Night Train (by Susan)

Synopsis:  In 1871, Chicago will suffer a tragedy due to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow; tonight Benson’s Crossing offers aid to a tragedy cause by a few cows.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  T
Word Count:  12,060


 

The shrill shriek of the train whistle cut through the silence of the night, while the inky darkness was sliced by the narrow beam of the engine’s headlight. The lone howl of a coyote answered the whistle, seemingly the only creature to acknowledge the passing of the train as it sped through the empty country. The cars behind the engine – a wood car, two passenger cars, two boxcars and a caboose – swayed a bit as the train rounded the bend, then lurched forward as they followed the engine down a small grade. The engine chugged on relentlessly, pulling the cars through the night.

Inside the passenger car, Joe Cartwright’s head jerked forward as the uneven motion of the train jiggled him in his seat. His eyes opened slowly, their lids still heavy with sleep. Joe yawned, then lifted his head as he stretched his arms a bit.

“Hard to sleep, isn’t it,” observed the man sitting in the seat across from Joe with a smile. The dark suit which covered his heavy-set body gave evidence that the man spent little time in a saddle, just as the streaks of gray in his hair and the thin lines on his face showed him to be creeping past middle age.

“Yeah,” Joe acknowledged with a yawn. “I thought I’d be able to catch a couple of hours sleep but so far, all I’ve been able to do is cat-nap a bit. Seems like every time I drift off, the train finds a way to wake me.”

“There’s a knack to it,” explained the man, with a nod. “It took me a long time to learn it. You have to get your body used to moving with the train.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to learn that, at least not on this trip,” said Joe with a grin.

“How far are you going?” asked the man curiously.

“Virginia City,” replied Joe, stifling another yawn.

“Virginia City?” repeated the main in surprise. “I didn’t know the train went there.”

“It doesn’t,” Joe answered. “I’m getting off at Benton’s Crossing, then taking the stage in the morning.” He smiled ruefully. “At least I’ll be able to get a hotel room and grab a few hours sleep in a bed that doesn’t move.”

“Virginia City,” mused the man in a speculative tone. “I’ve never been there. Where is it exactly?”

“North, about half a day’s ride on the stage,” answered Joe. “My Pa and brothers have a place just outside of it.”

“Farm country?” asked the man, his interest growing.

“No,” replied Joe with a shake of his head. “Mostly ranching and mining, and some logging. That’s what I’ve been doing — selling timber to one of the mines in Colorado.”

“Oh,” the man said, clearly disappointed. “It’s no wonder I’ve never been there. Like I told you, I sell farm equipment – threshers and such. Probably not much of a market in that area.”

“Not much,” agreed Joe. “Some of the ranches, like ours, grow their own hay but most just buy what they need. Cattle are the big crop up that way, if you want to call them that.”

“Well, maybe I’ll visit Virginia City some day anyway,” the man remarked. He picked up the folded newspaper from the seat next to him and began to read.

Looking around the car, Joe could see a few of the other passengers were reading books or newspapers also. Oil lamps at either end of the car, sitting in movable holders that swayed with the motion of the train, kept the interior brightly lit. Most of the passengers, however, were either dozing or simply staring out the window into the darkness. The car wasn’t what Joe would consider to be crowded, but was full. Each of the thirty or so bench seats that faced each other held one or two people. The car held a cross-section of people – older folks and some not so old, men in business suits and the rough clothes of working men, women in traveling clothes and plain print dresses.

Turning his head, Joe looked across the aisle and gazed at the young woman in a blue dress sitting in the next row of seats, riding with her back to the front of the car. He watched her with open admiration, appreciating her pretty face and soft brown hair. From snatches of conversation he had overheard, Joe knew the girl’s name was Trisha, and the hatchet-faced older woman in the black dress sitting next to her was her Aunt Maggie. He would have liked to get to know this Trisha; chatting with a pretty girl would have made the journey much more enjoyable. But Aunt Maggie made it clear that Joe’s attentions were unwanted, at least by her. Every time Joe looked that way, the aunt gave him a fierce stare of warning, no less threatening than a mother bear protecting her cub. Joe hoped the older woman might have dozed off by now, but his glance in her direction found Aunt Maggie sitting ramrod straight in her seat.

As if feeling Joe’s gaze, the girl looked up from the book which she was reading. She smiled in Joe’s direction, showing both a warm and curious expression. Joe smiled back encouragingly. But Aunt Maggie would have none of it. She hissed an admonition at the girl, and gave Joe another fierce look. Trisha’s smile faded, and with a weary nod, she returned to reading her book.

Sighing, Joe looked away. He glanced out the window to his right, but the night blanketed any scenery. Joe slumped down in his seat, and with a yawn, closed his eyes.

*****

Up in the engine house of the train, the driver also yawned, but he was striving to keep his eyes open. He was tired, and the monotonous darkness of the night was doing little to keep him alert. The driver knew he shouldn’t have stayed out so late last night playing cards, but since his wife’s death, he had become reluctant to return to his empty house. He turned to look at the fireman, shoving chunks of wood into the fire which turned the engine’s water into steam. In a way, the driver wished he could have changed places with the fireman. At least he had something to do which would keep him from getting drowsy.

Looking into the dark night, the driver could see little except the tracks lit in front of him by the engine’s headlamp. Not that the driver needed any markings to tell him where he was. He had made the run often enough to know exactly how far they had traveled simply from the grade of the track. He also didn’t need to look at the pocket watch in his overalls to know he was running behind schedule. The driver prided himself on getting his train to each station on time. He knew the train was due in Benton’s Crossing at 2 am. The people in the town put up with the inconvenience of the train arriving at that ungodly hour of the night in order to get the railroad to agree to stop there. Businesses such as hotels and saloons had gotten used to staying open all night. The driver knew he could get some coffee in Benton’s Crossing, and tonight he would need a whole pot.

“Hey, Charlie,” the driver called to the fireman, “give me as much steam as you can. It’s nice and flat between here and Benton’s Crossing. I want to go at top speed and pick up some time.” The fireman nodded, and reached back to pull some wood from the seemingly endless supply in the car behind the engine.

Fiddling with the gauges in front of him, the driver didn’t pay much attention to the track ahead. His tired eyes concentrated the dials, his mind on getting as much power to the engine as possible. He didn’t see the dark shapes sitting on the track until the engine’s light illuminated them.

Eight cows – six standing in the middle of the tracks and two sitting on ground between the rails – stared at the light rushing toward them with unconcerned eyes. The noise bothered the animals more than the light. But since the cows couldn’t understand what either meant, they simply stayed where they were.

“Charlie!” the driver screamed in warning as he finally saw the cows ahead. The driver tugged hard with his right hand on the line leading to the whistle, sending a series of shrill shrieks through the night. His left hand grasped the brake lever, and the driver yanked the lever with all the strength he could muster.

With a loud squeal, the wheels on the engine froze, sending a shower of sparks into the night. But the speed at which the train had been traveling was too fast to stop its momentum. The train kept barreling down the tracks. With a sickening crunch, the engine plowed into the cows.

What was left of the dumb beasts piled up against each other, forming a barrier of tough hide and bone. With its wheels stopped, the engine couldn’t push through the barrier. With an abrupt jolt, the train stopped.

