Last Chance (by Rona)

Summary:  A What Happened Next for Second Chance

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T
Word Count:  9,295


 

“I don’t know where you come from, Pa,” Hoss Cartwright panted, “but you sure are welcome!”

Grunting, Ben Cartwright urged his middle son into the abandoned way station and firmly shut the door behind him. They had gained a few precious seconds respite from the Indian attack, but they knew it couldn’t last. “I came looking for you,” he said, and looked over at his youngest son, Joe, who had a rough bandage around his shoulder. Concern spiked Ben’s gut, and he went over to Joe. “What happened to you, Joe? Are you all right?”

“I’m all right, Pa” Joe responded brusquely, brushing off his father’s concern. He headed straight over to one of the front windows to keep watch.

Perplexed, but not surprised by Joe’s rudeness, Ben looked to Hoss for enlightenment. Joe was never forthcoming on his own injuries, and frequently resorted to rudeness to divert attention away from them. “He got hit by an arrow,” Hoss explained. “I tried to pull it out, Pa, but it broke clean off in my hand.” The big man looked deeply unhappy. “I seen some smoke nearby and went over. Joe followed me when he heard shots fired, and the doctor there agreed to help him.” Hoss nodded to where an old man, Isaac Dawson lay with his head cradled on his wife’s lap. “He couldn’t do it hisself,” Hoss went on, “but Mizz Dawson done it. Joe seemed all right, but his temperature began to climb as we drove here.”

Thinking back, Ben nodded. “And he was in that wagon that crashed right outside?” he asked, although he was sure of the answer. “I thought he looked like he was limping?”

“That’s right,” Hoss agreed. “But he ain’t hurt none by that crash, Pa. Chubb stepped him on, back at that last ranch we was at. His foot’s sore, is all.”

“I want to hear the story,” Ben said, “but not now.” He posted himself by the other front window, seeing that Lieutenant March had organized the other men into defensive positions.

The respite hadn’t lasted long, and the Indians were soon circling the station, firing at the people trapped inside. They tried to conserve their ammunition, although they had quite a lot, knowing that these Indians were but the first to arrive. The main body of the marauders were following along behind.

Ben couldn’t help but speculate what a strange band of travelers this was. There was the doctor, and the woman Hoss insisted was his wife, although she was several years younger. There were two older men, one of whom had a young woman in tow. She appeared to be his daughter. Then there was a middle-aged man with a moustache, who looked decidedly shifty to Ben’s wary eyes. However, his life might depend on one of them, and he couldn’t afford to judge them too harshly. He freely admitted that he had no idea of the circumstances under which they had reached this point in their lives. He would find out their stories later.

His attention was drawn back outside as the Indians approached once more. Ben was partially reassured by Joe firing at them, but only partially. However, his attention was taken by Lt March, who said, “We have a casualty, sir. The old man; he’s going fast.”

Nodding, wondering vaguely how he came to be in charge of this motley crew, Ben rose and made his way across. He had heard the murmur of voices as Doctor and Mrs. Dawson talked, and he arrived in time to hear Dr Dawson say, “No pain at all.” He sounded happy, but seconds later his eyes closed, and he had gone. Mrs. Dawson’s eyes filled with tears, and Ben murmured his condolences.

Looking up at him, Mrs. Dawson said, “He was the kindest man that ever lived.”

Patting her hand, Ben rose to go over to Joe. He was concerned by the way his youngest son was clutching the windowsill, and he knelt by him, not in the least surprised when Hoss joined him. “How’s that wound of yours?” Ben asked.

“Nothing I can’t stand,” Joe responded, but he was breathless and his skin was sheened in sweat. Ben wiped some off his shoulder and back, appalled at the heat radiating from him.

“Joe, why don’t ya go an’ git some rest,” Hoss suggested, “and you sing out if’n you need us.”

Lifting his gun, Joe fired out of the window. “If I waited for you two to sing out, I’d a bin scalped by now,” he retorted, rudely, and Ben knew just how ill Joe was feeling by that.

Trying to hide his concern, Ben said, “Tell you what, Joe, if we need any help we’ll sing out.” He rose and moved back to his own post, and Hoss reluctantly followed.

Crouched by the window, Joe felt the cool breeze play across his hot skin, and shivered slightly. He knew that he couldn’t hold on much longer, but his pride refused to let him give in. He shot a glance over his shoulder and saw that the doctor was dead. Joe felt a pang of grief. He barely knew the man, but he had been kind, and Joe knew he might have died if the arrow hadn’t been removed when it had been. He would always be grateful to Isaac Dawson, and was sorry the man hadn’t lived to see his granddaughter for the first time.

Looking back out the window, Joe called, “Pa, over here.” Ben came at once, and Joe gestured out of the window. The rest of the Indians had arrived.

There really wasn’t anything to say. They silently resumed their watch, although Joe was aware of Ben going over to talk to Mulvaney, the coward of Bishop’s Creek. Joe didn’t really recall much about the massacre at Bishop’s Creek, but the name was familiar enough. He wasn’t too sure what the man had done, and he was too sick to care. As long as he watched that barn over there, that was all that counted to Joe.

“There’s a loose horse out there,” Frazier said, coming from the back of the way station. “I could sneak out and go and get help.”

“Hear the panic in his voice?” crowed Mulvaney. “He wants to run!”

“You wouldn’t get 10 yards,” Ben said, flatly. “Get back to your post.” Giving Ben a hard look, Frazier reluctantly headed back.

