The Gold Wagon (by Susan)

Synopsis:  A group of army deserters lay siege to the Ponderosa, waiting for the boys to return home with a very large payroll.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  11,500


Author’s Note: This is a Ben and Joe story; Adam and Hoss are mentioned by don’t make an appearance. Just wanted to warn you!

 

 

The buckboard rolled slowly into the yard of the ranch house, heavily loaded with luggage. The driver, a gray-haired man in a colonel’s uniform, guided the horses expertly toward the house, his ramrod straight posture giving proof of his lifetime of military service. His passenger, an attractive young woman with golden hair, looked toward the house eagerly, her face glowing with anticipation.

As the wagon pulled up to the house, the front door opened. Ben Cartwright quickly walked out of the house, a smile of greeting on his face. “John! You finally got here,” called Ben, approaching the buckboard with an out-stretched hand.

The Colonel pulled the rig to a stop and hopped out. “Ben, it’s good to see you again,” he replied, shaking the offered hand.

Ben clasped the man on the shoulder, then took a step back. “Colonel Nolan, you don’t look a day older than when I saw you two years ago,” he declared in mock seriousness. “Washington must have agreed with you.”

“Washington may have agreed with me,” the Colonel answered with a wry smile, “but I didn’t agree with it much. Ben, I’d rather face a band of Apaches on the warpath than those politicians back in the capitol.”

“Don’t pay any attention to him, Mr. Cartwright,” remarked the young woman as she slide across the seat of the buckboard. “He did more in two years to get the government to honor their treaties with the Indians than most men have done in two decades.”

“Katie, you’re as pretty as ever,” Ben observed with a smile. He rushed forward to help her down from the buckboard. He noted her smart blue traveling suit and graceful style. “And all grown up,” he added with an admiring glance.

“I was grown up when I left,” Katie stated with an answering smile. “You’re as bad as Dad, thinking I’m going to be a little girl forever.” She looked around hopefully. “Where are the boys? And Hop Sing?” she asked.

“Hop Sing is in Sacramento taking care of sick cousin,” advised Ben. “He was devastated when he found out he was going to miss you. He thinks of you as one of the family.”

“And the boys?” prompted Katie.

“In Sand Hill, waiting for the payroll wagon. They’ll guide the wagon to the Ponderosa. I expect they’ll be here tonight,” explained Ben.

“All three of them?” said the Colonel in surprise. “I would have thought that one of your sons would be sufficient to guide the payroll wagon and its escort to the Ponderosa.”

“Normally, yes. But they were delivering a herd up to the railhead near Sand Hill. I got so tired of hearing them argue about who was going to stay behind and wait for the wagon that I finally told them that they all could do it,” Ben replied.

“Ben, I do believe you’re getting soft,” the Colonel observed with a grin. “Letting your boys trick you into a few days away from work like that.”

“They only thought they tricked me,” Ben told the Colonel with a wider grin. “Actually, I had planned to let all three of them stay in Sand Hill to wait for the wagon. But this way, they think they’ve pulled one over on me and that will keep them from trying something else for awhile.”

“You old fox,” chided Katie with a smile. “You never change.”

Ben blushed slightly. “Come on into the house,” he said hurriedly. “I bet you could use a cup of coffee.”

“Maybe you’d better let me fix it,” Katie suggested as she walked toward the door. “I remember your coffee. It’s got a kick like a mule. Besides, now that I’m going to be married, I’d better practice in the kitchen.” She strode purposely into the house.

Ben and Colonel Nolan watched Katie enter the house, both their faces reflecting the affection they felt for the young woman.

“It’s hard to believe Katie is getting married,” Ben commented with a shake of his head. “It seems only yesterday that she was running around here in pigtails.”

“I know,” agreed the Colonel. “She’s right, you know. Even though she constantly reminds me that she’s twenty and fully grown, I still think of her as my little girl.”

“Her fiancée is in the Army?” asked Ben.

The Colonel nodded. “David is a fine young officer. Katie met him at one of those parties in Washington that she was always dragging me to. I’m pleased that he’s gotten posted to the Presidio in San Francisco, instead of some fort in Indian country. It will give he and Katie a chance to start their marriage in a more normal fashion than her mother and I did.”

“I never heard Beth complain,” said Ben. “She didn’t care where she was as long as she was with you. I’m sure Katie feels the same way.”

“Beth would have liked Washington,” reflected the Colonel sadly. “I miss her, Ben. Even after ten years, I miss her every day.”

“I know,” Ben replied in an understanding voice.

The Colonel suddenly straightened. “Is any one else around?” he asked, changing the subject.

“No,” answered Ben. “With the payroll wagon coming in, I though it was better to send the hands out to check the herd for a few days. I didn’t want anyone to be tempted.”

“I hardly think that anyone is going to try to take on an escort of eight soldiers,” declared the Colonel in an ironic voice. “But it’s probably a wise idea. The less people around when the payroll wagon shows up, the better. You know, $50,000 is gold is quite a temptation. They’ve even taken to calling it ‘the gold wagon’.”

“Come on in the house, John,” Ben urged. “I’ll see to your horses later.”

“Katie will be looking for us,” agreed the Colonel with a smile. The two men walked toward the house, chatting easily as they went.

Ben and the Colonel walked into the house just as Katie was bringing a tray of cups from the kitchen. She had removed her jacket and had the sleeves of her white blouse pushed up to the elbows. “Did you two have a good visit?” she asked with a mischievous grin as she set the tray on the low table in front of the fireplace.

“Yes, yes we did,” agreed Ben. He looked at the tray on the table. “You didn’t have to do all this, Katie.”

“It’s no trouble,” Katie declared. “I wasn’t kidding about your coffee. Besides, I know this house as well as my own. Now, you two sit down and finish your visit while I make the coffee.”

“See how bossy she’s gotten?” the Colonel complained with a grin. “Ever since she and David got engaged, she’s been doing nothing but ordering me around.”

“I’ve been doing it for years, Dad,” Katie observed. “You just never realized it before.”

The two men laughed as Katie walked briskly back to the kitchen.

*****

Sipping coffee, Ben, Katie and Colonel sat comfortably in the living room. The horses had been stabled and the luggage carried to the rooms upstairs. Now all three were relaxing in front of the fireplace as Katie enthusiastically described her fiancée David and all the plans for upcoming wedding.

“I’m pleased you decided to get married in San Francisco,” Ben said when Katie finally paused to take a breath. “The boys and I are looking forward to being at the wedding.”

“It seemed to make sense to get married out here,” explained Katie. “With David in San Francisco and so many of Dad’s friends scattered out West, well, Washington would have been a pretty lonely placed in get married in.”

“Oh, I think we could have found one or two people to come,” teased the Colonel.

“Now, Dad, you know what I mean,” Katie declared indignantly. “I wanted to get married in front of my real friends, like Mr. Cartwright, and Adam and Hoss.” Her face softened a bit. “And I wanted Joe to be there, too.”

Ben noticed the look on Katie’s face. “I had hoped Joe and you might one day, well, I had hoped you might get closer,” Ben admitted in a quiet voice.

