Williams Station (by Sherri)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  31,200

The last glimmer of twilight faded from the sky as the golden orb of light hovered above the horizon. Perched upon his horse, a young man in his early twenties could barely feel the chill that permeated the air around him. Thoughts ran amok in his head as he looked out across the vast land before him. This was Ponderosa land and he, being the youngest son of Benjamin Cartwright, was given equal responsibility as his two older brothers in the running of the ranch. He was lucky in comparison to his two other brothers in that he was born and raised on the ranch, on the Ponderosa. His oldest brother Adam, whose mother died when he was still a child, spent most of his childhood moving from place to place before their pa finally settled upon this land. But, in the meantime, their pa met and married another woman, someone who could be a ma to Adam. Sadly that time also was cut short, but not before she brought into the world a young son, a stepbrother for him.

For several years it was just the three of them making a go on the land, although there wasn’t much the youngest child could do. But Hoss was a big boy for his age, and from stories passed down, the young boy was eager to join in with the man’s work around the ranch. Six years later he came along — Joseph Cartwright, the youngest of the family. For five years, there was relative peace in the home as his ma became a mother to his stepbrothers. But once again, all good things must come to an end and the end for Maria Cartwright came when a horse she was on threw her off, killing her. The worst thing about it all was that Joe barely remembered his ma, just bits and pieces, but enough to know that she was the sweetest thing he had ever know.

Joe brushed his cheeks with his hand as he felt a slight bit of moisture slide down his cheeks. Moving his thoughts away, he thought of how close their family was, despite the four years Adam spent apart from the family getting an education from an Eastern college. When Adam returned, things just never were the quite the same between Joe and him. Sure they loved each other, but the glue that stuck them together had loosened, allowing new bonds to form elsewhere, such as with the brother closest in age to him. His middle brother Hoss was a big man, the largest of the Cartwright brothers, but his size meant nothing. Underneath the skin was a man who was propelled by kindness. He would never hurt any of God’s creatures willingly and that included mankind. The young man had to smile when he thought of his brother. Hoss was the one he was the closest to, which unfortunately meant that his brother became involved in his often-outrageous schemes. He had to smile at that one. As for his own personality, he had to admit that he was often impetuous, which probably was what led he and Hoss into so much trouble. Even so, deep within him he had a kind heart, even if though there were times that he acted without thinking. But despite that weakness, it didn’t mean that he was too big of a man that he wouldn’t apologize if he knew he was wrong.

With his thoughts continuing, he thought on the present day’s tasks. The day on the range had been a long one for him and it was made even longer since he was given the responsibility to check the fence line. The main source of revenue on the ranch was cattle and it was necessary to keep them fenced in and from wandering off Ponderosa land into other herds. Working and repairing the fence line wasn’t high on the list as Joe’s all time favorite duties, but it had to be done. Swatting away a batch of gnats that were flying around him, he thought of the next day. He and Nate Jenkins were going to be gone for a couple of days, riding out to a ranch just north of the town of Williams Station to deliver a string of horses. After the long hard hours that had been put into working on the breaking and training these horses, Joe felt proud to put the Cartwright name on this batch. Although to be honest with himself, he couldn’t remember a batch he wasn’t proud of selling to a buyer.

The sun had nearly disappeared, sinking down closer to the horizon, and with a start Joe realized that he had been sitting on the ridge overlooking the land for too long. He shivered slightly from the feeling of the chilling wind trying to edge through the fibers of his jacket. Even though it was the mid-part of May, there were still sections on the ranch that held large patches of snow. It was these areas that lent a hand in creating the slight edge of chill into the air. Tugging on his jacket, he pulled it closer around him then kicked his beloved horse in the ribs and carefully guided him down the well-used mountain trail towards home.

As Joe rode into the front yard of the Ponderosa, he couldn’t help but notice the lack of activity in the yard. The lights from the bunkhouse showed that the men were inside, and as he rode past, he could see through a window that dinner had already begun. With a groan, he realized that the same was probably happening inside the main house. Sliding off his horse, Joe coaxed it to follow him into the barn where he took care to remove the saddle and tack. He could feel the rumblings of his stomach which urged him to finish with his horse. For awhile the grumbling stopped while he brushed his horse, but just as the curry brush was laid aside, Joe could feel the rumbling in his stomach begin once more. Pressing against his stomach, he hoped that action would silence the persistent rumbling noise while he closed the barn door behind him. Securely latching it, he took a few steps over towards the water trough and began pumping a steady stream of water into the trough, then proceeded to wash his face and hands. The chilly water left a trail of chill bumps up his arms and then traveled down the rest of his body. He shook his hands dry, then continued to dry them on his pants as he quickly walked towards the front door, carefully pushing it open hoping to avoid any unwanted attention. It was not to be.

“Joe,” called out a voice, one that Joe quickly identified as his pa’s. “Is that you?”

Joe couldn’t help but sigh. Gone was his opportunity for a silent entry. “It’s me, Pa,” he called out. Removing his hat, he slid it onto the peg then unbuckled his gun belt and laid it on the sideboard before heading to the next room. Quickly he ran his damp hand through his hair as he walked over to the dinning room table. Hoss looked up from his food and gave a brief smile then turned his attention back to his plate, digging his fork into a pile of mashed potatoes. Joe couldn’t help but feel Ben’s eyes on him as he slid into one of the two empty chairs at the table. Shaking out his napkin, Joe laid it on his lap then reached over to lift the platter of fried chicken towards him. “Where’s Adam?” Joe asked as he glanced over to the empty chair next to him.

“He is probably still in town trying to hire some men for the upcoming roundup,” Ben answered as he took another bite of food.

Staring down at the fried chicken, Joe looked questioningly towards his brother. “Hoss,” Joe asked as he picked up the last leg of chicken from the plate, “where’s the rest of the chicken?”

“Huh?”

“There’s no chicken on the plate,” Joe replied as he pointedly stared at his brother’s plate being as it was piled up with bones.

“Uh, well,” Hoss stuttered as he tried to come up with an answer. “I didn’t think you was coming home tonight.”

Joe rolled his eyes as he reached over and grabbed the bowl of mashed potatoes. Slapping on a large spoonful, he put it aside then heartily dug his fork in and started eating.

“Did you have any problems with the fencing, Joe?” Ben asked.

“No sir, I finished up,” Joe answered as he swallowed a mouthful of food, “and it looks to be in real good shape now. The pasture should be ready for the cattle to be moved into this week.”

Ben nodded his head as he answered, “Sounds good, son.”

The rest of the dinner was finished in silence, with each man lost in various thoughts that were unshared by one another. Then, one by one, they left the table, tossing their napkins onto the tablecloth as they migrated to the living area. Hoss settled into the large leather chair closest to the staircase and unraveled a magazine that arrived in the mail a few days before. Letting out a big yawn, he stretched his arms in front of him as he watched Joe quietly move over to the settee. Hoss, bored with watching Joe, turned his attention to his magazine and began to flip through the pages. Just as Joe was settling down on the settee, he remembered a book he had left under the settee. Reaching underneath, he found it within reach and brought it out. As he leaned his back against the arm of the settee, it was only natural for him to bring his feet up on the cushions.

Ben, who was returning from the kitchen, saw Joe’s muddy boots on the settee as he walked past the chair. “Joseph!” he thundered.

The book slammed shut as Joe jolted forward in surprise. “Yes sir?” he questioned.

“Get your muddy boots off the settee!”

With a wry grin, Joe did as he was asked then watched as Ben moved away from the settee towards his desk. It wasn’t until Ben settled in his chair and picked up his pencil that Joe felt as though he could relax. He let out a big yawn then settled back against the arm of the settee, his feet resting on the floor. But again, without thinking, his booted feet slowly migrated until they were lying on the opposite arm of the settee. Just as he was getting into a comfortable position, he felt a hard thump on his boots. Joe looked up to see Hoss looking at him with the magazine wrapped in his right hand.

“Ya might want to get your feet moved before Pa comes yelling at ya again. He scared me last time and I don’t want that to happen again,” Hoss explained as he shook the magazine at his brother. He gave Joe a scowl, then leaned back in his chair and pointedly turned back to his reading.

Joe sighed. Fine, he thought, I’ll solve the problem easily. Sitting up on the edge of the seat he tugged off his boots then let them fall to the floor. Feels much better anyway, he thought as he leaned back against the chair. Massaging his feet with his hands, he then stretched and brought them back up onto the settee. With his feet resting on the end of the settee, he opened his book and soon was lost in a story of high adventure and drama.

The sound of the door opening was lost to the three occupants inside as a tall, dark handsome man entered the house. The signs of supper that had ended so long ago were cleared from the table, which was ready for the next morning’s meal. It had been a long day for Adam, not so much because of the physical work, being as there was none, but for the mental exhaustion of finding men for their upcoming cattle drive. The mines were in full working order, and with the promise of good wages all year round, most men needing work headed to the mines. Why they chose working underground to working above ground was lost on Adam. The pay was not much more than what he was paying, but the guarantee of year-round work was what attracted most men to the mines. Just the thought of working underground, well, Adam admitted to himself that he didn’t think he’d ever consider working in a mine. No matter what the cost. So most of the day Adam spent outside of the saloon recruiting, and with the sun dying in the west, he knew it was time to pack up and leave. By then he had consumed several beers in the course of the day, but nothing substantial in the way of food. He knew that once he arrived home that a cold supper would be waiting for him. So without further thought, he opted to go for the home cooking of Auntie Bell, whose new restaurant opened up just down the street from where he sat. He had seen a steady stream of people heading in and out of the tiny building, so it must have been good food, he had thought.

So here he was, hours later, quietly entering the house, taking a quick glance around the room as he removed his hat. In the large leather chair sat Hoss, his head bobbing as he fought to stay awake. Although from where Adam stood, he could see that the magazine had already dropped from Hoss’ hand and that sleep had won out. Adam couldn’t help but smile at Hoss’ useless attempts to stay awake. Slipping off his gun belt, he slid it next to Joe’s on the sideboard then walked past the settee. He glanced down to see his youngest brother stretched out on the settee reading a book, the name of which Adam couldn’t read from where he stood. Joe’s bootless feet were curled up on the cushions, one foot tucked up under the soft cushion. Again Adam smiled. It looked like it had been a quiet evening. Passing by the grandfather clock, he went to the study where he saw Ben steadily working on paperwork at his desk.

“Hi Pa.”

Ben quickly looked up from his writing to see his eldest son grinning at him from across the desk, “Oh hi, Adam,” he said as he moved a ledger towards him. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I could tell,” Adam answered with a grin still on his face.

Ben dropped the pencil he was holding onto the desk and leaned back in his chair. Lacing his fingers behind his head, he asked, “How did your day go?”

“It was pretty good. I hired a few new hands who will start at the end of this week.”

Ben nodded, “Think we’ll have enough men for round-up?”

“I think so, Pa,” Adam replied as he rubbed the top of his forehead. He leaned against the desk as he spoke, “Those I hired from today and then yesterday should be enough for the branding and then eventually the cattle drive.”

Ben sat up in his chair and pulled his hands free from behind his head, “Sounds good, son. You did a great job helping out there. Joe finished up with checking the fence line, so we can move some head of cattle out there tomorrow.” Then leaning forward, he continued, “Also, don’t forget that Joe is going to Williams Station tomorrow with Nate Jenkins to deliver the string of horses.”

Standing back up, Adam nodded. “Yeah, I haven’t forgotten. They should make it back in time to help out with the branding.”

“I think Hop Sing has left some food on the stove if you’re hungry.”

Adam rolled his shoulders, trying to get some of the stiffness out as he shook his head. “No thanks, I ate at Auntie Bell’s while in town.”

“I heard Sheriff Coffee talking about her food when I was in town,” Ben answered. “Was her food as good as everyone says?”

A grin stretched across Adam’s face as he answered, “Just as good, if not better.” Then he leaned over in a conspiratorial whisper to Ben and winked, “Just don’t tell Hop Sing.” Standing back up, he turned to look towards the settee and saw that Joe was now amongst the sleeping, his book lying loosely in his hands. Adam smiled, then yawned. With his arms stretched above his head, he brought them down, and with his left hand tapped the desk, “Just watching those two make me sleepy. I’m headed up to bed, which will be more comfortable than where those two are sleeping.”

Watching his son disappear upstairs Ben couldn’t help but smile. He was a good one, his oldest son. He had a good head on his shoulders and was usually willing to take any work thrown his way or at least make suggestions on improvements for the ranch. Not that his other sons didn’t contribute — they did, but in their own way. Ben took one more glance at his paperwork then decided it was time to quit. Pushing away from the desk, he stood up and walked over to where his two youngest sons slept. He couldn’t help but shake his head as he looked at the task before him. With a sigh, he turned to Hoss, the easiest one to wake up and tapped him on the shoulder.

Startled, the magazine slid from Hoss’ hands onto the floor as the man woke up and sat up in confusion. “Huh? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Ben replied, “But don’t you think it may be more comfortable in your bed, son?”

“Bed? Huh?” It took a moment for Hoss to figure out his bearings before he realized where he was sitting. “Yeah,” Hoss answered sheepishly, “I guess I didn’t realize I was so tired.”

“Probably didn’t help that it was so quiet in here,” Ben suggested as he glanced over to where Joe slept. “Now I need to see if I can get your brother awake.”

Standing to his feet, Hoss rubbed his eyes and looked blearily around. “Night, Pa.”

“Night Hoss,” Ben answered as he leaned over to pick up the magazine Hoss had dropped in his confusion. Tossing the magazine on the table, he moved towards the settee to where his youngest son slept. Ben couldn’t help but shake his head. This one, when he was awake, was always full of energy and life, but asleep it was always difficult to wake him up. He wasn’t looking forward to this and couldn’t help but let out a sigh as he leaned over and tapped his son on the shoulder.

“Mpfh.” Joe groaned in his sleep, then swatted away the hand that rested upon his shoulder.

Ben grunted and tried again to wake his son, but yet again Joe persistently swatted his hand away. Stifling a yawn himself, Ben shrugged his shoulders. He tried. He walked over to the edge of the stairs and tugged off the colorful Indian blanket that hung from the banister. With a quick snap of his wrists, he unfurled it then let it drape lightly over his son. The blanket didn’t quite cover Joe but it was long enough to keep his legs and bootless feet warm from the early spring evening chill. Hopefully at some point in the night, his son would wake up and head upstairs. Before leaving, Ben couldn’t resist reaching down to brush a lock of Joe’s hair that had fallen across his forehead.

“Good night Joe,” Ben whispered. Standing back up, he walked over to the candles and began to one by one blow out the flames, leaving a solitary candle for him to carry up the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs he took one last look at his slumbering son, then quietly walked up the stairs to bed.

*****

“Good morning Joseph,” greeted Ben as he watched his son slowly approach the table. “Nice to see that you decided to join us for breakfast.”

“Morning,” Joe mumbled rubbing his neck. Pulling out a chair from the table, he settled down into it then reached over for the coffee.

“I’m guessing that your neck hurting has to do with the way you were sleeping on the settee last night,” Adam commented as he reached over for another piece of toast. “Did you sleep on the settee all night?”

“Most,” Joe replied swirling the coffee around in his cup. Taking a careful sip of the hot coffee, he swallowed carefully before speaking again, “I heard the clock around 3 this morning and went upstairs.” Still in a foul mood from his poor sleeping arrangement, he grumbled, “Why didn’t someone wake me up?”

Ben rolled his eyes at Joe’s question. “I tried, but you didn’t want to be wakened. Every time I touched your shoulder, you pushed my hand away.”

“Oh,” Joe replied. With the cup of coffee nestled in his hands, he rolled his shoulder blades, trying to relive the ache in his neck and back. Looking around the table, he noticed that Hoss wasn’t at the table. “Where’s Hoss?”

“Out saddling up your horse and getting the horses reading to deliver to Carl.”

“THE HORSES!” Slamming his cup down, the coffee sloshing over the rim, Joe jumped up from the chair. “Dang it, I forgot all about getting those horses to Carl.”

“Slow down, son,” Ben urged, as he motioned for his son to sit down. “Hoss is getting the horses ready with help from Nate, so all you need to do is to sit down and eat some breakfast before you set out. Hoss will come in when he’s finished.”

“Thanks, pa,” Joe replied, as he settled back in his chair and reached over for the platter of eggs. The rest of the time at the breakfast table was silent, save noises from the three men eating. All too soon the silence was broken by the sound of the front door opening.

“About time you woke up, Joe,” Hoss teased as he approached the table, pulling his chair out. Settling down into the chair, he looked over at his young brother, “Got your horse saddled and ready. The rest of the horses are out by the barn ready to go.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied as he pushed his chair away from the table. He jumped from his seat but not before grabbing a piece of toast from his plate before he left. Stuffing an edge of the toast in his mouth, he grabbed his gun belt and tightened it around his waist before grabbing his jacket, which he slung across his shoulder. Quickly he exited the house, slamming the door behind him and leaving a wake of silence behind the closed doors. Hurriedly Joe walked over to where his horse was saddled and ready to go. “Hey Cochise, how’s my girl doing this morning?”

The sound of someone clearing their throat pulled Joe away from his tendering words to his horse.

“Hey Joe, are we going to whisper love notes to your horse all day or get a move on?”