The cars behind the engine began to jack-knife and pile into each other. The entire train looked like a toy kicked by some angry child. Cars smashed against each other and began tumbling. The motion knocked the engine sideways and it turned over. The driver grabbed the line to the whistle again and was tugging on it, sending a call for help with its shrieks, when the engine began to fall on its side. The fall pushed the driver against the cab, throwing his body into the sharp levers and broken glass of the gauges. As he lay dying, the driver wanted to say something profound, to make his last words mean something. But all he could think to say was, “Stupid cows.”

*****

Inside the passenger car, a dozing Joe Cartwright heard the shriek of the wheels and the whistle. Seconds later, he was jolted and thrown from his seat as the passenger car smashed into the wood carrier in front of it. The car behind crashed into the one in which Joe was riding, flinging travelers and their belongings around the interior. Joe’s car crumpled at both ends and began to fold in the middle. The sound of scraping and groaning metal was almost drowned out, however, by the screams of terror from the inside the car.

Still half asleep, Joe had been thrown to the floor by the initial jolt. He had started to scramble to his feet when the second crash had tossed him around the car. His right arm hit the metal frame of a seat, sending a stab of pain from his wrist to his elbow, and a piece of flying debris hit him in the side of the head. Joe was flung backwards, his right side hitting hard into the edge of a seat. He crumpled to the floor, landing on the relatively soft flesh of another body.

Stunned and out of breath, Joe lay on the floor of the wrecked car, unable to move. He could hear a few screams, followed by loud moans and then an eerie silence. Joe heard what he thought was the rustle of paper then realized it was the crackle of fire as he began to smell smoke.

Pushing against the body beneath him with his left hand, Joe struggled forward until he was kneeling on the floor. He grabbed the arm of a seat to steady himself as he reeled dizzily. His right arm hung at his side, feeling oddly numb while at the same time sending stabs of pain up the limb. A trickle of warm, sticky fluid ran down the side of Joe’s face and into his eye. His side ached, then sent a sharp pain through him as Joe tried to take a breath. He coughed hard, then winced at the stabbing pain his cough had caused.

It was hard to see in the dim light and the hazy smoke, but as Joe turned his head, he could make out enough to see the carnage around him. Bodies lay on the floor or flung across seats. A few people were moving, shifting positions slightly, but most of the bodies were ominously still.

Looking around, Joe realized the car was dimly lit because only one oil lamp had survived the crash. The other lamps had shattered, starting the fire in the back of the car from which a thickening smoke was rolling forward. Joe knew he was in more danger of suffocating from the smoke than being burned by the fire.

Pushing himself up, Joe stood unsteadily. “We’ve got to get out!” he yelled, wondering if anyone could hear him. “Get up! Move!”

For a minute, Joe thought his shouts were useless, that the other individuals in the car either couldn’t or wouldn’t move. “Get moving!” he shouted again, his voice filled with urgency and frustration.

Finally, Joe’s shouts brought action. Almost like ghosts rising from a graveyard, bodies began to move in the dim light. People in the aisle struggled to their feet, while others began to sit and then stand near the seats. The movement seemed to cause the other passengers to find their voices also. Suddenly, the air was filled with loud calls as people struggled forward. “Clear the aisle” shouted a man, while another voice yelled, “Help them up. Help them to move!” Names were being called into the din of shouts.

Realizing the figure at his feet hadn’t moved, Joe dropped slowly to the floor, wanting to help the individual who had broken his fall. It took him only a few seconds to recognize the salesman who had been sitting across from him, and not much longer to realize that there was nothing that would help him. The salesman’s head was laying at an odd angle to the rest of his body, his neck broken.

“I’m sorry,” said Joe in a choked voice filled with true regret. He pushed and rolled the body with his good arm, moving it out of the aisle and under a seat.

As Joe struggled to his feet once more, he heard a banging behind him. Turning, Joe saw a well-built man, wearing a homespun cloth shirt, pants and suspenders, throwing his shoulder against the door at the front of the train. “It’s jammed,” yelled the man, as he tried to force the door open.

The announcement of the jammed door caused panic and pandemonium in the car. Two women cried out in terror, while several men shouted advice. “The windows!” yelled someone, and the crowd began to move to the side of the car. Joe heard several thumps as people tried to break the thick glass of the windows. What he didn’t hear any tinkling of broken glass. The railroad had put in double-paned windows, trying to protect passengers from rocks and debris that the train might throw up against the side of the car. The panes were almost impossible to break by merely throwing a shoulder or foot against them. The windows also wouldn’t slide open wide enough to let anybody slide through them, another safety feature which now worked against the trapped riders.

Suddenly, Joe realized he could feel a cool breeze on his face. Somewhere there was a break which allowed the night air into the car. Shaking his head to clear it, Joe peered through the thickening smoke. He could see the smoke was drifting to his right. Joe took a few unsteady steps, following the smoke.

As he reached the side of the car, Joe could see where the metal wall had buckled and cracked as the car had been pushed from the back while still jammed against the one in front of it. The crack in the side wall wasn’t very big, and the jagged edges of the metal looked sharp and threatening. But Joe could see the dark night through the crack. If a person moved carefully, he or she could slide out the crack to the ground below.

“Hold it!” shouted Joe. His voice was lost in the din of panicked shouts. Joe tried again. “I FOUND A WAY OUT!” he screamed at the top of his voice.

Joe’s words seemed to freeze everyone in the car. People stopped and suddenly the car was quiet. “There’s a narrow crack,” Joe yelled. “We can get out but we have to do it carefully. Listen to me! We have to do this right or no one is going get out.” Joe quickly turned to the well-built man near the front of the car. “What’s your name?” he asked the man quickly.

“Jeff,” replied the man, moving toward Joe.

“Jeff, you go first,” ordered Joe. “I need you outside to help the others through the opening and to the ground.”

“Right,” agreed Jeff. He moved past Joe and frowned when he saw the jagged metal. Then he turned sideways and slipped through the opening, disappearing from sight. “I made it,” shouted an unseen Jeff from outside the car.

Turning to the frightened and stunned people crowded in the car, Joe ordered, “All right, let’s go. One at a time. Help anyone that’s hurt.”

As if they had become one body, the other passengers surged forward. A man in a torn suit, blood streaked on his face, made it first.

“Turn sideways and slide out,” Joe ordered the man. The man nodded, turned his body and disappeared through the opening.

A woman in a dark red dress was next and Joe helped her forward with his good arm. She turned and also disappeared into the night.

Soon a steady stream of people started sliding out of the car. Joe stood near the opening, keeping order and helping each of them as best he could, given that his right arm was hanging useless at his side. Joe did his best to ignore the throbbing pain in his arm and the dull ache in side. He would worry about them once he and the others were out of the wrecked car.

Only a few people were left standing near the opening, waiting to slide out, when an older woman came forward. She was cut and bruised, and her dressed was smudged with dirt. The woman took one look at the narrow opening and the jagged metal, and her face turned white. “I…I can’t,” she said, clearly petrified.

“Move it, lady,” snarled a cowboy behind her. “I want to get out of here.”

“Shut up!” Joe snapped at the cowboy. He turned to the woman, who was shaking and beginning to cry. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everyone else made it through fine. You will too. Just close your eyes. I’ll help you.”

