Into the Present (by Rona)

Summary: What happened next in the episode The Gift

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  7,880


 

Looking up in surprise as a shadow fell on him, Sam Wolfe saw an older man, grim-faced, sweating and dirty. He hesitated momentarily before speaking. Might as well get his claim in first, he thought. He couldn’t see how this stranger had anything to do with the young man he had just hunted down, but it never hurt to be careful. “Well, howdy, friend. Just finished myself off a horse thief. Caught him stealin’ my horses last night.”

“You’re a liar!” the other man said, his voice low, but distinct.

Wolfe’s eyes hardened. It had been a long time since anyone had contradicted him. He rose from his crouching position by the stream. “Now, lookee, friend…” he began. “That kinda talk can get you into a lot of trouble.”

“He’s my son,” Ben Cartwright grated.

On the other side of Wolfe, Joe Cartwright lifted his head. He was tied up in a lariat, and suffering from dehydration and exposure. The short exchange between his father and Wolfe had mostly passed him by. But Ben’s voice suddenly impinged on his consciousness. “P-Pa?” he gasped, wondering if he was hallucinating.

For a second, Wolfe looked disconcerted. His pale blue eyes flickered back to the boy he had taken captive. Ben’s eyes never left him. His hand hovered by his gun. Wolfe knew he had no choice but to kill both the boy and his father. He reached for his gun.

The shot reverberated round the sand dunes. Sam Wolfe collapsed to the desert floor, dead. Wolfe’s horse started and ran off a few paces. But the horse was too hot and tired to run off. In fact, Wolfe had all but ridden it into the ground, and it would be lucky if it survived much longer.

For a second, Ben just stood there, then he jumped across the stream and hurried to Joe’s side. After a single look at his youngest son, Ben hurried back to pick up Wolfe’s discarded canteen. A moment later, he was kneeling by Joe, supporting the youth as he tilted the canteen to Joe’s mouth.

Eagerly, Joe began to gulp the tepid liquid. “Joe, that’s enough for now,” Ben said, taking it back. He feared Joe would be sick if allowed to drink his fill all at once.

Reluctantly, Joe relinquished the canteen. “Thanks, Pa,” he gasped. He lay in his father’s arms and gazed up at him. Joe had been convinced he would never see his family again. “Pa…”

“Shh, don’t talk now, boy,” Ben said, reaching to untie the ropes that still bound his son.

“I must talk,” Joe protested. One hand went up to clutch at Ben’s vest. “There was a vaquero with me, Emiliano.”

“I spoke with him,” Ben evaded, avoiding Joe’s eyes.

“Then he’s alive?” Joe said, relief and joy in his voice.

“No,” Ben said, shortly.

For a moment, Joe just looked at Ben, denial in his heart. Then it hit him, and tears filled his eyes. He turned his head into Ben’s chest, seeking comfort from the only source he could remember. “Emiliano,” he croaked. Ben clutched him tighter, trying to ease his son’s grief.

“He wanted you to get through,” Ben said. “You and the horse.” He felt a pang of regret, for he had seen the dead horse, and it had indeed been magnificent – the physical symbol of the love his sons bore for him.

“He was a good friend, Pa. He really loved that horse. It was a great horse,” Joe said, still teary. His hand still clutched at Ben’s vest, and Ben’s hand came up to hold Joe’s. “He rode his heart out for me, Pa. I tried not to lose him. We wanted to give him to you as a gift.” Joe’s voice begged for forgiveness.

Clutching his son tightly to his chest, Ben said, “I have my gift, son.” His voice shook. He had come so close to losing this son. He sniffed back the tears.

There was the thunder of hooves from behind them. Ben helped Joe to sit up and began to unravel the ropes from around him. Joe reached for the canteen, his thirst over-powering, and took another deep draught.

“Joe!” Hoss and Adam hurried over to kneel by their brother, to touch him and see for themselves that he was still alive.

“He’s all right, boys,” Ben said. He felt a great sense of relief. Joe had somehow avoided the rampaging Apaches and survived the commancheros. He was dirty, exhausted and dehydrated – but he was alive! “Let’s get him home.”

Helping Joe to his feet, Adam looped his brother’s right arm around his own shoulders and Hoss moved in to support Joe on the other side. Together, they walked their younger sibling to the horses. Ben went to the stream to refill the canteen. He knelt, then glanced skywards. “Thanks,” he whispered; only the one word, but a wealth of feeling and meaning in it. He knew the Almighty would understand.

It was clear that Joe couldn’t mount without help, so Hoss practically lifted him onto Sport. “I’m right glad you ain’t had your scalp lifted, Shortshanks,” Hoss said.

“Me, too,” Joe agreed, and pushed down the high crown of Hoss’ ten-gallon hat.

“Dadburnit, Little Joe!” Hoss spluttered, snatching off the offending headgear and bashing it back into shape. “You’ll be walkin’ back if’n you ain’t careful!”