“Nate,” Joe replied, “if you had a horse half as good-looking as mine, then I bet you’d be doing the same.”

Nate just shook his head and patted his horse on the neck. “Your brother Hoss was right. You are nuts.” Ducking, he watched as a piece of bread flew through the air, narrowly missing him. “Uh huh, you be on the lookout, Joe; you’ll be getting your due!” Laughing he pointed towards the barn, “Your brother and I have the horses ready to go on the other side of the barn.”

Joe slipped on his jacket then swung on his horse and led the way to the barn. Grabbing a line of four horses, he pulled them away and waited for Nate to grab his batch of horses. Antsy from having to stand so long without moving around, the extra horses were more than ready to go. Joe turned and nodded at Nate as they started on their journey.

Conversation was light once they left the ranch yard, Nate not really talking much and Joe was lost in his own thoughts. Dusk was settling across the earth when the pair of men mutually agreed that they needed to stop and set up camp. It was exhausting taking care of the string of horses, both physically and mentally. To Joe it felt as though his arm was going to be stuck in the one position. Even though he had tied the string of horses to his pommel, he still kept one hand on the line of reins. When they stopped for the night, Joe took care of the horses while Nate offered to set up camp and start the fire. By the time Joe made it back to the camp, Nate was leaning up against a tree, one hand wrapped around his throat.

“You ok, Nate?”

The other man grimaced as he tried to swallow. “My throat is hurting something fierce. It was a little sore when we left this morning, but I didn’t think much of it. But now,” Nate shook his head, “it just hurts, especially when I try to drink or eat anything.” Pointing to the fire, he spoke again, “I set up the coffee pot, but the thought of food was making me sick to my stomach.”

Joe nodded, “Why don’t you go on to bed, and I’ll take care of things from here.”

“I hate to leave you with all the work Joe.”

“Don’t worry about me, Nate; you just get some rest and see if you feel better by morning,” Joe said.

Nate nodded his head, then slowly got up from the ground and moved over to where he had spread his bedroll close to the campfire. Curling up on it, he tugged on his blanket trying to keep warm, then ended up falling asleep with his hand wrapped around his throat.

Joe couldn’t help but worry. If Nate was feeling bad this evening, there was a chance that he wasn’t going to be able to make it all the way to Carl Stephenson’s place. They had passed Carson City midway in the day, and he knew that Williams Station was no more than a couple of hours from where they were now. Knowing that Carl Stephenson’s place was just to the west of Williams Station, Joe surmised that perhaps if Nate wasn’t feeling any better by morning, then he could head into town for a doctor, while Joe took the horses. That wasn’t something that Joe was looking forward to doing. Stretching his arms above his head, Joe could feel the kinks and sore muscles making them known. He shouldn’t be this sore, he thought, but it seemed like every spot on his body was sore. Moving over to the campfire, he poured a cup of coffee then pulled out some jerky and began to gnaw on it as he stared into the dancing flames of the fire.

Early the next morning, just as the sun was cresting the top of the horizon, the men in camp stirred. Joe kicked his covers off and groaned. If he thought he was sore the night before, that was nothing compared to what he was feeling this morning. Knowing that the horses couldn’t deliver themselves, Joe rolled off his bedroll and slowly stood to his feet. He rolled his shoulders slowly as he walked over to check on the horses and prepare them for the rest of the journey. Returning to camp, he could hear Nate coughing. It was a deep-throated cough that seemed to erupt from regions deep in his chest.

“That doesn’t sound good Nate,” Joe said with concern. “When we get close to Williams Station, why don’t you ride on into town and see the doctor there?”

Another spell of coughing took over the man as he tried to shake his head. “I can’t leave you with both strings of horses Joe.”

“Nate, you won’t be of help to me if you fall off your horse from a faint.”

“I don’t faint!” Nate protested. He realized he was a little too aggressive in his answer when another spell of coughing took over. Sagging against a tree, he could feel his energy seep away with each cough. “Uh, maybe seeing a doctor would be a good idea,” he replied, “Maybe he can give me some medicine to stop this cough.”

Joe nodded as he spoke, “Well, let’s get on the trail. The sooner we leave, the quicker we’ll get there.”

Once the camp was clean and their bedrolls packed securely onto their horses, both men mounted their horses and grabbed hold of the string of horses. For several hours neither man spoke, the silence only broken by Nate’s consistent coughing. Finally, the sign pointing to Williams Station was seen by Joe, who pointed it out to Nate.

“I hate leaving you with all these horses, Joe,” Nate said as he dismounted from his horse. He untied his string of horses and brought them over to where Joe sat on his horse.

“Don’t worry about me,” Joe answered with a wave of his hand. “You need to go take care of yourself before you get any worse.”

Nate nodded his head as he muffled a cough, “Thanks, Joe.” He handed the second string of horses to Joe who looped them around the saddle horn. After making sure that Joe had a good hold on the horses, Nate took a step back. “Be careful, Joe; I really feel bad about making you take them by yourself.”

“Go on, Nate; you’re wasting your time here.” Joe waited until Nate got back on his horse and was heading towards Williams Station before letting out a sigh. Turning, he took a look at the fidgeting horses that were now in his possession. It was hard enough pulling along one string of horses, but adding two to the mix was a challenge. But he was up to a challenge. Besides, Carl’s ranch was another few miles to the west of Williams Station. With his hand firmly holding onto the horses, Joe set off for the ranch. Several hours later, a building in the distance alerted Joe that he was nearly to his destination. His leather gloves helped his hands somewhat, but the desire to just let the horses run free was overwhelming. Urging Cochise to go at a faster clip, it was his chanting to himself that he could do it that got him and the horses into Carl’s yard

“Morning, Carl!” Joe called out as he rode slowly up to the corral. The man to whom Joe was speaking to was standing on the other side of the weatherworn and beaten corral. Climbing in between two of the slats on the fence, he brushed off the dust off his once black pants. Then the man slipped his hat off and slapped the dust off it before putting it back on his head.

“Joe Cartwright! I wasn’t expecting you until sometime this evening,” Carl said. Looking around, he suddenly seemed to notice that Joe had both strings of horses with him. “Don’t tell you brought both these strings out by yourself from the Ponderosa!” he exclaimed.

“No, Nate Jenkins was with me,” Joe explained, “but along the way, he became ill and I sent him off to see the doctor.” As he spoke, he untied one of the strings of horses and handed the loosened reins to Carl. “Take these if you don’t mind, I need to get off this horse and stretch.” Free from one string of horses, Joe stretched out his arms then slid off his horse. His legs felt like jelly once he hit the ground, making him thankful that he was holding on to his horse. He stopped a moment. Waiting for his legs to get steady before untying the rest of the horses and then walked them over to the corral before handing them over to one of Carl’s men. Joe leaned against the fence and watched the horses as they ran around the corral, happy with their newfound freedom. Joe, on the other hand, looked at them with pride. These were his horses that he had broken and trained. Again pride filled him as he looked at the horses.

“Hey Joe,” called out Carl as he motioned to Joe. “Come up to the house for a cup of coffee while I get the payment together.”

Together the two men left the horses and headed back towards the house. It was a small structure, boasting all of one room within it — a combination of kitchen and bedroom. The paint had long peeled off, leaving behind a stripped look to the wood, weathered and gray now. Carl had been married at one time but his wife had died in childbirth with their first child, a son. Since then, Carl had dedicated himself to building up his ranch, although apparently not the upkeep nor expansion of his house. Pushing the door open, Carl motioned for Joe to have a seat at the table while he fiddled around in the kitchen trying to find his coffee.

“Dang it,” muttered Carl, “I forgot I used up the rest of my coffee this morning. One of my men did a supply run for me this morning and that is one of the things he’s bringing back.” Slapping back down the coffeepot, he apologized, “I’m sorry ‘bout that, Joe.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Joe replied. “I’ll just take a drink of water from the well if you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead, Joe; let me go get the check,” Carl suggested.

Joe went outside and drew some water up from the well. Resting against the walls of the well, he enjoyed the fresh breeze that blew through the air. With the leftover water in the tin cup, he poured it over his head just as he heard the sound of Carl approaching him.

“Here you go, Joe,” Carl said as he handed over a cashier’s check. “How about staying over for some lunch?”

Joe smiled as he took the money from Carl and stuffed the check inside his pocket. “Thanks Carl, but I really need to go on to Williams Station and check on how Nate is doing.”

“Sure thing, and Joe, thanks again for the horses; they look like a really good batch. But then again anything from you Cartwrights are top quality,” said Carl with praise in his voice. “By the way, if you are headed out for Williams Station, be on the lookout for Indians. I hear tell they been acting up lately; trouble is stirring within their tribes against the white folks.”

With a quick leap, Joe settled into the saddle then kicked his feet in the stirrups. “Thanks Carl, I’ll be seeing you next year with more horses.” Then with a grin and a quick wave of his hand, Joe departed, riding quickly towards William Station.

It took less time to get to town than Joe realized, but then again it probably seemed quicker due to him not having to worry about horses to haul. From the outskirts of town, Joe couldn’t really say much about the place; it looking like it had sprung up from the desert with its buildings tossed up here and there. Remembering Nate, he rode directly through the small town in search of a doctor. The streets were nicely aligned going straight from north to south, but the buildings themselves left much to be desired. Several of the buildings seemed to have been built on a slant, their centers off-kilter from the middle. There were numerous shacks lining the streets, one of which housed a saloon and, from what Joe could see, a general store. Not much at all to the town, Joe thought. Not sure how long he was going to be in town, he took Cochise down to the stables, after all the riding his horse had done for the day, and set it up with some feed. Then he went out and looked around for where the doctor’s office would be located. Strolling into the lone saloon, he stepped aside from the swinging doors to allow an inebriated man to pass him. From the bright sunshine in the afternoon, it was depressing to go inside the dark building, but inside he went. Walking directly over to the bar, he waited until the barkeeper turned to acknowledge him.

“What’s your choice of poison, mister?”

“Nothing yet,” Joe replied. “Do you know where I can find a doctor in the town?”

The man behind the counter shook his head then grabbed a mug in front of him and began to clean it. “You’re out of luck. Our last doctor was a bit inebriated when he came into the saloon one night, and got himself shot up. Died that night he did.”

Joe couldn’t help but make a face. “Listen, I’m looking for a buddy of mine who was supposed to have ridden in this morning to see a doctor. Man by the name of Nate.”

“You know, you’re in luck. That same man came in here this morning and had a drink of whiskey looking for a doctor. Poor man could barely get that drink down without gagging.” The barkeeper shook his head as he thought back on the image. The cowboy had ordered a whiskey and had chugged the contents down his throat, but within seconds the entire drink came out of his mouth and all over the bar. He’d been a bit upset over what this cowboy had done, so he ordered him out of his saloon. “He said he was going back to Virginia City to see a doctor there, and if someone came in asking, that is where he went.”

Joe nodded. A bit thirsty himself, he asked for a beer, hoping to soothe his sore throat. When he had woke up this morning, it had felt scratchy but had hoped that it was just from the morning air. The longer the day went on, the sorer his throat became. Joe sighed. He must not have gotten enough sleep the night before because not only was his throat sore, but it seemed like his entire body felt tired, droopy. Leaning against the bar, he was slowly drinking his beer when the sound of the swinging doors crashing against the wall of the saloon caught his attention. Swinging his head around, he caught the appearance of three men, one of whom was singing at the top of his voice the song “O Susannah”. They dragged behind them two women whom Joe could barely see beyond the bodies of the two leading men. The first man was huge. He had rolled up his shirtsleeves, and any man in the room could see his bulging biceps on his arms. The second man wasn’t as big; in fact, he looked scrawny compared to the first man. This man Joe automatically thought of as “Red”, compliments of the over-abundance of red hair that sprouted from the top of his head, and from all over his body. From the parts that Joe could see, he was just red. Red hair grew in thick clumps all over his arms and he had made no attempt to shave the hair from his face, leaving it bushy and out of control. It was then that the third man pushed his way forward. His build was in between the other two men, but it was his hair that made Joe look away and stare at his beer. It looked as though a pint of grease had been poured over his hair that morning, leaving dribble marks on his clothing.

Joe shook his head trying to erase the images of those three men from his head, until he heard the distinct sound of a woman’s cry. He followed the sound of the cry just outside the saloon, watching as the greasy man grabbed the woman and then shoved them into the saloon.

Joe watched as if in slow motion as two women plunged to the floor, close to where he sat. He quickly realized that these women weren’t the usual saloon girls most men hung out with; these were Indian women. And not just any Indian — these were Paiute women. Spitting out the beer that remained in his mouth, Joe threw the mug of beer on the bar, not even noticing the contents that spilt out. The barkeeper threw a nasty glare at the young man before him, but Joe paid him no attention as he sprang from his seat.

One of the Paiute women was desperately trying to escape, tufts of hair from her braids were loosened as her body squirmed in the hold of the one Joe nicknamed as “Red”. Angry, the woman tried to beg for her release; sadly her words were not understandable to the white man who didn’t speak her language. Even if they did, Joe wasn’t sure if it would have mattered anyway. The other woman also struggled in the arms of her captor, intensifying when the man attempted to kiss her on the lips. Kicking her feet out, her moccasin feet connected with his knee producing a wretched howl from the man’s lips. He released his strong grip on her but she didn’t get far before the largest man of the three grasped her in his arms. “Come on pretty thing,” he crooned as he stroked her hair before pressing his lips onto hers.

A growing feeling of anger began to grow within Joe as he watched the three men try to have their way with the two women. It felt like ice cold water was going through his veins. He pushed his way through the gathered men and walked over to where the three men were holding their hostages. Approaching the man standing the closest to him, he grabbed his arm and pointed to the women. “What do you think you are doing?”

“We got ourselves a purty injun,” announced the dark haired, greasy man, bringing his prize closer to him. “She’s a wild one, she is.”

“My turn, Abe!” yelled the one with the red hair, as he shoved the greasy man out of his way. Grabbing the woman, he started to run his hands through the woman’s hair, and then tried to force her to kiss him.

Pushing away the redhead, Abe complained, “She’s mine, Clyde. You go share with Big Jack over there.”

“Stop it,” Joe demanded as he reached out to intercept the passing of women. Just missing her, he tried again to plead for their release, “These women shouldn’t be here; they are from Chief Winnemucca’s tribe.”

“Aw,” Abe replied, “they’re enjoyin’ this. We plucked them outta the desert and rescued them.” His tongue was just about to come into contact with the woman’s face, who had a look of pure terror in her eyes, when suddenly he felt the woman torn from his grasp as he went plunging into the wall behind him. He paused then shook his head as he glared at Joe. “You done started something boy you shouldn’t have poked your nose into in the first place,” he growled.

With the woman safely stowed behind him, Joe turned to face the beastly man before him. Rolling his shoulders, he steadied his feet to the ground and waited for the attack from Abe. It didn’t take long before he heard the low guttural growl come from the big man, who pushed away from the wall and ran towards Joe. Joe expected retaliation as he stepped aside and watched as Abe ran into a table before flipping over it onto the floor. If he hadn’t been angry before, the greasy man was certainly angry now. Slowly Abe stood to his feet and moved to where Joe stood. His left fist flew through the air, quickly followed in succession by his right hand. It was the right fist that caught Joe off-guard as he was still ducking from the first throw. Feeling Abe’s fist connect against his jaw, Joe could feel a radiation of pain go through his face. Again Abe threw his fist, but this time Joe avoided it, instead turning to throw a punch towards the man, watching with relief as the man staggered backwards. Without letting up, Joe threw another punch, this time feeling his hand connected with the pudgy middle of the man. Panting, Joe watched as Abe sunk to the floor out for a few minutes. With his hand wiping the sweat that had collected on his face, Joe turned to see where the women were when he felt a hand grab him on the shoulder. Whipping around, Joe found himself face to face with Big Jack. Just by the pressure the man sent by squeezing his shoulder, Joe knew this fight was going to be tougher to beat.

Trying to squirm out of the handhold that Big Jack held him in, Joe tried to talk some sense into the man. Finally finding himself free from the man, Joe took a step away from him and nodded his head towards the cowering women. “Man, let’s not fight. All you have to do is just take these woman back to where they belong,” Joe suggested. “They shouldn’t be here. At least just let them go; I’m sure they’ll be able to find their way home.”

“You stupid kid,” spat Jack, “you go on and get out of my way. We found these woman and they are ours now. You ain’t takin’ them away from us.”

“Their tribe is not going to like it when they find out what you are doing,” Joe said, as he continued to try to reason with the men.

“I ain’t afraid of no injun,” Jack said as he patted the knife on his belt. “I dare them injuns to come after me. They’ll be wishin’ they hadn’t. ‘Sides, I hear these injun women make good squaws.” Laughing, spittle flew from the man’s mouth as he turned to smile at the women. The look on his face was one of pure evil as his intentions were released in a single smile.

Joe glanced around the bar, desperate to find someone who was willing to help him. Sadly he soon realized that most of the people in the saloon were there to see a good fight; they were unlikely to get involved in rescuing these women. Plus, they weren’t just any women; they were Indian women. Despite that, Joe felt that he had to try.

“Listen, these women are Paiutes from Chief Winnemucca’s tribe, and I know that he won’t be happy to hear that you have his women captive. His braves will come after you,” Joe explained.

Big Jack laughed. “You ain’t nothing, so go on and get outta here,” he said to Joe.

