Summary: Little Joe is on an errand to Placerville when misfortune strikes … being all on his own he has to place his life in the hands of others who are fighting battles of their own.
Word Count: 10,000
Joseph Cartwright twitched a shoulder and sighed. There was no doubt about it but a saddle was nowhere near as comfortable as the duck down pillows on his bed at home, and the ground, even when covered by thick grass, could not be compared to the soft mattress upon which he wished he were now recumbent. He sighed again and yawned.
Slowly opening one eye he could see the glowing embers of the camp fire close to him. His brain registered that it was still dark and therefore the tedium of attempting some sleep had still to be endured for some hours yet. He groaned to himself, and turned over onto his back.
He opened both eyes and folded his arms beneath his head. He stared up at the sky and looked glumly at the stars. He located the Plough, yawned, and stretched his legs. Close by an owl looked down at him and made a soft sound in his crop, before flying away with a flap of wings that aroused Joe’s attention for a second, then there came the inevitable squeal of some small something that had not moved quickly enough for the sharp eyed nocturnal hunter of the skies. Joe closed his eyes and tried once again to get some sleep.
Several moments later he was sitting up, rubbing his face, scratching his head and yawning. Sleep was impossible for now and as elusive as catching shadows. He rolled from his blanket and kicked it aside. It was close to 3 in the morning with a slight chill to the temperature. He began to rebuild the fire and prepare something to drink. Once again he sighed and squatted on his haunches, with his hands dangling between his legs as he watched the flames lick at the twigs he had fed them. Then he reached out and placed the coffee pot in their midst and waited for it to boil.
There were times when he enjoyed nights on his own like this; Hoss was not there talking to himself in his sleep or snoring loud enough to waken the dead. Adam was not there taking charge and organising him to do this and that as and when it suited him, that is, Adam. Oh, great advantages to travelling alone. He smiled without mirth as he stirred the burning wood with his foot, just sometimes though it was good to have company.
He poured coffee into the tin mug and stood up, he looked around him at the shadows of the trees that sheltered him, dark shadows that hemmed him in and had seemed a protection the previous evening when he had decided to make camp. Now he was not so sure. He turned to look at the fire and the thin thread of smoke rising from its midst, and wondered if it were too early to make something to eat.
He knew that had Adam been there he would have been awake himself now, and ordered him back to his bed. Perhaps he would have resisted the ‘request’ in which case Adam would perhaps have joined him by the fire and made more coffee and they would have chatted about inconsequential things in low voices so as not to wake up Hoss.
At the thought of his big brother Joe smiled slowly. Hoss would have slept through and woken on the stroke of 5 o’clock. He was as reliable as – well – as clockwork. He would have been amazed that his brothers could have had an hour’s conversation and cooked an early breakfast while he had slept on. Joe rubbed his brow and sighed, sipped his coffee and glanced up at the sky once again.
He could hear Cochise moving among the trees; no doubt the horse had smelt the coffee and had remembered that on these journeys Joe often shared the first cup with him. Joe smiled, drank a little more of the coffee and stood up. As he did so a sharp niggle of a pain trickled down the right side of his abdomen. He frowned, straightened up and touched his stomach rather gingerly, but there was nothing now, just an odd ‘itchiness’ inside.
“Probably cramp,” he sighed, remembering the times he would get what was commonly called ‘a stitch’ when he had been running for any length of time when he had been a kid. He smiled slowly to himself as Cochise ambled up and nuzzled at his shoulder,
“Sorry it’s so early, Cooch. Here you are, boy,” and he held the tin mug up to the horse that began to slurp it up rather noisily, “We make a good team, huh? Don’t we, boy?” he stroked the black and white neck gently, caressing under the long mane, remembering the day Cochise had come into his life. “I think we’ll break camp early, Cooch. That way we’ll get home sooner.”
The horse drew back his head which he shook, the mane rippled as he did so, and the black eyes looked into the face of his master. Joe fondled the soft muzzle and then turned away. Bacon and eggs were usually one of the best meals of the morning when camping, as they sizzled in the pan over an open fire and the smells tantalizing the nostrils. Joe mentally shook his head at the thought, for some reason this morning it just didn’t appeal. In fact, he felt slightly sick at the thought and unconsciously rubbed at his side where the pain had been earlier.
“May be it was something I had for supper,” he muttered to himself as he began to dismantle the camp.
But supper had been good. The best restaurant in Placerville in fact … Joe saw the plate of food now, the steak steaming, the butter melting, the herbs oozing into the butter and … he shook his head again, the memory made him feel worse.
He hadn’t even wanted to go to Placerville in the first place. Ben had received a letter from Mrs Hopkins to say that her husband was now able to pay off the debt that had been owed for ten long years. It had been a long flowery letter informing Ben of how their fortunes had been reversed and would he please send one of his sons to collect the money.
“- plus interest.” Ben had said with a smile on his face.
“Haven’t they ever heard of banks?” Joe had raised his eye brows. As he was the only one of Ben’s Boys to be home he knew exactly who was going to be given this particular task.
He had memories of the Hopkins. They had a daughter about his age who had, on the few times they had met, made it perfectly clear that she had every intention of snaring a Cartwright as a husband. What had bothered Joe was the fact that Miss Hopkins had shown a marked preference for him as the prospective ‘Intended’. Another matter that bothered Joe was that Miss Hopkins was unattractive, fat, and myopic.
“He doesn’t hold with banks, Joe. Some people are like that, they don’t trust banks or bankers. Tom always thinks that if the banks go bust it’s his money that will be first to go.” Ben had sighed and shrugged as though the vagaries of some people were beyond his understanding, “You’ve nothing more important to do at the moment, have you?”
