THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE NOT PROFIT AND IS NOT MEANT TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT
Torrential rain splashed up off the ground, hard and dusty from months of hot, dry weather. Joe Cartwright reached up and pulled his hat down lower over his eyes, feeling the uncomfortable trickle of rainwater making its way beneath his collar. He looked round at his father, riding alongside, and grinned widely. “I shouldn’t have complained about the hot weather yesterday.”
“Does seem to have tempted fate.” Ben smiled back at his son. “I haven’t seen a downpour like this in months.”
Joe cast a glance upwards,
the thick dark clouds showed no sign of dispersing and in the distance he could
still hear the rumble of thunder from the lightning storm that had passed
overhead a half-hour ago. The blinding flashes had panicked the horses and it
had been difficult for Joe and his father to keep the animals under control. They were fine horses, thought Joe with satisfaction, they’d been a good buy, but he’d be glad to get back to the Ponderosa and his own horse
Cochise. In Joe’s opinion there was no other horse that could compare to
They had ridden for another mile or so when, glancing heavenwards once more, Joe was relieved to see the edge of the storm, dark clouds giving way to clear blue skies. “Looks like we’ll be dry again soon.” He remarked to his father, indicating the sky.
Ben turned to look and frowned, towards the edge of the storm clouds he could make out the beginnings of a funnel shape, moving slowly across the landscape. “We need to find somewhere to shelter.” He scanned the terrain as he spoke. “And fast.”
Hearing the urgency in his father’s voice Joe turned, he was shocked by what he saw, the funnel shape was widening and strengthening rapidly, already he could feel the wind beginning to displace the still air, carrying with it hard grains of sand.
“It’s a tornado.” Ben told him unnecessarily, urging his horse into a trot. “We have to find shelter.”
“Over there.” Joe pointed towards a shallow depression in the ground, it was just deep enough to provide a refuge from the wind, though as they drew near they saw the six inches of water at the bottom of the ditch and realised they were in for an uncomfortable time.
“Come on.” Ben slid from his horse, grabbing saddlebags and canteens. “We have to let the horses go.” He told his son as Joe dismounted and stood hesitantly by the animals that they had spent so much money on. “Perhaps they can get away, but they’ll stand no chance if we don’t release them.”
Reluctantly Joe unhitched the horses he had been leading, he knew his father was right, they had no choice but to let the animals go. Slapping the creatures on their rumps he shooed them away. Too late he remembered the pack of food and supplies that one of the horses was carrying, he could see the animal but it was already some distance away, the oncoming tornado frightening it into a gallop. Seeing Joe standing watching the horse Ben grabbed his son’s arm and pulled him towards the ditch, the wind was stronger now, small stones being carried along with it bounced off the two men’s bodies as they dropped down into the furrow in the ground.
“Use your arms to shield your head.” Ben yelled as he lowered himself into the water. “And keep down.”
Lying alongside his father Joe did as instructed. The wind overhead grew more ferocious but above the sound of the gale Joe became aware of another noise, the terrified whinny of a horse.
Raising his head, Joe was horrified to see the horse he had been riding, her reins caught fast on a bush. The animal was obviously petrified, head tossing frantically as she tried to pull free.
Unthinking of his own safety, Joe vaulted out of his hiding place. He couldn’t let the horse remain there, facing certain death. Running for the scared animal he found himself fighting to stay upright in the fierce wind. Debris swirled around him, tree branches and pieces of fencing carried by the whirling tornado.
“Joseph!” Ben had made a futile lunge for his son when he realised what the young man was about to do, but he was too late and could only watch, heart in his throat, as Joe reached the horse and freed the animal. Turning back, Joe was within feet of safety when a large chunk of wood tossed effortlessly about by the wind hit him full on the side of the head.
Fear for his son coursed through Ben as he scrambled up out of the ditch and crawled to the young man’s side. Reaching Joe he was concerned to find him unconscious, a large gash on the side of his head. With the tornado almost upon them there was no time to waste and Ben half carried and half dragged Joe back to shelter, unable to stand in the teeth of the gale.
Regaining consciousness an hour or so later Joe found himself seated in the ditch, cradled in his father’s arms. He was aware of the heat of the sun on him, his wet clothing steaming slightly in the warmth. Looking up he saw that the storm had passed, the sky now a clear, cloudless, cerulean blue. He felt Ben’s hands on his shoulders, pulling him around. Gazing at his father’s face, he saw the relief in the deep brown eyes, saw Ben’s lips open to speak, but he heard no words. Momentarily bewildered Joe’s mind struggled to understand, his father was speaking, but he couldn’t hear him. The only sound was a high-pitched buzzing that seemed to come from inside his own head. A cold sensation of fear trickled through Joe.
“Pa, I…” He began, struggling to sit upright. The fear increased as he realized that he couldn’t hear his own voice, he could feel the vibrations of the sound in his throat but heard no words.
Ben saw the alarm in his
son’s eyes, deepening almost to panic as he spoke. His voice sounded odd, loud
and somehow toneless. “I can’t hear,
Joe saw his own alarm reflected in his father’s face as he spoke and closed his eyes for a moment, fighting back the rising tide of terror that threatened to engulf him, feeling Ben’s grip on his shoulder’s tighten. Taking a deep breath he swallowed hard, opening his eyes again and fixing his gaze on his father.
Ben looked down at him, fighting his own panic. He must keep calm for both their sakes. They were many miles from the nearest town with no horses, two canteens of water, very little food and Joe in desperate need of a doctor. Looking directly at his son, Ben spoke as clearly as he could, hoping Joe would be able to make sense of the words. “We have to find help.” He said slowly.
Joe watched his father’s lips, trying to understand what he said. Seeing his struggle, Ben repeated the words again until finally Joe nodded in comprehension and attempted to get to his feet. He swayed slightly as he stood, feeling a little dizzy and grabbed for his father’s arm to steady himself. After a moment the dizziness passed and he reached down to pick up his saddlebags and canteen. Feeling Ben touch his hand he looked round and, seeing the worry on his father’s face, attempted a confident smile.
