Second Chances (by Susan)

Summary:  What Happened Next for the episode “Second Chance.”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,416


 

Episode Recap: Hoss and Joe are attacked by Indians as they are returning from warning ranches in the Sawtooth Mountains about renegade Paiutes. Joe is seriously injured in the attack, wounded by an arrow in his shoulder. Hoss seeks help for his injured brother from two wagons he finds camped nearby. The wagons contain an odd group of people – a crippled, dying doctor and his nurse wife, a drunken scout known for his cowardice in the Army, the scout’s daughter, and two thieves. The doctor and his wife tend to Joe as best they can, and Hoss convinces the group to go to safety by returning to Virginia City. On the way to Virginia City, the wagons are attacked by the renegade Indians. The small band makes it to an abandoned stage station, but not before one of the thieves is killed, and the wagon carrying the doctor and Joe is wrecked. Ben and an Army lieutenant arrive at the stage station at the same time as the Indians. The lieutenant is scouting the area after his patrol was attacked, and Ben is anxiously looking for his sons. Ben and the lieutenant join the others in the stage station to fight off the renegades. The Paiutes continue their attack while the defenders are slowly being reduced — the doctor dies, the other thief is killed trying to run away, and Joe collapses, sick with fever from his infected wound. As the Indians mount what looks to be a final, fatal assault, the drunken scout sacrifices himself in order to kill a group of the attackers. The renegade Paiutes break off the siege and leave. As the episode ends, the small group of survivors is preparing to return to Virginia City.

Here’s how I imagine the rest of the episode…..

 

Quietly, the tired travelers shuffled through the dust to the waiting wagon. They needed to hurry from the scene of the Indian attack which had depleted their numbers. The siege had left a young girl grieving for her father and a wife feeling empty inside after the loss of her husband. Of the four men, the youngest was barely able to walk and the other three were exhausted. Yet no one questioned the necessity to leave the stage station — and the men buried there — as soon as possible. The renegade Indians could no longer hurt the dead, but they could still do great harm to the living.

With vacant expressions on their faces, Anna and Mrs. Dawson climbed into the back of the wagon. Joe also slowly eased himself in, stretching out on the floor at the feet of the two women, grateful for the chance to rest his aching shoulder. As Hoss and Lt. Marks mounted their horses and gathered up the reins of the other horses, Ben hurried up into the driver’s seat of the wagon. After glancing over his shoulder to make sure his son and the women were settled, Ben snapped the reins to start the horses in front of him moving. Silently, the small band of survivors began their journey to Virginia City.

For several hours, Ben drove the wagon as carefully as possible, trying to avoid the ruts and debris scatter across the area. Despite his caution, however, Ben could feel the wagon swaying and jolting as it rolled along. It was impossible to avoid all the rocks and furrows in the road. Each jolt brought a wince to Ben’s face, not because it caused him discomfort but because he knew the pain it caused his injured son in the wagon.

Hoss rode up until he was parallel to his father sitting in the wagon seat. Leading the two horses that belonged to his father and brother, Hoss had his hands full. Nevertheless, he had kept a watchful eye as he rode along. He had constantly scanned the rocks and the hillside, looking for any sign of a return of the renegade Paiutes who had attacked the small band a few miles back.

“Pa, do you figure on stopping anytime soon?” asked Hoss. “We’ve been on the road a couple of hours now.” Hoss glanced anxiously toward the wagon. “It might be a good idea to stop so…so everyone could rest a bit.”

Shaking his head, Ben snapped the reins to keep the horses in front of the wagon moving. “No,” answered Ben. “I don’t want to stop until we have to. Every mile we get closer to Virginia City is a mile we’re closer to safety. Those Paiutes won’t venture to close to a big, well-armed town.” Ben glanced around. “Any sign of trouble?”

Hoss looked back behind the wagon, where Lieutenant Marks was riding. The lieutenant seemed alert and watchful, but nothing indicated he had seen any danger.

“No,” replied Hoss.

“Good,” said Ben. “Maybe those Paiutes will leave us alone.” He pulled on the reins as the wagon bounced over a rock.

Chewing his lip, Hoss added in a hesitant voice, “It’s pretty rough on them in the wagon.”

“I know, Hoss,” agreed Ben in an anxious voice. “But it will be a lot rougher on them if those Paiutes decide to come back.”

Nodding his understanding, Hoss eased his horse and the animals he was leading away from the wagon. He wanted to give himself the best possible view of the country around them. With a last worried look toward the wagon, Hoss returned to watching the hills that flanked the road.

Inside the wagon, three people were lost in a haze of pain. Mrs. Dawson, the newly widowed wife of the doctor who had tended Joe, wore a stoic look. Her face reflected none of the grief she was feeling inside. She had known this day was coming. The fact that her husband was dying was not a secret to him or to her, and as a nurse, she understood that dying was an inevitable conclusion to everyone’s life. But knowing and understanding were entirely different from experiencing the actual event of her husband’s death. As she swayed and bounced in the wagon, Mrs. Dawson was lost in the memories of her kind, caring husband and in the grief at him no longer being at her side.

Anna’s anguish was evidenced on her face. Her eyes were red from tears, and the pain of her father’s death was reflected in her unhappy face. She had spent her life defending her father, disavowing his cowardice and his drinking, but she had known deep in her heart that her father was everything people said he was. He had abandoned his troops as an Army captain, leaving his men to be slaughtered as he ran to save himself. He had spent years trying to erase that memory by staying in a drunken fog. Anna had loved her father despite his faults. The fact that he had sacrificed himself to save her and the others proved to her that her defense of her father hadn’t been entirely unwarranted. She wanted to tell him how proud she was of him, and how much she loved him. The fact that she couldn’t only added to the grief she felt at his death.

Joe’s pain was physical, rather than the emotional distress being experienced the two women who sat in the wagon next to him. The wound in his right shoulder, caused by a Piaute arrow, throbbed. He felt hot, incredibly hot. The warm, stuffy air inside the wagon contributed to his labored breathing. But it was the fever from his infected shoulder and the agonizing pain from the wound that was causing the beads of sweat to form on his face and body. The blanket wrapped around his shoulders was soaked from his sweat, but Joe didn’t try to remove it. The fever caused Joe to alternate between a feeling of being suffocatingly hot and shivering with cold. When the shivers came over Joe, he was grateful for the blanket’s warmth. Joe tried to sleep, tried to escape the pain by fading into oblivion. But every time he felt himself drifting off, he would be jarred abruptly into awareness by a bump of the wagon and the agonizing pain it caused.

As the wagon swayed and bounced, Joe did his best to keep his agony to himself. He couldn’t hide the wince on his face when the wagon was jolted by something on the road, and the grunts of pain escaped no matter how tightly he clenched his teeth. But no one seemed to be paying any attention to him, and that was fine with Joe. He knew there was little anyone in the small party of travelers could do to help him, and he didn’t want to add to their anxiety. Joe clenched his teeth tighter and endured the pain as best he could.

A sudden jerk of the wagon shook Joe and, this time, he cried out as the fiery spasm seemed to radiate from his shoulder through his whole body. Joe clamped his mouth shut almost as soon as the sound had escaped involuntarily from him. But his scream had not escaped the attention of those around him.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Ben said over his shoulder from the front of the wagon. “I’ll try to be more careful.”

Joe acknowledged his father’s apology with the barest nod of his head.

Joe’s cry roused Mrs. Dawson from her stupor of grief. She had been so wrapped up in her feelings of sorrow and loss that she had virtually forgotten about the injured young man laying at her feet. Now she shook herself, bringing her focus back to the present. She was a nurse, she told herself, and it was her duty to care for the injured man, despite her own difficulties. Isaac, her husband, had always put his patients above his own comforts and needs, and she could do no less. Mrs. Dawson could almost hear her husband’s voice gently chiding her for neglecting her patient.

Studying Joe, Mrs. Dawson was alarmed at what she saw. Joe’s eyes were closed but she could tell the young man wasn’t asleep. His breathing was labored and she could hear soft grunts of pain. Joe was very pale, the only color in his face were the bright red fever spots on his cheeks. Sweat beaded and trickled down his face and neck. Mrs. Dawson reached forward to put her hand on Joe’s forehead. He looked up at her with barely opened eyes. Mrs. Dawson’s face was impassive as she felt his brow and the side of his face. She had been a nurse too long to let her face show the concern she felt as the heat from Joe’s high fever seemed to burn her hand.

Removing her hand, Mrs. Dawson turned to the girl sitting next to her. “Anna, hand me the canteen, please,” ordered Mrs. Dawson in a brisk voice.

Anna looked back at Mrs. Dawson with dull eyes, as if the words had no meaning for her.

“Anna!” repeated Mrs. Dawson in a sharp voice. “Give me the canteen.”

This time, Anna understood the words. She reached down beside her legs and pulled the canteen from the floor of the wagon. She handed the container to Mrs. Dawson.

