Synopsis: Riding home and leading horses from an unplanned purchase, the Cartwrights encounter more trouble than they bargained for.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 16,060
The hot desert sun shone down relentlessly on the men riding across the barren land. Each of the three men rode slowly. They were riding unfamiliar horses and each of them was leading another. Ben Cartwright halted the roan he was riding. He pointed to the rocks to his right, making sure his sons, Hoss and Joe, knew the waterhole was just ahead. The men behind him nodded their understanding.
Ben guided his horse carefully across the sandy ground toward the waterhole. He had paid a lot of money for the stallion he was riding, and he didn’t want anything to happen to it. Ben chucked his horse forward, up a narrow trail. The animal got a whiff of the water and started to walk faster. Ben held the animal carefully in check as they moved forward. He knew the horse was eager to get to the water, as was the stallion Ben was leading, but he also wanted to make sure the animals didn’t injure themselves in their rush to get a drink. Ben’s horse finally reached the waterhole and Ben let him drink his fill. The stallion he was leading also rushed forward and began to drink. A moment later, Hoss and Joe joined their father. Both were riding newly purchased horses, and leading another. They also let their animals drink deeply from the water.
“Pretty desolate country,” Joe commented as he sat patiently, waiting for his horse to finish drinking.
Ben looked around. The land around them was sandy and flat. Rocks of all sizes dotted the landscape. A few scraggly bushes struggled to grow in the arid soil. The country around them was not inviting. It looked hard and unyielding.
“This trail is not exactly the easiest one,” Ben agreed. “But it’s the fastest way to get from Arizona to Nevada.”
“I still think we should have hired some hands to bring these horses home,” Joe grumbled. “We only stopped in Tucson to change stages, not buy horses. We should be riding home in a stage, not on horseback.”
Ben sighed. Joe had been complaining about the ride since they left Tucson. “Joe, I told you before,” Ben said patiently. “These horses were such a good bargain, I couldn’t pass them up. The rancher I met in the hotel needed money fast. They’re fine animals. They will improve our stock a lot.”
“I don’t disagree,” Joe said. “I just hate riding them back to the Ponderosa.”
“Joe, who were we going to get to bring them back?” Hoss asked reasonably. “We don’t know anyone in Tucson well enough to trust them with these horses.”
Joe shrugged. “We could have found somebody,” he said. “I’d just rather be on that stage.”
“You’re wanting to be on that stage couldn’t have anything to do with that pretty little gal I saw you talking with, could it?” asked Hoss wryly. “I thought I heard her say she was taking the stage to Carson City.”
“Yeah, but the stage to Carson stops in Virginia City first,” Joe said. He grinned at his brother. “You have to admit, she was a lot prettier to look at than you,” said Joe.
“That ain’t saying much, little brother,” Hoss replied with a grin. “Besides, I thought you were sweet on Peggy Matthews.”
“Peggy is a nice girl,” admitted Joe. His grin widened. “I’m just keeping my options open,” Joe added.
Ben shook his head as he listened. He wondered if Joe was ever going to get serious about anyone. He seemed to flit from one girl to another, like a bee looking for honey. “Joseph, someday you’re going to find a girl who’s going to tame that wild streak of yours,” Ben said.
“Probably,” said Joe with a smile. “But until then, I’m going to have as much fun as possible. You know what they say, live today because you never know what tomorrow might bring. I’d hate to have missed something along the way.”
Hoss roared with laughter as Ben shook his head again in exasperation.
“Fill up those canteens,” Ben said to Hoss. “I want to make sure we have plenty of water.” Hoss nodded and dismounted. He pulled two canteens from his saddle, then reached up and took two from Joe. He knelt next to the waterhole, and began filling the canteens.
“Pa, how far do you figure to ride today?” Hoss asked as he worked. He reached down to cup some water into his mouth.
“It’s about 30 miles to Fort Howard,” replied Ben, looking off into the distance. “I figure we can make it there by nightfall.”
“That’s pushing it kind of hard, isn’t it?” Joe said as he reached down to take two of the dripping canteens from Hoss. He took a drink from one, and passed the other to his father. Ben also took a drink.
“Maybe,” answered Ben as he wiped his mouth. “But I’d prefer not to camp in open country. The Apaches around here aren’t exactly friendly.”
Hoss stood and looped the straps of the canteens around his saddle. “You think we’ll have some trouble?” he asked.
Ben shook his head. “No, not really,” he replied. “But it doesn’t take much to set them off.” He watched as Hoss remounted his horse. “Let’s go, boys,” Ben urged his sons. “I want to try to make Fort Howard by tonight.”
The Cartwrights were about a mile from the waterhole when they heard the first sounds of gunfire. The noise was distant and muted. Ben frowned and pulled his horse to a stop. Joe and Hoss quickly rode up beside him. The three men listened in silence. The gunfire sounded like a string of firecrackers popping in the distance. Whoever was shooting was engaged in a fierce battle.
“What do you think, Pa?” Hoss asked.
“I don’t know,” Ben said, his frown deepening. “Could be Apaches, could be outlaws, could be anyone.”
“Do you think we should take a look?” Joe asked. “Somebody might need some help.”
The whoop of an Indian war cry stopped Ben from answering. He looked over his shoulder and saw a band of about twenty Indians riding toward them. The Indians were a good distance behind them, but they were gaining ground fast.
“Let’s ride!” Ben yelled to his sons. He didn’t stop to see if they heard him. Ben kicked his horse hard, and sent the animal into a gallop. He yanked hard on the rope of the horse he was leading, and that animal began running also. Ben turned his head slightly. He could see Joe and Hoss had urged their horses into a gallop, also. All of the horses were running across the sand at top speed.
Ben had no particular destination in mind. He simply wanted to outrun the Indians or find a place where they could find cover for a fight. It didn’t take him long to realize that the sound of gunfire was getting louder. They were riding right into the middle of a battle.
Ben saw the flash of gunfire and the sun glinting off rifle barrels in some rocks ahead of him. The rocks formed a large semi-circle in front of a ravine. The ground behind the ravine was flat for a hundred yards or so, then seemed to drop off into canyon. .A band of Indians were riding back and forth in front of the rocks, firing toward the boulders as they passed. Without hesitation, Ben guided his horse toward the rocks. He didn’t know who was hiding behind them, but they were firing at the Apaches. Ben figured they must be on the same side.
Ben dropped the rope of the horse he was leading. The animal continued to run along side. Ben pulled his gun from his holster and began firing in the direction of the Apaches in front of him. He heard shots coming from his left, and knew Joe and Hoss were doing the same.
The Indians near the rocks had their attention on the ravine. The shots from behind them startled the Apaches. Two fell from their horses as Cartwright bullets found their mark. The Indians slowed and milled around in confusion. Another brave slumped forward as a bullet hit him in the shoulder. One of the Apaches raised his arm and yelled, then led his horse away from the rocks. The other Indians followed.
Ben urged his horse on, hoping to reach the safety of the rocks and ravine before the Indians turned to attack again. As his horse neared the rocks, Ben pulled him to a stop abruptly. The horse skidded for a step or two, then stopped.
Ben looked around quickly, and was relieved to see Hoss and Joe stopping behind him. Both men looked uninjured.
“Grab the canteens and rifles!” Ben yelled. He followed his own orders and dismounted.
“Lead your horses into the ravine!” a voice shouted from the rocks. Ben hesitated, looking toward the steep drop ahead. He could see several horses standing in the ravine. Ben grabbed the reins of his horse and led the animal forward. Hoss and Joe did the same.
The ravine was about seven feet deep. The sides were steep and sandy. Ben hesitated again as he stood on the lip. However, the shriek of a war cry quickly decided him. Ben started down the ravine, leading his unwilling horse.
The ravine was a perfect corral for the horses once they were in it. It was only about twenty feet long. The sides were steep, and the horses seemed to have no desire to try to climb out. The animals already in the ravine eyed the new arrivals nervously, but they stood still. Ben, Hoss and Joe led the horses with saddles into the ravine. The other horses were still standing about ten feet behind the ravine.
“Pa…” Hoss started to say as he looked back at the horses they had left behind.
“Forget them,” Ben ordered quickly. “They’re not worth getting killed for.”
Ben glanced at the other horses around them. He saw they were wearing military saddles and blankets. Ben turned to look at the rocks. Five men wearing the blue uniforms of Army cavalry were crouched behind the rocks. One man waved his arm, gesturing to the Cartwrights to join them.
The Apaches were riding toward the rocks again. Ben quickly dropped the reins from his hand. He looked over his shoulder to check on Hoss and Joe. Both of his sons had already grabbed rifles and canteens, and were working their way down the ravine. Ben followed them.
The ravine sloped gently upward when it reached the ground behind the rocks. Ben, Hoss and Joe climbed the slope quickly and dove behind the boulders. The soldiers were already firing at the Indians in front of them. The Cartwrights started doing the same.
Half a dozen Apaches fell off their horses as they charged the rocks. The shooting from the ravine was deadly accurate. The Indians quickly turned their horses and rode out of range. They stopped a hundred yards or so away. Thirty or so Apaches pulled their horses together, trying to decide what to do next.
“Sergeant William Bailey, at your service, sir,” a voice next to Ben said cheerfully. Ben turned to look at the man. Bailey was in his forties, a big man with broad shoulders and chest. Ben could see some locks of sandy hair drooping out from the cap the sergeant had pushed back on his head.
“Ben Cartwright,” Ben said, sticking out his hand to the sergeant. “These are my sons, Joe and Hoss.” Joe and Hoss both looked at the soldier and nodded.
“Glad to meet you,” said Bailey with a smile. “You don’t know how glad we are to meet you.”
Ben looked out from rocks. Bodies, some Indian and some wearing blue uniforms, were scattered across the ground. He turned back to look at the other soldiers scattered among the rocks. All wore the uniforms of Army privates.
“What set them off, Sergeant?” Ben asked curiously.