Katie made a face. “It’s hard to feel romantic about a boy who pulled my hair and chased me with a frog,” she replied in a tart voice. Then her voice softened. “Besides, Joe never felt that way about me, and I lost the crush I had on him a long time ago. We’re friends, good friends, but really only friends.”

“Those boys of mine,” Ben said in an exasperated voice. “They never see that the best things are right under their noses.”

Katie gave Ben a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

“I’m glad you were able to stop for a visit on the way to San Francisco,” Ben added, returning her smile. “It’s a nice coincidence that you were able to be here when the payroll was passing through the territory. You’ll have a fine escort to San Francisco.”

“Coincidence!” the Colonel snorted. “It’s no coincidence, Ben. Katie has been scheming and plotting for months, trying to figure out how to manage a visit to the Ponderosa and still get a military escort to her fiancée.”

“Now, Dad,” Katie protested as Ben laughed. “You know that’s not true.”

“Katie?” her father prompted in a skeptical voice.

“Well, all right, I did make a few inquiries,” admitted Katie. “But it’s not like I asked the Army to send their gold wagon miles out of its way or anything. I just suggested to that nice young officer that the Ponderosa might be a good safe place for the wagon to stop for the night.” She tried to keep an innocent look on her face, but failed badly.

Ben and Colonel Nolan laughed heartily.

Katie stood. “I’ll take these back to the kitchen and clean up,” she said briskly, gathering up the coffee cups.

“Katie, you don’t have to do that. I can clean up,” Ben offered.

“I’m an Army brat, Mr. Cartwright,” replied Katie. “I learned a long time ago about cleaning up after yourself.” She picked up the coffee pot and walked toward the kitchen.

“John, she’s a fine young lady,” Ben remarked as he watched Katie walk off.

“Yes, she is,” agreed the Colonel. “I’m very lucky, Ben.”

The knock on the door startled both men, and a frown formed on Ben’s face. “I wonder who that could be,” he commented as he stood. “Most of the ranchers around here are away, moving their herds to the railhead.” Ben walked to the door and pulled it open. He was startled to see a heavy-set man in his forties, wearing a sergeant’s uniform. The man saluted briskly at Ben.

“Excuse me, sir,” said the sergeant formally. “I’m looking for Colonel Nolan. Is he here?”

Before Ben could answer, the Colonel walked to the door. “I’m Colonel Nolan. What can I do for you, sergeant?”

The sergeant looked the Colonel over carefully for a moment without answering. Then he reached toward his belt. Both Ben and the Colonel were shocked when the man pulled his gun from his belt.

“Colonel, you can put your hands up,” the sergeant stated calmly. “And step back from the door.”

Unarmed, Ben and the Colonel had no choice but to slowly raise their hands and take a step backwards

“Come on in,” the sergeant shouted over his shoulder.

From his vantage point a few feet inside the house, Ben couldn’t see into the yard but he heard someone approaching. A minute later, four men dressed in civilian clothes joined the sergeant, each carrying a rifle. Three were unremarkable men whose faces reflected a lifetime of hard living. The fourth, however, was young, tall and blonde; he would have been attractive but the sneer on his face and his cold eyes removed any thought of his being called a handsome man. All of the men pointed their rifles at Ben and the Colonel.

“Dad, what’s going on?” a voice said from behind the Colonel. Nolan spun around to see Katie standing behind him, a curious look on her face.

Before the Colonel could answer, the sergeant pushed him roughly toward his daughter. Nolan stumbled forward, then turned to stand protectively in front of Katie. “What’s the meaning of this?” the Colonel demanded in his most authoritative voice. “Who are you?”

The sergeant stepped forward. “Sergeant Thomas Beck, U.S. Army retired,” he stated in a mocking voice as he saluted again. “Of course, the Army doesn’t know yet that I’ve retired but they’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“You mean they’ll figure out you’ve deserted,” laughed the blonde outlaw.

“Shut up, Carter,” snapped Beck, his face forming into a frown.

“What do you want?” asked Ben.

“For now, nothing,” Beck replied calmly. “But when that gold wagon gets here, we want the $50,000 it’s carrying.”

“You’re insane,” declared the Colonel. “They’ll never give you that gold.”

“Oh, I think they well,” advised Beck. “When that troop of soldiers rides up to the house, you’ll order them to give us the gold. Cartwright will stand right next to you and agree with you. I’ll be right behind you with a gun in your backs. The rest of my men will be spread out so the troop will be in a cross-fire. They will either give us the money, or there’ll be an awful lot of dead people around here.”

Listening to Beck’s words, Ben felt a clutch of fear in his stomach. His sons were riding with the escort. He looked at Beck, Carter and the others, and his fear increased. He knew the type of men who stood in front of him. They would do anything — including killing — for the right price and never think twice about it.

“You’ll never get away with this,” Ben protested. “The Army will hunt you down. You’ll be killed or at the very least, spend the rest of your days in prison. If you leave now, we’ll forget this ever happened.”

“I think not, Mr. Cartwright,” advised Beck with a laugh. “See, I’ve had a lot of time to plan this out. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I heard about the gold wagon at Fort Howard, and the route it was going to take. Why, I even know some of the troopers in the escort.”

“And you would still have them killed?” said Colonel Nolan in an incredulous voice. “What kind of soldier are you?”

“One who doesn’t have any money,” answered Beck. “And one who is tired of taking orders, getting shot at, and living in some crummy fort in the middle of nowhere.” He turned to the three men standing behind the blonde Carter. “Get outside. I want you to keep an eye out for the wagon.” The men turned and walked abruptly from the room.

“Mr. Cartwright, if you, the Colonel and Miss Nolan would be so kind as to return to the chairs by the fire, we can continue our discussion,” Beck requested in a polite voice as he pointed his gun toward the trio.

Ben and the Colonel looked at each other, both trying to determine what the other man might be thinking. Before they could say or do anything, though, they heard Carter cock his rifle. Understanding the implied threat, Ben quickly jerked his head toward the inside of the house, and he and his guests returned to sit by the fire. Ben perched on the gray rock of the fireplace’s front ledge while Colonel Nolan and Katie sat in the chairs nearby.

“A very wise decision,” said Beck as he followed the trio. “Carter here, well, he loves killing almost more than anything else, don’t you, Carter?”

“Shut up,” the blonde man snarled.

Katie was sitting in a blue chair near the foot of the staircase. “What do you plan to do with us?” she asked, trying to keep the fear out of her voice.

“If you behave, nothing,” replied Beck. “Once we have the money, you three will accompany us until we are safely in Mexico. That will insure the Army and local authorities won’t try anything foolish. Then we will let you go.”

“Maybe we’ll let those old men go,” Carter added, leering at Katie. “But I think we’ll keep you with us for awhile. We can have some fun.” Katie shuddered at the implication of Carter’s words.

Jumping up from the red leather chair on which he had been sitting, Nolan moved to stand next to Katie. “If you lay a hand on my daughter…” the Colonel warned.

“Old man, I could kill you right now. You can’t stop me from doing whatever I want,” Carter countered with a sneer.

