Synopsis: Just wait until Pa finds out Joe gave up his seat on the stage to a pretty girl, and then is left stranded in the deserts by a band of Apache teens.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 25, 255
The heat rolled in waves across the desert sand, engulfing the lone rider. Joe Cartwright felt the hot, dry air as he rode slowly across the simmering sand. Trickles of sweat oozed slowly down his face and back. Joe stopped the roan he was riding and reached down for one of the three canteens strapped to his saddle. The horse stood patiently while Joe drank. After taking a long swallow of water, Joe shook the canteen, feeling the weight of the water still in the container. Satisfied that it was still fairly full, he poured out a handful of water and splashed it on his face and neck. Then he dismounted, and using his hand as a cup, gave the horse a long drink.
Mounting the horse again, Joe tied the canteen back onto the saddle. He sat for a moment looking across the empty land. After three days of riding in the desert, Joe was thoroughly sick of the place. He was hot, tired and dirty. He sighed and gave the roan a light kick. As the animal started forward, Joe comforted himself with the thought that he’d be in Yucca Wells by tomorrow afternoon. One more night of sleeping on the ground and eating beans, he thought. Tomorrow, he’d take a long bath, eat a good meal and sleep in a soft bed, no matter what Pa and Hoss wanted to do.
Joe’s horse stumbled a bit, throwing him forward in the saddle. Joe righted himself, then shook his head. This has to be the clumsiest horse every bred, he thought to himself. He had picked it out of the stable in Forsythe because the animal had a big chest, sturdy legs and a nice gait. The stable owner hadn’t mentioned the horse had a tendency to trip over its own feet.
Well, it’s your own fault, Joe thought as he rode. If he hadn’t given up his seat on the stage to Mary Perkins, he could have been in Yucca Wells by now. He smiled as he pictured the joy and relief on Mary’s face when he agreed to give her his seat on the stage. She had been so grateful. His smiled widened to a grin as he remembered the soft kiss with which she had rewarded Joe for his gallantry.
The roan stumbled once again, and Joe lurched in the saddle. Joe shook his head. He would be glad to be rid of this clumsy beast once he reached Yucca Wells.
Joe daydreamed as he rode across the flat stretch of desert. He didn’t see the four riders coming to a stop of the crest of the hill behind him. The riders argued among themselves for a minute. Then one lifted his hand and pointed. The other three nodded their reluctant agreement. With a yell, the four Apaches galloped off the hill.
Hearing the shrieks, Joe quickly looked over his shoulder. He saw four Indians coming toward him at a gallop. He didn’t stop to look any closer. He turned and kicked his horse into a run.
As he raced the roan across the flat earth, Joe felt the powerful legs of his horse eating up the ground beneath them. He glanced once over his shoulder and saw he was increasing the distance between himself and the four riders. Joe spotted some rocks far ahead. He guided the galloping horse toward those rocks, planning to make a stand there, if he had to. He hoped the Indians who were chasing him would give up before he got to the rocks.
Joe kicked the horse again, urging the animal to greater speed. The roan stretched out its legs, trying to run faster.
And then the horse tripped.
Joe felt, rather than saw, the horse’s front legs tangle themselves. He was thrown forward over the horse’s neck. Joe instinctively put out his right arm, trying to break his fall. There was a sharp, sickening crack as his hand his the ground. Joe tried to roll, and his shoulder hit the ground with a thud. His head slammed into dirt. For a moment, a shower of stars seemed to fill Joe’s eyes. Then everything went black.
The four Apaches had slowed their horses when they saw Joe’s horse trip, and when they saw the rider pitched out of the saddle. They approached the man lying on the ground cautiously.
Had Joe had the time to look, he would have seen the four Apaches were merely boys, no more than 16 or 17. Each was armed with a lance and a knife, and one had a rusty old gun stuck in his belt.
The four riders stopped their horses near the fallen rider. One slid off his saddle quickly and pulled the gun from Joe’s holster. He waved it triumphantly in the air.
“Look!” he said to the others in Apache. “A gun! And a good one!” He undid the gunbelt from around Joe’s hips and slid the belt off the unconscious rider. Then he tied the belt around his own hips, sticking the pistol back into the holster. The young Indian strutted for a minute in front of his friends, then climbed back on his horse.
Another of the young Apaches rode over and grabbed the reins of Joe’s horse. The roan had stopped running and now stood a few yards away. “This is mine!” stated the second young Apache firmly.
The third rider slid off his horse and grabbed Joe’s hat from the ground where it had fallen. He stuck it rakishly on his head, then turned to show it off to the others. The other three boys giggled at him. The young Apache smiled and remounted his horse.
The fourth boy climbed down off his horse and took a step toward Joe. Joe was lying on his back, and the boy began searching Joe’s pockets for a trophy. Suddenly, the boy jumped back with a shriek.
“He’s alive!” the boy exclaimed in a frightened voice.
The Apache with Joe’s gun looked at his friend with contempt. “So what?” he snarled in Apache.
Reaching down, the boy hastily patted the pocket of Joe’s shirt. He found some coins and quickly pulled them out of the pocket. Then he hurriedly climbed back on his horse.
The young Apache with Joe’s gun pulled the pistol out of the holster and pointed the gun at the unmoving figure on the ground. “We should kill him,” he declared.
The other three looked at each other nervously. “Do we have to?” asked the boy with the coins.
The Apache with the gun looked at his friends. “I thought you wanted to be warriors?” he said with a trace of contempt. “That is why we went after him.”
The three boys glanced at each other. They had reluctantly agreed to chase the lone rider, but none had thought they would actually catch him. And, truth be known, if Joe’s horse hadn’t stumbled, they would have given up the chase shortly. They all were happy to claim some trophy from the rider, but none had thought about killing the man.
“Have you ever killed a man?” asked the Apache holding the reins to Joe’s horse, a trace of doubt in his voice.
“No,” admitted the boy with Joe’s gun. “But I will spill my first blood today,” he added with bravado.
“We shouldn’t do it,” advised the Apache wearing Joe’s hat, the apprehension apparent in his voice. “It might cause trouble.”
“You are an old woman,” replied the boy with the gun. He aimed the gun at the figure laying on the ground. As he sighted the pistol, his hand began to waver. Killing a man, especially a helpless one, wasn’t as easy as he thought. The boy took a deep breath and sighted the pistol again. Once again, his hand began to waver. He took another deep breath. Then he abruptly stuck the pistol in the holster.
“It is too easy,” he said in a shaky voice. “To kill him now would bring no honor.”
The other three boys let out a sigh of relief.
“We will leave him to the desert,” decided the Apache with Joe’s gun. “The sun god will decide his fate.”
“That is true,” agreed the boy with the coins. He looked at the others. “If anyone asks, we can say with truth that we did not kill the man,” he added, his voice filled with relief.
The four Apaches looked at the unconscious man on the ground one last time. Then they turned their horses and rode away.
Hoss Cartwright was sitting on a chair in the shade outside the stage depot in Yucca Wells. His hat was pulled down over his eyes, and his body was sprawled in the chair. Hoss was dozing as he waited for the stage with his little brother.
“Any sign of that stage yet?” said a familiar voice.
Hoss sat up quickly and rubbed his eyes. “No, Pa,” Hoss answered truthfully. “I ain’t seen it yet.”
Ben Cartwright smiled wryly. “It’s hard to see anything with your eyes closed,” he commented.
“I was just resting them, Pa,” Hoss replied with a grin.
Giving a distracted nod, Ben looked down the street. Few people were to be seen. The heat of the midday sun kept most of them inside the cool adobe buildings of the small town.
Ben stared down the empty street, as if he could make the stage appear by simply gazing at the road.
“That stage should be here soon,” Ben remarked. He shook his head. “I sure hope Joe got that contract signed. Bill Peterson insists he won’t add his 15 horses to our herd until he sees the signed contract with the Army.”
“We could always go out to the hills and round up 15 horses on our own,” suggested Hoss.
“It would take us a while to find them, and then we’d still have to break them,” replied Ben. “No, it’s easier just to have Bill add some of his string to ours.”
“I sure wish we would have gotten the Colonel’s message about needing the extra horses before we left the Ponderosa,” said Hoss.
“So do I,” Ben agreed. “We’re just lucky he thought to send us another message here or we would have shown up with 15 less horses than he needs.”
“Peterson still going to deliver the horses?” asked Hoss.
“Yes,” answered Ben. “Once Joe gets here, we’ll give the contract and the horses to Bill, and he’ll take it from there.” Ben shook his head once more. “I’m afraid we made a long ride for a small profit. Bill is only going to pay us $20 a head, instead of the $25 a head that the Army offered.”
Hoss looked at the empty street and the shimmering waves of heat. “That’s fine with me,” he told his father. “I’ll take less money if I don’t have to ride out in that heat with those horses.”
“Hoss, you’re not much of a businessman,” said Ben with a laugh.
“Pa, there’s more to life than money,” answered Hoss with a grin. He sat back in the chair. “I’ll take a cool drink and a shady spot over a big profit any day.”
Once again, Ben laughed. Privately, he agreed with his son. He was relieved not to have to herd the horses through the desert heat. He would make a small profit, but it was still a profit. Their trip to Arizona wasn’t a complete waste.
The shout of a driver and the jingling of harness told the Cartwrights the stage was arriving. Ben turned to watch the coach as it rolled down the street. Hoss pulled himself slowly to his feet.
As the coach neared, Ben could see it was heavily loaded with baggage on the top. He knew that meant the stage was probably full. He peered at the windows of the coach as the stage pulled to a halt in front of the station. He couldn’t see Joe.
The station master hurried from his office and pulled open the door of the coach. He helped the passengers out of the stage, offering his hand to the pretty young woman who was the first to disembark.
Both Ben and Hoss were distracted from the other passengers as they looked at the woman. She was wearing a dark skirt, and a light blue blouse that was trimmed in black at the collar. The blue of the blouse set off her deep blue eyes. Her golden hair was piled high on her head. The woman was brushing the dust from her shoulders and skirt with short delicate strokes. Both Ben and Hoss thought she was one of the prettiest women they had ever seen.
Suddenly, Ben realized the other passengers had left the coach and there was no sign of Joe. He frowned as he watched the station master close the door of the now empty coach. Ben turned to say something to Hoss when the woman he had been admiring approached.
“Mr. Cartwright?” she asked in a hesitant voice.
Ben tipped his hat. “Yes, I’m Ben Cartwright,” he answered.
The woman looked at Hoss and gave him a dazzling smile. “And you must be Hoss,” she said. “Joe described you both perfectly.”
Frowning, Ben looked around. “Where IS Joseph?” Ben asked.
The woman looked down for a minute. Then she raised her eyes and looked at Ben. “He’s riding from Forsythe,” she replied in a contrite voice.
“Riding?” said Hoss. “Why would he do that?”
“My name is Mary Perkins,” she explained. “I’m trying to get to Tucson as soon as possible. My father has had an accident, and the doctor isn’t sure he’s going to live. When I got to Forsythe, I found the stage was completely booked. I pleaded with the station master there to let me on, but he refused. Joe overheard me, and he offered to give me his seat.”
“That sounds like my little brother,” commented Hoss wryly. “Always willing to help a lady in distress. Especially a pretty one, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Mary flushed. “It really was very nice of him,” she told Hoss hurriedly. “If I hadn’t gotten on this stage, I would have had to wait a week for the next one. And that might have been too late.”
“I’m sorry about your father,” said Ben sympathetically. “I hope he’ll recover.” He turned to Hoss. “I guess we’ll just have to wait for Joe to show up. If he’s following the trail from Forsythe, he won’t be here for a few more days. I guess we’ll just have to talk Bill into waiting.”
“Oh, Joe said he would be here tomorrow,” Mary broke in.
“Tomorrow!” exclaimed Ben.
“Yes, he said he was going to cut across the desert,” replied Mary. “Joe said that would shave a few days off the trip.”
Ben looked out into the shimmering heat. “The desert,” he murmured. “I wish he hadn’t done that.”
Mary reached down into purse she had strung across her arm. “I almost forgot,” she said. She pulled an envelope out of her purse. “Joe asked me to give you this. He said you needed it right away.”
Surprised, Ben took the envelope and opened the flap. He pulled a piece of paper out and scanned it quickly. “It’s the contract,” he confirmed to Hoss. “All signed.”
“Joe said he would meet you at the hotel tomorrow afternoon,” continued Mary. She smiled at Ben. “He said to tell you to have a cold beer and a hot bath ready for him.” Then her face grew solemn. “I’m taking the stage to Tucson this evening, so I won’t see Joe. Please thank him again for me. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t given me his seat.”
“I will,” promised Ben. Mary smiled again and bowed slightly toward Ben and Hoss. She turned and walked past them into the stage depot.
“We’d better get that contract over to Peterson,” said Hoss.
Ben was staring down the street and out into the empty land beyond the edge of town. “What?” he answered in a distracted voice.
“I said, we’d better get that contract over to Peterson,” repeated Hoss.
This time, Ben nodded but his mind clearly on something else.
“Pa, you ain’t worried about Joe, are you?” asked Hoss. “He can take care of himself.”
Ben smiled briefly. “I always worry,” he admitted. “That’s part of being a father.”
Hoss pushed his hat back on his head. “Yeah, I know,” he replied softly. Then he clapped Ben lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Joe will be fine.”
It was over an hour before Joe started to regain consciousness. His brain seemed to be fighting with itself. Part of his brain wanted him to wake, to get out of the hot sun that was baking him. The other part of his brain wanted Joe to stay in the foggy darkness where he couldn’t feel the aches and pains that seemed to radiate through his body.
Finally, the part that wanted to get out of the sun won the battle, and Joe pushed the fogginess away. He laid in the dirt for a minute, feeling the salty trickles of sweat running down his face. His head ached, both from the sun and the hard knock he had given it.
Joe started to sit up and, immediately, a fierce pain seemed to explode in his right wrist and shoulder. Joe fell back to the ground, groaning with pain. He laid in the sandy dirt for a minute, breathing hard. Slowly, tentatively, he reached his left hand to feel his right wrist. He could tell the wrist was broken; he could feel the bones and the swelling tissue. Joe ran his hand slowly up his right arm, and was relieved not to feel any bones out of place above the wrist. He ran his hand gently over his shoulder, and winced with pain as he felt the joint. Nothing seemed broken or out of place, but the shoulder was swollen, probably badly bruised.
Joe pulled himself up to a sitting position cautiously. He could feel some aches around his ribs and hip, but gentle probing led him to believe that these areas were simply bruised.
Looking around, Joe saw nothing. No horse, no Apaches, no canteen. Nothing but endless tracts of sandy dirt.
As he wiped the trickles of sweat from his eyes, Joe took stock of his situation. He had had enough broken bones to know the wrist would be painful, but it was not a dangerous injury. The bruises also would ache, but that pain would be bearable. Joe knew his biggest problem was that he was at least two days from Yucca Wells, on foot and without water.