Bailey’s face grew serious. “Our young lieutenant decided to turn a routine patrol into a prison detail,” Bailey said. “He tried to capture two braves who were herding some cattle across the desert. One of them got away, and he came back with his friends. They rescued the brave, and now they’re after us.”
Ben craned his neck to look over the sergeant’s shoulder. Again he saw the men behind the rocks were wearing private’s uniforms.
“He’s out there,” said Bailey, gesturing with his rifle. “The Apaches got four of us before we could get to these rocks.”
“Sarge, why are they so bent on getting the rest of you?” Hoss asked. “If they got their brave back, they should be happy.”
Bailey scratched his head. “Well, the brave happened to be the grandson of Cochise,” Bailey said slowly. “He got beat up pretty bad while we had him. Cochise is going to make sure we pay for what we did.”
“Beating up a prisoner?” Joe said in disgust. “That doesn’t sound like the Army’s way of doing things.”
Bailey glanced over his shoulder before answering. “This ain’t exactly the best group of soldiers the Army has to offer,” said Bailey. “In fact, everyone in this unit was assigned because he’s been in trouble. The Colonel figured he would save some headaches by putting them all in the one place.”
“Including you?” Hoss asked in surprise.
“I got drunk one night and tore up a bar,” Bailey admitted. “Sent three men to the doctor’s office. The Colonel assigned me here as punishment.”
Hoss grinned. “Three men, eh?” he said.
Bailey grinned and nodded.
“What happened with the brave?” Ben asked with a frown.
Bailey’s face grew sober again. “We left him with the patrol while the lieutenant and I scouted the trail,” explained Bailey. “I didn’t want to do it, but the lieutenant insisted I come with him. He was pretty green, just got out here. I think he was afraid he’d get lost. I was already in enough trouble, and I didn’t want to get into more for not following orders. When we got back, the brave was tied to a tree. He was bleeding and bruised.
Carney over there insisted he had tried to escape.”
“You don’t believe him?” Joe asked.
“Carney likes beating up on people,” Bailey said. “He’s done it before.”
Joe looked past Bailey at the other four soldiers. His face showed his disgust with the men.
“They’re not very good soldiers, but they can fight when they have to,” said Bailey as he noted the look on Joe’s face. “One thing they can all do is shoot straight.”
Suddenly, the air was split with the shout of a war cry. Everyone’s attention was turned back to the ground in front of them. What looked like a solid wall of Indians was riding toward the rocks. The Apaches had formed themselves into several rows of riders, and they were riding straight toward the ravine.
“We’re going to find out how straight they can shoot,” Hoss said as he aimed his rifle.
“Hold your fire until they’re closer!” Bailey shouted to the men behind him.
“Don’t shoot until you’re sure you can hit something!”
The Apaches rode fast and straight. The men behind the rocks aimed carefully, each picking out a target. One of the soldiers suddenly fired. A brave fell from his horse. The other men behind the rocks started to shoot.
But suddenly, their carefully chosen targets weren’t there. At the sound of the first shot, the Apaches turned their horses, some to the right, some to the left. The movement caught the men in the ravine by surprise. Their shots sped into empty air.
Quickly, the Apaches reformed and charged again. The men behind the rocks began firing quickly, trying to hit anything. Several horses and braves hit the ground, but many more Apaches surged forward. The shots from behind the rocks came faster, as the Indians came closer. One brave jumped off his horse and dove into the rocks. He landed on top of Bailey.
Bailey struggled with the man, trying to keep the knife the brave had in his hand away from him. The sergeant was losing the battle. The Apache had landed on Bailey’s back, and Bailey couldn’t turn himself enough to fight the man off.
Joe jumped to his feet, and ran to the pair rolling in the dirt. Joe quickly turned his rifle around. He used the butt to club the Indian on the head. The brave suddenly went limp. Bailey pushed the man off him, and grabbed the knife from the brave. He stuck the knife in his belt, then picked up the Indian. With a mighty heave, he threw the man from behind the rocks and onto the ground in front of him.
“Thanks!” Bailey said breathlessly to Joe. “I thought he had me.”
Joe nodded and ran back to his place in the rocks. As he neared the boulders, Joe suddenly flopped to the ground. Bailey turned his attention to the Indians who were charging again. He picked up his rifle and started firing.
None of the other braves were able to breach the rocks, and the ground was becoming littered with bodies. With a yell, the Apaches turned and retreated again.
Bailey watched as the Indians once again gathered their horses. The Apaches seemed unsure as to what to do next.
“They won’t try that again,” Bailey said with satisfaction. He watched as the Indians turned their horses. The Apaches simply stood, watching the rocks in front of them.
“Looks like they’re going to stay put for a bit,” Ben said. “Maybe we discouraged them.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Bailey replied. He turned and yelled over his shoulder. “You men all right?”
Four voices answered back. Bailey nodded again in satisfaction.
Ben looked to Hoss. “Are you all right?” he asked his son. Hoss nodded. Ben looked past Hoss. Joe was laying on the ground, his back toward his father. “Joe? Are you all right?” Ben shouted.
Ben expected his youngest son to turn and answer him. But Joe laid still on the ground. “Joe!” Ben said in alarm. Hoss also suddenly realized his brother hadn’t answered. Both Ben and Hoss rushed over to Joe.
Joe’s left arm was extended and his head was pillowed on it. He was laying on his side, his back toward the other men. His hat was pushed back on his head. As Ben reached his son, he gently turned Joe onto his back.
Joe’s eyes were closed, and his mouth was slack. A circle of red was quickly spreading over Joe’s shirt and jacket. Ben quickly pulled his son’s shirt and jacket open. He gasped as he saw the bullet wound in Joe’s shoulder.
The bullet had struck Joe in the right shoulder, just under his collarbone. Blood was oozing out of the wound. Ben probed the wound gently with his fingers. Joe groaned.
“Is he hit?” Bailey asked, coming up behind Ben.
Ben nodded. “The bullet is still in there,” he said in a grim voice. “I can’t tell how deep.”
Bailey bent down to look over Ben’s shoulder. “It don’t look too bad,” Bailey said. “I’ve seen worse. But we’ve got to get that bullet out quick. Otherwise, that wound will fester.” Bailey stood and looked around. “Take him down toward the bottom of the ravine,” Bailey ordered. “That will give us some room, and keep him out of the line of fire.”
Ben nodded again. He reached down to pick up his son, but Hoss shouldered him aside. “I’ve got him, Pa,” Hoss said.
Ben looked up at Hoss. “We’ll both carry him,” Ben said firmly. Hoss nodded.
Ben moved to the other side of his injured son. He carefully slid his arm under Joe’s injured shoulder, then reached down and slid his other arm under Joe’s knees. He saw Hoss was doing the same. With a nod, both men lifted Joe off the ground. Joe’s head flopped to the side, and his legs dangled in the air.
Bailey took a step back as Ben and Hoss carried Joe carefully down the ravine. He watched as the two older Cartwrights stepped cautiously down the hill. When he was sure they could manage all right, Bailey turned back to the rocks. “You men keep your eyes peeled,” he ordered. “Holler if it looks like them Indians are going to do anything.” One of the men waved at Bailey.
Bailey turned and walked slowly to the bottom of the ravine.
Ben and Hoss had put Joe gently on the ground. Joe was beginning to regain consciousness. His head moved slowly from side to side. He moaned in pain as he began to wake.
“Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben said in a soothing voice.
Joe’s eyes fluttered opened. He winced in pain, and gritted his teeth. Then his eyes opened wider. He looked at Ben, a question in his eyes.
“You’ve got a bullet in your shoulder,” Ben explained. “It doesn’t look too bad, but we need to dig it out.”
Joe nodded, then winced again as a wave of pain radiated through his body.
Bailey slid down the last few feet of the hill. He crouched next to Joe. Joe looked up at the sergeant.
“I’ve taken out a couple of bullets in my time,” Bailey said to Joe. “You trust me to dig this one out of you?”
Joe glanced over to Ben, who nodded slightly. Joe turned back to Bailey. “Go head,” he said. Joe winced and grunted again. He took a deep breath.
“It couldn’t hurt any worse than this,” Joe said in a choked voice.
Bailey turned toward the top of the hill. “Carney, bring me that bottle of ‘snake bite’ medicine you always carry,” Bailey shouted.
One of the men turned and looked back down the hill. “Sarge, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man shouted.
“Don’t give me that,” Bailey shouted back at him. “I know you got a bottle. Now bring it down here.”
Carney sighed. He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small bottle, shaped like a flask. He pulled the top off the bottle, and quickly brought it to his mouth. Carney took a long drink. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then pushed the cork back into the top of the bottle. Then he started slowly down the hill.
“Here,” Carney said, thrusting the bottle into Bailey’s hand. “I only keep it for emergencies.”
“Good,” replied Bailey evenly. “’Cause this is an emergency. Now go back down to those horses. There’s some bandages in my saddlebag. Go get them and bring them over here.”
“Aw, Sarge,” Carney started to whine.
“Just do as I say,” barked Bailey. The soldier reluctantly got to his feet. He walked to the bottom of the ravine. Then, crouching low, he started toward the horses.
Bailey watched the soldier for a minute, making sure his orders were being followed. Then he turned back to Joe. “You want a slug of this?” he asked.
Joe shook his head. “No,” he said. “Just get that bullet out.” Bailey nodded.
Bailey pulled the knife he had taken from the Indian out of his belt. He pulled the top off the whiskey bottle with his teeth, then poured the whiskey generously over the knife, turning the knife as he poured. When he was satisfied that the blade was covered with alcohol, Bailey turned to Ben.
“Better hold him,” Bailey advised. “This is going to hurt.”
Ben nodded grimly. He moved to Joe’s left and firmly put his hands on Joe’s uninjured shoulder. Hoss moved to hold Joe’s legs.
Bailey unbuttoned Joe’s shirt. He pulled open Joe’s shirt then eased both the shirt and jacket off Joe’s shoulder. He tried to be gentle, but Joe groaned in pain as the sergeant worked. Bailey finally got Joe’s arm out his sleeve. He pulled the cloth away from Joe and folded it under back of Joe’s arm.
