Synopsis: Joe is accused of murder.
Word Count: 18,000
Author’s note: This story is set in the time frame after Adam has left the Ponderosa.
“Don’t forget we want to get started on that well for the north pasture,” Ben Cartwright said, checking the item off a list as he sat behind his desk in the den. “I think that covers everything we need to do today.”
“Yes sir,” Hoss Cartwright answered with a sigh from the chair next to his father’s desk. The list of chores had seemed endless and none were attractive to him. “Pa, can’t we wait until Joe gets back from Sacramento before we start digging that well?”
“Joe won’t be back until tomorrow,” Ben stated. “We should get started on the well right away. Besides, there is plenty for your brother to do when he gets back.”
“I sure hope so,” grumbled Hoss. “He’s due for a little hard work after doing practically nothing for a week.”
“Now, Hoss, Joe has been working hard getting that timber deal lined up,” Ben replied in a slightly accusing tone. “I’m sure his week in Sacramento has been no vacation.”
“Pa, I’m sure he’s been working hard during the day,” Hoss agreed with a grin. “It’s what he’s been doing at night that I wonder about.”
“I’m willing to bet that you and I will never know,” Ben acknowledged with a smile.
Before Hoss could make another comment about his little brother, he and his father were startled by the sound of a hand banging against the front door. The pounding was rapid and hard, as if the visitor had an urgent need to enter the house. With a frown on his face, Hoss pulled his bulk from the chair and walked to the front of the house, followed closely by Ben. As Hoss pulled opened the door, a tall man in his fifties brushed past him and rushed up to Ben.
“Ben, thank goodness you’re home,” the man said in a breathless rush of words.
“John, what’s wrong?” Ben asked in alarm. He had never seen John Hardy, an old friend, this upset before.
“Ben, there’s a posse out looking for Joe,” Hardy declared.
“Looking for Joe?” Hoss repeated in a puzzled voice. “Mr. Hardy, Joe’s in Sacramento. Somebody’s mighty confused.”
“No, Hoss, Joe was in Virginia City last night,” Hardy declared, turning to the big man. “He came in the on evening stagecoach. I saw him myself getting off the stage.”
Putting his hands on Hardy’s shoulders, Ben said in a concerned voice, “John, calm down and tell us what happened. Start at the beginning. Are you sure Joe came in last night?”
After taking a deep breath, Hardy tried to explain things calmly. “Yes, Joe came home last night. I was walking by the depot when the stagecoach pulled in. Joe got off the stage and we talked a bit. He said he was going to check his bags at the depot, then head down to the Silver Slipper to get something to eat and a drink before going home. There was some kind of ruckus later, but I didn’t pay much attention. Then this morning, I heard a posse was out looking for Joe. I figured I’d better get out here and tell you about it.”
“Why are they looking for Joe?” Hoss asked. “What do they say he’s done?”
“They said he killed Ed O’Brien. Shot him in cold blood,” answered Hardy, looking at the floor. He couldn’t bear to look Ben in the eyes.
“What!” exclaimed Ben.
“Aw, Mr. Hardy, you know Joe better than that,” Hoss commented. “He’d never do anything like that.”
“I know, Hoss,” agreed Hardy. “But Frank Garrison, the acting sheriff, he said he saw Joe do it. You know Roy Coffee is in Denver for awhile, right? He asked Frank Garrison to take over as sheriff until he got back. Well, Garrison said he heard Joe and Ed arguing about splitting up the money from that Wells Fargo robbery a few weeks ago. According to Garrison’ story, Joe pulled out his gun and just shot Ed. When Garrison tried to arrest him, Joe punched him and ran off. Garrison got a posse together and they’ve been searching for him ever since. They’re all over the Ponderosa looking for Joe.”
“That’s the most preposterous story I ever heard!” Ben cried angrily. “Joe involved in a robbery? And shooting a man? Someone is making this up.”
“Maybe so,” admitted Hardy. “But in the meantime, Garrison has ten men or more looking for Joe.” Hardy swallowed hard. “Ben, Garrison rounded up some real hard cases for that posse. Men who will shoot first and ask questions later. And they have orders to shoot to kill.”
Alarmed, Ben and Hoss looked at each in stunned silence. They knew the accusation against Joe was false, but they also knew Joe could be killed before he ever got to trial. Ben was the first to recover his wits.
“Hoss, get the horses ready,” Ben ordered. As Hoss ran from the house, Ben turned back to John Hardy. “John, do you have any idea where the posse might be?”
“I heard that they were looking over by New Meadow,” Hardy answered.
Nodding with an almost distracted air, Ben grabbed his hat and gun belt, as well as Hoss’ hat and gun. He started out the door then stopped and turned back to Hardy. “John, thank you,” Ben said quickly. Then he turned once again and rushed out the door.
“You’re welcome, Ben,” Hardy replied softly, knowing his friend couldn’t hear him. He walked slowed out of the house, closing the door tightly behind him. Hardy watched as Ben and Hoss climbed into their saddles and kicked their horses forward. “And good luck,” he added in the same soft voice.
Ben and Hoss rode like men possessed toward New Meadow, a pasture on the most eastern end of the Ponderosa that was at least an hour from the house. Both men kicked their horses hard and urged them to run at top speed, obsessed with the need to get to Joe before the posse found him. As they rode, the two kept an eye out for signs of another rider – either Joe or the posse – but the trail to New Meadow was deserted.
As they neared the edge of the meadow, though, Ben and Hoss saw four men riding slowly across the grassy land, one of whom was leading a riderless horse. Ben slowed his mount for a moment and pointed out to Hoss what he assumed was part of the posse. Hoss nodded briefly and both men kicked their horses forward. They caught up with the four men near the foothills which formed the boundaries of the meadow.
“Hold it!” shouted Ben as he and Hoss neared the riders. The men pulled their horses to a stop and looked around, surprised at the call. The Cartwrights slowed their horses as they crossed the meadow and finally stopped them when they reached the men.
“Well, if it ain’t old man Cartwright himself,” one of the riders said with a sneer on his face. “What you doing out here? Looking for the precious kid of yours?”
“Yes, yes I am,” answered Ben. “Have you found him?”
“No, we didn’t,” replied another man. “But we found something almost as good. We found the horse he was riding.”
Looking at the roan horse they were leading, Hoss frowned. The animal was a poor specimen, appearing to be old and slow. If Joe was riding that horse, it was no wonder he hadn’t gotten very far.
“How do you know Joe was riding that horse?” Hoss asked.
“He stole it in town,” answered the first man. “We got a description from Frank. Besides, there’s blood on the saddle. Frank thought he hit your kid brother when he was shooting at him in town.”
As he listened to the man talk, Ben felt a clutch of fear in his stomach. The news about Joe kept getting worse. “Did you see any sign of Joe?” he asked anxiously.
“No, but we’ll find him,” stated one of the small posse. “He can’t get very far bleeding and on foot.”
“We’re taking this horse back to town,” added another of the riders. “There’s a reward for finding it. We’ll come back out here once we collected our money. Then we’ll collect another reward for bringing in the kid’s body.”
“Yeah,” laughed the first man. “Easiest money we’ve ever made.”
Ben swallowed hard. “Are you the entire posse?” he asked.
“Nah, there’s a bunch of people looking for the kid,” said the second rider. “Only, they ain’t looking in the right place.”
“C’mon, let’s get going,” ordered the man holding the reins to the old roan. “I want to get back out here before somebody else finds Cartwright.”
“Maybe one of us should stay here,” suggested the second rider, giving Ben and Hoss a suspicious look. “I mean, the old man here might find the kid first.”
Hoss had been looking around, studying the countryside. Suddenly, he turned back to the riders. “You don’t have to worry about us,” he said. “We’re going to look for the rest of the posse, and stay with them.”
“Hoss…” Ben started to say.
“Pa,” Hoss interrupted firmly. “It’s the smart thing to do. We ain’t going to find nothing around here. It’ll be better if we stay with the rest of the posse.” He looked pointedly at Ben.
“You’re right, Hoss,” Ben agreed hastily. He wasn’t sure what Hoss had in mind, but he was willing to follow his son’s lead. “Let’s go find the rest of the posse.”
The four riders watched suspiciously as Hoss and Ben turned their horses and began to ride slowly away. Finally, one of the men shrugged. “Let’s go,” he said. The small posse headed in the other direction, toward the Virginia City road.
“Hoss, what do you have in mind?” whispered Ben as he rode slowly beside his son.
Quickly, Hoss glanced over his shoulder, then turned to his father. “Just trust me,” he replied in a quiet voice. “I think I know where Joe is hiding.” Ben let out of sigh of relief. “Let’s keep riding for a few more minutes,” Hoss added. “Then we’ll turn back.” Ben nodded his agreement.
Ben and Hoss rode for a short while, then Hoss abruptly pulled his horse to a halt. As Ben did the same, he demanded, “Hoss, what’s going on? Where’s Joe?”
“Pa, I’m not positive, but I think I know where he’s hiding,” Hoss answered.
“Where?” Ben asked again.
“It’ll be easier to show you than tell you,” replied Hoss. “Let’s head back.” He turned his horse and re-traced the trail to New Meadow. Anxious and worried, Ben followed his son. He wished Hoss would tell him what he was thinking, but Hoss seemed content to keep his thoughts to himself.
Riding up to a small strand of trees near the base of the foothills, Hoss stopped his horse and dismounted, carefully looping his reins around a bush near the trees. Ben noted that Hoss’ horse was hidden by the bushes and trees, and quickly moved to imitate his son.
Grabbing the canteen off his saddle, Hoss began walking purposefully toward the foothills. As Ben followed him, his worry and anxiety seemed to grow with every step. He prayed that Hoss knew what he was doing.
Slowly, Hoss began climbing the steep grade of the hills. The ground was sparsely covered; only a few tufts of grass popped up here and there in the rocky soil. Large boulders and rocks dotted the side of the hill. Hoss kept climbing, acting as a man who knew exactly where he was going. He climbed around the rocks, following some invisible trail. As Ben climbed behind him, he suddenly realized where Hoss was heading.
When he reached a small piece of level ground near the top of the hill, Hoss stopped. He looked around carefully, making sure no one else was in the area. As Ben came up behind his large son, he looked back down the hill. They were standing high above the meadow.
Nodding his head slowly, Hoss seemed satisfied the Cartwrights were alone, that no one was watching from the meadow below. He took a few steps to his left and then seemed to disappear into the hill.
Ben had been following Hoss closely but he stopped when he reached the split in the rocks. From the front, the hill looked solid, a mound of hard dirt and granite stone. But up close, Ben could see a foot or so of open ground behind a large piece of gray rock. In the side of the hill, hidden by the huge boulder, was a hole — the entrance to a cave. The opening to the cave was only about four feet high, and Ben had to bend to enter the dark cavern. Once inside, though, he could easily stand; the roof of the cave was more than fifteen feet above him. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Ben could see Hoss standing a few feet ahead of him. The big man appeared to be listening for something.
Motioning with his hand, Hoss led his father slowly through the gloom. They had only traveled a few feet when they heard the click of the gun being cocked.