Glancing up at the sky, Joe saw nothing but a hot sun. No clouds, no sign of rain. He hadn’t expected to see any clouds, but he had to look. He could already feel the sun burning the exposed skin on his face and neck. Joe knew the odds of successfully crossing the desert without water and on foot were slim. But he also knew he had to try. Laying down and dying was not an option to him.
Joe slowly raised his right arm with his left hand, wincing and groaning at the pain this movement caused. He eased his right wrist inside his shirt, using the shirt as make-shift sling. Then he pulled himself to his feet and started walking.
As he walked, Joe tried to think of all the little tricks his brother Hoss had taught him about surviving in the desert. The first that came to mind was to drink plenty of water. Joe almost laughed as he thought of that one. He could forget about that trick, he thought.
Reaching down, Joe picked up a small pebble from the ground and stuck it in his mouth. He remembered Hoss told him that sucking on a pebble would keep his mouth from getting dry. Joe didn’t remember exactly why this would work, but it seemed as good as anything to do.
As he plodded across the sand, Joe passed a small round cactus. A barrel cactus, Hoss had said, could be sliced open. The pulpy inside of the cactus was bitter, almost as bad as drinking salt water. But it was wet and any moisture was better than none. The only problem was, Joe had no knife, nothing to slice open the round cactus. So he walked by the barrel cactus without stopping.
For awhile, Joe simply walked, thinking about nothing except putting one foot in front of the other. Despite sucking on the pebble, his mouth was getting dry. He was dripping with sweat as the unrelenting heat seemed to cook his body. Joe felt the skin on his face and neck being burned. And he walked on.
Off in the distance, Joe spotted a cottonwood tree. He remembered Hoss saying that sometimes you could dig into the deep earth around a cottonwood and find water. But Joe’s right hand was useless, numbed by the broken wrist. He had nothing to dig with, and didn’t want to risk injuring his left hand. Then he truly would be helpless. So Joe walked on, ignoring the cottonwood.
Joe had no idea how long or how far he had walked before he allowed himself to rest. It had seemed like he had walked a hundred miles, and that he had been walking for days. His wrist felt like it was on fire, and his body ached. His head throbbed, and he found his thinking was muddled. Every thought seemed to take at least twice as long to get straight in his head.
Sinking to the ground, Joe rested his back against a small boulder. The heat of the sun had made the boulder warm, almost hot. The rock burned against Joe’s back, but he didn’t care. He was so tired that resting against a hot oven would have been acceptable.
Joe knew he had to get out of the sun; it was his only chance. If he could find some shade, he could rest until night, then walk through the cool evening air. Joe knew that the odds were long against reaching Yucca Wells, even if he did find some shade. But he also knew without some shade, he had no chance at all.
Looking around, Joe searched for anything that might offer him some protection from the blazing sun. Off in the distance, maybe a mile away, he could see some tall rocks rising out of the desert sand. The rocks had an odd shape, rounded mounds on either side, and a tall sphere in the middle. The top of the sphere had several points, as if an unseen hand had tried to fashion a crown. Joe was too hot and tired to wonder about the odd shape. His only thought was that maybe the rocks would offer him some shelter.
It took Joe a long time to pull himself to his feet. His legs ached and protested further movement. It seemed to take all the energy he had to lift his sore body off the ground. As he stood by the rock, he swayed. He felt dizzy. The pebble fell unnoticed from his mouth.
Closing his eyes for a minute, Joe tried to stop the dizziness. He felt a hot, dry wind blow across his face. The wind did nothing to cool him. It was another blast of heat, with the added discomfort of tiny bits of sand.
Opening his eyes, Joe looked at the distant rocks again. The rocks seemed to offer his only hope of shelter. With his gaze firmly fixed on his objective, he began to slowly walk once again.
Joe’s mind was blank as he walked. He couldn’t seem to think and the dizziness kept returning. His knees buckled twice, but both times, he managed to pull himself to his feet again. His skin burned, and his lips were dry and cracked. His vision was beginning to blur as the heat burned his eyes. But he kept his feet moving, and kept his eyes firmly fixed on the now fuzzy-looking distant rocks.
Joe wasn’t sure how long it took him to get to the rocks. Time lost all meaning for him. He only knew that eventually he reached them. He felt a small surge of triumph as he bumped against one of the large rounded mounds. Then he collapsed to the ground.
Too exhausted to move, Joe simply laid on the ground. He no longer remembered why getting to the rocks seemed important. His injured arm had slid out of his shirt. The pain in his wrist which had seemed so intense was now just one more of many miseries. He had fallen on his bruised shoulder, and that pain also seemed almost minor. All Joe could think about was how thirsty he was, and how he wanted the searing heat around him to go away.
Joe laid on the ground for a long time without moving, his eyes closed. He was conscious, but just barely. He simply didn’t have the strength to open his eyes or to move.
Joe wasn’t sure when he became aware of something staring at him. The feeling came over him gradually. At first, he didn’t care who or what was staring at him, but some small part of his brain seemed curious to know. With what he felt was a monumental amount of effort, Joe pulled open his eyes.
Through blurry eyes, Joe could make out a small figure. He slowly blinked his eyes, trying to clear his vision, and the figure started to come into focus.
Sitting a few feet away from Joe was a coyote. The animal was staring at Joe, evidently trying to decide if the crumpled figure on the ground was going to be his next meal. Joe stared back at the animal, too tired to be frightened of it. Then the coyote stood and took a tentative step forward.
Somewhere in Joe’s exhausted, tortured body, the will to live still sparked. “I’m not dead yet,” Joe snarled at the coyote in a raspy whisper. The animal stopped at the sound. The noise startled the coyote but didn’t scare him. Joe reached around him and his left hand found a small rock. With a superhuman effort, Joe pushed himself up on his right elbow, and then threw the rock at the coyote.
The rock didn’t have much force behind it, and it bounced harmlessly against the coyote’s leg. But the movement and the feel of the rock was enough to frighten the animal. The coyote yelped and took several steps back. It circled a few times, trying to decide what to do.
Joe watched as the coyote took several steps to his left. The coyote was giving him a wide berth. Then the coyote began to run forward, and with a single bound, jumped onto the rock above Joe. Joe could hear the scratch of the coyote’s claws on the hard rock. It seemed to be climbing. Then the sound stopped.
As he laid in the sand, Joe forgot, for a minute at least, his misery. He smiled as much as dry and cracked lips would let him, feeling a sense of victory in chasing the coyote away. Then he frowned. It was odd that the coyote would climb the rocks above him, and even odder that the sound of the climbing had stopped. Joe pulled himself to his feet, his sore body protesting every move. He swayed with dizziness as he stood, and once more closed his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and looked up.
Though his vision was less than sharp, Joe could make out the coyote sitting on a ledge a few feet above him. A jumble of rocks were piled near the animal. From the front, the stones looked like nothing more than the remains of a rock slide. But from the angle that Joe was looking, he could see the rocks were hiding the entrance to a small cave.
Joe immediately forgot his pain and his exhaustion. His mind focused on only one thought: here was shelter, a place where he could escape from the brutal, unending sun.
His right arm dangling uselessly from his side, Joe grabbed for a handhold on the rocks. He began to climb, slowly but steadily. He kept his eyes on the cave, afraid to look away, afraid that the opening would prove to be a mirage. He knew his thinking was muddled. He only hoped he wasn’t imagining the cave.
The coyote rose to its feet and began to pace nervously as Joe climbed steadily closer. The animal ducked into the cave, giving Joe a surge of hope. The cave was real; the opening wasn’t the product of his fevered mind. Joe quickened the pace of his climbing, longing for the relief from the sun offered by the cave. He bumped his broken wrist against the rock, but he barely felt the wave of pain. Nothing mattered to him, nothing except reaching the cave.
At last, Joe reached the ledge. He stopped for a minute, trying to catch his breath. He could see how small the opening was, barely large enough for the coyote. He briefly wondered how deep the cave might run, but the thought was fleeting. He didn’t care. He pulled his exhausted, aching body toward the opening, and began to crawl inside.
Joe found himself inside a small tunnel, and the relief was wonderful. For the first time in many hours, he was out of the sun. The tunnel wasn’t much cooler than the air outside, but Joe didn’t mind. The darkness was a welcome relief. He pulled himself along the tunnel and was surprised to see that it was getting larger. He continued to crawl through the darkness, feeling the sides of the tunnel scraping his body as he crawled. And then, suddenly, the tunnel ended.
Joe knew the tunnel had ended because he no longer felt the sides. In the darkness, though, he couldn’t tell where he was. Joe stopped and blinked his eyes several times, hoping to adjust them to the dark. But after hours in the bright sun, the darkness was too much of a contrast. It was as if Joe had gone blind. Joe reached his hand out in front of him and felt nothing. He also heard the low growl of the coyote. The growl seemed a good distance away, leading Joe to believe the tunnel led to a large cave. He pulled the rest of his body through the tunnel, knowing that he was blocking the coyote’s only means of escape. An animal with no where to run would fight, and Joe was in no shape to take on an angry coyote.
Using almost the last of his strength, Joe crawled a few more feet, until his body was no longer blocking the exit. He stopped and listened. The coyote was continuing to growl; the noise seemed to be coming from Joe’s left. He began to crawl to his right.
Joe wasn’t sure how far he crawled before his strength gave out. He knew he was away from the tunnel, but he continued to be blinded by the darkness of the cave. Joe knew he could go no further. He stopped crawling and laid his head on the cool ground, immediately falling into an exhausted sleep.
As Joe slept, a small band of Apaches – two braves and four rather sullen boys – rode by the rocks.
“Keep a sharp watch,” ordered one of the braves in Apache to the others. “The white man must be here.”
The band rode slowly as each rider searched the landscape. Finally, one of the braves raised his hand, signaling the riders to stop. The brave shook his head. “There are no tracks,” said the brave sadly. “The wind has blown them away.”
“He must be here,” insisted the other brave. “He could not have gotten further away.”
“Maybe he is hiding,” suggested one of the boys in a tentative voice.
“And why would he hide?” snorted one of the braves with contempt. “Because four foolish children robbed him and left him to die in the desert?”
The four boys looked down, their shame burning in their faces. The boys’ triumphant ride into camp had quickly turned into an angry confrontation with their fathers when the braves had realized where the boys got their trophies. Two of the braves had insisted the boys show them where they had left their victim.
“It was not our fault his horse fell,” mumbled one of the boys.
“Not your fault?” countered one of the braves. “You chased him. He ran. If you had not chased him, his horse would not have fallen.”
“Maybe someone found him,” offered another of the boys, hopefully.
“If the blue coats found him, they will be very angry,” said the first brave. “They will want to punish the Apache. Men will die, women will weep. And all because of your foolishness.”
The boys looked at each other, their fright apparent. Two swallowed hard.
“You will explain to Cochise why this happened,” the second brave ordered the boys.
The boys’ eyes grew wide. “But father…” started one.
“You will explain to Cochise,” the brave interrupted in a harsh voice. “Cochise promised the blue coats they may ride this land in safety. You will explain to our chief why his word has been broken.”
Now the boys were thoroughly frightened. The thought of explaining their escapade to the chief of all Apaches scared them more than anything they could have imagined.
“You will spend a long time doing women’s work,” continued the brave sternly. “You will not ride, you will not hunt. It will be many, many moons before you are no longer considered women.”
The boys nodded their understanding. None of them trusted themselves to speak.
“What about the white man?” asked the other brave. “He is nowhere to be found.”
The first brave frowned. “He must be hiding,” he answered. “No man can cross the desert without water.” He thought for a moment. “We will leave the water holders for him. Let us place one back by where we last saw his tracks. We will leave another ahead. Maybe the white man will find them.”
“He may find them,” the second brave said slowly. “But he may not.”
The first brave shrugged. “That is all we can do,” he replied. “The gods will decide his fate.”
Joe wasn’t sure how long he slept in the coolness of the cave. He woke slowly, still feeling tired but no longer suffering from the burning heat. As he woke, he was disoriented, not remembering where he was. The cave was still dark, and Joe could see almost nothing. Bit by bit, Joe began to remember the coyote, the tunnel and the cave.
Laying unmoving for a minute, Joe listened for the sound of the coyote. But he heard nothing in the cave. Joe hoped the animal had left. He reached out with his left hand, trying to find the wall of the cave in the darkness, but he felt nothing but air.
Unsure where the ceiling was, Joe sat up slowly. When he was sitting straight and had not yet bumped his head, Joe felt a sense of relief. He reached up with his left hand, again slowly. His arm was fully extended before his fingers brushed the top of the cave.
Twisting his body, Joe looked behind him. He could barely make out the tunnel through which he had crawled. The entrance was about ten feet behind him. Turning forward, Joe reached out in front of him, but felt nothing.
Joe had no interest in exploring the size of the cave. He simply wanted to understand how much room he had in the area where he was sitting. In the darkness of the cave, he couldn’t see enough to make out the dimensions. Joe waved his arm from side to side slowly, but once again felt nothing. He began to crawl slowly to his left, reaching out with his hand as he moved. He was looking for the side of the cave.
As he crawled, Joe’s hand grazed against something in the darkness. It felt like a piece of metal. Joe patted the ground until his hand found the object. He brushed the object with his fingers, and realized it was a knife. Joe ran his hand over the blade. He could feel rust, and his fingers told him the edge of the knife was dull. Joe felt his way up the knife to the hilt. The hilt seemed rough, and something that felt like pebbles were encrusted into it. Joe grabbed the hilt and brought the knife to him.
In the darkness, Joe couldn’t really see the object in his hand. He could barely make out the shape by holding it up to his face. The knife felt old and dull, but nevertheless, it was a knife. Joe stuck the knife into his belt.
Moving slowly, Joe continued to search in the darkness for the far wall. He crawled only another foot or so before his hand found the side of the cave. He inched along the ground until he reached the wall, then turned to rest his back against it.
For several minutes, Joe sat quietly, considering what to do next. He knew he was still in a perilous situation. While the cave offered him relief from the sun, Joe still had no water. His mouth felt dry and gritty, and he knew his lips were cracked. His tongue felt swollen. Joe’s wrist ached fiercely, and his shoulder throbbed. The skin on his face and neck felt tight, and he knew the skin was probably badly sunburned. He was tired and his body was sore.
Joe hated the thought of leaving the coolness of the cave. But he also knew if he didn’t leave, he would die there. He would die hidden in the darkness, where no one would ever find him. His father and brothers would spend the rest of their life searching for him, wondering what happened to him. That thought pained Joe more than any of his physical woes.
Moving his head a bit, Joe looked toward the tunnel again. He could make out the opening in the dark, which meant that the sun was probably still shining outside. Joe decided that he should move to the entrance of the cave. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to find it again once night came. And Joe was determined to leave once the sun went down.
Joe crawled slowly toward the tunnel. It didn’t take him long to reach it. He looked down the tunnel, trying to see the sun outside. He could see some brightness at the very end of the tunnel indicating the sun was still up. It was not yet time to leave. Joe laid on the floor of the cave, near the entrance. In only a few moments, he was asleep once more.
Joe woke with a start. The blackness around him seemed even darker than before. He laid on the ground, trying to figure out what woke him.