Bailey looked Joe straight in the eyes. “Ready?” he asked. Joe took a deep breath, closed his eyes and nodded.
The next thing Joe felt was a burning, searing pain in his shoulder. His mouth opened as he let out a groan. His body tried to move instinctively away from the pain, but Ben and Hoss held him firm. Joe turned his head and gritted his teeth as his body became rigid. The pain seemed to be getting worse. Joe felt as if a hot poker were boring deep into his body. He groaned and grunted as the pain increased. He wondered how much longer he could stand it. Then suddenly, the pain eased.
“Got it!” Bailey said triumphantly, holding a small piece of lead in his blood-stained hand. He quickly threw it aside. Bailey picked the whiskey bottle up off the ground where he had laid it. He began pouring the whiskey onto Joe’s shoulder.
Joe groaned again as he felt another white hot pain in his shoulder. The burning seemed endless this time. Joe tried to move, to do anything to ease the pain. But his body was firmly pressed to the ground by strong hands.
“Easy, Joe, take it easy,” Ben said once again, trying to soothe his son. His face was creased with pain also as he watched his son’s agony. He knew Bailey was doing what had to be done, but it didn’t make it any easier for him to watch. “It’s all over now,” Ben said. “Just try to relax.”
Bailey turned to look down the ravine. “Carney, where are you?” he shouted. “I need those bandages.”
Carney seemed to be studying something at the end of the ravine. At Bailey’s shout, he quickly turned and started back down the ravine, crouching low as he moved past the horses.
“Here,” Carney said, thrusting some white cloth into Bailey’s hands. Bailey nodded and turned back to Joe.
Joe was pale and his face was covered with sweat. His breathing was rapid, and came in ragged bursts. He grunted and winced in pain.
“You can let him go,” Bailey said to Ben. Ben nodded and removed his hands from Joe’ shoulder. He gently stroked Joe’s arm as Bailey began to bandage the injured shoulder.
Carney watched Bailey work. “Hey, Sarge,” he said as Bailey tied the bandages around Joe’s shoulder, then looped the cloth around Joe’s chest.
“Not now,” Bailey growled at the soldier.
“But Sarge…” Carney said again.
“I said not now!” barked Bailey again. “Get back up there and keep an eye on those Indians.”
Carney’s face went hard. “Fine,” he said in disgust. He turned and quickly climbed back up the hill.
Hoss looked at the sergeant with a questioning expression. “Don’t you think you ought to have listened to him?” Hoss asked.
Bailey looked up at Hoss. “He’s the one that beat up that Indian,” Bailey said. “If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I’m not interested in anything he has to say.”
Hoss started to say something, but Joe groaned softly, pulling Hoss’ attention back to his brother. Joe’s breathing had slowed, but his face still reflected the pain he was feeling. “You’re going to be fine, little brother,” Hoss said in a reassuring voice. Joe nodded his head slightly.
Bailey sat back on his heels and studied his handiwork. “He should be all right with some rest,” he said. “That bullet wasn’t too deep. It hurts, and he lost some blood, but with some rest, he should be fine.”
Ben looked at the sergeant. “Thank you,” he said softly.
Bailey shrugged. “He got that bullet because he was helping me,” said Bailey. “I figured I owed him.” Bailey glanced up the hill. “I’d better get back up there. You two stay with him. I’ll call you if we need you.” Bailey stood and climbed back up the hill.
Ben gently stroked Joe’s head. “Hoss, go get one of the canteens,” said Ben, his eyes never leaving Joe’s face. Hoss nodded, and he began to climb the hill also. Ben continued to stroke Joe’s head. “Everything is all right now, Joseph,” he said softly. “You just rest. Everything is fine.” Ben shook his head as he listened to his own words. They were stuck in a ravine, facing a band of angry Apaches. His youngest son had a bullet hole in his shoulder. There seemed to be no way out of the ravine, and he didn’t know how long their ammunition and water would last. Ben laughed grimly. Sure, he thought, everything is just fine.
The Indians seemed more interested in keeping the men trapped in the ravine than staging a serious attack. They half-heartedly charged the ravine several times during the remainder of the day, but each charge was brief. The Apaches seemed more interested in finding out how close they could get to the rocks before the men in the ravine started shooting than they were on inflicting any serious damage. Each charge was fast and quick, with the Indians retreating almost as soon as the gunfire erupted from the rocks. Neither side inflicted any damage.
Ben had insisted Hoss stay with Joe at the bottom of the ravine during the rest of the day. He knew the odds were very slim that a stray bullet would find its way to the bottom of the ravine. He had one son with a bullet wound; he wasn’t about to risk anything happening to his other son. Ben had convinced Hoss that someone had to look after Joe, and Hoss was best suited for the task. That was partially true. But Ben also wanted to keep his older son safe.
At the first sound of fighting after Bailey had removed the bullet from Joe, Ben climbed to the top of the ravine to join the soldiers. He had fired his rifle a few times, more to discourage the charging Apaches than anything else. He doubted if he had hit anything during the latest series of charges. The Indians seemed to know how close they could come and still stay out of the range of the murderous gunfire from behind the rocks.
“What do you think they’re waiting for?” Ben asked Bailey at one point. He couldn’t understand the Apaches’ apparent tactic of simply keeping them pinned behind the rocks.
Bailey shrugged in reply. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe they’re waiting for reinforcements. Or maybe they’re simply waiting for Cochise to tell them it’s all right to leave.” Bailey shook his head. “Maybe they just want to see how long it will be before we run out of ammunition.” Bailey had cautioned his men to fire sparingly, to save their ammunition for what might be the real battle. But it was not humanly possible for anyone of them not to shoot when the Apache came charging across the ground, screaming and shooting at them. All of the men still had a good supply of bullets, but the supply was beginning to dwindle.
The long pauses between the attacks gave Ben a chance to study the other soldiers hiding behind the rocks. He wasn’t sure he liked what he saw.
Carney, the soldier who had given the whiskey to Bailey, was a short man with a mean looking face. He had pointedly ignored Bailey after Bailey had rebuffed him in the ravine, acting like a child who was pouting after some sort of parental punishment. He seemed to enjoy killing; his face broke into an evil grin every time he began shooting at the Apaches.
The other men looked equally as unpleasant. One was tall and thin, and his face seemed to be set in a permanent scowl. Bailey had called him Hoffman. Another was about average height, at least he looked that way as he crouched behind the rocks. He had long, dark hair and sported a thin mustache. His name was Williams, and he seemed more interested in keeping behind the protection of the rocks than firing at the Apache. The last man seemed a bit younger than the rest. He was thin and blonde, and he seemed to find the battle exciting. Ben had heard Bailey shout at him several times, calling the young man Peterson. Peterson was the one who most often started the shooting. He would fire wildly at the first sign of an Apache charge, rarely hitting anything, but he would shout with excitement as he fired.
Ben shook his head as he studied the men next to him. Bailey hadn’t lied when he called them misfits. Ben didn’t like the idea of his life and the lives of his sons being dependent on these soldiers.
The hot Arizona sun blazed down from a cloudless sky during the day. Ben had checked on Joe periodically during the day, usually after one the charges when the Apaches seemed content to leave the men pinned behind the rocks. Joe had slept the day away, exhausted by the pain wound and the loss of blood. Hoss had assured his father repeatedly that Joe was doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances, but that didn’t stop Ben from worrying. He wanted desperately to get Joe to a doctor. He wouldn’t feel confident about his youngest son’s condition until he did.
The sun was low in the afternoon sky as Ben climbed down the ravine yet again to check on Joe. He was pleased to see that Joe was awake. Hoss was holding Joe’s head up as Joe drank from a canteen. Ben crouched next to his son as Joe handed the canteen back to Hoss. Hoss eased Joe’s head back to the ground. He had pulled Joe’s shirt back on his brother’s shoulder, but removed his jacket. The jacket was folded under Joe’s head as a pillow. The angle of the sun gave long shadows to the rocks above them, and the shadows gave Joe a bit of shade.
“How are you feeling?” asked Ben with a smile as he knelt next to Joe.
“I’m all right,” Joe answered. He shifted slightly on the hard ground. “Wish we could have found someplace softer to hole up in,” he complained.
Ben’s smile widened. If Joe was complaining, he was feeling better. “I’ll take that into consideration next time we’re being chased by a band of angry Apaches,” Ben said wryly. He put his hand on Joe’s forehead. Joe’ head felt warm, but his fever seemed very mild. Ben noted he was covered with a thin layer of sweat, but no more than to be expected after laying most of the day in the hot Arizona sun. A small blotch of blood was visible on the bandage on Joe’s shoulder, but the blood looked rusty and dried.
“It didn’t seem to keep you from sleeping the last couple of hours,” Hoss teased his brother mildly.
“That’s because I didn’t have to listen to your snoring,” Joe said to Hoss with a weak smile. Then he sobered and turned to his father. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Are those Apaches still out there?”
“Yes,” admitted Ben. “They don’t seem to be planning to leave. But all they’re doing is keeping us pinned down.”
“What are they planning?” asked Hoss with a frown.
“I wish I knew,” Ben said, shaking his head. “They seem to be waiting for something, but I don’t know what.”
Hoss’ frown deepened. “Maybe I should go back up by the rocks,” he suggested.
“No, “ Ben said quickly. “You stay here with Joe. We’ll call if we need you.”
He wanted to keep both his sons as safe as possible. “Right now, all you’d be is another target.”
“Yeah, and one that’s hard to miss,” added Joe wryly.
Ben smiled, then patted Joe lightly on the shoulder. “You take it easy and rest,” he said to his youngest son. “We’ll figure a way out of this soon,” he promised. He looked up at Hoss and nodded encouragingly. Then Ben turned and climbed back up the hill.
“How’s he doing?” Bailey asked Ben as he settled into the rocks next to the sergeant.