Laughing, Adam said, “Well, your sense of humor hasn’t improved while you’ve been away.” He patted Joe’s leg. “I’m glad to see you, too, little buddy.”

“Let’s go, boys,” Ben said, coming up beside them. “We don’t want the Apaches finding us here!” He glanced over at Wolfe’s horse. The poor beast was down already. With a sigh, Ben went over and put it out of its misery.

“You ride Chubb, Pa,” Hoss insisted, when he came back. “Me an’ Adam will walk.” Seeing that Ben was about to protest, Hoss added, “It’s your punishment for runnin’ out on us back at that canyon!”

Both Adam and Hoss laughed at the expression on Ben’s face. Joe looked quizzical, but the sun was beating down on his bare head again, and he was beginning to feel unwell. “All right,” Ben agreed, for he had pushed himself earlier. He swung onto Chubb’s broad back.

“Ready?” Adam asked, looking up at Joe. He saw at once that his brother didn’t look too good, and guessed the reason. Taking his hat off, he plonked it down on Joe’s head. “You leave that hat where it is,” he threatened, “and just sit. I’ll take care of everything.”

“All right,” Joe agreed. He closed his eyes, but the movement of the horse threatened to send him to sleep, and Joe wasn’t ready for that yet. He opened them again, and looked about.

They were taking a different route than the one he had used, and it suddenly occurred to Joe to wonder why they had come looking for him, and how they had found him. Why was Ben on foot? Where was his horse? He thought about asking, but the effort required was just too much. Now that he wasn’t alone any more, the adrenalin had drained from Joe’s body, and he was finding it hard just to stay awake and upright.

After a time, they came across Buck standing patiently in the desert. Nearby was the white horse. Ben helped Joe down from Sport while Adam and Hoss went over to look at the horse. This was the first time they had seen it. Joe felt a surge of guilt. He had had no choice but to ride the white horse to safety, and Wolfe’s shot had done it severe injury. But still, there it lay – the ruination of a year’s worth of planning. He lay back on the sand and closed his eyes.

Around him, Joe could hear his family talking as they saddled Buck and made preparations to move on. The last thing he wanted to do was move on, but Joe was aware that with the Apaches on the warpath, they had stretched their luck as far as they were willing for the time being. Rolling onto his side, Joe propped himself on his elbow and reached for the canteen again. He drank deeply, until a warm hand caressed his head and gently took the canteen from him. “Take it easy,” Ben cautioned. “You don’t want to overload your stomach.”

With Buck ready to go, Joe was again helped to his feet. His abused muscles trembled as he mounted Chubb, and he wanted nothing more than to lie down on that broad back and go to sleep. He still had Adam’s hat on, and he saw with amusement that Adam was wearing Hoss’ ten-gallon hat. The sight brought a few giggles to Joe’s lips, and for a moment, seeing Adam’s mock-indignant face, he felt much better.

Before long, even the sight of Adam in Hoss’ hat couldn’t raise a smile on Joe’s lips. His endurance trickled away along with the afternoon hours, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before he could go no further. He hadn’t realized the distance he had covered on the big white horse. There was no way they could get back to Tyson Wells that night. Or at least, not with one man always having to walk.

A cold breeze drifted aimlessly across the desert as the sun began to drop. Ben looked around for a suitable place to camp. He thought it unlikely that the Apaches would come this deep into the desert, but one never knew. He didn’t want them camping in the open. However, nothing suitable appeared, and so they rode on. Joe was done in, Ben knew, but he wanted somewhere defensible, if at all possible.

“Pa, what about there?” Adam said, pointing. Ben gazed that way, peering slightly in the uncertain light. When had it become so dark? He nodded. Adam’s resting place looked as good as they could hope for, and they turned that way, unconsciously quickening their pace.

Up close, the place was all they had hoped for. The walls curved round, making a secure place where no one could come at their backs. They were hidden from immediate view, and they were sheltered from the night wind, which might make their fire smoke.

Leading the horses in, Ben slid from Buck’s back to help Joe, but found his older sons there already. Joe could barely stand, and Ben hastily snatched his bedroll from the back of his saddle, and spread it out on the ground. Adam and Hoss eased Joe down onto it, and his distress was plain for all to see. His lips were cracked and sore; his skin was glimmering with sweat. Cramp spasmed through his muscles, causing him to groan with pain. He shivered occasionally.

“You tend to Joe, Pa,” Adam said, in a low voice. “Hoss and I will make camp.”

Kneeling by Joe, Ben gave him some more water. Their ration was dropping slowly but surely, and tomorrow, they would have to try and find some more somewhere. “Supper will be ready soon,” Ben said, wrapping the bedroll round Joe.

“I’m not hungry,” Joe whispered, his voice as cracked as his lips. His nose was sunburned and peeling. His eyes were red with fatigue. He shivered. “I’m just tired.”

