Summary: A “re-write” of the episode of the same name,
Word Count: 10,310
Riding wearily into the yard after a long day riding fence, Joe Cartwright stopped his horse by the pile of hay outside the barn, and stretched. The yard was quiet, as the hands and Joe’s older brothers were all out on a cattle drive. There was only Joe and his father Ben at home. Joe was very sensitive to atmosphere, and the expectant air in the yard seemed wrong to him. It was almost as though there was someone there. Looking round, he tried to see if there was anything out of the ordinary, but he couldn’t see anything. Going over to the barn, Joe peered in, but it was in darkness, so he headed towards the house. He’d see if Pa was home before he put away his horse, he decided.
Something, a tiny noise, or movement, made Joe pause and look all round. There was nothing to be seen, but it was a dark night, with no moon. Joe tried to shrug the feeling off, but some instinct insisted that there was something wrong. But nothing was obviously out of place, so Joe shook his head, and walked briskly towards the house. Perhaps there was bad weather on the way.
A shot rang out and something hit Joe hard in the back. There was an instant of agonizing pain as his legs buckled. Joe was unconscious before he landed in a tumbled heap in the doorway of his home.
In the shadow of the barn, the gunman lowered his sawn-off shotgun and smiled.
The first thing that Ben Cartwright saw as he rode into the yard was Cochise, Joe’s pinto horse, eating contentedly at the hay pile outside the barn. Ben was annoyed on two counts; one that Joe hadn’t put his horse away, and two, that he hadn’t put the hay in the barn.
“Joe!” he called, dismounting. No answer. “Joseph!” Still nothing. Angry now, Ben shouted, “Is it too much trouble to stable your horse?” Still no response. With a tightening of his lips, Ben snatched up his own horse’s rein and walked purposefully to the barn, but he got no further than the door. He dropped Buck’s rein and backed out slowly his hands up, as a man with a gun forced him out. “What is this?” Ben asked.
“Shut up!” the man responded, and gave Ben a push in the general direction of the house. Ben stumbled across the yard, his heart in his mouth. What did this man want?
Inside the house, there were half a dozen men, apparently Mexican judging by their dress, stripping his gun cabinets of his rifles. Ben glared at them, and at a tall man standing by the credenza. He couldn’t imagine what was going on. Before he could say anything, there was a faint moan from the settee, then another. Ben’s eyes widened. There was no mistaking Joe’s voice, even in those soft sounds. Ben hurried round the end of the settee, ignoring the men in his home.
Joe lay on his back, his right hand flung up above his head, resting on the arm of the settee. His eyes were shut, and a sheen of sweat glistened on his face. “Joe!” Ben exclaimed, worry in his tones. He slid his hand under his son’s back, and felt something wet. Withdrawing his hand, Ben was horrified to see it was covered with blood.
“He’s just had a little accident, Mr. Cartwright,” said the tall man, and Ben saw red at the callous disregard in his tones. Jumping to his feet, he started towards the man, but both he and the one who had met him at the barn pulled their guns. Ben froze. “Just see how far you’ll get,” the tall man said.
The door opened and another Mexican came in. He stood aside, and a short, stocky, bearded man came in. He had all the air of an emperor, and when he spoke, his voice was cultured. “Is it always necessary for you men to loot like bandits?” he asked. He went to the tall man. “You disgrace us, pistollero.”
The tall man muttered something, which ended with ‘general.’ Ben ignored him, and looked to the leader. “I don’t know who you are, General…”
“I am General Diaz, of Juarez’s army. And this is the great Ponderosa.”
There was another moan from the settee, and Ben knelt by Joe’s side, stripping off his neckerchief, and wadding it into a ball. He gently reached to press it to the wound on Joe’s back. “Juarez doesn’t have an army of bandits,” he said. “I need a doctor for my son. He’s been injured, wounded.”
“Wounded?” Diaz repeated. He glanced at the other American man standing there, the one who had been waiting for Ben in the barn. “He was to be taken as hostage only.” He looked back at Ben. “What is wrong?”
“He’s been shot in the back,” Ben replied, frantically. He wasn’t interested in talking to this man; he only wanted a doctor for Joe. His son was badly injured, and in shock. There were no hands on the ranch, only these bandits. But at that point, Ben would have accepted help from the devil himself, if it helped Joe.
“A doctor is impossible,” said Diaz. Ben looked at him, and opened his mouth to speak, but Diaz went on. “If one of my men was seen in Virginia City, it would be very dangerous. Where is the boy’s bed?”
“Upstairs,” replied Ben, impatiently.
“Perhaps I know more about such wounds than you do,” he said. He gestured to his men and two of them went to pick up Joe and carry him upstairs. Ben implored them to be careful, and followed close behind.
Watching Diaz pick the buckshot out of Joe’s back was a painful experience for Ben. His son writhed and moaned beneath Ben’s restraining hands, and cried out in agony. But finally it was done, and Ben bandaged Joe up, with the help of Sims, the man from the barn. Diaz washed the blood off his hands. He crossed back to the bed as Ben tenderly tucked Joe under the covers.
“Pa,” Joe said. “Pa.” His eyes remained closed.
“I’m here, Joe,” Ben said, stroking his head. Joe lay on his stomach, his head turned away from the door. Ben looked at Diaz. “Thank you,” he said, although he found it difficult to be civil to a man who was holding him hostage, and who’s undisciplined men had shot and badly injured his son.
“That is a very interesting shotgun wound, is it not?” Diaz said, conversationally, looking down on Joe with detachment.
“No shotgun wound is interesting,” Ben denied.
“Ah, but this one is special,” Diaz went on. “The pattern is different. It was caused by a shotgun with a sawn off barrel. If it hadn’t been, your son would have died.”
Swallowing, Ben said, “Which of your men carries a gun like that?” He was pretty sure he could take an educated guess, but Diaz said nothing.
“In the morning, you will come with me.” Diaz began to walk to the door.
“I can’t leave my son,” Ben said. Joe was already running a temperature.
Turning, Diaz looked at him. “Tomorrow, some of Maximillian’s men will be crossing the Ponderosa. I must be there to stop them. I might need your help to get out of the territory on the back roads. Then, you will be free to return here to your son.” He paused in the doorway. “Pablo will be standing guard at the top of the stairs tonight.”
