Synopsis: Living up to the responsibilities that come with the name, almost costs Ben the life of one of his sons.
Word Count: 18,000
“Fire!” shouted the rider as he galloped his horse into the yard. Joe Cartwright immediately dropped the ax he was using to chop wood and ran toward the rider. “Fire!” shouted the rider again as he pulled his horse to a skidding halt in the middle of the yard. Ben Cartwright ran out of the barn, his face furrowed with concern.
“Where’s the fire?” asked Ben, running toward the rider.
“The south slope of Big Horn Mountain,” gasped the rider. “Adam sent me to get help. He says he needs men, blankets, shovels, everything. The whole south slope is on fire.”
“How did the fire start?” asked Joe.
The rider shook his head. “Don’t know,” he answered. “We were working on the north slope, and all of a sudden smelled the smoke. Some of us ran to the top of the ridge to take a look. It looks like the whole mountain is on fire.”
The furrows of worry deepened on Ben’s face as he turned to his youngest son. “Joe, you ride down to the south pasture. Tell Hoss to forget the branding. Get as many men as you can and meet us up on the north slope of Big Horn Mountain.”
Giving a quick nod, Joe started running toward the barn. “I’ll swing by where Charlie and his men are working on digging that new well,” Joe yelled over his shoulder as he ran. “I can pick up a few more men there.”
“Good idea!” Ben called after his son. He turned back to the rider. “You get back and help Adam. Tell him we’ll be there with the men and equipment he needs as soon as we can.”
The smoke was rolling down the mountain in thick clouds as Joe and Hoss rode up Big Horn Mountain with the ten men they had rounded up to help them. All urged their reluctant horses up the slope toward a knot of tents perched near the top of the mountain. Joe could see a wagon parked near the edge of the tents.
Stopping their horses a few feet from the camp, the riders dismounted and hurried over to the large wagon. Shovels, blankets, and empty sacks were piled in the back, ready for the anxious men to use. As the men began picking out pieces of equipment, Ben emerged from the tent nearest the wagon.
“Joe, Hoss, I’m glad you got here so fast,” said Ben with relief.
“How bad is it, Pa?” asked Hoss as he walked rapidly toward his father.
“Bad,” answered Ben grimly. “Jim wasn’t kidding when he said the whole south slope is on fire. Adam’s got a crew at the top of the ridge working on a firebreak. Hoss, I want you to take about half of these men and work your way to the west side. Joe, you take the rest and go toward the east. I want both crews to start digging firebreaks. There’s no way to put this fire out, but maybe we can contain it.”
Indicating their understanding with a quick nod, Hoss and Joe turned to the men who were already filling their arms with shovels and blankets. Hoss called out five names and told the men to follow him.
“The wind’s blowing north,” Joe observed, lifting his face toward the sky. “That means the fire will be going up the slope.”
“If we can contain it, the fire should burn itself out,” said Ben anxiously. “If not…” He didn’t need to finish; Joe knew the whole mountain could burn if they failed.
“C’mon,” yelled Joe as he rushed to the wagon to grab a shovel and a sack. “We’ve got the east side. Let’s go!” Five men hurried after Joe as he started climbing the hill rapidly.
When Joe got to the crest of the ridge, he stopped to look at the inferno below. He had felt the heat from the blaze and smelled the smoke. Now Joe also could see the wide river of flames burning its way up the mountain. Joe turned to the men behind him. “Let’s get to work,” he ordered grimly. He started down the far side of the ridge, with the five men following him closely.
As Joe led the men closer to the fire, thick billows of smoke engulfed them. The heat made the air feel as hot as an oven. Joe stopped and pulled off a blue bandanna that was looped around the belt of his pants. He had grabbed the cloth from the barn when he saddled his horse. Now, with the smoke getting thicker, Joe was glad he had. He wrapped the bandanna around the lower half of his face and looked at the men around him. All were doing the same. With a nod, Joe pointed to the ground, and the men started digging.
Half an hour later, Joe stopped digging and looked around. A long trench now scarred the ground around him. The men in front and in back of him were digging frantically, trying desperately to hold the fire by denying it fuel. Joe looked toward the blaze. He could see the flames were getting closer. He figured they had about another twenty minutes before the fire reached their side of the mountain.
With a determined looked on his face, Joe pushed the shovel into the ground with his foot and lifted a load of dirt. He dug into the hard earth with fast strokes, ignoring the ache that was beginning to grow in his arms and back. His face and shirt were streaked from the black ash in the smoke that surrounded him. He could hear the crackle of the flames as the fire got closer. Joe tried to ignore the heat, smoke and noise as he concentrated on digging.
Finally, Joe could no longer ignore the roar of the fire. He looked up to see the flames were only about ten feet away. The heat was intense, and the smoke so thick that Joe could barely see. Trees were burning like candles as the flames traveled up the trunk and limbs. Joe looked at the long trench on the hillside. He hoped the firebreak would hold the back the flames.
“That’ll have to do!” shouted Joe into the thick smoke. “Let’s get out of here!” He waited nervously until he saw five dark figures emerging from the smoke. Joe turned to lead the men away. Suddenly there was a loud crack. The top of a tall pine, ablaze with fire, came falling out of the sky, and the fiery projectile was coming right at Joe.
Seeing the ball of fire hurtling toward him, Joe shouted a warning to the other men, and then began to run, seeking the safety of some rocks a few yards away. His feet slipped on the pine needles scattered on the ground, and Joe fell to the earth. He scrambled to his feet just as flaming tree hit the ground.
Joe felt the scrape of a branch against his arm, followed by a searing, burning pain on his forearm. Joe looked down to see the sleeve of his shirt was on fire.
Dropping to the ground, Joe began to roll, beating the flames against the hard earth. He quickly smothered the fire, then laid on the ground, clutching his arm.
“Joe, are you all right?” a muffled voice asked with concern. Joe looked up and saw a figure standing over him. In the dark smoke, and with the bandanna covering his face, Joe couldn’t be sure which of the men was standing over him.
Wincing from the sting of the burn on his arm, Joe pulled himself to his feet. “Yeah,” Joe answered dispassionately. “Just a little singed.” He looked around and saw four other figures standing a few feet away. “Let’s get out of here,” shouted Joe, grateful that the others had escaped the fiery tree limb. Once more, he started up the hill and away from the fire. He could hear the sounds of footsteps following him.
Leading the men back to the camp, Joe walked wearily toward the small collection of tents. He could see his father and two brothers standing in front of one of the canvas structures; all were streaked with soot. Joe pulled the bandanna down from his face and walked slowly toward the other Cartwrights.
“What’s it look like?” asked Joe in a tired voice as he approached the three men. Ben looked up, and Joe could see the lines of worry through the dark smudges on his father’s face.
“We’ll know soon if the firebreaks will work,” replied Ben wearily. He frowned as he saw the blackened and burned cloth of Joe’s sleeve. “Joe, what happened?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
Joe turned his arm and smiled weakly. “Got a little too close to the fire,” he explained. He winced as he felt the heat of the burn. “It’s not too bad,” Joe added.
“There’s a barrel of water near the far tent,” advised Ben. “Go clean that burn before it gets infected.” Nodding, Joe started to walk toward the end of the line of tents, but he stopped when he heard a shout.
“Mr. Cartwright!” a voice called from up the hill. “Mr. Cartwright, you’d better get up here.”
Forgetting about the water barrel, Joe turn and started climbing the hill, rushing after his father and brothers. The figure in front of them gestured with his arm and started toward the crest. The Cartwrights hurried after the man.
“What’s wrong?” asked Ben as he reached the crest.
“Look!” said the man, pointing to the fire below.
The fire was continuing to burn, but now the blaze was taking on a strange shape. Instead of the scattered flames, the fire was beginning to resemble a blazing inverted horseshoe. The edges of the fire seemed to have stopped abruptly.
“It’s working!” shouted Adam with glee. “The firebreaks are working!”
“Look at that!” Ben exclaimed, clapping Hoss on the back. “The fire is starting to turn on itself!” Hoss and Joe looked at each other, and both grinned foolishly.
After watching the fire for another minute, Ben turned to his sons. “Get your crews and get down there,” he ordered. “Make sure the fire doesn’t jump the firebreaks. Keep it contained. Boys, we’ve got a chance at winning this one.”
Adam, Hoss, and Joe needed no further urging. The three rushed down the far side of the ridge, shouting for their men as they ran. Joe briefly rubbed his sore arm, but decided the burn wasn’t too painful. He would take care of it later. The important thing now was to insure the fire didn’t get out of control again.
With his reinvigorated crew, Joe spent the rest of the day beating out small licks of flames which managed to jump the firebreak. As he repeatedly banged a sack against the ground, Joe felt some shooting pains in his right forearm. He stopped a few times and cradled his arm against his chest, hoping to ease the tightness and burning he felt. Once he considered going back to camp and putting something on the burn, but just then a bush had started to smolder. Joe forgot about his arm and rushed to put out the fire.
It was dusk when Joe finally decided the fire was no longer a threat. He sat on the ground, resting for the first time in hours. His arms and back were sore, and he coughed up the residue of smoke in his lungs. Joe felt tired, but triumphant. They had fought the fire, and this time at least, the fire had lost.
Two of the men flopped to the ground next to Joe. He glanced at them, then looked around. The rest of the men were sprawled around the hillside. Joe smiled wearily at them. “Good job,” he told the men. “I’m sure Pa will have a bonus for you.”
“Right now, all I want is a bath and a bed,” declared the man on the ground next to Joe. “And the bath can wait.”
Joe grinned. “I know what you mean,” he agreed. “I think I could sleep for a week.” Joe rubbed his arm, wincing slightly at the pain.
“Joe, is your arm all right?” asked another of the men.
“Yeah,” answered Joe. “It just a little sore. I’ll get Hop Sing to put something on it when we get back to the ranch.”
“Back to ranch,” said one of the men wistfully. “Do you think I could talk one of you into carrying me?”
Laughing, the men slowly got to their feet. As he led his crew back to the camp, Joe took one last look over his shoulder. He could see the smoke and the blackened trees behind him. The ground around the trees was dark and bare. Joe shook his head. It would be a long time until this part of Big Horn Mountain produced timber again.
The sun shining through the window woke Joe the next morning. For a minute, he was confused by the sun; a sun that bright and high in the sky meant it was mid-morning. Joe shook his head, wondering why his father let him sleep so late. He stretched and took a deep breath…and immediately smelled the faint aroma of smoke. The memory of yesterday’s fire came rushing back.