Vaguely, Joe remembered bits of a strange dream, a dream of Spanish conquistadors riding through the desert in brightly polished armor, swords glimmering in the sun. Joe shook his head. He wondered why he had had that dream.
A long howl cascaded through the tunnel, the lonely howl of a coyote. Joe could tell the animal was outside the cave, but not too far away. He looked down the tunnel, and saw only darkness. It was at last night in the desert.
Joe knew it was time to leave his cool haven. For one thing, the coyote would not put up with his home being invaded much longer. And Joe knew he had to leave now, or he would never leave.
Taking a deep breath, Joe began to inch his way through the tunnel. It took him less than a minute to reach the outside. He pulled himself out of the tunnel and onto the ledge. Joe looked around carefully.
It was indeed night. Joe could see the moon high in the sky, and the blanket of stars that dotted the black sky. The moon was full, bathing the desert sand in a soft light. Joe heard the howl of the coyote again. The animal seemed to be above him someplace. Silently, Joe thanked the coyote for the use of his cave. Then he began the climb down from the ledge.
It took Joe considerably longer to climb down than it had to climb up to the cave. He was not nearly as desperate as he had been earlier when he was trying to escape the broiling sun. He also was weaker. The sun, lack of water, and agonizing pain in his wrist had sapped his strength. Joe found it difficult to climb down, especially with his right arm dangling uselessly from his side. He was very careful in his descent, making sure he wouldn’t fall. Joe knew if he fell, he would never get up.
Finally, Joe reached the sandy soil of the desert. He leaned against the rocks for a moment, catching his breath. The desert was cool at night, and Joe took deep gulps of the chilly air. But the desert was still dry, and Joe felt an overwhelming thirst. Now that the heat was gone, all Joe could think about was water. Any water. His mouth was dry, his tongue swollen, and his lips were cracked. Joe would have given the Ponderosa for a mouthful of any liquid.
Sighing softly, Joe forced himself to stand and start walking. Despite the hours of sleep, Joe still felt tired. His bruised body ached, and his broken wrist throbbed with a merciless pain. His legs were stiff and sore, both from the fall and the hours of walking. Joe felt as if he could barely move his feet.
Walking in a slow, shuffling gait, Joe started across the barren land. The full moon gave him enough light by which to see….if there had been something to see. Joe peered into the night, and saw nothing but an endless stretch of sand, dotted here and there with a scrub brush or two.
Glancing at the sky, Joe made sure he was headed in the right direction. He knew Yucca Wells was to the north. Unfortunately, the small town was many miles to the north.
Joe staggered through the night, eyes half-closed with exhaustion. He thought of nothing except keeping his feet moving. That, and how much he wanted a drink of water.
Suddenly, Joe saw a tall cactus in the distance. At first, his muddled brain couldn’t seem to make out what seemed so strange about the plant. As he shuffled closer, Joe realized that something was hanging from the cactus. He looked harder. And then he stopped in his tracks.
A canteen was hanging from one branch of the cactus.
Joe rubbed his eyes, convinced he was seeing a mirage. He looked again, and the canteen was still there. Joe started walking faster, hoping that he wasn’t imagining the sight. As he got closer, he could see the canteen clearly, hanging by the strap and swaying gently. Joe began to run toward the cactus.
When he reached the cactus, Joe snatched the canteen from the branch. For a moment, he held the canteen against him, still not believing it was real. But he could feel the hard metal of the container and the rough texture of the cloth cover. If he was dreaming, this was the most vivid dream he had ever had. Joe hesitated no longer. He pulled the top off the canteen with his teeth and began to drink.
Joe knew he should drink sparingly but he couldn’t help himself. He gulped the water down as fast as he could. No nectar of the gods could have tasted so sweet. He could feel the water soothing his swollen tongue and cooling his dry throat. He drank as much as he could as fast as he could.
Suddenly, Joe pulled the canteen from his mouth. The water he had greedily swallowed was too much and had come too fast into his stomach. Joe could feel his belly cramping. Then he began to get sick.
Dropping to his knees, Joe felt his stomach throwing the life-giving water back. He bent over, clutching his middle, unable to stop retching. He felt as if his insides were all coming up to his throat. He couldn’t stop the spasms. After a minute, he had nothing left in his stomach, but the dry heaves continued to come. Then, at last, the terrible cramping eased, and the spasms stopped.
Breathing hard, Joe fell forward to the ground. He had never felt so sick in his life. And worst of all, he knew he had done it to himself.
Joe laid in the sand for several minutes, too weak and tired to pull himself up. His mouth was beginning to feel dry again, and he could taste the bitter aftermath of his sickness. It took Joe a minute to realize he still held the canteen tightly in his hand.
Slowly, Joe sat up. He jiggled the canteen lightly, and cursed himself. He had wasted more than half the water in the container. He put the canteen to his mouth again, and this time, he sipped the water slowly.
Joe allowed himself only a little of the water this time, just enough to wet his mouth and cool his throat. He put the canteen between his knees, and carefully pushed the stopper back into the top with his left hand. Then he laid back on the ground.
As he rested, Joe wondered who had left the canteen. He couldn’t begin to think of why anyone would leave the water so visible in the middle of nowhere. For a brief moment, he worried that he was stealing water that someone else might need also. But he quickly rejected that thought. There was no one else in this sandy wildness but him.
Joe shook his head, giving up on the puzzle. He really didn’t care who had left the water. He was simply grateful for the miracle.
With what seemed like an almost superhuman effort, Joe pulled himself to his feet once more. He slipped the strap of the canteen over his left shoulder and started walking once again. Yucca Wells was still a long way away, and his tired, sore body was protesting every step. Joe knew had miles of dry desert yet to cover, and in a few hours, the burning hot sun would be back. Half a canteen of water wasn’t enough to get him to Yucca Wells. But, for now, he could walk through the cool night and he could slake his thirst a bit with the water. There was still only a slim chance that Joe could actually make it to Yucca Wells, but at least now, he had a chance.
Hoss stood in front of the hotel with a frown on his face. He was supposed to meet his father on the porch of the hotel, but no one was in sight. Hoss also keep glancing toward the empty street, half expecting to see his little brother riding into town. It was late afternoon. Hoss figured Joe should be in Yucca Wells soon.
“Hoss!” called a voice.
Looking around, Hoss saw his father striding down the sidewalk. Ben had a smile on his face, projecting the good news of the finalized deal with Peterson even before he reached his son.
Hoss’ face cleared as he waited for his father. One problem taken care of, he thought. Now if Joe would get here, they all could have a nice, juicy steak. Hoss could think of nothing better to celebrate the closing of the business deal than a big dinner, preferably one with many courses.
“Everything set with Peterson?” asked Hoss as Ben walked up to him.
“Everything is set,” Ben confirmed with a nod. “He’s got the contract and the horses, and he’ll leave in the morning for the Army post. I have the bank draft covering our payment.” Ben patted the pocket of his vest, then looked around the empty streets. “Any sign of Joe?” he asked.
Hoss shook his head. “No, he ain’t showed up yet.”
Frowning, Ben looked around again. “I wish he hadn’t tried to cross the desert,” said Ben with concern. “Maybe we should go look for him.”
“Aw, Pa,” Hoss replied in mock disgust. “It’s hot and dry out there. Besides, when was the last time Joe ever showed up on time?”
You’re right,” admitted Ben with a smile. “Your brother does seem to have a talent for always being late.”
“Tell you what,” suggested Hoss, grinning. “While we’re waiting for Joe, I’m going to let you buy me a cold beer. The bar in the hotel has an ice house, and that beer is as cool as water from a mountain spring.”
“I guess our deal deserves a little celebration,” Ben agreed, his smile widening.
Putting his arm around his father’s shoulder, Hoss eased Ben toward the inside of the hotel. “We’ll start with the beer,” Hoss stated. “When Joe gets here, then we’ll really celebrate.”
As the Cartwrights walked into the lobby of the hotel, they didn’t notice the prospector riding into town. The man wore a battered hat and several days’ growth of a beard, both dusted with sand from the desert. His faded shirt and worn pants showed hard use. The prospector rode a tired old horse, and led a small pack burrow. On the back of the burrow, a blanket, covering something large, was tied to the harness. A passerby would have had to look close to see the large object seemed to be the rough shape of a man. Only a hand, dangling at the side of the animal’s neck, gave any evidence of the human burden the burrow carried.
“Hey, Pete! What ya got there?” shouted a man coming out of the mercantile toward the prospector.
“Found some fella out in the desert,” replied Pete. “He’s more dead than alive, but last I looked, he was still breathing. I’m taking him to the doc’s.”
“Who is he?” asked the man.
“Don’t know,” Pete answered with a shake of head. “Never saw him before. I got some water into him but he never came to. He’s had a tough time of it. Got a broken wrist and some ugly bruises. And the sun’s pretty near baked him to a crisp.” Pete kicked his old horse forward. “I’d better get him to the doc.”
As Pete rode down the street, the man at the mercantile walked back to the door of the store. He shouted into the store, repeating what the old prospector had said. Then the man began to walk down the street after Pete. A minute later, three other men came out the door, and began walking down the street also.
The prospector stopped his animals in front of a small adobe building at the end of the street. “Hey, doc,” shouted Pete as he dismounted. “Doc, get out here, will ya?”
As Pete began to untie the bundle from his pack animal, a man wearing a white shirt, string tie and gray pants came to the door of the building. The man was thin, and streaks of gray dotted his once coal-black hair. The man looked curiously at the bundle on the burrow. “What’s all the shouting about, Pete?” he asked. “What do you have there?”
“Found a fellow in the desert,” explained Pete as he continued to untie the ropes. “He’s all banged up and near dead from the sun. I covered him up with a blanket to keep the sun off of him.”
“And probably baked him alive,” muttered the doctor as he walked toward the burrow. “He still alive?”
“He was a little while ago,” answered Pete as he removed the last rope.
Reaching under the blanket, the doctor found the neck of the man on the pack animal. He looked up to the sky for a minute, counting silently. “He’s still got a pulse,” the doctor said. “It’s pretty weak and fluttery, but it’s still there. Let’s get the blanket off him.
Pete whipped the blanket off the body sprawled over the burrow.
A man with thick black hair laid across the burrow’s neck, arms dangling on either side of the animal’s neck. The man was badly sunburned; the skin on his face and neck was cracked and blistered. The doctor laid his hand against the man’s cheek and wasn’t surprised to feel heat radiating from the skin. He looked at the four men standing on the sidewalk, watching. “Help me get him inside,” he ordered the men.
Ben and Hoss were standing at the bar, slowly sipping beers, when Pete and the other men walked in. Ben didn’t pay much attention to the group of locals as the men tromped over to a nearby table and began to sit down. Chair legs squeaked against the wooden floor as the five men pulled up the seats and settled themselves at the table. “Beer!” shouted one of the men to the bartender. “And make ‘em cold!”
Ben turned with idle curiosity to watch the men at the table. The bar was nearly empty; the only other patrons were three men sat at a table far in the back, playing cards. There were no bar maids, and a piano shoved up against a far wall sat silent.
“Think that fellow will make it?” asked one of the men sitting at the table with the prospector.
Pete shrugged. “Don’t know,” he answered in an unconcerned voice. “He looked pretty bad to me. I could barely get any water into him, and he never did come around.”
“What do you suppose a young fellow like him was doing wandering around on foot in the desert?” asked another man.
“Now how am I suppose to know that?” replied Peter disgustedly. He looked up and nodded as the bartender put five glasses of beer on the table. “He didn’t have a gun. Looked like he’d been out there a couple of days. Probably got robbed or something.”
“He weren’t more than a kid,” remarked one of the men, reaching for a beer.
Ben’s attention had been drawn to the table as he listened to the men. Now he threw a worried frown at Hoss. Hoss’ face also showed concerned.
“Excuse me,” said Ben, walking over to the table. “Did I hear you say you found a young man in the desert?”
Pete looked up at the older man standing over him. “Yep,” he answered as he sipped a beer. “Found him just laying there about two miles from town. No horse, no gun, nothing. Looked liked he was trying to get to town but he didn’t make it.” The prospector took a sip from his beer class.
“What does he look like?” asked Ben.
Before answering, Pete wiped his hand across his mouth, erasing a bit of foam from the beer. “Young guy,” replied Pete, “maybe early twenties. Kind of on the small side. Dark hair.” The prospector laughed. “Lots of hair.”
“Was he wearing a brown shirt and tan pants?” Ben asked anxiously.
“Yeah,” said Pete in surprise. “How did you know…?” Pete stopped as he suddenly realized he was talking to the air. The two men were no longer standing at the table. He watched as the older man and the big fellow with him raced out of the bar. “Wonder what got into them?” Pete muttered.
“Show us what you found on him that was so interesting,” demanded one of the men at the table.
Turning back to the other men, Pete reached toward his back and pulled a rusty old knife out of his belt. “Look at this,” he said, putting the knife on the table. “The kid had this stuck in his belt.”
One of the men at table picked up the knife and looked it. “It’s just an old knife,” he declared, throwing it back on the table.
“Look at the handle,” insisted Pete. “See those small rocks in it? I’ll bet you a month’s diggings that thems diamonds.”
The man picked up the knife again and studied the handle. “Kind of looks like it,” admitted the man. “Could be just glass, though.”
“Maybe,” Pete replied. “But that looks like gold around the handle. And see the way the blade is kind of curved. Don’t look like any knife I ever saw. Kind of foreign looking.”
At the table in the back, one of the men threw his cards down. He pushed back his chair and walked over to the men. “Mind if I take a look at that knife?” he asked Pete.
Pete looked up at the man. His nose wrinkled a bit at the sight. “All right,” agreed Pete reluctantly. “You can look, Baxter. But I want that knife back.”
Nodding, Baxter took the knife and studied it carefully for a minute. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Baxter put the cloth to his mouth to wet it, then rubbed the handkerchief vigorously across the hilt. He stopped and peered at the hilt for a minute. Then he rubbed it hard again.
“Looks like something’s written on it,” said Baxter, putting the handkerchief back in his pocket. He brought the knife close to his eyes. “It’s in Spanish,” he added softly.
“Spanish?” said one of the men at the table in a startled voice. He looked at the others. “You don’t think that kid found the Spanish gold, do you?”
“Here, give me that back,” ordered Pete suddenly, reaching up and snatching the knife from Baxter. The prospector studied the knife closely. “Looks like Spanish,” he agreed as he peered at the hilt. “And this is old, real old.”
“Kid say where he got it?” asked Baxter, trying to sound casual.
“Naw, he didn’t say nothing,” replied Pete. He stuck the knife back in his belt.
“You gonna keep it?” asked one of the men at the table.
“Yeah, I’m gonna keep it,” said Pete defensively. “If he dies, he ain’t going to need it. And if he don’t, well, I figure he owes it to me for bringing him in.”
“Do you think the kid will make it?” asked Baxter hopefully.
“Don’t know,” answered Pete. He looked around at the other men at the table. “But I sure hope he does,” the prospector added wistfully.
