Summary: A What Happened Instead for the episode “Second Chance.”
Rating: K+ (21,880 Words)
Twelve ranches looted and burned. Twenty-eight known dead.
Reports of the carnage held the citizens of Virginia City in thrall as they crowded around the operator inside the telegraph office.
Hour after hour, the panicked staccato blasting across the wires relayed the bloody news. Stricken faces looked at each other as the operator translated the messages, telling of one town after another falling prey to Red Pony and his band of renegades. Now, just three days’ ride east, the marauders were striking an unholy terror into the area around the desert town of Sweetwater. The last communication had broken off in mid-word, and the ensuing silence was even more horrifying than the persistent rat-a-tat-tat had been.
The news caught everyone by surprise; Red Pony had moved a lot faster than anticipated. All previous reports had placed the raiders at least fifty miles further south. They had grown more murderous, and more brazen.
It wouldn’t be the first time the rage of a group of angry Indians had been underestimated, Adam thought, and they were all—himself, Pa, Sheriff Coffee, the cavalry—guilty of the miscalculation now staring them in the eye. Red Pony was ripping the Sweetwater area to shreds.
And riding into the middle of the blood bath were his two brothers.
There were a lot of families scattered through that area, and most of them weren’t immediately privy to the information coming over the wire. Stretched thin, the sheriff of Sweetwater had wired Sheriff Coffee, asking for aid in getting the warning to the more remote inhabitants.
Joe and Hoss had volunteered immediately. Adam had stepped up to go as well, but Pa had vetoed the idea.
“Red Pony’s attacks have been so unpredictable. We don’t know which direction he’ll take next,” he had told Adam. “Moving like he has, in two days’ time he could be as far east as Zephyr Springs or as far south as Rhineland. We can’t all go flying off now—some of us need to remain here so that we can be ready to help at those places, if need be.”
Pa had been right, of course, and though several opposing arguments came to Adam’s mind, he had refrained from mentioning them. Joe and Hoss had been convinced that, riding fast, they could get word to all the outlying ranches and still get out with plenty of time to spare.
He and Pa had agreed.
As Adam had watched his brothers lope off into the distance two days ago, the first pricklings of unease had crept up his spine. He had brushed them away, admonishing himself for being overly jumpy.
Now he wished he had paid more attention to what his instincts had been telling him. He looked at his pa’s face and saw his own fears reflected there.
“Let’s get back to the Ponderosa and then get up to Sweetwater,” Ben said, his eyes dark with grim purpose, and a few minutes later they were riding hard for home.
They had just reached the Ponderosa, and had just begun to make preparations for the trip to Sweetwater when a ragged cavalry troop of ten or so men pulled in. Almost all of them were wounded, some severely, and Adam was afraid he knew who had been the cause of those injuries. When the lead officer dismounted and introduced himself, he was proven right.
“I’m Lieutenant Marks, sir,” the troop’s tired leader announced to Ben. “We were on a routine training patrol, and ran into an ambush.”
Ben moved quickly, directing one of the hands to lead the wounded inside, and sending another to ride to Virginia City for the doctor.
“Lieutenant, I’m assuming it was Red Pony who led the ambush?” Adam asked. He was chafing at the bit to get on the road and get to his brothers, but they needed to know what they were up against.
Lieutenant Marks nodded. “We lost half our men before I realized what hit us.”
“How big a war party?” Ben, too, knew how important it was to gain information about an enemy before preparing to fight it.
“Thirty-five, maybe forty. I counted at least twenty rifles. The rest were armed with bows and lances.”
Ben grimaced. “They’ll have more rifles now that they’ve looted the Sweetwater ranches,” he informed the Lieutenant.
Adam pulled a deep breath in. Hopefully Hoss and Joe had seen trouble coming and had pulled out in time. If not, and they were still in the Sweetwater area, they were in a mountain of trouble.
It was odd, how he didn’t feel any real stabbing sensation when the arrow plunged into the right side of his chest. It felt more like a punch from a fist, a hard impact that slammed into him from out of nowhere. It knocked the air out of his lungs and had him reeling back and fighting to stay in the saddle. He saw Hoss streak by on Chubb, just to his right. He shook his head to clear it and made a feeble attempt to shoot back at the attacking Indians, but his aim was way off and he knew it. Even if his muscles hadn’t gone absurdly weak, his vision was too blurry for him to hit anything he was aiming at. After the first couple of shots, he gave up and concentrated on hanging onto the saddle horn.
The pain in his chest was exploding now, confusing his judgment, and his confusion lent itself to his horse. Rather than running on, Cochise trotted in a nervous circle, and the gap separating them from the Indians narrowed. Hoss, still ahead and still shooting, threw a glance back at him, and then quickly reined Chubb back around toward him.
Joe could see his brother, still slightly ahead of him, holding a nervous Chubb in check. Hoss was looking at him, his expression frantic; he was shouting something, but between the raised dust and his crossed vision and the shrill cawing from the Indians, Joe couldn’t make out what he was saying. He tried to call back and let Hoss know he was okay, but doing so suddenly seemed like an enormous effort. Instead of speaking, he decided, again, to work on staying upright on his horse’s back. Cochise was still circling, veering left and then right, and Joe was suddenly too dizzy to know which way was up. Once again, he did the only thing he could—he kept his attention focused on the saddle horn, and held on for everything he was worth.
Then Hoss was there at his side, grabbing Cochise’s reins. “I’ve got you, Joe, just hang on,” he panted, and began to tug Cochise along behind Chubb, urging both horses into a flat out run.
Well, of course he would hang on. Nobody had to tell him that if he fell now, he was done for.
He hunched forward over his horse’s neck, knuckles gripped whitely over the horn, and willed his eyes to stay glued on his brother’s broad back as they raced across hot, sage-scattered sand. Every step Cochise took caused the protruding arrow shaft to bounce, and it felt as if an iron spike were being driven into him, little by little, making him shudder and grit his teeth until he thought his jaw would crack with the force of it.
At some point he gathered enough coherence, despite the ever-growing pain, to insist on taking control of his horse again, leaving Hoss free to drop back and shoot at their pursuers. Joe didn’t look back—he was afraid he’d lose his balance if he did—but Hoss’ aim was effective enough to give the Indians pause. The whooping savages eventually dropped out of sight to disappear among the yucca-studded dunes, but he and Hoss didn’t slow their own pace. They both knew the Indians were only regrouping for another attack, not giving up. They would be back.
“Joe, up there on the left, those rocks cornered against that bluff—head over there!”
Hoss was shouting directions from somewhere behind him, and Joe obediently reined his horse toward the left. Soon Cochise was slowing to a halt in front of the bluff, and he knew he needed to dismount before he fell off, but somehow he didn’t think he could do it. His chest felt as if someone were holding a branding iron to it, and every movement was agony. So he simply sat still, trying desperately to hang onto consciousness.
And then Hoss was there, reaching up to lift him down from the saddle, murmuring “Easy, easy,” to him as he half-carried him into a shaded square of sand overhung with rock. Movement made the pain even more intense, and he found himself holding his breath to block it out as he leaned into Hoss’ side.
He continued to hold his breath as Hoss eased him down to lay on his back. Even so, little puffs of air escaped in tiny gasps, audible enough, he knew, for Hoss to hear. Blackness hovered at the edges of his vision, and he struggled to keep his eyes open. He felt his brother’s bear-like hands move over him, stopping, hovering, as they neared the arrow.
It was hard to focus in on Hoss, and the fact that he had difficulty with it frightened him. His brother’s wide face was close above his, his sky-blue eyes intense with alarm, his usually kind mouth stretched taut with stress.
“That thing’s in there real deep,” Hoss admitted, wincing. He added warningly, “This…this is gonna hurt.”
Yes, he knew that. He also knew that leaving the thing in was out of the question, even if he thought he could stand the pain, which he didn’t. The arrowhead had become a red-hot poker, slowly searing his insides even as it sawed against the inside of his shoulder and chest.
“Just go on, get it outta there,” he told Hoss, his voice sounding, he thought, like it came from someone else, all breathy and soft.
Hoss gave a short nod. Wasting no time, he leaned over Joe, gripped the arrow shaft with both hands, and pulled.
The pain was wrenching, jarring, breath-stealing. He didn’t want to watch what his brother’s hands were doing, so Joe locked his eyes on Hoss’ face instead. Beads of perspiration popped up across Hoss’ forehead, and his teeth were bared with exertion. He didn’t look at Joe, but only at the shaft buried in his flesh as he strained to pull it free.
The effort to keep his eyes on Hoss, on anything, was too much, and Joe gave up trying. His throat convulsed and he looked toward the sky, but through the red haze marring his vision, he couldn’t have said whether it was night or day.
Through the pain, the hazy thought skittered across Joe’s mind that it was a harsh punishment for Hoss to have to do such a thing. Inflicting pain on another living thing was something his gentle brother would rather die than do. It killed Hoss inside to see anyone hurting, it really did, and to have to be the cause of making that hurt worse would be beyond endurance for him.
No, it wasn’t at all fair that Hoss was having to do this. The only thing he could do to help him, though, was not to let on how much it hurt. So Joe swore to himself that he would not give in to the urge to groan out loud, and he bit his lip to hold the pain in.
But someone was crying out anyway, short, tiny cries of pain. He couldn’t imagine who it was, whimpering like that. Then there was a loud snap and a horrible burst of pain, and he forgot about Hoss, forgot about everything except the frenzied animal gnawing at his chest.
The arrow shaft broke, and Hoss’ stomach clenched in tight protest. He stared in disbelief at the bloodied arrow shaft lying in his hand.
“Dadburnit!” Hoss swore. He wanted to curse wildly, using more than his usual mild epithets, wanted to holler his rage across the desert, but knew he wouldn’t give in to the urge. Fear or panic from him now would only instill itself into Joe, and Joe was frightened enough already. He didn’t need his older brother falling apart on him. Not now.
As he had worked to free the arrow, Little Joe’s cries had just about done him in. He heard the sound of his brother’s pain again in his mind, and a shiver worked its way up his spine to lodge in his throat. It had ripped him up inside, trying to jerk the shaft loose from his brother’s body, knowing that every movement of it was pure torment for Joe. His own stomach heaved, and the urge to vomit into the sand was strong, but he didn’t allow himself to do that, either. They were in dire straits, the two of them, and Little Joe didn’t have a chance of making it out of this alive without him. He could be sick later—if—and this was a big if—they made it out of this God-forsaken desert with their scalps still attached to their heads.
He looked at his brother. Joe was lying there, conscious but deathly quiet, breathing hard, eyes still shut against the pain. Hoss’ jaw clenched with determination.
“Joe, I’m gonna get you outta this, you hear? Everything’s goin’ to be alright, I promise you,” Hoss said, his voice ringing with confidence and determination when, in reality, he felt as scared as a kitten in a dogfight.
Joe turned his head slightly toward Hoss. But he didn’t answer back, didn’t even open his eyes, and Hoss wasn’t sure if it was because of the pain or because he didn’t believe in Hoss’ promise. He wasn’t sure he believed it himself. But Joe was still alive, and so was he, and he intended to fight with everything he had to keep them both that way.
The problem was, he didn’t have much to fight with. Between them, they had one canteen half full of water and a little jerky. They had a decent supply of ammunition in their saddle bags, but that wasn’t going to change the fact that they were only one gun outnumbered by at least twenty-five or thirty Indians, maybe more. The odds were staggering. He would feel a heck of a lot better if Joe was able to help him in holding them off—the boy was fast as lightning with that pistol of his—but that wasn’t going to happen. His brother was barely hanging on to consciousness, much less able to shoot.
He had more trouble on his hands than he knew what to do with. Whether or not he could hold the Indians at bay—and he knew he couldn’t do that indefinitely—his little brother wouldn’t last long with that arrow still in him.
Fifteen minutes later he was still scanning the horizon, watching for signs that the Indians were coming at them again, but thankfully seeing none. Leaning against a boulder, he stared into the distance, the rock’s cold surface filtering through his vest and shirt to his belly. He kept his rifle at the ready but his mind was elsewhere, groping for any idea which might get them out of here. He saw nothing out there, though, that was going to help either of them. Just miles of sand and cactus, broken only by a few scattered clusters of jagged rocks.
A hostile land, isolated from all help.
He looked back at Little Joe, watched his chest rise and fall with heavy breaths, and his frown deepened. Their horses had been blowing hard when they pulled in here, but he had given them each a small amount of water, and they were rested enough for now. Should he put his brother back on his horse and just try to make a run for it?
He moved back to Little Joe’s side, turning the idea over in his mind. Joe was perspiring heavily, more than was warranted by the hot dry air flowing like lead around them. He uncorked the canteen and lowered it down to him, gently lifting his head so that he could drink. Joe took a couple of tiny sips and waved it away again.
“Want some more? There’s plenty,” Hoss cajoled, deliberately keeping his tone light and matter-of-fact. When Joe refused another drink, he started to raise the canteen to his own dry lips, but then thought better of it. Despite what he had just told Joe, the canteen was closer to empty than full, and he had no idea how long they’d be pinned down here. Better for him to be a little thirsty now than for Joe to do without later on. Carefully, he re-corked the canteen and put it away.
