Summary: Shopping for new boots leads to unexpected consequences.
Word Count: 8382
Ben had gotten up early and knew that he had a lot of things that needed to be finished around the ranch if he and his sons would be able to go away on a little vacation that weekend. He knew that the first thing he needed to do, however, was to take Little Joe into town to get new boots. He was growing so fast, and the night before, when Joe took off his boots, he noticed that Joe’s socks had a bloody tinge to them where the heel was rubbing the skin off his foot. And far be it for Joe to complain. He hated “new” stuff. The old just was so comfortable…at least, sometimes.
When Joe came down the stairs, Ben told him to eat his breakfast, not to dillydally around and get out of here to go to town early, so they could return in enough time to do other chores. It was Thursday, and if they planned on catching the noon stage on Saturday, they all had a lot of work ahead of them.
Joe ate as best he could. Food was never as important to him as life in the outdoors. He could go all day without eating if there was something exciting going on outside; like breaking horses, or fishing with his friends. He flourished in the fresh air and outdoors.
When he could eat no more, Joe begged to be allowed to leave the table and offered to saddle up the horses. Ben agreed, knowing full well that this was not a winning battle. He had to choose his battles with Joe carefully if he planned on having any success.
Joe quickly saddled the horses, talking to them all the while. He was in seventh heaven when he was with his horse. Cochise, having been a present, was his pride and joy. Joe had taught the horse many tricks and valued their time together. It would break his heart if anything ever happened to C
Cochise. And Joe took great care not to hurt, upset, or abuse Chooch in any way. His brothers used to tease Joe about how he even fed his horse coffee when he was out on the trail. But when little Joe loved something, or someone, they sure knew it. He was not one to mince words or to hold it in. You knew where you stood with Joe. His love ran deep in his veins and was just like a river; it took a lot to make it stop. It always found a way to get around the break and flow smoothly once again.
Ben came out of the house and the two of them took off for town, not worried about much since Hoss was awake and ready to handle any problems, should they arise, around the ranch. Joe and Ben talked about a variety of things as they rode into town, such as, was Joe planning on going to the dance on Friday night? Would Ben be having a party for the new couple in town? And when would Joe get a raise? That question only got a raised eyebrow from Ben, which put Joe in a world of hurt. Now he actually had to save his money if he planned on having some for their vacation. How unfair!!!!
The mercantile store was especially busy when Ben and Joe arrived. Everyone and their uncle seemed to be in need of something all at the same time. Voices were being raised and people were pushing each other to get to the counter next. This was strange, thought Ben; he really didn’t like to shop when the store was crowded. He couldn’t think straight, and would surely forget something important. He always did.
Ben decided that he would take Joe in quickly, go straight to the boots area, find him a pair and leave. He could send Hop Sing in for other things at a time when it wasn’t so crazy.
Joe, of course, had other ideas. He had met some of his friends and was busy telling them about some escapade he had had the week before. Ben went over to him, excused Joe, and taking his son by the jacket sleeve, pulled him into the store. Joe went reluctantly; he hated buying anything new! But Ben insisted. Joe sat down on a saddle that was on display in the store to try on a couple of boots; Ben had found some that were bigger than the ones Joe presently wore and told him to try them on. Joe was busy working his boot off when a gunshot shattered the busy air in the store.
All eyes moved to the direction from where the gun sound had originated. In the middle of the store stood two men. They were both holding guns, wore masks over their faces, and were looking around the store at all the people.
“Nobody move! Just stand still and no one will get hurt,” one man yelled.
Just then the owner of the store came through the back door where supplies were held and said, “Mrs. Jones, you’re in luck…….?”
The men, being jumpy, aimed at the innocent man and fired their guns. Both bullets hit the man square on. The man dropped where he stood, like a sack of grain. Dead! The women all began to scream and pandemonium broke out. Two women fainted, their husbands trying to hold them up and not get themselves shot in the doing. The babies began to scream at the top of their lungs. Ben, pushed a small boy behind him….Joe, dropped the boot he was struggling to get off and slowly tried to reach for his gun.
“Don’t,” a voice said behind him. ”Put the gun on the floor, kick it away. Now stand up!”
Joe stood. Ben looked at his son; Joe looked at Ben knowing full well this wasn’t good.
“Move to the front of the store,” the gunman said.