“You’re tired because you haven’t eaten,” Ben scolded, gently. “How long is it since you ate?”

“Dunno,” Joe said, and sighed disconsolately. “I just wanna sleep, Pa.”

“I know,” Ben sympathized. “But not yet, Joe. You must eat. Listen to me! You must eat!”

He kept talking to his son, keeping him awake while Adam and Hoss prepared supper with miraculous speed. The meal wasn’t up to Hop Sing’s standards, but it was pretty good. While Adam curried the tired horses, and fixed up the bedding, Hoss put some bacon into a pot, along with a little of the dried vegetables they carried, and made a sort of soup. It smelled good, and tasted better, and it was easy for Joe to eat. The saltiness of the bacon helped counteract the cramps he was suffering, and the fluid helped his dehydration. By the time he had eaten a few mouthfuls, Joe did indeed feel a little better, and settled straight to sleep after eating.

The other three Cartwrights sat around their small fire after Joe had fallen asleep. “He’s not going to be able to go on tomorrow, is he?” Adam asked, and it didn’t sound like a question.

“No, it doesn’t look like it,” Ben answered, reluctantly. “He’s used up all his energy, and with not having enough to drink, that’s made everything worse. It doesn’t help that we’re one horse down. That’s slowed us right down. I don’t know if we could reach Tyson Wells tomorrow even if Joe is able to go on. We need more water and another horse.”

They were silent for a while, sipping the coffee Hoss had made. “In the morning, Hoss and I will go and look for water,” Adam said. “You stay here with Joe. Perhaps he might know where the outlaw’s camp is from here. After all, Cochise must be somewhere, and Joe didn’t mention anything happening to him.”

“That sounds like a good idea, Adam,” Hoss said, before Ben could jump in and say anything. He knew what his father was thinking – they both did. Ben was worried about the Apaches, and didn’t want his sons wandering around the desert without him. However, it was clear to them all that Joe wouldn’t be up to any wondering around the next day, or maybe even the day after, if they didn’t get enough water. They would be extremely lucky if Joe didn’t succumb to heat stroke.

“I’ll stand first watch,” Adam said, picking up his rifle.

“Then me,” Hoss offered, knowing that Ben was tired out, emotionally as well as physically. “Then I’ll wake you, Pa,” he promised.

As Adam took up position, the other two rolled themselves in bedrolls. Ben glanced across at Joe once more before closing his eyes, but his youngest son still slept deeply. Once more, Ben sent up a prayer to the Almighty, thanking him for saving Joe’s life, and asking that they might all manage to get to safety. Finally, Ben slept.

*****

Morning came with the promise of another blisteringly hot day. The secluded place where they had spent the night offered some respite from the sun, and Ben was glad. Joe was in no state to travel anywhere. He was feverish and exhausted. Ben had to rouse him to eat, and he wanted to go back to sleep almost immediately after.

“Joe, you’ve got to help us here,” Adam said, allowing his brother to lean wearily against his shoulder. “Where is the outlaw’s camp from here? Do you know?”

Frowning as he looked around, Joe finally pointed over to the west. “That way, I think. It was due west from the mesa where Emiliano and I fought Wolfe and the commancheros.” He looked at Adam. “Are we going there?”

“Not you, buddy,” Adam said. “Hoss and I. We have to try and get some water. An extra horse would be nice, too, since I’m getting pretty tired of walking all the time. So we thought we’d see what was on offer at the camp.”

“I don’t know if everyone is gone from there or not,” Joe said, looking alarmed. “There could be others that stayed behind.”

“Don’t you worry none, Punkin,” Hoss said, comfortingly. “We’ll be right careful, I promise ya that.” He grinned. “’Sides, ain’t your pony likely to still be there?”

“Cochise,” Joe said. “Yes, he must be. Why didn’t I think of that for myself?” He put his hand up to his aching head. “Of course Cochise must be there, along with my saddle, gun and gear. It must all be there.”

“Well, that’s a good reason to see if we can get there, isn’t it?” Adam said, calmly. He glanced at Ben, who hovered anxiously over his youngest son. “You stay here and keep Pa out of mischief, and we’ll be back as soon as we can.”

“You be careful,” Ben pleaded, as the boys mounted up. “And hurry back.” He stood and watched them for several minutes, before turning back to Joe. However, his youngest didn’t need his company just at that moment. He had fallen asleep once more.

*****

It was a long day for Joe and Ben. The desert was absolutely still and silent, apart from a hot wind that blew their way every so often. Ben kept an anxious watch at the entrance to their little hiding place, but he saw nothing more than a snake moving all day. Joe slept a great deal, although Ben woke him regularly for water and food. The water in the canteens was stale and flat, but it was wet. Joe drank eagerly whenever he was offered it. Ben drank almost nothing himself. They needed to conserve their water as best they could, in case Adam and Hoss didn’t find any, or didn’t return.