“Let’s go.” He said and scrambling up out of the ditch, turned to help Ben. His father pointed west, the direction they had been heading in and the two set off together across the barren landscape.
Straightening up Ben made his way over to where Joe sat and, lowering himself down beside his son, reached for his saddlebags. Rooting around inside the bag he withdrew a few strips of beef jerky. Reaching out, he touched Joe’s arm. Immediately his son’s eyes flew open, looking at his father enquiringly. Ben held out the jerky towards him but Joe just shook his head.
“You have to eat.” Ben told him. “Keep your strength up.” The puzzled look in the young man’s eyes told Ben he didn’t understand him and he sighed again as he handed over the canteen which Joe took eagerly, swallowing a few gulps of water before handing the container back to his father and closing his eyes once more.
The water had brought back the nausea in full force and Joe fought hard to keep the liquid down as his stomach roiled in protest. As the sickness began to abate a little he felt his father grasp his hand and opened his eyes to watch as Ben gently began to trace letters on his palm.
“Like the devil.” Joe told him, a slight hint of a smile lifting the corner of his mouth at being able to ‘talk’ to his father again. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine after some sleep.”
C-a-n Y-o-u H-e-a-r A-n-y-t-h-i-n-g-? Ben spelt out laboriously and waited anxiously for the answer.
“Just a buzzing noise.” Despite Joe’s assertion that he’d be fine a frightened look lurked in the depths of his eyes. “Sort of high pitched like the noise an insect makes.” He leaned back against the rock as he spoke, a wave of weariness washing over him and despite everything he found himself yawning tiredly.
G-o T-o S-l-e-e-p His father spelt, dark eyes filled with concern as he watched Joe’s eyelids flicker closed, within minutes he had drifted into a deep slumber.
Squinting in the deepening gloom of the evening Ben scanned the area, searching for something with which to make a fire, already the air was growing chill and he knew that the night ahead would be a cold one. There was little in the way of kindling lying about, just a few stray branches probably deposited there by the tornado, but there was an abundance of scrubby bushes. Pulling a few out at the roots Ben lay a fire, lighting it with matches from his saddlebag.
The light from the flames illuminated Joe’s face as Ben settled down beside his son. For a while he watched him as he slept, mind filled with worry for the boy. Eventually he slid across and putting an arm round Joe he carefully pulled the boy’s head down until it was comfortably cushioned on his thigh. Then, calloused hand resting gently on his son’s tousled curls, he leaned back and closed his eyes.
Waking, Joe lay still for a while, getting his bearings. To his great relief the headache that had plagued him last night seemed to have vanished and the frantic buzzing in his head had faded to a low drone. He moved slightly, smiling wryly to himself as he realised that his head was resting on his father’s leg and that Ben’s coat was tucked warmly around him. He felt a rush of affection for his father as he pushed the coat aside and slowly sat up, knowing that Ben had sacrificed his own comfort for him.
Experimentally he raised his thumb and forefinger to his ear, clicking his nails together, then repeated the process with the other ear. He heard no sound and for a moment grey despair swept through him. A touch on his shoulder brought him round to face his father and the question in the older man’s deep brown eyes.
“Nothing.” Joe said and saw the sympathy on his father’s face, as Ben’s hand squeezed his son’s shoulder in silent support.
Eventually, determined to put his worries over the deafness aside and concentrate on getting out of here, Joe stood up and looked around him. The sun was well up and in the distance a slight heat haze shimmered above the ground prophesying a hot day ahead. “Which way do you reckon we go?” He asked, turning round to look at his father.
Ben pointed westwards and Joe turned again to squint off into the distance, as he did something caught his eye and he paused, staring hard. It appeared to be a wisp of smoke, coiling above the ground.
“Pa, look over there!”
Ben came to stand alongside his son, following the direction of Joe’s outstretched finger.
“Look like smoke to you?” Joe asked, eyes swivelling to his father to see his nod of agreement. “Think we should head over there?”
Ben nodded again, but pulled Joe back as he started forward, handing him a strip of jerky and one of the canteens of water. “Eat first.” He said, enunciating the words as clearly as he could.
Joe took the jerky with a grimace of distaste, wishing he had grabbed the bag of supplies. Though it hadn’t contained the greatest selection of food, there had been potatoes, cheese, beans and a few apples, certainly more appetising than the smoked and dried strip of meat that he held in his hand.
“Eat.” Ben repeated, touching Joe’s face to bring his son’s attention to his word. Joe grinned suddenly and held up his right hand, fingers together and slightly bent.
“This means eat.” He told his father, moving his hand so that the tips of his fingers touched his bottom lip, and then repeating the gesture. “That’s one sign I remember from the book.” He took a bite of the jerky and chewed in silence for a while. “At least I can speak.” He said eventually. “People will be able to understand me even if I can’t understand them…”
He fell silent and Ben longed to be able to tell him not to worry, that it was too early yet to know if the deafness would last, that he needed to see a doctor, but to spell all that out would take too long and he had to content himself with putting an arm around Joe and pulling the boy to him for a moment before they began to move through the gathering heat of the day toward the distant plume of smoke.
As the hour marched on the sun rose higher in the sky heading for it’s noonday zenith, its heat was merciless and around Joe and his father the air grew thick with it. Walking was difficult, the ground so hot underfoot that they could feel it even through the soles of their boots. They had long since shrugged off their jackets, carrying them over their arms, and their shirts stuck to backs made sticky with sweat. It seemed forever until they finally crested a small, sandy hill and saw before them what seemed an oasis in the desert of heat. A trickling stream ran sparkling in the sunshine, between grassy green banks. Contentedly grazing beside the stream were a skinny looking white horse and a fat brown mule. Beside them was the source of the smoke, a makeshift shelter throwing shade over a tall, dark haired man who was busy stirring a pot that hung over a slow burning fire. The man turned quickly as he heard their approach, hand going for his gun.
“We mean you no harm.” Ben called to him, putting his arms out to the side, away from his own weapon. “We need your help.”
“What you doin’ out here?” The man asked, his gun trained on Ben and Joe. “Where are your horses?”