“Carter!” Beck shouted in a sharp voice. “Go outside and join the others. I’ll watch them.”

“Don’t give me orders,” Carter snapped back in an angry voice. “I ain’t one of your soldiers.”

“I’m in charge,” Beck stated firmly. “If you want to be part of this, you’ll do what I say. If not, ride out.” The sergeant pointed his gun at the tall man.

Carter considered the situation for a minute, then turned on his heels and walked out of the house.

Sighing with relief, Ben watched the young outlaw leave; he had been afraid the Carter was going to shoot the Colonel. Now there was only one man to contend with. He started thinking about how he could get to Beck.

But Beck seemed to read Ben’s mind. “Don’t try anything, Mr. Cartwright,” he advised. “If you don’t do exactly as I say, I’ll start shooting. And the first bullet goes to this young lady.”

Eyes wide, Katie leaned closer toward her father.

“You’ll pay for this,” the Colonel declared in a hard voice. “You’re a disgrace to that uniform you are wearing.”

Beck laughed. “Colonel, you don’t scare me. I’ve been ordered around by officers half my life. Most of them were young lieutenants, still wet behind the ears. I have never found an officer who was smarter than me. Most of them were just a lot of hot air and bluster.”

Sitting at the front of the fireplace, Ben shifted uneasily on the stone ledge. He desperately wanted to stop Beck and his men, but he couldn’t figure out how to do it without Katie or the Colonel getting hurt. He knew if he made a wrong move, Beck would shoot. And he believed that Beck would kill Katie.

Suddenly, the front door opened. Carter and one of the other men entered the house, dragging a body between them. As they threw the body on to the floor in a heap, Ben sprang to his feet and rushed forward. A look of horror came over the face of Colonel Nolan and his daughter.

“Who’s that?” asked Beck his men as Ben knelt next to the crumpled figure on the floor.

“Don’t know,” replied Carter. “He came riding in like he owned the place. Took his horse to the barn, and when he came out, I hit him with my rifle.”

Cradling the figure on the floor, Ben murmured to him and brushed back the dark curly hair. He got no response from the young man wearing a familiar green jacket.

“Who is he?” Beck asked Ben.

Ben looked up at the sergeant. “It’s my son, Joseph,” he answered in an anxious voice. “He was supposed to be escorting the payroll.”

*****

An hour later, Joe was still unconscious. He was lying on the sofa, his head against a cushion and his body covered with a blanket. Ben sat on the low table next to the sofa, gently wiping his son’s head with a damp cloth. A small cut, swollen and bruised, protruded from Joe’s forehead, just above his left eye. Ben periodically pressed against the knot with the cloth, trying to get the swelling down. The Colonel stood by the staircase as Katie sat anxiously in her chairs, both looking worried.

As the front door opened, Ben looked up. His face reflected the distaste he felt as he saw Carter walk in. The blonde outlaw walked to the end of the sofa and stood next to Beck. “Did the kid say anything about the wagon?” he asked.

“No,” answered Beck. “He’s still unconscious. You shouldn’t have hit him so hard.”

“He’s lucky I didn’t kill him,” Carter said in an indifferent voice.

“No,” countered Beck coldly, “you’re lucky you didn’t kill him. If you had, we would never find out what’s going on with that payroll wagon. It should have been here by now.”

Shrugging, Carter looked unconcerned at Beck’s words. “Why do we care? It gets here when it gets here.”

“Because the longer we stay here, the more risk that someone else will come along,” Beck told the blonde outlaw. “We may not be lucky enough to stop that person from riding out of here and sounding the alarm next time.”

A soft groan focused everyone’s attention on the couch. Joe moved his head slightly, then moaned again.

“Joe,” Ben asked anxiously, “can you hear me, son? Come on, wake up.”

Joe shifted slightly on the sofa then winced. His eyes still closed, he groaned softly once more. Then his eyes fluttered open.

Ben studied his son’s face. Joe’s eyes seemed to focus on him, but Ben wasn’t sure Joe was fully conscious. He breathed a sigh of relief when Joe murmured, “Pa?” in a low voice.

“Take it easy, Joe,” Ben said, gently stroking his son’s head.

Wincing, Joe closed his eyes. “My head hurts,” he mumbled. “What happened?”

With angry eyes, Ben glanced at Carter, who was standing at the end of the sofa, before turning back to his son. “You got hit in the head with a rifle butt,” Ben explained. “You’ve been out a long time.”

Nodding, Joe winced again as his head began to throb even more. He rubbed his hand slowly across his forehead, and then opened his eyes again. “Who hit me?” he asked. He looked past Ben at Katie and Colonel Nolan. Katie was sitting on the edge of her chair, and the Colonel was standing next to her, his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. Both looked anxious and nervous. “What’s going on?” Joe added.

“Stop messing around and ask him about the wagon,” Carter snarled from the end of the couch.

Turning his head slightly, Joe looked toward the two men standing near his feet. Not recognizing them, Joe frowned. He was having a hard time figuring out what was happening.

“Who are they?” Joe asked in a confused voice

For a moment, Ben was silent as he tried to make up his mind about what to tell his son. There was nothing to be gained by keeping the truth from Joe, he decided. “They’re after the gold in the payroll wagon.”

“That’s right, son,” agreed Beck. “Now if you don’t want anyone else to get hurt, you’ll tell us where the gold wagon is.”

Hesitant to answer, Joe looked up at Ben, who nodded briefly. Joe turned back to look at the men standing near the end of the sofa. “The wagon broke an axle near Sand Hill,” he explained. “It’s going to take them awhile to fix it. I came ahead to tell Colonel Nolan the wagon was delayed.”

“When are they going to get here?” asked Beck.

Suddenly Joe found it hard to concentrate on what was being said. His head throbbed unmercifully and he felt very sleepy. He rubbed his forehead again.

“They figure it will take the rest of the day to fix the wagon,” Joe replied in a thick voice. “They’ll be here tomorrow.” He closed his eyes. The throbbing in his head was getting worse. He felt dizzy and his stomach felt queasy.

“What time tomorrow?” asked Beck.

Taking a deep breath, Joe tried to answer but he was having a hard time talking. All he wanted to do was sleep. “Tomorrow,” he repeated in a slurred voice. “They’re taking the other road.”

“What time tomorrow?” Beck asked again in a more insistent voice. “And what other road?”

“Tomorrow,” Joe mumbled as he began to drift off.

Suddenly, Carter walked from the end of the couch and stood over Joe. “What time tomorrow?” he shouted at Joe. When the young man failed to answer him, Carter grabbed the front of Joe’s shirt and began shaking him. “What time tomorrow?” he screamed again.

With a quick move, Ben pushed Carter hard in the chest. Startled, Carter dropped Joe back against the sofa. Ben pushed the outlaw once more and Carter stumbled backwards; he lost his balance and landed in a heap on the floor.

“Leave him alone,” Ben ordered in an angry voice. “Haven’t you done enough to him already?”