Again, he considered the idea of trying to make a break for it, although he knew there wasn’t much logic in it. The closest sign of civilization he knew of was a stage station at least two days’ ride away; even if the horses managed to survive a trek through miles of rough, dry country running too hard and too fast, Joe never would. Not in this condition.
He squinted back into the harsh light of the sun, thought he saw something, and looked again.
Hope leaped in his chest, and he turned back to his brother. “Hey, Joe, there’s a campfire over there. I can see smoke, maybe half a mile away. May be help.”
“May be just a bunch more Indians.”
The bleakness of his tone told Hoss that Joe was very much aware of just how bad a scrape they were in. Well, they weren’t going to throw in the towel just yet. Not while he was still able to do something about it.
“No, I don’t think so. Indians wouldn’t give themselves away like that. I’m going to ride over and see what I can find,” Hoss said, unable to hide the hope in his voice. “There’s plenty of water, and you’ll be safe here in the shade. I’ll be right back.”
Joe gave a little sigh and nodded, and Hoss climbed up onto Chubb’s back. He felt Joe watching him, and he turned and looked at him. “I’ll be back, Little Joe,” he said again, and held his brother’s eyes until he saw him nod again. Then he dug his heels into Chubb’s flanks and headed for the smoke plume, sending up a prayer as he rode that the Indians weren’t watching. It tore at him something fierce to leave Joe lying there helpless, but he had to do something, and whoever was responsible for the smoke could be his last chance to get help. He had no choice but to take it.
Hoss forced his brother’s face out of his mind and rode hard, headed toward the puffs of dark smoke drifting into the sky.
Joe lay still, listening to Chubb’s hoof beats fading off across the sand. Once they were gone, there was nothing — just silence so thick he felt as if he could be swallowed up by it. All that came to his ears was the too-rapid beating of his heart. He was half-convinced that if he listened hard enough, he would be able to hear the thrumming of his own blood against the arrowhead lodged deep within him.
It had taken on a life of its own, that arrowhead, tormenting him, taunting him, shooting pain across his chest and shoulder every time he tried to shift position, sending out low throbs of needling pain when he lay without moving. He couldn’t imagine getting back to his feet with the thing still inside him, much less trying to ride a horse out of here. Riding, though, was most likely the only way he was going to survive.
He sighed. The options were limited. Stay here and wait for the Indians to find them, or attempt a ride that he was pretty sure he couldn’t handle.
Hoss, though, Hoss had a chance. All he had to do was ride hard to the north, and keep riding until he got out of reach of the renegades. He could make it. Joe had considered trying to talk him into it when Hoss had told him he’d be back, but he knew he’d be wasting his breath, which he seemed to have precious little of at the moment. Hoss would never agree to riding on without him, and he knew it.
“Darn you anyway, Hoss,” Joe whispered to himself. “You’ll probably still be sitting here with me while the buzzards pick my bones clean.”
The picture in his mind was too real for comfort. He finally decided to just quit thinking altogether and lay absolutely still, trying not to antagonize the pain ripping at his chest. The quiet and the heat and the pain soon conspired to make his eyelids grow heavier until, at last, he finally succumbed to the blessed escape of sleep.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been dozing when he jerked awake. He’d thought he’d heard something, but he wasn’t sure what it had been. All he heard now was the same oppressive silence that had surrounded him since Hoss had left, and the soft, chunky, metallic sound of Cochise mouthing his bit. Maybe there had been no noise at all. He could have dreamt it for all he knew.
Then the sharp report of a rifle shot rent the silence in two, and Cochise gave a tiny jump at the sound. It was no dream. The sound had come from the direction of the smoke plume, only there was no smoke there now.
Either Hoss was shooting at someone, or someone was shooting at him. Either way, he had ridden into some kind of trouble.
Joe gritted his teeth against the pain and rolled up onto his knees. His body protested vigorously as he pulled himself upright. Blackness encroached on the edges of his mind, threatening to overtake him, so he stood still for a few moments, taking several deep, slow breaths until the dark edge receded.
He turned his head and looked at Cochise. The horse had managed to pull loose from the scrubby bush where Hoss had tied him, and now he stood quietly, watching him with soft, inquiring eyes. Joe made a clicking sound with his tongue, and the paint obliged by stepping toward him.
“Good boy, Cooch,” he murmured, holding out his hand. “Good boy. Come on, that’s it.” When Cochise moved within reach, he grabbed the bridle, as much for his own support as for control of the horse. He moved slowly around the horse’s head and down its side until he came to the stirrup, and then he stood there, somewhat at a loss.
He had no idea how he was going to get up in the saddle. A feat that had been effortless a few hours ago had now turned into an almost impossible task.
But Hoss was still out there, still in trouble, and there was no one to help except him. He had no choice but to grasp the saddle horn awkwardly in his left hand, put his boot in the stirrup, and clamber up.
The pain rolled over him in fierce waves, but he did his best to ignore it. He put Cochise’s nose into the direction where Hoss had disappeared and pressed the horse into a hard run.
He lay close over Cochise’s neck, watching the parched earth fly by beneath him and listening to the rhythmic drumming of hooves, and fought against the dizziness which threatened to topple him out of the saddle. Hoss had said half a mile, but the ride seemed to go on forever, until at last he had no idea how long he had ridden; he knew it wasn’t possible, but it seemed as if he had been in the saddle for hours, perhaps even days, he didn’t know. He concentrated only on hanging on.
He was aware, just barely, of Cochise slowing beneath him, and he thought of trying to urge him back up to speed, then decided it didn’t matter because he was already falling from the saddle. This time he knew he was too far gone to grab for the horn. One minute the horse was beneath him and the next it wasn’t, and Joe knew this ride was over.
The ground didn’t come up and whack him, and that surprised him.
He forced his eyes open again. Hoss was holding onto him, and that surprised him, too. He’d thought Hoss had gone…where?
Then he was lying on his back again, with Hoss bending over him, and he remembered. Hoss had ridden off alone, and someone had been shooting. He reached up and clutched at Hoss’ sleeve to reassure himself that his brother was indeed here in front of him.
He was real, alright. Holding onto him. Big and fierce and…grim-looking.
“I heard shots,” Joe managed to croak, still grasping at his brother’s shirtsleeve. “Thought…thought you were in trouble…” He wanted to say more, wanted Hoss to assure him that everything was alright, but he couldn’t seem to make his tongue work properly. Darkness was moving in and out on him, making him weak and breathless and disoriented.
His hand fell away from his brother, and, disconnected, he floated away.
“Just take it easy,” Hoss said, even though he was pretty sure Joe was past hearing him. “See there, Doc?” His voice was pleadingly hopeful. He had been engaged in an argument with the people in the wagon train before Joe came riding up, trying to convince them that he was here only to get help for his brother, not to do them any harm. In a stroke of incredible luck, a doctor was among the travelers in the wagon train, and he bent over Joe now, shaking his head.
“He needs immediate surgery.”
The doctor’s daughter, Estelle, apparently had doubts. “Isaac, you can’t! Even if you could hold a scalpel, you haven’t got the strength!”
Hoss understood where those doubts came from. Severe arthritis had left Dr. Dawson’s fingers grotesquely twisted and gnarled, leaving him virtually crippled. His hands didn’t look capable of holding a fork, much less a scalpel.
The doctor smiled. “Estelle, you’ve been at my right hand with hundreds of patients. This time, you’ll be my right hand.” He ignored her open mouth and turned and started issuing directions, telling the men to carry the patient over to the cot beside his wagon.
Hope and fear surged together through Hoss’ chest as he and one of the members of the little wagon train lifted Joe and carried him over to the cot.
Hoss had been greatly relieved to find the wagon train, and even more so to find the doctor. Besides Dr. and Estelle Dawson, there was a wagon master named Frasier, a beady-eyed man named Breck, an apparent drunkard they called Mulvaney, and Mulvaney’s daughter Anna, a woman Hoss estimated to be in her early twenties. It wasn’t much to stand up to a band of renegade Indians, and Breck and Frasier had been downright unreceptive to the idea of him coming into camp initially, but he was thankful to have found them anyway. He and Joe would be a heck of a lot safer with them than they would be alone.
He thanked the good Lord that the group had been foolish enough to burn the campfire that had alerted him to their presence; otherwise he’d never have known they were here. He’d hurried to stamp out that fire as soon as he’d gotten here, but it was highly possible that the Indians had seen the smoke just as he had. If that were the case, they were in a heap of trouble, but he’d deal with that when it came.
He knew Estelle Dawson was terrified of being the one to wield the scalpel, and he couldn’t say he felt too fond of the idea himself, knowing she wasn’t a doctor. But right now she was the only chance Joe had, and Hoss was willing to grab at that chance. She and the doctor were busying themselves now at preparing for surgery, and Hoss moved nearer Joe’s head. His brother was awake and staring up at nothing, his throat working as he tried to swallow the pain tearing him apart.
It made Hoss beyond angry, seeing him like that. At that moment, he would have liked nothing more than to have his hands wrapped around Red Pony’s neck.
The doctor examined Joe, and then looked up at Hoss. “Alright, Mr. Cartwright. I’ll remove the arrowhead, but there’s a fee.”
Hoss narrowed his eyes in a surprised question. Dr. Dawson had not struck him as a mercenary type, but then, he’d been wrong before about the hidden agendas of men.
“Your services,” the doctor explained. “You and your gun, until further notice.”
It wasn’t too much to ask in exchange for his brother’s life, and Hoss gladly accepted the terms. “You got a deal,” he agreed. Then he turned to his brother. “Joe,” he said softly. Joe was drifting off somewhere again, away from the pain, and Hoss laid his hand on his head to pull him back. His brother’s eyes, dull and unfocused, shifted back to regard him from beneath a sooty fringe of lashes.
“Joe, we’re in luck. We got a doctor and a nurse, and they…they’re gonna patch you up just as good as new.”
Joe said nothing, and Hoss saw the fear flicker through his eyes as he bit back a soft grunt of pain.
Fear wasn’t an emotion he usually associated with Joe. The boy had never been as prone to fear as a sensible man ought to be, which was probably a big part of the reason he was so often in need of a doctor’s care. Sometimes Hoss felt like pounding him for being so reckless, and for scaring him so bad so many times.
But he was obviously afraid now — and so was Hoss — and recklessness had nothing to do with the spot they were in. They’d come here with the intention of helping other people, and now they’d gotten themselves into as tight a spot as the settlers they had been trying to warn.
“You can leave now,” Dr. Dawson was saying. “We can get along without you.” It was a doctor’s standard dismissal, but Hoss was loathe to follow it.
Hoss stared at Joe, feeling helpless as all get-out, and Joe gave him another nod, then a tiny smile and wink, as if to say, “Don’t worry about me, brother. I’ll be fine.”
Hoss swallowed past the ache in his throat. Little Joe and that bright-as-the-sun smile of his. He had seen that grin charm every woman from here to Virginia City, and most of the men, too. Now here he was, lying there hurting like everything and quite possibly dying—and still that smile insisted on breaking through, just so he could try to make his big brother feel better.
But it didn’t make him feel better. No, it made him feel worse than ever.
Hoss wanted to argue with the doctor, wanted to insist on staying at Joe’s side, but he didn’t. He was afraid of what he might do when they started cutting. He wasn’t at all sure he could simply stand by and watch it happen.
So he walked slowly away, hearing the doctor give orders to cut Joe’s shirt open.
“Young man, this is going to hurt like the devil,” Dr. Dawson warned, and Hoss wanted to bellow with rage. “You’ll help all of us if you lie as still as possible.” He turned toward one of the men. “Mulvaney, can you spare some of your bottled pain-killer?”
Mulvaney’s voice was soft and sympathetic. “Sure, Doc.” He passed his ever-present bottle of whiskey to the doctor, but Joe, wheezing against another jolt of pain, brusquely refused it.
“I don’t want any of that…just get that arrow outta there,” Joe murmured, and Hoss knew he was gathering his strength to withstand the coming ordeal.
He hoped he himself could withstand it as well.
He’d considered taking the whiskey when the doctor offered it, but was afraid his knotted-up stomach wouldn’t accept it. Besides, he knew liquor would only take the barest edge off the pain, not enough to matter at this point. He felt them cut his shirt away, and the terror of what the next moments would bring edged into his mind. He struggled to push the fear back.
His gaze fluttered downwards, and he saw the shine of the scalpel in the woman’s hand as she held it poised over his chest. Its sharp edge hovered near as the doctor gave the woman careful directions, and Joe turned his eyes to the sky and tried to send his mind elsewhere. It came bolting back, though, as the tip of the scalpel pierced his skin and began to pull threads of pure fire across it.
He fought to hold himself still as the doctor had told him to do, but his body bucked anyway. The fire-threads grew hotter and longer, streaking across his shoulder and into his brain until they finally exploded into a shower of incandescent flames that threatened to devour him whole. When a wall of black nothingness moved toward him, he turned into it with grateful relief.