“We lost them in the tornado yesterday.” Ben explained. “Lost most of our food as well. We’re trying to get to the nearest township.”
“That’d be Red Dust.” The man told him, holstering his gun. “’Bout a half a days easy riding south-west of here, if it managed to survive the twister. Gonna be a long walk though and it’s real hot today.”
“Thank you.” Ben held out a hand. “My name is Ben Cartwright, this is my son, Joe.”
“Aaron Jacobs.” The man returned Ben’s handshake then turned to Joe who stood a little behind his father. “Pleased to meet you.”
“He can’t hear you.” Ben said hastily, seeing the baffled look on his son’s face and the hint of frustration beneath it. “He was hurt in the storm and it’s damaged his hearing.”
“Oh, right.” Jacobs turned away from Joe as Ben spoke, ignoring him completely and there was no mistaking the sudden fury that sprang into Joe’s eyes as the man turned his back on him and addressed himself solely to Ben. “I wish I could help you more.” He said. “But there’s not much I can do. I can offer you a decent cup of coffee and a share in that pot of stew before you go though.”
“That’s very kind of you.” Ben turned to take Joe’s arm and lead him over to take a seat beneath the man’s shelter. “We’d be very grateful, we’ve only beef jerky left to eat.”
“You’ll find this a sight more tasty.” Jacobs grinned, busying himself serving up a plateful of food. “Only got one plate.” He explained, handing it over to Ben. “Guess we’ll have to take turns eating.”
Ben passed the plate to Joe and when his son went to refuse it he carefully copied the sign for ‘eat’ that he’d been shown earlier. A hint of a smile touched Joe’s mouth at his father’s gesture and he took the food from him.
“Does Red Dust have a doctor’s office?” Ben asked, turning back to Jacobs.
“Sure does.” The man replied, pouring coffee into a cup. “It’s a real busy little township. Got a bank and a telegraph office, couple of saloons and a hotel.”
Spooning up the stew, which he had to admit was very tasty; Joe watched his father and Jacobs. He could feel frustration building inside him as the two conversed and he understood none of what they were saying. He felt isolated from them and the thought of spending the rest of his life trapped in this silent world filled him with apprehension.
Meal over, Ben went to refill their canteens with water in preparation for the trek in front of them while Jacobs tidied away the utensils he’d used and doused his fire. All the time Joe could do nothing but sit and watch, frustration turning to anger as neither his father nor Jacobs made any attempt to involve him.
“Sorry I can’t help any further.” Jacobs told Ben as he returned from the stream. “I’ll let you have some hardtack and cheese from my pack, got a blanket I can give you as well, but I need everything else for myself.”
“You’ve been more than generous.” Ben told him as the man packed the things into a bundle. “And you must let me pay you for the blanket at least.”
“It’s a gift.” Jacobs told him with a smile. “Good luck, Mr. Cartwright.”
Putting down the bundle of goods and stopping for a moment to remove his hat and wipe the sweat from his brow with his bandana Ben regarded his son. Since they had started walking again Joe had made no attempt to communicate with his father and fury fairly radiated from him. He didn’t look round now just stood to one side staring off into the distance. Ben had seen his reaction to Jacobs’ dismissal of him once he knew that he couldn’t hear and understood how hurtful that had been but wasn’t sure why the boy seemed so very angry. With a sigh Ben replaced his hat and reached for his son, he couldn’t let the situation continue.
“What?” Joe asked sarcastically as his father grasped his arm. “Remembered I’m here?”
S-o-r-r…He began to spell the word but Joe jerked his hand away. “Do you know how I felt back there?” He said angrily. “Like I didn’t even exist! I didn’t expect that man to make much of an effort but I thought you might have…” He broke off and looked away, taking deep breaths to calm himself down. “Where are we going anyway?” He asked eventually.
Guilt rushed over Ben, he hadn’t even thought about the fact that Joe didn’t know they were heading for Red Dust or how far away the township was. “No fool like an old fool.” He muttered to himself and reached for Joe’s hand again.
T-o-w-n C-a-l-l-e-d R-e-d D-u-s-t. He spelt out as Joe watched in concentration.
“Will we get there today?” Joe asked, looking up at his father’s face.
Ben shook his head. “I’m so sorry, Joe.” He said slowly and saw the flash of comprehension in his son’s eyes. F-o-r-g-i-v-e M-e? He spelt.
The remorse on his father’s face showed clearly just how badly he felt about the situation and Joe smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry too.” He said. “Guess it’s hard to get used to me not being able to hear.”
Ben just nodded, unable to think of an appropriate response that didn’t require words, but Joe seemed to take that happily enough and grinned. “Guess I’d better teach you a few more signs then.” He said, reaching for his canteen. “The few I can remember myself.” He uncorked the canteen and took a long drink of the water. “Which way?” He asked as he finished.
Ben pointed and executing a mock salute Joe picked up the bundle from beside his father, shouldered it and moved off.
The walking grew easier as the heat of the day began to fade but as twilight started to fall Ben knew that they would soon need to stop and find a place to sleep for the night. The terrain was slightly less flat than it had been back near the stream, a few small hills in front of them that would have to be climbed tomorrow. There was no sign yet of Red Dust. Ben calculated that they must have walked around ten miles and Jacobs had said that the town was a half a days easy ride, he’d guess that to be between thirty and forty miles. Hopefully they should reach it the day after next.
Joe was startled when his father caught hold of his arm, he had been lost in his thoughts and hadn’t noticed how dark it had become until now. Ben put his palms together, resting his head on them as though sleeping and eliciting a laugh from his son as he realised what his father meant.
Finding a place where the ground dipped and formed a hollow that would protect a fire if it should grow windy Ben and Joe set about finding kindling. Once the fire was alight Ben reached into the bundle Jacobs had given him and withdrew the food. He hacked a couple of chunks from the hard, round cheese and passed one to Joe with a piece of hardtack. It was a fairly unappetising meal but the walk had made both men hungry and they ate with relish, washing it down with water from their canteens. Supper finished they settled down to sleep.
