The Sniper and the Healer (by Debra P.)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:


 

 

Joe and Adam Cartwright stumbled down the path together, both of them panting hard. Adam’s arm was around Joe’s shoulders and Joe appeared to be making a great effort to hold his brother up. Adam was in obvious pain, clutching his hand to his midsection while blood seeped ominously between his fingers. Every step of their descent down the rocky slope was turning into a torturous struggle.

Suddenly, from somewhere above them, a shot was fired. The bullet struck the ground immediately behind them, raising a small puff of dust. Grasping his revolver in his left hand, Joe turned as best he could with his brother hanging on his neck and fired back. Then glancing around frantically, he spied a large boulder at the bottom of the slope. “Come on, brother,” he gasped. “We’ve gotta get behind some protection.”

Adam nodded in understanding. But at this point, he was hardly able to put one foot ahead of the other, and Joe was forced to virtually drag him the short distance to the boulder and pull him behind it. With great care, Joe lowered Adam to the ground and got him settled with his back against the boulder.

“We should be all right here for now,” Joe said. He tried to keep his voice encouraging, but he couldn’t keep the real fear he was feeling from coming through.

Adam looked up at him with pain filled eyes. “Not for very long,” he managed between gasping breaths. “Our friend up there, whoever he is, isn’t very far behind us. And wasn’t that shot you just fired almost your last one?”

“I think I’ve got two more bullets,” Joe replied reluctantly.

The brothers looked into each other’s eyes. They were each thinking the same thing…that this shouldn’t be happening.

Only yesterday they had arrived at Fort Tejon* in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California along with their father, bringing with them a string of horses for the army. Today, while Ben took some time catching up with a couple of acquaintances among the men at the fort, Adam and Joe had decided to do a little exploring in the area. They had been assured that there was nothing to fear from the Indians in the nearby reservation, and they had received directions to the spot a number of miles away which had the best view overlooking the valley. Wanting to allow Cochise and Sport to rest up following the journey from Nevada, they had borrowed a couple of the horses from the fort’s stable when they set out that morning. Their mood was bright as they waved good-bye to their father and rode off. They had little trouble finding their way to the overlook, and the view from there had more than lived up to expectations. Standing there, looking out over the valley, they had enjoyed the moment of unusually close brotherly camaraderie.

Then, abruptly, their pleasant day had turned violent and threatening. The sound of a gunshot rang out and Joe looked on stunned as Adam slumped to the ground. At that moment he hardly noticed the spooked horses fleeing back in the direction they had come. A second shot that he sensed whizzing close by his head roused him from his daze and sent him immediately to kneel at his brother’s side. He was dismayed  to see the blood flowing from the wound to the abdomen that Adam had sustained, but all he could do at the moment was to draw out a clean handkerchief, cover the wound with it and place his brother’s hand over it to hold it there. The predominant thought in his mind was the necessity of getting away as fast as possible. With considerable difficulty, he managed to get Adam to his feet and the two of them moved off down the path back to lower ground. Joe managed to draw his gun and return fire when a couple of more shots came close to them. That seemed to discourage the shooter briefly, until the shot that sent the brothers scrambling for the shelter of the boulder proved that they were still being targeted.

And now here they were, pinned down behind the boulder, one of them seriously wounded, with the unknown assailant nearby and hardly any ammunition left to defend themselves.

Joe lowered his gaze. “So what are we going to do now?” he asked the one that he had so often looked to for sound advice in a difficult situation.

“Joe,” Adam responded in a low, intense voice. “The fact is…I can’t go on. There’s no way I’m going to be able to make it back to the fort. And if you stay with me, you’re not going to make it back either.” He paused, knowing that what he was about to say would not go over easily. “Joe, you’re going to have to go on by yourself. That way there’s at least a chance that you can make it out of this alive.”

Joe stared at him with wide eyes, every muscle of his face showing resistance to the idea. “Leave you here like this? No, Adam! I just can’t do that! There’s no way!”

Weakly, Adam raised his hand and laid it on his brother’s shoulder. ”I understand how you feel, Joe. If our positions were reversed, I’d hate the idea of leaving you too. But just think for a minute. You’ve seen how hard it was for me just to get this short distance. And you know how far it is back to the fort. Now can you honestly say that there’s any possibility you can get me back there?”

Joe sat silent, desperately trying to think of some way to deny his brother’s logic. But there was none.

“Joe, no matter how much you want to, you’re not going to be able to help me by staying here,” Adam continued. “If you try, you’re only going to get yourself killed too. It’s harsh, I know, but that’s the reality we’re facing. Now please, do what I’m asking and go.”

Joe seemed to be trying to hold himself back from sobbing, and barely succeeding. Finally he shook his head. “No, Adam…I just can’t!”

Adam closed his eyes briefly and took a deep, painful breath, then opened them again. “All right, maybe we should put it to a vote. Now, the question before us is – should you go and try to make it back to the fort on your own? I vote yes.”

“And I vote no!” Joe snapped back impulsively.

“Well then, I guess you’re outvoted, little buddy,” Adam said quietly.

“Oh? And just how do you figure that?” Joe demanded. “It’s a one to one tie.”

Adam shook his head. “There’s one more vote to be counted. Pa’s. It seems to me he should have some say in this too.”

“And you think he’d vote for me to leave you here?”

“I think…rather, I know…that he’d vote for the option which would bring one of us back safe to him rather than neither of us.” Adam tightened his grip on his brother’s shoulder. “Unfortunately, having us both come back safe doesn’t seem to be a viable option.” His voice took on an intense earnestness. “Joe, think about Pa. Don’t let him lose both of us this way. And give me the peace of knowing that you’ll be all right and that you’ll be there for him. Please.”

Joe bowed his head. The emotional struggle going on in him was painful to watch. But, eventually, it ended with a brief nod of his head. “All right, Adam. I’ll do it.”

Adam gave a small sigh of relief.

“Good. Now there’s very little time. Just take whatever ammo there is still on my gun belt and get going before our friend turns up.”

Joe quickly retrieved the handful of bullets that Adam had on him and, with a trembling hand, loaded his gun.

“Hopefully, that will be enough to allow you to get away,” Adam said with satisfaction.

Joe stood up. He looked down at his wounded brother with moisture welling in his eyes. “Adam, I…” he began, but his brother cut him off.

“No time for long good-byes, Joe. Besides, I think we each know what the other wants to say. Don’t we?”

Joe nodded. He reached down to clasp Adam’s hand. “Good-bye, Adam,” he said in a choked voice.

Adam returned the handclasp with all the strength he had left. “Good-bye, Joe” he said softly.

Joe turned away with tears streaming down his face and began to hurry down the path. After a few steps, he paused and turned his head to take one last look at his brother, who sat there with his back against the boulder and his eyes half closed. Then he turned back and continued on his way.

Adam watched him go through partially raised eyelids. Then he let his head settle back against the stone behind him with a grateful sigh. He allowed his eyes to close completely as he began to think about his family. He was trying to recall as many happy memories as he could.

It was only a moment later that he heard the sound of footsteps approaching him. And, opening his eyes, he saw a shadowy figure looming over him.

*****

Catching sight of the fort in the distance, Joe hurried forward as fast as his tired legs would carry him. It was now almost two hours since he had left his brother, and he had been trying very hard not to obsess about what might have happened in the meantime. There were other questions that kept tumbling about in his mind. Who was it that had shot at Adam and him? And WHY? And, whoever it was, why had he (assuming it was a man) not taken any more shots as Joe hurried away from the scene? When speculation about these things seemed to be getting him nowhere, his thoughts turned in another direction, to an even more difficult subject. What was he going to say to Pa when he reached him? Adam had pled with him not to let their pa lose both of them, and he had accepted that plea. But he was still greatly troubled at being forced to leave his brother, and he still had some trepidation about how their pa would react to that decision. Through all of the turmoil of his thoughts the image of Adam lying there wounded and bleeding kept intruding itself, and each time he was forced to choke back a sob. The thought of what might have happened…had probably happened…made him feel as though he had been torn apart and put back together again with some vital part left out.

Joe continued jogging along, pressing his pace and watching the walls of the fort grow larger as he approached. He spied two men standing just outside the gate of the fort, and as he came closer he could tell that one of them was wearing an army uniform. A moment later he gave a little gasp and broke into a run as he recognized the second man as his father.

“Pa! Pa!” Joe shouted, waving his arm.

Both of the men caught sight of him at the same moment, and Ben immediately set out running to meet him with the army man close behind. Very quickly they met, and Joe found himself wrapped in his father’s embrace.

“Thank God!” Ben’s voice spoke low and fervently in his son’s ear. “The horses you and Adam took this morning came back without you, and several of the men were getting ready to go out and look for the two of you.” Ben drew back slightly, laid his hands on Joe’s shoulders and looked directly into his eyes.

“Joseph…where’s your brother?” Ben asked quietly.

Joe found it hard to meet his father’s gaze. He lowered his eyes and swallowed hard as he struggled to come up with the words to explain. Ben grasped his shoulders more firmly.

“Son…where is Adam?” Ben demanded, his rising voice betraying his alarm.

Joe took a deep breath and forced himself to look up. “Pa… we rode out to that overlook that we were told about. And somebody started taking shots at us. I don’t even have any idea who it was! Adam was hit. He was hurt real bad, Pa. We managed to get behind a bolder near the bottom of the path…but then…we knew we couldn’t hold out there very long and…” Seeing the expression on his father’s face, Joe was forced to look down again.

“And you left him there?” Ben concluded for him.

Though Joe was avoiding looking at him, he couldn’t avoid hearing the disbelief and the fear that were in Ben’s voice, and they cut into him like a knife. He had to make his father understand! “I wouldn’t do it at first, Pa. I didn’t think I could. But Adam insisted. He felt like there wasn’t any way he was going to make it back here.” Joe found it in him to look up and meet his father’s eyes. “But what he was thinking about most was you, Pa. He…he didn’t want you to lose both of us…neither of us did,” Joe concluded in an unsteady voice.

Ben closed his eyes and bowed his head, and for a moment it looked as though his legs might be about to give way. But he steadied himself and, keeping his hold on his son, he painfully managed to straighten himself up. Joe thought he seemed to have aged ten years in barely a minute.

“Joe…when you left…was Adam…?” Ben spoke quietly so that Joe could barely hear him. But Joe understood the unfinished question all too well.

“He was alive when I left, Pa,” Joe responded. “But that was two hours ago. The sniper was still out there. And Adam was wounded right in the stomach. You know what that means.” Joe’s voice trailed off. He longed so much to be able to add something more encouraging…to soften the harsh assessment. And yet, he feared raising hopes which were only destined to be dashed. He was aware of how cruel that could be.