Adam and Ben sat astride their horses alongside Lieutenant Marks and his sergeant. The four of them stared dully at the sight laid before them.
They had just ridden up on the remains of yet another massacred wagon train. Adam’s stomach churned as he wondered for the umpteenth time about the whereabouts of his brothers. Were they lying somewhere like these poor people, scalped and tortured and left for dead? He snuck a glance at Pa, taking in the clenched set of his jaw, and knew he was wondering the same thing.
A heavy sigh came from Marks on his left. “Come on, let’s get ‘em buried.”
It was a gruesome task, one they’d taken on several times already on their way over the desert. Even with the relentless heat of the midday sun, they couldn’t work fast enough to get the graves dug and the bodies buried. Once they were finished, they stood in the dubitable shade of a Joshua tree and rested, sipping warm water from hot canteens and wiping perspiration from their foreheads with their shirtsleeves.
“Mr. Cartwright,” Marks said to Adam, “just how far do you want to go? It’s my duty to continue on, of course, but you and your father might be better off turning back. I mean, the warning has gotten through by now to most of the travelers coming through here, and the others…”
The others, the ones for whom the warnings had come too late, had already been killed. That’s what Marks was thinking but hesitated to say, Adam knew. He looked at his father’s tautly-lined face, and then back at the lieutenant. “We keep going until we find my brothers,” he said.
“But, Mr. Cartwright…”
“Until we find them,” Adam stated again, and the firmness of his tone discouraged the lieutenant from arguing further.
Pa stared at the seven mounds of freshly dug earth and said nothing at all.
Dr. Dawson had been cautiously optimistic of the surgery’s success. Hoss sat at Joe’s side, watching him edge back into consciousness, looking bewildered but relieved. Joe’s face was slightly flushed, and he looked worn out, but his eyes were clear and his hard breathing had eased, which made Hoss breath a lot easier, too.
“Well, little brother. You gave me quite a scare there for awhile. You’re lookin’ pretty as a jaybird now,” he told his little brother. He was joking, but then again, he meant it.
“That’s just how I feel, too,” Joe replied, and chucked Hoss softly on the arm, already grinning as though he hadn’t just had part of his chest mined on. Hoss grinned back, suddenly absurdly happy for someone who was still stuck in the middle of a desert with a gravely injured brother and murderous Indians all around.
“It isn’t a time for talk, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Dawson admonished, catching hold of Joe’s hand and placing it back under his blanket. “Your brother needs rest.”
Hoss gave his brother’s arm a squeeze, and then allowed himself to be led away from him again. This time, though, he felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his chest. Little Joe now had a good shot at surviving the whole ordeal, and Hoss was more determined than ever to get them through this.
He and Mrs. Dawson moved away from the cot, and he made a point of stopping her and thanking her and her father for all they had done. It was then that Mrs. Dawson corrected him by letting him know that the doctor was her husband, not her father. Hoss felt somewhat sheepish about the mistake, but she was several years younger than her husband. He had just assumed…well, there was nothing to be done about it now. He hoped he hadn’t offended her too much. She was a good woman, and she and her husband had given his brother back to him. Now he would do his best to protect them for the remainder of their journey.
He had promised Frasier that he’d take his turn at standing watch just as soon as he knew Joe was out of immediate danger, and he went to do so now. He had no trouble keeping himself awake; the night sounds had him jumping at every turn. Even later when he returned to camp, he didn’t sleep well; the thought that they could be overrun by Indians at any moment made it hard to relax. He sighed. At least Joe would be getting some much needed sleep, even if he himself wasn’t, and that made him feel better.
He couldn’t sleep.
Even though the removal of the arrow had left him feeling enormously better, the wound still hurt like hell, and the discomfort made him restless. He had pretended to be asleep when Hoss left camp to go on watch, only because he knew his brother would worry over him like a mother hen if he caught him lying awake. Now the camp was quiet, and he lay on his back, eyes wide open, staring at the stars.
A sudden sound from behind the doctor’s wagon made him start. He raised himself up on his elbows, listening, and heard it again. Footsteps, treading quietly up behind the wagon. Could be one of the wagon party, just checking on things, but his gut instinct told him differently.
He had insisted that Hoss had put his gun, along with his shirt and jacket, underneath his cot. Hoss had shaken his head but had done as he had asked. He felt for the gun now, breathing a sigh of relief as he closed his hand around the smooth ivory handle. He got up off the cot, trying not to make any noise, and eased away from the wagon and into the shadows.
Sure enough, it appeared his gut had been telling him the truth. The man they called Breck was sliding to the rear of the doc’s wagon, gun in hand. Hoss had told him that Breck, along with Frasier, had held a gun on him and tried to run him off when he had first shown up asking for help, and if that wasn’t enough to make Joe suspicious of him, his furtive movements toward Dr. Dawson’s wagon were.
When the man moved forward as if to aim the gun into the wagon, Joe cocked his pistol and warned softly, “I wouldn’t do that.”
Startled, the man whirled around to face Joe. “I thought I heard him call. I was just tryin’ to help,” he stammered.
“With a gun in your hand?” Joe knew the man was lying, but he didn’t feel up to arguing with him. Truth be told, he didn’t feel quite up to snuff at all. His legs felt rubbery and irritatingly weak, and what he really wanted to do was to sit down.
Breck hung his head and slithered off, and Joe let him go. Then Dr. Dawson’s head appeared at the back of the wagon. Apparently he had heard Breck sneaking around, too, and had been waiting for him with his own gun. Now he started to fuss over Joe, urging him back to the cot and insisting on checking him over.
Joe couldn’t help grumbling a protest. He had been enough trouble to everyone; now all he wanted was to get back on his feet and back to normal. But Dr. Dawson refused to take no for an answer, and waved Joe’s complaints away as he gently pushed him back against the blankets.
Actually, Joe thought, sinking back onto the cot felt awfully good, although he wouldn’t have admitted such a thing out loud. Maybe it was better that he lie here for awhile yet. Tomorrow, though, he’d be up and about, he promised himself. His muscles were shaky because he’d been lying around too long, that was all.
Dr. Dawson bent and checked under the bandage, prodding and pressing.
“How is it?” Joe asked hopefully, and the doctor nodded and grunted in satisfaction. Then pressed his hand up to Joe’s forehead and nodded again.
“Good, no fever,” he proclaimed.
Joe regarded him with curiosity. He knew Dr. Dawson was a good man despite the apparent character flaws in some of his traveling companions. He was old and obviously not in the best of health; he certainly wasn’t in any shape to be traveling through conditions as dangerous as these. He should go back to Virginia City, rest up, and wait until the Indians were brought back under control. It would be the smart thing to do, and Joe told him so.
The doctor smiled. “I want to see the place where I was born,” he said plaintively, and Joe had to smile at his wistful tone. “I want to see my son again. I have a granddaughter I’ve never seen,” he continued.
“I can understand that,” Joe said gently, “but what difference does it make if you see them now, or a month from now?”
“I don’t have a month,” the doctor said, and something in his voice wiped the smile from Joe’s face. “I don’t have three weeks to spare, Mr. Cartwright. I’m a dying man.” He smiled sorrowfully, and then patted Joe on the shoulder. “Get yourself some rest.”
In the face of the doctor’s devastating revelation, Joe struggled for words to give him, but had none. How unfair it was, he thought, that this man who had just given him his life back would soon have his own taken away.
Morning brought a sight that warmed Hoss’ heart.
“Cold beans and yesterday’s biscuits. You must be feelin’ pretty good, the way you’re eatin’, Joe.” Hoss had to smile at his brother, who was sitting on the edge of the cot shoveling food into his mouth as fast as he could chew.
“No reason I shouldn’t, is there?” Joe’s tone was slightly sharp, and when he looked up from his plate, his face had that expression he wore when he was halfway spoiling for a fight.
So little brother was feelin’ a mite snappish, was he? Well, that was a good sign. If he was feeling perky enough to be ornery, then he was definitely on the mend. Right now he looked like a grouchy little boy kept too long from his afternoon nap.
Hoss bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at him. “No, oh, no.” He hesitated, then continued. “You know, Joe…I promised these folks I’d ride with ‘em, be an extra gun in case they run into Red Pony.”
“That’s two guns,” Joe responded quickly. “I can still pull a trigger.”
Hoss pursed his lips. He wasn’t fooled by his brother’s outspoken confidence — he knew him well. Since he was a little boy, Joe’s way of dealing with any injury or illness was to downplay its significance. He seemed to think that if could convince himself—and everyone else—that he was okay, then he would be. It was a personality quirk that, over the years, had often driven his family up the wall.
“They ain’t goin’ to Virginia City, Joe, they’re goin’ east.”
He was about to dive headlong into an argument with Joe—the boy had no business going anywhere but back to the Ponderosa, and Hoss was going to figure out how to get him there safely while he himself continued on east with the wagon train—but a commotion on the other side of camp interrupted their conversation.
Frasier was shouting something about Mulvaney having taken half the ammunition and deserting them, and Mulvaney’s daughter Anna was near tears and shouting back at Frasier.
Sure enough, Frasier spoke the truth. Mulvaney had taken his horse and a good portion of shells and ridden out of camp.
“He’s deserted us, just like he deserted his men at Bishop Creek!” Frasier shouted. “He’s run off and left even his daughter to die.”
Why the man had left was beside the point, as far as Hoss was concerned. A man alone out in the open was almost certain to be captured and killed, and he needed to be persuaded to return to the relative safety of camp.
Neither Frasier or Breck were willing to risk their own safety to chase him down. It was good riddance as far as they were concerned. In the end, it was Hoss who rode out to find him. Sure enough, an Indian was hot on Mulvaney’s tail, well on his way to collecting another scalp when Hoss shot him off his pony.
Mulvaney himself was full of excuses, reasons why he’d left. Hoss didn’t want to hear them.
“Let’s just get back to camp,” he told the man, his face hard.
It wasn’t the first inkling he had had of Mulvaney’s cowardice. More than once since he’d run into these people, the subject had come up of the Mulvaney’s lack of valor while he was in the military, during an incident at a place called Bishop Creek. Apparently Mulvaney had turned tail and run, leaving the rest of his troop to be massacred by Indians. Even if Breck and Frasier would have been willing to let him forget it, which they weren’t, Hoss doubted that Mulvaney would have allowed himself to forget. The man’s memories and guilt were what kept him deep inside a whiskey bottle all day long.
It seemed that most of the men in this band of travelers couldn’t be trusted as far as they could be picked up and thrown. Hoss wished for the tenth time today that he and Joe were back home on the Ponderosa.
Two hours later, their little wagon train was headed toward the stage station that lay between them and Virginia City. It seemed Hoss wouldn’t have to have that argument with Joe after all. Dr. Dawson had had second thoughts about pushing on through to the east. He had decided that it wasn’t worth risking everyone’s life, including his wife’s, to do so. They would go to the station, and then from there to Virginia City to wait out the Indian trouble.
If Dr. Dawson’s time ran out before the way was clear, then so be it, he said.
Joe rode in the back of the wagon with the doctor. The inside of the wagon was stifling, and he had briefly—very briefly—considered trying to ride Cochise for at least part of the day, but Hoss and Dr. Dawson and his wife had all ganged up on him, and he felt too poorly to put up much of a fight.
The honest truth was, he felt worse now than he had last night, but he kept that to himself. He glanced at Dr. Dawson, noting the taut lines drawn around the old man’s mouth, and decided that he wasn’t in the best of shape, either. When the wagon bounced, the doctor let out a small moan, and Joe bent toward him in concern.
“You’re catching it pretty rough, Doc. I’ll ask ‘em to slow down,” he said, but the doctor waved him back.
“No, I’ll be fine,” Dawson gasped. Joe thought he looked anything but fine, and sure enough, when the wagon hit a pothole a few moments later, the doc cried out and double over in pain.
This time Joe ignored his protests. “Mrs. Dawson, your husband needs you!” he shouted up to the front of the wagon, and the party lumbered to a stop.
Several minutes later, Mrs. Dawson re-emerged from the back of the wagon and got back into the driver’s seat, looking drained and weary.
Hoss urged Chubb up alongside her. “How’s your husband, ma’am?”
Her reply was cursory. “There are two very sick men in this wagon.”
Hoss’ heart did a tiny little flip in his chest. He didn’t like the way that sounded, not at all. “Little Joe’s worse, huh?”
Mrs. Dawson nodded. “Burning up with fever. Infection has set in.” She flicked the reins over the horses’ backs, and the wagon rumbled on, leaving Hoss to frown after it.
He pulled his horse in behind the wagon, squinting to see into the dim cavity beneath the canvas. “Little Joe? You feelin’ poorly?”
He heard movement, and a few seconds later, Joe’s head appeared. His dark curls were tousled, his skin was slick with sweat, and his eyes were heavy with fatigue.
True to form, he wasn’t admitting to any of it. “Naw, I’m fine. Bouncin’ around in this wagon’s just making my stomach a little queasy, that’s all. Doc isn’t doing too good, though. I’m not sure how long he’ll be able to keep up the pace, Hoss.”
