Synopsis: Joe has a close call with his guardian angel.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 4,615
“Joe, I want you to ride to Elk’s Point today and fix the fence up there,” Ben Cartwright said casually as he cut the breakfast ham on his plate. “One of the hands told me it was down.”
Sitting to Ben’s right, Joe, Ben’s youngest son, froze; the coffee cup he was raising to his lips seemed suspended in mid-air. “Elks Point?” Joe repeated in an unhappy tone. A picture of the desolate land on the edge of the Ponderosa flashed through his mind. “Why do I have to go? Why can’t one of the hands do it? Or Adam? Or Hoss?”
“Because the hands will be busy all day rounding up the herd near the north slope so we can move the cattle to new grass,” replied Ben patiently. “Because Adam is going to be working on the books with me all day, and Hoss is going into town to pick up supplies and the mail. And because I asked you to go to Elk’s Point.”
“Hey, Hoss,” Joe called across the table with a bright smile on his face. “How about we trade? You fix the fence up at Elk’s Point, and I’ll pick up the supplies.”
“No deal, little brother,” answered Hoss, the middle Cartwright brother, without even pausing to consider Joe’s suggestion. “You finagled your way into making the trip to town the last three times. This time, I’m going!”
“I’ll trade with you, Joe,” offered Adam, the oldest of Ben’s three sons, from the end of the table. “I’d rather be up at Elk’s Point than spending the day going over the accounts, paying the bills, and calculating how much grain we need for the next three months.”
For a moment, Joe thought about Adam’s offer, but then reluctantly shook his head. As much as he hated the ride to Elk’s Point, that trip was infinitely preferable to Joe than spending a day working on the ledgers with his father. “Thanks anyway, Adam, but if I had to spend a whole day working on those figures, I’d probably tear out my hair,” admitted Joe. “No offense, Pa,” he added quickly.
“None taken,” replied Ben nonchalantly as he took a sip of coffee from his cup.
“Pa, I don’t see why we have to have a fence up there anyway,” complained Joe. “Elk’s Point is a good two miles from the nearest water. The ground is so hard that nothing will grow except a few weeds. No steer is his right mind would go near the place.”
“Then we must have a bunch of crazy steers,” Hoss remarked. “Charlie told me he shooed two or three of them away from the slope up there.”
“And that’s why we need the fence up,” Ben explained. “Without that fence, some steer will decide to go exploring and end up at the bottom of the slope with a broken leg or worse. Now it’s decided, Joseph. You will ride to Elk’s Point and you will fix that fence.”
“All right, all right,” grumbled Joe. He sighed and shook his head. “I wish someone would worry about me as much as they do those silly cows,” he muttered under his breath.
Banging a hammer against a large nail, Joe secured the middle slat of the fence to the post sticking out of the ground. He paused for a moment to wipe the sweat off his forehead with his shirtsleeve, then gave the nail one last whack for good measure. He tugged a bit on the wooden slat, satisfying himself that it would stay in place. Then he took a step back and looked around.
The area was as barren as Joe had told his father at breakfast that morning. A thin layer of dirt covered the hard ground that was interspersed with a few small rocks. Here and there, a hardy weed or tuff of a bush poked through the dirt, but for the most part, this far corner of the Ponderosa looked desolate. Joe felt a small flush of pride as he gazed at the sturdy fence that stretched from an outcropping of boulders to his left to the foot of the pebbly hill on his right. He had spent the last three hours working under a hot sun, righting a tilted fence post and re-attaching planks.
“One more to go and then we can call it a day, Cooch,” Joe called in a loud voice to his horse, which was tied to a post several feet away. The pinto didn’t react to Joe’s voice. The animal’s eyes were almost closed as it dozed in the heat.
“I think you have the right idea,” observed Joe with a smile. “When it’s this hot, it’s better to be sleeping than fixing fences.” After taking a deep breath and letting it out with a loud huff, Joe bent down to pick up the last slat from the ground.
The sound of horses startled Joe, who thought he was the only person within miles of Elk’s Point. Dropping the plank, he turned to his left and watched with curiosity as two riders approached in almost single-file order. The man in front appeared to be in his mid-30’s, while a younger man – he looked to be in his early 20’s, about the same age as Joe – trailed slightly behind. Both the men and their horses were covered with sweat and dust.
“Hey, mister, can you tell us where we are?” asked the older man as he halted his horse in front of Joe. “We got turned around someplace, and now we’re lost.”