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Dawson almost abruptly. “Now find my husband’s medical bag for me, please.”

As Anna began searching through the items strewn around in the wagon, Mrs. Dawson uncorked the canteen. She reached down to raise Joe’s head with one hand, and put the canteen to his lips with the other.

Feeling the liquid against his lips, Joe opened his mouth and began to drink eagerly. The water was warm, but Joe didn’t care. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until he started swallowing. He drank his fill, then relaxed. Mrs. Dawson removed the canteen from Joe’s mouth and gently lowered Joe’s head.

Laying the canteen at her feet, Mrs. Dawson reached down again and pulled the blanket back from Joe’s shoulder. “I’m going to check your wound,” she declared in an authoritative voice, and without waiting for a reply, she lifted the bandage.

Keeping the alarm from her face was more difficult this time for Mrs. Dawson. She looked at the swollen tissue and streaks of red surrounding the area on Joe’s shoulder where she had cut out the arrowhead. The wound was puckered, and a trickle of clear liquid was seeping from it. Gently replacing the bandage, Mrs. Dawson turned to Anna. “Did you find the bag?”

Nodding, Anna handed a black satchel to the woman next to her.

Mrs. Dawson began to open the bag, but stopped to grab the side of the wagon as it bounced and swayed once more. She pursed her lips, then laid the satchel down. Twisting herself to face the front of the wagon, she called out. “Mr. Cartwright, you must stop this wagon immediately,” she ordered in a stern voice.

“I can’t do that, Mrs. Dawson,” replied Ben, barely turning his head as he answered. He chucked the reins in his hands. “We’ve got to keep moving. We’ve got to get out of this area before the Paiutes take it into their heads to come looking for us again.”

“Mr. Cartwright, your son’s wound needs immediate attention,” stated Mrs. Dawson in a shrill voice. “The infection is getting worse. I need to open the wound and clean it out, and I can’t do that while this wagon is moving.”

“Can’t it wait until we make camp for the night?” asked Ben anxiously.

“How long will that be?” asked Mrs. Dawson.

“Four, maybe five hours,” Ben advised. “I want to keep moving until it gets dark.”

“In four or five hours, the infection might be so bad that your son won’t recover,” declared Mrs. Dawson grimly.

Ben looked over his shoulder at Mrs. Dawson, his worry evident on his face. “It’s that bad?” he asked softly.

“It’s that bad,” confirmed Mrs. Dawson. “The only thing I know to do is to open the wound again and try to let it drain. I’m not a doctor, Mr. Cartwright. Opening that wound will be difficult enough for me without trying to do it while this wagon is moving and swaying.”

Turning back, Ben searched the land in front of him. “There’s some rocks up ahead,” he informed the nurse. “I’ll stop the wagon behind them. The rocks will give us some protection. It will be much safer than stopping in open ground.”

“All right,” agreed Mrs. Dawson. She pulled herself back inside the wagon.

Opening the medical bag, Mrs. Dawson pulled out a piece of white cloth. She reached down for the canteen and pulled the stopper. Then she poured water on the cloth, soaking it. She began wiping Joe’s face and neck.

Feeling the liquid and comforting touch, Joe opened his eyes and looked up.

“I know the water isn’t very cold,” Mrs. Dawson observed, “but it might help a bit. We’ll be stopping soon. Then I’ll see what I can do to treat that wound.”

“Don’t…don’t stop on my account,” said Joe in a weak voice. “I’m all right.”

“You’re not all right,” countered Mrs. Dawson in a voice that brooked no argument. “I’m not sure how much I can do to help you, but I’m not going to let my husband’s last patient suffer without trying to do something about it.”

A distressed look appeared on Joe’s face, caused not only by the movement of the wagon, but also by the memory of the dying doctor’s kindness. “He was a good man,” Joe remarked softly.

“Yes, yes, he was,” agreed Mrs. Dawson. She could feel the tears forming in her eyes, and she blinked them away. Now was not the time for sorrow, she told herself. She had a job to do. She would grieve later.

“Anna, I’m going to need your help,” Mrs. Dawson told the girl next to her.

Anna looked at Mrs. Dawson with the same dull eyes, the same uncomprehending stare as before.

“Anna!” snapped Mrs. Dawson. “I need your help. Do you hear me?”

“Yes ma’am,” answered Anna softly, her voice choked with emotion. Tears began trickling from her eyes.

Mrs. Dawson shook her head. Anna was going to be of no help. The girl was so grief-stricken that she couldn’t function. Mrs. Dawson felt an anger and almost a disgust with the girl growing in her. She had no patience with people who fell apart in the face of tragedy. She understood grief. She had seen it many times and she was feeling it herself. But there was a time and place for everything, even sorrow. Mrs. Dawson felt it was selfish to wallow in one’s own misery when others needed help. Then a feeling of guilt washed over Mrs. Dawson. Hadn’t she done the same thing — ignoring the injured young man for an extended time while she dealt with her own grief?

“Never mind,” said Mrs. Dawson in a more understanding voice. “I’ll ask Mr. Cartwright to help me.”

“All right,” replied Anna in a voice that clearly indicated she didn’t care one way or the other.

Directing her attention back to Joe, Mrs. Dawson gently began to wipe the sweat from his face again. She felt him shiver and knew the cold he was feeling was a reaction to the fever. She pulled the blanket tighter around him. “We’ll be stopping soon,” she told the young man again. “You’ll be more comfortable once the wagon stops moving.”

Joe didn’t answer. He was too busy trying to keep his teeth from chattering.

On the wagon seat, Ben tried to guide the horses while continually glancing back into the wagon at Joe. He had known Joe was sick and hurt; he had seen his son collapse in the stage station. But Ben had tried to convince himself that Joe was feeling better after his son slept for a time in the stage depot. Joe had felt strong enough to walk out of the station, and to climb into the wagon after saying a brief prayer over the grave of Doctor Dawson. But Mrs. Dawson’s report on Joe brought back the anxiety over his son’s condition. Ben felt fear gnawing at his stomach. He was worried what continuing on to Virginia City would do to his son. But he also was worried about would happen if they stopped and the Indians returned.

“Hoss!” Ben called to his other son. Hoss guided his horse and the horses he was leading toward the wagon. “We’re going to stop up in the rocks ahead,” continued Ben as Hoss neared the front of the wagon.

Frowning, Hoss said, “I thought you wanted to keep moving?”

Glancing toward the back of the wagon, Ben explained, “Joe’s not doing too well. Mrs. Dawson wants to stop so she can tend to him.”

“Joe’s worse?” Hoss stated, his frown deepening. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No,” declared Ben, shaking his head. He tightened his lips a bit, and then added, “I’m not sure what anyone can do for Joe until we get him to Doctor Martin. But Mrs. Dawson is going to do whatever she can for him. Tell Lieutenant Marks we’re stopping, won’t you?”

Hoss nodded his agreement and stopped his horse, letting the wagon pass him by and at the same time allowing Lieutenant Marks to catch up with him.

As the wagon approached to outcropping of rocks, Ben slowed the horses. As bumpy as the road had been, the ground leading to the rocks was even worse. Ben was almost bounced off the seat as the wheels rolled over a deep rut. He heard Joe’s strangled cry of pain from inside the wagon, and the sound tore at his heart.

The pile of rocks was high. Boulders had been heaped on one another by a long-ago glacier, and the stone deposit was more than ten feet tall. Additional large rocks were scattered around, some laying by themselves and others resting against each other. The boulders formed a rough semi-circle, with small gaps between them.

Ben guided the wagon toward the middle of the circle of rocks, then turned it so it would be facing back to the road. The wagon with its white cloth covering wasn’t entirely hidden by the boulders, but enough of it was masked so that it couldn’t easily been seen. Ben wanted the wagon facing the road in case a quick departure from their small hideaway was necessary.

As Ben pulled the wagon to a halt, Hoss and Lieutenant Marks rode up. “Any sign of Indians?” Ben asked the pair anxiously.

“No sir,” replied Marks with military formality. “I think we discouraged them for good.”

“Don’t be too sure of that, Lieutenant,” cautioned Ben. He looked around. “Why don’t you put the horses over near the far side of the rocks. I’d leave the saddles on them, just in case. Better leave the wagon horses in their traces, too.”

“How long do you figure to stop, Pa?” asked Hoss.

Taking a deep breath, Ben shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted in a quiet voice. “It depends on how Joe does.”

As Hoss and the lieutenant walked their horses away, Ben set the brake on the wagon and climbed down from the seat. He hurried around to the back and looked in.

Anna was simply sitting inside the wagon, her face a picture of grief. She turned to look at Ben with tearful eyes.

“Why don’t you climb out of the wagon?” suggested Ben, offering his hand to the girl. “You must be cramped sitting in there.”

Taking Ben’s hand, Anna climbed out of the wagon without speaking. She took a few steps toward the rocks, then stopped. Looking around vaguely, Anna appeared uncertain about where to go or what to do. Finally, she walked over to small boulder and sat down. She put her head down and began to cry softly.

