, so there were plenty to go around. He and the other hands carried Ben to the buckboard, laid him in the back carefully and wrapped him up.

The warmth of the rough wool soon penetrated Ben’s damp clothes and after a while, he felt better. “Joe?” he asked, and was surprised to see Don’s head.

“Joe’s with Fred and the others, Mr. Cartwright,” Don explained. He hoped Ben wouldn’t ask any further, because he couldn’t in all conscience tell Ben that Joe was all right, but on the other hand, Fred had promised to skin him alive if he allowed Mr. Cartwright to get out of the buckboard before they were back at the house! Fred might not be foreman, but he had been around the Ponderosa forever as far as Don was concerned and that made his word law.

“I see,” Ben muttered and lay back down again. “Is he helping Adam and Hoss?” he asked and Don bit his lip.

“Yes,” he replied, because Joe was sort of helping Adam and Hoss. He was certainly trying to help. Don hoped he wouldn’t be taken to task later for telling a partial lie.

Out on the snowfield, Don could see that Joe was on the ground again, Fred leaning over him anxiously. Hope had flared anew in them all when Ben was found alive and essentially unhurt, but with every moment, it was fading again. Could Adam and Hoss still be alive after all this time?

Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity. Don peered over and saw that Ted and Jack were digging. Then all four of them reached into the hole and moments later, Hoss Cartwright was slowly pulled into the air. Like Ben and Joe he was white from head to foot, but Don didn’t need to be close by to recognize Hoss.

It seemed that the big man was all right, for Joe was already shaking off Fred’s restraining hand and crawling across the snow. Jack and Ted helped Hoss across to the buckboard. He could see Hoss’ strength returning with every step he took, but he was still weak.

“Fred says to take Mr. Cartwright and Hoss back to the house, then come on back here as fast as ya can,” Ted panted, as they reached Don. “Send someone fer the doctor, too.”

“All right,” Don agreed. He hopped onto the seat and clucked to the team. From behind him, he heard Ben cry out in protest, but Hoss’ deep voice replied, soothing his father and assuring him that Joe wasn’t alone in his search for Adam. Don hurried the team.

******************************

“Joe, you’ve gotta rest,” Fred urged.

“I’ve gotta find Adam,” Joe argued. He kept trying to push himself to his feet and wondered why his legs felt so shaky. His head wound was no longer bleeding, but the blood loss was contributing to the weakening effects of the cold. Joe had no idea how long he had been searching, but he wasn’t going to give up.

“Spread out,” Fred whispered to Jack and Ted. “Keep your eyes peeled.” He was staying with Joe. He was terrified that the young man would collapse any minute. “Did you keep any of them blankets outa the buckboard?”

“Sure did,” Ted nodded. He pointed to a dark pile hanging over the saddle of his horse.

“Good,” Fred praised him. “Let’s get lookin’.” He hurried after Joe, wondering how long they had been out there and wondering when Joe would finally admit defeat. Knowing his young boss, Fred suspected it might be never.

In actual fact, not as much time had elapsed as Fred thought. It had been no more than twenty minutes since the second avalanche struck. To the men engaged in a seemingly hopeless task, it seemed like hours. There seemed to be no sign of disturbed snow that might indicate Adam’s whereabouts. The men were growing discouraged and Joe was getting nearer and nearer to collapse.

Suddenly, his foot caught in a hole in the snow and he pitched forward to land on his face, his arms coming out a little too late to save him. Joe tried to get his hands under him to push himself upright again, but he was too weak. The cold and his injuries had sapped his strength.

“Joe, are you all right?” Fred asked, bending over Joe and turning him onto his side.

Abruptly, Fred let out a cry and gestured frantically over his shoulder. “I think we’ve found him, hurry!” he cried and Joe struggled to sit up, seeing, as Fred had, that this hole had deep finger marks on the edge. At once, Joe began to dig with his bare hands. He couldn’t really feel them, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting Adam out.

*****************************

His older brother was unconscious when they dug him out, but he began to revive almost at once. Fred guessed that he had dug the hole, then become exhausted. A trickle of fresh air had managed to get in, but he had been nearing asphyxiation.

“We’ve got to get them back to the house,” Fred decreed. The sky was clouding over and even as he spoke a single snowflake drifted down.

There was no sign of the buckboard, but Fred knew it was too soon for it to be returning. Glancing around, he saw for the first time that the Cartwrights’ horses had all run off. The only ones left were the hands’ horses. “We’ll trade off on riding double,” he decided. “You two take Mr. Adam over there and get him wrapped in a couple of blankets. I’ll bring Joe.”

