The First Duty (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,067


 

Meandering slowly home on what had started out as a sunny summer afternoon, Joe Cartwright glanced up at the clouds filling the skies. Although he knew he ought to hurry his steps so that he wouldn’t get caught in the downpour, he couldn’t summon the energy to do so. It had been a long month of haying and everyone was physically exhausted. Joe had had to go to town that Friday because he’d fallen from the top of the wagon and knocked himself out. Hoss, who had been driving the wagon, was frantic with worry and mortally embarrassed. The horses had suddenly drawn forward and Joe, who was trampling down hay at the time, had lost his balance at the unexpected movement and toppled to the ground. He was out only for a few moments, but Ben had insisted that he go and get checked out, especially when he saw the swelling building in Joe’s right wrist. Hoss had escorted Joe into the doctor’s and then got back to help at the haying.

Now, riding home a few hours later, Joe was tired. His wrist was sprained, not broken, and he consoled himself that at least it wasn’t his left wrist he’d damaged, since he was left handed. Paul Martin, the town doctor, had kept Joe for observation until he was satisfied that Joe wasn’t concussed.

“Go home, eat something and go to bed,” Paul ordered him. “And if you end up driving the wagon tomorrow, don’t do this to Hoss as revenge, all right?”

“All right,” Joe agreed, mock reluctantly, smiling. He had mounted slowly and headed for home. The sun had still been shining then.

Now, the sky was overcast and grey and a cool wind suddenly blew against Joe’s face and he found the motivation he needed to speed Cochise’s steps. It looked like there was a thunderstorm on the way. Joe hated to ride in the rain, but he really hated to ride in thunderstorms.

As he rounded a large boulder onto a long straight part of the road, he saw another horse and rider up ahead. Joe could see at once that the horse was in trouble. He urged Cochise into a gallop and saw the rider glance over his shoulder and urge his horse to a quicker pace. The poor beast took only one step before it tumbled to the ground, spilling the rider from his saddle.

Slowing his pace, Joe arrived as the rider managed to get onto his hands and knees. Joe slid from his saddle and hurried over to the rider. “Are you all right?” Joe asked, anxiously and was shocked to find himself face to face with an Army revolver!

*****

“Back off!” the soldier snarled and Joe did as he was told, raising his hands slightly.

“I only want to help,” Joe told him. He was puzzled when the soldier glanced quickly all around, as though seeking for others.

Seemingly partially reassured, the soldier climbed to his feet, his revolver still aimed at Joe’s stomach. “All right, who are you, boy and what are you doing here?”

Curbing his annoyance, Joe replied, “My name is Joe Cartwright and you’re on the Ponderosa ranch, which belongs to my father Ben Cartwright.”

“Are you alone?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Joe replied, wearily. His wrist was starting to throb. He felt a sudden twinge of anxiety at admitting he was alone. Perhaps he should’ve said someone was coming along behind him, or he was meeting someone further on. “I’m expected home for supper,” he added.

Abruptly, the soldier stepped back.  “All right, boy, get out of here,” he ordered. “Forget you ever saw me.”

Lowering his arms, Joe frowned. “But I can’t leave you here like this,” he protested. “Your horse isn’t going anywhere else, and you sure aren’t getting mine!” The soldier’s bay gelding was making horrid grunting noises and Joe knew that it would be kindest to put the poor beast out of its misery.

“Don’t worry about me,” the other retorted. He took another step back and staggered. As he caught his balance, Joe saw the blood stain on the shoulder of the greatcoat. Instinctively, he stepped forward and put his hand out to support the man.

From the corner of his eye, Joe saw the revolver swinging towards him and ducked. The butt of the gun skidded up his cheek and set Joe’s head to ringing. He felt blood trickling down his face as he fell to the ground and grappled for his own gun.

But he didn’t need it. The soldier’s strength and stamina suddenly gave out on him and he collapsed in a heap beside Joe. His revolver fell from lax fingers. Cautiously, Joe sat up and picked up the revolver. The soldier was out for the count. Rising shakily, Joe took a firm hold of Cochise’s rein before he put the bay gelding out of its misery. Then, sighing, Joe roused the soldier with water and helped him onto Cochise. As Joe began the slow trek home leading his horse, the first cold drops of rain fell.

*****

It was a very bedraggled cavalcade that arrived in the Ponderosa yard almost two hours later. Joe was footsore and weary, with water dripping from the brim of his hat. The lieutenant that Joe had met slumped on Cochise’s neck and only the pinto seemed to be in good spirits. He walked along with his nose almost touching Joe’s shoulder and the pinto’s warm breath on the back of his neck was comforting to Joe.

Leading his horse right up to the edge of the porch, Joe went round to the soldier. “We’re here,” he said, and reached up to help the man down. As he did so, the house door opened and Ben came out.

“Joseph, where have you…?” Ben’s voice trailed off as he realized that Joe was not alone. “Who’s this?” he asked, hurrying over to help Joe with the man.

“Lieutenant Bill Patterson of the United States Cavalry,” the man slurred and slid out of Joe’s grasp in a dead faint.

“Where you’d find him?” Ben asked. He looked at Joe closely for the first time and saw the graze on his son’s face. “What happened to your face?” he demanded. “That didn’t happen when you fell out of the wagon, did it? What did Paul say?”

“One question at a time, Pa,” Joe pleaded. “Paul said I’m fine apart from this wrist, which is sprained.” Joe held up the offending appendage. “I met the lieutenant on the road. He’d ridden his horse almost to death – I had to put it down, Pa – and he hit me when he thought I was going to… I don’t know what he thought I was going to do. Attack him probably. He collapsed and I brought him home. What else could I do?”

“You go inside and dry off,” Ben ordered. By now, Adam and Hoss were at the door, watching the goings on with interest. “Adam, help me get this fellow inside. Hoss, get someone to put up Joe’s horse please.”

The clean dry clothes that Joe changed into seemed like the height of luxury to the chilled young man. When he went downstairs, Hop Sing had prepared him something to eat and Joe tucked in with relish. Hoss came and sat at the table with Joe, drinking another cup of coffee. Joe was just finishing a pie of apple pie when Ben and Adam came downstairs again. “How is he?” Joe asked.

