Word Count: 20,000
“Where is that oldest son of mine when I need him? He knows how much I hate working on these lumber figures when he isn’t here,” mumbled Ben Cartwright to himself as he threw his pencil down. “These numbers here just don’t add up,” he sighed. “I might as well wait until I have Adam’s complete set of notes.” All of a sudden he made a frantic grab for the papers as the front door burst open, allowing the strong March wind to enter the room and sweep across the desktop.
“Hey, Pa! Where are you?” Little Joe yelled excitedly. “Pa?”
“Shut that door, Joseph! Just look at the mess you created of my paperwork.”
“What in tarnation is so all-fired important to make you barge in here like this?”
“We got a letter from Dr. Peele. You’ll never believe it, Pa; they had twins!”
“Twins? Well, I’ll be,” chuckled Ben. “He’ll definitely have his hands full now.”
“Whooee, you aren’t a kidding. Hey, he wants us to be Godparents. Think we can get away to attend the baptism?”
“Of course! We can’t turn down an honor like that. What did they name them? Are they healthy? Is Carolyn doing okay? Here, let me see that letter myself, young man.”
“They had a boy, Joseph Daniel, and a girl, Cassandra Louise,” answered Joe, as he handed the paper over to his father to read. “Said they weighed in at a lusty seven pounds and all they do is eat, sleep, and cry.”
This time it was Little Joe who made a mad dash to stop the papers from scattering as the door flew open.
“Joe! What happened in town? Is something wrong?” Hoss worriedly asked, as he hurried into the house. He quickly closed the door, having noticed the havoc the wind was creating.
“No, Hoss. Why?” Joseph queried.
“‘Cause of the way you rode in here. THAT’S why! I thought there was a fire somewhere. You ain’t supposta run Cochise that hard, and you know it, baby brother!”
“Aw, c’mon, Hoss. We got some good news in the mail, aren’t ya curious?”
“Who’s the letter from, Pa?” Hoss asked. Giving his sibling a stern glance, he walked over behind the desk to peer over his father’s shoulder.
“It’s from Harold and Carolyn. They’re now the proud parents of twins and want your younger brother and I to come attend the baptism. They’ve asked us to stand up for the infants.” He then went on to read the rest of the letter for his middle son.
“Why, I bet the Peels’ are tickled pink…and blue,” laughed Hoss. “You’re gonna go, aren’t you, Pa?”
“I think we can manage it, if you and Adam don’t mind staying here to finish up the lumber contract. We should be able to have the heaviest load of the work done by the time Joe and I would have to leave.”
“Aw shucks, Pa. You know you can count on us older boys to get the work done. We probably won’t even realize short shanks ain’t there.”
“Hoss! That isn’t one bit fair,” squealed Joe “I do my share.” The boy’s voice always seemed to raise an octave or two when excited, which seemed to amuse his brothers to no end.
“Simmer down, little brother. You know I’m just joshing ya! Hey, with you away, maybe I can catch the eye of some of those gals in town!”
“What have we here… an afternoon tea party?” All heads turned toward the sound of the New England drawl. The wind had finally died down, so none of them had heard Adam enter the house.
“Hello, Son,” greeted Ben. “We’ve had some astounding news from San Francisco. Come, have a seat, we’ll tell you all about it.”
Far into the night, the Cartwrights made their plans for the trip and how best they could speed up the ranch work that needed to be done before Ben and Joe left. After the boys had all gone upstairs to bed, Ben sat enjoying a glass of brandy in the company of the crackling fireplace. He re-read the letter, pausing to reflect on his friendship with Dr. Harold Peele. *They had met many years ago, when the doctor had saved Joe’s life with a detoxification program. Joe had been terribly burned in a fire. One of the side affects from the treatment was an addiction to the morphine they used to make his pain bearable. Harold had restored the self-control that is inevitably sacrificed when a person becomes addicted to drugs. When Dr. Peele found out Joe was too ashamed to feel like he could return home, he had wired Ben to come to San Francisco. Together they freed Little Joe from the guilt and remorse he felt from some of his past actions.
The help enabled the young Cartwright to come to terms with his conscience, and return to the love of his family. He had also been there for Joseph when the boy had suffered a knife wound in San Francisco and again a few years later, when Joe had suffered a stroke. I’m so happy for you, Harold, that you once again know the joy of having a family. After saving my son’s life, not just once, but three times, I can think of nothing better I could have ever wished for you. If I had lost my youngest boy, as you lost your son, our home would be so different, so bereft of the exuberance of life that he infuses into us. I can’t even imagine the Ponderosa without that laughter wafting through the air, that smile lighting up the room, or the enthusiasm that he looks at the world with. Ben went to bed then, anxious for the time to come that he would see Harold again.
Three weeks later, the family gathered in Virginia City at the ticket office. They were met by Dr. Martin, who was also traveling with the two Cartwrights. Once a year, the doctor made a trip to San Francisco, for a medical symposium. He was delighted that this year’s convention coincided with the baptism. He had met Dr. Peele at the Ponderosa, when the man had come to visit the Cartwright family. The two had gotten along fabulously, became fast friends, and often wrote each other.
“Adam, you make sure Jonathon pays in full, before you deliver that last load.” Ben was notorious for having to give last minute instructions whenever he left town on a trip, no matter who was left in charge.
“Pa, will you quit worrying and just relax. Everything will be just fine. I have it all under control, there won’t be any problems. I know this is the first time we have done business with Mr. Crowley, but I checked his company out thoroughly. There’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“Okay, I suppose you’re right; I won’t give it another thought. Thanks, Adam. You too, Hoss. Take care of yourselves while we’re gone; we’ll see you in about three weeks.” He shook his older boys’ hands before climbing into the coach, knowing neither would appreciate even a quick hug in the middle of town.
“Hey, Hoss!” Joe yelled, sticking his head out the window. “Don’t be trying to steal my girls away while I am gone!”
“All’s fair in love and war, Joe!” Hoss hollered back as the stage took off.
The Cartwrights and Dr. Martin were the only passengers on this trip, leaving the coach with a lot more room than usual. Joe had stretched his legs out and was slumbering peacefully in the corner, as Ben and Paul conversed.
“Traveling this time of year is sure more pleasant than in the summer. Wouldn’t you agree, Ben?”
“Can’t say I miss the heat and dust I had to put up with last summer when I took the stage to St Louis.”
“That’s one of the reasons they changed the convention to April. Too many doctors, me included, complained of the traveling conditions. People that took the trains said the trip was just as miserable for them as well, because of the heat. Of course, the summer we had last year was blistering hot, much worse than normal.
“I know most of the area farmers won’t survive another drought like that,” the rancher replied. “Let’s hope we don’t have a repeat performance this year.”
A shot rang out, abruptly ending their conversation and instantly alerting them to danger. They felt the coach pick up speed as the driver yelled at the horses, coaxing them to go faster.
“What’s happening?” Joe asked, groggily. The dozing cowboy had almost fallen off his seat as they hit a bad rut in the road.
“I can’t tell for sure, Joe,” his father answered. “It seems someone is chasing us, probably a hold-up would be my guess.” The older Cartwright cautiously tried leaning out the window for a better glimpse. He quickly jerked back in, as a bullet whizzed by his head.
They had been warned, when acquiring their tickets, that a band of marauders were on the prowl. The gang was terrorizing the stage lines and independent road travelers. Things had died down in the last month though, encouraging the stage line to think that the thieves had moved on to a different territory.
The passengers in the coach heard a scream, shortly followed by the sight of one of the drivers falling off. They recognized Brock, one of the older employees of the line. He had recently talked about cutting down on the amount of trips he went on to maybe just sell tickets. The coach lurched, jarring the inhabitants as they felt the bump. It made them sick to realize the man had fallen under the wheels.
“I better get up there, Pa. Dan can’t drive and shoot at the same time; he needs some help.”
“No, Joseph! You stay right here! If we are stopped, we’ll just give them what they want, do you hear me? Up until now, they haven’t killed anyone. We all need to stay calm, and keep it that way.” Ben knew that when Joe got mad he had one heck of a temper. Trying to keep the boy quiet was more than he could manage at times; more often than naught, Joe’s mouth made him end up in a lot of trouble.
“That might be true until today, Pa, but they’ve killed Brock now; I don’t want to find out what they have planned for witnesses. Besides, if they kill Snethen we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”
“You have a point, Joe. Be careful though,” his father said, worry evident in his voice. “Paul, do you have a gun?”
“Ben, you know I never carry a weapon. Sorry, but I’m not much help right now.”
Giving the doctor a nod of acknowledgment, Ben turned to Joe. “Okay, Son; when I say go, get up there as quickly as you can.”
Ben had no doubt his youngest boy could do it. The kid was as agile as a panther and had been doing tricks on his horse for more years than anyone even knew about. The elder Cartwright started firing his gun as soon as he gave Joe the go ahead. It looked like there were four men behind them. As soon as return fire came from the coach, the gang momentarily split apart. There was a short-lived halt of gunfire, as the pursuers re-grouped, allowing Little Joe to reach his destination safely. Ben took advantage of the brief confusion, firing off as many shots off as he could; he was encouraged that at least one of his bullets hit its mark.
“Need some help, Dan?” Cartwright yelled as he clamored up into the empty driver’s seat.“Sure thing, friend, you keep shooting at ’em, I’ll do my best to out-run them.” Dan Snethen was a childhood friend of Joe’s. The two of them had gone to school together, where they’d had their share of good times until Dan had met Gina and settled down. He’d taken this job last fall, after having had to sell his working stock due to the bad ranching conditions the drought had caused. He was a skilled driver and had no trouble missing the worse areas in the road. The men behind them were still firing; some of the shots were pretty close calls. Suddenly, Snethen jerked. Joe was horrified when his friend slumped over onto him. Dan’s blood splattered onto his tan shirt and face, but, even worse… he caught sight of grey matter, exposed by the head wound, before his friend tumbled off the coach. The young Cartwright shuddered with revulsion, completed shaken. He choked down the bile that had risen in his throat, grabbed the reins, and tried valiantly to gain control of the panicked team. He did his best, but the stagecoach careened off the road, bouncing over rocks and brush before overturning, into a mass of wreckage.
Dust still filled the air when the three remaining bandits rode up to the area of destruction and mayhem. A wheel creaked as it spun aimlessly on its axle. The outlaws dismounted with guns drawn, ready for use in case the stillness was a ploy. They quickly surveyed the inside of the coach and the surrounding area before holstering their guns. Two of the raunchy varmints worked quickly and professionally as they stripped the bodies of valuables, including money. The third, who acted as if he was in charge, checked the baggage that was strewn around the site.
“There’s enough blood on that young’en over there that he’s gotta be near dead, the old man’s been hit too. That leaves this guy,” the short man of the group said, nodding towards Dr. Martin’s unconscious form. “You want me to finish him off, Boss? Dead men tell no tales.”
“NO! We’ve kept bloodshed out of this till today; we aren’t going to kill a defenseless man!” Boss man replied. “If those fool drivers would have just stopped the coach, they’d be alive, and we wouldn’t have this problem. The ones that aren’t dead yet most likely will be, before help comes this way. They can’t identify us anyway. That’s why I tell you to always keep your mouth shut and your faces covered. This was a good haul; now let’s get out of here, pronto.”
