Summary: The best-laid plans don’t always work out the way intended.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 6968
No one paid any attention to the four men who walked into the crowded saloon. The people of Bear River, Utah, were used to trail hands enjoying themselves after delivering their herd to one of the local cattle buyers. These four appeared no different than the usual cowhands looking for a cold beer and a good time. No one recognized Ben Cartwright or his three sons.
“Four beers,” ordered Ben as he stepped up to the bar.
“Pa, that had to be the orneriest bunch of steers we ever herded,” Hoss declared as he waited for his beer. “I must have roped and dragged at least twenty of ‘em back to the herd.”
“I think you roped the same steer twenty times,” observed Adam with a smile. “That cow with the blaze on his side had a mind of his own.”
“Well, he’s somebody else’s problem now,” Ben said as he began sipping beer from one of the mugs the bartender had delivered. “I’m just happy to have that herd delivered and the money in the bank.” A look of pride came over his face as Ben gazed at his three sons. “You boys did a good job. We got the herd here on time and didn’t lose a single steer. You deserve a night of celebration.”
“A night? Is that all?” asked Joe in a surprised voice. “I figured we’d spend a couple of days here in Bear River.”
“One night, that’s all,” Ben answered firmly. “Tomorrow we start for home. Hop Sing and the rest of the trail hands left two days ago.”
“Yeah, they didn’t have to nursemaid that herd while you were waiting for the buyer,” Joe protested mildly. “They all got to do their celebrating as soon as we hit town.”
“I just wanted to take advantage of your talents, Joseph,” Ben told his son with a smile. “You are an excellent nursemaid…at least, when it comes to cows.”
“Don’t you think a good nursemaid deserves at least two nights to relax?” Joe asked hopefully.
“One night,” Ben decreed once more, “that’s all you get. I suggest you make the most of it.”
“Well, in that case, I’d better get into a poker game right now,” Adam told his father. Picking up his beer mug, he surveyed the saloon for a moment, and then headed for a table where four men were holding cards.
“Me, I’m just gonna find a comfortable chair where I can sit and drink my beer and not have to think about nothing,” Hoss stated. He looked around, then pointed toward an empty table near the side wall. “That’s where I’ll be if you want me.”
“I’ll join you, Hoss,” said Ben, smiling. He turned to his youngest son. “How about it, Joe? Want to come sit with us?”
“No thanks, Pa,” Joe answered, his eyes fixed on a pretty blonde girl coming down the stairs at the back of the saloon. “I have some other company in mind.”
Ben followed Joe’s gaze toward the girl now standing seductively at the bottom of the stairs. “Yes, I’ll bet you do,” Ben agreed, his smile widening into a grin. He clapped his son lightly on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied in a slightly distracted tone. He straightened his jacket a bit and started across the saloon toward the stairs.
Ben watched his son for a moment, then shook his head. “Ah, to be young again,” he murmured as he walked toward the table which Hoss had claimed.
An hour later, each of the Cartwrights were comfortably seated and enjoying themselves at their respective tables. Adam had accumulated a pile of chips from the poker players sitting with him, while Ben and Hoss were chatting amiably with a local man who had joined them. Joe had worked his charm on the pretty saloon girl; the blonde now had her arm draped around Joe’s shoulder and was leaning close to the handsome cowboy. None of them noticed the man in his mid-twenties, wearing his gun slung low on his hip, who swaggered into the saloon.
The girl sitting with Joe saw him, though, and she immediately pulled back from the young man sitting next to her. A puzzled look crossed Joe’s face but before he could say anything, the man who had just entered walked up to the table.
“Glad to see you found someone to amuse yourself with until I got to town, Sally,” the man said with a sneer.
“Hi, Eddie,” replied Sally nervously. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight.”
“Well, here I am,” Eddie declared. “Let’s go find us a little privacy.” He reached down and grabbed the girl’s arm, then yanked her to her feet.
“Hey, let her alone,” Joe yelled, jumping up.
“It’s…it’s all right, Joe,” the girl said in a trembling voice.
“No, it’s not all right,” stated Joe angrily. “This yahoo walks in and jerks you around like that. That’s no way to treat a lady.”
“Lady? Ha!” exclaimed Eddie derisively. “Sally here ain’t nothing by a saloon gal. I just happen to find her entertaining. She knows when I’m in town that she belongs to me.”
“She doesn’t belong to anyone,” retorted Joe. “And she happens to be with me.
