The Hand of Fate (by Susan)

Synopsis:  The stage on which Joe is riding home is held up and robbed, sending Ben and Hoss on a mission to rescue Joe.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  19,900


 

As The Virginia City stage bounced and swayed along the road, the occupants of the stage endured the jolting ride in companionable silence. “I’ll sure be glad to get to town,” Joe Cartwright muttered when the stage hit yet another rut in the road, causing its passengers to be thrown roughly against the side of the coach.

“This road seems to get rougher every year,” sighed the older man sitting next to Joe. He turned to Joe. “Is your Pa meeting you in town?”

“I hope so, Mr. Bartlett,” Joe replied with a grin. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a long walk home.”

Walter Bartlett smiled. “Bring him over the to bank before you leave Virginia City,” he suggested. “I want to talk to him about the new mill he wants to build.”

“Sure,” Joe agreed. “I have to visit your bank to deposit the money from selling that bull anyway.”

“You know, you shouldn’t be carrying that much money in cash,” Bartlett said with a frown. “A bank transfer would be safer.”

“I know,” answered Joe. “But by the time I left the Carson ranch and got to Yuma, there was barely time to catch the stage. And I didn’t want to spend another day in Yuma waiting for the next one.”

“I’ve never been too trusting of banks myself,” offered the young man sitting across the coach. He smiled apologetically. “Sorry,” he said apologetically to Bartlett.

“Don’t be, Mr….,” Bartlett hesitated. “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”

“Billy, Billy Olsen,” the young man replied.

Bartlett nodded. “Don’t be sorry, Mr. Olsen,” he said. “A lot of people still feel that way since several of the banks failed a few years ago. But it really is a lot safer to way to transport money.”

“I suppose,” replied Billy. “But I saw too many men in the gold fields hit it big and then lose their money in some fly-by-night bank.”

“You don’t have to worry about Mr. Bartlett’s bank,” Joe assured Billy. “Mr. Bartlett is the most honest bank president I know.” Joe grinned. “Of course, he’s the ONLY bank president I know.”

The coach bounced again and the trio of riders were once more thrown against the side of the coach.

“How long did you spend in the gold fields?” Joe asked as the men tried to right themselves.

“Almost two years,” Billy answered. “I got pretty discouraged for awhile, but then I finally found a good strike.”

“Two years!” exclaimed Bartlett. “You don’t look old enough to have spent two years prospecting.”

“Well, I was only sixteen when I left home,” Bill admitted. “After my Pa died, my Ma wanted to move into town. I don’t like towns much, so I lit out.”

That’s still pretty young to be prospecting,” insisted Bartlett.

“You’re probably right,” Billy agreed. “But it was the best way I knew of making a lot of money honestly.” Billy smiled shyly. “I got a girl back home in Fall’s River. She and I are gonna get married. Her Pa said he wouldn’t let her marry me until I got me a good stake. Well, I got it now. Enough to buy a nice ranch and some cattle,” Billy patted the breast pocket of his jacket.

“Two years?” Joe said skeptically. “That’s a long time for a girl to wait.”

“I know,” replied Billy. “But Carrie’s waiting for me. She wrote me a lot while I was gone. I didn’t get all her letters, but most of them found me. She’s waiting for me.” Billy reached into his jacket and pullet out a leather wallet. “Carrie’s the prettiest girl in the county,” Billy said. He opened his wallet and showed the two men a picture. Joe looked at the tintype. A dark haired girl wearing a white dress smiled back at him. Joe had to admit she was a very attractive girl. “She’s a beaut,” Joe said with a smile.

“She sure is,” Billy stated, putting his wallet back in his jacket. “And sweet as sugar. I can’t wait to surprise her. She doesn’t know I’m coming home.”

Bartlett had noted the thick wad of bills in the wallet. “You’d better come by the bank when we get to Virginia City,” he advised. “That’s a lot of money to be carrying around. I’ll arrange a bank transfer for you, and the money will be waiting for you in Fall’s River.”

“No thanks,” Billy answered, declining the offer with a shake of his head. “I want to show Carrie and her Pa that I can take care of her proper. I don’t know if a bank transfer will convince them.”

Bartlett looked out the window, studying the countryside. “We’ll be in Virginia City soon,” he said. “If you change your mind, come see me.”

Suddenly, a shot rang out. The single shot was quickly followed by three or four other shots. Joe stuck his head out the window of the coach and saw four riders galloping toward the stage. All had guns drawn and were firing at the stage. Joe felt the stage pick up speed, trying to outrun the men chasing them. Pulling his gun from his holster, he fired a shot at the men, but they were too far away for him to hit anything. Quickly, Joe pulled himself back into the coach. “Outlaws!” he shouted to the other men. Billy pulled a gun from his holster, preparing to shoot.

The stage lurched hard to the right as the racing horses followed a bend in the road and the passengers were thrown against the side of the coach. Suddenly, the horses screamed and the stage came to an abrupt stop. The coach lurched forward, then swayed, and finally fell on to it’s side. Joe felt himself slammed hard into the side of the coach, and then felt Walter Bartlett land on top of him. His right leg was bent beneath him, and he winced as his knee was pinned between the coach and Bartlett.

“Throw out your guns and come out with your hands in the air,” a voice outside the coach demanded. Billy was struggling to right himself. He still had his gun in his hand, but he seemed unsure what to do.

“Better do as they say,” Bartlett advised as he pulled himself off of Joe. Bartlett looked at Joe. “Sorry,” he added apologetically.

Joe nodded and tried to straighten his leg. He felt a sharp pain in his knee.

“We’re not waiting,” the voice outside the coach said. “Throw the guns out or we’ll fill the stage full of lead.”

Bartlett snatched the pistol from Billy’s hand, then turned and grabbed Joe’s gun. He pushed the door above him open and threw out the guns.

“Smart move,” said the voice. “Now come out with your hands in the air.”

Slowly, Bartlett climbed out of the stage. It was difficult to get out of the fallen coach, but the banker managed. Billy followed him, moving much more agilely than the banker. As Joe tried to stand, he winced again at the pain in his knee, and decided to use his arms to pull himself out of the coach. Joe was about halfway out of the stage when he felt a hand grab his arm and pull him forward, causing him to lose his balance and tumble to the ground. He sat up quickly and looked around.

Four men were standing in a semi-circle around the coach. Joe took a quick look at each man, hoping to remember them. One was about thirty, with dark hair, wearing a blue shirt and red bandanna. The man standing next to him was younger and blonder, and was wearing a gray shirt. A big man — bigger than even Joe’s brother Hoss — stood by the blonde man. He was wearing a checked shirt and dark vest. The final man was small, with black hair, black mustache and a swarthy complexion. Joe had the impression the man was Mexican, probably because he was wearing a big sombrero. Each outlaw had a gun pointed toward Billy and Walter Bartlett, who were standing near the stage with their hands in the air Joe saw the driver lying on the ground a few feet away, face down in the dirt. Joe couldn’t tell if the man was alive or dead. Joe looked around and noted the horses pulling the stage had disappeared. He could see some trees across the road. He guessed the horses must have come around the bend at full speed and panicked when they saw the trees. The horses must have jumped the barrier, causing the stage to crash, then bolted.

“Get over by them trees,” one of the outlaws ordered the passengers, gesturing with his gun. Billy and Walter Bartlett walked slowly in the direction the man had indicated. Joe tried to stand but his leg buckled under him.

“What’s wrong with you?” demanded one of the outlaws.

“Hurt my leg,” Joe replied as he rubbed his knee. “I don’t think I can walk.”

“Danny, drag him over with the others,” shouted a dark-haired outlaw. The man with blonde hair grabbed Joe’s arm and roughly dragged him across the ground, dropping Joe in a heap a few feet away from the stage.

Laying on his right hip, Joe propped himself up on his right elbow. He rubbed his sore knee as he watched the robbers.

“Reno, get the strong box,” the dark-hair man ordered. He seemed to be the leader. The Mexican turned and walked back to the stage. “And check that driver,” the leader called after him. Then the leader turned back to the passengers. “Now nobody do anything silly, and nobody will get hurt,” he promised. “Danny, see what they’re carrying,” the man said over his shoulder.

The young blonde man walked forward. He pulled open Bartlett’s jacket, and took the banker’s wallet. He pulled about $50 dollars out of the wallet, pocketing the cash and throwing the leather billfold to the ground. Then he moved to Billy. As he reached for Billy’s jacket, Billy knocked the outlaw’s hand away. The robber brought his gun up quickly and cracked Billy across the head with its barrel. Billy staggered a few steps, but kept his feet. He put his hands to his head as the outlaw pulled him forward.

“Stand still,” the robber snarled. He reached into Billy’s jacket and pulled out the young prospector’s wallet. “Well, looky here,” the outlaw said as he opened the billfold and pulled out a large wad of bills. “Must be six, seven thousand here.”

“Give it back!” Billy cried out desperately, reaching for the money. “That’s my stake.”

The outlaw pushed Billy back a few steps. “It’s MY stake now,” he sneered.

Angrily, Billy balled his fist as if to take a swing at the man.

“Billy, let him have it,” Joe said sharply. “It’s not worth getting killed over.”

Billy looked at Joe and then at the armed men around him. He dropped his hands to his side as a look of defeat crossed his face.

“Now there’s a smart man,” the dark-haired outlaw said. “Danny, don’t forget about the one on the ground.”

As the outlaw stuck the wad of bills in his pocket, Billy stood with his head down, his dejection evident. The outlaw laughed and moved to Joe.

Joe laid still. He wasn’t happy about being robbed, but he knew it was foolish to try to resist four armed men. Joe’s face was dark with anger as the outlaw pulled open his jacket and snatched the leather billfold from the inside pocket. “Looks like we hit the mother lode,” the outlaw said as he opened wallet. “Another couple of thousand.” Joe glowered at the man.

The man called Reno joined the others, carrying a strong box. He dropped it to the ground, then shot the lock open. The Mexican pulled two small sacks out of the box, opened one, and shook a few gold coins into his hand. “You were right, Johnny,” he said gleefully. “The money is here.”

“Shut up, Reno,” the leader snarled. “What about the driver?”

“He ain’t going to cause us any trouble,” Reno answered with a laugh. “He’s dead. Looks like he broke his neck when he fell.”

“Danny, get the horses,” the man named Johnny said. The younger outlaw nodded and walked to where four horses were waiting patiently behind the coach.

As the horses were brought forward, Johnny stared at the passengers thoughtfully. Reno and Danny put the sacks of coins into the saddle bags of one of the horses, then mounted. The big man had stood silent during the whole robbery. Now he holstered his gun, turned, and mounted also.

“C’mon, Johnny,” shouted Reno. “Let’s ride.”

For a moment, Johnny didn’t move, then abruptly nodded. He turned and mounted the last horse, his pistol still in his hand.

Joe let out a sigh of relief. It looked like the outlaws were going to ride off. He was going to look forward to riding with the posse that would go after them.

“One thing,” Johnny said. “We don’t like no witnesses.” With that, he pulled his gun up and shot Walter Bartlett in the chest.

Shocked, Joe looked over his shoulder and saw Bartlett fall to the ground. Before Joe could react further, he heard another shot and saw Billy fall also. Joe tried to scramble to his feet, but he felt a bullet slam into him, knocking him back to the ground. Joe felt a searing pain, then went limp.

*****

Hoss Cartwright was dozing in the seat of the buckboard as he waited outside the stage depot. He had delivered the horseshoes to the blacksmith, then treated himself to a beer. Now all he had to do was wait for the stage to arrive. Joe was due on the afternoon stage, and it was Hoss’ job was to ferry his little brother back to the ranch.

“Hoss? Are you still here?” Hoss heard a familiar voice ask.

Opening his eyes slowly, Hoss let a grin form on his face. “Hi, Pa,” he greeted Ben Cartwright. “Yep, I’m still here. That danged stage ain’t arrived yet.”

“It should have been here over an hour ago,” Ben said with a trace of disgust. “If I had known it was going to be this late, I wouldn’t have had you wait around.”

“Well, Pa, somebody has to wait on Joe,” Hoss offered. “We don’t want him stranded in Virginia City.”

“I think your brother could find his way home,” replied Ben with a wry grin. “Of course, knowing him, it could take him awhile.”