Doc ain’t the only one, Hoss thought. His brother looked about ready to fold in on top of himself. But all he said was, “Just let out a holler if it gets to be too much for him,” and Joe nodded and disappeared back into the wagon.
Hoss dropped back out of line and took up a place in the rear, just behind Breck and Frasier. As he rode, he kept an eye peeled for any sign of Indians cropping up behind them.
Frasier threw a dark look at him. “Breck and I were just discussing the matter of the wagons,” he said.
“What about ‘em?”
“They’re slowing us down, that’s what. When I signed on as wagon master, I didn’t know I was going be fighting a bunch of crazed redskins. Moving as slow as we are, we’re just asking for them to catch up to us. I think we should ditch the wagons and keep going with just the horses.”
Hoss kept searching the skyline. “We ain’t ditchin’ the wagons.”
“Why not? If we unhitch the teams, we’ll have enough mounts to carry us all. We’re like a bunch of sitting ducks out here, creeping along like this!”
Hoss sighed. He had not forgotten that these two men had pulled a gun on him when he had first shown up in their camp begging for help, and his opinion of them hadn’t improved any since then. “Doc is too sick to ride in the saddle,” he said patiently, as if explaining something obvious to a rather slow-witted child.
Frasier harrumphed. “And so’s your brother, is that it?”
Hoss gave him a cold stare. “We ain’t ditchin’ the wagons.” He nudged Chubb in the ribs and cantered toward the front of the line.
He heard Frasier yell at him from behind. “I ain’t getting my scalp lifted just because an old man and your sick brother are holding us back! If they can’t keep up, then I say leave ‘em here!”
All thought left Hoss’ mind. He was off his horse and running back to Frasier before he could think twice about what he was doing. In one swift movement, he had reached up, grabbed Frasier by the collar, and pulled him off his horse and into the dirt. Frasier came up swinging, but was sent flying onto his back by one backhanded punch.
Hoss hauled him up and held his startled face inches from his own. “You shut your mouth,” he growled. “Ain’t nobody leavin’ anybody, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” He thrust the man away from him and spat disgustedly into the dust next to him. Without another word, he turned and stalked back to his horse, mounted, and rode toward the head of the line without looking back.
It was hot in the desert, so very hot. The air was thick and heavy, hard to breathe. He was running, running through acres of scorching sand, but he wasn’t running fast enough. There was a big Indian brave right behind him, knife raised and ready to strike. He turned to look over his shoulder, tripped, and fell into sand that was hot as a bed of embers. The Indian was on top of him before he could move, and he saw that it was Red Pony himself, uttering blood-curdling screams and twisting a knife deep into the right side of his chest. He screamed in pain and fear and fought back.
How did Red Pony know his name? He stopped struggling for a moment, confused, and then started to fight again.
“Joe, it’s Hoss! Stop it now, you hear? Joe!”
Hoss? No, Red Pony was lying, trying to trick him. Hoss wouldn’t be trying to plunge a knife into his chest. Desperate to escape, he lashed out, only to be pinned down with his arms clamped against his sides.
“He’s…he’s killing me. Hoss, stop him! He’s killing me…”
Red Pony was still calling his name, and he could hear other voices, too, low and urgent. Then blessed cool wetness slipped across his forehead, again and again, and Red Pony backed away into the dark. Joe lay breathing hard, lying still to keep the Indian from finding him.
It did sound like Hoss, and he wanted to answer, but he was still afraid that it was a trick.
“Joseph? Come on, boy, talk to me.”
It was Hoss…wasn’t it? He decided to take a chance. He pulled himself out of the burning sand and concentrated, forcing his heavy eyes open just a slit.
It was Hoss, alright, although his face was fuzzy and waving back and forth in front of him.
“Look at me, Little Joe. It’s me, Hoss.”
“I could see you better if you’d hold still,” Joe muttered.
Hoss smiled, although to Joe’s way of thinking he looked more as if he wanted to cry.
Joe tried to smile, too, but found he couldn’t. He was so tired. He didn’t want to run from Red Pony any more. “Hoss? That Indian…Red Pony…he keeps comin’ after me…” he mumbled.
“You just rest easy, little brother. Red Pony ain’t gonna be botherin’ you none. I’ll make sure of it,” Hoss soothed, and Joe believed him. Hoss would watch for Red Pony and his renegades, and he could rest…
“Riders coming into camp!”
Hoss jerked himself out of an uneasy sleep as the call echoed through camp, grabbing his gun with one hand while he wiped at bleary eyes with the other. Breck had been on watch, and it was from him that the warning came.
“Three—no, four men, riding up the trail, about a quarter mile away!”
Frasier and Mulvaney hurried across camp to stand beside Hoss, their own guns cocked and ready.
“Could be scouts from the war party,” Frasier said. “We should shoot them before they get a chance to get close.”
Hoss frowned, but it was Mulvaney who spoke up. “Now that’s the sound of a nervous man. I should know,” he said. “Shoot ‘em as soon as you can see ‘em, is that it?”
Hoss had been sleeping beside Joe’s cot outside the doctor’s wagon. He took a quick glance at his brother now, and saw that he was still sleeping soundly, oblivious to what was going on around him.
“Close your mouths, both of you,” Hoss said. “We’re not shootin’ anybody until we know who they are.”
“So you just want to wait until they’re down on our necks, is that it?” Frasier hissed.
“You’re really scared, aren’t you?” Mulvaney taunted.
“Don’t talk to me about being scared, you coward!” Frasier took a step toward Mulvaney, and Hoss was about to intervene when Breck called again.
“It ain’t Indians. It’s white men. I see uniforms—two soldiers and a couple of civilians.”
A sigh of relief escaped Hoss’ lips. “Soldiers—that’s the best news I’ve heard in awhile.”
“Good thing you didn’t shoot ‘em, eh, Frasier?” Mulvaney laughed as Frasier glared at him.
Hoss left them to bicker amongst themselves and joined Breck at his post. From that vantage point, he could see the four riders moving along the moonlit trail—two uniformed soldiers and a couple of non-uniformed riders, just as Breck had reported.
They drew closer, and Hoss’ heart gave a leap as they came into clearer view beneath the dim light of a waning moon.
Riding along with the two soldiers were Pa and Adam.
“He’s pretty bad off, Pa. In and out of his head, burnin’ up with fever,” Hoss forewarned his pa as they strode across camp toward Little Joe’s cot. “There’s a doctor here, and he managed to get the arrowhead out with his wife’s help, but fever started settin’ in the next day. We kept him off his horse and made him ride inside the wagon, but it don’t seem to have helped none. He’s gettin’ worse.”
When Ben took in the unnatural pallor of his youngest son’s cheeks and the sheen of perspiration covering his body, he had to agree with Hoss. Joe’s condition was bad.
He squatted on his haunches beside Joe and put a hand on his head. Even though he expected it, the heat shocked him. He watched the boy shift slowly beneath the thin blanket, roused by the cool touch of Ben’s hand on his forehead. Green eyes blinked open in confused surprise.
Ben smiled, trying not to let his worry show. “Yes, son, I’m here. I hear you’re not feeling all that well.”
“No, I guess I’m not at my best. I imagine I’ll feel better in the morning, though. What are you doing here?”
“Reports of the raids in Sweetwater came over the wire,” Adam broke in. “We decided we’d better come and get you two before you spoiled Red Pony’s fun.”
Joe rewarded Adam’s joke with a small grin. “Well, we’re glad you did. Aren’t we, Hoss?”
“Never been gladder,” Hoss agreed.
Joe’s eyelids drifted downward and were already closed when he spoke again. “Adam? Be sure to wake me…if Red Pony shows up…would you?”
Adam smiled. “Sure thing, Joe.”
But Joe never heard him answer, because he had already slipped back into sleep.
“Joseph? Little Joe?” Instinct made Ben attempt to keep his son awake and among them, but Joe didn’t respond. Behind Ben, Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. Adam raised his shoulders in question, and Hoss gave a quick, short shake of his head.
“Are you the boy’s father?”
The question came from the back of the doctor’s wagon. Dr. Dawson leaned out, waving Hoss over to help him down.
“Yessir, this is my pa, Ben Cartwright, and my brother Adam,” Hoss made the introductions as he assisted the unsteady doctor to the ground and over to the cot.
Ben shook the man’s gnarled hand. “Hoss told me you are responsible for saving my son. I can’t thank you enough,” he said, and his eyes told the doctor what his words could not.
The doctor shook his head. “With the help of my wife, I’ve done what I can, but I’m afraid I am limited in both my physical ability…” he held up his arthritic hands “…and in the medications I am carrying with me. I must tell you, I am growing concerned that what I’ve done will not be enough.”
Ben nodded. “Hoss told me fever has complicated things, and I can see for myself how sick he is. Doctor, how bad is it?”
Dr. Dawson shrugged. “Bad enough to kill him,” he said plainly. At Ben’s stricken look, he hurried to continue. “Bad enough to kill him if he doesn’t get additional medical attention, and he needs it soon.” He looked down at Joe. “He’s young and strong and determined, Mr. Cartwright, and I had hoped that those attributes, coupled with my care, would be enough. Now it appears I was wrong. There must be a bit of wood from the shaft still inside the wound. He needs additional surgery to find it, and to clean out the infected tissue. Otherwise, the infection will spread until it kills him. There is always a chance, of course, that his body will fight off the infection of its own accord, but I wouldn’t depend on it.”
“You managed to do the initial surgery,” Adam pointed out. “Why can’t you attempt a second one?”
“Doc’s hands won’t allow him to hold a scalpel. His wife did it,” Hoss explained. “Doc talked her through it, step by step, but it was her that did the actual cutting.”
“And she did very well,” the doctor said, nodding. “But the arrow passed very near a major artery, and this second surgery will be a more delicate procedure. It will require deeper, more precise probing, and I am afraid it is too much to ask of her. The boy needs a real doctor at this point.”
Ben nodded, and the determination in his face brooked no opposition. “Then we’ll get him to one.”
The wagons rumbled clumsily along through thick clouds of choking dust. The road, always rough even at the best of times, was heavily drifted over with sand, making the going slow. The members of the wagon train were silent for the most part, nervous, miserably hot, and coated with a chalky film of dust.
Adam rode at the head of the group, continuously scanning the surrounding dunes. Frasier rode beside him.
“How much further do you reckon it is to the station?” Frasier asked.
Adam shrugged. “Twenty miles, maybe.”
“We’re at Red Pony’s mercy out here in the open like this. If he catches us out here, there’s no way we’ll be able to outrun him.” When Adam didn’t answer, he continued. “I told your brother Hoss that it would be smart if we left the wagons and just took the horses. We could cut our traveling time in half.”
Adam didn’t look at Frasier. “I know what you told him. I also know, and so do you, that we have two people who are incapable of sitting a horse for any length of time.”
Frasier shrugged. “Sometimes a man has to cut his losses, Cartwright. Doc has one foot in the grave anyway, and your brother—well, I heard what Doc told your pa about his chances. The closest town is Virginia City, and there ain’t no way we’re going to make it there in time to do him any good, not at this speed.”
Adam started to fling back an angry retort, but the truth was, as thoughtless as the man’s words were, a portion of them were true. It was late in the day, and moving at this rate, they wouldn’t reach the stage station until sometime day after tomorrow. Virginia City would be another day’s ride west after that.
He was no doctor, but Joe’s appearance told him that the boy probably didn’t have that long to wait.
For the life of him, though, he couldn’t think of what else could be done. They couldn’t leave poor Dr. Dawson behind, and even if they didn’t have him to think of, there was Joe. His brother would be willing to try to ride, Adam knew, but he also knew Joe’d never make it that far. He was barely holding his own riding in the back of the wagon.
“As my brother Hoss told you before, we won’t be leaving anyone behind,” he said now to Frasier. “If that doesn’t suit you, you’re welcome to try to move ahead on your own. I’d like to point something out to you, though.”
Frasier looked at him with narrowed eyes. “What’s that, Cartwright?”
“See all that dust we’re raising? Well, Red Pony sees it, too. He knows exactly where we are. He’s just biding his time, waiting to make his move. We’re just additional entertainment for him at this point.” Adam eyed Frasier and let one corner of his mouth turn up. “But if you’d like to take your chances and ride on out, go ahead.”
Frasier’s mouth tightened into an angry frown, but he said nothing. Instead, he gave an angry kick to his horse’s flanks and loped back to join up with Breck and one of the soldiers.
The desert night brought cool respite. Joe lay on his cot outside the wagon, the crisp air cooling his hot skin. He slept off and on; though it was an uneasy sleep, he was coherent when he was awake, and Ben was grateful for that. Twice during the day’s travel, he had slipped into delirium, whispering fearful warnings about Red Pony. Now he lay quietly, completely spent by his injury and the taxing rigor of the day’s journey.
Dr. Dawson, despite his increasing weakness, insisted on checking on his patient every few hours. Ben was grateful for the doctor’s presence, regardless of his limitations. He had no doubt that his boy would be dead by now if it weren’t for this man.
He watched the doctor quietly checking the arrow wound, and thought about what Hoss had told him of his ill health.