Why don’t just crawl back to whatever hole you slithered out of and leave us alone.”
“Mister, you don’t know who you’re messing with,” Eddie warned. “If you’re smart, you’ll just back off.” He pushed Joe in the chest. “Go find yourself another girl. This one’s mine.”
“Let the girl alone,” Joe advised in a threatening voice. “Take your hands off her and walk away.”
“Who’s going to make me?” asked Eddie with a laugh. “You? I don’t take orders from saddle tramps.” He turned away from Joe, pulling Sally with him.
Reaching out, Joe grabbed Eddie’s arm, jerking the man’s hand away from Sally. Eddie spun around and threw his fist in Joe’s direction. But Joe had anticipated the move and ducked. As he straightened, Joe threw his own fist, landing a solid blow on Eddie’s chin. Eddie staggered back a step and then started toward Joe, fists at the ready. He took another swing at the youngest Cartwright, who twisted away; the blow landed almost harmlessly on Joe’s arm. As Joe turned back, he jabbed his arm forward and his fist connected with the side of Eddie’s face.
The commotion of the fight drew the attention of the other men in the bar, and all of them hurried to watch. Adam was standing a few feet away from the area in which Joe and Eddie were trading punches, observing the action almost indifferently, when he was joined by Hoss and Ben.
“Leave it to our little brother to start a rhubarb,” commented Hoss as he watched the fight. “Think we ought to help him?”
“No, he’s doing fine,” Adam replied as he watched Joe knock the other man over a table and on to the floor.
“What happened? Who started this?” Ben asked, sounding more puzzled than angry.
“Who knows?” answered Adam with a shrug.
Oblivious to the audience which had formed, Joe ducked a punch and thrust his fist into Eddie’s mid-section. As his opponent bent forward, Joe threw an uppercut which snapped the man’s head back. Eddie reeled for a moment and then crumpled to the floor.
For a minute, Joe stood over the fallen man, breathing hard as he waited to see if Eddie would get to his feet. When his opponent on the floor failed to move, Joe turned and walked away.
“Joseph, just what happened here?” Ben demanded as he stepped forward. He grabbed his son and turned him slowly toward him. Blood was trickling down Joe’s chin from a cut on his lip, and a red spot was forming into a bruise on Joe’s cheek.
“Oh, um, well, you see, Pa, he…” Joe started and then suddenly stopped. Somehow he knew his explanation would seem pretty feeble. “He threw the first punch,” Joe finished, sounding a bit defensive.
“And you threw the last one,” commented Adam dryly. “Nice fight.”
“Thanks,” Joe answered, trying to suppress a smile. He looked around the saloon and saw his hat laying on the floor. Walking a few steps, he bent to pick up his hat while his father and brothers headed back to the tables they had abandoned at the start of the fight.
“Joe! Watch out!” screamed Sally.
Looking over his shoulder, Joe saw Eddie had gotten to his feet and drawn a gun. Diving forward, Joe felt the impact of a bullet in his back even before he heard the sound of the shot. As he hit the floor, Joe rolled, pulling his own pistol out. He fired his gun and saw his bullet hit Eddie in the chest. Then Joe collapsed onto his back.
“Joe!” cried Ben, running across the saloon. Adam and Hoss were right on his heels.
Crouching down, Ben lifted his youngest son’s head and shoulders from the floor. He could see blood oozing out of a hole in the front of Joe’s jacket and could feel the sticky substance trickling out of another in Joe’s back. “The bullet went right through his shoulder,” Ben declared anxiously. He turned and called over his shoulder. “Somebody get a doctor! Quick!!”
“Here Pa, take this.” Hoss offered his father a clean handkerchief he had pulled from his pocked.
Nodding a distracted thanks, Ben stuck the cloth under Joe’s shirt and jacket, pressing it against the wound in his son’s back. Slowly, he eased Joe down to the floor, hoping that lying on the wound would put enough pressure on it to stop the bleeding. Ben untied the bandana from around his neck and pressed it under Joe’s shirt in the front.
“The other one’s dead,” Adam announced as he knelt next to his father. “The doctor’s on his way.”
“Lay still, Joe,” Ben murmured to his youngest son. “The doctor will be here in a minute. Just lay still.”
But Ben’s advice was unneeded. As the blood flowed out of his shoulder, Joe laid unconscious on the floor.
