The Mission (by Susan)

Summary:  Ben and Joe are robbed and left afoot in the desert with the nearest outpost about twenty miles away.  Their journey is complicated when Joe is bitten by a scorpion.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9980


 

 

The hot sun shone down relentless on the two figures riding across the empty expanse of desert. Moving slowly through the shimmering waves of heat, each rider led another horse across the sandy soil. One figure stopped his mount and reached for one of the two canteens tied to his saddle.

“I still don’t see why we have to ride these horses home,” complained Joe Cartwright, sitting atop the stopped horse. He took a drink from the canteen, then wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. “It would have been easier to hire someone to bring these horses to the Ponderosa, and take the stage home from Sand Springs like we planned.”

Joe’s father pulled his own horse to a halt. “Like I told you, these horses are too valuable to trust to a couple of hired hands,” Ben Cartwright answered patiently. “I hadn’t planned to buy them but I couldn’t pass up a chance to add stallions of this quality to our stock. Besides, I sent a telegram to Fort Hitchcock, telling Adam and Hoss to wait there for us after delivering the remounts. They’ll help us get these horses back.”

“Yeah, well, they don’t have to ride across this desert,” Joe grumbled.

“We’ll be at the Fort by night,” observed Ben. “You can take a bath and have a nice dinner then. Now let’s get moving.” He chucked his horse forward.

Sighing, Joe lightly kicked his mount, urging the animal on. He’d rather be riding the stage than crossing this seemingly endless land of rocks and sand. But Joe knew his father. Once Ben Cartwright made up his mind, he was as immovable as the Sierra Mountains at home.

After riding silently for another mile or so, the two men approached a tall mound of boulders. Ben was about to suggest they stop for a rest when a shot rang out. The bullet hit the ground a few feet in front of Ben’s horse, and was quickly followed by another bullet which crossed in from of Joe’s mount. All the horses whinnied and shied, dancing nervously away from the gunfire. As Joe and Ben struggled to control the animals, a gang of men rode out from behind the rocks and surrounded the two riders.

When Ben and Joe finally got the horses calmed, the two Cartwrights looked around. Men with guns drawn had formed a semi-circle around the two riders. Joe counted ten pistols aimed at him and his father. He slowly raised his hands, and Ben did the same.

A man about forty, with dark hair and a half-moon scar under his right eye, rode forward. “I’ve been waiting for someone to buy these horses,” declared the man, giving the Cartwrights a nasty grin. “I was beginning to think I would have to ride into Sand Springs and get them myself. Now, you fellows be smart and get down real slow.”

Joe looked at Ben, who nodded at his son. As both men dismounted, two of the bandits rode forward and grabbed the reins of the horses.

“Drop those gun belts,” the man with the scar ordered. Joe and Ben obeyed, unbuckling the belts around their hips and letting them fall to the ground. Another of the bandits dismounted and walked forward. He picked up the gunbelts from the ground, then snatched the hats from both Ben’s and Joe’s heads. The Cartwright looked at the man in surprise.

“Now start walking,” ordered the apparent leader of the band, gesturing with his gun toward the open expanse of sand.

“You can’t expect us to cross this desert on foot without water!” Ben cried in a frantic voice. “We’ll never make it.”

“If you say so,” answered the outlaw, shrugging indifferently. “I could shoot you here, but I don’t want to upset these stallions. You have ten seconds to start walking. If you don’t, I’ll take the risk and finish you off right here.”

Swallowing hard, Joe glanced at his father. Either choice seemed to mean certain death.

“Just give us a canteen,” pleaded Ben. “Give us a chance!” Looking around, Ben sought some sign of compassion from at least one of the men, but found none. His plea fell on deaf ears as the outlaws stared back coldly.

“Get moving,” the man with the scar ordered again. “You have about five seconds left before we start shooting.”

With a grim look on his face, Ben took a few steps forward, then stopped. He turned back toward the bandits. “You’ll pay for this,” he promised.

“Yeah, right,” scoffed the outlaw. “C’mon boys, let’s go.” The men turned their horses and rode off.

Walking up to his father, Joe asked, “What do we do now?”

“We start walking,” Ben answered grimly.

“How far is it to Fort Hitchcock?” Joe questioned, a trace of fear in his voice.

Ben shook his head. “I don’t know…twenty miles at least.”

“Do you think we can make it?” pressed Joe, the fear in his voice more apparent.

“We’ll make it,” Ben assured his son with a confidence he didn’t feel.

*****

The sun beat down mercilessly on the two men as they walked across the empty land. Neither spoke as they trod mechanically through the sandy dirt. Ben thought about their situation. Joe at 22 was young, healthy, and strong. Even though much older, Ben had been hardened by years of work on the Ponderosa. Their chances were better than most, but the odds were still against them reaching the fort.

Looking at the endless wasteland as they walked, Joe wondered if his father would be able to make it to Fort Hitchcock. Like most young men, he had no doubt about his own strength and abilities, but he was concerned for his father. Joe hoped Ben would have the strength to make the trek.

As they walked, Joe and Ben looked for shade but found none. Ben searched the landscape for any sign of water, any plant that could give them moisture, but that search also was in vain. The two men continued plodding across the dirt as the blazing sun shone brightly above them. Sweat beaded their faces; their lips began to dry and crack. As time passed, their pace slowed. Finally, Ben stopped.

“Let’s rest a bit,” suggested Ben, sitting down. Joe sank to the ground next to his father.

“How far do you think we’ve come?” asked Joe.

“A couple of miles, maybe,” answered Ben wearily.

Joe closed his eyes. Twenty miles to Fort Hitchcock and they’d covered two or three. He couldn’t bear to think of the distanced they still had to travel in this heat.

The two men sat quietly for a few minutes, then Ben stood and looked down at his son. “Come on, Joe,” he urged. “We have to keep moving.”

Nodding, Joe brushed his right hand against a small pile of rocks as he began to stand. Suddenly, he felt a sharp stab in his arm. As he yelled in pain, Joe looked down at the rocks and caught a glimpse of a scorpion scurrying into a crevice.

“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked Ben anxiously.

“Scorpion. He got me right above the wrist,” Joe replied, holding his right arm against his chest.