“He seems to be doing all right,” Ben said. “The bleeding has stopped, and he only has a low fever. But I’ll feel better when we can get a doctor at the fort to look at him.”
“I think we’d all feel better if we could get back to the fort,” said Bailey ironically.
“Hey, Sarge, I’m getting hungry,” shouted Williams from behind his rock.
“Well, what do you want me to do, cook you a steak dinner?” Bailey shouted back. “I’m sure those Apaches wouldn’t mind if we told them to call this off because you’re hungry.” Williams scowled at the sergeant and turned back to watch the ground in front of the rocks.
Bailey turned to Ben. “I sure wish I had my old patrol,” he said quietly with a shake of head. “I’m not sure what these yahoos are going to do.”
Ben nodded. He also wished he had more confidence in the men around him. “I wish we had a battalion,” Ben said wryly. He took a deep breath. “Any chance they might send a patrol from the fort looking for you?” he asked hopefully.
Bailey shook his head. “We’re not due back for four or five days,” said the sergeant. “It’ll be a week before they start looking for us.”
“Then I guess we’re stuck with these men,” said Ben.
“Yeah,” said Bailey. “We’re stuck with ‘em all right. I’m not sure who’s more dangerous – those Apaches or those so-called soldiers behind these rocks.”
Ben frowned and turned back to watch the ground in front of him. “Let’s hope we don’t have to find out,” he muttered.
At dusk, the men behind the rocks saw what the Apaches were waiting for. A group of fifteen Indians, led by a well-muscled brave, rode in from the West. The Indians who had been attacking the rocks welcomed the new arrivals.
“That’s Many Horses, one of Cochise’s young war chiefs,” Bailey muttered as he watched the scene. He turned to Ben and smiled ironically. “I think we might really be in trouble now.” Ben nodded grimly.
The men behind the rocks watched the Apaches carefully. The greeting shouts from the braves ended quickly. Many Horses yelled and gestured at the braves, seeming unhappy that they hadn’t yet finished with the men in the ravine. One brave seemed to be trying to explain something to Many Horses, but he brushed the man aside. Many Horses began shouting orders.
“Oh, oh,” Bailey said. He turned to Ben. “I think you’d better get your son up here. We’re going to need every gun we’ve got.”
Ben agreed. He turned and shouted down the ravine. “Hoss, get up here with your rifle,” Ben yelled. “We’re going to need you.” He turned back to watch the Apaches again.
The Apaches were forming themselves to charge when Ben saw Hoss crouching next to him from the corner of his eye. Another movement behind Hoss drew Ben’s attention. He turned his head. Joe was struggling to the top of the ravine. His shirt was buttoned about half-way and his arm rested in the shirt as if in a sling. Joe had a pistol in his left hand.
“Joe, what do you think you’re doing?” Ben yelled as his youngest son crouched next to Hoss.
Joe winced as he positioned himself behind a boulder, and leaned back against a smaller rock. He turned to Ben. “I’m not about to lay down there waiting for those Apaches to take my scalp,” he said grimly. “I can still pull a trigger.”
“Joe…” Ben started to say with concern.
“Here they come!” yelled one of the soldiers from Ben’s right. He quickly turned back to the open ground in front of the rocks. About forty Apaches were charging at the rocks, riding at full speed across the ground. Several were shouting war cries as they rode.
“Hold your fire until they’re closer,” Bailey ordered. “Make sure they’re in range before you shoot.”
The Apaches charged until they were about ten feet from the rocks then slowed as they pulled rifles up to their shoulders. Peterson led the shooting from behind the rocks once again. His first shot knocked a young brave from his horse.
The rest of men opened fire as soon as Peterson shot his rifle. Once again, their shooting was deadly. Several Apaches fell to the ground, and others slumped against the horses. Bullets whizzed into the rocks as the Indians fired but the Cartwrights and the soldiers were well-hidden. The Apaches suffered heavy casualties while their bullets landed harmlessly.
Many Horses, the young war chief, was in the middle of the charging Apaches. He seemed startled at the turn of events. He began to pull his horse to a stop and shouting orders. He suddenly winced and grabbed his arm as a bullet grazed his shoulder. Many Horses needed no more evidence of the fool-heartiness of charging the rocks. He shouted another order and turned his horse away. As he rode off, the rest of the Apaches followed him.
“Guess we showed him!” whooped Peterson from the far end of the rocks.
“Yeah, we showed him,” Bailey said grimly. He watched as the Apaches pulled their horses together yet again in the distance. A minute later, two braves rode off, galloping their horses to the west. “We showed them that they need more help”, continued Bailey. “We’ll probably have the whole Apache nation down on us by morning.”
Ben quickly glanced over his shoulder to his sons. Hoss turned his head and grinned at his father. Ben looked passed him to Joe. Joe waved his arm weakly. Ben let out a sigh of relief. Both of his sons had apparently survived the attack without further injury.
The men crouched behind the rocks watched as the Apaches began dismounting. It looked as if they were making camp. Ben glanced up at the sky. The sun was rapidly disappearing and the sky darkening.
“They probably won’t do anything until morning,” Ben said sitting up. “The Apache don’t like to fight at night. They’re afraid if they’re killed, their spirit will get lost in the dark.”
Bailey nodded his agreement. “We’ve got 9 or 10 hours,” he said. “We’d better use it as best we can.” Bailey turned to the men on his right. “Williams, see if you can find some wood around here to make a fire.”
“A fire?” Williams said hesitantly. “Won’t that give us away?”
“I think those Apaches know we’re here,” Bailey said, his voice dripping with irony. “Now move!” Williams scampered down the ravine.
“Hoffman, get over to those horses,” Bailey said, continuing to bark orders. “Check on them, make sure they’re all right.” Hoffman also scampered down the ravine. “And bring some coffee and food out of those saddlebags,” Bailey shouted after him. Bailey turned to Ben and grinned. “I’d just as soon get killed with a full belly,” Bailey said.
A hour later, the sky was fully dark. Night had come quickly, as it does in the desert. The men behind the rocks could see several fires in the distance from the Apache camp. They had their own small fire blazing behind the rocks. The Cartwrights and the soldiers had eaten heartily, finishing off some smoked ham and several cans of peaches. There didn’t seem much point in saving the food for later. Now, they were huddled around the fire, drinking what they hoped was not going to be their last cups of coffee.
“Are we just going to sit here and let those Indians come get us?” Peterson complained as he sipped his coffee.
“I’m open to any ideas,” Bailey said evenly.
“I checked the horses,” said Hoffman. “They’re thirsty but they’re still in good shape. We could make a run for it in the dark.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea,” Bailey replied with disgust. “Riding a horse at full speed across the desert in the dark. With forty or so Apaches chasing you. If your horse didn’t fall and kill you, those Apaches would.”
“We might be able to outrun them,” said Hoffman. “It’s worth a try.”
Ben glanced over his shoulder to where Joe was resting against the rocks. “I don’t think my son can sit a horse much less ride one at a full gallop,” Ben said.
“That’s his tough luck,” said Hoffman. Both Ben and Hoss looked startled at the man’s words. They looked at each other in alarm.
“We’re not leaving anyone behind,” Bailey said firmly. “Besides, we’d never outrun those Indians.”
“You said they won’t fight at night,” Hoffman pressed.
“They don’t like to fight at night,” Bailey corrected the soldier. “That doesn’t mean they won’t do it.”
“How about if just one of us goes?” said Williams. “If you gave me cover, I could ride to the fort for help.”
“You?” said Carney with a snort. “You’d probably keep right on riding, you little coward.”
Williams flushed and said nothing. His lack of response indicated that he was thinking just what Carney suggested.
“What if we offer to give them Carney?” Williams suggested in a nasty voice. “I mean, he’s the one they really want. He’s the one that beat that Indian kid. Maybe if we give ‘em Carney, they’d let the rest of us go.”
“Now wait a minute!” Carney said angrily. “It weren’t just me. Hoffman and Peterson, they held him.”
Hoss and Ben looked at each other again, their faces showing a growing sense of alarm. They were trapped with a group of men who seemed to have no honor, no sense of right and wrong.
“As much as I’d like to, we can’t give them Carney,” Bailey said. “Besides, that probably wouldn’t satisfy them.”
“It was only an Indian,” Carney muttered. Ben, Hoss, and the sergeant looked at the man with disgust.
“What we need is a way to sneak out of here,” continued Bailey. He looked around at the men sitting near the fire. “Any ideas?”
For a moment, no one said anything. Finally, Carney spoke up. “There’s a trail leading down into the canyon,” Carney said. “I saw it this afternoon when I got those bandages.”
“A trail?” said Ben. “Are you sure?”
Carney nodded. “I saw it,” he insisted. “Right near the end of the ravine. It looks pretty steep, like a goat trail or something. But it leads right through them rocks and down into the canyon.”
“Carney, why didn’t you say something sooner?” Bailey said in exasperation.
“I tried, Sarge,” Carney replied with a sneer. “I tried to tell you but you told me to shut up.”
Bailey looked at Ben. “If there really is a trail, we might just get out of here,” he said. “You think your boy could do some walking?”
Ben looked over to where Joe was resting against the rocks. Joe was sleeping, his arm still resting in his shirt. Ben turned back to the sergeant.
“We’ll help him walk,” Ben said. He looked around him at the other men.
“I sure don’t want to stay here,” Ben added.
“Carney, come with me and show me that trail,” Bailey ordered the soldier. As Bailey and Carney started to leave the camp, Ben turned to Hoss. “Go with them,” he said. “Make sure we can get Joe down that trail.” Hoss nodded and quickly ran after the other two men.
Ben moved over next to Joe. He laid his hand on Joe’s forehead, feeling for fever. He was satisfied that Joe’s fever was still very low. Joe stirred as he felt the touch of a hand.
“What’s going on?” Joe asked, still groggy from sleep.
“We may have found a way out of here,” Ben replied. “But we’ll probably have to do some walking. Do you feel up to it.”