Joe remembered the ride back to the ranch vaguely; he had been so tired that he had dozed in the saddle. Luckily, Cochise, his horse, needed little guidance in order to find its way back to the barn. Once home, Joe had wearily eaten the food placed before him, but had been almost too tired to chew. Adam had picked at his food and even Hoss had only one helping. That’s when Ben had promised his boys they could sleep in today, Joe remembered with a smile.
Throwing back the covers, Joe rolled out of the bed. He pulled the nightshirt over his head and threw it in a heap on the bed. As he did, he felt a tinge from his right forearm. Joe looked at the burn on his arm, then shrugged. He had forgotten to ask Hop Sing to put a dressing on the burn
last night. He had simply washed off the soot and dirt, and then fallen into an exhausted sleep. Joe studied the red mark on his arm. It didn’t look any worse than a bad sunburn, and if it hadn’t bothered him enough to remind him to ask Hop Sing about it, it couldn’t be too bad.
After quickly washing and shaving, Joe went to the dresser to pull out some clean clothes. The clothes he had worn yesterday still lay in a pile in the middle of the floor; he could still smell the odor of smoke coming from them. Joe pulled a dark blue shirt and another pair of his favorite gray pants out of the dresser drawer. As he dressed, Joe realized he was hungry. He hurried to finish so he could go get some breakfast.
Bounding down the stairs, Joe was surprised to see Ben, Adam and Hoss sitting at the table. As he slid into his chair at the table, Joe could see his father and brothers’ plates showed the remnants of bacon and eggs. “Sorry I’m so late,” Joe apologized as he reached for the coffee.
“That’s all right, Joe,” answered Ben with a distracted air. “We haven’t been down that long ourselves.”
Joe looked at the empty platters on the table then turned in his chair. “Hop Sing,” called Joe. “I’m hungry and there’s nothing left.”
Almost immediately, the Cartwrights’ Chinese cook came out of the kitchen carrying a plate filled with bacon and eggs. He put the plate in front of Joe. “Breakfast all ready,” said Hop Sing with a smug air. Giving a quick nod of satisfaction, the cook turned and walked back into the kitchen.
“How does he do that?” asked Joe in a puzzled voice as he began to eat. When no one answered, Joe looked up. For the first time, he noticed the grim expressions on the faces around him. “What’s wrong?” asked Joe.
“We’ve been talking about the effects of the fire,” answered Adam.
“Yeah, it’s bad,” Joe agreed as he ate. “There’s no way that south slope is going to give us much timber for a while.”
“That’s the problem,” said Ben bleakly. “I was counting on the timber from the south slope to fill out the contract we have with the railroad. Without it, we can’t meet the terms of the contract.”
“Can’t we supply the timber from someplace else?” asked Joe.
Adam shook his head. “No,” the oldest Cartwright brother replied. “All the rest of the available timber is already committed.”
“I knew we were stretching things,” continued Ben with a shake of his head. “I should have never gone after that railroad contract. I got greedy and now it’s come back to haunt us.”
“Aw, Pa,” said Hoss. “You didn’t know there was going to be a fire. That timber on the south slope was just sitting there, ready to be cut. There wasn’t any reason not to sell it to the railroad.”
“So, what happens if we don’t deliver the timber?” asked Joe.
“We pay a penalty for every board foot we’re short,” answered Adam. “Right now, I figure the penalty is going to cost us $50,000.”
“$50,000!” exclaimed Joe in an astonished voice. “Adam, you negotiated that contract. How could you let them put in a penalty clause that would cost us that much?”
“Because I didn’t figure on a fire on Big Horn Mountain,” replied Adam angrily.
“It’s not Adam’s fault,” Ben interrupted. “I approved the contract and signed it. It seemed all right at the time. I just didn’t allow for something like this.”
“Pa, couldn’t we divert the timber from one those other jobs to the railroad?” asked Hoss.
“We could,” acknowledged Ben. “But then we’d just end up paying penalties for defaulting on those contracts. Besides, those other contracts are long-standing deals with the mines. If we don’t deliver the timber, the mines will have to shut down for lack of shoring. That means a lot of people will be out of work. I couldn’t do that.”
“Well, where are we going to get $50,000?” asked Joe.
“We’re going to need more than that,” Ben explained. “That south slope is a watershed. We’ve got to make sure we get it cleaned up and re-planted as soon as possible. That means paying extra men.”
“Couldn’t we just let it go?” asked Joe. “I mean, we could always re-plant it later.”
Ben shook his head. “No, Joseph,” he answered solemnly. “We owe it to the people in the valley below Big Horn Mountain to try to save it. If we don’t, the rains this fall and winter will send a sea of mud down that mountain. And we owe it to the land to try to repair the damage.”
Joe chewed thoughtfully as he finished his breakfast. “What happens if we don’t pay the penalty?” he asked. He saw the startled look on his father’s face. “I mean, a lot of people default and don’t pay off. I’ve seen it happen,” Joe added.
“I’ve spent a lot of years building up the Cartwright name,” answered Ben in an ominous tone. “It’s a name that stands for something, a name people can count on. I’m not going to let anyone say that Cartwrights don’t pay their debts.”
“I was just asking,” Joe said hastily.
“Well, what are we going to do?” asked Hoss in a worried voice.
“I’m going back up to the timber camp and see how much we can salvage,” declared Adam. “We might be able to get some lumber out of that slope, although it won’t be enough.”
“We’ve got about $20,000 in the bank,” Ben stated. “I’ll talk with Tom Nelson and see how much he can lend us. He told me the other day that his reserves were low, so I don’t think he’s going to be able to cover the whole thing.”
“You know, Pa, we might be able to sell off part of the herd,” suggested Hoss with a thoughtful expression on his face. “I heard Jim Thorton sold 50 head last month to some fellow looking for beef for the mines up in Colorado.”
“Sell cattle this time of year?” said Joe. “They’re just starting spring grazing. They’re a long way from being ready for sale.”
“I think Hoss has a good idea,” Ben declared, a spark of enthusiasm lighting his voice. “We may not be able to get full price for them, but we should be able to get something. I’ll send some wires while I’m in town.”
“But Pa, if we sell off some of the herd now, we won’t have much for the fall round-up,” countered Joe. “That’ll keep us pretty short of cash over the winter. Especially if we have to pay off a bank loan.”
“We’ll just have to tighten our belts,” replied Ben. He looked around the table. “You boys know how important this ranch is to me, to all of us. But even more valuable is our reputation. If that’s damaged, we can never repair it. I’ll do whatever is necessary to save this ranch, and to save the Cartwright name.”
After breakfast, the Cartwrights left the ranch and rode their separate ways. Adam headed toward the timber camp, while Ben rode into town. Hoss and Joe rode to the herd, both to finish the branding and to calculate how many head of cattle they might be able to sell.
When Hoss and Joe stopped their horses on a small hill overlooking the pasture below, both were pleased to see a crew of men already at work, organizing the branding. The two brothers stared at the herd of cattle below them.
“They’re still pretty scrawny,” commented Hoss as he looked at the cattle.
“Yeah, they haven’t put much of their spring fat on yet,” agreed Joe. He peered at the herd. “I figure we might be able to get a decent price for about third of them.”.
“Yep, three or four hundred head at most,” acknowledged Hoss. He turned to Joe. “Pa sure is worried, ain’t he?”
“Yeah, he really is,” Joe admitted. “He puts a lot of stock in the Cartwright name and our reputation. He sure hates to default on that contract.”
“Ain’t there anything we can do to help?” asked Hoss.
“I wish there was, Hoss,” Joe said with a sigh. Then he grinned. “We could rob a bank or something, but I guess that wouldn’t do much to help the Cartwright name.”
“Maybe we could go prospecting for silver,” suggested Hoss.
“Oh yeah, that’s great idea,” replied Joe wryly. “And six months from now, the Ponderosa would be sold and we’d still be looking.” Joe shook his head. “No, all we can do now is go along with Pa and do whatever he decides. We can help him best by just doing whatever he tells us.”
“I suppose you’re right,” conceded Hoss. “I just wish there was more we could do.”
“So do I,” agreed Joe wistfully. He took a deep breath. “Well, at least we can get the branding finished. Let’s get to work.” Joe chucked his horse forward and started down the hill.
“Eat hearty, you steers,” Hoss muttered as he stared at the herd below. “We need you nice and fat as soon as possible.” He turned his horse and started down the hill after Joe.
Hoss and Joe spent the rest of the day finishing off the branding of the new calves. Both men were happy that there were a lot of calves to be branded. That boded well for the future…if the Ponderosa had one. As they moved among the herd, both Hoss and Joe looked carefully at the cattle, trying to gauge exactly how many they could take to market. Both felt the number was discouragingly small.
By mid-afternoon, all but a few of the calves had been branded. Joe had spent most of the day in the saddle, roping and leading the unwilling calves toward the fire at the edge of the pasture. With only a few calves left to do, Joe decided he could best help by working around the fire, either flipping the calves on their side or putting the brand on them. He tied his horse to a tree and walked over by the fire.
“Hey, Jim, why don’t we switch for awhile,” called Joe as he neared the fire. “You go round up the calves and I’ll put the iron on them.”
“Fine with me,” answered the cowboy. Just then, Hoss rode in, dragging a calf behind him. Two of the hands went to flip the animal on its side. Both Joe and Jim reached for the branding iron that was heating in the fire. Jim reached the iron rod first and brought it up just as Joe was reaching down. Jim banged the iron’s rod hard against Joe’s right arm.
“Ouch!” cried Joe. “Be careful, will you!” He started rubbing his arm.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Jim apologetically. “I thought you wanted me to do this one.” Jim looked at Joe’s arm. “Ain’t that the arm you burned yesterday?” he asked.
“Yeah, it is,” Joe replied, rubbing his forearm. He saw the concern in the man’s face. “Don’t worry about it,” Joe told the cowboy. “I’m fine.”
“Joe, did you have Hop Sing put some of that ointment of his on your arm?” asked Hoss from the saddle.
“Naw, it’s all right,” Joe answered. “Just a little burn. Nothing to worry about. You know how it is. When you hurt something, that’s the one thing that always seems to get banged again.”
Reassured, Hoss grinned. “Well, little brother, if you weren’t so clumsy, you wouldn’t be banging into things.”
“Oh yeah, and I suppose you’re Mr. Graceful,” retorted Joe with a snort. “That’s why Mary Lou was limping after you stepped all over her feet last month at the dance.”
The men all laughed and turned back to their work. Joe gave his sore arm a final rub, surprised how much it really hurt. He promised himself that he’d have Hop Sing take a look at his arm tonight.
The men finished the branding within the hour. Joe and Hoss set a rotation of the men to check the herd over the next few days, then headed for home.
When they reached the ranch house, they saw Ben’s and Adam’s horses tied to the hitching post outside the house. Joe and Hoss dismounted and tied their horses next to the other two.