About mid-afternoon, Joe woke once more, and seemed more alert this time. He sat up, and ate the food Ben offered him. “Pa, how did you know to come looking for me?” he asked. His voice was still weary.

Quietly, Ben told him about the army scout returning to Tyson Wells, and how Adam and Hoss had confessed why Joe had gone to Yuma. Then he told of their hunt across the desert, and the meeting with Emiliano. Joe’s eyes filled with tears again at the thought of his lost friend.

In return, Joe told Ben about Emiliano. “He worked for Colonel Green, the man we bought the horse from,” Joe explained. “He had been one of Wolfe’s commancheros, which is how he knew of the camp. We didn’t have a choice, Pa. We either went without water, or went to the commancheros. The commancheros seemed the lesser of two evils.” Slowly, Joe told of their fight to escape, and the death of Wolfe’s younger brother. “I’m sorry about the horse.”

“I know,” Ben said. “But I would have been even sorrier about you, son. When your brothers told me where you had gone…” Ben’s voice trailed off, for he couldn’t say that his heart had skipped a beat. “We’ll get back to Tyson Wells tomorrow,” he said, “and you can rest properly there. We’ll get a doctor to look at you.”

“I’m all right,” Joe protested, automatically. He tried a smile, but the skin on his lips was still tender, and he winced. “Honest.”

Smiling, Ben ruffled his son’s tangled curls. Joe was still warm to the touch, and Ben just hoped he would be fit enough to ride on the next day. A finger of sunlight suddenly reached across the blanket covering Joe’s legs, and Ben pulled him back into the shade. It was something he had done throughout the day, as the sun had crept into their retreat. Joe could not afford to get sunstroke.

All too soon, Joe was dozing again, and Ben was gazing out at the empty desert. Where were Hoss and Adam?

*****

They rode warily through the desert, watching around them for any signs that they weren’t alone. They saw nothing, although they were both aware that the Indians could spring from anywhere without warning. By mid-morning, Hoss had found tracks that led in the direction that they wanted to go, and they followed them. A short while after that, they spied the buildings that fitted Joe’s description of Sam Wolfe’s camp.

Dismounting, they made their way closer, watching for any signs of life. They saw none, apart from the horses in the corral. Leaving their own horses tethered, the brothers split up and eased closer. There were no signs of human life. Finally, they were standing in the small yard, huts on either side. A body lay partially hidden in some bushes, and when they investigated the huts more closely, they found another two corpses. One they guessed was Wolfe’s brother, and the others were Mexicans.

“Let’s gather up the food and any canteens we can find,” Adam suggested. “I’ll saddle Cochise, and we’ll see if we can find Joe’s gear.” He glanced around. “Just keep alert.”

“Sure thing,” Hoss agreed, and hunted through the huts for what foodstuffs he could find.

It didn’t take them long to get ready. Adam had found Cochise fit and well, and the saddle in the barn. Hoss had found Joe’s gun, rifle and gun belt, along with his wallet, still containing several hundred dollars, in one of the huts. Between them, they had unearthed half a dozen canteens, and filled them all from the well. Adam had also found some ammunition, and had taken it, too. On the ground, they came across Joe’s black hat.

“Let’s get out of here,” Adam suggested. “We’ve lingered too long.”

“Pa and Little Joe will sure be worried,” Hoss agreed. They hurried back to where they had left their horses, unaccountably relieved to find them still there. They hastily watered the horses, then mounted up for the long trek back to their campsite.

Some instinct, deep seated and primeval, warned them that they were not alone. Yet, every time they looked round, they saw nothing. The desert shimmered with heat, and a number of times, Adam reached for his gun, only to discover that what he saw wasn’t there at all. Hoss led the way, following the tracks they had made earlier. The desert was featureless, and Adam wasn’t sure he would have found his way back without Hoss’ tracking ability.

“Not far now,” Hoss said, as they rested during the late afternoon. He wiped sweat from his head and looked around. “I sure feel like there’s someone out there watchin’ us,” he added, in an undertone. “But I plumb cain’t spot anythin’.”

“Me, too,” Adam agreed. “Let’s push on.” They mounted and rode off.

“There it is,” Hoss said, pointing across the desert. “That’s where we’re camped.”

“Let’s hurry it up a bit then,” Adam suggested, urging Sport into a ground-covering lope. The chestnut’s coat was dark with sweat, but Adam thought that a little speed wouldn’t do the animal any harm. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

A shot rang out and bit into the ground where Adam had been only moments before. Glancing over his shoulder as he urged his horses to greater speed, Adam saw Indians streaming over a rise behind them. Most appeared to be carrying rifles, and one or two had bows and arrows.

“Ride!” Adam urged, and Hoss needed no such urging. They galloped across the desert, returning fire as they went.