“Joe?” Hoss shouted. “Joe? Is that you? It’s me. Hoss.”
Almost at once, Ben and Hoss heard a thud, as if someone had dropped something. A few seconds later, a match flared at the back of the cave. Even though the light was minimal, Ben and Hoss could make out the figure holding the match. They both hurried forward to Joe.
Joe was lighting a small candle when Hoss and Ben reached the back of the cave. Sitting against the far wall, his legs were sprawled out in front of him and his pistol was lying on the ground next to him. Joe was holding a match in his right hand, trying to light the candle in a wavering left hand. As Ben neared his son, he could see Joe’s left hand was streaked with blood, and that splotches of blood had stained the left sleeve of Joe’s jacket.
“Joe!” Ben cried as he saw his son. There was no question in Ben’s mind that his youngest son was badly hurt. In addition to the blood stains, he could see Joe’s face was beaded with sweat and gaunt with exhaustion. As Ben quickly knelt beside his son, Hoss handed him the canteen. After pulling the cork from the top, Ben put the canteen to Joe’s lips, then watched as his youngest son drank greedily for a minute before pushing the canteen away.
“Hi Pa,” Joe said in a shaky voice. “I’m glad it’s you.” He looked up at Hoss who was standing over him. “Hi, brother,” he added.
Stoking Joe’s head lightly with his hand, Ben asked in what he hoped was a calm voice, “Joe, what happened? John Hardy came out to the ranch and said a posse was looking for you. He said Frank Garrison accused you of shooting Ed O’Brien.”
“I know,” Joe answered in a tired voice.
“What happened?” Ben repeated, his tone sounding more insistent.
Closing his eyes, Joe didn’t say anything for a minute; he seemed to be gathering strength. Then he opened his eyes and looked at Ben. “Pa, Frank Garrison is the one who shot O’Brien. He’s trying to pin the killing on me.”
“Garrison?” repeated Hoss in a puzzled voice. “But Garrison is acting sheriff while Roy Coffee is in Denver. Why would he shoot O’Brien?”
“Because he and O’Brien robbed the Wells Fargo office,” Joe answered.
Confused, Ben frowned. “Maybe you should start at the beginning,” he said. “Tell us the whole story.”
“I decided to come home early from Sacramento,” Joe explained, his tired voice sounding a bit stronger. “When I got to Virginia City, I went to the Silver Slipper to get something to eat. I got caught up in a poker game, and before I knew it, it was almost midnight. I was heading over to the livery to get a horse when I heard some voices arguing in the alley. There was nobody else around, so I thought I’d take a look. Garrison and O’Brien were in the alley. I heard O’Brien say he wanted his cut of the Wells Fargo money now. Garrison shoved him up against a wall. O’Brien went for his gun and Garrison shot him.”
“And Garrison saw you?” prompted Ben.
“Yeah,” answered Joe. “He took a shot at me but he missed. Then he started yelling I had killed O’Brien. People were coming out of buildings and Garrison was shooting and the whole thing was a mess. I figured the best thing to do was to get out of there. So I grabbed the first horse I saw and started riding.”
“We saw the horse,” Hoss remarked. “It’s a wonder you got out of town.”
Joe gave his brother a small smile. “Well, I didn’t have time to pick and choose.” he replied, then turned serious again. “There were bullets flying all around, and one got me in the arm. I tried to keep riding, but I got dizzy. I guess I must have blacked out. Anyway, when I woke up, it was daylight and I laying on the grass out in the meadow. The horse was gone.”
Ben frowned. If Joe couldn’t stay in the saddle and lay in the grass for several hours, he must have lost a lot of blood. Another thing also bothered him. “Joe, you must haven been gotten really turned around in the dark,” he observed. “You’re a long way from the house.”
“I wasn’t heading toward the house,” Joe explained. “I didn’t want you to get caught up in this. I tried to lead the posse away from the house.”
“Where were you going?” asked Hoss.
“Carson City,” Joe answered. “I was trying to get to the U.S. Marshall there. I was going to tell him what happened.”
“The U.S. Marshall?” said Hoss in a puzzled tone. “Why?”
“If Garrison gets a hold of me, I won’t last ten minutes in the Virginia City jail,” Joe stated. “I thought the Marshall could arrest Garrison. Even if the Marshall didn’t believe my story, I could turn myself into him. At least, I’d have a chance with him.”
“That was good thinking,” acknowledged Ben in an approving voice. He was pleased that Joe hadn’t been thinking about running away. “But how did you end up here?”
Grabbing the canteen from Ben’s hand, Joe took a drink before answering. Ben noted with a worried glance that Joe seemed to be getting weaker. After gulping down some water, Joe put the container on the ground, almost allowing it to drop from his hand. “When I woke up, I knew I couldn’t get to Carson City on foot,” he admitted in a voice which sounded more fatigued than before. “I decided I’d better hole up some place until dark, and then decide what to do. I remember this place. Hoss and I are the only ones who know about it. We used this as a hideaway when we were kids.” Joe looked at Ben. “This is where we’d go when we wanted to hide from you. You never knew.”
Turning his head a bit, Ben smiled to himself. Actually he had known about the cave for a long time — since Hoss and Joe were young boys. He had discovered it by accident one day when looking for strays in the meadow. Ben had spotted Hoss’ horse, and was riding around looking for his son, who was about ten at the time, when he had seen Hoss suddenly emerge from the hillside and climb down to his horse below. Out of curiosity, Ben had waited until Hoss left and then climbed up here. He had found the cave after a short search, and once inside, he had looked around carefully. In the back of the cave, he had discovered two bedrolls, some candles and a small wooden box. In the box were some shiny rocks, a couple of battered dime novels, and a few other “treasures” that boys tend to collect. After checking out the cave to make sure it was safe, Ben had left everything undisturbed and ridden away. He knew boys needed a place that they could call their own, one they thought no one else knew about. He also felt better knowing exactly where Joe and Hoss were when they were “hiding” from him. It would spare him a lot of worry, not to mention searching the entire Ponderosa for his sons.
Suddenly, Joe shuddered, bringing Ben abruptly back to the present.
“Let me take a look at that arm,” Ben said quickly. Joe nodded and rested against the wall, his eyes closed. Ben knew his youngest son must really be feeling bad if he didn’t protest Ben checking him over. Usually, if he were sick or hurt, Joe grumbled about people making a fuss over him. But now, Joe simply leaned against the wall of the cave, not saying a word.
Moving to Joe’s left side, Ben tore open the sleeve of his son’s jacket and shirt just below the shoulder. The bullet had plowed a deep furrow in Joe’s arm, practically down to the bone. Even in the dim light, Ben could see the gash looked red and angry. As he gently probed the wound, Joe jerked and gave a small grunt. Satisfied that the bullet was no longer in Joe’s arm, Ben quickly poured some water on the wound to clean it out. He untied the bandanna from his neck and wrapped it tightly around his son’s arm. Joe never said a word; he sat stoically has Ben worked. But he flinched each time Ben touched his arm.
“That wound needs tending, Joe,” Ben advised gently. Joe nodded his understanding, barely moving his head and keeping his eye closed.
Getting to his feet, Ben turned to Hoss. “He should be safe enough in here for now. But we’ve got to get this sorted out before somebody decides to collect the reward on Joe’s head.”
“Are you going to get the doc?” Hoss asked in a worried voice.
“No,” interjected Joe before Ben could answer. Ben looked at Joe in surprise; he hadn’t thought his youngest son had heard them. “No doctor,” Joe mumbled, his voice barely audible. “That’ll lead Garrison here.”
Frowning, Ben thought for a minute. Joe’s wound was serious but he didn’t think his son was in any danger. If he went for the doctor, someone was sure to spot him in town. There was no way he could lead the doctor here – or Joe to the doctor – without bringing the posse down on them.
“Joe’s right,” Ben agreed somewhat reluctantly. “We’d better keep him away from that posse until we can sort this out. I’ll go get some medicine and other supplies from the house, then come back. We can decide what to do after we take care of Joe.”
“I’ll look after him,” Hoss assured his father in a quiet voice.
Once again, Ben knelt down again next to Joe. He knew his son was hurting; Joe’s breathing was heavy, and his face was beaded with sweat. Even though there was only a small bit of light from the candle, Ben could see his son was pale and his eyes were rimmed with dark circles of fatigue. Ben put his hand gently on the top of Joe’s head. “You rest and take it easy,” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Joe nodded slightly, never opening his eyes.
As Ben stood, he looked at Hoss and saw the worry on the big man’s face. Ben slapped Hoss lightly on the arm, reassuring his son the best he could. Then he turned and hurried out of the cave.
After climbing down the hill as fast as possible, Ben ran to his horse. He mounted quickly, almost leaping into the saddle, then kicked the tired animal into a gallop. He rode the horse as fast it would carry him back to the ranch house.
As he reached the yard in front of the house, Ben pulled his horse to a stop and looked around. The yard and area around the house seemed deserted. As he dismounted, Ben breathed a sigh of relief.
Noting his buckskin horse was breathing hard, Ben quickly guided the animal into the barn. He was anxious to get back to Joe but was aware he couldn’t let his horse suffer for his haste. Ben unsaddled the tired animal and rubbed him down, working both efficiently and rapidly. He led the horse into a stall and made sure there was plenty of oats and water for the buckskin. With a speculative look on his face, Ben surveyed the other horses in the barn. In a stall at the end of the barn, a black horse stood quietly, an animal that the Cartwrights had purchased only a few weeks ago. Ben knew Joe thought the black was the fastest horse on the Ponderosa, and he decided that a fast horse was just what he needed. Ben walked to the end stall, threw his saddle on the black, slipped a bridle on the horse’s head, and then led the horse out of the barn. Ben tied the animal to the hitching post in front of the house and rushed to the door.
“Hop Sing! Hop Sing!” Ben shouted as he ran through the front door.
Stopping at bureau near the front entrance, Ben reached down and pulled open the bottom drawer. He began pulling saddle bags out of the drawer. “Hop Sing!” he yelled again as he slammed the drawer shut.
With an angry look on his face, the Chinese cook came shuffling into the room. “What you want?” Hop Sing demanded, looking around. “Where you and Mr. Hoss go so fast this morning?”
Hesitating, Ben wondering how much to tell his faithful cook. He decided the less Hop Sing knew, the better. “Hop Sing, I want you to fill these with bandages and every medicine we have,” Ben ordered, handing the saddle bags to the cook.
Instantly, Hop Sing’s face went from anger to concern. “What wrong?” he asked.
Putting his hand on the cook’s shoulder, Ben replied in a quiet voice. “I can’t talk about it now. Please, just do as I say. And fill the other saddle bag with food, enough to last three or four days.” Ben thought a minute. “And put a bottle of whiskey in, too.”
“What wrong?” Hop Sing repeated, his voice even more demanding.
“Hop Sing, Joe’s in trouble. It’s a long story and I don’t have time to explain. Just do as I say,” Ben answered, finishing in a stern voice.
With a crease of worry on his face, Hop Sing stared at Ben for a minute. Then he turned and rushed out of the room.