Kneeling next to his son, Ben pulled Joe’s arm toward him. He shoved the shirt sleeve up and looked at the puncture mark which was already turning red. Quickly untying the bandanna from around his neck, Ben looped the cloth around Joe’s arm as tightly as possible, and then knotted it. He hoped the make-shift tourniquet would cut off the circulation and stop the poison from spreading.

“Joe, I’ve got to find something to cut open that wound,” Ben said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. Joe gritted his teeth and nodded.

Ben’s head swiveled around as he tried to find something that was sharp enough to cut Joe’s arm. Spotting some rocks a few feet away, he ran to the pile of rubble and began sorting through it. He picked up a small, thin stone with an uneven edge and ran his finger lightly over it, testing its sharpness. It wasn’t honed to a fine edge like a knife, but the serrated stone seemed sharp enough to slice some skin. Deciding this was the best tool he could find quickly, Ben carried the rock back to Joe.

Returning to his son, Ben could see Joe was cradling his right arm. The limb was beginning to swell and Joe’s narrowed eyes showed the pain the wound was causing.

Gently pulling Joe’s arm toward him, Ben untied and removed the bandanna. He pressed the rock into the injured limb, just above the puncture marks. The edge of the stone bit into the skin, causing a small tickle of blood. Ben pressed harder and sawed the rock a bit, slicing the skin even more. As Joe’s arm started to bleed more heavily, Ben dropped the rock and put his hands on either side of the wound. He pressed hard on Joe’s arm, causing the jagged cut to open up. He prayed that the poison was flowing out of the wound with the blood.

After letting the cut bleed for about a minute, Ben removed his hands. He wrapped the bandanna around Joe’s arm again, tying it tightly over both the sliced skin and the puncture mark. Finally, Ben sat back on his heels and looked at Joe. His son’s face was pale and Joe’s eyes reflected the pain he was feeling. “Joe, there’s nothing more I can do,” Ben told his son. “Do you think you can walk?”

“I’m not saying here,” Joe answered in a tight voice. “Give me a hand.”

After helping Joe to his feet, Ben grabbed his son’s left arm when Joe staggered a bit. He urged his son forward, and the two men started walking again. Joe cradled his injured arm against his chest, holding his right elbow with his left hand. Ben walked close to his son, ready to offer help if Joe needed it.

The two men had walked only a few hundred yards when Joe suddenly stopped. He shuddered, and a look of intense pain crossed his face. Joe clutched his arm tightly to his chest.

“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked Ben in an alarmed voice.

Holding his arm tightly, Joe glanced at his father. His arm felt like it was on fire and his stomach was churning. His head was throbbing and his heart was racing. But Joe knew there was nothing Ben could do to help him. “I’m all right, Pa,” Joe assured his father in a weak voice. Then he shuddered again, and his knees began to buckle.

Grabbing his son’s left arm, Ben threw it over his shoulders. “I’ll help you, Joe,” Ben stated. “We’ve got to keep walking. Just lean on me.”

For a moment, Joe closed his eyes, then he nodded and started forward. Trying not to put too much weight on his father’s shoulders, Joe staggered ahead for a step or two. Ben steadied his son, placing his hand on Joe’s back. The two men began walking again across the sand.

The Cartwrights spent the next two hours slowly trudging through the desert, with Joe leaning more and more on his father as they walked. Ben kept urging his son on, pointing out small bushes or outcropping of rocks ahead of them, and then announcing their arrival at the landmark to Joe when the pair reached it. He wanted these small victories to give Joe some hope that they were making progress. But Joe didn’t seem to care. His head hung down, and his eyes were barely open.

Finally, Ben became too tired to talk. He simply walked, half-carrying Joe through the sand. Joe’s gait became more of a stagger, and Ben gripped his son even tighter. The two were nearing a flat piece of ground when Joe sank to his knees.

“I’ve got to rest,” Joe gasped, “I’ve got to rest.” He fell to the ground on his side and closed his eyes.

Sitting down next to his son, Ben couldn’t remember ever being so tired, hot and thirsty. He glanced at Joe, knowing his son must feel even worse. Joe’s arm was swollen, and the younger Cartwright was grimacing with pain. Ben wondered what he would do when Joe could no longer walk. He knew he couldn’t carry his son very far. Taking a deep breath, Ben forced himself to think of nothing but getting across the desert, nothing but getting help for Joe. He refused to consider the alternative to reaching Fort Hitchcock.

“C’mon, Joe,” Ben declared in a tired voice, “we have to keep moving. We can’t stay here.”

With what seemed a herculean effort, Joe opened his eyes, then tried to sit up. He barely raised his head before collapsing back on to the ground. Joe stared off in the distance, trying to muster the strength to stand.

Suddenly, Joe raised his body from the ground and started crawling. “Water!” Joe cried through cracked and dried lips. “I see water up ahead.”

Looking over the shimmering sand, Ben saw waves of heat and seemingly endless miles of rocky dirt, but no water. Nevertheless, Joe was struggling to move forward, clawing his way across the ground. “Water,” Joe repeated in a soft voice. “I see water.”

Once more, Ben gazed out at the desert in front of him. He stared hard, trying to see what his son had seen. All Ben saw was simmering waves of heat.

With a look of anguish on his face, Ben took a step to where Joe was crawling. He grabbed his son by the shoulders and pulled the young man gently to him. “No, Joe,” said Ben in a voice tinged with both sadness and exhaustion. “There’s no water. It’s just a mirage.”

Struggling, Joe tried to free himself from his father’s grasp. “I see it, Pa,” insisted Joe. “I can see the water.”

Ben tightened his hold on Joe. “No, Joe, no,” Ben stated again. “There’s no water. He shook Joe hard, then turned his son’s face toward him. “Listen to me, Joe,” Ben urged his son. “Joe, it’s a mirage. There is no water.”

Twisting his body, Joe continued to struggle until he seemed to run out of strength. Breathing hard, Joe stared at the sand in front of him. “Water,” he murmured in a low voice.

Gently turning Joe’s face back to him, Ben one more tried to get Joe to listen to him. “Joe, there’s no water. There’s just rocks and sand. Do you understand me? It’s a mirage. There’s no water.”

Staring at his father, Joe repeated weakly, “No water?” Ben shook his head. Joe slumped against his father, the last of his strength seeming to drain away.

Ben stroked Joe’s head gently, letting his son rest for a few minutes. Joe was in worse shape than he thought, Ben decided. He sat in the desert heat, holding his son until he realized he could sit there no longer.

