Synopsis: Taking an alternate route home with a wagon full of grain places Joe’s life in danger. While waiting to be rescued he encounters a lovely lady.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 5,100
“I’m ready to leave,” called Joe Cartwright as he trotted down the stairs of the Ponderosa ranchhouse. He looked over to where his father and brothers were sitting around the desk in the den. The desk was littered with papers and ledgers.
“Pa, how come Little Joe gets to go over to Black River to pick up those grain sacks instead of getting stuck here with this dadgum paperwork, like the rest of us,” Hoss complained.
“I’m just lucky that I can drive a wagon better than I can add,” Joe grinned in reply.
“This is no pleasure trip,” Ben said sternly. “We need that grain and we can’t wait two more weeks for Virginia City Freight to finish that special hauling contract for the mines. Joseph, you go straight to Black River tonight, and start loading that grain first thing in the morning. I want you back here by no later than tomorrow afternoon.”
“That only leaves you one night to find some poor sweet thing who will have a broken heart when you leave her,” Adam commented dryly.
“Or one night to lose all your money in a poker game,” added Hoss with a laugh.
“Me?” Joe said innocently, “I plan to go straight to bed as soon as I get to Black River”.
“Yeah, right,” snorted Hoss.
“That’s enough, boys,” Ben said. “Joe, you better get going. Like I said, I want you back here by suppertime tomorrow…no excuses.”
“Don’t worry, Pa,” replied Joe. “I’ll be here.” He strode to the door, cheerfully whistling while his brothers watched with a sour expression. He glanced back at the desk, grinned, and went out the door.
“C’mon, let’s get back to work,” Ben said.
“Yeah,” Adam kidded Hoss. “We need your genius to figure out these branding schedules.”
“The only genius in this family is our little brother,” replied Hoss. “He can figure out how to get out of work he don’t like better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
The next morning in Black River, Joe was at the freight barn, loading the last of the grain sacks to a full wagon. As he dumped a sack onto the back of the wagon, he heard his name being called.
“Little Joe Cartwright, what are you doing here?” asked a man with a slight Swedish accent. Joe looked up to see a heavy-set man in his 40’s, dressed in working clothes and sporting a thick mustache.
“Hello, Mr. Johannsen,” Joe called. “Pa got tired of waiting on Virginia City Freight and sent me over here to pick up some feed grain. What brings you to Black River?”
“Visiting my brother,” replied Johannsen. He looked at the wagon with a wistful expression. “Sure wish I had thought to bring a wagon rather than coming by horse,” he said. “I could use some of that feed myself but I have no way to get it home.”
“I’ll be happy to carry your grain with ours,” offered Joe. “You could pick it up tomorrow morning at the Ponderosa.”
Johannsen looked at the wagon doubtfully. “I don’t know,” he said, “Your wagon seems pretty full already.”
“Another five or ten sacks won’t matter,” Joe assured him.
“If you think you can handle it, I sure would appreciate it,” Johannsen said gratefully.
“Sure, no problem,” replied Joe. “Let’s go talk to the freight manager.”
Half an hour later, Johannsen’s sacks were added to the already full wagon. Joe waved to Johannsen as he climbed onto the wage and headed the team out of the freight yard, concerned that he was already late in starting back. He remembered his father’s warning about getting back on time. About a mile outside of town, he came to the bridge over the river which gave the town its name. Four men were working on the bridge, removing planks and sawing new timber. Joe pulled up the wagon just short of the area. “What’s going on?” he yelled to the workmen.
“Fixing the bridge…can’t you tell?” a man in a plaid shirt replied with a hint of disgust.
“How long will it take?” Joe asked.
“Should be done by tomorrow,” replied the man.
Joe looked around with concern. The banks were too steep to try and ford the river with a heavy wagon. Without the bridge, he couldn’t get across. Pa would really be mad if he showed up a day late, Joe thought, no matter what the excuse. “Is there any other way to get to Virginia City besides this road?” he shouted to the men.