The clamor of the galloping horses faded as the thieves left the area. A stony silence prevailed, enveloping even the wildlife into the suspense. Time seemed to stand still — as if in anticipation — waiting to see if life… or death…, was triumphant.
The first to stir was Dr. Martin, as he slowly regained consciousness. He had been ejected from his seat when the vehicle had turned over, leaving him a few feet away from where the main body of the stagecoach lay. His first conscious thought was of his traveling companions, wondering where they were and if they were okay. He quickly realized he probably had injuries, as his right hand felt numb. With each awakening minute, he more accurately felt the ache of many scrapes and bruises. Shooting stabs of light permeated the darkness behind his closed eyes as he flexed his fingers. Searing pain radiated up his arm when he tried to give himself a quick examination. He emitted a sharp cry as he felt along his ribcage. His diagnosis? That it wasn’t just the hand that was injured.
Paul glanced around the area, looking for his friends. He noticed Joe laying a short distance away. He almost made it into a standing position before he collapsed, pain from a sprained ankle inhibiting the ability to walk. He proceeded to crawl the short distance over to the young man.
“Good Lord… Joe,” he gasped, as he saw the horrid amount of crimson stain on the tan shirt. With his good left hand, he quickly searched for a wound site, becoming baffled when he couldn’t find the source of blood. He noticed that the young man was just as battered as he was, but the only serious injury he could ascertain was a head wound which was bleeding profusely. He reached into his pocket, drew out his handkerchief, and immediately began trying to clean the rather large gash. The swelling was minimal for the depth of the cut, a sure sign that the boy might be concussed. A small moan escaped his patient as he started to come to.
“No, Joe. It’s me… Paul Martin. Where does it hurt? Where did all this blood come from?”
“From Dan… he’s dead. Fell on me… shot in the head…. Oh God… it was terrible. Pa? Where is my pa?”
“I think he must still be in the coach, Joe. I don’t see him anywhere out here.”
Little Joe struggled to get up, desperate to find his father. It was so hard… his limbs felt like dead weight. With the combination of excruciating head pains and dizziness, he wasn’t convinced he’d get far, but he had to try.
“Joseph… stay still! I need to check you over,” pleaded the doctor.
“No! I have to find my father!” Joe shook his head, trying to clear his vision. He pushed the doctor aside, shakily got up, and stumbled toward what remained of the stagecoach. “Pa? Are you in there? Pa?”
“Joseph?” called a weak voice from inside the coach. “Is that you, Son?”
“Doc Martin! Over here, Pa’s in the stagecoach. He’s hurt!” yelled Little Joe, as he climbed into the vehicle. “Pa, are you okay? How bad is it?”
“I took a bullet in my shoulder; can you get me out of here?”
By this time, Paul had made it over to his friends and helped pull Ben from the stagecoach. “Joe, get my bag. It’s over there by that rear wheel,” he ordered, as he started checking to see how serious the wound was.
“How is he, Doc?”
“Not good! He’s lost consciousness for the moment, probably from blood loss. Open that bag and hand me the gauze pads. I need to get this cleaned off so I can see the bullet entry better. See if any of the canteens are lying around.” Paul noticed how Joe staggered as he searched the area. He could tell the boy was having trouble concentrating and was now positive the kid had a concussion. Ben was going to be in big trouble if his youngest son couldn’t focus.
“Here you are, I found two of them,” Joe said, as he handed the canteens to the doctor. The young Cartwright felt detached from the scene as he watched the examination continue. Bitterly, he thought of their attackers, knowing what he would do to them if they were ever captured. A demanding voice intruded into his dark brooding.
“You have to help me here! The first thing I need you to do is go back to where Brock’s body is. The old guy was known to carry a flask of whiskey. See if it’s on him. I need something to sterilize my instruments with because I don’t have enough alcohol with me.”
“Pa brought some brandy for Dr. Peele, would that work?” The thought of having to search a dead body repulsed the cowboy.
“Yes! Check to see, maybe the outlaws didn’t take it.”
Paul could hear Joe rummaging through bags, suddenly the boy yelled out. “Got it!”
“Thank Heavens for small miracles. Lucky for us they weren’t interested in liquor. Bring it over here and set it down for a moment. I need to talk to you.”
“Talk? Why do we need to do that? Shouldn’t you be working on my pa? Talking isn’t going to help him any.”
“Joe, take a good look at this,” said the doctor, as he held out his swollen right hand. “It’s broken. I can’t operate on your father.” The two pairs of eyes locked; one set held compassion, the other… terror. “You’ll have to do it for me.”
“I can’t,” he whispered fearfully, shaking his head. “I can’t… I… I’ve never taken a bullet out of anything. We’ll have to wait.” Desperation was evident in the tone of his voice. “Someone will come along; I know they will.”
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting. That bullet needs to come out, now, or your father could bleed to death. You are his only hope.”
“Joseph?” Ben called in a hoarse voice. He’d heard part of the conversation as he had awakened, and was motioning for his youngest boy to come closer. “You can do it, Son.”
“No, Pa… I can’t. I just can’t,” Joe cried, as tears streamed down his face.
“You’ve always told me — and not too long ago — I might add, that you could do anything.”
“No son of mine lies! Now get your chin up, boy, you do as Paul says.”
“No, Joseph, your father is right,” Dr. Martin joined in. “You have to do this! I’ll guide you every step of the way; you won’t be alone,” he added, placing a hand on the young man’s shoulder to comfort him.
“Please, Son? For me?” the father pleaded. “You’ve got to help me… I need you.”
“I’ll try, Pa.” Joe sniffed, as he drew in a deep breath and wiped the wetness from his face.
“Thank you.” Ben’s thoughts were heavy with sorrow for the youngster; he knew how hard this task would be for him. If something were to go wrong… “Joe, listen to me, if anything happens…”
“NO, PA! Don’t say it. Please don’t….” Fresh tears streamed down Little Joe’s emotionally wrought features.
“All right, I won’t say it. Just know how much I love you, and your brothers.”
“We know, Pa,” Joe answered, grasping his father into a tight embrace. He clung to the silver-haired man, treasuring the warmth as he inhaled the scent of someone he loved more than life itself. He felt a hand on his shoulder, but wouldn’t look up. He didn’t want the moment to end…didn’t want to face what awaited him.
“’C’mon, Joe, we need to get started.” The doctor did his best to sound sympathetic, yet stern enough to get through to the young man. “You start a fire; I’ll need to be able to seal the wound when we are finished. While you’re doing that, I’ll sedate your father.”
“Okay, Joe, it’s time to start. I’ve sterilized all the instruments you should need, and cleaned the area around the injury.” With his left hand, Paul handed a scalpel to Little Joe. “Take this and firmly push down about a half inch above the entry point; continue slicing downward until you are the same distance from the bottom of the wound. You’ll need to make the incision deep, but I don’t want you to be alarmed by the amount of blood. I’ll get as much soaked up as I can while you cut. After you make the opening, you’ll use the pinchers to extract the bullet. Did you understand all that?”
The only response Paul got was a slight nod from the nervous young man. He watched with trepidation as his unwilling assistant placed the knife where he had been instructed to. Joe’s hand, which had a slight tremor to it as he poised the knife over the wound, suddenly started shaking uncontrollably. Cartwright drew his arm back, his shoulders sagging in defeat. “It won’t work; there’s no way I can do this.”
Doctor Martin grabbed the bottle of brandy. He knew he shouldn’t give it to someone with a concussion, but at this point he had no alternative. “Here, take a couple swigs of this, then we’ll try again. It’s the only thing I have to calm your nerves.” He gazed over at the shaken youth and sighed. “You don’t have a choice, Joseph.”
Little Joe wordlessly reached over, took the bottle and started chugging.
“Whoa! That’s enough! Now let’s start again.” He watched as the sad hazel eyes rested their gaze upon the patient. “Joe!” barked the doctor. “Look at me!” The head of curls jerked Paul’s way, as the voice broke through the boy’s trance. “You can do this! Now, here’s the knife again.”
This time the young Cartwright’s hand was steady, making an incision that a student intern would envy. Paul spoke in low, soothing tones as he guided his assistant with instructions. “Nice job. Now, let me put pressure on the wound; you wipe off your hands, and get the pinchers.” The injured physician was more than concerned by the un-natural calm Joe was exhibiting. “When you are ready, start probing for the bullet.” Nerve-wracking minutes ticked by as the young man dug tentatively, not wanting to do more harm than good. Sweat beads clung to the young man’s face, some starting to run together into little rivulets to drip from his chin. With a clean cloth, Paul reached up, gently dabbing the perspiration from Joe’s forehead before it could enter the boy’s eyes.
There was a dual sigh of relief when they heard the ting of metal hitting metal. “That’s it, Joe! Get a grip on the bullet… that’s it… now, guide it out. Don’t worry; your father can’t feel a thing.” After what seemed like an eternity of time, the bullet finally came out.
Dr. Martin immediately placed gauze in the gaping wound, applying pressure to stop the flow of blood. Little Joe half collapsed onto the ground as he frantically gasped for air, having unwittingly held his breath during the final minutes of the operation.
“Slower, Joe, try to slow down your breathing. You did a first-rate job, son. Your father is going to be fine.”
“C… can’t breath,” wheezed the young Cartwright, doubling over in pain. “G… gonna be sick.” He scrambled over to some bushes, a short distance away, and became physically ill. Paul wished he could go comfort the boy, but Ben’s wound needed to be cauterized. It was a job he had decided he could manage left-handed, as he didn’t think Little Joe could deal with anything more. Best get to it, he thought, hoping the young Cartwright wouldn’t return until he was finished. The smell of burning skin would just be an added burden to the traumatized youth.
Paul kept a close watch on Little Joe as he cleaned up the instruments and checked on their patient. The boy had stayed over near the bushes for a short while, then had returned to his father’s side. He now just sat there, occasionally wiping down his father’s face. As Joe’s head began to nod – indicating he was starting to doze off – it drew the attention of the doctor. Not just yet, young man, he sighed to himself.
“How’s your headache? Still having blurred vision with it?” Paul squatted down beside the exhausted cowboy. That way he could check him out closely, without being obvious about it.
Joe looked at the man with curiosity. “My head feels like there’s a thunderstorm going on inside it. How’d you know?”
“I’m a doctor; it’s my job to know. My brain is still functioning, even though the body could use some improvements.”
Sadness was evident in Joe’s voice as he quietly spoke. “I noticed you holding your side, are your ribs broke?”
“Maybe just cracked, but that was mighty observant of you, Dr. Cartwright,” the physician chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.
“Don’t even joke about that, I never want to use another scalpel in my life.” Joe shuddered as a chill ran through his body. The memory of what he had been made to do was one he hoped would go away fast. “Is your hand hurting? It looks more swollen.”
“Yeah, it is,” Paul answered. “Listen, I hate to ask you after all you’ve been through, but do you think I can teach you a few more skills?”