As they walked into the house, Joe and Hoss were surprised to see Ben and Adam sitting in the living room — Ben in his favorite red leather chair and Adam on the sofa. Both were leaning forward, studying some papers spread over the low table in front of them.
Hearing the door open, Ben looked up. “Boys, I’m glad you’re back,” he told his younger sons. “We need to talk.”
Hoss and Joe looked at each other, exchanging worried glances. Their father’s tone implied things were still not good. Quickly slipping off their gunbelts and hats and laying them on the bureau near the door, they walked into the living room. Hoss went to the blue chair near the stairs and sat down. Joe perched his hip on the arm of the sofa.
“What’s up?” Joe asked. “What happened in town?”
“As I suspected, the bank has only $15,000 to loan us,” Ben explained. “The loan plus the money we already have in the back only comes up to $35,000. We’re still about $15,000 short of what we need to pay off the railroad contract.”
“It could be less, Pa,” insisted Adam. “There are still some trees we can salvage from the south slope.”
“Regardless, we still need to raise some cash to pay off that contract as well as re-plant that slope,” emphasized Ben. He looked up at Hoss and Joe. “I spent most of the day sending off telegrams, trying to find a buyer for some of our cattle. And I found one.”
“That’s great,” Hoss told his father, trying to sound encouraged. “But Pa, Joe and I took a close look at the herd. We’ve got about 500 head that have enough meat on them to sell. That’s not a lot.”
“That’ll be enough,” said Ben confidently. “There’s a broker in Denver willing to pay us $30 a head for any cattle we can get there before the end of the month.”
“$30 a head!” exclaimed Joe. “What is he, crazy?”
“No, just desperate,” answered Ben. “This buyer named Edwards has a contract to supply the mining camps and towns in Colorado. He bought a herd but when the cattle arrived, the seller didn’t have as many cattle as he promised. Edwards has another herd arriving in about six weeks or so, but he needs beef to make up the difference until then.”
“$30 a head,” repeated Joe, his voice still showing his disbelief . “That’s about $10 more than we’ve ever gotten. How do we know this Edwards has the money?”
“I had Tom Nelson do some checking,” Ben replied. “Edwards has the money. The mines around Colorado are producing a lot of ore. The mine owners are willing to pay high prices to keep their workers fed and on the job.” Ben smiled wryly. “They can afford it, considering all the gold and silver they’re taking out of those mountains. And they don’t much care how fat the cattle are. As long as they have enough meat to feed their workers, the mine owners are happy. Five hundred head should fill the bill, even if they’re the scrawniest cattle we’ve got.”
“That’s all good, Pa,” said Hoss skeptically. “But how do we get the cattle there? Denver’s a long way off. It’d take us close to a month to drive a herd there.”
“I’ve been working on that, too,” replied Ben. “If we can get the cattle to the railhead in Ogden by the end of next week, the railroad can ship them to Denver. But we have to get them to Ogden by no later than the 18th. Otherwise, the railroad can’t take them.”
“Pa, we’ll never make it,” Joe protested. “That gives us less than two weeks to round up the cattle and drive them to Ogden. It’ll take two weeks just to get them to the railhead.”
“If we use the normal trail, yes,” agreed Ben. “But Adam and I have been studying the maps. We think we’ve laid out a route that will get the herd to Ogden in just ten days.”
Bending forward, Joe and Hoss studied the map spread out on the table. A dark line had been traced from the Ponderosa to Ogden on the map. Joe gave a low whistle as he looked at the map.
“Pa, that’s some pretty rough country,” Joe observed. “And we’ve never taken cattle that way before. Do you think we can get a herd through there?”
“It’s a risk,” Ben conceded. “We could lose the herd. But if we make it, we can get the money we need to pay off the railroad contract.”
“And if we don’t make it?” asked Hoss.
“If we don’t make it, I’ll have to sell off part of the Ponderosa,” answered Ben grimly. “We’ll lose a good portion of the ranch.”
Joe glanced at Hoss and Adam. “Is it worth it, Pa?” he asked. “I mean, risking the ranch just to meet a contract? Wouldn’t it be better just to try and work out a deal with the railroad?”
“The railroad doesn’t make deals,” Adam told his brother. “If we don’t deliver the timber or pay the penalty, they’ll haul us into court. And we could end up losing all of the Ponderosa.”
“And they would make sure everyone knew we didn’t pay up,” added Ben. “The Cartwright name would be dragged through the mud. I’d do almost anything to avoid that.” Ben looked at his sons. “Before you decide, there’s an added complication to moving the herd this time of year. Drovers are hard to find in the spring. And Adam is going to need all the hands we can spare to work up in the lumber camp. That means we’ll be moving 500 head of cattle through some rough country with a skeleton crew.”
The Cartwrights sat silently, each thinking about the implications of what Ben had said.
Finally, Ben looked around the room. “Well, what’s it going to be?” he asked. “Do we take the risk of trying to get the cattle to Ogden by the end of next week? Or should I just start looking for buyers for some of our land right now?”
“I don’t see we have much choice,” answered Hoss. “I vote we take the cattle to the railhead.”
“I agree,” Adam chimed in. Then he grinned. “Of course, I don’t have to drive them, so I’m not sure my vote means much.”
Ben looked at Joe. “Well, Joseph, it’s up to you. If we’re not all agreed, I won’t risk it. We can always try to buy the land back later.”
Thinking hard, Joe chewed on his lip for a minute. He knew the drive would be rough and dangerous. And there was a good chance of them not making it in time. But the thought of selling off some of the Ponderosa was something Joe just couldn’t stomach. “Well, I didn’t have much planned for the next few weeks,” answered Joe with a wry smile. “I might as well drive some cattle through the mountains to Ogden.”
Ben smiled. “Thank you, boys,” he said gratefully. “I know it’s a tough situation, but I’m sure we’re going to come through this.”
“Well, if we don’t,” suggested Joe with an impish grin, “we can always skip out and change our names. I always thought Brown was kind of a nice name.”
Dinner that night turned into a working meal. As they ate, the Cartwrights planned the cattle drive, discussing possible drovers, how long it would take to round up the cows, and every other aspect of the drive. Even Hop Sing was distracted. Ben had talked the cook into making the drive with them. Now Hop Sing was frantically checking the larder and making up a list of supplies he would need.
After dinner, Adam, Ben and Hoss headed for bed, making plans for an early start in the morning. Joe lingered behind, saying he wanted another look at the map. He waited until the others had climbed the stairs, then headed toward the kitchen. “Hop Sing!” shouted Joe as he came to the doorway of the kitchen.
Hop Sing was counting sacks of flour and sugar, and marking them off a piece of paper on the table. He looked up as Joe entered. “What you want?” asked the cook in a frazzled voice. “Hop Sing busy. Have much work to do. No time for foolishment.”
Joe hesitated, then shook his head. “Nothing,” he replied quietly. “It’s not important. I’ll see you in the morning.” Hop Sing nodded with a distracted air and returned to his counting, muttering softly in Chinese.
Walking out of the kitchen, Joe flexed his right hand as he walked. He winced a bit as he climbed the stairs. His arm felt tight and sore. Joe shook his head again. His arm would be fine in a day or two, he decided. Besides, there were more important things to worry about.
The next two days were long days in the saddle for Joe, Hoss and Ben. They rounded up and cut out the best 500 head of cattle they could find. Despite Ben’s assurance that the mine owners in Colorado would take any beef, Ben was determined to deliver the best cattle he had available. He felt it was important that any herd that carried the Cartwright name be considered good stock.
Twice Adam made the trip to Virginia City, looking for drovers, while his father and brothers rounded up the cattle. Both times, he came back alone.
Joe’s arm was still bothering him but he had found some ointment in the barn that seemed to help. He wasn’t exactly sure what the stuff was but he knew Hoss used it on horses when they got rashes. He decided to try some on his arm. The ointment burned a bit but then his arm seemed to get numb. It made his right hand a bit hard to use, but at least the pain was gone. Joe had slipped the jar of ointment into his jacket pocket. He used it whenever his arm seemed to be aching, and each time, the ointment numbed the pain.
Over dinner the second night, the Cartwrights discussed and argued about how many men were needed at the lumber camp and how many men were needed on the drive. They finally decided that Ben, Joe and Hoss would take four men; Adam would have the rest of the hands report to the lumber camp.
“Seven men to move that herd through the mountains to Utah,” said Hoss with a shake of his head as he climbed the stairs to his room. “That’s cutting things pretty thin.”
Joe shrugged as he climbed the stairs with his brother. “We’ll have to make do,” Joe told his brother in a tired voice.
Stopping at the top of the stairs, Hoss put his hand out, halting his brother’s climb. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked with concern. “You look kind of peaked.”
“Next to you, I always look peaked,” replied Joe, giving Hoss a small smile. He shook his head. “I’m fine,” Joe added. “Just tired. It’s been a long two days.”
“Yeah, and it’s going to get worse,” Hoss lamented. He looked at his brother carefully. “Joe, we need every hand we can get on this drive, and we need everyone to pull their weight. If there’s something wrong, now’s the time to speak up.”
“Believe me, Hoss,” Joe answered, his smile widening, “if I could figure out a way to get out of this cattle drive, I would.”
Laughing, Hoss turned and walked to his room. Behind Hoss’ back, Joe rubbed his right arm. The burning ache in his arm seemed to be getting worse. As Joe headed toward his room, he thought about saying something to his father, or at least going into Virginia City tomorrow so the doctor could take a look at his arm. Joe’s arm hurt once the effects of the ointment wore off, and the burn didn’t seem to be healing. Then he remembered Hoss’ words about needing every hand. A few small blisters had appeared, but the ointment he was using seemed to keep them from getting worse. To Joe’s eye, his arm didn’t look swollen, and there weren’t any red streaks or signs of blood poisoning. The pain wasn’t so bad, Joe decided, as long as he didn’t slam his arm into anything and kept using the ointment. He could stand it for another ten days or so. If his arm still bothered him, he’d have the doctor in Ogden take a look at it. His father had enough on his mind right now without Joe adding to his problems. As Joe headed for bed, he decided that he’d say nothing about his arm until they got the herd to Ogden.
The cattle drive started with the usual flurry of activity and confusion. Adam came down from the timber camp to help get things organized. When the cattle finally were herded together on the trail and pointed in the right direction, Ben gave a signal with his hand, and the men started shouting, whistling and waving their arms. The startled cattle began walking slowly down the trail.
“Take care of things while we gone,” said Ben to Adam as the two rode side by side.
“I will,” Adam replied. “Promise you’ll send me a telegram as soon as you get to Ogden. I don’t think I can stand the suspense of waiting until you get back.”