At that moment, Joe, who had been listening to the conversation, suddenly collapsed, his gun clattering from his hand to the floor. Hoss reacted instantly, going over to his younger brother, as Joe used his uninjured left arm to try and pull himself upright again. He might almost have succeeded, too, but Hoss just put aside his gun, slid an arm under Joe’s knees, another one round his shoulders and picked him up. The movement was too much and Joe stopped fighting the inevitable. He surrendered to the darkness.

*****

When he opened his eyes some times later, he knew that there was something different. For a moment, Joe just lay still, allowing everything to settle down. Slowly turning his head, he saw that everyone was gathered around Hoss near the door. Frowning, Joe peered at the object Hoss clutched in his hand, not sure he could trust what his eyes were telling him. It looked as though Hoss was holding a gun that had exploded.

The young woman, Anna, was sobbing in Ben’s arms, and everyone else looked pole axed. There was no sound of gunfire, and Joe started to lift himself up, suddenly curious. However, Hoss saw the movement, and handing the remains of the gun to the lieutenant, hurried over to prevent Joe rising.

“Jist you stay right there, Shortshanks,” Hoss ordered, eyeing Joe closely to see if there was any improvement in his condition. He briefly laid his hand on Joe’s forehead to check for fever, and was relieved that it seemed to be down slightly.

“What happened?” Joe asked, gesturing discreetly towards Anna.

Biting his lip, Hoss looked down, and Joe could see his big brother’s distress. “What is it, Hoss?” he asked, concerned.

“Mulvaney, Anna’s Pa,” Hoss said. He had to stop and swallow as the gruesome picture of what he had seen outside popped into his mind once more. “He went out to them Injuns behind the wagon, and he…” Hoss couldn’t go on, but he didn’t need to. Joe had seen the remains of the rifle, and knew quite well what Mulvaney had done.

“Guess he found his courage after all,” Joe said, softly. Closing his eyes briefly, Joe wondered if the man had found his courage. Or was this just the ultimate way of running away? It wasn’t like Joe to doubt people like that, and he put the thought from his mind. Mulvaney, whatever his reasoning, had saved all their lives. Now, they had to take the chance given to them and get out, before the Indians came back. “Have the Indians gone?” he asked, just to be sure.

“For now,” Hoss agreed, confirming Joe’s own thought.

“We’ve got to move then,” Joe said, sitting up energetically, and regretting the movement at once. His head swam and he had to clutch the edge of the cot to prevent himself toppling ignominiously to the floor. “Whoa!” he said.

“You rest some more, Joe,” Hoss said. “We’ll get things ready to go. We gotta bury Mr. Mulvaney, and Doc Dawson first, and you ain’t in no condition to help us.”

“I’m fine,” Joe protested, but he knew it was hopeless when he saw Ben heading over their way. “Pa, I’m fine,” Joe repeated, hoping to pull the wool over Ben’s eyes, but his father wasn’t fooled.

“Joe, I’ve seen… candles with more color than you,” Ben said, having changed his original sentence mid way through. He’d been going to say he’d seen corpses with more color, but that hardly seemed appropriate when they had two members of the party dead. “You need to rest, son, so you’re ready to move on when we are ready. We can’t stay here.”

“I know,” Joe returned, sulkily. “All right, I’ll wait.” He eased back down on the cot and closed his eyes once more. For a moment, Ben’s warm, calloused hand closed on Joe’s arm and gave a comforting squeeze. It seemed to Joe that he could feel that warm loving touch for a long time after the hand was removed.

*****

The funerals were simple and starkly painful. Joe, wrapped in a blanket against the encroaching dusk, put his hand down to help Mrs. Dawson to her feet. Really it was just a token gesture, as it was taking him a good deal of time to keep his own feet, but he felt a huge debt of gratitude to her, and wanted to help in whatever way he could.

“Let me help you into the wagon,” Joe said, still holding her elbow, but Mrs. Dawson shook her head.

“Joe, you are the one who needs my help, not the other was around,” she said, gently. The tears still sparkled in her eyes, but she was visibly calmer. As he opened his mouth to protest, she hushed him gently. “I am a nurse,” she reminded him. “And I know a fever when I feel one. Now, let’s get you settled in the back of the wagon.”

Sighing, but unable to deny this courageous woman his honesty, Joe slid awkwardly along the rough floor of the narrow wagon. It was packed with the remnants of the belongings from the other wagon, and there wasn’t room to stretch out fully. Joe made no complaint though, and settled himself as well as he could, even though his feet stuck out of the back of the wagon. Moments later, Anna climbed in beside them, and Ben mounted the wagon seat.

“All set?” he asked, and received a collection of grunts and nods. He chucked the reins and got the horses moving. Lt March rode out in front, and Hoss followed along behind, leading Buck and Cochise.

Peering out of the back of the wagon, Estelle Dawson said a final silent farewell to her husband. She knew that many people thought she was too young to wed him, especially considering that he had a grown family already, but Estelle had loved him from the moment she met him, and had been delighted and astounded to learn that he returned her affection. The future looked very bleak without him.

*****

They rode towards Virginia City, the nearest large town, where Ben knew for sure they would find medical attention. He desperately wanted to get Joe home and into his own bed. He knew that traveling wasn’t the best thing for Joe right then, but they had no choice. The Indians had gone for the time being, but they didn’t know when they might re-appear.

“Mr. Cartwright, Sir,” Lt March said, coming up beside him. “Its going to be dark very soon, sir. We ought to find somewhere defensible to set up camp for the night.”

Looking up from his reverie, Ben realized the man was right. “Have you seen something suitable?” he asked, and was pleased when he got a nod in response, and March pointed up ahead.

“There are some rocks up ahead, sir,” he said. “They would seem suitable, but until I’ve scouted to make sure they’re safe, I can’t be certain. Should I go ahead and check?”