Joe’s shoulders had sagged and his father had raised his black eyebrows questioningly,
“You’ll have to go, Joseph.” Ben had said in the ‘I’ll brook no nonsense from you, young man’ tone of voice, “Tom Hopkins will be as jittery as a rooster without any hens while he’s nursing that money.” Ben had tapped the envelope with a forceful forefinger “Knowing Tom he’ll have been scrimping and scraping to get that money together and kept it all under a floor board, or in a sock somewhere.”
“Can’t you send him a letter and ask him to send it himself?” Even as he said the words he had known that later that day he would be saddling his horse and taking the road to Placerville.
Joe’s brow had crinkled as he thought of Hoss repairing the fencing to the north of the territory. Adam was in San Francisco, busy fixing up some contract or other. Well out of the reach of Miss Hopkins, both of them. He had sighed, a condemned man about to be led to the slaughter.
Cochise waited patiently as his master saddled and harnessed him ready to move out. After a swift glance around the camp site to ensure that he had not left either debris or fire unattended Joe mounted into the saddle. Once again he felt the tug of pain cut across his abdomen. It was gone as soon as it had happened, leaving just a tender feeling about the third of the distance from the navel to the top of his hip bone. Not that he was doing any measuring, but it left him rubbing the area rather anxiously.
He steered Cochise away from their camp site and thought of his meeting with the Hopkins. They had been overjoyed to see him, rushing out of their cabin with cries of glee, shaking his hand vigorously, and pushing him through the door to sit at their table and have something to eat.
“I’ve the money right here,” Hopkins had cried, pulling out a rather worn sock from a drawer, “Lawks but I’ve had some nightmares over these past years about this here money.”
“I kept telling him to put it in the bank, but he don’t hold with banks.” Mrs Hopkins had said and she had beamed at Joe with twinkling eyes, and had folded her hands over her ample stomach.
“Taken a while to get this money saved, but then we came into some good fortune so was able to pay it off a mite quicker.” Tom had then put the very plump sock onto the table where it had landed with a thud.
Joe had stared at the sock with amazement and then looked up at the couple who were standing with wide beaming smiles on their faces at the end of the table. They had looked like two pleased children who had just presented their parent or teacher with the most wonderful of gifts and expected due praise and commendation as a result.
“Just how much is in there?” Joe had enquired and had nudged the fat bulging sausage of a sock with his forefinger.
“Exactly $1500 plus interest.” came the reply from Mrs Hopkins.
“Sorry it’s mostly in coin.” Tom had added, “But I was putting a bit by every week over the years.”
Joe had picked the sock up and weighed it in his hand. It had been heavy enough to fell an ox. He had forced a smile, nodded and put it back down on the table, carefully.
“And – and how’s your daughter?” he had asked, having decided it was better to confront the matter rather than have it creep up on him.
“Our Gloria? Oh, that’s how come our fortunes have changed, Joe.” Mrs Hopkins had rubbed her hands gleefully together, “Gloria got herself married to a very wealthy young man. He owns mines and cattle. Why, he’s building himself his very own Ponderosa right here in Placerville.”
The relief had made Joe far more amenable. He had let them chatter on, ply him with food and a bed for the night. Breakfast had been a veritable mountain of more food than even Hoss would have been able to eat, and he had left them with a merry wave of the hand and a light heart, a heavy saddle bag, and a smile on his face.
In Placerville he had gone to the bank and exchanged the coinage for paper money. It had taken the tellers some time to count out the nickels, dimes and dollar coins and occasionally one of them had exclaimed “Why, I ain’t never seen a coin with that date before” which was all a good testimony to Tom Hopkins diligent honesty and good intentions on getting the debt paid.
Then he had gone to the restaurant and ordered himself the best steak in the house, complete with all trimmings. It had been a real slap up meal, one that he had intended to tease Hoss about for weeks, well, perhaps days!
But now as he led Cochise out into more open country Joe was seriously regretting that meal. The steak and all its trimmings seemed to haunt him, making him feel bilious, bloated and sick.
Dawn came in all its glory but was unnoticed by the young man who was now experiencing the beginning of a low fever. The pain was coming more frequently, more persistently, and when it was not there the tenderness it left as a reminder was far from pleasant. When he coughed the pain seared through him and left him feeling sick, if he inhaled sharply the jab of the pain taunted his now fevered body.
By mid day he was sagging in the saddle. The sun streamed down upon his back and burned through his jacket, making him long to stretch out his body but finding himself unable to even straighten up. Cochise, confused as to the limpness of his master’s hold on the reins, slowed his gallop to a trot, and then, eventually, the trot slowed to a walk.
The worse thing possible, to be taken ill, and all on his own.
He took a deep breath and the pain cut across his abdomen so sharply that he cried out, doubled over on himself in some comforting posture that was really no comfort at all. He was going to vomit and with that thought on his mind he slid from the saddle and onto the ground.
“D’you sees that horse?”
The woman tugged at the sleeve of the man sitting beside her on the wagon, and pointed to where the black and white piebald was grazing. The animal had raised its head to take a quick look at them but then resumed cropping at the grass as though their presence was of no real concern to it.
“Its saddled.” the woman muttered, “Means there’s someone hereabouts -”
“D’you see anyone?” the man asked, slowing the horses to a sedate walk, “You have to be careful in open country like this, could be a trick to ambush us, steal our things.”
“Oh sure, and whereabouts would anyone be able to hide in open country?” There was a chuckle in her voice as though she were reassuring him rather than correcting or chiding him.
“What do you intend for us to do then, Dorothea?”