“Exhausted,” Ben replied. “He’d been shot fairly recently, but the bullet had gone straight through his arm. There had been a lot of bleeding, but it’s stopped now. He’s asleep.”

“I wonder what he’s doing out here alone,” Adam mused.

“We can ask him when he wakes up,” Joe observed. He cupped his hands around his coffee cup, but he was much warmer now. “He wasn’t very keen to tell me anything while we were coming back.”

“I sent someone to get his gear off’n the dead horse,” Hoss told them. “I reckoned he’d need it fer when he’s fit to travel on.”

“Good thinking, son,” Ben praised him. “However, I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere much in the next few days.” He glanced at Joe, who had suddenly yawned convulsively. Ben swallowed an answering yawn before it could escape. “I think you ought to go to bed, Joe,” he suggested. “You’ve had an interesting day.”

“I think I will,” Joe agreed. He rose stiffly to his feel. “G’night, all.”

“Night Joe,” they chorused and watched him walk upstairs.

“I think I might copy him,” Adam announced. “I’m pretty bushed, too.”

“D’ya want me ta sit up wi’ that soldier fella?” Hoss offered.

“No, thanks all the same,” Ben replied. “I don’t think he’ll move before morning.” He rose. “I’m going to bed, too.”

“An’ me,” Hoss agreed. They mounted the stairs in complete amity.

*****

The next morning saw all the Cartwrights at breakfast shortly after dawn broke. Joe’s wrist was still a bit sore and the graze on his face now had multi-colored bruising to highlight it, but he felt fine. “How’s our guest?” he asked as he slid into his seat, last as usual.

“Still asleep when I looked in,” Ben replied. “But he didn’t have any fever and he had a little more color in his face than he had last night.”

“Well, that’s not difficult,” Adam commented. “I’ve seen corpses with more color than the lieutenant had last night!”

The rain from the previous night had stopped, but haying would be held up while the hay dried once more. They couldn’t bale or stack wet hay, as it would just go moldy and be no use to them. However, there was no shortage of other chores that could be done on the ranch. Ben began to detail them. “Hoss, we’ve a couple of horses that need shod. Could you check our horses before we go out and replace any shoes that need it please?”

“Sure,” Hoss grunted.

“Adam, could you go up to the logging camp and see how the thinning is coming on the south ridge? I meant to do that yesterday, but forgot.”

“All right,” Adam agreed.

“Joe, I want you to stay here and keep an eye on our guest,” Ben went on.

“Huh?” Joe straightened as though stung. “Why me?”

“Well, you found him,” Ben pointed out. “And you had a nasty fall yesterday. Besides, you’re about the only person he’s spoken to and he might open up and tell you where he’s headed and why. Make it clear to him that we’re quite happy to supply him with another horse and offer whatever assistance we can to him.”

“All right,” Joe capitulated. What Ben said made sense, even though Joe didn’t want to be stuck in the house all day. However, he chided himself, he should’ve expected that, given his minor injuries. Ben couldn’t help clucking over his sons.

*****

“Good morning!” Joe exclaimed cheerfully when he entered the guest bedroom a short time later.

“Morning,” Bill Patterson replied and tried a tentative smile. “Where exactly am I?”

Smiling, Joe sat down beside the bed. “You’re at my home, the Ponderosa ranch. Do you remember what happened?”

“Some of it,” admitted Patterson. “I remember hitting you.” His gaze slid down the graze on Joe’s cheek. “Sorry about that.”

Joe shrugged. “I’m Joe Cartwright,” he offered. “I think I did tell you my name yesterday, but I’m not sure you got it.”

“Lieutenant Bill Patterson of the United States Cavalry,” Patterson offered and Joe forbore to tell him that he’d introduced himself the night before. The two solemnly shook hands. Joe then found out if his guest was hungry, which he was, and organized something to eat.

While Patterson ate, Joe commented, “You’re looking better.” The previous night, in the wet, Joe had thought the soldier was about Adam’s age. Now, rested and clean, with more color in his face, Joe guessed that Patterson was closer to his own age.

“I feel better, too,” Patterson agreed. “Thank you for helping me.” He was more broadly built than Joe and had short straight blonde hair. His blue eyes held a twinkle, as though he was generally good-humored.

“So,” Joe asked, “where are you headed?”

Cocking Joe a glance, Patterson deliberately took his time chewing that mouthful to give himself time to think before he answered. “Fort Churchill,” he admitted finally.

“You’re a little off track,” Joe told him, smiling. He was completely taken aback by the young soldier’s reaction.

The color drained out of his face and a look of alarm crossed it. He sat up abruptly and would have spilled the contents of the tray all over the bed if Joe’s quick reactions hadn’t caught it just in time. “Off track?” he echoed, the dismay clear in his tones. “How off track?”

“Take it easy,” Joe urged. “You’re not that far off. Do you have a deadline to meet?”

Again there was the hesitation, as though Patterson couldn’t decide if he was going to tell Joe the truth or not. “Kind of,” he hedged.

“Look, I’m not trying to pry here,” Joe told him. “I was just asking. We’ll be happy to give you a horse and point you in the right direction. I could even take you there if it would help. Your business is just that – yours.”

The young man ducked his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to seem ungrateful,” he replied. “I appreciate everything you’re doing for me. It’s just…” He allowed his voice to trail off. “I guess I’d better tell you the story. They might track me this far.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m stationed at Fort Lowell.”

“I know where it is,” Joe confirmed. “Near Tucson.”

“That’s right,” Patterson nodded. “A few months ago, we got a new commanding officer, Colonel Jackson. He came with the reputation of being a hard taskmaster, and so he is. But he’s also mad.”

“Mad?” Joe echoed. “What do you mean?”

Swallowing, Patterson looked nervous. “He and the captain of my troop disagreed on the punishment for one of the men who was caught sleeping on duty. The colonel won, of course, but he flogged the man so hard he died. The captain was going to complain to the commander-in-chief when he next came to visit, but he isn’t due for another month. The captain told the colonel that he was going to do this. A few days later we were out on exercises and the captain was killed by a bullet the colonel fired. “

“Are you sure about this?” Joe asked hoarsely.