Suddenly, Ben and Hoss’ attention was drawn to a man shouting as he rode down the middle of the street. The man looked like a farmer, and he was leading a team of six horses.

“Sheriff,” the man shouted as he rode slowly down the street. “Where’s Sheriff Coffee?”

Both Ben and Hoss recognized the harness on the horses; it was the type normally worn by horses pulling a stage. Without a word, both Cartwrights ran down the street after the farmer.

The farmer stopped in front of the sheriff’s office. Once more, he shouted Roy Coffee’s name. Ben and Hoss arrived just as Sheriff Coffee emerged from his office.

“Jessie, what’s wrong?” asked the sheriff.

“I found these horses wandering around,” the farmer explained. “Looks like they’re from the stage. I thought I’d better tell you.”

“Did you look for the stage?” Ben asked the man.

“No, I didn’t,” the farmer said firmly. “Ain’t my job to waste time looking for some broken down stage.”

A crowd of people had gathered around the sheriff’s office. At the farmer’s words, a murmur broke out. Some people sounded angry while others sounded worried.

Roy Coffee held up his hand. “Now, folks, don’t start imaging things,” the sheriff said to the crowd. “Lot’s of things could have happened. Maybe the wheel broke, or something. But I’m going to go looking for that stage, and I’d appreciate some of you riding with me.”

“I’m going,” Ben said instantly.

“Me too,” added Hoss.

Several other men also shouted their willingness to go.

“Fine,” agreed Coffee with a nod. “Get your horses, and meet me back here in ten minutes.”

“Pa, I got to get a horse from the livery,” Hoss said as he and his father started up the street.

“No, why don’t you just follow us with the buckboard,” suggested Ben.

“But Pa, I won’t be able to keep up with you,” Hoss protested.

“I know, but Roy’s right,” answered Ben. “We don’t know what’s happened. If somebody got hurt, it’ll be better to have the buckboard.” Ben silently prayed his son was all right. “Even if everyone’s all right, they’ll need a ride to town.”

“All right,” Hoss agreed reluctantly.

Putting his hand on Hoss’ shoulder, Ben added in a reassuring voice, “Don’t worry, I’m sure Joe is fine.,” Hoss nodded, but his face showed his worry.

Quickly, Ben found his horse which was tied up in front of the bank. He rode back to the sheriff’s office, and joined the other six riders who were waiting there. As soon as he saw Ben, Roy Coffee raised his hand and led the posse out of town.

With the worried look still on his face, Hoss watched the posse ride out. After giving out a small sigh, he climbed into the buckboard and snapped the reins. Hoss turned the horses, and followed the posse out of town.

*****

The posse followed the Virginia City road, riding at a slow lope as they looked for some sign of the stage. Ben fought the urge to send his horse down the road at a gallop. He wanted to reach his son as soon as possible. But he also knew he could ride right by the stage if he went too fast.

The posse was no more then five or six miles outside of town when Roy Coffee saw the trees across the road and the wrecked coach behind them. He shouted and pointed ahead of him. The posse picked up speed.

The riders stopped their horses just before the trees across the road. Ben’s heart went to his throat as he saw the bodies laying on the ground. He quickly dismounted and rushed forward.

“Joe!” Ben cried as he spotted his son. He jumped the trees and ran to his son.

Joe was laying on his right side; the left side of his shirt was stained with a large circle of dried blood. Ben knelt next to his son and put his fingers on Joe’s neck, afraid of what he would feel…or not feel. But Ben felt a faint throb. Joe was alive.

Gently, Ben turned his son onto his back. He tore open Joe’s shirt, and blanched at the jagged wound on Joe’s ribs, just below the breastbone. The wound was crusted with dried blood, although a trickle of fluid continued to run down Joe’s body. “Get me some water!” Ben yelled over his shoulder. “Joe’s still alive!”

Turning back to his son, Ben quickly untied his bandanna and balled the cloth. He pressed the bandanna hard against the wound and heard Joe moaned softly.

Someone handed a canteen to Ben; he didn’t bother to look up to see who it was. Pulling the top off the canteen with his teeth, Ben took his hand off Joe’s wound so he could lift his son’s head. Then he trickled some water over Joe’s face.

At first, Joe had no reaction to the water on his face. Then, slowly, his head turned. Ben put the canteen to Joe’s lips and trickled some water into his son’s mouth. Joe swallowed.

“Joe?” Ben said softly. “Joe, can you hear me?”

Joe didn’t answer. His face was pale and his eyes were closed. Ben shook his son’s head gently, hoping to rouse him. He was rewarded when Joe’s eyes fluttered opened.

“Take it easy, son,” Ben said in an even voice, hoping to hide his fear. “Everything is going to be all right.”

“Pa?” Joe asked. His voice was barely a whisper.

“I’m here, son,” Ben answered quietly.

Reaching up, Joe grabbed Ben’s arm. “Pa,” he said again in a whisper. “I can’t breathe.” Joe’s grip tightened. “It hurts, Pa,” he added. “It hurts bad.”

Laying the canteen aside, Ben gripped Joe’s hand. “We’re going to get you to the doctor, Joe,” Ben reassured his son. “You’re going to be all right.”

Joe didn’t seem to hear Ben. He looked at his father with glazed eyes. “Pa, I’m glad….glad you’re here,” Joe stopped and seemed to be gathering his strength. “I didn’t….want to be alone…when I….” Joe’s voice trailed off.

Ben gripped his son’s hand tightly. “Joe!” he cried, desperation creeping into his voice. “Hang on, son.”

Joe looked into Ben’s eyes. “I love you,” he said in a barely audible voice.

Nothing Joe said could have scared Ben more. He knew his son wouldn’t have said those words unless Joe believed he was going to die. Ben gripped Joe’s hand even more tightly than before.

“The others are all dead,” said Roy Coffee as he came up behind Ben. “How’s Joe?”

“He’s alive, barely,” Ben answered, his eyes never leaving his son’s face.

“Hoss is coming up the road,” Coffee advised. “We’ll get Joe back to town.”

Ben didn’t answer. He felt Joe’s grip loosen on his hand, and saw his son’s eyes begin to close. “Joe!” Ben said loudly, shaking his son. Joe’s eyes fluttered open. “Joe, you stay awake,” Ben ordered in a firm voice. “You understand me? You stay awake.” Ben was afraid if Joe closed his eyes, he would never open them again.

“I’ll…..try,” Joe whispered.

Ben heard Roy Coffee shouting to Hoss to turn the buckboard around, so it was facing toward town. He also heard the sheriff calling several men over. Ben’s eyes never left Joe’s face. He stared hard at his son, as if he was keeping him alive by the force of his will. Joe stared back at his father with dull eyes; he also felt it was important to keep Ben’s face in his vision, although he wasn’t sure why.

From the corner of his eye Ben noted several pairs of legs standing around him. He felt a hand placed gently on his shoulder. “Ben, we have to get him to town,” Coffee told him in a gentle voice.

As Ben nodded his understanding, several pairs of hands reached down and gently lifted Joe. Ben never loosened his grip on his son’s hand, and his eyes never left Joe’s face. Joe moaned as he was lifted off the ground.

“Gently! Gently!” Ben urged the men, as he saw the pain in Joe’s face.

The men carried Joe slowly to the buckboard. Someone handed Roy Coffee a blanket. Ben wasn’t sure where it came from, and frankly, he didn’t care. The sheriff put the blanket on bed of the buckboard, and the men laid Joe on top of it. Ben wrapped the blanket tightly around his son, then climbed into the buckboard.

Sitting with his back against the driver’s seat, Ben pulled Joe to him. He positioned his son so Joe’s head was resting against his shoulder. Then he wrapped his arm tightly around Joe.

Moving his head slowly, Ben looked up and over his shoulder. He could see Hoss staring at him, his face mirroring the worry and the terror his father felt. “Drive fast,” Ben said softly. “As fast as you can without bouncing us out.”

Nodding, Hoss turned back to the team. He snapped the reins and the horses started trotting. Hoss snapped the reins again and the horses began to pick up speed.

Ben turned his attention back to Joe, whose eyes were now closed. Ben put his hand on his son’s cheek and gently stroked it. Then he took Joe’s jaw in his hand and gently shook it. As Joe’s eyes opened a bit, Ben shook his son’s head again. Lifting his head a bit, Joe looked at his father with dull, unfocused eyes. Ben could almost see the light fading from his son’s eyes. Ben’s heart was in his throat.

“Joe, listen to me,” Ben said to his son. “You have to hang on. It’s only a little way to Virginia City. You have to hang on until we get there.”

There was no reaction on Joe’s face. He simply stared at his father.

Quickly, Ben looked around, taking note of the area, then turned back to Joe. “We’re passing the Carter ranch,” he told his son in a desperate voice. “You know how close to town that is. It’s only a little way now. Just a little bit longer.”

Ben kept a steady stream of talk, describing to Joe exactly where they were, and how close they were getting to Virginia City. Joe didn’t react, but he kept his eyes firmly fixed on his father’s face.

“Joe, I can see the town,” Ben said as the buckboard sped along the road. “I can see the livery stable. We’re almost there. It’s only a little while now.”

Again, Joe didn’t react to his father’s words. His dull, almost lifeless eyes simply stared up. Only the occasional blink told Ben his son was still with him.

“Joe, we’re coming to the edge of town,” Ben advised in an encouraging voice. “We almost to the livery. It’s only a couple of blocks until we get to the doctor’s office. We’re almost there, son.”

Snapping the reins, Hoss urged the horses to even more speed now that he was on the smooth road of the town. People on the street hurried out of the way as the buckboard raced by.

“Joe, we’re here,” Ben said as the buckboard approached the doctor’s office. “We made it. You’re going to be all right now.” Ben wished he could believe his words.

Suddenly, Joe’s head slumped forward. It was if Joe had been hanging on until the buckboard reached town, but now he no longer needed to stay awake. In a panic, Ben felt for a pulse on his son’s neck. At first, he couldn’t feel anything. Ben pressed harder, and felt a faint throb. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Hoss pulled the buckboard to a skidding stop in front of the doctor’s office. He shouted for the doctor as he scrambled out of the seat and ran to the back of the buckboard. He stopped when he saw the look on his father’s face.

“Pa, is he…” Hoss couldn’t say the words.

“No, he’s alive,” Ben answered. “He’s still alive.”

Reaching into the buckboard, Hoss pulled Joe toward him. He gathered his little brother in his massive arms, and carried him toward the doctor’s office. Dr. Martin was opening the door as Hoss approached. The doctor motioned the big man into the office.

Slowly, Ben slowly climbed out of the buckboard, his knees weak. He walked toward the office in an unsteady gait.

Hoss was coming out of a back room as Ben entered the office. “The doc’s working on him already,” Hoss said in a grim voice. Ben nodded and sat down in a chair near the door.

“Pa, he’s going to be all right,” Hoss stated, hoping to reassure his father. “Joe’s going to be all right.”

Ben nodded but he didn’t believe Hoss. He had seen the look in Joe’s eyes. Ben believed he had managed to keep his son alive for a little while, but he was afraid he had held his son in his arms for the last time.

As Hoss paced the waiting room, Ben stared at the closed door at the back of the office. Ben fully expected the door to open at any minute and the doctor to tell him that Joseph, his beloved youngest son, was dead. As the minutes passed and the door remained closed, Ben felt a surge of hope. As long as the door stayed closed, Ben knew his son was still alive.

The minutes turned into an hour, and still the door was closed. Ben began to feel that maybe he was wrong, maybe his son would survive. But he was afraid to allow the hope to grow. Too many of the people Ben loved had left him. He was afraid what it would do to him if he allowed this hope to take hold, and then had it dashed in tragedy. Ben sat, unable to move, staring at the door.

Almost two hours passed, and still the door was closed. A new worry began nagging at Ben. What was taking the doctor so long? Why didn’t he come out and tell them about Joe? Ben felt the faint hope in his heart begin to fade. The doctor was trying to save his son, but it was taking too long. Ben began to think the doctor was working in vain to save Joe.

Hoss was no longer pacing. He sat in a chair by the front door of the office. He too wondered why the doctor was taking so long. He glanced at Ben, and the look on his father’s face told him what Ben was thinking. Hoss prayed his father was wrong.