Nodding, the woman took Joe’s hand. But she hesitated again as she neared the sharp metal and the narrow opening.

“You can do it,” Joe encouraged the woman. “Just turn sideways and slide out. Jeff and the others will catch you.” The woman took a deep breath, and turned her body. She eased herself on to the edge of the opening, and shut her eyes tight. Joe gave her a gentle shove and she disappeared through the opening.

As the last of the people near the opening slid out, Joe looked around the car. The fire at the back seemed to be dying, probably finding little to fuel it once the oil from the lamps was burned. But the smoke still hung in a thick cloud through the car. Joe suddenly realized he hadn’t seen Trisha or her aunt. He moved away from the opening toward the middle of the car. “Trisha!” called Joe. “Where are you?”

“Over here,” a small voice answered from the front of the car.

Walking through the smoke, Joe moved to the front of the car. He saw the girl, her brown hair disarrayed and her blue dressed smudge with soot, sitting on the floor. She was holding aunt against her. The older woman’s face was smudged also, and her face was twisted with pain.

“Is she hurt?” Joe asked solicitously.

“She has some broken ribs,” answered Trisha. “I think she may have some other injuries. I can’t be sure.”

“How about you?” Joe asked the girl.

“I’m all right,” said Trisha. She sniffed hard. “Aunt Maggie broke my fall.” Trisha looked around. “Some man said he would come back and help us, but he never did. You were so busy with the others that I didn’t want to bother you. I thought sure someone would help us.” Trisha sniffed again, clearly close to tears. “What do we do now?”

Knowing he couldn’t lift the woman with one arm, Joe frowned as he tried to figure out how to help. “I hurt my arm so I can’t carry her,” he explained. “But maybe between the two of us, we can get her out of here. We’ll both have to lift her.”

Nodding, Trisha moved to one side of her aunt, while Joe maneuvered to the other side. He put the older woman’s arm over his shoulder as he moved his left arm around her back. Trisha followed Joe’s example. With a nod, Joe stood as did the girl, lifting the woman between them.

The older woman didn’t weigh much, but the strain of bending and lifting her sent shooting pains through Joe’s side. He grunted, then grit his teeth. Trisha led the way, easing her aunt slowly down the aisle of the car toward the jagged opening. The older woman groaned and her head fell forward a bit. Trisha stopped at the sound.

“Keep moving,” Joe said urgently. “Stopping is going to help her.”

Giving a quick nod, Trisha started forward again.

As the trio reached the opening, Joe shouted out into the night. “We’ve got an injured woman here. You’re going to have to catch her. And be careful.”

“We’re ready for her,” a man’s voice called in return. Joe gave a sigh of relief. He had been half afraid that Jeff and the others had abandoned their post on the outside of the car.

Laying Aunt Maggie against side of the metal as gently as possible, Joe turned back to Trisha. “I’m sorry, but there’s no other way,” he said apologetically. He didn’t wait for a reply. “Here she comes,” called Joe as he turned back to the opening. He pushed against the woman and she started to slide through the opening.

“We got her!” a voice shouted from the outside.

Turning back to Trisha, Joe ordered, “Now you.”

The girl hesitated. “I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Joe,” answered Joe with a smile.

“Thank you, Joe,” said Trisha gratefully. She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Thank you.”

“Go on,” Joe urged gently. Trisha nodded, turned her body and disappeared into the night.

Stepping back from the opening, Joe looked around the now silent passenger car. He could see the dark outline of bodies still laying on the floor and seats. Joe knew he should start checking on them, trying to find out if anyone was still alive. But all of a sudden he was tired, so tired that even moving felt like a monumental task. His arm throbbed with a fierce pain and his side ached. He started to cough as he inhaled more of the smoke, which hurt his ribs even more. Joe slumped against a seat, trying to force himself to walk through the car. He wanted nothing more than to slide out the opening, to escape the destruction and death all around him. But Joe knew he couldn’t just leave, not without checking to see if anyone else needed help.

The sound of scraping metal startled Joe. He turned to see the narrow opening being pulled wider. Joe watched with dull, tired eyes as the opening continued to grow larger, an event that was accompanied by sounds of banging and creaking metal.

As Joe stared at the opening, several men began climbing into the car. The first man in was heavy-set, wearing a white shirt, black pants, tan vest and a sheriff’s badge that was pinned to the vest. The sheriff seemed surprised to see Joe standing in the car, just watching him, and he hurried over.

“Anyone left in here?” asked the sheriff.

Cocking his head to the rear of the car, Joe replied in a weary voice, “There are some people still here. I don’t know if any of them are still alive.”

Studying Joe’s face, the sheriff could see the fatigue and pain etched on it. He put his hand gently on Joe’s shoulder. “You go on and get out, son,” said the sheriff softly. “We’ll take it from here.”

“I should help,” Joe protested half-heartedly.

“You’ve done enough,” declared the sheriff. He looked over his shoulder to a half dozen men. “You men start checking on the…the ones still here.”

Realizing that there was little more he could do, Joe gave the sheriff a nod and started toward the now gaping hole in the side of the car. Wearily, he climbed out of the wreck and into the night.

*****

Outside the car, Joe was greeted by scene of what seemed to be controlled chaos. He could see people lying on the grass or sitting huddled together. A number of bright lanterns shone in the night, their light hiding the faces of the people who carried them. The lanterns were moving in all directions, some toward the people on the ground, some toward the train, and some toward wagons parked nearby. Joe could see people being helped to walk or being carried toward the wagons.

Joe walked about ten feet from the wrecked train, as far as his weary legs would carry him. Then he sunk down and laid on his back in the soft grass. He closed his eyes and almost instantly fell asleep.

The glare of a bright light shining in his face woke Joe. He blinked and squinted as he looked up at a lantern which seemed only inches away. Joe wasn’t sure how long he had slept, but he figured it couldn’t have been long.

“Are you hurt, son?” asked a gruff voice on the other side of the light. Joe couldn’t see his face, only a dark image holding the lantern.

“I think my arm is broken,” replied Joe in a tired voice. “Hurt my ribs, too.”

“Looks like you took a crack in the head on top of it,” said the voice. “Your face is bloody.” There was a moment of silence, and then the voice continued. “Think you can walk? There’s a wagon over there taking people into town to get patched up.”

Nodding, Joe answered, “I can walk if you’ll help me up.”

Pushing himself up with his left arm, Joe tried to struggle to his feet. He felt two hands grasping him under the shoulders and helping him. Once he was standing, Joe could see the face of the man helping him. The stranger had gray hair and a scraggly beard, and lines of age creased his face.

“Thanks,” said Joe. He looked around. “Where are we?”

“About ten minutes outside of Benton’s Crossing,” explained the man. “Sheriff roused the whole town when he heard the whistle sounding for help. Most everybody in town is out here trying to help.”

Joe took a step, but his tired legs started to buckle underneath him. The man grabbed Joe’s left arm. “Let me help you,” offered Joe’s rescuer. He picked up the lantern that he had laid on the ground and slowly guided Joe across the grass. Too tired to care where he was going, Joe simply allowed the man to steer him away from the train.