Walking quickly across the room, Ben went over to the gun rack and pulled open a drawer underneath the rifles. He grabbed a small box — cartridges for a revolver — and stuffed it in the pocket of his pants. He hoped Hoss and Joe wouldn’t have to fight off the posse, but he wanted to give them plenty of ammunition to use if they did.
With rapid steps, Ben climbed the stairs by the gun rack. At the top, he rushed down the hall to a small closet. Pulling it open, he quickly grabbed two bedrolls and two extra blankets from a shelf. Sticking the blankets and bedrolls under his arm, he shut the closet door and rushed back down the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, Ben hesitated, trying to think of what other supplies his sons would need. Remembering the darkness in the cave, Ben hurried toward his desk. On the floor near the bookcase was a lantern. Ben snatched up the lantern, then pulled open the drawer of his desk. He grabbed a handful of matches and stuck them in the pocket of his shirt.
“Hop Sing!” Ben shouted as he walked back toward the dining room. “I have to go. Do you have those saddlebags ready?”
Hope Sing rushed out of the kitchen, carrying two bulging saddlebags. As he handed them to Ben, the cook looked sternly at his boss. “You take care of Mr. Hoss and Little Joe,” he ordered.
“Don’t worry,” Ben answered reassuringly. “They’ll be all right.”
Giving a snort of disapproval, Hope Sing shuffled back into the kitchen, muttering in Chinese. Ben grinned a bit, but his amusement quickly disappeared. Taking a deep breath, he slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and turned toward the door. He stopped abruptly when the door was flung open and in walked Frank Garrison, followed by three dour-faced men.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Ben demanded in angry voice.
Ignoring Ben’s complaint, Garrison strode boldly into the house. He looked around briefly, then turned to the men who had followed him in. “Jack, search the house,” he ordered. One of the men walked past Ben and climbed up the stairs. “You two, search the barn and the area outside,” Garrison continued. The other two men walked out of the house and toward the barn.
“What do you think you are doing?” Ben demanded again. “You can’t just burst in here and begin looking through my house.”
“Yes, I can,” Garrison replied in an unconcerned voice. He pulled a paper from his vest pocket. “I have a search warrant. It’s signed by a judge, all proper and legal.”
Snatching the paper from Garrison’s hand, Ben quickly scanned it. The paper appeared to be a valid search warrant.
“Now, why don’t you save us all some time and trouble,” Garrison said as he took the paper back from Ben. “Tell us where Joe is.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Ben lied, hoping he sounded convincing.
“Oh, I think you do,” Garrison countered. “I ran into John Hardy, and he told me about his visit out here. He also told me that you and Hoss went looking for Joe. Now I find you here. Looks to me like you found him.”
“No, we didn’t find him,” Ben declared firmly.
Garrison looked suspiciously at the saddlebags, bedrolls and other items in Ben’s hands. “What are those for?” he asked.
“Hoss and I didn’t find Joe,” Ben repeated. “We figure we are going to have to look for quite awhile. I came back to get some supplies.”
“Two bedrolls and some blankets?” Garrison said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You must be expecting a cold spell.”
“These are for both Hoss and me,” Ben explained. “He’s still out looking. I told him I would bring supplies for both of us.” He tried to look calm, but his stomach was churning. He hoped Garrison didn’t decide to look inside the saddlebags. If he saw the medicine and bandages, the sheriff was sure to know he found Joe.
Frowning, Garrison stared at the saddlebags and bedrolls in Ben’s hands, seemingly trying to decide what to do next. Just then, Jack came down the stairs and called to the sheriff. Ben breathed a small sigh of relief as Garrison looked away from him.
“Nobody up there,” Jack yelled.
“Check down here,” Garrison ordered. As the man started walking toward the kitchen, Garrison shouted after him. “Then go look outside with the others.”
Quickly, Ben took a step toward the door. “Look all you want,” he said to Garrison. “I have to go meet up with Hoss.”
“Hold it right there, Cartwright,” Garrison demanded, grabbing Ben’s arm. “Maybe I ought to arrest you and keep you in jail until we find your son.”
“You have no right to arrest me,” Ben replied coldly.
“Maybe you’re right,” Garrison admitted. “But if you find your kid and don’t turn him over to the law, I’ll arrest you for aiding and abetting a murderer.”
“My son is not a murderer,” Ben stated angrily.
“Why? Did he tell you that?” Garrison asked, his suspicion returning.
“No, I told you I haven’t seen him,” Ben replied. “But I know my son. He’s not a killer. And he had no reason to shoot O’Brien.”
“He had every reason,” Garrison declared. “He robbed the Wells Fargo with O’Brien two weeks ago. When O’Brien asked for his cut, Joe shot him.”
“My son had no reason to rob the Wells Fargo,” advised Ben in an exasperated voice. “Look around. Why would my son need to stage a robbery?”
“He wouldn’t be the first kid kept on a short leash by his family where money is concerned,” Garrison suggested.
“You’re right that I don’t give my son unlimited funds,” Ben answered. “But he has all the money he needs. And if he should do something foolish and get in debt, he doesn’t have to rob to cover his losses. Have you ever heard of the Cartwrights owing anyone money and not paying them?”
“No,” Garrison admitted. “But maybe he wanted more.”
“My son is not a thief and he is not a murderer,” Ben stated firmly. “I’ll prove that.”
“How?” Garrison asked.
“I don’t know,” admitted Ben. “But I will prove it.”
Eyes narrowed, Garrison studied Ben for a minute. “Maybe some of my men should ride with you and Hoss. That way, if you find Joe, you won’t be tempted to help him escape.”
“I promised you, if I find my son, I will make sure he turns himself into the proper authorities,” Ben said, emphasizing the word proper.
“I don’t believe you,” Garrison stated. “I think you’ll help him escape.”
“Is that what you think I want for my son?” Ben asked. “To live his life on the run, worrying about some bounty hunter shooting him in the back? No, I’ll take my chances in court. Joe is innocent, and we’ll prove it.”
Nervously, Garrison wiped his hand across his mound and chin. Ben’s words seemed to worry him. Before Garrison could say anything more, however, his men walked back into the house.
“Nothing here, Frank,” called one of the searchers. “What do you want us to do now?”
Looking around, Garrison seemed unsure about what to do next. Deciding to take advantage of Garrison’s indecisiveness, Ben shouldered his way past the man. “I’m leaving to meet my son, Hoss,” Ben announced as he strode out the door. “Close the door behind you when you leave.” He marched past the three men who had accompanied Garrison and walked purposely toward the black horse tied to the hitching post. Without looking back, Ben flung the saddlebags over the back of the horse. He put the bedrolls and blankets on top of the saddlebags, then tied everything securely to the back of the saddle. After hooking the handle of the lantern over the saddle horn, Ben untied the reins of the horse and mounted. Without a word or a backward glance, he rode off.
Garrison stood in the doorway, watching Ben ride away.
“Do you want us to follow him?” one of the men beside him asked.
For a moment, Garrison didn’t say anything. He simply watched until Ben disappeared from his sight. Then, suddenly, he seemed to shake himself into action. “No,” he said firmly. “Forget Cartwright. Let’s go look down by the lake.”
Ben’s heart was pounding as he rode toward New Meadow. He hoped Garrison had believed him, that the sheriff thought Ben didn’t know where Joe was hiding. But there was no way to know for sure. Ben dreaded the thought of leading Garrison and his posse right to Joe.
As he rode, Ben looked over his shoulder, searching for signs of someone following him. He could see nothing, but that didn’t ease his anxiety. He decided to ride a circuitous route back to the cave to reassure himself that he wasn’t being followed. It took over two hours of riding before Ben was finally convinced no one was trailing behind him.
The sun was reaching high noon in the sky when Ben arrived back at New Meadow. He dismounted in the strand of trees, happy to see Hoss’ horse contentedly munching grass nearby. He tied his horse to a bush and hurriedly gathered his bundles from the back of the animal. He climbed back to the cave as fast as he could, his progress slowed by the many items he was carrying. Finally, he reached the entrance to the cave. Ben took a quick look around to satisfy himself that he was not being watched, then he ducked into the cave.
“Hoss?” Ben shouted as he entered the dark cavern. The cave was pitch black. “Hoss, are you here?” Ben shouted again.
A match flared in the back of the cave. A minute later, Hoss walked toward Ben, a candle flickering in his hand.
“Pa, I’m glad to see you,” Hoss said in a relieved voice. “I was getting worried. You were gone a long time.”
“I’m sorry,” Ben answered. “Garrison and his men showed up at the house. I had to ride around for awhile to make sure I wasn’t followed.”
“Garrison?” Hoss repeated in alarm. “What did he want?”
“He’s still looking for Joe,” Ben explained. “I’m sure he doesn’t know where Joe is. His men searched the house and the barn.”
Hoss nodded, but didn’t seem convinced.
“How’s Joe?” Ben asked with concern.
Glancing quickly over his shoulder, Hoss answered, “About the same. I let him sleep. That seemed to be the best thing. Besides, there wasn’t much else I could do for him.” Hoss’ voice reflected the frustration he felt at not being able to help his brother more.
“Here, light this,” Ben said, handing Hoss the lantern. Hoss lit the lantern with the candle, and the cave suddenly seemed bathed in light. Hoss blew out the candle.
“I brought food, medicine, blankets, everything you might need,” Ben stated.
“Did you bring some extra canteens?” Hoss asked.
Grimacing, Ben cursed himself. “No,” he admitted in disgust. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Hoss reassured his father. “I can sneak down to the stream later and refill the canteen.”
Still upset with himself, Ben took a deep breath. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get Joe fixed up.”
As Ben walked toward the back of the cave, Hoss followed him, holding the lantern high. At the end of the cavern, Ben could see Joe curled on his side on the ground, sleeping. His head was resting on Hoss’ hat and his injured arm was lying protectively across his chest. Joe’s face was flushed, and small rivulets of sweat trickled down his forehead. Kneeling next to his son, Ben put his hand lightly on Joe’s brow. He could feel the fever in his son, but was relieved that it didn’t seem too high. He gently stroked Joe’s head, and quietly murmured his son’s name.
Stirring a bit, Joe winced and grunted with pain as he moved his left arm. He slowly opened his eyes and looked around, confused as to where he was.
“Joe, wake up,” Ben said quietly. “It’s all right, son. Wake up.”
Turning onto his back, Joe looked up into his father’s face. “Pa?” he asked. “Where have you been?”
“I went to get some medicines and supplies, remember?” Ben explained.
Giving a quick nod, Joe suddenly recalled what had happened and where he was. He looked around and saw Hoss holding the lantern nearby. “How long have I been asleep?” Joe asked his brother.
“Couple of hours,” Hoss replied. “You needed the rest.”
Quickly spreading out one of the bedrolls, Ben helped his youngest son scoot over onto the groundcloth and blanket. He untied the bandanna from around Joe’s arm and took a close look at the wound. The bullet had hit the arm about halfway between the elbow and shoulder. Blood was seeping slowly from the wound, and the skin around the injury was red and swollen. The edge of the wound was encrusted with dried blood.