For an instant, Ben was undecided. He hated to send anyone out alone, but equally, they couldn’t afford to be ambushed with two women and a wounded man in the back of the wagon. “Yes, please do,” he said, and watched March ride confidently off.

It wasn’t long before the lieutenant was back, and nodding. “It’s safe, and a good defensible situation too.”

“All right, we’ll stop there,” Ben agreed, and hurried the horses slightly.

*****

The stand of rocks curled around slightly, offering some protection for their backs, but it was a long way from the ‘good defensible position’ March had suggested. However, neither Ben nor Hoss made any complaint. It was the best they were going to find, and they had no choice but to stop for the night.

As soon as the horses were stopped, Ben was off the wagon seat and round to the back to check on Joe. He had thrown the odd word back, but it was too bumpy and noisy to carry on any kind of a conversation, and he didn’t know how Joe was faring. He hoped his son would have been able to sleep, for sleep was what Joe needed to get better. “Joe?” he said, as Mrs. Dawson stepped down from the back with Ben’s assistance.

“He’s delirious,” Mrs. Dawson said, wearily. “He needs to get out of that wagon and lie down flat and still. I’ll have to check on his wound, but I’m not happy. The infection is spreading, and I’ll need to do something about it.”

Helping Anna down, Ben squeezed into the wagon. Joe’s face was obscured by the dimness, but his harsh breathing told its own story. “Joe?” Ben repeated, and put his hand down to feel for himself how bad he was. The heat radiating from Joe’s body scared him. He stroked Joe’s tangled curls for a moment, before sliding his arm under the young man’s shoulders. “Hoss, help me,” he called, and a few moments later, Hoss’ strong arms hooked under Joe’s legs, and together they lifted him down from the wagon.

Grabbing the blanket from the wagon, Mrs. Dawson laid it on the ground and Ben and Hoss gently placed Joe there. “He looks real bad,” Hoss whispered, troubled.

“I need to look at his injury tonight,” Mrs. Dawson said, firmly. “If I wait, he’ll be dead before morning. I need a lamp. Can we hide it somehow?”

“We can try,” Hoss said, determinedly, and set off to rummage through the wagon to see if he could find what he needed there. Meanwhile, Ben began to bathe Joe with cool water, hoping to lower his temperature that way.

Within a short time, Hoss had rigged up a screen from another old blanket, and built up a pile of rocks to shelter the other side. March, Ben noted, was standing guard without being asked. Anna was sitting nearby watching in a detached manner. She had her eyes fixed on the middle distance, and Ben guessed that she would be of little help to them.

“What do you need to do?” Ben asked, as Mrs. Dawson lit a lamp and opened her husband’s medical bag.

“I’ll need boiling water to sterilize the instruments, in case I need to open the wound up,” she replied. “Mr. Cartwright, I must tell you. I am not a doctor, and until yesterday, I had never even considered operating on a person. I am a nurse, and as such, I may not know what to do. All I can do is what I think is right, going by what I have seen in the past. Do you understand?”

Swallowing hard, Ben glanced at Joe, who rolled his head, mumbling under his breath. There was no question in Ben’s mind that Joe needed help, and this woman was the only one who could give it to him. He nodded firmly. “I understand. Could you use some help?”

“Yes, thank you,” she replied, relieved. She glanced at Anna. “I don’t think Miss Mulvaney is cut out for this sort of thing,” she went on, and Ben could only agree. They had done their best to shield her from seeing the remains of her father, but even so, the girl had fainted. Ben didn’t blame her in the least – he had felt rather queasy himself – but he knew Anna was in no fit state to help out.

It didn’t take Hoss long to get a small fire going, and while the water boiled, he made some soup from the remains of the rations. They had abundant water, for which he was thankful. This Sweetwater area was ill named in Hoss’ opinion. It was hard desert country and the scarce water was anything but sweet. He took the water to Mrs. Dawson and then went over to relieve March on guard duty. Hoss didn’t really want to watch while Joe’s shoulder was cut open once more.

“How’s your brother?” March asked, as he stretched.

“Not doin’ so good,” Hoss replied, worriedly. “Mizz Dawson’s lookin’ to him now.” He pointed to the fire, now out. “I made some soup. Could you try an’ get Mizz Anna to take some, ya reckon?”

“I’ll surely try,” March agreed, and went down to try his Southern charm on the girl. It certainly seemed to work, for when Hoss glanced back a few minutes later, she was eating her soup, and looking at the tall, blond soldier with adoration.

*****

As Mrs. Dawson drew back the bandage, Ben could barely contain a gasp. He had known that the arrowhead had had to be cut out of Joe’s shoulder, but he hadn’t allowed himself to imagine the incision. It was longer than he had expected, and looked red, swollen and inflamed. A clear fluid leaked from the edges and even someone unskilled in medicine could see that infection had set in.

“What are you going to do?” Ben asked, hesitantly.

“I’m going to open the wound up,” she replied, “and cut away any infected tissue. Then I’ll flush the whole thing with alcohol and stitch it closed again.” She looked up at Ben. “Truthfully, I don’t know what else to do, Mr. Cartwright.”

“First off, you can call me Ben,” he responded, and was pleased to see a tiny smile appear.

“I’m Estelle,” she said, and they smiled at each other. “Have you had any experience of surgery?” Estelle asked, as she dropped her instruments into the boiling water.

“Yes, unfortunately I have,” Ben replied, grimly, recalling the time when he had helped pick buckshot out of Joe’s back, and later from General Diaz. He had thought he was going to lose Joe, then, too, but the boy had pulled through. “I know what to do. I’ll hold him down, don’t worry.”