“I will,” agreed Ben. He looked ahead at the cattle and men moving up the trail. “It’s a good thing I have Hoss and Joe with me,” added Ben. “The rest of the men are pretty new at this. I don’t think any of them have ever been on a drive before.”
“You can count on Hoss and Joe,” Adam assured his father. “Just use them for the important things, and the rest of the men can fill in.”
“I know,” acknowledged Ben. He stuck out his hand. “Take care, son.”
“You too,” said Adam as he shook his father’s hand. “I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
As Adam pulled his mount to a stop, Ben gently kicked his horse forward. Adam watched as cattle and men rode up the trail. Then he turned his horse and rode to the timber camp.
The first two days of the cattle drive were relatively easy. The herd followed a well-worn trail, giving the inexperienced hands a chance to practice driving the cattle. All the hands were used to rounding up cattle and branding them, but none except the Cartwrights had ever tried to drive an unwilling steer up a trail before. In the past, experienced drovers had done that task while the ranch hands stayed behind. Now the men began to learn how to get the cattle moving without spooking them, and how to get the cattle to settle down at the end of the day.
On the third day, the herd came to the turnoff which would take it into the mountains. Ben halted the drive, and rode to the edge of the trail. Hoss and Joe rode up to join their father.
“What’s wrong?” asked Joe as he pulled his pinto to a stop.
“Nothing,” Ben answered in a distracted voice. He stared at the trail leading to the mountains.
“Pa, are you having second thoughts about this?” asked Hoss. “If you are, we can always follow this trail. It’ll take us right into Ogden.”
“Yes, but not soon enough,” Ben stated. He took a deep breath. “All right, boys. Let’s head the cattle this way.” Joe and Hoss turned their horses and rode back to the herd. Ben waited until the cattle reached the trail, then began leading the steers off the main trail and to the mountains.
The rest of the day was spent herding the cattle along the increasingly narrow and steep trail. Ben frequently consulted the map he had brought, reassuring himself that there was a place ahead to bed down the herd. Finally, at dusk, the herd came to a small meadow. With a sigh of relief, Ben gestured to the men to bring the cattle forward.
It was dark by the time the cattle were settled for the night. Ben rode wearily to the camp that Hop Sing had made at the edge of the meadow. Half the crew was already eating dinner. He saw Joe sitting on a rock near the chuck wagon. Ben was so tired that he didn’t notice Joe was holding a plate awkwardly with his right hand as he ate with his left.
“Got them settled down?” asked Joe as Ben approached the wagon.
“Yes, finally,” answered Ben in a weary voice. “Joe, I want you to take night guard tonight. Jim and Pete will ride with you. I’ll get Hoss to relieve you around midnight.”
“All right,” Joe agreed. He tried to keep the dismay out of his voice. He had been hoping to get some sleep as soon as he finished eating. His arm was beginning to throb and he hadn’t had a chance to put some of the ointment on it. Joe felt bone-tired and he dreaded the thought of several more hours in the saddle.
“I know I’ve been working you and Hoss pretty hard,” added Ben. “But I need you boys to help keep this drive moving.”
“I know,” Joe acknowledged. He took a deep breath. Joe figured he could get through a few more hours. “We’ll get the herd to Ogden on time. We know how important it is to you.”
“To all of us,” corrected Ben. “It’s important to all of us. It means keeping the Ponderosa intact. And it means keeping the name of Cartwright to mean someone you can count on.”
Nodding, Joe scooped a few more spoonfuls of stew from his plate to his mouth, then stood. The plate slipped from his right hand and landed on the dirt. Joe quickly picked up the plate with his left hand, being careful to keep his right hand out of sight.
Ben frowned slightly as he watched Joe pick up the plate and walk away. Something struck him as not quite right, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. Ben shrugged it off. He was tired and he was hungry. And he had too much on his mind to start imagining new worries.
Joe rode slowly around the cattle. It seemed liked he had been on night guard for about three days instead of a few hours. And he knew he wasn’t doing a very good job at guarding the herd. He was paying little attention to the herd, relying on the other two men to alert him to trouble. Joe’s arm was throbbing and burning. He held his arm protectively across his chest, resting his right hand inside his jacket. All he wanted to do was get through with this job and get back to camp. Then he could put some ointment on his arm and get some rest.
Hearing a rider coming up behind him, Joe eased his arm out of his jacket and let it fall to his side, wincing at the movement. Then he slowly turned his horse.
“It’s about time you got here,” Joe complained. Even in the dark, he recognized the big man with the tall white hat riding toward him. “Pa said you were going to relieve me at midnight.”
“One of the horses came up with a stone bruise and it took me awhile to treat it,” explained Hoss.
“Four hours to fix a stone bruise?” said Joe skeptically.
“Well, I wanted to get some sleep,” replied Hoss, his voice sounding as cranky as Joe’s. “I have to ride all day tomorrow too, you know.”
Joe knew he was acting unreasonably. Hoss was working just as hard as he was. But Joe was so tired and he couldn’t think of anything except getting back to camp so he could put the ointment on his arm. “Sorry,” Joe muttered briefly. He jerked his head to the side, gesturing at the cattle.
“They’re pretty quiet so you shouldn’t have any trouble. I’m heading to camp.” Joe didn’t wait for Hoss’ reply. He kicked his horse forward and rode toward the chuck wagon.
The camp was quiet as Joe rode in. He could see his father and Hop Sing sleeping on the ground. He knew Pete and Jim would be coming in soon. Joe quickly tied his horse to the back of the chuck wagon. He knew he had to take care of his arm before Pete and Jim showed up.
Dismounting, Joe pulled the jar of ointment out of his saddle bag. He quickly unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged his arm out of the sleeve of both his shirt and jacket. Even in the dim light from the campfire, Joe could see his arm looked red and angry. There were several more blisters, and some of them had popped open. Joe turned his arm, looking for the tell-tale streaks of blood poisoning, and was relieved not to see any. His arm was swollen around the burn, but the swelling didn’t seem to extend beyond that area. Joe unscrewed the lid of the jar and dipped his hand into the ointment. He began spreading the ointment over the burned area.
As he felt the sharp burning of the ointment, Joe gasped a bit. He gently began to rub the ointment in, gritting his teeth against the pain it caused. But soon the familiar numbness began to seep through the arm. Joe rubbed in some more ointment, relieved at the departure of the pain in his forearm. Hearing the sound of approaching horses, Joe quickly shoved his arm back into the sleeve of his jacket and shirt. He screwed the lid back on the jar and was putting the jar into his saddle bag when Jim and Pete rode up. Keeping his back to the riders, Joe buttoned his shirt.
Pete and Jim looked at Joe curiously, wondering why his horse was by the chuck wagon and not with the rest of the horses. They saw Joe was unbuckling his saddle and slipping it off his pinto. The saddle fell to the ground as Joe’s right hand refused to close tightly enough to hold it. Joe picked up the saddle with his left hand and eased it a few feet away from the wagon.
Turning around, Joe saw the other two men watching him. “What are you looking at?” he growled in a low voice.
Surprised, Jim and Pete glanced at each other, then shrugged. “Nothing,” Pete answered. He turned his horse and walked it toward the picket line where the other horses stood. Jim stared at Joe for a minute then also turned his horse.
Untying his pinto from the back of the chuck wagon, Joe walked the animal toward the picket line. Jim and Pete ignored him as they unsaddled their own horses. Joe chewed his lip for a minute, trying to think of something to say to the men. But since he didn’t know what to say, he said nothing. He simply slipped the bridle off his horse, replacing it with a rope halter. Then he tied his horse to the picket line. Without a word, Joe turned and walked back to the camp.
Joe felt he had been asleep only a few minutes when he heard the banging of a spoon against a tin plate. “Breakfast!” shouted Hop Sing. Joe groaned and turned on his side, trying to get a few more minutes of sleep.
“Come on, Joe, get up,” said Ben, gently nudging his son with his foot. “Breakfast is ready.”
“I’m not hungry,” mumbled Joe, hunching his shoulders up.
Ben sighed. Joe was notoriously hard to wake in the morning, even on the trail. “Joe, get up,” Ben urged in a louder voice. “We’ve got a lot a miles to cover today.” He waited until Joe slowly sat up. Satisfied Joe was awake, he walked toward Hop Sing.
“Hop Sing, we’re not going to stop for a noon meal today,” Ben announced in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “We need to make up some ground, and besides, there’s really no place along the trail to stop the herd. We’re going to push the cattle until we reach the next meadow. That’ll be sometime after dark.” Ben heard the soft groans of the men behind him.
“Eat a hearty breakfast, boys,” suggested Ben as he turned to face the drovers. “If you get hungry along the trail, catch up to the wagon. Hop Sing has plenty of hardtack and jerky for you.” The groan got louder.
“Hop Sing take wagon in front,” announced the cook. “Have good meal for everyone at camp in the meadow tonight.”
Ben smiled gratefully at the cook. He knew the promise of a good meal at the end of the day would keep the men going through the rough ride. Ben poured himself a cup of coffee and looked around the camp. The men were already gathering up saddles and blankets, preparing for the day’s work. All that is, except Joe. Joe was still sitting on the ground, rubbing his eyes.
“Joe, get a move on,” shouted Ben.
Joe looked up at his father and nodded unenthusiastically.
Ben frowned as he looked at Joe. His youngest son looked tired, more tired than he should at this early stage of the drive. Ben also thought he looked a bit pale. He walked over to his son. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked with concern.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe answered wearily. He managed a weak smile. “You know waking up in the morning isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do.”
“I need you to ride point today,” Ben told the youngest Cartwright. “I haven’t got anyone else I can trust to do it. Hoss and I are going to be busy keeping the herd moving. The rest of the hands aren’t too good at that yet.”
“All right,” agreed Joe. He rubbed the back of neck with his hand. “How many more days until we need to get to Ogden?”
“About a week,” answered Ben. “If we drive the cattle all day, we should pick up a little time.”
“We’ll get them there on time,” Joe assured his father.
Ben clapped his son lightly on the shoulder and turned away. He didn’t notice the wince of pain on Joe’s face as his son rubbed his right arm lightly.
Joe made sure he was the last one to leave camp. He waited until Hop Sing was busy loading the wagon and the other riders were heading toward the herd. Quickly, he pulled the jar out of his saddle bag, and, slipping his arm out of his sleeve, rubbed the numbing ointment over the burn. Joe thought the burn looked about the same. At least, it wasn’t getting any worse. He’d have to figure out a way to get the ointment on later when the numbness started to wear off. Joe sighed. He knew how important this drive was to his father, and he knew his Pa was counting on him to help get the cattle to Ogden on time. He’d just have to manage somehow for another week.