As Jack and Ted picked Adam up between them, Fred hauled Joe into his arms. He knew that Joe had pushed himself too hard that afternoon and now that Adam had been found, the adrenalin that had kept Joe going would leave his body and he would crash down hard.

“I can walk,” Joe protested, but Fred ignored him. Moments later, Joe’s head lolled back on his shoulders as his stressed body opted out.

It was difficult walking over the snow carrying Joe, but Fred managed it pretty quickly. Together, he and the other men wrapped the Cartwrights in blankets and then Adam was carefully hoisted onto one of the horses and Jack got up behind him. “Mind his shoulder,” Ted reminded his workmate.

“What’s wrong with his shoulder?” Fred asked, as Ted helped him place Joe on the front of his own saddle.

“Dislocated,” Ted replied. “His arm might be broken, too. I ain’t sure.”

“Let’s get movin’ then,” Fred suggested.

It was only as they were riding home that Fred became aware of just how cold Joe was. There was no shivering and he was mumbling to himself as he drifted in and out of consciousness. The young man’s clothes were soaking wet and even the blanket didn’t seem to be helping him warm up any. Fred’s concern grew. He’d known Joe a long time and he didn’t want anything to happen to him.

And suddenly, with no warning, the snow began, blown on a screaming wind that seemed to rise up out of nowhere. Within moments, the five men were covered and they plodded on through the growing darkness, praying that the blizzard didn’t turn into a white out, or they were all doomed.

*************************

“Where are Adam and Joe?” Ben demanded, pushing himself up on the pillows.

Sighing, Paul Martin put a restraining hand on his shoulder. He had arrived just before the snow began and had visions of being stuck on the ranch for the rest of the winter. “I don’t know where they are,” he answered, patiently. “Come on, Ben, you know that. I didn’t even know there was anything wrong out here; I was just going to pay you a social call, seeing as how I was out this way already. Now simmer down, or I’ll sedate you.”

“You wouldn’t!” Ben contradicted.

“Try me!” Paul challenged and Ben locked gazes with the physician for a few seconds before relaxing. He knew that Paul would!

“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “It’s just that I’m worried.”

“I know,” Paul soothed. He wished he could tell Ben everything would be all right, but with the snow falling thicker each minute, he couldn’t offer false hope. He concluded his examination and sat back. “Well, Ben, you’ve been lucky,” the announced. “You’re covered in bruises and you’re going to be very sore for a while, but there’s nothing broken.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied. “What about Hoss?”

“Hoss has a couple of cracked ribs, but he’s going to be fine,” Paul smiled.

“Thank goodness,” Ben replied and his eyes turned to the window, watching the snow. His despair was palpable, a living entity in the room with them.

Wishing there was something he could say, Paul sighed and began to put his stethoscope into his Gladstone bag once more. With every moment that passed, the chances of Joe and Adam returning safely shrank. Paul didn’t think that Ben would recover from losing two of his sons.

There was a sudden shout from downstairs and Ben’s eyes lit up. He started to throw back the covers. Paul didn’t want him getting up, but he ignored Ben, hurrying out into the hall to shout his orders. Right now, his priority had to be the injured men. At least, he hoped it was injured men, and not just injured man.

All five figures were shrouded in snow. Fred was once more carrying Joe, and Adam was supported between Jack and Ted. “Bring them upstairs at once!” Paul shouted. “Hop Sing, I need hot water now.” He knew that the Oriental housekeeper had had huge cauldrons of water on the stove since he heard about the avalanche.

“What can I do to help?” Ben demanded. He had his maroon dressing gown belted tightly around his waist.

“Get those wet things off Adam,” Paul instructed. “Fred, put Joe down in here and you men go and get dry as fast as you can. We don’t need any more casualties!”

Casting Joe an anxious look, Ben did as he was asked, helping Adam undress, being careful of the dislocated shoulder and broken arm. Adam was conscious and his teeth chattered helplessly. He shivered and Ben grabbed the towel hanging by the basin and ewer and began to roughly dry his son’s body and hair. Adam’s room was already warm and once Ben had slipped a pair of dry socks on him, he swung Adam’s legs under the blankets and drew them up to his chin.

“Thanks, Pa,” Adam whispered, the shivering starting to die down.