“Joe, we’ve got to keep going,” Ben told his son. “If we stay here, we’ll die.” Joe simply laid on the sand, making no attempt to move. After taking a deep breath, Ben lifted Joe, forcing him to stand, and then put his son’s left arm over his shoulder. Joe leaned heavily on his father as Ben struggled to take a few steps. The weight of his son and his own failing strength made it difficult for Ben to walk. The pair moved forward about 30 yards, with Ben literally dragging Joe. Suddenly, Joe slipped from his father’s grasp and fell to the ground.

“Joe, get up,” Ben ordered in an exhausted voice.

Shaking his head almost imperceptibly, Joe whispered, “I cant.”

Kneeling next to his son, Ben tried his sternest voice. “Joseph, get to your feet. Do you hear me? Get up! Now!”

“I can’t,” Joe murmured. “I can’t…go on. Leave me here. No sense both of us…” Joe’s voice trailed off as he sunk into unconsciousness.

Cradling his son in his arms, Ben shook Joe. “Joe, please,” he begged, “please get up.” But there was no response from the limp figure in his arms. Ben held his son tightly and looked around, desperate for help and praying for a miracle. He almost didn’t believe his eyes when he spotted the figure on a horse in the distance. Ben shook his head and rubbed his eyes. The figure was still there, watching silently.

Laying Joe gently on the ground, Ben got up and started running toward his only hope for help. He ran for a couple of yards, then tripped and fell. Ben picked himself up and looked around. The horse and its rider were gone.

Shoulders slumped in despair, Ben turned to walk slowly back to where Joe lay on the ground. He sank to his knees when he reached his son. If he and Joe were going to die, at least they would be together, Ben thought. He gently stroked Joe’s head. Suddenly, a wave of dizziness washed over Ben. The heat and exertion of the run were too much for him. An almost welcome blackness overwhelmed Ben as he fell to the ground by his son.

*****

The sound of taps accompanied the darkening sky at Fort Hitchcock. Hoss Cartwright sat on the porch outside the post commissary, staring anxiously at the gate of the fort. “Where do you think they are, Adam?” Hoss asked. “Shouldn’t they be here by now?”

“Stop worrying,” replied Adam Cartwright as he stretched out next to his brother. “There are a hundred things that could have delayed them. Pa’s telegram said he’d try to be here by tonight but he wasn’t sure.”

“Yeah, but Adam, that’s a lot of desert they had to cross. It’s full of Indians, bandits, and who knows what else,” insisted Hoss

“You’re turning into a real worrywart, you know that?” Adam observed. “Just because Pa and Joe are a little late, you’re starting to imagine all kinds of things. Pa can take care of himself and Joe can too. Just relax, will you?”

“I don’t know, Adam,” Hoss said in a doubtful tone. “I just have this bad feeling. I think we ought to go look for them.”

“Look for them?” repeated Adam in an astonished voice. “Head out into the desert in the middle of the night? Are you crazy?”

“Well, we can go as soon as it’s light,” Hoss maintained stubbornly.

Adam shook his head. “Look, you’re getting all upset over nothing. Pa and Joe will be here with those horses sometime tomorrow. You’re going to feel pretty foolish when they ride in here.”

“Yeah but what if they don’t?” Hoss persisted.

“If they don’t show up tomorrow, I’ll get the colonel to send out a patrol and we’ll go looking for them,” promised Adam. “But I don’t think it’s going to be necessary.”

Once more, Hoss turned his gaze to the gate at the front of the fort. “I wish we could go now,” he said softly.

Adam clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Just relax, will you? Look, let’s go over to the cook house. I’ll be the cook has some of that pie left. That’ll make you feel better. Then we’ll get some sleep. Everything will seem better in the morning.”

“I guess so,” Hoss agreed with a sigh. Then his face brightened. “That was pretty good pie, wasn’t it. Maybe another piece or two will make me feel better.”

Now it was Adam’s turn to sigh. “Somehow, I thought it might.”

*****

 His eyes felt gritty and tired as Ben slowly opened them. He looked around, surprised to find himself lying on a bed in a dim room with stone walls. A damp cloth was on his forehead and an ointment of some sort had been smeared on his sunburned face. Someone had removed his boots and opened his shirt before covering Ben with a light blanket.

Suddenly, the memory of what had happened flooded into Ben’s mind. “Joe?” he called as he abruptly sat up.

Looking to his left, Ben saw another bed. Joe was lying on the bed, covered with a blanket and with a cloth on his forehead also. Someone had removed Joe’s shirt as well; his bare shoulders and chest were visible above the blanket. Joe’s forearm was heavily bandaged from hand to elbow. Ben could hear his son’s breathing – rapid and labored. He also could see the beads of sweat that covered Joe’s body.

Quickly, Ben climbed out of the bed and crossed the room to his son. “Joe?” he repeated as he lightly touched his son’s shoulder. Joe’s skin felt hot to the touch. Ben laid the back of his hand gently against Joe’s cheek and was alarmed at the heat he felt. Joe was burning with fever. Shaking his son gently, Ben tried again. “Joe? Can you hear me?”

“You shouldn’t be out of bed!” cried a voice from behind Ben.

Spinning around, Ben saw a priest in a long brown robe entering the room. The cleric was carrying a tray with a coffee pot and two cops. “My son…” Ben started.

“Is a very sick boy,” finished the priest as he put the tray down on a small table at the foot of Joe’s bed. “Scorpion bite, is it not?”

“Yes,” answered Ben. “I tried to get the poison out but I didn’t have a knife to open the wound.”

“In one so young and strong, a scorpion’s sting usually is not serious. But for a man already weak from heat and lack of water, such a sting can be dangerous,” acknowledged the priest. “The fact that the arm also is infected just complicates things.”

Ben looked at his son with growing concern.

“I’m Father Sebastian,” said the priest as he approached Ben.

“Ben Cartwright,” responded Ben. “This is my son, Joseph.”

“What were you doing walking in the desert without any water?” asked Father Sebastian curiously.

“We were bringing some horses home when a gang of outlaws stopped us,” explained Ben. “They took the horses and then left us to die in the desert.”

“Was the leader a big man with a half-moon scar under his eye?” asked the priest almost pensively.