Watching Anna, Ben felt a twinge of sympathy for the girl. But the sympathy was quickly overshadowed by his concern for Joe. He turned back to the wagon and climbed in.

Mrs. Dawson was kneeling next to Joe, slowly wiping his face and neck with a cloth. She barely glanced at Ben as he climbed in next to her.

“How is he?” asked Ben anxiously.

“The wound is infected, and he’s got a high fever,” answered Mrs. Dawson with an almost clinical detachment. “There’s no medicine in my husband’s bag — just his instruments, some bandages and a bottle of alcohol. The only thing I can think to do is open the wound and clean it out.”

Looking at Joe, Ben was shocked at his son’s appearance. A few hours ago, when the small band had left the stage stop, Joe had looked tired, but his skin had had good color, his fever had been low, and the pain from his wound had seemed tolerable. But now, Joe’s skin was deathly pale, and his face had the pinched look of someone trying to endure great pain. Joe’s breathing was heavy, interrupted periodically by soft grunts, and he shivered with fever. Ben couldn’t believe how badly his son’s condition had deteriorated in just a few hours.

“We’ll need to move him out of this wagon,” Mrs. Dawson declared firmly.

“Do you think we should do that?” asked Ben with a frown.

“It’s cramped and dark in this wagon,” Mrs. Dawson pointed out. “Not to mention stuffy and extremely warm. The fresh air will help his breathing, and I’ll be better able to tend to him outside.”

“All right,” agreed Ben. He put his hand on Joe’s arm and shook it. “Joe? Joe, can you hear me?”

Opening his eyes a bit, Joe looked at his father, not surprised to see him. He had heard his Pa’s voice as well as Mrs. Dawson’s. He knew they had been talking but he wasn’t sure what had been said. The throbbing pain in his shoulder and the ache in his head seemed to have robbed his brain of the ability to comprehend anything except how miserable he felt.

“Joe, we need to get you out of the wagon,” said Ben softly. “Can you help us do that?

Joe stared at his father, trying to make sense of the words.

Seeing Joe’s uncomprehending stare, Ben shook his head a bit. “We’re going to have to do it without Joe’s help. Would you sit him up, Mrs. Dawson?” Without waiting for an answer, Ben climbed out of the wagon.

Standing at the back of the wagon, Ben watched as Mrs. Dawson slowly eased Joe into a sitting position. He heard Joe’s groans and saw his son’s head flop forward to his chest as Joe’s shoulders rose from the floor of the wagon.

“Hoss,” Ben called over his shoulder, “come over and help me.” He turned back to the wagon. “Ease him forward slowly,” Ben ordered Mrs. Dawson.

Pulling gently on Joe’s legs as Mrs. Dawson pushed him forward, Ben slowly eased his son out of the wagon bed. Joe’s legs were dangling over the end of the wagon when Hoss came to help.

“Hoss, we’re going to move Joe to the open ground,” explained Ben to his other son. “Help me lift him out.”

Ben eased his right arm under Joe’s knees and wrapped his left arm around Joe’s shoulders. Moving to the other side of his brother, Hoss did the same. The two lifted Joe out of the wagon as gently as possible. Mrs. Dawson scrambled out after Joe, carrying the blanket and ground cloth on which Joe had been laying.

“Where do you want him, Pa?” asked Hoss.

“Around the side of the wagon,” answered Ben.

Mrs. Dawson hurried past the Cartwrights and spread the blanket and ground cloth on the dirt a few feet from the side of the wagon. Ben and Hoss laid Joe on top of them.

Seeing Joe clearly for the first time in several hours, Hoss’ face reflected his alarm. “Pa…” he started.

“Mrs. Dawson is going to help Joe,” Ben interrupted quickly. He glanced down at Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed, but Ben couldn’t be sure his son wasn’t listening.

Hoss saw his father glance at Joe and immediately understood Ben’s concern. “Yeah, sure she will,” he said in what he hoped was a confident tone. “She’s a real good nurse.” Hoss turned to Mrs. Dawson. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Your father and I can manage,” replied Mrs. Dawson in a clipped tone. “We’ll call you if we need you.”

Seeing Hoss’ reluctance to leave, Ben put his hand on his middle son’s shoulder. “You can do more good by keeping an eye for the Paiutes,” advised Ben gently. He looked over and saw Lieutenant Marks standing watch near the rocks to the right of the wagon. “Go keep watch over by the horses.”

Giving his brother a last lingering look, Hoss nodded and walked away. He felt responsible for Joe’s condition, since it was he who had broken the shaft of the arrow when trying to pull it from Joe’s shoulder. He swallowed deeply as he relived the moment. It was the one time when his strength had not been enough. He’d watched his brother’s agony as he grasped the arrow and pulled. He had felt the shaft moving inside Joe’s flesh and almost gagged at what he had to do. Then the arrow snapped. How helpless he had felt, and how frightened. He glanced back once more before leaving him again.

“I’ll go get my husband’s bag,” stated Mrs. Dawson, turning back to the wagon.

Ben nodded and knelt on the ground next to Joe.

Climbing back into the wagon, Mrs. Dawson picked up her husband’s medical bag. For a moment, she merely sat, holding the satchel against her. She closed her eyes and whispered, “Isaac, help me do this right.” Mrs. Dawson sat for another minute, clutching the bag to her chest with her eyes closed. Then she took a deep breath and opened her eyes. A determined look crossed Mrs. Dawson’s face as she scrambled out of the wagon.

Ben was kneeling next to Joe, gently stroking his son’s head and murmuring words of comfort. He looked up as Mrs. Dawson approached. “What would you like me to do?”

“We’ll need some water,” replied Mrs. Dawson briskly. “And there’s a small pan tied to the side of the wagon. Would you get that for me also?”

Giving Joe a last stroke on the head, Ben scrambled to his feet and headed toward the wagon.

Mrs. Dawson knelt next to Joe in Ben’s place, and put the medical bag on the ground next to her. She opened the bag and pulled out the bottle of alcohol and the bandages. Her hand hesitated a moment, then reached in to pull out the scalpel. She set everything on the edge of the blanket on which Joe way lying.

Turning back to Joe, Mrs. Dawson was surprised to see him watching her through barely opened eyes. She took a deep breath. “I’ll do the best I can for you,” she promised.

Barely moving his head, Joe nodded. “I….know….you will,” he murmured. Then he closed his eyes, picturing again the scalpel poised at his shoulder, remembering the red hot pain as it slashed through his flesh. He shuddered, longing for sleep to take away the memory and the suffering he knew he would again have to endure. He dreaded the moment. “Hurry, please,” he thought.

Mrs. Dawson swallowed hard. Unlike her husband, she preferred not to get close to her patients. She always felt she could do her job of nursing them better if she stayed a bit aloof. Too many unpleasant things had to be done to her patients in order to care for them properly, and despite her efforts and her husband’s, too many of them died. She had always felt that she could cope best with her job by staying detached.

But now, looking at Joe, Mrs. Dawson felt a tug at her heart. He looked so youthful, a young man on the brink of full maturity. He had looked at her with such trust, and it was a trust she felt was unwarranted. She hadn’t the skill or the knowledge that her husband had had. Suddenly, this was one patient that Mrs. Dawson desperately wanted to see recover fully.

“Here’s the water and the pan,” said a voice behind her.

Squaring her shoulders, Mrs. Dawson turned to Ben. “Thank you,” she replied shortly, taking the canteen and pan from Ben’s hands. “Would you move to the other side? I’ll need you to hold him as still as possible.”

As Ben moved around Joe, Mrs. Dawson began her preparations, thinking only of the task at hand and not of the patient. She poured some water into the pan and dropped the scalpel into the water. Turning back to Joe, she pulled the blanket from his shoulders, then untied the bandages. She gently pulled the cloth away, exposing the wound.

Mrs. Dawson could hear the sharp intake of breath from Ben as the swollen, red tissue near Joe’s shoulder became visible.

Taking the scalpel from the pan, Mrs. Dawson dried it with the edge of one of the bandages. Then she opened the bottle of alcohol and doused the knife liberally with the liquid. Almost unwillingly, she turned back to Joe with the scalpel in her hand.

“Hold him as tight as you can,” she instructed Ben. “This will be very painful for him and it will be easier on both of us if he isn’t trashing around.”

Ben put his hands firmly on Joe’s shoulder and chest, then nodded at Mrs. Dawson, holding his breath at the same time. He could feel his son beneath his hands, and knowing the pain that his son was about to endure, he felt he was somehow betraying Joe.

Bending over Joe, Mrs. Dawson poised the scalpel above the wound. Then she hesitated.

“Have you ever done this before?” asked Ben.

“No, but then I’d never cut out an arrowhead until I removed the one from your son’s shoulder,” snapped Mrs. Dawson. She immediately regretted her words. “I’ve seen my husband do this many, many times, though,” she added in a gentler tone.

Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Mrs. Dawson prayed for strength and wisdom. As she opened her eyes, a determined look came on her face. She reached down and sliced open the wound on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe’s body heaved upwards even as his father pushed him down. He tried to pull himself away from the pain but his father held him firmly in place.

Mrs. Dawson ignored Joe’s cry and grimly continued to open the wound. A clear, sticky liquid streamed out of the wound and down Joe’s shoulder. Mrs. Dawson grabbed a piece of cloth and wiped it away. Once again, she plunged the scalpel into the wound. Joe’s body thrashed then suddenly went limp.

“Mrs. Dawson!” cried Ben with alarm as he felt Joe’s body go lax.

“He’s passed out,” explained Mrs. Dawson as she continued to work on Joe’s shoulder. “I’m not surprised, as weak as he is. At least now he can’t feel it. Please continue to hold him still, Mr. Cartwright.”

For the next ten minutes, Mrs. Dawson worked on Joe’s shoulder, cutting out the infected tissue, and forcing the fluid and blood from the wound. When she had decided she had done as much as she could, Mrs. Dawson dropped the scalpel into the pan of water, then reached for the bottle of alcohol. She poured the liquid around and into the wound. Joe’s body twitched a bit as the alcohol burned into the wound, but he remained unconscious.

“You may release him now, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Dawson instructed as she put the alcohol bottle aside. She placed a clean cloth over the wound and began to wrap the bandages around Joe’s shoulder and chest once more. When the bandages were in place, she pulled the blanket tightly around his body again.

Finally Mrs. Dawson sat back on her heels and let her shoulders sag. She felt as drained as Joe’s shoulder. She held her hands in front of her and stared in surprise as they shook.

“Thank you, Mrs. Dawson,” said Ben from across his son’s body. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Dawson looked up at Ben. “I hope I did enough,” she admitted doubtfully. Then she shook her head. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“Should we try to wake Joe up?” asked Ben, with a worried look as his son.

“Let him sleep,” advised Mrs. Dawson. “Rest is the best thing for him.” She looked toward the wagon. “Another blanket and something for his head would be a good idea.” She started to get up and was surprised how much shaky she felt.

Mrs. Dawson sat down on the ground again.

Noticing Mrs. Dawson’s distress, Ben reached across Joe and put his hand on hers. “Why don’t you go over and sit by the rocks,” suggested Ben. “I’ll clean up here and take care of Joe.”

Nodding, Mrs. Dawson got slowly to her feet. She took a look at the young man lying on the ground and then turned to walk toward the rocks on rubbery legs.

Seeing Anna sitting near the middle of the camp, Mrs. Dawson deliberately moved to the side, near the horses. Anna had a look of pure misery about her, and Mrs. Dawson just wasn’t up to dealing with her.

As she eased herself down on the ground, Mrs. Dawson closed her eyes. She leaned back against a boulder and tried to relax. She felt exhilarated and exhausted at the same time. The thought crossed her mind that it was too bad Isaac wasn’t here so she could talk with him about what she had done. She and her husband had always discussed his cases.

A shadow fell across Mrs. Dawson’s face, and she opened her eyes, half-expecting to see her husband appearing magically in front of her. But the large figure of Hoss filled her vision instead.

“Ma’am, how’s Joe?” asked Hoss in a worried voice.

“He’s doing as well as can be expected,” answered Mrs. Dawson. She wondered to herself how many hundreds of times she had used that phrase with anxious relatives of her husband’s patients. “I cleaned out the wound as best I could,” she added. “I’m hoping that the procedure and some rest will break his fever.”

Looking over toward the wagon, Hoss could see Ben covering Joe with a blanket. Tipping his hat toward Mrs. Dawson, Hoss said earnestly, “Thank you, ma’am. My Pa and me, we appreciate everything you’ve done.”

Mrs. Dawson waved away his thanks. “I didn’t do that much,” she conceded. “And I’m not sure I did enough. He’s young and strong, though, and that should help.”

“I’d better go see if Pa needs some help,” Hoss declared. He walked quickly toward the wagon.

Ben was easing a folded ground sheet under Joe’s head as Hoss walked up. “He’s asleep,” Ben stated before Hoss could ask. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Pa, Mrs. Dawson says Joe needs a lot of rest,” advised Hoss. “I think we better figure on staying here until morning.”

Ben’s face showed his uncertainty. He still felt uncomfortably vulnerable to the Paiutes by staying camped in the rocks. At the same time, he had no desire to do anything that might hinder Joe’s recovery. Sighing, Ben made up his mind. The Paiutes were only a potential threat. Joe’s need for rest was real.

“We’ll stay here until morning,” Ben decided. “Why don’t you move the wagon so it will offer some protection for our backs. Then unhitch the horses.”

“Think we can risk a fire?” asked Hoss. “When Joe wakes up, we should probably try to get some food and coffee into him.”

Looking thoughtful, Ben agreed. “A small one right at sundown should be hard to spot,” he said. “We’ll keep it going just long enough to heat up some food and coffee.”

“I’ll look for some wood after I move the wagon,” Hoss told his father. He looked down at Joe. “Anything else I can do?”

“No,” replied Ben, shaking his head. “It’s up to Joe now.”

“He’s a tough kid, Pa,” stated Hoss in a reassuring voice. “He’ll come through this all right.”

“I hope so,” said Ben softly.

*****

Two hours later, Hoss was stirring a big pot of beans and ham chunks over a small fire. The sun was dipping in the sky, and he had judged it close enough to sundown to light the fire. It wasn’t going to take long to cook the beans and ham, or to heat the coffee in the pot on the edge of the blaze. As soon as the food was ready, Hoss planned to douse the flames.

The large pot was almost filled with beans. Hoss knew the meal wasn’t one that anyone really wanted, and the cold version they would have for breakfast in the morning would be even less appetizing. But the beans and ham would fill everyone’s belly until they could get to Virginia City. More importantly, it was a meal that he felt Joe could handle. If nothing else, his little brother ought to be able to swallow the juices.

As he stirred the pot, Hoss took a quick look around the camp. His father was still sitting next to Joe; neither appeared to have moved much in the past two hours, a fact that concerned Hoss greatly. He had kept glancing at the pair during the past hours, hoping to see some sign that Joe was improving. But each time he had looked, Hoss had been disappointed. There was nothing to indicate either man had moved, much less that Joe was better.

Turning, Hoss scanned the rocks and saw the other three people scattered among the boulders. Lieutenant Marks was keeping watch in the direction of the road, the direction the Paiutes were most likely to come if they decided to pay an unwelcome visit.

Anna was sitting in the middle of some rocks at the back of the camp with a pistol in her hand. Hoss had put her on guard more to give her something to do than seriously expecting her help. His tender heart had felt a tug when he had seen her sitting on the ground, doing nothing but wallowing in her grief. Hoss doubted if the girl would be able to hit anything if she fired the gun in her hand, but he didn’t really care about that. Anna could watch and see, and in this case, a pair of eyes was almost as big an asset as being able to shoot. If the Indians were seen before they attacked the camp, the small party had a much better chance of survival.

Looking toward the left side of the camp, Hoss saw Mrs. Dawson crouched in the rocks with a rifle at the ready. When she had heard Hoss suggesting Anna help guard the camp, Mrs. Dawson had insisted on doing the same. Hoss smiled a bit as he looked at Mrs. Dawson. He almost felt sorry for any Paiute who tried to attack the camp from that direction. He had no doubt that Mrs. Dawson would spray any Indian she saw with deadly bullets. He had come to understand that the nurse was one very determined woman when she made up her mind about something.

Filling a plate from the pot, Hoss quickly ate several spoonfuls of beans and ham. He wasn’t really hungry and he didn’t taste the food in his mouth. But he knew skipping a meal wouldn’t help anyone. Hoss had a feeling he was going to need all his strength to get his father and brother home safely.

Moving the pot to the edge of the fire, Hoss grabbed another plate from the stack of dishes on the ground nearby. He put some of the beans and ham on the plate, but filled it mostly with the liquid from the pot. He grabbed a spoon from the pile of dishes and put it on the edge of the plate. Next, he filled a coffee cup from the pot on the edge of the fire. Then he carried the plate and cup over to his father and brother.

“Any change?” Hoss asked Ben as he approached.

Shrugging, Ben answered, “Not much. His fever’s down a bit. But he hasn’t moved a muscle in the last couple of hours.” Ben’s face reflected his worry.

“I brought some food,” Hoss declared. “Do you think we can wake him and get this in him?”

“We can try,” answered Ben, with a nod.

Waking Joe from his exhausted sleep proved difficult. Ben shook his son gently and said his name. When there was no reaction, Ben shook Joe a bit harder. He wiped Joe’s face with a damp cloth. Joe reacted with a few soft grunts and a little movement this time, but still didn’t open his eyes.

Ben looked up at Hoss in despair. “I don’t think I can wake him.”