Joe sat up, now wide awake. “A way out?” he said. “How?”
“There may be a trail down the canyon,” replied Ben. “Hoss and Sergeant Bailey are checking it out now.” Ben looked straight into his son’s eyes. “Do you think you can walk?” he asked again.
Joe grinned. “To get away from those Apaches, I’d run barefoot through the desert,” Joe said.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Ben said with an answering grin.
Joe grew serious. “Pa, I don’t want you and Hoss to get in trouble because of me,” he said. “If you get a chance to get away, don’t worry about me.”
Ben patted his son lightly on the arm. “Joe, we’re in this together,” Ben said. “All of us. We’re not going anywhere without you.”
Ben heard Hoss and the other men climbing back up the ravine. He patted Joe on the arm again and quickly moved back to the fire.
“Well?” he asked anxiously.
Bailey grinned. “It’s there,” he said. “The prettiest little trail you ever saw.”
“I told you so,” muttered Carney.
Ben looked at Hoss. “Do you think Joe can get down it?” he asked with concern.
Hoss frowned. “It’s pretty steep, Pa,” answered Hoss. “It’s a tough climb for a man with two good arms. I don’t think Joe can make it.”
“I’m not staying here and dying because of him!” Williams shouted, pointing at Joe. Joe glared back at the man.
“Now take it easy,” Bailey said in a soothing voice. “Nobody is staying. There’s a ledge. I figure we can tie a rope around the boy and let him down. It’ll be kind of tricky in the dark, but it can be done.” Bailey turned to Ben. “We’ll get him down.” Ben nodded gratefully to the sergeant.
“What if those Indians follow us?” asked Williams.
“They won’t know we’re gone until daylight,” said Bailey. “That gives us about five hours head start. I don’t think the Apaches will be very interested in trying to catch us. Besides, we’ll have to leave the horses. Apaches love horses. It will probably satisfy them to take our mounts.”
“How far is it to the fort?” Ben asked. “I mean, on foot.”
“I figure about two days walk,” Bailey said.
“Two days!” exclaimed Ben. He glanced over his shoulder at Joe. “I don’t know if he can make it.”
“It’ll be pretty rough on him,” agreed Bailey. “But it’s better than him staying here and getting his scalp lifted.”
“I’ll help him, Pa,” Hoss said. “I’ll get him there.”
Ben nodded at Hoss, but he looked again at Joe with concern.
“Now here’s what we’re going to do,” Bailey said turning back to the soldiers. “You men, gather up all the ammunition and your canteens. The only thing you’re going to carry is your side arm and your water. You’re going to need both hands to climb down the trail, so don’t carry your rifle. Leave everything else behind.”
“My canteen is almost empty,” complained Peterson.
Bailey looked at the man. “What the heck were you thinking?” he shouted at him.
“I got thirsty,” Peterson whined.
“We’ve got an extra canteen,” Hoss said. “It’s only about half full. I gave most of the water to Joe. The other three we have are almost full. He can have what’s left in the extra one. It’s down near the bottom of the ravine.”
Bailey nodded. “Go get it,” the sergeant said to Peterson. “You don’t deserve it, but go get it.” He watched as Peterson scrambled down the ravine. Bailey turned to Hoss. “Thanks,” he said. Hoss just shrugged.
Bailey turned back to the rest of the men. “Now listen up,” he said. “Each of you is going to carry his own water, and be responsible for it. You drink it all at once, and you’ll go thirsty. So I suggest you drink only when you have to. It’s going to take us two days of walking to get to the fort. So ration your water.” The soldiers around the fire nodded.
“Williams, build up that fire nice and bright,” Bailey continued. “I want those Apaches to think we’re still here.” Williams nodded and started adding some sticks to the fire. “The rest of you, gather your ammunition and water. We’re leaving in ten minutes.” The soldiers started scrambling toward various rocks.
Ben walked over to Joe. “You heard?” he asked his son. Joe nodded. “Don’t worry,” said Ben as lightly as he could. “We’ll get you to the fort.”
“I’ll make it, Pa,” Joe said grimly. He sat up and started struggling to his feet. Ben helped him up. Joe winced as his injured shoulder moved. “I’d better get my canteen,” Joe said as he tried to smile. The effort was a weak one. The truth was that Joe’s stomach was clutched with fear as he thought of the ordeal ahead. He took a deep breath. “I’ll make it,” he said again firmly, both to reassure himself and his father.
Ten minutes later, eight shadows were moving slowing through the ravine. Each man had a canteen strapped to his belt or looped over his shoulder. Each that is, except Ben Cartwright. Ben had two canteens looped over his shoulder. He insisted on carrying Joe’s canteen for him. Ben had an idea of what was going to happen in the canyon. Joe would have enough problems without worrying about keeping track of a canteen.
The men were crouched down, and kept the horses between them and the Apaches as they crawled through the ravine. The animals watched the men curiously as they moved through the ravine, but none gave them away.
Hoss stopped by one horse and reached up to pull a rope off the saddle. He looked at it closely. The rope was thick and looped many times. It looked long enough and strong enough for the job he had in mind. Hoss moved quickly to catch up with the other men.
A full-moon shone down on the land below. It was bright enough to give the men in the ravine enough light to see by. They only hoped it didn’t give the Apaches enough light to see them.
The men were crouched at the end of the ravine. Each could see the opening in the rocks that revealed the trail. But each of them could also see the yards of open ground between the ravine and the trail, lit by the bright moon overhead. They waited nervously.
Bailey led one horse to the end of the ravine. He held the horse steady, hoping to block the view of any Apaches. Then he turned and nodded to Carney.
Carney scrambled up the side of the ravine. Crouching low, he ran across the open ground and to the rocks near the top of the canyon. He stopped briefly at the rocks, then disappeared.
Bailey nodded again and Williams followed Carney. As Williams disappeared behind the rocks, Hoffman ran across the ground. Then Peterson followed. Hoss followed Peterson.
Ben and Joe were crouched in the ravine, waiting for Bailey’s signal. Bailey nodded, and Joe started forward. He made it up the side of the ravine, and started forward. He crouched as he walked, and his gait was slow and measured. Ben watched his son carefully, ready to help him if he faltered. But Joe made it to the rocks. Ben breathed a sigh of relief.
Ben glanced up at Bailey, then climbed up the ravine. He quickly crossed the open ground and disappeared behind the rocks.
Hoss and Joe were waiting for him behind the rocks. Hoss was already looping the rope around Joe. Ben glanced down. He saw the soldiers climbing slowly down a steep, rocky trail. The men needed both hands to steady themselves as they climbed. Hoss was right, Ben thought. Joe could never make that climb.
Bailey came up behind Ben. “Looks like we made it,” the sergeant said with a triumphant smile.
Ben nodded. “Where the ledge?” he asked. Bailey pointed to his right.
A spit of rock jutted out from the lip of the canyon. The ledge was narrow but wide enough for a man to stand on it. It was about twenty feet above the rocky ground.
Joe licked his lips nervously as he saw the ledge. He turned to Ben. “Pa, I think I can make it down the trail,” he said quickly.
Ben looked at the trail again, then shook his head. “Joe, you’ll never make it,” he said. “You’ll fall and break your neck.”
Joe glanced at the ledge again and swallowed hard. “Maybe if you held the rope as while I climbed…” Joe started to say.
Ben quickly shook his head. “Joe, it would never work,” Ben explained. “There’s too many twists in the trail, too many rocks.”
Joe looked at the ledge once more. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment.
Ben knew Joe had a fear of heights, and the ledge was high off the ground. But there was no other way to get him down.
“Joe, you can do this,” Ben said firmly. “The rope is strong. And I’m going to waiting for you at the bottom.”
“Don’t worry, little brother,” Hoss said reassuringly. “I won’t let you fall.”
“You’d better not,” muttered Joe. He glanced worriedly at the ledge again. “All right,” Joe said. “Let’s get this over with.”
Ben quickly started to climb down the trail, wanting to keep his promise of waiting for Joe at the bottom. His attention was glued to the trail as he climbed. The dirt was loose, and Ben needed to hold firm to the rocks as he let himself down. It took him several minutes to reach the bottom.
As soon as he reached the flat ground, Ben looked up to the ledge. He could see three figures in the dark standing on the ledge. Ben moved quickly to stand underneath it.
Ben held his breath as he watched one figure grab the rope with his only visible arm. The two other figures seemed to be bracing themselves. Then the first figure crouched and eased himself off the ledge.
It took only a few minutes for Hoss and Bailey to lower Joe to the ground, but to Ben, it seemed an eternity. He could imagine the terror Joe must be feeling. He watched with his heart in his throat as his son dangled in the air over the rocky ground. Slowly, Joe was lowered closer and closer to bottom. Ben rushed forward.
Joe was about four feet over Ben’s head when Ben reached the ground under the ledge. He could hear Joe’s rapid and ragged breathing. Ben reached up, ready to grab his son as soon as he was close enough. In only a minute, Joe’s legs were in reach. Ben waited until he could reach Joe’s waist. Then he grabbed his son tightly and lowered him to the ground. A few seconds later, the rope went slack.
Joe turned and buried his face in his father’s shoulder. Ben could feel him trembling, and he could hear his son’s loud gasps for air. Ben held him tight. “It’s all right,” Ben murmured as he held Joe. “You’re safe now.”
Ben held Joe until his son got himself under control. Joe slowly raised his head. Ben could see Joe’s face was covered with sweat. Joe swallowed hard and stared almost blankly into Ben’s eyes. Ben smiled and nodded encouragingly at his son. Joe blinked several times and swallowed hard again.
Ben heard rather than saw Hoss and Bailey come up to him. Ben kept his eyes firmly on Joe, making sure his son was all right. Joe finally nodded and stepped back from his father.
“Joe, are you all right?” Hoss asked his brother with concern. Even in the dark, he could tell Joe was pale and shaken.
Joe nodded. “Yeah, I’m all right,” he answered in a shaky voice.