Despite Jack’s comments Joe continued to plead with the men in the saloon, but the looks on their faces showed their disinterest. Most had the decency to look away as Joe glared at them, but despite that, no one came forward. All Joe knew was that he wasn’t about to leave this saloon with those two women in the captivity of those three beasts. He shook his head at the men before him then turned to take a step towards the Indian women. Before he took another step, a blow from behind him sent him reeling into the table in front of him. Rolling over the tabletop head first, Joe landed on the floor, his air knocked out of him. He gasped desperately for breath all the while watching as Big Jack walked towards him. Just the sight of the big man, his muscles flexing as he approached the fallen man, caused Joe to push his body backwards on the floor. Joe rolled to his side and then in a quick movement stood back to his feet. His body poised for action, he waited for the next attack. It didn’t take long. Jack threw another punch, this one connecting with Joe in his face. Feeling the pain sting from his eye, Joe blindly threw a punch feeling his knuckles connect with a hard bone on the big man’s face. Together both men threw punches towards one another, connecting hard with muscles, bones and tissues of their bodies. Soon Joe was heaving in front of the big man, with the only thought of saving the women on his mind. He was exhausted. Throwing his energy into one last blow, he caught the big man off-guard and sent him down on the floor, onto his knees. Joe swept the blood that was tricking down from his forehead away from his eyes and teetered towards the women. Before he could make a second step, a blow to from behind to his head sent him spiraling into a world of darkness before he hit the floor.

*****

It was several hours before Joe woke up again. He did so slowly and realized that he couldn’t breathe. With his eyes open, he realized that he was lying face down in the dirt, his mouth filled with dirt and debris from the ground. For a moment he was puzzled as he tried to figure out what had happened to him. But it was a brief moment as his senses slowly came back to him, shaking his head, trying to clear the cobwebs that had taken up residence. There had been a fight and the last thing he remembered was being knocked in the head. Reaching his hand to the back of his head, Joe couldn’t help but groan as he felt every sore part of his body protest his movement. Slowly he pushed his body up off the ground, spitting out the dirt, as he sat up. Glancing around him, he guessed that he must be in the alley outside of the bar, the crates of empty liquor bottles scattered around him. As he leaned his body against the wall, Joe couldn’t help but grunt and cry out in pain as his muscles protested movement. Carefully he checked his body, his ribs included, for any possible breaks. To his relief, there was none. Instead his body was covered with bruises and a mass of cuts. His eye was swollen, leaving him to guess that a black eye was in the process of forming.

He took a deep breath and tried to move into a standing position, but quickly discovered that there was a pounding headache lying in wait, ready to pounce as soon as he moved. He moved, and all he could do was hold his head and moan. Knowing that he couldn’t sit in the alleyway in his current position, he clinched his teeth as he moved his hands away from his pounding head. His hat was lying on the ground next to him, so he slowly moved and snatched his hat; with a loud groan, he then placed it carefully on his head. With the help of a few crates, it was with a great deal of effort that Joe finally found himself standing. Even though he was standing now, if he had his preferences he would have preferred remaining down on the ground, even if it was in the dirt.

He could taste blood as trickled down his cheeks before sliding across his lips into his mouth. Dabbing at it with the edge of his jacket, Joe leaned against the building as he unsteadily tried to gain his bearings as to his current location. Out of habit, he patted his gun belt and was surprised to see that his gun was still in its holster. It was still daylight out, with a small breeze kicking up the dust around his feet. But with it still being daylight, it let him know that he had not been outside very long. Slowly he wobbled down the alley, and with his eyes quickly adjusting to the sunlight, he blinked rapidly as he recognized the main street he had entered into town on. He stopped a moment and leaned against the building, trying to gain some strength to step up onto the boardwalk. Just by glancing at the building he leaned against, he realized that this was the same saloon he had been in earlier.

Leaning against the corner of the saloon, he took a deep breath. Man, he hurt, he thought to himself as he exhaled his breath. Despite his pain, he pulled his weary body up onto the boardwalk, and with a slight limp, he walked slowly back into the saloon. Earlier in the day he hadn’t been feeling all that great, and now with his energy spent and his body nearly beaten he felt worse. He took a look inside and saw that there was no one inside, save a few miners who were slumped over their drinks. The crowd of men who had gathered for the “show” had disappeared. The bartender behind the bar said nothing as Joe stumbled over to where he stood.

Clearing his throat, Joe turned to the bartender and asked, “Where did they go?”

The bartender continued to wash the glasses behind the bar, acknowledging nothing. Setting down the clean glasses on the bar, he turned to grab some more when he felt a hand grab him on the forearm.

“Where did they take the Paiute women?”

Shaking loose Joe’s hand, the bartender replied, “Listen, I’ve had enough trouble in my bar and I’m not looking for anymore. You want information, you’re going to have to go somewhere else to get it.” Then swinging his arm out with his towel he heatedly spoke, “See this mess in here? All because of your fighting over a couple of redskins.”

Joe moved his hand away and stared at the bartender. “You don’t realize what happened here do you? Once Chief Winnemucca finds out that those men have taken his women, he is going to be out here to get them. And it won’t be pretty.”

The bartender shrugged his shoulders. “Ain’t my problem.”

Slapping his hand on the bar, Joe growled, “It ain’t your problem? So if those had been two white ladies who were being harassed by those three, you would have allowed them to?”

“I didn’t see no women in here this afternoon.”

Joe stared at him. The prejudice in the west shocked him, and such blatant racism left him speechless. He was raised to have respect for everyone, and if they were black or Indian, it didn’t matter; they were treated with the same respect. And women, now that was a subject that Joe didn’t want to tackle. A woman, no matter what race, didn’t deserve to be treated in the manner that they were just treated. Angry beyond words, Joe ignored his own aches as he grabbed the front of the bartender’s shirt and pulled him towards him.

The look that Joe had in his eyes scared the bartender, prompting him to speak, “If you are really wanting those injuns,” he said, “you might want to check out the stables up the street.”

Suddenly Joe realized that the man wasn’t worth fighting. Releasing the grip that he had on the man, Joe pushed the man away then tossed a coin on the counter to cover his earlier beer. Slowly Joe turned and carefully walked back outside then leaned against the post outside the saloon. The breeze had picked up outside, slinging the dust and sending a few pieces of brush rolling through town. He could feel the stinging from his cuts as particles of dust flew against his body. His headache he thought was gone was returning with a vengeance as he moved away from the post. Walking towards the stables, he saw Abe and Clyde sitting outside the closed doors on a bale of hay, each one chewing on a piece of straw.

“Why lookie here,” Abe announced as he watched Joe approach. “Look at who has returned for another beating.” Both men laughed at the statement, something Joe didn’t find humorous.

Ignoring Abe’s comment, Joe demanded an answer, “Where are they?”

“Where’s who, boy?” Abe replied with an emphasis on boy.

“The Paiute women you had earlier in the saloon.”

“Oh them?” Abe replied, “We don’t know where they are do we Clyde?”

“Nope, I ain’t seen those women for say, how long Abe?”

Both men cracked up laughing, giving no answer to Joe’s question. Unwilling to deal with the immaturity of these two men. Joe was about to advance towards the two when the stable doors flung open. Jack swaggered out, his shirt hanging on the outside of his pants as he blocked Joe’s entry. “What do you want, boy? Another beating?”

Again Joe ignored the snickering that came from the statement, intent on finding the women. “Where are they?” he demanded.

“Them good-for nothing injun’ squaws?” Jack asked. “We done taken care of them.”

Joe didn’t like the smirk that spread across the man’s face. “Where are they?” he demanded again as he took a step towards the stable door.

“We let them go.” Jack answered as he blocked Joe’s attempt to go inside.

Deep in his heart Joe didn’t believe him as he took a step towards the door. Again, Big Jack blocked his entry. “Where do you think your going?” the man asked.

Joe sighed, “My horse is inside. Do I need your permission to get my horse so I can go home and get out of this town?”

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place, boy?” Big Jack answered, spitting some tobacco out onto the ground in front of Joe.

Hiding his disgust, Joe took a step around Big Jack and went inside the barn, feeling the presence of the man as he followed him inside. Joe ignored the man and walked over to where his horse was stabled, and began to speak softly while running his hands over his horse. “Hey Cochise, how are you doing, girl?” Pulling the saddle blanket from the wall next to him, he slowly slid it onto Cochise’s back, making sure that it was even on both sides. Once it was on to his satisfaction, he slowly moved to his saddle then carried it over to where his horse was tied. At one point, a piece of hay filtered down from above him causing Joe to pause slightly in his work. Not looking up, he proceeded to sling the saddle onto the back of his horse, and then proceeded to work as slow as molasses in hitching all the straps. From the corner of his eye, Joe could tell that Jack was getting restless. At one point Jack must have decided that Joe was leaving soon, because he spit out a long stream of tobacco before he walked back outside, the wind catching the door slamming it shut. Joe let out a deep breath of air. Quickly he finished up with his horse, tightening the cinch before slapping the stirrups back down. He then pulled his horse out of the stall and dropped the reins, encouraging the horse to remain where they dropped. Heading directly to the ladder, he climbed up the rungs of the ladder as he approached the loft. He lifted his one leg around the ladder and was just pulling the rest of his body onto the loft when a sound outside made him freeze. Whatever had caused the sound remained outside. Letting out a deep breath, Joe glanced up from the floor to look around the room. Straw was strewn all over the floor, with bales of hay tossed randomly on the floor. A movement from behind a bale of hay caught his attention. Quietly he moved across the floor, his feet kicking up hay at his feet. Peering behind the hay Joe gasped. There lay the two Paiute women, lying on their backs with their hands and feet tied together, and a cloth tied around their mouths to keep them from making noises. Their clothing was torn and ripped while their hair was extremely disheveled. It was the way they looked that made Joe fear the worst as to what had happened to them. What made Joe feel even worse was the look of fear they had when they saw him. It hurt him deep inside to see them trying to squirm away from him, so he stopped and held up both his hands. Softly he began to talk to them, trying to keep them calm as he approached them.

“It’s ok,” Joe soothed as he walked slowly towards them, “I’m just going to loosen these ropes around your hands.”

Two pairs of dark eyes followed Joe’s every move. Understanding their fear, he was shaking in anger at what the three men downstairs had down to these two females. Joe continued to move slowly towards the two women. He squatted next to them then bent over and reached for the gags around their mouths, motioning them to be quiet once he loosened them. The he pulled the arms of the woman closest to him and began to work on loosening the ropes around her wrist. The ropes were so tight around her skin that he could see that her hands were raw from her struggle to get loose. Carefully Joe tried to untie them until he realized that it would be quicker to cut them loose. Digging into his jacket pocket, he produced a jackknife.

The girl snatched her arm away from Joe and began to push on him, trying to push him away from her. Surprised at her sudden action, he nearly dropped the open knife onto his leg. Catching it he looked over a surprise to her then glanced over at the other woman. She was staring at him with open eyes, her eyes following every move he made. Lying the knife onto the floor, Joe slowly moved to the second woman and picked up her tied hands then pointed to the ropes. Then pointing to his knife, he made the motion of sawing through it. With the belief that she understood what he was about to do, Joe slowly picked up the knife and proceeded to do exactly what he showed her he was going to do. The woman let out a sigh as the last cord of rope was sliced through, allowing her hands to move freely. Joe then moved down to her feet, and did the same thing. As he worked the woman began softly talking in her language to the girl next to her as she wiggled her hands and feet, trying to bring back circulation. Once Joe finished cutting the woman loose, he turned his attention back to the first woman. She lifted her hands and in her eyes trusted Joe to release her. Joe smiled as he cut her hands and feet loose from the rope.

Once they were loose, Joe remained in his squatted position when he spoke to them. “There are three men down there,” Joe said softly, lifting up his three fingers and pointing downstairs. Then putting his fingers up to his mouth he softly suggested, “You need to be quiet.” Standing up, Joe rolled his shoulders trying to release some of the tension that was stored there and the motioned for them to follow him.

The two women slowly stood to their feet, each helping the other to stand to her feet and rub circulation back into one another’s limbs. Fiddling with their loose hair, they quickly decided that redoing the braids would take too much time. They were both as eager as Joe to leave this place as they walked over to where Joe paced by the ladder. Climbing down the ladder carefully, Joe tried to make sure there wasn’t very much excess noise to alert the outsiders to what was happening indoors. Once his feet were on the ground, he motioned to the two women in the loft to come on down. Without hesitation, the older woman took the lead and proceeded to climb down, followed closely by the younger one. Just as Joe was assisting the last one down the ladder the sound of the stable doors being flung open sent shivers of fear through Joe. They were discovered.

Without turning around, Joe knew who had entered the barn. Pushing the women away from him, he pointed to the back of the barn, towards a door that was slightly ajar. He wanted to watch and make sure that they left, but before he could do that he felt his body being propelled against the ladder behind him. Slamming face first into the ladder, all Joe could think of was the overwhelming pain that shuddered through his body. Slowly he turned around, gasping for breath.

“You just though you were going to have yourself a little fun with our women, did ya?” Jack roared as he threw his fist into Joe’s stomach. “Or did you think you were going to let them go before we finished with them!” Watching Joe lurch to the side, Jack grabbed him and threw him back up against the ladder, pinning him there with a flurry of blows.

In between the pain and the sick feeling he was feeling from his earlier beating, all Joe knew was that he had to get out of here before he got himself killed. Throwing out a punch, he connected into the jaw of Jack, watching with a small amount of satisfaction as the man stumbled backwards into a stall. Again the man advanced, and again Joe swung. Connecting with the other side of his face, Joe watched as Jack’s head was flung to the right. Jack fell to the ground. He fumbled with a rope on the hay-strewn floor and threw it towards Joe, who lifted his hands up over his face to protect himself. Taking advantage of Joe’s lack of attention, Jack threw himself towards the younger man’s feet and tackled him to the floor. With the heavy weight of Jack on top of him, Joe struggled to get out from beneath him. The man had his hands tight around Joe’s neck cutting off any circulation he was getting. Inching his hands upward, he loosed the grab the man had on his neck and then twisted his waist and brought his legs up then wrapped it around Jack’s body. Off-balanced, Jack found himself face down on the ground. Heavily panting, Joe slowly stood to his feet, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth. He was already exhausted and wasn’t sure how much longer he could go. The fight earlier in the day had drained him of his energy. Then on top of that, he wasn’t feeling his best from the beginning.

Joe staggered over to the wall and held onto it with one hand, trying to maintain his balance. A sound from behind him made him look. Turning, he saw Abe and Clyde standing near the back of the barn, a broad grin stretched across their faces as they held in their arms the two struggling Indian women. Words of outrage were on the tip of his tongue as he formed the words. “Let them go.” Joe begged. Trying to stand alert and ready, he felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach when he watched Abe shove the Indian he held onto the ground and come towards Joe. The last thing Joe remembered was the ultimate look of fear on those two Indian women faces just as he fell to the ground in a fog of pain.

*****

It was several hours before Joe woke up, and when he did, he was confused. Lifting his hand, he began to rub his eyes, aware of the intense throbbing that occurred just from moving his hand. With his eyes slowly opening, he became more aware of his surroundings and the steady movement below him. Where was he? Joe wondered to himself. He lifted his head, and with eyes that weren’t focusing well, he saw a dark blob. His eyes opened wide as they slowly focused on the object. It was then that Joe realized he was on the back of a horse, fortunately sitting in the saddle instead of thrown over the seat. Resting his hands on the neck of the horse, he gave a faint smile as he realized it was his own horse Cochise he was riding.

Relieved to know what he was on, Joe sat up quickly, but just as quickly let out an involuntary groan. Oh man, did he hurt, he thought to himself. Every part of his body was sore, and then on top of that, his throat was sore. Every time he swallowed, it felt as though a sheet of sandpaper was going down his throat. On reflex, he wanted to hold his throat much like how Nate had done — anything to get rid of that awful feeling. Joe couldn’t help but shake his head as he thought back of Nate Jenkins. If this is how Nate was feeling as he rode along with him that day, he felt sorry for the ranch hand. Again, Joe took a deep breath and instantly wished he hadn’t when the pain radiated through his chest. He wasn’t sure what part of him was bruised, thanks to the latest beating he received. From what he guessed after the fight, he had been tossed up on his horse and sent on his way. The question was, how far away was he from town and how close was he to the Ponderosa? Unfortunately now wasn’t the time to figure that out because from the direction of the sun, he figured that the sun was soon going to be setting. With no place to bed for the night, Joe knew he needed to make camp soon or else he’d be riding in the darkness. Not a safe way to ride, considering the condition he was in.

Coughing slightly, Joe frowned. His chest hurt as he coughed. Pressing his right hand against his chest, with his left hand he led his horse to an outcropping of rocks, then carefully dismounted. There was a slight chill in the air, but beyond throwing his bedroll off the horse onto the ground, he wasn’t up to much else in preparing the camp. Carefully he began the process of removing Cochise’s saddle and preparing the horse for the evening, moving slowly not to jar any of his already tender spots. Finished, he leaned his head against Cochise’s body trying to gather the energy to walk over to where he had tossed his bedroll. Feeling the horse move beneath his head, Joe let out a sigh as he moved away and walked over to where his bedroll had landed. He untied it, then unfurled it before haphazardly, tossing it on the ground, taking no time to clear away any debris. With one last glance over to his horse, he sank to the ground and adjusted his hat so it covered his face just before pulling the blankets up over his body. Within seconds he was asleep.