Ben and Joe shared a long look, seeing in each other’s eyes all the fear and anxiety, all the stretched taut tension that they were both feeling. Finally Ben drew Joe close again.

“I understand, son,” Ben said huskily. “Adam and you each did what you had to do. I am so very grateful that you made it back safe. And now we have to go together and bring your brother back too. All right?”

Joe nodded solemnly.

The army officer had stood silently watching this scene with a sober expression. Joe recognized him as Colonel Arbuthnot**, the commander of the fort, whom they had been introduced to when they arrived. He chose this moment to speak up. “It’s a good thing the men were already getting ready to go out. Now, thanks to you, young man, we know exactly where we’re going and what we’re getting into. I’m certainly anxious to catch this sniper and see that he faces justice.”

“So am I,” Joe returned sharply. There was a determined gleam in his eyes.

*****

About fifteen minutes later, seven men rode out of the fort, their horses galloping briskly. Colonel Arbuthnot was in the lead with Ben and Joe Cartwright close behind him. Following them were four army men, one of whom was the fort’s doctor. There was very little talk among them. As they rode, Joe kept glancing over at his father, trying to read what was going on in his mind. It was obvious that Ben was undergoing a good deal of distress. The strained expression in his face and the dull darkness of his eyes were evidence enough of that. And yet, there was something in the determined set of his shoulders which seemed to indicate that, despite the odds, he had not completely abandoned hope that his oldest son might be found still alive. That touched Joe, who was struggling to hold on to some shred of hope himself.

At one point Colonel Arbuthnot reined in his horse and gestured for Joe to come up beside him. Joe urged Cochise forward, and soon he and the colonel were engaged in a brief whispered conversation. It ended with Joe pointing to a spot along the ridge of low hills that loomed ahead of them. The colonel nodded and, with a wave of his arm, summoned the group to resume their journey in the direction Joe had indicated.

As they drew nearer and nearer to the place where he had last seen Adam, Joe found himself becoming more and more tense. He was anxious to find certainty about his brother’s fate…and yet, he dreaded it at the same time.

Finally, Joe caught sight of the all too familiar boulder at the bottom of the rise they were approaching. He spurred Cochise to race ahead of the others. Just short of the spot, he reined his horse in and hastily dismounted. He raced a few steps to where he could see around the boulder…and abruptly came to a halt, his face going pale.

Following Joe’s lead, Ben had also spurred ahead of the others. Now he stopped Buck next to Cochise and quickly swung to the ground. Sensing from Joe’s demeanor that something was not right, he felt a tremor pass through him as his anxiety converted to outright fear.

As Ben moved up beside him, Joe turned his head, and his eyes were full of trouble and confusion. “Pa,” he almost sobbed, “I don’t understand. Adam’s not here!”

Ben felt the breath leave him in a sudden gasp. He had tried to prepare himself to deal with whatever condition they would find Adam in. But he was not prepared for not finding him at all.

“Joe…are you certain that this is the right spot?” Ben’s voice was tightly controlled.

“Absolutely, Pa! I could never forget this place!” Joe insisted. His eyes darted around as if seeking confirmation. He pointed to something just a little way up the path from where they stood. “That flat rock over there with the wild flower growing up right next to it…I remember the unusual shape. This is where I left Adam all right!” His manner was very agitated.

Colonel Arbuthnot and his men had reached the spot and dismounted. They were now approaching with curious looks.

Ben laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder to steady him, and made an effort to speak calmly. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to see if there are any traces that would show…”

Then, suddenly, the sound of a gunshot was heard from somewhere above them, and Joe, Ben, and the army men all scrambled for cover.

*****

The reverberations of the gunshot dissipated into silence as Ben, Joe and the army men each peered around whatever rock or bush they were sheltering behind and attempted to catch a glimpse of the shooter. But as far up the path as was visible, there was no sign of anyone to be seen. The silence lasted for a full minute, until one of the soldiers stuck his head up just a little too far and another shot rang out, causing him to duck back down abruptly.

Ben and Colonel Arbuthnot found themselves crouched together in the protection of a leafy bush. The colonel frowned from behind his drooping brown mustache.

“Could you pin down where those shots came from?” he asked Ben.

“Not precisely. The closest I can come is…from behind that tree near the top of the path,” Ben replied, pointing.

“That was my impression also.” Arbuthnot turned and gestured to one of his men who was kneeling with Joe behind a rock just a short distance behind them. The man cautiously edged around the rock and moved up to join them.

“Albee, you’re fairly familiar with this area, I know. Assuming our sniper is behind that tree up there, is there a way to get up there and approach him from behind without him seeing you?

I believe there is, sir,” Corporal Albee replied.

“Then take Erickson and do just that. And be careful.” Arbuthnot issued the order in a firm, authoritative voice. Albee nodded and slipped away quietly.

For several minutes, the rest of the party remained silent and held their breath, watching and listening. But the movement of their companions up the far side of the slope was undetectable to eye or ear. Finally, the tension was broken as sounds were heard from up near the tree. Corporal Albee stepped out from behind it, waving his arm and began to walk down the path toward the others with Private Erickson following him.

The others stood up and slowly emerged from their cover as the two soldiers came to rejoin them. Albee came up to stand directly in front of Colonel Arbuthnot.

“Well, corporal?” the colonel demanded.

“Sorry, sir, but there wasn’t anybody up there. There were some signs that someone had been there but whoever it was had slipped away before we got there. We did find these.” Albee held out his hand revealing two spent rifle cartridges.

Arbuthnot took one of them and examined it, frowning. “This is the kind of ammo normally used by the Indians in these parts in their hunting rifles. If it’s somebody from the reservation who’s been shooting at people, well, I don’t like to think of the kind of problems that could cause,” he said soberly.

“My brother and I were told that there wasn’t any danger from the Indians around here!” Joe piped up. His voice held an edge of anger.

“That’s what we all thought, son,” Arbuthnot responded quietly.

“So what are we going to do now, sir?” Albee inquired. “Spread out and look for the shooter? He can’t be very far away.”

“I don’t know about you, colonel,” Ben Cartwright interjected. “But my main concern at the moment is finding my son. He was critically wounded, and he’s disappeared from the spot where he was last seen. Whatever you and your men do,  Joseph and I are going to concentrate on searching for him.” He paused. “You know, it might well be the sniper who has taken him somewhere for some reason, so looking for him could lead us to the sniper too.”

Arbuthnot regarded him thoughtfully. “I think you may be right, Mr. Cartwright. In any case, the fact that your son was badly injured makes him our most urgent priority.” He turned his eyes to Joe. “So, where exactly was it that you saw him last?”

Joe was happy to point out the spot behind the boulder where Adam had been lying and the group quickly set about looking for clues as to the missing man’s whereabouts. Joe himself pointed out what appeared to be traces of blood in the dust of the ground next to the spot. That wasn’t surprising. In fact, it was surprising that there wasn’t more blood, given the circumstances. But they appeared to be isolated traces, not forming any kind of trail. Still, the discovery caused Ben and Joe to regard each other with anxious expressions.

Eventually, Private Erickson called the group over to show them some marks he had found in the ground. “It looks like something has been dragged in this direction,” he ventured.

“Good job, Erickson,” Arbuthnot said, causing the young man to straighten himself proudly. “These traces are very faint and could easily have been missed. Still, they seem to be the best clue we’ve got. Let’s see where they lead to.”

The trail, as challenging as it was to follow, led some distance around the base of the hill before finally petering out. At that point, there were two large bushes with thick green foliage growing close together against the hillside. Colonel Arbuthnot stopped and eyed the spot speculatively, as Ben Cartwright came to stand beside him.

“Mr. Cartwright, does that look quite natural to you?” the colonel asked him.

Ben furrowed his brow. “What are you thinking, colonel? That those bushes could be hiding something?”

“It can’t hurt to check it out…can it?”

The two men stepped forward and began to push aside the branches of the bushes, while Joe came up behind them and the rest looked on curiously. And there, yawning enticingly before them, was the opening to a cave that had been completely hidden.

“Well, what do you know about that? “ Corporal Albee said. “I thought I knew this area pretty well, but I never knew that was there.”

“Let me go in first!” Joe Cartwright spoke up eagerly. And, without even waiting for the go ahead, he pushed through the gap between the bushes being held open by his father and the colonel and stooped to enter the cave. Ben frowned at his son’s impatience, but made no move to stop him.

And then, from out of the darkness, Joe’s voice cried out. “Pa! Get in here…quick!”

Responding instinctively, Ben hastily bent down and disappeared into the opening. Colonel Arbuthnot turned to his men, ordered them to stay alert and on guard, and followed him.

Inside the cave, Ben and Joe stood together staring at the scene before them. At the back of the cave, a small fire burned. In its light they could see Adam lying there, deathly pale and still…but breathing. And next to him there knelt an Indian woman, dressed in a deerskin sheath. A beaded leather band surrounded her head, and her long, dark hair fell in a thick braid down her back. Her face was turned toward the men who had just intruded with an expression that wasn’t quite fear, but rather an intense wariness. Her smooth skin and ageless features made it difficult to guess her years. In her hand she held a knife that had traces of blood on it.

For a few second, the woman and the men simply stared at each other. Then Joe stepped forward, grasped the woman rather roughly by the arm and pulled her to her feet. “That’s my brother lying there! What are you doing to him?” he demanded.

Joe felt his father’s hand on his shoulder and heard his father’s voice. “Take it easy, son. You won’t get anywhere by frightening her.”

As far as Joe was concerned, the woman didn’t look all that frightened. But that wasn’t really the point at the moment. “Pa, this woman could be the one who shot Adam!”

“Son, I have the feeling that, if she intended harm to him, Adam would already be dead. Not to mention the fact that she could probably have easily stabbed you when you went to grab her.”

“There doesn’t seem to be any rifle around here,” put in Colonel Arbuthnot, who had been looking on with interest.

Joe continued to look at the woman with great uncertainty. But the tension in his face gradually lessened and he loosened his hold on her arm.

She looked from Ben to Joe with large, serene eyes. Then she spoke softly. “I have done no harm to this man. I am trying to save his life.”

“I’m Ben Cartwright. The man is my son…this young man’s brother,” Ben told her. “You must understand how anxious we are.” Ben gazed down at his injured son and swallowed the lump that was rising in his throat. He turned pleading eyes to the woman. “Is he going to live?”

The woman lowered her eyes. “At this moment…I do not know.”

Joe’s impatience and desperation flared up again. “Pa, even if she didn’t shoot Adam I’ll bet she knows who did! She’s involved in this somehow, and I wouldn’t be so sure it’s all innocent!” He turned to the woman with a confrontational glare. “What do you know about all that’s happened? What’s your part in all of this? And just whose side are you on?”