“Yes,” Ben replied, a bit surprised. “How did you know?”

“That was Quantro Jones. He’s well-known in this part of the country. His mother was an Apache; his father, a white man. He’s a vicious outlaw. Even the Apache are wary of him,” Father Sebastian answered.

“How did we get here?” asked Ben.

“Some of my Apaches found you and brought you in,” replied Father Sebastian.

“Your Apaches?”

Father Sebastian smiled. “I’ve been preaching the gospel in this region for about seven years. I’ve made some converts. I suppose I think of those who have joined my faith as MY Apaches.”

Suddenly, Ben became light-headed and started to reel a bit. Father Sebastian gripped his arm and led Ben back to his bed. “Sit down,” the priest suggested. “I’ll get you some coffee.” The cleric helped Ben to sit on the bed and then walked back to the table near Joe’s bed. Pouring a cup of coffee from the pot, the priest brought it over to Ben. “Now drink this,” Father Sebastian ordered. “It has lots of sugar in it. The coffee and sugar will make you feel better.”

“Are you a doctor?” asked Ben as he slowly sipped the coffee. It was warm, not hot.

“No,” admitted Father Sebastian. “But I’ve had some medical training. My order believes if you can heal the body, you can reach the soul. I’ve also picked up some interesting things from some Apache medicine men along the way. The poultice I put on your son’s arm is an old Apache remedy for a scorpion sting. I’ve seen it work.”

Continuing to sip the coffee, Ben tried to clear his head. He watched as Father Sebastian crossed the room to the table with the coffee and poured a second cup. The priest went to Joe’s bed and gently lifted the young man’s head from the pillow. Father Sebastian put the cup to Joe’s lips and forced a small amount of liquid into Joe’s mouth.

“Is my son going to be all right?” asked Ben anxiously.

“I don’t know,” Father Sebastian answered as he continued to force Joe to drink. “It’s in God’s hands.”

Ben finished his coffee. He felt so tired; his eyelids were starting to droop as he placed the cup on the floor. Father Sebastian glanced toward Ben as he gently laid Joe’s head back on his pillow. “Why don’t you get some rest?” suggested the priest. “You can use it.”

“No,” replied Ben, shaking his head. “I’ve got to look after Joe.”

“I’ll look after him,” Father Sebastian assured Ben. “You won’t do your son any good if you fall asleep at his beside.”

“You’re right about that,” admitted Ben reluctantly. He took a deep breath. “You’ll wake me if…if there’s any change?”

“I’ll wake you,” promised the priest. “Now get some rest.”

Stretching out on the bed, Ben wanted to stay awake but he knew he couldn’t. Fatigue overwhelmed him as he closed his eyes.

When Ben woke again, he realized it was still night. The room was dark except for the light from a small lamp on the wall. Ben turned to look at Joe. His son lay on the other bed in the same position as Ben had seen him earlier. He also could see Father Sebastian sitting in a chair next to Joe’s bed. The priest was fingering his rosary beds, his lips moving in silent prayer. Ben tried to get up, but he couldn’t find the strength. He sank back in the bed and sleep overwhelmed him once more.

*****

A hand gently shook Ben awake. As he opened his eyes to the light of morning, Ben realized Father Sebastian was shaking him.

“Mr. Cartwright,” said the priest. “Mr. Cartwright, your son is asking for you.” Springing from the bed, Ben rushed to Joe.

In the bed on the far side of the room, Joe watched his father approach. “Pa, are you all right?” he asked is a soft voice.

“I’m fine,” Ben assured his son in a soothing tone. “How are you feeling?”

“A little rocky,” Joe admitted, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “My arm’s pretty sore.” He studied his father for a moment. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Don’t worry about me,” replied Ben. “I’m just fine.”

Sighing with relief, Joe closed his eyes for a moment, then slowly opened them. “Where are we?” he asked.

“You’re at my mission,” answered Father Sebastian, approaching the bed from behind Ben.

“This is Father Sebastian,” Ben explained. “He’s been taking care of us.”

“How did we get here?” Joe asked, his voice sounding weaker. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His body seemed to sag and his eyes struggled to open again.

“He should rest,” Father Sebastian advised quietly.

Nodding, Ben turned to Joe. “I’ll tell you all about it later, Joe. Right now, you need some rest. Go to sleep.” Ben watched as Joe closed his eyes fully and drifted off to sleep. He placed his hand on Joe’s forehead for a minute, and then glanced back at the priest. “His fever is down.”

“Yes, and his pulse is steadier,” acknowledge Father Sebastian.

“Is he going to be all right?” asked Ben.

Smiling, the priest shrugged a bit. “Well, it will take a few days to be sure, but I think his chances are very good.”

Turning back to Joe, Ben stroked his son’s head a few times, then looked at the priest. “Thank you,” he said softly.

“I’m glad I could help,” replied Father Sebastian. “Now, I must say Mass and you must get some more rest. I’ll be back in a little while with some broth for both you and your son.”

“I’m feeling much better,” Ben insisted as he lowered himself into the chair next to Joe’s bed. “I’ll sit here awhile.” The priest frowned at Ben for a moment, then nodded and turned to leave. “Father,” Ben called after the priest, “when you say Mass, say thank you for me, will you?” Smiling, Father Sebastian nodded and left the room.

*****

Joe’s condition improved slowly but steadily over the next few days, although his fever hung on stubbornly. Ben stayed with Joe, leaving his son’s side only to eat and get a little sleep. Father Sebastian checked regularly on his patient, changing the bandage and dosing Joe with medicine.

When the priest walked into the room on the third afternoon, Ben was sitting by Joe’s bed as usual, watching his son sleep.

“How is our patient doing?” asked Father Sebastian softly.

“He seems to be resting easy,” Ben replied. “But he seems so weak. All he wants to do is sleep.”

“It’s the fever,” explained the cleric. “The fever is a sign that his body is fighting off the last of the poison and infection, but it also saps the strength. It should be gone by tomorrow or the next day. Then he’ll start getting stronger. He’s young and healthy; it won’t take long for him to get back on his feet.” The priest peered at Ben. “And how are you?”

Waving his hand in dismissal, Ben answered, “I’m fine.”

“I don’t believe that,” declared Father Sebastian. “I’ve seen happier men than you seem to be.”