For the rest of the day, Joe led the cattle through the narrow mountain trail. When the ointment started to wear off and his arm began to hurt, Joe simply rode ahead, as if he were catching up to Hop Sing. He found a place on the trail, out of sight, and quickly slavered the ointment on his arm. Then he waited for the herd to catch up to him. Joe congratulated himself on his little ploy. His arm stayed numb most of the day, and no one seemed to think it was odd that he would disappear for a bit.
Riding at the front of the herd, Joe kept the drive moving at a good pace — fast enough to pick up some ground but not too fast that it worked the fat off the cattle. He managed to get the herd to the meadow where Hop Sing had set up camp just as the sky was turning dark with night. He led the cattle into the meadow, and quickly turned the herd in on itself, helping the cattle settle for the night. He even rode around the herd while the others headed for the promised meal. Joe was feeling a burst of energy, brought on by the absence of an ache in his arm. His only concern was that the ointment was getting low. He wondered what he would do when he used up everything in the jar.
When Hoss and two of the men came out to act as night guards, Joe finally rode into camp. He led his horse to the picket line, and then took a peek over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching. Confident that he was not being observed, Joe quickly spread some of the ointment over his arm, feeling the now familiar burning followed by a soothing numbness. Satisfied his arm would not bother him for awhile, Joe walked back to the camp fire.
Filling a plate with some stew from a pot hanging over the fire, Joe settled on the ground, resting his back against the wheel of the chuck wagon. Even the hard ground felt good after a full day in the saddle. He looked up as he saw his father approaching.
“Joe, you did a good job today,” said Ben as he sat down next to his son.
“Thanks,” replied Joe. “Maybe I should ride point all the time.”
“It’s all right with me as long as Hoss doesn’t mind,” Ben agreed. “Your brother might not appreciate being back in the dust the whole way.”
“I’ll talk him into it,” Joe told his father with a grin.
“I’m sure you will,” Ben observed, smiling affectionately as his youngest son. He took a deep breath. “You know, Joe, for the first time, I actually think we might pull this off.”
Joe looked surprised. “You mean, you didn’t think this would work?” he asked.
Ben shrugged. “I thought we had a chance, but I knew the odds were long,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to give up without at least trying, though.”
“It means a lot to you, doesn’t it,” Joe stated in a serious voice. “I mean, I know you don’t want to sell off any of the ranch. But keeping the Cartwright name clean, that’s what’s really important to you, isn’t it.”
“Yes it is,” Ben answered, nodding. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve seen a lot of men in my life, good men, who made some mistakes. They never were looked at quite the same way again. My cousin John had a farm in Ohio. He had a bad time one year. No rain, insects, everything. He couldn’t bring in a crop and he couldn’t pay back a bank loan. The bank ended up taking his farm. John started over again, but everyone knew what had happened. People treated him differently. They didn’t trust him quite as much, and he knew it.”
“But it wasn’t his fault,” Joe argued. “I mean, he had some bad luck. It’s not like he wouldn’t have paid back the bank if he had had the money. That doesn’t seem fair.”
“It’s not fair,” agreed Ben. “But it’s human nature. People don’t forget when you’ve had a failure. They might forget the details, but they’ll remember you didn’t pay a debt. I’ve worked hard to make sure my word meant something, to make sure I never broke a promise or didn’t pay a debt. If I have to sell the Ponderosa to insure we pay the railroad, I will. I never want to end up like John.”
Sitting quietly, Joe thought about what his father had said. The reputation of the Cartwrights didn’t mean as much to Joe as it obviously did to his father. But maybe that was because Joe took it for granted. He knew people respected and trusted his Pa, and some of that respect and trust had filtered down to Joe. Joe just never thought about how hard his father had worked to build and keep their reputation intact.
“Pa, we’ll get the cattle through,” promised Joe. “And we’ll get them there on time. I know how much the Ponderosa means to you. We’ll make sure you don’t have to sell a single acre.”
“I know we will,” Ben replied with a smile. “Now you get some rest. You’re riding late night guard tonight.” Ben grinned at the dismay on Joe’s face. “Now, it’s only fair,” he added. “Hoss had the late duty last night.”
“Yeah, I know,” acknowledged Joe. Then his face brightened. “But that means he’ll be tired when I talk with him tonight. I’m sure I can get him to let me ride point for the rest of the drive.”
Shaking his head, Ben laughed. “I don’t want to know the details,” he said as he got up and walked away.
Flexing his right hand, Joe tried to get some feeling back into it. He was more determined than ever not to let his father down.
The drive fell into a routine over the next four days. Joe rode point every day, and used the job to hide the treatments he was putting on his arm. He was concerned that his arm wasn’t getting any better, and that the ointment was almost gone. But he was able to do his job and that was the most important thing to Joe right now.
The herd was about a day away from Ogden when Joe used the last of the ointment. He scraped the sides of the jar, trying to get the last of the greasy mixture out of the container. When he was convinced there was no more left, Joe threw the jar away. He knew the burning pain would come back, and there was nothing he could do to ease it. Joe figured he would just have to grit his teeth and get through the next days or so. It mattered little to Joe that the drive was ahead of schedule, and would arrive in Ogden with at least a day to spare. All he could think about was enduring the pain that he knew would be flaring up shortly.
By the end of the day, Joe wasn’t sure he was going to be able to stand the pain for another hour, much less another day. His arm burned with a fierce pain and the skin on his right hand felt tight and swollen. Any movement sent pains shooting up his arm. Joe felt feverish; he could feel the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Once more, Joe cradled his arm across his chest and rested his hand inside his jacket. He was breathing hard and soft grunts of pain escaped involuntarily from lips. He let Cochise lead the herd. Luckily, his horse seemed to know what to do. Joe just concentrated on staying in the saddle.
Because Joe was riding point at the front of the herd, none of the other drovers noticed his distress. Joe had been oddly gruff with the other hands during most of the drive, and they had quickly learned to leave him alone. Ben and Hoss were busy with the herd, and didn’t pay any attention to Joe. He was keeping the cattle moving in the right direction, and at the right speed, so they assumed everything was all right.
By the time Joe spotted the meadow at the bottom of the trail, he could barely sit his horse. He felt light-headed. One minute he felt hot, burning hot. Then he felt cold and clammy. His head was aching and the burning in his arm was almost unbearable. He led the herd into the meadow, then pulled his pinto aside. The horse walked for a few feet, then spotted a patch of grass that looked particularly lush. As the horse stopped to graze away from the cattle, Joe slid off the saddle and onto the ground.
At the back of the herd, Ben and Hoss rode into the grassy meadow. Hoss frowned as he saw the cattle were milling around and not tightly bunched as Joe usually left them at the end of the day. “Pa, what’s Joe thinking, letting them cattle roam like that,” Hoss grumbled.
Looking around anxiously, Ben failed to spot his youngest son. “I don’t see Joe,” said Ben in a worried voice. “What do you think happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” answered Hoss, his voice tinged with concern as he also was unable to see any sign of Joe. “But I aim to find out.” Hoss began to circle the herd, both to bunch up the cattle as well as to look for Joe. He spotted the pinto grazing unconcerned at the edge of the meadow. Hoss headed a few more cows into the herd, then rode toward the pinto.
A few feet away from his brother’s pinto, Hoss stopped his horse and peered over his saddle. The painted horse’s legs and the thick grass blocked Hoss’ view of anything on the other side of the animal. Dismounting, Hoss walked over to the pinto and stroked the horse’s neck as he looked around. “Joe!” he called out, and frowned when there was no answer. “Where is he, fella?” Hoss asked softly as he stroked the pinto. Hoss walked around the horse, thinking he would look for some tracks. He froze for an instant when he saw the body sprawled in the grass. Then he rushed forward.
“Joe!” Hoss cried in alarm as he rushed to his brother. Joe was laying on his left side, his right arm cradled protectively across his chest. Hoss knelt beside his brother, and gently pulled his shoulders and head off the ground. As he did so, he bumped Joe’s right arm, and Joe groaned in pain.
“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked Hoss as he held his brother’s head and shoulders in his massive arms. Hoss could see the beads of sweat and the flush of fever on Joe’s face. He could feel the heat radiating from back of Joe’s head and neck. “Joe!” Hoss said again, gently shaking his brother. Once again, Joe moaned in pain.
Looking around anxiously, Hoss spotted one of the riders a few yards away. “Pete!” Hoss shouted. “Get my Pa over here quick. Something’s happened to Joe!” Pete look startled, then quickly turned his horse and rode off.
A minute late, a familiar buckskin horse sped across the meadow and pulled a stop near Joe’s and Hoss’ horses. Ben ran forward and knelt next to Hoss. He needed only a quick look to tell Joe was seriously ill. Ben looked at Hoss. “What happened?” he asked. “Did he fall?”
Hoss shook his head. “I don’t know, Pa,” the largest Cartwright admitted. “I just found him laying in the grass. But he’s burning up with fever, and he’s hurting someplace.”
With a quick motion, Ben ran his hands down Joe’s arms and legs, relieved to find no broken bones. He ran his hand gently across Joe’s right forearm, but pulled his hand back when Joe cried out in pain. “It’s his arm,” said Ben. “But it doesn’t feel like it’s broken. Let’s get that jacket and shirt off of him.”
By the time Ben and Hoss managed to pull off Joe’s jacket and shirt, a third figure, wearing familiar Chinese garb, had run across the field to join them. Hop Sing sucked in a quick breath when Ben pulled the sleeve off Joe’s right arm.
Joe’s right forearm was red and swollen. A dark patch of scaly skin ran down the middle of the arm. Several small blisters had formed on the skin, and there was evidence of several other blisters which had burst.
“Very bad, very bad!” exclaimed Hop Sing in an excited voice. He said a few more words in Chinese.
Ben glanced at the cook and then at Hoss. “I don’t understand,” said Ben. “What happened to him?”
“That’s the arm he burned in the fire,” Hoss replied. “But that was almost two weeks ago.”
Hop Sing stopped his babbling in Chinese. “Very bad,” he repeated. “Arm have bad chi. Must fix quickly.”
“Let’s get him over to the wagon,” Ben ordered. Nodding, Hoss moved his arm under Joe’s back and reached down to place his other arm under Joe’s knees. He stood and lifted his brother off the ground.
With Ben and Hop Sing trailing anxiously behind him, Hoss carried Joe across the meadow toward the chuck wagon. Ben saw the other men sitting on their horses, watching. “See to the herd,” he shouted to them. The men nodded, grateful to have something to do.