Looking at Pablo, Ben realized that there was no hope of him escaping to somehow bring help for Joe. He turned back to the bed, where Joe lay panting. He groaned. “Pa?” he muttered.
“I’m here, Joe,” Ben said. “I’m here.” He glanced at Pablo and saw the coldness in the man’s eyes. Turning away, Ben heard the door click shut. He and Joe were prisoners.
By morning, Ben had barely slept. Joe had been restless all night, and in a lot of pain. To Ben’s relief, he had opened his eyes a few times, and knew where he was. Ben had told him he’d been injured, and Joe had remembered the thud in his back. Finally, Joe was sleeping peacefully, but there was pain etched on his face, and he was pale to the point of transparency. Ben was concerned that perhaps they hadn’t managed to get all the buckshot out of his back. But exhaustion was taking hold, and Ben’s eyes closed.
He had slept no more than a few minutes when the bedroom door opened, and Diaz came in. The general had been making himself at home the night before, and looked rested and refreshed. Ben startled awake, rubbing his eyes, and feeling deathly. He gazed at Diaz for a moment as memory returned.
“It is time to leave, Mr. Cartwright,” Diaz said, pre-emptorily.
“I can’t leave my son alone,” Ben said, angrily. “He is very ill, and I can’t leave him!”
Jerking his head, Diaz brought two men into the room. “You have a choice, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “Either you come with us now, or…”
Sensing what Diaz meant to do, Ben made a move to protect Joe, but he was too late. Pablo pushed past Ben to grab Joe by the hair. Sims put a gun to Ben’s head. Pablo cocked his gun and laid the barrel on Joe’s temple. He looked at Diaz. Joe’s eyes flew open, and fastened on Ben. A cry of pain escaped his lips.
“Leave him alone!” Ben begged. “Please, leave him! Haven’t you done enough to him?”
“You will come with us, Mr. Cartwright. Cooperate, and your son will live. But if the price of your cooperation is his life, then so be it.” Diaz made this chilling threat in a totally reasonable tone of voice.
It was a price Ben could never have paid. He couldn’t take the chance that Diaz was not bluffing. He nodded. “I’ll come with you,” he capitulated. “Please, don’t harm my son.” He looked at Diaz. “I have your word that you will let me return to him?”
“Yes, you have my word.” Diaz nodded to Pablo and Sims. Pablo looked disappointed, but put away his gun and let Joe’s head drop back to the pillow. The injured youth groaned. Ben hurried to his side, and soothed him back into a troubled sleep. He glared at Diaz as he was escorted from the room at gunpoint. All Ben could do was hope that Joe would survive while he was away.
It was a long day for Ben. They rode out, and he was forced to wait while they ambushed the wagon in which Diaz insisted the men were carrying something that belonged to Juarez and Mexico. Ben was sickened by the killing, and almost out of his mind with worry over Joe. However, that worry was temporarily driven from his mind when he saw that the general had been shot.
With Pablo shadowing his every move, they headed down to where the general lay, and Ben saw that he was alive, although he had been shot in the back, like Joe. The little man was stubborn, and got onto his horse, despite Ben’s protestations. They caught up with the wagon, and found Forsythe and Sims fighting over a blonde girl dressed in buckskins, who had been hiding in the wagon. Ben guessed that Forsythe had being going to rape her. Diaz stopped the fight, and showed Ben the treasure the wagon held – gold!
“I must return to your rancho,” Diaz said. “We will hide there until I can ride.”
Alarmed, Ben realized that he was still a prisoner of this man. Pablo, the faithful, still kept him covered with his gun. Reluctantly, Ben helped Diaz onto his horse. He could only hope that Diaz didn’t die, as he knew that Forsythe wouldn’t hesitate to kill either him or Joe, should he be left in command. It hadn’t escaped Ben’s notice that Forsythe carried a sawn-off shotgun, and he knew that he was looking at the person who had shot both Joe and his leader in the back. Ben felt nothing but contempt for the man, but knew how dangerous he was.
It was dark when they reached the ranch. Ben dismounted, as told, and looked anxiously towards the house. Pablo kept him covered. Beside Ben, the girl, Molly, looked frightened. Ben touched her arm, trying to re-assure her, but he was pretty sure he didn’t succeed. Diaz all but fell from his horse, and Ben wondered how on earth he had held up until now.
Feeling Ben’s gaze on him, Diaz gestured. “Take Mr. Cartwright’s horse,” he said. “You may go to your son now. Take her inside, but don’t try anything.”
“Come on, Molly,” Ben said, and led her inside. He told her to make herself comfortable, poked up the fire slightly, and hurried upstairs. He forgot about the girl instantly.
It was dark in Joe’s room, but Ben had picked up a lamp as he went along the hall, and lit it. He could hear Joe’s ragged breathing, and was horrified as the light fell on him. Joe was lying on the floor, his feet still tangled in the blankets on the bed. Fresh blood showed on the bandage on his back. “Joe!” Ben exclaimed, and hurried across the room to him.
Heat radiated from Joe’s skin. As Ben gathered him in his arms, Joe’s eyes opened slightly, and he focused on Ben. “Pa?” he said, breathlessly. Tears formed in his eyes. “I called,” he panted. “I called… and you… you didn’t…come.” There was a fresh bruise on Joe’s face. Ben wondered sickly how long his son had been lying there.
“I’m sorry, son,” Ben said, a break in his voice. He silently cursed Diaz for keeping him away when his son needed him so much. “Let’s get you back into bed,” he said, and picked Joe up.
After a few minutes, Joe was much more comfortable. Ben had wiped the sweat from his face and body with a cool, wet cloth and given him a much-needed drink. Under its slick coating of sweat, Joe’s skin was dry and papery, and Ben knew that this was a bad sign. Joe was suffering from dehydration. Ben forced as much water as he could onto Joe, but the youth was tired, and fell asleep once more. Ben changed the soiled bandages as gently as possible, trying not to disturb him.
Sinking into the chair beside the bed, Ben rested his aching head on the back. His eyes began to drift closed. He hadn’t slept in 24 hours and his body begged for rest. Ben knew he would have to sleep soon, but he tried to fight it off. However, he failed and drifted into a light doze.
A hand shaking his arm roused him. Ben had no idea how long he had slept. He looked up blearily at Sims. “What?” he asked, his voice thick with sleep.