“How do you feel?” Ben demanded, drinking in the sight of the son he had feared was lost forever.

“All right, apart from the arm,” Adam replied. “Jack said Joe found me.”

“It seems Joe found us all,” Ben replied. “I can’t imagine how he did it, Adam.” He blinked back tears. Adam placed a hand on his father’s arm.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

As Ben nodded, Hop Sing opened the bedroom door and popped a stoneware ‘pig’ at Adam’s feet and tucked another one, wrapped in a towel, by his side under the covers. “Mr. Adam soon warm,” Hop Sing announced. “I bring broth to warm from inside, too.”

The warmth from the stoneware hot water bottles was delicious and Adam felt himself growing sleepy. He blinked hard to keep himself awake, knowing that the doctor would want to look at him. In truth, Adam hoped he would hurry, as the pain in his shoulder was very bad. Sitting on the horse had been excruciating, but Adam said nothing of this, not wanting to worry Ben further.

In a surprisingly short time, Paul Martin came into his room. “How’s Joe?” Ben and Adam chorused.

“Exhausted,” Paul replied, succinctly. “He had sustained a nasty head injury, but he isn’t concussed. However, he does have mild frostbite in his fingers. I’m going to set Adam’s shoulder and then go back and finish treating Joe. Hop Sing is soaking his hands in warm water right now.”

“Frostbite?” Ben echoed, dread in his tones. “Paul, how bad is it?”

“Not too bad,” Paul soothed. “He’s not going to lose fingers or anything, I promise. His hands will be sore for a while and he’ll be unable to do anything for himself, but I promise he will recover.” Paul’s hand stayed on Ben’s shoulder, the thumb moving gently, giving comfort and reassurance. He knew the worried father needed it. “Meanwhile, let’s get Adam’s shoulder back into place and then I can set this arm. Adam, do you want an anesthetic?”

“No,” Adam replied. “Just do it.”

“All right,” Paul agreed, hiding a smile. He wondered if Adam knew how much he sounded like his youngest brother.

Luckily, the break wasn’t serious and Paul was able to set the bone and splint the arm quite quickly. Adam gritted his teeth and tried to keep back his cries of pain, but one escaped his control as his shoulder slipped back into its socket and for a moment, he thought he might pass out. At length, it was done and he looked down in interest at the splint. For years now, Paul had been using plaster casts and Adam wondered why he wasn’t this time. However, he didn’t ask, for fear that he might be sick when he spoke. His face was still a pasty white color.

Correctly interpreting the look, Paul answered. “I didn’t come expecting trouble,” he laughed. “I came for a visit. So I didn’t bring all my medical supplies with me.”

“I… see,” Adam nodded. He was beginning to feel a bit better and color was returning to his face.

“Try and eat something and then get some sleep,” Paul suggested.  He rose. “I’ve got to get back to Joe.”

*****************************

The thawing of Joe’s frostbitten fingers had been a painful experience. His fingers went from a yellow-grey color to bright red and the process left him sweating and breathless. Joe had never thought he would be warm again and Paul had told him he was suffering from mild hypothermia when he had been brought in. Now, Joe was sweating as the pain in his fingers refused to abate.

“How much longer, doc?” he pleaded. Joe was white with pain and his lips were pinched. He had muffled his cries as best he could, but several times, he had been unable to bite them back. His lip was chewed raw. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand this.”

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Paul replied, wishing there was something he could do. “I’ll give you something in a while, but I need to be sure that your fingers are properly thawed before I do.”

Groaning, Joe leant back against Ben, who gently blotted sweat from his brow. The sight of Joe’s hands terrified him. He knew men who had lost fingers and toes to frostbite and he feared the worst. “Easy, son,” he crooned. “Take it easy.”

At length, Paul declared that Joe’s hands were thawed. “I’ve got to separate each finger, Joe,” he explained. “And then, when I’ve got your hands bandaged, I’m going to splint them and elevate them for tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll have a look at them and see how you are doing. But – and this is very important – you mustn’t use your hands at all. Until I say so, your hands must remain bandaged and splinted, or you could still lose the use of them. Do you understand?”

Eyes wide and particularly green, Joe nodded. “Nothing at all,” he echoed. “Not even… you know.” He nodded towards the end of the bed where the chamber pot resided.

“Not even peeing,” Paul reiterated, seeing the color rising in Joe’s face. “I know it’s embarrassing to have to face this, Joe, but what would you rather? A few weeks of mortification or a lifetime’s worth?”