“Hoss, bring that lantern closer,” Ben ordered. Hoss knelt next to his father, placing the lantern between them. Hoss winced as he saw his brother’s arm.
Taking a deep breath, Ben turned to his youngest son. “Joe, I’m going to have open up that wound. That will help it drain. Can you take off your shirt and jacket?”
Nodding, Joe slowly unbuttoned his shirt with his right hand. When the buttons were undone, Hoss helped him slip the shirt and jacket off his right shoulder. Ben eased the clothing slowly off Joe’s left arm.
Laying back on the blankets, Joe was breathing hard. Just that little bit of movement had sent shooting pains up his arm and seemed to sap the energy he had built up while he slept.
Ben turned to the saddlebags behind him. Opening the flap of one, he pulled out bandages and several bottles. He carefully read the label of each bottle, then set it aside. Ben searched through the rest of the saddlebags, finally pulling a small bottle of whiskey from one. He pulled the cork off the top of the bottle with his teeth, then lifted Joe’s head from the blanket.
“Joe, take a sip of this,” Ben said, holding the bottle to Joe’s lips. “It’ll help the pain.
After he swallowed the liquid, Joe coughed several times. “That’s whiskey!” he exclaimed with a gasp.
“Take advantage of it, little brother,” Hoss suggested with a grin. “It ain’t often Pa encourages you to drink.”
Smiling weakly back at his brother, Joe took another drag from the bottle then laid back on the ground. His head was beginning to spin a bit.
Putting the bottle of whiskey aside, Ben searched briefly through his pockets until his hand found and pulled out a pocketknife. He opened the knife and then grabbed the matches from his pocket. Ben selected one, piling the rest near the saddlebags. Lighting the match, he stuck the blade in the flame for a minute, then he blew out the match and wiped the blade on his shirt sleeve. He could feel the hot metal through the cloth of his shirt. He tried not to think about how the hot metal would feel on Joe’s bare arm.
“Hoss, hold him still,” Ben ordered in a quiet voice.
“Yes sir,” Hoss replied, and maneuvered his way to Joe’s other side. He grabbed Joe’s shoulders with his huge hands and pressed them to the ground.
As Ben quickly sliced the wound open with the knife, Joe moaned and shivered. Blood and pus began trickling out of the gash. Ben sliced the wound again, and a torrent of the two fluids seemed to pour out of the arm.
With a grim expression on his face, Ben continued to work on Joe. He wiped the fluid from Joe’s arm several time, but let the wound bleed on its own for awhile. Then Ben pressed the cloth firmly on the wound to stop the bleeding. After a few minutes, he removed the cloth and was satisfied to see only a small bit of blood seeping from the injury. Grabbing a small bottle from the ground, Ben glanced at the label, then poured the medicinal alcohol directly on the wound. Joe groaned loudly and struggled in Hoss’ grasp, but his brother held him firm. After taking a deep breath, Ben began wiping the streaks of blood from Joe’s arm, using a cloth soaked in the alcohol to clean up his son. He tried not to show how worried he was about the amount of dried blood he had to wipe away. Picking up one of the smaller bottles, Ben read the label carefully, assuring himself that the bottle contained the right medicine, then poured some liquid from the bottle into the wound. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was but he knew the doctor had used it on gunshot wounds in the past. Joe gasped in pain as the medicine burned into his sore arm. Finally, Ben covered the wound with a clean cloth and wrapped a bandage tightly around his son’s arm. Then he sat back on his heels, breathing almost as hard as his youngest son.
Releasing Joe’s shoulders, Hoss stood up. He walked quickly to the roll of blankets lying near the saddlebags, and with a quick flick of his wrists, opened the blankets and shook them out. He hurried back to Joe, and gently covered his brother with both blankets. Ben nodded his approval.
Joe’s eyes were closed and he laid still. The combination of the whiskey, pain and fever had left him desperate for sleep. Ben gently stroked his son’s head, a gesture of comfort. Both father and son knew Ben had done all he could to help Joe.
Turning toward his father, Hoss started to say something. But Ben put his hand up to stop him, and with a jerk of his head, indicated they should walk back toward the entrance of the cave. Nodding his understanding, Hoss glanced at Joe, then followed Ben.
“I think he’ll be all right,” Ben said in a quiet voice. “As long as the wound doesn’t get infected, he should be fine in a few days.
“Pa, what do we do now?” asked Hoss.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Ben answered. “Joe’s idea of going to the U.S Marshall is a good one. If nothing else, the Marshall will protect him from Garrison.
“But, Pa, Joe’s in no shape to ride,” Hoss protested. “He wouldn’t last ten feet in a saddle, much less all the way to Carson City.”
“I know,” agreed Ben. “Even if he could sit a horse, it would be too dangerous for him to ride out now. Garrison and his men are all around. They’d spot him in no time.”
“Then what are we going to do?” asked Hoss.
“I’ll have to go to the Marshall and bring him here,” Ben declared. “I know Jim Fenner a little; we met a few times in Carson City. I’m sure I can convince him to come back with me.” He looked Hoss squarely in the eye. “That means you’ll have to stay here and take care of Joe. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Hoss replied in a confident tone. “I can look after him.”
“I want you to change that bandage every couple of hours,” Ben advised. “And when he wakes up, see if you can get some food into him.”
“Yes sir,” Hoss agreed, giving a quick nod.
“I’ll ride as fast as I can,” Ben continued. “With any luck, I should be back by early afternoon tomorrow. Just keep out of sight, and you should be all right.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the box of cartridges, handing it to Hoss. “If you do have any trouble, here’s enough ammunition to keep that posse away. Just warn them off. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”
“We’ll be fine,” Hoss assured his father, taking the box. “I don’t think anyone can find us, and even if they do, we can hold off an army from up here.”
“I hope it won’t come to that,” Ben stated, his voice full of worry. “Once the marshal get here, Joe will be safe. You just have to hold on for a little while.”
“Don’t worry,” Hoss said again. “We’ll be fine. You just take care of yourself on the way to Carson. That’s a long ride.”
“I will.” Ben looked toward the back of the cave where Joe was sleeping. He studied his son’s face for a minute, seeming to engrave the image in his mind. Then he turned abruptly, and gave Hoss a quick pat on the back. With one last look over his shoulder, Ben walked quickly from the cave.
Ben rode hard on the trail to Carson City. He was happy that Joe’s assessment of the black horse was accurate; the animal was fast and strong. Ben covered the miles to the capital city at a quick pace, stopping only to rest and water the animal.
It was well after midnight when a tired Ben Cartwright approached the streets of Carson City. His horse was sweating and breathing hard; he had been carrying Ben on his journey for many hours. As he stopped the animal in front of the U.S. Marshall’s office and dismounted, Ben gave the animal a pat on the neck, silently promising him a rest. Hurrying to the door of the office, he was surprised to find it locked. Ben started pounding on the door, shouting the Marshall’s name in a loud voice.
A few minutes later, Ben heard a click and the door was pulled open.
Marshall Jim Fenner stood in the doorway, his hair disheveled and the tail of his white shirt hanging down almost to the knees of his wrinkled brown pants. The dim light of a low burning lamp silhouetted the tall, lanky lawman, as well as the pistol he was holding in his right hand. Fenner looked out through bleary eyes.
“What do you want?” Fenner asked in a sleepy voice.
“It’s Ben Cartwright,” Ben answered, his voice full of anxiety. “I need to talk with you. It’s important.”
The Marshall studied the man in front of him for a moment. Then he nodded, and pulled the door fully open. “Come on in,” Fenner said, sounding more alert.
Anxious to talk to the lawman, Ben quickly followed Fenner into the office. Before Ben could say anything, however, Fenner waved him toward a chair. The Marshall turned the lamp up, making the room bright, then stuck his head through a door in the back of the office, evidently checking on something. Satisfied, Fenner started tucking his shirt into his pants as he walked to his desk. He settled comfortably in a chair behind the desk, placed the pistol on the top of it, and then looked at Ben.
“I don’t usually keep the office locked,” Fenner explained. “But I got two cowhands from the Bar R in a cell back there. I didn’t want to give any of their friends a chance to get them out.”
Ben nodded, not really caring about why the door was locked. “Marshall, I need your help,” he stated in a rush of words.
“Of course, Mr. Cartwright,” Fenner agreed in a reasonable tone. “I assume that if you wake me up in the middle of the night that you’re not here for a social call.”
“Hardly,” Ben replied with irony, a slight smile on his face. Then he grew serious. “Marshall, I need you to help my son, Joseph. He’s wanted for murder, and there’s a posse after him…a posse that would rather bring him back over a saddle than alive.”
“Murder?” said Fenner, frowning. “That’s serious. But it doesn’t sound like anything that Roy Coffee can’t handle.”
“Roy Coffee is in Denver,” Ben explained. “He’s been there for a couple of weeks, and won’t be back until the end of the month. The man who is acting sheriff is the one who actually committed the murder.”
“Maybe I’m not awake yet,” declared Fenner, shaking his head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Maybe you’d better tell me the whole story.”
Quickly, Ben recounted the story Joe had told him. Fenner listened with interest, his expression never changing. Ben wasn’t sure if the Marshall believed Joe.
“That’s an interesting story,” Fenner acknowledged in a neutral tone when Ben had finished. “I heard about the Wells Fargo robbery and wondered why no one had been arrested. Roy Coffee is a better sheriff than most. Now I understand why the robbers weren’t caught.”
“Then you believe my son’s story,” said Ben, relief evidence in his voice.
“I didn’t say that,” Fenner replied. “I just said I understand why the robbers hadn’t been arrested. A temporary sheriff, well, he probably didn’t know what to do. I didn’t say I believed the sheriff was the thief. Could have been your son or anybody else.”
“But Garrison has a posse looking for my son, a posse with orders to shoot to kill,” Ben argued. “Doesn’t that prove something?”
“Proves only that Garrison really doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Fenner pointed out.
Ben slumped in the chair. “Marshall, it really doesn’t matter what you believe. All I want you to do is come back with me, talk to my son. If you don’t believe him, arrest him. But don’t let Garrison put him in the Virginia City jail. If Garrison gets his hands on Joe, he’ll kill him. I’m sure of that.”
For several minutes, the Marshall stared off into space, his face showing he was deep in thought. Finally, he turned to Ben. “I’ll go with you, Mr. Cartwright. If your son is right, then Garrison will kill him. He wouldn’t be the first man killed ‘trying escape.’ Unfortunately, it happens too often. But if your son is guilty, then I’ll make sure he hangs for murder.”
“That’s fair,” Ben agreed. “I know Joe is innocent, and I’ll figure out some way to prove it. But for now, I just want him safe.”
“He’ll be safe with me,” Fenner promised.
Ben stood. “I’ll get a fresh horse,” he offered, starting for the door.
“Now, hold on,” Fenner protested, putting his hand up. “I said I’ll go back with you, but we’ll leave in the morning.”
“Marshall, my son’s life is in danger,” Ben insisted. “Every minute we delay is another minute that posse could find him and kill him.”