*****

The woman’s large, dark eyes examined Joe with piercing intensity, as though trying to see deep inside him, but she said nothing. Her gaze made Joe uncomfortable.

“Did you hear me?” Joe demanded. “I’m asking what you know about what happened to my brother. What do you have to say about that?”

“Will you believe me if I tell you?” she retorted.

Colonel Arbuthnot stepped up next to Joe. “If I might interrupt here, I think I know who this woman is. He turned to her. “You’re the medicine woman from the reservation, aren’t you? And your name is Esther?”

The woman nodded.

“Esther doesn’t sound like an Indian name,” Joe interrupted impatiently.

“My mother married outside our tribe,” she began to explain. “My father was a white man, and a doctor. It was he who named me. My mother was herself a medicine woman, following the ancient ways of our people. I learned from both of them. And now I try to use the knowledge I gained from both of them to bring healing.” Esther looked down at Adam, who was lying there motionless. “Even to those who are not of my people.”

“And how is it that we find you here now, with my son?” Ben asked quietly. I think it’s time for you to answer our questions and tell us what you know.”

“Yes,” the colonel put in. “I believe we’re all eager to hear that explanation.”

Esther looked from one to the other and gave a little sigh. “Very well. Let us sit down and I will tell you.”

She sat down cross-legged on the floor of the cave and the three men joined her. The fire cast a flickering light across Esther’s face as she began to speak.

“This morning I was searching for herbs for my medicines on the far side of the hill. I heard a gunshot that was quickly followed by another one. I followed the sound and came out onto the overlook.” Her eyes indicated Joe. “I saw this young man on the other side of the overlook, bending over another man who had been wounded.” She looked at Ben curiously. “You have said that they are brothers?”

“Yes,” Ben confirmed. “The younger is Joseph and the older is Adam.”

“I saw Joseph struggle to get his brother to his feet, and then they set off down the path toward the bottom of the hill. There were two more gunshots and Joseph attempted to return the fire as they continued down the path. I caught sight of a rifle barrel peeking out from behind a bush, and I knew where the shooter was hiding. I did not know who it was or why he was doing this, but one thing I knew. If he should kill these white men so near our reservation, my people would be blamed and great trouble would come down on us. For that reason, he had to be stopped. I circled around behind his hiding place and finally caught a glimpse of him.”

“Was it one of your people?” Colonel Arbuthnot asked tensely.

“No,” Esther replied, almost defiantly. “It was a white man. But the gun he was using was a rifle of the kind our hunters use. He was so intent on the two fleeing men that he never noticed me. I picked up a rock, came up behind him as quietly as I could and struck him on the head. When I was sure he was unconscious, I tied his hands and feet, so that he would remain there. Then I hurried down the path to try to catch up with these two to see if I could help.”

“So that’s why the sniper never fired at me when I was trying to get away and make it back to the fort,” Joe broke in. “He was knocked out at the time.”

“As I got to the bottom of the hill, I saw Joseph hurrying off and I assumed he was going to try to find help,” Esther resumed. She nodded toward Adam. “This one was lying there with his back against the boulder, and I could see how badly injured he was. It was difficult, but I managed to move him into the cave to get him out of the heat of the day. I removed the bullet and did what I could to treat the wound. Then I went back to where I had left the shooter. But he had somehow managed to escape from his bonds and had disappeared. So I came back here to tend to Adam, and I have been sitting here with him since then…until you arrived.”

“That knife you were holding when we came in…” Joe ventured tentatively.

“It was the one I used to remove the bullet. I had not yet cleaned all the blood from it. I am sorry if it seemed threatening to you. I had heard you outside the cave, I did not know who you were, and it was the only thing I had to defend myself.”

There was silence for a moment as the men took in Esther’s story.

Finally, Ben spoke with a tremor in his voice. “And you can’t say yet whether he will make it or not?”

She shook her head. “He seems a strong man, and he endured the removal of the bullet well, but with a wound such as this there are so many things that can change so quickly that it is difficult to say what will happen.”

Colonel Arbuthnot noticed the worn expression on Ben’s face and sensed the strain he was under. “Mr. Cartwright,” he said, “one of the men I had come with us is our fort’s doctor, Dr. Jorgensen. I think it would be a good idea if we had him take a look at your son…don’t you?”

“Certainly,” Ben agreed heartily.

The colonel got up and went to the cave entrance. They could hear him speaking briefly to the men outside. Then the doctor, a slender man with wavy blond hair, came in carrying his medical bag. He quickly took in the scene and made his way over to where Adam was lying. The others made room for him as he knelt beside the injured man. His examination was efficient and thorough, including listening at Adam’s chest with his stethoscope and checking under the bandage with which Esther had bound the wound. When he looked up, there was a slightly puzzled look in his eyes. “Well, there’s no fever, which is pretty remarkable. There’s no sign of infection yet, but it’s still early for that. His heartbeat seems fairly regular, though a little bit weak. What surprises me a little is the almost trance-like state he seems to be in.”

“I gave him a drink brewed from herbs to put him into a healing sleep,” Esther told him.

Jorgensen raised his eyebrows. “Well, you’ll have to give me your recipe for that. It seems to be working at least as well as anything I could have given him.”

“So, do you think he’s going to be all right?” Ben asked, his anxiety and his impatience for some reassurance clearly evident.

“He actually seems to be in a little better condition than I might have expected at this point,” Jorgensen replied. “But these abdominal wounds are always tricky. I’m not trying to be evasive, but it’s just impossible to say for sure yet.” He looked over at Esther. “How long is this healing sleep supposed to last?”

“He should sleep through the night and well into the morning,” she answered. “When he awakens, we should be able to tell more.”

Ben and Joe Cartwright exchanged a long look. Patience didn’t come easily to either of them in a situation like this, but it seemed that there was no alternative. Ben gave a sigh and settled himself for a long vigil.

Outside the cave the remaining three army men were chatting amiably among themselves as the sun pursued its downward arc in the late afternoon sky. They didn’t notice the piercing eyes staring at them from behind a nearby tree.

*****

A couple of hours later darkness had fallen completely. The soldiers had gathered enough fuel to keep the fire going overnight and had set up a couple of torches at the sides of the cave to provide additional light. The colonel had gone outside to give his men orders concerning setting a guard for the night. Ben and Joe sat together close by one of the torches, looking on as Esther and Dr. Jorgensen worked together to change the dressing on Adam’s wound and sponge him with cool water to bring down the slight fever he had developed. As he watched, Joe was trying to judge from their expressions whether they were satisfied with his brother’s condition or not, but it was difficult to say. The flickering light showed up the worry in Joe’s eyes as he turned them to his father.

“Pa, do you think Adam’s going to be all right?” Joe spoke in a low voice so that the others wouldn’t hear.

“Son,” Ben replied quietly, “I think it was pretty much a miracle that Adam was still alive when we found him. And I don’t believe that God grants miracles only to take them back again.”

The tension in Joe’s face seemed to ease a little. “I like that, Pa. I just pray it’s right.” He looked back over to where his brother lay with full eyes. “When I had to leave Adam there alone…” Joe paused to gain control as the memory of that moment came back to him. “I really thought that was gonna be the last time I ever saw him alive. And I just….” The threatening lump in his throat finally rose up and choked off what he was trying to say.

Ben reached over and gently grasped Joe’s arm. The wordless gesture of understanding had a soothing effect on his son’s agitated spirit.

“Pa,” Joe continued after a moment. “When Adam and I were arguing about whether I should go back alone, he said…well, he said that you’d vote yes, because that was the way you’d get one of us back safe, and otherwise it would be neither of us.” He turned his head to look directly into his father’s eyes. “Was he right? Would you have said I should do it?”

Ben didn’t reply immediately. His eyes were looking at Adam, who seemed to be stirring just slightly, and yet, his focus seemed to be inward, as though he were pulling up his answer from deep inside himself.

“Joe,” Ben said finally. “Adam was going under the assumption that there was no one nearby to help, and there was no real hope for him. And in those circumstances the best thing he could do was to try to ensure that you would be all right. Of course, his assumption turned out not to be correct, thank God. Still, given how the situation appeared at the time…yes, I would have had to agree with him.”

 With a grateful look for that reassurance, Joe settled back against the wall of the cave. He continued to watch his brother, who appeared to have settled down again. Eventually he began to take more notice of the woman who was bending over Adam, gently wiping his face. He saw Dr. Jorgensen say a few words to her, then get up, pick up a bucket and go outside. The fire cast a warm glow on the woman’s face and brought out the sheen in her dark hair. The picture was a very striking one.

“Pa, what do you think?” Joe finally ventured. “That Esther is a really nice looking woman, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is,” Ben agreed. He didn’t bother mentioning to his son that he had been thinking the same thing.

A look of curiosity took over Joe’s face. “Just how old do you suppose she is, Pa?” he said.

“It’s hard to say, Joe. Some people are like that. Her face and figure seem youthful, but there’s something in her bearing that suggests a greater maturity. I really wouldn’t want to make a guess.”

“I think I’m going to go talk with her for a minute…ask her how she thinks Adam is,” Joe said. And without waiting for any response he got up and noiselessly moved over to sit next to Esther near the fire. “So, how’s he doing?” he said quietly, with a nod in his brother’s direction.

Esther looked at him with an unreadable expression. “The same as the last time you asked,” she replied with just a trace of a smile. “The fever seems to be under control, though we must continue to watch that it does not suddenly rise. The doctor has gone to get more water. As I have said, we should know more in the morning.”

“I’m sorry if I’m bothering you,” Joe said, with a hint of embarrassment. “I guess my Pa and I are just looking for someone to say….”

“I understand,” Esther interrupted him softly.

“You see, Adam has always been there when I’ve needed someone, and I’ve depended on him…more than I care to admit, I guess. The idea that he might not be around anymore, well that’s just something that I don’t even want to think about.” He paused as he noticed the sympathetic gaze with which Esther was regarding him. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” he asked her.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “And my parents are both dead. I have no family.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, giving her a sympathetic gaze in turn.

“So am I.”

A silence fell between them, and Joe became uncomfortable with it. He decided to try to lighten the moment. “I…I know it’s supposed to be bad manners to ask a lady this, but, you see, my pa and I were talking and, well, neither of us could guess how you old you are. If you don’t want to say, that’s fine. Really. Only, we were kind of curious you see.” He gave her a slightly embarrassed…and charming…smile.

“I am not offended,” Esther responded with a light laugh. “I see no reason to be hesitant in speaking of my age. I am forty years old.”