As they approached a wagon already crowded with people, the man next to Joe shouted, “Hang on, Bert! I got one more for you.”

“I’m already full,” yelled the man sitting in the driver’s seat of the wagon.

“Well, you can squeeze one more in,” insisted Joe’s helper. He eased Joe onto a small space at the end of the wagon. Joe scooted in a bit, until his back hit a pair of boots. With his legs hanging over the edge of the wagon, Joe grabbed the side of the carrier for support.

“All right, you can go now, Bert,” called the man with the beard. As the wagon started to move slowly across the grass, the man looked at Joe and added, “They’ll take care of you in town. Good luck to you.” Joe nodded his thanks as the wagon pulled away.

Holding on to the side of the wagon, Joe let his head droop and his eyes close. Like the others in the carrier, he was too tired and sore to make any conversation. He just hung on and let himself be carried through the night.

The wagon stopped abruptly, jolting Joe awake. He looked up and saw he was surrounded by the buildings which made up Benton’s Crossing. The wagon had stopped in front of the saloon.

“Got some more here for the doc,” Bert, the driver, shouted toward a man standing in front of the saloon.

“Anyone hurt bad?” asked the man on the sidewalk.

The driver looked back into the wagon for a minute, then turned to answer the man in front of the saloon. “No, not too bad. Cuts and broken bones mostly.”

“Then we can’t take them here,” said the man, shaking his head. “Saloon’s full of people and doc said he’s only taking people who are really bad off.”

“What am I suppose to do with them?” asked Bert in an almost angry voice.

“Take them down to Doc Foster at the stable,” advised the man standing on the boardwalk.

“Doc Foster? He’s a vet!” exclaimed the driver.

“He can sew up a cut or set a bone, can’t he?” challenged the man in front of the saloon. “Doc Foster came by a little while ago and said he’d take anyone that wasn’t hurt too serious. We loaded him up with bandages and medicine and stuff like that.”

“All right,” agreed Bert, his voice still sounding doubtful. He snapped the reins in his hands, and once more the wagon started forward.

It took only a few minutes to travel through Benton’s Crossing to the stable on the edge of town. Two men stood outside the building, watching the wagon with an expectant look.

“Jake, start helping them inside,” ordered one of the men as the wagon came to a halt. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up to the elbows. He was wearing gray pants and a matching vest that hung open around him.

“Right, doc,” agreed Jake, a small man wearing a long coat with big pockets. Jake walked to a man sitting next to Joe and eased him off the wagon bed. “Come on, fellow,” said Jake in a soothing voice. “We’ll get you inside.”

Jumping down from his seat, the driver moved to the back of the wagon to help his passengers climb down. The vet joined him in aiding the injured travelers.

“What’s Jake doing helping?” asked Bert as he reached to help a woman slide across the wagon and on to the ground. “He ain’t never cared much about anything except making a quick buck and then drinking it up as fast as he could.”

“He just showed up and offered to help. Guess everyone has some good inside them someplace,” replied Doctor Foster with a shrug. He turned to face the young man standing next to the wagon.

Joe had eased himself to the ground but his knees buckled a bit when his feet hit the dirt. Grabbing on to the wooden side, he stood waiting for his legs to stop feeling like soft butter.

The vet slipped Joe’s arm over his shoulder and put his hand behind Joe’s back. “Come on, son, let’s get you inside,” Doctor Foster advised. “We’ve got some nice fresh hay you can lay on. It’s not a bed, but it’s probably just as soft, and it sure as heck smells better than those beds at the hotel.”

Giving the vet a small grin, Joe nodded and started walking slowly.

Inside the stable, Joe was surprised to see the building brightly lit. Lanterns hung on hooks near every stall. A long wood table stood near the door with bottles, balls of cotton and rolls of bandages piled high on it. Joe could smell the fresh hay that the vet had mentioned.

Guiding him slowly, Doctor Foster led Joe to the back of the stable and into a stall which seemed overflowing with hay. He eased Joe slowly on to the straw. “How bad you hurt?” asked the vet.

“Broken arm, maybe a couple of ribs,” replied Joe in a tired voice. “I’ll be all right.”

Nodding, Doctor Foster said, “I’ll get to you as soon as I get everyone out of the wagon and settled inside.”

Joe didn’t bother to answer. He just closed his eyes and started to drift off to sleep again. But, once more, the fates seemed determined not to let Joe rest. His eyes hadn’t been closed very long when a gentle shake on his shoulder woke Joe. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and squinted at the figure of Doctor Foster kneeling next to him with a tin cup in his hand.

“Here,” ordered the vet, putting the cup to Joe’s lips. “Drink this.”

“What is it?” asked Joe suspiciously, turning his head a bit.

“A sedative…something to put you to sleep,” answered Doctor Foster. “Your ribs are only scraped and bruised but your arm is broken. I’m going to have to set it.”

“I was asleep already,” complained Joe in an irritated voice.

“Yes, but this will make sure you sleep through my setting that arm,” declared the vet in a voice whose irritation match Joe’s. Then Doctor Foster’s voice softened. “Please,” he added. “It’ll make things easier on both of us.”

Willing to do almost anything in order to be allowed to sleep, Joe gave the vet a quick nod and reached up for the cup. He quickly drank the contents, wrinkling his nose a bit at the bitter taste. As he handed the cup back to the vet, Joe asked drowsily. “Now can I sleep?”

“Don’t worry,” replied Doctor Foster with a smile. “Nothing is going to wake you for a long time. It’ll give me plenty of time to set that arm and patch you up.”

Yawning, Joe didn’t bother to answer. He closed his eyes, and began to sink into the welcome arms of a deep slumber.

The vet knelt by Joe for another minute, making sure the young man was sleeping soundly and easily. Then he stood and walked to the table at the front of the stable.

Doctor Foster was sorting through the bandages and other materials on the table when the door to the stable banged open. A man in a dark shirt walked in and thrust a pad of paper and pencil toward the vet. “Sheriff wants you to get the names of all the people we brought here,” announced the man almost abruptly. “He wants to keep track of who’s where, in case somebody comes looking for them.”

“You should have told me that sooner,” said Doctor Foster with a frown. “I just gave three or four of them a sedative to put them out. They won’t wake up for hours.”

“Sorry,” replied the man without really apologizing. “Just do what you can to find out their names. I’ll be back later to pick up the list.” He handed the paper and pencil to the vet and left.

Sighing, Doctor Foster turned to the small man in the long coat lounging against the wall. “Jake,” he ordered, “start checking those people on the left side. If they’re awake, ask them their names. If they’re asleep, see if they have anything on them that will identify them. Call out the names as you get them.”

Almost eagerly, Jake nodded and headed toward a stall while the vet walked toward an older woman sitting with her back against the right wall.

For the next few minutes, voices filled the barn, either the soft voice of an individual giving their name, or the loud shout of Jake repeating a name for the vet to add to his list.

Doctor Foster and Jake reached the back of the barn at almost the same time. Nodding toward Joe, the vet said to Jake, “He’s dead to the world for at least another eight hours. Check to see if he’s got anything on him to identify him.” Doctor Foster turned toward the opposite wall, where another man was laying in a stall.