Joe moved, a bit awkward with one boot on and the other off, but he still moved as quickly as possible. Ben watched his son hobble to the front of the store with trepidation. He only hoped Joe wouldn’t do something stupid and get himself killed. His son sometimes had the tendency to act first before thinking about the results. But Joe seemed to realize that a lot of lives depended on him.
“Reach over the counter, open the register and take out all the money,” the gunman ordered Joe. “Move slowly, and don’t try anything cute.”
Joe did as he was told. As he reached into the drawer and wrapped his hands around the money, he thought to himself, how in God’s name do I always seem to get into these situations? But he really didn’t have any time to ponder the answer as the gunman grabbed a wee baby out of its mother’s arms and thrust it into Joe’s!
The mother shrieked, “No, not my baby! Take me!” But the men ignored her cries. Joe struggled to hold the baby and the money, not knowing what next to expect. Oh, boy, what a revolting development this was turning into. Now he really knew why he didn’t like buying new stuff; shopping was just too dangerous.
The men looked around, looking each man, woman and child square in the face, and then said, “We are going to move out of the store. Don’t move for the count of 10 and don’t come out in the store. If you do, both the kid and the baby will be killed. Anyway, remember we really didn’t do anything. The kid stole the money from the register and then he took the baby. Blame him!!!
Joe just looked at the man. Was he serious? Great! Now he was a thief and a kidnapper and he didn’t know why. Why me, Lord? Why me?
The man roughly shoved Joe out the door and Joe practically fell down the steps from the boardwalk in front of the store. He was dragged down the street barely staying on his feet while he juggled the infant in his arms. He felt like screaming….Stop it! But he knew that if he said one word, one or both of them would pay the price. So he did as he was told, waiting patiently for his opportunity to make a break for it. But the opportunity would be a long time in coming. These men were serious….almost scary.
Joe was never left alone. He was tied to his horse and his arms were tied around the infant, so that if he decided to “fall” off his horse, he would probably kill the child with his efforts. How could Joe look at that mother and say, “Sorry, mama, I didn’t realize that my falling off a running horse with your newborn would hurt him/or her.”
At about this time, Joe felt an extreme amount of wetness on his jeans. He lifted his arms a bit and saw that the baby had wet….and he was now covered in pee. Cute! He loved babies. Joe couldn’t wait till the child started to cry from hunger. These men would come unglued…they might expect Joe to breast feed the kid. Brother! That was what you called getting blood from a stone. Joe looked at the child and couldn’t help but smile at it. He couldn’t figure out why, for some strange reason, he found this whole situation funny; here he was, a 17 year old boy, tied to a horse with a newborn infant in his arms running from the law for a fist full of dollars. It was ludicrous.
Back in town, the general store was filled with people all talking at once. The woman whose baby had been taken had become violently ill and taken to the doc’s office. Roy Coffee, the sheriff, was trying as best he could to get a good description of the robbers. Even Ben couldn’t help with that. Ben looked down at the empty boot that belonged to his son, and felt like crying. Why had he had to come in here today, of all days? Why did Joe always seem to be the one people chose to kidnap or inflict pain? Ben just thought that it was ironic that when things went bad, somehow Joe was involved. Why, for Pete’s sake, all he was doing was trying on a new pair of boots. In the back of the store. But of course they hadn’t known there was another man who had entered the store late and was standing behind Joe.
Roy walked over to Ben and said, “Sorry, Ben. I will have a posse up soon and we will begin to look for those men. Joe will be okay, I realize you’re worried, but he will do fine.”
Ben turned and looked at Roy. “Joe may do okay, but what about what those stupid men will do? They have a newborn infant with them and a 17 year old. Who’s going to snap first? They have killed one person already…just for walking in the room. What’s to stop them from killing those two? That baby is going to get hungry, and start crying, and no amount of telling it to stop is going to work. And there is nothing more irritating than a crying child. God help them!”
Roy knew this was true; he just looked down. He walked away without another word; he knew it was useless. He just had to get those two back as soon as possible before something tragic happened.
It was dark and cold when they finally stopped, Joe had been peed on one or more times now, and he kept putting his small finger into the mouth of the baby, giving it something to suck. It was getting hungry, and Joe knew this trick was not going to work for long.
Just then, the party came to a stop. “We’ll camp here. You…” the leader said to Joe, “take that stinking kid over and stay over there with it. You better keep it quiet too, or you will feel the pain. I’ll kill the kid if I get mad enough.”