“When was this?” Estelle asked, as Ben briefly related the tale to her.

“Five years ago,” Ben answered, wondering where the time had gone. “In some respects, Joe doesn’t seem much older, though in other ways, he’s grown so much.”

“Time has a habit of doing that,” she remarked. “Especially with boys. And your other son is a good bit older, isn’t he? That helps make them grow up, I’ve noticed.”

“Yes,” Ben answered. He said no more as Estelle dipped her hands into the hot water, took out the scalpel and carefully dried it. She put some alcohol onto the edge of a clean towel and wiped the area. Joe winced and mumbled. Ben remembered his duties, and held Joe down.

After a moment’s prayer for a steady hand, and some divine intervention, Estelle cut into Joe’s shoulder.

At once, Joe’s eyes half opened, and he let out a yell. Estelle paled, but resolutely kept going. Thick, creamy pus oozed out all along the incision. “Adam!” Joe yelled, and sank deeper into unconsciousness. Ben wondered if Joe was reliving the operation where Adam removed a bullet from Joe’s shoulder after accidentally shooting his youngest brother. There had been no ether for that operation, either.

“Who’s Adam?” Estelle asked, knowing that her voice was shaking, as well as her hands, but determined not to show it. She could almost hear Isaac’s voice in her ear, guiding her hand, making suggestions. She had seen procedures like this a hundred times, and it was those memories that guided her, too, she knew, but she felt very close to Isaac in those few minutes.

“Adam’s my oldest son,” Ben said, in a troubled voice, stroking Joe’s head. “He left home to travel the world three years ago.” He cleared his throat abruptly. “Joe was against his going, and I believe they quarreled about it. But as the letters from Adam become less frequent, Joe has mentioned him less and less. It took me a long time to realize that Joe thought Adam had betrayed my dream by leaving.”

“And did he?” Estelle asked, wiping away the pus. She was fairly sure she knew the answer, but wanted to hear Ben say it, anyway.

“No,” Ben replied, still stroking Joe’s hair. “The Ponderosa was always my dream, not his. I never expected my sons to share my dream, and I’m grateful that Adam stayed as long as he did, but I know in my heart he’ll never be back. But for Hoss, and Joe, it’s different. Joe has never lived anywhere else, and Hoss barely remembers anywhere else. For them, it’s all they want, and I’m thankful for that. It was my dream but I built it for them.”

No more was said for a while, as Estelle was busy cleaning the wound and cutting away the infected tissue. The light was poor, and she was concerned lest she not get every particle out. Ben was lost in his thoughts. He knew that Joe missed Adam, but unless someone else brought Adam into the conversation, Joe never mentioned his brother’s name, and even when someone else brought it up, Joe often changed the subject or left the room. Ben didn’t know how to help Joe let the hurt out, and so it had festered, like his shoulder.

In a way, Ben blamed himself, for he had been unable to talk about Adam much either, for he missed him. And yet, as the years passed, and Ben came to accept that Adam wasn’t coming back, he grew to rely more and more on Joe, who had matured into a fine young man. He was still mercurial of temperament, but much less so than of old. The golden laughter still lit the corners of the ranch house and Joe still enjoyed the privileges of being the baby of the family. But he was so much more than that now. He was steady and hard working in a way that Ben had never expected him to be. Although bookwork still held as little appeal for him as it had ever done, he took on his share of it, and more.

For as long as he could remember, Adam had been seen as the clever son. Joe, although he had a quick mind, had been the clown of the family, keeping them laughing, or keeping them worried, but never boring, never quiet. But once Adam had gone, Joe spread his wings and became a man of such depth that Ben could scarcely believe this was the scape-grace young man that had caused him so much heart ache. Many of the new ideas they were using on the ranch had come from Joe and he turned his hand to whatever needed his attention; be it timber, mining, beef or horses, Joe would take his turn. Oh, there were still times when Ben could cheerfully turn him over his knee and tan his hide. The incident with breeding rabbits sprang to mind at once. But Joe had become his right-hand man, and Ben could not conceive of a life without him. Adam was not the only clever son Ben had, not by a long way.

Ben came back to the present with a jolt, as Estelle poured alcohol liberally over the wound. Joe came thrashing back to consciousness, and Ben soothed and calmed him, even as Joe gasped out for the one comfort that had been there all his life. “Pa?”

“I’m here, son,” Ben said, tenderly, holding him down. “Soon be done.”

Working as quickly as she could, Estelle stitched up the ragged wound, as Joe clutched Ben’s hand and fought down his groans of pain. Once it was done, she gave Joe some water, and washed his sweaty face with a damp cloth. There was no pain medicine to give him, but exhaustion soon worked and he slipped into sleep.

“Thank you,” Ben said.

“I hope it was enough,” Estelle replied, honestly. She was as tired as her patient. After a moment, she mused, “It’s interesting that he remembered it was you with him.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, looking up from Joe’s face for the first time.

“Well, people in this kind of distress usually call for their mothers. I was just surprised that he remembered it was you with him.”

“Joe doesn’t remember his mother too clearly,” Ben said, in a low voice. He reached over and extinguished the lamp. Now that the surgery was over, there was no need for it. And the dark somehow invited confidences. “His mother died when he was just a small child. So, you see, he’s used to calling out for me.”

“I’m so sorry,” Estelle said, at once. She felt tears in her eyes, as her own loss, exacerbated by her tiredness, came back to her in full measure. “That must have been very hard on you and your sons.”

Somehow, without meaning to, Ben ended up telling her of all three of his wives, and how they’d died. Estelle listened quietly, and thought how this explained so much about things she’d noticed about the Cartwright brothers.