Handing Ben the plate and cup, Hoss knelt next to his brother. “Let me try.” Hoss put his hand on Joe’s head and shook it a bit. “Joseph, it’s time to wake up,” announced Hoss in a sharp tone. “You hear me? You’d better open them eyes, because if you don’t, I’m going to open them for you. And you ain’t gonna like how I do that.”

As first there was no reaction. Then Joe began to stir a bit. His head moved slowly, and his eyelids fluttered. A small grunt of pain escaped Joe’s lips and he winced. Then he slowly opened his eyes.

Seeing the look of amazement on Ben’s face, Hoss grinned wryly. “You just have to know how to do it, Pa. I’ve got about twenty years of practice.” Hoss’ face sobered as he heard Joe moan softly and saw his brother’s face turn toward him.

“Hoss?” asked Joe is a whisper as he looked up at the big man crouched over him.

“Yeah, it’s me, little brother,” answered Hoss, tenderly stroking Joe’s head. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired,” Joe replied. His eyes began to slowly close again.

Shaking Joe’s head, Hoss said in a sharp tone, “Oh no you don’t. Don’t go to sleep on me, Joe. I spent the last half hour making you some dinner, and I expect you to eat it.”

“Too tired,” mumbled Joe as he turned his head away from Hoss.

“Joseph, you have to eat,” Ben ordered in his sternest voice. “Do you hear me? You have to stay awake and eat.”

Joe’s eyes fluttered opened again at the sound of his father’s words. He stared into Ben’s face, and then turned to look at Hoss. Joe blinked his eyes several times as he tried to wake himself. He slowly brought his hand to his face and rubbed his eyes. “Can’t fight…both of you,” he acknowledged weakly. His mouth twitched with an attempted smile.

“No you can’t,” agreed Ben in a firm tone. His voiced softened. “You’ll feel better with some food in you.” He turned to Hoss. “We need something to prop him up so he won’t choke when he eats.”

Giving his brother a gentle pat on the head, Hoss scrambled to his feet and walked to the wagon. He looked inside and saw a box about a yard long and a few inches high. Hoss wasn’t sure what was in the box, but it didn’t matter. He pulled it out of the wagon and hurried back to his father and brother.

Ben was holding Joe’s head up as he held a coffee cup to his son’s lips. Hoss could see Joe was sipping the coffee from the cup. Hoss reached down and lifted the ground cloth that had pillowed Joe’s head. Then he slipped the box under the ground cloth.

“Best I can do,” declared Hoss.

Ben eased Joe’s head back until it was resting on the covered box.

“It should work,” Ben said with a nod. Joe’s head was now almost six inches off the ground and forced forward. Ben put the coffee cup aside and picked up the plate he had laid on the ground. He carefully filled the spoon with liquid from the plate, making sure he got a bean in the liquid. Then he brought the spoon to Joe’s mouth.

Hoss watched for a minute as Ben slowly fed Joe. Seeing that at least some nourishment was getting into his brother, Hoss remarked, “Pa, I’m going to relieve Lieutenant Marks and the others so they can get something to eat.”

“All right,” agreed Ben in a distracted voice. His concentration was focused on Joe.

Walking over to the fire, Hoss checked the pot and gave the beans inside a few stirs. He saw the fire had burned down to glowing embers, and decided to let it burn itself out rather than douse it.

Mrs. Dawson was staring intently across the open land in front of her when Hoss walked up. The sun was almost down, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see in the fading light.

“Ma’am, I’ve got some beans and coffee ready by the fire,” Hoss announced. “Why don’t you go get something to eat?”

“I’ve got to stay on guard,” she replied in a determined voice, not looking at Hoss.

“It’ll be dark in a few minutes,” Hoss pointed out. “It would be better if everyone moved together. We can see each other better and that will be safer.”

“What about the Paiutes?” asked Mrs. Dawson as she turned to Hoss with a surprised look.

“They won’t attack in the dark,” explained Hoss. “They’re afraid if they get killed, they won’t be able to find their way to their ancestors. We’ll be safe enough until morning.”

Giving the empty ground one last look, Mrs. Dawson rose to her feet. “All right,” she agreed.

“And ma’am, after you’ve eaten, would you mind staying with Joe for awhile?” added Hoss. “I want to try to get my Pa to eat and rest a bit.”

“Of course,” Mrs. Dawson replied.

As the nurse moved toward the fire, Hoss turned and walked to where Anna was sitting in the rocks. “Miss Mulvaney, I’ve got some dinner ready,” he called. “It just beans and hams and some coffee, but it’s filling. Why don’t you go eat?”

Anna looked at Hoss and nodded. Without a word, she scrambled away from the rocks and toward the fire.

Moving on, Hoss came up to Lieutenant Marks. “There’s some food on the fire,” announced Hoss briefly. “Go eat. I’ll stand guard here.”

“Thanks. I could use a break,” Marks answered. “I’ll come back and relieve you in a little while.” He looked out across the ground. “Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I don’t think those Indians are coming after us.”

“I hope you’re right,” declared Hoss in a fervent voice. “But you and I had better take turns standing guard tonight, just in case.”

“How’s your brother?” asked Marks.

“He’s pretty weak,” Hoss told the solider. “But his fever is down a bit and Pa is getting some food into him.”

“That’s a good sign,” said Marks, trying to sound encouraging.

“I hope so,” Hoss replied but his voice reflected his doubt and concern.

Looking toward the fire, Marks saw that Mrs. Dawson was filling a plate from the pot. Anna, on the other hand, was just sitting near the fire and staring into the embers. “I’ll see if I can get Miss Mulvaney to eat something,” Marks stated.

After walking over to the fire, Marks reached down for a plate and spoon. He filled the plate with beans and ham then turned to Anna. “You’d better eat something,” he suggested, handing the plate to the girl.

Looking up to the Lieutenant with sad eyes, Anna shook her head. “I’m not hungry,” she replied in a trembling voice.

“I know,” the solider said with understanding. “But if you don’t eat, you’ll get sick. And we have our hands full as it is.” Marks held the plate forward. “Just try, please.”

Taking the plate, Anna said in a disinterested voice, “All right. I’ll try.”

Marks filled another plate and sat down next to Anna. “What are you going to do when you get to Virginia City?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” admitted Anna as she slowly forked a few beans into her mouth. “Papa and I had planned to go back East, find some place new. He wanted to make a fresh start.” Anna’s mouth began to quiver.

“Do you have any family or friends you can go to?” asked Marks sympathetically.

“Papa was all the family I had,” Anna answered. She looked away. “We didn’t have any friends.”

“Maybe you could get a fresh start in Virginia City,” suggested Marks. “I’ll bet you could get a job in a dress shop or something. Mr. Cartwright would probably help you. Virginia City is a nice town. I’ve been there several times. You’d like it.”

“I suppose,” replied Anna in a tired voice.

Watching Marks and Anna talking, Mrs. Dawson shook her head. She felt sorry for the girl, but at the same time, she wished Anna would stop acting like a lost puppy. She wanted to shake the girl and tell her to grow up. Then a small smile crossed Mrs. Dawson’s lips. She could hear her husband’s voice chiding her. Isaac always said she too often expected people to be as strong as she was, and most often, that wasn’t the case. Mrs. Dawson wiped a tear from her eye as she thought of her kind, gentle husband once more.

Finishing the last of the beans on her plate, Mrs. Dawson took a sip of coffee. The light was fading fast. She decided it was time to keep her promised to Hoss. “I’m going to relieve Mr. Cartwright for awhile,” she declared. Marks and Anna were talking to each other and didn’t seem to pay any attention to her statement. Sighing, Mrs. Dawson put the plate and cup on the ground and got to her feet.

Ben was sitting on the ground next to Joe, his face reflecting his worry and concern for his son. Joe was asleep once more.

“Did he eat anything?” asked Mrs. Dawson.

“Some,” Ben answered, his eyes still on his son. “Not much.”

Mrs. Dawson knelt on the ground and put her hand on Joe’s forehead. “His fever is down,” she stated. She gently pulled aside the blankets and lifted the bandages from Joe’s shoulder. “The wound looks better,” the nurse added. “It’s draining and there doesn’t look like any new infection is taking hold.”

“That’s good news,” said Ben with relief.

“It’s a good sign,” agreed Mrs. Dawson cautiously. “We’ll know better in the morning.”

“We’ll have to leave in the morning,” Ben declared. “Regardless of Joe’s condition. It’s too dangerous to stay here any longer than that.”

“I know,” acknowledged Mrs. Dawson. “Let’s just hope by morning your son will be well enough that moving won’t make any difference.”

Sighing, Ben looked out into the darkness. “It’s going to be a long night.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I’ll stay with your son,” Mrs. Dawson offered. “Go get something to eat and some rest.”

Shaking his head, Ben refused the offer. “I’m fine.”

Mrs. Dawson sighed. “What is it about men?” she asked. “None of you are willing to ever admit you might be tired or hungry.”