A small, thin man in his early forties rushed into the saloon, carrying a black satchel in his hand. He stopped briefly to bend over the body lying near the bar; after feeling the man’s neck for a moment in a vain attempt to find a pulse, he straightened and hurried toward the back of the saloon.
“I’m Doctor William Boyd,” declared the man as he pushed his way through the crowd of on-lookers and knelt on the floor near Joe’s head. “How bad is he hurt?”
“The bullet went through his shoulder, I think,” Ben answered in a shaky voice. “He’s bleeding and he hasn’t regained consciousness.”
Pulling open Joe’s shirt, the doctor examined the wound in the front, then turned Joe slightly on his side. Doctor Boyd tugged the shirt and jacket off the young man’s shoulder and inspected the hole in Joe’s back. “He was shot in the back,” the doctor muttered. “The exit wound is in the front.”
“Doctor, how is he?” Ben asked anxiously as he watched the doctor laid Joe back onto the floor.
Ignoring Ben’s question, Doctor Boyd placed two fingers against Joe’s neck and felt the young man’s pulse. Giving a satisfied nod, he moved his hand to Joe’s chest and rested it there. After a minute or so, the doctor finally turned to the worried-looking man crouching next to him.
“His pulse is strong, and his breathing is regular,” Doctor Boyd told Ben. “He’s bleeding but not so badly that it can’t be stopped. Let’s get him over to my office so I can stitch him up.”
Standing, the doctor took a step back so that Ben, Adam and Hoss could lift Joe from the floor. “My office is straight down the street, near the end of town,” Doctor Boyd told the three men who were carrying the injured one. “I’ll be right behind you.”
As the doctor started to follow the men out of the saloon, he was stopped by Sally.
“Doc, you know who he killed, don’t you?” the blonde girl asked.
“Yes, I know,” Doctor Boyd replied in an even voice.
“Then you know you have to get him out of town right away,” Sally went on. “If he’s still here when Eddie’ father gets to town, Mr. Milton will kill him.”
“I know,” the doctor repeated. He sighed. “I’ll patch him up and send him on his way. There’s a chance he could bleed to death or die of an infection on the road, but I suppose that’s better than having no chance at all against Milton and his men.”
“What’s taking so long?” asked Hoss as he paced the length of the waiting room outside the doctor’s surgery. Ben and Adam looked over at the big man walking nervously around the room. Hoss had been fretting over Joe since they had carried the youngest Cartwright into the office about twenty minutes ago.
“I’m sure the doctor is doing a thorough job,” Adam told his brother in a soothing voice.
“He said all he had to do was stitch Joe up,” Hoss continued in his complaint. “Why’d we have to wait out here? Why couldn’t we be in there with him?”
“You saw his surgery, Hoss,” Ben answered as calmly as possible. “It’s not very big. The three of us in there would have made it too crowded.” Silently, Ben was asking the same questions as his middle son, but knew that anxiety rather than rational thinking was forming those thoughts.
As if in response to Hoss’ grumbling, the door from the surgery opened, and Doctor Boyd walked out. “Mr. Cartwright, your son will be just fine,” he announced. Hasty introductions had been made when Joe was being carried to his office. None of the Cartwrights noticed the relieved look on the doctor’s face when he realized the wounded young man was accompanied by his father and brothers.
“The bullet missed the bone and went through the fleshy part of his shoulder,” Doctor Boyd went on. “The wound is clean, and though he lost some blood, it’s not enough to be considered serious. He should recover fully.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Ben said in a relieved voice. “Can we see him?”
“In a minute,” the doctor replied. He looked down for a moment and then raised his eyes to meet Ben’s. “I need to talk to you about something first.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Hoss anxiously. “I thought you said that Joe was going to be all right.”
“He will be all right,” Doctor Boyd assured the big man. He looked around the room and then added, “He’ll be all right, that is, if you get him out of town right now. You need to put him in a wagon and start traveling immediately.”
“Start traveling immediately?” repeated Adam with a frown. “He was shot. Surely he can’t be ready to travel yet.”
“Under normal circumstances, I’d agree,” admitted the doctor. “But these aren’t normal circumstances.” Doctor Boyd took a deep breath, and then continued. “The man Joe killed is Eddie Milton. Sam Milton, Eddie’s father, will be coming to town with his men as soon as he hears about Eddie. And Sam won’t leave until he gets revenge for his son’s death. He’ll kill Joe.”
“Kill Joe? Why?” Ben asked in a confused tone. “Joe shot in self-defense. He was already wounded when he fired back.”