Joe’s eyebrows rose slightly. “Really? I wouldn’t have guessed anywhere near that.”

“Yes, really. Now, Joseph, I see that your father is looking at us very curiously. Perhaps you had better go back and rejoin him.”

“Yes, ma’am”, Joe replied, and he tossed off a quick salute to her as he rose to do as she suggested.

As Joe retook the spot he had left he saw the question in his father’s eyes. “She says Adam’s about the same, Pa,” he offered, and Ben relaxed a little.

“That looked like quite a conversation you were having,” Ben said.

“Oh, it was, Pa. Turns out she doesn’t have any family. I felt real bad for her about that. I can’t imagine what I’d do without any family. And can you guess what else she told me? She says she’s forty years old. Do you believe that?”

“Well, I did say that there was something about her that indicated she might be older than she looked physically,” Ben answered. He looked over to where Esther continued to tend to his oldest son. And he began to feel a new and different appreciation of her beauty…and other things about her…rising within him.

*****

Ben Cartwright shrugged himself awake and started to stretch his limbs to ease his still muscles. He couldn’t tell how long he had been asleep, but his inner clock was giving him the sense that the night had passed its midpoint and was beginning to move toward morning. As his blurry vision came into focus, he began to look around. Next to him Joe was curled up with a blanket thrown over him, sound asleep. The torches had gone out and the fire was burning low. Ben noted with gratitude that Adam appeared to be resting peacefully. Dr. Jorgensen slept near him. The colonel was sitting close to the cave entrance with his head bowed and his eyes closed, while his remaining three men remained outside. And next to the fire, Esther sat gazing down at Adam with an almost maternal expression.

Ben watched her for a few moments, fascinated by the play of the firelight over her features. Then, coming to a decision, he quietly got up. He picked up some of the dry branches from the pile next to the cave wall and moved over to the fire. Esther smiled up at him as he approached. Ben tossed the additional fuel into the flames, causing them to rise up and crackle with renewed warmth and energy.

“Thank you,” Esther said. “You saved me from having to do that myself.”

“My pleasure,” Ben replied. He knelt down between her and Adam and held his hands out to the fire, glancing questioningly at the Indian woman as he did so. “Have you been sitting up all night?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “No. I slept for a time while the doctor watched. Now it is my turn to watch while he sleeps.”

Ben gazed down at his son and, with great care, reached out his hand to brush back the hair from his forehead and check for any fever at the same time. Finding Adam’s skin to be a little warm and sweaty, he frowned in concern, and Esther saw it.

“There is still a slight fever, but it has not risen enough to cause concern,” she assured him.

Ben accepted it with a nod and settled down next to her. “I want you to know how very grateful I am for everything you’ve done for my son,” he told her.

“I am happy to do what I can,” she replied softly. “I only hope it will be enough.”

At that a cloud passed over Ben’s face. He reached out to smooth the blanket that covered Adam.

“You love your son very much,” Esther continued, laying her hand on his shoulder sympathetically. “I can see it in the way you look at him. And I know how difficult it must be to face the uncertainty of his fate. But I sense a strength in him…and in you…which makes me hopeful that all may yet be well.”

Ben looked at her gratefully. “This is hardly the first time I’ve faced the possibility of losing him, or one of his brothers. We live in a very dangerous world. And I guess I’d have to say that my greatest fear is that the possibility will become reality one day. But not today, please God.” There was a tremor in Ben’s voice, and moisture began to well up in his eyes.

“You said him…or one of his brothers,” Esther noted. “There is more than one?”

“Yes,” Ben answered, managing a wan smile. “I have another son who stayed home to look after things on our ranch outside Virginia City, while his brothers and I delivered horses to the fort. His given name is Eric, but everyone calls him Hoss.”

“If he is anything like the two I have met., then you are very fortunate to have three such sons,” Esther said.

“Very fortunate indeed. My sons mean everything to me. But that fortune has not come without a price. Each of their mothers died far too young. One of the reasons I value my sons so much is that the three women I’ve loved…and lost…live on in them.”

They sat in silent for a moment. Ben was wrapped up in his memories. And Esther was finding herself admiring the spirit in the man she sat beside and wanting to know more about his life of love and loss that he was giving her brief glimpses of.

“What about you?” Ben resumed after a moment. “Joseph told me that you have no family. Have you ever been married?”

Esther hesitated for a long moment. “When I was eighteen, I married the son of our chief,” she finally began. “It was an arranged marriage. It was not a happy one. My husband was a brutal man and often mistreated me. The only child that we conceived was miscarried due to one of his beatings. When we had been together for about eight years, he was killed in a hunting accident. I will not say I was happy to see him dead, but I cannot say that it caused me real sorrow. I have often thought that it saved me from eventually being forced to kill him in order to defend myself.”

Her account evoked a strong reaction in Ben. On one hand he felt himself startled and even disturbed at her words. He found it remarkable that she had chosen to confide in him. Still, he could not help but sympathize with what she had gone through and wonder at the fact that, having survived all that, she now displayed such a serene and caring spirit. “And you have never married again?” he pursued gently.

She answered with a wordless shake of her head.

“So you have been alone for a number of years now. It must be very lonely for you.” The look in Ben’s eyes was one of great compassion.

“There are times when it is so,” she admitted. “But my work as a healer brings me close to many of our people and… most of the time…that satisfies me.”

It had been a long time since Ben Cartwright had experienced what he was experiencing now. Feelings of gratitude, admiration, sympathy and — .he had to admit it — attraction were bumping into each other inside him. And he couldn’t help but wonder if, when they settled down, there would be anything there that would last. He wasn’t ready to consider all the implications of a possible relationship with this woman at this point. He only knew that the little bud of hope he felt sprouting in him was a thing of beauty.

Carefully he slid his hand over to grasp hers. And it made him very happy when her hand squeezed his back.

*****

Outside, Corporal Albee and Private Erickson sat together keeping guard while their companion, Private Dierks, took his turn at getting some shut-eye. A crescent moon shown above, while the only sounds came from a few insects and an occasional light breeze that rustled the leaves on nearby trees and bushes.

Erickson shifted himself to sit more comfortably. Albee noticed the nervous demeanor of his companion and smiled indulgently at him. “Feeling a little antsy are you, Erickson?”

The private frowned at him. “I don’t know why, sir, but ever since we’ve been out here, I’ve just had the feeling that there’s somebody watching us. I haven’t actually seen anything, but that’s just what I feel.”

“Not so surprising, I suppose,” Albee said soberly. “After all, we do know that there’s a sniper somewhere out there. That’s why the colonel insisted that two of us stay alert at all times.”

“I just wish if whoever it is plans to do anything they’d just go ahead and do it. I don’t like just sitting around waiting,” Erickson ventured.

“Well, for the moment, that’s what our duty is so we might as well make the best of it.” Erickson took out a pocket watch and checked it. “Actually, it’s just about time to wake Dierks up. Then you can try to get a couple of hours of sleep before it’s time to start the day.”

The two men got up and moved over to rouse their companion. And, hidden by the bushes, a shadowy figure slunk away, to wait for the right moment.

*****

There was the sound of moaning. Ben could tell that it was his son, but he couldn’t tell where it was coming from. He couldn’t see Adam.

In fact he couldn’t see anything through the thick mist that seemed to surround him on all sides.

“Adam…Adam…,” his mind was crying out, but no sound escaped his lips.

The moaning became more intense.

“Adam…Adam…,” the cry in Ben’s mind became more frantic. But he was unable to break through the mist to find his son.

*****

Shaking himself awake from his dream, Ben sat up abruptly. It only took a couple of seconds for him to recall where he was and the circumstances. Then the sound of moaning reached his ears again, louder than before…and very real. He looked over toward the fire and saw Adam tossing restlessly while Esther and Dr. Jorgensen knelt on either side of him, trying to hold him still as they engaged in a muted, but evidently intense, verbal exchange.

A sudden rush of fear brought a lump to Ben’s throat and a tightness to his chest. He scrambled to his feet and hastily went to join them. Hearing him approach, the two caregivers stopped their sparring to look up at him. And Ben was dismayed by what he saw in their eyes.

“What is it? What’s happening?” he demanded.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m afraid he’s taken a turn for the worse.” the doctor replied. “He appears to be having trouble coming completely out of the healing sleep the medicine woman here put him under. He also appears to be in considerable pain…and his fever has risen. The signs are not….”

“Ben,” Esther interrupted him, “I have told the doctor that I have seen patients respond this way before and I know what to do. There is another preparation of dried berries I can give him and I am confident that in a short time he will come around completely and the fever will subside again. But the doctor is insisting that he should be sedated.”

“I’m simply skeptical of the idea of using one preparation such as she has described to me to counter the effects of another one that isn’t working exactly as anticipated,” Dr. Jorgensen said with a touch of annoyance in his voice. “I believe it’s critical to get him stabilized as quickly as possible, and that sedating him is the best way to proceed.”

“But you don’t know how the drugs you would give him will react with what I gave him earlier,” Esther retorted.

Jorgensen ignored her and turned to Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, it’s your son, and in the end the decision must be yours. But if I were you I’d think very carefully about relying on the kind of untested remedy she proposes.”

“It is not untested,” Esther insisted, her voice tinged with indignation. She looked up at Ben, her luminous eyes offering assurance and pleading for his acceptance. “Ben, I would never use anything on a patient that I would not be willing to take myself. I truly believe that what I have suggested is the best thing for your son. And I ask you to give the word for me to go ahead.”

“And I still maintain that to do so is highly risky,” the doctor said adamantly.

Ben looked from one to the other. They were each so earnest in their own way, so convinced of the rightness of their own position. He looked down at Adam, who now lay their more quietly, but was still restlessly turning his head from side to side and giving out with soft moans.

Ben knelt beside Esther and reached out to firmly grasp his son’s hand. “What is really the best thing for you?” he thought to himself. “What will give you the best chance?” Ben closed his eyes. “Oh God, help me make the right choice,” he prayed. When he opened his eyes again his expression was that of a man who had made up his mind.

“Dr. Jorgensen,” he began quietly, “I have respect for your knowledge and your opinion. But for many years, my sons and I have been brought into frequent contact with the native peoples of our region. And we have learned that they often have knowledge that goes beyond our own, not only about medicine, but about many things. And we have gained much by being willing to learn from them.” Ben turned to the medicine woman with a gentle smile. “I respect Esther’s knowledge as well, and I trust her intentions. In this case…I chose to allow her to do as she thinks best.”

Esther gave him a smile of gratitude, while the doctor shook his head in obvious dissatisfaction. “Very well, Mr. Cartwright, if that is your desire. I only hope that you won’t regret it.”