Joe, looked down at the baby in his arms, and whispered “Sorry, sweetheart. Don’t you worry; Uncle Joe will do everything he can to keep you safe. Your mommy is counting on me. I’ll do my best.”
Rough hands yanked Joe off the horse; he struggled to remain upright. The ground was full of rocks and it was a trick. But soon he found his “sea legs” and was able to amble over to a large tree about 200 yards away from the men. The outlaws built a fire. Oh how Joe wanted to share its warmth, take the baby there and dry him off. Offer it something to eat and make it happy, but this was not to be.
Joe yelled over to the men, “Hey, can I build a fire here? This baby is going to get sick unless I can dry it off and warm it up.”
The men laughed, saying, “Do you really think we care about you or that stinking kid? Well, we don’t. If it gets sick, good; then it died of natural causes. You, on the other hand, are our real insurance. No one will kill us as long as they know we have a Ponderosa son amongst us…. Don’t hurt Ben Cartwright’s kid. That is all you hear. So I’m banking on it and have good plans for you in the near future.”
With this, the small child tied to Joe’s arms began to cry. The cry got shriller and louder with every passing moment. Soon, Joe himself, wanted to just escape. He was helpless. The child was cold, wet and hungry and didn’t understand why his mother wasn’t there to fix all the problems. So it screamed on, hoping to make her aware. Joe rocked the child, patted the child’s small back and whispered sweet nothings in his ear but nothing seemed to work.
All of a sudden Joe felt a great sting on his back; he wheeled around to see what was stinging him and the tip of the belt that was swinging behind his back hit him square across the face. The pain was unreal and Joe couldn’t free his hands to cover his face. The belt just kept swinging — slap, slap, slap. Once it hit the small baby and the crying stopped. Joe’s heart skipped a beat. The child’s eyes were closed and blood was oozing from his nose. Joe didn’t know if the child was hurt bad or not. He stood up…the madman still swinging the belt never stopped.
Joe was so angry…..for the first time he was beyond caring. He walked away from the man and the man yelled at him to stop. Joe just kept on walking. He walked over to the fire. He sat down, rocking the child in his arms. “If you kill me or this infant, you all will hang, and believe me, my father will see to it. As God as my witness, he will give you hell on earth and God will give you hell after death. This is a small child, defenseless, and you dare to wheel a whip around his face. You are all animals.” Joe knew he was treading on thin ice but he had to do something; what he was hoping for was for them to let him and the child free so they could distance themselves from the mistake that they had made. Instead, Joe all of a sudden felt a great pain in his head and darkness filled his world.
When Joe came to, the baby was gone. He frantically looked around for him but he was nowhere in sight. He went to move but soon realized that he was tied to a large tree. He yelled out…but received no answer. He looked over to the horses and saw that none remained. What had happened? Had the baby died and they threw it away…like a sack of grain? Or had they put it somewhere the wild animals would find it, would tear it from limb from limb! This thought almost made Joe throw up.
First, though, Joe had to concentrate on getting loose from his bindings which were tight. He continuously rubbed the rope up and down the tree trunk, ignoring the pain the rubbing caused. Finally after several minutes, he could feel the threads one by one yielding to the rough bark. Freedom felt delicious. He slowly moved his arms around to his front, and investigated the damage. He was a mess. Blood oozed from his palms to his elbows. He quickly removed the remaining pieces of rope, and stood up. He felt his head and found that blood oozed from that also. Oh, well. Another day on the range! Joe looked around for his hat and found that they had taken that as well.
Joe searched the campsite for the baby; he looked under every nock and cranny but he found nothing. He searched also for any signs as to which direction the group had gone but they had been very meticulous in wiping out all their tracks so it appeared as if they had just vanished. Joe knew better. He dusted himself off, and started on foot to see if he could pick up their trail when they thought they were sufficiently away from him. He walked and walked. Sweat ran into his eyes and bugs stung him in the face. His feet burned, especially the unbooted one and he was sooooo thirsty. But he kept walking, looking as he went for a small baby.
Sometimes he would just stand still and listen intently in case the child was crying but he never heard anything but the birds in the trees. It was deadly silent. He prayed he would find the child alive. On he walked.
He came into a clearing and noticed an abandoned house. It was devoid of life. The shutters hung from the windows and the door stood ajar. The barn literally was leaning and waiting for a stiff breeze to blow it over. Joe entered the house, checking to see if the gang had left the baby there. But no luck. He went carefully into the barn but it also was quiet.
