Desperate Ride (by Susan G)

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Summary:  Overhearing news of a planned massacre at a Treaty Signing, Joe sets out on an impossible ride in order to save countless lives of Indians, soldiers, settlers, and importantly, Ben Cartwright.

Rating:  T    (5,200 words)

 

Desperate Ride

 

The morning haze was beginning to burn off as two riders lazily started down the trail.  Joe Cartwright stopped, stretched and yawned.  “How come we have to look for those strays at the crack of dawn?” Joe asked grumpily.

“Crack of dawn?” said his brother, Hoss.  “It must be close to ten.  If I left it up to you, you’d have stayed in bed until noon.”

“That sounds good to me,” said Joe with a grin.

“We got a lot to do while Pa’s over at Fort Benson,” Hoss said. “The sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll get everything done.”

“You’re a bear for work all of a sudden,” said Joe.  “It couldn’t be because you want to take the day off tomorrow, could it?”

“Why would I want to do that?” answered Hoss, with wide-eye innocence.

“Well, “ said Joe with a teasing voice, “I heard that Bessie Sue Moran asked you to take her fishing. “

Hoss blushed.  “Now, Joe, you know Bessie Sue is just a friend.  And I happen to like fishing.”

“Yeah, right,” Joe said with a grin. “Well,  you just better be careful that a fish isn’t the only thing that gets hooked!” Joe started laughing and urged his horse forward as Hoss removed his hat and took a swipe at his brother with it.  Hoss grinned as he rode after his brother.

The two men hadn’t ridden very far when Joe abruptly pulled his horse to a stop. “What’s wrong?” asked Hoss, stopping next  to him.

Joe pointed.  “Isn’t that Charley Scroggins? I thought he was still in jail.”

Hoss peered at the figure riding ahead.  The man was riding slowly, cautiously, looking around him.  Suddenly, the man stopped.  With one last look around, he dismounted his horse and disappeared into a thicket of trees and bushes.

“Yeah, that’s him,” said Hoss.  “He got out a couple of weeks ago.  He’s acting awful funny.  Maybe we ought to go see what he’s up to.”  Joe nodded.

Joe and Hoss rode down the trail to the thicket.  They dismounted and tied their horses to a bush.  They moved through the undergrowth as silently as possible.  Joe put his hand up to stop his brother, then pointed to their left.  Two men were standing in a small clearing.  One was Charley Scroggins.  Joe and Hoss crouched down and moved closer.

“Are you sure you can deliver those guns?” asked Scroggins.

“I already told you they’d be here by the end of the week,” the other man answered.  “What I want to know is how you can be sure the Piautes will buy them from you.”

Scroggins laughed.  “I’m sure.  Ol’ Red Pony is a friend of mine.  He wants to a war chief. And he’s got lots of what he calls ‘white man’s yellow rocks’ stashed away. “

“But, I heard the Piautes are getting ready to sign a peace treaty,” the other man insisted.  “They won’t want to buy guns if there’s peace.”

“We got that covered, too.” Scroggins said.  “There’s going to be a big explosion at the treaty signing.  All the chiefs and most of the Army top brass will be killed. The Indians will blame the Army; the Army will blame the Indians.  There will be a war before the end of the week.” Joe and Hoss looked at each other with concern.  Their father, Ben Cartwright, was at Fort Benson for the treaty signing.  He had helped negotiate the terms of the peace, and he was going to be there to witness the signing.

“Well, if you say so,” the stranger said.  “I still think it’s funny that an Army captain would start a war.”

“You don’t know this Army captain, “ replied Scroggins.  “He’s got gambling debts to pay. The gold we get from Red Pony will pay those debts.  Besides, with the top brass dead, he figures he’ll get an instant promotion.”

Hoss looked at Joe and nodded.  They had heard enough.  Both men drew their guns.  Hoss gestured and Joe nodded.  The men moved quietly through the brush, one going to the right, the other to the left.

“I’ve got to get going,” Scroggins said.  “You have that wagonload of guns at Willow Lake on Friday.  I’ll have Red Pony and the gold there are dawn.”

“Hold it!” yelled Hoss as he burst out of the brush.  The two men looked at him with a startled expression.  Scroggins reached for his gun, but a shot from the left froze him.  Joe emerged from the brush, his gun smoking.

“Put your hands up and don’t move,” said Hoss.  Both men complied.  Joe moved cautiously around them, removing the gun from each man’s holster.

“What’s this all about?” said Scroggins.  “I haven’t done anything.”

“No, “ said Joe with a trace of bitterness.  “All you’ve done is try to blow up our Pa and start an Indian war. We heard what you said.  Lucky for you we found out  in time.  Otherwise, you two would be facing a hangman’s rope for murder.”

“Look, I didn’t do anything, “ said the stranger.  “I’m just selling some guns.”