“You’re on The Ponderosa,” Joe answered in a neutral voice. Something about the two men made him uneasy, but he wasn’t sure what.
“The Ponderosa,” repeated the older man. “That’s near Virginia City, right?”
“Well, Virginia City is the closest town, but it’s a good 30 miles from here,” explained Joe.
“Any water around here?” the younger man asked. “We could sure use some.”
“There’s a stream about two miles west of here,” replied Joe, pointing in the right direction. “If you keep going west past the stream for an hour or so, you come to a road. Turn right on the road, and you’ll be heading toward Virginia City.”
“Do you think we could spend a night in Virginia City, Vince?” asked the younger man plaintively. “I sure could use the rest.”
“Your horses look like they could use some rest, too,” observed Joe before the older man could answer. He could see that both animals’ heads were drooping, and their coats and manes were matted with sweat and dirt.
“Yeah, we’ve been riding them hard all night,” replied the younger man.
“Shut up, Jimmy!” Vince snapped to his companion.
Joe slowly moved his hand toward the gun that was strapped to his hip. Only two kinds of men rode hard all night – those who were trying to get to someplace in a hurry, and those who were on the run from the law. He didn’t think these men were in a hurry to get someplace.
Seeing the movement of Joe’s hand, Vince whipped his own gun out of his holster and pointed it at the youngest Cartwright. “Hold it right there, mister,” ordered Vince. “Put your hands in the air unless you want a belly full of lead.” Joe hesitated for a moment, then slowly raised his hands.
Swinging his leg over his saddle, Vince slid down from his horse, keeping his pistol aimed at Joe as he dismounted. He walked cautiously toward the younger man, and then stopped in front of Joe. Vince reached forward and pulled Joe’s gun from his holster, tossing the weapon a few feet away.
“I haven’t got anything you would want,” Joe told the man in front of him in an even voice. “I don’t have money on me.”
“You’ve got a nice looking horse,” replied Vince, nodding in the direction of Joe’s pinto. “And even from here I can tell that’s a real good saddle. I always wanted a quality horse and gear.”
Appalled by the thought of losing his beloved pinto, Joe’s face grew hard. “That’s a one-man horse, mister. You try to ride him and he’ll toss you on your head.”
“That so?” said Vince, sounding unconvinced. “Well, if nothing else, they’ll fetch a good price. There’s plenty of people who would pay a lot for a horse and gear like that, no questions asked.”
Anger flashed through Joe and he acted without thinking. Dropping his hands, he threw a punch at Vince’s jaw. The man evaded Joe’s swing, then quickly raised his gun and crashed it down on the younger man’s head. Joe crumpled to the ground and laid still.
“Fool kid,” muttered Vince. “Ain’t a horse in the world worth dying over.” He raised his gun and aimed it at the figure sprawled in the dirt.
“You’re not going to kill him, are you, Vince?” cried Jimmy in alarm. “You promised me no killing. I went along with you in robbing that Wells Fargo office ‘cause you promised no one would be hurt.”
Whirling around, Vince scowled at the young man who still sat atop his horse. “I swear, Jimmy, if you weren’t my kid brother, I’d have shot you a long time ago. All you’ve done is whine and complain since we started this thing.”
“Look, Vince, there’s no need to kill him,” argued Jimmy. “We’ll just take the horse. By the time somebody finds him or he gets home, we’ll be long gone.” He shuddered a bit and then added, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about facing a murder charge. Hanging is a bad way to die.”
Vince continued to scowl at Jimmy, but then suddenly, his face cleared. “You’re right,” he said in an agreeable voice. “There’s no need to shoot him. Look, you get down here and take his shirt and his boots while I go get the horse.”
“Take his shirt and boots? Why?” Jimmy asked, clearly confused.
“Just to slow him down a bit,” Vince explained. “The longer it takes him to get home, the further away we’ll be when he tells someone about us.” He didn’t add that a man walking in the hot sun without a shirt or boots had only a slim chance of making it to the stream that was two miles away.
“All right,” agreed Jimmy reluctantly as he got down from his horse. He walked over to where Joe was laying and with obvious distaste, began pulling one of the boots off the youngest Cartwright’s foot.
After giving a nod of satisfaction, Vince walked over to where Cochise, Joe’s horse, was tied to a post. The pinto, now fully awake, eyed the approaching stranger with distrust. The horse pulled back a bit as Vince untied the reins from the fence, then shied away from the man when Vince tried to mount him.