All of a sudden, though, he thought he heard a faint sigh. He listened so hard his head hurt. There it was a faint cry! A baby’s cry. The child was there; where he wasn’t sure but he was there all the same. He walked the perimeter of the property, and listened as he did so. In the middle of the backyard stood a well. Oh, dear God, please don’t tell me they have put that child down in that well. Joe ran over to the well and looked down.
The well was dark, and very deep. He yelled, and hoped to get the child to respond to him but silence prevailed. He listened and then picked up some small stones. He figured if he dropped the stones maybe he could get the child to respond….then he could get some logistics as to where the baby was. He dropped the first stone. Nothing! He dropped the second stone and heard a yelp. He knew he must have hit the child. He had dropped the stone along the edge. It was not going to be as easy, it was not as if they had simply put the child in the bucket of the well and all he had to do was wheel it up. This gang was so mean. Joe couldn’t believe how mean they were to even a small child. It made him reflect on the many types of people there were in the world and what could make someone that heartless as to hurt a child….for a fist full of dollars.
Joe ran back into the house to see if they had possibly left any oil light or even a candle behind. He needed some type of light so he could know where to aim his decent into the well to retrieve the small child. He searched everywhere, but this house was clean. He did find some sheets. They were old and gray but seemed to have a little life left in them so he began to tear them into strips lengthwise and tied them together. He tested each knot to make sure it was strong and only prayed it would hold them both. He had to find something heavy to tie the end of the sheet rope to so he could propel himself over the edge of the well and climb down to where the baby was.
The baby was very quiet. Joe only hoped he wasn’t too late. But he tried not to dwell on this factor too much and just kept working on the rope. He found an old heavy log and laid it across the top of the well and he tied the sheet rope to it. He tied the end of the rope to himself and began to descend into the well. It was very dark, damp and slimy. He had to struggle to get a good hand-hold. The trip down was tedious. What would the trip back up be like?
Then he saw something out of his right eye; it sent shivers down his spine. Resting on a ledge about an arms length away from him was a rattler. It was wagging its tail and watching Joe very carefully. Joe continued his decent. He hoped that was the only one he had to deal with. He had gone down about 10 feet when he heard the small child cry out. It sounded close and he squinted his eyes hard to hopefully see any sign of the child. But this was not to happen, no yet any way.
Joe offered up a prayer to God, not so much for him, but for that sweet child that was perhaps hurt, or dying. He prayed for the strength to get to him before it was too late. He asked God to help him. He was alone, with no help and ….. Just then the sheet tore. Joe slid down a good foot, and then stopped with a jerk. He was swinging back and forth and looking with all his might for the child. Just when he thought it was hopeless, he saw a small hand waving….but as it waved, a rattler was prepared to strike. The snake was coiled and hissing with all its might. Joe knew that if that snake bit that child, the child was as good as dead. He didn’t even want to think about the fact that perhaps the baby had already been bitten and was already at death’s door. He just knew what he had to do to interfere with that snake and that baby. He struck his foot out and kicked the snake as hard as he could; however, as he did this, the sheet tore more and Joe again dropped several feet into the well, this time passing up the baby and now able to see the bottom of the well. As he looked at the bottom, it seemed to move! Was it full of water? He looked harder, No, the floor was awash with SNAKES! Joe shuttered. He knew that to rescue this child and save both their lives was going to be quite a feat. However, he decided to leave it in God’s hands and began to plan their exit. Down was not an option, the sheet was wearing thin, and the child was lying on a ledge that was jutting out from the side of the well. Joe didn’t know how injured the child was, but he would just have to hope that by rescuing him he wouldn’t do more harm than good. But he couldn’t leave him here; the baby would die, if not from snake bite, then from the elements.