Finally, the door opened. Ben and Hoss jumped to their feet as Doctor Martin walked out. The doctor knew how worried the two men in his waiting room must be. “He’s alive,” he declared. “I don’t know how, but he’s still alive.”

Ben’s shoulders sagged in relief. Hoss put his head down and said a silent prayer of thanks.

“How is he?” Ben asked. “Is he going to be all right?”

Doctor Martin shook his head. “I don’t know, Ben,” he answered. “The bullet hit him square in the ribs. That prevented the bullet from hitting his heart or lungs or other vital organs, but it shattered the rib. I had to do a lot of digging to get the bullet out, as well as the pieces of the rib. He must have been in a lot of pain.”

Ben nodded, remembering how Joe said he was hurting bad.

“He lost a lot of blood,” the doctor continued. “A lot. Maybe too much. He’s very weak, and all that probing I had to do didn’t help. Joe’s heart is young and strong, but I don’t know if it’s strong enough to overcome this. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“When will we know?” Hoss asked fearfully.

“Maybe by morning,” Doctor Martin answered. “If he makes it until morning, he’s got a good chance. I’ll have to keep forcing liquids into him to help replace the lost blood. Hopefully, that will keep his kidneys and other organs going until his body can replace its own fluids.”

“Can we see him?” Ben asked in a grim voice.

“Yes,” replied the doctor. “In fact, I’m going to need you and Hoss to help me move him to the bedroom. I want to be as gentle as possible with him.”

Nodding, Ben pushed past the doctor. He walked purposely into the room at the back of the office, then stopped in the doorway. Joe was lying on a table, covered to his shoulders by a sheet. Ben could see a pile of bloody clothes laying on the floor in a heap. He walked forward slowly, then stopped. For a moment, Ben merely stood by the table, watching his sleeping son. Joe was pale, almost as white as the sheet that covered him. His breathing was shallow but steady. Ben could hear the soft intake of breath through Joe’s open mouth. He put his hand on the top of Joe’s head and patted it lightly. “You made it this far, son,” Ben said in a soft voice. “Don’t quit on me now.”

Doctor Martin and Hoss had entered the room behind Ben. “Ben, he can’t hear you,” advised the doctor gently. “I’ve given him a strong sedative.”

Ignoring the doctor’s comment, Ben stroked his son’s head. “You’re going to be all right, Joe,” Ben encouraged his son. “You can do it. I know you can.”

Pulling a stretcher out from behind the door, Martin walked over to the table. “Hoss, I want you and Ben to lift Joe so I can slip this under him,” the doctor instructed. “And watch how you lift his legs. His right knee is twisted and bruised. It’s pretty swollen.”

“How did that happen?” Ben asked in astonishment.

“I don’t know, Ben,” answered the doctor. He smiled briefly. “I’m a good doctor, Ben. I check my patients thoroughly.”

“Right now, I think you are the best doctor in the world,” Ben stated.

Doctor Martin blushed a bit. “I bet you say that to all the doctors,” he said gruffly, trying to hide his embarrassment at Ben’s praise. “Come on,” he add briskly. “Let’s get him settled in the bed in the next room.”

It took awhile for the three men to transfer Joe to the bed in the next room. Ben and Hoss lifted Joe gently, afraid that they might hurt him if they weren’t careful. Once Joe was settled on the stretcher, the men carried him slowly through the waiting room to a bedroom. There they repeated their movements, with Ben and Hoss raising Joe gently from the bed as the doctor slid the stretcher out from underneath the unconscious man. Doctor Martin checked Joe’s bandages briefly, and was satisfied that his stitches had held. He pulled some blankets from the bottom of the bed over Joe, covering him to his shoulders. Joe never stirred during the whole process. Ben and Hoss stood over the bed, watching Joe as the doctor went to get some water.

“Do you think he’s going to be all right?” Hoss asked, knowing there was no real answer to his question.

“I hope so,” Ben replied fervently.

Doctor Martin returned in a few minutes with a cup and spoon, and sat on the bed next to Joe. “Lift his head for me, Ben” the doctor ordered. Ben reached down and lifted Joe’s head. The doctor slowly spooned the water into Joe’s mouth, being careful not to cause any choking. “I’ve put a lot of sugar and salt into this water,” the doctor said as he worked. “That should help him until his own body starts producing what he needs.”

While Ben and Hoss watched intently, the doctor spooned about half the cup into Joe. When the doctor put the cup on a small table next to the bed, Ben lowered Joe’s head back onto the pillow. All three men were so intent on the patient on the bed that they were startled to hear a voice at the doorway.

“How is he, Doc?” Roy Coffee asked as he stood in the doorway.

Doctor Martin turned to the sheriff. “He’s still alive, Roy. That’s about all I can say at this point.”

Nodding, Coffee swallowed hard. “I took the other bodies over to the funeral parlor,” he explained. “I had to tell Mrs. Bartlett about her husband. She took the news pretty hard.”

“Mrs. Bartlett?” the doctor said with a frown. “Walter Bartlett was on that stage?”

Again, Coffee nodded. “Yes he was. He was shot in the chest, and so was the other passenger, a young fellow. Looks like the driver got killed when the coach crashed.”

Doctor Martin shook his head. “Walter Bartlett,” he said sadly. “Walter was a fine man.”

Ben was startled by the news. He had been concentrating on Joe and hadn’t bothered to look at the other bodies. Now he was saddened by the untimely death of an old friend. “Roy, are you forming a posse?” he asked.

“Yep,” answered the sheriff. “Got more than twenty men. We’re going back to where the stage crashed, to see if we can pick up some tracks.”

“You tell those men that I’m offering a $1,000 reward for the capture of the men who did this,” Ben said in a grim voice.

“Ben, they don’t need any reward,” Roy answered. “Everybody in town is mad about what happened. I could have had fifty men if I wanted them.”

“Nevertheless, I’m offering a reward,” Ben stated firmly.

“Roy, I’m riding with you,” said Hoss.

“I figured you would,” Roy replied. “I got a horse outside for you.”

Hoss turned to his brother who laid still sleeping on the bed. “I’m going to get the men who did this to you, little brother,” he said softly. “I want you here waiting for me when I get back, you hear me?”

Ben and Doctor Martin exchanged looks. They knew that if he left now, there was a chance Hoss would never see his brother alive again. “Hoss…” Ben started.

Quickly, Hoss put up his hand. “I don’t want to hear it, Pa,” he said decisively. “Joe’s going to be all right. I know it. Besides, I’ll do more good riding with the posse than hanging around here.” Hoss started to walk across the room. As he reached the doorway, he stopped and looked back, giving his brother a long look. Then he turned toward the door. “Come on, Roy,” he said, pulling his hat down firmly on his head. “Let’s go get those varmints.” Roy Coffee followed Hoss out of the room.

Doctor Martin looked at Ben who was standing near the bed. “Ben, it’s going to be a long night,” he advised. “Why don’t you go over to the hotel and get some rest.”

“I’m not leaving,” Ben replied. He looked around the room and spotted a chair against the far wall. Ben walked over and pulled the chair next to the bed, then sat purposely on the chair. The doctor hadn’t really expected Ben to leave. He knew how Ben felt about his boys.

*****

For the next few hours, Ben and Doctor Martin watched over Joe. Every half hour or so, the doctor spooned more water laced with sugar and salt into the injured man. Ben worried that Joe showed no reaction, but the doctor assured Ben that his son was heavily sedated. Doctor Martin checked Joe’s breathing, pulse and temperature almost constantly, looking for some sign of change. The fact that Joe’s condition didn’t seem to be deteriorating encouraged him.

Standing and stretching a bit, Bend walked across the room. Curtains draped a window on the wall a few feet from the bed. Ben lifted the curtain and looked out on the seemingly deserted streets of Virginia City. He wondered briefly where everyone was, then realized the day was fading into evening. He supposed most people were eating supper. Ben shook his head. Eating supper. He thought of all the meals he had shared with his sons. He wondered how he would ever eat another meal at the Ponderosa if Joseph wasn’t there. Doctor Martin walked over to Ben. “Are you sure you don’t want to go over to the hotel for awhile?” he asked. “Joe seems stable.”

Ben shook his head. “No,” he said in a firm voice. “I’m not leaving.” Ben turned and walked back to the chair by the bed. The doctor watched as Ben pulled Joe’s hand out from under the covers and held the hand firmly in his own. It was almost as if Ben was trying to give some of his strength to his son. Then Doctor Martin heard the front door of his office open, followed by a young voice calling, “Doctor, doctor, where are you?”

Walking to the doorway, the doctored looked out into the reception area. “Here I am,” he called back.

A boy about ten ran up to the doctor. “Doctor, Ma says you got to come see Mrs. Bartlett right away. Her chest hurts and she says she can’t breathe.”

The doctor nodded. “I’ll be right there,” he said. He turned back to Ben. “I’d better check on Catherine. I’ll be back as soon as I can. You come get me if there’s any change.”

Mutely, Ben nodded.

For a moment, the doctor hesitated. He hated leaving a critically ill patient, but he was the only doctor in town. Doctor Martin was used to making painful choices, but he never liked doing it. “Give him some of that water in a half hour if I’m not back by then,” he instructed Ben.

Again, Ben nodded.

As the doctor left the room, Ben gripped Joe’s hand tightly. “Remember what I told you, son,” he said in a soft voice. “You have to hang on.”

Evening had turned into night by the time Doctor Martin returned. He had stayed with Catherine Bartlett much longer than he had intended. With quick steps, he hurried back into the sick room where Joe was. The lamp on the table was lit. Other than that, the scene was the same was when the doctor had left. Joe lay sleeping on the bed, with Ben holding his hand.

“Any change?” the doctor asked as he entered the room. Ben looked up, then shook his head. The doctor sat on the edge of the bed and checked Joe’s pulse and breathing. Both were faint but steady.

“I gave him some of that water twice,” Ben advised in a tired voice. “I used it all up.”

The doctor nodded. “I’ll make up some more,” he said.

“How’s Catherine Bartlett?” Ben asked.

“She’s fine,” answered the doctor. “Or as well as she can be under the circumstances. She didn’t have a heart attack. It was just the worry and grief that caused her problems. I finally gave her a sedative and sent her to bed.”

“Poor Catherine,” Ben commented sadly. “She’s going to be lost without Walter.”

Doctor Martin nodded. Privately, he thought the same about Ben. If Joe didn’t pull through, Ben would be lost.

“You know, it’s funny what you think about,” Ben continued. “I was remembering when Joe first started breaking horses. He was battered and bruised all summer. On some mornings, he was so sore he could barely get out of bed. I thought sure he would give it up. But he kept telling me that he wanted to be the best horse breaker on the ranch. He kept at it, and he learned. It wasn’t long before he WAS the best horse breaker on the Ponderosa.” Ben looked up at the doctor. “When he wants something, Joe is as stubborn as a mule.” Ben looked down at his son. “We just have to convince Joe that he needs to get well. If we do that, nothing will stop him.”

Doctor Martin stared at Ben. He was becoming worried about his old friend. “Ben, you need to get some rest,” he said gently.

“Soon,” Ben replied. “As soon as Joe wakes up.”

*****

Doctor Martin woke with a start. He hadn’t realized he had fallen asleep in the chair. Rubbing his eyes, he looked around. He could see the rays of the sun coming through the curtains by the window. Turning his head quickly, he looked toward the bed. Joe and Ben looked as if they had been frozen in time. Joe lay sleeping while Ben sat holding his son’s hand. The doctor stretched and walked over to the bed. As he sat on the edge, he once again checked Joe’s pulse and breathing. He was surprised to find both much stronger. The doctor put his hand on Joe’s forehead and was pleased to find it only slightly warm. Suddenly, Joe stirred. He moaned softly as he tried to shift his body on the bed.

“Lie still,” Doctor Martin ordered his patient. Joe didn’t seem to hear the doctor. He shifted on the bed again, and grunted at the pain it caused. Joe’s eyes squinted, then opened. He looked at the two men peering down at him, then his eyes focused on Ben. “Hi Pa,” he said softly.

“Hi yourself,” Ben answered with a grin.

“Guess I made it,” Joe said in a weak voice.

“You sure did, son,” replied Ben heartily.