*****

The gunfire jerked Joe out of sleep, and his eyes opened wide. Ben was crouched at the entrance to their hiding place, his rifle up and ready. “What is it?” Joe gasped.

“Indians after Adam and Hoss,” Ben explained, not looking round.

Throwing off the blankets, Joe stumbled to his feet, groping for the nearest rifle. He took up a position near to Ben, and aimed. He was disconcerted to discover that his hand was shaking. He peered into the bright light, and saw his brothers coming hell-for-leather across the sand, and he noticed at once that Adam had Cochise, too.

It was Hoss who reached safety first. He hauled Chubb into the camp area, jumping down and pushing the horse out of the way. He drew his rifle from his scabbard, and stepped aside as Adam entered in a rush.

“Here, Joe,” Adam said, and handed Joe his own rifle, reclaiming his one at the same time. He gave his youngest brother a searching look as he knelt beside him, but Joe seemed to be all right. After that, there was little time to watch him.

The Indians fanned out, firing at the bluff where the Cartwrights had sought shelter. They returned fire, attempting to get the Indians scattering at first, but finally aiming at the braves when they saw that they weren’t going to scatter.

The firefight continued for some time, with no gains for either side. Finally, the light faded, and the Indians withdrew. Joe sank down behind the rocks and closed his eyes. Adam, after checking that Ben and Hoss were still on watch, drew back, too, and knelt by Joe. “All right, buddy?” he asked. He could see a fresh bloody graze on Joe’s head, but it wasn’t serious. They were all marked by such minor injuries.

Opening his eyes, Joe tried for a smile. “I’m all right, Adam,” he assured him. “Just tired. Are you all right?” He reached out a dirty, shaking hand, and traced the path of a scratch down Adam’s cheek.

“We’re all fine,” Adam said. “You get some rest, now. They won’t attack while it’s dark.”

“I can take my turn standing watch,” Joe insisted. “They might take the chance and attack. We haven’t killed any.”

By now, Ben had crawled over. “Joe, you’ll do what you’re told!” he said, mock-sternly. “You need to rest, so we can get out of here tomorrow.”

The exhausted youth just looked at Ben disbelievingly. There was no way they were going to get out of there the next day, or even the day after. They were trapped, and it was only a matter of time before the Apaches stormed their hideout, trusting to the superiority of numbers to give them victory. “Sure, Pa,” he said, dully.

The Cartwrights ate a cold meal of the food that Hoss had stuffed into his saddlebags. One of them stood watch at all times, and they kept their heads down. The sky was clear and cloudless, and a full moon shone out brightly. Ben, looking at it as it rode high in the sky, cursed it. If the night had been dark and moonless, they might have tried to escape. Like Joe, Ben didn’t think they were going to get out of this fix. If only the army would come looking for them, but based on his conversation with the lieutenant before they left Tyson Wells, he thought it extremely unlikely.

“I’ll stand first watch,” Ben said. “You get some rest.”

Nodding, for they were exhausted, Adam and Hoss went to lie down. Joe was already wrapped in his bedroll, but he wasn’t asleep. “I can take a watch,” he insisted.

Glancing between his parent and sibling, Adam saw that they weren’t going to be able to sort this one out without heated words, which none of them needed right then. Ben was too tired and worried to see that Joe thought this whole situation was his fault, and was determined to do what he could to expiate that guilt.

“If we need you to take a watch, Joe,” he said, over-riding what Ben had started to say, “we’ll waken, you don’t worry. But that will be later in the night, all right?”

Scowling darkly at Adam, Joe tried to figure out what was wrong with that statement, but he couldn’t quite get it. He was done in, even though he wouldn’t admit it. He nodded, finally. “All right,” he agreed. “But waken me.” He lay down and closed his eyes. Within a few seconds, his body relaxed, his breathing evened out and the frown disappeared as he eased into a deep sleep.

“Thank you, Adam,” Ben said. “I don’t know what’s got into the boy.”

“He’s feeling guilty,” Adam said, marveling that Ben couldn’t see it for himself. Ben knew Joe better than anyone else.

“I know,” Ben admitted, sitting down by Joe for a moment, and succumbing to the temptation to stroke his head. “He’s still running a slight temperature,” he said, concerned. “I wish I knew how we were going to get out of this,” he concluded.

“Let’s see what happens in the morning,” Adam said. “Waken me when you need to.”

“Sleep well, son,” Ben said. He went back to his post, and looked out. There was no sign of movement. “Please Lord, help us,” he prayed.

*****

The night passed peacefully with no alarms to spoil the little rest they got. Just before dawn, Adam roused Joe, urging him to stand watch for a few minutes while Hoss prepared some food. Joe looked a little better, to everyone’s relief. His eyes were clearer, and his hands shook less. His muscle tone was better, too.

All too soon, dawn crept over the land, stealing away the only defense they had – the darkness. Grimly, the Cartwrights prepared to defend themselves once more, knowing that they were facing annihilation, and praying that a miracle might occur. Ben made sure he had a private word with each son.