“Well, if you want to know the truth, I’m worried,” Ben admitted, smiling wryly. “I’m worried about my sons – ALL my sons.”

“But why?” asked Father Sebastian with a puzzled expression. “Joe is improving and out of danger. And you said your older sons would be at Fort Hitchcock. They’ll be perfectly safe at an army post.”

“I’m a father and worrying is one of the things that fathers do best,” explained Ben. “I’m worried that Joe will take a turn for the worse. And I’m worried about Adam and Hoss. We’re two days overdue at the Fort. They must be frantic by now. There’s no telling what they’ll do. I wish there was a way to send a message to them.”

Father Sebastian shook his head with regret. “I have only a mule to ride, and while he would get you to the Fort, it would take you at least two days to get there. I know you don’t want to leave Joe for that length of time and I can’t leave the mission for that long. We can hardly ask one of my Apaches to take a message to an army post.”

“I know, I know,” acknowledge Ben, nodding slowly. “I just hate the thought of what Adam and Hoss must be going through, what they must be thinking.”

“I’ll pray for guidance,” offered the priest. “And I’ll pray for all your sons. Maybe the Good Lord will bring us an answer.”

“Thank you,” Ben responded. “You’ve done so much for Joe and me. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

“I’m a priest and helping people is one of the things priests do best,” said Father Sebastian with a grin. “I’m just doing my job.”

“And you’re very good at it,” Ben declared with a smile.

Looking embarrassed, Father Sebastian tried to change the subject. “When Joe wakes up, you give another dose of that medicine. I’ll be back in a little while with some more broth for him.”

As the cleric left the room, Ben turned back to watch his sleeping son. He decided a few prayers of his own wouldn’t hurt. Silently, Ben asked God to protect all his sons, and while he was at it, he added a thank you for sending Father Sebastian to help.

*****

On their fourth day at the mission, Joe finally woke without a fever and soon started complaining about having to stay in bed. Ben smiled as his son’s complains, knowing it was the surest sign that Joe was feeling better. When Father Sebastian checked on Joe later in the morning, he also smiled at the young man’s grumbling. The priest promised Joe that he could get out of bed for dinner if he rested the remainder of the day. Joe protested the restriction but everyone in the room knew it was just talk. Joe’s pale face and tired eyes belied his protests. As the two older me left the room, Joe was already curled up under the blanker on his bed and beginning to doze off.

Sitting at a small table in a room that was a combination of kitchen and dining room, Ben and Father Sebastian were discussing what to do next. Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of horses and men’s voices from outside the building. Ben and the priest hurried to the door and looked out.

A troop of cavalry was approaching the mission. In the lead was a big man, not in uniform but wearing a familiar tall white hat. Close behind the large man was another rider dressed in black. Ben smiled at the sight.

As the trooped stopped in front of the mission, the big man leapt from his horse, shouting, “Pa!” The second man just sat on his horse and grinned. Ben started to raise his hand in greeting, but found his arms pinned as Hoss’ massive hands grasped his shoulders. “Pa!” Hoss cried again, his eyes studying his father. “Are you all right? Where’s Joe? What happened to you?”

Laughing, Ben patted Hoss on the arm. “Slow down, slow down,” he told his middle son. “I’m fine. Joe and I were robbed by a band of outlaws a couple of miles from here. Some of Father Sebastian’s Apaches found us and brought us here.”

Dismounting, Adam walked up to his father and slapped Ben lightly on the back. “I told Hoss that you could take care of yourself,” Adam declared.

“Thank you for your confidence,” Ben replied with a smile. “It’s good to see both of you.”

“What about Joe?” Hoss asked. “Where is he?”

Immediately Ben’s face sobered. “He was a pretty sick boy for awhile. He was stung by a scorpion and the wound got infected. Luckily, Father Sebastian was able to pull him through. He’s still not a hundred percent, but he’s going to be all right,” Ben explained. He tilted his head a bit and looked at his sons. “How did you two manage to find us?” he asked.

“When you and Joe didn’t show up at the fort, we got worried,” answered Hoss. “We finally persuaded the colonel to send out a patrol to look for you. Lieutenant Johnson and his men here have been riding with us for the past few days.” He nodded toward the young officer sitting on a nearby horse. “When we couldn’t find any sign of you and Joe, the lieutenant suggested we try the mission,” Hoss continued. “He thought the priest here might know something.”

“I’m sorry you were worried,” Ben stated with genuine regret. “I couldn’t leave Joe and there was no way to send word to you.” He looked over at the lieutenant and added, “I’m sorry you and your men had to make such a long ride. Thank you for your efforts.”

“You’re welcome,” the officer answered with a smile. “But there’s no need to apologize. We were going to patrol this area anyway.”

“I’m Father Sebastian,” announced the priest, stepping forward. “Welcome to my mission.”

“Father, I’m please to meet you,” responded the young officer. “We’ve heard of your good work here.”

“Lieutenant, you and your men are welcome to stay here for awhile,” offered Father Sebastian. “We have plenty of water. I’m afraid the food is a little limited, but I’ll be happy to share what I have.” Seeing Johnson hesitate, the priest added, “The Apaches won’t bother you here. They know all are welcome at my mission.”

“Thank you,” Johnson replied. “We appreciate the offer. We have plenty of rations but could use the water and the rest.” He gave an order to his men to dismount.

“Pa, where’s Joe?” demanded Hoss. “I’d like to see him.”

“Inside,” answered Ben. “He’s sleeping,” Turning, Ben walked into the mission with Adam and Hoss following close behind. He led his older sons through the large room to a door on far wall, and then quietly opened the door.

Asleep on the bed, Joe looked less than well. His arm was still heavily bandaged and his face appeared thin and pale.

Frowning, Hoss looked at his father. “Are you sure he’s going to be all right?” the big man asked with concern. Adam’s face reflected Hoss’ worry as well.

Before Ben could answer, Joe stirred and the bed and opened his eyes. He looked up in surprise at the men standing in the doorway. “Adam! Hoss! What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you, little brother,” Hoss answered with a smile. “You and Pa seemed to have gotten lost on the way to the fort. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” said Joe, sitting up. He winced a bit and closed his eyes for a minute as if trying to gather his strength. “I’m fine,” he repeated firmly.

“Can’t you every just make a trip straight home?” joked Adam, trying to hide the concern he felt. “Do you always have to stop and see the sights?”