“I kept hearing your voice in my head,” Joe murmured. “I kept hearing you tell me to hang on.”

The doctor looked at Ben with a surprised expression. He knew Joe had been heavily sedated and he doubted the boy could have heard Ben. But somehow Ben’s message got through to Joe.

“What about the others?” Joe asked softly. “Mr. Bartlett? Billy? Are they all right?”

Ben hesitated a moment before answering. “Don’t worry about them,” he replied in a soothing voice. “You just concentrate on getting well.”

Joe studied Ben’s face. “They didn’t make it, did they?” he said in a sad voice.

Ben took a deep breath. “No, they didn’t make it.”

Slowly, Joe closed his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said in a tired voice. Then, abruptly, Joe opened his eyes again. “Pa, we have to get them,” he said. “We have to get the men who did this.”

“We will, son,” Ben agreed in a grim voice. “Don’t worry, we will.”

*****

It was late in the day when the posse rode back into Virginia City. The tired, discouraged look on the face of the men told everyone who saw them that they hadn’t found the outlaws. Hoss rode directly to the doctor’s office as the rest of the men scattered. He tried to tell himself that there would be good news waiting for him. But he felt the gnaw of worry in his stomach. Hoss dismounted in front of the office and tied his horse to the hitching post there. He walked to the door, then stopped. Taking a deep breath before opening the door, Hoss walked into an empty waiting room. He stood there for a minute, unsure of what to do. He heard the door open behind him and saw Roy Coffee walk in.

“How’s Joe?” the sheriff asked.

Before Hoss could answer, the door to the bedroom opened. Ben Cartwright walked out of the room, a relaxed and smiling expression on his face. Hoss felt the knot in his stomach dissolve.

“Joe’s gonna be all right, isn’t he?” Hoss said with a grin.

Ben nodded. “He’s still very weak, but he’s awake and talking. The doctor thinks his chances are good.”

“I told you, Pa,” Hoss stated enthusiastically. “I told you he was going to be fine.”

“Yes, you told me,” Ben replied with a smile.

“Can we talk with him?” Roy asked.

“In a minute,” Ben answered. “The doctor’s changing his bandages.” His face turned serious. “Did you find anything?”

Hoss shook his head. “No, not really,” he replied. “We found tracks of four riders and followed them. But they got up in that hard rock country, and we lost the trail. We looked around for awhile, but we couldn’t find anything.”

“You’re not giving up?” Ben said with alarm.

“No, we’re not giving up,” Roy assured him. “We just came back to get some supplies and fresh horses. We’re going back out first thing in the morning.”

The door to the bedroom opened again, and Doctor Martin walked out. He was carrying some soiled bandages in his hands.

“Doc, can we talk to Joe?” Roy asked quickly.

“Just for a minute,” the doctor answered. “He needs plenty of rest.”

With rapid steps, Hoss and Roy walked past the doctor and into the bedroom. The two men saw Joe was sitting up in bed. His ribcage was wrapped in bandages, and he had dark circles under his eyes. But Joe’s face lit up when he saw his big brother.

“Hi, brother,” Joe said in a thin voice.

Hoss sat on the edge of the bed. “Hi yourself. You’re looking a lot better than the last time I saw you.”

“I’m feeling better,” Joe stated. “I’ll be out of here in no time.”

“Sure you will,” Hoss agreed in an encouraging voice.

“Pa told me you were riding with the posse,” Joe said. “Did you find them?”

“No,” Hoss answered with a shake of his head. “We found some tracks, but we lost the trail.”

“Hoss, you have to find them,” Joe said, with an urgency in his voice. “You have to.”

“Joe, we don’t even know who we’re looking for,” Coffee offered from the doorway.

Joe looked up. “There were four of them, Roy,” he replied. “Four real mean hombres.”

The sheriff walked to the end of the bed. “Joe, can you tell us what happened?” he asked.

Looking down, Joe swallowed hard and gathered his thoughts before answering. He briefly described the stage wreck and the robbery. Joe’s voice shook a bit as he described how the outlaws had callously shot the passengers.

Coffee nodded as he listened. “Can you describe them?” he asked.

For a minute, Joe thought about the men. He had a picture of each of them in his mind; he didn’t think he would ever forget them. The sheriff listened thoughtfully as Joe described the four outlaws, naming three of them.

“Are you sure about those names?” Coffee asked as Joe finished.

“I’m sure,” Joe replied. “I heard them. One was Reno, another Danny and the third was Johnny. They never said the name of the fourth man.”

“Well, that gives me something,” Coffee said. “I’m going over to the office and start looking through some posters.”

Doctor Martin stepped forward. “That’s enough for now,” he ordered firmly. “Joe needs to rest.”

“Is it all right if I come back later?” Roy asked. “I want Joe to look at some wanted posters.”

“In the morning,” the doctor answered. “Not before then.”

“I’m all right, doc,” Joe said from the bed, although his voice sounded weak and tired. “I can look at those posters now.”

“No,” the doctor stated. “You’re going to rest. I did some of my best work patching you up and I’m not going to have you ruin it.”

Joe smiled weakly and nodded.

As he stood, Hoss patted his brother’s leg. “You get some sleep, Joe,” he suggested. “I’ll see you later.” Hoss looked at his father, sending Ben a silent question. Ben jerked his head toward the outer room and Hoss nodded.

As the doctor was helping Joe slide down under the covers, the others left the room. Ben closed the door behind him.

“Is he really going to be all right?” Hoss asked immediately. “He looks pretty bad.”

“The doctor said it’s going to take awhile,” Ben replied, “but he’s confident Joe will be fine.”

Hoss nodded, but his face still showed concern.

Turning to the sheriff, Ben said in a grim voice, “Roy, I don’t want the men who did this to get away. Whatever it takes, I want them caught.”

“Don’t worry, Ben,” Coffee answered, his voice equally grim. “We’ll get them. I have a pretty good idea of who we’re looking for.”

“I want them caught,” Ben repeated. “No matter what it takes.”

True to his word, Roy Coffee was back at the doctor’s office early the next morning. He carried several sheets of paper in his hand as he walked to the bedroom door. Coffee smiled briefly as he stood in the doorway. Ben was washing Joe’s face with a wet cloth, just as he used to do when Joe was a little boy. Coffee had seen Ben do it many times. Only this time, Joe wasn’t squirming away or protesting. He was sitting quietly in the bed with several pillows behind his back, his hands lying limply on the covers. The sheriff’s smile quickly disappeared as he thought of the men who had brutally shot down three unarmed men. Coffee waited until Ben had dried Joe’s face with a small towel, then rapped the door jamb lightly. “Morning,” he said in a hearty voice.

Both Ben and Joe turned to look at Roy. Ben smiled, but Joe’s face was passive. He looked even more tired than the day before.

“How are you feeling today, Joe?” Roy asked.

“He had kind of a rough night,” Ben answered for his son. “Joe didn’t get much sleep.”

Coffee’s eyes arched as he looked at Ben.

“I guess talking about the robbery brought it all back for him,” Ben explained briefly. The sheriff nodded, understanding what Ben was trying to tell him. Joe’s sleep had been interrupted by nightmares about the robbery.

Walking slowly, Coffee came into the room. “Where’s the doc?” he asked, looking around.

“He went to check on Catherine Bartlett,” Ben replied. “Walter’s funeral is today, and he wanted to make sure she’s all right.”

Giving a quick nod, Coffee turned to Joe. “Joe, do you feel up to looking at some posters?” he asked.

Joe reached for the papers in the sheriff’s hands. “I’m up to it,” he said briefly. Coffee handed him the flyers.

As Ben and the sheriff watched, Joe looked at each poster, carefully studying the picture on each sheet. He put several aside, then went back and studied four sheets again. Finally, he handed the sheets to Coffee. “These are the men,” Joe said.

Taking the sheets, the sheriff paged through them. “Johnny Keene and his gang,” Coffee said. “I kinda of figured they might be the ones. They’re wanted for robbery and murder in four states.”

“What happens now?” Joe asked.

“I’m going to wire every sheriff within a hundred miles to keep an eye out for them,” answered Coffee. “Then I’m taking a posse out. They might be hold up someplace around here.”

“Roy, be sure to tell those sheriffs about the reward I’m offering,” said Ben. “A thousand dollars might help them look harder.”

“I will, Ben, only now the reward is $10,000,” the sheriff replied.

“$10,000!” Ben exclaimed.

“Yep, the stage line put up $5,000 and the bank is adding another $4,000,” Coffee said. He looked at Joe. “We all want to catch them. We want them real bad.”

The sheriff picked up the other posters from the bed and started to leave the room. He stopped and turned back to Joe. “Joe, I almost forgot,” he said. “That young fellow who was on the stage with you. Do you know anything about him? We couldn’t find any identification on him. I want to notify his kin, but I don’t know who to contact.”

A look of pain crossed Joe’s face and he lowered his eyes. “His name was Billy Olsen,” Joe told the sheriff in a strained voice. “He said he was going home to Fall’s River. His mother lives there. And the girl he was going to marry.”

“Fall’s River, eh,” Coffee said . “I know the sheriff over there. I’ll send him a wire and ask him to tell the boy’s mother about what happened.” The sheriff turned and walked out.

As Joe continued to stare down at the bed, Ben put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked.

Joe looked up. “Yeah, Pa,” he said. “I’m all right.” But Joe’s face belied that statement. His eyes had a pinched look and his mouth had a grim set to it. “I’m all right,” he repeated in a soft voice.

*****

Four men lounged around a fire inside a cave. The outlaws were relaxed, confident that no posse would find their hideout. Two were stretched out on blankets, while the third idly fed some sticks into the fire. Johnny Keene sat sipping a cup of coffee, a thoughtful expression on his face.

“Reno, I want you to ride into Virginia City tomorrow,” Johnny said. “Hang around town and find out what’s going on. See if the posse is still out looking.”

“How come Reno gets to go?” complained Danny. “Why can’t I go?”

“Because I said so,” Johnny answered in an angry voice.

“Johnny is sending me because he wants to know what’s going on,” Reno said with a grin. “He don’t want to send somebody who’s going to spend time drinking and dancing with saloon girls.”

“Johnny’s the boss,” added the big man, his voice deep. “He’s done all right by us so far.”

Danny sat up. “I’m tired of just sitting around here,” he grumbled. “Why can’t we just ride out? Nobody knows who robbed that stage.”

“Because I don’t want to get stopped by some posse,” Johnny said. “If we get stopped, they’ll search us. If they find those gold coins, they’ll know we were the ones who robbed the stage. I don’t fancy getting hung.”

“We should have just kept riding,” Danny continued his complaint. “It was a bad idea to hold up here.”

“Kept riding, eh,” Johnny said. “Danny, you’re dumber than you look. If we kept riding, we would have had to stop someplace out in the open. That posse would have found us in no time.”

“We don’t know there’s a posse looking for us,” Danny mumbled.

“There’s a posse,” Johnny stated. “When that stage didn’t show up, they went looking for it. They’re going to be looking for whoever robbed that stage.” He turned to Reno. “You keep your ears open and your mouth shut. And be back by night.”

“Don’t worry, Johnny,” Reno said. “I’ll let you know what’s going on.”

Two hours later, Reno sat in the Silver Dollar saloon, nursing a beer. He had spent most of the morning walking around town, eavesdropping on people as they gossiped in the street. So far, he had heard nothing of interest. He figured he’d spend a little time in the saloon and see what he could pick up there. But the saloon was almost empty. He thought about asking the bartender about the stage robbery, but decided that might arouse suspicion. He was better off just waiting to see if someone else brought it up. So far, no one had. Reno decided to wait a bit longer to see if he could learn anything. He sipped his drink. He figured to finish his beer, then head back to the hideout.

The sound of footsteps and the rumble of voices caught the outlaw’s attention. Reno looked up as a crowd of men pushed open the saloon doors. Six dusty men walked in and stood at the bar. “Beer,” ordered one of them. “Make it cold and wet.”

The bartender started filling some beer glasses from a keg. “You boys been riding posse?” he asked as he filled the glasses. Reno sat up and listened hard.

“Yep,” said one of them. “Didn’t find a thing.”

The bartender set the glasses on the bar. “You fellows going to quit looking?” he asked.