“Doctor,” Ben said softly, “has everything possible been done…I mean, about your own condition?”
Dr. Dawson looked at him with a sorrowful and knowing smile. “There is nothing to do, Mr. Cartwright. When I first became ill, I knew immediately what all my symptoms pointed to, but I proceeded to try an assortment of treatments anyway. I even sought the opinion of other doctors, a couple of specialists in Boston. All they could tell me was what I already knew.” He rose painfully from his seat beside the cot and shook his head. “My time remaining on this earth is very short.”
“How long?” Ben whispered.
He shrugged. “I’m a doctor, not God. Who knows? Weeks, days, hours.” He looked back down at Joe. “It is selfish of me, but I would like to leave with the knowledge that my last attempt to save a human life was not a failure.”
Ben rose, too, and put a hand on his stooped shoulder. “Doctor, no such attempt can ever be thought a failure…regardless of the outcome.”
The doctor smiled again and placed his own hand on Ben’s arm. “You have an extraordinarily compassionate nature, Mr. Cartwright. I hope, for your son’s sake, that I prove to be worthy of it.”
The two of them stood there for a long moment, lending each other strength and silent comfort in what was a dark hour for them both.
Adam stood on the first watch of the night with Lieutenant Marks, high up in the rocks above camp, listening to the hooting of an owl and wondering if the sound was made by a human mouth. He finally convinced himself that it really was a bird making the soft, eerie noises, and relaxed somewhat.
They could see down into camp from this vantage point. Except for frequent visits to Joe’s bedside by Hoss, Ben and Dr. Dawson, most of the camp already lay sleeping. Mulvaney, however, sat with his back against a wagon wheel, tipping a generous amount of whiskey into his mouth every few minutes.
“We need every man we can get, but he’s one we could do without,” Marks noted.
“Bishop Creek Mulvaney, you mean.”
Adam nodded. “I remember reading the news accounts. He was a major in the troop wiped out by Paiutes at the Bishop Creek Massacre. The only survivor, as I recall.”
Marks continued on. “Mulvaney turned tail and ran to save his own hide. He left his troop to be murdered. He won’t be any good in a fight with Red Pony if we run into him. He’s proven he doesn’t have the stomach for it.”
Adam nodded thoughtfully, and made a mental note make certain Pa knew of this potential weak link in their fortifications.
“Mr. Cartwright…I’m sorry about your brother. He’s…not doing so well, is he?”
Adam’s gaze drifted over to the cot set up outside the wagon, where Little Joe lay on his back, his left arm thrown up over his head, his right held close to his side. From this distance and in the dim light of a single low-burning lantern, his features were hard to distinguish, and Adam could almost believe he was six years old again, completely exhausted from yet another day of the kind of constant activity of which only an exuberant little boy was capable.
But Joe was no longer a child, and this time his energy had not been sapped by a happy day of running across sunlit mountain pastures; this time it would take a lot more than Adam picking him up and carrying him up to bed to put him back to rights.
“No,” Adam murmured, “he’s not doing so well.”
The oppressive heat returned with the morning sun. It rolled over them, thick and heavy, making them feel sluggish and worn out before the day had even begun. They trudged doggedly down the trail, horses and men both hanging their heads low.
Frasier raised his near-empty canteen to his mouth and took a tiny sip. “The water is going to run out before we get to the station. We’re liable to die of thirst before the Indians get a chance at us,” he said morosely to Breck and the sergeant riding next to him.
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Sergeant Lewis muttered. “I don’t like it. We’re moving way too slow. Besides, if the Indians come down on us, we’ll never be able to outrun them with the wagons. We’re taking unnecessary chances, if you ask me.”
Frasier glared at him. “That’s what I’ve been saying, for crying out loud! I’ve been telling you, if we just…”
“I know, I know. If we just cut the wagons loose, we might have a chance at making it to that station before Red Pony finds us. You’ve just about jawed my ears off telling me that.”
“Well, if you don’t like that idea, how about you and me and Breck hightailing it out of here on our own. We could…”
“Naw. Red Pony’s close, I can feel it. If we’re going to make it out of here, we’re going to need every man and gun we’ve got. Besides, I ain’t about to go against the Major’s orders and get myself court-martialed. I got a promotion coming up in the next few months, and I don’t aim to throw it away by doing something careless—even if it is to save my own neck. No, what we need is to convince the others to leave the wagons and move with us, and move fast.”
Breck snorted. “There ain’t no way you’re ever goin’ to convince those Cartwrights of that. Frasier here done tried.”
Frasier shook his head. “They ain’t gonna leave the doc, and they sure as heck ain’t gonna leave that sick brother of theirs.”
Sergeant Lewis smiled, and the ruthlessness in that smile gave Frasier a newfound respect for the man.
“There’s lots of ways of persuading folks to change their minds,” Lewis said.
“What do you have in mind?”
“It’s simple—if we want them to dump the wagons, all we have to do is get rid of the reason for keeping them in the first place.”
Breck broke in. “What the hell are you talking about?”
But Frasier understood, and grinned. “Get rid of the two that are slowing us down—is that what you’re saying? You’re talking about killing them?” He leaned back in his saddle and shook his head admiringly. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“No, no, I’m not talking about killing them. Why, that would be murder.” Lewis smiled at Frasier’s confusion. “The doc’s dying anyway, and the kid doesn’t have a huge chance of making it, either, from what I can see. We’d just be hurrying things along a bit, that’s all,” Lewis said softly. “We’d actually be doin’ ‘em a favor—puttin’ ‘em out of their misery, so to speak.”
“Yeah…yeah,” Frasier said, nodding, and grinned again. “And once they’re dead, everyone else will be more than willin’ to move things along a bit quicker to save their own skins, right? They won’t care any more if we’re hauling the damn wagons along or not.”
“You got it.”
“So what will you do, shoot ‘em?” Breck asked.
Lewis glanced sideways at him, and spit in disgust. “What are you, stupid?”
“Sergeant Lewis has something more…subtle in mind,” Frasier said. “Ain’t that right, Sergeant?”
Lewis nodded and smiled. “Everybody knows the doc is dying, and the boy is real sick. I figure it wouldn’t be that much of a shock to anybody if the two of them were to just kind of…slip away in their sleep.” He paused. “Suffocation is silent and just about impossible to detect.”
“So we suffocate ‘em both in their beds. Perfect,” Frasier breathed. Then he frowned. “We can probably get the doc in his bed, alright, but the kid…he don’t strike me as being an easy target, Sergeant. He’s been down with a lot of fever, sure enough, but if we happen to hit him when he’s clear-headed—“
Lewis gave an impatient wave. “So we don’t take a chance. We’ll take him first, all three of us. We’ll give him a little tap in the head. Not enough to swell and give us away later, mind you — just enough to knock him out for a few minutes. Long enough for us to carry him away from camp a ways where nobody hears in case he puts up a fight. We do it there, and then we’ll tuck him back into bed, finish off Doc, and nobody will be any the wiser.”
Frasier nodded, mulling it over. “So we do it tonight?”
“Tonight! We gotta wait that long?” Breck complained.
“What do you expect, that we can climb up in that wagon right now with everybody looking?” Lewis snarled. “Tonight will be soon enough. Then we’ll get up in the morning, dig a couple of quick graves, pay our respects, and get the hell out of here like we should’ve done yesterday already. If we’re real lucky, we’ll be able to stay far enough ahead of Red Pony to keep our scalps.”
“Sergeant Lewis, stand easy. We’re coming up to relieve you and Frasier,” Adam warned softly. He and Hoss had climbed the low bluff where the watch was posted, and they had made enough noise to warn the two men of their approach, but he wanted to make sure nobody was startled enough to start shooting by accident.
The sergeant sighed and lowered his gun. “I’m glad to see you fellas. I’m just about tuckered out. Can’t wait to hit that bedroll for a few hours. How about you, Frasier?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, me, too. Tired as hell.” Frasier yawned and stretched.
“Heard anything?” Hoss asked.
“Naw. It’s been quiet. Probably too quiet, if you get my meanin’.” Sergeant Lewis waved a hand, and he and Frasier headed toward camp and disappeared into the darkness.
Hoss looked off into the moonless night and wrinkled a brow. “Yeah, I know what he means. The hair’s been standin’ up on the back of my neck all night. I don’t know, it’s just like…well, like somethin’ ain’t quite right, somehow.”
“Come on, Hoss, we all know Red Pony’s out there somewhere,” Adam said. “There’s no sense in getting ourselves wound up before he even shows himself.” He wedged his back comfortably against a rock.
“I just wish we could see a little bit further than the end of our arm, that’s all,” Hoss muttered.
“If it’s too dark for us to see, Red Pony can’t see much better,” Adam reasoned.
Hoss wasn’t convinced. “I don’t know, Adam. I’m just…uneasy, that’s all.”
Adam shrugged. “Being uneasy is understandable, given the circumstances.”
“I guess.” Hoss didn’t sound comforted. He found a seat on top of a pile of boulders, several feet above Adam, where he could overlook what little he could see of the darkened path below them, and they settled in to wait out the long, dark hours.
Perhaps half an hour had passed when Hoss’ head jerked up. “Did you hear somethin’?” he whispered.
“Like…I don’t know, exactly. Some kind of muffled thump or somethin’. You didn’t hear anything?”
Adam shook his head. “No.”
“Must be my nerves gettin’ the better of me again,” Hoss sighed. “I don’t…” he shot up off the rocks. “There it was again!”
“Yeah, I heard it this time.” Adam frowned. “Sounded like it came from camp. Can you see anything going on down there?”
“No. It’s too danged dark.”
Adam chewed his lip, considering. “Probably somebody just checking on the horses, or maybe Pa or Dr. Dawson checking on Joe.”
Hoss looked at Adam. “With the moon completely gone, wouldn’t they need to light a lantern to do any checkin’?”
Half a beat went by while they stared at each other through the darkness. Then they grabbed their guns and began to scramble as quietly as possible down the bluff.
“Hold him down, you fool! Hold him!”
Joe heard the order hissed by Sergeant Lewis even as he thrashed against the hand clamped over his mouth and nose.
“I’m trying! Damn it, I told you he was stronger than he looks! Get over here and help me!”
It was Frasier holding him, trying to cut his air off. The man was trying to kill him! Rage and fear rose up in Joe. Dirty son of a… He heaved one leg up and rammed his foot home into what he hoped was the man’s belly.
His aim was true. The hand instantly disappeared from his mouth and he heard a “oomph!” sound come out of Frasier as the man fell back. He didn’t wait for him to rise, but instead scrambled up onto his hands and knees and started to run.
Where the hell was he? He was disoriented, lost in the dark, and his head hurt. Before he had time to figure it out, someone smashed into his back, bringing him back down.
“I got him!” Breck said in a loud whisper. “He’s—-ow!” Joe’s fist connected with his jaw, knocking him to the ground, and a string of curses followed.
Upright again, Joe took off running into the darkness. More soft curses came from behind him, and then someone hit him from the left. He grunted in pain and went down, pinned immediately by the weight of one heavy body, then another. A hand again pressed over his mouth, blocking off his air. He strained to break free, and managed to shift enough to grab a panicked breath of air before it was shut off once again.
“Get over here and help us and let’s get this thing finished! We’re making enough noise to bring the entire Indian nation down on us, much less the people in camp,” Lewis ordered in a loud whisper.
More weight was added, holding him down, and he couldn’t move at all. Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. The fury in him began to subside and be replaced with a pure, desperate need to survive. He could barely make out their faces in the gloom, Frasier, Breck, and Sergeant Lewis, their own expressions strained with the effort of holding him quietly, their breathing harsh. The blackness of the night was slowly replaced with a red haze, and the faces were fading away. The roaring in his ears blotted out any further sound, and then that, too, began to dissipate.
And then the pressure was abruptly lifted off his nose and mouth. His lungs spasmed, sending him into a coughing fit as he fought to pull in air. Hands continued to hold him, but for now he could breathe, and his chest heaved with the glory of it.
“You boys having a party you didn’t invite me to?” someone asked. Still coughing and sucking in great gulps of air, Joe twisted his head around to see Mulvaney standing a few feet away, rifle raised.
“Go back to camp, Mulvaney,” Frasier said. “If anybody asks, you saw nothing. This ain’t none of your affair.”
“Well, I might be overstepping myself here,” Mulvaney drawled, “but I don’t hardly see how murdering the kid here is any of your affair, either.” He eyed the sergeant. “Fancy seeing you here, Sergeant Lewis.”
Lewis stood up, leaving Breck and Frasier to hold Joe.
“Now look here, Mulvaney,” Lewis said. “We all know you like fighting Indians less than any man here. That’s what we’re trying to do here—avoid the fighting. You know as well as I do that any confrontation between us and Red Pony is more than likely going to end in a bad way for us.”
Mulvaney nodded as if mulling that over. “What, exactly, does avoiding Red Pony have to do with killing this kid?”
“We need to make a run for it, Mulvaney. We need to move, faster than is possible with those damn wagons. If we don’t, we’re going to get caught out here on this desert, just as sure as shootin’,” Frasier told him. “Only the others don’t see it that way. They’ve got it stuck in their heads that we’ve got to keep plugging along because of a couple of sick men who likely won’t make it anyway.”