“Well, we could get a mite closer to see whether or not whoever owns the horse may need our help.” she looked at him anxiously, wondering if he would do as she suggested, and she only relaxed when he guided the horses towards where Cochise was now standing, watching them with his bright dark eyes intently upon them.
They drew the wagon to a halt when they saw the body sprawled out on the ground. A green jacket, dusty from the dry soil, indicated that the young man had been there for a while and Dorothea, after she had dismounted, picked it up and folded it neatly over her arm. She then knelt beside Joseph and turned him slowly onto his back.
“Don’t appear to have been shot. Seems he jest fell right off his horse.” She looked up at her companion with a slight frown and wished that he would come down from the wagon to see for himself, “I think he’s still alive.”
“D’you reckon snake bit him?”
“I don’t know, Joshua.” She brushed dust gently from the handsome face, and looked at Joe with a gentling in her eyes, “He’s young, and -” she leaned forward and sniffed at his face, “His breath smells sour, like he’s been sick.”
“You best come back here, Dorothea, he may have some sickness that’s contagious. You can’t afford to get sick yourself.”
She sighed, she knew that he meant that he couldn’t afford for her to get sick, but she said nothing and bit back the angry retort that rose unbidden in her mind. She was about to stand up when Joe opened his eyes and looked at her, “I – I think I fell off my horse -”
The words were slurred, stumbled over as though he had spoken them with great effort. The eyelids fluttered and he raised a hand towards her, “I – I need help. A doctor. I’ve got pain here and – help – I need help.” the words drifted away as he closed his eyes, and his hand dropped by his side.
“Joshua, did you hear? He said he needs a doctor?”
“I heard.” Joshua lowered his head and tried to stifle the fear that had leapt up into his throat. It had dried his mouth and made his heart beat double quick time, and he wished he had never offered to take Dorothea to town for the groceries but had stayed right back home, where he belonged, where he felt safe.
“We can’t leave him here.”
“Can’t take him with us.”
“Oh Joshua -” she couldn’t recall the last time she had begged something from him, and now begging didn’t even come into the equation. She rose to her feet and walked to the wagon where she placed her hand upon his arm, “Joshua, he needs a doctor, he’s in pain. May be we should take him back to the town if you feel you couldn’t take him home.”
“It’s a long ways to the town.” Joshua replied, “How’s we know that this sickness ain’t something that could kill us? Could be anything – diphtheria or typhoid.”
“It could be something else. You’d know, Joshua, you could find out and help him if we took him home. You know you could, dear Joshua, you know you could help him. We can’t leave him here now, can we?”
Joshua fought a mental battle, fought his own demons and while he did so Joseph Cartwright regained consciousness, rolled into a sitting position and attempted to get to his feet. The pain doubled him over again; he clutched at his belly, and groaned aloud.
“He’s been shot. That’s what it is, he’s been shot.” Dorothea exclaimed as she turned her attention back to the youth, “Joshua, all you have to do is get the bullet out.”
She was back on her knees beside Joe and forced back his hands so that she could see for herself where the bullet wound was, only to find that there was no sign of either blood or bullet. Joe groaned again and drew his knees up into himself in some attempt to ease the pain.
“Joshua, he’s mighty sick. We can’t leave him here.”
Joshua clambered down from the wagon and with quick strides reached Joseph. He knelt on one knee at the young man’s side and felt his brow, then his pulse at the neck and wrist. After a few moments he looked up at Dorothea and sighed
“Best help me then -” he muttered in a low voice, “I can carry him, you get the horse and tether it to the tailgate.”
Dorothea closed her eyes and whispered some words to her Maker in whom she had total confidence could move mountains but less confidence in His ability to move Joshua. Apparently the miracle had been wrought and she took a few minutes of time to thank Him for it.
Joshua lifted Joe up carefully and although Joe groaned in the process of being moved it was not long before he was settled at the back of the wagon where a blanket was spread over him. Dorothea tethered Cochise to the wagon, and then leaned over the sides to make sure the provisions were not likely to topple onto the passenger. She then clambered back onto the wagon seat beside Joshua.
“Thank you, Joshua.” she said simply with her eyes staring straight ahead of her because she didn’t dare look at his face in case she saw something there that meant another quick conversation with her God for another measure of help.
“I hope this don’t go wrong for us, Dorothea.” was the only comment Joshua made in reply and he clamped his mouth shut.
He made no more comment until they reached the cabin that was their home. It nestled in among the trees that grew thickly along a ridge of boulder strewn land. Some attempt to grow vegetables had obviously been made at some time at the side of the cabin where the soil looked rich and fertile. The heat was obviously taking its toll on them for they were somewhat spindly. Dorothea must have thought it not worth bothering to pray for rain.
She took Cochise into a somewhat makeshift corral before she returned to unharness their own horses and lead them to join him. By the time she had returned to the wagon Joshua had carried Joe into the cabin and was settling him down upon a truckle bed in the corner of the large room.
Joe opened his eyes and raised his head, his eyes blurred and everything he looked at seemed dark and hazy. He reached out a hand and felt flesh, an arm, strong and muscled, a man’s arm. His head drooped back onto a pillow that had been placed beneath it.
“Thank you, thank you -” he whispered.
“You said you had pain, whereabouts is this pain?”
The man’s voice sounded resentful, somewhat angry and Joe wondered if the sickness was distorting his hearing as well as his sight. Vaguely he gestured around the abdominal area.
“Bin sick? Vomited at all?”
“Yes. I was sick. Pain hurt so much. I couldn’t stay in the saddle. Fell off.”
“You bin in a fight? Knife wound maybe?”