“I know,” the doctor acknowledged, “but that won’t make any difference to Sam Milton.” He shook his head ruefully. “Sam Milton is the big man in this territory. He owns the biggest ranch and has a part interest several businesses. The cattle buyers lease their pens and grazing land from him. Sam provides the funds needed to run the school and the church. He pretty much oversees everything that happens around here.”
“What about the law?” asked Adam angrily. “Does he oversee that too?”
“When he wants to,” Doctor Boyd admitted. “Our sheriff is pretty good about keeping order and arresting drunks, unless they happen to be one of Milton’s men. Then he turns them over to Sam to handle. The sheriff wouldn’t stand up to Milton to defend anyone in town. He’s certainly not going to do it for a stranger.”
“What about the people in this town? Are they all as spineless as the sheriff or can we get some help from them?” Hoss demanded.
Runnin his hand through his hair, the doctor tried to find the words to explain. “It’s not like Sam is a tyrant or abuses people. He pays a fair price for what he buys and pays his bills on time. His son Eddie was a nasty piece of work – a real bully – but Sam is an honorable man in his own way. He doesn’t take advantage of people. He just expects that he’ll get whatever he wants. People in this town have learned that it’s easier to let Sam Milton do what he pleases. There’s nothing to be gained by fighting him.”
“I see,” said Ben in an even voice. “So as long as Sam Milton doesn’t bother them, the people in Bear River let him do whatever he wants.”
“That’s about the size of it,” acknowledged Doctor Boyd. “But we’re wasting time. You have to get Joe out of town now, while it’s still dark. You need to be long gone by the time Sam Milton and his men get here.”
For a moment, the Cartwrights were silent, each weighing the doctor’s words in their own mind. Finally, Ben asked in an almost polite voice, “May I see my son?”
“Of course,” replied the doctor. He walked back to the surgery door, followed by Ben, Adam and Hoss.
Lying bare-chested on a table, Joe appeared almost as pale as the thick bandage wrapped around his right shoulder and the white sheet which covered the table. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was shallow. If Ben hadn’t known better, he might have thought his son was dead.
“Joe? Joe, can you hear me?” Ben asked in a quiet voice as he stroked his son’s head. He was rewarded by a pair of eyes fluttering open and a mouth forming into the hint of a smile.
“Hi, Pa,” answered Joe in a weak voice.
“How are you feeling, Joe?” asked Ben, his voice still soft.
“I’m pretty sore,” Joe admitted, “and pretty tired.” He looked past his father to where Hoss and Adam were standing. “Guess I messed up our one night in Bear River.”
“Aw, Joe, it weren’t your fault,” Hoss told his brother.
“I was about ready to collect my winnings and leave that poker game anyhow,” Adam added.
“I’m sorry,” Joe said apologetically. He looked back to his father. “I’m really sorry, Pa. Things just…just got out of hand.”
“Don’t worry about it now,” Ben replied, still stroking Joe’s head. “You just get some rest.” He watched Joe closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Then he turned and called softly over his shoulder. “Doctor? Joe feels warm. I think he’s running a fever.”
Quickly, Doctor Boyd moved to the table and placed his hand on Joe’s forehead. He left it there a moment, and then glanced at Ben. “He’s a little warm,” the doctor admitted, “but it’s nothing to be concerned about. His body is just reacting to the injury, the shock of getting shot and then having me sew up his shoulder. All he needs is a little rest.”
“That’s something he’s not likely to get on the trail, is it, doctor?” Adam observed in an accusing tone.
For the first time, Doctor Boyd looked unsure of himself. His gaze fixed on Joe for a moment before he turned to Ben. “Let’s talk outside,” the doctor said quietly.
Once in the waiting room, Doctor Boyd faced the three Cartwrights, but before he could say anything, Ben held up his hand. “My son obviously is not ready to travel yet, and I’m not taking him anywhere until he is,” Ben stated in a determined voice.
“Mr. Cartwright, you don’t understand,” the doctor replied in an exasperated voice. “If you don’t get Joe out of town, Sam Milton will kill him. Yes, there are some risks in moving him…”
“What kinds of risks?” Adam interrupted.
“Well…there’s always the danger of infection,” admitted Doctor Boyd reluctantly. “He’s weak, and if he does develop an infection, he might not have the strength to fight it off. The wound could break open and start bleeding again. He’s lost some blood already and it could be dangerous if he loses a lot more.”