“That must have been some trip,” Bailey commented with a grin.
“I don’t know,” Joe answered. “I had my eyes closed the whole way.”
Ben, Hoss, and Bailey laughed as Joe gave them shaky grin.
Bailey looked around. He saw the four soldiers sitting on the ground about ten yards away. None of them had made a move to help Ben or Joe.
Bailey sighed. “We’d better get moving,” he said. “The farther we get away from here, the safer we’ll be.” He looked at Joe. “Son, I’d be proud to have you in my unit anytime,” Bailey said. “You’re twice the man any of those soldiers claim to be.”
“Thanks,” Joe said. “But let’s think of another way for me to prove it.”
Bailey grinned, and walked forward to join his men.
The hot sun shone down on the men who were walking slowly across the barren land. Bailey led the way, walking steadily through the sand. Carney, Williams, Hoffman and Peterson followed him in a ragged line. Ben came next, with Joe leaning heavily on him as Ben helped his son walk. Hoss brought up the rear.
The men had started hiking at a brisk pace during the night. The relief and adrenaline they felt at their escape had buoyed all of them. They had started walking out of the canyon and toward the fort with enthusiasm. But as the hours passed, their enthusiasm quickly flagged. All began to tire, and Joe tired quicker than the rest.
After three hours of walking through the night, Bailey had called a halt and ordered a twenty minute rest. Joe had made it on his own for the first part of the trek. But he had struggled to get to his feet when Bailey ordered the men to start walking again. Hoss quickly helped his brother to his feet, and put his strong arm around Joe’s waist. Joe leaned gratefully against his brother as he began to walk. Hoss gently pushed Joe forward and kept his arm around him to support him.
Bailey had noted Joe’s difficulty without comment. But he slowed the pace considerably. The other soldiers either didn’t see or ignored Joe.
The second rest break came after only two hours. The sun was beginning to rise as Bailey called a halt again. By now, Joe was leaning heavily on Hoss, his pace slower. Ben had watched his sons with concern, but Hoss waved him away when he tried to help.
The second break had lasted almost half an hour. Joe had fallen asleep almost as soon as he had laid down on the ground. Ben had felt Joe’s forehead and was alarmed that his son’s fever seemed to be higher. Joe’s breathing was fast and heavy, also. Ben desperately wished he could do something to help his son. But there was little he could do.
The soldiers had grumbled and complained when Bailey ordered them to start walking again. Ben had ignored them as he gently woke Joe. Joe barely opened his eyes. Both Ben and Hoss had to help him to his feet. This time, Ben slipped Joe’s arm around his shoulders. Joe leaned against his father heavily. But he began walking.
Now the sun was high in the sky, and the heat was building rapidly. Joe’s pace was becoming slower with each step. Ben kept urging his son forward, but it was becoming harder and harder for Joe to walk. Ben pulled Joe’s hat down firmly on his son’s head, trying to give him some protection from the sun. But there was no way to protect him from the heat.
Bailey looked back at the men behind him. He could see Ben and Joe were falling farther and farther behind. Bailey looked around him and studied the land. Ahead, a cluster of tall rocks, looking almost like monuments, stood out against the cloudless sky. Bailey could see a small alcove in the rocks, bathed in shadows. He headed for the shadows.
Bailey called a halt as he reached the shade. The soldiers behind him walked quickly toward the relative cool of the shadows. Ben, Joe and Hoss joined them a minute later.
Ben eased Joe to the ground. Joe was covered with sweat, and his eyes were almost closed. Ben quickly pulled one of the canteens off his shoulder and pulled the top off the container. He lifted Joe’s head and put the canteen to Joe’s lips. Joe drank deeply, as he had during the previous two breaks. The canteen was emptying fast.
Ben put the canteen aside and eased Joe’s head back down to the ground. He pulled Joe’s shirt open to look at his son’s wound. Ben frowned as he looked at Joe’s shoulder. He could see the skin around the bandage looked red and angry. As Ben gentle lifted the bandage, Joe groaned.
The wound in Joe’s shoulder was inflamed and swollen. Ben winced as he studied the wound.
“We’re going to have to open that up again, let it drain,” Bailey said as he stood over Ben and Joe.
Ben nodded, hating the thought of causing more pain to his son.
“Want me to do it?” Bailey asked.
Ben took a deep breath. “No,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
Bailey handed Ben the knife. Hoss came over and knelt next to Joe. He looked at his brother’s shoulder, then quickly at the knife in Ben’s hand.
“Pa,” he said with a frown. “I don’t know how much more he can take.”
“I know,” Ben said. “But we have no choice. Hold him, Hoss.”
Hoss nodded and put his large hands on Joe’s chest and shoulder. Ben doused the knife with water from the canteen. He wished they had the whiskey bottle. Not only would that clean the knife better, but Ben hated to waste the water.
Ben pulled Joe’ shirt open and pulled the bandage back. With a swift cut, he opened the swollen wound.
Joe screamed in pain as the knife cut into him, then went limp.
Ben made another quick cut, and the wound started oozing pus and blood. Joe laid unmoving on the dirt.
Ben poured some more of the precious water on the wound, hoping to clean it out a bit more. Then he pulled the bandage back over the wound.
“Good job,” Bailey said, nodding with approval. He stood and looked around. “We’ll spend a couple of hours here,” Bailey said. “No sense traveling in the heat of the day. And your son can use the rest.” Ben nodded gratefully.
Bailey suddenly turned and walked over to the soldiers sitting on the ground. Peterson was about to pour water from his canteen over his head when Bailey snatched it out of his hand. “Peterson, are you crazy or just plain stupid?” the sergeant asked angrily.
“I’m hot,” complained Peterson.
“Well, you’re going to be worse off if you keep wasting water like that,” Bailey said. He shook the canteen and frowned. “How much have you had to drink?” he asked.
Peterson shrugged. “I don’t know,” the soldier replied sullenly. “When I get thirsty, I drink.”
“You keep this up, and you’ll be out of water by nightfall,” Bailey warned. “And we have another day before we get to the fort.”
“Aw, sarge, you worry too much,” Peterson said.
Bailey turned to the rest of the men sprawled on the ground. “Listen to me, all of you,” he said. “We have a lot of ground to cross and there’s no water between here and the fort. You have to save your water. If you use it up, you’re going to die out here.” The men glared back at Bailey. No one said anything.
Ben and Hoss watched the scene with concern. They had both drank from the canteens sparingly, giving Joe more than his share of their water. Only the one contents of one canteen was dwindling. Between them, they had two other, almost full canteens. Ben wondered what would happen when one of the soldiers ran out of water. He had no doubt that the soldiers would kill to get more water if they had to. Ben looked at Hoss, his face betraying his worry and fear.
Bailey walked away from the men and sat by Ben and Hoss. “When we get back to the fort, I swear I’m going to have them all thrown out of the troop,” Bailey muttered as he eased himself onto the ground. He looked over at Joe. “He’s having a pretty rough time,” Bailey commented.
Ben looked at his son. Joe was still laying unmoving on the ground, exhausted by the pain and the walking. “I don’t know how much longer he can walk,” Ben admitted. He turned back to Bailey. “How much farther to the fort?” he asked.
Bailey hesitated before he answered. “We’re not even halfway there yet,” he said finally. He looked at Ben. “Maybe we should have stayed in that ravine.”
Ben shook his head. “No, if we had stayed, we’d all be dead by now,” said Ben.
“I wish we could have found another way,” Bailey said apologetically. “I’m sorry.”
“There was no other way,” replied Ben. He looked at Joe again and took a deep breath. “There was no other way,” Ben said again softly.
Four hours later, Bailey ordered his men to their feet. The shade in which they had been resting was rapidly disappearing as the sun rose high into the sky. The heat was coming in waves across the desert. Bailey knew there was no sense staying by the rocks any longer. They would be just as hot staying where they were as they would be if they were walking. And staying wouldn’t get them any closer to the fort.
Joe had drifted in and out of consciousness during the past four hours. When he was awake, he felt a throbbing pain in his shoulder. Joe had tried not to fade back into a dreamless sleep. But the pain, the heat and his exhaustion made it difficult for him to stay awake. He was vaguely aware of someone giving him water almost every time he woke up. He hadn’t heard Hoss throwing aside a now empty canteen. He only knew that trying to stay awake took more energy than it was worth. He finally stopped fighting and let himself slip back into that dark world where he couldn’t feel the pain and heat.
Now he felt someone gently shaking him awake once more.
“Joe, “ Ben said with concern. “We have to get moving. Do you think you can walk?”
Joe looked up at his father through half opened eyes. He wanted to get up; in fact, he knew he had to get up. But he felt so tired. The thought of getting to his feet seemed a task more daunting than climbing a mountain.
“Joe,” Ben said again, his voice more urgent. “Joe, we have to get moving.”
Joe nodded and somehow managed to sit up. It seemed to take all his energy to accomplish that alone. His shoulders slumped forward.
Ben grabbed Joe’s uninjured arm and started pulling his son to his feet. Hoss grabbed Joe around the waist and pulled up. Between the two of them, Ben and Hoss managed to get Joe to his feet.
Bailey had watched the Cartwrights with growing concern. Now he walked slowly to the trio. “Can he walk?” Bailey asked.
Ben slipped Joe’s arm over his shoulders. “He can walk,” answered Ben. “I don’t know how far, but he can walk.”
Joe looked up at the sergeant with dull eyes. “I can make it,” he said in a weak voice.
Bailey studied the men in front of him, then nodded. He turned abruptly and walked away.
Hoss picked the two remaining canteens up off the ground and slipped the straps over his shoulder. Then he put his arm around Joe’s waist. Joe winced slightly as Hoss’ massive shoulder bumped his arm.
Ben and Hoss started walking slowly, dragging Joe between them. Joe shuffled his feet; he was being pulled more than actually walking. His head lolled to one side, and his legs were rubbery. Joe held on to his father as tightly as he could.