The sun was up when Joe pulled aside the blanket that covered him and, moving carefully so as not to wake his father, went to sit a little distance away. He had woken an hour or so earlier, cold despite the blanket and the warmth of his father’s body next to his. He had watched the dawn break, trying to return to sleep, but he found himself unable to relax, his thoughts turning inevitably to the future and what would happen if his hearing didn’t return. Despite having known a deaf person Joe realised that he had had no real idea of what it was like living in silence. Not that it was really silent, the low drone still filled his skull, interspersed from time to time with other odd noises reminiscent of bells and whistles. A couple of times the previous day he had almost looked around to see where one of the sounds was coming from before realising they were inside his own head.
He thought about the Ponderosa, and his role in the running of the ranch. Could he still do it, he wondered, without the benefit of hearing. What about the round up for example when the shouts of the other drovers let him know what was going on when all he could see was an ocean of beeves milling around him.
Back by the ashes of the fire Ben stirred and opened his eyes. Finding Joe gone he sat up quickly then relaxed as he caught sight of his son sitting a little distance way. Lying back down Ben closed his eyes again for a few minutes, he hadn’t slept well and found himself reluctant to get up and face the day. He was almost dozing off, the sun warm on his face, when a slow, almost languid, rattling sound began to infiltrate his senses. So close to sleep was he that for a moment the danger inherent in the sound didn’t register and he just rolled over and yawned. The rattle sounded again and this time Ben recognised it for what it was, the warning signal of the poisonous rattlesnake. Adrenalin shot through him as he opened his eyes and looked carefully around. He saw the reptile immediately, it was just inches from Joe, its tail moving slowly to and fro. Obviously the creature had just awakened, Ben knew that the snakes were less active in the cool of the early morning, but the sun’s heat soon increased their speed and deadliness. With his heart in his throat Ben reached cautiously for his gun, keeping his movements slow and steady so as not to alarm the rattler. Raising the weapon he took aim wishing that he could shout a warning to Joe, but there was no point, his son couldn’t hear him.
He was just getting the creature in his sights when, to his horror, Joe began to stand up. The snake, startled by the sudden movement, launched itself forward just as Ben pulled the trigger.
Something made Joe whirl around, he heard no sound but there was a frisson of sensation that he couldn’t explain, perhaps a vibration of the air, which startled him. What met his eyes was the sight of his father, looking pale and shaken, holding a gun that was still smoking slightly. Looking wildly around him, Joe saw the remains of the snake, lying dead in the dust almost at his feet.
“Pa!” On legs that suddenly felt unsteady Joe moved quickly to his father’s side. “I didn’t hear it.” He said. “If you hadn’t…”
Ben stood up, drawing his son to him and holding him tightly. Just for a moment he had thought that he’d missed, that the snake was still alive and that Joe was in mortal danger, but the loud rattle he’d heard had been the creature’s final death throe and after a few seconds it had ceased.
“Guess the world can be a pretty dangerous place for a deaf man.” Joe said with a hollow laugh moving away from his father and going over to prod the dead reptile with his foot. He grinned suddenly, looking at Ben. “Guess we could always cook it up for breakfast.”
Recognising that Joe was trying to make light of the situation, Ben made an attempt to return the smile but he couldn’t stop the slight tremble that ran through him as he realised how close he had just come to losing his youngest son.
Breakfasting on cheese and water, not snake, Ben and Joe were soon on their way once again. The day was just as oppressively hot as the previous one and Ben found himself longing for a breeze to stir the torpid air, which seemed to encase him like a blanket, making breathing difficult. They had just crested a small hill when Joe stopped suddenly. “Look!” He pointed, his keen eyes picking out a cloud of dust in the distance.
Ben squinted hard; it looked as though the cloud was being raised by four riders heading in their direction. Hopeful that the men might be able to help them, but wary of strangers, Ben was in two minds about trying to attract the attention of the riders. The decision was taken from him as the horsemen drew closer and it became apparent that they had spotted the Cartwrights.
As the riders came to halt Ben kept his hand on his gun, a glance at Joe showed him that his son was also on his guard, his fingers poised above the butt of his own weapon.
“’Mornin’ stranger.” One of the horsemen spoke up, his brown eyes looking Ben and Joe over curiously. “You fella’s lost?”
“We’re heading for Red Dust.” Ben told him with a smile. “Lost our horse’s in the tornado and we’ve been walking ever since.”
“Well, you’re headin’ in the right direction.” The man told him. He looked at the bundle Ben was carrying. “You got water and food?”
“Enough to see us through.” Ben said, beginning to relax at the man’s friendly manner. “We could really use a horse though.” He continued, looking at the four sturdy animals the men were riding. “If you gentlemen could spare one of yours I’d be willing to pay top dollar for it.”
Sliding down from his horse the man he’d spoken to appeared to consider the offer, scratching his head in thought. “Would mean one of us riding two up.” He said. “We’d expect a real good price for that much inconvenience.”
“Of course.” Ben assured him. “Whatever you think is fair.”
“What do you say, boys.” The man turned to his companions. “Think we should sell these fella’s a horse?”
There was no reply from the others but they moved close to Ben and Joe, the three horses crowding in around them. Beginning to feel uneasy, Ben took a step backward, bringing himself in front of his son.
“You carryin’ a lot of money?” Asked the man in front of Ben and now there was a hint of menace in his voice.
Behind his father Joe looked from one to the other of the men around him, he had no real idea of what was being said but he could sense his father’s tension and moved his hand to grasp his gun, ready to draw, his attention on the man in front of Ben.
“Don’t try it, kid.” The horseman next to him growled as he saw the movement. Joe never heard him but Ben looked round in alarm at the words and the men seized their opportunity. Joe caught a glimpse of movement seconds before he was flung to the ground as the rider behind him threw himself on top of him. Rolling over he hit out angrily, his fist catching the man’s jaw. Punching back, the man hit Joe squarely in the eye, Joe responded with another quick jab at the man’s chin.