“Hold still!” Vince shouted but his loud voice only served to upset the pinto even more. When Vince tried for a second time to climb into the saddle, Cochise bucked a bit and moved away again.
“I haven’t got time for this,” Vince said angrily, clearly frustrated. He yanked on the reins to pull the horse forward. At first, Cochise dug in his heels and refused to move, but when Vince continued to jerk the reins, the pinto finally gave in and took a few steps.
With a look of triumph on his face, Vince led Joe’s horse to where Jimmy was standing. Vince looked down and nodded with satisfaction as he saw Joe – now shirtless and barefooted – lying on his back in the dirt.
“You hit him pretty hard, Vince,” Jimmy told his brother in a tentative voice. “He’s got a knot on the back of his head.”
“That’s what he gets for giving me grief,” Vince replied with a shrug.
Holding up Joe’s shirt and boots, Jimmy asked, “What do you want me to do with this stuff?”
“Well, I sure don’t want you to leave it here!” barked Vince. “Just throw them in the saddlebags on the pinto. We’ll get rid of them later.” Jimmy skirted nervously around his brother and hurriedly jammed the shirt and boots into the saddlebags strapped to Joe’s horse. The top of the boots stuck out of the leather sack, and the sleeve the shirt hung down its side. Jimmy didn’t bother to try to stuff the boots and shirt further into the saddlebag.
“Don’t forget this,” Vince called to his brother as he bent down and picked up Joe’s hat off the ground. Vince tossed the hat to Jimmy, who crumpled it as tightly as possible before sticking it into the saddlebag. A corner of the hat peeked out of the satchel, and, as before, Jimmy made no attempt to hide it.
“Let’s get out of here,” Vince ordered. He pulled on the reins and led Cochise to where his own horse was standing. Still holding the pinto’s reins in his hands, Vince mounted and watched as Jimmy climbed on to the saddle of his horse. Without a word, Vince kicked his horse and started forward, and Jimmy followed his brother. Neither one looked back at the young man laying unconscious on the ground.
The first thing Joe felt as he emerged from the blackness was the heat of the sun blazing down on his face and chest. But it took only a few seconds more for the pain from the back of his head to be felt. Joe winced as the throbbing in his head seemed to grow stronger.
After taking a deep breath, Joe started to open his eyes. But his eyelids had lifted only a bit before he squeezed them shut again. Only the smallest bit of light had reached his eyes, but that was enough to send a stabbing pain through Joe’s head.
Lying still, Joe gulped in air as he tried to ease the throbbing in his head. When the pain was finally reduced to a dull ache, he pushed himself up slowly from the ground until he was sitting upright. This time, he lowered his head before opening his eyes. He felt another stab of pain, but it wasn’t quite as strong as before and passed quickly. After waiting a moment, Joe lifted his head and looked around.
The area around Joe was empty – no strangers on horseback and, more importantly, no pinto waiting to be ridden home. Joe wasn’t surprised his horse was gone, but he was taken aback when he realized his shirt and boots had been stolen also. His first thought was the two men must have been pretty desperate to rob him of his clothes. Then he realized that his shirt and boots hadn’t been stolen to be used or sold; they had been taken to ensure Joe Cartwright never made it home.
As he sat on the ground holding his head in his hands, Joe could feel the sun warming his back. Although tanned from time spent swimming and fishing, he knew it wouldn’t take very long for the sun to turn the color of his skin from tan to red. He was hot and sweaty, his head ached, and most of all, he was thirsty. No, Joe decided, thirsty didn’t even begin to describe the parched feeling in his mouth and throat. He was desperate for a sip of any liquid – cool, tepid or even warm – which would ease the dry, gritty sensation in his mouth. And the nearest water was in a stream almost two miles away.
Well, things aren’t going to get any better if you just sit here, Joe told himself. Using strength he wasn’t sure he had, Joe managed to get to his feet. As soon as he was standing, he felt a dizziness washing over him. Whether it was the heat or the blow to the head – or both – which caused his head to spin, Joe wasn’t sure and knew it really didn’t matter. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply several times, hoping that would stop the swirling in his head. It took several minutes, but finally, Joe opened his eyes and saw the ground ahead of him wasn’t moving or swaying. He took one more deep breath and then began walking.
Keeping his eyes on the dirt in front of him, Joe tried to avoid the rocks, sticks and other debris which would bruise and cut at his feet. But he couldn’t avoid the grains of sand and tiny pebbles embedded in the ground. As he staggered forward, Joe felt them pricking the soles of his feet.