Pulling his gun from his holster, Carter aimed it at Ben. “You’ll pay for that,” he stated in an angry voice as he cocked his pistol. Suddenly, a boot crashed into Carter’s hand, knocking the gun away. Carter looked up in surprise and saw Colonel Nolan standing over him. Springing to his feet, the blonde outlaw balled his hands into fists. He reached back to take a punch at the Colonel but took an involuntary step backward when he felt his arm grabbed in an iron grip. Carter spun around to find Beck’s left hand gripping his wrist, and the sergeant’s right hand holding a gun pointed at his chest.

“That’s enough,” Beck declared. “We need them.”

“We don’t need them that bad,” Carter growled in an angry voice.

“Carter, calm down,” Beck told the young outlaw. “I can replace you easier than I can replace them.”

For a moment, Carter stared at Beck and the pistol in the sergeant’s hand. Then he slowly lowered his arm. He brushed off Beck’s hand and bent down to pick up his gun. As he shoved the revolver back into his holster, he looked over his shoulder at Ben and the Colonel. “I’ll get you two later,” he promised. With a fuming expression, he stalked past Beck, stopping at the front door. He slouched against the door, watching the other men with narrowed eyes.

Quickly, Ben turned back to the sofa and sat down next to Joe. Joe’s head was turned to the side, barely on the cushion. Ben gently eased his son’s head back on to the center of the cushion. “Joe?” he said as he stroked his son’s head. “Joe?”

Joe’s eyes remained closed.

Sitting down next to Ben, Colonel Nolan studied the young man. “He’s got a concussion, Ben,” the Colonel advised softly. “I’ve seen quite a few. He’ll probably drift in and out for awhile.”

Nodding, Ben picked up the cloth he had dropped and began wiping Joe’s face slowly again.

“What did he mean by the other road?” Beck asked as he moved to stand near the sofa.

For a minute, Ben ignored him. He slowly wiped Joe’s face, looking up at Beck only when the sergeant repeated his question.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “There’s several ways to reach the Ponderosa from Sand Hill. The most direct route is through the hills, but if the wagon was damaged, that trail might be too rough.”

“What are the other ways?” Beck asked.

“There’s a road through Virginia City, and one from the west,” Ben answered. “Both are longer but much easier to travel.”

Beck thought for a minute. “Is there somewhere you can see both roads?” he asked.

Pursing his lips, Ben looked as if he might refuse to answer. But when Beck pointed his gun at Joe with an implied threat, Ben hurriedly replied, “There’s a place up near Buckhorn Pass where you can see both roads if you ride back and forth across the ridge.”

Nodding, Beck turned to the Colonel. “Which road will they take?”

“I don’t know,” answered the Colonel. “It depends on the road.”

Once more, Beck nodded thoughtfully He turned to Carter who was still standing by the door in silent anger. “Get Johnson in here,” Beck ordered. Carter stared at the sergeant, then, without a word, pulled the door open. He walked out, slamming the door behind him.

“You two are going to take a little ride with Carter and me,” Beck stated, turning back to Ben and the Colonel. He motioned his pistol toward Ben. “I want you to show me this Buckhorn Pass and tell me how long it will take the wagon to get here on each road. The Colonel here is going to offer his expert opinion on which road his soldiers will choose to take. That will give me the information I need to decide on where and when we’re going to hold our little meeting with the escort.”

“My son’s hurt. I can’t leave him,” Ben protested.

“The girl can take care of him,” advised Beck. “I need you two to help me scout the area.”

“No,” declared Colonel Nolan firmly. “I’m not leaving my daughter here with your men.”

“I need you two, but I don’t need the boy,” Beck said, cocking his gun. “I can make sure Cartwright and the girl don’t have a reason to stay here.”

“No!” Ben shouted in a panicked voice as he moved protectively in front of Joe.

“Then you’ll both come with us,” Beck said in a confident voice.

Ben looked at Colonel Nolan, his eyes pleading.

For a moment, the Colonel stared hard at Beck, then slowly nodded his head. Walking over to his daughter, Nolan laid a hand gently on her shoulder. “Katie, I want you to do everything they tell you until we get back. Don’t give them any trouble.”

From her chair, Katie had been watching with a mixture of horror and fascination. She felt like she was viewing a play; it was hard to believe this was really happening. Now she roused herself and gave her father a trembling smile. “Don’t worry about me, Dad,” she advised with a confidence she didn’t feel. “I’ll be fine.” She glanced at Beck, then turned back to her father. “You just take care of yourself,” she added.

The Colonel put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder and squeezed it hard.

Pulling herself out of the chair, Katie walked over to the sofa. Ben was gently stroking Joe’s head, hoping to wake his son, but his efforts were in vain. Katie watched for a moment, her heart full of fear for Joe, as well as Ben and her father. “Don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright,” she said in a soft voice. “I’ll take care of him.”

Ben looked up at Katie. “I know you will.”

The front door burst open and Carter strode in, followed by a heavy-set man carrying a rifle. “Here’s Johnson,” Carter announced in a sullen voice. “Why did you want him?”

“You and I are going to take a little ride with the Colonel and Mr. Cartwright,” explained Beck. “I want Johnson to stand guard here.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” Carter complained.

“I need you,” declared Beck, the exasperation evident in his voice. “Cartwright is going to show us the roads in, and the Colonel is going to help us decide which one the wagon will take.”

“Take Johnson with you,” suggested Carter. He looked at Katie. “I’ll be happy to stay here.”

“I said you’re coming with me,” Beck said sharply.

“I don’t know if Johnson is up to this,” Carter protested. Johnson scowled at the young outlaw.

“A girl and a half-dead kid,” Beck observed ironically. “I think he can handle it. Now, go get the horses ready.”

Carter started to protest again but saw the look on Beck’s face. Without a word, he turned and walked out of the house.

Beck turned back toward Ben and Colonel Nolan. “Now, I want to be very clear about this. If either of you try anything, your kids will pay for it. I need you two alive, but I don’t need either of them.”

Both Ben and Colonel Nolan paled at the threat. Each look at their child, their faces filled with anxiety and concern.

“Get moving, you two,” Beck ordered, motioning with his gun.

Stroking Joe’s head one last time, Ben stood. He squeezed Katie’s arm gently, then turned and walked toward the door. Colonel Nolan kissed his daughter quickly, and followed Ben, while Beck walked slowly behind the two men. Katie watched with her heart in her throat as the three men left the house. Then she sat down on the table next to Joe.

“You ain’t gonna give any trouble, are you, girlie?” growled Johnson from a few feet away. His hand rested on the pistol in his holster.

With big eyes, Katie looked up at the outlaw. “No,” she said softly. She turned back to Joe and gently pulled the blanket up to his shoulders.

Giving a grunt of satisfaction, Johnson looked around the room, spotting the desk to his right. With a smile, he walked over to the desk, grabbed the bottle of brandy sitting on top of it, and eased himself in the chair behind the desk. He propped his feet up, balancing the rifle across his legs. He watched Katie for a minute, then took a pull from the brandy bottle. He shifted slightly, settling more comfortably in the chair, and took another drink.

*****

Katie wasn’t sure how long had passed before Joe began to stir again. It seemed like hours, but she knew it had been only 20 or 30 minutes. She had been wiping his face with a damp cloth, and talking softly to him, but Joe showed no reaction. The knot of fear in her stomach eased a little when Joe finally began to respond.