“You’re scared and you want to run. So you’re planning on increasing our traveling speed by getting rid of our slower passengers, is that it?”
“You catch on fast, Mulvaney,” Lewis said. “Of course, you being such an expert on running, I should have known you’d understand.”
Mulvaney smiled. “Oh, I understand alright. I understand that you three are even bigger cowards than I am. Yeah, I ran. At Bishop Creek, I ran. I’ve been running ever since. You’re willing to commit murder just so you can run even faster.”
“Aw, enough of this already! We’re wasting time,” Lewis snarled. “Somebody will be checking on him soon.” He turned back toward Frasier and Breck, still on the ground with Joe. “Hurry up, let’s finish this.”
Joe renewed his struggles as the pressure on his mouth increased once more. Mulvaney wasn’t going to help him. Another hand clapped over his nose.
The loud click of a rifle being cocked made them all freeze. Breck, Frasier, and Lewis all turned to see Mulvaney aiming his gun at them. Joe stared at him, waiting, hoping, as he breathed air through Lewis’s loosened fingers.
“I’m afraid not, gentlemen,” Mulvaney said softly. “I’m admittedly a coward. Just not that big of one.” He smiled. “Now, let the kid up.”
Nobody moved. Frasier pressed down hard again, and Joe strained against him.
“Let him up,” Mulvaney repeated.
“Or what? You’ll shoot us?” Frasier sneered. “You wouldn’t dare. Think how sound carries at night. You’d bring those Indians right down on us. No, you’d never risk shooting us.”
“Maybe not,” another voice said, “but I would.”
“And so would I.”
Pa was with him, and his voice was as cold as Joe had ever heard it.
“Or maybe we’ll do it the smart way, and I’ll just take you all apart, limb by limb,” Hoss growled. “No shootin’ at all that way.”
The hands jerked away from Joe, and he started coughing again, gulping air. He made no attempt to rise, but lay pulling in blessed air. He could barely make out the forms of Pa and his brothers in the dark, standing just behind Mulvaney.
“Hoss, get your brother.” Pa didn’t sound himself at all. He sounded hard…ruthless.
The next thing he knew, Breck, Frasier and Lewis were falling backwards and Hoss was heaving him up into the air to lean against him. He glanced sideways at Hoss as they started walking, and he took a tiny step back, startled. His brother’s countenance was so brutally savage, he looked almost unfamiliar.
“Hush, Joe,” Hoss said softly. His voice was gentle, completely incongruous with the expression on his face. They kept moving, past Mulvaney, past Adam and Pa. Nobody else moved. Joe tried to turn his head to look back, but Hoss kept moving and swept him along as well.
They reached camp, where Dr. Dawson and the women waited with anxious faces, and Hoss immediately handed him over to the doctor.
He tried to resist their ministrations, but his muscles wouldn’t cooperate, and he was being pressed down onto the cot, and Doc and Mrs. Dawson and Miss Mulvaney were all leaning over him, and Hoss was turning to leave to go back out there—and Joe was abruptly afraid.
“Hoss! Please…don’t go.” He knew Hoss was going to help Pa and Adam and Mulvaney, but he suddenly felt like a little boy being left alone in the dark. He knew it was stupid…but he desperately wanted his brother at his side.
He ducked his head to hide his fear, ashamed of himself for asking. But when he looked up, Hoss had turned back and was walking slowly over to him, smiling.
“It’s alright, Little Joe,” Hoss said gently. “I don’t reckon Adam and Pa need my help anyway. Between them and Mulvaney, they can handle those three weasels just fine.” He sat down beside the cot and reached out with one of his ham-sized fists to lightly squeeze Joe’s arm.
Fifteen minutes later, Pa, Adam and Mulvaney walked back into camp looking slightly disheveled and sporting a few bruises. Ten minutes after that, Frasier, Breck and Sergeant Lewis staggered in looking as though they’d been through a war, nursing bloody noses and sore bellies, squinting through blackened eyes.
Joe saw none of it. He had dropped back off to sleep only minutes after Hoss had sat down next to him.
“Lieutenant Marks is on watch. You’ll be relieving him in one hour,” Ben said to Lewis. “I suggest you get some sleep before then. You’ll need the rest, especially when you have that conversation with the Lieutenant.”
Lewis sent him a seething glare but said nothing. He went to the other side of camp to collapse onto his bedroll, and Breck and Frasier followed him.
Ben turned his attention on his youngest son, running an anxious hand over the wayward curls. “How is he?”
Dr. Dawson shrugged. “Aside from some minor swelling on the side of his head—they must have knocked him out—he’s no worse off than before. No better…but no worse. He’s sleeping now, and that’s probably the best medicine he could have at this point.” He rose painfully. “And now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, I am bone-tired. I must excuse myself.” He and his wife made their way back to his wagon.
Anna Mulvaney was hovering over her father.
“You go on, too, Anna,” Mulvaney told her. “You need your sleep.”
“Are you sure, Papa? Your face…”
Mulvaney touched the deepening bruise on his left cheek and grinned. “Oh, that? It’s nothing. I kind of enjoyed getting it, to tell the truth. I haven’t felt this good since…well, in a long time.”
“Oh, Papa,” Anna admonished. But she smiled softly and turned to make her own way to bed.
“I wasn’t sure if those three would be walking back into camp under their own power,” Hoss said wryly, throwing a glance across camp where Frasier, Lewis and Breck lay sprawled out.
The corners of Adam’s mouth curved slightly. “Neither were we.”
Ben grunted. “Don’t worry. The law will take care of them. I intend to make sure they get what they deserve—after we are out of reach of Red Pony. Until then, we’ve got to keep every possible gun on hand.”
“Makes for a pretty sticky situation,” Mulvaney put in, “having your life depend on men who wouldn’t think twice about killing you.”
“He’s sure enough right about that, Pa,” Hoss said. “It’s bad enough that we have to keep lookin’ over our shoulders for Red Pony. I don’t much cotton to the idea of having to watch our backs within our own camp.” He shrugged. “We could hog-tie ‘em and put ‘em in the second wagon with the supplies.”
Adam cocked his head. “Maybe Hoss is right, Pa. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea, if you ask me.”
Ben shook his head. “No.”
Adam’s brow rose. “But Pa, letting them keep their guns, sending them to stand watch…”
“If Red Pony shows, we need every man and gun. We are vastly outnumbered, and our chances are slim enough. If we cut our resources back, we are slitting our own throats.” He shook his head again. “No, we need Sergeant Lewis and the other two, as much as it pains me to admit it.”
“Forget slitting our own throats—what’s to keep them from doing it for us?” Adam asked.
“The same thing that keeps us from getting rid of them—survival,” Mulvaney noted. “We need them…but they need us just as bad.”
The tension was as thick as the dust-choked air as they made their way across the desert the next day. Breck and Frasier rode with their heads hung low, and Sergeant Lewis, looking decidedly subdued, took the scouting position as ordered by Lieutenant Marks.
The horses were growing weary, and Lieutenant Marks at last called a halt.
“How much further to that stage station?” Frasier grunted.
Hoss inclined his head in a northeasterly direction. “Should be just around that bend.”
They squinted into the distance, looking for signs of activity but seeing none.
“No signs of life,” Adam murmured.
“No,” Hoss agreed, “but I’d feel a lot worse if there were a bunch of buzzards circling around.”
A sudden cry had them whirling to look back. At the top of a low hill, a long row of mounted Indians stood in stark relief against the skyline. For one instant, they stood still, staring down at the wagon party. Then they charged forward, sweeping down the hillside like hawks diving upon rabbits.
“Get the wagons out of here!” Adam ordered. He and Hoss rode to the rear, getting in a few last shots in hopes of giving the rest of the group more time to escape. With the Indians almost upon them, they turned and followed the rest of the train.
Shots were fired, and Breck stiffened, then fell from his horse.
Adam stared hard at the trail winding around the bend. Where was that station? If they could reach it, they might have a chance of holding their ground. But if it wasn’t there…well, the Indians would be upon them and it would all be over in a matter of minutes.
Mulvaney and Mrs. Dawson both whipped their teams into a frenzy. The wagons jolted down the trail like a couple of storm-battered ships crashing onto a rocky shore, leaving their occupants to tightly grab whatever handholds they could find.
They rounded the bend.
“There it is!” Mulvaney shouted.
The stage station stood in the distance, apparently abandoned. It was a coarse, low building made of crude, handmade sod bricks, adobe-colored like its surroundings.
Adam thought he had never seen a more beautiful building in his life. However ugly and inconsequential it appeared, it offered protection. They now had a chance.
Inside the wagon, Joe braced his legs against the sideboards of the wagon bed and tried to keep both himself and Dr. Dawson from flopping about like a couple of ragdolls. Through the opening at the rear of the wagon, he could see Hoss and Adam, still shooting at Indians who were startlingly near. They were hard to keep within the frame of the canvas opening, though, due to the wild bucking of the wagon.
“We’re going too fast,” he muttered.
The words had barely left his lips when he felt the team swerve violently to the left. The wagon strained and shuddered as it tried to take the corner, then gave a loud groan and gave up.
“It’s going over!” Joe shouted. “Hang on, Doc!” He threw an arm out in an effort to help hold the older man in place, but two seconds later they were both in the midst of a tumbling maelstrom of blankets and supplies. Joe slammed hard into the bottom of the wagon bed; the side of the wagon hit the ground, squealing a loud protest as it grated along the ground.
The wagon stopped moving; dust and debris and miscellaneous items continued to fall. He got up on his hands and knees, giving his head a clearing shake. Where was Doc? He crawled to the rear of the wagon to look out; there was Adam riding in hard, hitting the ground running before his horse had slowed to a stop.
“Joe!” Adam’s eyes were huge in his face. He was still at a distance, running toward him shouting, and the Indians were closing in. “Joe, are you alright?”
Joe was still on his hands and knees, just inside the wagon. He waved at Adam, wanting him to veer off and head for the protection of the building, but he kept coming anyway. Joe swore, and hurried to extricate himself. Now his foot was caught on a coil of rope; he jerked at it, still swearing under his breath until he finally kicked free and pulled himself out. When he stood and looked around, he saw that the Mulvaneys had jumped off the second wagon and were running for the station with Pa and Hoss and Frasier right behind them. Sergeant Lewis and Lieutenant Marks covered them all from the rear.
Toward the front of the downed wagon, Mrs. Dawson was picking herself up off the ground where she’d been thrown. She ran to the front of the wagon and started pulling Doc from the wreckage.
Joe looked back at Adam. He was still running straight toward him—and so were the Indians. “I’m okay! Get inside!” he shouted, and limped around to help Mrs. Dawson with Doc.
If Adam heard him, he paid no heed. In a few seconds he was upon them, helping the doctor out of the wagon. Hurrying, he pulled one of the doctor’s arms across his shoulders and threw a glance at Joe. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, just get them out of here.”
Adam gave a short nod. “Cover us,” he barked. He and Mrs. Dawson half-carried, half-dragged Dr. Dawson across the yard to the stage building, and Joe followed, keeping his back to the station and facing the Indians as he unloaded his pistol in their direction.
They stumbled across the porch of the building, and the Indians were mere yards away. Then they fell inside, and shots splintered against the hastily shut door.
There were four windows in the rough little one-room building, and all four were hastily manned.
Adam hunkered down below one of the windows beside Hoss. “Well, that was close,” he said.
Hoss flicked him a hurried glance. How Adam could manage to sound so unflustered when he’d come so close to gettin’ scalped was beyond him. “You ain’t kiddin’. Those Indians were breathin’ right down your neck out there.” He fired a shot, then looked back over his shoulder toward the window at the opposite side of the room, where Joe was crouched and shooting. “How is he?”
Adam fired another shot and shook his head. “Not good. When I got a good look at him crawling out of that wagon, he looked like he was ready to keel over.” He had seen Joe trying to wave him off, but he’d been terrified that the kid couldn’t make it under his own steam.
“Should we get him away from the window?”
“No. He’s covering his own over there. We don’t have time to argue with him, and I guarantee it’ll come to that. Besides, we can’t spare him. Not now.”
Hoss nodded. Adam was right. They were down to eight men now that Breck was gone. Everyone, including Frasier and Sergeant Lewis, were doing their level best to hold the line here; they knew their lives depended upon it. The Indians were screaming a circle around the rickety stage station, and everyone knew they were going to be hard-pressed to keep them at bay. One after another, the braves were rushing the building, only to be shot off their ponies. But eventually, the few inside wouldn’t be able to keep up. It was only a matter of time.
Ben had been keeping a concerned eye on his youngest son. Staying low, he made his way over to him now. Joe, still wearing only the bandage around his chest, was drenched in sweat. His eyes were glassy, and his breathing was heavy. He wiped at his mouth with the back of his gun hand, and Ben caught a slight waver in his stance.
“Joseph, are you alright?”
Joe didn’t take his eyes off the Indians racing by outside. “I’ll live,” he said, and his brusque tone told Ben how much he was hurting.