“I don’t believe I will,” Ben replied quietly.

“If the doctor will kindly assist me, it should only take a few minutes to have things ready,” Esther offered. “Perhaps if he is able to watch, he will be more comfortable with what I am doing.”

“That will be of great interest to me,” the doctor responded.

Together Esther and the doctor arose and he followed her as she went to take up a large leather pouch with a long shoulder strap from the spot along the cave wall where she had left it. Ben remained to watch over his injured son, and continued to pray.

A few minutes later, Esther and Jorgensen were back. She was carrying a small wooden bowl which she set down beside the fire. Ben could see that it contained a mixture of some crushed dried berries and a little water.

“Now we simply wait for a couple of moments for it to warm up slightly,” Esther explained.

In the meantime, Colonel Arbuthnot had awakened, splashed some water on his face and buttoned his uniform jacket, preparing to meet the breaking day. Now he came over to the group by the fire. “So, how is the young man?” he inquired.

Dr. Jorgensen quickly filled in his superior officer on the situation and what had been decided.

“We’re just about to try getting some of that mixture down him,” the medic concluded. “But whether it works or not, whatever his condition is in a couple of hours or so, we need to be thinking of getting him moved back to the fort. It will be much easier to take care of him in the infirmary there.”

“I see.” The colonel rubbed his nose thoughtfully. “Well, I believe the men outside should be up and ready to start some breakfast. I’ll make sure that there’s enough for all of us. Then I’ll give orders that, as soon as they’ve finished eating, two of them should return to the fort and bring back a wagon. With any luck, they should be there and back by about midday and we should be able to load up and return to the fort before the sun sets this evening. Will that meet your recommendation, doctor?”

“Perfectly well, sir.”

“Very well then. I’ll go out and talk to the men.” The colonel turned and made his way outside. When he was gone, Esther announced that the mixture was now ready. Together, Ben and the doctor cautiously lifted Adam into a half sitting position. Then Esther, with some difficulty, managed to force some of the mixture into the unconscious man’s mouth and, gently massaging his throat, induced him to swallow it. When she was satisfied that he had ingested a sufficient amount, they laid Adam back down very carefully and set themselves to wait and see if the treatment had the hoped for effect.

Shortly afterwards, the sound of horses’ hooves galloping away came from outside. A few minutes later Colonel Arbuthnot returned, carrying a tin plate with some biscuits piled on it.

“Albee and Dierks are on their way back to the fort. The men brought some of yesterday’s biscuits from the fort’s mess hall in their supplies. And there’s a pan of bacon and a pot of coffee on the fire outside, which will be ready in just a couple of minutes.” He held out the plate and the doctor, Ben and Esther each grabbed a biscuit.

Arbuthnot glanced over to where Joe still lay curled up asleep.

“Shall I wake him up and give him something?” he asked Ben.

“I almost hate to disturb him,” Ben answered. “He was pretty done in after everything that’s happened, and I’m sure he can use the rest. But he probably needs food just as much. Why don’t you…”

He was interrupted by sounds of shouting from outside the cave, followed seconds later by a single gunshot. The occupants of the cave glanced at each other in confusion. But before anyone could move to find out what was happening, they were further startled by the sudden appearance of a man at the cave entrance. He was not a large man, but his compact frame carried a good deal of muscle. He was clad in a light blue shirt and dark blue pants. He had curly light brown hair and a mustache that partly hid a thin lipped frown. And he stood in a threatening posture, holding a rifle aimed directly at them.

For a moment no one moved or spoke. Then, Colonel Arbuthnot’s eyes widened as recognition hit him, and he took a step forward with anger flashing from his eyes.

“Meissner!” he shouted. “What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?”

******

The rest of the group looked to Arbuthnot incredulously.

“You obviously recognize this man, Colonel,” Ben started to say, but the newcomer spoke over him.

“Indeed he does,” the man said, and his voice had an unpleasant harsh edge to it. “And I’ll bet if you really think about it, Colonel, you can figure out the answer to the question you just asked me. So why don’t you just start by telling these good people exactly who I am…and maybe it will come to you.”

The colonel frowned. “This man is Private Karl Meissner. He joined my command several months ago. I can’t say he’s distinguished himself in any way. In fact, he’s caused a few minor discipline problems. As to what he’s doing standing there holding a gun on us, I really don’t…”

“Well, let me help you, Colonel,” Meissner said, his voice taking on a sarcastic edge. “Think back to when I first arrived at the fort. I stood there in your office and you looked over my file. Was there anything in particular that struck you? Anything that sticks in your memory?”

The colonel’s face turned thoughtful, as though he were trying to dredge up something that he had put away in some remote corner of his consciousness.

“I do seem to recall something,” he said finally. “Something about a tragedy in your family…someone who had recently died.”

“My entire family!” Meissner shouted in a sudden burst of rage and pain. “My father…my mother…my sister Katya…they were all killed …in an Indian attack!” He paused to try to regain his composure.” My family and about a dozen others came to Colorado a year ago to establish a new settlement,” he resumed in a low, intense voice. “We were camping at the site we had chosen and were starting to work on building our permanent houses. One day I and some of the other younger men had gone out to do some hunting. When we came back…we found the camp burning…most of the people dead from either arrows or gunshot wounds. My parents were in the tent where I had seen them last, both with arrows in their backs. Several of the younger women, including my sister, had been carried off by the Indians. The next day we found their bodies thrown into a gully. They had been…abused…and then brutally stabbed to death.” His body and his voice were both trembling. “We had gone there hoping to make a better life. And suddenly I was left with nothing. No family. No home. Nothing!! Do you have any idea what that means?”

“It was a great tragedy, without question,” Ben said quietly and soothingly, hoping to diffuse some of his anger. “But none of us here bear any responsibility for it.”

“The Indians were responsible!” Meissner almost sobbed. “The bloody savages! Afterwards I found it hard to think of anything but what happened that day. Images of the atrocities I had seen haunted my dreams at night. I had an overwhelming need to strike back in some way. I thought that joining the army would give me the chance to earn my keep…and to fight the Indians. And what happened?” He gave out with a bitter little laugh. “I was sent here, where there is peace between the Indians and the whites. Peace! How can there ever be peace? The savages must be wiped out! But you, Colonel, don’t seem to understand that! You have seemed perfectly content to let things go on as they were, with the nest of vipers so near to us, ready to rise up against us at any time. Something had to be done to make you see the necessity of taking action!”

Colonel Arbuthnot stared at him appalled. “That’s what this is all about? Creating an incident that would provoke a retaliation against the Indians?”

“Yes, Colonel, that’s what it’s about,” Meissner sneered. “Of course, things haven’t gone exactly as I had planned. When the Cartwrights came to the fort, it seemed a perfect opportunity. An attack on any one of them, apparently by the Indians, would be sure to have the impact I hoped for.”

Ben glanced over at Esther and saw the troubled look on her face. He remembered how she had feared the consequences for her people of the sniper’s actions. It seemed she had been right.

“I overheard the two brothers talking with Dierks about riding out to the overlook in the morning,” Meissner continued, “and I knew my chance had come.”

“And that’s when you came to me asking to take a couple of the days of leave you were due,” Arbuthnot interjected. “You were rather vague about the reason for the sudden request…just something about meeting up with a friend. I thought at the time that it sounded a little odd. But you had the time coming and there was no real reason to deny you.”

“And I thank you so kindly for your cooperation, Colonel,” Meissner resumed. “I left the fort that night and came up to the overlook. It was going to be so simple. I would wait for the brothers there, do what I came to do, then return to the fort at the end of my “leave” and show myself very concerned to discover that they had been attacked. I would willingly join in as the men prepared to go and exact retribution with no one being the wiser as to my part in creating the incident.

“Well, you came very near killing young Cartwright,” Dr. Jorgensen said in a tone that showed his contempt. “In fact, we aren’t completely sure even now whether he’s going to survive or not.” He glanced over at Ben and almost regretted his words as he saw the look that came over the father’s face.

“He wasn’t supposed to be that badly hurt,” Meissner insisted impatiently. “I only intended to wound him in the leg. The seriousness of the wound was less important than the simple fact of their being attacked for my purposes. But he turned just as I was firing and that put my aim off.”

Ben wanted to say something at that point, but somehow the right words wouldn’t make their way around his anxiety and anger. He saw Esther turn a sympathetic gaze on him and he could tell that she sensed what he was feeling.

“I have to say you sound pretty cold blooded about the whole thing,” the doctor observed.

“I am sorry you feel that way,” Meissner responded. “I would have preferred it if all had gone entirely as I intended. It would have meant less pain all around. But somehow events seemed to spin out of my control. As the brothers attempted to get away and I continued to fire at them…without any intention of hitting either of them again, of course…something very strange happened. I was struck by someone who came upon me from behind and lost consciousness. For how long I am not sure. When I came to myself, I found my hands and feet bound. I don’t suppose that anyone here could offer an explanation as to how that might have happened?”

His words included them all, but as he spoke them, he looked directly at Esther in a way that clearly suggested that he harbored some suspicions of her involvement in the events he had just spoken of. Esther bore his look without any visible reaction, but Ben felt a chill pass over him as he saw it. Everyone remained carefully silent.

 “I eventually got myself free,” Meissner continued. His voice had taken on the tone of an instructor and he seemed somehow anxious to explain himself to his captive audience. “I could not tell what had happened to the wounded man and his brother. My horse had disappeared and I found that my ankle was painfully twisted. I wondered how I would be able to make it back to the fort. I hid myself among some bushes for some time, nursing my ankle and trying to decide what I should do next. And then I caught sight of the dust raised by approaching horses.”

“Well, we know what happened after we arrived,” the colonel spoke up with some impatience. “You could have just stayed concealed, you know. You didn’t have to take pot shots at us.”

“Perhaps I have too much of a sense of the dramatic to do so. You expected there to be a sniper. I fulfilled your expectations.”

“You must have been watching us as we made our search and found this cave,” the colonel ventured.

“Indeed I was. I have been observing you all this time.”

“So why did you suddenly decide to break in on us this way?” Arbuthnot demanded. “And exactly what do you intend to do now?”

Meissner gave a sinister smile. “I have had something of a change of heart, Colonel,” he replied. “I have begun to doubt that the wounding of one man would be sufficient to evoke the response I have hoped for. I fear that something much more dramatic may be necessary. There were too many of you for me to confront at once. And the entrance to the cave was well guarded. I guessed that you would be sending men back to the fort for a wagon to transport the injured man. So I waited until they had gone and there was only one guard left, who I was sure I would be able to overcome.”

The colonel’s eyes grew hard. “That shot we heard right before you came in…” he began.