“No, at least not for awhile,” answered one of the men, sipping his beer. “We’re heading out again in the morning.”

“You fellows must want that $10,000 reward awful bad,” the bartender suggested.

“Well, the money would be nice,” agreed another man. “But I ain’t doing it for the money. Joe Cartwright’s a friend of mine, and I don’t like the idea of whoever shot him getting away.”

“I hear the doc’s going to let him out of bed for awhile today,” the bartender said.

“Yeah?” replied Joe’s friend. “That’s good news. Sounds like he’s doing real well.”

“It’s a good thing Joe was able to describe those outlaws,” said one of the men. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t even know who we were looking for.”

Frowning, Reno pulled his hat down over his face. Johnny wasn’t going to like what he would have to tell him. A persistent posse, a $10,000 reward and one of the men still alive. No, Johnny wasn’t going to like this at all.

“I think we’re wasting our time,” said one of the men at the bar. “Those outlaws are probably a hundred miles from here. We’ll never find them.”

“Well, maybe we won’t,” replied another man. “But somebody will. I was out there when Ben Cartwright found his boy. I saw the look on old Ben’s face. He’s not going to let someone shoot his son and get away with it.”

“You’re right there,” the first man agreed. “Ben Cartwright’s a big man in these parts. He’s going to have every sheriff west of the Mississippi looking for those outlaws. Hell, he’ll probably have the army out looking for them.”

Quickly, Reno threw some coins on the table and stood up. He glanced at the bar, and saw the men had their backs to him. He left the saloon in a hurry.

As he stood on the sidewalk outside the saloon, Reno wasn’t sure what to do next. His first instinct was to ride back to the hideout quickly. But he knew Johnny would want more. He’d want to know where Joe Cartwright was.

Slowly, Reno walked down the street, trying to look unconcerned. His eyes searched each of the buildings as he walked. He finally spotted a sign proclaiming “Paul Martin, MD”. Reno crossed the street and leaned against a post. He looked like any cowboy, just killing time. But his eyes were glued on the building across the street.

In the bedroom in the doctor’s office, Joe was sitting in a chair by the window at the end of the bed. He was wearing a brown robe, and a blanket covered his legs. His right leg was stretched out, his foot was resting on a small stool. A tray holding a bowl of stew, some bread, and a cup of coffee sat on his lap. Joe was pushing the spoon around in the stew. He stared at the tray, his thoughts far away from the meal in front of him. Ben walked into the room, prepared to take an empty tray back to the café. He was surprised to see the tray was still full.

“Joe, you haven’t eaten your lunch,” Ben said with a frown.

Joe looked up. “I’m not very hungry,” he answered briefly.

Ben walked over to his son, concern showing on his face. “Are you feeling all right?” he asked quickly. “Are you feeling some pain?”

Shaking his head, Joe said in a low voice, “No, it’s nothing like that.”

Letting out a sigh of relief, Ben moved closer to his son. “What’s wrong, then?” he asked as he perched on the end of the bed. Joe had seemed unusually quiet during the past two days. Ben had thought that his son was just trying to regain his strength. But now he wondered if something else was bothering Joe.

“Joe?” Ben said when his son didn’t answer. “What’s wrong?” he asked again.

Joe looked away. “It’s nothing,” he replied briefly. “I was just thinking about Mr. Bartlett and Billy.”

Ben waited.

“I wish I could have gone to the funerals,” Joe continued. “I wish I could have told them how sorry I am about what happened.”

For a moment, Ben studied the troubled look on Joe’s face. “Are you feeling guilty because you’re alive and they’re dead?” he asked.

Joe looked at Ben with surprise. “Yeah, I guess,” he admitted. “Something like that.”

“Joe, you shouldn’t feel guilty,” Ben said. “I’m very grateful you’re alive.”

“But, Pa, why me?” Joe asked. “I mean, why should I still be here when they’re dead. Mr. Bartlett was a good man. He helped a lot of people around here. And Billy had his whole life ahead of him. He was going to marry a girl back home and start a ranch. Why are they dead and not me?”

Gently, Ben put his hand on Joe’ shoulder. “Joe, I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “No one does. I once saw a clipper ship go down, a ship that was manned with experienced sailors. Everyone drowned except a young cabin boy. Men who were in the war tell stories of battles where the soldiers all around them were shot down and they came out without a scratch. No one knows why it happens. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s fate. For whatever reason, the hand of fate sometimes picks out one person and protects them. I’m very grateful that you were chosen this time.”

“But why, Pa?” Joe pressed his question. “I mean, am I suppose to do something special with my life? Am I suppose to go around doing good deeds or something?”

Ben grinned wryly. “I don’t think you’d make a very good candidate for sainthood, Joe. No, I don’t think you’re suppose to do anything but live your life the best you can.”

“I can’t help thinking there’s more to it than that,” Joe insisted.

“Joe, you’re trying to make sense out of something that doesn’t make sense,” Ben said. “You were lucky. The doc says because you were lying on the ground, the bullet hit you at an angle. Walter Bartlett and that young man weren’t as lucky. They died. They weren’t any better or worse people than you are. They were just unlucky.” Ben looked at his son. “Do you understand why I’m trying to tell you?”

“I guess,” Joe replied, but his voice was full of doubt. He looked toward the window. Joe pulled the curtain back and looked out onto the street. He wasn’t thinking about the scene before him; his mind was full of questions that seemed to have no answers. Gradually, though, Joe began to focus on the people on the street. He looked at the man leaning against the post across the street. Frowning, Joe stared at the man.

“Pa!” Joe shouted abruptly. “That’s one of them. That’s one of the outlaws!”

Springing to his feet, Ben looked out the window. “Where?” he asked.

Joe pointed to a man who suddenly stood up straight, pulled his hat down over his face and began walking rapidly away. “That’s him,” Joe said pointing to the retreating figure. “That’s the one they called Reno.”

Turning quickly, Ben ran from the room. He raced out of the building and stood on the street, looking up and down. The man Joe had pointed out was nowhere to be seen. Ben ran across the street and down the alley next to a building. The alley was deserted. He returned to the street and looked around again. Ben walked rapidly up the street, his head twisting as he searched for the outlaw. He finally realized the man that he was seeking had somehow managed to get away. Ben turned and slowly walked back toward the doctor’s office. He saw Hoss and Roy Coffee coming down from the opposite direction, also heading toward the doctor’s office. Ben reached the office just as the other men entered the building.

Inside the office, Doctor Martin was standing in the waiting room. He had heard Ben rush out and was curious. “What’s going on?” the doctor asked as Ben entered the office. The sheriff and Hoss turned and looked at Ben, surprised to see him coming in behind him. Before Ben could answer, Joe limped to the door of the bedroom. He was clutching his side and dragging his injured leg. “Did you get him?” Joe answered as he leaned against the door jamb.

“What are you trying to do, kill yourself?” exclaimed Doctor Martin. He rushed over to Joe and grabbed his arm. “Sit down before you fall down,” said the doctor. He led Joe to a chair a few feet from the bedroom door. Joe leaned heavily on the doctor as he limped to the chair. The doctor eased the youngest Cartwright down into the chair slowly.

“Did you get him?” Joe asked again once he was seated.

“Get who?” Roy Coffee asked in a puzzled voice.

“Joe spotted one of the outlaws in town,” Ben explained. “I tried to catch him but the man disappeared.”

“One of them outlaws in town?” Hoss said. “Are you sure, Joe?

“I’m sure,” Joe replied in a emphatic voice.

“Why would one of them be in town?” Hoss asked.

“They might have heard Joe was still alive,” Coffee replied thoughtfully. “They might be trying to figure out where he is. After all, Joe’s the only witness. He’s the one who can put a noose around their neck.”

“Do you think they’ll try something?” Ben asked in alarm. He had come close to losing his son once. He didn’t want it to happen again.

“I don’t know, Ben,” the sheriff admitted. “I wouldn’t think they’d try something right here in town. But then, that fellow was able to sneak into town right under our noses. I don’t know what they’ll do.”

“We’ve got to protect Joe,” Ben stated in a worried voice.

“I’ll get a deputy over here right away,” Coffee said in a reassuring voice.

“Now wait a minute, Roy,” interjected Dr. Martin. “This is a doctor’s office. I can’t have your deputy stopping my patients from visiting me.”

“Maybe we could move Joe over to the hotel,” Hoss suggested. “We could put a guard on his room over there.”

“I have a better idea,” Joe said from the chair. He looked at Ben. “Take me home, Pa. I want to go home.”

*****

Reno spurred his horse at a full gallop back toward the hideout. He knew he was lucky to have gotten out of town. He had seen Joe pointing to him from the window and seen the white haired man rush out of the office. Reno had hidden behind some crates a few doors away from where he had been standing. He had watched the white haired man rush down the street, then return to the doctor’s office. Reno also had seen the sheriff and another man go into the office. He was sure the sheriff now knew he had been in town.

As he rode, Reno worried about what to tell Johnny. When he neared the cave, he decided to tell Johnny everything. Johnny would know what to do, he thought. Johnny was smart. Reno rode his horse to a hidden rope corral a few feet from the cave. He dismounted, leaving his sweaty horse to fend for itself, and rushed into the cave.

“Johnny!” he shouted. “We’re in trouble. We’re in big trouble.”

The three men who were relaxing in the cave sat up suddenly, their attention focused on Reno. “What’s wrong?” Johnny asked.

Reno took a deep breath, wondering where to start. “They’ve got a $10,000 reward out for us,” he said.

“$10,000?” laughed Danny. “You’d better be careful Reno. For that kind of money, I might turn you in myself.”

“Shut up,” snapped Johnny. He looked at Reno. “That kind of money will keep a posse looking for a long time.”

Reno nodded. “But that’s not all. One of the fellows we shot, his father is Ben Cartwright.”

The big man frowned. “Ben Cartwright?” he said in his deep voice. “I know about him. He’s got a big spread right outside of Virginia City. He’s an important man.”

“Important enough to have every sheriff in the West looking for us,” agreed Reno . “There’s talk of bringing in the army.”

The three outlaws looked at each other, worry creasing their faces. “Now wait a minute,” Johnny said. “They don’t know for sure we’re the ones who robbed that stage.”

“Oh yes they do,” Reno replied. “One of the fellows we shot, the one who hurt his leg? He’s still alive. And he’s Ben Cartwright’s son.”

“Do you think he told them about us?” Danny asked, panic filling his voice.

“He told them,” Reno asserted. “I saw him. He was sitting by the window in the doctor’s office. If he’s well enough to sit up, he’s well enough to tell the sheriff about us.”

“Did they see you?” Johnny asked.

Reno hesitated. He thought briefly about lying to Johnny about being spotted in town, but decided the other man’s anger at his carelessness was less important that giving him all the facts. Johnny would need to know what had happened if he was going to get them out of this. “He saw me,” Reno finally admitted, lowering his head.

“You fool!” shouted Johnny. “Now they know for sure we’re still around.”

“Johnny, we’ve got to get out of here,” Danny said in a panic. He stood up. “We’ve got to ride to Mexico as fast as we can.”

The big man nodded in agreement. “Danny’s right. We’ve got to make tracks.”

“Now what a minute,” Johnny said, turning to the other men. “We’re hid out good here. The posse will never find us. If we head for Mexico, we’re liable to ride right into them.”

“The posse ain’t going out again until tomorrow,” Reno added. “If we left now, we could get a head start on them.”

“And just how far do you think we’d get?” Johnny said with disgust. “It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. I don’t fancy riding those rough mountain trails in the dark.”

“What are we going to do?” asked Reno.

Johnny sat back. “I don’t know yet,” he answered thoughtfully. “But somehow I got a feeling it’s going to involve killing a Cartwright.”

*****

Joe’s suggestion about going home started a raucous argument in the doctor’s office. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, and no one agreed with anyone else. Finally, Ben put up his hand. “Hold it!” he shouted at the top of his voice. The other men abruptly stopped talking and looked at Ben. “We’re not going to accomplish anything if we keep arguing like this,” Ben continued in a firm voice. He looked at Doctor Martin. “When do you think it will be all right for Joe to travel?” he asked.

“I can go now,” Joe said.

“Joseph, the decision is not yours to make,” Ben stated firmly. “And it’s not open to debate.” He turned back to the doctor. “What do you think, doc?”