“Oh yes,” came the bleak response. “Major Markham decided that we couldn’t wait for the CIC’s visit and wrote a letter for me to take to him at Fort Churchill. But somehow, word must have got out, because I was being followed by the colonel and some of his men. That’s how I got shot. I managed to escape them, but if I’ve gone wrong, I’ve given them the chance to catch up with me, and maybe get to Churchill before me.”

“Are you sure the CIC will believe your major?” Joe asked, having had a couple of encounters with the army that he’d sooner forget.

“Oh, yes, Mr. Cartwright, I’m quite sure he will,” Patterson assured Joe.

“My name’s Joe, not Mr. Cartwright,” Joe replied. “Why are you so sure?”

“Because the major is the younger brother of the CIC,” Patterson replied. He looked at Joe’s astonished face with interest. “And my name’s Bill,” he added.

*****

Within the hour, Joe was mounted and riding out to find his father. It was clearly imperative that Bill get to Fort Churchill as soon as possible. What was also clear was that the young soldier was struggling with weakness. Joe was determined that he shouldn’t go on alone, especially as he wasn’t sure where it was he was headed. Of all his sons, Ben could most easily spare Joe right then, thanks to his sprained wrist. Two days should see them reach Fort Churchill with the vital message.

But Ben wasn’t as easy to coax round as all that. Joe argued as persuasively as he knew how, but Ben insisted on coming back to the house to hear the story for himself and judge the young man’s truthfulness. Joe fretted under the delay, already infected with Bill’s worries.

With Joe fidgeting on the couch, Ben thoroughly questioned the young soldier, who went as far as to show Ben the sealed envelope that contained the vital message. The embossed envelope went a long way to convincing Ben. “All right,” he sighed. “I believe your story. It’s barely noon, so you can get underway after you’ve eaten. Joe, can you find a horse for the lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied and exited the house smartly. He chose a sturdy brown gelding and swiftly put on the lieutenant’s gear before checking his own was ready. He wasn’t surprised to find Ben following him into the barn.

“Hop Sing is preparing you something to eat and some food to take with you,” Ben told him. He stopped close beside Joe and put a hand on his son’s horse. “Joe, are you sure you’re up to going? This could be a hard trip if you meet up with those soldiers.”

“I know that, Pa,” Joe replied. “I am up to it, I promise and I’ll be careful. But Bill can’t go alone; he’d get lost again, or pass out maybe, and we can’t wait until either Adam or Hoss come back.”

“I guess you’re right,” Ben smiled, although he felt a twinge of anxiety. “Go and eat, son.”

With a heavy heart, Ben followed Joe back into the house.

*****

By mid-afternoon, they had covered about eight miles. Joe found that he was much more experienced at pacing the horses than Bill and they had to rest often to allow Bill to catch his breath. About 7.30 that evening, they arrived at the place that Joe had mentally ear-marked for their camp that night. Seeing that the soldier was exhausted, Joe took on the camp chores, swiftly tending to the horses and building a fire. After that, he replenished their canteens before he made a start on supper.

“I’m sorry I can’t be more help,” Bill apologized. “I’m shattered.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Joe replied. “I’ve been shot a time or two myself and I know how it makes you feel.” Settling back on his heels while the beans cooked, Joe said, “How come you’re a lieutenant so young, Bill? If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”

“I don’t mind,” Bill replied, smiling. “Well, the truth is, Joe, it’s mostly because I can read and write. A lot of the men in my company aren’t educated at all. Plus, I come from a military background. My father and grandfathers were all soldiers. I like it, mostly.” He nodded at Joe. “What about you?”

Smiling, Joe told his story. Before long, they had told each other about their siblings – three sisters for Bill – and were fast becoming friends. Gradually, the talk slowed and Bill began to yawn. “Go to sleep,” Joe urged him. “I won’t be long before I join you.”

“What about a watch?” Bill asked.

Reminded of their desperate mission once more, Joe frowned. “I’ll stand first watch,” he decided. “I’ll waken you later. I’ll douse the fire and there won’t be anything to give us away.”

“I can easily…” Bill began.

“No, you can’t,” Joe contradicted him. “You’re still weak from blood loss. I’ll stand watch and waken you after you’ve had some sleep. You need it.”

“But I heard your Pa say you’d been knocked out yesterday,” Bill objected. “And I hit you, too.”

“Pa fusses,” Joe admitted with a smile that told Bill that he didn’t really mind the fussing. “And I’ve got the Cartwright hard head. Ask either of my brothers and they’ll tell you the same.” He pointed to Bill’s bedroll. “Now, sleep! That’s an order!”

Saluting smartly, Bill smiled and went to roll himself into his blankets. “Sometimes,” he told Joe, “the first duty of a soldier is obedience. Sometimes its doing the thing you think is right. And sometimes they coincide!” He laughed.

“Good night,” Joe laughed back and kicked dirt onto the fire. It died away and Joe sat and stared into the darkness until his night vision developed. It was going to be a long night.

*****

As dawn broke, Bill woke Joe. He had a small fire going and was heating some coffee, which Joe was grateful for. He had finally woken Bill about 2am and it was now a little before 6am. Joe wondered how on earth he would last the day on four hours sleep, but he had done it before, and he supposed he would do it again. They didn’t linger over breakfast. Before long, they were on their way again.

There was a definite improvement in Bill’s condition, but Joe still didn’t push him. He wanted the soldier to get to his destination in as good shape as was possible. Joe estimated to himself that if they kept up their current pace, they would reach Fort Churchill the next morning. If they pushed, they would reach it that night, but for Bill’s sake, Joe decided not to push things.

But his pleasant musings were interrupted. Bill had been looking back over his shoulder steadily for the last half hour and Joe glanced at him. “See anything?” he asked, hoping that the answer was no. But he himself had looked back a couple of times and was sure they were being followed.

“Yes,” Bill replied, gloomily. “They’ve got our trail.”

Twisting in the saddle, Joe looked back once more. Sure enough, he could now see a cloud of dust that indicated they had someone on their trail that was coming quickly. “Are you up to riding faster?” Joe asked.