“Didn’t you know we’re the stronger sex?” asked Ben with a small smile.

“Of course you are,” agreed Mrs. Dawson wryly. “Now go get something to eat and some rest so you can relieve me in a little while. I’ll be more than happy to get some sleep by that time.”

“All right,” Ben said reluctantly. He climbed to his feet and walked slowly toward the middle of the camp, carrying the plate and cup with him.

Settling on the ground next to Joe, Mrs. Dawson checked her sleeping patient once more. Assured that he was as comfortable as possible, she let her thoughts drift. She felt the tears stinging her eyes as memories of her husband began to fill her head.

Mrs. Dawson wasn’t sure how long she had been lost in her memories when she felt someone watching her. She looked down to see Joe staring up at her. “I didn’t realize you were awake,” she said briskly as she brushed the tears from her face.

“I’m sorry about your husband,” Joe told the woman in a soft voice. “I never got to thank him properly.”

“Isaac wouldn’t have wanted your thanks,” replied Mrs. Dawson. “He devoted his life to helping people, and he never cared about their thanks. In a way, you did him a favor. He was so frustrated over the last year, not being able to practice medicine and help people. Being able to help you as one of the last things he did made him happy at…at the end.”

Joe looked around. “Where’s Pa and Hoss?”

“Hoss is standing guard, and you father is getting some food and rest,” explained Mrs. Dawson. She smiled a Joe. “You’re a close family. What about your mother?”

“She died when I was little,” Joe replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Dawson said, her voice tinged with sympathy. “That must have been hard for you.”

Turning his head, Joe shrugged. “I don’t remember her much.”

“You never forget someone you loved,” declared Mrs. Dawson, her face softening. “No really. You might not remember the things they did, or even their face, but somewhere tucked inside, they’re always with you.”

Joe was silent for a minute, then answered softly. “You’re right.”

“You need to get some sleep,” commanded Mrs. Dawson as her voice became resolute once more. “We’re leaving in the morning, and you’ll need to be as rested as possible before we start out.”

Looking back at Mrs. Dawson, Joe smiled. “Yes ma’am,” he agreed with mock solemnity. Then his face grew serious. “Mrs. Dawson, I know I owe you a lot. Thank you for what you’ve done for me.”

“You can thank me when we get you home,” Mrs. Dawson stated in a crisp tone. “Now go to sleep.”

Closing his eyes, Joe drifted off to sleep again.

Mrs. Dawson heard the faint cry of a coyote from somewhere in the distance. Looking around her, Mrs. Dawson suddenly realized how black the night had become. She shivered and moved a bit closer to Joe, no longer feeling inattentive or sleepy.

*****

The camp remained quiet for the night, the only movement coming when Lieutenant Marks relieved Hoss on guard duty, and Ben took over from Mrs. Dawson in tending to Joe. No one was sure whether the quiet night meant safety or a lull before an Indian attack. But all the travelers were too tired to let their worries keep them awake. Everyone slept for at least a few hours. Joe slept through the night.

The light of the dawn brought a sense of relief to each of the travelers. The urge to leave the barren land and return to the safety of Virginia City had been growing in everyone in the small band.

As the sun rose, Hoss was dishing out plates of cold beans. He heard some footsteps and looked up, surprised to see Ben helping Joe toward the middle of the camp. “What are you doing up, little brother?” asked Hoss, raising his eyebrows a bit.

“That ground is harder than the rocks,” Joe complained. “Besides, I didn’t want to miss your delicious breakfast of cold beans.” In the warm morning sun, Joe had abandoned the blankets. His bare chest and torso were visible through the layers of bandages wrapped around him. Some color seemed to have returned to his skin, although it glistened with a thin sheen of perspiration.

His arms firmly around Joe’s waist, Ben guided his son toward the rocks. “I said you could sit up long enough to eat,” stated Ben in a tone that brooked no argument. “Then you’re going back into that wagon and we’re getting out of here.” He helped Joe ease himself to the ground and made sure his son was resting as comfortably as possible against the rocks. “I’ll get you a plate of those delicious beans.”

“Thanks, I can’t wait,” replied Joe dryly.

Hoss gave his father a questioning look as Ben squatted and began to fill a plate with the beans.

“His fever’s down,” advised Ben softly. “And his shoulder wound is much better. I didn’t think a few minutes of sitting up would hurt him.”

“I told you he was a tough kid,” said Hoss with a smile.

Mrs. Dawson stirred from her position on the ground a few feet away. She had a blanket wrapped around her and her back was to the Cartwrights. The nurse sat up slowly and looked around, as if confused about where she was. Mrs. Dawson squared her shoulders as she remembered, and began patting her hair into place. Then she stood and turned toward the middle of the camp.

Her face showed her surprise as she saw Joe sitting against the rocks, slowly forking beans into his mouth from the plate in his hand. Her surprise turned into a small smile of triumph. She watched Joe with satisfaction for a few minutes, and then her demeanor changed into its usual cool and efficient one.

“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright,” she said as she walked toward Ben and Joe. “I see our patient is much improved.”

“Good morning,” answered Ben from his seat on the ground next to Joe. “Joe was complaining about the hard ground and being hungry, so I guess he’s much better.”

“I wish you two wouldn’t talk about me like I’m not here,” grumbled Joe.

“Stop talking and eat,” Ben advised his son. “The sooner we get you and everyone else fed, the sooner we can get out of here.”

Taking Ben’s cue, Mrs. Dawson announced, “I’m going to get some breakfast. Then I’ll check your shoulder.”

“You might want to skip the breakfast part,” suggested Joe as he made a face at his plate. “These beans weren’t that great when they were hot.”

Smiling, Mrs. Dawson walked toward Hoss.

*****

The weary travelers prepared for another day’s journey. As Hoss harnessed the pulling horses to the wagon, Marks saw to the saddle horses. Ben and Mrs. Dawson helped Joe into the back of the wagon while Anna stood uncertainly in the middle of the activity.

“We’re ready to go whenever you are, Mr. Cartwright,” advised the lieutenant as Ben turned from the back of the wagon.

“Fine,” answered Ben. “We should make Virginia City by noon if we keep moving.” He expected Marks to turn away to return to the horses, but the man stayed where he was. “Is there something else?” Ben asked.

“Well, it’s about Anna,” replied Marks with a hesitation. “She doesn’t want to… Could she ride up front in the wagon seat with you?

She doesn’t want to have to be with Joe, thought Ben. He sighed. He couldn’t really blame Anna. She was young, full of grief over her father, and perhaps finding a spark of interest in Lieutenant Marks. Tending a wounded man wasn’t a pleasant task for a girl, and she had endured a lot of unpleasantness over the last few days. Maybe she has had enough.

“All right,” agreed Ben. “That will give Joe and Mrs. Dawson more room in the back of the wagon. Tell Anna she can ride with me.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” said Marks with relief. He looked down. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to help but…”

“It’s all right,” Ben assured him. “I understand. It’s been pretty rough on her. Riding in the wagon seat might be best for her.”

Nodding, Lieutenant Marks walked off.

For the next hour, Mrs. Dawson watched Joe carefully as the wagon rolled and bounced along the trail. He slept the whole time. She was beginning to hope that he might be able to sleep until they reached safety. Then the wagon hit a rut and bounced hard.

A grunt of pain escaped from Joe, and he began to shift on the wagon floor. He winced as he tried to move.

“Lay still,” ordered Mrs. Dawson, putting her hand lightly on Joe’s arm. “The more you move around, the worse it will hurt.”

Opening his eyes slowly, Joe looked up at Mrs. Dawson. For a moment, he looked confused, as if he wasn’t sure who she was. Then his expression cleared. “We’ve got to stop…meeting like this,” he said in a feeble attempt at a joke.

Mrs. Dawson gave Joe a brief smile in response, and then her face turned serious. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m all right,” answered Joe almost automatically. He closed his eyes for a minute, then opened them and looked up. “How long have we been traveling?”

“About an hour,” Mrs. Dawson told the young man.

Sighing, Joe nodded his head slowly. He knew where they were, and he knew that there were several more hours of travel ahead of them. He tried to steel himself for what he knew was going to be an uncomfortable ride.

Reaching over, Mrs. Dawson put her hand lightly on Joe’s forehead. She felt the heat of the fever returning, although it wasn’t as high as yesterday. She knew it was probably more a reaction to the pain then anything, but still she was concerned. There wasn’t much she could do to help the young man. “Why don’t you try to sleep,” she suggested to Joe.

Ignoring the suggestion, Joe looked up at Mrs. Dawson. “How are you doing?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about me,” replied Mrs. Dawson with a smile. “There’s nothing wrong with me that a bath and a good night’s sleep won’t fix.”

*****

The wagon continued to roll and bounce over the rough terrain. As the sun rose in the sky, the day grew hotter. The heat seemed to suck the very air from the earth. Each time one of the travelers took a breath, the hot, dry air seemed to sear their lungs and drain their energy.