“It’s such a lovely country,” answered Joe, grinning. “Full of outlaws, scorpions and Apaches. I just couldn’t help myself.”

Walking over to the bed, Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You need to rest,” Ben insisted in a stern voice. “Remember what Father Sebastian said. You have to rest for the remainder of the day. If you feel well enough later, you can join us for dinner.”

Joe frowned but didn’t protest. The truth was he still felt very weak and a few more hours of sleep sounded pretty good. He slid back under the covers as his father and brothers left the room.

*****

The sun was beginning to set as Father Sebastian starting laying plates on the table for dinner. He looked up when he heard the door open, and smiled as Hoss, Adam and Lt. Johnson entered the room.

“Welcome, gentlemen!” the priest greeted his guests heartily. The three men smiled a greeting in return. “Dinner will be ready shortly,” continued Father Sebastian. “Ben is helping Joe get dressed. Please, sit down.”

“Are you sure Joe’s going to be all right?” asked Hoss with concern as head seated himself at the table.

“Oh yes,” replied Father Sebastian. “He’ll need to rest for a week or so, but he will be good as new shortly.”

Hoss grinned in relief and started to say something when he heard a door open behind him. He turned to see Joe and Ben emerge from the bedroom.

Fully dressed, with his bandaged arm in a sling, Joe walked slowly toward the table. Ben followed close behind, his hand only a few inches from Joe’s elbow, ready to catch Joe’s arm if his son stumbled.

“Well, you’re looking better, Joe,” Adam said a little too enthusiastically. In truth, he was still concerned about how pale and shaky his younger brother looked.

“I’m feeling just great,” declared Joe in a voice that trembled a bit. As he neared the table, Joe grabbed the back of an empty chair and hung on for a few seconds, as if to steady his balance. Then he lowered himself slowly into the chair. Ben watched anxiously as son settled himself, then moved to an empty chair and sat down.

Carrying a large pot, Father Sebastian walked to the table. “Fresh rabbit stew,” he announced with pride, “cooked with fresh vegetables and seasoned with my own blend of spices. Enjoy, gentlemen!”

As the priest dished out the stew, Ben introduced Joe to Lt. Johnson. He also watched from the corner of his eye as the plate of steaming food was set in front of his youngest son. But Joe began eating steadily, and the rest of the men followed suit. Talk was limited as each one was intent on filling themselves with the delicious food.

When Father Sebastian began to clear the table after the dinner, Lt. Johnson turned to Ben. “I didn’t want to bring this up while we were eating, but I would like to hear more details about what happened to you and your son.”

Nodding, Ben began telling the story of the journey across the desert. Hoss’ face grew dark, his anger at the outlaws growing by the minute. Adam’s face took on a grim look also. Lt. Johnson merely listened.

When Ben was finished, the young officer sat thinking for a minute. “We have heard stories about this outlaw Quantro Jones for a long time,” Johnson admitted, “but this is the first time we have concrete evidence against him. Most of the time, his victims were found dead.”

“Or they were Apaches, which means they wouldn’t be listened to in court,” added Father Sebastian as he returned to the table. The lieutenant nodded in agreement, reddening a bit at the priest’s implied rebuke.

“If I could figure out where his camp is, I could lead the patrol on a raid,” observed Johnson. “We could rid this territory of at least one menace.”

“I could get directions to the camp for you,” Father Sebastian offered in a quiet voice. When the officer looked at him in surprise, the priest continued. “The Apaches dislike Quantro Jones also. I’m sure they know where his camp is. They would tell me.”

“Father, you really are amazing,” Johnson said smiling. “Please, get directions or a map or something. I’ll lead the patrol out as soon as we have a definite location.”

“Lieutenant, I’m going with you,” Ben announced in a firm voice.

“So am I,” added Hoss.

“And me,” chimed in Adam.

“No,” the officer replied, shaking his head. “This is an Army action. I can’t be responsible for any civilians.”

“Lieutenant, you have ten men, the same as we saw with Jones,” Ben countered. “Even with the element of surprise, you need all the help you can get.”

“But…” Johnson started to protest.

“Lieutenant, we’re going with you,” interrupted Ben in a voice that implied further arguments would be useless.

“Well, I guess a few extra guns wouldn’t hurt,” admitted the lieutenant reluctantly. “We brought along some extra horses, and you can use one of those, Mr. Cartwright. And thanks. I’m happy to have you and your sons with us.”

“Save one of those horses for me,” declared Joe. “I’m going too.”

Father Sebastian looked at Joe with surprise, then turned toward Ben. The priest shook his head.

“Joe,” Ben said in a quiet voice, “you aren’t in any shape to ride and you won’t be for awhile. You stay here and take care of yourself until we get back.”

“No, I’m going,” insisted Joe stubbornly.

“Joe, you know you’re not well enough to make a hard ride like we’re going to have to make,” replied Ben. “You’ll slow us down and maybe get someone hurt. You aren’t going. You WILL stay here.”

As Joe started to protest, Ben raised his hand. “No argument,” he stated firmly. “You’re staying here.” Joe sat back in his chair, grunting softly in disgust.

“We’ll try to manage without you, Joe,” commented Hoss with a grin. “I think maybe we can take those outlaws without your help.” The rest of the men at the table laughed as Joe snorted in disbelief.

*****

The next morning found the mission a hive of activity. Lt. Johnson was organizing his patrol as Adam filled canteens. Hoss was checking the saddle girth on his horse as well as on Adam’s and Ben’s, while Father Sebastian reviewed a map with Ben. The priest’s early morning visit to the Apache camp had produced a clear map to Quantro Jones’ hide-out.

As the commotion swirled around in the yard, Joe stood in the doorway of the mission, watching with a dour expression. His heavily bandaged arm rested in a sling, and dark circles rimmed his eyes. Despite the obvious evidence that he was still recovering, Joe itched to ride with the patrol.

When their assigned tasks were completed, Adam and Hoss walked over to the doorway. “You take care of yourself, Joe,” Hoss advised, clapping his younger brother gently on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry about me,” answered Joe. “You just remember to duck when the shooting starts, since I won’t be there to take care of you.” Chuckling, Hoss slapped Joe lightly on the shoulder again, and then turn to walk back to his horse.