Kneeling on the hay next to the sleeping figure, Jake pulled open Joe’s jacket and saw a wallet sticking out of an inside pocket. As Jake snatched up the wallet, his eyes opened wide. He could see a thick pile of paper money peeking out of the top. Opening it quickly, Jake saw the bills were mostly twenties and fifties. He expertly thumbed the money, counting silently, and grinned when his calculations passed $400.

“Anything to identify him, Jake?” shouted Doctor Foster from across the stable.

Quickly, Jake closed the wallet and dropped it into the long pocket of his coat, a pocket already heavy with watches and bits of jewelry that Jake slipped off other unknowing victims. “Nothing, doc,” called Jake in a loud voice. “There’s nothing on him.”

*****

In the hills north of Benton’s Crossing, the sun was peeking over the rolling bluffs as three riders guided their horses to the crest. The dawn barely lit the tall white hat of one rider and the buckskin horse of the middle rider. Almost invisible in the dim light, the third rider was dressed in black, his hand firmly gripping the rope to the halter of the pinto horse he was leading.

“I still don’t know why we had to get up in the middle of the night to come to Benton’s Crossing,” complained Hoss Cartwright. “We were only camped an hour or so away. Could we have waited until it was at least light?”

“Because I want to catch up with Joe before he gets on the morning stage,” answered Ben Cartwright in a voice that implied he had answered the question several times already. “If we catch up with Joe here, we’re already halfway to Paiute Wells. This is faster than waiting for him to get home and then doubling back.”

“Yeah,” added Adam Cartwright with a wry smile. “We wouldn’t want Joe to ride all the way to Virginia City in that comfy stage when he can have the chance to cross the desert on horseback.”

“I need all three of you boys to help me get those horses from Paiute Wells,” said Ben in an exasperated voice. “Is that so hard to understand?”

“I understand it, Pa,” acknowledged Hoss with a grin. “I just wonder if Joe’s going to be so understanding.”

As the three riders reached the crest of the hill, they looked down to the plain below – and abruptly pulled their horses to a stop. Instead of the empty railroad tracks they had expected to see, the Cartwrights looked in horror at the wrecked train below them. The engine straddled the tracks on its side, with the cars zigzagged behind it. One passenger car was upright but appeared bent in the middle. The second passenger car laid on its side; a boxcar on top of its back end had compressed the area to half its normal size. The other boxcar and caboose were leaning drunkenly, half of their wheels off the track.

“My God!” exclaimed Ben in a breathless voice. He kicked his horse, urging the animal down the hill as fast as possible as Adam and Hoss followed suit. As soon as he reached flat ground, Ben kicked his horse into a gallop, guiding his buckskin toward a group of men standing near the wrecked train.

*****

In Benton’s Crossing, the deserted streets also were being slowly lit by the dawn. The creak of the barn door as it opened seemed unusually loud to Jake as he pushed against it. Quickly slipping outside, Jake looked around. His eyes darted from side to side as he checked to make sure he was alone. Satisfied, Jake began walking away from the stable, his mind already on how to spend his windfall. He didn’t see the dark figure in the alley until he was suddenly pulled into the narrow opening between two buildings.

“What the…?” started Jake with both surprise and anger in his voice. He stopped and swallowed hard as he recognized the figure looming over him. “What do you want, Bert?” he asked, his voice now filled with fright.

“Don’t play games with me,” snarled Bert menacingly. “You owe me fifty bucks and I mean to have it.” The man standing over Jake was nearly a head taller and almost twice as broad. His gray shirt was stretched tightly over heavily muscled arms and shoulders.

“I…I don’t have the money,” answered Jake in a trembling voice.

“I told you not to play games with me,” snapped Bert. He pushed Jake hard against the wall of the building which flanked the alley. “It took me awhile to work out why you were being so helpful with all those people from the wreck. I know you weren’t doing it out of the goodness of your heart. I finally figured out that those light fingers of yours were picking up whatever you could find on them. Now hand over the money.”

“Bert, you have it all wrong,” protested Jake. “I was just helping out.”

“Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England,” sneered Bert. He pushed Jake hard again, knocking the smaller man’s head against the wall. “Now hand it over or I’ll shake it out of you piece by piece.”

“All right, all right,” Jake agreed hastily. He reached into the long pocket of his coat. Jake’s fingers scooped up the watches and jewelry, while the back of his hand pushed the wallet aside. Pulling his hand out of the pocket, Jake offered part of his ill-gotten gains to the bigger man, hoping the watches and other tidbits would satisfy him.

After studying the merchandise in Jake’s hand with a frown, Bert said disgustedly, “What am I suppose to do with these? If I try selling this stuff, the sheriff will have me behind bars in two minutes flat. I want the money you took.”

“That’s all there is,” Jake stated, trying to sound convincing. “I just grabbed what I could. There isn’t any money.” He quickly stuck the watches and jewelry back in his pocket.

“We’ll just see about that,” growled Bert. He slapped Jake hard across the face with his left hand, stunning the smaller man, as his right hand dug into the pocket of Jake’s coat. A triumphant looked crossed Bert’s face as his hand pulled out the wallet.

“No money, eh?” said Bert. His eyes widened a bit as he saw the stack of bills peeking out of the wallet. “I figure this is all mine,” he declared greedily. “Sort of interest on what you owe me.” Bert opened the wallet to take out the money, then stopped when he saw a piece of paper stuck into a small slit in the leather. The top of the paper jutted out of the thin slot, and the words “Property of Joe Cartwright, Virginia City” were printed neatly on the paper.

“Cartwright?” read aloud Bert in surprise. “You took this off a Cartwright?”

“I guess,” answered Jake, shrinking back from the bigger man. “I took it off some young guy in the barn. I didn’t ask his name.”

“Cartwright,” Bert repeated, this time his voice filled with speculation. “The Cartwrights are rich, real rich. I bet old man Cartwright would pay a lot to get back one of his boys.” He turned to Jake. “How bad was he hurt?”

“He was busted up some, but I heard Doc Foster say he was going to be all right,” replied Jake.

“Well enough to ride a horse?” asked Bert

“I guess,” said Jake with a shrug. “But the doc gave him something to make him sleep. I don’t think he’s going to be awake for a couple of hours.” Jake’s eye narrowed. “What are you planning to do?”

“We’re going to take young Mr. Cartwright to that shack of yours outside of town,” explained Bert. “And keep him there until his Pa pays up.”

“You can’t take him out of there!” exclaimed Jake. “And he’s bound to put up a fuss when he wakes up. Not to mention get us thrown in jail.”

“Hmm, you’re right,” agreed Bert, stroking his chin thoughtfully. He looked back to Jake. “You said Doc Foster gave him something to sleep. Do you think you could get some of that stuff?”

“Well, maybe,” said Jake doubtfully. “Why?”

“Because you’re going to give him another dose and make sure he sleeps for a long time,” answered Bert. “Long enough for us to get paid by his Pa. He’ll sleep through the whole thing, and nobody, not even young Cartwright, will know we’re involved.”

“But how are we going to get him to the shack?” asked Jake, wavering between his greed and his fear of being caught.

“We’ll just carry him out,” explained Bert with a smile that had no warmth. “We’ll tell Doc Foster that we’re taking him to his family, which will be the truth. Just won’t mention a little detour along the way.” He gave a short laugh. “We’ll be as shocked as everyone else when he disappears.”