Joe ran his feet against the edge of the well; he noticed that it was made of brick and stone. The stone was rough cut; he was glad for this because perhaps it would give him the traction he needed to heave himself back up to the child and fix it someway to his body so he could use both hands to climb back out of the well. Finally, he was eye to eye with the child…the baby was cut and suffered many burses to its arms and face. Joe removed his belt with one hand, and by balancing on two rocks, lifted the child off the rock and tied the belt around the child and himself. The baby was limp and this scared Joe more than if the child was throwing a fit. He knew he had to get up and out of that well as soon as possible. He wound the sheet rope around his arm and swung away from the wall with the baby in tow. He counted 5 rattlers lining the side of the well and worked as hard as he could to steer clear of each. They all wanted a piece of the two, striking recklessly as they went by. Joe could feel the wind as the snake’s heads brushed either his shirt, leg or boot. One actually did make contact; it bit his boot but didn’t penetrate the leather. Joe had to protect his shoeless foot as best he could….it was a mess, but he certainly didn’t have time to think about that too much. His main concern now was to keep this precious child alive.
Finally, Joe could see the rim of the well and he wrapped his arms tighter around the sheet rope and pulled with all his might. He lifted the child up and deposited him on the edge and then swung his leg up, and with one mighty tug, he literally threw himself over the edge. He grabbed the child they rolled away from the well. Joe laid there trying to catch his breath for a few minutes, and then his eyes roamed over to the small bundle beside him. The baby was blue, his lips were blue and he was so cold to the touch. Joe put two fingers to the baby’s neck to feel for a pulse and, after a few seconds, he felt it. Slow, thready but there. He then put his ear to the child’s chest and listened. The child’s breathing was very labored and shallow. With this knowledge, he realized that the child had to get warm, and out of the elements or die. He got to his feet, and he and the baby limped to the run-down shack that would have to provide whatever shelter Joe could muster up for them to survive. They entered through the back door which also hung precariously from its hinges, and walked through to the living room. He was happy to see the fireplace and yet he noticed that there was not one stick of furniture to be had.
He laid the baby down on the cold hard floor, and limped back out the door to gather up some wood for a fire. He was able to find some large pieces of wood and knew that, with what he had found, the fire would burn for quite some time. He went back to the child, and talking to him softly, told him that “Uncle Joe” was going to build a nice warm fire and that soon he would have them nice and warm. The baby did not respond. Joe knew he had to get the child out of the damp clothes and off the floor so he ran as best he could back outside and found 4 pieces of wood. Back at the house, he pushed each piece of wood as best he could securely into the dirt floor…close to the burning fire. He then took his jacket and tied the ends of the jacket to the four posts making a sling. He laid the small child into the sling and began to undress him. As Joe did so he rubbed hands, feet, fingers, cheeks, and legs. When he took off the child’s diaper, which by this time was drenched and smelled to high heaven, he discovered that the child was a little girl. His heart broke. No small child should have to suffer this way, especially a frail little girl.
Joe wished he had some water. He looked around the house to see if there was a kitchen, and when he located a sink, he noticed that there was a water pump attached. He moved the pump arm up and down several times but to no avail. He returned to the child, and took off his shirt, He was now down to his skivvies but somehow he just didn’t care. He took off his long john shirt and tore the back out of it. It was considerably dryer then the child’s clothes had been and he fashioned a diaper using this with the pins that had been on the dirty one. He then took the rest of his shirt and swaddled the child in the clothes. He noticed that the lips of the child were no longer blue and this gave him a real sense of relief. He picked up the baby and holding her in his arms, he removed his jacket from the poles and replaced it with an old blanket. He then put his jacket on — he was getting very cold — and he realized that he would soon have to go and get more wood for the fire.
He went back out to the kitchen and examined the pump. He wondered if the pump was dry or if there was something stopping the flow, so he took it apart. He removed the head and looked down into the pipe. Sure enough, he noticed a large blockage of dirt, so he dug it out with his fingers and banged it against the door hinge. Soon it was clear and he reconnected it. He worked the pump handle up and down several times and thought his arm would soon fall off but all of a sudden he was rewarded with WATER. At first, it was rusty and muddy but soon it was relatively clear and he let it run for a few minutes. He then hunted desperately for something to put the water in; after an exhaustive search, he was rewarded in finding an old rusty pan. He returned to the kitchen pump and washed out the pan as best he could and filled it with water. He took it into the room and placed it on the grate that was holding the fire. The flames rose around the pan and soon the water was boiling. Joe let it boil for a while so that it would be clear of germs and then, with his jacket sleeves over his hands, he removed the pan and placed it on the floor. He decided to let it cool for a while and then try to get some into the baby and some into himself.