Ben went for his gun, drawing the weapon smoothly but he was forced to drop it as he saw that the other riders had their guns trained on Joe. The man behind him bent quickly to pick the weapon up. “Give it up, kid.” He called as Joe emerged victorious from the fight and looked around. “If you don’t want to see your friend here dead.”
Even without hearing the words Joe could see what was going on, Ben was being held at gunpoint and he knew that there was no chance of getting away.
“Throw your gun down!” The man ordered. Joe didn’t move and Ben could feel the man’s agitation as he repeated the words. “Throw your gun down.”
“He can’t hear you.” Ben said quickly before the man grew even angrier. “He doesn’t know what you’re saying.”
“A deaf kid.” The man sneered and looked across to where Joe’s attacker was getting groggily to his feet. “Get the kid’s gun, Dan.” He called.
Despite a rapidly swelling eye Joe caught sight of Dan in his peripheral vision as the man came up from behind and reached out to take his gun from him. Momentarily Joe’s fingers tightened around the weapon but a glance at his father stopped any ideas he might have had of resisting the men and with an angry glare he relinquished the gun to Dan.
“Right.” The man behind Ben spoke again. “Hand over your money.”
Reluctantly, Ben handed over his wallet. He had managed to get a good deal for the horses they’d lost in the tornado and so he was still carrying a fair amount of cash though obviously not as much as his captor hoped.
“This all you got?” The man demanded, counting the notes. He gave a snort of disgust as Ben nodded. “Billy.” He called to one of the horsemen, a lanky, red headed youngster. “Get their saddlebags, let’s take a look in there.”
“You won’t find any more money.” Ben told him. “That’s all there is.”
Dismounting from his horse and picking up the saddlebags Billy rifled through them, tossing the contents contemptuously aside. “He’s telling the truth.” He said as he emptied the bags and dropped them on the ground. “There’s no money.”
“Then we might as well take what we got and ride on out of here.” Dan said, putting a hand to his bruised jaw and casting a baleful look at Joe.
“Guess so.” Ben’s captor agreed, taking a step back towards his horse.
“Got me a score to settle with the kid first, though.” Dan added, rubbing his knuckles in anticipation.
Angry at his helplessness Joe had been trying hard to follow what was going on. Relieved to see that the men appeared to be about to depart he was surprised when Dan advanced on him with a nefarious grin on his bearded face. The big man stood right in front of him, his posture threatening as he mouthed words that Joe could neither hear nor understand but could tell were not pleasant.
Dan raised his fist drawing his arm back, immediately Joe reacted, unable to prevent himself. As Joe struck back at Dan, Billy came running to help his comrade, swiftly followed by another of the gang.
“Joe!” Ben started forward, shouting the warning even though he knew his son couldn’t hear him.
Through the melee of flying fists Joe caught sight of his father running towards him and horror seized him as he saw the man who had held Ben at gunpoint raise his gun. There was no sound to let Joe know that the bullet had been fired, just the sight of his father falling forward, a look of agony on his face.
“Pa!” Joe’s anguished cry mingled with the sound of the gun’s report startling his attackers who stopped fighting and looked round to where Ben Cartwright lay motionless on the ground.
Pulling free of Dan, who still had one beefy hand on his shoulder, Joe pushed Billy and the other man aside, dropping to his knees beside his father.
“Hey.” Billy grabbed Joe’s arm, pulling him around. “You can talk. I thought you couldn’t hear anything so how come you can talk?”
“Let me go.” Joe shook Billy off, turning back to Ben.
“You can hear me, can’t you? Why’d your Pa say you were deaf?” Billy asked, puzzled. “Why would he say that?”
“Come on.” Dan said impatiently, mounting his horse. “We’ve wasted enough time here. Let’s go.”
Kneeling beside his father Joe watched the men ride away, hoping that their paths would cross again and he could make them pay for what they’d done.
Among the discarded contents of the saddlebags were a couple of spare shirts and Joe gathered them up quickly, tearing them into strips, which he wadded together. Carefully removing Ben’s vest he pulled away the blood soaked shirt and held the wadded fabric against the wound in his father’s back, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood. The bleeding had just begun to slow when Ben shifted slightly, his eyes flickering open.
“Keep still.” Joe commanded, seeing his father attempt to move. “Let me get the wound covered.”
Obediently Ben lay quietly, his teeth gritted against the pain while Joe tore more strips of material and held them in place with his right hand, using his left to grasp his father’s arm. “I’m going to help roll you onto your side now.” He said, looking down at Ben anxiously. “Think you can do it?”
Ben nodded and with his son’s help managed to get himself onto his side and from there into a sitting position. The pain caused by the movements made his head swim and he sat slumped over for a while, leaning heavily on Joe, pale and trembling from the exertion.
“Just bend forward a little.” Joe said eventually as his father made an effort to sit up straighter. “I’m going to tie this wadding in place.”
Once the makeshift bandages were tied around Ben’s chest, holding the pad securely on his back, Joe shifted around to where he could see his father’s face. “Any idea how far this Red Dust is?” He asked.
Ben nodded and reached for his son’s hand. A-r-o-u-n-d 2-5 T-o 3-5 M-i-l-e-s, he spelt out with a trembling finger.
“Can you make it?” Joe asked, his eyes clouded with concern.
Ben shook his head, he knew that there was no way he could continue walking. Y-o-u H-a-v-e T-o G-o. He spelt.
“I can’t leave you here.” Joe said and pulled his hand back as Ben started to spell out another word. “I can’t.” He repeated. “Even if I didn’t stop it would take me up to eight or nine hours, anything could happen.” He turned away from his father and stared out at the inhospitable landscape. “I can’t leave you alone here.”
“What alternative do we have?” Ben said softly to himself, knowing that he had to persuade his son to go on. There was enough water and food to get Joe to Red Dust but if he stayed here supplies would soon run out. Ben knew that he was badly wounded; the chances of him lasting until Joe returned with help were slim but if Joe stayed there was no chance at all.