“It might work,” acknowledged Jake slowly, his greed beginning to win out. “But I don’t know about getting that sleeping medicine.”

“Just do it!” Bert snapped. “You get that medicine while I get my wagon. I’ll meet you inside the barn in an hour.”

“All right,” said Jake with a quick nod. He turned and walked with rapid steps from the alley, not paying attention to the three riders — one of whom was leading a pinto — who raced by him toward the sheriff’s office.

*****

Inside his office, the sheriff was laying on an old sofa, trying to rest. He opened one eye and looked up when the door to his office banged open.

“Sheriff,” called Ben in an almost frantic voice. “We saw the train wreck outside of town. One of the men out there said you were organizing the rescue.”

“Yeah,” answered the sheriff in an irritated voice. “I’ve been up all night and I’m trying to get some rest. What do you want?”

“My son…my youngest son was supposed to be on that train,” Ben explained. He found it hard to talk with the lump of fear that had formed in his throat.

Instantly, the look of irritation on the sheriff’s face was replaced by one of sympathy. He opened both eyes wide as he sat up and stretched a bit. Pushing himself off the sofa, the sheriff walked to his desk and picked up some papers. “What’s your boy’s name?” he asked.

“Cartwright,” answered Ben. “Joseph Cartwright.”

Lifting his eyebrows a bit in recognition of the name, the sheriff quickly scanned the papers in his hand. “I don’t see his name on any of the lists,” said the sheriff. “But that don’t mean he wasn’t on the train. We only got the names of about half the people we brought into town.”

“Where did you take them?” demanded Adam.

“They’re all over town,” replied the sheriff with a small shrug. “Doc Watson has the ones who were hurt the worst over at the saloon. He’s turned the place into a hospital. The others are in the hotel, or somebody took them in. Just about everyone in town with an extra bed or sofa took somebody. We also got some people down at the livery stable. Doc Foster, the vet, is taking care of the ones who weren’t in too bad shape down there.” The sheriff hesitated, then added. “We also have twelve bodies in the warehouse at the edge of town. Seven of them are men, and four of those we couldn’t identify.”

Ben’s eyes opened wide in fear at the sheriff’s last statement. He swallowed hard, then turned to his other two sons. “Hoss, you go to the hotel and see if you can find Joe there,” said Ben grimly. “Adam…”

“I’ll check the warehouse,” interrupted Adam. He took a deep breath. “Let me take the warehouse, Pa.”

“All right,” agreed Ben, his eyes conveying his gratitude to his oldest son. “I’ll talk to the doctor over at the saloon. Meet me outside the saloon. If Joe’s not in any of those places…” Ben stopped and closed his eyes for a moment, silently praying his son wasn’t in the warehouse or the saloon. “If one of us doesn’t find Joe, we’ll check the stable. After that, if we have to, we’ll start knocking on every door in town.” Giving a brief nod of thanks to the sheriff, Ben led his two sons out of the office.

As the sheriff watched the three men depart, it suddenly struck him that he hadn’t asked for a description of the younger Cartwright. I’m so tired I can’t think straight, thought the sheriff, rubbing his eyes. A picture of the young cowboy who stayed behind to help the people in the train flashed in his head, and the sheriff wondered briefly if the cowboy might be the missing Cartwright. If he was, decided the sheriff, his family would find him soon enough. With a yawn, he turned and walked back to the couch.

Outside the sheriff’s office, the three Cartwrights stopped, each of them looking around to get their bearings and locate their individual destinations. “If you find Joe…” Ben stopped and glanced toward Adam. “If you find Joe,” he said again, “tell him to stay where he is. We’ll come to him.” As Adam and Hoss nodded their understanding, Ben added, “I’ll meet you in front of the saloon.” With another nod, Adam turned and headed down the street while Hoss began walking toward the center of town.

The saloon was almost directly across from the sheriff’s office. As Ben walked slowly across the dirt street, he took a deep breath, steeling himself for what he might find. He hesitated as he approached the swinging doors of the saloon, wondering if he really wanted to find Joe inside the make-shift hospital. Then he gave the doors a shove and walked in.

Cots and mattresses filled the wide area in front of the wooded bar. Ben should see tables and chairs pushed against the far walls and piled on top of each other. He looked around quickly, trying to spot something familiar among the twenty or more people who lay on the temporary beds. But it was hard to see anything of the injured people. All were covered with blankets, and his view was blocked by others sitting by the beds, spooning liquids, wiping the faces, or just holding the hands of the people who laid on the cots and mattresses. Almost all of the nurses were women, both young and old. Some were neatly dressed while others had a disheveled look about them. Ben guessed the more harried-looking women were friends or relatives of the injured.

Walking carefully through the maze of beds, Ben worked his way to the bar. A man with gray hair and a thickset body was leaning against the wooded structure, sipping coffee from a tin cup. The tired look on his face as well as the stethoscope around his neck told Ben that this was the doctor.

“Doctor, I’m Ben Cartwright,” Ben announced as he reached the bar. “I’m looking for my son, Joseph. He was supposed to have been on that train.”

“I didn’t get any names,” replied the doctor in a tired voice. “What does he look like?”

“He’s 22, slim build, dark wavy hair, probably wearing a green jacket,” replied Ben.

Frowning, the doctor thought while Ben held his breath. Finally, the doctor shook his head and stated, “No, nobody in here matches that description.” Ben let out a sigh of relief. “Try the sheriff,” advised the doctor wearily. “He was trying to keep track of everyone.”

“I already have,” Ben stated. “I’ll keep looking.”

As Ben turned to begin negotiating his way through the beds again, a young woman in a blue dress, with tendrils of brown hair hanging around her face, hurried up to him. “Excuse me,” she said. “Did I hear you were looking for someone named Joe?”

“Yes, yes I am,” replied Ben eagerly. “Have you seen him?”

“From what you said to the doctor, I’m pretty sure I know the man you’re looking for,” answered the young woman named Trisha. “He helped me get my aunt out of the train.”

“Then he’s all right!” exclaimed Ben in relief.

“Well, he had a gash on the head, and he said he hurt his arm,” Trisha said. “But he didn’t look too bad off.”

“Do you know where he is?” asked Ben.

“No, I’m sorry,” admitted Trisha. “I lost track of him in all the confusion.”

“If he wasn’t hurt too bad, he might be at the hotel,” suggested the doctor thoughtfully from behind Ben. “Or maybe down at the livery stable. Doctor Foster, the vet, was patching up some people down there.”

“I’ll check,” said Ben. He turned to the young woman. “Thank you,” he added gratefully.

“No, Joe is the one we should thank,” replied Trisha. “He found the way for us to get out, and stayed to make sure everyone did get out.” She looked down for a minute, then raised her eyes to Ben. “Joe was a real hero,” she declared, her eyes brimming with tears. “We might have all died if it wasn’t for him.”

Nodding, Ben patted the girl on the arm, then eased himself around the cots and mattresses to the door.

As Ben emerged from the saloon, he saw Adam hurrying toward him. The look of relief on Adam’s face matched the relief Ben was feeling. “Joe’s not at the warehouse,” Adam announced quickly as he approached his father.