The air inside the wagon was stifling. Joe’s lungs seemed to be screaming for oxygen and his mouth seemed drier than the arid ground over which they were traveling. He was so dehydrated he could barely speak or lift his head. Glancing up at Mrs. Dawson, Joe whispered through dry, parched lips, “Please, some water.” The nurse quickly put a canteen to Joe’s mouth and watched carefully as he almost drained the container of its liquid.

Up on the wagon seat, Ben tried to concentrate on ground in front of them as he guided the horses. He was finding it hard to keep his mind on driving the wagon. His eyes felt heavy and gritty. He knew the heat and lack of sleep were taking its toll. But he also knew he couldn’t afford to stop the wagon and rest. The price he might pay for some sleep was his son’s life.

From time to time, Ben glanced at Anna, slumped next to him in the wagon seat. Her face was dirty, and her once luxurious brown hair now hung limp and stringy around her face. Like everyone else, she was hot, tired and thirsty. But unlike the rest of the travelers, her eyes seemed bright and focused. At least, they were when she could see Lieutenant Marks. Whenever the young Army officer fell back from their view, Anna’s eyes searched anxiously until Marks rode up to parallel the wagon again.

Ben’s thoughts turned to his sons. He could see Hoss riding near the wagon, still leading the other two horses. Hoss kept looking at the wagon, as if by staring at it, he could see through the canvas and watch over his ailing brother. He knew Hoss felt responsible for Joe’s troubles. He wished had the words to reassure Hoss, to lift the burden from his older son’s shoulders. He wishes he could tell Hoss that Joe would be fine. The problem was that, even if he could find the words, neither he nor Hoss would believe them.

Thinking of Joe, Ben shook his head regretfully. What had started out as a mission of mercy to warn the ranchers about the renegades had turned into an ordeal of pain and suffering for his youngest son. Joe had endured it all without complaint. But Ben wondered how much more Joe could take. He knew what little strength Joe had left was trickling away. He sent a mental message to his son, urging Joe to hang on for just a little while longer.

*****

Weary and distracted, Ben’s mind didn’t register that there was anything wrong when one of horses pulling the wagon abruptly stopped. He was about to snap the reins when the horse suddenly reared and began stomping the ground. The other horse, confused and nervous about his harness-mate’s behavior, tried to pull himself away from agitated animal.

In the driver’s seat, Ben suddenly found himself gripping the reins with all the strength he had. The wagon lurched from side to side as he fought to bring both animals under control. Ben felt as if his arms were being pulled from their sockets as one frightened horse was trying break free while the other pulled to the left.

Next to Ben on the wagon seat, Anna began screaming in terror. She clutched the small rail on the side of the seat, holding on so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

Ben wanted to tell the girl to be quiet, that her screams were only agitating the horses more. But he didn’t have the breath to do it. He was too busy pulling, releasing and pulling again on the leather straps in his hands, trying to bring the horses under control.

As quickly as the terror had started, it was over.

Hoss raced his horse toward the animals pulling the wagon, stopping his mount directly in front of the two panicking horses. Reaching down, Hoss grabbed the bridle of the stomping horse while almost cooing the words, “Easy now, take it easy. Easy, boy.” The pulling horses suddenly stood still, calmed by the presence of the big horse in front of them and the soothing words of the man who was riding it.

Almost at the same instant, Lt. Marks sped to the side of the wagon seat and snatched Anna off the lurching wagon. The girl put her arms around the neck of the young officer, hanging on steadfastly, while his arm held her firmly against his body. Marks rode only a few feet from the wagon before he softly dropped Anna to the ground.

Satisfied that the horses were now standing quietly, Hoss rode back to the wagon. “Pa, what happened?” he shouted as he approached.

“I don’t know, son,” admitted Ben. He slumped wearily in the seat. “A snake or something must have slithered in front of one of the horses and they both started to panic.” Ben started to say something else but then suddenly raised his head. “Joe!” he exclaimed.

Climbing quickly down from the wagon, Ben hurried toward the back. As he did, he noticed Anna staring up at Marks with adoring eyes. It crossed Ben’s mind briefly that all the lieutenant was missing was some shining armor in Anna’s mind.

As he reached the back of the wagon, Ben pulled open the canvass and looked in.

Mrs. Dawson was sitting on the floor with her hands firmly atop Joe’s chest, holding him in place. Joe, for his part, was gripping one of the wagon struts with his injured arm.

“Are you all right?” Ben asked anxiously.

“I think so,” answered Mrs. Dawson in a shaky voice. She looked at Joe. “How about you?”

“I’m all right,” Joe replied in a weak voice. He winced as he lowered his arm. “That was a wild ride.”

Noting the grimace on Joe’s face, Mrs. Dawson turned to reach for the medicine bag which had slid to the other side of the wagon. “I need to check your wound. You may have opened it again,” she declared in an even voice.

Ben was watching anxiously as the nurse began to peek under the bandage on his youngest son when he suddenly felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning, Ben found himself looking into Hoss’ frowning face. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Pa, when I rode back to get the other horses, I saw the wheel on the back of the wagon. It’s split,” Hoss answered. “We won’t get five feet before it breaks.”

Moving around his son, Ben looked at the left wheel on the back of the wagon. One of the spokes was splintered; jagged pieces of wood jutted outward. Below the spoke, the wheel rim showed a large crack.

“What’s wrong?” Lt. Marks asked he walked up to joined Ben and Hoss. Anna was clinging to his arm, as if afraid to lose contact with her protector.

“The wheel is damaged,” Ben stated in a low voice.

“Can it be fixed?” Marks asked

“We can probably strap the spoke together,” Ben advised the soldier. “The wheel is another thing. We’ll have to try to figure out something to hold it together. It could take some time.” He looked around a bit anxiously. “We’re out in the open here. There’s no cover.”

“I’ll cut some rawhide strips off one of the saddles,” Hoss offered. “We can get started on that spoke and then work on the wheel.”

As Hoss turned to walk toward the horses, Lt. Marks looked out into the rocky, barren land around them. He frowned a bit, then peered harder into the shimmering heat.

“Mr. Cartwright, look!” Marks shouted, pointing off into the distance.

Both Ben and Hoss wheeled around to look out across the desolate landscape. They froze as they took in the sight that had grabbed Marks’ attention. In the distance was a cloud of dust — and it was moving in their direction.

“Indians!” shrieked Anna hysterically, tightening her grip on Mark’s arm. “They’re coming back after us!”

“Hoss, get the rifles,” Ben ordered his son. He turned to the army officer. “You take the girl and get behind those bushes on the right.” As the two younger men rushed off, Ben hurried to the back of the wagon and looked in.

Mrs. Dawson was placing a roll of bandages into the medical bag; she lifted her head to stare at Ben.

“Mrs. Dawson…” Ben started.

“Yes, I heard, Mr. Cartwright,” the woman interrupted. She snapped the medical bag closed. “Please get me a rifle and show me where you would like me to defend our position.”

“Get me a gun, too, Pa,” requested Joe as he slowly pushed himself into a sitting position. “I can handle a handgun.”

With a question in his eyes, Ben looked at Mrs. Dawson.

“His wound isn’t bleeding,” stated Mrs. Dawson in a terse voice. “He still has a fever, but it’s no higher than it was this morning.”

“Pa, I’m not going to just lay here and let those Indians shoot at me,” Joe told his father in a determined voice. “Get me a gun.”

For a moment, Ben just stared at the two people in the wagon. Then he took a deep breath. “All right,” he declared. “Mrs. Dawson, help me get Joe out of the wagon. If we have a fight on our hands, I can’t think of two people I’d rather have at my side.”

*****

Six people were crouched behind the wagon and nearby rocks watching the approaching cloud of dust warily. Ben and Hoss were positioned on either side of the wagon, with Joe lying on his stomach underneath it, half-hidden behind a box. Marks and Anna were behind a large bush to the right of the wagon, while Mrs. Dawson knelt behind two small rocks on the left.

“How many do you think there are, Pa?” asked Hoss anxiously.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “The dust makes it impossible to see them. They’re only about five minutes away, though, maybe less. Get ready.”

Behind the brush, Marks put his hand on the arm of the girl next to him; he could feel her trembling. “Don’t worry,” he assured Anna. “I’ll protect you.”

With tears in her eyes, Anna turned to gaze at Marks. “I…I know you’ll do your best, ” she said in a trembling voice. She closed her eyes and shook her head a bit. “But it doesn’t matter. With Papa gone, there’s no one to care what happens to me anyway,” Anna added in a voice tinged with bitterness. “I’m all alone now.”

“I care,” declared Marks firmly. “I care a lot.”

“Do you?” Anna asked doubtfully.

“Anna, when this is all over, you and I need to talk, to make some plans,” Marks proclaimed. “You won’t be alone, I promise.”