Face averted from his father and fighting hard to keep control of his emotions Joe was coming to the same conclusion. The only hope for his father was to bring help, but would that be in time? Dashing a hand across his eyes as he fought against the cold clutch of fear that tightened around his heart at the thought of returning too late, Joe turned back to face Ben. “I’ll go.” He said. “But first we need to get you somewhere a bit more sheltered, out of this sun.”
Gathering up the canteens of water, the blanket and the remains of the food Joe looked around for a suitable place for his father to stay. He could see a couple of hollows in the ground but nowhere that afforded much in the way of shade. “Over there.” He said at last, deciding to try and rig up something over the deepest of the hollows. He had to half carry his father the few yards and his fears grew as he realised just how bad Ben’s injury was. Grabbing some largish stones he anchored the blanket above the hollow so at least the top half of Ben’s body was in shade. Then, reluctantly, he picked up a canteen of water and some jerky.
“There’s water right here,
Ben nodded, reaching for his son’s hand. T-e-l-l T-h-e S-h-e-r-i-f-f O-n-e M-a-n W-a-s C-a-l-l-e-d D-a-n A-n-d O-n-e B-i-l-l-y
“Dan and Billy?” Joe questioned, making sure he had the names right.
Ben nodded again. B-e C-a-r-e-f-u-l. He spelt.
“I will.” Joe remained
kneeling, his eyes searching his father’s face, so afraid that this might be
the last time he saw him alive. There was so much he needed to tell him, so
much he wanted to say and yet words failed him. “
Ben raised a shaky hand to his son’s face, gently touching his cheek. He knew the words Joe was trying so hard to say, could see them in the boy’s eyes. A memory stirred at the back of his mind and he smiled softly. Joe watched, puzzled at first, as his father pointed at himself, then, making fists with his hands he crossed his arms at the wrists and laid them on his chest to form an X shape. Comprehension dawned as Ben completed the message by pointing at Joe.
Blinking hard against the sudden stinging of his eyes Joe could only squeeze his father’s hand. “I’ll be back.” He promised, standing up quickly and walking away.
The heat shimmered over the land, forming false images in front of Joe’s squinting eyes. What looked like silvery pools of water from a distance disappearing into just another sandy stretch of earth as he drew near. He walked as fast as could, trying to ignore the buzzing in his head which seemed to grow louder as the day drew on. By the time the sun began to dip below the horizon and the cruel heat of the day gave way to cool, night air his temples were throbbing with pain and the buzzing had become more like a crackling interspersed from time to time by high pitched whistling sounds. It seemed to reverberate around Joe’s mind and made it difficult to concentrate, but the knowledge that he was Ben’s only hope spurred him onwards.
The night was a clear one, a
pale crescent moon riding high in a black velvet sky dotted with the
incandescent twinkling of countless stars. Stopping for a moment to swallow a
few mouthfuls of tepid water Joe tried to figure out how far he had come. He
had been walking for around six hours and he reckoned that he must have covered
at least twenty miles. In front of him now were hills and he knew that they
would slow him down but hoped that they might also prove a vantage point from
where he might be able to spot the town of
Tiredness was beginning to take a hold of Joe, his legs aching from the long walk, his eyes gritty with sleep. Dogged determination was all that kept him going, pain and fatigue twin enemies he fought to hold at bay. The way was uphill now and the calves of his legs protested all the way. It was a great relief to reach the top and he bent to massage his aching limbs then looked up to see the sweetest sight imaginable. Beneath him in the valley, probably around three or four miles away, he could make out distant lights and the dark shapes of buildings. He had found Red Dust!
Suddenly his tiredness seemed to drop away as hope surged through him and he began to walk faster, heading downhill towards the flat plain on which the town stood. Even in the pale moonlight Joe could see the reason for the town’s name, the earth underfoot taking on a rich russet hue as he drew closer.
Reaching the first outlying
buildings of Red Dust, Joe found them in darkness and shuttered against the
night. His best bet, he thought, was to head for the centre of the town where
hopefully he would find someone who could direct him to a doctor. It wasn’t
long before he began to see signs of activity, a few houses where a light
burned in the window, a couple of men in the distance. As he drew closer to the
men he realised that they were standing outside of a saloon, lamplight spilling
from its doorway. ‘
One of the men looked up as Joe approached, his eyes raking the dusty, sweat streaked young man. Joe saw his mouth move and guessed he was being addressed.
“Is there a doctor in town?” He said, watching carefully for the man’s reply. But when it came he found himself unable to tell if it was a yes or no. “I can’t hear.” He explained and cringed at the look of pity that appeared on the man’s face. “Is there a doctor?” The man nodded and Joe sighed with relief. “Where’s his office?” He asked.
For answer the man turned to say something to his companion then grasped Joe’s arm leading him across the street to a white painted clapboard house standing back a little from the road. Knocking on the door of the house the man waited until a tall, balding man with a bushy moustache and kindly blue eyes opened it and spoke to him.
“Please.” Joe began as the doctor turned towards him. “I need help, my father’s been shot.”
The doctor’s mouth opened and closed and Joe could only shake his head in mounting frustration. “I can’t hear.” He explained again. “Do you have a paper and pencil?”
The doctor nodded, drawing him inside the house and leading him into a room containing a couple of comfortable looking armchairs and with the walls practically lined with books. As the doctor rummaged in the drawer of a desk that stood beneath the window Joe couldn’t help thinking of his eldest brother, Adam, and how much he would like this room.
With the aid of the pencil
and paper Joe had soon told the doctor, whose name was
Within moments, it seemed to Joe, he had been introduced to the Sheriff of Red Dust, a horse had been produced for him and a buckboard made ready. Dr. Wilson, it appeared, was a man of action and it was less than an hour after Joe had first reached Red Dust that he rode out again at the head of a small convoy, heading for the place he had left his father. Now he just had to pray with all his heart that they would make it in time.
Though the ride took much less than half the time that it had taken to walk Joe still found it endless. He was exhausted and his head hurt so badly it felt like it was ready to split open, the interminable crackling and whistling only serving to make it worse. A couple of times he felt himself sway and almost fall from the saddle. A quick glance at his companions reassured him that the Sheriff hadn’t noticed, the doctor had, however, and was watching him with a concerned frown. Setting his shoulder’s Joe tried to push his pain aside and concentrate on the way ahead.