“I understand that,” Fenner asserted. “But rushing out in the middle of the night isn’t going to help things. I have to get a deputy to take over here and take care of a few other things. Besides, look at yourself. You’re tired. You’d probably fall out of the saddle from exhaustion before we got back to Virginia City. You need a few hours sleep, and I need a few hours to take care of things. We’ll leave at first light.”
At first, Ben started to protest, then realized the Marshall was right. He was tired, more tired than he could remember for a long time. He couldn’t help Joe if he collapsed from exhaustion. He just hoped the delay wouldn’t cost his son his life.
“All right, Marshall,” Ben agreed reluctantly. “I’ll stable my horse and get some rest over at the hotel. But I’ll be here at dawn, ready to ride. You’d better be ready then.”
“I will, Mr. Cartwright,” Fenner promised. “I will.”
Hoss dozed as he sat comfortably against the wall of the cave. He had spent hours watching over Joe, but his little brother slept the day away. Joe had stirred when Hoss changed the bandage on his arm, but never really woke. Hoss’ stomach had grumbled a bit ago, protesting the lack of food. He had dug through the saddle bags, and was pleased to find some beef sandwiches. He felt guilty about eating while Joe slept, but Hop Sing had packed plenty of food. In fact, Hoss and Joe had plenty of everything except water. Hoss tried to drink sparingly.
After checking on Joe again, Hoss relaxed against the wall of the cave. Before he realized it, Hoss was asleep, his snoring filling the cave.
When he woke with a start, Hoss wasn’t sure what had awakened him. Then he realized Joe was stirring on the blankets next to him, grunting softly.
“Hey, little brother,” Hoss said, kneeling next to Joe. “You’re finally awake.”
Joe’s eyes were bright with fever, and his face looked flushed. But the signs of exhaustion had disappeared from his face and his skin was no longer covered with sweat.
“How could I sleep?” Joe grumbled. “You sounded like a freight train.”
Feeling relieved, Hoss smiled. If Joe was complaining about his snoring, then his brother was feeling better.
“You think you can sit up?” Hoss asked, ignoring Joe’s complaint. “We got to get some food into you.”
As he helped his brother to a sitting position, Hoss made sure he draped a blanket around Joe’s bare shoulders. Joe winced when he moved his injured arm but bit back the groan in his throat. Hoss made Joe comfortable, then pulled the saddle bags next to him.
“Well, let’s see,” Hoss said as he rooted through the leather bag. “Hop Sing sent some sandwiches, some cheese and some apples.” He flipped open the other side. “And, look, he put some cookies in, too.”
“Cookies? Butter cookies?” Joe asked hopefully.
“Yep, your favorite kind,” Hoss replied, pulling two cookies out. He handed them to Joe. Hoss smiled as Joe began to eat them eagerly.
“Ain’t that just like you, little brother,” Hoss chided Joe with a smile. “Ignoring what’s good for you and going right for the sweets.”
“Hoss, you know I can’t resist Hop Sing’s butter cookies,” Joe said, wiping the crumbs from his mouth. Then Joe’s face grew sober. “Where’s Pa?” he asked.
“He went to Carson City,” Hoss answered. “He’s going to get the Marshall and bring him back.”
“Any sign of the posse?” Joe asked.
“No, it’s been real quiet,” replied Hoss. He took a look over his shoulder. “It’s dark outside, so I figured they’ve settled down for the night. Maybe they’ve even given up.”
“No, Garrison won’t give up,” Joe stated, shaking his head. “He knows if he doesn’t kill me, I’ll put a rope around his neck.”
“Joe, you can get into more trouble in the shortest time than anyone I know,” Hoss remarked. “Anyone else, they would have come home without a problem. But you stay in town, and next thing you know, there’s a posse after you.”
“Don’t remind me,” Joe said, rolling his eyes a bit. “I can already hear Pa’s lecture when this is all over.”
“Well, he’s right, you know,” replied Hoss. “If you had come right home when you got back instead of staying in town, none of this would have happened.”
“I know, I know,” Joe agreed in a weary voice.
“How come you came back early?” Hoss asked. “Did you have trouble with that timber contract?”
“No, the contract’s all signed,” Joe answered. “It’s coming by mail.” Joe hesitated, then continued, “I had some other problems so I decided to come on home.”
“Other problems, eh?” Hoss repeated with a twinkle in his eye. “Let me guess. She’s about 5’2” with blonde hair and blue eyes.”
“Something like that,” Joe admitted, smiling ruefully. “She also had a boyfriend I didn’t know about. Things got kind of nasty, so I thought leaving was the best thing to do.” Joe finished the last off the cookies, then looked around the cave. “This reminds me of when we were kids. Remember how we used to hide up here?”
“I remember,” Hoss said with a chuckle. “You used to bring Hop Sing’s cookies with you then. You were going to stay up here and live on them cookies when you got in trouble with Pa.”
“Yeah,” agreed Joe. “Except those cookies never last more than a couple of hours. I usually went home when I got hungry.”
Hoss smiled. “Remember the time we hid out here for two days?”
“Pa never found us,” Joe recalled. “We spent the entire time pretending we were fighting off pirates. We had those wooden swords and we attacked some bushes until there was nothing left but a few twigs. We pretended we were cutting down the masts from a ship.”
“Pa wasn’t even upset when we came home,” Hoss remarked in a puzzled voice. “Near as I could tell, he didn’t even go looking for us. Wonder why?”
Joe licked his lips. Talk of pirates and ships had made him think of water, and that had brought his thirst to a head. “Can I have some water?” he asked.
Reaching over, Hoss grabbed the canteen from the ground. It felt disturbingly light to him. “Go easy,” Hoss advised. “We don’t have a lot. I’ll have to go down to the stream in the morning and refill it.”
Joe tried to take a small sip, but his thirst got the better of him. He drank several mouthfuls of water before he could stop himself. “Sorry,” Joe apologized as he handed the canteen back to Hoss.
“Aw, don’t worry about it,” Hoss told his brother. He reached up and felt Joe’s forehead. It was warm, hotter than Hoss would have liked. “You still got some fever. You needed the water.”
Suddenly, Joe felt tired. “Maybe I’ll rest for a bit,” he advised, starting to slide back down on the bedroll.
“Oh no, you don’t,” Hoss declared, grabbing his brother’s good arm. “You ain’t going to sleep until you get something more substantial in your belly than some cookies.”
“I’m not hungry,” Joe protested. “I just need some sleep.”
“You stay awake for awhile, you hear,” ordered Hoss. “You have to eat something and I have to change that bandage again.”
Joe started to protest some more but Hoss put up his hand. “You can complain all you want, little brother, but you’re going to eat, even if I have to shove it down you,” Hoss said sternly. He reached over to the saddlebags and pulled out half a sandwich, then thrust the food at Joe. “Now, what’s it going to be?”
Reluctantly, Joe took the sandwich from Hoss’ hand. He looked pleadingly at Hoss, but his look was met with a stony glare from his older brother. With a sigh, Joe began to nibble at the sandwich.
Satisfied that Joe was eating, Hoss reached for the other saddlebag. He pulled a clean cloth from the bag, checking to see how many cloths were left. He found three more, enough to get Joe through another day. By then, Hoss hoped, his father would be back.
Untying the bandage around Joe’s arm, Hoss studied the wound. The flesh around the gash was still red and swollen, but didn’t seem as bad as before. Hoss decided that putting more medicine on the wound wasn’t necessary. Joe’s arm seemed to be healing fine, and the medicine was a painful treatment. He put the clean cloth over the wound, then tied the bandage tight around it.
While Hoss worked on his arm, Joe tried to eat. He handed the sandwich back to Hoss when his older brother was finished with changing the bandage. He had only eaten about a third of it.
“Hoss, I can’t eat any more, honest,” Joe declared. His voice sounded weak and tired. “Please, can’t I just get some sleep?”
Taking the sandwich, Hoss gave in to his brother’s pleas. “All right. I guess that little bit will have to do for now. But you’re going to eat the rest of this in the morning.”
Nodding, Joe slid down on the bedroll. He’d worry about trying to eat later. For now, all he could think of was getting some sleep.
Gently, Hoss wrapped the blankets around Joe. He wished he could do more to help his brother; he felt like he had done so little. “Sleep tight,” Hoss murmured as he watched Joe drift off. Then Hoss looked toward the entrance of the cave. “Pa, I sure wish you was back,” he added.
Sun was streaming into the front of the cave when Hoss woke up. He didn’t remember falling asleep, but it was obvious that he had. He stretched and looked over at Joe. Abruptly – and with a sense of alarm – he knelt next to his brother.
Joe’s face was beaded with sweat and his breathing was rapid; it was obvious Joe’s fever had gone up during the night. Hoss swore to himself. He should have put that medicine on the wound, he thought. And he should have stayed awake.
Quickly, Hoss reached for the canteen and shook it. He could tell it was nearly empty. Another mistake, Hoss thought. He should have filled the canteen before now.
Shaking his head in anger at himself, Hoss pulled a cloth out of the saddle bag. He wet it carefully, trying not to waste any water. Then he began to gently wipe Joe’s face. Joe stirred as he felt Hoss’ touch; he opened his eyes and looked up at his brother.
“Morning, Joe,” Hoss said in a hearty voice, trying to convey an unconcerned attitude that he didn’t feel. “How you feeling?”
With a slow push on his uninjured arm, Joe started to sit up, but fell back on to the bedroll. “Not so good,” he admitted. “My head aches, and so does my arm.”
“Your fever’s gone up some,” Hoss acknowledged. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but you take it easy. Pa should be back soon, and then we’ll get you home.”
Taking a deep breath, Joe closed his eyes. He felt terrible, but he wasn’t going to admit that to Hoss. He didn’t want to worry his brother; he had caused so much trouble already. He figured if he could hold on until his father returned, everything would be all right. Joe looked up at his brother again.
“Can I have some water?” Joe asked in tired voice. “I’m really thirsty.”
Quickly, Hoss brought the canteen to Joe’s lips. “It’s almost empty,” Hoss advised as he tilted the container. “Might as well finish it up. I’ll go down to the stream and get some more.”
Joe drank greedily from the canteen, wishing it was full. His throat felt dry, and his face felt hot. He licked the last drops from the rim of the canteen.
“Thanks,” Joe said. He ran his tongue over his lips, wondering why they seemed so dry.
Knowing Joe was still thirsty, Hoss decided the first thing he had to do was get them some more water. Then he would see what he could do about Joe’s arm.
“Joe, I’m going down to the stream,” Hoss declared as he stood. “I’ll fill the canteen so you’ll have plenty of water. You just rest. I’ll be back in a little while.”
Nodding at his brother, Joe tried to smile, but it was a pretty poor effort. He watched Hoss walk toward the entrance to the cave. As soon as Hoss was gone, Joe closed his eyes. He winced as he moved his left arm, trying to get comfortable. As he drifted off, he wondered how long it would be before his Pa got back.
Carrying the empty canteen, Hoss hurried out of the cave. His thoughts were distracted by worrying about Joe and wondering if his Pa was all right. He didn’t bother to look around as he climbed down the hill. All he could think of was getting the canteen filled and getting back to Joe.