Doctor Martin looked thoughtfully at Joe. “Well, if he doesn’t pull any more crazy stunts like this, Joe should be strong enough to go home in three or four days.”

“I’m well enough to go now,” Joe insisted.

“Joe, you heard what I said,” Ben said to his son in a voice that brooked no discussion. “You’re not leaving here until the doctor says you can.”

Joe slumped back in the chair with an angry look on his face.

Ignoring his son’s pouting, Ben turned to Roy Coffee. “Roy, how quick can you get a posse back out?” he asked.

“I can probably round up some men right away,” the sheriff replied in a puzzled tone. “But why? We’re going out again in the morning.”

“Because that outlaw probably got out of town and is heading back to their hideout,” Ben replied. “They might just get worried enough to take off right away. If they do, the posse will find them.”

“added“I believe you’re right, Ben,” Coffee agreed with a nod. “I’ll round up as many men as I can, and I’ll send them out in all directions. They can keep any eye out for any strangers.”

“Pa, what about Joe?” Hoss asked. “Are we going to get a deputy to guard him?”

“No, Hoss,” Ben answered. “We don’t need a deputy. You and I are going to guard Joe. One of us is going to be with him every minute until those outlaws are caught.”

*****

As the twilight turned to night, Ben sat in the bedroom with a rifle across his lap. The room with dimly lit; the lantern on the table had been turned low. Ben was sitting next to the bed in which Joe was sleeping. Although Joe insisted he was fine, it had taken both he and the doctor to get his son back to bed. Joe had barely been able to walk, still weak from his injury. His side and his leg were hurting also, Ben knew; he could tell by the way Joe had gritted his teeth as he slowly made his way back to the bedroom. Joe had fallen asleep almost instantly after Ben and Doctor Martin got him settled in the bed. His son had awaken briefly when Hoss brought him some dinner but he went back to sleep as soon as the tray was taken away. Ben worried that Joe was so tired after so little exertion. The doctor had assured Ben that this was to be expected, but Ben still worried. He shifted in the chair, trying to get into a more comfortable position. His eyes were constantly darting around the room, looking for any sign of trouble. His muscles tensed as he heard a click and saw the door open.

“It’s just me, Pa,” Hoss said in a soft voice as he entered the room. Ben relaxed. “Joe still sleeping?” Hoss asked looking down at the bed.

Ben nodded. “He hasn’t stirred all night,” Ben said. He looked at the sleeping figure on the bed. “He’s not near as well as he says he is,” Ben added.

“You know Joe,” Hoss replied with a smile. “He hates idea of someone watching over him.”

“He’s going to have to get used to it,” Ben stated. “I’m not taking a chance on anything else happening to him.”

“Pa, you don’t really think those outlaws would try anything, do you?” Hoss asked. “I mean, right here, in Virginia City?”

“Hoss, I don’t know what they’d do,” Ben admitted. “They robbed a stage and shot three unarmed men. Shot them for no reason. You can never tell what men like that might do.”

“You’re right,” Hoss agreed. He watched his brother sleep for a minute, his hand unconsciously gripping the pistol his holster. Then he turned back to Ben. “It’s almost midnight,” he said. “You go get some sleep. I’ll stay with Joe.”

Before Ben could answer, his attention was drawn to the sound of a horse galloping. The sound kept coming nearer and nearer. Ben stood, preparing to walk to the window. Suddenly, two shots rang out, breaking the window with a crash. The bullets hit the wall above the bed. Both Hoss and Ben instinctively hit the floor. But the noise woke Joe. He sat up in bed, a confused expression on his face. Ben stood and grabbed his son by the shoulders, pulling Joe out of the bed and on to the floor. Joe hit the floor with a thud, his head banging the hard wood. Two more shots came through the window. One of the bullets hit the headboard of the bed. The other bullet shattered the lantern next to the bed. Instantly, flames spread across the table as the oil spilled and the flames leaped the short distance to the bed. The blanket on the bed caught fire and started to burn.

Ignoring the smoke and flames, Hoss crawled across the room, then sat up. His back was against the wall next to the window. He slowly pulled the curtain back. A dark figure fired another shot, then spurred his horse down the street. Hoss stuck his arm out the window and took two shots at the retreating figure, missing with both bullets.

“Hoss! Get over here and help me!” Ben shouted. He was laying on the floor, his body draped protectively over Joe. The flames from the broken lantern were starting to spread across the bed.

Quickly, Hoss took another look out the window. The street was filling with people attracted by the noise. Satisfied that the danger was gone, Hoss stuck his gun back in his holster and rushed across the room. Smoke and heat were rapidly filling the room. Ben was struggling, trying to raise Joe’s limp body from the floor. “We have to get him out of here!” Ben shouted. Hoss pushed his father aside and bent down. He scooped Joe into his arms, then stood up. With rapid steps, he carried his brother out of the room.

Once he was sure Hoss had Joe, Ben snatched the burning blanket off the bed and threw it on the floor. He stamped on the flames quickly, putting them out. Then he took the burned cloth and began smothering the rest of the fire. In a less than a minute, the flames were gone.

For a minute, Ben stood in the middle of the room, coughing from the smoke. He check the room quickly, making sure the fire was completely out. Then he threw the blanket on the floor and hurried out of the room. Joe was sitting in a chair in the waiting room, holding his head with his left hand. The thin nightshirt he was wearing offered him little warmth and Joe shivered a bit. Doctor Martin was kneeling next to him, peering intently at Joe. The doctor’s hair was tousled and he was wearing a nightshirt tucked halfway into a pair of pants. The shots had awaken the doctor from his sleep in his living quarters above the office. Seeing Joe’s shiver, the doctor stood and walked across the room. He opened a chest and pulled a blanket from it, then returned to Joe and wrapped the blanket around the young man’s shoulders.

Suddenly, Joe coughed, and instantly grabbed his side. He grimaced with pain as he continued to cough and gasp for breath. Hoss stood next to his brother, with a comforting hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“The fire’s out,” Ben said. “How’s Joe?”

For a moment, the doctor didn’t answer. Then he turned to Ben. “He swallowed some smoke, and banged his head. But it doesn’t look like he’s any worse off than before.”

The door behind the doctor opened and several people crowded into the room. “Doc! What happened? “ asked a tall thin man.

“Somebody took some shots at Joe,” Ben answered grimly. “They missed but they hit the lantern. It started a fire. We got it out.”

“Was it one of them outlaws?” another man asked.

Joe looked up. “Well, it wasn’t a friend,” he answered sarcastically. Joe coughed again, and once more grimaced with pain.

Abruptly, Doctor Martin stood up and started ushering people out of the office. “Everything’s under control,” he said firmly. “You can go on your way.”

Two men stood in the doorway. “Maybe we ought to stay,” one of them said in an uncertain voice. “They might come back.”

“Ben and Hoss can handle things,” the doctor replied. He took the man’s arm and firmly pushed him out the door. Then he shut the door behind him. Doctor Martin turned to the Cartwrights. “Well, Ben,” he asked. “What do we do now?”

*****

Reno rode at full speed as he left Virginia City. He stopped his horse about a mile outside of town, near some large rocks. “Danny?” he called in a loud whisper.

Another rider guided his horse from behind the rocks. “Did you get him?” Danny asked. “Did you kill the Cartwright kid?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Reno replied. “I put a few shots into the doctor’s office, but I don’t think I hit him.”

“A few shots into the office? Why did you do that?” asked Danny in an angry voice. “Why didn’t you go in and kill him?”

“Because there were men all around that office,” Reno explained his voice rising in an equal anger. “I saw a big fellow going in, and another man sitting in the room. I didn’t want to get caught. So I just rode by and shot a few times into the window.” Reno looked at the ground. “This was dumb idea anyway,” he muttered. “Johnny’s going to be mad.”

“Who cares what Johnny thinks?” Danny sneered. “I’m finished with him. I’m heading for Mexico. If you’re smart, you’ll come with me.”

Reno hesitated, unsure what to do. He didn’t want to return to the hideout and face Johnny’s wrath. Besides, he was tired of hanging around that cave. On the other hand, he was worried about running into the posse.

“I don’t know, Danny,” Reno said. “Johnny says….”

“Johnny says, Johnny says,” Danny interrupted. “Does Johnny do all your thinking for you?”

Reno stiffened at Danny’s taunt. “I can think for myself,” he stated in a bold voice. The thought of Johnny’s anger again flashed through Reno’s mind. “Come on,” he said with a grin. “Let’s head for Mexico.”

*****

Sunlight filtered through the window of the hotel room where Joe was sleeping. Hoss and Ben had literally carried him to the hotel after the fire. The bedroom at the doctor’s office was no longer useable…or safe. For now, Ben guarded his son in a room high on the second floor, facing an alley. It would be impossible for shots to be fired through the window. But Ben was convinced the hotel was no safer than the doctor’s office. He and Hoss still stood guard, Ben in the room and Hoss outside, sitting in a chair by the door. The sound of riders and shouts from the street below attracted Ben’s attention. He went to the window and looked out. By twisting his body, he could see the main street. Six or seven riders were coming down the street. Roy Coffee was leading the group, so Ben assumed it was part of the posse. He saw one of the riders leading a horse with a body draped over it. Another rider led a horse carrying a light haired man. The man’s hands were tied behind his back.

“Pa? What’s going on?” Joe asked sleepily from the bed.

Ben pulled himself back into the room. “Looks like the posse’s back,” he answered.

“Did they find anything?” Joe asked in a tired voice.

“I don’t know,” Ben answered cautiously. He suspected that two of the outlaws had been caught, but he wasn’t sure. “Why don’t you go back to sleep?” Ben said to Joe. “I’ll send Hoss to find out what happened with the posse, and we can talk about it later.”

Nodding, Joe snuggled under the covers. “All I seem to do is sleep,” he muttered. But his eyes closed, and in a short time, Ben could hear his gentle snore. Ben was worried about Joe. The doctor kept telling him that it would take some time for Joe to recover, to get his strength back. He also told Ben that last night’s events hadn’t helped any. Ben thought the doctor was probably right, but he was anxious to have the old Joe back. He wanted the Joe with the boundless energy and mischievous smile. He wanted a good argument with his son. Ben looked at the weak and tired boy sleeping in the bed. His face turned grim. He wanted those outlaws caught and made to pay for what they had done to his son. He hoped that what he saw on the street meant his wish was being fulfilled. Ben was startled out of his thoughts by a sharp knock on the door. Ben walked quickly to the door. “Yes?” he asked through the closed door.

“Pa, Roy Coffee’s here.” Ben heard Hoss’ voice muffled by the door. “He needs to talk with you and Joe,” Hoss continued.

Unlocking the door, Ben pulled it open a crack. He cautiously looked out the door, but saw no one but Hoss and Roy in the hallway. Ben pulled the door open.

“We caught two of them outlaws!” Coffee exclaimed excitedly as he walked into the room. “It was just like you said, Ben. They were riding south. They rode right into some of the posse. We tried to arrest them, but they started shooting. One of them was killed. I’ve got the other one over at the jail.”

“Which two did you get?” asked a voice behind Ben. He turned to see Joe sitting up in bed. “Which two?” Joe asked again.

“The one we killed, he was the Mexican. The other one is young and blonde,” the sheriff replied.

“Danny,” Joe said with a nod.

“That’s what we think,” Roy agreed. “I was hoping Joe could come over to the jail and make a positive identification.”

Throwing back the covers, Joe swung his legs onto the floor. “Pa, get me some clothes,” he demanded.

“Now wait a minute,” Ben said. “Those outlaws aren’t going any place. You need to get some more rest. Maybe you can take a look at them tomorrow.”

“I’m tired of resting,” Joe insisted. “I’m going over to the jail.”

“Joe…” Ben started to say.

“Pa, you better get me some clothes,” Joe said firmly. “Because if you don’t, I’m walking over to the jail in this nightshirt.”

Ben argued with Joe for twenty minutes but he wasn’t able to shake his son’s resolve to get to the jail. Joe stubbornly refused to give in to his father’s request to wait until he was feeling better. Ben wondered briefly how he ever thought he missed his arguments with Joe. Ben finally agreed to get Joe some clothes when his son stood and started limping toward the door. Joe was prepared to carry out his threat to walk to the jail in his nightshirt. Roy and Hoss had watched the scene with barely concealed amusement.