Moaning softly, Joe opened his eyes He blinked twice, then stared at the figure above him. “Katie?” he asked in a tentative voice.

“Hello, Joe,” Katie replied with a small smile. She brushed his hair back from his forehead. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m all right,” Joe declared, despite the fact that his head hurt like the devil.

“Liar,” countered Katie, her smile widening.

Joe gave a small grin. “Well, maybe my head hurts a little,” he admitted.

“More than a little, I’ll wager,” Katie retorted briskly. “You had a pretty bad crack.”

“It’s good to see you,” Joe said, squeezing her hand lightly.

“How did you manage to get Adam and Hoss to let you come ahead by yourself?” asked Katie. “What trick did you pull this time?”

“We drew for it,” Joe explained. “Of course, I might have stacked the deck a little.”

Katie laughed softly. “Joe, you never change, do you?”

“I wanted to spend some time with you before I had to share you with my brothers,” Joe admitted. He shifted his head slightly and winced at the pain it caused. “I thought getting here early was a good idea.”

“Wrong, as usual,” Katie said, trying to keep her voice light. She was worried about Joe. He looked so pale, and she could tell he was hurting. “You’re lucky that man didn’t crack your skull.”

“You always said I was hard headed,” Joe observed. Then his face grew serious. Glancing around the room, he asked, “Where is everybody?”

Nervously, Katie looked over to Johnson. The outlaw was ignoring the pair in the other room, content to drink out of the brandy bottle and relax in the chair. “Two of them took Dad and your father to look at the roads where the gold wagon might come,” she answered softly.

Shaking his head a bit, Joe tried to clear his thoughts. He knew he had to concentrate, despite the pain. “Katie, what’s going on?” he asked.

Quickly, Katie explained Beck’s plan to Joe. His face grew grave when he heard about the ambush and Beck’s plan to take his father, the Colonel, and Katie with them.

“We’ve got to stop them,” Joe stated.

“I know,” Katie agreed. “But how?”

Joe closed his eyes for a minute, trying to think. “How many men did they leave behind,” he asked.

“There’s one over by your father’s desk and two outside,” Katie replied.

“We’ll have to take them one at a time,” Joe stated. “Will you help me?”

“Of course,” Katie agreed. She gave him a small smile. “Remember when we were little? It was you and me against the world.”

“Well, right now, it’s you and me against the three men here,” Joe advised. He winced and wished his head would stop aching; he knew he had to think. Joe closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them, he looked at Katie with a grim expression. “Do you think you can get that one to come over here?”

Frowning, Katie thought for a minute, then her faced cleared and she winked at Joe. “Close your eyes and lie still,” she whispered.

After giving a quick nod, Joe did what Katie asked, although he wasn’t quite sure what she had in mind.

For a minute, Katie sat by Joe with her eyes closed. Lord, help me to do this, she prayed. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then she stood.

“Help me!” Katie shrieked. “Please, help me!”

Johnson looked up from the bottle he held tightly in his hands. “What’s wrong?” he asked in an angry voice. He didn’t want his drinking to be interrupted.

“Help!” Katie shouted again. “He’s not breathing. I think he’s dead!”

“So what?” Johnson said in a disinterested voice.

“Please, come and take a look,” Katie pleaded. “Please.”

Sighing, Johnson put down the bottle. “If it will shut you up…” He untangled his legs from the desk and stood up. Johnson carried the rifle loosely in his hands as he walked over to the sofa.

Grabbing Johnson’s arm, Katie dragged him closer to Joe. “Please, help him,” she cried. “Please, check and see if he’s still alive.”

Joe lay still on the sofa, his eyes closed. He tried to breathe as lightly as he could.

Pushing Katie aside, Johnson bent over and looked closely as Joe. “He looks all right to me,” Johnson declared.

Just then, Joe’s eyes popped open. He lifted his arm and punched the man standing over him, staggering Johnson. Jumping up off the sofa, Joe hit Johnson again, this time in the mid-section. As Johnson bent over, Joe laced his hands together and brought them down swiftly, landing a powerful blow the back of the man’s head Johnson fell to the floor and laid still.

Quickly, Katie rushed to Joe’s side. “Are you all right?” she asked breathlessly.

Joe nodded, then winced as the movement caused a wave of pain through his head. “We need something to tie him up,” Joe said, trying to ignore the ache in his head. He was starting to feel dizzy.

“I’ll get some towels from the kitchen,” Katie offered, hurrying out of the room.

Taking a step back, Joe sat down hard on the sofa. He put his head in his hands, and rubbed his temple slowly. The movement reduced pain in his head to a dull ache. He looked up as he heard Katie walk back into the room, carrying several long, thin pieces of cloth in her hand.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Katie asked with concern. “You look kind of pale.”

“I’m all right,” Joe answered, smiling weakly. “Just got a headache. I’ve had worse.”

Katie studied Joe for a minute, then grinned. “You look like you did the time we stole that bottle of wine from my Dad,” she said. “Remember? Both of us had a hang-over that we thought would kill us.”

“I remember,” Joe agreed with a grin. “I also remember I couldn’t tell which hurt worse, my head or my backside from the spanking I got.”

“Well, we were only nine or ten,” Katie recalled. “You have to admit it was a bit young for us to start drinking.”

Suddenly, Joe turned serious. “Let’s get this one tied up. We don’t know how much time we have.” Getting to his feet gingerly, Joe took the towels from Katie. After taking a few shaky steps, he knelt beside the unconscious man on the floor and tied Johnson’s hands tightly behind the man’s back. He also tied Johnson’s feet, and put a third piece of cloth around the man’s mouth. As he stood up, Joe cursed himself for moving so quickly. He began to sway as another wave of pain raced through his head. Katie grabbed Joe’s arm, trying to steady him.

Joe closed his eyes for a minute and took a deep breath. When the pain eased a bit, he opened his eyes and looked around slowly. “Where’s his rifle?” he asked.

For a minute, Katie hung on to Joe’s arm, trying to reassure herself that he was going to stay on his feet. When she finally decided that he was steady enough to stand on his own, Katie looked around and saw Johnson’s rifle on the floor near the sofa. She picked up the weapon, then handed it to Joe. “What now?” she asked.

“Where are the other two?” Joe inquired.

“I’m not sure,” Katie admitted. “Outside someplace.”

Joe thought for a minute. “Do you think you can get one of them to come in?” he finally asked.

“I got him over to the couch,” Katie answered with a hint of indignation. “I think I can handle getting one of them into the house.”

“Katie, you always did have a way with men,” Joe commented with a smile.

Blushing, Katie asked quickly, “What do you have in mind?”

“Well, if you can get one of them to come in, I’ll stand out of sight near the door,” Joe explained. “Soon as he comes in, I’ll bash him with the rifle.”

A look of doubt crossed Katie’s face, then, slowly, she nodded her agreement to the plan. She knew Joe was not feeling well, but even in his weakened state, he should be able to knock someone out with a rifle. That would leave only one man to deal with. Pulling herself up straight, Katie turned and walked toward the door.