When he reached the bottom of the hill, Hoss started walking toward the trees where his horse was tied. The stream was just behind the stand of trees, almost hidden in the brush. He briefly checked his horse as he went by the trees, saw that the animal was contentedly grazing on the grass, then hurried on toward the stream.
“Hold it, Cartwright!” a voice shouted.
Not sure from which direction the voice was coming, Hoss froze.
“Now put your hands up,” the voice continued. “Nice and slow.”
Hoss did as he was told. He heard some movement behind him and glanced over his shoulder. Frank Garrison and five other men were emerging from behind some bushes. All of them had their guns aimed directly at Hoss.
Approaching Hoss warily, Garrison reached carefully to pull the big man’s gun from his holster. Hoss kept his hands in the air. He knew Garrison was looking for an excuse to hit him…or worse.
“Now, where’s that brother of yours?” Garrison asked in a confident tone once he had Hoss’ gun.
“Don’t know,” Hoss answered innocently. “Ain’t you fellows found him yet?”
“Don’t play cute with me,” Garrison snarled. “We found your horse yesterday. We’ve been sitting here all night, waiting for you to show up.”
“I left my horse here while I got some sleep,” Hoss explained, shrugging a bit. “I was going to start looking again this morning.”
“I don’t believe you,” Garrison stated. “Where’s your Pa?”
“He went off on his own to look,” Hoss answered. “We figured we could cover more ground if we split up.”
“Cartwright, you’re lying,” Garrison declared. “We saw you climbing down that hill. Why would you go all the way up there to sleep? Is that where your brother is?”
Trying to think of a way out of the situation, Hoss said nothing. He had to get back to the cave and to Joe. If the posse found Joe, his brother was a dead man. Hoss looked around him and saw six guns were pointed directly at his chest. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He couldn’t see any way to get away from these men.
“You keep an eye on him,” Garrison ordered his men. “I’m going up that hill and see if I can find Joe Cartwright.”
“You mean you’re going up there to murder my brother,” Hoss shouted in an angry voice. “You want these fellows to stay here so you don’t have any witnesses.”
Nervously, Garrison shifted his feet. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he replied. “When I find your brother, I’m going to arrest him. Of course, if he puts up a fight, I’ll have to defend myself.” The sheriff turned and started walking toward the hills, his gun cocked and ready in his hand.
Suddenly, Hoss realized he still had the canteen in his hand. He knew that the odds of getting away were slim, but he had to do something. He couldn’t just stand here and watch Frank Garrison go off to kill his brother. Hoss shifted his stance slightly, then pulled his arm back. He threw the empty canteen as hard as he could at Garrison’s back.
The canteen crashed into Garrison’s shoulder, jarring the man and causing the sheriff’s gun to go off. The pistol fired harmlessly into the ground as the force of the blow knocked Garrison forward. Hoss started after the sheriff but quickly stopped as one of the men in the posse fired a shot into the ground in front of him.
Rubbing his sore shoulder, Garrison spun around. “You’ll pay for that, Cartwright,” Garrison threatened. “You’ll regret the day you met Frank Garrison.”
In the cave, Joe was dozing when he heard the gunshot. Awakened by the sound, he sat up quickly, wincing at the pain the movement caused. He listened carefully, and heard another shot. Instantly, he knew Hoss was in trouble.
Looking around the cave, Joe spotted his gun against the wall, sitting next to a box of bullets. Joe tucked the small box under the gunbelt that was still strapped around his hips, and then grabbed the pistol with his right hand. The gun felt awkward to him because he was used to shooting with his left hand. Getting to his feet, Joe walked shakily toward the entrance of the cave.
Stumbling out of the cave, Joe’s eyes scanned the area. For a few moments, he was blinded by the bright sun. He blinked several times, then shook his head, trying to clear out the cobwebs. He also was breathing hard, surprised at how much even that short walk tired him out.
As he leaned against the large rock which hid the entrance to the cave, Joe tried to gather his strength. He took a couple of deep breaths, then walked in a shuffling gait around the boulder.
Looking down the hill, Joe tried to spot his brother. He could see two men near some trees at the bottom of the hill. Both were facing away from him, pointing guns toward the trees rather than the cave.
Hoping he could surprise the men below, Joe started to climb down the hill. He was about halfway down the path when he saw Garrison coming toward him. Joe quickly ducked behind a large boulder, but Garrison had seen him. Just as Joe got behind the rock, a bullet whizzed past him.
Standing in the trees, Hoss heard the shot and started toward the hill.
“Hold it, Cartwright,” one of the men ordered, pointing his gun menacingly at the big man.
“If you’re going to shoot me, you’d better do it,” Hoss answered, giving the man a stony look. “Cause that’s the only way you’re going to stop me.” He started walking rapidly toward the hill, ignoring the men around him. Hoss’ shoulders twitched as he walked, expecting a bullet in the back at any moment.
Unsure what to do, the posse watched Hoss hurry in the direction of the hill. Two of them cocked their guns, but all seemed reluctant to shoot an unarmed man in the back. Finally, one of them said, “Come on, let’s follow him.” The others nodded.
Hoss seemed to be leading a parade as he emerged from the trees. He walked rapidly toward the hill, and five men followed him in single file. Hoss paid no attention to the posse as he started up the path.
Hiding behind some rocks, Garrison fired two more shots toward the boulder above him, neither one hitting anything. He ducked down as Joe fired a shot harmlessly back at him.
Garrison was preparing to fire again when he heard a noise behind him. Turning, his eyes opened in surprise as he saw Hoss striding up the hill.
“What’s he doing here?” Garrison shouted to men following Hoss. “Get him out of here!” The men following Hoss stopped, still not sure what to do.
Ignoring Garrison’s threatening looks, Hoss continued to walk up the path, stopping only when he neared the sheriff. While the other men seemed reluctant to harm the big man, Hoss was sure Garrison didn’t feel the same way. He was positive Garrison would shoot him if he climbed past the lawman.
“Joe, you all right?” Hoss shouted as he neared Garrison.
For a moment, the only answer was silence. Then a voice called down the hill. “I’m all right. How about you?”
“I’m fine,” Hoss answered. “You stay where you are, you hear?”
“Shut up, Cartwright,” Garrison yelled angrily. He turned to the men behind him. “Don’t just stand there,” Garrison demanded. “Grab him. Tie him up if you have to. But keep him away from here.”
Happy that someone was finally telling them what to do, the posse surged forward. Immediately, Hoss started fighting the men who tried to grab him. His massive fists knocked down three of the men, but he couldn’t fight off all of them. Before he knew it, Hoss found himself firmly in the grasp of five men.
“Hoss!” Joe shouted in alarm. From up on the hill, he could see his brother being manhandled. He started to get up from behind the rock, but when Garrison fired his gun, Joe dropped behind the boulder again.
“Joe, I’m all right,” Hoss called. “You stay there.” He turned to Garrison. “Let me go up and get him,” Hoss pleaded. “He’s hurt and he’s sick. He’ll give himself up if you let me go up and talk to him.”
Garrison gave Hoss a nasty smile as a reply. “Sick and hurt, eh. Well, maybe we’ll just let him stew up there for awhile. Let the sun work on him. A couple of hours in the hot sun, and he’ll be real easy to take.”
“A couple of hours in the sun could kill him,” Hoss said angrily. He tensed his muscles, but the men hanging on to him just grabbed him tighter. “Let me go to him,” Hoss begged again.
“Get him out of here,” Garrison ordered the men. “Tie him up so he don’t cause any more trouble. And make those ropes tight. I don’t want him getting away.” The men nodded and began forcing Hoss down the hill. “And three of you come back after you get him tied up,” Garrison shouted after them. “We need to keep that kid pinned down for awhile.”
Up on the hill, Joe watched as the men led a struggling Hoss toward the meadow, relieved that Garrison didn’t seem to want to hurt his brother. Joe leaned against the boulder and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his arm. Then he considered his situation.
Joe was stuck behind the boulder. He couldn’t go back to the cave; there was too much clear ground. Even though Garrison was a poor shot, he couldn’t risk it. Besides, Joe felt pretty shaky. He wasn’t even sure he could walk that far. And he couldn’t go down the hill; that would be suicide. He’d be offering Garrison a clear shot at him if he tried to climb down to the meadow.
Squinting a bit, Joe looked up at the sun that was rising in the morning sky. He felt hot and thirsty, and he knew it would get worse. Rivulets of sweat were already running down his bare chest. His left arm throbbed and his head ached. He was shooting with his right hand, which meant his aim wasn’t very good. As bad as he felt, Joe thought, he doubted he could hit anything even if he was shooting with his left.
A couple of shots suddenly zinged off the top of the boulder. Joe bent lower behind the rock, then peered cautiously around the edge. He could see a couple of men starting to climb up the hill. Joe shot in their general direction, more to discourage them than anything. If he hit one, it would be pure chance. The men halted and scrambled back down the hill.
Turning to sit with his back against the rock, Joe wondering what to do next. He remembered Hoss saying that his Pa was bringing the Marshall back. Joe decided to try and keep the men below from climbing up the hill while he waited for his Pa. He glanced up at the sun again then closed his eyes briefly. He only hoped his Pa would make it in time.
Ben and Marshall Fenner rode at a swift pace. Ben had to admit he felt like a new man after a few hours sleep and some breakfast. He also knew that he and the Marshall were making better time than if they had started out in the middle of the night. But he continued to worry about Joe and Hoss. He prayed that the posse hadn’t found them, and that they were safe.
As the two men rode, Ben glanced up at the sun. It was just after noon, and they were close to New Meadows. He had told Hoss he would return by this afternoon, and he was grateful that he was able to keep his promise.
Nearing New Meadows, Ben and the Marshall heard shots being fired. The shots were few and seemed sporadic, more like target practice than a fierce fight. Nevertheless, Ben’s heart went to his throat. He looked at Fenner, his eyes wide with fear. Without a word, both men kicked their horses into a run.
Ben’s worst fears were confirmed as the two men rode into New Meadows. Hoss was sitting near the bottom of the hill, hands tied behind his back and ankles bound by thick ropes, with two men standing guard over him. Ben could see at least three other men scattered among the rocks on the hill, all of whom were looking upward. Ben’s only consolation was that he couldn’t see Joe, and that the men were looking up toward the cave. He hoped that meant Joe had not yet been captured by Garrison and his men.
Pulling hard on the reins, Ben’s mount skidded to a stop. “What’s going on here?” Ben demanded in a loud voice as he dismounted.
“Pa,” Hoss called, relief evident in his voice, “thank God you’re here.”
“What’s going on?” Ben repeated. “Why is my son tied up?”
Frank Garrison untangled himself from behind a rock and walked over to Ben. “You’re interfering with a lawful posse, Cartwright,” Garrison stated in a cocky voice. “Why don’t you ride out before I arrest you too?”
“This is my son you have tied up, and this is my land you’re on,” Ben declared angrily. “I demand to know what you’re doing.”
“Pa, they’ve got Joe pinned down about halfway up the hill,” shouted Hoss. “They’ve had him trapped up there for hours.”