Bailey and the four soldiers were walking across the desert ahead of Ben and Hoss. Their pace was slow, but even still, the Cartwrights quickly lagged behind. Ben knew they had a long way to go to get to the fort. He wondered if they could get there.
Somehow, Ben and Hoss managed to drag Joe across the barren ground for another two hours. All three were becoming exhausted. The soldiers ahead of them kept walking. None of them turned to help.
The ragged band was approaching another cluster of rocks.. Ben saw the rocks and began searching them with his eyes, looking for a shady spot. He was looking ahead so intensely that he didn’t notice Joe was falling until he felt his son’s arm pulled away from him.
“Bailey!” Ben shouted in alarm. Joe had fallen away from Ben, and only Hoss’ desperate snatch has prevent Joe from crashing to the ground. Hoss laid his brother gently on the ground.
“Bailey!” Ben shouted again. He knelt next to Joe and gently slapped his son on the cheek, trying to rouse him.
Ben looked up as a shadow crossed Joe’s face. Bailey stood over them, his face full of concern. The other soldiers stood a few feet away, watching impassively.
Bailey knelt on the ground next to Ben. He watched as Hoss handed his father a canteen, and Ben poured a small trickle of water on Joe’s face. Joe didn’t react.
“He’s had it,” said Carney as he watched Ben unsuccessfully trying to wake Joe. “Let’s leave him and get moving.”
“Shut up, Carney,” barked Bailey.
“He’s slowing us down,” complained Hoffman. “We’d be better offer without him.”
Bailey glared at Hoffman until the soldier looked away uncomfortably.
“Carney’s right,” Bailey said reluctantly as he turned back to Ben. “He’s not going to make it any further.”
Ben looked up at the sergeant and then around him, as if seeking some unexpected help. Then he looked down at Joe. “I’ll stay with him,” Ben said.
“No!” Hoss protested. “You can’t stay here. Joe can’t stay here.”
Ben looked at Hoss. “He can’t go any further, Hoss,” Ben said softly.
“I’ll carry him,” Hoss said in a firm voice.
Ben looked at Bailey. “How far is it to the fort?” Ben asked.
“If we travel all night, we should get there by noon tomorrow,” Bailey said.
Ben looked at Hoss. “There’s no way you can carry him for that long,” Ben said. “You’d kill him and yourself.” Hoss started to protest again, but said nothing as he realized Ben was right. His face showed his worry and concern.
Ben looked over to the rocks on his right. “Help me carry him over there,” Ben said to Bailey and Hoss. “We’ll find someplace to hole up until you can get back with some help.”
Ben, Hoss and Bailey carried Joe to the outcropping of rocks. Once more, the other soldiers stood watching, making no effort to help. Ben saw a small patch of ground among the rocks, a ring of clear earth about ten feet in diameter. Ben nodded toward the clear ground, and the trio moved Joe into the rocks.
As they laid Joe on the ground, Ben knelt beside his son. Joe was sweating profusely, and his breathing was rapid. Ben tried to make Joe comfortable, but there was little he could do.
“Pa, I’m staying with you,” Hoss declared.
Ben looked up at Hoss. “No,” he said firmly. “You’re going on to the fort.”
Hoss shook his head. “I’m not leaving you and Joe out here alone,” he said. “In this heat, with Apaches all around, you got about as much chance as a mouse at a cat convention.”
Ben shook his head again. “You’re staying here isn’t going to help,” he said. “I need to you to get to the fort, to get some help back here.”
“Bailey can bring back the help,” Hoss said.
“And what if something happens to him?” Ben said. “Do you think one of those soldiers would bother to bring help? Or could find their way back here, even if they wanted to?”
Hoss hesitated, torn between the logic of what Ben said and his strong desire to stay.
“Your Pa’s right,” said Bailey softly. “There’s a lot of ground between here and the fort. No telling what can happen. There’s a better chance of help getting back here if we both go.”
Hoss knelt on the ground next to Joe. He stroked his brother’s head gently.
“Joe,” he said softly. “I’m going to get you some help. You hang on, you hear. I’m coming back for you. I promise I’m going to bring help back fast. You do what I say, and hang on.” Ben nodded as he listened to Hoss.
Hoss stood and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. He started to stay something, but seemed at a loss for words. He squeezed Ben’s shoulder.
Ben reached up and patted Hoss on the arm.
Hoss slipped one of the canteens off his shoulder and handed it to Ben. He started to hand the second one to his father also, but Ben stopped him. “You’ll need that,” Ben said. “You’ve got to get to the fort and bring back some help. We’re counting on you, son.”
Hoss nodded and pulled the canteen strap up over his shoulder. He gave one last glance back at his unconscious brother on the ground. Then he turned. “C’mon,” he said to Bailey. “We got a lot of ground to cover.”
Bailey nodded. The two big men walked out of the rocks.
Ben turned his attention to his youngest son. He knew the heat and sun were as much a danger to Joe as the wound in his shoulder. Ben saw a small bit of a shadow near one of the rocks. He looked up at the sun, trying to calculate it’s path. He looked back at the shadow once more. It wasn’t much now, but Ben thought it would grow as the sun descended.
At least, he hoped so.
Ben slipped the strap of the canteen over his shoulder. Then he slipped his arms under Joe’s shoulder. Thankful that his son was feeling nothing, Ben dragged Joe a foot or so across the ground toward the shadow. Ben sat on the ground, resting his back against the rocks. He pulled Joe up and toward him, letting Joe’s head rest on his right shoulder. Ben slipped his arm behind Joe’s back and pulled his son closer. Ben closed his eyes for a moment and sent a heartfelt plea for help to heaven. He opened his eyes and looked at Joe. With his left hand, he gentle pushed a lock of hair back off Joe’s forehead, a gesture he had done many times. Ben wondered briefly if he would have to chance to do this again. With a quick shake of his head, Ben dismissed the thought. He’d get Joe through this, he vowed.
Ben glanced up at the sun in the cloudless sky once more. Then he settled back against the rocks to wait.
Almost two hours passed before Joe began to stir. The shadows from the rocks had lengthened as the sun moved in the sky. Ben had periodically wiped Joe’s face with a damp cloth, and had managed to force a bit of water into his son. Now, for the first time in hours, as Ben wiped Joe’s face, his son began to wake.
Joe moaned softly as Ben wiped his face. Ben quickly brought the canteen to Joe’s lips, and trickled a bit of water into his son’s mouth. Joe swallowed eagerly, then moaned again. Ben saw Joe wince as he tried to shift his body. Joe’s head moved slowly, and then his eyes opened.
For a moment, Joe’s eyes had a glazed look. Then he seemed to focus. He glanced at the rocks around him, then looked up into his father’s face.
“Welcome back,” Ben said quietly.
Joe nodded. His eyes searched the land around him again. Once more, he looked up at Ben. “Where are we?” he said in a weak voice. “Where’s Hoss?”
Ben ignored the first question; he had no real answer to it. “Hoss went on to the fort to get some help,” Ben explained. “He’ll be back soon,” he continued optimistically.
Joe nodded, then licked his lips. Ben quickly brought the canteen to Joe’s mouth and let his son drink. When Ben pulled the canteen away, Joe nodded his thanks. He closed his eyes as he winced at the pain in his shoulder.
After a minute, Joe’s eyes fluttered open again. “Guess I didn’t make it,” Joe said in a sad voice.
“You did fine,” Ben reassured him. “You made it farther than any of us thought you would.”
“Yeah, but not to the fort,” replied Joe. He looked up at Ben. “And you’re stuck here with me.”
Ben gave him a small grin. “I’ll tell you a secret, Joe,” said Ben. “I was getting pretty tired myself. I’d just as soon stay here with you than hike through that hot sand.”
Joe knew his father wasn’t being entirely truthful, but he didn’t argue. He looked out at the barren land, dotted with rocks. “Sure wish we had taken that stage,” Joe said wistfully.
“Next time, I promise you, we will,” answered Ben.
“If there is a next time,” said Joe.
“There will be,” Ben said quickly, hoping it was true. “Hoss will be back soon with some help, and you’ll be home chasing those pretty girls before you know it.”
Joe didn’t say anything for a minute. He seemed to be lost in thought. “It would have been nice if I had found someone special,” said Joe softly.
“You’ll get your chance,” Ben said. “I promise you, Joe, you’ll have plenty of time to search for someone.”
“Maybe,” Joe said, his voice fading. His eyes began to close. In a moment, he was asleep again.
“You’ll get your chance,” Ben repeated softly. “I promise you, Joe, you’ll get your chance.”
The hot desert wind had turned into a cool evening breeze as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Two figures sat next to a small fire in the rocks, one trying to keep warm, and one in an uncaring sleep. Ben had left Joe only long enough to gather some sticks and straw for the fire. He had kept the fire small partly to avoid attracting attention from any passing Apaches but mostly because he didn’t want to leave Joe alone any longer than necessary while searching for fuel.
Joe had awaken for brief periods during the afternoon, but he seemed to be conscious only long enough to drink some water and ask where he was in a confused voice. It worried Ben that he had repeatedly answered Joe’s question, but Joe never seemed to understand him.
But that was only one of Ben’s worries. The canteen seemed to be alarmingly light and there was at least another day before help would arrive. Ben’s stomach grumbled for food, but he couldn’t leave Joe to hunt for something to eat. Ben doubted if Joe had the strength to eat anyway. The night brought out the animals that hunted the weak and injured. Ben heard the coyotes howling in the distance. Ben checked his gun to make sure it was loaded and handy.
Joe’s head was again resting on Ben’s shoulder. Ben pulled his son close to his body, offering both warmth and comfort. But Joe was still in a deep sleep, unaware of his father’s offerings and his worries.
Ben fed a few more sticks into the fire, then leaned back against the rocks. His thoughts drifted to memories of happier times. He thought of Joe cackling with glee as he played tricks on his brothers. He remembered the proud look on his son’s face as he broke the horses other said couldn’t be ridden. Most of all, he remember the looks of affection and love Joe had given him through the years.