“There isn’t any reason for me to say no, I guess. I can’t hurt you any worse than I probably did my father.” The despondency in the voice got to the older man. Doing surgery on someone, particularly a loved one, was a harrowing ordeal. He knew that Joe had a lurking doubt about whether his father would live and was probably racked with guilt that somehow, if his father did die, it would be his fault.
“Joseph, don’t think that way. You saved his life by getting that bullet out.”
“But he hasn’t even moved; are you positive he’s okay?”
“That was explained to you already. I told you it would be a while before the sedative wore off. Don’t you remember?”
“Well, I’m not surprised, you have a concussion. Help me out one more time, will you? Then I’ll see about giving you some powders for your headache – a deal?”
It was a lackluster voice that answered back. “Yeah, it’s a deal.”
“Good! I’ll need some wood for the splint; there should be some around the wagon, from the accident. Then, take a shirt from my suitcase and tear some strips. As soon you gather that up, we’ll start binding my ribs, and then take care of my wrist. My ankle is feeling pretty good. It was just a slight sprain, so you won’t have to take care of that at least.”
It didn’t take long before Joe, once again, was carefully doing as the doctor instructed. This job he could handle, having had his own ribs wrapped numerous times in the past. He accomplished the task quickly, making Paul feel more comfortable right away.
“Now for my hand, this will be a little trickier.” He paused, noticing a change in his young friend. “How are you feeling?”
“Not so well,” Joseph replied honestly. He had acquired a slight sheen of perspiration and his coloring had faded to a pale shade of unbleached muslin.
“Hang in there for a bit longer, we’re almost done. Just take a firm grip on my hand, right here below the knuckles. When I tell you to, you’ll give a quick, hard, jerk. Then we’ll put the splint on. You pull when I count to three. Ready? One… two… THREE… Arghhhh!”
Sheer panic crossed Joe’s face at the shout of pain. “DOC! What’s wrong?”
“WHEW! Nothing, it just hurt like Hell for a second, that’s all. Let’s get this wrapping on so we’ll be finished.”
The caregiver was extremely quiet. Keeping his head down, almost secretively, he worked on the injured hand of his teacher. Doctor Martin looked closely at his new – although temporary – partner in medicine and noticed he was swallowing more than was usual. Excessive saliva? He wondered. “Look up here at me!” the doctor commanded. He caught a quick glimpse of watery, emerald eyes before Joe bolted for the bushes once more. Paul quickly finished the splint on his own and hurried to get some water for his helper, who was experiencing a bout of dry heaves.
After Paul made sure that his ailing assistant was feeling better, he convinced the young man to lie down beside his father and get some sleep, promising to get him up if his father regained consciousness. He assured the young man that his father was doing very well. His pulse was strong and steady, his breathing regular; for the time being, he was almost completely out of danger.
It had been a restless night for the trio. However, each had managed to get some sleep, enabling them to feel much better when morning came. Joe started to prepare a fire and cook them something to eat. He had ventured out for game earlier, successfully hunting down a pair of rabbits. Ben was doing very well, much better than the doctor would have imagined. Paul guessed that Ben and Joe must be a lot alike when it came to healing quickly from injuries. There was just a slight fever, but nothing to be overly concerned about, especially since the elder Cartwright was lucid and talking.
Little Joe was rather quiet as they ate breakfast. There was a job he needed to do and he wasn’t looking forward to it. His father and Paul both noticed, but weren’t sure what was on the boy’s mind. Earlier, Paul had assured Ben that, except for a concussion, Joe was okay. They watched as the youngest Cartwright got up and started to search the coach boot for something. “What are you looking for, Joseph?” Ben asked, wondering what his son was wanting.
“I’m looking for a shovel, Pa; it’s usually standard for the stage line to have one in the rear of the coach. I can’t seem to find it,” he said, as he placed his hands on his hips, surveying the area. “I suppose it could be anywhere around here, the way everything is strewn about.”
Paul shared a look with Ben, whispering “Dan,” before he got up and went over to Joe. “I think I know what you want to do, Joe, but you don’t need to worry about it. I covered Dan and Brock’s bodies this morning, while you were getting the game. I think the weather’s cool enough; we can leave that job for whoever rescues us, Joseph. Why don’t you go over and sit with your father while I put out the fire,” he said, feeling sympathy for the young man.
Burying the drivers, especially his friend Dan, wasn’t something Joe was looking forward to, so he agreed with Dr. Martin and went to see how his father was doing. “Did eating that rabbit help you feel better, Pa?”
“It did, Joe. Come over here and sit down awhile, I’d like you to visit with me before Doc makes me lie back down.” He was pleased when Joe did as he asked; he knew the strength to stay up wasn’t going to last much longer, and he wanted to talk with his son. He pulled his youngest boy closer to him as he sat down beside him, placing his good arm around Joe’s shoulder. “Joseph, I wanted to tell you how sorry I am about your friend, Dan. Paul told me the circumstances. Are you okay?”
“I… I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay again, Pa,” replied Joe, a catch in his voice. Ben noticed the tears welling up in the boy’s eyes, so he began to massage his son’s tense neck to relax him. Joe drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them as he began to un-consciously rock back and forth, before he continued. “It was awful, Pa. It… it… oh…Pa….” Little Joe broke down then, lowering his head to his crossed arms and beginning to sob. “It b… blew away part of his h…head, his blood, it… it went all over me. Oh God, Pa… I wish I could forget.”
“It’s okay, Joe, let it all out,” Ben encouraged, as tears streamed down his own face. Is anything worse than not being able to make the pain and anguish go away for your child, especially when they are in such utter misery, Ben thought. I’m his father; I should be able to make anything better. If only I could… but I know nothing I can say will help this one. The older Cartwright let out a sorrowful sigh, he felt so useless… so inadequate as a parent right then. So, Ben did just what all parents do when a child is faced with trauma. He held his son in his arms, giving him all the love and comfort he could until Joe had calmed down.
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe told his father, as he gave him a gentle hug, mindful of his injury.
“You don’t need to thank me, Son; I just wish I could do more.”
“Just you being there for me all the time is enough. I don’t suppose I tell you near often enough how lucky I feel, to have you for a father. You better lie down now, for awhile, and get some rest,” Joe told his father as he helped the man get comfortable.
It was then that Joe decided he really must go for help. The doctor argued against it, but Joe was adamant and finally won the argument. They all knew another stagecoach wasn’t due through for four days, which wasn’t good because it wasn’t a heavily traveled road. Paul was concerned that Joe wouldn’t make it far and he didn’t want him collapsing along the way, with no one to give him aid. He was still having problems with dizziness plus his attention span was not good. Paul had to repeat his instructions to Joe more than once, a good indication that the boy was having difficulty remembering anything for long.
Shortly after they ate breakfast, Joe made plans to leave. The strategy was for him to follow the road until he came upon a house, or hopefully, some travelers. They estimated they shouldn’t be more than six miles from town. One mile into the trek, there was still no sign of a ranch, or any people. The tired cowboy was showing signs of fatigue and was beginning to stumble. Joe sat down, needing a rest. He rubbed his eyes, clenching them shut then opening them a few times to try and clear the double vision he was starting to experience. It was then that he heard the sound of running water. Must be a stream close by, he thought, feeling extremely thirsty all of a sudden. He headed off the road, to the east, not traveling far before he could see the flowing water. Joe knelt down by the stream. Reaching down, he cupped his hands to get some of the cool water. After quenching his thirst, he splashed some water on his face and the back of his neck, instantly feeling a bit revived.
A prickly feeling came over him, making him feel as if someone was watching him. Little Joe looked around, but saw nothing. He quickly stood up — much too quickly, considering his head injury. A dark film penetrated his eyesight… he staggered but for a few feet before he passed out. Joe Cartwright lay motionless on the soft ground, by the riverbank. A dark shadow slowly blocked the light from the limp form that sprawled there.
Water splashed onto Cartwright’s face, awakening him with a start. It took a few seconds for him to comprehend that someone was kneeling over him. Joe’s heart was pounding as he stared up at what he could only describe as a wild mountain man. Deep wrinkles traveled over most of the leathery skin of the stranger. A hefty amount of wild facial hair covered the lower half of his face. Although clean, his hair was long and shaggy, his clothing made mostly of animal skins.
They studied each other for a few seconds before the older man softly spoke. “Lay still, Daniel, let me see if you are hurt.” Joseph was too confused, and frightened to even notice what the man had called him. The helper’s soft touch belied his rough appearance, as his fingers gently prodded the silent young body for injuries. “Nothing appears broken, but you do have a nasty concussion. What happened to you out here?”
”Our stagecoach was struck by thieves. My father and Dr. Martin are back where the attack happened. They’re hurt; please… will you go help them?”
“First I need to get you to my cabin. It isn’t far; then, I’ll go back for the others.”
“NO! I want to go back with you now!” insisted Joe. “I feel better! Really… I do. I know I can make it.”
“You are in no shape to travel any more than necessary. Do I need to remind you that you just passed out?”
“I won’t go to your cabin without my father… or Dr. Martin.”
“Stubborn little cuss, aren’t you!” stated the exasperated mountain-man.
Cartwright shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows before responding. “That’s what my family says, not that I agree all the time, mind you.”
Unable to convince Joe that he needed to go to the cabin, the unruly looking man insisted the young man rest a bit more while he retrieved his horse.
Joe watched as the man went through some bushes, wondering if the guy would really come back. Heck, for all I know, I’m probably hallucinating, he thought. After a few minutes passed and just as Little Joe was getting ready to head out, the man returned with his animal.
They rode up to the wreckage site less than a half-hour later, the horse having covered the distance much faster than Joe had.
The stranger dismounted, immediately helping the younger man down from the horse. By this time, Paul had hobbled his way over to the two riders, extending his hand out to greet the newcomer. “Hello, I am Dr. Paul Martin. I can’t thank you enough for coming to help us.”
The stranger ignored the outstretched hand. “Where is the kid’s father?” he asked, puzzled because he had seen Joe go to the side of a silver-haired, older man.
“That’s him on the ground. He’s been shot,” answered Paul, irritated by the man’s rudeness.
The gruff man strode over to where the injured man was. He closely scrutinized the prone body of Ben from where he was standing. “This really your pa?”
Joe looked up at the man, wondering why he had phrased the question in such a strange way. “Yeah, can we get him to your cabin?”
“Possibly,” he said, scrutinizing the area with piercing eyes. “I’ll need some help to make a travois.” The stranger then turned to Paul. “What kind of shape is he in?”
“Fairly good, considering the conditions. He dozed off right before you got here, but otherwise he’s been lucid all afternoon.”
“Just a slight one, there isn’t any sign of infection so far.”
The recluse looked the doctor up and down, assessing his condition. “You might have to walk part way. Will you be able to manage that?”
“I’ve made a crude walking stick; I’ll manage.”
The man told the three men he’d be back shortly with what they needed, then left.
Paul watched the strange man closely as he retreated. Something about the guy pecked at his brain. He couldn’t quite put thoughts to the feeling though. “Where did you find him, Joe? Does he have a name?” asked Paul. “He is more than a bit bizarre.”
“I didn’t find him, he found me, and right now I don’t care how different he is, if he helps us. I asked him his name once but he never answered me. I didn’t push it.”