The man in the plaid shirt looked up again. “Well, there’s the mountain road over to the west,” he said. “It adds a couple miles to the trip but it gets you there. Don’t nobody use it any more…not since this bridge and new road got built.” He looked at the heavily loaded wagon. “I wouldn’t advise you going that way, not with that load. The road’s steep, with lot’s of rocks and holes. You’ll more than likely get stuck.”
Joe frowned. “Well, I’ve got no choice,” he said. “I’ve got to get back today. Thanks.” With that, Joe snapped the reins and turned the wagon west.
“Darn fool,” muttered the plaid-shirted man. He watched the wagon heading west, then shrugged his shoulders and went back to work.
A few hours later, Joe was still struggling along the mountain road. It was slow going, as the heavily-loaded wagon bounced and swayed over the ruts. This wasn’t the best idea, Joe decided, but there was no going back. Even if he wanted to, there was no place to turn the wagon around. Besides, he was determined to get back to the Ponderosa by nightfall. The wagon came to the crest of a hill and Joe stopped the team. He looked at the steep down-grade, full of rocks and holes, with some concern. “Let’s take it nice and slow,” he said to the horses, then chucked them on. At first, the pace was fine, but as the hill became steeper, the weight of the wagon pushed the team and the horses began to go faster. Joe pulled hard on the reins, but the wagon picked up speed with every foot. Suddenly, the wagon bounced hard as it hit a deep hole in the road. The reins were torn from Joe’s hands as a wheel shattered and the wagon tongue broke. The wagon lurched sideways, throwing Joe from the seat, and driver, grain and wagon tumbled haphazardly down the side of the hill.
Joe was dimly aware of objects falling around him as he rolled down the hill but could do nothing to stop himself. He finally hit bottom with a thud, then blackness swept over him.
The sun was high in the afternoon sky as Joe gradually – and reluctantly – began to pull himself out of the darkness. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. His body ached even as he laid still, trying to get his bearings. He was laying in a grassy field, littered with stones and other debris from the mountainside. He began to move his head and arms gingerly, then started to shift his legs. Suddenly, a searing pain shot through his left leg, causing him to cry out. Joe propped himself up on his elbows and looked with some trepidation at his leg. The wagon, still half loaded with sacks, had come to rest on his leg, just below his knee. The lower half of his leg was hidden under the wagon.
Joe looked up the hill but saw only any empty road. The horses were gone, and an almost eerie stillness confirmed he was alone.
Knowing it was futile, Joe yelled “HELP” as loud as he could. He yelled again, and a third time, but there was no answer. He reached to his holster, but his hand felt only emptiness. His revolver must have been lost in the fall.
Well, it’s up to me, he thought. I’ll have to get myself out of this mess. Joe braced himself, putting his right leg against the side of the wagon. He took a deep breath, pushed with his right leg, and pulled with left. Suddenly, he screamed in agony. His left leg hadn’t budged, but his effort had sent a wave of pain through it.
Joe laid back on the ground, breathing hard and trying to control the pain. He was going to have to lift the wagon somehow in order to get his injured limb out from under it. A few inches, he thought, that’s all it will take and I can slide the leg out. He pulled himself up once more and looked around. Sacks of grain were scattered all around. About half the load was still perched precariously in the wagon. Joe grabbed the nearest sack with his right hand and dragged it closer. He pushed it under his head, making a pillow, and laid back. Not the softest thing, he thought, but it’s better than the ground. He closed his eyes, gathering strength for his next effort.
Turning his head, Joe saw a tree limb poking out of the weeds, just beyond his right leg. It was gnarled and bent, and had the gray color of old wood. He extended his leg, catching the branch just under his heel, and dragged it closer. Twisting awkwardly, he reached for the tree limb with his right hand. He barely got his fingers on it. Joe stretched his arm further, trying to ignore the pain his movements were causing. This time, he got his fingers around the branch and pulled it closer. The effort had cost him, however. He laid back again, as a sudden feeling of weakness washed over him.