“So you want us to take my little brother out on a rough, dusty road and just cross our fingers that it don’t kill him?” asked Hoss incredulously.
“At least, once he’s out of town, Joe has a chance of surviving,” the doctor answered. “If he stays in town, Sam Milton will kill him for sure.”
“And just what makes you think that those yahoos won’t come after us?” Hoss asked in a skeptical voice. “If this Sam Milton is so intent on killing Joe, I don’t think us leaving town will discourage him much.”
“I’ll delay him somehow,” Doctor Boyd promised. “I don’t know how, but I’ll think of something. Maybe get him to think you’re hiding Joe in town someplace. If you have a couple of hours head start, you might be able to get to a place where you can hide for awhile, someplace where he’ll never find you.”
“You want us to risk Joe’s life on the chance that we might be able to hide somewhere Milton and his men won’t find us?” Ben said, shaking his head. “I don’t much care for that idea. If they catch up with us out in the open, we’ll have very little chance of fighting them off.”
“You’ll have no chance if you stay here!” cried Doctor Boyd. “Don’t you understand? Milton will have twenty men with him, maybe more. You’ll never be able to hold them back. They’ll either kill you or tie you up someplace where you can watch Sam Milton hang your son!”
The doctor’s impassioned words finally made an impact on the Cartwrights. Ben, Adam and Hoss stood silently as they considered the gravity of the situation.
“What do you want to do, Pa?” Adam finally asked quietly.
Brows furrowed in thought, Ben shook his head. “I don’t know, Adam,” he admitted. He looked toward the doctor. “How long do we have?”
“I can’t tell you for sure,” Doctor Boyd replied. “A couple of hours. Maybe longer. But Milton and his men certainly will be here by dawn.”
Nodding, Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “Adam, go over to the hotel and collect our gear,” Ben ordered. “Hoss, you go to the livery stable. Saddle our horses and bring them here. Then buy a wagon or buckboard or whatever they have and a couple of horses to pull it. Bring the wagon over here too.”
“We gonna make a run for it?” Hoss asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” Ben answered. “But I want to be ready to go, if that’s what we decide.”
“I’ll head over to the livery to help Hoss as soon as I’ve picked up our gear,” Adam offered. “It will be faster if two of us are saddling the horses.”
“Good idea,” Ben agreed. He watched as his older sons walked quickly out of the doctor’s office. Then he turned to Doctor Boyd. “Tell me more about Sam Milton,” he requested.
The light from the sun was barely visible when Hoss came running down the street toward the doctor’s office. “Here they come!” Hoss shouted to his father and brother.
Standing in front of the office, Ben and Adam cocked the rifles in their hands.
“How many?” Adam asked coolly.
“Twenty, maybe twenty-five men,” Hoss answered. “I didn’t hang around long enough to count them.”
“Remember what I said, boys,” Ben cautioned his sons. “No shooting unless we have to. I want to try to talk Milton out of this if I can.”
“If the bullets do start flying, head for the wagon,” Adam reminded his father and brother, tilting his head a bit toward a wagon parked at the side of the building. “That will offer the best protection.”
“I’ll remember,” Hoss acknowledged with a nod. “You just remember to shoot fast and straight. We ain’t letting any of them get to Joe.”
“No, none of them will get to Joe,” Adam agreed grimly.
Just then, a large number of men on horses rode down the street and pulled to a stop in front of the doctor’s office. The man in front of the horde was about fifty, wearing a white shirt, tan vest and black pants. His long white hair cascaded down from under his hat, stopping about mid-ear, and his neatly trimmed white beard and mustache contrasted sharply with the tan, leathery-looking skin of his face.
“Are you Sam Milton?” Ben asked in a loud voice.
“I am,” the leader replied. “Who are you?”
“I’m Ben Cartwright, and these are my two sons,” Ben stated calmly.
“Ben Cartwright, eh? I’ve heard of you,” Milton acknowledged. “You have a big spread in northern Nevada.” A puzzled look crossed his face. “What are you doing here? Why are you protecting the man inside?”
“The man inside the doctor’s office is my youngest son, Joseph,” Ben explained.
“Your son?” Milton sounded surprised. “Your son is the one who murdered my boy?”
“My son is the one who shot your boy in self-defense,” Ben clarified. “He only fired after your boy had put a bullet in his back.”
Frowning, Milton turned to the rider on his left. “Is that what happened, Bryant?” he asked the man. “You were there. Tell me the truth.”