The doctor was wiping the face and chest of the young man on the table when Ben and Hoss burst into the room. He had removed his patient’s shirt and now he was bathing the face and torso of the man with cold water. The doctor looked over his shoulder as he heard the Cartwrights. “Get out of here!” he barked. “Can’t you see I’m with a patient?”
Ben and Hoss both froze as they stood inside the doorway of the room. Ben ignored the doctor and began walking slowly toward the table.
The doctor started to order the men out again, but stopped when he saw the look on Ben’s face.
Ben approached the table as if he in a dream, or more accurately, in a nightmare. He knew that his youngest son was laying on the doctor’s examining table; he knew it was Joe at a glance. But he barely recognized the face of the man on the table.
Joe’s face and neck had been burned a deep red, almost purple, by the sun. His skin was cracked and blistered, and painful-looking open sores dotted his face. Joe’s lips were swollen and what looked like a hundred tiny cracks surrounded his mouth. Joe’s eyes were swollen shut; the normally soft tissue around his eyes looked dry and stiff.
“Do you know him?” the doctor asked unnecessarily. One look at the horror and worry on Ben’s face told him the answer.
For a moment, Ben didn’t reply. He reached down and softly stroked the top of Joe’s head. Then he looked up at the doctor. “He’s my son,” Ben acknowledged in a choked voice, his eyes glistening. The doctor nodded sympathetically.
“I’m Ben Cartwright,” continued Ben. He cocked his head toward Hoss who was standing near the end of the table with a stricken look on his face. “This is my son, Hoss.” Ben looked down at the young man on the table. He stroked Joe’s head softy again. “This is my son, Joseph,” Ben finished, his voice almost a whisper.
“I’m Eric Greene,” the doctor introduced himself briskly. He turned and dipped the cloth in his hand into a basin of water sitting on a small table behind him. Dr. Greene squeezed out the excess water and began gently bathing Joe’s face and chest again.
“How is he?” Ben asked.
Doctor Greene hesitated before answering. “I won’t lie to you, Mr. Cartwright. His condition is very serious. He’s badly dehydrated, and he’s got one of the worse cases of heat exhaustion I’ve ever seen. His pulse is weak and his breathing is very shallow. I’m trying to cool him off, to bring his body temperature down. His temperature is dangerously high.”
Turning a bit, Doctor Greene dipped the cloth in the basin again. Once more, he squeezed out the excess water, and began to wipe Joe’s face and shoulders again with the cool water. “He must have been walking in the desert a long time,” continued the doctor as he worked. “At least a day, maybe two from the look of him. It’s a miracle he’s still alive.”
Ben nodded mutely.
“He also must have taken a bad fall,” added the doctor. “Those bruises are pretty bad, and his wrist is broken.”
Once again, Ben looked at Joe’s body, seeing the bruises for the first time. Joe’s tanned chest looked almost pale as it contrasted the deep red of his face and neck. A large bruise covered Joe’s right shoulder. The skin was almost black with faint traces of blue around the edge of the bruise. Another large bruise ran down Joe’s side, covering his ribs and disappearing under his pants toward his hip. Joe’s wrist was badly swollen and discolored. His hand seemed to lay at an odd angle on the table.
“He must have had a good deal of pain from that wrist and those bruises,” said the doctor as he continued to bath his patient. “I’m sure that made his situation even worse.”
Ben swallowed hard. “What can we do to help?” he asked.
Stopping his work, Doctor Greene looked up. He considered Ben for a moment, then seemed to make a decision. “I want to set that wrist,” he said. “But I also need to cool him down. We’re going to need plenty of cold water. There’s a well out back, and there should be a washtub somewhere out there, too. If we fill the washtub with cold water, I can soak some sheets in it and wrap him in them. That will help cool him off.”
“I’ll get the water,” offered Hoss, moving from the end of the table toward the door.
The doctor handed Ben the cloth in his hand. “Come over here,” ordered the doctor. “I want you to continue to wipe him with cold water while I set his wrist.”
Quickly, Ben and the doctor switched places on either side of the table. Ben began to gently stroke Joe’s face, shoulders and chest with the cloth, stopping occasionally to wet the cloth from the basin. He saw the doctor working on Joe’s wrist from the corner of his eye. Suddenly, there was the sickening crack, the sound of a bone being snapped into place. Ben saw Joe’s arm jerk slightly. He looked quickly to Joe’s face, but his son showed no reaction to the doctor’s treatment of his wrist. Ben began to bathe Joe’s face and chest once more.
With a word, Doctor Greene walked over to a glass-fronted case and pulled open the door. He reached inside and grabbed some rolls of white cloth and two small boards. Then he returned to the table.
The doctor had almost finished putting the splint on Joe’s wrist when Hoss returned. He was carrying a round wooden tub, obviously heavy with water. Streams of clear liquid sloshed over the side of the container as Hoss struggled with it. He set the heavy container on the floor. “Here’s the water, doc,” he announced.
The doctor didn’t look up. “There are some sheets in that chest by the door,” Doctor Greene said as he continued to bandage Joe’s wrist. “Throw them in the water to soak. Then go over to the bar and ask Jim to give you some ice. That’ll help keep the water cold.”
Nodding his understanding, Hoss walked over to the chest. He pulled up the top and grabbed the sheets. Dropping the lid of the chest with a loud thud, Hoss walked back to the vat. He pushed the sheets into the water, swirling them a few times to make sure the cloth was soaked. Then he turned and walked out of the room, heading for the bar.
The doctor finished splinting Joe’s wrist, tying the bandages tightly on top the boards. He stood and looked at Ben, who was continuing to wipe Joe’s face. “All right,” said Doctor Greene. “Let’s strip him and wrap him in the sheets. Then I’ll get some cream for his face and neck. We’ll also need to get some more liquids into him, although that’s going to be tricky while he’s unconscious. We’ll have to be careful he doesn’t choke.”
“Is he going to be all right?” asked Ben, his voice full of fear.
“I don’t know,” admitted Doctor Greene. “It’s too soon to tell.” He smiled briefly. “But I wouldn’t bet against him,” added the doctor. “Anyone who can last for two days in that miserable desert is probably too tough to die.”
Daylight was fading into dusk as Ben settled into the chair next to Joe’s bed. For the past few hours, Ben, Hoss and Doctor Greene had tended to Joe. They had wrapped him in cool, wet sheets, then unwrapped him when the sheets began to dry, only to repeat the process again and again. The doctor had forced spoonfuls of water, laced with sugar and salt, into Joe. Ben and Hoss had followed every order Doctor Greene had given them – bathing Joe, wrapping him in sheets, liberally slathering cream on him – until the doctor finally admitted he had run out of treatments. Now all they could do was wait.
Joe was laying in bed in a small room adjacent to the examining room. He was wrapped mummy-like in wet sheets that covered him from his shoulders to his feet. His head and shoulders were resting on two large pillows. Joe’s face glistened from the oily cream that had been liberally spread over his burned skin.
A thick white bandage was wrapped around Joe’s eyes. Ben had been concerned when the doctor had decided to wrap his son’s eyes, and he had only be partially reassured when Dr. Greene said he could find no serious damage to Joe’s eyes. The wrappings were only a precaution, the doctor had insisted, meant only to prevent painful shafts of light from penetrating Joe’s swollen eyes when the young man woke up. Ben didn’t disbelieve Dr. Greene, but he worried all the same.
Now Ben watched Joe carefully, looking for any sign that his son might be regaining consciousness. He knew he had to be alert to any sign. There was so little of Joe that he could actually see. Between the sheets and the bandages around Joe’s eyes, very little of his son was visible to Ben.
Ben looked up as he heard footsteps. Hoss stood in the doorway.
“Any change?” asked Hoss hopefully.
Ben shook his head. “No,” he replied with a sigh. “He’s still unconscious. The doctor thinks he should be waking up soon. But there’s no way to tell when he might actually come around.”
Hoss nodded, his distress evident on his face. He walked down a single step and into the bedroom. The room was dark and cool. Heavy curtains were pulled closed over the window on the far wall. The room was sparsely furnished. Only a bed, a chair and a long table were in evidence. A basin of water and a pitcher were on the top of the table as well as a small tin cup. There was a small lamp on the table, its flame turned so low as to be barely lit. Hoss could barely see in the dim light. Hoss looked at Ben. “Want me to turn up the lamp?” he asked.
“No,” answered Ben. “The doctor said Joe should be kept in as much darkness as possible for awhile. His eyes…” Ben stopped and swallowed hard. “His eyes are pretty badly sunburned. Light will hurt them for awhile.”
Once again, Hoss nodded, then looked back to the bed. Between the shadows and the wrappings, he had a difficult time seeing his brother. Joe was little more a dark shape on the bed. Hoss was having a hard time believing that shadowy figure was his little brother.
Hoss pursed his lips. “Doggone it, Joe,” he said to the figure. “Just once, I’d like to have you show up on time and in one piece.”
Ben didn’t pay any attention to Hoss’ comment. He knew Hoss didn’t mean it. Hoss was as simply worried and frustrated as he was. The waiting was hard for both of them.
Giving out a sigh, Hoss leaned against the wall near the doorway. “Doc Greene went to check on another patient,” Hoss advised is father. “He said he’d be back in about an hour, maybe less.”
Ben nodded in an absent minded sort of way. The doctor’s absence would make no difference. Everything was up to Joe now.
Ben wasn’t sure how long he and Hoss waited in the dim light without speaking. It seemed like a long time to him, but it probably wasn’t. The dim shadows in the room hadn’t lengthened much when Ben thought he saw Joe move.
The movement was slight, more of a twitch than anything. Ben sat up and watched carefully. He wanted to be sure he wasn’t imagining things. For a moment, Joe was still, and then his shoulders moved slightly again. “Hoss”, said Ben over his shoulder. “I think he’s coming around.”
Instantly, Hoss straightened and walked to the bed. He stood next to the chair on which Ben was sitting.
Joe’s shoulders moved again, and this time, both Ben and Hoss could see the movement clearly. Ben stroked the top of Joe’s head with his hand. “Joe?” said Ben in a loud voice. “Can you hear me, son?”
Joe’s mouth moved as if he was trying to talk, but no sound came out.
“Get some water,” Ben ordered Hoss. Hoss walked to the table. He poured some water from the pitcher into the cup and handed the cup to his father. Ben lifted Joe’s head from the pillows. He put the cup to Joe’s lips, and tilted it slightly. A trickle of water filled Joe’s mouth, and Ben could see Joe swallowing. Ben tilted the cup a bit more.
Joe drank slowly, almost sipping the water, for almost a minute. Then he pulled his head back. Ben took the cup away and hand it back to Hoss. He eased Joe’s head back on the pillows.
Once more, Ben stroked Joe’s head. Once more, he repeated his son’s name. This time he received a response.
“Pa?” said Joe in a raspy whisper. The sound was so low that Ben could barely hear it.
“I’m right here, son,” replied Ben. “You’ve had a tough time of it, but the doctor says you’re going to be all right.”
“Can’t….see,” said Joe in a whisper. There was a hint of panic in the tone.
“Your eyes are sunburned,” Ben explained quickly. “The doctor has them wrapped to protect them. You’ll be able to see in a few days.”
Joe didn’t reply; he laid still as if considering his father’s words. Then his shoulders began to move and twist. He moaned lowly and then began to struggle again.
“The sheets have his arms pinned to his side,” Ben said to Hoss, realizing Joe’s distress. “He can’t move, and he can’t see.” Ben realized how frightening that must be for his son. “Let’s get the sheets off him.”
Leaning forward, Hoss gently lifted Joe’s head and shoulders off the pillows. Ben began uncoiling the sheets quickly. He unwrapped the sheets to Joe’s waist, as Hoss eased Joe’s head back against the pillows. As Ben pulled his son’s left hand from the wrappings, Joe’s hand instantly rose from the bed, groping toward his face. Ben grabbed Joe’s wrist and guided his son’s hand toward his face.
Joe’s body seemed to relax a bit as his fingers found the bandages around his eyes. Joe’s fingertips explored the bandages for a minute, then pulled away. Joe’s arm dropped to his side.
For a long time, Joe didn’t move or say a word. He seemed to be thinking, although it was hard for Ben to be sure.
“Where…” asked Joe in a raspy voice. He didn’t seem to have the strength to finish the question.
“You’re in Yucca Wells,” answered Ben, answering his son’s unfinished question. “At the doctor’s office. A prospector found you about two miles out of town and brought you in.”
Joe nodded slightly. “Almost…..made….it,” he whispered.
“Yeah, almost,” said Hoss, emphasizing the last word. “In this case, almost could have killed you.”
Joe made an attempt to smile. The pain caused by moving the burned skin on his face made the attempt a feeble one. “Not….this….time,” whispered Joe.
Hoss grinned. He was glad his brother couldn’t see the tears of relief glistening in his eyes.
“Joe, can you tell us what happened?” asked Ben in an earnest voice.
For a minute, Joe said nothing; he seemed to be gathering his strength. “Indians,” he answered finally, his voice still low and raspy. “Chase…horse…fell. Woke…up. Horse…hat…gun…gone. Walked….” What little voice Joe had was beginning to fade. “Walked….walked….”
“That’s enough, Joe,” Ben said quickly as he realized Joe was tiring fast. “You get some sleep. You’re going to be fine, but the doctor said you need lots of rest.”
When Ben nodded toward him, Hoss began to wrap the sheets around Joe again. As soon as Joe felt his arms being pinned again, his body tensed. “No!” he rasped as loudly as he could.
Hoss stopped and looked to Ben, a question in his eyes.
Ben hesitated, then decided. “Leave the sheets off,” he said. He could see Joe’s body relax as Hoss unwrapped the sheets to Joe’s waist again. Ben felt Joe’s arm. The skin seemed warm, but not excessively so. He decided the terror Joe would feel from being blind and virtually helpless would outweigh any benefit the sheets might offer.
“Hoss, get another sheet and soak it,” ordered Ben. “We’ll put it over the top of him.” Hoss nodded and left the room.
“Go to sleep, Joe,” Ben said softly. ” We’ll watch over you. Go to sleep.” In less than a minute, Joe’s head lolled to the side. Ben watched the even breathing of his son. Then he closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks.
“You have to eat something,” Doctor Greene insisted to Ben. “Making yourself sick isn’t going to help Joe.” The doctor, Ben and Hoss were sitting around a small table in the examining room. Plates of food were on the table. Doctor Greene and Hoss were eating, but Ben was simply pushing the food around on his plate. He kept glancing over his shoulder, looking into the small room where Joe slept.
Doctor Greene’s comment drew Ben’s attention back to the table. He smiled weakly and forked a piece of meat into his mouth. He chewed the meat without tasting it as he glanced over his shoulder again.
“Mr. Cartwright, he’s going to be all right,” said the doctor as he watched Ben. The doctor grinned. “I’m a very good doctor,” he added.
Ben’s head turned back to the table. “I know,” admitted Ben with a sigh. “It’s just so hard not to worry. He looks so bad.”