Once more Joe rested, then forced himself into a sitting position. I better try and lighten the wagon, Joe thought, and began reaching for one of the sacks hanging over the edge of the wagon. He pulled hard, and the sack came free. Suddenly, four other sacks came tumbling after it, hitting him in the shoulder. The sacks knocked him back and half buried him. Joe laid there, breathing hard and trying to decide if he had hurt himself again. Nothing seemed to hurt worse than before, although that didn’t mean much. Finally, he pushed the sacks aside. He seemed all in one piece. He looked at the wagon again, and decided against trying to remove any more sacks. The whole thing could come down and crush him.
Joe moved the branch closer. He shoved one end under the wagon as far as he could, then pulled a grain of sack under the middle of it. He remembered Adam saying something about a lever being able to move the world. “I hope you’re right, Adam,” Joe muttered. He positioned himself so he could put all his weight on the free end of the stick. He took a deep breath, and began pushing the free end down.
The wagon started to rise, but no more than an quarter inch. Joe pushed harder and, at the same time, tried to move his injured leg.
The wagon rose a bit more. Suddenly, there was a loud crack. The limb broke and the wagon came crashing down. Joe screamed in pain, and then slid into unconsciousness.
The sun was setting as Ben Cartwright stood in the doorway of the ranch house, looking down the empty road. Ben angrily closed the door and walked to the dining room table where Adam and Hoss were finishing their dinner. “Where’s that brother of yours?” he asked. “I specifically told him to be back here by suppertime.”
Hoss and Adam looked at each other knowingly. “I don’t know, Pa,” Hoss said. “Maybe he ran into some trouble. The wagon could have broke down or something.”
“The only trouble Joe’s got is he can’t follow orders,” Ben replied angrily. “When he is going to learn to be responsible? When is he going to learn to do what he’s told!” Ben walked back to the door. He opened it, and took another look down the empty road. Shaking his head, Ben slammed the door, and walked with quick strides to his desk. He sat down and snapped up the papers he had been working on earlier in the day.
Hoss glanced at Adam. “Pa’s sure mad at Little Joe,” he said softly.
“I know,” answered Adam. “I hope whatever has made him late was pretty enough to be worth the lecture he’s going to get.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed happily. “A lecture and about two weeks of chopping wood and cleaning the barn. You’re right…I hope she was worth it.”
Night had fallen by the time Joe managed to rouse himself again. He felt much weaker and his mouth was as dry as cotton. He desperately wanted a drink of water. He tried to sit up but this time the effort was too much for him, and he dizzily fell back against the grain sack.
For sure, nobody will find me before morning, Joe thought, not in the dark along a seldom-used road. His leg throbbed with pain. I wonder how long I can last, he thought in a detached manner. Joe shook his head. Got to keep a clear head, got to think, he said to himself. He pulled some of the grain sacks close to his body, trying to keep the night chill out. “Somebody will find me in the morning,” he whispered. “Somebody will find me.” He said it over and over until at last he fell into a deep sleep.
Ben was fixing a rail on the corral the next morning when Johannsen pulled into the yard in his wagon. “Morning, Ben,” he called cheerfully.
“Sven, it’s good to see you,” Ben answered. “What brings you to the Ponderosa?”
“You mean Little Joe didn’t tell you?” Johannsen asked, puzzled. “Ten of those grain sacks he brought home belong to me. I promised to pick them up this morning.”
“Little Joe isn’t back from Black River yet,” replied Ben with some heat. “He’s late again, as usual.”
“But how can that be?” Johannsen said. “I saw him pull out of Black River at mid-morning yesterday. He should have been home by nightfall at the latest.”
Suddenly, Ben looked worried. “Are you sure he left at mid-morning?” he asked anxiously.
“Sure I’m sure. I helped him load my ten sacks of grain on the wagon and then watched him as he headed down the road out of town. You don’t think anything’s happened to him, do you?” Johannsen replied.
“I don’t know,” Ben said with a frown. “But I’m going to find out.” He walked rapidly to the barn. “Hoss, Adam!” he shouted. “Saddle the horses. We’re going to look for Joe.”