*****

The next morning Joe slowly awakened. A sharp light hit him on the face as he tried to rub it away until he realized it was the sun causing the shaft of light to fall upon his face. He let out a deep yawn then rolled over. It was in that instant that he wished he hadn’t moved; sharp pain followed his every move. If he thought he was sore the evening before, it was nothing like it was this morning. He then realized that during the night he was so relaxed that it allowed his muscles to become sedentary and stiff. His legs ached, his arms ached; in fact, as Joe realized, there wasn’t anywhere on his body where he wasn’t sore. As he lay on the ground, he became more aware of his surroundings, more precisely a rock that felt the size of a boulder digging into his back. Carefully he rolled off his bedroll then slung the blanket off the ground and quickly located the rock, which was wedged in the dirt right below where he rested. That explained his extra sore back, Joe thought. Still tired, Joe didn’t want to go anywhere; if anything, he wanted to lay back down on his bedroll, curl up and go back to sleep. But remembering the rock that shared his bed the night before, Joe decided that getting home to his own bed was a better idea. So, with that goal set in his head, Joe made preparations to leave camp. Taking care of his horse, Cochise was soon saddled with the bedroll securely tied, ready to go. Prancing in place, the horse waited for Joe to take care of his needs so that he could lead his master home.

With Cochise saddled and ready to go, Joe went off to the woods and took care of his more personal needs before returning to a nearby creek. Letting out a cry of pain, he knelt to his knees and sighed. With his hand on his face, he felt the heat radiating from his skin. He tried to ignore the pain as he dipped his hands into the water then brought it up to his face, splashing the cooling liquid against his now heated skin. As he stared at his reflection in the water, he couldn’t help but groan at how he looked. It wasn’t pretty. His left eye was bloodied, and he could see that he already had the beginnings of a black eye. His lip was swollen, and there was a multitude of bruises developing on his face. He splashed more water onto his face then tried to wash away the blood that had dried. Despite the pain it caused, Joe needed to check over his body, to see if there were any breaks. He unbuttoned his shirt then held his breath as he checked with trepidation, fearing the worst. Carefully his fingers prodded his ribs, checking each one slowly for any thing that could be broken. Finished, he pulled his shirt closed and sighed with relief. There were no broken bones.

Slowly Joe stood up from where he sat on the ground, unwillingly letting out a moan once again as he stood. For some reason, he hoped that just by moving around it would help loosen him up, but if anything, it made him more aware of every ache and pain that was on his body. He walked over to where his horse was and began to loosen the reins from the branches of a tree, then attempted to mount his horse. Stepping into the stirrup, he tried slinging his leg over Cochise’s back but discovered he didn’t have the strength or energy to do it. After several failed attempts, he buried his face into Cochise’s neck, utterly exhausted and upset that he couldn’t get on the horse. If he had ever felt like crying, this was one of those times. Feeling Cochise move away from him, he tried to hold on to horse until he looked up and realized that his horse was leading him to a nearby low-lying log. It was low enough, but yet high enough to get him onto its back. Joe took a deep breath and stepped onto the log. Cochise took a step closer to him allowing him to get into the saddle a bit easier than from this position rather than where he stood before. Once on, Joe hoped he had no need to get back down. Setting the pace for Cochise to go, Joe couldn’t help but tense up for the ride, hoping it would keep his body from jarring too much. They rode along for a while before Joe was able to start recognizing landmarks and realized that he was a lot closer to home than he had initially thought. If Cochise kept up this pace, they should be home by nightfall. Wanting to get home sooner, he encouraged his horse to go faster, kicking the horse in ribs. Cochise had no problems going faster; the pace Joe had set was discouragingly slow compared to their usual pace. Picking up speed, Joe quickly realized that for him to successfully stay on the horse, Cochise would have to slow down. He pulled on the reins, and Cochise fought at the reins, reluctant to go at the steady slower pace, but the man holding the reins won as the horse returned to the slow pace that was initially set by his master.

The hours passed as the sun slowly followed its trail across the sky from the east to the west. Meanwhile, Joe was lost in his misery. Nothing had changed from early morning. Well, one thing had happened and that was the cough he had picked up halfway through the trip. He was already sore, he complained to himself, and these coughing spells did nothing for his already depleted energy. In fact, he hadn’t stopped anywhere along the way, despite some more pressing needs, in his determination to get home before nightfall. He realized that if he did stop, there was a strong possibility that he might not be able to get back onto his horse.

Finally, in the distance he could see the outlying shape of the ranch house, the shadows already long and threatening to overtake the home. The sun was nearly gone from the horizon and Joe found some energy he didn’t realize he had from somewhere deep inside him. Clenching his teeth together, he urged Cochise to run the last mile home. And clenched his teeth is just what he had to do. With every muscle pulled tight with tension after the first initial cry of pain, Joe sent his mind into another realm, one where he didn’t feel the pain on this final spurt home. It was as he rounded the barn that he slowed his horse to a slow walk, and then finally to a stop as the hitching post in front of the house loomed in front of him. With the motion of the saddle rocking back and forth stopped, Joe just sat, relishing the stillness. He sat in the saddle a moment, then began to carefully slide out of the saddle. When his feet landed onto the ground, he stood unsteadily when he heard someone speak behind him.

“Why don’t you go on inside, Joe,” suggested one of the ranch hands. He had hurried over to Joe’s horse when he saw the young Cartwright ride in. “I’ll take care of your horse.”

Exhausted, Joe barely looked over at the man as he nodded his thanks. Handing over the reins, he staggered away, grasping hold of the hitching post and he tried to gather some energy to take him into the house.

“You okay Joe?” asked the same ranch hand.

“Yeah, I think so,” Joe answered as he took a step away from the post. But everything that had happened the previous day had taken its toll on him. He collapsed.

“Joe!” The ranch hand dropped the reins he held and ran over to where his young boss fell. Unsure as to what to do, he wavered between going to the front door and looking for help or helping Joe inside. Deciding on the latter, he bent over and tried to help Joe stand up. Joe moaned.

“I’m fine, Paul; just let me rest for a moment,” Joe said with a tired voice. A cough suddenly erupted from Joe as he sat there which helped to extinguish any energy he had gathered. Paul waited patiently for Joe to motion when he was ready. Joe, realizing that he needed to get up from the ground and into the house, struggled to stand. Paul quickly stood and put his arms under Joe’s and then helped him slowly walk to the house. The steps they took were slow and uneasy on Joe’s part, but were helped along by Paul’s strong hold on him. At the front door, Joe watched as Paul took charge and pushed the door open. Helping Joe inside the room, the first thing Joe couldn’t help but notice was the oppressive heat in the room. There was no one around as they entered the room, although evidence of their finished dinner was still on the table. Pointing to the settee, Joe asked, “Just help me over to the settee and I’ll be okay.”

Paul did as he was asked, carefully guiding Joe to the cushioned seat. Watching as his boss sank into the cushions, he was suddenly unsure of what needed to be done next.

Joe sensing his hesitation looked up at the young face, “Thanks, Paul. Why don’t you go ahead and take care of Cochise?” Noticing the look of uncertainty at leaving, Joe continued, “Go on, I can take of myself from here. Besides, those brothers of mine will be around eventually. Is my Pa around?”

“No sir, he went over to Carson City this morning to see about a timber contract, said he’d be there for a few days.”

Joe nodded as he listened. Then looking up at the man hovering near him, he motioned him out. “Go on, I’m fine.”

“You sure, Joe?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied.

Paul nodded his head then turned to leave the house. When Joe heard the door close behind the young man, he let out a cough that had been building since he sat on the settee. With both hands covering his mouth, he coughed, yanking out a handkerchief from his pocket and coughed into it. He breathed heavily once he stopped, feeling the weakness that had overcome him outside take over his body again. He let out a heavy sigh and laid his head on the armrest, and then not caring about what anyone would say, he lifted his feet and pulled them up onto the settee also, boots and all. The Indian blanket was still on the settee, just where it had been left the night before. Pulling it down upon him, he shivered as he tugged the blanket up around his chin and curled up on the cushions. He quickly fell asleep despite his coughing and shivering.

*****

The front door noisily opened as two men walked through the doorway into the living room, unbuckling and tossing their gun belts onto the sideboard. The biggest one walked over to the dining room table and saw that there was still food from their earlier meal on the table.

“Oh good, Hop Sing hasn’t put the food up yet. Them rolls of his were good this evening.”

“Hoss, don’t you think you’ve had enough for one evening?”

Hoss shook his head, “No, Adam, this is just a snack before bed time.”

Adam shook his head as he walked over to the fireplace. As he moved past the settee something caught attention and he glanced down. “Joe?”

“What’s wrong, Adam?” Hoss asked as he picked up a roll. “What about Joe?” Looking over at Adam, he watched as his brother sat on the edge of the coffee table and leaned over someone on the settee. Hoss dropped the roll back onto the table, then wiped his hands on his pants and walked over to where Adam was sitting. Hoss gasped as he glanced down at the figure. Joe was sprawled out on the settee and he looked terrible. The Indian blanket was pulled up close to his chin, and from what Hoss could see, it looked like his brother had been in a bad fight. Not only that, but his brother’s cheeks were flushed and his nose was moist and red.

Adam sat down on the edge of the coffee table and gave his youngest brother a quick look, trying to figure out what had happened to him. Actually, it was easy to figure out that he was in a fight, but why was the more pressing question. “He’s not looking too good,” Adam replied as he rested the back of his hand on Joe’s forehead. “And, what’s more he’s burning up with fever.”

“You want me to help get him up to his bed?”

Scratching the back of his neck, Adam thought for a moment before turning to face Hoss. “Yeah. If you can get him up to bed, I’ll see about getting some things together to take care of these cuts on his face.”

Hoss moved next to Adam and leaned down to help Joe up from the settee, pushing aside the blanket. Just as he was getting his hand behind Joe’s back, Joe woke up and let out a painful cry.

“Ow,” Joe cried out. Then sluggishly he opened his eyes to see his two brothers looking down at him with concern. “Just let me sleep,” he moaned, trying to pull the warm blanket back over his body.

“Joe you’re burning up with fever, and you’ve obviously been in a fight,” Adam replied as he let loose of the blanket. “What happened to you?”

The thoughts swirled in Joe’s mind as he tried to remember what had happened. It was hard to believe that all this happened just the day before. He and Nate had ridden to deliver horses, when Nate turned back to go to the doctor. Remembering that, Joe tugged the blanket back under his chin and asked, “How’s Nate?”

“Nate is doing fine; he has a sore throat, but the doctor said it was just a bad cold. He’ll be okay after several days in bed.” Looking down at Joe, it suddenly made sense to Adam what was wrong with his brother. “How’s your throat feeling, Joe?”

Joe tried to swallow and could only grimace for an answer. “It’s sore,” he whispered.

Adam nodded then turned to Hoss. “Hoss, if you could go get some of that medicine that the doc gave to Nate, then I don’t think we need to call the doctor out here. Unless,” Adam said slowly, “our brother here has some broken bones we don’t know about.”

At that statement, Joe shook his head, “I’m just sore.”

“Why don’t you let us make sure, buddy,” Hoss spoke up, watching the painful faces Joe kept making.

“I don’t need you two playing doctor over me,” Joe moaned.

“Well Joe,” Adam replied, “we could either ‘play doctor’, or just bring Doc Martin out to check you out.”

Joe let out a sigh, grimacing slightly as he did so. “Fine,” he said as he gritted his teeth. Tossing the blanket off of him, Joe could feel the cool air rush against his fevered skin. But with help from Hoss, Joe set his feet on the ground then leaned his back against the settee and waited for the unwanted impromptu examination.

“Hoss, why don’t you go get the alcohol and some bandages,” Adam suggested as he started his examination of his brother. Carefully he leaned over and began to check Joe’s arms, not really expecting to find anything wrong. The same was for his legs. Adam figured that if he could ride a horse and walk into the house, then broken bones in his legs were unlikely. However, it was the ribs that caused Adam the most concern. They could be broken or even cracked. Carefully positioning himself in front of Joe, Adam took a moment to look at his brother. His swollen lip was an eyesore, but it was the black eye and the multitude of bruises on his face that told Adam that his brother had been beaten. Realizing that his brother was in no condition to talk, Adam unwillingly let it go for now. He turned his attention back to Joe’s ribs. Hoss had already returned with the kit and started unbuttoning Joe’s shirt, opening it so that Adam could feel the bones of the rib cage. The bruises on Joe’s face merely were a warning of what was to be found on the rest of Joe’s body. Adam couldn’t help but cringe when he looked at each mark a blow against Joe’s body had caused. Carefully, Adam checked each and every rib fearing the worst. When he reached the last rib, he let out a deep sigh.

“I don’t know how you did it, little brother, but I think you escaped without any broken bones. Instead you have some pretty bad looking bruises on your body which makes me wonder,” Adam said. “I’m worried that you may have injured yourself inside somewhere. Maybe we ought to get the doctor out here after all.”

“Adam,” Joe moaned, as he struggled to get his shirt back on. “You said if I let you check me out, you wouldn’t call the doctor. Why are you going back on your word now?”

Adam grinned. “You’re right, I did say that. How about this — if you start to feel bad let us know and we’ll call the doctor out.” Adam couldn’t help but laugh at the face Joe gave him as he took the alcohol from Hoss’ hand. Taking the cloth also, he carefully began dabbing at the cuts on Joe’s face. As he cleaned the marks, the cause of the beating his brother had received lay heavy on his mind. “Joe, what happened to you? Nate Jenkins said that he had left you with the string of horses as he went off to William’s Station to see a doctor.”

“But the doctor wasn’t there,” Joe answered. Wincing at the stinging from the alcohol being dabbed on his face, Joe tried pulling away.

“You’re right; there was no doctor there,” Adam replied. He felt Joe as he tried pulled away, but held his young brother in place. “So Nate went into Virginia City and saw Doc Martin, who gave him medicine to take. Nate then rode back out to the ranch and told us that you were headed to Stephenson’s ranch with those horses.” Looking with concern at his brother, he then asked, “Did you have any problems?” Finished with his administrations with his brother, he put the alcohol back into the kit and set it aside as he leaned back to listen.

Joe leaned his head against the back of the settee and shook his head. “I had no problems taking the horses to Carl’s place. By the way, the check is out in my saddle bags, I forgot to bring it in.”

“We’ll take care of that later, Joe,” Adam replied.

“Well, it was until I stopped off at Williams Station to see about Nate that I ran into some trouble.”

Hoss reappeared in front of Joe with a glass of water in his hand. Interrupting he asked, “Do you want something to drink, Joe?”

“No thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied with a grimace. “My throat is awfully sore, and any time I swallow, it hurts.”

With that statement, Adam stood up realizing that his brother didn’t need to be downstairs talking. “We need to get you into bed, Joe. You’re ill and I shouldn’t have kept you down here talking.” He glanced towards the door then at Hoss. “Hoss, why don’t you get Joe up to bed, and I’ll see if I can get some medicine from Nate until one of us goes into town.”

“Sure thing, Adam.”

As Adam went out the door to the bunkhouse, Hoss bent down and helped Joe to his feet. The blanket dropped to the floor as his brother slowly stood to his feet, moaning as he moved. Slowly the two of them walked over to the staircase, Joe unsteadily on his feet leaned heavily against Hoss for support.

“Let me rest a moment,” Joe panted as he leaned against the stair post.

“You know Joe,” Hoss said with a serious look on his face, “this would be a lot easier if I just carried you up the stairs.”

“Carried me!” Joe squeaked out. “I don’t think so! Just let me catch my breath and I can make it.” He stood against the post for a minute more before he took the first step up the staircase, but the aches and pains that had been building up since he woke up that morning hit him with a vengeance. Initially when he had awakened from his rest on the settee, he was feeling pretty good, but now the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion took over. He barely picked his one foot onto the next step before he felt his body tilt towards the ground. Not only that, but a spasm of coughs followed his downward fall. In one quick movement, Hoss caught him and immediately took charge. No longer was his brother the one calling the shots; it was Hoss who was going to take care of him. Putting his right arm around his brother, he hooked his left arm under Joe’s legs and picked him up. Slowly Hoss carried his brother up the stairs, down the hallway and into his room. Tired himself, Hoss was relieved to see the bed within an easy distance and carefully deposited his brother onto the bed.

“Ouch,” grumbled Joe.

“Sorry,” Hoss replied, “you’re heavier than I remembered.”

Tired, all Joe wanted to do was sleep as he sought to find a comfortable position on the bed while trying to push away his brother’s attempts to undress him.

“Joe, you gotta stop fighting me,” Hoss protested. “I know you’re tired, but you’ll rest so much better once you get into something more comfortable. And something that doesn’t smell so much like horses.”

Grunting, Joe rolled over and helped as much as he could in shedding his clothing. Soon he lay unclothed on his bed shivering, in nothing but his underwear. He struggled to find his blanket, and was relieved when Hoss pulled the covers up over his body.

“Do you want to put a nightshirt on?”

Joe shook his head. All we wanted now was to be left alone. He was cold and sore, and didn’t want anyone bothering him. He rolled over on the bed, desperately trying to find a warm pocket to tuck his shivering body into.