Ben was awakened by the sound of the voices, glad to see his youngest was back. “Joseph?”
“Hi, Pa,” said Little Joe, squatting down so he could reach his father’s hand. “Paul says you’re doing well, what do you think?”
“I’m feeling better now that you’re back. I was worried about you, Joe, are you okay?”
“Yes sir, I’m fine. We have someone here who is going to help us; we should be out of here in no time. You go back to sleep; we’ll take care of everything.”
“Thank you, Son.”
“You’re welcome, Pa,” returned Joe, as his father drifted back off.
The mountain man returned with a bundle of tree limbs and they helped him construct a travois to hold Ben. When they were ready to leave, Joe walked over to the stranger who was helping them.
“Um… I’m thankful for all your help an’ all… but, could I ask one more favor of you?” asked Little Joe, nervously biting on his lip.
“Well, what is it? We don’t have all day, you know,” was the brusque reply.
“The two drivers of the stagecoach were killed; o…one of them was a friend of mine. Could you help me dig the graves? I don’t want the animals to get to their bodies.” Joe lowered his head, biting harder on his lip, as he finished the request.
The stranger wasn’t so hard-hearted that he couldn’t feel the hurt that was oozing from the boy. His bearing softened, as he promised the young man he would return and bury the two men as soon as they got his father to safety. Little Joe mumbled a thank-you before going over to where his fellow travelers awaited. Their caregiver insisted that Joe and Paul both ride the horse as he walked in the lead. After they had traveled a couple miles, the stranger suddenly stopped the horse and started to unhitch the carrier.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Joe asked nervously.
“We need to veer off the road now,” the man responded. “This man will have to ride on the horse, with one of you.”
“I don’t know if he can do that,” protested Paul.
“He’ll have to, if you want me to get him to my cabin. It’s the only way.”
Paul scowled. “You’re asking us to trust you? We don’t even know your name; why can’t we try to get him to town?”
“Pay attention, Mister, do you want to go to my cabin or get left here? It’s not far, but the choice is yours.”
Doctor Martin glared at the eccentric hermit before turning to the younger Cartwright. “Listen, Joe, we need to get your father more comfortable soon. We can’t stay here, and I imagine he can handle a short ride. I think we better go with this guy.”
Paul lightly shook Ben’s shoulder, calling his name to wake him up. When he was sufficiently roused, they helped him up onto the horse. It was decided they would make better time if Joe walked, allowing the more injured man to ride with Ben as the journey continued. It was a sorry looking lot they made.
There was some rough country that they had to travel through, after they left the road. The dense underbrush, combined with the rough terrain, made it difficult for Joe to walk. They stopped several times, ignoring his protests, to allow him to rest. Suddenly, they came upon a cabin nestled into a hillside. It was well hidden by the overgrowth of brush and trees. Joe knew he’d be hard put to ever find it again.
The inside of the cabin was well kept and much larger than it appeared from the outside. The owner disappeared into an adjoining room, returning with a mattress and a couple of bed rolls, which he laid a short distance from the fireplace. “Thought it would be better if you were all in one room,” he gruffly stated. “This one makes the most sense, as it has a fireplace. I’ll get the fire started and make some grub. There’s water in the back for washing up.” He looked inquiringly at the doctor. “Do you have enough supplies in your bag for the old man?”
“I could use some more bandages, if you have some.”
“I’ll get some while you clean up.” The stranger knelt down next to Ben, after the other two had left the room, to check the older man’s brow. He was taking a look at the wound when Ben awakened.
“Hello… we meet again. I’d like to thank you for what you’re doing for us, but I don’t think I caught your name earlier.”
“Didn’t say what it was,” the mountain-man replied rather curtly. Seeing the sympathetic – and somewhat baffled – look the older gentleman gave him made him pause. His shoulders slumped as he sighed in resignation. “I’m sorry; I guess I’ve lived by myself so long that I’ve become a bitter, untrusting man. You can call me Ted; I’m sorry for my rude behavior.”
Compassionate brown eyes looked up into blue ones that were filled with a deep loneliness. “Thank you, Ted, for helping us out.”
After they finished their meal, and the oldest Cartwright had been tended to, the cabin owner insisted the trio bed down for the night. He could tell they were exhausted; the two healthier ones had battled to keep their eyes open through the meal.
Paul had a hard time falling asleep; his mind was too busy thinking of the guy that had rescued them. He had scrutinized the man throughout the early evening; what he had noticed puzzled him. Ted — as he had learned what the man’s name was — had intently watched any interaction between the two Cartwrights. He’d tried not to appear like he was, but Paul was paying close attention. He had also noticed that the man never called Joe by his name, although the young man had told him what it was more than once. Then… when he had done an examination of Ben, after tending to his own and Joseph’s injuries, he had felt like the man was observing him in such a way that it made him feel like he was a student on rounds. He couldn’t shake the feeling, but had no idea why he felt that way. It was just a hunch, but he thought maybe the recluse had some knowledge of medicine. As Paul feigned sleep, Ted left the cabin to fulfill his promise to the young Cartwright. Dr. Martin had intended to stay awake until the man came back, but drowsiness overtook him and he didn’t awaken till morning.
It was almost dawn when their benefactor returned. He had traveled back to the wreckage site and carefully removed all traces of their tracks from the area. It had taken a long time to make sure that no one could follow the route they had used to get to the cabin. As he entered his home he glanced around at the slumbering men. He first checked Ben, to see if he was running any fever; the old man seemed a bit warm. Ted went over to a drawer in the kitchen, got out a jar of salve and some bandages, and then went back to the sleeping men. Ever so gently, as he didn’t want the man to wake up, he put the ointment on the wound before re-dressing it. He was pleased when the patient hardly stirred. Squatting down next to Joe on the floor, he took a long, hard gander at the boy, pushing the curls off his forehead for a better look.
Joe, who half awakened, asked how his pa was doing. Ted furrowed his brows in confusion, the situation made no sense to what he knew. He told Joe that the older man was doing fine, and to go back to sleep.
Soon after, the three guests awakened to the aroma of food. They could hear the sizzling bacon and the bubbling of eggs being fried, making their mouths water. Paul’s first order of business was to check Ben’s condition. He was shocked to see that not only had his patient’s wound been tended to, but re-dressed as well. Perfectly!
A voice spoke out from the kitchen area. “He was in some discomfort earlier. I had some stuff here I thought would help, so I put it on.” Ted then turned back to the stove, indicating the one-sided conversation was finished.
Over breakfast, Paul tried to converse with the cook. The man was tight lipped and seemed to be getting agitated, so they finished the meal in silence. Ted rose when he was done eating, informed the group that he had to go out for awhile, and then growled out a few orders. “I figure you can clean up the kitchen while I’m gone, then you all better rest up. The stage will be through day after tomorrow; you’ll have to be well enough to get back to the road. We’ll leave early that morning.”
Ted returned shortly before noon, entering the cabin with a pair of bows and a pouch of arrows. He looked over at Joe, who was sitting by his father. “You any good with a bow?” he asked.
“I’m fair. I do better with a gun, though.”
“No guns! You feel well enough to help me get some game?”
Joe assured the man he was feeling fine now; he’d be glad to go hunting with him, despite Paul’s objections. They left, after a quick bite of food, and hadn’t been out long before they downed some rabbits and a few pheasants. The man suggested they rest before the return trip to the cabin. Cartwright was happy to oblige, he’d tired out faster than he thought he would.
Ted started up a conversation, wanting to find out some information about his hunting companion. “Young man, I was wondering how your memory is. It might be impaired, from the blow you had to your head. Do you remember anything from before the accident? I notice they keep calling you Joe. Are you sure that’s your name?”
“Of course I’m sure that’s my name!” Joe shot back, somewhat insulted. “What kind of a question is that?”
“Don’t go getting all bothered, it was just a question. You said you were on your way to San Francisco, ever live there?”
“No, I’ve always lived on the Ponderosa with my father and two older brothers. I did spend a long time in San Francisco a few years ago, though. We’re just going back for a visit. Can we go back now?” asked Little Joe. “I’d like to see how my father is doing.” The memories of his stay in California were not all pleasant; he was becoming uneasy at the direction the conversation was going, making him anxious to get back to the cabin.
Joe was in the lead, as they started to leave for the cabin. Ted shouted out… “Daniel?” then kept his eyes trained on the young man’s back… watching to see if he turned in recognition of the name.
Little Joe did turn around… his face scrunched in curiosity. “Why did you call me that?” he asked the man.
”Because, I think you are suffering from amnesia. I think that Daniel is your real name, not Joe. I don’t think that man in the cabin is your father!”
“What?” Joe asked in astonishment. Then a look of understanding came across his face. “Oh… you think I am Daniel Peele, don’t you?”
”Then you do know the name! Yes, I was a good friend of Dr. Peele’s once. I think you are his son, Daniel, though it has been a long time since I have seen you.”
“Dr. Peele is my uncle,” Joe explained. “Daniel and I share an amazing resemblance to each other. Just who are you? Why do you live up here in the middle of nowhere?”
The mountain-man just stared at Joe, not knowing whether to believe him or not, even though all three men seemed to be honest, good people. “Never mind,” the man muttered. “Let’s get this food back, and check on your pa.”
By the time they got back to the cabin, Joe wasn’t feeling very well. His head was pounding, so he was made to lie down while Paul gave in to Ted’s requests and allowed the man to look at his injuries. Dr. Martin made mention of how much Ted seemed to know. “I read a lot, that’s all. You have to know something about first aid when you live by yourself. I tend to lots of injured animals out here; it helps to know how to set bones, or take care of injuries.” He wasn’t fooling the Virginia City physician one bit. By now, Dr. Martin knew, without a doubt, that this man was a doctor, or had, at the very least, studied to be one
When Little Joe woke up, he felt a bit fuzzy in his thinking. He’d had some strange dreams that he couldn’t quite remember, making him wonder if his conversation with the mountain-man had been real or not. He didn’t want to say anything to his father until he had a chance to talk with Ted again.
The following day brought a vast improvement in Ben Cartwright’s condition. Whatever salve Ted had used was good; no infection had set in. He felt like he was rested enough to get up and move about. They fashioned a sling for him, using some supplies from their host. In fact, it wasn’t just Ben who was better; Little Joe’s vision had completely cleared, leaving him with only a slight headache. Paul’s ankle, being only slightly sprained to begin with, was now feeling very good, hardly bothering him. The ribs and hand still gave him some discomfort, but nothing that was hindering his ability to get around.
At the moment, they were all three in the cabin alone. The stranger who had helped them had left a couple of hours ago. He’d not explained to them where he was going, or what he was doing. He didn’t want them knowing he was making a trip to the road each day, checking to ensure no one had found any trace of them. Ben and Paul were spending time admiring Ted’s great collection of books. “Boy, he wasn’t kidding when he said he read a lot. These are some of the best medical books there are,” commented Paul. He opened a couple, admiring what good shape they were in, as well as the fine quality. “Now here’s a rare book,” he said, reaching up and pulling down a leather-bound volume of surgical procedures. As he opened the cover, Paul was shocked at what he saw. “Ben! Joe!” he exclaimed. “Come over here, take a look at this.”