“I need your help with the general,” Sims said. “We have to get that buckshot out of him.”
For a minute, as his eyes fell on the bruise on Joe’s face, Ben was sorely tempted to tell Sims to go to hell. However, as the man’s eyes followed his gaze, he realized that he was too vulnerable to threats to further injure or kill Joe to refuse at all. Sims didn’t appear to be as bloodthirsty as Forsythe, but Ben was taking no chances. “All right,” he said, and rose stiffly. He bent over the bed, but Joe appeared to still be sleeping.
It took longer than Ben liked to help the general. Half his mind was with Joe in the room next door. But finally it was done, and they got the general into bed. Sims went off to stand guard in the barn. Ben knew that there was gold hidden in wagon; gold that belonged to Juarez. He didn’t think it would be long before Forsythe or one of the other bandits tried to steal it. He glanced at the unconscious man on the bed. Would Diaz be in any condition to offer protection if Forsythe decided to kill them all?
“General?” Ben said, shaking him. The man didn’t stir.
Moving quickly, Ben went into Joe’s room. His son was lying on his back, and was so still and pale that Ben’s heart quaked at what he was about to do to Joe. But they had to get away. Joe needed to see a doctor. For all that Diaz had had the buckshot in him longer, he was in better shape than Joe, or he would be when he woke. Joe had a nasty infection spreading through his body and he needed medical help. Ben had to get him to town, and as soon as possible.
Snatching Joe’s green jacket from the end of the bed where it hung on the bedpost, Ben looked for a moment at the bloodstain on the back. However, he didn’t want to take time to look for anything else. “Joe,” he said, softly. There was no response. “Joe!” he repeated, a little louder. Joe groaned.
“Pa?” he said. Ben was relieved that Joe wasn’t delirious. This was going to be hard enough on the boy as it was.
“Joe, you’ve got to put this on,” he said, sliding the sleeve up Joe’s left arm. He lifted Joe upright, evoking a cry of pain from his son. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said. “Joe, sorry. Come on.” He supported Joe awkwardly as he slid the jacket round his shoulders, and put his arm into the other sleeve. It took him a moment to lay his hands on Joe’s pants and boots, but he soon had them slipped on.
Pulling Joe to his feet, Ben draped Joe’s right arm around his shoulders, and half carried the boy from the room. The house was quiet, although Ben had the impression that there had been some sort of rumpus earlier. But he had no interest in what it was. All his attention was focused on what he had to do to get Joe to safety.
As they came down stairs, Molly jumped up from where she was sitting beside the fire. “Help me get him to the seat, Molly,” Ben panted. She rushed over to help, and they eased the injured boy into the blue seat. “I need you to keep him in this seat until I get back,” Ben ordered. “Don’t let him out of this room.” He turned to Joe, taking the youth’s head tenderly in his hands. “Joe, stay here, do you understand? Don’t move, boy. I’ll be right back.”
He went to the door. “Mr. Cartwright,” Molly cried and he turned back. “What if you don’t come back?”
It was a question that Ben didn’t have an answer for. He glanced over at Joe, and the sight of him renewed his determination. “I’ll be back,” he said, and slipped quietly out of the door.
For a moment, Molly just stood there. It had been a torrid time for her over the last while. Captured by Indians, and forced to be their slave, she had finally escaped and taken refuge in the wagon. The wagon driver had found her, but agreed not to reveal her presence. He hadn’t asked for anything, but she knew his type. Then there had been the ambush, attempted rape, and then finding herself here. She wished her mind would stop whirling and allow her to sleep.
She glanced round at Joe, and was horrified to see him lurch to his feet, using the fireplace for support. She ran across, and tried to make him sit down, but weak though he was, Joe resisted her efforts. “Pa,” he panted. “Got to get my Pa.” His words were slurred, but she understood him all right.
“No, you’ve got to stay here.” She slid her arms round his waist, trying to avoid touching the bandages. Joe struggled against her grip. “Please,” she pleaded.
For a moment she thought she’s won, then Joe’s hands raised to cup her face, and for the first time his eyes focused on her. For an instant, she thought he was going to kiss her, and braced herself to fight him off. But he didn’t. Joe stroked the hair back from her face and peered at her intently. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Molly,” she answered, but Joe had lost interest already. He pushed her aside, and staggered towards the door. The only thought in his head was that Ben was in some sort of danger, and he had to help, somehow.
He had the door slightly open when Molly caught up with him. “No!” she exclaimed, and slammed the door shut.
“Got to get to my Pa,” Joe panted. Sweat streaked his face, which was very pale. Molly was terrified he would collapse at her feet. Frightened, she fought him, but Joe was determined, and he thrust her aside and opened the door. To her horror, Joe staggered out into the darkness. For a moment she stood, irresolute, then she followed him.
In the barn, Ben had been horrified to find Sims tending to one of the wagon horses. He pretended that he’d come to tend to the horses, and helped Sims wash down the animal’s leg, hoping for a chance to make a break for it. He sensed that Sims wasn’t like Forsythe, and was perhaps worth saving. However, at the moment, his only concern was to escape and get Joe to a doctor, and he was still looking for that chance when there was a sound from outside.
Leaping to his feet, Sims drew his gun, and Ben dived at him to wrestle for it, as he recognized Joe’s voice. He didn’t know why his son was crossing the yard, but he didn’t want anything else happening to him. The gun went off harmlessly into the room, just as Joe arrived in the doorway.
“Pa!” he cried, and collapsed to his knees. Ben rushed across, only to come face to face with Forsythe and Pablo. Molly was there, too, apologizing for letting Joe out, but Ben ignored her. He helped Joe to his feet. “Pa,” Joe said again, but he wasn’t looking at Ben. His head lolled on his shoulders, and he seemed barely able to support its weight, leaning heavily on the door.
“What were you trying to do, escape?” asked Forsythe.
“My son needs a doctor, look at him!” Ben said, no longer scared for himself. “He could be dying!” It was the first time Ben had admitted that to himself, and he really feared it could be true. Heat was burning through Joe’s jacket, and he no longer seemed to be able to see properly. Certainly, he hadn’t yet met anyone’s eyes.
“Get back to the house,” Sims ordered.
“Come on, Joe,” Ben said, turning his son, and supporting him. Molly came to his other side to try to help. As they walked away, Ben heard Sims say something to Forsythe, but Ben was past caring. His plan had failed. Now he had to think of another way to get help.