“Yes, Colonel.” Meissner nodded his head in confirmation. “I’m afraid that Mr. Erickson has been eliminated. And, tragically, when the men come back from the fort, they will find several more bodies, all apparently the victims of another massacre by the Indians. But this tragedy will be the spur to action that will wipe the red menace from this area.”

Ben’s mind was working furiously. He had left his gun over where he had been resting, and a glance showed him that Colonel Arbuthnot didn’t have his on either. He couldn’t be sure about the doctor, but even if he had his gun, it seemed unlikely that he would be able to use it effectively against Meisner’s already prepared weapon. And he knew Esther had no gun. What were they going to do? Hard as he tried, Ben could think of no answer.

Unnoticed by any of them Joe Cartwright had been taking in all that transpired for the last several minutes. The sound of voices had awakened him. As his vision cleared, he saw the group gathered near his unconscious brother and the newcomer with his rifle trained on them. Remaining quiet and listening intently, he heard enough of what was said to be able to comprehend the danger. Cautiously, he reached out to where his gun lay rolled up beside him and managed to draw his gun from the holster without making any noise.

And then Esther stepped forward to confront Meissner. “I am sorry for what you have suffered, Mr. Meissner,” she said in a firm, calm voice. “I do not know why the tribe that killed your family acted as they did. But I do know that you are seeking revenge against the wrong people. My people here had no part in what occurred so far away. And yet you would condemn them to destruction, while those who did the deed remain unpunished. What vengeance is that? What justice? Will that ease your heart? These men here that you are prepared to kill in order to start your war…do you not understand that they also have people who care for them and who would feel the pain of loss? Do you wish to inflict on others the grief that you have suffered yourself? I beg of you, do not do this!”

As Ben watched Esther plead with the man who threatened them, he felt himself overcome with admiration for her courage…and with fear for her. He watched tensely for Meissner’s reaction. The man lowered his rifle slightly and stared at Esther for some seconds. Then he raised it again and aimed it straight at her.

“As far as I’m concerned, it makes no difference,” he said. “An Indian is an Indian.” And he cocked the gun, preparing to squeeze the trigger.

Ben Cartwright leaped forward, throwing his arm around Esther to drag her to the ground. At the same moment, the sound of a shot being fired echoed through the confined space like thunder.

*****

As Ben and Esther hit the floor of the cave together, both felt the wind being knocked out of them…and they heard a second shot following immediately on the first. Ben managed to raise his head and glance around, just in time to see Meissner fall forward and lay there still, a red stain growing on the back of his shirt. There were a couple of seconds of stunned silence, then the sound of footsteps as another figure advanced from the entrance to the cave, holding a pistol in his hand. The light was uncertain, and in his momentary confusion Ben couldn’t quite make out his identity.

But the colonel could. “Erickson…thank God!” he gasped out in obvious relief. “From what Meissner said, I was afraid you were dead.”

“I guess he didn’t check me carefully enough,” the young private replied, grinning. “I was just unconscious.” With a wince of pain, he gingerly fingered what appeared to be a graze at his temple. “But I guess I do need some help,” he admitted. His voice had started to trail off and he began to appear unsteady on his feet, as though he might collapse momentarily. Dr. Jorgensen stepped forward hastily, grabbed him by the shoulders and gently helped him to a sitting position on the ground so that he could tend to him.

Meanwhile, Ben was absorbed in helping Esther, who seemed to be taking her time in pulling herself together. “Are you hurt?” he said gently, his concern plain to hear.

She shook her head. “No, I am not injured, thanks to you,” she said, smiling. “If you had not pulled me down, I could have been shot…perhaps killed. And you put yourself in danger to do it. You were very brave…and I am very grateful.”

The gleam in her eyes might have been gratitude, but Ben found himself hoping that it might be a little more than that. He took her hand, appreciating its warmth and softness, and rose to his feet, bringing her along with him. For a few seconds, they stood there, staring into each other’s eyes. Then Ben sensed someone come up to stand at his shoulder and turned his head. It was Joe.

“Are you all right, Pa?” Joe asked anxiously.

“I’m fine, son,” Ben reassured him. Eyeing his son, he saw that Joe was holding his gun. A questioning look passed across his face, and Joe noticed.

“All the commotion woke me up,” Joe responded to the unspoken question. “I heard what was going on and I was ready to take Meissner out. But until you and Esther dropped, I didn’t have a clear shot. So Erickson managed to get in his shot first.”

“I‘m just as glad you stayed on the sideline,” Ben told hm. “You could have easily been caught in the exchange of fire. I already have one son badly wounded. That’s more than enough.”

Joe gave his father a look of appreciation for his concern. Then something seemed to occur to him and he began to glance around. “I wonder where Meissner’s shot went to,” he said, drawing his eyebrows together curiously.

Meanwhile, Esther had knelt down next to the motionless form of Meissner. She carefully turned his head so that she could place her fingers on the side of his neck. A few seconds later she raised her head, her eyes wide with surprise.

“This man is still alive!”

“What?” Dr. Jorgensen had just finished bandaging Erickson’s head. At Esther’s exclamation he turned his head abruptly, an expression of chagrin coming to his face. “When he fell, it looked like…I was sure…and then I got caught up in taking care of Erickson here…and I never even checked.”

“It may be possible to save his life, but we must act quickly,” Esther urged him. Jorgensen swiftly moved to kneel at Meissner’s other side and a moment later the two healers were bent together over the still form of the man who had been threatening them only moments earlier. Ben looked on, feeling useless, as there seemed to nothing he could contribute to the situation at the moment.

“Pa, take a look at this!” Joe’s voice caught Ben’s attention with its urgency. He turned to see Joe standing over his brother, an unsteady hand pointing downward. There, close to Adam’s head, a canteen had been left. Looking more closely, Ben saw that there was a hole in it and a trickle of water was draining out. It took a few seconds for the implication to sink in, and when it did it caused Ben to turn pale.

“Meissner’s bullet must have ricocheted off the wall of the cave and struck that canteen…” Ben began, almost in a whisper.

“Within a foot of Adam’s head,” Joe finished for him.

They looked at each other, appalled at the idea of what might have happened.

Ben went down on his knees at Adam’s side and reached out his hand to gently touch his face. He made a careful examination, seeking to assure himself that his son had suffered no further injury, while Joe stood watching over his shoulder.

“Well, it doesn’t look as though any more harm’s been done,” Ben finally said, sitting back on his heels with a sigh of relief.

“But it was too close for comfort,” Joe said soberly.

“Way too close,” Ben agreed.

“I just wish he’d wake up. Isn’t it about time?” Joe asked, his concern taking on an impatient tone.

“I wish he would too,” Ben replied. “But I’m afraid it isn’t up to us.”

Almost as if he heard them, Adam began to stir. He moved his head from side to side, and he started to speak in a low mumble that they couldn’t make out. After a moment his mumbling became louder and more distinct, and they were able to pick out some of his words.

“Who are you? What…what will…you do to me?”

“It sounds like he could be reliving the moment when Esther found him,” Joe ventured.

As Adam came closer to consciousness, his agitation appeared to increase. Ben laid a hand on his shoulder, which seemed to have some calming effect.

“Adam…son…it’s time for you to wake up now,” Ben said in a soothing voice. “You’re safe. Your brother and I are both here. Everything will be all right. But we need you to wake up. Can you do that for us?” he intoned.

From where she knelt a little ways away, Esther saw what was happening. She was helping to hold Meissner in position as the doctor worked to remove the bullet from his back As soon as the doctor pulled the bullet out and set it aside, Esther spoke to him in a quiet voice and he nodded in reply, indicating that he could finish up without her.

Esther rose and went to stand next to Joe, behind Ben. And she was just in time to see Adam finally open his eyes and look up into his father’s face.

*****

When he first opened his eyes, Adam’s vision was blurred. The light and shadows created by the nearby fire swam before his sight tauntingly but refused to settle into a discernible pattern. He blinked several times, and eventually a clear image began to emerge…the image of his father’s face, looking down at him with that mixture of caring and concern that he had seen so often.

“Pa.?” Adam’s voice was weak and a little hoarse. But to a father who had feared that he might never hear it again, that single word sounded like the sweetest music. Ben smiled down at his son as he gently brushed the hair back from his forehead, noticing as he did so that the skin was cool to the touch.

“Yes, son.” Ben’s voice was low and laden with emotion. He grasped Adam’s hand in a gesture of reassurance. “It’s so good to see you wake up.”

Adam’s eyes, now clear, glanced from side to side, trying to make out his unfamiliar surroundings. “Where…where are we?”

“In a cave not very far from where Joe left you,” Ben responded quietly.

Adam’s eyes widened as memories began to come back to him. He started to try to sit up. “Joe…where is he…is he OK?” he asked anxiously as Ben moved to hold him down.

“Right here, older brother,” Joe chimed in. He smiled at Adam as he knelt down beside him, next to their father.

“Joe.” Adam settled back with a sigh of relief. “So you did get away all right. And you made it all the way back to the fort?”

“Of course I did,” Joe said, still smiling. “How do you suppose Pa turned up here? I’ve gotta tell you, brother, you really had us going when we came back and you weren’t there.”

“Sorry about that.” Adam tried to return the smile as well as his weakness would allow. “I really don’t remember much about what happened. You were gone…and then…there was somebody coming up to me…couldn’t make out who it was. I must have blacked out at that point, because that’s all I recall.”

“It was the medicine woman from the reservation who found you,” Ben told him. He looked up at the woman standing behind him and then back to his son. “She brought you here and took care of you until we found you.”

Adam’s eyes focused on Esther and there was gratitude in his look. “It sounds like I have a good deal to be grateful to you for,” he said.

“Thank you.” Esther simply nodded in acceptance.

“I’d like to have her take a look at you now…all right?” Ben said.

“Sure,” Adam replied.

Esther slipped to her knees at Ben’s other side and began to gently and efficiently examine the wounded man, laying her hand on his forehead to detect any  fever, taking his pulse and checking the wound itself. Finally she turned to Ben, and the look in her eyes told him her conclusions before she spoke them.

“There is no fever. He is alert. And I see no sign of infection. I can not answer for what the doctor will say, but from what I see, I would say that he has passed the worst. Ben, I believe that he will be all right.”

Ben felt the moisture welling up in his eyes as he leaned over to embrace her. “If it were not for you I would almost certainly be in mourning now,” he whispered fervently in her ear. “There is no way I can thank you enough for everything you’ve done.”

“It was not all my doing, Ben,” she whispered back.