As the unrelenting sun continued to shine down on him, Joe could feel the sweat running down his face and shoulders. Rivulets of perspiration trickled down the taut skin of his well-muscled chest and over the torso sculpted by hard, physical work. A light sheen of moisture covered his body as Joe continued with dogged determination toward the stream so far away.
With feet that were becoming increasingly sore, a head that throbbed with pain, and a body that was both dripping with sweat and desperate for water, Joe forced himself to continue walking. He knew from the position of the merciless sun that he was heading west, but the direction in which he was going was becoming less and less important to Joe. He kept moving because that’s what his dulled brain told his body to do.
Joe wasn’t sure how long he had walked – it seemed like hours – or how much distance he had covered – it felt like miles – before his strength finally ebbed away. His legs trembled a bit and then simply folded, sending Joe tumbling to the ground.
Lying on the hard dirt, Joe knew he could go no further. He didn’t have the strength to push himself up from the ground, and even if he did, he didn’t have the energy to continue walking.
Oh God, Joe prayed silently, please help me! I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die out here alone and in the middle of nowhere. Please, please, please help me!
Closing his eyes, Joe waited for the inevitable feeling of darkness to wash over him.
“Joseph,” said a voice gently. “Joseph, can you hear me?”
Snapping open his eyes, Joe looked up in astonishment. Someone was standing over him, looking down at him. Joe blinked his eyes, trying to clear the sweat and grit from them in order to bring the figure into focus. But as hard as he tried, he could see nothing but a blurry form. Whoever had called his name was standing with his back to the sun, and all Joe could make out was a dark form. An aura of light seemed to surround the person, but Joe wasn’t sure if the brightness came from the sun or some other source.
“Am I dead?” asked Joe in a surprisingly strong voice. “Are you God?”
“No, you’re not dead and I’m not God,” answered the figure in a deep voice tinged with a hint of amusement.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” Joe pressed. “What are you doing here?”
“So many questions!” replied the blurry image. The amusement was more apparent in his voice now. “You can call me Samuel. That’s as good a name as any.”
“Help me!” Joe pleaded. “Please, help me!”
“I’ll do what I can,” agreed Samuel. “My job is to help as best I can.” He raised his arm and slowly waved it over Joe.
Suddenly, a cool breeze swept over Joe’s body. Up in the previously cloudless sky, a mass began to form, blocking the rays of the sun. The cloud darkened, and thunder rumbled from it. A light spray of rain began to fall.
The breeze and the absence of the sun brought a welcome relief from the heat to Joe. He felt the rain rinsing the dirt and sweat from his body, refreshing his skin a bit. He opened his mouth and droplets of water began falling down his dry throat. The rain lasted for less than ten minutes, but that was long enough to provide Joe with the life-giving moisture he needed. Even when the rain stopped, the sky remained dark and the cool wind continued to blow.
“Samuel…” started Joe as he raised his head. But he stopped when he realized the blurred figure was no longer standing over him. Turning his head, Joe looked around but saw nothing but the empty, barren ground. I’m all alone, Joe thought, then stopped himself. No, he amended his thought, I’m not alone; there’s just no one around that I can see.
Lowering his head, Joe closed his eyes and the blackness finally descended. But this was the blackness of sleep – deep and restful sleep.
“He’s waking up,” a familiar voice said as Joe fluttered his eyes in an attempt to open them. With an effort, Joe finally forced his eyelids up and wasn’t surprised to see the anxious face of his father peering down at him. What did surprise him was the realization that he was laying in the bed in his room at the Ponderosa.
“How are you feeling, son?” Ben asked Joe in a concerned voice. He leaned forward a bit in his chair as he peered intently at his youngest son.
“Tired,” Joe answered honestly. His face felt a bit odd, and when he reached up to touch it, Joe was amazed to feel a coating of ointment on his cheek. “What’s this?”
“Hop Sing’s secret mixture,” replied Adam, who was standing at the end of Joe’s bed. “He says it’s guaranteed to take the sting out of sunburn. He slavered at least a jar of the stuff all over you.”
A look of confusion came over Joe. “How did I get here?” he asked. “The last thing I remember was laying on the ground up by Elk’s Point.”
“We found you up there and brought you home,” Ben explained. “We tried to wake you, but you were too exhausted to stir even when we were forcing you to drink. Doctor Martin looked you over. He bandaged your feet and looked at the knot on your head. He said what you needed most was a lot of sleep, and I guess he was right. You’ve been asleep since yesterday.”