Hoss, concerned for his brother’s health, couldn’t help noticing his brother’s continued shivering went over and grabbed a nightshirt from the dresser drawer. Bringing it over, he held it in front of Joe.

“I don’t want that,” Joe protested as a cough overtook him and he violently coughed for a brief spell.

“You’re cold, Joe, and shivering,” Hoss replied as he shook out the nightshirt. Holding it in front of him he continued, “Besides this will help you stay warmer.”

All Joe wanted to do was sleep, so without another argument, he pushed the covers back and slid his arms into the sleeves as Hoss slipped the opening over his head. Pulling the nightshirt down over his bottom, Joe grunted then slid back down on his mattress, bringing the covers back around his aching body.

Watching his brother continue to shiver, Hoss felt sorry for him and left the room for a heavier blanket. He returned with one in hand and tossed it over his brother, noticing that it seemed to make difference on his brother. Relaxed, Joe pulled the extra blanket closer to him and then snuggled under the covers, finally feeling like he was getting warm.

“Don’t you dare!”

Jumping at the thundering voice behind him, Hoss turned to see Adam in the doorway with a medicine bottle in one hand and spoon in the other.

“Joe,” Adam’s voice echoed in the room, “you need to take this medicine and then we’ll leave you alone.”

In answer, Joe rolled over, pulling the blankets over his head and ignored his brother.

“You know, Hoss,” Adam said while watching Joe, “I guess if he doesn’t take this medicine, you’d better go in and see the doctor. He might have a shot or something he could give Joe instead.”

Those words were like magic. Joe rolled over and glared at his brother. “You wouldn’t dare,” his voice rasped.

Pouring out a portion onto the spoon, Adam didn’t answer as he held the spoon close to Joe’s mouth. Joe, realizing he was in a no-win situation, opened his mouth and accepted the liquid but not before making a face as the medicine went down, coating his sore throat.

Adam watched as Joe pulled the covers up over his shoulders, then settled into a position that was comfortable. Motioning towards the door, Hoss and Adam exited the room, closing the door behind them.

“Think he’ll be okay, Adam?”

Nodding his head, Adam assured Hoss, “I think time in bed resting will help. Nate is already feeling better, so I’m guessing that if this is what Joe caught, he’ll be up and out of bed in no time.”

“Then there’s no need to telegraph, Pa,” Hoss stated.

“No,” Adam answered. “Besides, he’ll be home in a few days. No need to worry him. Joe will be fine.” Just as he finished talking, the clock downstairs began to chime. “I’ll go on downstairs and secure things for the night.”

Hoss tried to stifle a yawn as he nodded. “Night, Adam.”

“Night Hoss.”

*****

“Good morning, sleepyhead!”

Pulling the covers over his head, Joe tried to drown out the morning chortle of his oldest brother who had just entered the room, wondering why when he was sick in bed Adam had to come into his room so cheery. Snug under the covers, Joe moved and realized that the intense pain he had felt the day before wasn’t nearly as bad today. He was still sore, but more of a manageable sore, if that was possible. Letting out a big yawn, he rolled his shoulders in an attempt to release some of the stiffness. As he swallowed, he noticed that the soreness that was persistently with him the day before was almost gone — still there but not quite so severe as the day before. He could swallow without cringing.

“How are you doing this morning, Joe?”

“Much better,” Joe rasped as he put his hands on the mattress and pulled his body up. Leaning against the headboard, he felt a tickle in the back of his throat and knew that another cough was to about to make an appearance. Desperate to contain it before his brother heard, Joe glanced over to his right and saw a glass of water. Eagerly he grasped the glass and carefully drank the contents. From the corner of his eye he saw Adam approaching him, again with that dark bottle that Joe knew instinctively had to be medicine. “Aw Adam,” he complained, “not again.”

“Come on, Joe,” Adam pleaded. “You yourself said you were doing much better, and I personally think you have this medicine to thank for that.”

Joe frowned. “I think it was my sleep and rest that did it.”

“Well,” Adam said as he tapped his right index finger on his chin, “I guess we could call the doctor out, and if he agrees that you are going to be alright, then you don’t have to take the medicine.”

“The doctor?” Moaning, Joe slunk down in the bed. “Why do you always have to use the doctor as blackmail, Adam?” he whined.

“Because it works?”

“You know what, I’m going to call you on your bluff, Adam. I don’t think I want to take the medicine.”

A big grin crossed Adam’s face as Joe spoke those words. He strode over to the door and leaned out in the hallway. “Hey Hoss, is Dr. Martin still here?” As Adam pulled his head back into the room, he couldn’t help but laugh at the incredulous look on Joe’s face.

“Doc Martin is here?”

Adam nodded his head. “Yup, he came to check up on Nate and see how he was doing. Aren’t you in luck? If the doc thinks you’re well enough, you won’t have to take the medicine.”

“That’s unfair, Adam!”

“What is, Joe?” Adam asked with surprise.

“You know what! You could have told me that Doc Martin was here, and I would have taken the medicine with no problem.” Joe pouted as he crossed his arms, “Now he will give me one of his stupid examinations to see if I’m okay. Damn you, Adam.”

Adam laughed as he shook his head, “Joe, I asked you to take the medicine. You said no. I said I would get Dr. Martin here, and you still refused. I didn’t know I was supposed to tell you that the doctor was here. I gave the options and you refused them all.”

“It’s still unfair,” Joe grumbled. Footsteps in the hallway outside his room caused Joe to push his body further under the covers; tense, he watched as Hoss walked into the room followed by the doctor.

“Good morning, Joseph!”

“Morning,” mumbled Joe.

Hoss reached down and swatted at Joe’s feet, “That ain’t no way to talk to our friend.”

“He ain’t no friend of mine,” Joe said, again in a tone of distinct dissatisfaction. He then took a chance and looked up into Doc Martin’s smiling eyes, knowing the man wasn’t taking him seriously. “I’m fine,” he stated.

“I know you’re fine,” Dr. Martin replied as he placed his black bag on the dresser next to Joe.

Sitting down on the bed next to Joe, the doctor folded his arms and looked down at the young man. Joe’s face showed the obvious signs of a fight with his left eye black and blue. From experience, Martin knew that had to have hurt. His lip was cut but from his visual inspection Martin could tell that it was healing fine, the doctoring that Adam had given it the night before helping. As for the rest of Joe’s body, Martin couldn’t tell, considering the young man had swaddled himself in his covers and was hunkered down on the mattress. The doctor took a deep breath as he reached over and tugged on the top blanket, which didn’t budge. Clasped tightly in Joe’s fist, the sheet and blanket was firmly held in place.

“Joe, we can make this easy or we can make this hard,” Paul said in exasperation. He had stopped by the ranch house to see how their ranch hand was doing when Adam had invited him in for coffee. Having seen no reason why he should decline, he accepted and was enjoying his coffee and conversation with Hoss when Adam disappeared upstairs. Not long afterwards, he heard Adam call out from upstairs asking if he was still around. At that point, Hoss pointed to his black bag and suggested he might want to bring it up. On the way up the stairs is when he discovered that Joe was ill and in bed, although from what Hoss said it wasn’t anything serious. From intuition, Martin knew this wasn’t going to be an enjoyable visit, especially since Ben wasn’t around to keep his youngest impertinent son in place. Sure, Adam and Hoss did a good job, but Joe tended to tiptoe a little more around Ben than his two brothers. As he followed Hoss into the room, he let out the breath he had been holding and greeted Joe. Just from the reply he received, he knew that he had a war on his hands.

Adam sensed that Martin was not up to dealing with Joe’s foul mood. I guess it wasn’t fair that we didn’t warn him ahead of time, he thought. But if Joe had taken the medicine like he had asked, he wouldn’t have resorted to this. Actually he didn’t really think that Joe was going to call his bluff. It was lucky for Adam that he had invited the doctor in for coffee, at the time, forgetting about Joe upstairs. Adam had to smile, but if the doctor hadn’t been here, his bluff would have been called. He wasn’t sure if he would have been keen on the idea of calling the doctor out just because Joe refused to take his medicine. Besides, the look on Joe’s face was completely worth it when he watched the doctor stroll into his room. With all these thoughts going on in his head, Adam decided to help the doctor out. Without warning, Adam tugged on the coverings that Joe clasped and flung it to the end of the bed. Surprised, Joe lay there with his mouth open in surprise and his hands still up in the air clutching nothing but air.

“Why, thank you, Adam,” Martin said.

“You’re welcome,” Adam replied with a smug look on his face, avoiding any eye contact with his brother. If looks could kill, Adam had a feeling that he would have been dead right then and there.

“Ok, young man,” Martin spoke, “let’s check you out. From the looks of you, you’ve gotten yourself tangled in a pretty bad fight. If I didn’t know any better, I’m guessing that you’ve been in a lot of pain.” Loosening the top buttons of Joe’s nightshirt, the doctor then leaned Joe forward and slipped the shirt off his shoulders. Needless to say, any extra help from Joe was not provided. Dr. Martin reached over and fiddled around with his black bag before producing his stethoscope. “This is one of my older one’s, so don’t let the look of it startle you Joe. My other one, Betsy Cambridge broke. The four-year old tugged on it while I was examining her and ended up throwing it across the room. Never realized just how much strength that four-year-old had.” The doctor then turned his attention to his stethoscope, a wooden contraption that had a ring of rubber on the bottom of it.

Intrigued, Adam leaned closer as he watched the doctor press the wooden stethoscope against Joe’s chest. His brother flinched slightly, leaving Adam to guess that the rubber was cold pressing up against his skin. He continued to watch as Dr. Martin leaned over and placed his ear on the edge of the stethoscope and then tapped it, carefully moving over areas of Joe’s chest. Waiting for the doctor to finish, Adam spoke up when the doctor sat back up. “What type of stethoscope is that? I’ve seen one like that before when I was in college, but haven’t come across it since.”

The doctor was in the process of putting it back in his bag when he stopped. Bringing it forward, he showed it to Adam. “Inside this narrow wooden tube is a bell. When I tap against the tubing here, it rings. Basically, the bell along with the rubber ring allows me to listen to any possible sounds in the chest. If there was any fluid or any diseases I would still be able to recognize it with this instrument.”

“And I’m guessing Joe is okay?”

“Well, so far so good. I just need to check his ribs and see if there are any cracks or breaks before I give him the all clear.”

A cough had been building within Joe’s chest suddenly exploded with a ferociousness that caught Adam and the doctor off-guard. Grabbing a cloth from beside his bed, he spit out the excess mucus that collected in his throat. As he leaned back against his pillow, Joe sensed the doctor’s eyes on him. “What?” Joe asked.

“I heard that in your chest and was wondering when you were going to let it out,” Dr. Martin answered with a smile. “Now that we have that out of the way, let me check out your ribs. By the way,” the doctor questioned, “how is your throat doing?”

Joe realized by now any evasiveness was going to haunt him. “It’s doing better, not quite as sore as it was yesterday.” He stopped talking as he focused on the doctor’s hands prodding his rib cage. The doctor was pressing against his bruised areas causing Joe to flinch in pain. Finally, he finished, allowing Joe to relax.

“I’m almost finished here, Joe,” the doctor said as he helped Joe slide his nightshirt back over his shoulders. As Joe fumbled to re-button his shirt, the doctor reached into his bag and pulled out a long, thin stick and waited for Joe to finish. “There is just one more thing I need you to do, and that is to open your mouth for me and say ahhhh.”

“Aw doc,” Joe whined.

“Do this and I’ll be finished,” Dr. Martin said. Then with a twinkle in his eye he continued, “Oh course, if you wish to prolong it, I’m sure there are a few other examinations I could perform on you.”

Not liking the look the doctor had, Joe opened his mouth and quickly said ahhhh. With his mouth open, the doctor stuck into his mouth the stick and pressed down upon his tongue giving Joe the sudden sensation of gagging. With the doctor holding his head, Joe had no choice but to fight the feeling. Finally he finished and Joe was allowed to close his mouth, he swallowed desperately to fight the dryness that had entered.

“Well Joe, from the looks of you with the bruises and cuts you were lucky. There are no broken bones and the worst you got from the deal was a cold.” The medicine bottle was on the dresser next to the bed so Dr. Martin reached over and twisted the top open. Picking up a spoon, he carefully poured a portion into the utensil then held it in front of Joe. “The swelling in your throat is almost gone, but I still suggest you take this medicine to help fight it,” the doctor said as he watched his patient reluctantly open his mouth and accept the liquid.

Joe grabbed for the glass of water on the dresser next to him and took several large gulps, trying to wash down the terrible taste. Shuddering, he could still taste remnants that found hiding places in his mouth.

“So Joe,” the doctor asked as he closed up his bag, “how did you get yourself into your latest scrape?”

A shadow passed over his face as Joe remembered the cause of the events from the day before. “Yesterday while I was in Williams Station looking for Nate, I was at the saloon when three men brought in two captive Paiute women.”

“What!” Adam sputtered from where he stood. “Chief Winnemucca is going to be furious when he hears about that!”

“I know, that is what I told them as they tried to have their own way with them. Tried my best to convince them to let them go and eventually one thing led to another and I ended up in a fight with them. One of them was a brute of a man the size of Hoss but this man was meaner than a hornet. The next thing I remembered was waking up in the alleyway outside of the saloon,” Joe said. Wincing, he could still remember the way he felt at the time. “Then,” he continued, “I went down to the stable to get my horse and found those men down there. At one point, I did get the women free and they had almost made it away, when the three men returned and discovered what I was up to. The next thing I remembered,” Joe said, “was that I was miles outside of town, slumped over on my horse.”

“Joe,” Adam questioned, “what happened to the Paiute women?”

“I don’t know, Adam,” Joe sighed as he repositioned his head on the pillow. Grabbing the glass of water, Joe swallowed the contents before speaking again, “I had urged them to run, but the last thing I remembered seeing were those two men brutally holding onto those two women.” With a broad yawn, the effects of the medicine began to work as his eyes began to droop. “I don’t know, Adam; I sure hope they got away.”

Adam looked up to see Dr. Martin looking down at his patient with concern. Joe had finally succumbed to the medicine, his eyes closed while his chest rose steadily up and down. “He got beat up pretty bad, didn’t he?” Adam asked.

“He did. Those bruises on his chest and abdomen were unbelievable. What was surprising to me is that he escaped without any broken bones. One of his ribs may have a slight fracture, but his staying in bed due to this cold will help heal that. But,” said the doctor as he shook his head, “to realize that he had been beaten up twice and each time knocked out, I’m glad to see he didn’t end up with a concussion. When did this happen?”

“Yesterday,” Adam answered. Then thinking back, he quickly retracted his statement, “Actually, it happened the day before because he spent a night out on the trail. You know, listening to his story and realizing that he was beaten up not once but twice makes me feel sorry for the boy. Even worse to realize he rode home in his condition.”

“Well Adam, you have to thank God for your brother’s strong constitution. I’m not sure how many men would have been as determined as him to ride home in the condition he was in. Make sure,” he said as he stood up, grabbing his medicine bag, “that he gets plenty of rest. He needs to stay in bed the rest of today and tomorrow. But if by tomorrow he is feeling better and just won’t stay in bed — knowing the boy, he won’t — he can get up. He still has this cold but the fever should be gone, but don’t let him do any work.”

“I’m sure Joe won’t mind not working for a few days,” Adam laughed. Then patting the doctor’s shoulder as he passed by him Adam continued, “I want to thank you Doc for coming up. It really wasn’t my intention when I had invited you in for coffee. But the durn boy called my bluff when I tried to get him to take his medicine and, well, you were here so I had to follow through.”

“Adam, don’t worry about it. But now that you told me, it just explains the look on Joe’s face when I entered into his room, so it was well worth the trouble. Besides,” he added, “I have a feeling he’ll listen to your demands next time.

Both men left Joe’s room laughing as Adam quietly closed the door behind them.

*****

Early one morning, a few days after Joe arrived home, Hoss and Adam were downstairs enjoying their breakfast when the sound of the front door opening caught their attention. The sound of a gun belt being tossed up on the sideboard put both men on alert, and before Adam could get up Ben appeared.

“Morning, Pa,” Adam greeted as he sank back down into his chair. He took a sip of coffee as he watched Ben walk around to his chair and settled down.

Ben reached over and poured himself some coffee when he realized that someone was missing from the table. No place had been set, yet when he had arrived that morning he distinctly remembered seeing Joe’s horse in the barn. Looking at both Hoss and Adam, he questioned, “Where’s Joe?”

“Oh, he’s still in bed,” Hoss replied.

Puzzled, Ben focused his attention on Hoss. “What do you mean, he’s still in bed?”

Adam recognizing the signs of confusion on Ben’s face spoke up, “Joe has been ill for the past few days and is recovering.” At that statement Adam could see that Ben was ready to go up stairs and see him, “Pa, he just has a cold and had a sore throat for a day or so. The doctor has already seen him and said that he’s doing well.”

Pushing back his chair, Ben took another swallow of coffee before setting his cup down. “Let me go up and check on him. I’ll be right back and then I’ll tell you of the news in town.”

Hoss looked up briefly from his food and nodded, while Adam visually followed Ben’s path through the living room then up the stairs towards Joe’s room. With him out of sight, Adam turned his attention back to his food.