For the first time in days, a genuine smile came over Anna’s face. She seemed at a loss for words. “Thank you,” she said simply.

Clutching his rifle tightly, Marks turned to look out across the stark landscape. The cloud of dust was getting closer. He peered into the tan haze, trying to determine how many renegades might be coming. A frown creased his forehead as he stared at the coming riders.

Marks had heard about mirages and he thought he was seeing one. He rubbed his eyes and looked out again across the sandy soil. The sight he thought was a mirage was not only still there, it was getting closer. As Marks watched in astonishment, a troop of cavalry emerged from the dust and approached the make-shift camp.

“Hey! Pa, look!” shouted Hoss with glee as he spotted the troop also. Everyone in the camp popped up from their hiding places. They all stared at the sight coming toward them.

A sergeant led six men toward the camp. Three of the men had bandages wrapped around their heads. A few rode awkwardly as if their bodies were stiff and sore.

Leaping to his feet, Marks rushed to meet the troop. His mouth was still agape as the soldiers rode up to him.

“Sergeant Parker reporting,” said the leader of the band formally, giving a salute. Then the sergeant grinned.

“Parker, what are you doing here?” asked Marks in surprise. “Not that I’m not glad to see you,” he added hastily. “But I told you to report back to Virginia City after you left me and Mr. Cartwright.”

“I did, sir,” replied Parker. “But I got worried when you and Mr. Cartwright didn’t show up. I figured you must have run into some troubles with those renegades. So I decided to come looking for you.”

“What about the other men?” asked Marks, looking past the sergeant toward the bandaged and patched-up troopers.

“Well, sir,” Parker stated with a smile, “when I told them, I was coming looking for you and Mr. Cartwright, they just sort of volunteered to come with me. These are the ones who could ride. There are five more men back at the Ponderosa who wanted to come but couldn’t sit a horse.” Parker’s smile faded. “The men are grateful to you for leading us out of that ambush the other day,” added Parker seriously. “And to Mr. Cartwright for giving us food, shelter, and doctoring. We couldn’t just sit around wondering what happened to you.”

“Sergeant, I am very glad to see you,” Ben declared, walking up to the soldier. “We thought you were some of those renegades.”

“We didn’t see any sign of Indians in this area,” Parker observed. “I think you scared them off.” He looked around at the people standing near the wagon, all armed with rifles or pistols. “I’m not surprised those renegades didn’t want to have any more to do with you,” he added wryly. “You’re a pretty fierce looking bunch of people.”

“Sergeant, my son is injured and the wheel on our wagon is damaged,” Ben told the soldier. “It would help if you could send one of your men into Virginia City to get a wagon and the doctor.”

“The doctor was coming out to the Ponderosa today,” replied Parker rubbing his chin. “We still have some troopers who need tending.” The sergeant thought for a moment and then began barking out orders.

“Private Moran, you were a wheelwright in civilian life, were you not?” Parker asked. Without waiting for a reply, he continued. “You will fix the wheel on this wagon. I’m sure you can find some way to patch it together. Corporal Hartman, you will ride to the Ponderosa and get the doctor. We’ll travel back to the Ponderosa the same way we left. We will expect to meet you and the doctor on the trail.”

Two faint “yes sirs” answered the sergeant’s orders. One soldier wheeled his horse around while another dismounted and walked toward the wagon.

“Sergeant,” said Marks, slapping the soldier on the leg, “remind me to put you in for a medal.”

“Yes sir!” replied Parker with a grin.

*****

An owl hooted as the moon rose high over the Ponderosa. The ranch house was ablaze with lights, and a steady stream of men seemed to be milling around the bunkhouse and the yard. The soldiers were going about the business of tending to the stock, cleaning equipment, and anything else Sergeant Parker could think of for the bored men to do.

Inside the house, the scene was quite different. Marks sat on the sofa, his arm wrapped around a sleeping Anna. She had washed, eaten and slept for several hours when the small party had finally reached the Ponderosa. She could have slept for several hours longer but Anna wanted to be with Marks. So she had roused herself and forced herself to stay awake while she waited for the Lieutenant to return to the house after seeing to his men. When he had finally settled on the sofa, she had curled up in his arm and almost instantly fell asleep.

Sitting in the blue chair by the stairs, Hoss tried to read but he was just staring at the page. He too had washed, eaten and slept, but unlike Anna, the brief nap had revived him. Now he was waiting. Waiting for his father, the doctor and Mrs. Dawson to come down from Joe’s bedroom.

Doctor Martin had assured them all that Joe would pull through. His examination earlier had confirmed that Joe was a sick boy, but the doctor said Joe would be fine after the medicine did its work. It wasn’t the Hoss didn’t believe the man; he knew the doctor wouldn’t lie to them. It was just that Hoss couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that his brother was suffering because of him. Going over the events of the past few days in his mind, Hoss wasn’t sure what he could have done differently. He knew he had been lucky. He had found a doctor and nurse in the middle of nowhere to help Joe. His father had shown up unexpectedly at the stage stop. A man they had all thought was a coward had shown enough courage to sacrifice himself to save the rest of them.

Yes, they had been luckier than they had any right to expect, thought Hoss. Things could have easily turned out much worse. But those thoughts were little comfort to Hoss. His only concern was Joe. Until his brother was well, Hoss would continue to carry a feeling of guilt.

The sound of steps on the stairs startled Hoss. He jumped to his feet and waited as the three people walked slowly down the steps.

“At least a week in bed, Ben,” advised the doctor as he descended the stairs. “Ten days would be better.”

“Doc, you’re asking a lot,” replied Ben with a shake of his head. “If I can keep Joe in bed for three or four days, I’ll be doing good.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright,” declared Mrs. Dawson in a firm voice. “I’ll see that he obeys the doctor’s orders. I’ve handled difficult patients before.”

Grinning, Hoss looked at Mrs. Dawson, and then back to Ben. “You know, Pa, this is going to be some battle,” he remarked. “Joe and Mrs. Dawson. Want to give me odds on who’s going to win?”

“Not a chance,” said Ben with a laugh. “That’s one battle where the sides are evenly matched.”

“Joe’s going to sleep through the night,” stated Doctor Martin as he looked around the room. “The sedative I gave him will insure that. Hop Sing will stay with him just in case. I suggest the rest of you follow Joe’s example and get some sleep. I’ve seen such a group of exhausted people in my life.” Turning back to Mrs. Dawson, Martin added, “Are you sure you won’t think about my offer to stay and work with me? I could use someone with your skills.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Mrs. Dawson answered. “But I won’t be staying. Once Joe is well, I’m going to head back home.” Her eyes seemed to grow misty. “I want to be where I can be of help to my husband’s patients, his friends. Isaac would have wanted it that way.”

“I can’t think of a better tribute to your husband,” acknowledged the doctor nodding.

“Thank you,” replied Mrs. Dawson, lowering her eyes modestly.

“I’ll be back in the morning to check on Joe,” said the doctor as he headed toward the door. He stopped and turned back to the people in the room. “Get some sleep, all of you,” he ordered firmly. Then the doctor turned and left the house.

“Well, I for one am going to follow the doctor’s orders,” Mrs. Dawson stated in a weary voice. She turned and started slowly up the stairs.

Marks woke Anna with a soft kiss. “Come on, honey,” he murmured quietly to the half-awake girl. He helped her to her feet and led her up the stairs.

Ben and Hoss watched the three climb toward the rooms upstairs. Then Hoss turned to his father. “Joe is going to be all right?” he asked. “Really?”

“Really,” Ben answered, still looking toward the stairs. “You know, Hoss, there are a lot of different kinds of courage in this world.”

“Yeah, I know,” agreed Hoss. “Joe sure showed his, fighting them Indians despite being hurt. He never once complained neither, no matter how tough things got.”

“Yes, but that’s only one kind of courage,” Ben observed. “There’s also the courage to go on when you’ve lost someone you love, and the courage to find someone new to love. Both of those can be just as difficult to muster as physical courage.”

Following Ben’s look toward the top of the stairs, Hoss said slowly. “Yeah, you’re right, Pa.”

Suddenly, Ben yawned. “I think we both could use some sleep,” he declared. He threw his arm around Hoss’ shoulders. “Thank you, son,” he added gratefully. “Thank you for taking care of your brother and bringing him home safe.”

Looking down, Hoss just nodded. The guilt he had been feeling seemed to melt away. “I think I’ll head for bed,” said Hoss, not trusting himself to say more. He took a step toward the stairs, then stopped. “Pa, do me a favor, will you?”

“Sure,” Ben answered, looking surprised. “What is it?”

“Next time you want to send Joe and me to warn some ranchers, make sure we take at least a troop of cavalry with us, won’t you?” requested Hoss with a grin.

Ben laughed. “Don’t worry, Hoss. Next time, I’ll send a whole army with you.” His face grew serious. “I never want to come that close again, Hoss. I don’t ever want to wish I had a second chance to save my sons.”

***End***

 

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