“Well, yeah, I guess,” Bryant admitted nervously. “I mean, Eddie did shoot at the guy in the saloon, but I don’t think he was trying to kill him or anything.”
“And I don’t think my son meant to kill yours,” Ben declared. “It may have been just bad luck that your son’s bullet hit Joseph in the back, and that Joe’s bullet killed your son. An unfortunate set of events. Why don’t we agree on that, and you can go home to mourn your son.”
For a moment, Sam Milton looked thoughtful, obviously digesting some new information. Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright; I can’t agree to that. My son, my only son, is dead and someone has to be punished for his death. An eye for an eye, the Bible says.”
“The Bible also says that ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord’. Why don’t we let a higher power decide who was right and who was wrong,” agued Ben.
“Because I AM the higher power in this territory,” Milton replied grimly. “And I’ve decided the man who killed my son must pay for it with his life. Now step aside, Mr. Cartwright, or my men will shoot down you and your other sons.”
“No,” Ben declared, raising his rifle.
Suddenly, the door to the doctor’s office opened, and Doctor Boyd rushed out. “Hold it!” he yelled. “No one shoot! There’s no need! Do you hear me? There’s no need for anyone to start shooting!”
“What are you talking about, doctor?” Adam asked, his eyes still fixed on the men in front of him.
“There’s no need for any more bloodshed,” the doctor said in a calmer voice. He turned toward Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry, but your son is dead.”
“What!” exclaimed Ben, swiveling around to face the doctor.
“Your son is dead,” Doctor Boyd repeated. “He died just a few minutes ago.”
“That’s can’t be!” shouted Hoss in a shocked voice. “You said he was going to be all right. You said he was going to be fine.”
“What happened?” Adam asked, sounding equally as stunned as his brother.
“I don’t know for sure,” Doctor Boyd admitted. “Perhaps a blood clot, or shock or a bad heart.” The doctor shrugged. “These things happen. We often don’t know why.”
Without saying a word, Ben walked in rapid steps past the doctor and into the office. Adam and Hoss hurried after their father, with the doctor following at a slower pace.
Atop his horse, Sam Milton looked pensive. Then he turned to his left. “Bryant, Johnson, you come with me. I want to see for myself that boy is dead.”
The three men dismounted and strode into the office. They walked through the waiting room and into the surgery, stopping just inside the door. Milton watched the scene unfolding in front of him with narrow eyes.
Ben was bending over the body of his son, still lying on the sheet-covered table. Another sheet covered Joe up to his neck. Ben was slowly stroking his son’s head and murmuring Joe’s name over and over. Adam and Hoss stood a few feet behind their father; both their faces were twisted in grief.
Taking a step closer, Milton could see the ashen skin on the body lying on the table. He watched carefully but could see no evidence of the young man’s chest rising and falling, nor any other sign of movement. He started to take another step forward, but stopped when Ben turned to him.
“Don’t come any closer,” Ben shouted at Milton angrily. “I don’t want you anywhere near my son. I don’t want anyone named Milton touching him.”
“I just want to see for myself that your son is dead,” Milton replied in an almost sympathetic voice.
“He’s dead,” the doctor confirmed. Doctor Boyd gently pushed Ben’s hand away, then reached down and pulled the sheet up from Joe’s chest, covering the young man’s face and head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” the doctor said regretfully. “I did everything I could for him. I really did.”
“I know,” Ben agreed in a grief-stricken voice. He took a deep breath. “I want to take my boy home and bury him on the Ponderosa.”
“Of course,” Doctor Boyd agreed. “I’ll prepare him for the trip.” He turned to look at Milton. “Sam, the boy is dead. Go home and mourn your own son, and let Mr. Cartwright mourn his.”
With a hesitant expression on his face, Milton surveyed the room. He saw Ben standing with his head down, his hand over his eyes. Hoss, also with his head down, had his hand on Adam’s shoulder, while Adam was just staring at the body on the table with an uncomprehending look. Milton’s eyes moved to the covered body on the table, and then to the doctor standing calmly next to it.
“The Lord has taken his vengeance,” Milton declared finally. “My son is dead and the man who killed him is dead. There’s nothing more to be done.” He turned to the two men standing behind him. “Let’s go home,” Milton said quietly.
The four men standing around the table stood in a frozen tableau while Milton and his men strode out of the office. No one moved until the sound of horses riding away faded into the distance.