“What is it, Paul?” Ben asked, taking the book Paul handed him, as Joseph came up behind to read over his shoulder.
To Dr. Theodore Stretcher
Congratulations on being considered for the new hospital appointment. You are my best friend and a terrific partner and I will be supporting you all the way. You will be an inspiration of hope to all the sick and needy once you win the position.
Dr. Harold Peele.
“Well, that explains a lot, I guess it wasn’t a dream after all,” Joe said.
Dr. Martin and Ben were both perplexed by Little Joe’s comment. Paul inquired further for both of them. “What do you mean, Joe?”
The young Cartwright explained what took place on the hunting trip, and why he hadn’t told them about it. Paul also reflected on how he had thought it was strange that Theodore had never called Joe by his name. They were standing there, with the book, discussing how to approach their host. Unfortunately for the Cartwrights and Paul, Doctor Stretcher chose that moment to walk in. Startled, the trio felt a bit guilty, rendering them momentarily speechless.
Theodore was taken aback… a sudden rush of terror spreading through his body at having been found out. He could see what book they held… knew what it said inside. If only he hadn’t thought the kid was Daniel. He should never have brought the strangers here… never have taken the chance that someone would find out who he was. Dr. Stretcher wore a look of fury as he strode over, grabbed the book and replaced it on the shelf. “Kind of nosey for company, aren’t you?” he lashed out. “What gives you the right to look through my personal belongings?”
Joe acted like he was going to speak, so Ben gave him a quick squeeze on the shoulder to indicate he wanted him to hold his tongue. “We’re sorry,” Ben said. “We were just admiring your books. We didn’t mean to pry, however we see you know Dr. Peele. He is my brother-in-law — Joe’s uncle — as well as a dear and trusted friend.”
“Yeah, the kid said he knew him, I just didn’t believe his story.”
Paul stood quietly, as Ben continued. “It isn’t a story… it’s the truth. Harold was married to the sister of Joe’s mother. Daniel could have been a twin of my son, they looked so much alike. Did Joseph explain to you that Daniel is dead?”
“No… oh, no.” Dr. Stretcher sank down onto a chair; he seemed to be devastated. “Poor Harold, he worshipped that boy. Daniel was his life, after his wife died.” He lowered his head into his hands, shaking it in misery. “I should have been there for him.”
Ben sat down beside the distraught doctor, placing his hand on the man’s arm. “Is there some way we can help you, if you are in trouble? Does Dr. Peele know where you are? How you live?” Ben asked.
An angry Dr, Stretcher jerked his arm away from the clasp. “Please,” he beseeched the men, glaring at each of then. “If you are true friends of Harold, go away, forget you ever saw me. His life, other lives… could be ruined if it’s found out I’m still alive.”
”I know Harold too well,” Ben replied, getting angry himself. “He would never abandon a friend, even if his life was in danger.” Softening his voice, he persisted in trying to get through to the man. “Don’t you think it’s time you told us exactly who you are, and why you came to this?” he asked, sweeping his arm to indicate what he was talking about.
“Okay,” the man sighed as resignation set in. “I will tell you the story. I’m tired of living alone… tired of this kind of existence. Maybe it is time for the truth to come out. It seems like so many years ago… a lifetime, a different life. Dr. Peele and I have known each other ever since we attended the same college. He even gave me my nick-name — Stretch — later we became partners in a private practice. My life was good; I was happy, having recently married a wonderful woman, Claire. There was a new hospital being built in San Francisco. Harold and I, along with two other doctors, were being considered for the position of administrator. It was a huge career move for either one of us; we shared in our excitement over the possibility of the job. There was no competition, or animosity, between us. If neither of us got the post, we would just continue with our practice, which was growing and becoming quite lucrative. If one of us got the position, the other would take over the clinic. We would have been content no matter what the outcome was.”
By now everyone in the room was sitting down, intently listening to the story as it unfolded. Dr. Stretcher had a far-away look in his eyes, as he verbally re-lived the past. “I can’t say the same for the other two doctors; they wanted the job… wanted it badly. One of the other physicians that was up for the job, Dr. Neal Roberts, was found murdered shortly before the position was to be decided upon. All the evidence pointed towards me. I was framed, but couldn’t prove it. I always had the suspicion — as did Harold — that it was Dr. Ron Fisher, the remaining surgeon that had been nominated. But, I could prove nothing; he had what seemed to be an airtight alibi. There was nothing to do. Claire and Harold both believed me without a doubt; they stood by me as we fought together, but I couldn’t clear myself. I didn’t want them to suffer; she needed to be set free and I didn’t want Harold to be dragged under by the stain of being associated with my name.”
“Didn’t you have an alibi?” wondered Joe, not realizing he had spoken out loud.
”No, I had spent the evening that the murder took place at home. Claire was visiting a sick friend out of town, so I was there alone. Anyway, the trial was going badly and I knew it. As yet, I was free to come and go, due to my good standing in the community. I waited till Claire was not at home, then I set fire to the house. The building was completely destroyed, I was declared dead, then disappeared. I came here and have been here ever since. I have often wondered how Claire and Harold fared, but if I go back… I’ll be arrested. I can’t live in prison! I would rather be dead than be locked up for the rest of my life. If only there would have been a way to prove my innocence.”
The three guests sat there, having listened in silence, each trying to come up with some idea of what they could do to help.
“Whatever happened to Dr. Fisher?” Joe asked.
”I don’t know,” Theodore answered. “I only stayed around town long enough to make sure everyone thought I had died in the fire. I’ve never been back, or read any newspapers that reported what happened in the following years.”
Ben reached over, placing his hand on the man’s arm. “Trust us,” he softly told the man. “We owe you… let us see what’s happened since you’ve been gone. See if there is any way we can help.”
After years of being alone… years of pent up, forgotten emotions, Dr. Stretcher broke down. His sobbing wrenched the hearts of the other men; each felt terrible for him. They no longer thought of him as a stranger; now, he was a friend in need.
It was decided that the next day, Theodore would aid the men in getting back to the place where they had abandoned the road on the way to the cabin. The stage through there was almost always on time so he knew they would be found if they were there. He admitted he had seen two men that morning, looking around the wreckage site. One was a large man with a ten-gallon hat; the other was a slimmer man, dressed in black. “Those would be my brothers,” Joe exclaimed. “They must be looking for us.”
Dr. Stretcher promised to stay at the cabin until someone came back with news. They decided on a meeting place and date; whoever came would wear a red bandana around his neck.
The injured men were found on the road the following day and brought to Shandon, the next town, where they found a very surprised Hoss and Adam. The two brothers were astounded to see the three men; they couldn’t understand why they had not been able to find them anywhere around the wreckage site or on the road. Ben calmed their worries about the injuries he and Joe — as well as Paul — had sustained, convincing them that they all felt up to continuing their trip.
“Let’s get some rooms first, since the stage is stopping here for the night, and then we’ll fill you in,” Ben told his oldest sons. “It’s a long story, one you’ll find hard to believe. Adam, you go to the telegraph office and send a wire to Harold. Meet us in the hotel dining room when you’re done.” Both his older sons were stunned at the story they heard, while eating. Neither could believe all that had gone on in the few days since the travelers had left Virginia City. All were in agreement that Hoss and Adam would wait in the small town until Ben sent a telegram with news about what was happening. They were given the instructions needed for where to meet with Theodore.
Although Joe wanted to rent a horse to ride the rest of the way, Ben threw a fit, so Joe gave in, continuing the trip on the stage with his father and Paul. They arrived at Dr. Peele’s home about four hours after they left Shandon. Harold and Carolyn were most relieved when the group arrived, happy that the injuries they sustained were healing nicely. Harold introduced his wife to the men as they went into the parlor where the babies were. The infants were adorable, just at the right age to coo and smile at the visitors.
“Would you like to hold your namesake, Little Joe?” asked Carolyn. Not waiting for a reply, she placed the baby in his arms.
“Hi ya, Baby Joe,” Little Joe crooned to the infant as he played with him. “Hey, Pa, c’mere! Look, he has green eyes, just like me and Daniel. A sure sign he’s going to be a smart, good looking guy.”
“Also a very cranky one if I don’t get them both upstairs for their nap. If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I’ll see you at suppertime.” Carolyn enlisted the help of the nanny; together they bundled up the children and brought them to their beds.
“Beautiful family you have, Harold,” Ben said, as Dr. Peele poured them all a cordial. “We had a rather peculiar encounter after the accident with the stagecoach. If you’ll sit down, we’d like to talk to you about it.” Harold was utterly speechless, as they once again recounted the story of what had transpired. Sure enough, Dr. Ron Fisher had gotten the position at the hospital. Dr. Peele despised the man; for many years he’d tried to find evidence against him for the murder of Dr. Roberts. He was also positive the administrator was skimming money from the hospital, but had no access to any information that would prove it.
The biggest shock for the Cartwrights, and Paul, was that Dr. Fisher had married Claire within two months of Dr. Stretcher’s “death” and seven months later, a daughter had been born. Harold assured them that Claire was in no way involved with Dr. Fischer while she was married to Theodore. “It was a bad time for me; Daniel was sick, I’d lost my best friend, and my partner was gone, thus causing the business to suffer because of the scandal. I’m afraid I wasn’t much help to Claire. I found out later that she was blackmailed into marrying that bastard. Excuse my language,” he said, frustration showing as he ran his fingers through his hair. “I’ve felt so guilty over that through the years. I let Stretch and Claire both down.”
“How do you think she’ll take the news that her first husband is still alive?” asked Ben. “Will she be happy?”
Doctor Peele was emphatic in his reply. “Without a doubt! She still loves him and misses him terribly. The little girl — Julia — is Theodore’s; she is the only reason Claire stays with Ron. Dr. Fisher wields a lot of power and told her if she ever left him, she’d lose her daughter. Claire is a wonderful woman, you’ll like her.”
After much discussion and deliberation, it was decided to invite Claire over so they could visit with her. At this point they thought it best not to reveal Theodore was still alive; they felt they should wait until the time was right. Harold told them he would find out what Dr. Fisher’s schedule was, so he wouldn’t be aware of the meeting with Claire.
The Cartwrights and Paul let Harold examine their injuries before cleaning up and getting a much needed rest before supper. They all slept soundly for several hours, letting nature take over to help them restore some vitality to their demeanor. Carolyn had orchestrated a delicious meal, which included delectable seafood from the San Francisco area as well as her favorite pastries for dessert. The children loved the attention of so many guests, although they seemed to already be captivated by Little Joe’s giggle, for they truly seemed to smile more at him. Before Claire and the children retired for the evening, the men explained to her what they had planned. Harold insisted, in spite of her objections, that he make plans for her to be elsewhere with the children, until any danger to them was over.
Dr. Peele answered the door himself, greeting Mrs. Fischer with a warm embrace. “Claire, it’s been much too long since we’ve seen each other. Come in, I’ve got some guests I’d like you to meet.”
“It’s delightful to see you again, too, Harold. My maid gave me your note; I can’t thank you enough for remembering to use her to get me a message from you. Ron forbids me to visit, or talk to you. He would make it miserable for me if he found out I had been here. You have piqued my curiosity, you know. What is going on and who would you like me to meet?”