“No, no,” Joe attempted to shake his head but the pain stabbed at his temples, “Head hurts. Hot, feel real hot. Feet cold. Water, please, water …” he raised a hand, but then the pain growled through his belly and he gasped aloud, doubled over again and retched.
“It hurts here?”
There was pressure on his stomach, pressure and pain. He felt waves of faintness wash over him and his eyes opened wide in shock. He gasped aloud ‘Yes’ and gripped the edge of the bed with his hands, “Yes, it hurts there.”
Joshua turned as the door opened and then closed very quietly. He looked at Dorothea and shook his head, then, after telling her to give the boy some water he walked out of the cabin into the hot open country to fight his own demons once again.
Dorothea wiped the perspiration from Joe’s face with a wet cloth, and gave him a little water to drink, cautioning him to sip it slowly.
The water tasted bitter to Joe but it refreshed him as well, he took hold of her hand and nodded “Thank you, Ma’am.” he felt he owed her an explanation and mumbled “I fell off my horse.”
“It was your horse that we saw first. Thought it had been abandoned. ” she wiped his gace again, “Does it hurt very much?”
“Never thought anything could hurt so much,” Joe admitted honestly, and he winced as the pain trickled around his ribs and through his body, “Sure feel tired too.”
“Pain can be exhausting.” she said quietly as she dabbed the cloth around his neck, “You don’t come from around these parts, do you?”
“No, Ma’am, ” he winced, “I’m Joe Cartwright, from the Ponderosa. Two day ride from Placerville.”
“I’ve heard of the Ponderosa, so you’re one of Ben Cartwright’s sons?”
“Yes – ugh – ma’am” He closed his eyes and then with a sigh re-opened them again, “Ma’am, could you send for Doc Martin? Pa always sends for Doc Martin -” his voice trailed away and she waited for him to continue speaking for a while before realising that he wasn’t able to say anything anymore.
Slowly she put down the bowl of water and the cloth and rose to her feet. She wiped her hands on the cloth as she walked to the door and stepped outside to join Joshua who was still standing outside with the sun baking his brains while he ruminated on what he was going to have to do or whether he could get away with doing nothing.
“How is he?” he half turned to look at her as she stood framed in the doorway.
“He’s very sick, Joshua. He’s Ben Cartwright’s youngest boy.”
“Ben Cartwright? The Ponderosa Man?”
“Yes, the Ponderosa Man.” she sighed and walked to him, so that she stood by his side, “Are you going to operate?”
“Operate?” his eyes widened and his mouth opened even wider before he closed it again as he shook his head “No, I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“There’s no doctor able to help him within two maybe three days ride from here. You have to do something to help him, Joshua. You can do it, you know you can do it.”
He shook his head and looked down at his hands and held them out to her
“Look, woman, does that make you feel confident about my being able to help him? I couldn’t – couldn’t risk it.”
“If you don’t risk it, he’ll die.”
“Leastways they can’t blame me for that.”
She put a hand on his arm and shook her head “They will, Joshua. They’ll want to know why a skilled surgeon like you stood by and watched a young man die from something that you could have prevented.”
“No. It ain’t like that and you knows it.”
“You’re turning your back on someone who needs help, Joshua. You can’t let him die just because of what happened back then, you just can’t.”
He shrugged off her hand from his arm and shook his head. He covered his face with his hands and sunk down onto this haunches as thought the weight of the decision was too heavy to carry on his shoulders.
“What if I operate on him and he dies anyhow? You know what they’ll say? They’ll say I had no right to touch him, a black man operating on a white boy? They’ll say I didn’t have a right and that -”
“No, no,” she knelt down and put her hands onto his and drew them away from his face “No,Joshua, it not like that here, it’s different here. Haven’t I been telling you all along? It’s not like down south, I keep telling you, man , you jest ain’t listening, are you?”
He stared at her for a moment as though he had never really looked at her before so closely. A middle aged woman with greying hair, her brow furrowed, her dark eyes wet with tears. It had taken courage for her to take his side, to leave her white family and marry him, and then to stand by him when things had gone so wrong back home. He stood up, drawing her up to stand before him, face to face.
“No one listened back then when I did that operation on that boy. They jest said I had no rights to operate on him because he was white and I was black. All those bits of paper I had hanging on the wall saying how I had qualified as a doctor and as a surgeon meant nothing to them at all. I got him through that operation, but they didn’t give any mind to that, just pulled me out of the building and – and tied me to a tree and whipped me till I couldn’t stand no more. They’re probably all fighting in that danged civil war of theirs now.” he paused and his chest heaved as he struggled to keep his emotions in check.
Dorothea placed a gentle hand on his arm and rested her head upon his shoulder.
“It was wrong of them, Joshua. I knows it was wrong but one day it will all be put right, you’ll see. We came here to get away from all that, didn’t we?” she looked up in to his face, searched into his eyes, and he nodded, “Then why not see this as your opportunity to make things right again? People here don’t judge us, do they?”
“Seen some folks look long and hard when we goes into town.” Joshua muttered, “I seen their eyes as they watch us, they’re wondering why’s a white gal married that black man.” he stopped, bit down on his bottom lip, “Imagine what they’d say if I operate on Ben Cartwright’s son and he dies? They’ll come out here with a rope, Dorothea, that’s what they’ll do.”
“And if he dies because you chose to stand here thinking about what happened back then – what do you think Ben Cartwright will have to say about that?” she pressed her hands against his and then leaned into him, “Oh Joshua, Joshua …”
“Dorothea, don’t make me do something I can’t .”
“I’m not going to make you do anything that you can’t, my darling, I just want you to do what I know you can.”
She released his hands then and with a sigh turned away from him to walk back to the cabin. At the door she looked back at him, looked into his eyes, and then lowered her head as she entered the dark interior of the building.