Moonlight lit the trail as they progressed further from Red Dust, the three horsemen followed by the rattling buckboard and its driver. Occasionally the Sheriff and the doctor exchanged a few words but for the most part they rode in silence, following where Joe led.
At last Joe saw the hollow where he had left his father and the blanket stretched out above it. “Over there!” He instructed the doctor, and spurred his horse forwards. Beside him the doctor did the same.
Pulling the horse to an abrupt stop, Joe slid from the animal’s back and with his heart in his throat made his way to Ben’s side. His father appeared to be in exactly the same position as Joe had left him. Closing his eyes for a moment, Joe said a silent prayer before he knelt and peered beneath the blanket. It was too dark to see and with trepidation he reached up and pulled the cover aside, revealing Ben’s face. In the pallid light of the moon he appeared almost eerily pale and Joe knew a moment of total despair before he saw the faintest rise and fall of his father’s chest.
Feeling hands pull him aside Joe surrendered his place to the doctor and watched anxiously as the man examined his patient by the light of a lamp brought hurriedly from the back of the buckboard and lit by the Sheriff.
“Well?” Joe queried as the
doctor completed his examination and reached for his bag.
“He will be all right, won’t he?” Joe queried, standing up as the Sheriff went to move the buckboard closer so that it would be easier for them to lift the injured man up into it.
With a sympathetic look the doctor could only shrug his shoulders in reply.
It was early evening when
Dr. Wilson pushed open the door of his guest bedroom to see Joe still deep in
Pulling the drapes aside and
allowing the rays of the setting sun to light the room, Dr Wilson stood
alongside the bed and gently shook Joe’s shoulder. Joe stirred a little but
didn’t wake until
Green eyes, foggy with sleep, blinked open at last and looked up at the doctor. A puzzled frown touched the youth’s brow for a moment until memory returned and alarm chased the sleep away. “Pa?” Joe asked, sitting up quickly. “He’s not…?”
The doctor shook his head,
smiling reassuringly and Joe breathed a sigh of relief as he swung his legs
over the side of the mattress and reached for his boots, which had been neatly
placed side by side on the rug beside the bed. “Can I see him?” He asked and
Entering quietly he motioned Joe inside, and watched while the young man settled himself in the chair beside the bed, reaching for his father’s hand.
‘He’ll sleep for a while yet.’
“I’m up to it all right.” Joe looked up as he read the words. “I want those men caught.”
The doctor reached for the paper again. ‘I’ll take you over.’ He offered. ‘My assistant will take care of your father.’
“Okay.” Joe stood up,
relinquishing Ben’s hand and turning to leave the room. “I need to go by the
telegraph office as well.” He told
Telegraph despatched, the doctor led the way across to the Sheriff’s office where Joe spent the next hour going over every detail of the attack. It was a long process, the Sheriff needing to write down all of his questions, and Joe became increasingly irritated as the time went on. The Sheriff’s writing was laboriously slow and he formed his letters in a scrawling hand that was difficult to read.
The names Joe gave the Sheriff meant nothing to him but he did produce a ragged pile of ‘Wanted’ posters and suggested that Joe look through them and see if he could see a likeness to any of the men. It was a wasted exercise, he found nobody even faintly resembling the attackers.
Eventually, with the Sheriff promising to get out telegraphs to the nearest towns asking them to be on the lookout, Joe and the doctor left the office and returned to Ben’s bedside.
Reaching across to the bedside table Joe extinguished the lamp. It had burnt steadily all night while he had kept vigil beside his father. Now the early morning sunlight was filtering through the drapes but still Ben hadn’t stirred. With a sigh, Joe stood up and stretched, the muscles in his back aching from sitting so long in one position. Moving across to the window he pulled the drapes aside and rested his forehead against the cool of the windowpane. Dr Wilson had told him that he was confident that Ben would be fine but as the hours passed by and still his father didn’t wake he found himself beginning to wonder if the doctor might be wrong.
Movement outside in the street caught his attention and he watched as the town began to come alive before his eyes. It was odd to see wagons roll by silently, children on their way to school obviously laughing and shouting but with no sound. At least the buzzing sound in his head had faded down to a low hiss, he consoled himself, and his headache had gone.
He was about to turn back to his father when he was stopped by the sight of two horsemen riding by. A jolt of recognition shot through him as the man nearest him pushed his hat back from his head and raked a hand through wiry, red hair. It was one of the attacker’s! Waiting just long enough to see the pair pull their horses to a halt outside the saloon, Joe ran from the room. He found Dr. Wilson sitting in his kitchen, a pot of coffee before him. The doctor looked up startled at Joe’s sudden entrance and was alarmed at the look on the young man’s face. Immediately fearful that his patient was worse, he jumped to his feet.
“I need a gun!” Joe’s words
“One of the men that attacked us is over at the saloon.” Joe told him. “I need a gun, do you have one?”
Wilson shook his head, he didn’t carry a gun himself, considering that as a physician his job was to save life and not wanting to carry a weapon that he had seen take lives all too often. Even if he had had a gun in the house he wouldn’t have admitted it at that moment, the anger in the boy’s face made him fear that Joe was about to seek revenge for his father’s injury.
Joe turned to leave and the doctor raced after him, grasping his arm and pulling him round. “Go to the Sheriff.” He said, trying to form the words as clearly as possible while frantically searching through his jacket pocket for a pencil. He couldn’t tell whether Joe understood him or not, but regardless, the youth shook off the doctor’s restraining hand and made for the door.
About to follow him Dr Wilson heard a faint call and realised that his patient had woken at last. He stood undecided for a moment, uncertain what to do until another call from Ben sent him hurrying to the bedroom.
Despite his anger, a glimmer of common sense asserted itself in Joe as he charged out into the street and he made for the Sheriff’s office, first checking that the two horses were still at the hitching rail outside the saloon.
His heart sank as he entered the Sheriff’s office, a stranger was sitting behind the big desk that dominated the room. The man wore a tin star on his chest and Joe assumed that he must be the deputy.