He now had fire and water. He almost felt lucky. His little charge was warm and he was warmer and could now take some notice to himself. He looked down at his foot. It was swollen, bloody, and sore. He tore his trouser pants and went out to the pump and ran some clear water on it. He sat on the floor and dabbed at his foot. Soon he had the blood cleared off and the dirt removed. But he could do little about the swelling and soreness. It would definitely need a doctor’s care. He then had a brain storm. He removed his other boot and took off his sock….it was not clean but it was better than nothing. He turned it inside out and placed it gingerly on his sore foot. He figured this would keep it cleaner and stop it from getting worse than it was. The baby was sleeping peacefully; her breathing was better and her heart beat had strengthened considerably. Joe figured that by morning this little one would want something to eat. Because of this, Joe went and got more water, more wood and worked on the doors and broken window shingles. He had at first considered burning these, but upon examining the windows and finding them mostly broken, he decided that it would be best to try to close out the world, and weather. After he had done all this, he sat down beside the baby’s sling bed and tried to make himself comfortable. Even though he was on the cold hard floor with no mattress, blankets or pillow, he fell into a very deep sleep. Rest he desperately needed.
Ben and Roy had been on horseback for about eight hours when they finally came upon the place that the gang had stopped. Ben took into account that someone had been by a tree (probably Joe) and other scruff marks indicated that the rest of the gang had the fire and food. Both men were concerned about the baby, but neither voiced their worry; they just knew that time was running out and both Joe and baby needed to be found. They decided to stay at the place overnight and leave first thing in the morning. Neither man slept too peacefully, and at the first sign of light, they were already on horseback. Ben noticed that the path had been covered up by the gang but upon close examination he noticed the bloody foot print which he knew undoubtedly belonged to his son. “Why did I have to get him new boots that day?” Ben whispered under his breath.
Roy, who heard him mumble, said “Don’t worry, Ben, we’ll find them.”
Smoke — they both saw the smoke coming from the chimney of a house as they went around a bend in the road. Ben asked Roy, “Roy, do you recall there being a house out here?”
“Well, there used to be a family of three that lived here for a short while a couple of years ago but they left because they couldn’t get the crops to grow,” answered Roy. “I think the husband was sickly and he just couldn’t do the work required to keep things going. They abandoned the house and I’m sure it is in great disrepair.”
As they got closer, they noticed that the shutters had been shut but were lopsided and the door seemed to just be setting in the door frame. Both Roy and Ben quickly got off their horses and moved the door aside. They pulled their guns and carefully entered the house; it was so quiet they didn’t want to walk into a trap. What they saw as they entered the living room was such a heartwarming sight that Ben just about burst into tears. On the floor laid his son sound asleep with the tiny little infant lying on his chest, wrapped in his jacket. The fire was warm and water was boiling on the mantle. The only sight of blood was on Joe’s foot that was totally red from where the blood was saturating the sock. Ben just shook his head and went over to his son. He called his name softly.
“Joe…Joseph!” Ben called.
Joe opened his eyes and his eyes went wide with fear. Then he registered that he was looking into the deep brown eyes of his father. They had been saved! “Oh, Pa, am I ever glad to see you!” Joe tried to sit up and then remembered that the little infant was on his chest. He picked up the child and put her into the sling bed that he had fashioned. The front of his jacket shirt and pants were soaked; so was the baby. Oh, well, he knew that the child was coming around and would probably be as right as rain by the time he got her home to her mommy. Joe stood up and went into the kitchen and found the clothes he had taken off the child to dry and the now clean diaper from which he had tried to boil the dirt and germs the night before. He went back to the little girl and began to unwrap the child’s clothes. Ben went over, and for the first time noticed the many bruises the child had on her face, neck and body. Her back was one solid black and blue mark and looked very sore. Joe changed the soaked diaper. This time, Ben had gone out and gotten a clean shirt and a clean rag from his saddlebags, and Joe washed the baby before putting on the clean clothes. After they were done, the baby puckered her lips and for the first time started to cry.
“She’s hungry!” Joe said, “I haven’t been able to get a lot of water into her but I sure have tried.”
At this Roy came in carrying a baby bottle, full of milk. He placed it in the boiling water and the bottle was soon room temperature. Ben picked up the child and he fed the starving child the milk. She drank greedily, much to all three men’s relief.
Joe put on the clean shirt that Ben had brought in, and even though it was three sizes too big, he didn’t care. He wrapped it around himself and also put a blanket around himself. Ben had also brought him a pair of boots but there was no way Joe could put a boot on his swollen foot. So his father doctored Joe’s foot as best he could, and they decided to let the Doctor do the rest. They figured that they would be home soon, and all would be good in a short time.