Taking Joe inside, he was glad when Molly dropped back and stayed downstairs as Ben guided Joe upwards. Gently, he eased him down onto his bed, and removed the jacket. Joe leant drunkenly against his shoulder. His breath came in ragged gasps. “Pa,” he mumbled, and Ben looked at him. Joe was looking at him. “All right, Pa?” he asked.
“I’m all right, Joe,” Ben said, marveling that, ill as he was, Joe could think of him at that moment. “Come on, let’s get you lying down.” He eased his son back onto the bed, and pulled his boots and socks off. The movement made Joe cry out, and Ben decided not to bother removing his pants. It would be too much for him. Covering him, Ben took the water and offered some to Joe. The youth drank thirstily.
“Don’t… feel well,” Joe panted. His hand fastened on Ben’s shirt. Ben wrapped his hand round it.
“I know, son,” he crooned. His other hand reached to brush the hair off Joe’s forehead. “You try and sleep, son.” He tried to withdraw his hand, but Joe clutched tighter, looking alarmed.
“Don’t… go,” he pleaded. “Don’t…want… you…hurt.”
“No one’s going to hurt me,” Ben soothed, tightening his grip. Joe seemed to relax, but Ben didn’t know if it was his words, or the contact. He continued to stroke Joe’s head, gaining, as well as giving, comfort. After a short time, Joe’s grip loosened, and he slipped into slumber. Ben looked down at him with growing concern. He had to get that doctor out. He soaked his neckerchief in water, and draped it on Joe’s head, before going to have a quick look at his other patient.
The general was awake. He looked at Ben as he opened the door, and sat up stiffly. “Mr. Cartwright. What happened?”
“We got the buckshot out,” Ben said, going over to peer out of the window. “Your men don’t seem to be very loyal to you, General. I think Forsythe is planning on stealing the gold you have out there.”
Joining Ben by the window, Diaz looked out. “That pistollero, he is an animal. We must stop him.”
“Yes, and fast,” Ben agreed. He pulled the window up and started to climb out.
“What are you going to do?” asked Diaz.
“I don’t know,” Ben responded, hesitating slightly. “But we’ve got to do something.” He went on out of the window.
Diaz stood for a moment, listening to the sounds Ben made on the roof. His men, those that were left, were now inside the house. He eased open the door, and went into the hallway. He could hear the voices from downstairs, and knew that he had to try and stop Forsythe. Drawing a deep breath, he walked along to the top of the stairs and listened.
There was no mistake. Forsythe wanted the gold, and he would stop at nothing to get it. Diaz walked slowly down the stairs, unarmed, and felt the tall American hesitate as he appeared. “No, I will not allow this,” he said.
As Forsythe drew his gun, the door opened, and a shot was fired. Sims, standing in front of the fire, dropped his gun and clutched his shoulder before falling to the floor. Diaz threw himself across the room at the distracted Forsythe. They wrestled for the gun, Diaz proving how strong he was, despite his injury. The gun was between them when it went off.
As Diaz dropped to the floor, Forsythe heard a grunt as his henchman was floored by Ben Cartwright, who had dived in the front door, catching the man off guard. Ben snatched up the fallen pistol, rolled across the floor, and fired at Forsythe. His aim was good, and Forsythe clutched his stomach before dropping down, dead.
As Ben regained his feet, he saw Molly kneeling by Sims, calling him ’Johnny’ as she had done in the barn. He spared a second to wonder what was going on there, but that was all. He knelt by Diaz, but the man was already dead. Ben knelt back on his heels. It was over. “God keep our country,” he muttered aloud.
There was no time for thought. Ben heard a sound from the stairs and turned in time to see Joe appear. “Pa,” he gasped. From somewhere, Joe had found a gun, and was wielding it in a shaky hand. “Pa,” he said, again, and missed the step, tumbling down the stairs.
Leaping to his feet, Ben rushed over to where Joe lay in a tumbled heap on the landing. “Joe,” he said, lifting his son’s head. “Can you hear me?” There was a lump on Joe’s head where he had hit it off the spindles, but no blood.
“You’re…safe…” Joe gasped, opening his eyes. The gun clattered from his fingers to the floor. “Shooting… scared… something…happened…” Joe’s voice trailed off.
“Let me help you,” Molly said.
“Molly, I need you to ride into Virginia City and get the doctor out here,” Ben said. “As fast as you can. Do you know the way?”
“Yes,” she quavered. She looked round at where Sims lay by the fire. “But Joe and Johnny. You need help here, Mr. Cartwright.”
“They both need the doctor more than I need you here. Please, Molly, get the doctor.”
“Do as he says, Molly,” Sims added. “Quickly.” He clutched his hand to his shoulder, but the blood was streaming between his fingers.
“All right,” Molly said, and ran from the house.
“I’ll be back to help you as soon as I can,” Ben said to Sims, as he helped Joe sit up. The wound on his back was bleeding again. “I’ve got to get Joe to bed.”
“I’m all right,” Sims insisted. “Do what you have to.”
As Ben struggled upstairs, supporting Joe, he was thankful that Sims wasn’t as nasty as he had at first appeared. He hoped he wasn’t too badly injured, but Ben’s first priority had to be Joe.
It seemed to take forever before Paul Martin arrived at the ranch. Ben heard the horses and went down. Sims was sitting on the settee, and had managed to find a cloth to staunch the bleeding. He waved the doctor away. “I’ll be just fine,” he said. “You tend to young Joe up there. He needs you real bad, doc.”
“The girl said Joe was shot in the back,” Paul said, as he hurried upstairs. “When did it happen?”
“Last night,” Ben said. “He was shot by someone using a sawn-off shotgun. We took the buckshot out, but I don’t know if we got it all. He was pretty roughly handled, and I tried to get him out of here a few hours ago, and then he fell down stairs.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” Paul admitted, fighting down an urge to laugh, for it sounded so farcical. “How did he come to fall down stairs? Why didn’t you get me out here last night? Ben, you aren’t making any sense.”
Taking a deep breath, Ben started at the beginning, and told Paul the whole story. The physician listened quietly, his eyes wide. “Sounds to me like you’re right, Ben,” he said. “There could still be buckshot in there. Are you able to help me? I can do this myself, or that girl can help. You need to rest, and soon.”