Doctor Greene nodded with understanding. Joe’s burned face was still blistered, and his bruises were still a deep black. But the doctor had checked Joe when he had returned, and found Joe’s pulse and breathing to be normal. His temperature had been down also. Greene had removed the wet sheets, and replaced them with dry, warm blankets. Joe had slept through the whole examination.
After making sure Joe was comfortable, the doctor had walked down the street to a small café and ordered three dinners. When he returned with the food, the doctor had set up a small table and chairs in the examining room. He knew Ben would want to stay close to Joe. Still, he found he had to practically drag Ben from Joe’s bedside. Greene didn’t have any trouble getting Hoss to eat, but Ben was another story.
“He’ll probably sleep through the night,” the doctor said to Ben. “You’re skipping food and sleep is not going to make one bit of difference to Joe.”
The sound of the front door opening and several footsteps attracted the doctor’s attention. He sighed softly, assuming that his meal was going to be interrupted. He was surprised to see Pete and his four friends walk into the examining room.
“Hello, Pete,” the doctor said in surprise. “What can I do for you?”
Pete walked a bit unsteadily across the room. His eyes had a slightly glassy look. It was obvious he had been drinking all afternoon. “I just came to see how that poor fellow I found was doing,” announced the prospector, his words a bit slurred.
“Thank you for bringing my son in,” said Ben.
Pete shrugged. “Could just leave him there,” he replied. He turned to the doctor. “How’s he doing? Is he going to make it?”
“He’s doing all right,” answered the doctor cautiously.
“That’s good,” said Pete, a little too enthusiastically. “Maybe I could see him? Just talk to him for a minute? You know, just to be sure he’s all right?”
“Why this sudden interest in Joe?” asked the doctor suspiciously. “This afternoon, you couldn’t wait to leave after you brought him in.”
“Joe, eh? That his name?” said Pete, rubbing his chin.
“We just want to see him for a minute, doc,” explained one of the men with Pete. “We just got to ask him something.”
“Ask him what?” said Hoss curiously.
“About the Spanish gold,” answered another of the men.
“Hush up!” shouted Pete angrily.
“Spanish gold?” said Ben with a frown. “What’s that?”
“It’s an old story, a legend really,” explained Doctor Greene. “The story goes that a troop of Spanish soldiers rode through this country a hundred years or so ago. They conquered all the tribes around here, and demanded gold as tribute. The Indians gave them everything they had…jewelry, nuggets, whatever. The legend says they had a chest of gold when they started across the desert. The soldiers realized they couldn’t make it across the desert with their heavy load. So they hid the chest and some of their heavier equipment, intending to return for it later. Only the soldiers were killed or died or something. I can’t remember exactly. The gold is supposedly still hidden someplace in the desert.” Greene shook his head. “There’s lots of stories about lost treasure around here. The legend of the Spanish gold is just one of them.”
“It ain’t just a story,” stated one of the men firmly. “Pete’s grandfather knew one of them soldiers, didn’t he, Pete.”
“Yep, he did,” said Pete proudly. “My grandpappy used to tell me about meeting this Spanish fella. Said the man told him the story. The man said the Apache killed all but two of them. This fella wanted to go back and find the gold, but he could never find the place again.”
“What makes you think my son knows something about this treasure?” asked Ben.
Pete threw a warning look at the other men before he answered. “Just something he said,” mumbled Pete.
“I thought you said he never came around after you found him?” said Doctor Greene.
“Uh, well, he didn’t, not really,” replied Pete. “But he was mumbling and stuff. You know, kinda of out of his head.”
Dr. Greene frowned. Pete’s story didn’t make sense to him. From the time Pete had brought Joe in until just a little while ago, Joe hadn’t said a word. He hadn’t even been conscious. The doctor thought it was unlikely Joe would have been able to talk out in the desert.
“Can we see him?” asked Pete once more, his voice insistent.
“No, you can’t,” said the doctor firmly, shaking his head. “He’s asleep, and he’s still very weak. I don’t want to take a chance on you wearing him out. Right now, he needs all the rest he can get.”
The men’s face showed their disappointment. “When can we see him?” asked one.
“In a few days, perhaps,” answered the doctor.
The men looked at each other. “We don’t want to wait that long,” Pete declared.
“You’ll have to wait,” said the doctor. “Now, goodnight.”
“But doc…” protested one of the men.
“Goodnight,” repeated the doctor in a firm voice.
Hoss and Ben watched as the disappointed men shuffled out of the office. One of them muttered something to Pete. Ben thought it sounded like “Baxter” but he couldn’t be sure.
“That was kind of strange,” said Hoss thoughtfully after the men had left. He turned to the doctor. “Do you think Joe knows something about this Spanish gold?”
“I doubt it,” replied Doctor Greene. “Pete’s been looking for gold for years. He’s always telling people he’s heard about some lost treasure or gold mine and then rushing out to find it. Only he never does.”
“But Pete and his friends obviously think Joe does know something,” said Ben.
“The more Pete drinks, the better his stories get,” acknowledged the doctor with a smile. “Tomorrow, when he’s sobered up, he’ll have forgotten all about it.”
Ben glanced over his shoulder to the darkened bedroom. “I hope you’re right,” he said in a worried voice.
It was well after midnight when the five men staggered to the back of the doctor’s office. They moved unsteadily, bumping into each other as they walked in the dark. One cursed and the others shushed him loudly.
Pete and his friends had spent the rest of the night drinking and talking. The more he drank, the more insistent Pete was that they had to talk to Joe right away. He was afraid Joe might tell someone else about the location of the gold. The men also knew that Frank Baxter knew about the knife Pete had taken from Joe. Baxter was someone that no one in Yucca Wells wanted to cross. The man was considered mean and ruthless. If Baxter found out where the gold was, Pete and his friends would never get near it.
After a few more beers, Pete decided that Joe owed him his life, and that Joe would want him to know about the gold. In their drunken haze, the other men agreed that the old prospector was right. They began to devise a plan to get to Joe.
Now the five were crouched under the window to the small bedroom. Pete stood and cautiously reached to push aside the curtains on the inside of the window. Through bleary eyes, he looked into the room.
Pete could see the lamp burning low on the table, and the dark figure of a body in the bed. The room was small, and he had no trouble telling that no one else was in the room. He turned back to his friends and nodded.
Climbing through the window, Pete slid into the room. He took a step toward the bed, but stopped when he heard a thud behind him. The prospector turned and frowned at the man laying in a heap on the floor under the window. The man shrugged an apology and looked. The faces of three men were framed by the window, watching with glazed eyes.
Pete moved slowly across to the bed, being careful to make no noise that might alert the doctor. When he reached the bed, he stopped.
Joe was sleeping, oblivious to the presence of the men in the room. A blanket covered him and his splinted wrist was resting on his chest. The oily cream was still evident on his face, and the bandage still covered his eyes.
Reaching down, Pete shook Joe. “Wake up!” he whispered in a harsh voice. When Joe didn’t respond, Pete shook him harder. Joe grunted in pain.
“You awake, boy?” asked Pete. He shook Joe again. Joe grunted in pain once more.
“Can you hear me?” asked Pete.
“Pa?” said Joe in a groggy voice.
“No, it ain’t your Pa,” Pete answered. “He’s ain’t here right now.”
“Ask him about the gold,” whispered the man behind Pete.
“I will, I will,” replied Pete angrily over his shoulder. He turned back to Joe. “Listen to me, boy” said Pete in a milder tone. “I need to know where the gold is. Can you tell me?”
“Gold?” said Joe in a confused voice.
“Yeah, the gold,” repeated Pete.
“No…gold,” said Joe.
“Don’t play games with me, boy,” replied Pete in a rougher voice. “I know you found the Spanish gold. Now where is it?”
“Gold?” said Joe again. He reached out with his hand, obviously trying to feel the man next to the bed. “Who…are you?” he asked.
“You can tell me,” Pete urged the young man in the bed. “I’m your friend. I found you and brought you in. Now, where’s the gold?”
“Don’t…know,” said Joe in a raspy voice. “No gold.”
“He don’t know where it is,” commend the man with Pete, his voice tinged with disgust.
“Just be quiet,” Pete ordered over his shoulder. Once more he turned back to Joe. “Now, listen to me, boy and listen good,” said Pete. “You found the gold out on the desert, remember? You had that knife, remember?”
“Knife,” repeated Joe. He was silent for a minute. “I remember.”
“Good, good,” encouraged Pete. “Now where’d you find the knife?”
“Cave,” said Joe.
“What cave?” asked Pete.
“Cave…coyote,” answered Joe in a soft voice.
“Where’s the cave?” asked Pete.
Joe was silent again. “Don’t…know,” he mumbled. “Tired. Too tired.” His head began to slip to the side.
Pete shook Joe hard, and Joe moaned.
“Don’t go to sleep on me,” said Pete in a loud voice, forgetting where he was. “Tell me where that cave is!”
When Joe didn’t answer, Pete grabbed Joe’s shoulders and pulled him up from the bed. Joe grunted with pain as Pete began shaking him harder. “Tell me where the cave is!” Pete demanded. “Tell me!”
‘”Let him alone!” a voice thundered from the doorway.
The prospector dropped Joe back on the bed as he looked up in fear. Two figures were standing in the doorway to the bedroom, and their shadows loomed menacingly. Pete turned to run but bumped into the man behind him. The men pushed off each other and scrambled toward the window. The three faces at the window quickly disappeared, and the sound of running echoed through the night.
“Hoss, get them,” Ben shouted as he rushed to Joe’s bed.
Hoss ran across the room and grabbed both men by their shirt collars as they were trying to climb out the window. He yanked them back onto the floor. Pete shrieked, more in fear than in pain. Hoss pulled Pete to his feet, and punched him in the jaw. The prospector’s head jerked back as Hoss’ massive fist connected, then he crumpled to the floor.
Immediately, Hoss turned to the other man, who was cowering in fear on the floor. “I didn’t do nothing,” screamed the man as Hoss stood over him.
“Get up,” growled Hoss in an angry voice. The man quickly got to his feet. Hoss shoved him against the wall, then looked to be sure the man didn’t have a gun. “You stand right there,” Hoss ordered in a loud voice. “You make a move and you’ll be sorry.” The man nodded and swallowed hard. Hoss heard footsteps behind him, and he turned to look.
Dr. Greene was rushing into the bedroom. His hair was disheveled and his shirt was hanging over his pants. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.
Looking up from where he was kneeling by Joe’s bed, Ben answered in an angry voice. “Pete and his friends came back.”
Hurrying over to the bed, Doctor Greene picked up Joe’s uninjured wrist and felt for a pulse. After a minute, he laid the wrist back on the bed and nodded. “His pulse is nice and steady,” said the doctor. Greene checked the bandages around Joe’s eyes and looked at the splint on Joe’s wrist. He gently ran his hands over Joe’s neck and shoulders. “Doesn’t look like they did any harm,” stated the doctor.
Sighing with relief, Ben turned to the other men in the room. “Hoss, take those two to the sheriff.”
Reaching down, Hoss pulled the still unconscious Pete off the floor. He slung the man over his shoulder, then turned to the other man who was still standing against the wall, eyes wide with fear. “Move,” ordered Hoss. The man took a step away from Hoss, then started walking toward the door as Hoss followed him.
“Hold it a minute, Hoss,” said the doctor as Hoss passed him. Hoss stopped, then reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the man in front of him, pulling the man to a halt also. Doctor Greene put his fingers to Pete’s neck and felt the prospector’s pulse. Then he felt the man’s jaw. “He’ll be all right,” pronounced the doctor.
Nodding, Hoss shoved the man in front of him. The man walked out of the room with Hoss close behind him.
Doctor Greene turned back to Joe. Ben was still kneeling by Joe’s bed, stroking Joe’s arm and murmuring to his son. Doctor Greene walked over. “What happened here?” he asked softly.
“Hoss and I were asleep in the other room. We heard a noise. When we came in, Pete was shaking Joe, demanding to know where some cave was,” Ben answered. “I suppose he was trying to find that treasure.”
Greene shook his head in disbelief. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I never thought…I’m sorry.”
Ben turned back to the bed where Joe was laying still. Ben stroked his head. “Joe,” said Ben in a soft voice. “Joe, are you all right?”
“Pa?” came a response in almost a whisper.
“I’m here, son,” answered Ben.
“Somebody…somebody here,” Joe said urgently, obviously trying to warn his father.
“It’s all right, Joe,” replied Ben. “We have them. No one is going to bother you any more. I promise.”
“Couldn’t see,” said Joe in a voice that was beginning to fade. “Couldn’t….”
“Shh,” Ben interrupted, quieting his son. “Don’t try to talk. Go back to sleep. Everything is all right. Go to sleep.”
“Cave,” mumbled Joe. “Cave…” His body relaxed, and his breathing became more regular.
“I’ll talk to the sheriff in the morning,” said Doctor Greene. “I’m sure a few days in jail will discourage Pete and his friends from bothering Joe again.”
Ben looked at the doctor, the concern evident on his face. “The question is,” he stated, “how many other people think Joe knows about the gold?”
Joe spent the next two days sleeping as much as possible. In part, he slept because he felt tired, more tired than he could ever remember. But mostly, he slept because he felt so miserable when he was awake.
When Joe was awake, his head ached and his face burned. He felt soreness in every part of his body, especially his wrist. When he was awake, all he wanted to do was escape back to the painless state that sleep offered.
It seemed to Joe that whenever he did wake, someone was forcing him to drink. He drank water, he drank broth, and he drank mixtures that tasted like medicine. Each time he woke, he immediately felt for the bandage around his eyes, reassuring himself that the darkness was a result of his eyes being wrapped and nothing more.
Joe had awakened once when the doctor was changing the bandage, and the dim light in the room had hurt his eyes. He was in no rush to have the gauze removed again.
In his darkness, Joe had no idea what time it was each time he left the refuge of sleep. He assumed that someone was always around when he woke because his natural body clock was waking him at normal times. He had no idea that this wasn’t true. Nor did he realize that his father, brother and the doctor had set a schedule of sitting with him so that he was never alone.
Joe vaguely remembered the strange incident of the man who demanded to know about the cave, who kept asking him about some gold. It seemed almost like a dream. He didn’t mention it during the brief periods when he was awake because he wasn’t sure it really happened. No one else mentioned it either.
As the sun rose to start the third day after Pete had delivered Joe to the doctor, Joe woke once again. For the first time in awhile, Joe felt almost human. He still ached, but the pain seemed bearable now. His fatigue wasn’t quite so overwhelming. Joe was actually looking forward to doing something besides going back to sleep.
Joe grunted a bit as he woke. As before, he almost instantly felt a hand on his arm.
“Joe?” said a voice that Joe recognized as belonging to his brother Hoss. “You awake?”
“Yeah,” replied Joe. “What time is it?”
There was a pause. Then Hoss answered. “About eight in the morning, I guess,” said Hoss.
“You been here all night?” asked Joe.
“No, just the last couple of hours,” answered Hoss. He chuckled. “Ain’t nothing else to do in this town.”
Joe smiled, and was pleased that his face didn’t feel quite as stiff as before. “I’m hungry,” Joe complained. “Think I can get some real food?”