Joe seemed to have slipped into a sleep of some kind. He lay upon the bed with his hands clasped together as though in prayer as they rested upon his stomach. Dorothea looked down at him and closed her eyes. It was time for another conversation to the Maker of all things, a conversation that would entail a lot of begging and pleading on her part, and patient listening on His.
Joshua looked at the view ahead of him and saw only the path leading back to that fateful time when there had been a pounding on the door and he had opened it to a group of white men, one of whom bore in his arms the body of a young man, just the same age as Joseph Cartwright.
“They say you’re the doctor around these parts, is that right?” a rough looking individual demanded to know, and he had nodded although his eyes were fixed on the sight of the blood staining the youth’s shirt and that of the man holding him, “Then do something for him, and do it quick.”
They asked no questions of him, and he likewise asked nothing of them. Why should he, after all he had certificates on the walls proclaiming his scholarship, his abilities as a doctor. He had led them into his small surgery, a room for want of a better word that was used as a surgery. They crowded around him as the youth was set down upon the table.
“Don’t take too long.” one of the men whispered and then they stepped back against the walls so that he could do what it was necessary for him to do. Just like shadowed sentinels watching his hands as they performed the procedures for the operation that would save the young man’s life.
Joshua felt his mouth go dry as he remembered that operation. It had not been particularly difficult, a little messy to be sure, but not difficult. His hands had, as always, been rock steady and sure, knowing exactly what to do, how and when to do it. Within less than an hour the procedure had been completed and he was washing his hands in a bowl, cleaning away the blood upon them as the shadows stepped from the walls and approached the patient.
“You can’t take him yet.” he had said, “He needs to rest, recuperate for a while.”
“We’ve not the time for that,” the big man said in a voice that was far from pleasant, rough with impatience and tinged with a fear of which only he knew.
“He could bleed to death. The sutures may tear -” Joshua stepped forward and put a hand upon the other man’s arm.
They stared at one another, eye to eye, and it was the other man who backed down, glanced at the patient breathing shallowly on the table. He jerked his head sharply to the others and indicated that they leave the room,
“We’ll come back for him tomorrow.”
“You do that -” Joshua had replied and closed the door in their faces.
They had returned as promised, and had taken the young man who had remained silent and confused throughout the hours of his brief recuperation. Dorothea had stood by his side as they had ridden away, the youth slumped precariously in the saddle shared by the older man.
“They’re trouble,” she had whispered and she had been right for they came back, and after meting out what they called punishment they had left Joshua for dead. Had it not been for Dorothea and some of the doctors in the hospital it was possible that he could have died. It wasn’t just the pain of the beating but what came afterwards when the small hospital had been set on fire, blazing furiously in the heat of the afternoon. Men and women trailed out of their homes to watch the blaze in confused amazement, looked fearfully at one another, dared not look too closely at the perpetuators of the deed.
“Did they say why they did it?” Dorothea had asked among the crowd and they had shaken their heads and wandered away, their curiosity sated, wishing not to be further implicated than they already were.
Then someone had the courage to tell them the reason and Joshua knew it was time to leave, that they were living on the edge of a time too volatile for them to survive as they were, and that good intentions just were not enough to stem the flood of prejudice that would soon engulf so very many in civil war.
As they rode away with what possessions they had been able to retrieve Joshua left behind his confidence, his courage and a prejudice of his own settled deep into his heart, like a frozen chip of ice that could never melt because fear would keep it frozen for always.
He shook his head as though to shake away the memories of the past. He looked now at his hands and then he raised his head to the sky and closed his eyes. Perhaps now was time for a little conversing of his own with someone more in control of things than himself.
Joe drifted in and out of consciousness, aware vaguely of someone pulling off his boots, and then gently removing his clothes. He tried to prevent the removal of his pants but his hands merely flapped about aimlessly and he passed out muttering something about dire consequences to whoever it was pulling his pants down.
“It’s alright,” Dorothea whispered and she gently bathed his body with warm water and left if to cool on the fevered limbs, “It’s alright.” and even as she said it she was looking out of the window at her husband standing alone in the sun and wondered why it was he remained out there when he should have been with her tending to the boy.
“Hoss?” Joe called out into the silence disturbed only by the sound of several flies buzzing about and her movements, “Hoss, you there?”
“He’s quite safe,” Dorothea replied leaning towards him and peering into his face, “He’s in the stable, quite safe.”
Joe’s eyes were fluttering, she could see the whites of his eyes and his breath smelled the peculiar smell associated with appendicitis. She hurried to the doorway “Joshua, if you intend doing anything, I think it would be a good idea to do it now.”
The big man standing in the yard glanced down once again at his hands, then up at the sky before he turned to slowly walk back into the cabin.
Joe opened his eyes and looked into the face of Joshua Hansworth. He saw dark eyes that looked down at him with a gentleness that gave him some reassurance and he mustered up a forced smile. He licked dry lips and managed some words “Sorry to be a nuisance but -”
Joshua raised a hand, and shook his head. In the following silence he lowered himself to sit beside the bed and look more carefully at his patient, “You’re Joseph Cartwight, that’s right, isn’t it?”
“Now look here, Mr Cartwright, it seems to me you’re in a bad way just now. Do you know what appendicitis is?”
“Sure,” Joe’s brow crinkled, “One of our men had it, a while ago.” he gulped a little, and his eyes looked up into those of the other man, “Is that what’s wrong with me?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Are you sure?”
Joe felt a tremor run down his spine and beads of sweat popped through the pores of his skin. He drew in his breath and bit down upon his bottom lip, leaving a red imprint upon the flesh, then he closed his eyes.