“Hoss, thank you for all you’ve done this trip,” he said. As his son started to stammer out something, Ben waved the comments away. “You’ve stood by me through every decision I’ve made, and supported your brothers, too. I love you, son, and always have. Thank you for that magnificent gift you wanted to give me. I don’t think I deserve it, but I am touched by your love.”

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss said, but couldn’t find any other words. He simply flung his arms round Ben and gave him a squeeze.

Adam was next. “We’ve been through a lot together,” he said, draping his arm round Adam’s shoulders. “You’ve been my companion and friend as well as my son. I don’t think I told you often enough how much that has meant to me over the years. You gave up your childhood for me, and don’t think I don’t know what that cost you.”

“It didn’t cost any more than I was willing to pay,” Adam returned, quietly. He was very moved by the emotion in Ben’s voice and eyes. “You’ve been both father and mother to me over the years, Pa, and I know how difficult that’s been. I’ve tried to show you how much I love you, but I don’t know if I succeeded.”

“You did, son,” Ben said, softly. “You did.” He gave Adam a brief hug, knowing that, even in this difficult moment, Adam wouldn’t tolerate more than that.

Talking to Joe was both easier and more difficult. The boy was so young, and Ben thought that the dirt streaked liberally on his face made him look even younger. Yet he had taken a man’s part when he should still be carefree, and hadn’t voiced any complaint. “Joe, I’m sorry it had to come to this,” Ben said.

“It’s all my fault, Pa,” Joe said. He leant his curly head against Ben’s shoulder, and the gesture warmed his father’s heart.

“No, its not, but that doesn’t matter, anyway. I’m just sorry that I haven’t been able to get you safely home, you and your brothers,” he went on. “I love you all, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the horse.”

“We wanted it to be the greatest horse we could find,” Joe said. “Because that was the only way we could tell you we loved you.” He smiled slightly. “Yet it seems easier to say that straight out now. I don’t know why.” He reached out and drew his father into a crushing hug. “I love you, Pa,” he said, huskily.

“And I love you,” Ben returned, no less huskily.

*****

The morning wore slowly on, and the Apaches didn’t attack. Ben was pleased to see that each of his sons took time to talk to the others, although he was never to know what passed between them. But the strain of constant vigilance was beginning to tell on them all.

Suddenly, just before noon, the Apaches attacked. They rode across the burning sand like lunatics, hollering, shouting, and firing. The Cartwrights ducked for cover, returning fire when they could, but conserving both their ammunition and their energy. They all suspected that this attack was cover for something else, but they didn’t have time to look round. All their attention was focused on staying alive, and keeping the Indians from over-running their position.

Finally, the Indians withdrew once more, and the Cartwrights took stock. They still had quite a bit of ammunition, thanks to the load that Adam had brought back the day before. None of them had been injured. But how long they could hold out was another matter.

A tiny sound made Adam turn, and the cry left his mouth before he had even sorted out what he was seeing. “Joe!” On the rocks above his youngest brother’s position, a brave had appeared, knife in hand, and was about to jump on the unsuspecting youngster.

Not wasting the time needed to look, Joe just dived flat, causing the Indian to over-shoot his target, and miss. The other members of the family immediately headed towards Joe, but shots were suddenly ringing out from below, and they dived for safety.

Scrambling to his knees, Joe faced the brave. He had dropped his pistol as he dived, and was unarmed. He watched as the brave came carefully towards him. Joe had faced knives in fights before, and he knew better than to rush at him. He braced himself and waited.

At once, the brave lunged at Joe, who met the attack perfectly, flipping the surprise Indian over his head, where he landed with bruising impact. Joe didn’t give him any time to recover, though. He whirled round and lunged at the downed man, and a fierce struggle ensued. Each fought for possession of the knife, and both suffered several shallow cuts as the fight progressed.

But luck was on Joe’s side. He brought his knee up sharply, catching the brave in the ribs. He grunted as the air whooshed out of his lungs, and his death-grip on the knife slackened slightly. It was all the chance Joe needed. He twisted his arm sharply and plunged the knife between the brave’s ribs. The brave stiffened, and died.

Panting, Joe slumped back. He wiped sweat from his brow, and turned to see how his family was doing. But Joe hadn’t realized that his fight had taken him away from the protective cover of the rocks, and as he rose from the ground, he was fully exposed to enemy fire. A fusillade of bullets peppered off the rocks beside him, but they all missed. However, the silent fire did not. An arrow struck Joe in the back, and he collapsed soundlessly.

“Joe!” Ben exclaimed, and, heedless of his own safety, he dived across to his son and pulled him to shelter. Adam and Hoss increased their fire, and saw the bow-wielding brave go down for good. “Joe,” Ben said, again, and was rewarded when Joe opened his eyes slightly.