As Hoss neared the wagon, Hop Sing ran ahead and pulled some blankets from the back of the wagon. He spread the blankets on the ground, then rolled another. As Hoss gently laid Joe on the blankets, Hop Sing stuck the rolled blanked under Joe’s head.
“Get me some water!” Ben shouted to the cook, but Hop Sing was already pulling a canteen out of the back of the wagon. He ran forward and handed the canteen to Ben.
Splashing some water on Joe’s face, Ben was relieved to see Joe’s eye blink. He trickled some water into Joe’s mouth, then put the canteen aside. Joe groaned softly, then opened his eyes.
“Pa?” asked Joe in a confused voice. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, Joe,” replied Ben. “We just found you passed out in the grass.”
Moving his right arm a bit, Joe immediately groaned in pain. “My arm,” mumbled Joe. “It’s gotten worse. It’s on fire.”
“Joe, has your arm been bothering you since that fire on Big Horn Mountain?” asked Hoss with concern.
Joe nodded. “I put some stuff on it, but I ran out,” Joe explained in a low voice. He winced in pain again. “I thought…I thought I could make all the way,” he added.
“Joe, why didn’t you tell me your arm was hurt,” demanded Ben. “We should have gotten you to a doctor.”
“Wasn’t that bad. Had to get the herd through,” Joe answered softly. “Had to save the ranch…” Joe’s voice trailed off and his body went limp.
A stricken look crossed Ben’s face as he realized what Joe had done, and worse, what he had done. Ben had placed such importance on saving the Ponderosa and the Cartwright name that Joe had ignored his injured arm to help him with the herd. Ben looked at Hoss, then back to Joe. He felt almost ill.
Hop Sing had started a fire and was putting a pot of water over it to boil. He also had a knife in his hand, as well as a determined look on his face. Satisfied that the water would boil soon, Hop Sing walked over to the Cartwrights.
“Mr. Cartwright,” Hop Sing said quietly, “must cut Little Joe’s arm. Must clean arm, get rid of all bad blood.”
Taking a deep breath, Ben tried to pull himself together. “Yes, Hop Sing,” he agreed with a nod. “We’ll have to lance the arm. Do you have any medicines we can put on it?”
“Hop Sing bring medicine for gunshot, for cut, but no medicine for burn,” replied the cook sadly. “Need right medicine. Must have doctor.”
“Pa, I’ll ride for the doctor,” offered Hoss, getting to his feet. “Ogden’s less than a day away. If I ride fast, I can be back by tomorrow.”
Before Ben could answer, he heard his name being shouted. He looked over his shoulder to see three strangers riding across the meadow. One was wearing a string tie and jacket; the other two were dressed in the rough working clothes of cowboys. All wore sidearms and carried rifles.
“Mr. Cartwright?” inquired the man in the string tie. “Ben Cartwright?”
“Yes, yes, what do you want?” answered Ben in a distracted voice.
“What I want is your herd,” announced the man confidently.
Ben looked at him with a confused expression. “What?” he said incredulously.
“Perhaps I was a bit abrupt,” the man went on smoothly. “Let me explain. My men and I have blocked the trail between here and Ogden. We’ve barricaded it at the narrow part, where there are high rocks on either side. No way to get around it. Now, I want you to sign over your herd to me, or you and your cattle will sit in this meadow until they rot.”
“That’s robbery!” objected Hoss in an angry voice.
“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” agreed the stranger calmly. “I heard about your little cattle drive. I know the Cartwright name. I know you have only the finest cattle, and that they’re worth a lot. So I’ve decided to help myself to your herd.”
Hoss fingered the gun at his side. “What’s to stop me from shooting you out of the saddle right now?”
“Not much,” admitted the man. “But if you do, the men I have spread around the meadow will start shooting, and I’m afraid you and the rest of your men will die. I hardly think a herd of cattle is worth all of you dying.”
“My son is hurt,” Ben pleaded in a desperate voice. “He needs a doctor. Let me send for the doctor and you can have everything you want.”
The man looked over Ben’s shoulder to the figure laying on the ground. “That’s unfortunate, Mr. Cartwright,” the man answered with a shake of his head. “But I’m afraid I can’t let any of you leave here for the next four days. I figure that’s how long it will take to get your cattle to Ogden, sell them, and then disappear with the money.”
“Four days!” cried Ben in alarm. “My son could be dead in four days. Don’t you understand? He’s hurt, sick. He needs a doctor as soon as possible.”
The man shook his head again. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” he replied without a shred of sympathy. “But that’s the situation. You will sign over your herd to me. Some of my men will take them down the trail, and the remainder of my men will stay here to guard you. At the end of four days, they will leave you tied up in this meadow and head to a place where we’ve agreed to meet. By the time you get free, they will be long gone.”
Ben felt an anger building in him. “I’ll sign nothing over to you,” he declared in a cold voice. “If you want to start a fight, let’s start it here.”
“No, Mr. Cartwright,” the stranger said, holding up his hand. “I want to avoid bloodshed if I can. Rustling is a serious offense, but murder can get someone hung. I want to avoid that, if possible. I didn’t expect you would agree to my idea immediately. That’s why I blocked the trail. I’m going to give you some time to think about it. Tomorrow, I’ll be back and you can sign over the herd then.”
“By tomorrow, I’ll have the sheriff and a posse as big as an army on your trail,” promised Ben angrily.
“I doubt it,” the would-be rustler countered. “Ogden’s the only town within two hundred miles. And the only way to get to Ogden is down this trail…the trail I have blocked.” The man looked around. “I figure your cattle have enough graze for a day, maybe two. After that, you’ll either have to sign over the herd or watch them start to die.” The man looked at Joe on the ground. “You might have even less time, if your son is as sick as you say.”
“We’ll just turn the herd around and head back up the trail,” declared Hoss in an angry voice. “We ain’t staying here.”
“Unfortunately, a rock slide has blocked the trail about ten miles in back of you,” explained the stranger with a smile. “So you really have no place to go. You think about that.” The man pulled his horse around, preparing to leave. “I’ll be back in the morning to collect the papers for the cattle,” he added, looking around. “They really are fine beef. Your reputation does you justice, Mr. Cartwright.” Putting put his hand to the brim of his hat, he murmured “Good day” and rode back across the meadow. The two cowboys with him watched Ben and Hoss carefully for another minute, then turned and rode off.
“Pa, what are we going to do?” asked Hoss.
“First things first,” answered Ben. “We have to see to Joe. We’ll worry about the cattle later.”
Fifteen minutes later, the water over the fire was boiling. Ben stuck the knife into the hot water, and held there for a minute. When he pulled it out, Ben took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He said a silent prayer, then walked over to where his youngest son laid in the grass.
Barely conscious, Joe was laying on the blankets; his shirt had been removed, and his bare chest glistened with sweat. Hoss knelt next to his brother’s left arm and Hop Sing knelt in the grass on the other side. Ben nodded to the two men. Hop Sing gripped Joe’s right arm tightly at the wrist and elbow, pining it firmly to the ground. Hoss pressed his large hands against Joe’s shoulders.
Kneeling next to Hop Sing, Ben took another deep breath. Then he stuck the hot knife into Joe’s arm.
Screaming and jerking his body, Joe tried desperately to pull away from the cause of his agony. But Hoss’ massive arms held him down, and Hop Sing’s strong grip refused to let his right arm move. Ben quickly sliced the darkened area of Joe’s arm. Immediately, a sticky yellow fluid began to ooze out of the slice. Ben grabbed a cloth that was draped over Hop Sing’s shoulder and began wiping away the substance. Ben sliced his son’s arm again, trying to close his ears to Joe’s new shriek of pain. Once more, the arm in front of him began to ooze with an ugly-colored liquid. After squeezing the sides of Joe’s forearm to force out whatever he could of the infection, Ben wiped away the sticky fluid once more.
Putting the knife aside, Ben picked up a bottle from the ground. He knew alcohol wasn’t the best medicine to put on his son’s wound, but it was the only remedy available. Pulling the cork out of the bottle, Ben liberally poured the liquid from the bottle on to Joe’s wound. Once more, Joe screamed in pain as the alcohol burned in the open sore. As Ben put the bottle aside, Hop Sing reached into a leather bag on the ground next to him and pulled out some white cloth. He placed the cloth over the wound, then wrapped some thin white strips around it. Hop Sing worked quickly, and in a few moments, Joe’s arm was tightly bandaged.
Limp with exhaustion, Joe laid still on the blankets.
“That’s the best we can do for him here,” Ben said in a shaky voice. “We need to get him to a doctor.”
Lifting his hands from his brother’s shoulder, Hoss sat back on his heels. He put a hand on Joe’s forehead and frowned. “Pa, his fever is higher,” Hoss noted, trying to keep his voice calm.
“Hop Sing make special tea,” the cook proclaimed as he scrambled to his feet. “Tea help fever.”
Hearing the sound of a horse coming near, Ben stood and looked toward Pete, who was riding slowly up to the wagon. “Mr. Cartwright, I think you’d better see to the herd,” the cowboy suggested in a nervous voice. “All that….that noise has got them jumpy. They’re starting to move around, and we’re not sure what to do.”
“I’ll go,” Hoss declared, standing up. “You stay with Joe. C’mon, Pete, I’ll show you how to quiet a herd.”
For a moment, Ben stood quietly, watching Hoss walk off toward his horse. Then he knelt next to Joe again. Ben stroked his son’s head gently. “Joe,” he crooned in a quiet voice. “We’ll get you to a doctor. Everything is going to be all right. Do you hear me, son? Everything’s going to be all right.” Joe laid unmoving on the blankets, his eyes closed. Ben wasn’t sure if his son heard him.
Holding a cup and spoon in his hand, Hop Sing returned and knelt next to the blanket. “Hop Sing take care of Little Joe,” the cook stated firmly. “You go take care of cows.”
“The cattle aren’t important,” argued Ben.
“Cattle important,” insisted Hop Sing. “Little Joe, he think they important. Get sick trying to get them here. Not right if you lose them now.”
Startled, Ben stared at the cook. “You’re right, Hop Sing,” he agreed slowly. “If Joe was willing to sacrifice so much to get this herd to Ogden, the least we can do is finish the job for him.” Ben’s face took on a hard look. “Nobody is going to stop us from getting those cattle to Ogden.”
“You go take care of cows,” Hop Sing repeated, waving his hand. “Hop Sing take care of Little Joe.”
Getting to his feet, Ben looked down at his son. “Take good care of him, Hop Sing,” he commanded the cook softly. Then Ben turned and walked toward his horse.
Riding slowly down the trail that led toward Ogden, Ben cautiously scrutinized the rocks around him. As the trail began to narrow, Ben stopped his horse. He tied the animal to a bush, then climbed up into the rocks. Moving slowly and carefully, Ben climbed until he was above the narrow part of the trail. Below him, a barrier of wood blocked the trail.