“I’m Joe Cartwright.” He announced, wasting no time with questions. “I want you to come with me, there are two men in the saloon that attacked me and my father.”
The deputy stared up at him but didn’t move. He said something and Joe shook his head in annoyance. “I’m deaf.” He told him. “Just come with me, Dr Wilson can explain it all to you later.”
In reply the man stood up and walked round the desk to stand directly in front of Joe, he spoke again but this time his lip movements were more exaggerated and Joe realised that he was shouting at him.
“Write it down.” Joe said, feeling his anger growing. “I can’t hear.”
The deputy dropped his gaze, looking a little uncomfortable but made no move to get pen and paper.
Suddenly Joe had taken enough, with a quick movement he reached forward and grabbed the deputy’s gun from its holster, aiming it directly at the man who raised his arms in alarm.
“Come with me.” Joe ordered.
“We’re gonna go arrest the men that hurt my
As he pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon behind the deputy, Joe saw the red headed man immediately. The youngster was sitting at one of the tables, a bottle of whisky before him, playing cards. His companion, Joe saw with a sense of grim satisfaction, was the man who had first spoken to his father, the man who had then shot him.
“Morning.” He said, walking up to stand beside the two men. “I was hoping to run into you two again.”
Engrossed in their game the pair hadn’t noticed Joe and the deputy approach and they looked up sharply at Joe’s words, dismay and fear crossing both their faces.
“This is the man who shot my father.” Joe told the deputy, indicating the redhead’s companion. “And this is one of his gang. Guess they thought I’d never make it here alone.”
Billy stood up, saying something to the deputy, as he did Joe caught sight of the gun he was carrying tucked into his belt. “You want any proof.” He said to the deputy. “That’s my gun he has there, you’ll find my initials carved on it, and I’m guessing that one of these two is called either Dan or Billy.”
The deputy said something, reaching out a hand to retrieve his gun from Joe. As he did Billy made a move towards his own gun but Joe was anticipating it and his aim was quick and accurate. Shooting the gun from Billy’s hand, he ordered the other man to throw down his weapon.
As the deputy took the two off towards the jail Dr Wilson came running over, relieved to find Joe safe and well. Grasping Joe’s arm he swiftly propelled the young man back towards his house.
“Joseph.” Ben looked up with relief as Joe followed Dr Wilson into the room. The doctor had assured him that Joe was all right, though still unable to hear, but Ben had been impatient to see his son, wanting to judge for himself how he was.
“We got the man who shot you.” Joe said with a satisfied smile. “Deputy’s just taken him off to the jail now, and one of others as well.” He looked at his father with concern. “How are you feeling?”
T-i-r-e-d. Ben spelt out. H-o-w A-b-o-u-t Y-o-u?
“Me?” Joe looked surprised. “I’m fine now you’re awake.”
I W-a s W-o-r-r-i-e-d A-b-o-u-t Y-o-u. Ben spelt. W-a-l-k-i-n-g A-l-l T-h-a-t W-a-y A-n-d N-o-t A-b-l-e T-o H-e-a r.
“I was okay.” Joe’s smile was dazzling and his father couldn’t help but smile back in response. “I wouldn’t let a little thing like being deaf stop me from fetching help.”
“Rest now, Mr Cartwright.” Dr Wilson interrupted, reaching out to take his patient’s pulse. “You can talk again later.” He motioned to Joe to leave the room.
Standing up to obey the doctor Joe felt his hand grasped once more by his father and looked down at him.
P-r-o-u-d O-f Y-o-u J-o-s-e-p-h. Ben spelt out, and squeezed his son’s hand gently before lying back and closing his eyes wearily.
It was four days later that
two very tired and trail worn cowboys rode slowly into the town of
“Adam, Hoss.” The door was flung wide and Joe came out, throwing an arm around Hoss and reaching out to shake Adam’s hand. “I’m glad to see you two.”
In response Adam raised his right arm in a salute, then he brought his arm up again, his thumb and fingers extended, making a motion as though tipping an imaginary hat and bringing his fingers together.
Joe grinned. “And ‘Hello, brother’ to you.” He said. “Come on in, Pa will be pleased to see you. Dr Wilson reckons he’ll be fit enough to travel in a couple of days.”
Following Joe up to the room where Ben was recuperating they found their father sitting up in bed, eager to see them.
“By the way, Adam.” Joe began once Ben had answered all their questions and Dr. Wilson had arrived with coffee. “I don’t know how you knew about me being deaf, but you really didn’t need to learn sign language.” He looked over at his father then back to his brothers. “You see.” He said. “The last couple of days I’ve started to hear things again. You all sound a little muffled but I can hear you.”
“And I’m sure Joe’s hearing will be back to normal very soon.” Dr Wilson put in as Hoss jumped up to pat his younger brother’s back with glee and Adam smiled his pleasure at the news.
“Dr Wilson wired us about you just after you sent your telegraph.” Adam explained. “So I borrowed a book from Dr Martin to read on the trail.”
“I sent a full report on you
and your father’s condition.”
“You think Dr. Martin would mind if I borrowed that book of sign language?” Joe asked Adam later as they walked along to the livery stable to make arrangements to buy some horses to get them home, leaving Hoss to sit with Ben.
“I guess not.” Adam looked at his brother in surprise. “But why would you want to?”
“Because I never really realised what it’s like to be deaf.” Joe told him. “How isolated you feel, how frustrating it is when you can’t understand what anyone is saying. I learnt some sign language when I was teaching Ann and then as soon as she left I just forgot about it. Forgot most of what I’d learnt as well.”
“And now?” Adam asked.
“Now I want to learn it properly.” Joe said determinedly. “I may never run into a deaf person again but if I do I want to be able to talk to them. I want to be able to help them feel a little less isolated.”
Adam nodded in understanding. “I think that’s a fine thing to do.” He said with a smile. “Perhaps some day everyone will be taught to sign and no deaf person will feel that way again.”
“Perhaps.” Joe agreed, and the two continued amiably on to the livery stable.
© Kathleen Pitts 2001