“I’ll have to be, won’t I?” Bill replied. He touched his heel to his horse and followed Joe.

There was no way they could outrun their pursuers. The horses would have to rest. It would be after dark before they reached the fort anyway. Joe thought furiously to find a way to thwart the men behind them.

They had ridden for almost an hour, and the horses were laboring. Joe saw with relief a band of trees further along the trail. Bill was reeling in the saddle from exhaustion. “We’ll stop there!” he cried, and led the way.

The thicket of trees was not very broad, but it was quite dense. Joe slid off Cochise and led his sweating mount into deeper cover and then went back to help Bill. His friend was quite grey, but after a few minutes rest, the color began to return to his face and he sipped gratefully from the canteen Joe offered him.

“What are we going to do?” Bill asked. He was watching Joe using his hat to water the horses. “The horses can’t keep up that pace for much longer.”

“Give me your greatcoat,” Joe urged.

“What?” Bill frowned. “Joe, what are you talking about?”

“They aren’t looking for a rider on a pinto horse wearing a green jacket and tan hat,” Joe replied, crouching next to Bill. “If you ride steadily along that track, you’ll reach the fort by dark. I’ll take your horse, greatcoat and cap and pretend to be you and lead them off on a false trail. That should give you the time you need to get to the fort.”

“You can’t do that!” Bill objected. “I’ll give you the message and I’ll lead them away.”

“Bill, listen to me,” Joe urged. “You still aren’t back to full strength and you know it! Cochise will look after you and get you to the fort safely. That’s your first duty, isn’t it? Obedience to orders? Well, your orders were to take that message to the fort, not to hand it over to some civilian. I know this country; don’t worry, I’ll give them the slip. You just hide here until they’ve gone out after me, then head off that way.” He pointed once more to remind Bill of the direction. “The track leads right there.”

“I don’t know,” Bill hesitated and Joe rose impatiently and began to strip off his jacket.

“I can deliver the message,” Joe agreed, as he threw down his hat, too. “But I can’t convince them of its authenticity, because I’m not a soldier and I wasn’t ordered to bring it to the CIC.” He looked at Bill pointedly. “What if they don’t believe me? What do I do then?”

“All right,” Bill capitulated. He rose and slid off his greatcoat, handing it to Joe. It was a bit big on Joe, as Joe’s green jacket was a bit tight across the shoulders on Bill, but from a distance, those details wouldn’t be noticed.

Leading his horse back onto the trail, Joe looked back. The riders were nearer. “Good luck,” he offered and swung aboard.

“And you,” Bill replied. He melted back into the trees and watched as best he could as Joe rode casually out of the trees in the direction they had come from, acted as though he had just spotted the riders and lit out over the plains as though all the demons in hell were after him. He was also heading in completely the opposite direction to the fort. Bill didn’t know whether to be sad or glad when the following riders set off in hot pursuit after him.

Leading Cochise out, Bill glanced one last time after Joe, then resolutely set out to reach the fort.

*****

The brown gelding that Joe was now riding had lots of stamina, but it didn’t have the turn of sped that Cochise had. Although Joe did everything he knew to shake off his pursuers, they gained on him slowly. Reaching the dubious shelter of some rocks, Joe pulled his horse to a standstill and patted its sweating neck. The animal’s breath panted in and out, and Joe was breathless, too. He knew they couldn’t go on like this much longer, but he had to give Bill as much of a head start as he could manage.

The sound of hooves reached his ears and Joe touched his heel to his horse, sending it forward in a ground-covering trot, hoping to preserve its stamina while he could. The ground had turned hilly and uneven and Joe hoped he would be able to use that to his advantage, even though he knew it worked against him, too.

A cry went up from behind him and Joe twisted in his saddle to discover that the troop of cavalry was less than half a mile behind him. There was no time to nurse his tired horse now. Joe kicked it into a gallop, hearing bullets singing past him. He knew that it was almost impossible for a mounted rider to shoot another mounted rider, but there was no accounting for fluke. He hunched low over his horse’s neck.

Over the next mile, Joe could feel his horse’s speed slowing until the poor beast was barely managing to keep to a lope. Joe slowed it to a walk, knowing that the troop were going to catch him, but unable to actually ride the horse to death. After all, he had given Bill enough of a head start, he reckoned, and the army horses would be winded too and unable to give chase at any speed. The tired horse stumbled to a stop and Joe slid down, gently patting the steaming wet neck. “Well done, fella,” he whispered and the horse flicked a tired ear in his direction for a moment.

It wasn’t long before the cavalry appeared over the hill behind Joe. He watched calmly as they drew closer and as they stopped near him, he read by the insignia that the leader was a colonel. Joe felt a moment of disquiet. He knew that they would be annoyed when they discovered his deception but seeing the expression on the man’s face, Joe wondered just how annoyed he would be. Taking a deep breath, Joe slowly slid off the cap and greatcoat, revealing his civilian clothing and haircut.

“Seize him!”

Unprepared, Joe didn’t resist as a couple of the men jumped down from their horses and grabbed him by the arms. Joe looked fearlessly at the commanding officer, wondering what would come next. He knew by the bruising pressure of the grips on his arms that he wasn’t going to be breaking free fast.

Slowly and deliberately, the colonel dismounted and handed his reins to another man. He drew off his gauntlets finger by finger as he walked over to Joe, then all around him. Joe deliberately kept his gaze to the front. Finally, the colonel was in front of him again. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Joe Cartwright,” Joe replied. “Who are you?”

His only response was a backhand slap across the face that seemed to come out of nowhere. Joe’s head snapped to the side, and as he straightened again, he tasted blood in his mouth. He narrowed his eyes as he looked at the military man. “I asked a perfectly fair question,” he pointed out and this time saw the blow coming. His attempt to duck it was hampered by the soldiers holding his arms.

“Where is Lieutenant Patterson?” the colonel demanded.

“I don’t know,” Joe answered. It was partly true; he didn’t know Bill’s exact location.

This time, the blow was to his stomach and Joe was suddenly certain that Bill was right; Jackson was mad.