Suddenly, Ben moved forward and pulled the sheet back from Joe’s face. “How long do we have?” he asked the doctor.
“About four hours,” Doctor Bryant replied. “That’s as much sedative as I could give him without really killing him.”
“What? You mean Joe ain’t dead? He’s alive?” asked Hoss, sounding almost as shocked as when he heard the news of his brother’s death.
“He’s alive,” the doctor confirmed. “Just in a deep sleep, almost a coma. Your father and I wanted Milton to think he was dead, and this is as close as making him look like it as I could manage.”
“That’s why I didn’t let Milton get any closer than he did,” added Ben. “I didn’t want him to feel for a pulse or see that Joe was still breathing. I wanted him to believe Joe was dead without checking for himself.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” demanded Adam, sounding more than a little upset. “Why did you let us think Joe was dead?”
“Because I wasn’t sure how good an actor you or Hoss might be,” Ben explained calmly. “I needed Milton to think Joe was really dead, and I couldn’t take the chance that one of you might give it away.” He shook his head regretfully. “I’m sorry, boys.”
“What if Milton hadn’t stopped when you told him?” Adam pressed on. “What if he had insisted on checking for himself?”
“Well, I probably would have declared a miracle had occurred,” Doctor Boyd said with a grin. “The dead came back to life.”
“And I would have grabbed Milton and held him as a hostage until we got Joe out of town,” Ben added in a sober voice.
“You took a big risk, Pa,” Adam pointed out. “A big risk.”
“As long as Joe’s alive, nothing else matters,” Hoss declared with a smile on his face. “What do we do now?”
“If I know Sam Milton, he’s got some of his men outside watching,” the doctor advised. “So we need to wrap Joe up in a sheet and carry him out to the wagon. Then you need to leave immediately. Milton’s men will probably follow you for awhile but I’m sure they’ll give up long before Joe starts waking up.”
“Shouldn’t we get a coffin from the undertaker?” Hoss asked.
“No, that would take too much time,” Ben answered. “Besides, I want to be able to keep an eye on Joe, to make sure he’s all right and to know when he starts waking up. I don’t want him waking up in a coffin.”
“Wait a minute,” argued Adam. “Won’t that sheet smother Joe? And won’t his riding in the back of the wagon be dangerous? You said last night that his wound could start bleeding or he could pick up an infection.”
“The sheet is very thin, and we’ll cut some air holes in it. I’ll make them look like moth holes, in case anyone gets close enough to see them,” Doctor Boyd answered. “He won’t have any trouble breathing through it. His breathing will be very shallow until the sedative wears off, anyway. I’ve checked his shoulder, and the wound is healing nicely. I’ve wrapped enough bandages around his shoulder to cushion it. There’s always a chance of picking up an infection, of course, but Joe’s had a lot of rest and he’s much stronger. I think the risk from infection is minimal.”
“I’m going to drive that wagon slowly,” Ben added. “Milton’s men won’t think there’s anything strange about that, and that will make the ride easier for Joe.”
Adam stood looking thoughtful for a moment, and then slowly nodded his head. “We’d better getting moving,” he said forcefully. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste.”
With Bear River far behind him, Ben drove the wagon slowly down the dirt road, doing his best to avoid any ruts and debris scattered across the thoroughfare. Adam and Hoss rode on either side, keeping an eye on Joe as well as watching for the three men who had been following them earlier. Joe’s pinto and Ben’s buckskin horses trailed along behind, tied to the back of the wagon. Wrapped in a sheet from head to toe, Joe laid on the wagon bed as still and quiet as he had been in the doctor’s office.
“Pa,” called Adam, “I haven’t seen any sign of Milton’s men for the last three or four miles. I think they’ve given up. We’ve been traveling for over three hours, and Joe should be waking up soon. We need to get him out of those sheets before he comes to.”
“I agree with Adam,” Hoss added. “I think we should stop and check on Joe. He ain’t moved since we left Bear River. I’m getting kinda worried about him.”
“Let’s find some rocks or something we can pull the wagon behind before we stop,” Ben called back to his sons. “Milton’s men could be still be in area. I don’t want to make it easy for them if they’re watching from someplace.”
Ten minutes past before Ben spotted what he considered an ideal place to pull off the road – four thick trees growing in front of two large boulders. He quickly guided the wagon behind the rocks.
“Adam, you keep watch for any sign of Milton’s men,” Ben ordered as he halted the wagon. “Hoss, grab a canteen and then come help me with Joe.”