Quietly, Ben walked down the hall, the desire to see his son strong in his heart. He loved all his sons equally, although many didn’t believe that was possible. Each one was loved for his own distinctive personality and characteristics. Joe was missed this morning for his exuberance, and once Ben had found out he was ill, it was natural for him to want to check up on his son. With Joe’s door looming in front of him, he pushed it open quietly and saw that Joe was indeed still asleep. Unable to just enter the room without touching his son, Ben walked over to the edge of the bed and nestled down into the chair next to Joe. His eyelashes were so long that Ben was sure that many a female was envious. Joe’s even breathing indicated that he was still in the realm of dreams, one that Ben decided not to wake him from. As he observed his son, he was startled to realize that Joe’s face was in bad shape. A black eye and a swollen lip indicated that more had happened to him than just a cold. Curious, Ben leaned over and carefully pushed a lock of fallen hair out of his son’s eyes then gently gave him a kiss on the top of his head. He stood up, almost hoping that Joe would awaken. When he didn’t, Ben turned and left, not realizing that he accidentally jarred the bed as he left. Closing the door quietly behind him he went back down the stairs to the breakfast table determined to find out what had happened to Joe.

*****

Joe slowly woke up, his eyes opening and then blinking rapidly from the bright sunshine that was flooding into his room. A movement against his bed had awakened him, then the distinct sound of the door closing somehow seeped into his unconsciousness and prodded him to awaken. Rolling over, Joe was pleased to note that the soreness from the previous days had almost left him. His ribs still ached some, but not as bad as they did the days before. The smell of breakfast wafted up the stairs and slid under the door, sending Joe’s stomach into a growling session. Just the thought of eating made Joe ravenous. The previous days of eating nothing but broth had made him a very hungry young man. Sitting up in his bed, he rolled his shoulder and flexed his arms. Determined to get up, Joe slid off the side of the bed, pushing his bed covers away and placed his feet on the floor and stumbled over to his dresser. He pulled out a pair of slacks and a shirt, swaying slightly against the furniture from the lack of energy. Several days in bed had left his energy resources low. As he leaned against the dresser, he stepped into his slacks and buttoned them, before slipping on his shirt. Leaving the shirttails hanging out, he turned around and poured water into the basin then splashed some on his face. Quickly running the brush through his hair, he figured he was ready to go down for something to eat without raising the ire of anyone with his appearance. Grabbing a pair of socks from the floor, he slipped them on then quietly went to his door and opened it. Peeking around, Joe didn’t see anyone, just heard the sounds of the breakfast table filtering up the stairs. He went down the hallway and was just about to take the first step down the staircase when the conversation at the breakfast table floated over to where he was standing.

“The townspeople in Virginia City are really upset with what the Paiutes did to Williams Station. There is talk of war against the Paiutes,” Ben said. He was about to finish, when a voice from the other end of the house interrupted him.

“Upset with the Paiutes!” Joe exclaimed. Hurriedly he went down the steps, quickly forgetting his weakened state. Taking a step off the bottom step, he nearly fell to his knees but quickly recovered, waving away any assistance from the table he followed with an “I’m ok” look. Approaching the table, he stood with his hands on his hips and asked, “What’s going on?”

“And a good morning to you also, Joseph,” Ben said with a touch of reprove in his voice.

Distracted Joe looked over at Ben, “Oh, morning Pa, sorry. But what is it you were saying about Williams Station?”

“Well, your brothers here had told me of some of the trouble you had in that town after delivering the horses a few days ago,” Ben explained as he watched his son settle down into a chair. Joe pulled the platter of eggs toward him and scraped the rest of his eggs on his plate. “Anyway, in town this morning, I heard that there was some trouble in Williams Station a few days ago.”

“So you heard about the Paiute women being ravaged by those three fools?”

Surprise lined Ben’s face as he looked at Joe, “Ravaged? There was nothing said about that.”

“Pa, I was there,” Joe said as he leaned forward, “when three men brought in two Paiute women into the saloon. I could tell by the looks on those women’s face they weren’t there by choice. So I pleaded with those three men to let them go. They laughed at me and wouldn’t listen.” Joe stopped there to take a swallow of coffee before continuing, “So I begged the men in the saloon to listen. But Pa, they ignored me. Every single on of them ignored me. So I pulled one of the women out of the man’s arms, and in turn, a fight started. The next thing I knew was that I woke up outside of the saloon in the alley.”

“Joseph!” Ben gasped, as he began to realize the cause of Joe’s facial bruising. “Why didn’t you call the sheriff?”

“You know, I didn’t think about it. Weird, but I just didn’t think about it,” Joe said as he shook his head. “But I went past the saloon and went down to the stable where my horse was at and ran into two of the men there. The third one, the biggest one called Big Jack, came out, and at first refused me entry, which made me realize the women were inside somewhere. Finally, he let me in to get my horse and watched every move I made like a hawk.” Joe shook his head at that point and gave a small smile, “You know, I’ve never saddled a horse more slowly than I did then. Finally he gave up and left me alone. Let’s just say I made up for lost time in saddling Cochise.”

Ben interrupted him, “But Adam said that you had been beaten up twice.”

“Yeah,” Joe nodded. “I had heard a noise upstairs while getting my horse ready and knew that is where they had to be. So as soon as Big Jack left, I went up into the hayloft and found them.” Closing his eyes, Joe put his head down and just shook his head.

With a soft voice, Ben urged him to continue, “Joe?”

“Sorry pa,” Joe replied. “I was just remembering what it looked like up there. Their clothing was ripped and torn, and I knew then, especially since they were bound, that they had been taken advantage of. There was nothing I could have done to prevent this, Pa,” Joe said with a catch in his voice. “I tried to stop them, I really tried. And then the look on those two women’s faces when I approached them, they were scared of me.”

Ben stood up and moved around the table, over to where Joe was sitting, his son’s face in his hands as he tried to erase what he had been through. Rubbing his son on the shoulder, he tried to soothe his troubled son, “Its okay, Joe. What counts is that you tried.”

“But Pa,” Joe shot out, aggressively lifting his head, “I almost had them free. We were coming down from the loft when those three men entered. The last thing I saw was the women captive once again in those filthy men’s arms.” Shaking his head, he continued, “I almost had them free, but I was helpless. Did my best to fight hard, but Big Jack was joined by the second man and let’s just say I lost. The next thing I knew, I woke up on the back of my horse miles from town.”

Ben shook his head as he moved back to his chair. “This puts an interesting twist on the story I heard in town. Apparently some of the survivors from Williams Station arrived in Virginia City and said that, for no reason, the Paiutes had ridden into town, tearing things up and setting fire on everything before they started their killing rampage.” Ben stopped when he saw Joe pushing his chair away from the table. “Where do you think you’re going?” he questioned.

“I’m going into town, Pa,” Joe stated as he grabbed his napkin to cover his mouth. A long deep cough from deep in his chest sprung forth as Joe desperately tried to muffle it. Clearing his throat, he continued to speak, “They need to know what really happened before they start war with the Paiutes.”

“You’re doing no such thing, Joseph,” Ben retorted. “The only thing you are going to do is go back upstairs and get to bed. Just listen to your cough. You’re not ready to go anywhere, least of all town!”

“But Pa, I’m fine!”

“Umm, may I interject here?” Adam questioned as he studied the riled expressions of Ben and Joe. Glancing at Ben, he turned his attention to his brother before speaking, “The day before I had a brief chat with the doctor, and he strongly suggested that you stay in bed today. But,” Adam said as he recognized the stubborn look on Joe’s face, “he said that he knew that you staying in bed would be impossible. In turn, you were to stay inside and do no work. I’m sure that also meant no horseback riding into town.”

“But…”

“No buts,” replied Ben sternly. “If you are finished with breakfast, I want you upstairs and resting.”

Another cough escaped from Joe’s mouth as he visibly slumped in his chair. “Fine.” His hunger long gone, he shoved his chair back and excused himself. “If you don’t mind, I’m going back to my room like a good boy.” Stalking across the room, he was climbing the stairs when another cough came ripping out. He briefly paused on the steps but then briskly made his way upstairs and out of sight.

“What do you think, Pa?” Hoss asked as he pushed his plate away.

“About this situation in town?” Ben asked. “I don’t know. I just know that in the condition that Joe is in, he does not need to be going into town.” Throwing his napkin on the table, he pushed his chair away from the table. “There are a few things I need to take care of first, then later this evening I’ll go into town and see what is going on.”

Upstairs, Joe paced in his room. From one side to the other, he paced. He couldn’t just stay in his room, banished like some child, he thought. The people in town needed to know the truth, and he was the only one who could provide them with the rest of the story. The sound of hooves sent him running over to the window just in time for him to look out and see Hoss and Adam riding away. Pa must be somewhere close by, Joe thought. Walking over to his door, he opened it and stepped outside into the hallway. He then tiptoed down the hall until he reached the staircase. Peering around the wall, he could see Ben sitting at his desk, his head bent over while he studied a mound of paperwork. Joe sighed. His gun belt was down there on the credenza. As he leaned against the wall, trying to think of some way to get downstairs without being seen, the sound of the door being flung open echoed through the room.

“Mr. Cartwright!” yelled a man’s voice.

Peeking around the corner, Joe caught a glimpse of one of their hands, a guy by the name of Clayton if Joe wasn’t mistaken. With his ear pressed against the side of the wall, Joe kept hidden out of sight as he eavesdropped on the conversation.

“Yes Clay,” Ben replied, laying down his pen.

“There’s some trouble in the bunk house,” he said out of breath. “Some of the men are loadin’ their gear and talking about fighting the Injuns.”

“WHAT?” Ben bellowed. Pushing his chair away from the desk, Ben followed the ranch hand out of the house.

This was just the opportunity that Joe was hoping for. Racing back into his room, he grabbed his boots and hurriedly slipped them on. Then he grabbed his jacket from his chair and hurriedly left the room. As he went down the stairs, he cautiously went down, waiting for any sound that would send him scurrying back up the stairs. He made it to the sideboard where he grabbed his gun belt and buckled it on, then he slipped his arms into his jacket. Unsure as to where Ben was, Joe cautiously opened the door and looked outside. He wasn’t there. With a sigh of relief, Joe was about to relax when he felt a cough developing and desperately tried to muffle it. He wasn’t very successful, because from somewhere a ranch hand appeared.

“Hi Joe,” he asked. “How are you feeling?”

Joe cleared his throat before answering, “Doing good. Say,” he asked as he looked around the yard, “have you seen my Pa?”

“Yeah, he’s back there in the bunkhouse trying to resolve a fight,” he replied. “Do you want me to go get him for you?”

“Oh no,” Joe said. “If you see him and he asks, just tell him I went into town.”

The ranch hand nodded his head in assurance. “Sure thing.”

“Thanks.”

That taken care of, Joe walked confidently towards the barn, knowing that he was safe for now. He saddled his horse with speed, eager to get away before any of his family unexpectedly appeared. Slowly he stepped into the stirrups, grunting some from the unexpected aches he felt, and swung his body into the saddle. Settled, he guided his horse out of the barn and onto the road into town.

It was a long and tiring ride for Joe as he rode into town, but several hours later he made it. There were a lot of men in town, so he guided his horse over to an available hitching post and tenderly dismounted from his horse. Sore and aching, he began to understand his family’s concern for the necessity to stay at home. But it was too late for that. Besides, there were more important things to take care of, and his personal health was not on that list. He took a moment as he leaned against a column to catch his breath and gather some energy before moving away from his horse. Slowly Joe walked over to where a rather large crowd was gathered outside of the Silver Dollar Saloon and pushed his way through the men, each man jostling for a better position. A loud, boisterous man was talking, riling the men into a boiled frenzy as he spoke.

“Them Injuns think that they can burn a town down and get away with it? I don’t think so! What they need is to be taught a lesson,” he yelled. He held a white cloth in his hand that he used to dab at the sweat that collected on his face as he spoke. His shirt was drenched with sweat and looked as though it was barely big enough to cover the man’s large girth. Shaking his fist in the air, he continued to shout out his insolence towards the Indians. “They must be punished, and we are the ones to do it. Who is with me?”

The roar of the men’s voices was deafening to Joe as pushed his way through the throng of me, closer to where the man stood, his height elevated from his position from the top of a chair.

“Hey!” Joe yelled, struggling to be heard of the men. Realizing that from where he stood he was ignored, Joe saw a table nearby and climbed onto the top of it. A foot taller than the other man, he yelled again for attention, “Hey, listen up.” There were a few men who stopped the men from talking around them to find out what Joe had to say. Hushing their friends, most everyone quieted down as they waited.

“This is wrong; these Paiutes have done nothing wrong,” Joe said. Immediately he realized that he began the sentence wrong with the angry looks on the men’s faces as they turned away from him, their interest already waned. “No wait, the Paiutes were trying to seek revenge on what some men in Williams Station had done to their women.” Joe continued to plead with the men but no matter what he said he feared he was facing a loosing battle. The murmurs of “shut up” and “let’s go fight” soon overtook Joe’s already weak voice, to the point where he had to unwillingly admit defeat. Glancing over to where the loud voiced man stood, he watched as the man stepped down and like a Pied Piper led the men out into the streets. The man’s deafening voice appealed to the masses as the numbers were swelling out in the streets, as man after man appeared to want to be part of the strike against the Indians. Stories were passed around from man to man, untruths created as a cause to fight. Worried about the outcome, Joe sought to fight his way through the crowd, trying desperately to reason with the men he did come into contact with. But the crowd had turned into a mob, and the mindset was not on listening to reason but listening to their leader. As Joe stood on the boardwalk, he watched as man after man swung onto their horses and followed their fearless leader, a man by the name of General Ornsby Joe discovered by listening to those around him. Many of those who were going out to fight were just boys, kids who were caught up in the excitement of the adults and just wanted to fight an “injun”. One young man whom Joe recognized went flying past him. Reaching out, Joe was able to grab his arm and pull him to a stop.

“Where are you going?” Joe asked.

“I’m gonna go fight them injuns,” the boy replied. Eager to go he didn’t appreciate Joe’s hold on his arm. “They can’t get away with destroying a town for no reason at all.”

“No reason!” Joe exclaimed. “The town had two of their women hostage, isn’t that reason enough?”

“That ain’t what I heard,” the boy replied. “Them injuns came into town whooping it up and setting fire to everything in site. There were no injun squaws in that war party.” Loosening his arm from Joe’s grasp, he joined the rush out to the stable.

Joe stood their speechless, realizing that, by talking to the common man they wouldn’t listen to reason. Perhaps by talking to the leader himself, Joe could talk some reason into him. Walking over to his horse, he pulled the reins loose but paused briefly as a coughing spasm overtook his body. He breathed deeply as he sought air for his tired soul, then carefully pulled his body onto his horse. His energy was lagging, but within him there was a renewed sense of fight so he kicked Cochise in the ribs and sought to find the leader of this mob.

Furiously Joe rode, trying his best to get to the front of the pack. There had to be over 100 men who had joined the forces, and each of these men Joe had to get through in order to get to the front. At one point, he found out that the group was headed towards Pyramid Lake. It seemed like an insurmountable task to Joe to slip through the riding throng of me, until he remembered a shortcut across the ridge. With a quick glance around him, he urged Cochise to the edge of the road, then finally off the main thoroughfare. Together they plunged through the brush and headed straight up the ridge on a quest to get to the front of the mob. Joe could feel the energy flowing through his horse as it ran with leaps and bounds up the mountain. Just as they crested the top of the ridge, Joe could see in the distance a large cloud of dust arising from where the men were coming from. Not even taking the time to take a breather, Joe urged Cochise down the hill and straight for the road down below. Throughout his ride, he coughed and groaned, trying not to think of every part of his body that ached. Finally he reached the bottom of the hill just before the parade of riders came thundering towards him. Feeling Cochise dance below him, he kept the reins tugged tight, so that his horse stayed in place. Slowly the riders pounded to a stop, bringing forth the commander of the group.

“What do you want?” he snarled.

“You have to turn back to Virginia City,” Joe begged. “What you are doing, going to fight the Indians, is wrong.”

“Is wrong???” the man yelled. “We’re merely avenging the deaths of the people in Williams Station. Are you saying they deserved to die?”

“I never said they deserved to die,” Joe replied. “But you need to stop and hear both sides of the story. Take time to talk with the Indians before making war.”

“We don’t need to hear both sides of the story. They are Indians and they always lie. Now get out of my way, boy!”

A few men wavered, unsure about what they were doing. Perhaps they should stop and think about what they were about to do. Ornsby didn’t like this young upstart trying to turn his men away; he had been wanting a good fight with the Indians and the events at Williams Station was the best reason he’d had so far. The reasons why the Paiutes ended up at that town, Ornsby didn’t care; he just knew that they killed innocent people. Besides, Ornsby thought as he turned to look as the mass of men he had collected, he had his own army of men who were ready to fight with him. On top of that, they were almost to Pyramid Lake and he didn’t need this upstart trying to cause trouble. So he reached over with his riding crop and struck Joe across the face with it.