The morning sun felt good as Joe woke after a long, cold night. It would be hot later, but for now, it warmed him. His leg hurt even worse, if that was possible, sending tremors of pain through his body. He was feverish, thirsty and tired. With a tremendous effort, Joe pushed aside the sacks he had pulled around him. He was so weak that this small task almost exhausted him. Joe ran his hands over the grass wet with the morning dew. It wasn’t much, but the few drops he gathered wet his dry lips. He reached out again with his hands, seeking any moisture he could find. He licked and sucked on his hands, seeking anything that would ease his thirst. He ran his hands over the grass again and again until finally there was no more dew to collect. His mouth still felt dry as a desert.
Joe lay looking at the wagon that pinned his leg. What a stupid way to die, he thought. Suddenly, with a determined look on his face, Joe sat up and grabbed the broken end of the branch that was laying next to him. He began to dig frantically at the ground near his leg, trying to make a trench underneath it. The ground was hard as rock, and the broken branch wasn’t sharp enough to break through the dirt. Sweat was beading on his face as he kept scratching at the ground with no result. With a grunt of anger, he threw the branch way in disgust.
Joe crumpled back to the ground, breathing hard. “Somebody will come,” he said softly, as he closed his eyes to rest.
Ben, Adam and Hoss arrived in Black River before noon. They immediately split up, with Adam and Hoss checking the hotel and stable as Ben went to the freight yard. He found the freight manager checking on a load of incoming goods. Ben explained the reason for his visit. “Yeah, I remember him,” the freight manager said after hearing Ben’s description of Joe. “He left here yesterday morning with a wagon load of feed grain. In fact, the wagon was over-loaded but he said he could handle it.”
“Are you sure he headed toward the Virginia City road?” Ben asked.
“Yep, watched him until he was out of town,” the freight manager replied.
Ben thanked the man with a distracted air, and headed toward the saloon to meet Adam and Hoss. His sons were already at the bar when he walked in. “Any luck, Pa?” Hoss asked hopefully.
“No, the freight manager said he left yesterday, just as Johannsen said,” Ben replied.
“We got the same story,” added Adam. “The hotel clerk and stableman said he stayed the one night and left in the morning. We asked all over town, but nobody’s seen him since yesterday.”
“Where could he be?” Ben said anxiously. “If his wagon had broken down, we would have passed him on the road. A man and a wagon load of grain can’t simply disappear!” The three looked at each other glumly, each trying to think of something else to do. Suddenly, a man in a plaid shirt walked up to the bar.
“You the fellows looking for a kid with a wagon load of grain?” he inquired.
“Yes, yes, my son…he was due home yesterday and hasn’t arrived,” Ben said quickly. “No one seems to know where he went. Do you know where he is?”
“Was he wearing a green jacket and his gun on the left side?” the stranger asked.
“Yes, that’s him. Do you know where he is?” repeated Ben.
The stranger rubbed his chin. “Well, I can’t say for sure where he is, but the boy drove up when we was fixing the bridge yesterday. He said he couldn’t wait until the bridge was finished, that he had to get home. He asked if there was any other road to Virginia City. I told him about the old mountain road to the west. I also told him that it was a bad idea to try a take a heavy load over that road. But he was determined to try. Last I saw, he was headed in that direction.”
“The old mountain road…are you sure?” Hoss said. The stranger nodded.
“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully, then turned to Hoss and Adam. “C’mon, boys. Let’s go find him.”
The three walked quickly out of the bar, and climbed on their horses. With Ben in the lead, they turned to the west and rode out of town at a gallop.
Joe knew he couldn’t hold on much longer. He desperately tried to think of something, anything to free himself. The pain in his leg was getting worse, and he needed water. As his fever went higher, he began to imagine impossible methods of escape… everything from burning the wagon to tearing it apart piece by piece. In the back of his mind, Joe knew none of these would work but as long as he could plan and scheme, he felt there was still hope.
By mid-afternoon, Joe knew the hope was gone. He simply couldn’t stand the pain and thirst any longer. His head ached with fever, and his body had no strength left. “Please, God,” he prayed. “Please help me. Please send someone to help me.” He closed his eyes and slowly began to drift away.
“Wait, don’t go!”
Joe was startled to hear a voice. He opened his eyes, and turned his head to the right. Standing a few feet away was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was dressed in pale blue, with a matching hat. Her hair was yellow, the color of cornsilk, and her eyes as blue as the sky.