“Oh, I know,” Ben said as they hesitantly pulled back from the embrace. “The doctor has been very helpful as well. But you were the one who was on hand at the critical moment when my son needed help the most. I don’t know what your beliefs are, but for myself, I can’t help but feel that a higher power had something to do with that.”

“That would not be surprise me at all,” Esther returned softly.

As all this had been going on, Dr. Jorgensen had finished doing what he could for Meissner at the moment while Colonel Arbuthnot watched. Now they came to join the others. Seeing them, Ben and Esther rose to their feet.

“How is your son, Mr. Cartwright?” the Colonel inquired as he came up to them.

“He’s awake and seems to be doing better,” Ben answered him. “Esther believes he’s going to be all right now.”

“Well, that’s good to hear,” the colonel said with a sigh. “I really appreciate some good news at this point.”

“Indeed,” the doctor added.

“And what about Meissner?” Ben asked tensely. In a way he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted the reply to be.

Jorgensen shook his head. “I just don’t know,” he replied wearily. “I’ve done what I can, but the outcome is really out of my control. The only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be much happier the sooner we can get these two wounded men back to the infirmary at the fort.”

“It won’t be very long before the men come back with the wagon,” Arbuthnot assured him. “In the meantime, we had better be getting everything packed up and ready so we won’t waste any time once they’re here. I’m rather anxious to get back to the fort myself.”

“Very good,” the doctor said. And they moved away to begin doing as the colonel had said.

Ben turned to Esther. “It would mean a great deal to me if you could continue to help with Adam’s care,” he said quietly. “And… I would also very much like to spend some more time with you. Would it be possible for you to come back to the fort with us?” His eyes met hers hopefully.

She looked back at him thoughtfully and finally nodded. “I will have to go back to the reservation and leave word about where I will be in case I am needed. I should be able to return in time to be able to leave with you.”

“That will be wonderful. Thank you, Esther.”

She leaned up and gently brushed her lips against his cheek. “I will be back as soon as I can,” she said. And in a moment, she was gone.

Ben looked down and saw that Adam was resting peacefully with Joe watching over him. Then he went to join the doctor and the colonel.

Joe’s face showed his joy and relief as he watched his brother. He felt great gratitude for the way the difficult decision he had been forced to make was working out. “Adam?” he said after a moment.

“Yes, Joe?” Adam replied a little sleepily.

“I talked to Pa and… well…he said that you were right. That, under the circumstances, he had to agree with the decision we came to.”

“I told you, didn’t I?”

“You sure did, older brother.”

“Joe, don’t you know by now that I’m usually right about such things?”

“Usually, sure. But not always. Even this time, there was one thing you were wrong about.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, you were thinking that there wasn’t any way you were going to make it. And now it seems that you’re going to be all right after all.”

“Well, I guess that’s one thing I can actually be happy I was mistaken about.” A faint smile touched Adam’s lips as his voice trailed off and his eyes fluttered closed.

Joe watched as his brother drifted back into sleep.

“So can I, brother,” he whispered. “So can I.”

******

Albee and Dierks arrived with the wagon in good time, and the loading went quickly. To Ben’s relief, Esther returned from the reservation in time to see Adam and Meissner being carefully settled in the back of the wagon. There was something in Ben that was uncomfortable with the idea of Meissner being hauled along with Adam, but he was a little ashamed of it, especially when he glanced over at Esther and saw her looking back at him with an expression that seemed to say she understood what he was feeling, which brought a slight blush to his face.

The trip back to the fort was uneventful. The doctor, Esther and Ben all rode in the back of the wagon with the wounded men. Adam and Meissner had both been mildly sedated to help them endure the trip; still, the party traveled at a relatively slow pace, being careful to avoid jarring them as much as possible. Albee drove with Erickson, his head still bandaged, sitting next to him. Colonel Arbuthnot rode his horse ahead of the wagon while Joe and Dierks followed astride their own horses as they brought along the others on lead reins. As the colonel had hoped, they arrived back at the fort just as the sun was beginning to set. Adam and Meissner were settled into beds in the infirmary and most of the rest of the party were able to join the fort’s personnel for the evening meal. Ben joined them after sending off a wire to Hoss to let him know what was happening.

After the tension and drama of the events back at the cave, the relative tranquility of the next few days was a welcome relief. Adam was recovering nicely, though he was still, understandably, weak, and he spent much of each day sleeping. Ben and Joe each spent a good deal of time just sitting with him when he was asleep and talking to him when he was awake. It was Joe who told him about Meissner…what he had been trying to do and why. Adam looked over at the man who lay unconscious at the other side of the infirmary, and from the look in his eyes, it was very difficult to tell what was passing through his mind. Joe guessed that there must be some element of anger toward the man that had come so close to taking his life. But there also seemed to be a kind of questioning, as though Adam were asking himself how he might have reacted if he had suffered the sudden loss of his whole family as Meissner had. Neither Ben nor Joe thought it necessary to tell Adam about the stray bullet that had come so close to his head.

Esther divided her time between helping Dr. Jorgensen at the fort and returning to the reservation to take care of things there. When she was at the fort, she shared her meals with Ben. The two of them talked of many things. What they did not talk of was what would happen when he eventually left to return home.

On the fifth day after their return, late in the afternoon, Ben found Colonel Arbuthnot and Dr. Jorgensen standing together talking outside the door of the infirmary. Noting their sober expressions, Ben felt a tingle of fear pass over him, as he wondered if Adam might have taken a turn for the worse. As he came up to them, his own expression was anxious. “You gentlemen look very serious. Is something wrong?”

“It’s Meissner,” the doctor answered. “I’ve determined that he’s going to be permanently paralyzed from the waist down. There’s no chance he’ll ever walk again.”

Given the kind of wound that Meissner had sustained, it really should not have been such a surprising announcement. Still, it was somehow shocking to Ben to hear it stated so bluntly. “Has he been told?” he asked.

“We just spoke to him,” the colonel replied.

“And how did he react?”

“Not very well,” Arbuthnot responded. “He just stared at us for a moment, then closed his eyes, turned his head away and said nothing. When I asked if he would like to talk to someone, perhaps the chaplain, he simply shook his head and still said nothing.”

So what’s going to happen to him now?” Ben asked, genuinely curious.

The colonel shook his head. “I really don’t know. He has quite a long list of offenses to his charge. Plotting to provoke a conflict with the Indians. Shooting your son. Threatening fellow members of the Army, and civilians as well. Under normal circumstances, he’d unquestionably be facing a very long term in prison or even execution, if the tribunal was in the mood to be severe. But now….” He frowned. “Our military prisons aren’t prepared to accommodate a paralyzed inmate. And the idea of executing a paralyzed man is somehow…distasteful. I’ve really never heard of a case quite like this. I’m going to have to consult my superiors as to the proper action to take.”

The three men were silent for a moment, pondering the situation. But Ben’s thoughts very quickly moved to another matter that he urgently wanted to inquire about. He turned to the doctor. “And how is Adam doing?”

“He’s continuing to make good progress.” Jorgensen smiled reassuringly. “But these things can’t be rushed. Regaining his strength is simply going to take some time.”

“How long do you think it will be before he’s fit enough to make the trip back home?” Ben asked

“Oh, I’d say at least two weeks, more likely three.”

“I see.” Ben was thinking about an issue that had come to his mind earlier and reaching a conclusion. “Thank you, doctor,” he said after a brief pause. “If I might take my leave of you gentlemen, I think I’ll go in and see my son now.” And, with a nod, he turned to enter the infirmary.

Ben found Adam sitting up and Joe in the chair beside the bed. The two of them were laughing, apparently at some joke of Joe’s, and Ben rejoiced to see it. “Hello, boys,” he said as he came up to them. “Adam, how are you feeling today?”

“Better than yesterday,” Adam replied. “I just wish the doctor and Esther would allow me some solid food. I’m getting more than a little tired of subsisting on mostly broth.”

“Believe me, the regular food from the fort’s mess isn’t anything to look forward to,” Joe said jokingly.

“Just be patient, son,” Ben said, patting Adam’s arm comfortingly. “I’m sure you’ll be back to eating something more substantial very soon.”

“Yeah, Pa.” Adam settled back with a sigh. Being admonished to have patience was one thing. Actually having it was quite another.

The three Cartwrights continued to converse for some minutes. Then Ben noticed that Adam was showing signs of being tired.

“Joe, why don’t you and I leave Adam to get some rest now? It’s almost time to be getting washed up before dinner anyway.” Ben gestured with his head toward the infirmary door, and his expression gave Joe to understand that he wanted to speak to him privately.

“Sure, Pa…” Joe turned to his older brother with a grin. “Enjoy your broth for supper, Adam. And have a good night. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“I’ll be here,” Adam answered him with a wry smile.

A moment later, Ben and Joe had left the infirmary and were walking back toward the building where they had been assigned guest quarters. Joe was eyeing his father curiously. “What’s up, Pa?”

“Let’s sit down here for a few minutes, Joe,” Ben said, indicating a bench next to one of the barracks. “There’s something I want to discuss with you.”

They sat down together and Ben laid a hand on Joe’s arm.

“Joe, the doctor says that Adam won’t be ready to travel home for at least two weeks, probably longer. Now I don’t think it’s fair to leave Hoss to handle things back on the Ponderosa by himself for that much longer. I want you to start back home tomorrow to join him while I stay here with Adam until he’s strong enough that he and I can head back together.”

Joe looked down for a few seconds. When he looked up and addressed his father, his eyes and his voice were full of earnest pleading. “Pa… can I be the one to stay here with Adam? I know you want to stay with him yourself. It’s just that…well…I had to leave him when he got shot. It’s about the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. And… I don’t want to leave him again. Not this soon.”

Ben found himself caught off guard by Joe’s unexpected request. But then, knowing his sons and the bond between them, he thought to himself, he really shouldn’t be so surprised. Of course, he was loathe to leave Adam himself after coming so close to losing him. But he saw the look in Joe’s eyes and he somehow sensed that Joe’s need to stay was even greater than his own.

“I understand, son,” Ben said as he gently squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “You know, your brother is liable to get impatient and want to try to start back before he’s really ready. Do you think you’ll be able to handle him?”

“Well, I’ll have the doctor and Esther on my side. And, if necessary, I can even get the colonel to step in. I think that, with all of us on the case, we can keep Adam in line. Of course, he won’t like it much, but…so what?” Joe grinned slyly.

“Very well then, Joe,” Ben said, smiling back at him. You’ll stay here with your brother. After breakfast tomorrow, I’ll speak to Adam and then I’ll set off for home.” He got up from the bench. “For now, I’d like to get washed up and get over to the mess early. Esther is supposed to be back from the reservation in time for us to have dinner together.”