Ben felt Joe stirring slightly, and his hand went automatically to the canteen on the ground next to him. Without hesitation, he brought the canteen to Joe’s lips and trickled some water into his son’s mouth. Ben’s own mouth felt dry and gritty, but he didn’t even consider giving himself a drink.
Joe opened his eyes and looked up at his father. Ben waited for him to ask yet again about where they were. But this time, Joe seemed more alert. His eyes were bright and focused.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” said Joe in a voice that was barely a whisper.
“Sorry?” Ben said. “What are you sorry about?”
“For…being…so much…trouble,” Joe whispered. He was finding it hard to talk.
Ben stroked Joe’s head. “You’re no more trouble than your brothers,” Ben said in a light voice. “Trouble comes with the territory when you have three sons.”
Joe didn’t seem to hear. He continued to look up at Ben with focused, intense eyes. “Best father,” he whispered. “Thank you.” Joe grabbed Ben’s hand and squeezed it.
“Joe,” Ben said in a choked voice. “You can’t give up. You have to hang on. It will just be a little while longer. Hoss will be here soon.”
Joe nodded, but he squeezed his father’s hand again.
Ben looked down at his hand. “I remember the day you were born,” Ben said softly. “You looked so small, much smaller than your brothers. I thought you might be a delicate baby. Then your hand gripped my finger. It was such a strong grip for such a tiny baby. I knew then that you’d be strong.” Ben looked over at Joe, who had fallen asleep once more. “Be strong, Joe,” Ben said. “Be strong.”
Ben spent the night holding Joe tightly to him. He listened carefully to his son’s breathing, and felt the beating of his son’s heart. Ben was terrified that both would stop. But Joe seemed to have reached some sort of plateau. He didn’t get any better, but he also didn’t seem to be getting worse.
Ben wasn’t sure when he fell asleep. He knew he was exhausted from the worry, not to mention the heat and lack of water. He had tried not to give in to the fatigue. He wanted to keep awake in case Joe needed him. But at some point during the night, he had given in to the exhaustion.
The sun shining into his eyes woke Ben with a start. He quickly looked down to Joe, and sighed with relief that his son seemed to be sleeping. He could hear Joe’s even breathing and feel the steady pulse of his heart.
Ben looked up at the sun and guessed it was about 8 am. It would be another four hours or so until Hoss reached the fort, and several hours after that before he could bring help back to them. Ben wondered if he and Joe could last that long.
Ben pulled the almost empty canteen toward him. He took a small drink, knowing that he couldn’t let himself become too dry. He had to stay as strong as possible, for Joe’ sake. Ben decided not to wake Joe. The longer he slept, the less water he would want. And there was very little water left.
Ben felt himself beginning to doze again as the day turned hot. He tried to stay awake but began to wonder if it would make any difference.
The sound of a horse snorting brought Ben instantly alert. He wondered briefly if it was help or if was Apaches he heard. Ben decided quickly it didn’t matter. He would beg help from whoever was out there. He would have begged help from the devil himself to save his son.
Ben eased Joe off his shoulder, leaning him carefully against the rocks. Ben struggled to get to his feet. His muscles were stiff and sore, and his body was tired. Ben stood with effort, and walked slowly to edge of the rocks.
Ben looked out and his face froze into an astonished stare. Riding briskly across the sandy ground was a big man with a huge white hat. He was followed by another big man wearing a sergeant’s stripes. A wagon and a troop of soldiers trailed behind at a slower pace.
Hoss urged his horse into a gallop, covering the final yards to the rocks at top speed. He halted his horse and leaped from the saddle. He pulled a canteen off his saddle and began running toward Ben.
“Hoss!” Ben croaked in a dry voice as the big man rushed forward.
Hoss put his hands on his father’s shoulders for a moment, then thrust the canteen into Ben’s hands. He looked over Ben’s shoulder. Hoss could see Joe leaning against the rocks, legs sprawled in front of him and head to the side. Hoss looked at Ben. “Joe?” he asked in a trembling voice.
“He’s alive,” Ben said as he drank gratefully from the canteen. “He’s in bad shape, but he’s alive.”
Hoss nodded and rushed past Ben to his brother. Ben turned and followed, carrying the canteen to his youngest son.
Hoss checked to confirm Joe was still breathing, then turned and yelled over his shoulder. “Doc! Get over here. We need you fast!” Hoss snatched the canteen from Ben’s hands and began pouring water over Joe’s face.
“Hoss, be careful with the water,” Ben cautioned.
“Pa, we got enough water in that wagon to float a ship,” Hoss answered. “Bailey filled up every barrel we could find at the fort.
Ben looked back to the rocks, and saw Bailey climbing through them. The sergeant had two canteens in his hand. Another man carrying a black satchel followed Bailey through the rocks.
Bailey handed a canteen to Ben, then looked down at Joe. He could see the young man was unconscious but breathing. “Glad we made it in time,” Bailey said with relief. He stepped back and let the man behind him approach. The man immediately knelt next to Joe and began examining him.
“This is Doc Jamison,” Bailey said to Ben. “If anyone can pull your boy through, he can.”
The doctor ignored both the introduction and the praise. He was pulling Joe’s shirt open and ripping the bandage off Joe’s shoulder. He reached into his bag and pulled out a jar. He began rubbing salve from the jar on Joe’s shoulder.
Ben stood and took a step back, giving the doctor more room. He watched the man work for a moment, then looked at Bailey.
“How did you get here so soon?” Ben asked in a confused voice.
Hoss looked up at his father. “We got ourselves some horses,” Hoss said with a grin. Ben looked even more confused.
Bailey chuckled. “Mr. Cartwright, you sure got yourself a pair of sons,” said Bailey as he laughed. “We came across some Apaches camped about ten miles from here,” Bailey explained. “There were only four, but they had horses. I wanted to avoid them, but once Hoss saw those horses, there was no question of us going around.”
“It’s faster and easier to ride than walk,” said Hoss in a reasonable voice.
“But how did you get the horses?” Ben asked.
Bailey laughed and shook his head. “We followed an old army saying,” said Bailey. He looked at Ben. “When there’s nothing left to do, you charge,” Bailey said with a grin.
“You charged?” Ben said in astonishment.
“Yep,” said Hoss. “We came running at them, yelling like crazy men and shooting like we had all the ammunition in the world. Those Apaches were so surprised they didn’t know what to do. They just got up and ran away.”
Ben shook his head in amazement. “I’m surprised you got those other men to help you,” he said.
Bailey’s face instantly grew serious. “They weren’t exactly willing,” Bailey admitted. “Hoss led the charge and I came up the rear. I threatened to put a bullet in any of them who didn’t do what they were told.”
“Four horses,” said Ben slowly. “What did you do?”
“Hoss and I took two and left the other two for those yahoos,” Bailey said. “We pointed the way to the fort, and then took off.” Bailey shook his head. “I doubt if we’ll see any of them again.”
Ben started to ask another question, but his attention was drawn back to his youngest son when he heard Joe groan. The doctor was continuing to work on him, but Joe’s eyes were fluttering open. Ben knelt next to Joe and lightly stroked his head. Ben turned and looked a question at the doctor. The doctor smiled and nodded.
Bailey watched the scene with a smile. Then he turned and yelled over his shoulder. “Simms, get the rest of the men up here,” Bailey shouted. “We got an injured soldier to get back to the fort.”
Joe sat on a chair on the porch outside the doctor’s quarters. His arm was in a sling, and his face still looked thin. But his ready smile and the twinkle in his eyes had returned .Joe used both as he flirted with the Colonel’s daughter who was sitting next to him.
Ben and Hoss were crossing the parade ground of the fort, heading toward the doctor’s office. Ben stopped when he saw the sight on the porch. Hoss stopped also.
“Would you look at that?” Hoss said with a shake of his head. “The only girl within a hundred miles, and Joe’s already got her sweet talked.”
Ben smiled at the sight. “We’d better go rescue that poor girl,” Ben said. “Joe will have her fetching and carrying for him in no time.”
Ben and Hoss continued across the ground. Joe looked up and grinned as he saw them approaching. The Colonel’s daughter also smiled at the men.
“Hello, Mr. Cartwright, Hoss,” she greeted them. “Joe has been telling me about your ranch in Nevada. It sounds wonderful.”
“You’ll have to come visit us sometime,” Joe said gallantly. “I’ll show you the prettiest lake in all of Nevada.”
“I’d like that,” the girl said with a giggle.
“You’re more than welcome anytime, of course,” Ben said with a smile. “But now, it’s time for Joe to get some rest.”
“Aw, Pa, “ Joe complained.
“Don’t start, Joseph,” Ben said sternly. “You heard the doctor. You take a two hour nap every afternoon until we leave at the end of the week.”
“I have to be going anyway,” the girl said. She stood and smiled sweetly at Joe. “I’ll see you later.”
Joe smiled back at the girl. “I’ll count on that,” Joe replied.
Ben watched as the girl sauntered off the porch. He turned back to Joe. “Still searching?” he asked with an arched eyebrow. Joe grinned and nodded.
Hoss frowned. “Searching? Searching for what?” he asked.
“Just something I promised Joe,” Ben said mysteriously. He turned to Joe. “Time for that nap,” he ordered his youngest son.
Joe pulled himself slowly to his feet. The truth was, a nap sounded pretty good. He still felt weak and tired. He started into the doctor’s office, then stopped. He turned back to Hoss and Ben. “You know, it’s nice to know you two keep your promises,” Joe said with a smile.
Ben smiled back and nodded. Then he put a stern look on his face. “I promise you I’m going to carry you to that bed if you don’t get in there and take a nap,” Ben said.
“Yes sir!” replied Joe with a grin. He turned and went into the office.
“Pa, I got a feeling I missed a lot out there,” Hoss said.
“No, Hoss,” Ben said. “You didn’t miss a thing. What you did was keep your promise to bring back some help. And for that, Joe and I are very grateful.”