“But…but how did you know to come looking for me?” Joe asked in a bewildered voice.
“That was my doing, little brother,” answered Hoss as he walked into Joe’s bedroom. “I was driving that wagonload of supplies back from Virginia City and I ran into these two fellows on the road. One of them was leading your horse, and I could see your boots and shirt sticking out of the saddlebag. It didn’t take no genius to figure out you had managed to get yourself in trouble.”
“Hoss persuaded them to tell him what happened,” added Adam, “and after that, it was just a matter of finding you up at Elk’s Point.”
“Persuaded?” remarked Joe with raised eyebrows.
“Well, there may have been a gun and a few punches involved,” Hoss admitted. “But they got downright talkative after awhile.”
“They’re sitting in the Virginia City jail while Roy Coffee makes up a list of charges,” said Adam. A small smile crossed his face. “Apparently, the list is getting longer by the minute as Roy checks out his wanted posters.”
“Thank God that Hoss ran into those men on the road,” Ben told Joe in an earnest voice. “Otherwise, we would have never known to go looking for you, and we wouldn’t have found you until it was too late.”
“It’s a good thing that storm blew up, too,” Adam noted. “Otherwise, the sun and heat might have done some real damage to you.”
“Yeah, it’s pure luck you ain’t still laying up at Elk’s Point, burned to a crisp,” Hoss asserted.
“Luck,” Joe repeated in a weak voice.
“Now that’s enough of that,” Ben declared in a firm voice. “Let’s not dwell on what might have happened. Let’s just be grateful that Joe’s home and going to be all right.”
“You’re right, Pa,” agreed Hoss. He turned to look at Joe. “We’re mighty glad to have you back, little brother,” he said in a quiet voice. “You sure had us worried for awhile there.”
“We really are relieved that you’re back safe if not entirely sound,” Adam declared, smiling. “And, by the way, you can count on me never again to volunteer to take your place fixing the fence up at Elk’s Point.”
“I’m glad to be home, too,” Joe acknowledged with a small smile. Looking down, his forehead knitted a bit as he began thinking about what happened at Elk’s Point.
Seeing the expression on Joe’s face, Ben stood abruptly. “I think we’ve done enough visiting for now. Joe needs his rest. You two can come see him later.” Adam and Hoss both nodded and left the room.
“I expect you’re hungry,” Ben told his youngest son. “I’m sure Hop Sing has a tray ready for you. I’ll go down and get it.”
“All right,” agreed Joe in a distracted voice. He looked up as his father started to leave. “Pa?” he called.
Stopping by the door, Ben turned back to face Joe. “Yes? What is it?”
“Pa, do you believe in…” Joe struggled to find the right words. “Pa, do you think there’s somebody who watches over us?”
In a slow walk, Ben returned to stand by Joe’s bed. “If you mean, do I believe in God, the answer is yes. You know that.”
“I wasn’t thinking of God as much as…well, I don’t know…like a guardian angel or something like that,” explained Joe.
“I suppose if you believe in God, you can believe in guardian angels,” Ben conceded. Tilting his head a bit, he gave Joe a curious look. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I was at the end of my rope, ready to give up, and then something strange happened,” Joe answered. “Somebody…something…appeared and told me it was his job to help. Right after that, the storm blew up. The rain, the cool air, the clouds…that’s what made the difference. That’s what kept me alive.”
“And you think this someone or something was a guardian angel?” asked Ben.
“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “I mean, it could have been a dream, I guess. I got knocked on the head and I was in the sun for a long time. Maybe I just imagined it.”
“That’s possible,” agreed Ben. “On the other hand, a series of fortuitous events occurred which led to your rescue. It’s entirely possible that there was more than just good luck involved.”
“But there’s no way to tell, is there,” Joe said. “There’s no way to know for sure.”
“No, there’s not,” acknowledged Ben. “But don’t you find it a comforting thought that there’s someone watching out for you?” He smiled and added, “Considering all the scrapes you’ve been in, I’d say your guardian angel has a full time job.”
“You’re right about that,” admitted Joe with a grin.
“I’m just thankful that you’re home,” said Ben sincerely, “regardless of how it happened.” He patted Joe on the shoulder. “You get some rest while I get that food.”
Joe watched as Ben walked out of the bedroom, and then sunk a bit lower into the bed. His father was right, Joe decided. It was a comforting feeling to think that there was somebody watching over him, looking out for him. And, he vowed, in the future, he’d give his guardian angel a little time off.