“Now that’s a switch,” said Hoss with a laugh. “You asking for food instead of me. Let me talk to the doc. You be all right for a few minutes?”
“Sure,” answered Joe. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Joe heard Hoss walk away. As he waited for his brother to return, Joe began thinking about the man who had demanded to know about the cave. The whole thing was so strange. He remembered the man asking about the knife. He had never taken a close look at it. He remembered sticking the knife in his belt but, frankly, had forgotten about it after that. He had been so busy trying to stay on his feet – and trying to stay alive – he never thought about the knife after he found it.
Joe heard the sound of several people come back into the room.
“Good morning,” said Ben heartily. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Joe replied, turning his head toward the sound. “And hungry.”
“Hoss went to get you some breakfast,” stated a voice that Joe vaguely recognized but couldn’t place. “I want to take a look at you before you eat.”
“Who are you?” Joe asked curiously.
“Sorry,” answered the voice. “I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Doctor Eric Greene.”
“He’s the one that pulled you through,” added Ben. “You’ve been a pretty sick boy.”
Joe nodded. “Thanks,” he said gratefully to what he hoped was the direction of the doctor.
“Happy to do it,” replied the doctor. “Now hold still for a minute.”
Impatiently, Joe endured the doctor’s examination. He was more interested in breakfast than being poked and prodded. His appetite started to fade, though, when the doctor said he was going to remove the bandages around Joe’s eyes.
Joe wet his lips nervously. He remembered the stabbing pain when he woke without the bandages. He also was afraid that when the bandages did come off, he wouldn’t be able to see. He had been comforted by the fact that his blindness was caused by the cloth around his eyes. Now he began to worry that there was another reason why he couldn’t see.
Doctor Greene saw Joe’s body grow tense. “Don’t worry, Joe,” he assured his patient. “We’ll keep the room dark. If the light is too much for you, we’ll put the bandages back on. But your eyes should be healed enough by now that you should be able to stand it. Keep your eyes closed until I tell you.”
Joe felt the bandages being removed. He kept his eyes closed as instructed. He was torn between wanting to see and the fear of the darkness continuing once he did open his eyes.
“All right, now open your eyes,” said the doctor.
Both Doctor Greene and Ben watched anxiously as Joe’s eyelids slowly rose. Joe winced slightly and blinked his eyes several times. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, then opened them again. Joe rubbed his eyes lightly with his left hand.
“Pa, you need a shave,” said Joe. Then he grinned.
Ben laughed as he put his hand to his chin. “I guess I do,” he agreed, the relief evident in his voice.
“How do your eyes feel?” asked Doctor Greene.
“Kind of gritty,” admitted Joe. He rubbed his eyes again. “Sort of tired.”
The doctor nodded. “That’s natural,” he said. “Your eyes should be back to normal in a few days.”
Joe looked to the doorway as he heard the sound of steps. Hoss came through the door, carrying a tray covered with a cloth. He stopped when he saw Joe’s eyes were no longer bandaged. Hoss gave his brother a questioning look.
“Now that’s a pretty sight,” said Joe with a smile.
Hoss grinned as he gave a sigh of relief. “Me or your breakfast?” joked Hoss.
“Breakfast,” answered Joe. “You look just as big and ornery as ever, brother.”
Laughing, Hoss brought the tray to the bed and sat it on Joe’s lap. Joe whipped the cover off the tray, and quickly began eating the eggs and bacon Hoss had brought him.
“Joe, you’re eating like you ain’t never seen food before,” remarked Hoss with a smile.
“You try walking around that desert for two days,” replied Joe, with his mouth full. “You’ll see how hungry you can get.”
“You were lucky, Joe,” Ben said gravely. “You might have died out there.”
“Yeah, I know,” answered Joe. “I was real lucky. Somebody left a canteen out there on a cactus. I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did without that water.” Joe suddenly recalled the knife. “And the sun would have baked me alive if I hadn’t found that cave. That’s where I found the knife.”
Hoss and Ben looked at each other. “What knife?” asked Ben.
Joe shrugged. “It was just an old knife, all rusted,” he answered. “I never really did take a good look at it. I stuck it in my belt, figuring it was better than nothing. I kind of forgot about it. Somebody was asking me about it, or at least I thought they were. I’m not sure. It might have been a dream.”
“Joe, we didn’t find any knife on you,” said Hoss with a frown.
“Pete must have it!” exclaimed the doctor. “That must be why he thinks Joe found the Spanish gold.”
“Pete?” asked Joe. “Who’s he? And what’s the Spanish gold.”
“Pete is the fella who found you and brought you in,” Hoss explained. “He paid you a little visit the other night. When Pa and I caught him, he was asking you above the cave.”
Joe nodded thoughtfully. “I kind of remember,” he said. “Like I said, I thought maybe it was a dream. But what’s this about gold?”
“It’s an old legend,” Doctor Greene stated. “Supposedly, there’s a treasure chest full of gold hidden by the Spaniards someplace out in that desert.”
“Pete must have thought you found the gold in that cave,” added Ben.
Joe shook his head. “I couldn’t see anything in that cave,” he said. “It was too dark, and my eyes were already starting to bother me. If there was any gold in that cave, I couldn’t have seen it.”
Ben looked at the Doctor. “Is Peter still in jail?” he asked.
“Yes,” Greene replied. “The sheriff was going to let him out today or tomorrow. But I’m afraid the rumor about the gold is already starting to spread. I’ve had a couple of people ask me about whether Joe really knew where it was.”
“I heard some fella’s talking about it over at the diner,” acknowledged Hoss. “They were planning to go out looking for it.”
“We’ll just have to start telling everyone that Joe doesn’t know anything about the lost treasure,” said Ben firmly. “I don’t want anyone else bothering Joe.”
“We can tell them,” replied the doctor doubtfully. “But I don’t know how much good it will do. People can get caught up in the story of lost treasure.”
“I never saw any gold,” said Joe. “I’m not even sure I could find that cave again.”
“I’ll spread the word as best I can,” promised Doctor Greene. “Only I wonder if anyone will believe it.”
Late that afternoon, the sheriff decided to let Pete out of jail. Pete’s friend had been released the day before and had left town in a hurry. The other three men who had paid Joe a visit that night also were laying low.
At first, Pete had fretted about sitting in a cell, afraid Joe would tell someone else where the gold was hidden. But after spending two days in jail, the old prospector’s interest in the treasure hunt was beginning to wane. The more he thought about what Joe had said that night, the more he was convinced that Joe hadn’t found the gold. The kid wasn’t in any shape to lie to him, Pete decided. And he could have found that knife almost anywhere. Pete rubbed his still sore jaw. He also wasn’t interested in confronting the big man who the sheriff had identified as Joe’s brother.
Pete had made up his mind to forget about Joe Cartwright and the gold when the sheriff came to let him out.
“You can leave,” said the sheriff as he opened the door to Pete’s cell. “But I want to make one thing clear. You go near Joe Cartwright again, I’m going to lock you up and throw away the key.”
“Don’t worry none about that,” Pete replied as he walked out of the cell. “I’m going to get me a beer, then head back to my place. I’ve had enough of this town for awhile.”
“Good,” said the sheriff, nodding his head. He handed Pete his hat, and the rusty old knife. Pete stuck the knife in his belt, and planted the hat firmly on his head. The sheriff walked back to his desk as Pete left the office.
After walking out of the sheriff’s office, Pete stopped and looked around. In the late afternoon heat, the streets were almost deserted. The prospector turned and started down the street toward the bar. He had only gone a short distance when he heard footsteps behind him. Before he could turn around, Pete felt a gun barrel in his ribs.
“Into the alley,” growled a voice. As Pete walked into the alley, a hand pushed him roughly against the wall. The prospector righted himself and looked up.
Frank Baxter was standing in front of him, holding a gun. Two men were with Baxter. Pete knew them as Collins and Anderson. None of the three were anyone Pete would want to tangle with.
“What do you want, Baxter?” Pete asked. He hoped his voice sounded less frightened than he felt.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” answered Baxter. “Figured it was about time for the sheriff to let you go. We want to talk with you.”
“About what?” asked Pete, although he suspected he already knew the answer.
“I want to know what that kid told you about the gold,” growled Baxter.
“He didn’t tell me nothing,” said Pete flatly.
“Don’t lie to me,” ordered Baxter angrily. He nodded, and Anderson took a step forward. Anderson threw a hard punch into Pete’s belly. Pete groaned and doubled over.
“Now, let’s try it again,” said Baxter. “What did the kid tell you about the gold?”
“He didn’t say nothing about it,” replied Pete as he gasped for air. “He don’t know where it is.”
Reaching down, Baxter pulled the knife out of Pete’s belt. “Where did he get the knife?” he asked.
Pete didn’t answer. He was trying to think of what to tell Baxter. He was beginning to feel the lure of the gold again, and he didn’t want to share it with Frank Baxter and his friends.
But Baxter was impatient for an answer. He nodded at Anderson again, and Anderson punched Pete hard in the belly once more.
“Now you can tell me what I want to know, or we can beat it out of you,” said Baxter. “It’s up to you.”
Doubled over and gasping for air again, Pete saw Anderson take another step forward. All at once, Pete lost interest in the Spanish gold.
“Cartwright said he found the knife in a cave,” Pete told Baxter as he tried to suck in air. He took a couple of deep breaths. “I don’t where the cave is. We got stopped before he could tell me.”
“A cave, eh?” said Baxter thoughtfully. He nodded. “That makes sense. Those Spanish soldiers wouldn’t bury the gold. They might never find it again.” He turned back to Pete. “Are you sure he didn’t say anything about where the cave is?”
“I swear, he didn’t tell me,” insisted Pete in a panicky voice. “All he said was he found the knife in a cave.”
“I think he’s telling the truth,” commented Collins. “He’s too scared to lie.”
Baxter nodded in agreement. “All right, Pete,” he said. “Now I want you to get out of town and not say anything to anyone about this. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Pete replied. He swallowed hard. “I don’t ever want to hear nothing about that gold again.”
A nasty smile crossed Baxter’s face as he turned to Anderson. “Why don’t you give him something to remind him to keep quiet,” said Baxter. Anderson grinned and nodded. Baxter walked out of the alley with Collins. As the men left the alley, they could hear the dull thud of punches being landed.
Baxter and Collins stood on the sidewalk, waiting. A minute later, Anderson joined the pair.
“He’ll keep his mouth shut,” stated Anderson with a smile.
Baxter nodded with a distracted air. “We’re going to have to pay Cartwright a visit,” said Baxter. “But we’ve got to do this right. Pete and his idiot friends have probably put Cartwright on his guard. We’ve got to think about how we’re going to get to him.”
“Do you think Cartwright will tell us where the gold is?” asked Collins. “I mean, he probably wants to keep it for himself.”
“He’ll tell us,” promised Baxter. “Before we’re done, Cartwright will tell us everything we want to know.”
“King me,” said Joe with satisfaction as he moved the red checker across the board. He sat back in the chair, resting his left elbow on the arm. Joe felt good about being able to get dressed and get out of bed. He was wearing a new white shirt his father had bought for him, and a newly purchased tan hat was on the table by the bed. Joe was comfortable in his familiar old tan pants and boots. A sling made of white cloth supported his injured wrist and still tender shoulder. The blisters on Joe’s face were healing, and the sunburn was beginning to fade. Joe looked almost like Joe again.
“Doggone it, Joe,” complained Hoss with a scowl. “You shouldn’t be seeing so good. The doc only took those bandages off yesterday.”
Joe grinned. “I don’t have to see very well to be able to beat you,” he boasted.
Shifting on the edge of the bed, Hoss studied the checker board that was sitting on the mattress between Joe and him. The light in the small bedroom was brighter than the day before, although not completely lit. Joe’s eyes were feeling better, but strong light still bothered them.
Joe leaned forward in the chair. “Ready to give up?” he asked.
“No,” answered Hoss firmly. “Just give me a minute, will ya?”
Joe sat back in the chair. “Where’s Pa?” he asked.
“He went over to the hotel to write some letters,” replied Hoss, looking up from the checker board. “Since we’re not going home for awhile, Pa decided he better take care of some things.”
Joe nodded. The doctor had told him it would be at least a week before he would be fit enough to start for home. Joe wondered what he would do to entertain himself for a whole week.
Suddenly, Hoss sighed. “I guess you win this one,” he admitted. “Want to play another?”
“I suppose,” said Joe with an exaggerated air of boredom. “Maybe I ought to play with the doctor. He might give me a better game.”
“Don’t get too cocky,” Hoss told his brother. “I’ve been taking it easy on you. Besides, the doc’s out seeing patients.”
“And spreading the word that I don’t know about the gold, I hope,” said Joe. “I don’t fancy spending the next week having people ask me where that cave is.”
“The doc said nobody’s seen that fella Pete since the sheriff let him out of jail,” Hoss replied. He didn’t know that Pete had staggered out of the alley yesterday afternoon and headed straight for his shack in the hills. “Maybe the talk will die down.”
“I hope so,” said Joe. He looked at the red checkers piled near him on the edge of the bed. “You want red or black this time?”
Before Hoss could answer, three men burst into the room, with their guns drawn. Hoss and Joe both looked up in surprise.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said Baxter in an almost polite voice. “Don’t cause any trouble and no one will get hurt.”
“What do you want?” asked Hoss with a scowl on his face.
“We simply want him to show us where the gold is,” answered Baxter, indicating Joe with his gun.
“You’re wasting your time,” stated Joe in an even voice. “I never saw any gold.”
“Yes, I understand that’s what Doctor Greene has been telling people,” replied Baxter. “Only we don’t believe you.”
“It’s true,” Joe asserted. “I never saw any gold.”
“Well, maybe you didn’t,” said Baxter. He reached toward his back and pulled the old knife from his belt. “But you can show us where you found this.”
Joe looked at the knife in Baxter’s hand. “Where did you get that?” he asked in surprise.
“Where I got it is not important,” replied Baxter. “Where you found it is.”
Joe shrugged. “I just found it in the desert,” he said.
“That’s not what you told Pete the other night,” Baxter declared in an irritated voice. “I’m getting tired of playing games. You’re going to show us the cave where you found this knife.”
“No,” said Joe flatly. “I won’t.”
“You’ll show us,” Baxter assured the youngest Cartwright. “Now we can do this the easy way, or you can be difficult about it. The choice is yours. But I promise you, you’ll show us.”
Hoss got to his feet. “If you touch my brother…” he started in a threatening voice.
“Hold it!” ordered Anderson. “You make another move, and I’ll put a bullet in that fat belly.”
Hoss froze. But he continued to stare angrily at the three armed men.
“That’s smart,” said Anderson. “Now your brother is coming with us. And if you or anyone else tries to stop us, or even follow us, we’ll put a bullet in his head.”
Hoss glanced down at Joe. “He’s in no shape to ride,” Hoss stated firmly.
Suddenly, Hoss and Joe heard the sound of a door opening. Baxter must have heard it also; he turned and gestured toward the two men next to him. Both flattened themselves against the wall on either side of the doorway. Baxter took a few steps into the room, standing close to the bed, his attention fixed on the door. Hoss took a step toward Baxter.