*****

Riding at a steady trot, Bill hoped that Joe would give the troop the slip and rejoin him on the road to the fort. Bill was tired, but he forced himself to keep going. He hoped that Major Markham was still alive, but he knew that if he got caught, he would die and so would the major as soon as Jackson got back.

The sun was going down in a blazing ball of fire when he finally spotted the fort in the distance. He patted the pinto’s neck and they both went on with more enthusiasm. It took him a minute or two to talk his way into the fort, but once he was inside, he was able to prove who he was. Someone took Cochise from him and he was conducted to the adjutant’s office where he was given some much-needed water.

“All right, Lieutenant, what’s this all about?” asked a deep voice and Bill leapt to his feet to salute. But his body was exhausted and he reeled and almost fell. A hand caught his arm and the voice ordered him to sit down, which Bill did gratefully. When his head had stopped spinning, he looked up into the grey eyes of General Markham.

“I have an urgent letter for you, sir,” he replied. He handed it over and watched while the general read it. Finally, those unsettling grey eyes rested on him once more.

“Why are you wearing some civilian clothes?” the general asked, settling himself in a chair next to Bill.

Quickly, Bill explained about having been shot and Joe persuading him to swap jackets so that Joe could fool the pursing troop. “I had hoped Joe would have caught up with me by now,” he concluded.

“Its dark now,” the general mused. “You get something to eat and get some sleep. At first light, we’ll ride out to find Mr. Cartwright. I’ll need you to help me identify him.”

“Yes, Sir,” Bill replied. “Thank you, Sir.” His pleasure in completing his mission was dulled by knowing that Joe might be in jeopardy. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be escorted to the kitchen where he was given a good meal before he was shown to the barracks where he fell into bed and slept, despite his worries.

*****

The ‘interrogation’ had gone on and on, until Joe was incapable of speech. The troop had bivouacked in a sheltered spot nearby. Joe was dragged along there and tied to a tree. He sat, his head slumped over, every part of his body aching. His right eye was swelled shut and every breath was a misery from the pain in his ribs. He wasn’t offered any food when they made the evening meal but Joe didn’t care. He doubted if he could have opened his mouth far enough to take in any nourishment. Joe didn’t know if his jaw was broken or not, but he certainly couldn’t move it much. A soldier stood guard over him just a few feet away, although Joe couldn’t imagine how the colonel thought he was in a fit state to make an escape attempt, even if he hadn’t been so tightly tied.

Later, Joe became aware that Jackson was standing over him, watching him. Joe slowly lifted his head and glared back as best he could. The man’s gaze was disquieting. Joe fought down the shiver that wanted to become a tremble.

Crouching beside his prisoner, Jackson gave him a cold smile. “If you just tell me where Patterson is, I’ll let you go.”

“I dunno… where he is,” Joe hissed. He could barely form the words and they were so slurred that he sounded drunk. He wasn’t so punch drunk that he believed that he would simply be let go. They would have to kill him, he reasoned, and if the price of his life was to keep denying that he knew where Bill was, he would keep on saying it, whatever the cost.

“Suit yourself,” Jackson grunted as he rose. “You’ll have one more chance to tell me the truth in the morning, and if you don’t, then you’ll take the consequences.”

Joe watched him leave, his heart thudding painfully against his sore ribs. He was under no illusion about what Jackson meant; come morning, if he didn’t tell them where Bill was, he would die. And when he told them where Bill was, he would die. Joe’s mouth was suddenly dry and he gazed sightlessly into the dark, trying to figure out a way he could escape.

*****

When he was shaken awake in the cold, grey, pre-dawn light, Bill Patterson felt as though he had only been asleep for a few minutes. It took him several seconds to remember where he was, and when he did remember, he threw back the covers and dressed in record time. Breakfast was a cup of hot coffee and a dry bread roll, which he gulped down without noticing. All Bill’s unease came flooding back and he was eager to get started. He mounted Cochise, glad to see that the pinto looked to be in good shape.

They left the fort before the sun had peeked over the horizon. The world was eerily still. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor a single bird or mammal to be seen anywhere. It was as though the world was still sleeping, holding its breath to see what the outcome of the day would be. Bill tried to shake off his melancholy thoughts, but he didn’t succeed.

He was somewhat in awe of the company he rode in, too, for General Markham had insisted that Bill ride alongside him. “I need you to show us which direction Cartwright took,” the general explained. “And to identify him when we reach the others.”

The general was being incredibly friendly to Bill, who couldn’t understand why. But in his letter, Major Markham, the general’s brother and Bill’s commanding officer, had written

Lieutenant Patterson is an exceptional officer, George. I think he has the abilities to go far. The men like him and believe me, I would not have entrusted this letter to him if I did not believe him capable of delivering it. He has seen with his own eyes that Jackson is mad. I have to say that I fear for my life if something is not done about Jackson. Please come in all haste and take care of Patterson for me. I may need him again.

 Your brother Thomas

 

There was no chatter as they rode. The men knew that their silence might give them an edge when they caught up with the renegade colonel and his men. All had been briefed on what they were to do and they were all somber.

The return journey seemed to take less time to Bill, but he reasoned that both he and the horse were fresh. He felt quite well again, and longed to break out of the disciplined trot or steady canter that they kept to. Fear for Joe was eating into his gut.

When they reached the stand of trees where Bill and Joe had parted company, the scout went out in the lead, tracking. It wasn’t a hard trail to follow and they made good time as they rode along. The scout ranged further ahead and Bill found himself hoping that he would find Joe safe and well somewhere just up ahead.

*****

The night had passed – well, it had passed. That was all Joe was willing to say about it. He was cold, tired, sore and hungry. And afraid. For the past while, Jackson had been pacing about among the men and venting his temper on them. Joe had no idea why Jackson was so angry, but he was beginning to fear that it was his refusal to talk that was at the back of it and that it wouldn’t be long before he came over and started abusing Joe again.

The men were scurrying about, trying to put more order into the already orderly camp. Breakfast was being cooked and Joe could see that the men were getting oatmeal and Jackson was getting bacon and eggs. The aroma of piping hot coffee made Joe’s overpowering thirst worse. He watched as the men ate. Even his guard had abandoned his post to eat.