“I can help,” Ben insisted. “What do you need?”
“Hot water, bandages, and cloths.” Paul opened the door to Joe’s room and went in. The youth was lying on his stomach, head turned to the door. Joe was paper colored from loss of blood, and his face was covered in a sheen of sweat. Paul took his wrist between sensitive fingers and felt his pulse. “I’ll give him something for the pain, then the ether. We’ll need to watch him carefully, Ben.”
Touching Joe’s head briefly, Ben bent his weary head so that Paul didn’t see the anguish on his face. But Paul was an old friend, and knew Ben very well. “I’ll do everything I can for him, Ben, I promise.”
“I know,” Ben choked. He straightened. “I’ll get what you need.” As he left the room, Ben heard Paul talking to Joe. He blinked back tears, and went downstairs.
It was a tricky operation. Paul had to re-open all the areas on Joe’s back to check for buckshot, and he found several pieces. Finally satisfied that he had them all, Paul cleaned the area with alcohol, and began to stitch Joe up again. He swathed Joe in bandages from armpits to waist to hold down the padded dressings he’d used. At last, he removed the ether mask and they settled Joe comfortably on his stomach.
“I think he’ll be all right,” Paul said. “He’s young and strong, and he’s the most stubborn cuss I ever met.” He looked at Ben, seeing the dark circles under his eyes. “Ben, get some rest while I tend to that young man downstairs.”
“I’m all right,” Ben protested.
“No, you’re not,” Paul said. “You either lie down and rest, or I’ll give you something to make you sleep.” He smiled to soften the sting of the words. “The young lady can help me.” He went over to the door, and stopped. “Oh, Ben, I forgot, I have a wire for you from Adam. Where is it?” He patted his pockets, and finally found the paper, which he handed over. He looked with interest at his friend’s face as he read it. “Good news?” he asked.
“Adam and Hoss are on their way home, and should be here soon,” he said. He bent over the bed. “Hear that, son?” he whispered. “Your brothers are coming.”
Smiling, Paul went downstairs.
By morning, Ben had had a few precious hours of sleep; Sims had had the bullet removed from his shoulder, and was almost as good as new. Paul had sat with Joe, fighting the youth’s fever, and by morning, he was sure Joe would pull through. His fever was still high, but the boy had opened his eyes, and tried to smile at Paul. He was incredibly weak, and would be for some time. Paul hadn’t really been surprised to learn that Joe had twice tried to rescue his father from situations he had perceived as dangerous the previous night, even in his highly weakened state. That was typically Joe – or any of the Cartwrights, when another was in danger.
“What are you going to do about this, Ben?” Paul asked, when Ben was once more awake and by Joe’s side. “You can’t not tell Roy about it. You know by law I have to report an injury like this.”
“Tell him,” Ben said. “The man who did it is dead downstairs. They both are.”
“And Sims?” Paul probed.
“He’s going to take the gold back to Juarez,” Ben said. “Oh, I know I probably should do something else, but that’s only right. He was prepared to give his life for the gold. Roy doesn’t have to know about him, does he?”
“I guess not,” Paul agreed. “Do you think that it’s over, Ben? Nobody will come looking for that gold, will, they?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “But the gold isn’t here. That will be obvious to everyone. Sims will leave today. Molly will stay here until he returns, then see what they want to do. She’s had a hard time, Paul, and needs the time to get used to living with dignity again.”
“You’ve got a heart of gold,” Paul said, admiringly. Ben shrugged the praise off.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” he said.
By mid-morning, Sims was on his way with the gold, and Pablo, Diaz’ henchman. Molly had cried after he was gone, but she rallied quickly, and set about tidying up some of the mess in the house. Shortly after lunch, Ben heard hooves, and looked out to see Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City arrive in the yard.
“I’ll be back, Joe,” he said. “That’s Roy.”
“All right,” Joe responded. He was lying on his back, propped up on all the pillows Ben could find. His fever was down a good bit, and his color was better. Ben had been plying him with liquids all morning, and Molly had cooked up some chicken soup from some leftovers she had found. “Don’t be long,” he said, and Ben smiled. He knew how anxious Joe was, the result of being left alone that first day when he was so ill. The bruise on his cheek seemed to shine with particular virulence that day.
“I won’t,” Ben promised.
He was as good as his word, returning within five minutes with Roy in tow. The sheriff looked shocked as he saw Joe. “Did you see who did this, Joe?” he asked.
“No, I didn’t see anyone,” Joe replied. His voice was thin. “All I felt was a thud in my back, and the pain. I don’t remember much after that. Just Pa telling me to get up, as we had to leave.” Joe frowned. Ben offered him a drink, which Joe gulped down. “There was a girl, I think, and Pa was at the barn. I don’t remember much more until I heard shooting downstairs. I found that gun in my dresser. I was worried that Pa had been hurt.” He grimaced. “I fell, but Pa was all right.” Unconsciously, Joe flexed the ankle he had sprained falling downstairs. It twinged violently, and he winced. Even his toes were bruised.
“Nearly done, Joe,” Roy said, seeing how tired the youth was. “Did you see any of them?”
Closing his eyes for a minute, Joe tried valiantly to remember. “I think one of them was American,” he said, finally. “But I don’t remember any faces.”
“Thanks, Little Joe. You rest now, and I’ll see you once you’re better.” Roy moved over to the door. “I’ll go down and talk to the girl.”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Ben said. He bent over Joe. “I’ll just be downstairs. I’ll leave the door open, so shout if you need anything. All right?”
“All right,” Joe agreed. His eyes, a color as mercurial as his nature, were very green that day. They were also glazed with exhaustion. “G’night,” he mumbled, and his eyes drifted shut.
Suddenly choked with emotion, Ben could barely breathe out, “Sleep well.”
Downstairs, Roy was talking to Molly, trying to find out about the Indian raid that led to her captivity. He was quite tactful, but it was clear Molly didn’t want to speak of her ordeal. Ben really didn’t blame her. Roy didn’t push her. Finally finished, he went out to the barn, where the bodies were lying.
“If’n you’ll lend me your wagon, I’ll take these bodies into Boot Hill,” he said. “It seems funny to me that the gold just disappeared like that, Ben, but you had enough to worry about with Joe. Is he going to be all right? He don’t look so good.”