“It is Ben and Joseph Cartwright, along with Doctor Paul Martin. They’ve just arrived from Virginia City last night.”
“Cartwright…” she pondered. “Would that be your nephew, the one you told me about a couple of years ago?”
“Yes,” he answered, as he took her arm while they walked into the parlor.
“Oh, my goodness!” she gasped, taking a step back in shock. “Harold, you were right! He looks just like Daniel.”
“That he does. It is quite remarkable, isn’t it?” Doctor Peele went on to introduce Claire to the gentlemen in the room. Over tea, they explained to her that they were going to help Harold try to clear her “late” husband’s name.
“After all these years?” asked Claire, surprised at what she was hearing. “Is it possible there is still a chance to exonerate him?” Tears filled her eyes as she thought of her first husband. “Theodore was the kindest man in the world. He would never have hurt any living creature. Please excuse my tears, it’s just that I still miss him so,” she said, dabbing at her eyes to clear the moisture away.
“There is no need to apologize, Mrs. Str… Fischer,” said Ben, making a quick recovery from almost using the wrong name. “We are going to do a little digging, see what we can find out; since no one knows us here, maybe we’ll find some new information that can help.”
Claire looked around the room, judging the three strangers for a moment. “If Harold trusts you, then that is good enough for me, so I think I may be able to help you.” She then turned to her “late” husband’s best friend. “Harold, I am going to tell you all a story, one that I should have told you some time ago. It was the fear of having my daughter taken from me that kept me quiet. But I have come to the point where I need help, even from strangers, to get out of that house. If you can prove Ronald committed that murder, he would be put in jail, and I would be free of him at last. May I have some more tea before we continue? It’s quite a story, gentlemen.”
Harold had thought it best to let all the servants off for a few days, so he himself went to the kitchen for more refreshments. Meanwhile, Claire was curious about the men that she had just met, so she was getting to know them better. “How tragic for you… to have lost three wives, Mr. Cartwright; I imagine your sons have been a great comfort to you over the years.”
“Yes, indeed they have,” Ben answered, giving Little Joe an affectionate pat on the leg. “All of them are quite different, having inherited some of their mother’s features as well as their personalities. There’s a special place in my heart for each of my sons, as well as their mothers. I think they complete me as a man, for there is nothing more rewarding in life, than the love, and respect, of one’s child.”
“Ah… how eloquently phrased that was. Beautiful words indeed, Ben.”
“Harold says you have a daughter. What is her name?” Paul asked, as he joined in the conversation.
“Yes, my beautiful Julia. She is almost nine years old; she fills my life with laughter and is the shining star in my life that keeps me going. I don’t know quite how much Dr. Peele has explained to you, so let me tell you a bit about my marriage, as Harold prepares our refreshments. I despise my husband. We do not, have never had, a “real” marriage. It is a sham that I was forced into.”
They all filled their glasses with tea when Dr. Peele came back in, then Claire continued. “Ronald came to me about three weeks after my husband perished in the fire. He informed me that he didn’t like the suspicions that had been cast his way by Harold. Either I married him, or he would ruin Dr. Peele by telling people we were having an affair… that Harold had killed his partner. Dr. Fischer was a very influential man and I was afraid. I’m sorry, Harold, but I finally caved in when he convinced me that your reputation, as well as mine, was at stake. Dr. Fischer was, and is, a monster; he believed that if I married him, people would no longer think he had anything to do with Neal Robert’s death.”
Doctor Peele was shocked; he’d no idea all this had happened. “Claire, you should have come to me. I would have found a way to help you.”
“I know, Harold,” she replied. “But you were Theodore’s best friend. He loved you like a brother; I couldn’t bear the thought of you having to sacrifice your career, or life, as my husband did, because of that man. At the time, I didn’t know I was pregnant, I thought I was late because of the stress I was under. By the time I found out I was with child, I was already married. Ronald was furious at first, but soon realized, though, that he had a very powerful hold over me. About a year after we were married, he was careless and left the safe open. I took advantage of the opportunity and rifled through it. I was aghast to find a satchel of items that included a journal, written in a woman’s hand. It seems that he was married at the time of Neal’s death, to a woman named Sylvia.”
“What?” Harold exclaimed, in disbelief. “How can that be? No one knew of her.”
“Let me finish. He had kept her well hidden, in a country home he has, south of the city. From what I read, he had met her in Sacramento, swept her off her feet in a whirlwind courtship… then married her. She was the only daughter of very wealthy… very old, parents. Sylvia wrote of how lonely she was; her parents had both died within six months of her marriage. Her father went first and her mother soon after. Each death occurred while the Fishers happened to be visiting them… quite a coincidence, I’d say. It seems Ronald rarely came to see her. As she had no way to leave, the poor girl thought of herself as his prisoner. On one particular visit, she finally got the courage to confront him. He’d been drinking too much bourbon and with a loosened tongue he lashed out at her, telling her he would never show her in public as his wife. She was too plain, too stupid. She would be a hindrance to his career and would be of no benefit to his advancement in life. The poor girl was destroyed. I wept at the bitter, disparaging words that she had poured out onto paper. With no family, no friends and no means of escaping, she felt utterly hopeless. Now… for the most important part; this might be something that will be of great help to us. In her writings, she alluded to some papers that she found in his desk. She was almost positive they linked her husband to a murder, although she didn’t know whose murder because she had no contact with the outside world. But she was going to keep them and hide them. That was the end of the entries. Also in the satchel I found, were commitment documents and divorce papers. According to the dates, it was three days after her last entry that she was committed, and only a week later that the divorce was final.”
“Obviously he must have bribed a judge to get all that through so fast,” Ben said.
Little Joe was curious about something though; after a brief hesitation he brought his question into the discussion. “Why wouldn’t she just tell someone? Surely they had servants, or someone she could trust.”
“He’s a doctor, Joe,” Paul answered, “and a wealthy one, at that. His servants were probably paid a lot to keep their silence. Once he came up with the idea to commit her, it would have been easy for him to drug her, making her appear senile. I imagine he is her attending physician, making it easy for him to make sure she stays drugged. He can’t kill her, because he doesn’t know where the papers are that she hid.”
Having listened in shocked silence, Dr. Peele finally found his voice. “My God, I don’t even know what to say… or what to think. This is astounding, Claire, I feel even worse now, that I didn’t protect you back then.”
“Don’t feel bad, Harold. You had so many other things happening in your life then. That was when Daniel died,” she said, placing her hand on his arm to comfort him. Years fade away and make no difference when one remembers the death of a child, the pain is always there. Claire understood this. “Sometimes joy is fleeting, life is short, but the sorrow of death will forever last a lifetime. I couldn’t bring myself to burden you further. Besides, the journal disappeared; I had no evidence at all. Soon after I had looked at it, my husband came to me; he told me that if I wanted to keep my daughter with me, I would never speak of anything that went on in our home. So… I kept my silence,” the brave woman said, as she looked around at the somber group, before continuing, “…and my daughter. What do you think, men? Is any of that of help at all?”
“Yes, you’ve given us some important information,” replied Paul, an idea forming in his head. “What asylum is she at? Do you know?”
“I do,” answered Claire. “It’s the Ford Asylum, about eight miles north of the city.”
The men convinced Claire to go home. They wanted to make sure she arrived there before her husband, so he wasn’t suspicious about where she had been. She told them they needn’t worry about that; her husband was away visiting his mistress. “At least he always spared me that,” she said, shuddering at the thought. “He won’t be finding out a thing until he arrives at his office, day after tomorrow. I am going to go now, though, and pack up some clothes for me and Julia. I’ll come back here around twelve o’clock tomorrow night.”
Staying up very late, the determined group planned the actions they would take. The next day, Benjamin would send a telegram to Shandon, telling his sons there to bring Theodore to Dr. Peele’s home. Ben would instruct them to make sure the doctor was disguised, and to arrive during the night, in the cloak of darkness. They had a plan that just might work. After the telegram was sent, Ben and Paul were to stay at the house to get things ready; the injuries they were nursing didn’t allow them to do much else.
The large sign – Ford Asylum – was at a fork in the road, six miles north of the city. Paul Martin turned at the junction, continuing on to the institution. Joe followed on horseback, turning into a wooded area a short distance from the clinic. He was well hidden but near enough to help, if there was trouble. Doctor Martin entered the building and marched up to the main desk. Showing his credentials, along with the paperwork which Dr. Peele had provided, to the head nurse, he asked to be shown to Sylvia Fischer’s room. There was no administrator or chief of staff available that early in the morning, making Dr. Martin’s job easier than anticipated. The head nurse balked at first, having never seen this man before, but Paul explained to her that he was Sylvia’s old family doctor and that the relatives of the woman wanted her immediately transferred to a different facility. He had everything in order, so the nurse had no authority to refuse his request. Paul was brought to Sylvia’s room and given her records. He was aghast at the poor woman’s condition and the amount of medication she was receiving. He was glad to see that she had not yet been given any medication that morning. With the help of some orderlies he got her into the buggy and whisked her away back to Dr. Peele’s home. Unknown to Paul, a janitor had paid very close attention to the goings on. As soon as the doctor left, the man faked an illness and hurriedly left the building.
“Please be careful, darling,” Carolyn Peele told her husband, as she kissed him good-bye. “You make sure you come for me as soon as this is over.” She and the children were leaving for a trusted friend’s home. Along the way she was going to pick up Claire’s daughter to take her along as well. Paul arrived with Sylvia a short time later, and the house became a Mecca of activity. Harold’s lawyer came promptly at eleven o’clock, just as the note he had been sent requested. Next to enter the home was Dr. Bates, a reliable associate who was on the hospital board. Harold Peele was making sure everything was well documented, and that an outside opinion was available as well. Everything was in motion; now they had to wait until the drugs in Sylvia’s system subsided. The medical consensus was that she should be more lucid later that evening.
Sylvia awakened slowly, observing her surroundings, confusion evident in her face. “Where am I?” she whispered, to the stranger looming over her. “Who are you?”
“I’m a friend,” Dr. Peele answered, as he continued in a soothing voice, holding her hand to comfort her. “I don’t want you to be afraid of us. We learned of the abuse you have suffered at the hands of your husband. I know we are strangers to you, but we’re going to help you.”
“Thank-you,” she answered weakly, as one would expect due to the frail condition she was in. “I have been trapped in a hellish nightmare for so long. Most of it is very hazy. I know I was in a hospital and that Ronald was there sometimes. Questions… he always had questions. But I didn’t tell him what he wanted to know. It made him so angry; I thought he was going to kill me. He would have, too… if I’d of told him where I hid those papers of his.” A look of alarm crossed her face, as she looked at the man beside her. “You aren’t friends of his, are you?”
“No, Sylvia, quite the opposite,” Dr. Peele assured the woman. “A good friend of mine was framed for a murder, many years ago. I believe it was your husband that was responsible for that murder.”
Somehow, she felt this man could be trusted. His face looked so honest, so sincere. She knew she was stronger and realized she wasn’t feeling drugged, like she had been for so long. “You’ve taken me off the drugs he was using,” she stated in relief.