Not that it made any difference. Joe had tried all night to break free of his bonds, but he had not succeeded in loosening them even slightly. His right wrist, already sore to begin with, now had no feeling in it, although Joe could feel his fingers wiggling against his back. His body was so relentlessly, grindingly, sore that Joe doubted if he could run even if he did get free. He fervently hoped that breakfast would last a long time.

But his luck was out. Breakfast was consumed and the camp tidied up, the horses saddled ready for departure. Joe knew that the time was drawing closer when he would have to decide what he was going to say.

A thrill of fear shot through Joe’s stomach as Jackson came over. “Get him to his feet,” Jackson ordered and watched as Joe’s bonds were cut and he was hauled to his feet. The movement evoked a huge surge of pain and Joe could barely contain a scream. His hands were retied behind his back.

Somehow, Joe managed to get on top of the pain and he squinted at Jackson as he once more circled around Joe. “You have a choice, Cartwright,” Jackson told him coming to stand right in front of him. “You can tell me what I want to know, and I will leave you here like this. I’m sure you’ll get free eventually.  Or you can continue in your stubborn ignorance and suffer the consequences. What’ll it be?”

As Joe gazed at him, he realized that he didn’t have to make the decision. His own stubborn nature had made the decision for him; he couldn’t betray Bill, even knowing that the young man had most likely reached the fort the previous night. If there was the least chance that Bill might fall into Jackson’s hands, then Joe wasn’t going to take that risk.

“I dunno…where….he….is,” Joe panted. He still found talking extremely difficult and it was made even harder a moment later when Jackson backhanded him across the face once more. Next time, Joe didn’t even try to answer the question and doubled over when he was punched in the stomach. The men holding him upright let go and a punishing fall was added to the abuse.

Lying there with the world swimming in and out of focus, Joe knew he would die. He blinked sweat out of his eyes and tried very hard to listen to what Jackson was saying to his soldiers, but all he could make out were the words “kill him.”

Suddenly galvanized by fear, Joe kicked out and knocked the colonel off his feet. Joe knew it was a futile gesture and likely only to speed his death, but he couldn’t go out without showing how he felt at least once.

Swearing sulphurously, the colonel regained his feet and kicked Joe twice in the ribs. This time, Joe definitely felt a rib break. He tried to squirm away, but his body had stopped taking commands from his mind and he didn’t move at all.

“Get everyone prepared,” Jackson snarled. “We move out in ten minutes!” He turned and walked away. Joe sagged back in relief. He had a momentary reprieve.

But Jackson had barely taken one step when an authoritative voice shouted, “Colonel Jackson, this is General Markham. I order you to lay down your arms and surrender yourself.”

*****

“Found them, Sir!” The scout was justifiably pleased with himself, for they were now able to creep up on Jackson’s position. Markham quickly sought the information he needed before laying out his strategy to his troop.

Once everyone was in position, Markham called, “Colonel Jackson, this is General Markham. I order you to lay down your arms and surrender yourself.”

In a well coordinated move, the general’s men stepped out from the surrounding cover and raised their rifles. Jackson’s men sensed the inevitable and dropped their weapons.

But Jackson himself reacted differently. He threw himself at Joe and dragged the dazed young man to his feet, using him as a shield. “I will not surrender myself!” he cried back. He drew his revolver and dug the barrel under Joe’s chin. Joe couldn’t stop a groan escaping. “If you don’t let me go, I’ll kill him.”

Beside Markham, Bill’s breath caught in his throat. Markham put a steadying hand on the younger man’s arm. “Steady,” he urged in a low voice. “We’ll get Joe out of this.”

*****

“Colonel Jackson, you are surrounded,” Markham repeated. “Throw down your arms. That is an order!”

“How do I know you’re General Markham?” Jackson shouted back. He changed his grip so that his left arm was now tight around Joe’s neck and the barrel of his revolver was now resting on Joe’s temple. Joe tried to quell the impulse to struggle, knowing that Jackson would only keep tightening his stranglehold.

“Sir, you can’t step up there!” Bill argued as he saw Markham preparing to do just that.

“I have no choice,” Markham replied. He stepped up so he was in Jackson’s line of sight. After a momentary pause, Bill followed him. “Now you can see I am who I say I am,” Markham shouted. “So obey my orders. Put down your weapon and let that man go!”

“No!” Jackson cried. “Patterson’s poisoned your mind with lies!” He pressed the barrel of his gun harder against Joe’s head. Joe bit back a wince. He was relieved to see that Bill was all right.

“Stay here!” Markham ordered Bill in an undertone and began to walk slowly towards Jackson and Joe. “Colonel, you are already facing a court martial; don’t make things worse by harming Mr. Cartwright any further.”

“Stay back,” Jackson warned, stepping back and dragging Joe with him. Joe stumbled and the hold on his throat tightened again. He choked.

Step by steady step, Markham drew closer. Jackson was rapidly running out of room. The tense stand-off drew most eyes and nobody moved. Everyone feared what Jackson would do if he was distracted. Joe’s breathing was ragged as the pain began to take over. He couldn’t foresee the outcome of this steady advance and retreat, but he feared the worst.

Suddenly, Jackson bumped against a tree. The jolt echoed through Joe’s body and his knees buckled. Markham saw his chance and moved forward quickly. Distracted, it took Jackson several seconds to realize that, but when he did, he shoved Joe to the ground, kicking him on the way down for good measure and prepared to shoot his CIC.

As he tumbled to the ground, Joe groaned with the pain that shot through his body. His ribs were on fire and the world was spinning around him. But he dragged in a lungful of air and squinted up at Jackson, believing that he would see death staring him in the face. It came as something of a shock to realize that Jackson had forgotten about him and was going to fire on the General.

A sudden surge of adrenalin brought Joe to his knees and he threw himself at Jackson’s legs, despite the fact his hands were still bound tightly behind him. He crashed into Jackson and knocked him off balance and his shot went wide. As Jackson tumbled to the ground, he brought the butt of his revolver down on Joe’s neck and head. Joe was knocked cold.