“No contest,” Joe whispered and Paul was relieved to see that Joe had not lost his sense of humor completely.

Slowly and carefully, Paul bandaged every finger and then bandaged the whole hand. Splints were attached and then Hop Sing and Paul rigged a system so that Joe’s hands could be elevated over night. It was desperately uncomfortable, but Paul knew it would help the healing process. And lastly, he bandaged the gash on Joe’s head.

It was, by now, late in the evening and Paul gave Joe a shot of morphine and he and Ben sat with him until Joe was asleep. After checking on Hoss and Adam, both of whom were also sleeping, they then went downstairs and had a late supper.

The snow was still falling, but it was too late for Paul to consider returning to town. He accepted Ben’s hospitality and fell into bed to sleep soundly until morning.

*****************************

“We’re so lucky,” Joe commented, a few days later as they sat in front of the fire. His splinted hands sat stiffly on his lap and he had just had to endure being fed his supper. It was one of many indignities that Joe had had to learn to take in his stride since the avalanche. He thought it was probably the least embarrassing one.

“Are we?” Adam asked, glancing up from a book. His arm rested in a sling.

“Yes, we are,” Joe replied. “We’re all here and we’re all right.”

“We are?” Hoss asked. He wasn’t sure quite how Joe could define ‘all right’ given their myriad injuries.

“Sure,” Joe persisted. “How many people do you know who’ve survived an avalanche?”

“Not many,” Hoss admitted. “But we ain’t that lucky.” He gestured to Joe’s hands and to Adam’s arm. “I wouldn’t call frostbite lucky.”

“I didn’t say it was,” Joe objected, frowning. “I mean…” He paused, trying to marshal his thoughts. Ben knew that Joe still suffered from headaches caused by the head injury he had received, and came to his rescue.

“I think what Joe is trying to say is, we’re lucky to be alive,” Ben interjected smoothly.

“That’s it,” Joe agreed. “Thanks, Pa.”

“No, I think it’s you we have to thank, Joe,” Ben replied. “If it wasn’t for your determination, we might not have survived it.” Fred had told Ben the story of Joe’s dogged search, ignoring his own hurts to find his beloved family. Ben had felt – and still felt – incredibly humbled.

Blushing, Joe ducked his head. “Aw, shucks, Pa, I didn’t do much,” Joe denied. “It was just luck that I found you. Pure, dumb luck.”

“Perhaps,” Ben allowed. “But if you hadn’t persevered in looking for us, luck would never have got the chance to play its part.” He moved so that he was sitting on the arm of the sofa and drew Joe’s head against him. He gestured to the glasses of brandy that were on the coffee table. “Gentlemen, take your glasses for a toast to the hero of the hour – Joe Cartwright.”

As one, they all stood, leaving Joe sitting there, blushing furiously as his family raised their glasses and toasted him. “Joe Cartwright.” They drank solemnly and sat down.

Knowing he had to say something, Joe wondered what it ought to be. “I couldn’t leave you out there,” he blurted. “I love you.” He ducked his head, embarrassed.

Dragging Joe against him in a rough, hug, Hoss ruffled Joe’s hair. “I love ya, too, Shortshanks,” he mumbled, his voice suspiciously rough. Letting go abruptly, Hoss rose. “G’night, all,” he muttered and escaped upstairs.

Joe looked up, following Hoss with his eyes, which glittered with tears. Ben nodded. “I’ll make sure he’s okay,” he replied and quietly went after his middle son.

Putting his book down, Adam struggled for a moment to voice his thoughts. He was a private man, often reticent with his feelings. Life had hurt him many times and Adam sometimes thought it would be safer not to love anyone than to risk being hurt again. But he had to say something to Joe and it had to be said now.

Clearing his throat, he said, “Joe, I know I often ride your case and we don’t always see eye to eye.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe agreed, wryly.

“But I do love you,” Adam battled on. “I don’t tell any of you often enough, but I do. Sometimes, I forget you’re a man grown, and then you go and do something like this. Joe, if I’m ever in a tight spot in my life, I hope that I’ll have you by my side, fighting along with me.”

“I’d be proud to be there,” Joe whispered, touched beyond measure.

Standing silently at the top of the stairs, unseen by the men below, Ben and Hoss shared a tremulous smile that grew broader and broader. Yes, there was still a lot of healing to be done, but Joe was right.

They were lucky.

*****End*****

 

 

 

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