“Yes, and with your help, we will put him away for a very long time. In a place he can never hurt you again, I promise. Someone found the journal you kept. In it, you wrote that you had some evidence against your husband. Can you tell us where the proof is, so we can give it to the authorities?”
Sylvia studied the faces in the room. After a few minutes of deliberation, she made the decision to trust them. She explained to them where she had hidden the information and what it contained.
They had to act quickly, as they wanted to stay one step ahead of Ronald. Joe volunteered to be the one to go to Dr. Fisher’s country home the following morning to retrieve the hidden parcel. “By then your brothers will be here too, Joseph,” Ben said. “They can go with you. I don’t think we should take any chances just because we don’t think Fischer will know what’s going on yet.”
“I agree,” the other two said in unison.
Joe couldn’t help busting into one of his infectious giggles. “Just what I need… three fathers.”
“As your father,” added Ben, “… who TRIES to keep you in line, I would agree with that most heartily.” Joe rolled his eyes at Ben’s comment, and the laughter that followed.
A light knocking at the door indicated that Claire had come back. The men at the Peele home gave her a warm greeting before Harold showed her where she would be sleeping. It had been decided earlier, by the men, that they would wait until morning to tell her that Theodore was alive. If all went as planned, he should be arriving shortly.
The four men dozed off, in the library, as they awaited their expected guests. They all awoke at the light tapping on the window. Little Joe jumped up, hurrying to let his brothers and Theodore in. Harold’s mouth dropped when his old, treasured partner came into the room, followed by the Cartwright boys. “Stretch…? Is that really you?”
Theodore started laughing, as he walked forward and gave his best friend a big bear hug. Tears mingled with smiles, as the two reveled in the happiness of their reunion. “It’s really me. Adam told me his pa said to come disguised; I thought this was the best I could come up with.”
Ben and Joe chuckled, realizing Dr. Stretcher had been right not to have changed the way he had looked since they had last seen him. “Good idea, Theodore,” said Ben Cartwright, “but it might be wise to clean up now, maybe even shave, before you give anyone else the shock you just did Harold.”
“I TOLD YOU NEVER TO COME TO MY OFFICE!” Dr. Fischer screamed at the janitor from the asylum. The doctor’s angry demeanor turned to fury, as he found out his wife had been missing for over a day. “Why didn’t you stop them?”
“How…? I told you, he was a doctor; he had all the right papers. There was nothing we could do!”
“Get out of here,” Dr. Fischer snarled. “And… you better make sure I never see you again!”
The doctor was trembling with wrath, as thoughts flew through his head. Who did it…? Why…? Where did they take her…? How did anyone even know about Sylvia? He abruptly stopped pacing. Claire…it had to be. She was the only person that knew. “DAMN…!” he exploded. “Damn that woman!” Calm…I have to calm down… think straight, he mused, returning to his thoughts. Harold Peele…he’s got to be in on this…the two of them…they think they finally have me. He locked up his office, stopped to tell his secretary he would be out for the rest of the day, and then left the hospital. The first stop he made was to his home. It came as no surprise to him that his wife and her daughter were not there. Next, he went to the barns to find his stable-hand, a shady character he had hired to handle some of his personal dealings. “Ramiro!” he yelled out. “Get over here! I have a job for you.”
“What is it, Boss?” asked the tall, swarthy Mexican.
“I need you to go to the country house. If anyone comes snooping around, you shoot first… ask questions later. Got that?”
“Yes, Sir! I will leave immediately.”
Doctor Fischer went back to the house and fixed himself a strong drink. As he sat at his desk, twirling the glass of amber liquor in between sips, he thought out his plans. I think it’s time to go to Harold’s and honor them with a pleasant little surprise visit. They are quite delusional if they think they can get away with trying to ruin me. He retrieved a set of keys from his pocket, unlocked the center drawer, and grabbed the colt .44 from its hiding place, along with the box of bullets. He stuffed it all in his pocket as he left the house.
“Wow!” Little Joe exclaimed as they rode up over the knoll that overlooked Dr. Fischer’s country home. “He must really have the bucks.” The huge Spanish style structure was a sight to behold. Greenery that surrounded the home was dense, and lush, reminding one of a luxuriant vacation spot. “Why in the world would anyone need something so big?” asked the youngest Cartwright.
Adam, the oldest of the brothers, tipped his hat back to get an un-shadowed view. “My guess would be someone who wants to hide something, little brother. I hope we are totally unexpected, or there could be big trouble.”
“My thoughts exactly, Adam,” responded Hoss, the largest built man of the trio. “How do you figure we should do this?”
“You and I will go in through the front gate, Hoss,” instructed Adam. “Give us a three minute start, Joe, and then you go in through the back door. We’ll try to keep things focused on us, while you get the packet of information. You’re sure you have an exact idea of where it is?”
“Yes. Whether it’s still there or not, I don’t know. Sylvia seems to think that if her husband had found it, she would be dead. I agree with that from I’ve learned of the man, he seems pretty evil.”
“Be as quick as ya can, Little Joe, and be careful,” Hoss said before they all rode out. On the way, Adam advised Hoss to just listen and let him do all the talking. That sat fine with Hoss.
As they sauntered into the courtyard, the Cartwright brothers were surprised to see only one person in the area. There was a young lady at the well who was filling an urn with water. “Howdy, Ma’am,” greeted Adam, tipping his hat. “Could we trouble you for some water, for our horses?”
“No, Senor! Go away… the Patron here, he likes no strangers around. You will have to find water elsewhere.”
“Ah… you are a pretty one, Senorita,” Adam replied, his voice husky and provocative. “Surely you can take pity on these poor beasts. I see no Patron here; perhaps, he is away?”
The pretty Mexican girl was flirtatious by nature; she couldn’t help but be charmed by the dark, handsome young man before her. “Well… I shouldn’t let you… but go ahead. You and the big one water your horses. Be quick about it, though, I do not want to lose my job because of some thirsty old critter. You American cowboys are lucky today; it is not often I am here alone.”
Hoss kept a keen eye out as Adam continued to flirt with the attractive, dark haired beauty. As soon as he glimpsed his little brother leaving the back of the house, he spoke out. “’C’mon Adam, we need to be on our way. Pa’s waiting for us.”
Lifting the girl’s delicate hand up to his lips, Adam bestowed a kiss upon it as he bid her good-bye in her native tongue. She sighed as the two cowboys rode away, thinking she should not live so far away from men such as him.
“Did ya get, Little Joe?” Hoss asked, as he and Adam met back up with their little brother in a shady little grove, just north of the house, where they were hidden from view.
“Sure did, Hoss, it was just where she said it would be. I couldn’t believe my luck, there wasn’t a soul around.”
“I’d say we timed that just right,” commented Adam, as he pointed to a rider that was headed towards the hacienda. “That could very well be someone sent by Dr. Fischer.” The trio watched, as the man stopped and went into the main house. It looked like Adam had hit the nail on the head.
Claire was sleeping soundly when a knock at her door awakened her. Glancing over at the clock by the bed, she was surprised to see how late it was. “Yes?” she answered, to whoever was at the door.
“Claire… it’s me, Harold. I need to talk to you, it’s real important.”
“All right, let me get decent before I let you in.” After getting up, and putting on her robe, she opened the door and allowed Harold to enter. “What’s happening? Has something gone wrong?”
“No, but I need you to sit down while I tell you something. I’m afraid it will come as quite a shock.”
Claire was beside herself, as she thought the worst. “Oh… No…! Is it Julia? Has Ronald found her?”
“No,” Harold assured her. “Julia is just fine. It’s Theodore that I need to talk to you about.”
She was very confused now, as she sat down. She looked quizzically up at Harold. “Theodore? I don’t understand… I already know we are trying to clear his name. Is there something else?”
Dr. Peele took her hands in his, looking her in the eyes, as he spoke. “I don’t know quite how to tell you this, Claire, but… Theodore is alive.” He tightened his grip, as she gasped in astonishment. “It’s true, Claire; he didn’t die in the fire. He hid out in the woods, many miles from here. He did it to protect you… and me. He’s here… he wants to come in. Can you handle this?” he asked softly.
“Yes,” she barely whispered, tears streaming down her face. She knew Harold too well to wonder if he was playing some cruel, morbid trick on her. Holding her breath, she watched him leave the room, pausing outside the door as he spoke to someone. And then… he was there. Her Theodore… her throat closed… she couldn’t breathe… could barely see him through the tears. The room began to spin, then… suddenly… she was in his arms. He was kissing her, telling her how sorry he was… holding her as if he would never let go.
“Claire, oh… Claire,” Theodore rasped, as his emotions overtook him. “God… I’ve missed you so much.” He placed a hand on each side of her face, tilting her head up to him so that he could drink in her beauty with his eyes. “I’m so sorry, my darling… so very, very, sorry. Harold told me everything that happened to you after I left. If I had only known, I would have come back to rescue you. Can you ever forgive me?” he pleaded.
“Yes…yes, you fool,” she cried, through tears of happiness. “Just hold me… hold me tight, and promise you’ll never leave me again.”
“I promise,” he whispered, taking her in his arms again as they wept together. Joy filled their every fiber and they stayed locked in the embrace for a long time before their emotions calmed, allowing them to talk about the years they had missed. He told her about the life he had lived since she had last seen him. It was hard to explain how excruciating the pain of not having her with him had been. “The only thing that got me through it was thinking I had done the right thing for you. I didn’t want you to have a husband who was in prison, didn’t want you to grow old without a family, or love, in your life. If only I had known, I…”
“Shhhh… it’s okay. You’re here now… I feel like I have a life again,” she said. “There is something you should know. You have a daughter… her name is Julia.”
“Harold told me,” Ted answered. “At first, I couldn’t believe it, and then my heart filled with a happiness I’ve never known. A child…our child,” he said in awe. “What is she like? Does she look like you? Is she happy?”
Claire laughed, her twinkling eyes dancing with glee as she answered him. “Theodore! One question at a time, please, or I’ll lose track. You lie back, I will tell you all about her,” she said as she snuggled up beside him. “She is like an angel, soft and loving… as sweet a child as one could ever hope for. I would say she looks more like you, with brown eyes, and a hint of curl to her hair. Happy…? Yes, I would say she is. A couple of years ago she asked me why her “daddy” didn’t seem to like her. It broke my heart, so I sat her down, explaining to her that Ronald was not her father. I wasn’t sure that she was old enough, but I was wrong. She understood that it was “our little secret” and she must never mention it. I told her all about you, how you would have cherished her, loved her, and probably spoiled her rotten if you had lived. She was so sad that you died; every year we bring flowers to your grave.” Claire paused, shuddering at what she had just said. Her husband pulled her closer as she continued. “I told her what a kind, caring man you were, and how you loved being a doctor. She’s going to be so happy when she finds out you are alive. As soon as we get Ron locked up, I will go get her and explain all this. She’s very smart you know. Did I mention that?” They laughed together, enjoying the moments they were sharing. It was a long time before they parted. Eventually, Claire went to sit with Sylvia, as Dr. Stretcher went downstairs to await news from the Cartwright boys.