Stunned, Joe loosened his strong grip on the reins and lifted his hand trying to rub away the spot on his face that he was hit. The lack of control over Cochise allowed the horse free rein as the horse began to run with the other horses. All the horses were going in one direction, so Cochise eagerly followed along. Before Joe realized it, they were riding along in the thick of the throng of men. Just as he was pulling up on the reins, trying to get out of the meld of men, the sound of gunfire began to echo along the ridges. All around him men were firing their guns, while arrows fell down all around them like snow. They had run straight into an ambush; the Indians expecting this very thing. All around him men were being slain, shot off their horses or their horses being shot out from underneath them. Joe hadn’t wanted to be in this fight, but without realizing it, he had. Suddenly he had a choice. He could fight or die. His decision was quickly made for him when he heard an Indian war cry from in front of him and watched with horror as an Indian warrior headed straight for him with a spear in his hand. Without even thinking, Joe pulled his pistol out and shot him straight in the chest, watching as the Indian tumbled from the barebacked pony onto the ground. There was confusion everywhere, men running into each other trying to escape the barrage of bullets and arrows.

Suddenly a cry came from someone next to him. Turning, he recognized the young boy he had grabbed earlier, an arrow protruding from his throat as he desperately sought to pull it. Shocked Joe could do nothing for him but watch as his own horse danced nervously beneath him. He was turning away, desperately wanting to get out of the turmoil when he felt the thud of a bullet as it entered his body. Surprised, Joe looked down to see blood spurting from his side, the pain on the edges of his consciousness. Before he realized what had happened, a thud on the back of his head rendered him unconscious as he tumbled off his horse onto the ground.

*****

“Joseph!” yelled Ben. He had walked upstairs earlier to talk to his son, but now that he was in Joe’s room, his son was nowhere around. Walking over to the bed, he placed his hand on the mattress, finding it cold to the touch. Wherever his son was, he had been gone for awhile. Turning, he strode out of the room and went down the hallway almost hoping that he had disappeared into one of the other bedrooms, but with each subsequent look he came up empty. He yelled Joe’s name again, when he heard a voice behind him.

“Pa, what’s wrong?”

Ben whipped around to see Adam standing behind him, “Have you seen your brother?”

From the sharp way Ben spoke, Adam took a step backwards and held up his hands in front of him. “No I haven’t,” he replied, “but I did notice that his horse was gone.”

“Damn that foolhardy boy,” Ben cursed. He slammed his fist into the wall next to him and shook his head. “I saw his horse was gone also. He must have left when I went out to see you boys this afternoon, despite my expressively telling him he wasn’t to go into town!” He moved past Adam and went towards the stairs.

“Pa,” Adam queried, “where are you going?”

“I’m going into town to get that boy, drag him home if I have to!” Ben answered as he went down the steps. Just as he reached the sideboard, he grabbed his hat, then tightened the gun belt that was already buckled around his waist. He whipped the door open, startling Hoss who was just reaching down to push it open.

“Pa!” Hoss exclaimed as he took a step backwards. “What’s wrong?”

“Your brother is missing.” Ben stated as he stopped and looked at Hoss. “Have you seen your brother?”

“Uh no sir,” he replied, “but Clay said that he had gone into town earlier.”

“HE WHAT? That does it,” Ben growled. “I am bringing home that delinquent brother of yours right now.”

“But Pa,” Hoss questioned, “what did he do?”

“What did he do? He left the house after expressively being told that he must stay at home today.”

Hoss, never one to like seeing anyone in trouble, tried to intercede for Joe. “But Pa…”

Before he could even finish his statement, Ben whipped around, “What Hoss?”

“Uh nothing,” Hoss replied as he swallowed hard. Looking over at Adam, Hoss raised his eyebrows in question to their pa’s behavior. Adam, in turn, shrugged his shoulders as he walked past Hoss. Turning to look towards the house and food, then to where Ben entered the barn, Hoss ended up shrugging his shoulders and turned to follow Adam into the barn.

“Pa, what’s really going on?” Adam asked, sensing there had to be something else that had put their pa in such a mood. Leaning against the stall, he stared at Ben, knowing there had to be something that was putting him into such a bad funk.

Ben sighed as he leaned against his horse, burying his face into the saddle blanket. He was tense and the fight in the bunkhouse had been lying heavy on his heart, especially since he hadn’t been able to convince a young man about Joe’s age to not fight. The young man had packed his gear and then without another word left to fight a senseless cause, one that had no real issue to be fought for in the first place.

“William Mathias left this morning, saying he was going to go fight some Indians. What Joe had told us this morning was lying heavy on my heart, and no matter how much I tried to convince William not to go, he was equally convinced to go,” Ben’s voice lowered as he fought to control his emotions. “I fear that nothing good is going to come out of this, nothing but death.”

“And now you think that Joe has gone to fight? Pa,” Adam reasoned, “Joe won’t be fighting. Remember he is the one who believes that an injustice is occurring to those Indians. If he went to town, he did so to convince them not to fight.”

Ben lifted his head slightly and moved away from his horse. “I know, but when I didn’t see him upstairs, I had such a feeling of foreboding that I couldn’t shake it. I still can’t shake it,” he replied. With that said, Ben tossed the saddle onto the horse’s back finished the process of readying his horse for riding. As he led his horse outside, he noticed that Adam and Hoss had brought over their horses.

“They hadn’t had their saddles removed yet,” Hoss explained as he stepped into the stirrups. “Besides, they need a good run for the day.”

With that said, Ben and Adam mounted their horses and they began the long, quiet ride into town, each man off in his own world of thoughts. As they rode into the outskirts of town, a ruckus in town caught their attention. There was chaos in town with horses without riders wandering around the streets, injured men stumbling down the boardwalk in a state of stasis. Slowly the three men rode through the street, horrified by what they had seen. Guiding their horses to a hitching post, they were in the process of tying up their reins when the arrival of a rider down the street caught Hoss’ attention.

“Pa! Look!”

Ben and Adam swiveled around, following to the spot where Hoss pointed. A pinto, Joe’s horse, came limping into town with the rider barely hanging on, slumped over on the saddle. The three men finished with the reins, then scurried down the street to where the horse had stopped. There was a crowd of people everywhere, mobbing the streets as concerned family members looked desperately for their loved ones. Loud wailing was heard from the living upon the hearing of the demise of the loved one they were looking for in town. It was with determination that the men finally made their way through the gathering of people to where they had last seen the horse. Standing in front of the doctor’s office, Ben hung back as Adam walked around the horse looking for any type of notification. From the back of the horse, he fingered the Ponderosa brand on the horse’s rump.

“It’s Cochise.”

Ben sighed deeply as walked over to the horse trying to ignore the bloody saddle that hung in front of him, as a feeling of fear sent waves shuddering through his body. Where was Joe? he wondered. Without another thought, he rushed over to the doctor’s office in search of his son. Followed closely by his two sons, Ben burst into the main room and saw Dr. Martin, his clothing stained with blood, hovering over an inert patient.

“Doctor! Where’s Joe,” Ben cried out.

Stunned from the shout, the doctor looked up and recognized Ben. “I don’t know, Ben.”

“I thought he was in here. We saw his horse outside your office, and I,” Ben paused, “just assumed he was inside with you.”

The doctor shook his head. “Ben I haven’t seen Joe today.” Rubbing his nose with the back of his hand, the doctor then swept his hand around the room, filled with various injuries. From broken bones, gunshot and arrow wounds, and displaced limbs. “This has been a bad day.”

“Are you sure you haven’t seen him, Paul?”

Annoyed, the doctor shook his head at his friend’s question. “Ben, I know who Joe is just as well as anyone else might know, if not better having treated him for upteen dozen injuries. Joe has not been in here. Now if you excuse me,” he said as he pushed Ben aside, “I have patients I need to tend to.”

Ben stood in the middle of the room, staring through the men who were waiting to be seen by the doctor. Adam, sensing Ben’s uncertainty went over and tugged him on the arm, “Come on, Pa. Let’s go outside and see if he’s around.”

As they slowly went down the steps, Ben grabbed a man leaning against a post next to Cochise, desperate for any one who might know where his son was, “Hey, do you know where the man is who was on that horse?”

The man turned around. Unable to focus on anything, the man’s head bobbled back and forth trying to listen to the sounds around him. “I’m here! I’m here!” he cried as his hands floundered in front of him.

Adam looked away, disgusted by the sightless man. Hoss, feeling sorry for the man, took hold of his arm and led him into the doctor’s office. He turned around in time to see his pa speak to someone else who pointed down the street. Following the direction the man pointed, Hoss couldn’t help but feel his stomach turn upside down. That was the morgue. Quickly Hoss escorted the man inside, leaning him against the wall before scurrying back outside. He caught up with his pa and Adam halfway down the street. “Pa?”

“He’s wrong, Joe’s not down here.”

Concerned, Hoss turned to Adam, who slowed down to allow Hoss to catch up. “We ran into someone who had taken the man off the horse and,” Adam swallowed hard before continuing, “he said he took the body to the morgue.”

“The morgue!” Hoss exclaimed.

“The man said that the fellow didn’t look very good, that he was nearly scalped.”

Hoss stopped in his steps and stared at Adam in horror, “Surely that weren’t Joe. It can’t be, it just can’t be Joe.”

“Shake out it, Hoss,” Adam replied, worried that his brother was about to collapse on him. Grabbing hold of his arm he helped steady him as everything he was just told sunk in. “We’ve have to be strong for Pa.”

“Pa,” whispered Hoss, as he looked up watching Ben walk forcefully down the street. Suddenly Ben stopped and grabbed someone by the arm.

“William,” Ben cried out. The young man stood before Ben covered in a mass of blood, his right arm hanging out from his body, evidently out of its socket. Then there was a loosely tied bandage around his arm with an arrow sticking out of it.

At the sound of Ben’s voice, William slowly looked up at his boss. “Mr. Cartwright!”

“What happened to you?” Ben asked.

“I was shot in the arm with an arrow, and then some injun tried to rip me off my horse. They got my gun, and they pulled my shoulder out of socket, but they didn’t get me none.”

“What happened out there?” Hoss asked as he studied the young man before them.

“It was awful, Hoss, just plain awful. Them injuns ambushed us along the road. We had no time to prepare or to hide; they just mowed us down left and right.”

“William,” Ben asked, thinking only of his missing son, “did you see Joe out there?”

Looking up with surprise, William suddenly realized that the youngest member of the family wasn’t standing with the rest of the family. His mouth dropped open as he tried to figure out how to tell his boss what he had seen. His voice shaky, William looked down at the ground as he spoke, “Joe was tryin’ so hard to get General Ornsby to turn back, but problem was that no one would listen to him. Well, a few were turning back when the fighting started.”

“Where’s Joe?”

“I…” The boy stopped as he looked up into the expectant faces of the men around him. He truly didn’t want to be the one to tell them. “The last time I seen Joe, Mr. Cartwright, he had been shot in the side and had some Injun hovering over him.” Realizing he’d said enough, William walked looking for the doctor.

The three men mulled over what William’s had said. Adam had trouble digesting it, thinking that surely their tough brother had made it through. Hoss was still reeling from the fact that someone had pointed to the morgue, indicating that was where Joe was, and then there was Ben. He had been so upset with Joe that morning that he had been ready to send a belt against his britches. It was that anger that had fueled him into town, and yet here he stood facing the possibility that his son was dead. Such wasted anger. His eyes drifted to a water trough next to his feet, and he stared into the water yet didn’t see the water. His thoughts were on his son. If he had allowed his son into town this morning like he had asked, Ben would have come with him thus insuring that he would be alive and not dead. Dead. Suddenly Ben felt weak as a feeling of weightlessness went through his body. Without realizing it, he discovered that he was on his knees on the ground, his body slumped over. Resting his cheek on the water trough next to him, he blankly stared in front of him as an overwhelming feeling of sadness took over.

“Pa!”

Horrified at their father’s behavior, both men yelled out. Adam squatted down then ripped his neckerchief from around his neck and dipped it into the water. Squeezing out the excess water, he then reached over and began to dab his pa’s face with it.

Ben looked up to see his sons hovering over him, their lips were moving but the words weren’t making it to his ears. As Ben sat there, he watched as the doors of the morgue opened, bringing forth a sobbing young woman with a small infant in her arms. The smell of death followed her out of the building and down the steps, circling around Ben, taunting him. He felt paralyzed, unable to move but yet he wanted to see his son, hold him in his arms. Feeling the loving pats from his sons on his shoulder, he finally looked up, comprehending what was being said.

“Pa, are you okay?”

Nodding, Ben opened his mouth and then closed it. What was there to say? His youngest son, Marie’s child, was gone. He put his hands on the side of the water trough and struggled to stand, doing so only after the help from his two other sons. Struggling to control the myriad of thoughts going through his head, the one thing he needed was proof that his son was dead. Turning to Adam, he nodded then spoke, “Let’s go in.”

With those three words, Adam shook his head. “No Pa,” he said, “why don’t you wait outside? Hoss and I’ll go inside and see if we find him. If we do, we’ll let you know. Ok?” Securing a slight nod from Ben, Adam motioned for Hoss, and both men helped Ben to a spot upwind from the morgue and encouraged him to sit on the edge of the boardwalk. “Pa, you stay here until we get back.” Adam waited until he secured a nod of understanding from Ben.

Ben nodded.

Adam looked over to Hoss and swallowed hard. “You don’t have to do this, Hoss,” Adam suggested. “I can do it on my own.”

Hoss shook his head. “I’m going in there with you.”

Inside, Adam was relieved. The thought of entering the house of death was not something he was looking forward to, and to know that his brother was going to be close by helped him face what they were about to do.

The smell coming from the building was awful, causing both men to nearly gag from the stench. There were men nearly dead hovering around the doorways, placed there by men who knew they had no hope. Dismembered men were lying about, their bodies lying in positions that a living person would never have been in. There were men who were shot in the face, their entire faces gone. Quickly, Adam had to look away. He felt sick to his stomach and really wanted to get this dreadful task over with. He turned at one point and saw Hoss, tears in his eyes, as he picked through the men. The amount of men’s lives that were wasted from a fight that didn’t need to be was sickening. Turning his attention back to the gruesome sight below him, Adam tried not to look into the faces but their open eyes beckoned him to look. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, but all he could see were the lifeless eyes trying to look into his soul. There was one body in particular that really bothered Adam, and that was the young man who was shot in the stomach. The face was covered with a blanket, although areas of blood seeped through the thin blanket, but it covered enough so that no one was able to see who it was without lifting the covering. The part that bothered Adam was that the man was wearing a green jacket. Feeling utterly sick to his stomach, Adam covered his mouth with his hand. Surely this wasn’t Joe. He needed to make sure, but just the thought of pulling the covering off the man in order to see the face scared him. A tap on his shoulder caused him to jump.

“Adam,” Hoss whispered. “Is…”

“I don’t know, Hoss,” Adam sighed. He ran his hands through his thick dark hair before turning to face Hoss. “I’ll have to remove the blanket to make sure.” Adam was about to reach down and twist him over when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Do you really want to do this?” Hoss asked.

To be honest, Adam didn’t want to, but being the oldest he felt it was his responsibility. He glanced down the body, trying to find some sort of identification before removing the covering. The gun belt that Joe normally wore was removed, thus one sure-fire way of identifying Joe gone. Adam took a deep breath then reached down and carefully pulled the blanket away from the face.

He gasped.

“Oh good Lord Adam,” Hoss spoke as he turned away.

The face beneath the blanket was no longer a face, instead of mass of muscles and bones took the appearance of what should have been a face. The hair was dark, but was so thick of blood and grit that Adam didn’t have the strength within him to look any further. Dropping the blanket, he quickly stood and had to take several deep breaths. Frantically he looked around him for the door, anything to get him out of this building. Stumbling over bodies and body parts, Adam ran out of the building and down the steps as he gulped for fresh air. The sound of retching behind him told him that Hoss was feeling pretty much the same way he was right then. Both men stumbled to the closest water trough and dipped their hands into it, trying to bring back some sense of peace within them. The emotions were so strong, that they hated to share with their pa what they had just discovered.

Together they walked close, but not touching, to where Ben sat, his face upright towards the sky. Adam faltered in his steps, feeling Hoss next to him do the same thing. What they had to tell their pa wasn’t going to be easy, and if there were any way around it Adam would have taken it. Instead, he swallowed hard and took a step forward.

“Pa.”

Ben looked up. There was a sound in Adam’s voice, almost a quiver in the one word that he spoke. It was then that Ben knew that Joe was gone and there was nothing he could do about it. He grabbed the column next to him and pulled himself up; then without looking at either of his sons, he walked towards the morgue. There was a tug on his arm before another step was taken.

“Pa, you don’t need to go in there.”

Ben looked over to see Hoss pulling on his arm. His strong son had tears freely falling down his face; he wiped at them but they continued to fall.

“Please, Pa, I beg of you, don’t go in there,” Hoss begged as he turned towards Adam for help.

Adam stepped to the other side of Ben. “Pa,” he said, “Hoss is right. Don’t go in there.”

Ben pulled his arm out of Hoss’ grasp, “Don’t you understand? I have to see him. I have to know.” He paused a moment, then with a sob in his voice he continued, “I have to say goodbye.” At those words, Ben felt his body sag to the ground as he desperately sought to remain standing, to go see his son. The sound of feet scurrying away sent him looking up into the concerned eyes of Adam.

“Pa, just hang on. Hoss went to get the doctor.” Then pausing, Adam remembered the situation they were in. The doctor was too busy to come out and take care of them. They were on their own.