“He’s getting better,” Ben said. For an instant, his conscience twinged, but he guessed that Roy would have wanted to confiscate the gold, not return it to Juarez. Well, it was done, and Ben would live with whatever happened. He sighed. The few hours’ rest he had had weren’t really enough, and Joe needed a lot of attention. “I’d better get back. He’s a little anxious right now, Roy.”
“I can understand that,” Roy said. “He’s been through a lot. So have you, Ben. Get plenty of rest.”
“I will,” Ben assured him.
As darkness fell, Joe’s fever rose again. Ben was exhausted, but he sent Molly for cold water, and began to bathe Joe’s head. Joe was lucid, which was something of a relief for Ben. He gave Joe the pain relief that Paul had left for him, and wondered if he ought to send for the doctor again. Paul had said he would be back, but he had a large area to cover single-handed, and there was no guarantee when he would arrive. Alone, Ben worked to lower Joe’s fever.
Hoof beats sounded in the yard, and Ben rose wearily to peer outside. Molly had long gone to bed. It was another dark, moonless night, and it was impossible to see who the riders were at first. Then one moved into the feeble glow of the porch light, and Ben recognized his son Adam.
Glancing at Joe, who was asleep at that moment, Ben went downstairs to greet his sons. “Adam, Hoss,” he said, opening the door for them. “Its good to have you back, sons.”
“What’s wrong?” Adam asked, surprised at the catch in his father’s voice. “Has something happened while we were away?”
As his sons removed their hats and gun belts, Ben told them what had happened. He told them the full version, then the version he’d told Roy Coffee. By then, they were sitting in front of the fire, and Ben felt exhausted, reliving it all again.
“How’s Joe now?” Hoss asked, worriedly.
“He’s a little better, but his temperature has risen again tonight,” Ben said, wearily. “He was sleeping, but he hasn’t been able to get much rest.” With a sigh, he rose to his feet. “I’d better get back to him.”
“We’re coming with you,” Adam said, firmly. “And then, you can get some rest, and I’ll sit with Joe. You look exhausted.” In fact, Ben looked more than exhausted. He was unshaven and had dark circles under his eyes. Adam thought that if he didn’t some rest, Joe wouldn’t be the only one who was sick.
“I’m all right,” Ben protested.
“Pa,” Hoss said, putting his large hand on Ben’s shoulder, “you ain’t all right. You get some sleep, and let Adam and me look after Shortshanks up there. If’n you don’t go willingly, I’ll make you go to bed.” He made a fist and shook it in Ben’s face.
Smiling, Ben nodded. “All right, you win!” He went upstairs with Hoss’ hand still warm and comforting on his shoulder.
As he went into Joe’s room, his youngest son spoke. “Pa? Where were you?” He sounded slightly panicky. He tried to prop himself on one elbow, but made a stifled grunt of pain, and lay back down.
“It’s all right, son. I went down to greet someone.” He gestured to the others. “Look who’s home.”
Crowding close to the bed, Adam and Hoss grinned at Joe, hiding their shock at seeing him so weak and pale. “Hey, brothers,” Joe said, somewhat breathlessly. “Nice of you to come back when the excitement’s over.”
“I’d be careful if I were you,” Adam joked. “Pa’s going to get some sleep, and I’m in charge.” He reached down to ruffle Joe’s curls, and felt the heat radiating from his skin. “First thing is you get some sleep, too, all right?”
“I’ll try,” Joe agreed. He moved restlessly, obviously still in some pain, despite the medicine he’d received a short while before. “Can I get a drink?”
As Adam got Joe some water, Hoss began to usher Ben to the door. He knew how hard it was to get Ben away from Joe when he was sick. “Good night, Joe,” Ben said, hesitating at the door.
“Night, pa,” Joe replied. He sounded tired and Ben felt a renewed twinge of worry.
“Go to bed, Pa,” Adam ordered. “I’ll wake you if anything happens.”
Smiling, Ben did as he was bid. He lay down on top of the bed fully clothed, and fell asleep at once.
It was well into the next day before Ben wakened. He washed and changed, and went along to see how Joe was doing. Hoss was sitting with him, and Joe was asleep. The sheen of sweat was gone from his face, and when Ben gently stroked his head, he could feel that the youth’s fever was down.
The only person downstairs was Adam. “Where’s Molly?” Ben asked, curiously.
“I sent her into town with one of the hands to get some clothes,” Adam explained. “She was obviously uncomfortable in those buckskins.” He glanced at the clock. “They shouldn’t be much longer, I wouldn’t think.”
“That was good of you, son,” Ben said, helping himself to coffee. “I meant to do that myself, but I couldn’t leave Joe. How was he last night?”
“Restless,” Adam answered, also helping himself to coffee. “He sees to still be in some pain from his wound. It must have been pretty bad.”
“It was,” Ben replied, his eyes gazing at some internal vista that Adam couldn’t see. “But it could have been much worse. He might have died if it hadn’t been a sawn-off shotgun.” Ben shuddered. “And he had to endure the first operation without painkillers, or ether.”
“That must be Molly,” Adam said, as they heard a wagon rattle into the yard.
Together, they rose and went to the door. It was Molly all right, but she looked alarmed. She jumped form the wagon and ran over. “Mr. Cartwright, there are soldiers coming – Mexican soldiers! We saw them in town talking to the sheriff, and they’re heading this way!”
“Inside, quickly,” Ben instructed. The hand was already moving the wagon. “Adam, get the guns. There might not be fighting, but we’ve got to be prepared.”
“Right, Pa,” Adam answered, hurrying back indoors. Ben ran a hand through his hair, before turning to join him.
It wasn’t long before the soldiers appeared. They were wearing the same uniforms as Ben had seen the other wearing. They trotted into the yard in formation, and the leader dismounted. Opening the door, Ben went warily out to meet him. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Are you Senor Cartwright?” the man asked. Ben could see by his stripes that he was a corporal.
“I am,” he answered stiffly. “What can I do for you, Corporal?”
“I am looking for a shipment of gold that was due to arrive in San Francisco the day before yesterday, and did not arrive.” His English was superb, and almost accent less.
“How does this concern me?” Ben asked.
“The gold was crossing your land, Senor, and we have a report by the sheriff that you saw it being intercepted by some bandidos. Is this true?”