“Don’t make any difference,” said Hoss.  “You’re part of this.  That makes you as guilty as Scroggins here.”

“Hoss, let’s get these two to Sheriff Coffee in Virginia City and get a wire off to Fort Benton,” said Joe.

“You can’t,” said the stranger with desperation.  “The wire has been cut in two places. It’s going to take them a week to find and fix the breaks!”

Joe and Hoss looked at each other.  They realized their Pa was in great danger.

Joe grabbed Scroggins by the front of the shirt and stuck his gun under the man’s chin. “All right, “ said Joe.  “You better start talking and talking fast.  What’s going to happen and when.”

“Tell him, Scroggins,” pleaded the stranger.  “I don’t want to hang for murder. Tell him.”

Scroggins’ eye bulged with fear.  “There’s nothing you can do about it, “ he said in a shaky voice.  “The chiefs arrive at the Fort about noon tomorrow.   Captain Johnson is going to be part of the treaty signing. Once everyone is in the colonel’s office, he’s to find an excuse to leave.  When he gets outside, he’s going to light a load of dynamite hidden under the office and  walk away. “

Joe cocked his pistol.  “You’d better be telling the truth,” he said heatedly.  Scroggins licked his lips nervously.  “I’m telling the truth.  I’ve got no reason to lie.  But you can’t do anything about it.  It’s too late.”

Joe released the man with a shove.  He turned to his brother.  “Do you think you can get these two into town by yourself?”

“Sure, but what are you going to do?” asked Hoss.

“Only thing I can do.  I’m going to ride to Fort Benson and warn them,” answered Joe grimly.

“Joe, it’s over a hundred miles to Fort Benson!  And through some pretty rough  country. You’ll never make it by noon tomorrow,” said Hoss.

“I’ve got to try, “ insisted Joe.  “If I start now and ride hard, I should make it to Harvey Jones’ place by dusk.  I can get a fresh horse there.”

Hoss shook his head.  “Joe, you’ll kill yourself.”

“You got a better idea?” asked Joe angrily.   “We got to stop them.  Pa’s life is involved.”

“I know,” said Hoss with resignation.  “And I don’t have a better idea.  I’ll take these fellows to town and see if I can find another way to get a message to the Fort.”

Joe nodded.  “I’d better get going.”   Joe holstered his gun and started walking rapidly toward his horse.

“Joe!” called Hoss.  Joe stopped and turned.  “You look after yourself, “ Hoss said quietly.  Joe nodded and turned back to his horse. He vaulted on to the back of his pinto and kicked the horse into a gallop.  Joe rode hard for hours, stopping only to water his tired horse and himself.  Hoss was right.  The country he rode through was rough, full of rocks and scrub brush. Joe’s shoulders and legs were beginning to ache from the long time in the saddle.  He ignored the soreness, and rode on.

The sun was starting to go down as he reached Harvey Jones’ ranch.  Joe figured he had covered more than fifty miles, going over hills and through rivers. He wished he had some flat ground to cover, so he could pick up some time. But the fastest way to Fort Benson was through some of the roughest country in Nevada.  He rode into the Jones place just has Harvey was coming out of the barn.  Joe’s horse was lathered with sweat and breathing hard.  Joe was in just about the same shape.

“Joe Cartwright!” yelled Harvey as he rode up.  “What are you trying to do?  Kill your horse or kill yourself?”

“Harvey, I need a fresh horse fast.  I’ve got to get to Fort Benson by noon tomorrow.”

“Oh, son,” said Harvey ruefully.  “You’ll never make it.  It’s too far.”

“I’ve got to, “ said Joe as he dismounted.  “There’s a captain there who’s going to try and start a war.  He’s going to blow up Pa, the Army colonel and the Piaute chiefs just as they’re signing the treaty.  If I don’t stop it, this whole country will be a bloody battlefield by the end of the week.”

“My God!” exclaimed Harvey.  “I remember the last time the Piautes went on the warpath.  There wasn’t a white man alive for miles around here. I’ll get you a fresh horse.”

Harvey rushed into the barn.  Joe unbuckled the saddle from his tired horse, and gave the animal an affectionate pat.  “You rest, Cochise.  I’ll come back and get you.”  Joe carried his saddle toward the barn.  He stopped at a well near the barn.  A bucket of water was on the edge of the well. The handle of a ladle was sticking out of the bucket. Joe pulled the ladle from the bucket, and took a long drink of water.  He removed his hat and poured the rest of the water over his head.   He hoped the water would revive his tired body.

“Here you go, Joe” said Harvey, leading a roan horse from the barn.  “This is the best horse I got.  He’s not as fast as your horse, but he’s got some speed. Better than that, he’s strong; he’ll run all day for you.”

“Thanks, Harvey,” Joe said gratefully.  He threw his saddle over the horse and started buckling it on.