Joe reached his hand toward her. “Help me!” he croaked. “Please help me.”
The woman looked at him and said gently, “What would you have me do? I can’t lift the wagon, and I don’t have any water to give you.”
“Please, go for help,” Joe begged. “Bring somebody to get this wagon off me”.
“But, Joe, help is on the way. You only have to wait a bit longer,” the woman said.
Joe stared at her. “How do you know my name?” he asked.
“I know all about you, Joe. Your mother told me all about you,” she answered.
“My mother?” Joe said. “Who are you?”
“My name is Suzanne, and your mother and I went to school together in New Orleans. She wrote me on the day you were born, telling me how proud she was and how much she loved you. Later, she told me how strong and brave you are. I always told her I would help look after you.”
Joe shook his head in disbelief. His mother had died when he was a baby. This woman looked no older than 25 or 30. She couldn’t have gone to school with his mother. Besides, he was so little when she died. How could she tell someone about him being strong and brave?
Suddenly, Joe was very, very tired. He closed his eyes.
“Please, don’t go,” the woman said again. “You must wait here for your father and brothers. It will only be a little while longer.”
Joe opened his eyes slowly. “How do you know they’ll be here soon?” he asked weakly.
The woman looked at him and said, “Don’t you know that they are concerned about you? Don’t you know they are looking for you? All you have to do is wait awhile longer and you’ll be fine. It’s too soon for you to leave.”
“I don’t understand,” Joe mumbled. “None of this makes sense to me. I can’t go anywhere…I’m pinned under the wagon.”
“Just wait,” the woman said, “Just wait”.
Joe stared at the woman in the blue dress with a confused expression. None of this made any sense. But at least somebody’s here, he decided, and she did say help was on the way. The woman smiled at him with a knowing look.
His eyelids suddenly felt like they weighed a hundred pounds. He couldn’t keep them open any longer. As he drifted off to sleep, he murmured, “I’ll wait.”
Ben, Adam and Hoss were riding rapidly along the mountain road, looking for any sign of Joe. As they came to the crest of the hill, Adam pulled up suddenly and pointed. “There he is!” he shouted, gesturing at the wrecked wagon at the bottom of the hillside. The three men spurred their horses to the wreck.
Ben jumped off his horse as he spotted Joe laying among the sacks of grain that were strewn about. He glanced at the wagon and saw Joe’s leg pinned underneath. He ran to his son and knelt at his side. He felt for a pulse and sighed in relief as he felt a weak throb in Joe’s wrist. “He’s alive,” Ben called to Adam and Hoss who were coming up behind him. “Bring me some water quick.”
Hoss handed Ben a canteen as Ben gently cradled Joe’s head in his arms. He poured a small amount of water over Joe’s face. Joe moaned softly and slowly opened his eyes. Ben forced some water into Joe’s mouth as he murmured, “It’s going to be all right, Joseph. It’s going to be all right”.
“Pa?” Joe asked weakly. He blinked and looked up at his father. “She said you would come,” he whispered.
“Who said I would come?” asked Ben.
“The lady in blue…she kept telling me to wait because you were coming,” Joe explained in a soft voice. He turned his head. “Where is she?” Joe asked. “She was right here a minute ago.”
Adam and Hoss looked at each other with a frown. “What’s he talking about, Pa?” Hoss asked.
Ben put his hand gently on Joe’s forehead. “He’s burning up with fever. He must be out of his head.”
Suddenly, Joe stiffened and grimaced with pain. Ben turned toward the wagon and then back to Adam and Hoss. “Let’s get this thing off him,” he ordered. The other two men nodded.
Adam and Hoss moved to the wagon. “Get ready to pull him out,” Adam instructed his father. Ben shifted and grabbed Joe under the arms.
“Ready?” Hoss asked as the two men positioned their shoulders on the side of the wagon. Adam nodded. They both pushed on the wagon with all the strength they had. The wagon lifted slowly off the ground. They pushed harder, and suddenly, the wagon about six inches above Joe’s leg. Ben pulled Joe back toward him, as his youngest son cried out in pain. Ben pulled again, and Joe was free.