Sighing, Ben nodded. “You know it is; you spoke to the sheriff. So you also know that I don’t have the least idea where the gold ended up. I was a hostage, along with my son, of the leader of these bandits. I don’t know what became of the gold. It might have been stolen for all I know.”
“I think that is unlikely,” the corporal said. “I intend to search your house and barn. I believe you stole the gold yourself.”
Drawing himself up to his full height, Ben pierced the corporal with a steely glare. “Indeed you will not search my house and barn. I have told you the gold is not here. I will not permit you to enter.”
“I don’t think you can stop me,” sneered the other. “You are alone.”
A shot kicked dirt by the corporal’s foot and he flinched. Adam appeared around the side of the house, a rifle held in his hands. He wasn’t pointing it at the soldiers, but it was clear to them all that he was ready and willing to use if instantly. “Not alone,” he said. “I suggest you leave.”
With flared nostrils, the corporal glared at Adam before turning back to Ben. “This is not the end of this, senor,” he warned.
“Get out and don’t come back,” Ben said, angrily. “I don’t have your gold.”
He and Adam stood and watched as the soldier re-mounted and they all rode away. Only then did they relax. “He’ll be back,” Adam predicted, going over to stand beside Ben.
“I know,” Ben said. “And we need to be ready.”
All the rest of that day, they watched and waited. Ben detailed hands to stand guard, and he dotted guns throughout the house. He then spent some time with Joe, who was looking much better. Paul Martin still hadn’t appeared, but Ben was less concerned about this than he had been the previous night. However, he didn’t have much of the painkilling medicine left, and was worried about how Joe would cope without it. Bravely, he had no doubt, and without complaint, but he didn’t want his son to suffer any more.
Later in the afternoon, Hop Sing arrived home with the chuck wagon. He hadn’t seen the soldiers lurking about, but he hadn’t been looking for them, either. He promptly evicted Molly from the kitchen, and set about making a meal for the family. Molly, set free from her chores, went to try on the clothes she had bought that morning, and emerged from her room just before supper in a pretty pink dress, blushing shyly at the compliments she received.
Supper was eaten quickly and without much conversation. Hop Sing took a tray up to Joe and coaxed the young man into eating most of what there was. Dusk was falling softly as they rose from the table, and the first shot splintered the night.
Taking cover, they scrambled for the weapons to return fire. “Cartwright, we want the gold!” shouted a voice. “Give it up, and we’ll let you live!”
“I don’t have the gold!” Ben called back.
A barrage of rifle fire was his only answer. A bullet splintered the wood above Adam’s ear, as he fired out of the door, and he hastily drew back inside. “They’re coming across the yard,” he reported. “I’ll go upstairs.”
“All right,” Ben nodded. He fired at a dark figure running across the yard, and was rewarded when it went down and stayed down.
Upstairs, Adam went to the front window, where he had a better view. He was able to pick off a few before they pinpointed his location, and sent a hail of bullets in his direction. Adam barely drew back in time to avoid being hit. As it was, the window disintegrated in a shower of glass, and Adam had to duck anew.
Lying in bed, Joe listened anxiously to the gunfire. It seemed to be coming from all around the house, and he wished he were able to help out. However, when his father had been telling him about the soldiers earlier, he had warned Joe in no uncertain terms to stay put in bed.
There was the sound of shattering glass from the next room and Joe flinched. He half raised himself, then lay back down. There was nothing he could do. He didn’t have a gun, and he couldn’t walk, anyway. Even sitting up caused his head to spin yet. It was the blood loss, Ben had assured him, and would settle in time. That wasn’t terribly reassuring now, Joe thought.
A sound, distinctly different from the crack of gunfire attracted Joe’s attention, and he glanced at the window. There was someone on the roof! Fear thumped through Joe’s gut, and he made a gargantuan effort to get out of bed.
He was still struggling with his covers on his sore foot when the soldier cleared the window frame. He pointed his gun at Joe and cocked it slowly and deliberately. “Do not move,” he said. He straightened up and shouted something in Spanish out of the window. A moment later, the gunfire stopped.
Frozen in place, feeling pain spreading across his back, Joe watched the man warily. He couldn’t maintain his half-propped position, and flopped back, letting out a grunt of pain as he did so. The soldier didn’t move, except to smile grimly.
There was more shouting out in the yard, but no more gunfire. Joe had the nasty creeping suspicion that he was a hostage once more, and that the soldiers were using him to try and get the gold from Ben. He swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat. What would they do when they discovered that there really wasn’t any gold hidden on the Ponderosa?
Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and the soldier crossed the room to lay his gun against Joe’s head. His door opened, and Joe swiveled his eyes to see his father’s shocked white face. “I’m all right,” he croaked, although he wasn’t sure as to the veracity of the statement.
“You’re despicable,” Ben hissed to the man standing by his side. “My son is injured.”
“That is not my concern, Senor. But if you want your son to live, you will tell me where the gold is.” The corporal stepped aside, and let another of his men into the room. He, too crossed to the bed, and grabbing Joe’s hands, began to bind them roughly together. “Every moment you hesitate only adds to your son’s torments,” the corporal went on.
“I don’t have the gold,” Ben protested. “It hasn’t been here.”
The corporal nodded to his men, who hauled Joe into a sitting position. The movement was rough and Joe couldn’t quite bite back the cry of pain that rose to his lips. He saw Ben flinch.
“Try again,” the corporal demanded. “The truth this time. Where is the other Americano who was with Diaz?”
Ben shook his head, his eyes fastened on Joe. He knew that Hoss was downstairs, a prisoner of the soldiers, but he hadn’t seen Adam. He didn’t know if his oldest son was still alive, and his youngest was in peril again, and all for some gold he no longer had. He wondered how far Sims had managed to get, and if he dared tell the truth.
“I didn’t see all his men,” he said, desperately. “I didn’t know there was another American with him. I only saw one.”
“A fine story,” sneered the man. He nodded again, and Joe was dragged to his feet. The sudden change of position caused Joe’s head to swim wildly and he lost color dramatically. Gasping for breath, he couldn’t decide if the pain in his back or his ankle was worst at that moment.
Blinking, Joe managed to focus his eyes, and saw the worried look on Ben’s face. He didn’t have the breath to reassure his father that he was all right, and he doubted if Ben would’ve believed him anyway. There was the faintest of movement from behind Ben and Joe squinted at it. It was difficult to see in the unlit hallway, but it was as though someone was standing there. Then Joe realized that it was Adam, difficult to see because he was dressed all in black, as usual. It was the perfect camouflage.