Suddenly Ben realized that Estelle Dawson must be exhausted. “You go and get some rest,” he said. “I’ll sit with Joe.”

“I must just put on a bandage and sling,” she said. “His arm will need some support, since the muscles have now been damaged a second time. I just hope I was able to do enough.”

“I can put on a bandage,” Ben said. “Not as professionally as you, I’m sure, but I can do it. You get some rest.”

With a small smile, Estelle went to lie down and rest. She fell asleep almost at once. After a few minutes, Anna went over and lay down close by, soon drifting off to sleep. March had resumed guard duty. Hoss came across to where Joe lay.

“How’s he doin’, Pa?” Hoss asked, kneeling by Joe to brush a hand through his tangled curls.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “Mrs. Dawson cut out the infected tissue, and drained the wound. We’ll just have to wait and see what morning brings. Why don’t you get some sleep, and March can wake you in a few hours.”

“You’re tired, too, Pa,” Hoss protested.

“I’m all right,” Ben assured him. “You get some sleep.” He turned his attention back to Joe as his son mumbled something in his sleep. Retrieving a canteen, Ben soaked the cloth he’d been using and once more draped it on Joe’s head. That done, he said another prayer that the Almighty would keep them all safe.

*****

The night passed uneventfully, with Hoss and March trading off keeping watch, and Ben finally agreeing to sleep for a few hours as Estelle watched over Joe. There was no great change in Joe’s condition, but Estelle pointed out that it was too soon.

But as the pre-dawn glow lightened the sky in the east, the Indians struck. Everyone was up, as they hoped to make an early start towards Virginia City, but nobody was prepared for the sudden ferocity of the attack.

An arrow sang through the air and thudded into the wagon’s woodwork beside Hoss’ head. For a heartbeat, everyone froze, shocked, then they all dived for cover, drawing their weapons. “Are you all right?” Ben shouted to Hoss as he crouched protectively over Joe.

“Fine,” Hoss shouted back, even as he rose to his knees and fired at one of the Indians passing by on horseback. He missed.

“What’s the noise?” Joe asked, jolted from sleep by the firing around him. He made a feeble attempt to sit up, which Ben easily stopped.

“We’re under attack,” Ben answered, tersely. “Stay down!”

“I can help,” Joe protested. But he didn’t argue more as Ben ducked. An arrow sailed overhead.

There was a scream as March nailed one of the Indians. Ben cautiously raised his head and fired at another. He was successful, too. It was then that he noticed that, as on the previous day, they weren’t fighting a large number. This was a scouting party, who were pinning them down until the rest of the marauders arrived. Ben had no intentions of being there when they did.

As Hoss brought down another of the Indians, Ben said, “Stay there, Joe and don’t move!” He got to his feet and raced over to where March crouched behind some boulders. A bullet whizzed by as he made cover. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“You won’t get any argument from me, sir,” March returned. “If we work together, we should be able to do it.”

Seeing that they were of one mind, Ben nodded. At once, March took up position, aiming where the Indians had been circling. Ben took up position, aiming slightly further along the same circle. If one missed, the other should hit.

The strategy worked almost immediately. Two Indians were brought down in quick succession.

Left alone, unable to see what was going on, Joe soon began to fret over the safety of his family. He put his hand down to his thigh, but his holster wasn’t there. Frowning, Joe tried to think where it might be, but the last time he remembered having it was at the way station. He didn’t know exactly where they were, but he was certain it wasn’t the stage station!

Rolling over onto his left side to sit up, Joe was suddenly aware of a rush of air behind him, and twisting his head round, gaped in disbelief at the arrow embedded in the blanket where he had been lying a moment before. The surge of adrenalin that course through his body got him to his feet without conscious decision.

At the movement, Ben snapped his head round. “Get down, Joe!” he yelled, his heart in his mouth.

There was no immediate response, but Joe wasn’t looking at Ben. His eyes were skimming the rocks surrounding them. He had to pinpoint where the marksman was in order to avoid the next shot in his direction. Or so he reasoned. His good left arm scrambled for a rock to throw. Just as he found one, he spotted the Indian, high above the camp. For an instant the two adversaries gazed at one another. They were of a similar age and build, as far as Joe could tell. Then the spell broke, and they both moved as one.

Both had excellent aim. Joe’s rock struck the Indian in the chest, and the hapless man toppled backwards to his death below. Joe dived sideways to avoid the arrow, and felt a stinging tear on his right upper arm. As he crashed to the ground, totally worn out, he glanced at his arm, and saw the arrow had traced a bloody path along it. Joe had been incredibly lucky.

There were only two scouts left, and they rapidly disappeared over the horizon. Nobody thought they were gone for good. Ben leapt to his feet and rushed to Joe’s side. Hoss was only a heartbeat behind him. “Joe, are you all right?” Ben gasped, seeing the blood on Joe’s arm, and the sweat on his brow.

“I’m all right,” Joe panted, although he felt anything but all right. He allowed Ben to help him sit up and leaned against his father’s broad chest. “But that was close.” He gestured to the blanket, and Ben gazed with undisguised horror at his son’s brush with death.

“Mr. Cartwright, we’ve got to get out of here,” March said, looking anxiously back over his shoulder.

“I know,” Ben agreed. “That wagon will slow us down, though.”

“I can ride,” Joe panted valiantly, as Ben had known he would.

“You’re going to have to, son,” Ben said, patting his shoulder gently. “You and I will ride Cochise, and Mrs. Dawson and Anna can ride double on Buck, and Hoss can take you on Chubb if he needs to.” Ben collected nods from them all, though he could see Joe looked slightly puzzled. However, Cochise was younger than Buck, and Ben wasn’t sure of the ladies’ riding ability, which is why he opted to give them the more sedate mount. “Fill all the canteens, and everyone take a good drink now.”