“Sorry, Pa,” he whispered, although Ben couldn’t imagine what he had to be sorry for. It had been torture for Ben, unable to get to Joe to help him fight off the brave, but he had been pinned down by cross fire.

“Shh, son, it’s all right,” Ben soothed. He started to unbutton Joe’s shirt. “I’ve got to see how deep this arrow is in,” he said. “I’ll try not to hurt you, son.”

Puling Joe’s shirt away, Ben saw that the arrow had struck him on his left shoulder blade, and wasn’t in too deeply. It would be possible to pull it out by hand, but Ben knew this would cause Joe a lot of pain. It would have to be done, and Joe was pale enough already. Ben bit his lip.

“Pa!” It was Adam, and he sounded excited. Raising his head, Ben glanced round to see what was happening. As he did so, he realized that although the sound of shooting hadn’t diminished, it was no longer aimed at them. He frowned, puzzled, unable to understand what was going on. “It’s the army, Pa!” Adam shouted. “The army!”

The army! It was the miracle they needed. Ben spared a moment to thank the Lord, before beckoning to Adam. “Come and help me with Joe,” he said, and both his sons slid down to where Joe lay.

After a quick consultation, it was decided that Hoss would pull the arrow out, and Adam and Ben would hold Joe down. “Quickly, son,” Ben urged Hoss, who took the arrow in his mighty hand and pulled. It came free instantly, and Joe let out a cry of pain before slumping down unconscious.

Leaving Ben to tend to their brother, Adam and Hoss went back to their positions to see if there was any way they could assist the army in driving off the Indians. Ben heard them shoot a few times, but he was more concerned with Joe.

The wound on his shoulder bled freely once the arrow was out, and Ben sacrificed Joe’s shirt to make bandages. The small cuts he had received from the brave’s knife needed cleaning so that infection didn’t set in, and Ben soon had Joe’s left arm in a makeshift sling. By then, Joe was conscious again. He took the water Ben pressed on him, and lay back. Ben stroked his head. “How do you feel, son?” he asked.

“Sore,” Joe replied, honestly. “I’m tired, Pa.”

“I know, Joe. It’ll be over soon, and we’ll get you to a doctor. You just rest while you can.” Ben glanced up at his other sons. Joe tiredly followed his gaze. It relieved him to see Adam and Hoss were all right, but it was a distant relief. Joe’s body was rebelling against the abuses of the previous day, and he could barely keep his eyes open. He blinked, wondering why he could hear gunfire when none of his family was using their weapons.

“Who’s shooting?” he asked, finally.

“The army,” Ben answered. “We’ve been saved, Joe.”

“Here they come,” Adam called down, and stood up, waving to signal their position.

Within a short time, the army patrol was crowded round the entrance to the Cartwrights’ campsite. Ben went forward to greet the lieutenant he had spoken to at Tyson Wells. Adam retrieved a shirt from Ben’s saddlebags and eased Joe into it. “Lieutenant, I’m delighted to see you,” Ben said, clasping the other’s out-stretched hand. “I thought we were goners.”

“Luck is certainly on your side, Mr. Cartwright,” the lieutenant answered. “I assume that’s your youngest son, right there?”

“Yes, that’s Joe,” Ben replied. He looked back at him. “He’s been injured – hit by an arrow. We’ve got it out, but we need to get him back to Tyson Wells to see a doctor.”

“We’ll help you get packed up,” the lieutenant said, and gestured to his men. Within a short time, all the camp was packed up, the horses saddled, and everyone ready to go.

They didn’t waste time on the way back. Although most of the marauding Indians had been shot or captured, there were still a few unaccounted for, and nobody wanted to meet them. It would be dark before they got back to Tyson Wells, and no one wanted to linger.

For a time, Joe kept up, but as the punishing heat took its toll on his meager resources, he began to slow down. The dehydration he had suffered was gone, but the exposure still made its mark. Added to that was his injury from the arrow, and Joe was turning into one sick boy. Ben was keeping a sharp eye on him, and when the youth suddenly slumped and almost fell from the saddle, he reached out to catch him, while calling for a halt.

Rousing Joe with some water, Ben realized that his son was running a good going temperature. It wasn’t really a surprise. His body had been abused for several days, and the shock from the wound earlier that day didn’t help. It was clear that there was no way Joe could ride on alone. He would have to double up with someone. Unfortunately, that would slow them down.

“What do you want to do, Mr. Cartwright?” asked the lieutenant. “We could find somewhere to stop for the night, but to be truthful, I think we’ve about used up all our luck. I think we ought to push on back to the fort.”

“I think you’re right,” Ben said, reluctantly. “Joe needs rest, but he needs a doctor more, and our luck had run out, until you found us. My sons and I will trade off riding with him, and we’ll try not to slow you down too much.”

“Joe?” Ben said, going back to where his son lay, his head cradled in Adam’s lap, as the older son sat between Joe and the sun. “You’re going to ride with me for a while, all right? We can’t stop here much longer.”