It would only be a matter of moments before the soldiers spotted him, Joe realized, and knew he had to do something. Hoping his father would forgive him, and that the soldier with the gun by his head wasn’t paying attention, Joe made his move.
With a theatrical groan, Joe dropped to the floor like a stone. He fell against the soldier with the gun, knocking him over, and causing the gun to discharge into the ceiling. Pain rocketed through his back like a branding iron and Joe cried aloud.
Out in the hallway, Adam took the chance his youngest brother had given him, and crashed his gun down on the corporal’s head. As the man folded, Adam shoved Ben forcibly out of the way, and fired at the remaining soldier, catching him high in the arm.
But the danger wasn’t over. The first soldier, the one Joe had knocked down, had regained his feet, and was aiming at Joe. Adam didn’t even think about firing. He simply dived across the room. The startled man raised his eyes from his helpless target, and started to change his aim. Joe gathered the last of his strength and grabbed the man’s ankle, yanking his feet out from underneath him. He toppled over backwards, and the gun fired again, this time barely missing Ben, who stood paralyzed in the doorway. Then Adam was on top of the man, and there was no chance for him to fire again.
Panting, Adam rolled off the unconscious man, and covered the injured soldier. However, the fight was knocked out of him, and he sat on the floor, clutching his arm.
“Pa!” shouted Hoss from downstairs. “Pa! Are you all right?”
“We’re all right, son,” Ben returned, and speaking seemed to release the spell of horror he’d been held by, and he hurried across the room to his sons. “Adam, are you all right?”
“Fine,” Adam responded. He looked over as Hoss burst in the door, gun drawn and ready. “Keep an eye on them,” he said, and crouched by Joe.
Ben already had Joe cradled in his arms, and was struggling one handed to untie his hands. Joe was biting his lip, clearly in pain, but he managed a slight smile at Adam, as his brother took over freeing his hands. “We make… a pretty good team… don’t we, big brother?” he panted.
“The best, Joe,” Adam agreed, fighting with the rough hemp. “The best.”
“I thought something dreadful had happened,” Ben said, stroking Joe’s head. “Joe, you scared me out of ten years!”
“Sorry, Pa,” Joe said, contritely. “But I was frightened that something would happen to you and Adam. I could see Adam moving behind you, and I was scared they would shoot him. And I didn’t know where Hoss was.” He looked over at his middle brother, and was relieved to see that he was unharmed. “I had to do something.”
“You gave the chance I needed, Joe,” Adam said, patting his leg. “Thank you.”
“Let’s get him back to bed,” Ben said. He looked no less concerned. “Joe, you’re bleeding.”
“I know,” Joe admitted. He was quite pale again. “I felt the stitches burst when I fell.”
“Joe, I don’t quite know what to say,” Ben admitted. “You took a terrible risk.”
“I knew what I was doing,” Joe said. “And a few burst stitches is worth your life.”
Blinking back the tears, Ben nodded to Adam, and together, they lifted Joe gently back to the bed. Ben tucked him in, and blotted the sweat from his face. “Thank you, son,” he whispered.
“I love you, Pa,” Joe said.
About a month later, a lone horseman rode into the yard of the Ponderosa. Joe, who was sitting in the porch rocker with his foot up, eyed the stranger warily. The man dismounted and walked across, looking around him. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Joe, it’s good to see you up and around,” the men responded.
“Who are you?” Joe asked, certain he’d never seen this man before in his life. He wished suddenly that he had his gun with him. Joe was very much better, but he wasn’t up to a brawl.
The door opened wider, and Ben came out, drawn by the voices. “Sims!” he exclaimed. “Molly! Come here please.” He strode forward and extended his hand to shake Sims’ hand. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks, Mr. Cartwright.” Sims glanced down at Joe, who was looking at him less warily now. “I was just telling Joe how well he was looking, but I gather you don’t remember me?”
“No, I don’t,” Joe admitted. “But I know who you are now, Mr. Sims.” He reached up to shake hands.
Light footsteps sounded in the house and Sims turned to the door, his face lighting up with anticipation. Joe turned his head in time to see Molly appear in the doorway. The month that she had loved with the Cartwrights had done her the world of good. She had lost the brittle, defensive shyness that had marked her first few days with them, and blossomed into a pretty young girl. “Johnny!” she cried, and flung herself into his arms.
“Come on, Joe,” Ben said, helping his son to his feet. “Let’s leave them alone for a while.”
Limping slowly into the house, Joe looked at Ben. “So he’s the one who took the gold back to Juarez? Seems like a nice guy.”
“I think so,” Ben replied. He helped Joe to the sofa and sat down. “I hope they can make a go of things.”
A few minutes later, Sims and Molly came back into the house. Molly’s face was glowing with happiness. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “I’ll be leaving with Johnny in the morning.” She blushed. “We’re to be married.”
“That’s wonderful,” Ben said. “Where are you going to go?”
“Oregon,” Sims replied. “Land free for the taking, as you said, Mr. Cartwright. But I got a reward from Juarez, and I have enough money to get started and take care of Molly properly.”
“That’s wonderful,” Ben said, warmly. “Congratulations.”
“I wanted to thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” Sims said. “If it hadn’t been for you, and what you said that night in the barn, I might have gone off with Forsythe.”
“I don’t think so, Johnny,” Ben said. “I don’t think your conscience would have allowed you to do that, do you Molly?” he said, looking at the girl by his side.
“No, I don’t think so either,” Molly agreed. She gave Sims a look of adoration, and they drifted off to talk about their future together.
Left alone, Ben and Joe sat silently for a minute. “They are lucky to have come out of this alive,” Joe commented. “Sims could have been killed taking that gold back.”
Heaving a sigh, Ben nodded. “We were all lucky to come out of this alive,” he agreed. “You especially.” Joe made a rueful face. His strength was creeping slowly back, but he didn’t know when he would be back at work. “Are you all right?” Ben went on. “Tired?”
“No, I’m all right,” Joe replied. “I just want to sit here for a while longer.” He smiled at Ben and they sat silently together, reflecting on how lucky they had all been to escape their encounter with The Deadly Ones.
Thanks to N.B. Stone Jr., for writing this episode, which inspired this story.