Nodding, Hoss went off to see to that chore. Anna watched him go, then looked round. “I can’t do it,” she said, wildly, and burst into tears. “I can’t go on!”

At once, March went to her, trying to soothe her, but his words had little effect. The girl became more and more hysterical, and it was Estelle Dawson who calmed things down. She went across to Anna and slapped her briskly on the cheek. The sobbing stopped, and the younger woman looked at her with shock in her eyes. Her hand crept up to her cheek, which bore the scarlet imprint of the slap. “I don’t care whether you can go on or not, my dear,” Estelle said, firmly. “But mark my words. You will go on!”

*****

They had nine canteens between them, and Ben could only hope that was enough. They set out as soon as they were ready, turning the wagon horses loose and taking only necessities with them. Joe had insisted that he get his gun and holster back, and Ben had reluctantly agreed. Joe was sick, but as he had shown them earlier, he still had excellent aim.

It had taken both Hoss and Ben to get Joe into the saddle, and he now sported one of Hoss’ shirts to keep the sun from burning him. It was a pity that Joe’s hat had got lost in the preceding day somewhere.

The ladies were managing better than Ben had feared, and it was clear that they both had had a little experience at riding.

The pace Ben set was a slow one, of necessity. The horses had had a hard day the day before, and Ben wanted to keep them as fresh as he could, so they would still be able to run when needed. It was also hot, and they didn’t have enough water to share it with the horses. And without the horses, they were finished!

It was almost noon when they heard the war whoops in the air behind them. Hoss flashed a look over his shoulder. There was no sign of the Indians yet, but they wouldn’t be far behind. He looked around for somewhere they could hole up, but despite the rocky ground they were covering, there was precious little shelter.

“Over there!” March pointed to an outcropping of rock with a sheer drop above it. It wasn’t ideal, but would have to do. They urged their horses into a ground-covering lope, and arrived not a moment too soon.

Pulling Joe from the horse as gently yet as quickly as they could, Ben ducked as he heard a bullet sing past. Hoss tugged the horses closer to the rock face, and they settled Joe there as best they could. He was exhausted, his eyes glazed with the effort of staying upright. “Stay there!” Ben ordered, sternly, before taking up a defensive position close by.

Much as Joe would have hated to admit it, he felt better now that he was still. His shoulder throbbed, but it didn’t feel as painful as it had the night before. Joe was finding the pain very tiring. He continually relaxed his jaw, only to find he had tensed it again, trying to hide his discomfort. He had fought hard to muffle his grunts and groans of pain, not wanting Ben to know how badly it hurt. Joe didn’t realize that Ben was quite well aware of how bad Joe was feeling.

“Joe?” Estelle Dawson was crouched beside him, a rifle in her hand. She professionally felt his brow. “How do you feel?”

“I’m fine,” Joe said, smiling slightly. “Thanks to you, Mrs. Dawson.”

“Thanks to your own constitution,” she responded, tartly, but a smile softened her face. “Your fever is down a bit, which is good. You need a long rest, young man.”

“I’d like to oblige you; ma’am,” he responded wryly, “but those Indians haven’t heard your medical diagnosis.”

Smiling, Estelle stroked her hand down his cheek. He was such a handsome young man, and she had become very fond of him in the past few days. “I’ll be sure to tell them,” she joked back. With one more smile, she went to take her place with the defenders.

Once more they faced half a dozen Indian scouts. Ben glanced round to make sure they all had enough ammunition, for that was one thing they hadn’t skimped on bringing. He nodded approvingly to Estelle Dawson, who once more was defending the party, as she had done at the way station. Only Joe and Anna weren’t crouched ready to fire. Ben quickly corrected himself; Joe did have his gun drawn, and would no doubt shoot if the need arose. Anna crouched near Joe, her face a picture of terror and misery. Ben felt sorry for the girl, but he had no more time to spare for her. The Indian were almost on them.

No clever maneuvers would help them this time. It was a straight firefight, and there was every chance that none of them would come out of it alive. Ben just hoped they wouldn’t die too painful a death. He lifted his rifle and fired back at the Indians. He was gratified to see one go down. Estelle fired at one, and winged him. Clinging to his pony’s mane, the brave was carried off past their retreat, and the defenders promptly forgot about him. There was too much going on to spend time watching him.

From his position, Joe couldn’t see what was going on, just the way the others ducked to avoid the bullets. He wished fiercely that he was up to helping them out, but knew that it would be too much for him, as it had been at the stage station. He closed his eyes briefly, wishing they’d been able to find a way to get into the shade.

Some sixth sense made Joe turn his head and open his eyes just as the injured brave made a lunge for him. He had slipped off his pony and slunk his way into the camp. He had a large bowie knife in his hand.

There was no time to shout for help. Joe rolled frantically towards the brave, hoping to knock him off his legs. Anna let out a piercing scream and shrank back against the rocks. The horses began to mill about anxiously. Joe noticed none of this. One handed, he fought for his life, not just against the brave, but against his own weakness and injury, too.

His tactic of rolling worked. The brave was off balance, and Joe was able to dash the knife from his hand with a hard blow of his clenched fist. However, that advantage didn’t last long, as the brave broke free with a single blow to Joe’s face. He snatched up the knife again, and dove at Joe, clearly determined to put an end to this troublesome white man, who shouldn’t be fighting so well when he was so obviously badly injured.

Again, Joe rolled, but he wasn’t fast enough this time. The knife grazed down his temple, and the blood began to flow into his eye as he rolled to his feet. Blinking furiously, Joe almost missed the next pass, and this time, the line of fire ran along his belly.