Helping Ben to his feet, Adam half-carried him down the street, not really knowing where he was headed, just away from the morgue. The farther away from that wretched place the better, he thought. The weight of Ben began to drag Adam down until he found himself seeking an inner strength from within to carry him. Suddenly the load lightened and Adam looked up in a daze.

“We got him for you.”

It was Sheriff Coffee and another man. Grabbing hold of Ben, each man took a side of men as they guided the broken man down the street to the sheriff’s office. Adam opened the door and watched as the men basically dragged him over to the cot, and laid him there. Still in a daze Adam wished that he could make more sense of what was happening himself, but the normal control he usually had was nearly frayed. A touch on his shoulder caused Adam to jump.

“Move aside, Adam.”

Doctor Martin pushed the man aside as he moved over to the cot and put his attention on the broken man before him. Reaching into his black bag, he pulled out a brown bottle and twisted off the lid. Pouring a liquid into a spoon, he coaxed Ben to take it as Hoss got behind Ben and helped him lean up to drink it. With Ben taken care of, Doc Martin stood back to his feet and motioned for Hoss and Adam to follow him. “Hoss told me what happened. This is going to be really hard on your pa, so I’m going to give you this medicine for him to take for when he does this again.” He shook his head as he continued, “I’m really sorry to hear about Joe, boys. From what I’ve heard from various people, he was there in the thick of it trying to get the men to turn back. If they had listened, all these men would be alive right now.”

“So what you’re saying is Joe failed.”

Surprised, the doctor looked up at Adam, “I never said Joe failed, I just said that I wished that more men had turned back. A few did, so in that sense he did save some men’s lives.”

“Just not his own,” Hoss said under his breath.

The doctor just shook his head. “If you boys need me again, you know where to find me.” With that said he picked up his bag and turned, then went out the door.

Hoss watched as the doctor left then turned to Adam, “I brought the horses down here. What do we do about Joe?”

Adam didn’t know what to do or to think. If anything he wished this nightmare would just go away, that he’d wake up in his bed and see that it was just some sick and dreadful nightmare. Bumping into the doorframe, the pain made him realize this was not a dream that he’d wake up from. “I don’t know, Hoss. I guess we need to go back down to the morgue and see about, ah, a coffin.” Adam stuttered. Looking back at Ben, he patted Hoss’ shoulder. “If you stay here and tend to Pa, I’ll go back down there.” Without even waiting for a reply from Hoss, Adam turned and walked out of the sheriff’s office.

The air outside was still, almost as though the earth knew of the great sorrow that had happened in the town. Noises were everywhere, the crying of women and children, the sobbing of men were all around him. He wanted to just plug his ears and run out of Virginia City and not ever return, but he couldn’t. He was Adam Cartwright, the sensible one, the one the family could depend on. With his eyes lowered, he took a step off the boardwalk and walked down to the morgue. The closer he came, the stronger the smell of death came dancing around him. He couldn’t help but pull out his handkerchief and cover his nose as he walked towards the building. As he approached the building, he paused on the bottom step and looked up, wondering if Joe would just magically appear. He looked around him. Joe wasn’t there. Adam sighed deeply as he walked up the stairs to the morgue and entered into the depressing building. Not much had changed in the room, other than a few bodies had been removed. Walking over to where he had last seen Joe, Adam stopped. The body was gone. He stood there puzzled and began to look at the bodies close to where he stood.

“Can I help you?”

Adam turned to the gruff sounding voice to see a tired-looking man standing next to him. His face had a dark shadow from not shaving and his clothing was wrinkled and bloody, plus there was a strange odor emitting from him. Adam couldn’t help but take a step backwards as he answered him, “Yes, I’m looking for someone that was here earlier. But he’s gone now.”

The man nodded his head, “Ah yes, we done took some of them bodies out to the mass grave and burned them.”

“You what!” Adam exclaimed. “Why the hell did you burn the bodies?”

“Well, they’d been identified and to save on digging a bunch of graves, the mortician allowed us to take them out to the back and burn them.”

Burn? Surely Joe wasn’t in the batch that was burned. “I’m looking for a young man who I saw earlier. He had on a green jacket, tan pants.”

“Oh yeah, the one who’s face was nearly ripped off, right? That was one of the bad ones. We already took him on back with the others, not more than an hour ago.”

Adam was shocked. He couldn’t help but be shocked. Joe burned? That was just too much to take as he pushed past the grizzled man to the back of the building, the stench that he had smelled earlier became stronger the closer he came to the back door of the building. Tossing the door open, he was overwhelmed by the smell of burning bodies and the sight of bloody, naked corpses being tossed into an inferno. That was it. Adam couldn’t take anymore of it as he bent over where he stood and emptied out all the contents from his stomach. A hand on his arm helped move him away and out into the alleyway. As he leaned against the wall, he turned around to thank the person, but as he turned the only thing he saw was a door closing behind him.

Pushing his body away from the wall, Adam stumbled down the alleyway, and began gulping deep breaths of air as the smell dissipated from where he was walking. Blindly he walked towards his horse, forgetting about Hoss and Ben.

“Adam!”

A voice from behind him caused him to falter in his steps, especially when he recognized the voice. “Hoss…”

“You okay, Adam? You look awful.” Guiding his brother to the edge of the boardwalk, he encouraged him to sit down.

“I don’t want to sit, Hoss,” he said as he waved away his brother’s assistance. “I’m ok now.”

“What happened down there?”

“Hoss,” Adam said. “I don’t know what to say. His body wasn’t there. He was gone.”

“Gone? Where’d he go then?” Hoss questioned.

Adam realized that Hoss hadn’t been there, he hadn’t experienced the smell or the sight of the burning bodies, so he didn’t know. “Hoss, they had already taken his and several other bodies out to the back and they were burning them.”

“Burning them! Oh my God, Adam!” Hoss clutched his chest as his chest tightened from the stress. Trying to catch his breath, he felt Adam’s arms around him as he slowly began breathing again. “We can’t tell Pa,” Hoss whispered. “We gotta find some excuse as to why he can’t see Joe.”

Adam nodded his head as he gave his brother a hug, just before he moved away. “You know, Hoss, all I want to do now is go home. Go home and forget that any of this every happened. Do you think we can do that?”

“I don’t think so, Adam,” Hoss answered shaking his head. “But perhaps we could delay it a bit. I got the medicine in the saddlebag that Doc Martin left for Pa. Personally, I think going home away from all this is the best thing that we could do.”

Nodding his head, Adam agreed with his brother. He didn’t want to think of any of this, just to ignore it and hope that it would go away. “Let’s go get Pa then.”

It didn’t take long before the men had their things together and were saddled up onto their horses. They rode out of town much differently than when they first arrived, quietly and slowly, each man lost in his own thoughts.

Ben rode along, his hand grasping tightly the reins to Joe’s horse. Despite the hooves that beat around them, the silence between the three of them was deafening. All the time in town he was emotionless, unable to feel anything but cry out to God, asking why he had to do this to him. But now, as he rode along, he felt calm. It was a strange feeling, almost as though he was floating. Must have been the medicine, he thought to himself, because he felt an overwhelming feeling of peace. How it was going to work out, he was clueless, but the feeling persisted. The more he thought about Joe, the less strained and anxious he became. Everything was going to be okay, even if his son’s death meant the end of his living memories of his wife, Marie. Things were going to be ok.

It was several hours before the welcoming site of the ranch house came into sight. The three men silently dismounted from their horses and led them into the barn. Hoss slipped off his horse first and silently took the reins of Cochise away from Ben, leading the horse into its stall. Adam in turn, led his horse and Hoss’ into the respective stalls then turned away to walk to the water barrel. Dipping a cloth into the water, he stood there wringing the cloth over and over, trying to wring the images that were bombarding his thoughts. Hoss had unbuckled the saddle and brought it onto the table next to where Adam stood. Together both brothers looked at it, studying the embroidery on the side of it, the worn seat where their brother once sat, both trying to ignore the splatters of blood that was soaked into the leather. Without speaking, Adam sat down and began to rub at the leather trying to erase all signs of the blood that had dried there. Ben watched the scene and was unable to stand there any more and watch. There was such a definition of finality to the scene, one that he wasn’t able to stand there and watch. Ben turned away just as Hoss walked to Cochise and began to brush the blood from its hair.

The air outside was chilly as Ben slowly walked to the house. There were a few candles and oil lamps lit welcoming him into the house. The thoughtfulness of Hop Sing was often appreciated, but no more so than it was now. If it was up to him, he had a feeling he would have just gone though the house without bothering with light. As he walked into the house and removed his gun belt he couldn’t help but be reminded of his missing son, the place where Joe’s hat once hung was empty. Ben turned quickly away and moved away, but no matter where he went there were memories of his son. The Indian blanket still lay on the edge of the settee from where Joe had slept the night before. Was it really the night before? He walked to the blanket and picked it up then buried his face in it. As he pressed his nose into the fabric he could smell his son’s scent. He stood there lost in his thoughts when his other two sons walked into the great room.

“Pa!”

Adam and Hoss hurried over to where he stood. Ben felt like a child the way he was being treated by them. “I’m fine,” he said as he lifted the blanket up. “I was just remembering, and…” Feeling a little foolish with just what he was doing, he stopped.

No one knew what to say, so in turn they said nothing. Instead all three men silently went up the steps, Ben leading the way as each man went respectively into his own room, blatantly ignoring the open door of the missing member of the family.

*****

“Where are you going, Pa?”

Adam had just gone outside when he saw Ben striding to the barn, his rifle in his hand. When Adam had called out his name, Ben seemed almost startled to have been caught.

“I’m going to ride out to Pyramid Lake, where they were fighting. I need to see if there is any sign of Joe there.”

“But Pa,” Adam started, “Joe’s…” His voice faded away as he stared into his pa’s face. Joe’s dead. But Ben hadn’t had the finality like Hoss and he had the day before at the morgue. But maybe riding out to the scene would help dispel any doubts in Ben’s mind. “If you wait, I’ll go get Hoss and we’ll ride out there with you.” Securing a nod from Ben, Adam turned and returned into the house.

Soon the three men were once again on the road, this time headed away from Virginia City but towards Pyramid Lake. It was often a place in the past that the family would go for Sunday afternoon picnics — a time when it was done with great anticipation and excitement, but today there was no joy in the ride. The closer they got to their destination, the more debris and signs of the fight they saw alongside the road, some of them being objects that none of the men wanted to acknowledge. As they neared the scene of battle, a dreadful smell blew towards them, engulfing the three men. One by one, they tugged on their neck cloths, bringing it up around their noses trying to block out the putrid smell. It helped some, but not enough. The smell became stronger as they rode directly into the scene of the event. It was a bloody mess, with horses down all around and the mutilated bodies of horses that were left behind. There were bodies everywhere, primarily white men being as the Indians had already removed their dead to a more sacred place. They become even more sickened when they realized that many of the men left behind had their scalps missing or spears lodged in their bodies.

At first it didn’t register with Hoss the magnitude of death that populated the area; in fact, the cause of their deaths was lost on Hoss as he scanned the area. It wasn’t until he focused his eyes on one of the bodies, seeing a young boy who looked to be barely into his teens. The boy had his scalp pulled over his face and was left there to rot in the hot sun. Hoss got sick. The breakfast that he had grabbed that very morning was making its way up through his body. He couldn’t keep it down. He stumbled off his horse and staggered over to a bush where he began to heave, emptying out the contents of his stomach. Joe had been here. His little brother had been in the midst of all this. Overwhelming sorrow went through Hoss as he thought of his vibrant brother, trying desperately to save the lives of the men, but had his own life lost in the process.

A lone Indian stood on the top of the ridge guarding over the graveyard of the slain men. Out of the corner of his eye Adam saw the Indian and called out to Ben. “I think we have some company, Pa.”

Ben glanced up to where Adam was pointing and nodded. Kicking his horse in the ribs, he urged it up the rocky slope of the hill. But just as he made it close to the Indian, another Indian stepped up and pointed his spear directly towards Ben. Then from Ben’s left, out of nowhere, another Indian appeared from an outcropping of rock, holding a long knife in his hand. From the hand motions they gave Ben the older man realized that if he and his sons remained in this area any longer, further destruction to the Cartwright name would occur.

Dejected Ben urged his horse back down the ridge and rode over to Adam. “We need to leave. They aren’t happy that we are here.” Then looking over to where Hoss stood, Ben slowly rode over to his son.

“Hoss?” Ben questioned, “Are you okay?”

A sound of sniffling came from the big man as he nodded his head. “I’ll be ok in a second, Pa.”

“We need to leave here, son. Those Indians are not happy that we are here.” Slipping off his own horse, Ben walked over to his son with the horse trailing after him. “Hoss, it will be okay,” he said patting his son on the shoulder.

The touch was all Hoss needed to release his emotions. Turning around into Ben’s arms, Hoss sobbed loudly as he grieved for his brother. Ben stood there, patting his son on the back while he felt his own tears mingling in amongst his son’s. For several minutes they stood there until a sound from behind him caught Ben’s attention.

“Pa, I hate to sound insensitive,” Adam said. “But we really need to get out of here.” Looking at the ridge above them, there were more Indians appearing, and none of them looked friendly. “There are more Indians arriving in the area and they are doing a lot of pointing down to where we are.”

Ben nodded. “Hoss,” he queried, “do you think you can ride?”

Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, Hoss nodded. “Yes sir.”

Once again, Ben patted Hoss on the shoulder before gently pushing him towards his horse. Stepping into his stirrups, Ben was relieved to Hoss doing the same. Then, with Adam leading the way, they slowly rode out of the area, trying not to rouse the alarm of the already suspicious Indians.

Not knowing where to go or what to do, the men went a less direct trail back to the ranch. They had lost their motivation, their reason for going on. What they had to face back at the ranch was unpleasant and unwanted. Without realizing it, they found that they were at one of Joe’s favorite locations, a place their brother would often wander to when he was feeling down in the dumps — Marie’s gravesite. Adam and Hoss pulled their horses aside as they watched Ben ride up to the grave. Dismounting from his horse, he dropped the reins to the ground and walked over to the gravesite, sinking down to his knees.

Out of listening distance, neither of the two men could hear what was being said at the gravesite, but by the time Ben stood back up the look of peace on his face was overwhelming. So overwhelming it spooked the two brothers.

As Ben got back on his horse, Adam rode over to where Ben was getting situated in his saddle. “You okay, Pa?” Adam asked, observing the trail of tears that lay upon his face.

“You know, Adam, for the first time in a while, I am,” Ben answered. The look of peace was still on his face when he looked over at his son. Reaching over he grasped Adam on the arm and spoke softly, “Things are going to be okay. No matter what happens, our family will survive.” Then with emphasis he added, “We must!”

Adam pulled away as he watched Ben lead the way away from the gravesite, taking the trail back to the house. Riding over to his stunned brother, Hoss questioned his brother, “What’s wrong, Adam?”

Shaking his head, he answered, “I don’t know, Hoss. But he seems so at peace so sure that things are going to be okay. I admit,” Adam said as he turned to face his brother, “I’m worried.”

“But what did he say to make you worry?”

“He said that things were going to be okay, and no matter what happens, our family will survive.” Adam replied, as he wiped a solitary tear away. “What if he is talking about dying, what if something happens to him? Is that why he is so peaceful? Is he thinking of killing himself because of Joe?”

Hoss didn’t like the way this conversation was going one bit. Their father was made out of stronger material than what Adam portrayed, and the doubts that Adam was planting into his head were not welcome. Reaching over, he grabbed Adam by the collar and pulled him over to him, nearly dragging him off the horse. “You hear me now, Adam Cartwright. Our pa won’t do such a thing, killing himself. I don’t know what is makin’ you talk like that but I don’t want to hear it anymore!” Finished with his scolding, Hoss pushed Adam away from him as though he didn’t want to touch him anymore. Kicking his horse in the ribs, Hoss turned away and followed Ben towards home.

Watching his brother ride away, Adam shook his head. He didn’t know what overcame him, for him to be speaking like he did. But he was just worried; he couldn’t think of any other reason for Ben’s peace towards all that had happened. Suddenly he felt shamed for what he had said to Hoss and kicked Sport in the ribs and raced to catch up with Hoss and apologize.

Several hours later, the sun began its downward slope, leaving long shadows in its wake. Hoss and Adam had made their peace long ago, but then the silence overtook all three men as they rode into the yard of their home. What was yet to face them loomed in front of them, none of them wanting to think of what had happened. But as they rode into the yard of their home, they noticed a mangy, pitiful looking horse tied up outside the house. Dismounting from the horses, the men led their horses next to the mangy animal as they tied the horses to the hitching posts. Together they looked at one another with a puzzled expression on their faces. Hoss ran his hand across the horse and shook his head.

“I don’t know whose horse it is, Pa; ain’t never seen it before.”

The men left their horses tied up as they headed towards the house, curious as to the owner of the sad looking horse. There was no one about the yard to ask, so they went inside wondering if Hop Sing had let the visitor in. They pushed the door open and slowly entered into the house briefly glancing at Hop Sing who was standing near the dining room table, trying to catch their attention.

There was some one sitting on the settee, his back to them. At the sound of the door opening, the man stood up, clutching his side and faced the three men. It was at that moment that the sound of angels could be heard as the joyous sound of three men shouted one name.

“JOE!”

***The End***

Author’s Note:   This story has an epilogue.  Williams Station–Epilogue

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