With a roar, Markham launched himself onto Jackson as Joe slumped down. The two men fought furiously for control of the revolver, rolling back and forth and even at one point rolling clear over the top of Joe. But eventually, Markham prevailed. He clipped Jackson on the chin several times until the gun dropped from lax fingers. Slowly, Markham got to his knees and then his feet, looking down in disgust at his erstwhile colonel. “Take him into custody,” he ordered, panting. He straightened his uniform and glanced round to see what had happened to Joe. He wasn’t altogether surprised to see Bill kneeling by his friend and cutting through his bonds. Ballantyne went over. “How is he?”

Glancing up, Bill replied, “He’s been badly beaten, Sir. I’m no doctor, but he doesn’t look good.”

Taking a deep breath, Markham looked around. “You men! Take these men into custody, and get them headed back to the fort.” Ballantyne beckoned to some other men. “You others, prepare a horse litter.” He looked back at Bill. “We’ll take him back to the fort.”

Standing slowly, Bill looked troubled. “Begging your pardon, Sir, but I think it would be better if we took him back to the Ponderosa.”

“Why?” Markham asked.

“I know the Cartwrights, Sir. I know that Mr. Cartwright’s father will want him brought home as soon as possible, and it’s almost the same distance to the ranch as it is to the fort. Sir.” Bill knew he should have made more of an effort to marshal his arguments, but he wasn’t quite sure how to explain to his superior that Joe would want his father.

“Yes, all right,” Markham agreed. “Is there a good doctor nearby?”

“Yes, Sir,” Bill nodded. “Joe told me that he had seen a doctor the day we met.”

“You mean he was injured already?” Markham demanded.

“Um, he has a sprained wrist,” Bill explained. “It wasn’t giving him that much trouble, Sir.”

“Well,” Markham subsided, looking down at the unconscious Joe and grimacing as he saw his injuries, “from the little I’ve seen of your friend, Lieutenant, I would think he wouldn’t allow it to hold him back anyway.” He smiled. “You look after him, and we’ll get him home as soon as we can.”

*****

“Joe? Can you hear me?”

Blinking, Joe forced open his one good eye and squinted vilely at Bill. “Bill?” he whispered. He still found his jaw too stiff to move much and his words were further slurred by his split lip. “What…happened?”

Helping Joe to drink, Bill told him. “We’re taking you home, Joe,” he concluded.

“Good,” Joe whispered. He heard steps approaching and glanced round to see the general crouching beside him.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m General Markham. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.” He smiled at Joe. “I’m very grateful for everything you did for Lieutenant Patterson. We must, of course, recompense you for the horse you supplied him with. I’ve been looking him over and he’s a fine animal. I don’t suppose your ranch has any more like that you could sell us?”

“How many…d’you…want?” Joe parried and the corner of his mouth twitched.

Laughing, Markham reached down to give Joe’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Mr. Cartwright, I foresee a long and profitable future for us both! You rest and we’ll get you home as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” Joe breathed. He closed his eyes, the better to deal with the pain. He could sense Bill sitting next to him and was grateful for his friend’s company, but couldn’t summon any energy for small talk. More than anything, Joe wanted to go home and go to sleep. He was dozing off when he was gently lifted into the horse litter and the small cavalcade headed off towards the Ponderosa.

*****

Supper was past and Ben and Adam were engaged in a game of chess when Hoss came in from the barn where he had been checking on the progress of a sick foal. “Pa, there’s a load of riders comin’ in! They look like army men ta me!”

“Army?” Ben echoed, bewildered. A sudden pang of fear shot through his heart. “Do you think it’s got something to do with Joe?”

“I don’t know,” Adam responded. He saw how white his father’s face was and hurried to attempt a joke to try and dispel the worry. “But Joe hasn’t been there long enough to get into trouble with the army.”

The black look Ben sent him told Adam his attempt at humor had fallen short. They rose and went out as the lead riders came into the yard. As Hoss had said, they were from the army. Ben moved forward as he recognized Bill. Behind him, Adam and Hoss exchanged glances, wondering where on earth Joe was.

“Lieutenant!” Ben tried a smile, but his worry over-rode it. He realized that the man next to Bill was a general and opened his mouth, but Bill was already talking.

“Mr. Cartwright, we’ve brought Joe home.” He pointed behind him to where the horse litter had just arrived.

Ben promptly forgot about the general and Bill and hurried over to peer down into Joe’s pale, battered face. “Joe?” he whispered, his hand creeping out to brush the unruly curls off Joe’s forehead. “Joe, can you hear me?”

Slowly, Joe’s left eye opened a slit. “Hi, Pa,” he breathed. There was a twitch at the corner of his split and swollen lips, but the smile never came to fruition. “’m I…home?”

“Yes, son, you’re home,” Ben replied and Markham glanced at Bill.  “Good call, Lieutenant,” he praised.

*****

With the soldiers bedded down in the bunkhouse and Bill and General Markham settled in the house, Adam felt he could at last return to Joe’s room to see how his brother was doing. Hoss and Ben had carried Joe upstairs while Adam took charge of the soldiers and sent a ranch hand for the doctor.

Going into Joe’s room, he found a smile for his youngest brother. Ben and Hoss had helped Joe undress and slide into bed and Adam could see the multitude of bruises that peppered Joe’s ribcage. “How’re you doing, buddy?” he asked as Joe glanced over at him.

“Fine,” Joe muttered. In truth, he was exhausted and in a lot of pain and breathing was difficult. He wanted to tell his family what had happened to him, but talking was too difficult. He tried to ease his body to find a comfortable spot, but there wasn’t one to be had.

To keep Joe awake while they waited for the doctor, and to relieve him of the need to talk, Ben told his son about their activities on the ranch while he had been away, explaining that the last of the hay had been brought in that day and Hoss told Joe about the sick foal, assuring his younger brother that it would be fine. Joe nodded sometimes, but even that simple movement caused him distress, so he just signaled his understanding with a series of ‘mm’ sounds.

It was a great relief to them all when Doc Martin finally showed up. By then, it was well past midnight and Joe’s exhaustion was plain to them all.

“Can you tell me what happened, Joe?” Paul asked. “I know talking hurts, but I need to know.” He didn’t add that Joe’s ability or otherwise to speak would help with his diagnosis.