Baxter must have seen Hoss’ movement out of the corner of his eye. He spun around, whipping his gun as he did. He crashed the gun barrel into Hoss’ head, and the biggest of the Cartwrights crumpled to the floor.
“Hoss!” Joe cried in alarm, and tried to pull himself up from the chair. Baxter stepped over Hoss and walked quickly to Joe. With a rough shove, he pushed Joe back into the chair, then pointed his gun at Joe’s chest.
“Joe, is anything wrong?” called Doctor Greene as he walked into the bedroom. He stopped as Anderson grabbed his shoulder and stuck his gun into the doctor’s back.
The doctor stared at Baxter standing over Joe with a gun, then looked at Hoss laying on the floor. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Nothing to concern you, doc,” replied Baxter. He turned to Joe. “Now, you’re going to show us that cave.”
“No,” said Joe again.
“I’m tired of asking you,” Baxter told Joe angrily. “Now get your hat and let’s go. If you don’t, I’m going to shoot that big fellow laying on the floor. And my friend is going to shoot the doctor. Now you have ten seconds to decide. Are you going with us, or do we start spilling blood.”
“You put him on a horse and you’ll liable to kill him!” cried the doctor.
“We’ll take real good care of him,” said Baxter, turning toward Doctor Greene. While Baxter’s head was turned, Joe grabbed a handful of the red checkers off the bed. He slipped the discs into his sling.
Baxter turned back to Joe. “What’s it going to be?” he demanded. He turned slightly to point his gun at Hoss on the floor. Baxter cocked the pistol.
“I’ll go,” said Joe quickly. He pushed himself up from the chair slowly, swaying a bit as he stood. “Hand me my hat.”
Nodding, Baxter uncocked his gun. He took a step and snatched the tan hat off the table, then shoved the hat into Joe’s hand.
Putting the hat on his head, Joe pulled the brim down low. He took a few steps forward then stopped. Joe stood over his fallen brother for a minute.
Hoss looked liked he was sleeping. His color was good, and his breathing was easy. Joe couldn’t see any blood. He looked up at the doctor. “Take care of him,” said Joe in a soft voice.
“I will,” Doctor Greene assured Joe. “You take it easy out there, Joe.” The doctor turned and glared at Baxter.
“Don’t worry,” Joe replied. He looked directly at the doctor and his eyes tried to send the man a message. “This time of day, the sun will be at my right, and not shining in my eyes.” The doctor nodded almost imperceptibly.
“What we do with him?” growled Anderson, nudging the doctor with his gun.
“Tie him up,” ordered Baxter.
Anderson pushed Doctor Greene forward roughly, and the doctor stumbled, falling onto the bed. Before the doctor could get up, Anderson holstered his gun and rushed to the bed. He grabbed the doctor’s wrists in his hands and pulled them behind Greene’s back. Holding both wrists with one hand, Anderson reached into the pocket his vest and pulled out a strip of rawhide. He quickly tied the doctor’s hands. Then he pulled Doctor Greene off the bed and shoved him to the floor.
Joe watched the rough treatment of Doctor Greene with regret. He wished he could do something to help the man who had saved his life. But even if he hadn’t felt so shaky, Joe knew taking on three men with guns was foolish.
Baxter shoved Joe roughly on the shoulder. “Move it, Cartwright,” he ordered.
Waling slowly out of the bedroom, Joe glanced over his shoulder toward Hoss. Then he moved out of the bedroom and across the examining room to the doorway on the far side of that room. As he exited the examining room, Joe stopped, not sure where to go next.
Joe saw he was standing in a long, narrow room, with several chairs against the wall. He saw a large wooden door, leading to the street to his right. He started toward the door when Baxter grabbed his shoulder.
“Not that way,” said Baxter, pulling Joe to his left. Joe saw another door at the back of the room. Baxter pushed Joe toward the door; Joe walked to the door and pulled it open.
The mid-afternoon sun was reflecting off the sandy ground behind the doctor’s office. As Joe stepped outside, the bright light sent a stab of pain through his eyes. Joe cried out and put his hand over his eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” growled Baxter.
“My eyes,” replied Joe in a muffled voice. “They got sunburned pretty bad. The light hurts them.”
Frowning, Baxter looked at the other two men. “Get him on a horse,” Baxter ordered Collins.
Quickly, Collins grabbed Joe’s arm and led him slowly forward. Joe lowered his hand from his eyes, and blinked several times. His vision was a bit blurry but he could see several horses in front of him. Collins led Joe to the first horse. Joe reached for the saddle horn with his left hand, and put his foot into the stirrup. Collins grabbed Joe’s leg and pushed him up onto the saddle.
Joe put his head down and rubbed his eyes. He pulled his hat down even lower over his face, shading his eyes as much as possible. Then he looked up, squinting as he did. The light was bright and still a bit painful, but Joe found he could see a bit better.
Squinting a bit, Joe watched the three kidnappers climbing on their horses. He could see their horses were loaded with canteens, saddle bags and bedrolls. Joe looked down. There were no canteens on his horse, and the reins of his bridle were tied to the saddle horn of the horse next to him.
Baxter saw Joe looking around, and grinned. “You don’t have to do anything,” he said. “You just hang on and give us directions. We’ll lead you, and if you don’t give us any trouble, we might even give you some water.” Baxter kicked his horse forward and the animal began trotting, pulling Joe’s horse with him. Anderson and Collins rode slightly behind and on either side of Joe.
Leading the men quickly away from Yucca Wells, Baxter kept moving until the riders were a good distance from the town. Once the men were too far to be spotted by anyone watching from the streets, he stopped the horses.
“All right, Cartwright,” said Baxter, turning in the saddle. “Which way do we go?”
Joe looked around. The barren desert was all around them, and the riders surrounded him on three sides. Joe didn’t see anything that looked familiar.
“Which way, Cartwright?” demanded Baxter. He saw Joe’s hesitation. “Look, boy, we got ways of making you talk. You think that sun burned you before? Just wait until we strip you and stake you out in the sand. Or maybe we’ll wrap some wet rawhide around your neck and let the sun dry it. When the rawhide dries, it shrinks. It’s real hard to breathe once that rawhide starts squeezing your neck. Now, are you going to tell us, or are you going to make us get the directions the hard way?”
Joe swallowed hard. From the look on Baxter’s face, he had no doubt the man would torture him to get the information, and probably enjoy doing it. “South,” declared Joe in a flat voice.
“South is a pretty big area,” remarked Collins. “I think you need to be a little more specific.”
Frowning, Joe thought hard. “We need to find a dry river bed,” he said slowly, trying to remember his trek. “I remember crossing that. Once we get there, I’ll show you were to go.”
“There’s a dry river bed about ten miles south of here,” Anderson declared. “I know where it is.”
“Good,” Baxter said nodding. He looked past Joe toward Yucca Wells, then turned toward Anderson and Collins. “Let’s make sure no one follows us. We’ll head east toward the hard rock country, then turn south.” Baxter turned back in his saddle and kicked his horse forward.
As Joe’s horse began to move, Joe reached into his sling as if he were adjusting his arm. His hand cupped one of the checkers. He pulled his hand out of the sling and let it drop to his side. Then he let the checker slide out of his hand and onto the ground. The two men riding beside him paid no attention to him.
As the riders moved forward, Joe lowered his head and bent slightly forward in the saddle. He knew it was only a question of time until his Pa and brother Hoss came after him. Joe thought briefly of Hoss. He was sure Hoss wasn’t hurt bad. A smile flickered across Joe’s face. Hoss had a hard head, he thought.
Joe’s plan was to slow the riders as much as possible. He figured he could act weak and tired enough to make them stop frequently. He’d force them to go slowly. And pray that help showed up soon.
As Baxter led Joe’s horse over the rough ground, Joe found he wasn’t going to have to do much acting. His horse scrambled over the hard rock, and the animal’s movement jarred Joe’s injured wrist and shoulder. Joe kept his head down, but the bright sun still pained his eyes. He was beginning to feel hot and thirsty, and he felt a weariness creeping through his body.
Joe wasn’t sure how far they had ridden when Baxter halted the horses once more.
“We’ll turn south from here,” he said with satisfaction. “No one will be able to track us over these rocks.”
Joe lifted his head. “I need some water,” he gasped.
“Give him some water,” Baxter ordered.
Reaching down, Collins pulled a canteen from his saddle and handed it to Joe. Joe pulled the top off the canteen with his teeth, and then began to drink. Joe drank slowly, remembering what happened when he gulped the water in the desert. But he also drank as much as possible. He wasn’t sure when they would allow him to have water again.
Finally, Joe lowered the canteen from his mouth, and handed it back to Collins, not bothering to put the top back on. Collins stuck the plug back into the canteen and tied the container back on to his saddle. He looked at Joe and frowned “He don’t look so good,” Collins said to Baxter in a worried voice.
Baxter turned back to look at Joe. Joe’s head was down and he was leaning forward in the saddle again. “He’s all right,” replied Baxter, dismissing Collins’ concern. “Let’s get moving.” Baxter turned his horse and started leading Joe’s horse through the rocks again.
Once more, Joe reached into his sling and cupped a checker. He glanced to both sides, making sure Collins and Anderson weren’t watching. Then he let his arm fall to his side, and let the checker slip to the ground.
Joe hung onto the saddle, feeling more tired and sore with each step of his horse. He wondered how long he could stay in the saddle. His head was throbbing, and he could feel the sweat trickling down his face and back. He wanted nothing more than to get off the horse and rest.
Twice Joe asked his captors to stop and let him rest, not caring that he sounded weak and almost pitiful. Both times, he was ignored. The men rode without stopping as Anderson led them toward the dry river bed. Joe was so hot and tired that he found he could barely think straight. He remembered to drop another checker along the way, praying that his father would see it. After that, he simply concentrated on staying in the saddle.
Joe had no idea where they were when he felt his horse stop. He looked up through bleary eyes, seeing only the shimmering heat dancing on the desert in front of him.
He heard someone say his name. Joe turned toward the sound. “What?” he mumbled.
“I said we’re at the river bed,” repeated Baxter. “Now where?”
Joe looked at Baxter with dull eyes. The question made no sense to him.
Baxter turned his horse back to Joe. He reached over the saddle and grabbed Joe’s chin, shaking it hard. “Which way?” he demanded.
Blinking his eyes, Joe tried to concentrate. “South,” he said in a low voice.
“That’s not good enough,” answered Baxter. “What’s the next landmark?”
Joe tried to think but his tired mind refused to work. “South,” he said again. He simply couldn’t think of anything else.
“I told you he wasn’t looking so good,” Collins stated.
“All right, you told me,” said Baxter angrily, as he let go of Joe’s chin. He looked around. “Let’s take him over to that cottonwood tree. Give him some water and let him rest. Maybe he’ll make more sense then.”
Joe felt his horse moving under him again. The animal walked for a minute or two and then stopped. Joe felt himself being pulled out of the saddle, and felt some arms dragging him across the ground. He was dropped to the ground, and he felt something hard against his back. Someone put a canteen to his lips, and he gulped a mouthful of water. Then he fell asleep.
A rough hand shook Joe awake. He opened his eyes slowly, and winced as the light hurt his eyes again. He blinked several times, trying to clear his vision. A canteen was shoved against his mouth again and Joe drank.
“Cartwright, you with us?” asked Baxter as he pulled the canteen away.
Joe looked at the man, trying to decide what to do. He felt a bit better now that he had had some water and rest. But he wasn’t sure it was smart to let his captors know he felt stronger.
“Where do we go from here?” demanded Baxter.
Joe chewed the inside of his lip, thinking hard. He was trying to remember some landmark he had seen in the desert as well as trying to decide what to do next.
Pulling his gun from his holster, Baxter aimed it at Joe. “Cartwright, you’re no good to us if you can’t lead us to that gold,” he said. “We’re planning to go to Mexico with or without that gold. If you can’t lead us to the gold, we’ll just shoot you now and save us all some trouble.”
Joe thought quickly. He didn’t want to tell the men about the tall rock with the crown-like top, at least not yet. Once he told them where the cave was, they would kill him for sure. His only hope was to stay alive and slow the men down until help arrived.
If it did arrive.
Suddenly, Joe remembered another group of odd shaped rocks. He had walked past them in the night, not needing to stop for shelter then. The moon had lit up the rocks, and Joe had seen them clearly.
“There’s a bunch of rocks south of here,” he said slowly. “They make a U-shape, and the middle rock is split. Looks like two fingers pointing toward the sky.”
“Is that where the cave is?” asked Anderson.
“No,” replied Joe with a shake of his head.
“Just tell us where the cave is,” Baxter demanded.
“I can’t,” Joe said. He saw Baxter frown. “Not exactly,” added Joe quickly. “I was wandering around in that desert. I wasn’t walking in a straight line. Once we get to those rocks, I’ll be able to tell what direction I came from.”
“He’s stringing us out,” said Anderson with disgust. “He don’t know where that cave is. Let’s just kill him and get out of here.”
“Now hold on,” Collins interjected. “The kid’s got a point. He didn’t have a map with him. Besides, if we kill him, we don’t have any chance of getting that gold.”
Baxter looked thoughtfully at the two men. “Collins is right,” he acknowledged. “We kill him now and we’ll never find the Spanish gold.” He turned back to Joe. “Now listen, Cartwright. You’d better be telling the truth. Because if you’re not, I’m going to kill you myself. And I know ways to kill a man that’s slow and painful.”
“The rocks are there,” Joe assured Baxter.
“How far?” asked Baxter.
Joe frowned as he thought. He had no idea how long it had taken him to walk from those rocks to the river bed. “Three or four hours,” he answered. “Maybe longer.”
“All right,” said Baxter, holstering his gun. “We should be there by nightfall. If we don’t find those rocks by then, we’ll have another chat.”
“How far after we get to the rocks?” asked Anderson suspiciously.
“Not far,” Joe replied. “Maybe a couple of hours. We should be there by noon tomorrow.”
“We’d better be,” threatened Anderson.
The moon was rising as four riders approached the U-shaped rocks. Three rode sitting upright in their saddles; the fourth was slumped over the neck of his horse.
The energy Joe had felt after his brief rest had quickly disappeared. He had ridden somewhat comfortably for about half an hour. He had three checkers still in his sling, and had managed to drop one of them unnoticed to the ground. He even tried to devise a plan for getting away if his Pa and Hoss didn’t show up.
But the heat and exertion of riding soon began to sap his strength again. Joe slumped lower and lower in the saddle as the riders continued their journey. He didn’t even have the energy to ask Baxter to let him rest again.
Collins had convinced Baxter to stop briefly twice so he could give Joe some water. The man was worried about Joe. He wanted the gold as much as the other two, but he also had a twinge of conscience about how they were treating their captive. He could see how tired Joe was. Collins wished there was another way to find the treasure besides kidnapping and forcing an obviously less than well man to lead them to the cave. Despite the prick to his conscious, though, Collins wasn’t about to let Joe go. His greedy thoughts of the Spanish gold outweighed any compassion he might have felt.