Frowning, Ben studied the barricade across the trail. It was obviously a hastily made blockade, consisting of an overturned wagon and several long tree limbs. The limbs crossed in front of the wagon, making a rough X. Behind the wagon, Ben could see four men with rifles standing watch. Shading his eyes, Ben looked further down the trail. He saw a fire and some figures about twenty yards behind the overturned wagon. Ben couldn’t get any closer; a deep ravine separated his perch from the next outcropping. Ben stared at the scene below for a minute longer, trying to etch every detail into his brain. Then he slowly turned and crept away.
Hoss was nervously pacing in front of the wagon when Ben returned. “Pa!” he said with relief. “I came back and Hop Sing said you were gone. I couldn’t figure out where you’d gone to.”
“I went on a little scouting mission,” Ben explained as he dismounted. He walked over to where Joe was laying on the ground. Hop Sing had covered him with several blankets, and had laid a damp cloth across Joe’s forehead. Ben watched his youngest son for a minute, then shook his head. “Hoss, we’ve got to get Joe to Ogden,” he declared.
“I agree,” Hoss concurred. “But how?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Ben. “I took a look at that barricade. It blocks the whole trail, and they’ve got men with rifles behind it. If we charge it, we’ll be cut down. I thought maybe we might be able to get to them from the rocks, but we can’t get close enough to get them all. They have six or seven men scattered all through the rocks behind the barricade.”
Before Hoss could say anything, Pete came riding up again. “Hoss, you’d better get out there,” called the cowboy. “Those cattle are awfully nervous. We just can’t get them to settle down.”
“All right, all right,” replied Hoss, with a wave. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Hoss,” said Ben thoughtfully, “just how jumpy are those cattle?”
“They’re not too bad,” Hoss answered. “But it wouldn’t take much to spook them. I’d better give Pete a hand.”
As Hoss turned and walked to his horse, Ben stood thinking.
Ben spent the rest of the night huddled in the wagon with Joe. Hop Sing had made a bed in the wagon, dumping pots and supplies out on to the ground. The cook had helped Ben carry Joe into the wagon, and twice had forced his tea into the sick man. Exhausted by the pain and fever, Joe had slept most of the night, stirring only when Hop Sing forced the tea into him or changed his bandage.
Trying to cool Joe’s fever, Ben wiped his son with cool damp cloths, and kept another damp cloth across Joe’s forehead. For most of the night, Ben could see little change in his son’s condition. But now, as the faint rays of dawn were appearing the in sky, he thought Joe looked better. His son’s breathing seemed less labored, and his body seemed to be radiating less heat. More importantly, Joe was stirring. Ben waited, then smiled as his son opened his eyes.
“Good morning,” said Ben with a smile. “How do you feel?”
“Lousy,” admitted Joe. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Pa; I didn’t mean to hold up the herd.”
“Joe, you didn’t hold up the herd,” Ben assured him. “We’ve got a…a little situation here that we are dealing with. Besides, you’re much more important to me than any cows.”
Again, Joe shook his head again. “I really thought I could make it,” he explained regretfully. “I really thought I could help you get those cattle through on time.”
“You did, Joe,” Ben told his son earnestly. “You did more than even I realized. I just wish you hadn’t done it. You should have told me about your arm.”
“It didn’t seem that bad,” Joe replied, shrugging a bit. “By the time I realized it wasn’t getting better, we were on the trail.” Joe’s eyes started to close.
“Joe, I have one more thing to ask of you,” said Ben.
Joe forced his eyes open. “What is it?”
Ben chose his words carefully. “Joe, I can’t explain it now, but we’re going to have to make a run for it to Ogden. That means a pretty rough, bumpy ride for you. Do you think you can stand it?”
“What’s going on?” asked Joe, his voice weak and tired.
“It’s too complicated to explain,” Ben answered. “But the only way to get you and the herd to Ogden is by charging down the trail. You’re going to get bumped and jarred, and there may be some bullets flying. It’s not going to be easy on you.”
Staring at top of the wagon, Joe thought a moment before returning his gaze back to Ben. “I can stand it,” he stated soberly. “Let’s just get this herd to Ogden on time.”
Ben patted his son on the shoulder. “You get some rest. You’re going to need it.”
After climbing out of the wagon, Ben called to Hop Sing. Quickly, he explained his plan to the cook, and told him to get the wagon ready. Hop Sing’s eyes widened but he nodded his head in understanding.
Next Ben walked to his horse and threw a blanket and saddle on the buckskin’s back. As he cinched the saddle, Ben thought again about what he was going to do. He shook his head; he had no other choice.
Ben rode out to where Hoss and the other hands were standing guard over the cattle. All the hands had worked night guard last night. Ben called the men together. “Boys,” he announced. “I’m not going to sign over the herd. What I am going to do is point those cattle in the direction of Ogden and start them running. We’re going to make a run to the railhead.”
“You mean deliberately stampede them?” said Hoss incredulously.
“Yes, I mean just that,” Ben stated firmly. “That barricade isn’t strong enough to stop a stampeding herd, and I don’t know any man who’s going to stand in their way. But there’s some risks. There’s liable to be some shooting. And a stampede is dangerous all by itself. I won’t ask any of you to go along unless you want to. I won’t think less of any man who wants to stay behind.”
The hands looked at each other nervously. The thought of chasing a stampeding herd through down a narrow trail with bullets flying around was not something to be taken lightly.
“What about Joe and Hop Sing?” asked Hoss.
“Hop Sing is going to follow as fast as he can in the wagon,” Ben answered. “I’ll ride with them, to protect them as best I can.”
“That’s going to be pretty rough on Joe,” said Hoss with a frown.
“Yes, I know,” Ben agreed. “But he’s willing to do it. So is Hop Sing.” He looked around at the other men. “Well? Any of you willing to try?”
“Heck, if Joe’s willing to do it in the shape he’s in, I’m willing to try,” declared Jim.
Pete grinned. “I’ve never seen a stampede before,” he remarked. “You can count me in.”
The other men murmured their agreement.
Relieved, Ben took a deep breath. “Thank you,” he said, the gratitude evident in his voice. “I can’t tell you how much….well, thank you.” Ben took another deep breath. “All right. Now here’s what we’re going to do.”
An hour later, the hands had the cattle pointed in the direction of the trail. Ben rode carefully around the herd, checking on the position of each man. He wanted to be sure they stayed toward the back of the herd, away from the stampeding cattle. He hoped by the time the men rode through the pass, the cattle would have scattered the outlaws below. “Ready, Hoss?” he called to his son.
“Just give the word,” Hoss replied.
“Once they get down the trail, just keep them running,” advised Ben. “Keep them pointed toward Ogden. There’s a flat piece of land about five miles down the trail. We’ll try to stop them there. And keep your head down. One son injured is plenty. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Hoss assured his father. “I’ll see you down at the bottom of the trail.”
Ben nodded then rode toward the chuck wagon. He was surprised to see the driver’s seat was empty. He rode toward the back of the wagon and looked in.
Hop Sing was wiping Joe’s face. Ben could see his son looked pale, and the flush of fever had returned. “Hop Sing?” asked Ben.
Hop Sing looked over his shoulder. “Fever go up,” explained Hop Sing simply.
“I’m all right, Pa,” said Joe in a tired voice. He winced and seemed to grit his teeth. “Ready to go?”
Ben hesitated. Joe looked so ill. Miles of rough, jarring road wasn’t going to help him any. Ben began to think that maybe there must be another way to get Joe to Ogden.
“Pa?” mumbled Joe in a barely audible voice.
In a quandary, Ben bit his lip a bit and looked at his son. He knew his options were limited. If he stayed here, he would lose his herd. More importantly, he might lose his son. Joe needed a doctor now, and not in four days. But if he made the run to Ogden, he could harm his son even more. Ben shook his head, at a loss as to what to do.
“Pa, I didn’t go through all this to lose those cows now,” stated Joe, his voice a bit louder.
For another minute, Ben merely stared at Joe; then he abruptly nodded. “Hop Sing, you stay here in the back with Joe,” Ben ordered. “I’ll drive the wagon.”
Looking around the side of the wagon, Ben called to Hoss. “Hoss, I’m driving the wagon. You take my horse with you.” Hoss looked startled, but nodded. He rode over to the wagon and grabbed the reins of the buckskin. Ben rushed to the front of the wagon and scrambled into the drivers seat.
From his perch at the front of the wagon, Ben looked at the men ahead of him. They were all watching him, waiting. Ben took a deep breath. “Let’s go!” he shouted.
Almost in unison, Hoss and the other drovers pulled their pistols out of the holsters and began shooting into the air. The startled cattle milled around for a minute, and then began running down the trail.
At the barricade, five sleepy men heard the rumble. Confused, the men tried to figure out what was happening. One looked up to the sky, thinking the noise was thunder. Another frowned, swiveling his head around as the noise got louder. Suddenly one of the men pointed and shouted. “Stampede!” he cried. “Run for it.”
Five hundred head of frightened cattle came charging down the trail. Over 1500 pounds of solid beef slammed into the barricade, smashing the tree limbs and wagon to bits. Two thousand sets of sharp hooves ran through the dirt, stepping on anything that blocked their way.
The men behind the barricade scrambled for the rocks. One fell, and was almost instantly reduced to a bloody pulp as the charging cattle trampled him. The stranger in the jacket and tie who had ridden into Ben’s camp ran for his horse. He climbed into the saddle just ahead of the stampede. The man turned and rode down the trail as fast as his terrified horse would take him.
Hoss and the rest of hands rode behind the stampeding cattle, shouting and occasionally firing into the air. They tried to keep their eyes on the rocks, looking for pointed rifles, as their horses flew down the trail. They needn’t have bothered. The would-be rustlers were hiding in the rocks, too petrified by the stampede to think about shooting at the drovers. Hoss and the other hands rode down the trail without a shot being fired at them.
Last came the wagon, bouncing and swaying as it sped down the trail. Ben whipped the horses in front of him with the reins, urging them to greater speed. He tried not to think about the jarring that Joe must be feeling in the back of the wagon, and tried not to hear the groans that were audible even among the sound of pounding hooves and bawling cattle.
On down the trail raced cattle, riders and the wagon. The trail began to flatten, and a wide meadow was visible in the distance. Hoss called to the other men and they began to move from the back of the herd to the side. Now a new race was on. The drovers had to reach the front of the stampede and somehow slow the charging cattle.