Ben frowned. “Joseph…”
“We’ve got a casualty.” Lieutenant Marks had moved up beside him.
“A casualty. The old man’s going fast.” The Lieutenant motioned toward the center of the room, where Dr. Dawson lay in his wife’s arms.
Ben took another quick look at Joe, and then hurried over to the Dawsons.
Mrs. Dawson’s expression as she gazed down at her husband was one of pure devastation. He lay with his head in her lap, his eyes wide open and fixed on her face. As Ben moved in closer, he saw that Mrs. Dawson wasn’t consoling him—rather, it was the other way around. Dr. Dawson spoke softly to her, trying to ease her desolation in advance of its arrival. He turned his face and looked at Ben, his eyes surprisingly sharp.
“It pains me greatly to know that I won’t be here to find out whether or not I was able to help that last patient of mine,” the doctor said apologetically.
“Joseph will be fine,” Ben said, and the steely determination in his voice made the doctor smile.
“He seems to be as full of steadfast tenacity as his father,” Dr. Dawson said, humor in his voice, “and all I can do now is remain hopeful that it will be enough.” He looked at his wife and then back at Ben. “She’s a wonderful woman, Mr. Cartwright. Please see that she is taken care of.”
“She’ll be fine,” Ben promised quickly, “and so will you.” He gave the doctor what he meant to be a reassuring smile, but that smile faded when the old man shot him a look that said, this is no time for falsehoods.
Dr. Dawson turned his gaze back upon his tearful wife and gave her a brilliant smile. “No pain,” he said, his voice full of surprised pleasure. “No pain at all.” And with that, he shut his eyes for the last time.
Ben raised his bowed head and turned it to meet Joe’s stricken gaze. His son remained at his post at the window, but his attention was riveted upon the doctor. After a moment, Joe dashed the back of his hand across his eyes and turned back to the window.
Ben gave Mrs. Dawson a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, knowing nothing he could say or do would lift her out of the abyss in which her heart lay. Only time and the Lord could do that. Besides, there was no guarantee that all of them wouldn’t be following the doctor into eternity before the day was done. Regretfully, he followed Joe’s example, leaving the woman to her grief and moving to join Lieutenant Marks at his window.
The lieutenant’s concern was centered on the north wall, where Mulvaney was posted. “That’s not the man we need at that window, Mr. Cartwright. He’ll break and run when the fighting gets hot.”
Mulvaney was hunkered down next to his shuttered window, arguing with his daughter.
He might not be the man they needed, but they had to use whatever they had, Ben thought. That included would-be murderers and cowards. “I’ll talk to him,” he said to Marks, and, staying low to the floor, made his way over to the north window.
Ben looked at Mulvaney’s pale, frightened face, and knew the man was perilously close to bolting. “Anna, Mrs. Dawson could use your help,” he said, and the girl nodded and went to see what comfort she could offer.
Ben flung the heavy wooden shutters open, startling Mulvaney into throwing himself back against the wall and out of sight of the Indians outside. On the horizon, more Indians were gathering.
Mulvaney nodded toward the fallen wagon. “I sure wish that wasn’t out there,” he said. “Those Indians could push it up here and be on us before we know it. They’ll eventually figure it out and do it, too. If we just had some dynamite, we could blow it up…”
Ben dismissed his thought. “We could use a troop of cavalry, too, and we don’t have those, either. Just stay at your post, Mulvaney.”
Mulvaney shook his head in dismay. “I’m no help, Cartwright. I’m nothing but a rat, a coward.”
Ben pinned him with a flinty stare. “Rat, coward, animal, dog, tiger, man. You’ve got a shotgun, you’ve got shells, you’ve got a six-gun. And you’ve got what most men haven’t got…a second chance.”
The rain of bullets grew heavier between the Indians and the group ensconced inside the stage station. Both Anna Mulvaney and Mrs. Dawson were each manning a gun now, but they were still losing ground as more and more Indians showed up to continue the fight.
During a slight lull, Adam grabbed Hoss’ rifle and reloaded it, then did the same to his own. A loud groan had him looking up. Sergeant Lewis was slumped against the wall, sliding slowly down it until he crumpled over, his eyes open and fixed. Adam hurried over to check his pulse; nothing. He grabbed the man’s guns and carried them back to Hoss.
He picked up one of the guns to reload it and glanced toward Joe. His brother was on one knee, keeping his head below the sill of the window and raising it only to shoot; his bare torso glistened with sweat, and his hair hung in damp ringlets over his eyes. The six-gun he held was still dropping Indians, but his stance seemed unsteady and off balance to Adam. He swayed once, then again, before he caught himself, stiffening once more to fire another shot.
Adam frowned. “He’s finished.”
Hoss turned around. “Huh? Who?”
“Joe. He’s barely keeping himself upright.”
An Indian brave screeched as Joe shot him off his pony.
Hoss grinned. “Well, he’s still givin’ those Indians what for.”
Adam snorted. “Shooting more by instinct and luck than anything else. His responses are slowing down. Look at him.”
Hoss nodded. “Yeah, I see him.” He turned to fire another shot.
Adam grabbed a handful of shells. “I’m going to finish loading this gun, and then I’m going to get him out of the way. He can argue all he wants. He’s going to get himself shot if we let him keep going like that.” He bent over the gun, jerking upright when he heard a sudden clatter
“Damn it!” Adam left the half-loaded gun where it lay and scooted across the room to his brother. Joe’s lack of equilibrium had finally caught up with him. He had passed out, only for a few seconds, but long enough to fall to the dirty plank floor. He lay there now, already coming to and barely able to raise his head, but he still wasn’t ready to quit. He had one hand already back up on the window sill, trying to pull himself upright again. “I’ll get up,” he mumbled.
“The hell you will,” Adam said, and put a hand on his chest to hold him down. “Hoss!”
Hoss was already there, leaning his rifle against the wall so that he could pick his younger brother up.
“I’ll get up,” Joe whispered again, still trying to raise himself into a sitting position.
“Joseph. Joseph, no,” Hoss ordered gently, and swung him into his arms. If Joe had any further arguments, they were ignored as Hoss carted him off to lay him on a rickety bed standing against the back wall of the room. Adam took up Joe’s vacated position, throwing worried looks in his brothers’ direction between shots.
Toward his right, Frasier suddenly let out an agonized shout and went down. Ben bent over him and shook his head. Then he grabbed Frasier’s guns and distributed them to the women before scrambling over to Hoss and Joe.
Hoss looked up at him. “He’s pushed himself as far as he can go, Pa.”
Ben nodded, staring down at Joe. “That south window still has to be manned, Hoss.”
“Yessir.” Reluctantly, Hoss left to take up his place once again.
Ben untied the bandana from around his throat and dabbed at Joe’s damp forehead with it.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe whispered. “I guess I’m not much help right now.”
“Nonsense.” Ben smiled. “We wouldn’t have lasted this long without you.” The smile faded from his lips as he watched Joe shut his eyes. The shooting had ratcheted up again, and he suddenly knew, deep down, that they were fighting a desperate, losing battle. With Frasier, Breck and Lewis gone and Joe down, they were down to five men and two women. Seven people, fighting against a band of Indians more than four times their number.
He was ordinarily an optimistic man, but things were definitely not going their way. Nor was there any reason to believe that help would arrive in time to save them. The fear that they were all close to breathing their last had worked itself tightly into Ben’s soul, and he couldn’t shake it loose.
He stared at his youngest son, so fierce and brave of heart, with little left to give and yet still fighting so hard, and his own heart swelled with love and pride.
Then his gaze turned toward Hoss. His gentle son, the biggest man he had ever known, both in heart and body, was steadfast as always as he continued to shoot. Hoss, perpetually optimistic, would fight as long as he was asked to.
And Adam. Noble, soft-spoken Adam, aristocratic in bearing and in thought, given more to diplomacy than toward physical force, knelt wielding his gun in fierce concentration, determined to the very end to save his family.
A profound sadness welled up in Ben. Not for himself—he had lived as blessed a life as any man could ever ask for—but for his sons. He was devastated by the thought that their short lives were about to end in a ramshackle stage station, far from home and before they had a chance to experience the same wonder that he had known—that of looking at the most admirable young men he had ever met and marveling at the fact that they were his sons.
He straightened his shoulders. He had protected his sons, watched out for them all their lives, and he would continue to do so for as long as the blood ran in his veins. He would continue to pray for their safe deliverance from the peril in which they now found themselves, but he would also do what little he could to keep them alive as long as possible.
Staying low, he moved over to Adam’s window. “Where’s Joe’s gun?” he asked.
“Why? The kid can’t even hold himself up…” Adam broke off as he caught the look in Ben’s eyes. He hesitated, then pointed. “It’s over there in the corner, still on the floor.”
Ben nodded and turned to retrieve the gun, stopping when Adam spoke.
Ben faced his oldest son, and their eyes met and held.
Adam narrowed his eyes. “Pa, we’re going to make it.”
Ben made himself smile, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Of course we are, son. Of course we are.” They stared at each other for several seconds, saying a multitude of things to each other without ever opening their mouths. Then Adam turned back to shoot out the window once more, and Ben hurried back to Joe’s side.
“Joe?” His son was barely conscious, hardly aware of the horrendous noise going on around him. “Joe, listen to me.” When those green eyes fluttered open and landed on him, he forced himself to smile. He lifted his son’s hand and pushed the pistol under it, wrapping the slim fingers around the gun’s ivory handle. “Hold onto this, son. It will be there if you need it.” He had to strain to hear Joe’s whisper above the shooting and the war whoops which grew ever louder, ever closer.
“Joe…” He started to say more, but then saw that the boy’s eyes were closed again. Besides, what did a father say to a son when what he needed to say would take a lifetime? At last he simply squeezed Joe’s shoulder and turned away.
He moved up beside Hoss and started shooting again.
“Ammunition is starting to run out,” Hoss commented.
Ben nodded. “I know.” Neither of them said another word, but continued to fire, side by side.
A cry from Adam had them both whirling around. His gun had fallen to the floor, and he was clutching his left arm, a red stain seeping between his fingers.
“Stay here!” Ben ordered. Not waiting to see if Hoss would comply, he crawled across the room to Adam.
Adam was already wrapping his bandana around the wounded arm. “It’s nothing,” he insisted through gritted teeth. “Just tie it off for me, will you, Pa?”
In ordinary circumstances, Ben would have argued with him. But these were not ordinary circumstances, so he did as his son asked, steeling his heart and giving the bandana a strong tug. He had barely finished before Adam was pushing away from him, grabbing up his gun and firing again.
“Pa, they’re pushing the wagon!” Hoss shouted.
Outside, several Indians had moved up behind the downed wagon, using it as a barricade while pushing it little by little toward the building. It would be only a matter of minutes before the siege was complete.
Their time was running out.
Anna Mulvaney’s cry drew everyone’s attention. Mulvaney stood with his hand on the doorknob, holding his rifle with a white flag attached to it.
“Mulvaney, what are you doing?” Ben was astonished that the man was apparently contemplating going out the door. Such a move would be suicide.
“Everybody just take it easy,” Mulvaney said, smiling. He waved the gun toward them as if in warning to stay back. And just like that, he was gone. He held the white flag high, walking toward and around the wagon as easily as if he had been walking down the street.
“Dear God,” Adam groaned as a horde of braves rushed in to leap upon the hapless man, knives and lances stabbing in vicious attack.
Then, without warning, an enormous explosion rocked the air, sending the wagon and everyone around it up in a searing fireball.
Mulvaney had just made use of his second chance.
The explosion had killed a large number of the Indians, including Red Pony. The ones remaining were unsettled enough at the loss of their leader to take their dead and disappear over the foothills. The people inside the station cautiously came out and watched them go.
Mulvaney’s rifle was retrieved; its shredded barrel left no doubt as to what his intentions had been. The man had filled the barrel with powder and then jammed it, knowing precisely what the result would be when he finally pulled the trigger. Eaten up with guilt over his cowardice in the past, Mulvaney had redeemed himself in the end, sacrificing himself so that others could live.
That next morning found Ben thanking God for a sunrise he’d not thought to see. Mulvaney wasn’t the only one who had been given a second chance.
The horses had been watered from a well located behind one of the outbuildings, and Adam and Hoss were now hitching up the team to the remaining wagon. Well, Hoss was doing the hitching and Adam was mainly supervising, since his arm was stiff and sore. He had been right about his wound; it had turned out to be merely a crease, giving Ben one more reason to give thanks.
He looked in Joseph’s direction, frowning when he saw the boy shiver despite the heat. After a night’s rest, Joe had rallied once more and was again on his feet, though Ben would see that he wouldn’t stay that way long. The boy was still weak, feverish and dangerously ill. But Ben had known it was important to Joe that he be present when Dr. Dawson was put to rest, so he had kept any reservations to himself.
The service had been short but respectful, and five freshly dug graves lay in a solemn row in front of the stage station.
Ben went to his son and placed a blanket around his shoulders. “Are you alright, Joseph?”
At first Joe didn’t answer. Then he suddenly shook his head. “He had so much good in him, Pa,” he said in a low voice. “It bothers me…” He stopped talking and ducked his head.