“I know,” Ben replied. He cocked his head toward the saloon. “Somebody inside saw him and said Joe was alive. Sounds like he was banged up a bit, but he’s alive.”

Hearing the sound of heavy footsteps, Ben turned to his right. The smile on Hoss’ face as he walked rapidly toward Ben and Adam told them that he had also learned Joe wasn’t among the dead. “Joe ain’t at the hotel,” Hoss advised as joined the other two men. “The clerk there had a list of everyone they who came in, and Joe wasn’t on it. But I talked to a couple of people who saw him. Joe ain’t dead or hurt real bad.”

“We found that out, too,” Ben stated.

“Those people in the hotel, they said Joe helped everyone get out of that wrecked train car,” added Hoss, a touch of pride in his voice. “They figured he saved a lot of people by getting them out ‘cause the car was filling up with smoke.”

“That’s what the girl inside said,” Ben commented, the pride also showing in his voice. “She called him a hero.”

“Well, where do you suppose they put heroes in this town?” asked Adam.

“The clerk at the hotel said a bunch of people were at the boarding house down the street,” Hoss answered.

“The doctor also said he might be at the livery stable,” noted Ben. “Evidently, the vet was taking care of people who weren’t hurt too bad down there.”

“Where do you want to try first?” Adam asked.

Looking down the street, Ben replied, “Let’s go to the boarding house first. If Joe’s not there, we’ll try the stable.”

*****

Inside the stable, Jake was watching as Doctor Foster carefully measured a dose of medicine from one of the bottles. For the last half hour or so, in between fetching and carrying for the vet, Jake had been trying to work out which one of the bottles on the table might have the medicine he needed to put young Cartwright into a deep sleep. The problem was that Jake could barely read, a fact that he hadn’t mentioned to his new partner. Not that it made much difference. Jake doubted if he would have understood the words printed on the label of each bottle, even if he could make them out. So Jake watched as the vet mixed the medicines, and then tried to see what each potion did when Doctor Foster gave it to someone.

One thing Jake didn’t bother with was watching the doses the vet carefully measured out. He didn’t much care what the medicine did to the young cowboy as long as it kept him quiet. In Jake’s mind, a dead body was easier to return to a worried family than a sleeping one. But he would let Bert worry about that. Now that he had decided to go along with the scheme, all Jake could think about was how fast he could get his part of the money, and how to make sure he didn’t get caught.

Having narrowed his choices down to two bottles – a tall brown one and a small blue one – Jake knew that he would have to make up his mind soon. Bert would be at the stable shortly, expecting to find Cartwright asleep. He was running out of time.

“Jake, check on that fellow in the second stall,” said Doctor Foster from across the table. “See if he needs any water.”

“Sure, doc,” relied Jake. His eyes narrowed as a thought struck him. “Do you want me to check on the young fellow in the back, too?”

“No, that’s not necessary,” advised the vet. “I looked at him a little while ago. He was fine. He was even beginning to wake up a bit.”

Alarmed at the news, Jake said quickly, “Do you think you ought to give him something to put him back to sleep? I mean, he’s got to be hurting pretty bad.”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” answered Doctor Foster, shaking his head. “He’s got a broken arm and some bruised ribs, along with a few cuts, but nothing that will cause him that much pain. He’ll be sore for awhile, that’s all.”

The sound of the barn door opening drew both Jake and Doctor Foster’s attention. Jake took a sharp breath when he saw Bert coming through the door.

“Hi, doc,” called Bert pleasantly. “I’ve come to take one of your patients back to his family.” Seeing the doctor’s attention turned away from the table, Jake reached over and grabbed the small blue bottle. He hadn’t made up his mind about the medicine. He took the blue bottle simply because it was small and easy for him to hide in his hand. Jake had no idea what it was, but he figured if they gave young Cartwright enough of it, the medicine would keep him asleep.

“Jake, why don’t you give me a hand with the fellow,” suggested Bert, giving the smaller man a significant look.

“Sure,” answered Jake in what he hoped was a casual voice. He strolled over to Bert.

“Did you give him the stuff to put him to sleep?” hissed Bert in a low voice to Jake.

Jake thought fast. He knew Bert had expected him to do his part, and was afraid that the bigger man might cut him out of the money if he felt Jake wasn’t helping. “No,” admitted Jake in a low voice. “I figured carrying the kid might be too hard. He’s awake enough that we can walk him out.”

“Walk him out?” repeated Bert with a frown. “He’ll recognize us.”

“No, no, he’s still half asleep,” explained Jake, hoping he was right. “He’s too dopey to really know what’s going on. Once we get him in the wagon, we’ll give him a big dose of medicine. He’ll sleep like a baby for days. See, I have the stuff right here.” Jake held up the small blue bottle.

“Laudanum?” read Bert, his frown deepening. “Isn’t that stuff pretty powerful?”

“I’ve been watching the doc,” said Jake in a confident voice. “I know how much to give him.” He didn’t really know, but felt he had to convince Bert that his help was necessary. He figured about half of the blue bottle would be more than enough to keep their young captive quiet. Jake didn’t realize – or care – that half a bottle of laudanum would be more than a fatal dose.

“All right,” Bert agreed reluctantly. “Let’s get going.” He turned and announced in a loud voice to Doctor Foster, “We’re going to help that young fellow in the back stall out to the wagon. His family wants us to take him to them.”

“Fine, fine,” replied the vet in a distracted voice. “That’s just one less for me to worry about.” Doctor Foster picked up some bandages and walked toward a man lying in the first stall.

Jerking his head to indicate that Bert should follow him, Jake walked toward the back of the barn. He stopped in front of the last stall and looked in.

Sandwiched between two blankets, Joe laid on the soft hay with his eye closed. In the corner of the stall, his shirt and jacket, which Doctor Foster had removed, were neatly folded into squares. Joe’s right arm rested on his chest, the splint and bandages around it clearly visible. The edge of the bandage wrapped around his ribs could be seen over the top of the blanket. Someone had wiped the blood from Joe’s face and put an ointment on the thin cut that ran along the side of his forehead.

“I thought you said he was awake,” snapped Bert angrily.

Remember the vet’s words, Jake answered, “He was just beginning to wake up. He probably drifted off again.” Pushing past Bert, Jake walked into the stall and knelt next to Joe. He reached out and gave Joe’s shoulder several rough shakes.

Jarred by the shakes, Joe woke and turned his head. Through barely opened eyes, he looked at the figure next to him. “Go away. Let me sleep,” he protested in a thick voice.

“See, he’s awake,” Jake said to Bert. “Help me get him on his feet.” He snatched the blanket off Joe and put his hand under Joe’s shoulder.

With two long strides, Bert came into the stall next to Joe. He put his hands around the upper part of Joe’s right arm and started to pull the young man to his feet. Joe moaned softly and winced at the pain.

Ignoring Joe’s moan, Bert and Jake pulled the youngest Cartwright to his feet. Joe swayed a bit and looked at the man on his right through bleary eyes. “Let me alone,” he complained again, his words slightly slurred. “I want to sleep.”

“Grab his shirt and jacket,” ordered Bert. “We might need them to send to his family as proof we have him.” Jake nodded and reached down to pick up the clothes. Then he put his hand on Joe’s back and gave the young man a small push. On rubbery legs, Joe took a step forward. Bert pulled Joe forward and got another step from Joe in response. The two kidnappers continued to push and pull Joe, forcing him to walk with unsteady steps.