By now, the others were aware of the fight, but there was little they could do. If they fired at the brave, they took the risk of hitting Joe, should they miss. Hoss started to rise to his feet, but a shot from the Indians on the other side of their protective bluff made him duck back to safety.

Breathing hard, Joe knew he had to end this fight before the world, which was going grey round the edges, went totally black on him. He had dropped his gun in the first rush of activity, and couldn’t immediately see it without taking his eyes from his opponent, a risk he couldn’t afford to take.

The brave feinted, and Joe backed up, giving him ground. His foot hit a rock, and Joe stumbled. As his precarious balance gave out, he sensed, rather than saw, the brave rushing at him, and Joe reacted instinctively with a move that Adam had taught him many years ago. He fell to the ground, landing on his back, and thrust his legs out and up. He caught the brave in the stomach, somersaulting the young man away from him. Caught by surprise, the brave tumbled across the ground, his knife spinning from his hand.

Too winded to rise, Joe thought the end had come. But a shot rang out, and the brave fell dead. Twisting his head to see, Joe felt suddenly sick. His body slumped, as he realized he was safe, for now.

“Joe!” Ben was at his side, Hoss just behind him, and Hoss’ gun was still smoking. “Are you all right?” Ben turned Joe’s head gently to see the cut on it.

“Thanks, big brother,” Joe panted, ignoring Ben’s question. He really didn’t want to lie to Ben, and he guessed his father wouldn’t believe any protestation of ‘fine’. “Don’t worry about me, you’re needed.”

“Not any more,” Ben said, and Joe frowned, not understanding. The movement caused him to wince, and Ben caught the hand Joe was raising to feel the extent of his head injury. “Don’t move, Joe. And don’t worry, the cavalry are coming.”

*****

They stayed there for the rest of the day. The cavalry troop was composed of some of March’s men, along with the relief troop sent to quell the Indian up rising. They had brought a wagon, shade, food and water. A makeshift camp was set up, and the army medic looked Joe over. Apart from binding up the knife cuts, which luckily weren’t serious, he didn’t do anything, and Joe slept the afternoon away in a tent while the others all got some much needed rest, too.

Next morning, they set off back to Virginia City, and although they weren’t harassed by the Indians, they certainly saw the full extent of the up rising. There was hardly a farm or ranch still standing. Some of the ranches belonged to people Ben knew, but he had only one concern – his youngest son.

Joe wasn’t rallying, as he should, Ben thought. His temperature was still up and he slept a tremendous amount. It wasn’t surprising the first day, when they were camped, but Ben was surprised at how much he slept while they were jostling around in a wagon.

It was mid-afternoon when they finally arrived in Virginia City. The citizens of the town paused in their daily doings to watch the troop of cavalry ride down the street and stop in front of the doctor’s office. They had all recognized Hoss, and weren’t surprised to see Ben emerge from the wagon. Almost everyone knew that Joe and Hoss had gone to warn the Sweetwater ranches, and that Ben had gone after them.

First, Ben helped the ladies down from the wagon, and Mrs. Dawson pushed a hand through her bedraggled hair and looked around. She had no idea where she was going to go, but in the meantime, she was content to be checked over by the doctor, and then see what happened. Anna had begun to come out of herself and make eyes at all the soldiers, and Lt March looked less than pleased at this development.

The crowd of spectators was growing by the minute, drawn by the unusual activity. When Ben and Hoss gently lifted out a bandaged figure, there was a collective gasp as folks recognized Joe. “Its Little Joe Cartwright,” they whispered to each other, and the word spread like a wave breaking upon the sand, until it finally reached Roy Coffee, the sheriff. When he heard it, the rumor suggested that Joe hadn’t long to live. He hurried down to the doctor’s to learn the truth.

It didn’t come a surprise to Paul Martin, the town’s doctor, that it was Joe Cartwright that had sustained the injuries. Joe was the most accident-prone individual he’d ever met. Luckily, he had wonderful powers of recuperation to go along with that, or Paul was convinced he’d had died long ago. However, Paul was concerned when he heard all the things that had happened to Joe this trip, and he tried to rouse him, without a great deal of success to begin with. Smelling salts finally did the trick, and after a thorough examination, Paul concluded that exhaustion was his chief problem.

However, just to be on the safe side, Paul unwrapped and examined the original wound, sniffing carefully along the bandages and the injury itself to be sure there was no sign of necrosis. He then cleaned the wound with alcohol once more, which brought Joe to screaming life, before once more bandaging it up, and putting Joe’s arm in a sling.

He then turned his attention to Joe’s other injuries. The arrow wound on his arm was little more than a graze, and healing cleanly already. The knife wounds were also clean, and not deep. But the head wound had bled persistently, and when Paul peeled off the dressings, it began again.

“I’m all right, doc,” Joe protested, trying to squirm out from under Paul’s hand.

“I don’t let my patients go home while they’re still bleeding, Joe,” Paul said, sternly. His grey eyes twinkled, however. “You should know that by now. Its bad for business.” He glanced at Ben. “I’m going to take a couple of stitches in here, just to hold it shut. Every time this expressive lad moves his face, it breaks open again.”

“All right,” Ben agreed.

“Its just a scratch,” Joe objected, not having seen it at all.

“Just who is the doctor here?” Paul asked, amused. “Hold still, sir, or I’ll get your older brother to sit on you!”

“You’ve got a great bedside manner,” Joe grumbled, subsiding. He lay as still as he could while Paul put in the stitches, thinking wearily that he’d been a pin cushion far too often over the last few days. “Can I go home now?” he asked, plaintively, as Paul bandaged his head once more.