Roy told Joe that the rest of the posse was chasing the gang and hoped that they had come across them by now. Joe told both his father and Roy how they had thrown the child down into the well. He almost broke down and cried when he explained how close he came to losing the child. Ben was so proud of his son. His chest swelled with pride as Joe explained his ordeal and how he had done. Roy was just in awe.
By this time, it was about two in the afternoon and they knew that if they started now, they would have to spend a night in the elements. It wouldn’t bother the men but they knew that the child needed to be kept warm and stable for now. So now they gathered wood, water, all the extra clothes they had brought and decided to stay at the shack that night and leave first thing in the morning. The hard, cold floor didn’t look too inviting but they at least had their saddles to rest on. They all settled down and slept.
When they woke up, they ate some beef jerky and stale biscuits that Hop Sing had packed and good hot coffee. The baby slept so good — the milk had really filled her up — but they knew that she would want more in the morning. Joe would just have to give her water and hope they could keep her satisfied until they got her home. Once again he changed her, and this time she smiled at him! Her little fingers wrapped around his finger and her little grip was so strong. Joe talked to her softly and told her that she would soon be with her mommy and that she would be back in her nice bed. She would be clean, safe and all the little aches and pains would be getting better.
He hoped he didn’t have to see those terrible men again because he wasn’t sure just how he would handle himself. He didn’t care about himself, but this poor little child had been put thru Hell and at their hands. Surely God would punish them for that. He knew that man would make their days very uncomfortable — if they were caught.
At first light, the three saddled their horses, Ben had brought along an extra horse just in case they did find Joe. He was thankful for this. Ben lifted the baby into Joe’s waiting arms and mounted his own horse and they were off. They hoped to make it back to Virginia City by sundown, but they were not going to be able to go too fast carrying a small child. The trip was long; they stopped only long enough to take care of personal business and to water and rest the horses. By sundown, they rounded the corner of Virginia City and the townspeople saw them coming. The crowd grew larger as they moved along the street, and as they got to the doc’s place, a woman rushed up to Joe. ”My baby, my baby! Did you bring home my baby?”
Joe smiled at her and shook his head yes.
She reached out her hands to receive her child…..when a voice behind Joe yelled, “Cartwright!!!!!!”
Joe clutched the child to his chest and turned his head…..a gun went off and Joe could feel the tearing of the bullet as it entered his body; its power was so strong that it pushed him forward and then he saw the woman still reaching for her child. He passed her the child and fell head long off his horse.
Darkness overtook him, but as he fell, he heard several guns go off. He said a small prayer that the child was okay!!!
The next time Joe opened his eyes he was in a room, a small room. Upon thinking he realized that he was in the room at the back of Doc’s clinic. He had been there plenty of times before. Then he saw his father; he was asleep in a chair. The room had soft light and was very tranquil but the pain was so excruciating when he was trying to get a good breath that Joe was unable to appreciate the ambiance. He whispered to his father. “Pa, Pa — I need help breathing!” Ben’s eyes flew open and he moved to his son’s side. He asked Joe what he had said, and upon hearing the fact that Joe couldn’t breathe, he left the room and yelled for the doc.
Paul Martin, disheveled, and tired looking, entered the room quickly. He approached Joe and listened to his patient’s heart and lungs. He then asked Ben to put more pillows behind Joe’s back so he could sit up higher.
Moving was almost too much for Joe and he grabbed at his father’s shirt and groaned deeply.
After they had Joe settled, Ben sat back down in the chair and spoke softly to his son, while Doc prepared a shot of morphine for his patient.
“Joe, Ben began, “you were shot; the bullet went in your back through your left lung and out your chest. Your lung collapsed. It will heal but it will take time. You have had major surgery, and have lost a great deal of blood. It will be a while before you can be moved. I need you to lie as still as you can, and if it is hard to breathe, let me know we will try to help you. There are a few tricks we can try to make you more comfortable. Now you try to relax and go back to sleep, okay?
Joe was so glad to be safe and warm and not in charge of a small infant………the baby!!!! “Baby, Joe whispered, “how is the baby? Is she okay?”