“Again?” Joe regarded his father with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“Yes, again. And it happens to be none of your business who I choose to eat with, young man,” Ben responded with raised eyebrows and an admonishing tone of voice. And as he turned away, he was thinking to himself that Esther and he were going to have a lot to talk about…and to settle…over this particular dinner.

*****

Ben looked across the table and watched as Esther deftly raised a spoonful of stew to her mouth. She swallowed it, and Ben could tell from the expression on her face that she didn’t find it particularly appetizing. Ben had to agree. But he had a good deal more on his mind than the taste of the food. He had steered his companion to a corner table of the mess hall in hopes of gaining a certain privacy for serious conversation. He knew there were matters they needed to discuss. Yet, somehow, he was hesitating to bring them up, and he wasn’t sure why. Was there some uncertainty in his own feelings about the question he wanted to ask her? Or did he somehow sense…perhaps fear…that the answer to the question would be one that would bring him pain? Whatever was causing him to hold back, it was making for stilted conversation so far.

Ben leaned back in his chair, a dissatisfied expression on his face. His movement drew Esther’s attention, and she laid down her spoon, looking at him sympathetically.

“There is something wrong, Ben. What is it?” she inquired gently.

“Not wrong, exactly,” Ben replied, speaking slowly, as though reaching for words. “It’s just that, there’s something important I think we need to talk about…and I’m not sure how to begin.”

“The simplest way is usually the best,” Esther urged.

Ben nodded, and braced himself to come out with it. “I’m going to be leaving to return to Nevada in the morning.”

Esther’s face clearly showed her surprise…and concern. “Adam is not thinking of trying to make the trip, I hope. He is not nearly strong enough yet.”

“Oh no,” Ben assured her. “The doctor says it will be two, or more likely three weeks before he’s ready.”

Esther nodded. “I agree with him.” She regarded him questioningly. “So why are you going to leave?”

“I need to think of my son who was left to take care of things at home also. It isn’t right for him to have to shoulder that responsibility alone for so much longer. I planned to send Joe home to join him and stay here with Adam myself. But Joe pleaded with me to let him be the one to stay with his brother. He seemed to still be dealing with having to leave Adam when he was shot, and because of that he was feeling a real need to stay…and I couldn’t deny him.”

“That must have been a hard decision for you,” Esther interjected as Ben paused. His arms were on the table, his hands surrounding a cup of coffee, and she leaned forward, laying a gentle hand on his wrist.

“Very hard,” Ben acknowledged. “I know now that Adam is going to be all right. Still…I’m a father, and I don’t want to leave him either.”

“You are trying to think of what is best for all of your sons. And sometimes that means doing what is hardest for you.”

It warmed Ben to hear the understanding in Esther’s voice. And that encouraged him to go on and say more.

“There’s something else that’s hard,” he said in a low voice. “And that’s the idea of saying good-bye to you. Esther, you and I have only known each other for about a week. But I’m finding myself strongly drawn to you. You’re a very special woman. I very much want to have more time with you. And I’m wondering…well, I’m wondering what your feelings are, and if you think there could be any future for us.”

Esther stared down at the table for a long moment, obviously considering carefully how she would reply, while Ben watched her in a tense silence. When she raised her eyes to look at him, the sadness in them made Ben’s heart contract.

“Ben,” Esther finally began in a reluctant tone, “I have sensed the feelings you are beginning to have. And I have also started to have feelings for you that I have not known for a very long time. The question of a future for us is one that I have been thinking of a great deal over these last days. It pains me to say this…but…as hard as I try to imagine how things could work out for us…I cannot.”

At her words, Ben felt a spark of something die within him. Esther saw his face fall, and her hand on his wrist gave a comforting squeeze.

“Ben, you must remember, I saw what my own parents went through, struggling to maintain such a relationship. I saw my mother’s eyes often red with weeping over the indignities she endured at the hands of whites that she encountered…insults, contempt, even physical abuse. But the thing that hurt her most was that, even when they were ill or injured, many were unwilling to accept the help of an Indian healer. And when I remember my father’s face it is tense with anger over the attitude of his people. My parents cared very deeply for each other. I know that. Still, the complications of their relationship were almost too much for them. After my father died, my mother confided to me just how close they had come to ending it.”

“It’s natural that such an experience would leave you very doubtful. I understand that. And I don’t underestimate the difficulties. But there are those who overcome the difficulties. I have overcome long odds a number of times in my life…and I believe that, together, we could overcome whatever we had to face.” Ben said earnestly.

“If it were only that, it might be possible,” Esther replied. “But there is something more.” She paused. “Ben, you had spoken of a higher power having something to do with my being there for your son…and I agreed. In my work as a healer, I have often felt that I was being used for a higher purpose. The knowledge and skill that have been granted to me are a sacred trust, to be used for the benefit of my people and any others I meet who need them. That is the purpose and meaning of my life. And my people have great need. There is no way I could leave them to go and be with you. And… be honest, Ben. Your sons are the purpose of your life. Could you possibly leave them in order to be with me?”

Ben sat silent for a moment, trying to think of some way around the dilemma Esther had posed. But he found none. It seemed that, whatever they were coming to feel for each other, they each had something which was even more important.

“No,” he finally admitted. “Painful as it is, I must accept the conclusion you’ve come to. Only…I’m finding it hard to accept the idea of never seeing you again.”

“But why must that be? Surely it is not so impossible that you would return here someday?”

A faint smile passed across Ben’s face. “Actually…I’m sure the fort will be needing new horses from time to time. And I can do my best to make sure that the Ponderosa submits the winning bids to provide them…even if it means we take a loss on the deal.”

Esther smiled back at him. “And any time you come here, I will be happy to see you and spend time with you…my very good friend.”

Their hands came together across the table and they looked into each other’s eyes. Though there would be no happy ending for them, this was a conclusion they could both live with. They would have to.

*****

The next morning after breakfast, Ben made his way to the infirmary. As he came through the door, he saw Adam sitting up, while Joe, the colonel, the doctor and Esther were gathered around his bed, all with sober expressions on their faces. There appeared to be some conversation going on among them, but their voices were too low for him to catch anything. Curious, he moved to join the group.

“Well, it looks like someone’s summoned a council…and so early in the morning. What’s going on? Has something happened?”

“Meissner died list night,” Colonel Arbuthnot told him solemnly.

Ben was stunned. He glanced quickly over at the bed on the opposite side of the room and saw that a sheet had been pulled over the head of the still form lying there.

“How did it happen?” he asked.

“We don’t really know,” Dr. Jorgensen answered. “When I came in first thing this morning, I found he wasn’t breathing. His body was already beginning to show signs of rigor mortis, and nothing could be done. A quick examination showed no marks of any kind to indicate a cause of death.”

“I slept pretty soundly through the night and never noticed anything,” Adam interjected.

“I’ll do a thorough autopsy, of course,” Jorgensen continued. “But I doubt that I’ll find anything conclusive. My strong suspicion is that he simply didn’t want to live any more.”

“He willed himself to die?” Ben found it hard to believe.

“More or less,” the doctor replied. “It does happen. It just never looks good on a death certificate.”

The colonel shook his head sadly. “I can’t help but feel that I bear some responsibility for this. The information about his family that was in his record should have alerted me to pay more attention to him. Looking back, I can remember some things he said that should have raised some warning signals. If I had been more responsive…perhaps all of this might never have happened.”

“Hindsight is easy, Colonel,” Ben said.

“I suppose so.” Arbuthnot gave a small sigh. “Anyway, the only good thing about what’s happened is that it solves the problem of what to do about his case.”

At that moment, two men entered the infirmary with a stretcher and the doctor joined them to take charge of the removal of Meissner’s body. A couple of minutes later the body was being carried out with the doctor and the colonel following and the others looking on solemnly.

“A very sad story,” Ben said after a moment. He looked over at Adam with full eyes and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Thankfully, there are other stories that are ending better. Son, I…”

“Joe’s already told me about what you decided, Pa,” Adam interrupted him. “He stays and you go. Well, I’m fine with that. I think it will be good for younger brother and me to have some time together. And Joe will be less of a mother hen than you would be.”

“Well now, don’t be thinking that you’re going to get off without some serious clucking, older brother,” Joe said, a challenging gleam in his eyes. “I mean to prove that I can look after you just as well as Pa could. And don’t you forget it.”

“I’m counting on you, Joe,” Ben said, smiling at the young man’s show of authority. “And Adam, I want you to promise me that there’ll be no thought of your starting back home until both the doctor and Esther give their approval.”

“All right, Pa. I promise,” Adam agreed, rolling his eyes as he said it.

“You know, of course, that I’ll be counting the days until I see you and your brother home again.”

“I know, Pa,” Adam said quietly.

“Now, I really should be getting on my way, but before I do…Adam, do you think you could allow your father to hold you for just a minute?”

“I think I can stand that.”

Ben leaned forward, putting his arms around his son, carefully drawing him close, and Adam easily settled into the embrace. Ben’s eyes filled as he gave silent thanks that this son was still alive. After a moment, Ben released his hold and Adam settled back onto the bed.

“Good-bye for now, boys,” Ben said, putting on his hat.

“Bye, Pa. Have a safe trip home,” Joe said.

“And give Hoss our best,” Adam added.

Ben turned toward the door and found Esther standing there. He took her hand. “Meeting you has been…very special,” he told her. “I won’t say good-bye. Only…take care…until the next time we see each other.”

“Until we see each other again,” she echoed, and she drew herself up to gently kiss him on the cheek. With a lump in his throat, Ben gave her hand a parting squeeze and made his way out the door.

Outside, Buck was patiently waiting for him, saddled and ready to go. Ben took up the reins, easily mounted, and turned the horse’s head in the direction of the fort’s main gate. He had only gone a short way down the path when something made him look back and he saw Joe, standing by the infirmary door, waving to him. He was about to wave back when he saw another figure emerge from the door. It was Esther…with Adam leaning on her arm.

Ben’s spirits lifted at seeing his son on his feet again. Adam and Esther joined Joe in waving to him and, with a broad smile, he waved back at all of them. Then, in a more cheerful frame of mind, he resumed his way.

It would be good to be home again and to see his other son. Yes, very good. And before very long Adam and Joe would be with them again. That would be the best of all. If only Esther could be with them also… He accepted that that was not to be. But he knew he would always see in his mind’s eye the smile of that remarkable woman, and that he would treasure her friendship forever.

***The End***

*There was actually a fort by this name in this part of California in the 1860 time period of this story

 ** There is a Colonel Arbuthnot in Agatha Christie’s classic “Murder on the Orient Express”. Not that the character has any particular connection to Bonanza or to this story. I just thought the name was interesting!

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