“Doc Martin had to operate on him, said it was touch and go …”
“It often is,” Joshua replied with a slight inclination of the head, “There’s never a good time to predict if it’s going to rupture and cause further harm. Irretrievable harm.”
“So – that means you will have to operate on me, is that it?”
“Yes.” Joshua nodded and looked thoughtfully at the younger man, “I wanted to get your permission to carry out the procedure.”
“My permission?” Joe frowned, closed his eyes, he couldn’t remember anyone asking for Tom Fellowes permission. He winced as the pain niggled around his abdomen as though reminding him that it had not gone away, and nor would it either. He heaved a sigh, “You‘re a doctor, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am. I graduated from Medical School in New York City. I’m quite proficient in what I do. There isn’t another doctor near enough to operate in the time that is necessary, Mr Cartwright, and -”
“It’s alright, Doctor,” Joe ground his teeth together and slumped back against the pillow, “I give my permission, and very gratefully too.” he raised his hand which was gripped firmly by Joshua, “Thank you,” Joe said, his hand slipping back to his side, and his eyes closing and then very softly he whispered “Thank you…”
It was a hot day and the perfume from the roses was getting stronger. A butterfly cruised by gracefully, fluttering its wings in an ecstasy of delight as the warmth touched them. Joseph Cartwright wriggled on the seat and pushed his way closer to the woman seated by his side,
“Don’t wriggle so much, Joseph.” the woman scolded even as she folded her arm around him and drew him closer into her body,
“But, Mama, the bench is so hard.”
“Hush now, you have been sitting on it long enough and not complained so far,” she smiled down at him, leaned her head forward and kissed his brow, leaving the imprint upon his smooth skin, “Do you want me to read a little bit more?”
“Just a little bit more, Mama.”
He sighed contentedly. It was so warm, so pleasant. There was the smell of the roses and her perfume, Mama’s perfume. It drifted into his nostrils and he felt a little throb of his temples. The heat was too much but he didn’t want to move now. Her arm held him a willing captive against her, and he could feel the rough texture of the lace upon her dress and knew that if he fell asleep its pattern would be embedded upon his cheek, but he didn’t mind, not just now. His eyelids were heavy with the stickiness of sleep, weighed down each one of them so that soon his eyes were closed and his eyelashes fluttered upon his cheeks.
His mother continued reading as though ignorant of the sleeping child leaning against her. These were precious moments between mother and son, and she treasured each and every one of them.
“So down the great dragon came, fiery breath came from his nostrils and flame from his mouth …” she paused and gently stroked his hair, the tousled curls fell upon her fingers and Joseph stirred and smiled in his sleep.
There just was nothing better than this, nothing at all, but to be here with Mama, listening to her voice as she read his favourite stories, feeling her caress, the occasional kiss, and the headiness of her perfume.
Joe was unsure of what was happening as he was lifted from the bed. In his mind he was on a garden bench in Mama’s rose garden and Pa had come to carry him someplace else, his head felt heavy and lolled rather unbecomingly onto the man’s shoulder, “Pa – it’s alright, I can walk the rest of the way.” he muttered.
“Hush now -” a woman’s voice said and so he sighed and shut his mouth. It was easier to just let ’Pa’ carry him wherever it was they were going.
He felt as though he were put down on the floor, something hard and solid beneath him, quite different from the soft bed he had been lifted from. He wanted to protest but something covered his mouth and then he was drifting away into just nothingness, except that it was very dark, very still and quite pain free.
Joshua and Dorothea stood by the table upon which Joe had been set down and waited until it was quite clear that Joe had ‘gone under’. Dorothea held the mask in place over Joe’s nose and mouth and looked up at her husband and nodded “Alright, Joshua, it’s up to you now.”
Her voice was very quiet, soft but it was strong too, not a quaver in it, as though she know that had Joshua sensed the least uncertaintly in her words he would have given in to his fears and left the young man to meet his Maker. As it was Joshua looked her in the eyes and nodded “Make sure you keep him like it.”
“I will. I know what to do, dear.”
He smiled at her and her answering smile was enough to give him the confidence he needed to make his first incision into Joe Cartwright’s flesh, with Dorothea instantly by his side to wipe away the blood. As his hands moved almost automatically on this still uncommon operation he wondered once again how it had been that the Good Lord had blessed him with such a wonderful wife and companion as the woman who now stood beside him.
He paused only once while Dorothea checked to see that Joe was still under the influence of the ether, and at her nod he continued with his work. Finally it was left to Dorothea to make the neat stitches that bound the edges of the wound back together as he washed his hands and face and poured himself a long cool glass of water.
Joe woke up and the first thing he saw was a candle flame flickering on a small table beside his bed. A woman was sitting beside him, her head bowed over her darning. He wondered for a moment if she were darning his socks or Hoss’. He yawned and shifted in the bed to get more comfortable. He closed his eyes and tried to recapture a dream he had been having but now he was awake it was proving elusive and mixed up fragments came to mind before scattering confusedly away.
“How do you feel now?”
He looked up as she spoke, there was a soft smile on her face, and the dark eyes were warm and gentle, “Would you like a drink of water?”
“Yes, thank you, I would.”
The water was cool; it slicked down his parched throat so well that he could have carried on drinking long after she took the mug away.
“Try and sleep now. You can have something to eat when you wake up.” she put her hand upon his shoulder, and smiled down at him. It was oddly comforting and with a sigh he closed his eyes.