“Try to stay out of trouble while we’re gone, Joe,” Adam suggested wryly.

“I’ve got one arm in a sling and I’m staying at a mission,” replied Joe. “I hardly think there’s much opportunity to get into trouble.”

“Yes, but if there’s any chance at all, you’ll find it,” Adam noted, grinning. He patted Joe lightly on the back and then left to find his horse.

Watching the exchange between his sons, Ben smiled. He knew the seemingly light-hearted conversation was the way his boys expressed their concern for one another. Turning to Father Sebastian, Ben stuck out his hand. “Thank you again for your help, Father. Keep an eye on Joe for me.” The priest smiled and nodded.

As Ben turned to walk away, Father Sebastian suddenly grabbed the older man’s arm. “Ben,” the priest said in a serious voice, “please remember your mission is to bring some outlaws to justice. There’s a big difference between vengeance and justice. ‘The Lord sayth vengeance is mine’.”

“I know, Father,” Ben replied. “And I’ll remember. Thanks.”

Ben walked over to the doorway where Joe was standing. His youngest son looked up hopefully. “Did you change your mind? Can I go?” asked Joe.

“No,” answered Ben, shaking his head. “The only place you’re going is back to bed.” As Joe sighed, Ben patted him lightly on the shoulder. “You take care of yourself. We’ll see you in about a week.”

With an anxious expression on his face, Joe watched as his father walked to a horse and mounted. Lt. Johnson barked an order and the patrol started to ride off, with Ben, Adam, and Hoss trailing the soldiers. Ben turned to wave at Joe as he rode forward, and Joe waved back.

Standing in the doorway, Joe watched the figures ride away. He stood watching even as the men disappeared into the distance. His eyes ached as he stared at the rapidly dwindling cloud of dust that was the only evidence of the patrol’s passage. Joe was only dimly aware of someone standing next to him. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Father Sebastian was looking at him with an understanding expression.

“Come, it’s time to change your bandage,” the priest advised gently. Joe swallowed hard and nodded. He turned back to take one last look at the now empty horizon, then entered the mission.

*****

The days passed slowly for Joe as he waited anxiously for the return of the patrol. He spent hours sitting on a chair in front of the mission, staring into the hills. He listened for gunfire that he knew wouldn’t be able to hear, and searched the horizon for tiny specks of returning riders. Joe watched until his tired eyes betrayed him and closed in sleep. Father Sebastian kept watch also, only he watched the young man so full of worry and concern. He let Joe sleep in the sun until the day grew too warm. Then he would hustle Joe into the coolness of the mission, and try to distract the young man with games of checkers or long discussions over meals. Joe appreciated the priest’s efforts and tried to participate in the game or talk, but his attention was never fully on the matter at hand. Always, his ears were straining for the sound of hoofbeats.

Almost a week passed and Joe was growing more anxious with each day. Sitting at the table in the mission during one afternoon, Joe flexed his hand as he stared at the checkerboard in front of him.

“Ah, you’re getting some muscle tone back in your hand,” declared Father Sebastian with a smile as he noticed Joe’s movement.

“Yeah,” agreed Joe. “I figure I can get rid of the sling in a day or two.”

“Perhaps,” replied the priest in a non-committal tone. “It’s your move.”

Suddenly, Joe stood, almost knocking over the table with his abrupt action. The sound he had been waiting for drifted faintly into the mission – the sound of a horse. But Joe frowned as he listened. He had expected to hear several horses riding slowly. This was the sound of one horse and the animal was running hard. Joe walked quickly to the door and pulled it open.

As Joe started out of the mission, he almost ran into a man – a big man with a half-moon scar under his eye. Quantro Jones was dirty, sweaty, and had a wild look his eyes. More importantly, the outlaw had a pistol and it was pointed at Joe.

“Get inside,” Jones ordered with a snarl. He gestured with the gun, and Joe had no doubt the man would use the weapon. Moving slowly, Joe backed into the mission.

“Joe, what is it?” asked Father Sebastian as he saw the young man moving backwards into the room. Before Joe could answer, Jones pushed the young Cartwright to the floor and walked in.

“I need supplies, water, and a fresh horse,” Jones announced without preamble. “And I need them now. There’s an army patrol on my heels.” The outlaw glanced down at Joe, still sprawled on the floor, and quickly dismissed the unarmed man with his arm in a sling as no threat.

“You’re welcome to any food and water we have,” replied Father Sebastian calmly. “But I’m afraid all I have is a mule. I don’t have any horses.”

Frowning, Jones pointed his gun at the priest. “Don’t mess with me,” he growled. “I’m not above shooting a priest.”

“I assure you I’m telling the truth,” insisted Father Sebastian, still showing no trace of fear. “You’re welcome to anything we have, but I can’t give you what we don’t have.”

Chewing on his lip, Jones’ attention was focused on the robed figure in front of him. He didn’t notice Joe slipping his arm from his sling, or see the young man edging closer.

“I’ll take whatever you have,” Jones decided, still ignoring Joe. Then a crafty expression came over the outlaw’s face. “I’ll bet you have some nice pieces here, some gold crosses and things. I’ll just help myself to them also.”

“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed on that account also,” replied Father Sebastian. “Please, take all the food and water you wish, and the mule if you want it. Take anything you want. Just leave us in peace.”

“You’re awfully accommodating,” Jones observed, looking at the priest with suspicion. “Maybe you’ve got some reason to keep me here for awhile, like maybe some Apache braves coming to help you.”

“I assure you, you are perfectly safe here at the mission,” Father Sebastian informed the outlaw. “No one will harm you here.”

“If I’m safe here, then I really don’t need you, do I?” snarled Jones, aiming his gun at the priest’s chest.

Launching himself across the small space that separated him from Jones, Joe knocked the outlaw to the floor. The gun dropped from Jones’ hand as his body slammed into the wooden floor. Joe threw a punch at the outlaw’s jaw, but the blow glanced off the side of Jones’ face. The bandit threw a punch back, hitting Joe in the chest and knocking the young Cartwright onto his back. Joe scrambled to his feet and jabbed at Jones’ mid-section, a blow that forced the outlaw to retreat a step.

Seeing the bandage on Joe’s arm, Jones chopped the side of his hand onto Joe’s injured limb, a hard smash that caused Joe to yell in pain and grab at his arm. Before Joe could recover, Jones hit him again in the jaw, knocking Joe once more to the floor.