Slowly, with many pauses and his words unclear in many places, Joe told his story. It was the first time any of them had heard it. Throughout, Ben made sure Joe could see him and he smiled his approval and pride down on his son. Finally, the halting recitation came to a stop. Joe swallowed and asked the question that had been beating about his head for the past while. “Is…major…safe?” he slurred.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. He could see at once that this response troubled Joe.

“I’ll go and find out for you in a minute,” Adam promised. He wasn’t going anywhere until he heard Paul’s diagnosis.

Gently, Paul felt around Joe’s ribs, finding a couple broken on each side. The sprained wrist was much worse, with the swelling almost doubled because of the tightness of the ropes that had bound Joe. Joe’s right eye was gradually opening again and Paul peered closely into each eye to make sure there was no more damage to them apart from the bruising. Finally, he came to feel Joe’s swollen jaw.

The first delicate touch almost had Joe out of his bed. A strangled scream escaped his lips. “Sorry, Joe,” Paul apologized. “Ben, can you hold him, please?”

Nodding, Ben quickly moved so that he was pinning Joe’s shoulders to the bed. Groans of pain slipped past Joe’s control and he drew his legs up towards his chest as the pain grew unbearable. He fought weakly to rid himself of his tormentor. He didn’t think he could bear the examination to go on for one second more.

It took Joe several moments to realize that Paul had finished. Gradually Joe’s breathing came under control again and he opened his eyes to find them all peering at him worriedly. Paul smiled when he saw Joe was back with them. “Well, Joe, you’ve had as thorough a beating as I’ve seen for a long time,” he began. “You’ve got a few broken ribs, as I’m sure you’re only too aware and more bruises than you could shake a stick at. You might find that there’s a trace of blood in your urine, but don’t worry about it. The bruising to your kidneys is minimal. However, your biggest problem right now is that dislocated jaw.” He glanced at Ben, Adam and Hoss and saw that they all had remarkably similar dumbfounded expressions on their faces. “Could I get some ice, please? We’ll try and get some of this swelling down, then I’ll pop the jaw back into place.”

Joe made a noise that sounded exactly like he was going to be sick and Paul smiled. “Don’t worry, it won’t take a moment,” he promised. “And I’ll give you something for the pain before we start. Deal?”

“Deal,” Joe agreed. “That…why…I…can’t…talk?”

“That’s why,” Paul agreed. He realized that the Cartwrights were all still standing there gaping at Joe. “Ice, please?” he reminded them. “And Joe wants to know about the major, whoever he is.” He smiled as Adam and Hoss leapt to their feet and hurried off; Hoss to get the ice and Adam to find out about the major. Ben stayed right where he was. Paul drew up an injection of morphine and shot it into Joe’s thigh. He knew it would be working by the time Hoss came back with the ice.

*****

Despite the morphine, Joe let out a hideous scream as his jaw snapped back into place and slumped unconscious. Ben straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow with a shaking hand. Paul Martin knew exactly how he felt. “I’m just going to put this bandage on for a few days, Ben,” he explained. “Just until the ligaments have had time to settle. Meantime, give Joe fluids until he’s feeling a bit better. I’ve taped up his ribs and I’d like him to stay in bed for several days to allow the bones to start knitting. We don’t want a punctured lung! I don’t think Joe will want to get up any time soon, anyway. He’s going to be very sore. His speech should correct itself as his jaw gets better. I’d think you’ll see an improvement right away, although I don’t think he’ll want to talk much until his jaw feels better.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied.

“I’ll see myself out,” Paul smiled. “Oh, and is the major all right? And who is he anyway?”

Quickly, Ben told Paul the story and concluded by saying, “Yes the major is all right.”

“Good,” grunted a tired voice from the bed. As Paul had said, Joe’s speech was much improved already. “I’d…have…hated….to…go….through…all…this….for…nothing.”

“Stop talking and go to sleep!”  Paul ordered. “I bet your soldier friend can obey orders!”

A tiny smile crossed Joe’s face as he remembered their campfire conversation. “The…first…duty.” He dutifully obeyed orders and slid into sleep.

*****

Next morning, Joe managed some beef broth for breakfast and was wondering if there was a comfortable position he could lie in when Ben came back into the room. With him were General Markham and Bill Patterson. Joe managed a small smile for them.

“How’re you feeling, Joe?” Bill asked. He was dressed in his full uniform.

“Ok,” Joe allowed. Ben tutted.

“By that he means he’s not going to die,” he explained, throwing a loving, exasperated glance at Joe. “Although I dare say he’d tell you he was fine on his death bed!”

“Well, young man, we have a lot to thank you for,” Markham stated. “Not least the fact that my brother is still alive. I hope once you’re better you’ll come down to Fort Lowell and sell me some of those horses of yours!” He shook Joe’s hand firmly.

“I will,” Joe promised.

“Thanks for everything you did for me, Joe,” Bill said, as Markham and Ben stepped aside. “I’m sorry you’ve been hurt so badly.”

Sighing, Joe shook his head. “It’s okay,” he muttered. He wished he could say more, but then he saw by his friend’s face that he understood.

“We’re leaving soon,” Bill reported. “So this is goodbye. I hope we meet again.”

“Me, too,” Joe agreed. He found another smile as they left.

*****

Many years later, Joe was once again under General Markham’s care when he was hunted by a crazy man and taken to Fort Lowell, desperately ill. He had been on his way to Fort Lowell to sell them some horses; a trip he had taken regularly, thanks to his part in helping to save the life of the general’s brother.

*****

But that was the future. Joe heard the horses in the yard as the soldiers left. Ben came back in a few minutes later. “Is there anything I can get you?” he asked.

After a moment’s thought, Joe nodded. “What is it?” Ben asked.

“A steak,” Joe replied, and a small laugh escaped him as he saw the look on Ben’s face.

“As soon as you can eat one, Joe, I promise that you can have the biggest steak I can find!” Ben grinned. “And I promise to hide it from Hoss, too!”

“Hide what?” Hoss asked as he came in.

His only answer was some pained giggling from Joe and a bellow of laughter from Ben.

***End***

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