Climbing into the back of the wagon, Ben quickly began unwrapping the sheet from around Joe. He heard, rather than saw, Hoss clamber into the wagon next to him. A worried frown grew on Ben’s face as he uncovered his youngest son. Joe’s skin was much too pale and his face much too still for Ben’s taste. He pressed his hand against Joe’s chest, and was reassured to feel it steadily rising and falling. Putting two fingers on his son’s neck, Ben felt the pulse of a strongly beating heart. He noted with satisfaction that there was no sign of blood seeping through the thick bandage wrapped around Joe’s shoulder.
“How is he?” Hoss asked anxiously.
“He’s all right,” Ben answered, trying not to sound as relieved as he felt. He lightly patted Joe’s cheek. “Come on, Joe, time to wake up. Do you hear me, son? Time to wake up.”
But Joe continued to lie still, showing no reaction to his father’s voice or touch.
“Give me the canteen,” Ben requested. He took the container Hoss offered, and uncorking it, poured enough water on to the edge of the sheet to soak it. Ben wiped the wet cloth across Joe’s forehead and cheeks, repeating Joe’s name as he did so.
Finally, Joe began to stir. His head moved slightly, and his mouth began to work. He grunted softly as his eyelids started to flutter.
Lifting Joe’s head, Ben trickled a bit of water onto Joe’s lips and into his mouth. When this tiny amount was swallowed by his son, Ben let a little more water flow from the canteen. Joe swallowed it easily, and his eyes began to open.
With a bewildered look on his face, Joe stared at his father for a moment, as if both trying to figure whose face was only inches from his and why it was there. He blinked a few times before finally murmuring in a slurred voice, “Pa? Is…that you…Pa?”
“Yes, it’s me,” Ben replied with a smile. He laid Joe back down onto the wagon bed. “How are you feeling, Joe?”
“Sleepy,” admitted Joe, his eyes half-closing. He shifted his body a bit. “And sore. My back hurts.”
“We weren’t able to give you a very comfortable ride,” Ben said, sounding slightly apologetic. “I’m sorry about that.”
“That’s all right,” Joe’s comment sounded like more like a reflex answer than a thoughtful response. His eyes began to close again.
“Joe, you have to stay awake for awhile,” Ben told his youngest son, tapping him lightly on the cheek. “Come on, Joe. Stay with me.”
Nodding slightly, Joe forced his eyes open once more. He began to look around, and took note of the blue sky overhead and the sun shining down on him. “Where are we?” he asked in a confused voice.
“In the middle of nowhere,” Hoss answered with a grin.
“We’re on our way home,” Ben added.
Frowning a bit, Joe tried to make his seemly thick brain understand. Then he gave his father a small, half smile. “You weren’t kidding about spending only one night in Bear River, were you, Pa?” Joe observed.
Suddenly Adam’s face appeared over the side of the wagon. “No sign of Milton’s men,” he reported to Ben. “How’s Joe doing?”
“I’m all right, just a little sore,” Joe answered for his father. He fixed his gaze on Adam. “Who’s Milton?”
“Someone who thinks you’re dead,” Adam replied.
Quickly, Ben recounted to Joe the events of the past few hours. As he listened, Joe’s expression went from a concerned frown at the thought of the confrontation his family almost faced to an amused look as he heard of his “death”.
“So I’m dead, uh?” Joe noted with a grin. “I always thought you’d give me a big funeral, not haul me across the desert.”
“Little brother, you oughta be happy you’re alive out here in the middle of nowhere,” Hoss told Joe. “You came real close to spending eternity in that town.”
“Yeah, I know,” Joe replied, his face sobering. “Thanks.” He looked at his father and brother in turn, then repeated, “Thanks.”
“Let’s get you a little more comfortable,” Ben said, brushing off his son’s gratitude.
As he watched his father move a bedroll to pillow Joe’s head and his brother unfurl another bedroll so he could cover Joe, Adam observed, “You know, Joe, you can never go back to Bear River.”
“That’s fine with me,” Joe replied. “I’ve had enough of that town.”
“I think we’ve all had enough of Bear River to last a lifetime,” Ben added. He stroked the top of Joe’s head lightly, and then patted Joe’s uninjured shoulder lightly. He watched Joe for a moment as one last wave of relief surged through him. Then he straightened his shoulders. “Come on, boys, we need to get moving,” Ben announced. “You’ve had your one night in Bear River. It’s time to go home.”