As the sun began to set, Joe had given into his exhaustion. He had lost consciousness and fell forward in the saddle. Collins had yelled to Baxter to stop when he saw Joe slump to his horse’s neck. But Baxter ignored Collins. He had spotted the rocks Joe had described, a pair of stone fingers pointing to the sky. The rocks were a good distance away, but Baxter didn’t need Joe to help him find them. So Baxter rode on, paying no attention to the agony he was causing to his captive.
As the riders came to the rocks, Baxter finally halted his horse. “This is as good a place as any to make camp for the night,” he declared. He turned to Anderson. “See if you can find some wood or something for a fire.” Anderson nodded and slowly walked his horse away from the rocks.
Baxter turned to Collins. “You’re so all fired worried about Cartwright,” he said, a hint of disgust in his voice. “You get him off that horse.”
“I just want to keep him alive,” protested Collins defensively. “If he dies, we’ll never going to get that gold.”
“He won’t die, not yet at least,” replied Baxter.
With a look of disinterest on his face, Baxter watched as Collins dismounted and then reached up to drag Joe off his horse. Collins grabbed Joe under his arms and dragged him to the rocks. He laid Joe on the ground, then went back to his horse.
Baxter, Collins and Anderson simply left Joe laying on the ground as they made camp a few feet away. They paid no attention to Joe as they made a fire, took care of the horses, and began to cook some food. The men had finished their dinner and were sipping coffee by the fire when they heard a low grunt. Collins looked over his shoulder and saw Joe stirring on the ground. He poured some more coffee into his cup and walked over to Joe. Baxter and Anderson watched him for a minute, then turned back to the fire.
Joe was only about half awake when Collins lifted his head from the ground and put the coffee cup to his lips.
“Drink this,” Collins urged him. “It’ll make you feel better.”
Nodding slowly, Joe began to sip the coffee. His eyes were barely open. He sipped the coffee for a minute, almost too weak to swallow. Finally, he pulled his head away from the cup. Collins laid him back on the ground.
“You get some rest,” urged Collins. “We’ve got a long ride in the morning.”
Joe shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t ride any more.”
“You’d better be able to ride,” Collins warned. “If you can’t Baxter will kill you.”
“I can’t,” Joe repeated.
“I’ll get you on a horse,” promised Collins. “All you have to do is hang on. Just get us to that cave.”
“I can’t,” Joe whispered once more. Then he fell into a deep sleep.
An hour later, Baxter, Collins and Anderson were asleep around the fire. The men were laying on ground sheets, with blankets pulled over them. They hadn’t bothered to give Joe a blanket, although Collins had suggested it. But there were only three bedrolls, and even Collins wasn’t willing to give his blanket away. So they simply let Joe lay on the ground, not worrying about having to guard him. They knew there was no place for Joe to go, even if he hadn’t been too exhausted to even sit up. The three kidnappers went to sleep around the dying fire, confident that they were alone in the desert.
But they weren’t alone.
The moon was high in the sky as several dark shapes crept silently toward the rocks. As they neared the camp, the figures halted. Two crept forward as the others waited.
Joe laid on the hard ground in an exhausted sleep. He barely felt the massive arms that lifted his shoulders, or the other pair of hands that lifted his legs. He didn’t resist as he was picked up from the ground and quietly carried away. He didn’t even stir as he was laid back on the ground, behind the safety of the rocks.
Ben sat on the ground, holding Joe in his arms and slowly rocking him. Hoss knelt next to Joe, his anger at the men around the fire growing as he looked as his exhausted brother. Hoss thought about how they had found Joe several yards from the camp fire, almost as if he had been thrown away like a piece of trash. He stoked Joe softly on the shoulder; then he looked up into Ben’s face. His anger was reflected in his father’s eyes. Ben nodded at Hoss, silently indicating that he would take care of his youngest son.
Getting to his feet, Hoss walked back to the other men crouched behind the rocks. “We got him,” he said softly. The sheriff nodded and pulled his gun. The four other men crouched near him did the same. The men eased themselves around the rocks and began to approach the fire.
Baxter heard the noise first, and sat up abruptly. He saw the figures coming toward him and reached for his gun.
“Hold it!” shouted the sheriff.
Baxter had no idea who the shadowy figures where, but it made no difference to him. Ignoring the order, he pointed his gun toward the sheriff. The sheriff shot him in the chest just as Anderson and Collins sat up. Anderson went for his gun also. Hoss shot at him, aiming for the shoulder. But the bullet bounced off the bone and deep into Anderson’s lung. Blood began to seep out of his mouth.
Collins put his hands in the air, immediately surrendering.
Hoss turned back to the rocks, leaving the sheriff and the posse to take care of the three men. He didn’t really care what happened to them; Hoss was more concerned about Joe.
As Hoss came around the rocks, Ben looked up. He still held Joe in his arms, both to comfort him and protect him. He looked a question at Hoss.
“The sheriff has them,” said Hoss briefly.
Nodding, Ben looked down at Joe. “You’re safe, son,” Ben told Joe softly. “I promise you. No one is going to bother you anymore. And this time, I’m going to make sure of it.”
Joe spent the rest of the night sleeping in his father’s arms. Hoss and Ben had carried Joe over by the fire, once the sheriff had removed the bodies and handcuffed Collins’ wrists securely behind his back. In the flickering light of the fire, they had checked over Joe, relieved that they could find no further injuries but worried about the obvious signs of exhaustion they could see even in the dim light. They had wrapped Joe in one of the blankets left behind as the posse laid Anderson and Baxter across the saddles of their horses. Joe had slept through the whole thing, too exhausted to be wakened.
Ben sat with his back against a rock near the fire, and Hoss lifted Joe to sit next to Ben, resting Joe’ head on Ben’s shoulder. Ben claimed Joe would be more comfortable in that position than laying on the hard ground. Both Ben and Hoss knew that was only partially the reason for sitting Joe next to his father. The truth was that Ben wanted to hold his son. He wanted to reassure himself that Joe was going to be all right, and he wanted to make sure nothing happened to him again.
Hoss went with two of the posse to bring up their horses as the sheriff and the other men secured the bodies and got Collins on a horse. Left momentarily alone with Joe, Ben kissed Joe lightly on the temple, a gesture he knew would have embarrassed both his sons if they had been aware of it. Everyone, including themselves, considered Joe and Hoss to be grown men. To Ben, though, they would always be his little boys. And he was profoundly grateful that he was able his youngest boy in his arms once again.
Joe slept through the posse’s goodbyes. The sheriff made sure they had three horses and plenty of water, just in case something unexpected happened. He promised to return with Doctor Greene and a wagon as soon as possible. The doctor had been angry and frustrated when Ben had found him tied up on the floor of the bedroom. Greene had wanted to ride with the posse, but admitted that he was such a poor rider, he would probably slow them down. Hoss and Ben knew the doctor was waiting anxiously in Yucca Wells with a wagon. Doctor Greene had already been assembling mattresses and pillows when they left him.
The sheriff assured Ben he knew exactly how to find them again, and calculated they would be back by late tomorrow. Ben just nodded, knowing Joe desperately needed rest. He wasn’t going to let Joe go anywhere until his son had that rest.
Throughout the night, Hoss kept himself busy, gathering wood for the fire and making a shelter with the blankets among the rocks. He knew Joe would need the shelter once the sun rose. Hoss felt only the slightest twinge of a headache. Joe’s assessment of his brother had been right. Hoss had a hard head, and the crack he had received did little harm. He was more upset and anxious about his brother than concerned about himself. Hoss had seen the dark circles under Joe’s eyes, and knew that his brother had slept through everything that had happened that night. Hoss silently cursed the three men who had forced his brother to make that hellish ride.
As the sun began to rise, Hoss walked over to the rocks where Ben sat holding Joe. Ben’s face looked drawn, with lines of fatigue and worry visible to his son.
“Pa,” said Hoss softly. “The sun is starting to come up. We’d better get Joe over to that shelter I made.”
For a moment, Ben didn’t react. He simply sat and held Joe tight. Then he slowly nodded his head. “You’re right,” replied Ben. “We’ve got to make sure he stays out of the sun.”
“We ought to try and wake him, too,” added Hoss. “Get some food and water into him.”
“I suppose,” Ben agreed reluctantly. He took a deep breath. “I just hate to wake him. He looks so tired.’
“I know, Pa,” said Hoss in an understanding voice. “But he needs food and water. We can let him sleep all day if he wants. But we have to get something in his stomach.”
Once again, Ben nodded. “All right,” he concurred. He reached up and gently stroked Joe’s cheek. Then he patted his son’s face lightly. Joe stirred a bit. Ben patted his son’s face again. “Come on, Joe,” said Ben softly. “Wake up, son.”
Joe stirred a bit more, then grunted as he squeezed his eyes shut. He was tired, sore, and hungry, and the last thing he wanted to do was wake up. But a gentle shake of his shoulders nudged Joe from his dreamless sleep. He slowly opened his eyes.
Blinking, Joe stared at the face in front of him. He thought he was dreaming. “Pa?” he said tentatively.
“Good morning,” Ben answered with a smile. “You’ve been asleep a long time.”
Looking around the camp quickly, Joe saw only Hoss standing over him, grinning. Ten hours of sleep had helped Joe considerably. He felt stronger, although it seemed as if every muscle in his body was sore. Joe shook his head, thoroughly confused by the absence of his three abductors and the presence of his father and brother. “What happened?” Joe asked in a puzzled voice. “Where is everybody?”
“We caught up them yahoo’s last night,” explained Hoss. “Killed two of them, and the posse is taking the third one back to jail.” Hoss shook his head. “You slept through the whole thing.”
Joe frowned, trying to remember. All he could recall was being on the horse and being so tired he couldn’t think straight. Everything after that was blank. Joe pushed at his right elbow, adjusting his still-tender arm in the sling. He shifted his weight and winced at the ache in his sore muscles. “Guess I was really out,” admitted Joe. “I was so sore and tired I couldn’t keep awake.” Joe looked at Hoss. “What happens now?” he asked.
“Well, first we get some breakfast into you,” Hoss replied. “I’m going to make you some of my bacon and beans, and coffee.”
Joe groaned. “Not your burnt bacon and overcooked beans!” he exclaimed.
“You’re going to like them, little brother,” Hoss promised with a grin. He hid the sense of relief he felt. If Joe was complaining, he must be feeling better. Hoss turned back to the fire and began pulling some pans out of a saddle bag.
Joe turned to Ben. “I wasn’t sure you’d find me,” Joe said softly.
“We almost didn’t,” replied Ben in a grim tone. “We lost the trail a couple of times. Then we saw the checkers. Or rather Hoss did. He kept insisting you dropped them as markers. At first, we didn’t believe him; we were going to ignore them. But Hoss kept after us, and made us follow them. Then we picked up the trail again.” Ben shook his head. “That brother of yours can be stubborn as a mule sometimes.” Then Ben smiled. “And I’m really glad he was.”
“Me, too. Guess I’ll have to let him win a few games from now on,” said Joe, grinning. “It’s the least I can do.”
Ben glanced up at the rising sun. “Come on, Joe,” he said. “We’ve got to get you out of the sun. You can rest under that shelter Hoss made.”
With a nod, Joe tried to get to his feet. His injured arm felt almost numb, and the rest of his muscles felt tired and sore. Joe winced as he struggled to push himself up.
Reaching down, Ben grabbed Joe under the arms. He pulled his son to his feet and wrapped his arms around Joe. Joe leaned heavily on Ben as the two walked slowly over to the shelter of blankets.
The sun was fully up by the time Hoss brought the plate of bacon and beans to Joe.
Joe began eating almost as soon as the plate was in his hands. He gulped coffee as he ate. Ben and Hoss watched in amazement. Neither of them could remember ever seeing Joe eat so much in such a short period of time.
“Not bad,” commented Joe as he finished off the last piece of bacon. “The beans were only a little burned, and the bacon was almost edible. You’re getting better, brother.”
“Thanks,” said Hoss with a grin.
Leaning back against the rocks, Joe slowly sipped his coffee. “You know, Pa,” he remarked with a glint in his eye. “You said Doc Greene won’t be here until late this afternoon. We’re not that far from the cave. Maybe we ought to go looking for it.”
“Joseph Cartwright, you are not going anywhere,” replied Ben sternly. “You’re going to rest here until the doctor arrives, and then you’re going ride in that wagon back to Yucca Wells. As soon as you’re fit, I’m taking you home. You’ll be lucky if I let you go into Virginia City, much less ever come back to this part of Arizona.”
“I don’t know, Pa,” Joe speculated as he winked to Hoss. “You might be missing out on your chance to find yourself some treasure.”
Ben looked at Joe, and then at Hoss. “I have my treasure,” Ben stated softly. Then he turned to Joe. “And you, young man, are not going looking for any Spanish gold,” he added in a firm voice.
Suddenly, Joe’s face lost its look of amusement, and he stared out into the desert for a minute. “Don’t worry, Pa,” said Joe. “This desert almost killed me twice. I’m not about to give it a third try at me.” Joe looked up at his father. “Do you think there really is any gold?” he asked.
“I doubt it,” answered Ben. “Legends of lost treasure are usually just stories. Rarely is there any truth to the stories.”
“But what about the knife?” insisted Joe.
“Joe, that knife could have come from anywhere,” Ben replied. “Someone could have found it and left it in the cave. Or animal might have dragged it in there. There’s nothing that proves it was left by a band of Spaniards loaded down with gold.”
“I guess you’re right,” agreed Joe reluctantly. He smiled ruefully. “It really doesn’t matter. I’ve had my fill of treasure hunts, at least for awhile.”
Hoss took the plate and cup from Joe. “You need to get some rest,” he told his brother. Then Hoss grinned. “Ain’t this what you always wanted to do? Sleep the day away?”
“Yeah,” said Joe, giving his brother an answering grin. “But I was kind of figuring on doing it in a soft bed.” Joe laid back on the ground. He picked up the tan hat Ben had carried over to the shelter and put the hat over his face. “Wake me in about a week,” he ordered.
A few miles away, the coyote ducked into his cave. He stood listening for a minute. Ever since the stranger had invaded his cave, the coyote checked for visitors whenever he returned home. The cave seemed silent. The coyote moved slowly to the right side of the cave. His keen eyes made out some shadows in the dark. The coyote didn’t like coming to this side of the cave. He didn’t like the strange objects piled in the corner there. They made the coyote nervous for some reason. But he was determined to make sure no one had invaded his home while he was gone.
The coyote padded slowly to the back of the cave and sniffed around the man-made objects. He pushed at a small chest with his leg. The chest slid a bit across the rough ground, and the rotting leather tore open. Some objects fell out: a gold ring, some nuggets and a gold bracelet clanked onto the floor of the cave. The noise startled the coyote and he ran back to the other side of the cave. Then he stopped and stood listening again. Reassured that no strangers were around, the coyote settled down for a nap.
The legend of the Spanish gold would resurface from time to time around Yucca Wells but no one seemed to know where the rumored cave was located. The coyote and the ancient treasure both remained undisturbed.