“What bothers you, son?”
Joe shrugged. “Nothing…just…I don’t know. I mean, here I am, still alive, while a man like Dr. Dawson, who spent his whole life saving other people, is dead.” He looked up at Ben, and the pain in his eyes didn’t come from any physical wound. “How is that fair, Pa?”
Ben put a gentle arm around Joe’s shoulders. “It isn’t up to us to decide what is “fair”, Joe. God takes us, each of us, in his own time. It’s a waste of time for us to try to second guess when that time will come.” A piece of advice he himself would do well to remember the next time they were in a tight spot, he told himself sternly. He had thought surely the end was near for all of them…well, he had been wrong, thank the good Lord.
“But a man like that, with so much to give…”
“We all have a purpose, Joe, a reason for being here. You, me, Dr. Dawson, even men like Frasier and Sergeant Lewis.” He smiled when Joe tossed him a disbelieving look. “It’s true that we may not always be aware of what that purpose is, but God knows, and that’s all that is necessary. Apparently Dr. Dawson had done what he came here to do. It was time for him to go home.” He paused. “I’m sure it’s selfishness on my part, but I like to think that part of the doctor’s reason for being in this place, at this particular time, was to give my son back to me.”
Joe said nothing, and Ben studied his serious profile, taking note of the ashen color underlying his tanned skin. “Joe, you need to lie back down, son.”
Joe lifted his head, his gaze on Mrs. Dawson, still on her knees in the dirt beside her husband’s grave. “In a minute, Pa,” he murmured. He walked over to stand behind the woman, waiting quietly. After a moment, he reached a hand down to her. She hesitated, then took his hand and allowed him to bring her to her feet. They walked to the wagon together, each one leaning on the other.
Lieutenant Marks walked over to Anna, still standing at the foot of her father’s grave. He carried Mulvaney’s blown-apart rifle with him.
“Miss Mulvaney? Your father committed one of the bravest acts of courage I’ve ever seen. I’d be proud if you’d allow me to take his gun to West Point to keep on display there.”
Anna looked at him with soft, sad eyes. “Papa would be proud, too,” she said.
She went to climb into the wagon, leaving Lieutenant Marks standing at the grave. He stood a moment, then plunged another rifle, barrel first, into the ground—a militaristic tribute marking the last resting place of a man who had finally learned, in the last moments of his life, to give his all toward a greater good.
Marks snapped his hand in a final, respectful salute before turning away to join the others.
Mrs. Dawson was deep in grief, yet not so deep that she was unaware of how very ill the young man was. Years of living with a man whose every thought was for the well-being of others had left her sensitive to others’ needs as well—even now, when her own sadness overshadowed all her thinking.
Joe Cartwright lay dozing in the bed of the wagon, looking utterly exhausted, limp body moving with the rocking of the wagon. She reached out and touched his forehead, and frowned at the heat under her hand.
“Mr. Cartwright,” she whispered. When he didn’t respond, she repeated his name, this time in a louder voice, and then again, even louder.
Worried now, she gave his cheek a light tap. When he didn’t respond, she tapped harder, until finally he moaned and opened his eyes a crack to look at her.
“Mrs. Dawson? S’matter? Something wrong?” His voice was weak and slurred.
“Mr. Cartwright, how are you feeling? How is the pain in your shoulder?”
He shut his eyes again. “Fine. I’m fine…” He was asleep again in a matter of seconds.
She chewed her lip thoughtfully. He had a shirt on over his bandage, but it was unbuttoned. She reached over and pulled it gently to the side.
She threw her hand over her mouth to stifle her gasp. Red fingers of infection radiated out from under the bandage. She reached out again, and lifted the bandage to peek beneath.
“Dear God,” she breathed. The wound was angry and puckered and corrupt with poison. She sat back on her heels, dismayed.
It is selfish of me, but I would like to leave with the knowledge that my last attempt to save a human life was not a failure.
She had been nearby, and had heard what her husband had said to Ben Cartwright that night.
“Oh, Isaac,” she whispered. “I fear you may have lost this one after all.”
Because of Ben’s determination to get Joe to a doctor, they were still traveling when the sun went down, stopping only to water the horses. The moon came up and darkness fell, and still they pushed on.
Inside the wagon, a low groan drew Mrs. Dawson’s attention to her patient. He had drifted in and out of consciousness all evening, sleeping most of the time, taking very little water and nothing else. Quickly, she raised the lantern where she could see him better, and his eyes fluttered open. She bent over him, brushing the hair back from his face, pleased to see him look back at her with some semblance of coherence. “How are you feeling?”
His lips lifted in a tiny smile, tight with pain. “Like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet,” he said softly. “Must look about that bad, too.”
She smiled. “Just about.” It wasn’t completely true; sick as he was, he was still an extraordinarily handsome young man, and she wondered just how many girls would be heartsick if he failed to return home. Her mind wandered back over the years, thinking of how strong and vibrant Isaac had been when first they met, and her heart spasmed in sorrow.
She shook off the painful memories and moved the bandage aside to change the dressing, careful to keep her expression neutral as she checked the wound. It had gotten worse; the red streaks reached further than they had only two hours earlier.
“I’m not going to make it, am I?”
Her face shot up to meet his steady, emerald-hued stare. There was no recrimination there, just a patient, unwavering question. Unable to hold his gaze, she turned her attention back to cleaning the wound.
“Nonsense. You’re going to be fine. The doctor in Virginia City…”
“…is still a day away. I don’t think I have that long.”
She kept on redressing the wound, still carefully avoiding his eyes. “You are young and strong, and my husband had faith in the ability of those attributes to see you through this. Once a doctor tends to you, I promise, you will heal.”
He didn’t answer, and she was at last forced to slowly look up at him again. He said nothing, and she flushed with guilt when she saw that he knew she was lying through her teeth. She turned away and busied herself with tearing strips from one of Isaac’s shirts to make more bandages.
“Yes, Mr. Cartwright?”
He looked at her as though still looking for answers, and then he looked away himself. “I just want to say…I’m sorry about your husband.”
She nodded, and gently patted his hand. “I know you are, and I thank you for your concern. You and your family have done everything you can…”
“No. No, I mean…I’m sorry your husband died, and not me.” He looked back at her, and she was astonished at both his words and the tears welling in his eyes. “It should have been me.”
She shook her head, totally nonplussed. “Mr. Cartwright, what are you talking about?”
He bit his lip, and looked away again. “I asked my pa where the justice was in it—Dr. Dawson’s life ending, when he has such important work to do, while somebody like me is left more or less just taking up space…”
“And what did your father tell you?”
He sighed. “That everyone has a purpose. That Doc had completed whatever task God had planned for him, and that it was just his time to go.” He fumbled with the blanket, not meeting her eyes.
“He told you everyone has a purpose…do you believe that?”
“I…I don’t know.”
She nodded. “Well, I do,” she said firmly. “I believe that everyone was put on this earth for a reason. It is our duty to live our lives the best we possibly can, in hopes of fulfilling whatever task God has in mind for us.” She squeezed his hand. “My Isaac was given a special gift, Mr. Cartwright. His skill saved many, many lives that would have been lost otherwise—perhaps before those lives had reached their own fulfillment. You, too, must have something left to do. Otherwise, you would already be gone. You must believe that. Isaac would tell you the same.”
He looked at her for a moment and then nodded his head. “I guess so.” He sighed again. “I guess I’m not thinking too clearly. I’m just really, really tired…” His eyelids started to drift shut, and fear suddenly clutched at her. She held his face between her hands and called his name. When he opened his eyes, she spoke fiercely to him.
“You listen to me, Joe Cartwright. My husband did not give up on you when you were as good as dead. Don’t you dare—don’t you daregive up on yourself.”
He looked at her and gave a little nod and another tiny smile. “I’m not giving up, Mrs. Dawson…I’m trying,” he whispered, and then slowly shut his eyes again.
She stared at him. Isaac had worked hard to save this boy, had made her work hard, pushing her beyond the limits of what she had thought herself capable of. How could it be possible that the last act of partnership she had with her husband would end in failure?
Estelle, you’ve been at my right hand with hundreds of patients. This time, you’ll be my right hand.
“Oh, Isaac, I can’t,” she whispered. But in that moment, she knew what she must do.
“I don’t like it, Pa,” Adam said through gritted teeth. “She’s a fine, caring woman, yes—but she’s no doctor!”
Hoss’ forehead was wrinkled with worry. “I’m with Adam on this one, Pa. The doc said Little Joe needed a real doctor. He said himself it was too much to ask his wife to handle. He said something about an artery being too close…”
Ben stood with his hand covering his face. He removed it now to look at his sons. “Don’t you think I’ve thought about all that?” His voice was louder than he’d meant it to be, and he deliberately took a deep breath and softened his tone. “You’ve both looked in on him as many times as I have over the past several hours. Tell me, what did you see?”
Adam and Hoss exchanged glances, and Hoss bit his lip and dropped his eyes to the ground.
“He’s in bad shape, Pa, I’ll grant you that,” Adam agreed gently. “But this is Little Joe we’re talking about. He’ll keep fighting, Pa, you know he will. All we have to do is get him to town.”
Ben shut his eyes. “How many more hours before we can be there?”
“About ten, if we can get the horses to keep up the pace,” Hoss said.
“Ten hours. Alright.” Ben opened his eyes. “Let’s look in on him once more, together. Then a decision will have to be made, and I’ll thank you both not to make it harder by fighting me on it. Understand?”
Hoss mumbled an agreement. Adam hesitated, then gave a clipped nod. Ben led the way across camp to the cot where Joe lay. Lieutenant Marks stood by, watching Anna and Mrs. Dawson wipe the perspiration from Joe’s face.
Mrs. Dawson looked up at the three sober-faced Cartwrights, her expression questioning. “Anna, can you and Lieutenant Marks please fetch some more water?”
“Of course,” Anna murmured, and she and the lieutenant made a tactful departure.
Ben knelt beside the cot, his sons behind him. “How is he?” he asked. It was a question he really didn’t need to ask. Joe’s face was flushed high with fever; his breathing was harsh and shallow. Hours before, his head had tossed restlessly on his pillow. Now he lay still, as if the very act of breathing was taking everything he had.
Mrs. Dawson’s eyes didn’t leave Ben’s face. “How is he? Worse than he was an hour ago. And an hour from now he’ll be worse yet. You can see for yourself.” She moved the dressing out of the way, and watched Ben Cartwright visibly flinch. His two sons paled and looked away.
“His breathing is growing worse,” she pointed out needlessly. “He hasn’t regained consciousness for hours now, and that’s never a good sign.” She took a deep breath. “Please, Mr. Cartwright. I’m asking you to give your son a chance.”
Adam spoke, and his voice was hard. “Mrs. Dawson, if we give you permission to attempt the surgery, you can’t give us any guarantee that he won’t die from a miscalculated cut from an untrained scalpel.”
She swallowed. “That’s true, Mr. Cartwright. I can’t promise you that he won’t die from a mistake that I could make. But I’ve cared for hundreds of my husband’s patients; I’ve seen the signs that warn of death, and I can promise you this.” She waited until all three men had their eyes fixed on hers. “If you don’t allow me to try, Joe Cartwright will be dead long before we reach Virginia City.”
The three of them waited restlessly on the outskirts of the camp where Mrs. Dawson had ordered them to stay. They stood, they sat, they paced, occasionally looking toward the circle of light where Anna and the lieutenant assisted in the surgery taking place.
The soft blush of dawn was breaking over the eastern sky when approaching footsteps had them leaping to their feet.
Mrs. Dawson’s face was lined with exhaustion. Ben stared at her, searching for an answer to his unspoken question, but couldn’t read beyond her tired eyes.
She held out her closed hand, palm up. “I have something for you, Mr. Cartwright.”
He stared at her, confusion and dread blooming in his chest.
She opened her fingers. Lying in the palm of her hand was a tiny sliver of wood, no bigger than the tip of her fingernail.
“It looks harmless, doesn’t it?” she said softly. “Just a small thing…yet it had the power to push so many people to the very edge. It pushed Joseph to the edge of his endurance, pushed you into making impossible decisions—and pushed me into doing something I never wanted to do, never thought I could do.”
Ben shook his head very slightly, and licked lips suddenly gone dry.
“Ma’am, please,” Hoss said, his voice strained. “How is he?”
She looked at him and gave him a sudden brilliant smile, and Hoss knew in that instant what she was going to say. His eyes shut against sudden tears of relief.
“I think he’s going to be alright.” she said, her voice joyous. “The streaks from the infection are already receding. His breathing has improved dramatically, and the fever is dropping. Yes, I believe your brother will be fine.”
Adam took in a deep, shuddering breath and pulled a hand down across his eyes.
Ben spoke past a knot in his throat. “You have my undying gratitude, Mrs. Dawson. I owe you…everything.”
She clasped his hands. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright…for giving me permission to make the attempt. You gave me another chance to make my husband’s last wish come true.” She turned her face toward the rising sun.
“And thank you, too, my dear Isaac. For everything.”