Ben didn’t answer, and just at this time Doc Martin injected the morphine into Joe’s hip. The effect was immediate and Joe’s body began to relax and his eyes shut. Sleep was not far behind. Both Ben and Paul realized they had dodged a bullet this time but they knew it would be only a matter of time before Joe would make them answer his questions. And the answers would be painful.
What Joe didn’t know was that when the bullet exited his body, it pierced the child’s body and struck her tiny heart, killing her instantly. As Joe handed his charge to its mother, the child was already dead. Blood was already staining the blanket and the mother collapsed on the sidewalk, holding the dead child and screaming. It was so heartbreaking that no one could move fast enough to prevent her from falling. When they all realized what had happened, they carried Joe and the mother into the doctor’s office and Paul took care of them as best he could. He gave the mother a sedative, pronounced the baby dead, and went to work on Joe just in that order.
Hoss sat with the mother, while they operated on Joe. He figured he could possibly save her more anguish by being there when she awoke and giving her someone to lean on at this tragic time in her life. When Doc Martin had examined the baby, he found that not only had the precious child been shot but its tiny back was broken. She would not have lived very long anyway, but the thought that she had passed quickly still did little to sooth anyone’s mind.
The man who had shot Joe was dead. Three guns had gone off simultaneously and the man dropped where he stood. He was the outlaw who was responsible for the man’s murder in the mercantile, and now the child’s death. Not to mention Joes’ almost fatal wound.
As to the rest of the gang, no one knew. Either he had killed them all, or they had left him at some point because things were so terrible. None of them thought that it would go so south. All they wanted was some money and what they got was trouble.
Two days passed. Joe finally was able to breathe a little better and Doc started to lower the dosage of the morphine. This meant that Joe was awake more and, inevitably, he asked the question that all had been dreading. But somehow Joe knew the answer….He knew that things had not gone right. He just felt it in his heart.
Joe asked Ben what the child’s name was and Ben told him “Emily”. Joe just closed his eyes and a sob rose from his throat; tears ran down his cheeks and there was no consoling him. He had lost his small charge. He had begun to love her. He felt that her life had been cut short, perhaps by his care, and this just broke his heart. Ben let him grieve; he had to get it out. But before he left his son’s side, he told Joe that the child had had a broken back, and that as far as the care Joe had given the child, which was wonderful, the poor child had little chance of survival. He knew this would be like putting a small piece of tape on a crushed window pane but he hoped that somehow Joe would not beat himself up too bad in the end.
The funeral for the baby Emily was a somber affair…most of the town showed up. When the minister had finished and the family members had said their “good-byes”, Ben asked to read a short note that Joseph had written. This was because Joe had been unable to attend the funeral but wanted to send little Emily from this world into the next with a message from her “Uncle Joe”.
The note was this:
Dearest baby Emily,
Our meeting was by accident
Our lives became entwined
You suffered more than anyone
No matter how hard I tried
I pray you are at peace, sweet one
And now are with our Lord above
He will take such good care of you
Just like your mother’s love
I’m sorry that I failed you
Truly I had tried
But with everything that happened,
Perhaps it’s best that you have died
This world can be an evil place
Man can do such horrible things
But to hurt a beautiful child like you
Was more then man can take
Try to look down on your mom
And perhaps let her feel you near
She needs that comfort now,
Dear child, more than you will ever know.
I grew to love you Emily
I surely never will forget
How you entwined your heart around mine
And your endearing little smile
I’ll say goodbye dear child
And think of you a lot
I’m sure you are an angel now
Nothing else would do
Wave your wand and sing a song
And bring peace upon the earth
Joe Cartwright “Uncle Joe”.
There was not a dry eye on the people standing there. Joe’s note had hit them all. The mother of the child asked Ben if she could have it and Ben gladly gave it to her. He was proud of how his son had handled this situation. Joe was truly a good man; he would make a very good father. He was not afraid to step up to the plate and take responsibility for things and work to make them better. Nothing more could be asked of a man.
Healing took time but soon Joe was given the “all clear” by Doc Martin and was able to go home. But not before he stopped by his dear sweet Emily’s grave and laid a sweet pink rose on the nameplate that marked her grave. He said a short prayer and returned to his horse.
Hoss, Ben, and Joe rode out of town slowly. As they passed the mercantile store, Ben smiled at Joe and said “Joe, don’t you think we should get you a new pair of boots?”
Both Hoss and Joe said a resounding, “NO!”
And they all began to laugh.