Moving slowly, Joe walked to the end of the sofa. He was starting around the sofa when a wave of dizziness and nausea hit him. Joe staggered a few feet and grabbed the post at the bottom of the staircase railing. Bending over slightly, he took several deep breaths, hoping to ease the sudden feeling of sickness he felt. Joe trembled slightly as he hung on to the post.

“Joe?” Katie called from the door.

Swallowing hard, Joe looked up. “I’ll be there,” he answered in a weak voice. “Just give me a minute.” Katie started back toward Joe, but he waved her away. Taking another deep breath, Joe released the post and walked slowly toward the door. He held the rifle by the barrel, and used the gun to help steady himself as he walked. Joe finally made it to the wall near the door. He leaned against the tall clock that was set against the wall.

Katie stood watching, wanting to help Joe but not sure what to do.

After taking one more deep breath, Joe looked up at her and nodded. He pulled the rifle from the floor and held it in his hands like a club.

Opening the front door just a fraction, Katie looked out. She could see one man leaning against the corner of the house, several feet away. She opened the door a little wider. A second man was standing near the barn.

“Mister,” Katie called in her most timid voice.

The man leaning against the house whirled around and pointed his rifle toward the door.

Katie gave a small shriek. “Don’t shoot!” she screamed. “I…I just wanted to tell you that something’s wrong with your friend.”

“What do you mean?” the man asked with a frown. “What friend?”

“The man inside here,” Katie replied, her voice still sounding timid. “He’s sick or something.”

“Johnson? He ain’t no friend,” the man declared. “What happened?”

“I…I don’t know,” Katie advised in a trembling voice. “He was drinking some brandy, and then all of a sudden, he kind of went limp.”

As he listened from behind the door, Joe grinned. The Katie he knew would never sound so timid and frightened. When Katie was scared, that’s when she acted the bravest.

The man outside sighed. “He ain’t sick,” he said with disgust. “He’s drunk.”

“Well, what should I do?” Katie asked.

“I’d better take a look,” the man conceded. “If Beck finds him drunk, he’s liable to kill him. Not that that would be any big loss, but we might need him.”

As the outlaw walked toward the house, Katie pulled the door open wide, as if to let the man enter. Just as the gunman walked through the doorway, Joe swung the rifle with all the strength he had, crashing it into the man’s head. As the outlaw crumbled to the floor, Katie quickly closed the door.

“See, I told you I could do it,” Katie declared, her voice now bold and full of pride.

Joe grinned wryly. “Katie, I never doubted you.”

“I’ll get some more towels,” Katie said. She turned and walked rapidly to the kitchen.

Moving slowly, Joe knelt next to his victim and looked at lump forming on the man’s head. He felt the man’s neck with his fingers, relieved to find a pulse. For a moment, he thought he had killed the man.

Katie came rushing back into the room, her hands once again filled with towels.

“I don’t think he’s going to waking up for quite awhile,” Joe advised, looking up. “But I’d guess we’d better tie him up anyway.” Suddenly, Joe began to sway.

“I’ll do it,” Katie offered quickly. “You just sit still.”

Nodding, Joe eased himself to the floor. He leaned against the bureau near the door and closed his eyes.

Quickly, Katie tied the outlaw’s hands and feet, just as she had seen Joe do with the other man. She knew she probably wasn’t tying the man as tightly as Joe had done, but she didn’t think it would matter much. She agreed with Joe that this one would be out for a long time.

When she was finished tying up the man, Katie knelt next to Joe. She put her hand on his forehead, and frowned as she noted how damp and clammy Joe’s skin felt. He looked pale and he was breathing hard. Joe opened his eyes as he felt Katie’s touch. She could see his eyes looked glazed; Katie wondered how much longer he could stay awake. “Joe!” Katie said in a sharp voice. “Joe, can you hear me?”

For a minute, Joe didn’t answer. Then he shook his head slightly, trying to clear his head of the fog which seemed to be descending on him. He looked at Katie and was surprised that she seemed blurry and out of focus. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple with his left hand. When he opened his eyes again, Katie seemed to come back into focus.

“I hear you,” Joe told Katie in a thick voice. He was finding it hard to talk.

“Joe, we need to get you to a doctor,” Katie said with concern.

“I’ll be all right,” Joe insisted. He put his head down and rubbed his temples again. Then he looked up at Katie. “We….we have to get that third guy. Where is he?”

“He was over by the barn,” Katie advised. “But, Joe, I don’t think…”

“We’ll get him,” Joe interrupted in a firm voice. “We have to. If we don’t, your Pa and mine could get killed. And my brothers and those soldiers. We have no choice.”

“You’re right,” agreed Katie in a no-nonsense voice. “What do we do now?”

“See if that fellow is still by the barn,” Joe ordered.

Getting to her feet, Katie walked to the door. She opened it a crack and looked out. The third outlaw had moved from the barn. He was walking slowly through the yard, seemingly on patrol. The man was carrying his rifle lightly in his hands, an unconcerned look on his face. Katie slowly closed the door, then turned and knelt next to Joe again.

“He’s walking around outside,” she reported, “moving from place to place.”

Joe tried to think. The pounding in his head made it difficult but he knew he had to come up with a plan. “We can’t go out through the front door,” Joe said, thinking out loud. “He’ll spot us right away.”

“How about through the kitchen?” Katie suggested. “If we can sneak out the side and get behind the trees, he’ll never see us.”

“Good idea,” agreed Joe. He knew the odds of them getting outside without being seen were slim, but the side door offered a slightly better chance. “Help me up.”

Grabbing Joe’s arm, Katie helped him stand; Joe started swaying as soon as he got to his feet. Katie quickly looped his arm over her shoulders and grabbed Joe around the chest, steadying him as best she could.

Holding on tightly to Katie, Joe desperately tried to keep his balance. After a minute, he felt steadier and started walking. His gait was more of a shuffle than a walk but he knew he was moving forward. He dragged the rifle with him as he walked.

Katie felt Joe leaning heavily on her as they walked. She put her hand on his back and pushed him lightly, trying to keep him moving.

It seemed to take a long time but finally the pair made it into the kitchen. Katie eased Joe on to a chair next to a large table in the middle of the room. Immediately Joe put his arm on the table, then laid his head on his arm. The rifle fell from his left hand, landing on the floor with a loud rattle.

As Katie looked at Joe, her worry grew. He could barely walk, much less hold a rifle. How was she going to sneak him into the trees? she wondered.

Walking to the door of the kitchen, Katie opened it slightly. She could see the third outlaw in the yard, standing near the water trough. His back was toward the kitchen door. Katie eased the door closed, and walked back to Joe.

As Katie neared the table, Joe raised his head. “Get me some water.”

Grabbing a tin cup from a stack at the edge of the table, Katie hurried to the pump. With a few quick motions, she worked the handle and water started trickling out of the pump. She filled the cup and brought it back to the table.

“Thank you,” Joe said, taking the cup from her hand. He drank some of the water in several quick gulps. Then, to Katie’s amazement, Joe poured the rest of the water in the cup over his head.