Joe fainted into his father’s arms as Adam and Hoss dropped the wagon with a crash. Adam rush forward and began feeling Joe’s injured leg.
“Is it broken?” Ben asked.
“Yes. His leg is swollen but I can feel the broken bone under the skin,” replied Adam.
“Hoss, you begin making a travois and tie it to my horse. Adam, see if you can find something we can use as a temporary splint,” Ben commanded. Both men nodded and went to work. Ben turned toward Joe again. He slowly forced a tickle of water through his son’s lips.
Joe opened his eyes again. “She said you’d come,” he repeated. “She said you’d come.” Then Joe’s head slumped back against his father’s arms.
It was late evening as Dr. Martin made one last check of Joe’s pulse. Joe was asleep in his bed at the Ponderosa. He was pale, and his leg, heavily bandaged and splinted, was poking through the covers. Ben, Adam and Hoss hovered around anxiously. Dr. Martin straightened up and turned to Ben. “That pain-killer I gave him will keep him asleep until morning, Ben. After that, just keep him quiet and give him plenty of liquids. It will be several weeks before he’ll be able to get out of bed, but the leg should heal fine.” Ben nodded with relief.
“It’s a good thing you found him when you did,” the doctor continued. “I’m not sure he would have lasted much longer out there.”
“But, doc, people don’t die from a broken leg,” Hoss protested.
“No, but they can die from shock, exposure, lack of water, even pain. Put them all together and it’s a pretty deadly combination,” answered Dr. Martin.
Hoss looked at his sleeping brother again, more worried than ever.
“He’ll be fine,” the doctor reassured them again. “I’ll check on him again tomorrow”.
The days passed slowly for Joe as he regained his strength and his leg began to heal. About a week after the accident, he was sitting up in bed, reading a book as he finished the last sandwich on the tray on his lap. Ben knocked softly on the door and walked in. Joe looked up.
“Hop Sing sent me up to get your lunch dishes,” Ben said with a smile as he walked over to the bed. “Finished?”
“Just about,” Joe replied as he chewed the last bit of his meal.
Ben glanced at the book in his son’s hand. “What are you reading?” he asked.
“Adam gave this to me. It’s all about Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans,” Joe answered. “I sure wish I could have seen that old pirate in action.”
“Your mother saw him once,” Ben said. “I remember her telling me how she and her friend Suzanne climbed a tree in the courtyard of their convent school when Lafitte was marching through town in a parade. She told me he was an impressive figure, riding a white horse.”
Joe looked at his father with a puzzled expression. “What’s wrong?” inquired Ben.
“Nothing, really,” replied Joe. “It’s just that I had the craziest dream when I was stuck under that wagon. I didn’t think I could hold on much longer and I was ready to give up. Suddenly, this women in a blue dress appeared out of nowhere. She kept telling me you were coming and that I had to wait for you.”
“I know,” Ben said “You kept saying it over and over when we found you.”
“But here’s the strange part,” Joe went on. “The woman told me her name was Suzanne and that she had gone to school with my mother. She said my mother told her all about me and she had promised to look after me. I wonder what deep dark memory that came from?”
This time it was Ben’s turn to stare. “I don’t understand it either,” Ben said. “When you were born, your mother wrote to her friend Suzanne but the letter was returned unopened. Suzanne had been killed in a carriage accident before the letter arrived in New Orleans.”
Joe and Ben looked at each other. Finally, Ben shrugged his shoulders. “People have strange dreams sometimes when they’re sick, Joe,” he said.
“I guess so,” Joe agreed. Suddenly, he yawned, and blinked his eyes with fatigue.
Ben picked up the lunch tray. “You get some rest,” he advised. Joe nodded, put the book aside, and slid down under the covers. Ben paused at the door and glanced back at his son. Joe was already falling asleep. Ben watched him for a moment then left the room. He walked down the stairs to the living room and put the tray on the table. Ben looked around slowly, then walked over to his desk. On the desk was a picture of Joe’s mother in a gilt frame. Ben picked up the picture and looked at it for a long time. Then he said softly, “Thank you, Marie.” He put the picture back on the desk and walked away.