“How is he?” Joshua looked over at her from his seat by their fire. His face was anxious but not with the gnawing anxiety that had been etched upon it previously. He asked the question out of concern, but not from fear. As far as Doctor Joshua Hansworth was concerned the operation had been a total success. Dorothea had been quite sure that it would be, she was a capable nurse and had assisted with a determination that the patient would come through the ordeal well. He smiled at her, and felt pleasure at her answering smile.
“He’s going to be very hungry when he wakes up.” she replied.
Joshua nodded; he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, stretched out his legs. He was free at last, that heavy burden of anger and guilt, fear and misery, had at last been lifted from him. He was a doctor, a good doctor, and he had nothing to fear now, nothing at all.
Like Dorothea said, things were different here. There would always be those people who would have to stop and stare and ask questions, but there were also the people who took you at face value, without questioning the colour of your skin, but were grateful for the help you offered, knowing you would just do your best in the circumstances. He heaved a sigh of pleasure “Means I can go help any place I want.” he muttered.
“You’ll be needed here, Joshua, there aren’t enough doctors hereabouts.” she replied, putting down her darning and needles in order to take her seat beside him and slip her hand into his. After a moment of looking intently at the fire she turned and looked lovingly at him,, “I’m so proud of you, Joshua.”
He said nothing but let her words roll over him, it made his heart swell with joy, knowing that she was proud of him. But then, she always had been, always, he had just been so weighed down by the misery of it all that he hadn’t really realised until now just how much that meant to him.
Not for the first time did Adam Cartwright cast a look over at his father who had opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. He looked over at his brother who was reading a book about cattle diseases and frowned, cleared his throat and when Hoss looked up nodded his head towards the open door. Hoss followed his eyes and shook his head, then looked at the clock.
“Where do you reckon he could be?”
“Well, he isn’t where Pa wants him to be, that’s for sure.” Adam replied as he rose to his feet and walked to the door, then joined his father at the corral fence.
Ben turned and smiled as Adam stood beside him and nodded towards the night sky, “A beautiful night, Adam?”
Adam glanced up and after a pause, long enough to digest the beauty his father appeared so enamoured over, he gave a slight cough “Pa, did you say anything to Joe about when he should be back home?”
“Joe?” Ben said in the tone of voice that indicated surprise at the mention of his youngest son’s name, “No, no I didn’t as a matter of fact.”
“So you aren’t really sure when he’s due home?”
“Well,” Ben rubbed his brow with his hand, then shrugged “No. But I thought he’d be back by now. He was talking about the dance tomorrow night and taking that young Bentley girl to it.”
“Uh-huh, but that’s tomorrow night, Pa.” Adam placed a hand on his father’s shoulder, “You know Joe, he’s no doubt got involved with something pleasant in Placerville and decided to stay a while longer. He’ll arrive sometime tomorrow just in time to get himself ready for his date.”
Hoss, who had ambled out to join them, nodded “Yeah, he’ll be all in a rush to get himself all gussied up, see if he don’t.”
Ben sighed and looked up at the night sky again, the moon was sliding behind some clouds and the yard became momentarily plunged into darkness before it peeked out again “I don’t know -.”
“Hey, he’s fine, Pa.” Hoss said reassuringly, “You know how Joe likes to make the most of time alone, he’s always complaining about us going along with him so much.”
“That’s right, Pa.” Adam turned towards the house, “Now, shall we go in, gentlemen, and stop ourselves worrying about him?”
“I wasn’t worrying about him,” Hoss said blithely, “If anyone can take care of himself, it’s Joe.”
Ben nodded, true enough, Joe could be relied upon for that, but then, Joe was also very capable of finding trouble far more easily than his brothers, it was that propensity that caused Ben concern. Hoss turned and grinned “May be he’s been spending that money you sent him to collect.”
Ben smiled but he returned back to the house with a deeper sigh than ever and after a last look at the sky he closed the door, “Well, wherever your brother is, I hope to goodness that he’s alright.”
Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance and while Hoss returned to his book, Adam suggested a game of chess having murmured in his deep voice that Joe was sure to be just fine.
Ben and Adam rode into Virginia City early the following morning with a number of matters on their minds. They dismounted outside the General Store and greeted Mrs Cameron with a dip of their hats and smile as they passed on by to the Hardware Store. Ben was about to follow Adam inside when he heard his name being called from across the road and turning saw young Tom Phelps running towards him waving a piece of paper in his hand. Even as Tom said ‘Cablegram for you, Mr. Cartwright’ Ben felt his heart fluttering, fears for Joe leapt immediately to mind as he took the paper from Tom’s fingers.
“What is it, Pa?” Adam asked immediately and peered over his father’s shoulder to read what the cablegram said. “Is he in trouble?”
“Seems he was taken ill. He’s being cared for by a Dr and Mrs Hansworth.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it? Means he’s not in any danger?” Adam pursed his lips and put a hand on Ben’s arm “Do you want me to ride over to Placerville and find out if he’s alright, and bring him home?”
Ben didn’t answer right away, he glanced back down at the piece of paper and read the message through again before slowly folding it and putting it in his top pocket. He shook his head, “No, I think I should go. Adam, get back to Hoss after you’ve collected our order, tell him what’s happened. Take charge of things until I – we – get back, will you?”
Adam assured him that he would even though he wondered just how ill his brother was, he wanted to convince his father that he should ride along with him, but knew from the way that Ben spoke that the matter was now closed. He could only watch his father stride back to his horse and mount it before riding out of town.
Roy Coffee saw Ben and raised a hand in acknowledgement but when it was ignored he shook his head, something was obviously wrong. Seeing Adam still standing at the door of the Anderson’s Hardware he took himself over the road to join him.
“Anything wrong? Anything I need to know about?”