Joe shook his head sharply several times. The cold water seemed to clear his senses. He knew it was probably just a temporary respite, but he hoped he could stay on his feet long enough to get Katie away from the house. “I’m ready,” Joe stated.

“Do you want another cup of water?” Katie asked with a mischievous grin. “I could throw it in your face.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Joe answered with a smile.

Katie sighed. “Oh, all right. I’ll just wait and dump you in the water trough later.”

Joe’s smile widened. Despite all their problems, Joe was glad Katie was around. He had really missed her. He just hoped he could get her out of danger.

With an effort, Joe pushed himself to his feet. He leaned against the table for a minute, steadying himself. Katie started to help him, but he brushed her arm away. “Hand me the rifle,” he ordered. Katie picked the gun off the floor and gave it to Joe. “Stay behind me,” Joe said. “And don’t come outside until I tell you.” Joe walked slowly to the door. Katie followed him, ready to grab Joe if he faltered. But Joe made it to the door on his own.

Slowly, Joe levered a bullet into the rifle. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it, but he wanted to be ready to shoot if he had to. Joe opened the door slightly.

The third would-be robber was standing near the water trough, his back to the door. Joe pulled the door open a bit wider, and slipped outside. Katie stood in the doorway, watching.

Joe wasn’t sure what alerted the man, but he had only taken a step or two when the outlaw suddenly turned toward the house. With a startled expression on his face, the outlaw raised his rifle as if he was going to shoot. Joe didn’t bother to aim; he just pointed rifle at the man and pulled the trigger.

As the expression on his face turned to shock, the outlaw dropped his rifle and grabbed at the middle of his body. He staggered backwards a step or two, then fell to the ground.

As Joe started forward, the dizziness came over him again. He took another step, then leaned heavily against a large fir tree a few feet from the house. The rifle fell from his hand.

Rushing out the kitchen door, Katie ran to Joe. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“I wish you would stop asking me that,” Joe grumbled. He looked up at her and tried to smile but his effort failed dismally. “Yeah, I’m all right,” Joe added in a thick voice. He felt the fog starting to form in his head again.

Biting her lip, Katie looked at the outlaw on the ground, lying next to the water trough. There was no question the man was dead. She felt a queasiness in her stomach as she saw the blood oozing out of the man. Then she took a deep breath. This was no time to become some kind of hysterical female. Despite what he said, she knew Joe needed help.

Katie grabbed Joe’s arm. “Let’s get you back into the house.”

“No,” Joe said. His voice sounded strange even to him. “The barn,” he mumbled in a tired voice. “We have to get to the barn.”

“The barn?” Katie repeated, clearly puzzled.

Joe started to explain but he couldn’t seem to get the words to form in his head. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was thinking. But somehow he knew they had to get to the barn. “The barn,” he repeated.

Katie shrugged. The barn was as good a place as any to hide, she thought. She put Joe’s arm over her shoulder again and once more grabbed him around the chest. Joe shifted his weight and leaned heavily on Katie. Her knees bent slightly as she felt his weight against her, then she straightened. “Come on,” she ordered sharply. “Start walking.”

Shuffling his feet, Joe started forward. His head had begun to ache again, and he felt so sleepy. He looked toward the barn, and the building seemed to be fading in and out of focus. Joe wondered if he could make it there; the barn seemed miles away.

Insistently, Katie pulled at Joe and kept him moving. “Keep walking,” she commanded. She tried to hide the fear in her voice.

Somehow, Joe managed to keep his legs moving. He was losing all sense of time and place. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep. His legs started to buckle.

“Joe Cartwright, don’t you collapse on me now,” Katie declared in an angry voice. “You got me into this mess and you have to get me out.” Katie knew her words really didn’t make sense. But the phrase was an old one, used often when they were children. She hoped it would spark something in Joe that would keep him going.

Her words worked. Joe straightened up and gritted his teeth. His walk was a bit steadier and his stride a bit longer. “Don’t worry, Katie,” Joe replied in a thick voice. “I’ll take care of you.” Joe’s answer was the same one he used to give her when they were young.

Grinning, Katie pulled and dragged Joe across the yard. Just like the old days, she thought. She and Joe often found themselves in trouble when they were together. Then Katie sobered quickly. This was no child’s game where the consequences were only a spanking or a lecture. This was truly a matter of life or death.

Katie was sweating from exertion as she and Joe finally neared the barn. Her shoulders ached from Joe’s weight, and she felt her legs beginning to tire. She couldn’t believe how happy she was to be able to pull open the barn door.

As the pair entered the barn, Joe’s legs began to buckle again. This time, Katie let him slide slowly to the ground. She knelt and caught Joe by the shoulders before his back hit the floor of the barn. With what seemed the last of her strength, she pulled Joe a few inches to a bale of hay tightly bound with wire, and leaned him against it. Joe’s head slumped forward, his chin resting on his chest. Getting wearily to her feet, Katie yanked at the barn door, pulling it almost to a close; she left a small opening through which she could view the yard.

Abruptly, Katie plopped to the floor next to Joe. She was breathing hard, and felt tired and sweaty. She wondered what to do next.

Almost desperately, Katie looked around. Several horses were standing patiently in the stalls, and saddles and reins were scattered throughout the barn. Katie spotted a canteen hanging from a peg on a post.

Scrambling to her feet, Katie walked over to the canteen. Taking the container off the post, she heard some water sloshing around inside it. She knew the water was probably warm, but it was wet, and that’s all she cared about. Pulling the plug off the top of the canteen, she took a drink. Then she walked back to Joe.

Joe was still slumped against the hay, eyes closed. Katie took a deep breath, then poured the water over Joe’s head.

Shaking his head a bit, Joe roused himself. He felt dazed and confused, wondering where the water was coming from. He looked up and saw Katie standing over him, canteen in hand. Joe wanted to make some kind of wise crack, but he didn’t have the strength. His head felt as if it weighed a ton, and the dizziness and nausea were back.

Once more, Katie knelt next to Joe. “We made it to the barn,” she told him.

Joe nodded as he tried to remember why he wanted to get to the barn. He looked at Katie and suddenly, he knew.

“Saddle a horse,” Joe ordered in a weak voice. “Get out of here.”

“Joe, you can’t sit a horse!” Katie exclaimed. “You won’t last a mile, even with me helping you.”

“Not me,” Joe replied. “I’ll slow you down. You go.”

“I’m not going to leave you here,” Katie protested. “Those other men, they could be back any time now. If they find you, they’ll kill you.”

“You have to go,” Joe insisted, his voice starting to fade. “Get help. There’s no one else.”

Katie hesitated. She didn’t know what to do. If she rode fast, she might be able to get help before Beck and Carter got back. But if she didn’t make it in time, she was sure Beck would kill Joe. He would probably kill her father and Ben Cartwright, too.

Suddenly, Katie’s dilemma was solved as she heard horses outside the barn. She ran to the barn door and looked through the crack she had left. She could see four men riding up to the house. Beck, Carter, and their two prisoners had returned.

In a rush, Katie returned to Joe. “They’re back,” she announced in a hurried voice. “When they see what we did to the rest of their men….” Katie couldn’t finish.