Looking around quickly, Jones spotted his pistol near his feet. He snatched it up from the floor, aimed the gun at Joe, and cocked it.

Lying on the ground, cradling his arm, Joe stared at the gun. He was sure that pistol and Quantro Joes were going to be the last thing he saw on this earth. He swallowed hard and braced himself.

But a brown-robed figure suddenly appeared behind Jones, and Joe watched in astonishment as Father Sebastian lifted his arms high into the air. A loud twang echoed around the room as the priest smashed a frying pan onto the top of Quantro Jones’ head. The outlaw crumpled instantly, the gun falling from his slack hand before Jones could pull the trigger. Joe let out a sigh of relief and allowed his body to sag.

“Joe, are you all right?” Father Sebastian asked anxiously as stepped over the fallen outlaw.

“I am now,” admitted Joe, giving the priest a shaky grin. “But for a minute there, I thought I was going to join those angels in heaven you’re always talking about.”

“You shouldn’t have jumped him like that,” the priest chided with a frown. “I was sure I could talk him out of any violence.”

“And I was sure he was going to shoot you,” countered Joe. “One of us was wrong. I didn’t want it to be you.”

Giving Joe a small smile, Father Sebastian nodded. “Perhaps you’re right.” The priest looked around. “Let’s find some rope to tie him up, and then I’ll take a look at your arm.”

*****

At dusk, the sound that Joe was awaiting finally wafted through the desert air. The creaking of saddles mixed with the slow hoofbeats of numerous horses greeted Joe as he emerged from the mission. Joe counted carefully, noting that there eighteen riders, along with a number of extra horses. Several of the riders were not in uniform.

Joe’s eyes strained against the failing light as he studies the riders in civilian clothes. His face broke into a smile when he saw the three faces he was desperately searching for.

“Pa! Adam! Hoss!” Joe shouted, waving as he rushed into the yard in front of the mission. Three riders broke away from the patrol and rode quickly toward him.

“Joe,” said Ben as he halted his horse and dismounted. “Good to see you, boy. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” Joe answered, his eyes raking his father’s form. “How are you?”

“All in one piece,” announced Adam as he dismounted and walked toward Joe. “Not even a scratch.”

“Yeah, we took them by surprise,” added Hoss, hurrying over to join the rest of his family. “A couple of them put up a fight, but most of them just gave up when they saw we had them surrounded.”

“Quantro Jones managed to get away, though,” Ben admitted, shaking his head in regret. “He pushed two of his men into our line of fire and ran. By the time we had the rest of them rounded up, Jones was long gone.”

“Don’t worry about that,” declared Joe with a wide grin on his face. “Jones is tied up inside the mission.”

“Inside the mission!” exclaimed Ben in an astonished voice. “How did that happen?”

“Well, let’s just say Father Sebastian wields a mean frying pan,” Joe answered. “And I don’t mean on the stove.”

*****

As the sun rose the next morning, the patrol was mounted in a circle around a group of sullen prisoners sitting on horses. Quantro Jones was in the middle, hands tied tightly to his saddle horn. The soldiers pointed rifles and guns at the outlaws, and their faces showed they would not hesitate to shoot if any of the bandits made a threatening move.

“Father, we’re heading out,” announced Lt. Johnson, standing next to his horse and offering his hand to Father Sebastian. “Thank you for all your help.”

“I’m pleased I could be of some small service,” replied the priest modestly.

“I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of reward to Jones and his men,” added the lieutenant. “We’ve all agreed that you should get the money.”

“Money has little use out here,” Father Sebastian said. “Blankets, food, and medicine would be of more help. And perhaps a horse.”

“Then that’s what you’ll get,” agreed Johnson. “I’ll deliver them myself.” He turned to Ben and his sons, who were standing nearby. “Mr. Cartwright, I appreciate your help. If you and your sons ever want to enlist, I’ll be glad to give you a recommendation.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” replied Ben. “But the only patrolling we’ll be doing is on the south range of our ranch.”

Smiling, Lt. Johnson gave a small salute and then mounted his horse. He shouted an order and watched as his men started moving the prisoners cross the sandy soil. Johnson turned and gave a brief wave to the men behind him, then rode up to join his men.

“We’ll be leaving too, Father,” Ben told the priest. “We have our stallions back, and with the food and water you’ve given us, we have ample supplies to get home.”

“I will miss you,” admitted Father Sebastian a bit sadly. “The mission will seem unusually empty for awhile.”

“I don’t know the words to say thank you enough,” Ben continued. “You save my life, and saved Joe twice.”

“As I said, it’s all part of the job,” replied the priest with a shrug.

“Saving our little brother can be a full-time job,” commented Adam dryly. “We’d better leave so you have some time to do your other work.” Joe scowled at Adam as the other men laughed.

“Thank you,” reiterated Ben as he shook the priest’s hands. His words, though simple, were said with a volume of emotion.

Father Sebastian shook hands with Adam and Hoss, then stopped in front of Joe. “Remember what I said,” the priest instructed the youngest Cartwright. “Change that bandage every day and don’t overdo things. You still need to take it easy for awhile.”

“I’ll remember,” Joe assured the cleric. His eyes misted a bit. “I’ll remember everything. Thank you for watching out for me.”

“I think perhaps God was the one who was watching,” Father Sebastian said with a smile. “They say God watches over children and fools.”

“And which category do I fall into?” asked Joe, grinning.

“A little of both perhaps,” answered the priest. “But mostly, into the category of a good man with a brave heart.”

“Thank you,” Joe murmured, his voice choked with emotion. He gave Father Sebastian a quick hug, then turned to mount a horse. Joe hoped his father and brothers didn’t see him wiping the tear from his eye.

“Well, little brother, let’s get you home before you cause any more trouble,” declared Hoss as he watched Joe climb up onto the horse.

“Me?” Joe protested. “I wasn’t the one who wanted to buy those horses and head out across the desert. And all I was doing was playing checkers when Jones showed up. I’m the innocent party here.”

“Yeah, right, you’re just an innocent little lamb,” Adam noted in a voice filled with skepticism.

“Lamb or not, we need to get moving,” Ben said firmly. “You ready, Joe?”

“Baa,” replied Joe with a laugh as he turned his horse and headed for home.

***End***

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