Adam shook himself out of his reverie and turned to the sheriff, “Pa’s gone to get Joe home. Seems he was taken ill just outside of Placerville.”
Roy nodded and looked back down the road to where Ben was just about to turn out of eyesight, it figured, when it came to worrying about his boys, Ben became blind to everything and everyone else.
The horseman dismounted and paused for a moment to look at the cabin. Rather doubtfully he glanced about him and from the look on his face he was obviously wondering if he had come to the right place or not. He tethered his horse and approached the building, then rapped authoritively upon the door.
The door opened and a tall woman with greying hair stood in front of him with a slight frown on her face. They looked at one another for a second or two before he answered the question in her eyes,
“I’m Ben Cartwright from the Ponderosa. I -”
“Ben Cartwright?” she smiled and stepped back, “Please come in, Mr Cartwright. We were expecting someone to come.”
He frowned as he stepped into the room, taking off his hat as he did so.
“Dorothea Hansworth,” she extended her hand and smiled at him with such frankness on her homely face that Ben could not do anything else but smile back in return, take her hand and shake it.
“I got your message,” he said briskly as he allowed himself to be ushered to a chair by a low fire. “Thank you.”
Even as Ben spoke he was looking around the room, his dark eyes searching for the youth, anxiety eating at his heart when he wasn’t to be seen. .
“Your son said you or one of his brothers would be here trying to find him. We would have gone into town and sent a cable earlier but I’m afraid my husband didn’t want to leave the cabin, or rather, his patient. As soon as Joseph was well enough for Joshua‘s peace of mind I went and asked my nearest neighbour if he would send a cable. I‘m sorry if it caused you further unnecessary worry but we couldn‘t leave your boy unattended so soon after the operation.”
She noted the way his dark eyes widened at the word and leaned forward to place a reassuring hand on his arm, words on a cablegram can convey only so much information, but hearing the words from her lips made Ben feel panic stricken, especially in view of the fact that he had had no sign of his son yet.
“My husband is a fully qualified surgeon and knew exactly what to do. Your son’s a fine healthy young man, Mr Cartwright, he’s healing very well.”
Ben sighed and relaxed a little, he allowed a small smile to touch his lips before he nodded, “Thank you. I think that is one of the things we most dread and fear in this new country of ours, disease, illness, and with so few doctors. Your husband is a rare and much sought after person, Madam, although I’m surprised to find you living so far from a town.” the thought brought a furrow across his brow, and he looked at her anxiously.
“It’s only temporary. We have plans to move on towards Carson City.” Dorothea smiled, and set down some cups into which she poured some strong coffee, “Your son was a blessing in disguise to us, Mr Cartwright, we owe him more than he’ll ever know.”
Ben accepted the cup of coffee, it was hot and dark and bitter, and smelt wonderful. He smiled at the thought of Joe being a blessing in disguise, but chose to say nothing. He nodded, a blessing in disguise, well, what do you know? He smiled again, leaned back into the chair and enjoyed his cup of coffee.
It was some moments later when the door was pushed open and a tall broad shouldered man entered the room with Joseph leaning upon his arm. Apart from being paler than usual and lacking his normal bounce his face lit up with pleasure when he saw his father who had risen to his feet at the sound of the door opening.
“ I saw Buck tethered at the rail, Pa,” Joe’s smile and twinkling eyes were testimony to his returning good health, and Ben stood up to approach both men the younger of whom he hugged while he stretched out his hand to the other and was pleased when it was taken in a firm handgrip and shaken.
“So how are you feeling now, Joe? Are you in any pain at all?”
“Not much, Pa, thanks to the Doc here. Joshua, this is my Pa, Ben Cartwright.”
Joshua Hansworth looked thoughtfully at Ben and it crossed his mind that if any man here would bring about a hue and cry over what had happened this was the man who would do it. He could see from the lines of Ben’s face that this was not a man who got where he was by tip toeing around things, or avoiding problems, and if Ben Cartwright thought for a moment that a black Doctor had no right to be operating on his son then they may as well kiss any idea of going to Carson City good-bye.
“I hear you saved my son’s life,” Ben said quietly, his face gentling as it often did when he felt humbled by another man’s endeavours, “I want you to know I will always be in your debt. Is there anything that I can do now to be of any assistance at all? Your wife tells me that you are planning on going to Carson City?”
Joshua nodded, grateful for the firm grip of the hand that shook his own, and the way the proud face had taken on a more gentle appearance,
“Thank you, sir, I shall bear that in mind for the future. I believe there’s a general shortage of Doctors in this territory?”
“You should listen to our Doctor go on about it,” Joe laughed and lowered himself onto a stool, “We need good Doctors, Joshua, men like yourself, don’t we, Pa?”
Ben nodded thoughtfully as he took a stub of pencil and a notebook from his jacket pocket. He wrote something down in his usual quick scrawl and passed it to Joshua with a smile,
“Doctor Pritchard is an old friend of mine, he’ll be more than grateful to give you a position. There’s talk of a hospital being built in Carson City one day. It’s sorely needed.”
Joshua looked at the paper and then looked u p at the man who had presented it to him. He slowly folded the paper in two and passed it to Dorothea,
“Thank you, Mr Cartwright,” he heaved in a deep breath which he released slowly, “Thank you.” He raised his eyes and looked into the gentle dark eyes of his wife and smiled. Her returning smile illuminated her face and spoke of her love for him, while inwardly she spoke some few words of her own to that One who listens to all those who pray to Him.
p.s. What became of Joshua and Dorothea, who knows? Let it be that for now their new journey, their new life has just began, with Ben and Joe’s help a door opened … would they really have the courage to enter and go beyond? Well, now, I guess that’s another story.