Ben’s fear grew. “Is he all right, Hoss?” he asked in a frightened voice.
“I don’t know, Pa,” Hoss admitted, shaking his head almost sadly. “Garrison won’t let me go to him. He tied me up and kept me here. I told him I’d get Joe to give himself up, but Garrison wouldn’t listen.”
His face full of fury, Ben turned to Garrison. “Untie my son,” he demanded the anger in his voice growing. “Untie him now.”
“Can’t do that,” Garrison replied in a lazy tone. “He’s under arrest for aiding and abetting a murderer. And since I’m the only law around, I guess I’ll just keep him here.”
“I’ll take over now, sheriff,” Fenner called. He had been sitting on top of his horse, watching and listening. He hadn’t liked what he heard.
Turing toward the man on the horse, Garrison asked with a sneer, “And just who do you think you are?”
Fenner pulled his vest out from over his chest, making sure Garrison could see the badge pinned to it. “Jim Fenner, U.S. Marshall. And I’m in charge now.”
Garrison seemed to pale at the words. He looked around desperately at the men scattered around him. None of them seemed to know what to do.
Dismounting, Fenner walked over to Garrison. “I think you better untie this man,” he noted, cocking his head toward Hoss. “Keeping a prisoner tied up in the hot sun isn’t the way I do things.”
“He’s been helping an escaped murderer,” Garrison explained a bit desperately. “He’s under arrest.”
“I wasn’t aware that Joe Cartwright had been tried and convicted,” Fenner said sarcastically. “And I heard your prisoner say he wanted to talk his brother into giving himself up. That’s not a crime.”
“I saw Joe Cartwright commit a murder,” Garrison insisted. “Maybe he ain’t been tried yet, but he’s a murderer all the same.”
“We’ll see about that,” Fenner replied evenly. He turned to the two men standing guard over Hoss. “Untie that man,” he ordered.
The two men standing near Hoss looked at Garrison, then at Fenner; they quickly saw who really was in charge. One of them hastily pulled a pocket knife from his vest and cut the ropes around Hoss’ hands and ankles.
Rubbing his sore wrists, Hoss got to his feet. He walked quickly over to his father and the Marshall.
“Are you all right, son?” Ben asked, placing his hand on Hoss’ shoulder.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Hoss answered. “But we’ve got to get to Joe.”
Ben nodded. “What’s the situation?” he asked.
Before Hoss could answer, two shots came from behind a boulder about halfway up the hill. The bullets were scattered widely, landing far from the men crouched behind the rocks. Nevertheless, all the men ducked slightly at the sound.
“Pa, Joe’s been up there for almost three hours,” Hoss said grimly. “Garrison has been keeping him pinned down by firing at him. Joe’s been shooting back, so he’s still alive. But his shots keep getting wilder and it’s been a long time between shots from up there. I called to him a couple of times, but the last two times, he didn’t answer.”
Staring up the hill, Ben spotted some movement behind the boulder about halfway up the hill. He turned to Fenner. “I’ll go up and get him,” Ben offered.
Hoss grabbed his father’s arm. “Pa, be careful,” he warned.
“Joe wouldn’t shoot me,” Ben insisted.
“No sir, but I don’t what shape he’s in,” Hoss advised. “He had a pretty high fever this morning, and his arm was really hurting. He’s been up there in the hot sun without any water for a long time. He could be out of his head, Pa; he may not know it’s you.”
Ben’s fear for his son, which had been abating, suddenly burst full in him again. He swallowed hard. He was worried more about Joe than his own safety. Ben desperately wanted to get to his youngest son.
“Get me some water,” Ben demanded. One of the posse picked up a canteen from a pile of bedrolls and other gear; the man walked rapidly to Ben and handed him the container.
As Ben started walking toward the hill, Fenner stopped him. “Mr. Cartwright, your son is already accused of one murder,” the Marshall stated. “If what your other son said is true, Joe may not know what he’s doing. Don’t let him commit another crime. If it comes to it, save yourself by shooting the boy. Believe me, he won’t thank you for letting him kill you.”
Ben’s eyes widened. “Marshall, I can’t shoot my own son!” he cried.
“Would you rather see him hang for killing his father?” Fenner asked. “Even if he doesn’t hang, he’ll have to live with the fact that he shot you. It’s a kindness not to make him go through that.”
Squared his shoulders, Ben said in a firm voice, “I’m going up that hill, and I’m going to bring Joe down.” He pushed the Marshall aside and started up the hill.
Ben had only gone a few feet up the hill when a shot rang out. The bullet hit the dirt a few yard away from Ben. Another shot landed closer to Ben’s feet. Ben stopped walking. “Joe, it’s me!” he shouted. “It’s your Pa! I’m coming up to you. Everything is all right now.” Ben’s shout was met with silence. Hoss and Fenner exchanged worried glances.
Once more, Ben started climbing up the hill. Again, two shots came down from behind the rocks above, both landing a yard or so in front of Ben.
“Joe, I’m coming up to you, son,” Ben called again as he kept moving up the trail. When he neared the boulder where Joe was hiding, Ben could see a pistol come around from the edge. The gun was aimed directly at him.
As he sat behind the boulder, Joe was in agony. His head hurt and his arm felt like it was on fire. He was more thirsty than he could ever remember. Sweat streamed down his face, bare back and bare chest, staining the waistband of his pants. His face and shoulders were burned from the heat of the sun.
Joe no longer remembered why he was waiting here. All he knew was he had to keep the men below from coming up the hill. He didn’t know why they were after him and he didn’t care. He would almost welcome the men to come get him but he knew they would kill him. And he wasn’t ready to die, at least not yet.
Closing his eyes, Joe tried to rest. He knew he had had some snatches of sleep, but each time he had fallen asleep, the sound of gunshots had waken him. He had periodically checked on the men below, but none seemed to be interested in coming up the hill. He had fired a few shots from time to time, just to remind them not to try.
Shaking his head, Joe tried to clear his brain of the fog that seemed to have enveloped it. His head ached, and he knew he wasn’t thinking straight. Joe tried to remind himself to reload every time he fired the gun. Empty cartridges were scattered around his legs. He didn’t know how many times he had reloaded the gun, but he knew he had dug into the box of bullets many times.
As he heard the shouting from below, Joe sat up with a start. Not understand the words that were being yelled, Joe peered cautiously from behind his boulder. His vision was blurred by sweat and fever, but he could see a figure starting to climb up the hill. Joe fired twice, but was surprised to see the figure didn’t retreat like the others. The man kept coming, walking with what seemed a dogged determination. Joe fired two more times, but the man didn’t stop. He heard the man shouting something, but his fevered brain couldn’t make sense of the words.
Joe couldn’t believe the man was still coming toward him. For a moment, he was willing to let the climber come up the hill, to let the man put an end to the unrelenting agony he felt. But deep down, he knew he couldn’t allow that to happen. He didn’t know if he could aim his gun well enough to wound the man, but he would try. He knew if his aim was poor, he would probably kill the person coming toward him. Joe hated the thought of doing that, but his survival was on the line. It’s him or me, Joe thought.
Aiming carefully, Joe pointed the pistol at the figure moving on the path. Once again, he heard the man shout. He thought the voice sounded familiar but his brain refused to recognize it. Joe wiped his eyes, trying to clear his vision, but the action helped very little. The man was still just a blur.
Joe wanted to warn the man to turn back but his throat was too dry. He couldn’t seem to make a sound. His only hope was to shoot the man, to keep him from reaching him. Joe cocked his pistol and steadied his hand. He aimed at the man’s knee, hoping to cripple him. Then Joe pulled the trigger.
The gun clicked but didn’t fire.
Pulling the gun back, Joe looked at the barrel. He could see the empty cartridges in each of the slots. He had forgotten to keep track of his shots, and now the gun was empty. Joe shrank back against the rock and hurriedly reached into the box of bullets. He cursed silently as he fumbled with the gun, trying to rid it of the empty cartridges and reload it before the man reached him. He knew he was going to be too late when a shadow fell across him.
“Joe!” a voice cried out.
As he looked up, Joe’s aching head finally allowed him to recognize the figure standing over him. “Pa!” he managed to croak from his dry throat. Then Joe dropped the gun and fell back against the rock.
Quickly, Ben knelt beside Joe. He could see the sweat, the sunburned shoulders and the cracked lips on his son. Ben pulled the top off the canteen and held it to Joe’s lips.
Joe drank greedily for a few seconds before Ben pulled the canteen away. “Just a bit for now,” Ben advised. “Too much will make you sick. I’ll give you more in a minute.” He poured some of the water over Joe’s face and chest, hoping to cool his son a bit. Then he held the canteen to Joe’s lips again and let him take several more swallows.
For the next few minutes, Ben alternated between letting Joe drink and pouring the water over his son’s burning face and chest. Finally, he let Joe drink as much as he wanted.
When Joe finally put the canteen down, he looked into his father’s eyes. “Pa, I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled, his voice barely audible.
“Sorry?” Ben asked in a puzzled voice. “What for?”
“I almost shot you,” Joe admitted. He swallowed hard. “I didn’t know it was you.” Joe looked as if he was going to cry.
Clutching his son to his chest, Ben gently stroked Joe’s head. “It’s all right, Joe” he murmured. “Everything is going to be all right now.”
When he released Joe, Ben carefully examined his son. Joe was burning with fever and badly dehydrated; his son winced as Ben checked the bullet wound in his left arm. The tissue around the wound was red and swollen but didn’t show any signs of blood poisoning. Ben knew Joe was in poor shape right now, but he also felt sure Joe would be all right once he got some water and some rest. He put the canteen to Joe’s lips one more time, urging his son to take a big drink.
“Joe, do you think you can walk?” Ben asked as Joe finished drinking. “We’ve got to get you down this hill.”
“Garrison,” Joe croaked. He was still finding it hard to talk. “Garrison’s down there,” he managed to say in a worried voice.
“I know,” Ben said. “But so is Jim Fenner, the U.S. Marshall. Fenner promised me you would be safe with him. You can trust him.”
For a moment, Joe simply stared at his father. Finally, he whispered, “I can trust you.” Joe started to struggle to his feet.
After helping Joe stand, Ben steadied his son as Joe swayed on rubbery legs. He put Joe’s right arm over his shoulders and grasped his son firmly around the waist. With slow, shuffling steps, the pair started down the path.
Standing at the bottom of the hill, Hoss and Fenner had been watching anxiously. Both men gave a big sigh of relief when they saw the two figures starting to descend. Hoss put his head down and said a silent prayer of thanks.
Frank Garrison, who stood next to Hoss, also watched Joe and Ben start down the hill but relief was not the emotion he was feeling. He began to ease his gun out of his holster, moving slowly so he wouldn’t attract any attention. His pistol had almost cleared the leather when he felt a massive hand close around his wrist in an iron grip.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Hoss demanded.
Looking over toward the men, Fenner was surprised to see Garrison’s gun almost out of his holster. “What’s going on?” he asked with a frown.
“Garrison was going to shoot them,” Hoss declared in an angry tone.