“All right,” Joe slurred. “Can I get some water?” His shoulder throbbed relentlessly, and Joe wanted nothing more than to just lie there until he felt better. He struggled to a sitting position with Adam’s help and drank the water offered to him.

With a nod, Ben and Adam pulled Joe to his feet, and between them helped him onto Buck. Ben mounted behind him, and Hoss took Cochise in tow. Adam mounted, and they all set off again. The soldiers were careful to keep the Cartwrights on the inside of the file.

The sun was almost down when a short halt was called to transfer Joe to Adam’s horse. Joe was riding in a daze, unable to keep his eyes open, or hold his head up. He gulped the water offered to him, but once more, they didn’t linger. Now that the shadows were getting longer, it was difficult to see clearly, and this was a time that Indians favored for attacking. The tension in the air was almost palatable, and the relief when they were on the move again just as tangible.

It had been dark for almost 2 hours when the lights of Tyson Wells were spotted. By then, Joe was riding with Hoss, and groaning regularly. His temperature was soaring. Ben hoped that it was just a result of the rough going, and not of some unsuspected poison on the arrowhead. He kept his worries to himself, but he was as relieved as everyone else to see the lights that meant safety.

A series of shouts ensured the gates were opened for them, and the townspeople and the soldiers that had been left behind all hurried to greet the wanderers. The Lieutenant shouted for the company doctor, and indicated Joe. Two soldiers ran over to take the wounded man from his seat in front of his brother, and gently bore him away. Joe didn’t even notice.

As Ben started after him, the lieutenant stopped him. “Mr. Cartwright, go and get some food, a bath and clean clothes,” he said. “That’s an order. Your son will be fine while you do that, and if there’s a problem, the doctor will come and get you. But you need some rest before you become ill, too.”

“But, Joe…” Ben started.

“Come on, Pa, the lieutenant is right,” Adam said. “You need to get changed if nothing else. The doctor won’t let you near Joe if you’re as dirty as this.”

“We’ll tend to your mounts,” the soldier assured him. “And your son is right. Our doctor is a stickler for cleanliness.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied, and went off to the hotel with his sons.

*****

For the next several days, Ben sat by Joe’s bedside in the military hospital while his son fought the fever induced by exposure and injury. When the doctor had cleaned out the arrow wound, he had discovered that Joe’s shoulder blade was chipped, and he had to remove several splinters of bone. Joe was swathed in bandages like a mummy, with his arm bound firmly across his chest. For most of the time, Joe was asleep, his body demanding rest. Ben bathed Joe’s head, and fed him when he was awake, talking quietly to him all the time. Joe quite often just lay listening to him, smiling slightly as Ben told him about his rant at his brothers when they had told him why Joe had gone to Yuma. Ben thought that Joe had lost weight, for his face looked thinner.

When Joe was awake, he was quite lucid, despite the fever. Adam and Hoss visited as often as they could, but they were helping the military out by going out with local patrols, to keep a watch for the last of the Indians. However, after three days, the lieutenant received a telegraph, saying that the last of the marauders had been captured, and the land was once more safe for travelers.

This was good news, but it would be more than a week before Joe would get out of hospital, the doctor told them, and longer still before he was fit to ride home. It was decided that Adam and Hoss would go back to the Ponderosa with the horses they had bought, and then Adam would return to help Ben bring Joe home. If, in the meantime, the Indians returned to the warpath, Adam would stay at the ranch.

Three weeks later, Joe, Ben and Adam rode out of Tyson Wells to begin the journey home.

*****

Epilogue

About a month later, Ben sat at his desk, ostensibly doing paperwork, but in reality watching his sons. Adam was seemingly engrossed in a book. Hoss and Joe were playing checkers. They never seemed to tire of the game, although Ben had, on more than one occasion, seen Joe playing chess with Adam. On the desk in front of Ben was a silver mounted dueling pistol, a replacement gift for his birthday. Ben loved it, but as he had pointed out to the boys, they didn’t have to give him anything at all. Just having them all home safe and sound was gift enough.

Typically, it had been Joe who had pestered his brothers into buying another gift. He was still off work, and his active mind had had plenty of time to think of what else they could get Ben. He had seen the pistol on a trip into town with Ben, and had persuaded Adam to go in and buy it. They had wrapped it carefully and watched with pleasure as Ben had opened the gift.

“We wanted to give you a real gift,” Joe said, when Ben had protested that they had no need to buy him anything. “Something you could touch. Not us – we’re not really gifts, are we?”

They had all laughed, but Joe’s words stuck with Ben. He did count his sons as gifts, and had done from the day they were born. They were each precious to him in their own different ways. Leaning back, his pretence of bookkeeping forgotten, Ben watched his sons. Yes, they were gifts, and he was going into the present with them by his side.

*****End*****

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