Releasing the reins to the buckskin which he had been leading, Hoss gave his horse a kick. Slowly, almost inch by inch, he began moving up the side of the herd. Hoss looked up and saw the meadow was alarmingly close. Beyond the meadow, there was no place to turn the cattle. If they didn’t stop the stampede at the meadow, the cows would charge on down the trail and begin to scatter like feathers in the wind.
Giving his horse another kick, Hoss gained more ground. But he was still not at the head of the herd. He gave his horse one more kick and suddenly saw a bit of empty trail in front of him.
Yelling to the men behind him to help, Hoss rode in front of the stampede, crossing the path of the lead cows. The cows slow and stumbled a bit, startled by the sight of a rider in front of them. Two more riders crossed in front of the cattle, and the animals began to slow, confused by the
sight of horses and men in their path. The cattle behind them began to push the leaders, and the cows at the front of the herd turned into the meadow to avoid both the horns of the steers behind them and the riders in front of them. Soon the whole herd was slowing and moving into the meadow.
Hoss and the other drovers continued to ride in front of the still moving cattle. Despite the danger of being gored by one of the steers and the knowledge that a stumbling horse would mean instant death, Hoss and the other men continued to turn the herd. Ten minutes later, the tired cattle were standing breathless and still in the meadow.
Pulling his sweating horse to a stop, Hoss looked around. Quickly he counted heads, and was relieved to see all hands accounted for. Pete walked his horse up to Hoss and grinned. “Hoss, I wouldn’t have missed that for anything!” he shouted. Hoss smiled and nodded, then looked back up the trail.
The wagon was coming down the trail, still moving quickly but at a slower rate than before. Hoss rode toward the wagon, shouting to Pete to look for his father’s horse. Hoss halted his horse as Ben pulled the wagon to a stop.
Twisting on the wooden seat, Ben looked inside the wagon. He could see Hop Sing lying across Joe’s chest, holding Joe as best he could. Hop Sing looked up when he realized the wagon had stopped. His face was pale and his eyes were wide. He began babbling in Chinese.
“Hop Sing!” Ben demanded in a loud voice. “Hop Sing! How’s Joe?”
Taking a deep breath, Hop Sing stopped his raving. He put his hand on Joe’s chest, and felt the heartbeat. Quickly, he moved his hand to Joe’s forehead. The cook lifted one of Joe’s closed eyelids and peered at the eye.
“Little Joe need doctor,” Hop Sing declared. “Need doctor NOW!”
Giving a quick nod, Ben turned back on the seat of the wagon. “Hoss, you get the herd to Ogden,” he ordered, picking up the reins. “I’m going to get Joe to a doctor.” Hoss nodded and watched with a solemn face as Ben snapped the reins and moved the wagon forward.
The sky was dark by the time Hoss finally found his way to the doctor’s office in Ogden. He had fought the urge to rush to the office as soon as he had arrived with the cattle. But he knew there was little he could do to help Joe and his Pa in the doctor’s office. One thing he could do, though, was make sure the cattle were delivered safely.
So Hoss guided the weary steers into the pens, signed the contracts, and took care of all the other mundane details. But he did them all with a distracted air. His body may have been at the cattle pens, but his heart was in a doctor’s office in town.
Now, Hoss could finally be where he wanted to be. He pushed opened the door of the office and walked into dimly lit the waiting area. Hoss could see a thin Asian body sprawled on a couch, and a larger body, one with white hair, asleep in a chair. He smiled for a moment at the picture of serenity.
“Hoss?” murmured Ben in a sleepy voice. He sat up in the chair and rubbed his eyes.
“Pa, how’s Joe?” Hoss asked.
“The doctor says he’s going to be all right,” answered Ben, smiling wearily. “He’s still a pretty sick boy, and it will be a while before he can go home, but the doctor says he’s out of danger.”
“Hot diggity!” exclaimed Hoss. He shook his head. “That little brother of mine is tougher than a two dollar steer.”
“Did you get the herd in all right?” Ben asked, almost not caring about the answer.
“Yep…signed, sealed and delivered,” Hoss declared. “The railroad will ship them tomorrow. We should have our money from Denver by the end of the week.” Hoss reached into his pocket and pulled out some papers. “There was a telegram and a letter waiting for you at the cattle pens,” he added, handing his father the papers. “Both are from Adam.”
Taking the papers, Ben turned up the lamp on the table next to him. On the couch, Hop Sing stirred and then went back to sleep.
Ben read the telegram first, his face showing curiosity then astonishment. He quickly opened the letter and scanned the pages. He looked up at Hoss. “Did you read these?” he asked.
“I read the telegram,” admitted Hoss.
Looking down at the first paper, Ben read the telegram aloud anyway. “Timber for railroad contract will be delivered. Friends helping out. Letter with details to follow. Adam.”
“What’s the letter say?” asked Hoss.
Shuffling the papers in his hands, Ben began reading again. “Ed Jensen heard about the fire and the contract. He’s offered to deliver about a third of what we need from his timber. He also contacted Tim Jackson, Bob Peterson, and Will Johnson. They’ve agreed to deliver the rest of the timber we need to make up the contract. All said to tell you that the cost will be just whatever it takes them to cut and deliver the timber. And you can pay them whenever you have the money. Ed said they all wanted to do it, to thank you for the help you’ve given them over the years. And they said they know the Cartwrights are good for the money. Ed said he’s never known the Cartwrights to welsh on a deal.”
Looking up, Ben shook his head in amazement. “I can’t believe it,” he said in an astonished voice. “Ed and the others, they’re going to make sure we meet our contract.”
“Pa, they’re good friends,” Hoss told his father with a smile. “We probably should have thought about asking them for help in the beginning.”
“Yes, we should have,” admitted Ben, his voice tinged with sadness. “If we had, Joe wouldn’t be….” He shook his head, unable to finish.
“Pa, there something else,” Hoss stated. “When we were bringing the herd in, we found that rustler, the one who rode into the camp. He and his horse were along the side of the road in some bushes. Looks like his horse fell. Both he and the horse had broken necks. I told the sheriff what happened and he’s going to take some men to look for the rest of that gang.”
“I wish I could say I’m sorry,” Ben told his middle son. “But what I really feel is that he got just what he deserved.”
Suddenly, a door opened and a man in a white coat walked out of a back room. “He’s doing fine, Mr. Cartwright,” doctor declared. “Why don’t you go over to the hotel and get some rest.”
“Doctor, this is my other son, Hoss,” Ben said, making the introductions. “Hoss, this is Doctor Ferguson.”
Hoss nodded, acknowledging the man. “Are you sure my little brother is going to be all right?”
“Yes,” the doctor assured Hoss. “His fever is going down and his arm is draining nicely. It will take awhile to clear up the infection, but he should be good as new in a few weeks.”
“How come it took two weeks for his arm to flare up like that?” Hoss asked.
“Whatever was in that ointment he was using contained the infection, but didn’t kill it,” explained Doctor Ferguson. “Once he stopped using the ointment, the infection spread unchecked.” The doctor shook his head. “The worse part about that concoction he was using was that it numbed the pain. Pain has a purpose. It tells us when there’s something seriously wrong. Your brother managed to kill the pain, and that kept him from realizing how badly burned his arm really was.”
“It’s my fault,” Ben added. “I was so worried about the herd and meeting the requirements of the contract that I didn’t pay attention to anything else. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t do anything about it. I hope I’m never that blind again.”
“Aw, Pa…” Hoss started.
Ben put up his hand. “I don’t want to hear it, Hoss,” he said firmly. He looked at the doctor. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“Yes, go get some rest,” advised the doctor. “Joseph is sleeping and he’ll sleep through the night. You’re staying here won’t do anything to help him.”
Ben bit his lip then finally nodded. He turned to Hoss. “Wake up Hop Sing.”
It was three more days before Joe felt well enough to sit up in bed. He remembered bouncing around for awhile in the wagon, but everything after that was a blur. Images of his Pa, Hoss and Hop Sing, as well as a stranger in a white coat, floated in and out of his consciousness. Finally, he had awakened this morning with a clear head. The doctor had introduced himself, and smiled when Joe wolfed down the soft eggs he gave him for breakfast.
Now, Joe was sitting up, his right arm heavily bandaged and thick pillows supporting his tired body. But he felt well enough to hold court with his Pa, Hoss and Hop Sing.
“You tell Hop Sing next time you burn arm,” the cook scolded him. But the look on the cook’s face told Joe he wasn’t really angry.
“Hop Sing, I’m going to try real hard not to burn anything ever again,” replied Joe with a smile. “But I promise, the next time I even singe a finger, you’ll be the first to know.”
For a moment, Ben smiled also. But then his face turned serious. “Joe, I want you to promise ME that you won’t ever do anything so foolish again,” Ben insisted. “There’s nothing that’s so important that you should risk yourself like that. Do you understand me? Nothing.”
Joe shifted uncomfortably on the bed. “I promise, Pa,” he agreed. “And I’m sorry for all the trouble I caused. But I knew how important it was to get that herd through, to get the money to pay off the railroad. I was just trying to help.”
“I know you were, Joe,” acknowledged Ben, his tone much milder. “And I appreciate what you did.”
“The worse part is that this was all for nothing,” Hoss interjected. “We’re going to get the timber we need for the railroad contract from Ed and those other fellows. And Adam says the loan we got from the bank is more than enough to pay them for the lumber.”
“No,” Ben disagreed. “It wasn’t for nothing. I learned a valuable lesson.”
Both Hoss and Joe looked at their father curiously. “What lesson?” asked Hoss.
“I learned that the Cartwright name already stands for something,” Ben replied. “It’s well known enough to attract rustlers, and respected enough that our friends will rally when we need them. But more importantly, I learned that worrying about the Cartwright name is not nearly as important as worrying about my sons. I had my priorities all wrong. The Cartwright name, the Ponderosa…they all mean nothing if my sons aren’t there to share it with me.”
“Pa, I think you’re going to be stuck with us for awhile,” Hoss stated with a smile.
Returning his son’s smile, Ben said fervently, “I hope so.”
“You know, there are times when being a Cartwright isn’t the easiest thing in the world,” added Joe. “But most of the time, I’m pretty proud of it.”
Silently, Ben nodded. The lump in his throat made it hard for him to talk. “Well, we’d better let Joe get some rest,” Ben stated gruffly. “We need him back on his feet as soon as possible. We have a lot of work for him to do.”
Joe groaned. “You know what I said about being a Cartwright? There are times that I wish I was just plain Joe Brown.”
“Well, you can be Joe Brown if you want,” said Ben. “But you’ll always be my son. The Cartwright name is just that – a name. A name isn’t important. A son is.”
Looking up at his father, Joe smiled. “I think being Joe Cartwright is fine,” declared Joe. “Just fine.”