“Hoss, stay with Joe while I get him some clothes,” Ben finally said in exasperation to his other son. Joe grinned triumphantly as he sat down on the bed.

“Maybe you’d better let me get them,” Hoss offered with a grin on his face. “I have a feeling you’re not exactly in the mood to go shopping.”

“Get me something that looks good,” Joe called after Hoss as the big man started to leave the room. Ben rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“I’d better get back over to the jail,” Roy Coffee said. “I’ll see you fellows there in a little while. Joe, I’ve got the one we shot in the back room at the jail. I’d like you to take a look at him, too. You can tell the judge at the trial if he was one of the men, just to make everything legal and clear.”

The smile suddenly faded from Joe’s face. “All right,” he agreed in a quiet voice. The sheriff left the room without seeming to notice the change in Joe. But Ben did.

“Joe, are you sure you’re up to this?” Ben asked.

For a minute, Joe didn’t answer. Then he looked up at his father. “Yeah, I’m up to it,” he stated. He took a deep breath. “I was just thinking. I wished the posse had killed both of them.”

“Joe, that’s awfully blood-thirsty,” Ben said in alarm.

“I know,” Joe admitted. “But I can’t help it. I keep thinking about what they did to Billy and Mr. Bartlett.” Joe looked away. “Pa, I want those men dead,” he added in a quiet voice.

“Joe, I want those men to pay for what they did,” Ben said. He thought about how the outlaws had shot down his son. “I want it just as much as you do, maybe more.” Ben looked at Joe. “Joe, why do you want those men dead?”

Joe frowned. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it,” he said.

“Maybe,” Ben answered. “But I have a feeling there’s more to it than just revenge for the killing of Walter Bartlett and Billy Olsen. If those outlaws go to trial, you’ll have to testify. You’ll have to stand up in court and tell what happened. And everyone will remember that two other men died and you didn’t.”

Joe looked down at the floor said nothing. His silence confirmed what Ben had said. Ben put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “Joe, you should be happy you survived,” he said quietly. “Hoss and I are very thankful you’re still with us. We’re doing everything we can to make sure nothing happens to you.”

“I can’t help how I feel, Pa,” Joe stated, shaking his head. “It’s hard to be happy about being alive when I think about the others who died.” Joe looked at Ben. “Pa, I should have died out there,” he added bitterly. “Why didn’t I?”

“Joe, listen to me,” Ben said sternly. “You did nothing wrong. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You managed to stay alive, that’s all. And by staying alive, you are helping to see the men who did this terrible crime are brought to justice.”

“Do you think that’s why?” Joe asked, a tinge of hope in his voice. “Do you think I’m alive to make sure those men pay for what they did.”

“I don’t know, Joe,” Ben admitted. “Nobody knows why things happen the way they do. But I do know you have to be grateful for every minute of life that is given to you. And you can’t squander that time by wishing you were dead. It’s not right. You have to live your life. Live every day. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Joe took a deep breath, wincing slightly at the pain in his side. “I guess,” Joe said. But his voice lacked conviction.

Two hours later, Joe was walking slowly down the street toward the Virginia City jail. He was leaning heavily on a wooden cane that Hoss had brought him along with a blue shirt, gray pants and tan boots. Ben and Hoss followed, each ready to help him if he should falter. But Joe march grimly down the street, determined to make it to the jail on his own power. He wasn’t going to have his father or brother carry him to the jail, like they had carried him to the hotel. He had had enough of that. Joe stopped briefly at the bottom of the steps to the jail. He was breathing hard and sweating. His side ached and his leg was sore. The walk to the jail had seemed like a twenty mile hike. Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm, preparing to help him, but Joe brushed his father’s hand away. He took a deep breath and started slowly up the steps.

Roy Coffee was sitting at his desk when the Cartwrights came into the jail. “Hello, boys!” he said in greeting as the three men walked into the office. Then Roy frowned. He could see Joe looked pale and tired. He also could see the beads of sweat on Joe’s face. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked in alarm.

Joe didn’t answer as he slowly walked across the office. “Where is he?” Joe said in a grim voice.

“Joe, maybe you ought to rest for a minute,” Hoss said with concern. He could see how much effort it had taken Joe to get to the office.

Joe shook his head. “No, I want to get this over with,” he answered.

Coffee looked past Joe at Ben. Ben shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “How about taking a look at the fellow in the back room first?” the sheriff suggested to Joe. He led the Cartwrights to a room in the back of the office. A body lay on a cot in the room, covered with a blanket. Coffee lifted the blanket so Joe could see the man’s face. Joe looked at the man on the cot for only a moment. “That’s him,” He said. “That’s the one they called Reno.” Joe turned abruptly walked out of the room. Coffee quickly covered the body and followed Ben and Hoss out of the room.

Joe was standing in the middle of the office with his head down, breathing hard. Ben walked up to his son and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe?” he said quietly.

Slowly, Joe looked up at Ben. “I thought seeing him dead would make me happy,” he said to Ben. “But it doesn’t help. It doesn’t help at all.” Ben nodded in understanding.

With rapid steps, Coffee walked to the far side of the jail and pushed open another door. “Joe, come take a look at this fellow,” he said.

Nodding, Joe limped to the cell block. Danny was sitting on the bed in a jail cell. He stood when he saw Joe walk in.

“That’s one of them,” Joe said almost at once. “That’s the one they called Danny. He took the money off of us.”

An angry look grew on Danny’s face as he looked at Joe in anger. “You!” he spat out. “I thought you was dead like the others.”

Joe ignored Danny’s comment. “He was there when Walter Bartlett and Billy Olsen were shot,” Joe told the sheriff. “He sat on his horse and watched it.”

“We should have killed you when we had the chance,” Danny said to Joe with a sneer. “I should have put a bullet in you myself.”

Staring hard at the outlaw in the cell, Joe spoke directly to the man for the first time. “Yeah,” he said. “You should have.” Joe turned and walked out. He limped across the room and eased himself down on a chair next to the sheriff’s desk. He suddenly felt drained.

“Roy, what’ll happen now?” Ben asked as the other men came over to the desk.

“The circuit judge will be here next week,” Coffee explained. “We’ll hold the trial then. With Joe’s testimony, I don’t think there’s any question he’ll be convicted.”

“Will he hang?” Joe asked. “I mean, he didn’t actually shoot anyone. The leader, the one they called Johnny, he’s the one who did the shooting.”

“Doesn’t make any difference,” the sheriff replied. “He was part of the gang. I don’t doubt he’ll hang.”

“Roy, did he tell you where the other two are?” asked Hoss.

Roy shook his head. “He wouldn’t say, at least for now. He may be thinking he can make a deal.” Coffee’s face looked grim. “I won’t make a deal with him, not on this one. He’s going to hang.” The sheriff turned to Joe. “Joe, we’re going to catch those other two. I promise you. They’ll all hang.”

Joe nodded. He slowly pulled himself up from the chair and started limping across the room toward the door.

“I’ll let you know when the trial is set,” Coffee called after Joe. Joe didn’t seem to hear the sheriff. He simply kept walking toward the door. Ben and Hoss quickly followed him.

Joe walked out of the sheriff’s office, then stopped. His shoulders slumped. He suddenly felt tired. Ben walked up and put his hand on Joe’s arm. “Joe?” he asked anxiously.

With a bitter expression on his face, Joe looked up at Ben. “Why, Pa?” he asked harshly. “Four men are dead and three are going to hang. And for what? Some money they’re never going to get to spend.”

“I know, Joe,” Ben said in a comforting voice as he placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “It all seems so pointless. I wish I could explain why something like this happens. But I can’t. I don’t understand it any more than you do.”

Joe nodded. He felt so tired. He thought about the walk he had to make to the other end of town, where the hotel was. The hotel seemed a hundred miles away. Joe’s legs began to tremble, as if they were having a hard time supporting his weight. He tried to take a step, but his legs wouldn’t obey him. He felt dizzy and started to sway; he felt hot and cold at the same time. Joe heard someone calling his name but the voice seemed to be coming from a long way off. Joe felt as if a dark cloud was descending on him. He felt two hands grab him just as his knees started to buckle. Then, Joe felt nothing at all.

*****

Johnny paced nervously in the cave. He was all alone; Danny and Reno had disappeared. Sometime during the night, the two had taken their share of the loot and ridden off. Johnny cursed them, and cursed himself for not hearing them leave. He had sent his last companion to look for the two deserters. The man had been gone a long time and Johnny began to worry that he too would not return. He pulled his gun from his holster as he heard the sound of approaching hoof beats. Crouching down, he ran to the entrance of the cave, ready to shoot the approaching rider. Johnny relaxed and holstered his gun when he saw the rider with the big man who had also taken part in the robbery.

“Did you find them?” Johnny demanded at the man dismounted and approached the cave.

“No, not exactly,” the man replied.

“What does that mean?” Johnny asked angrily.

“Well, I didn’t see Danny and Reno,” the man explained. “But I saw some of the posse. They were sitting a round a campfire, eating. I snuck up close to them, real close. I heard them talking.” The man looked Johnny straight in the eye. “Johnny, Reno is dead and Danny is in the Virginia City jail.”

“I knew it!” exclaimed Johnny. “I knew those two fools would get themselves caught.”

“What do we do now?” the man asked.

“We can’t stay here,” Johnny said. “That Danny is a weasel. He’s liable to tell the sheriff where we are to save his own skin.”

“Where will go?” the big man asked. “The posse is all around here.”

“We’ve got to go someplace where they’ll never think to look,” Johnny said. He looked off, trying to think. Then he grinned. “And I know just the place,” he said.

*****

“Ben, what were you thinking?” Doctor Martin said in an angry voice. He held a glass of water to Joe’s lips, forcing him to drink. “He shouldn’t even be out of bed, much less walking around town.”

“I know, doc, I know,” Ben agreed in a weary voice. “But I couldn’t keep him down. He threatened to go down to the jail on his own if we didn’t help him.”

Joe pushed the glass away from his mouth. He was lying on a table in the doctor’s office, his head propped up by several pillows. Joe had no idea how he got here. The last thing he remembered was standing outside the sheriff’s office. “Don’t blame Pa,” he said to the doctor in a tired voice. “It was my idea. And he’s right. He couldn’t have kept me away from that jail.”

Doctor Martin shook his head. “You’re bound and determined to kill yourself, aren’t you,” he said to Joe with disgust. The doctor was surprised when Joe turned his head and didn’t answer. He had only meant to scold the boy into being more cautious. He hadn’t meant Joe to take his words seriously. “Joe,” he said in a much gentler voice. “You’re going to be fine. But you have to take it easy for awhile. You have to give your body some time to heal.”

Joe nodded but continued to stare at the far wall.

Puzzled, Doctor Martin looked at Ben and Hoss. He had seen the worry on both their faces when Hoss had carried an unconscious Joe into the office. Both had hovered anxiously around the table as the doctor had checked over Joe. They had breathed a sigh of relief when the doctor woke Joe by putting some smelling salts under his nose. But the doctor could see both men were still concerned.

“He’s all right,” the doctor reassured them. “He just overdid it. There’s nothing wrong with him that a long nap over at the hotel won’t help.”

Suddenly, Joe turned his head and looked at the doctor. “I don’t want to go back to the hotel,” he said. “All I want to do is go home.” Joe looked at Ben and Hoss. “Please, take me home,” he pleaded. “Please.”

Ben looked at the doctor. “What do you think?” he asked. “Can we take him home?”

The doctor gazed at Joe thoughtfully. He could see the boy was upset. The stress of the past few days wasn’t helping Joe’s recovery. “All right,” the doctor agreed with a sigh. “You can take him home. Maybe he’ll follow orders and rest if he’s in his own bed for a change.”

“I wouldn’t count on that, Doc,” Hoss said with a grin.

Nodding, Doctor Martin turned back to Joe. “Now you listen to me, young man,” he said sternly. “You can go home but you’re going to get there lying in the back of a wagon. No riding or sitting in the driver’s seat. And when you get home, you’re going to spend the rest of the day in bed. Do you understand me?”

“Aw, doc….”Joe started to protest.