Doctor Ronald Fischer could hear the sound of people talking through the open window of what he guessed to be the parlor. As he crept quietly closer, the voices became more distinguishable and he paused to listen, trying to make out the speakers. Somebody with a low voice, he didn’t recognize it, was talking. “I’m starting to get worried, Harold, we should have had word by now. I told Adam and Hoss that if they found the papers to take them to Inspector Reinhardt, as you said. But that youngest one should have been back by now.”
Fischer recognized the next voice as Harold’s. “Quit pacing, Ben, I’m sure there’s any number of reasons why no one’s back. Let’s not borrow trouble just yet. Even if they don’t find the papers, we have Sylvia; she can tell the authorities what she saw. It might be considered heresy, but with all that he’s done to her, and her family, it should cast enough suspicion on the man to reopen the investigation.”
“I, for one, am counting on those papers still being there,” said a third voice. “The last trial didn’t go so good, if you remember, and I sure don’t relish going through it again.” That voice, thought Ronald to himself, as something niggled at his memory. Then, it came to him… he knew whose voice it was. No! It couldn’t be. He’s dead… he has to be. Raising his head, he carefully peered in through the window; Fischer saw something that almost made him gasp out loud. He quickly ducked back down, his heart racing as he became lightheaded. Theodore… he isn’t dead. After all these years… I… I can’t understand this. Where in the Hell has he been? Slowly, Fischer backed away from the window, then headed around the house to the back door. Silently, he slipped in and stealthily continued toward the voices.
“Well… well… well,” said Doctor Fischer, as he entered the room, drawing everyone’s attention. “What a cozy little group we have here. Been playing possum, Ted, or just evading the law?”
“You lousy son-of-a-b…,” started Dr. Stretcher, stepping forward, then immediately stopping as he heard the metallic click of the gun being cocked.
Doctor Fischer’s eyes were filled with venom, his voice hard as steel when he spoke. “I’m here to get my wife… and my patient. Where are they?”
“Someplace that you’ll never be able get your mangy hands on them, that’s where. Your days are numbered, Fischer, you might as well face it now,” answered Theodore.
“You’re awfully brave for a man that has a gun pointed at him, Ted. As for me…? I think my days will be just fine. A wife can’t testify against her husband, you know. And, I doubt anyone will listen to Sylvia, she’s been in an asylum for nine years. Your friends here don’t look like they can help stop me, or are they patients? You running a clinic here for the sick and injured now, Harold?”
Dr. Peele took a moment before he answered, weighing his words carefully. “No, but I think you may be overlooking something. Since Harold is alive, Claire isn’t your legal wife so she can easily testify against you. Why don’t you put the gun down? The authorities are aware of what’s going on, you don’t want to make it worse for yourself than it already is.”
“Don’t try and tell me what to do you pompous fool. You still ha…,” Doctor Fischer stopped in mid-sentence, as the front door burst open.
“Pa! Hey, Pa! We got it, we found.…” It was hard to say who was more dumbstruck; Joe, who was looking into the barrel of a gun as he skidded to a stop, or Dr. Fischer, who had paled by numerous shades.
“WHO ARE YOU?” the gun-wielding man yelled at the intruder, his hand shaking.
Peripheral vision allowed Little Joe to see Dr. Peele – who was inching slowly towards his desk – as he stared into the eyes of the man in front of him. I have to stall for time here, he thought, his mind churning. I can only hope he thinks I’m Daniel’s ghost. “Who do you think I am?” he asked calmly.
“You’re dead! I know you are… I saw your body myself. You can’t be him…”
“I don’t know what you mean… or who you think I am, but I can tell you my father is in that room; I won’t let you hurt him.”
“NO! Your father isn’t in that room… it can’t be. You’re not real… you’re NOT. I’ll prove it…” Fischer yelled as he pulled the trigger.
The explosive sound of the shot was followed closely by a second one as Dr. Peele fired, killing Fischer instantly. Sulfurous smelling smoke filled the room as Ben rushed to his son’s side. “Joseph!” he cried out, as he turned his son’s prone body over. Blood was oozing from a gash on the boy’s forehead, but he was conscious and looked up at Harold, who had gotten to Joe at almost the same time that Ben had.
“Th… that table is too hard,” Little Joe stuttered, woozy from the injury to his head.
“What?” asked the bewildered doctor. The two older men looked at each other in confusion, befuddled by Joe’s comment.
“Your table… it’s too hard. I think it broke my head.”
Doctor Peele started laughing, making Ben wonder if his son and friend were both crazy. “It’s okay, Ben, he wasn’t shot. I must say, the kid has one hell of a reflex system; he just isn’t much on grace. It looks like he fell as he jumped out of the way and hit his head on the table. Here, give me a hand; let’s get him over to the sofa. I think he’s going to need a couple stitches.”
Ben relaxed into a sigh of relief, glad that his son had been spared a bullet wound. Dr. Peele went for his medical bag, as Paul dabbed on the cut to clean the blood away. “OUCH!” yelped Little Joe.
“What is it?” asked Paul, alarmed that maybe there was something else wrong with the young man.
“Nothing… it just hurt like Hell for a second, that’s all,” replied Joe, as he and Doc Martin both burst out laughing. Ben looked from one to the other, shaking his head as he wondered, for the second time, about the people that were in the room with him.
The rest of the day was filled with people coming and going from the Peele mansion. The first to arrive were Adam and Hoss. They were stunned at the sight of the dead body, and their brother being stitched up by Doctor Peele, as they entered the parlor. They were quickly reassured that their friends and family were all okay. Next came Inspector Reinhardt, who had come to give them a report of the papers that the Cartwright boys had delivered to his office. He proceeded to take down everyone’s statement as to what occurred. His assistant was dispatched to get the coroner, who came to get the body in record time.
As soon as the hubbub was over, Harold got the servants back to the house, instructing them to clean up the blood so Carolyn could come home with the children. When everything was back to normal, he went to pick them up, as Theodore accompanied Claire in a different buggy. They wanted to spend some time alone with Julia, so they could explain what had happened, and let her find out Ted was her father in private. Paul took Sylvia to a hospital, where she could receive the proper treatment she needed, before leaving to go back to Sacramento. She had some relatives there that Claire had wired earlier, and they would travel to San Francisco to take her to their home. That left the Cartwrights alone, together, for the first time since they had been at the Ponderosa together.
“Oh my gosh, Pa, in all the goings on, I plum forgot to tell ya what we found out about those yahoo’s that done robbed ya,” Hoss said, as he sat down next to his father.
“Where are they, Hoss?” asked Little Joe, as he stood, anxious for the answer. “I’ve got some settling up to do, with the lot of them.”
“Simmer down, little brother, you ain’t gonna be settlin nuthin with nobody. They was all killed when they tried to rob a bank over at Salty Springs. As I “STARTED” to say, all the personal belongins they stole when they robbed your coach were found on em and will be mailed to Roy Coffee, so’s you can get em back.”
Adam watched his youngest brother, noticing the strange expression on his face as he got up and silently left the room to go outside. “Joe?” Ben asked, to his youngest son’s retreating back, but he got no reply.
Adam spoke to his father as he got up to follow Joe. “Pa, you stay there… you need to rest. I’ll go talk to him.” He found Little Joe standing in the yard, his hands in his pockets, kicking absently at the ground. “Joe?” he questioned, as he walked up behind his brother and placed a hand oh his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Leave me alone, Adam,” Joe answered, rather forlornly. “I’d just like to be alone for a bit.”
“It might be good to tell someone how you feel, Joe.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Problem is… I’m not sure how I feel.” He turned to look his older brother in the eye, before continuing. “I know Pa told you about Dan, how horrible that was for me, but… Adam, having to take that bullet out of pa has been a recurring nightmare for me. I live it over and over. I can’t believe I ever thought about going to medical school, I would never have been able to cope with the fact that someone’s life was in my hands. I dream of Pa dieing, his blood on my hands. I… I wanted to make those thieves pay, Adam. By MY hand… not someone else’s. Is that so wrong of me? Is it Adam?”
“No, Joe… it isn’t. But you know, deep down, you wouldn’t have murdered anyone for revenge. Pa raised us boys too well for us to take someone’s life, unless we were in danger, I think you know that. Sometimes it’s hard to let the anger go, to find a reason why life isn’t fair. The answer is, Joe… it’s over. You did a great job on Pa, everything turned out well and you just have to let it go. Can you do that? For Pa?” asked Adam, as he gave Joe a brotherly squeeze on the shoulder.”
Little Joe sighed; he knew he still had some things to work out, in his own mind, but he remembered some of the things Dr. Peele had taught him a few years ago. Let your family help, with love…nothing is insurmountable. “I think so, Adam,” Joe answered. The two brothers, who sometimes had many conflicts because of their different personalities, went back to the house, feeling close… as brothers should.
The baptism was a joyous occasion. Ben and Joe beamed, proud as peacocks in a hen’s nest, as they vowed to look after the infant’s best interests. Well… that was, till Baby Joe urped up on Little Joe. The ceremony was over by the time it happened and Joe was only too happy to pass the baby to its mother. Ben laughed as he patted Joe on the back. “What’s the matter, Son? You afraid of a baby?”
“Heck no, I ain’t,” Joseph answered. “I just don’t wanna smell bad. There’s a cute girl over there, Pa, and she’s going to the Peel’s for the party. Besides, how do I know you wouldn’t have done the same thing? You were pretty safe, ya know. With that arm in a sling, you didn’t have to worry about Cassandra slobbering all over you.”
Ben laughed as he accompanied his son towards the buggy. “Oh, Joe, I have had my share of baby slobber in my day. No one was worse than you!”
“I’ll second that,” added Joe’s brothers, simultaneously, as they all broke into laughter.
There was an enormous spread of food back at the Peele residence. Hoss’ mouth was watering in anticipation. Before he could begin though, Dr. Peele stood up. “I’d like to make a toast,” he said, as he cast a loving look at all his guests, especially the ones seated at the table of honor. “A few weeks ago, some of my fine guests here were strangers, as I once was, a long time ago, to the Cartwrights. In helping each other, they have come to find a friendship, one that gave them all a better life. In honor of the birth and baptism of my beloved children, I would like to make this toast. People…please live by the golden rule — do unto others as you would have done unto you. Listen to what I have learned… do not turn your back against those in need, for you will never know how great a reward you might reap.”
With that, Dr. Harold Peele raised his glass to make a toast. “To strangers and friends… one never knows when the two shall become one, for once they reach out to help one another, a special bond is formed.”
* Ben and Joe first met Dr. Peele in Wranglers Trilogy: Whatever it Takes, Absolute Faith and A Part of the Main. Doctor Harold Peele came back into their lives to help Joe once again in The Mustard Seed, also written by Wrangler.
I’d like to say HUGE thank-you, to Wrangler, for allowing me to use her characters; without Dr. Harold Peele and his family, this story wouldn’t have been possible. Thanks Terri!
Thanks to Leesa for helping me with the final proofing and to her, Terri and Carol for reading it as I went, and then encouraged me to finish it.
We all four started out strangers, became friends, and ended up having the kind of sisters we always wanted. We are always there to help each other, whether it is for a story, a shoulder to lean on, or to simply share the joy we get from our families. Though miles keep us apart, our hearts keep us together.