Frowning, Joe looked around. He saw a rifle sticking out of a sheath on a saddle. It must have belonged to one of the outlaws since the Cartwrights never left their guns in the barn.

“Get me the rifle, quick,” Joe ordered. “Then open the barn door.” As Katie rushed to get the rifle, Joe dragged himself behind the bale of hay. He still felt tired and dizzy, but he knew he had to do something. If he didn’t act, his father and the Colonel were dead men.

Katie handed Joe the rifle then pulled open the barn door as quietly as she could.

Moving his arms was surprising hard for Joe, but he managed to cock the rifle. He steadied the gun against the bale of hay and aimed carefully. He could see the four men dismounting from their horses, and walking toward the middle of the yard. He also heard some shouting. Joe thought that if he could shoot one of the outlaws, his father and Colonel Nolan could jump the other man. The question was, could he hit the right man from a distance of almost 30 feet?

Joe knew the shot he had to make would be a difficult one for a man who was well. In his present condition, the shot was almost impossible. Nevertheless, Joe aimed the rifle. His vision started to blur, and the figures started fade in and out of sight. Joe shook his head and the scene in front of him came back into focus. He could see two figures were becoming agitated and were reaching for their guns. He heard more shouting.

Taking a deep breath, Joe aimed and pulled the trigger. He felt the kick of the rifle, and then the fog which seemed to be hovering over him descended.

Standing near the barn door, Katie had been watching the four men in the yard, trying to think of something to do to help her father and Ben Cartwright. The explosion from the rifle startled her. She saw Carter arch his back, then fall to his knees before collapsing face down on the ground. She also saw her father grab the gun from Beck’s hand just as Ben Cartwright landed a punch on the sergeant’s jaw. Beck staggered, and Ben hit him again. Beck fell to the ground and laid still.

Immediately, Katie ran out of the barn. “Daddy,” she shouted, as she ran toward her father. The Colonel opened his arms and gathered his daughter to him.

Anxiously, Ben looked around. “Where’s Joe?” he asked worriedly. “And the other men? What happened to them?”

Releasing her hold on her father, Katie looked up. “Joe’s in the barn,” she told Ben in a shaky voice. “The others are either dead or tied up.” Suddenly, Katie started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said as she began sobbing.” I’m just acting like some silly girl.” The Colonel hugged his daughter to his chest.

Turning quickly, Ben ran to the barn. As he neared the structure, he could see Joe slumped over a bale of hay, a rifle in his hand. Ben knelt next to his son and gently raised his head. Joe’s eyes fluttered opened.

“Pa,” Joe asked in a whisper, “are you all right?”

Easing his son toward him, Ben laid Joe’s head against his shoulder. “I’m fine, son,” he replied, as he stroked Joe’s head gently. “I’m fine.”

“Did I get him?” Joe mumbled as he closed his eyes.

“You got him,” Ben answered. He felt Joe go limp against him. Ben put his fingers on Joe’s neck and was relieved to feel a strong pulse. He stroked Joe’s face and cheek. “You got him, son” Ben repeated quietly.

*****

In the familiar confines of his room, Joe was sitting up in bed, his head resting against two big pillows. He didn’t remember much about the last few days. He had a vague impression of being carried, and seemed to remember seeing the faces of his father and brothers watching him anxiously. He also remembered seeing Doctor Martin a time or two, but wasn’t sure when. It was only this morning that the fog in his head seemed to have disappeared. His head still ached a bit but as long as he didn’t move around too much, he seemed to be all right.

As the door to his room opened, Joe looked toward it, wondering which of the vaguely remembered people was coming in.

Striding across the room, Ben stopped next to the bed and peered closely at his son. “How are you doing?”

“I’m all right,” Joe answered, smiling. “That breakfast you gave me this morning is still in my stomach, and the room isn’t swaying any more.”

“Good,” Ben said with satisfaction. “Are you feeling up to some visitors?”

“Sure,” replied Joe, his curiosity piqued.

Pulling open the door, Ben stood aside as Katie and Colonel Nolan walked in. Katie was dressed for travel, wearing a pale blue suit and had a stylish hat perched on her head. The Colonel was in full uniform.

“We couldn’t leave without saying goodbye,” Katie stated as she sat on the edge of Joe’s bed.

“She’s had that military escort cooling their heels here for the last three days,” the Colonel added. “Katie wouldn’t let them go without us, and she wouldn’t leave until she was sure you were all right.”

Joe grinned at Katie. “Still giving orders, I see.”

“Of course,” Katie answered primly. “What’s the sense of having a Colonel for a father if you can’t take advantage of it?”

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to have much of a visit,” Joe said. “I really was looking forward to it.”

“Don’t worry,” Katie replied. “When you come up to San Francisco for the wedding, David and I will entertain you for days.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it,” Joe admitted with regret. “The doctor said it could be a few days before he’ll let me out of bed, and a week or two before I can travel.”

“It will be at least a week before you’re out of bed,” Ben corrected his son sternly from his position near the door. “And a month before you’re fit enough to travel all the way to San Francisco.”

“Aw, Pa,” Joe complained.

“Don’t ‘aw Pa’ me,” Ben countered. “The doctor says you have a bad concussion. In fact, he’s amazed you stayed on your feet as long as you did. You’re going to stay in bed and take it easy for awhile.”

“We’ll just postpone the wedding,” Katie said with a smile. “I’m not getting married without you being there, Joe.”

“I’m sure David will be thrilled to hear that,” Joe declared, his voice dripping with irony.

“He’ll understand,” Katie assured him confidently. Suddenly, her face turned serious. “Especially when I tell him how you saved my life and my father.”

Joe shifted uncomfortably on the bed. “I didn’t do much,” he advised in an embarrassed voice. “You did most of it.”

“We did it together,” Katie declared. “Just like the old days. You and me against the world, remember?”

“I remember,” Joe agreed softly. “I’ll never forget.”

Getting to her feet, Katie took a step toward Joe, and then kissed him lightly on the cheek. “You take care of yourself, you hear,” she murmured. Then she grinned mischievously. “Next time, duck,” she added. Joe grinned back at her.

As Katie left the room, Colonel Nolan lingered behind. “Thank you, Joe,” he said, his voice full of gratitude. “Thank you so much.”

“Katie’s special,” Joe replied. “I’d never let anything happen to her.”

“I know,” concurred the Colonel with a brief nod. “I can’t tell you how much she means to me. And I can never thank you enough for what you did.” The Colonel straightened to attention, and threw a salute at Joe. Then he turned on his heels and walked out.

Smiling, Ben walked over to the bed. “You get some rest now,” he advised, pulling the covers up to Joe’s chest. Joe nodded his agreement, and slid down between the blankets. Ben arranged the pillows under Joe’s head, then stood over his son for a few minutes, watching Joe’s eyes closed as he seemed to drift off to sleep.

“Thank you, son,” Ben said quietly. “Thank you for saving all of us.”

“You’re welcome,” Joe muttered, never opening his eyes. Then he rolled over and went to sleep.

*****End*****

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