“Be my guest,” Paul said. “But you’ve got a while in bed coming to you, Joe. I’ll be out in a few days to see how you’re doing.”

Sighing, Joe accepted the inevitable.

*****

Over the next few days, Joe did little besides rest. He knew that Mrs. Dawson and Anna were staying at the house, but he slept so much that he never saw them. It was only on the day they were leaving that Joe finally had the chance to thank the woman who had saved his life.

“I don’t know what to say,” he mumbled. Most of his bandages were off now, apart from the one on his shoulder. “Thank you doesn’t seem adequate, somehow.”

“It is for me, Joe,” Estelle said, smiling. “You and your father were just what I needed. I’ve decided to go back to Isaac’s family. They aren’t my children, but it gives me a place to stay, while I decide what to do. But I have the feeling I might just see if I can train to be a doctor.”

“You’ll be a great doctor,” Joe said, smiling delightedly at her.

“Goodbye, Joe,” Anna said, simply. “I’m going East to stay with my aunt.”

“Take care,” Joe replied, realizing that he didn’t know this young woman at all. He never saw either of them again.

*****

Later, making sure that Joe was settled for the night, Ben recalled Estelle’s last piece of advice to him. “Talk to Joe about Adam, Ben,” she’d advised. “Bring it out into the open.”

“I want to talk to you, son,” Ben said, sitting down on the bed.

Lying flat, Joe nodded. “Sure, Pa,” he said, agreeably. He was tired; as it was the first day he’d been allowed out of bed for more than a few minutes.

“It’s about Adam,” Ben said, and saw what he expected; Joe’s face closed up. “I just want you to listen, Joe,” he went on, although it was difficult to talk calmly in the face of his son’s distress. “I was upset when Adam left. I didn’t want him to go. But the choice was his, the same as the choice is yours, should you decide to leave.”

“I wouldn’t!” Joe denied.

“Just listen,” Ben said. “Joe, I always knew Adam wouldn’t stay here forever. Much as he loved the Ponderosa – oh yes, he loved it – he always had other dreams. I wouldn’t be much of a father if I denied him his dreams. So although it hurt to let Adam go, and I miss him, I can bear it. Do you know why?”

“You’re a nice man?” Joe hazarded, tears standing in his eyes.

Chuckling, Ben patted Joe’s arm. “I don’t know about that.” He sobered. “No, there is another reason, Joe. You.”

“Me?” Joe said, frowning. “What do you mean?”

“Joe, a father has no favorite children. Each child is loved for himself. But there is something special about you. We are more alike than we realize. When Adam went away, we coped. Each time he was at school, we coped without him. The one person we can’t seem to manage without is you. Joe, don’t get me wrong. You are free to leave here if that is what you want to do. But I built this dream for you and for Hoss. And I rely on you more than you know.”

Tears were standing in Joe’s eyes. “Are you telling me not to hate Adam because he left?”

“That’s right.” Ben patted Joe’s arm once more. “He was a square peg in a round hole. It happens. He’s happy doing what he’s doing. We can’t begrudge him that.”

“I thought he hurt you,” Joe cried, as passionate as a child.

“It wasn’t me he hurt,” Ben said, softly, and Joe suddenly realized what Ben meant.

“It was me,” Joe breathed, as though it was a revelation. “I was hurt when he left again.”

“A remarkable thing happened when Adam left,” Ben went on. “You grew up, Joe. You became a man I’m very proud of. You’ve tackled everything that’s come your way, and succeeded at it. Oh, sure there are times I could cheerfully throttle you – those rabbits for instance! – but Joe, you have been as dependable as anyone I could have hoped to have working for me. I love you, son, and I’m so proud of you I could burst.”

For some time there was silence. Joe’s room was lit with a warm glow from the oil lamp, and it felt secure and cozy. Joe’s gaze was on some far distant vista his father could not perceive. He guessed that Joe was reassessing himself, and shedding the last remnants of ‘Little’ Joe Cartwright. It had been some time since anyone had called him that to his face, and apart from Hoss calling him ‘Shortshanks’ nobody used any diminutive term in reference to Joe.

Thanks to Estelle, Ben had realized that perhaps Adam had unintentionally helped prevent Joe from growing up all the way. His habit of calling Joe ‘little buddy’ had been a slight of kinds, though not meant hurtfully. It was an inescapable fact that Joe had matured since Adam had gone away and although Ben missed Adam, his place by Ben’s side wasn’t empty. Joe had filled it more than adequately. He had filled it in a way that Ben had never imagined, but could not now conceive of doing without. Joe had more than filled Adam’s place; he had surpassed it.

“I thought I was angry because Adam left and hurt you,” Joe said. “But I was wrong. I was angry because he left and hurt me. But I’m not hurting any more. You’re right, Pa. I’m not the same person as I was when Adam left.”

“None of us are,” Ben said. He glanced around as Hoss came quietly into the room. “We’ve lived and grown with each new experience, and I’m so thankful that you both came through the Indian uprising. I was going to say unscathed, but that isn’t quite true, as usual.”

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss said. “You know Joe only gets in these scrapes to see if’n the women folks is pretty.”

“Oh no you don’t!” Joe protested. “This time my motives were pure. I helped someone find her true vocation in life.”

“Don’t he jist look like a saint?” Hoss asked. “Don’t he?”

After a few minutes of mild horseplay, Ben calmed things down again. Hoss said good night and left. Ben followed him, and hesitated in the doorway. “Give Adam another chance.”

“His last chance?” Joe said, but with a smile, so Ben knew he didn’t mean it.

“Yes, his last chance,” Ben agreed. “The first of many.”

*****End*****

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