“No, no!” Garrison explained quickly. “I was just getting ready to take Joe Cartwright into custody.”
“I don’t think you’ll need a gun to do that,” Fenner said, reaching over and pulling the pistol from Garrison’s hand. “Besides, I’m in charge here.”
“Marshall, you’re going to let that boy get away with murder just because his name is Cartwright,” Garrison protested.
“I have never let a guilty man get away with anything,” Fenner replied in a cold voice. He stared hard into Garrison’s face. “You would do well to remember that.”
Garrison looked away, his face full of fear.
Satisfied that Fenner would keep an eye on Garrison, Hoss walked rapidly toward the hill. He reached it just as Ben and Joe neared the bottom. Ben was practically carrying his youngest son and Hoss ran up to help them.
“Hey, little brother, glad you find decided to come down and join us,” Hoss said as he put his arms around Joe’s waist. Joe gave him a small smile and leaned gratefully against his brother’s broad shoulder.
“Let’s get him out of the sun,” Ben ordered. Hoss nodded and the two men maneuvered Joe toward the shade of the nearby trees. Marshall Fenner walked over to the Cartwrights, with Garrison and his men close behind.
Gently, Hoss and Ben eased Joe down at the base of a tree, making sure he was in the shade. Joe leaned back against the trunk of a large oak, happy to be finally out of the hot sun. Crouching down, Ben again put the canteen to his son’s lips. Joe took a long drink, then closed his eyes.
“Arrest him, Marshall,” Garrison demanded. “I saw Joe Cartwright shoot Ed O’Brien in cold blood. That boy is a murderer.”
Getting to his feet, Ben faced Garrison. “Joe says you’re the one who shot O’Brien.”
“What!” sputtered Garrison. “That’s ridiculous. He’s just trying to pin the shooting on me.”
“That’s what Joe says you’re doing to him,” Hoss countered.
“It’s Joe’s word against Garrison’s,” Marshall Fenner stated. “I guess we’re just going to have to let a jury sort this out.”
“You can’t believe my son would murder anyone!” Ben said. “What reason would he have to shoot O’Brien?”
“He wanted his cut of the Wells Fargo money,” Garrison offered in a confident voice.
“Joe says you’re the one who robbed the Well Fargo,” Ben accused Garrison. “You need the money; Joe doesn’t.”
“You seemed all fired anxious to see my brother dead,” added Hoss. “Seems mighty suspicious to me.”
“You’re accusing me?” said Garrison incredulously.
“Yes, I am,” replied Ben firmly.
“You have no proof,” said Garrison. “Like the Marshall said, it’s just your boy’s word against mine.”
“He’s right, Mr. Cartwright,” agreed Fenner. “Without proof, I have no reason to suspect Garrison here.”
“The money,” said a weak voice from behind the men.
Ben turned in surprise. Joe’s eyes were open and he seemed to be listening intently to the discussion.
“What did you say?” Ben asked.
Coughing a bit, Joe cleared his voice. “The money,” he repeated in a somewhat stronger voice. “I heard O’Brien say it’s in the floor of one of the jail cells.”
Nervously, Garrison licked his lips. “That’s crazy,” he declared in a shaky voice. “How would the money get there?”
“An interesting question,” agreed the Marshall. “How would it get there? And if it’s there, you had to know about it.”
Garrison turned to the men standing around him. “Don’t listen to him,” he shouted. “He’s just trying to confuse things. You’re with me. We’ll take Joe Cartwright in and you’ll all get a cut of the reward money. If the Marshall takes him in, you’ll get nothing. Let’s take the Cartwright kid ourselves.”
“Garrison seems awfully anxious for you fellas to fight his battle for him,” Hoss observed.
“Yes, he must be offering you a lot if you’re willing to risk taking on the three of us for him,” added Ben. “Because that’s what you’re going to have to do if you want to take my son.”
The men standing around Garrison looked at each other, doubt evident on their faces. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” one of the men finally said. “Garrison ain’t paying us enough to take on the Cartwrights and a U.S. Marshall.” The others nodded in agreement. The men turned and began walking away.
“Wait!” Garrison cried in a desperate voice. “Don’t leave! You’re with me! You’re going to help me take Cartwright to jail.”
The men just ignored Garrison and kept on walking.
Spinning on his heels, Garrison turned back to face the Marshall. “You can’t believe this wild story!” he exclaimed. “Cartwright is guilty. I know he is.”
Standing silently, Fenner continued to look at Garrison with a cold stare.
Forgetting that he no longer carried a gun, Garrison reached for his holster. As soon as he realized his mistake, the sheriff looked around for some type of weapon. He spotted a rifle on the Marshall’s saddle and started to run toward it. He only got a few feet before Hoss’ massive hands grabbed him by the shoulders.
Struggling hard, Garrison tried to pull out of Hoss’ grip. As Fenner and Ben walked toward the pair, the Marshall pulled pair of handcuffs off his belt. “I’ll take over from here,” he said, snapping the cuffs around Garrison’s wrists. The action seemed to take all the fight out of the temporary sheriff. Garrison’s shoulders slumped.
“Garrison, you and I are going back to Virginia City,” stated the Marshall. “We’re going to check the floor of the jail cells. And if we find what I think we’re going to find, you’re going to be a guest in your own jail.”
“Marshall, I’d like to take my son back to the Ponderosa, if it’s all right with you,” Ben suggested. “I promise you he’ll be there if you want to talk with him.”
Fenner nodded. “All right, Mr. Cartwright. Take your boy home. I’ll send the doc out from town.”
“Thank you,” said Ben gratefully. “Thank you for everything.”
Hoss added his thanks with a nod of his head.
“No thanks needed,” declared Fenner with a smile. “I like nothing better than arresting a crooked lawman.” With that, he pushed Garrison toward the horses grazing near the trees.
As Ben and Hoss watched, Fenner almost threw Garrison on a horse. The Marshall led the animal toward his own horse, then mounted. With a tip of his hat toward the Cartwrights, Fenner led Garrison away.
Quickly, Ben and Hoss walked back to Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed again and he seemed to be dozing. He stirred when he heard the men approach.
“Little brother, you do keep things from being boring around here,” Hoss commented with a grin as he gazed down at Joe. Joe answered with a small smile.
“If we help you, do you think you can sit a horse?” Ben asked anxiously. Looking up, Joe nodded slowly. Ben turned to Hoss. “Come on, let’s keep him home.”
Joe sat reading in the red chair next to the fireplace. His arm was in a sling, but otherwise, he showed no evidence of his ordeal. A few days rest was all he had needed to feel like himself again. The doctor had checked his arm and dosed him with some medicine, and Hop Sing had stuffed him with food and drink. Now that he was back on his feet, Joe was anxious to get back to work. He was tired of being treated like an invalid.
Sighing, Joe tried to concentrate on the book in front of him. He wished he could be out riding or doing something more active, but his arm still ached when he moved it. The doctor had assured him that the pain would be gone in about a week. Joe just wondered if he could endure sitting around the house for a whole week.
A knock on the front door diverted Joe’s attention from his reading. Grateful for the distraction, he put the book down and walked to the door. When Joe pulled open the door, he was surprised and pleased to see Marshall Fenner.
“Marshall, come on in,” Joe said in a welcoming voice.
Nodding at the welcome, the Marshall walked in. “I’m glad to see you up and around”.
“The Cartwrights bounce back pretty quick,” Joe stated with a grin. Then he turned serious. “I never got a chance to thank you for what you did. You saved my life.”
“I was just doing my job,” replied Fenner, waving away Joe’s thanks. “Besides, your Pa is the one you should thank. He’s the one who came and got me. And he’s the one that went up that hill after you.”
“I know,” agreed Joe soberly. “I owe him and Hoss a lot.”
“I’ll remind you of that the next time you decide to pull some foolish stunt,” a deep voice said from behind the Marshall. Joe looked past Fenner and saw his father and brother walking into the house.
“Well, don’t count on it,” Joe advised with a grin. “I have a short memory.”
Both Hoss and Ben smiled back at Joe, acknowledging the truth of his statement. Turning to Fenner, Ben asked, “What brings you out here, Marshall?”
“I just wanted to let you know we found the money,” Fenner answered. “It was in the floor of the jail cell, just like Joe said. Still in the Wells Fargo bags.”
“What about Garrison?” Hoss asked. “What’s going to happen to him?”
“Once I found the money, Garrison admitted his part in the robbery,” Fenner replied. “But he’s claiming self-defense. He said O’Brien drew first in that alley.”
For a moment, Joe stood silently, a frown of concentration on his face. “Well, technically, I guess he’s right,” admitted Joe. “O’Brien was going for his gun when Garrison shot him.”
“That’s what I wanted to know,” Fenner said. “Since you’re the only witness, I needed to hear what happened from you. The judge will have to decide whether it was actually self-defense, but I think he’ll agree.”
“What will happen now?” asked Ben.
“I’m taking Garrison back to Carson City in the morning,” Fenner explained. “Since he admitted taking part in the Wells Fargo robbery, there won’t be a trial. The judge will just sentence him. My guess is he’ll get at least ten years. The judge is no fonder of crooked lawmen than I am. One of my deputies will take over in Virginia City until Sheriff Coffee gets back.”
Quickly, Ben stuck out his hand. “Marshall, thank you again for everything.”
With a firm grip, Fenner shook Ben’s hand. Then he cocked his head toward Joe and grinned. “You just keep him out of trouble,” the Marshall remarked. “I have better things to do than go chasing after him.”
“Don’t worry,” Hoss advised with a smile. “My little brother ain’t going to cause any more trouble. At least, he won’t for a week or so. Can’t promise what will happen after his arm heals, though.”
The four men laughed.
With a nod of good-bye, Fenner left the house. The Cartwrights followed him outside and watched as the Marshall rode off. Then Joe turned to his father and brother. “I meant what I said,” Joe stated in a serious tone. “You two saved my life. Thank you.”
Ben just nodded and put his hand lightly on Joe’s shoulder.
Embarrassed by his brother’s words, Hoss shrugged. “I figure you’d do the same for me.”
“I would,” Joe agreed wholeheartedly. “Only you have to be sure to hide some place where I can find you. I’m not searching every cave on the Ponderosa for you!”
“I knew that old hideaway of ours would come in handy some day,” Hoss remarked. “Just didn’t know how.”
“Pa, did you know about that place?” Joe asked, his voice full of curiosity.
For a moment, Ben didn’t answer. Then he smiled a bit mysteriously at his sons. “Let’s just say I never worried about where you boys were.” With that, Ben turned and walked into the house.
Amazed, Joe and Hoss looked at each other. “I guess we never did fool him,” Joe observed.
“Be grateful for that, little brother,” Hoss declared. “You only need a real hideaway when you can’t come home. Deep down, we knew we could always come home to Pa, no matter what we had done.”
“Amen to that,” Joe agreed fervently.
Putting his arm lightly around Joe’s shoulder, Hoss smiled. “C’mon, Joe, I’ll play you a game of checkers.”
Eyes twinkling, Joe looked at his brother. “Sounds good to me. I might even let you win.”