“No arguments,” the doctor interrupted in a firm voice. “Either you do exactly as I say, or I’m going to keep you right here where I can keep an eye on you. I don’t like patients who have relapses. It hurts my reputation.”

Joe smiled weakly. “All right, you win,” he said. “I’ll follow orders.”

“Good,” the doctor stated. He turned to Ben and Hoss. “I’m counting on you two to make sure he does.” Ben and Hoss nodded solemnly.

Once more, the doctor turned back to Joe. “Joe, if you spend the rest of today in bed, you can get up for a while tomorrow,” he said in a gentler voice. “But I want you to get a lot of rest. The minute you feel tired, you take a nap, you hear?”

“I will, I promise,” Joe promised.

Doctor Martin sighed. “All right,” he said. “It’s against by better judgment, but you can go back to the Ponderosa.”

*****

Joe was as good as his word. He followed the doctor’s orders and obediently rode in the back of the wagon as Hoss drove him home. He even dozed a bit as the wagon headed toward the Ponderosa. Ben followed the wagon on his horse, keeping an eye peeled for any sign of danger. He didn’t really expect any trouble. He felt sure the other outlaws would get out of the territory quickly when they heard what had happened to the two who ran into the posse. Ben was both relieved and upset by this thought. He wanted those last two men caught, especially the one who had shot Joe. But even more, he wanted his son safe.

Hoss drove the wagon into the yard in front of the ranch house. The house looked strangely deserted. “Wonder where everyone is?” Hoss asked as he pulled the wagon to a stop.

“Hop Sing is still in Sacramento,” Ben reminded Hoss. “I sent word to Charlie to keep the men working. They’re probably out looking for strays.”

“I guess you’re right,” Hoss agreed. He climbed down from the seat of the wagon and walked around to the back. Hoss smiled as he looked at Joe sleeping in the wagon. His brother looked so untroubled as he slept. In fact, Hoss thought he looked better than he had in a week. Coming home was the best medicine for Joe, Hoss decided. He reached into the wagon and gently shook Joe’s leg. “Wake up, little brother. We’re home.”

Stirring, Joe opened his eyes slowly. He pushed himself up on one elbow and looked around. He nodded to himself in satisfaction as he saw the familiar ranch house before him.

Hoss opened the back of the wagon. “I’ll carry you in,” he offered as he reached for his brother’s hand.

“No, I can walk,” Joe insisted. He scooted down the mattress in the back of the wagon on which he had been laying. “Just give me a hand.”

Ben had been tying his horse to the hitching post in front of the house. Now he hurried over to the wagon, eager to help his son. He eased Joe’s right arm over his shoulder, while Hoss firmly grasped Joe’s left elbow. The trio walked slowly to the house. Ben was happy to see that Joe was barely limping.

Hoss lifted the latch and pushed opened the front door with his hip. As he turned to help his brother into the house, he saw a look of surprise on Ben and Joe’s faces. Hoss turned around quickly and saw two men standing in the living room, guns drawn.

“Welcome home,” Johnny said with a grin.

The Cartwrights stood still in the doorway.

“Come one in,” Johnny invited. When none of the men moved, Johnny cocked his pistol. “Come on in, I said,” he barked. The big man standing next to Johnny was silent, but he cocked his pistol also. Hoss moved into the room, helping Joe as he walked. He stopped a few feet inside the door. Ben and Joe halted with him.

“Nice to see you again,” Johnny greeted Joe with a grin. “Now you two, drop your guns,” he said to Ben and Hoss. Ben looked at Hoss and nodded. Both men pulled their pistols out their holsters and dropped them to the floor. “That was real smart,” Johnny said.

“Joe, are these the men…” Ben started to ask.

“Yeah, Pa,” Joe answered. “They’re the ones.”

“What do you want?” Ben asked the men, although he was afraid he knew the answer.

“We need a place to hide out for awhile,” Johnny explained. “Just till things cool off a bit. We figured this would be the safest place.”

“You figured wrong, mister,” Hoss said in a grim voice. “We got a whole crew of men on this ranch. They’ll be coming back soon.”

“We saw ‘em,” Johnny answered. “We waited until everyone rode out. Then we made ourselves at home. We figure they won’t be back until tonight. By then, we’ll be nice and cozy. Now, nobody do anything silly, and nobody will get hurt.”

Joe stiffened at the outlaw’s words. He remembered Johnny saying that phrase when he was robbing the stage. He looked at Johnny and the big man standing next to him. He knew they meant to kill him, as well as his father and brother. Joe leaned heavily on Ben. “Pa, I’ve got to sit down,” he said in as pitiful a voice as he could manage. “My leg is aching.”

Ben looked at Joe with concern, then he looked up at Johnny. “Can I take him over to the sofa?” Ben asked. Johnny nodded.

Hoss moved to help Joe.

“Not you!” Johnny shouted to Hoss. “You stay put.”

As Hoss stood and watched, Ben helped Joe slowly across the room, surprised at how heavily Joe was leaning on him. His son appeared to be barely able to walk. As they neared the two outlaws, Joe put his head down. Ben felt his son tense his muscles. Before he could figure out what Joe was doing, Ben felt his son push off of him. Joe pushed himself violently into Johnny, hitting the outlaw square in the chest with his shoulder.

Johnny staggered back. He tried to bring his gun around to shoot, but Joe grabbed his arm. Joe heard Ben rushing up behind him to help. Johnny kicked out his leg and tripped Ben, sending Ben crashing to the floor. When Hoss saw Joe push himself into Johnny, he lowered his head and rushed the big man. The man turned to meet the rushing Hoss, but Hoss grabbed the big outlaw by the arms. The two big men grappled, titans locked in a gigantic struggle.

Joe tried to loosen Johnny’s grip on the gun, but Johnny held on to the pistol. Suddenly, the outlaw reached down and punched Joe in the middle of his belly. Normally, Joe would have been able to take such a blow in stride. But in his weakened state and with injured ribs, Joe couldn’t handle the punch. He grunted in pain and doubled over. Johnny kicked Joe’s leg and the youngest Cartwright fell to the floor. Johnny glanced to his right and saw Ben on the floor, stunned by his fall. He glanced to his left and saw the two big men struggling. Johnny turned toward Joe and aimed his pistol at the young man crouched on the floor. As Joe looked up, he was sure that pistol was going to be the last thing he ever saw.

“No!” came a roar from Johnny’s right. Ben sprang at Johnny with a speed he didn’t know he possessed. He hit the outlaw in the ribs with his shoulder, knocking the man down just as he fired. Joe flinched when he heard the shot, but the bullet went wide of him. Ben jumped on top of Johnny, and landed a vicious punch to the outlaw’s jaw. He followed that punch with another to the outlaw’s face. Ben was pummeling the man unmercifully when he felt his arm being grabbed.

“Pa! Pa!” Joe was shouting as he grabbed Ben’s arm. “He’s had enough! Stop! Do you hear me! You’re going to kill him.”

Ben froze and looked at the man underneath him in shock. Johnny was unconscious, his face bloody and bruised. Ben turned back to look at Joe, shaken by what he had done. “Are you all right?” Ben asked his son in a trembling voice. Joe had obviously dragged himself across the floor. He was sitting on his hip, legs sprayed out behind him. He had both hands wrapped around Ben’s arm. Now Joe let his father’s arm go.

“I’m all right,” Joe assured his father.

A crash drew both men’s attention to Hoss and the big outlaw who were still struggling with each other. Hoss held the man by the wrists, and he had pushed the outlaw up against the door. “Hoss, stop fooling around and bring that man over here,” Joe said with a slight smile.

Hoss glanced over his shoulder at his brother. “I’d be happy to,” Hoss said “if you’d tell me how.”

Scrambling to his feet, Ben grabbed the gun Johnny had dropped. He rushed over to the big man, and stuck the gun in the man’s ribs. The man instantly stopped struggling and put his hands in the air. Hoss released the man, and bent over, gasping for air.

“You two looked like you were dancing,” Joe said to his brother, still grinning.

Hoss frowned at his brother. “You know how much I hate to dance,” he muttered. Hoss looked around the room and saw Johnny laying on the floor. “Guess we finally got them outlaws for you, little brother,” he added.

The grin left Joe’s face. “Yeah, I guess you did,” he agreed in a solemn voice.

*****

Hoss drove the wagon back to town, with the two outlaws securely tied up in the back. Ben watched him drive off, confident that Hoss would deliver the men to town without incident. He turned and walked back into the house, quickly climbing the stairs to Joe’s room. Joe was sleeping on the bed, stretched out and fully clothed, on top of the covers. After tying up the two outlaws, Ben had helped Joe up to his room, insisting that his son rest. Joe had protested, but Ben had sensed the protests weren’t serious. He could see how tired Joe was. Now, Ben pulled a blanket from the end of the bed and gently laid it over his son. He stood watching Joe sleep. It seemed that he had been watching Joe sleep a lot lately. But for the first time in over a week, Ben could watch him without worry and concern. Joe was safe at home. Ben reached down and stroked Joe’s head gently. Joe stirred again and opened his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Joe, “ Ben said softly. “I didn’t to wake you.”

“It’s all right,” Joe replied in a sleepy voice. “I was going to get up anyway.”

“You’re going to stay in bed,” Ben ordered sternly. “Remember what you promised Doctor Martin.”

Joe smiled. “Yeah, I remember,” he said. He winced as he shifted on the bed. “Besides, I think staying in bed might be a good idea,” he admitted. “My side is pretty sore.”

Immediately, Ben pulled back the covers and reached down to feel Joe’s ribs. He suddenly remembered the punch Joe had taken, and was afraid his son had been injured further. He was relieved to see no sign of blood, no sign that the stitches had pulled loose. Ben gently felt Joe’s ribs and was relieved that everything seemed to be where it was suppose to be. Ben pulled the covers back over his son.

“Joe, you’re going to stay in this bed for awhile,” Ben instructed his son. “I’m going to make sure you get well, in spite of what you seem to be determined to do to yourself.”

Abruptly, Joe looked down. He seemed uncomfortable with Ben’s words. After a minute, he looked back up at Ben. “Pa,” he said, “you know something? For the first time, I really do want to get better. I want things back to normal.”

Nodding, Ben didn’t say anything. He just let Joe talk.

“I was all mixed up,” Joe continued. “I felt bad about what happened to Billy and Mr. Bartlett. At the same time, I was glad I didn’t die out there. But somehow, it didn’t seem right to be happy about being alive when the others were dead. And I hated those outlaws, not only for what they did, but for making me feel miserable about still being alive. I wanted to come home because I thought being home would make me feel better. But I was afraid to feel too good because that didn’t seem right, either.” Joe shook his head. “I kept thinking if I could find the reason why I was alive and the others were dead, then it would all make sense.”

“Joe, sometimes things happen that just don’t make sense,” Ben told his son. “They just…happen.”

“Yeah, I think I know that now,” Joe said. “When I saw those two men downstairs, I knew they wanted to kill all of us. Us dying, well, that didn’t make any sense, either. I suddenly realized that sometimes bad things happen. There’s no grand plan or anything. Like you said, they just happen.”

“I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss some sort grand plan,” Ben advised Joe. “There may be reasons for why things happen that we just can’t understand.”

“Maybe,” Joe agreed, nodding thoughtfully “But I don’t think I’m smart enough to figure it out.”

“I don’t think any of us are that smart,” Ben said. He reached down and pulled the blanket up to Joe’s shoulders. “The important thing now is for you to take care of yourself and get better. You rest now, and I’ll bring you some dinner later.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” Joe assured his father. “I’ll be back on my feet in no time.” Then Joe grinned mischievously. “I wonder how long I get Hoss to do my chores for me,” he mused. “I bet I can milk this for quite awhile if I try.”

“Go to sleep,” Ben ordered with a laugh. He watched as Joe closed his eyes and settled comfortably on the bed. Then he walked out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

As he walked down the stairs, Ben thought about what Joe had said. Was there some sort of grand scheme or was it just the hand of fate that caused things to happen? Ben shook his head. Those kind of weighty thoughts were beyond him. Ben eased himself into his favorite chair by the fire. Joe was home, he was safe, and he was going to get well. For Ben Cartwright, that was enough.

*****End*****

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