Concentrating on keeping Joe walking, neither Bert nor Jake noticed the gray-haired man standing at the front of the barn until they were only a few feet away from him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded the man angrily.

“Get out of the way,” growled Bert. “This here is Joe Cartwright. His Pa is Ben Cartwright, and his Pa asked me to bring him home.”

“Oh, really?” said the man blocking the trio, his voice clearly showing he didn’t believe Bert. “Well, for your information, I’m Ben Cartwright.”

Eyes widening in both surprise and fear, Jake turned his head quickly to look at Bert. He could see Bert’s mouth gaping. Deciding he had had enough of this now seemingly mad plan, Jake took his hands off Joe and stepped back a bit. Then he began to run.

Seeing Jake streaking away, Bert decided to join him. He pushed Joe forward, propelling the groggy young man toward Ben. As soon as he was free of Joe, Bert also began to run.

Surprised by the move, Ben reached out and grabbed youngest son as Joe started to fall forward. He wrapped his arms around Joe’s body just under the shoulders, then turned to look over his shoulder.

Standing by the front door, Hoss was holding Jake by the collar as the smaller man cowered in fear. Hoss’ big frame and scowling face was enough to convince Jake not to resist. A few feet away, Adam was landing a punch on Bert’s jaw, sending the would-be kidnapper sprawling to the floor on his back.

Satisfied with what he saw, Ben turned quickly back to Joe. He hugged his son to his body, allowing Joe’s head to rest on his shoulder. “Everything is all right now, Joe,” said Ben softly. He stroked Joe’s head gently. “We finally found you, son.”

Looking up at his father, Joe blinked as he tried to understand what was happening. “Why,” he asked in a groggy voice, “why won’t anyone let me sleep?”

*****

Sitting on a bench in front of the stage depot six days later, Joe peered down the empty street. He looked rested and relaxed; the only visible sign of his injuries was the splinted arm resting in a sling. “Where’s that stage?” complained Joe. “It should have been here by now.”

Standing next to Joe, Hoss laughed. “You sure are anxious to get home, little brother.” Hoss turned to Adam who was standing next to him. “I told you he’d figure out away to avoid having to ride across that desert.”

“Look who’s talking,” snorted Adam. “You get to go with Joe while I have to go with Pa to Paiute Wells.”

“Somebody has to look after him,” answered Hoss with a grin. “It’s obvious he can’t look after himself.”

“I told you I’m fine,” stated Joe in an exasperated voice. “I don’t need anyone to nursemaid me.”

Taking a step forward, Ben stood next to his youngest son. “Now you listen to me, young man,” he said sternly. “The doctor told you to take it easy for at least three weeks, and I want you to obey him. No riding and get plenty of rest.” He turned to Hoss. “I’m relying on you to make sure he does what he’s told.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” Hoss assured his father. “I’ll make sure he follows orders.”

Turning back to Joe, Ben continued, “Remember what I told you. As soon as you get to Virginia City, you go see Doctor Martin and let him check you over. I want to make sure that stage doesn’t jar anything and do more damage than you’ve already done to yourself.”

“Pa, it’s my arm that’s busted, not my head,” answered Joe with a smile. “I’ll remember.” Joe turned and looked up at Adam. “You be sure Cochise gets home all right, you hear?”

“And Chubb,” added Hoss.

“Don’t worry,” Adam said. “We’ll pick them both up on the way back from Paiute Wells. Doc Foster said he would look after them until we get back. Both those horses will probably be fat and lazy by the time we get them home.”

“Did you find some men to help you drive those horses?” Joe asked his father.

“Not yet,” admitted Ben. “We’re going to start looking as soon as we get you and Hoss on the stage.” Ben frowned a bit. “I hope we can find someone.”

“Well, you can always get that fellow Bert and his friend to help you,” suggested Joe with a twinkle in his eye.

“Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea,” said Adam dryly. “They’d probably steal all the horses and hold them for ransom.”

“Besides, they ain’t going to be available for the next six months or so,” added Hoss. “At least, that’s how long the sheriff said he was going to keep them in jail.”

“Joe?” said a soft voice, contrasting the deep tones of the men standing in front of the depot.

Turning his head, Joe saw Trisha standing a few feet away. He smiled warmly at the girl. “Hello! What are you doing here?” called Joe in a welcoming voice.

“I heard you were leaving today and I wanted to say goodbye,” Trisha replied with a tentative smile. She walked closer to Joe. “And I wanted to thank you again for helping me and my aunt.”

“How is your aunt?” asked Joe.

“It will take awhile, but the doctor said she’ll be fine,” Trisha answered. “The railroad is making arrangements to get us home next week.”

“I’m glad to hear that she’ll be all right,” Joe told the girl. His smile widened. “If you’re ever up by Virginia City, come see me. Just ask anyone in town. They’ll tell you how to find Joe Cartwright and the Ponderosa.”

“I will,” promised Trisha. She glanced at the other Cartwrights, then took a hesitant step forward. “Thank you for everything,” said Trisha softly. She leaned forward and kissed Joe softly on the cheek as her hand stroked his neck. Then, Trisha straightened quickly. She gave the Cartwrights an embarrassed smile and hurried away.

“Don’t that beat all,” observed Hoss, pushing his hat back on his head. “Only our little brother could get himself in a train wreck and come out of it with a pretty girl wanting to romance him.”

“It’s a real talent,” agreed Adam. “I’m not sure exactly what it’s good for, but it is a talent.”

“You two are just jealous,” said Joe smugly as leaned back against the bench. “And don’t forget, I’m a hero. I got a letter from the railroad that says so.”

“Well, hero, enjoy your limelight while you can,” suggested Ben in an amused voice. “Because by the time Adam and I get home, you’ll be well enough to start riding fence and chasing strays.” He laughed at the look of dismay that crossed Joe’s face.

The sounds of shouts and the jangling of harness announced the stage coming up the street. The coach pulled to a stop in front of the station in a cloud of dust. “I got an empty stage,” the driver announced. “So as soon as you folks hop in, we can be on our way.”

Pushing himself up slowly, Joe started to stand. Ben quickly put his hand on his son’s back for support and help. Joe nodded his thanks.

“Come on, little brother,” said Hoss, walking to the stage and pulling the door open. “Time to go home.”

A serious look crossed Joe’s face. “You know what they say about ‘Home Sweet Home’? Well, I think I know what that means. I can’t imagine anything sweeter right now than being back on the Ponderosa.”

“I know, son,” agreed Ben in a soft voice.

Scanning the faces of his father and brother, Joe smiled. “Thanks for making sure I would get home.”

“You would have made it without us,” said Adam, shrugging.

“Maybe not,” replied Joe. “I don’t know exactly what those two had in mind, but I don’t think taking me back to the Ponderosa was in their plans.”

“Well, maybe you’ll appreciate the Ponderosa a little more,” offered Ben.

“I will,” agreed Joe. He turned and started toward the stage. As he passed Hoss, Joe looked at his brother and asked, “Think maybe I’ll be able to get some sleep on the way home?”

***** End *****

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