“Listen, Joe, I’ve been thinking, “ said Harvey.  “If you can cut through those woods near Pyramid Lake, you’ll save yourself five or six miles.  A friend of mine, Arch Fenner, has a ranch on the other side of the woods.  You tell him  what you told me.  He’ll give you a fresh horse.  It’s only about fifteen miles to the Fort from Arch’s place.”

Joe nodded as he mounted.  “I’ll do that,”  said Joe.  “Thanks.”

“No thanks needed,” said Harvey.  “I figure you’re trying to save my hide, just as much as your Pa’s.”

Joe nodded again and rode off at a gallop.  “Good luck!” shouted Harvey after him.  He watched Joe for a minute.  “You’ll need it, “ said Harvey to himself.  Joe rode the new horse hard through the open country.  The land continued to be hilly, with gullies and trees scattered throughout.  He kept his eyes out for holes as he kicked the horse on.  A fall now would be a disaster.  Not only would it prevent him from getting to the Fort on time but a fall could mean broken bones for him or the horse…or both.  Night had fallen and the moon was rising as Joe reached the edge of the woods that Harvey mentioned. Joe stopped and looked doubtfully at the thick growth of trees.  He knew the woods went on for miles.  It would be difficult to get through them in the dark with any speed.  Joe chewed on his lower lip, thinking hard.  If he went around, he would add miles to the trip, and might not make it to the Fort in time.  He couldn’t travel very fast in the dark, even in open country.  Joe slumped in the saddle. He was so tired he could hardly think straight.  And he had a long way to go.

Joe took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.  He patted the horse’s neck. “C’mon, boy,” he said.  “We’ll figure out a way to do this.”  He kicked the horse forward.  He kept the horse at a slow lope as he went deeper and deeper into the woods.  It was so dark he could barely see.  Joe kept his eyes glued to the ground, looking for rocks, roots, or other debris which could trip the horse.  He never looked ahead, trusting the horse to find his own trail.  He never saw the branch that hit him in the head and knocked him from the saddle.

When Joe woke, he found himself on the ground.  He had no idea how long he had been unconscious.  He sat up slowly.  Something was oozing into his left eye.  He put his hand to his face and wiped his eye.  He looked his hand and saw it was covered with blood.  He gingerly touched his forehead, feeling a knot a few inches above the eye.  He could feel a cut just below the knot.  Joe wiped his arm over his forehead and eye, trying to get the blood out of his eye.  He felt the cut again.  The bleeding was slow.  The cut would probably close itself soon.  Joe picked his hat up off the ground and gingerly place it on his head.  He peered into the darkness, trying to get his bearings.  Suddenly, he heard the snicker of a horse.  It came from someplace up the trail.  Joe stood, reeling a bit as he got to his feet.  Staggering, he started up the trail.

The horse was about ten yards ahead of him, contentedly chewing on the grass near a small group of trees.  Joe approached him slowly.  “Whoa, there,” he said soothingly as he neared the animal.  The horse lifted his head and looked at Joe.  Joe walked slowly to the animal and put his hand on the horse’s neck.  Joe slid his hand across the animal’s rump as he walked around him. The horse stood quietly as Joe checked the girth and then climbed into the saddle.  A small stream of blood trickled into Joe’s eye.  He wiped it away with his sleeve.  His head ached and his body seemed to be sore all over.  Joe gritted his teeth, and turned his horse.  “C’mon,” he said, urging the animal forward. He started riding through the woods again, but this time he kept his eyes moving back and forth between the ground and the trail ahead.   After what seemed an endless journey, Joe finally emerged from the woods.  He was on the crest of the hill. The sky was still dark but the moon shone bright as Joe got his bearings.  He saw a trail below him.  He urged his horse down the hill, toward the trail.  Once he reached the trail, he kicked the horse into a gallop. Joe rode as fast as he could down the trail.  He could feel the horse under him was tiring.  He knew how the animal felt; Joe was so tired he could barely stay in the saddle.  But the thought of the pending disaster at the Fort spurred him on.He knew he couldn’t stop, not if he wanted to save his Pa.  Joe rode through the dawn and the rising sun.  As the sky lightened, he saw a ranch far in the distance, and hoped it was Arch Fenner’s place.  Regardless, he would need to get a fresh horse.  The roan wouldn’t be able to go much further.

A man was in the yard, splitting logs as Joe approached.  He looked up suspiciously  as Joe rode his exhausted horse toward him.  Joe was covered with dust.  His face was streaked with dirt, sweat and blood. The man dropped this ax and  put his hand on the gun hanging on his hip.

“Are you Arch Fenner?” Joe asked in a tired voice.

“Yeah, what of it?” answered the rancher cautiously.

“I’m a friend of Harvey Jones.  I’ve got to get to Fort Benson by noon.  Harvey said I could get a fresh horse here, “ replied Joe.

Fenner looked Joe over, then studied the horse.  “I recognize that roan,” he said. “That’s Harvey’s horse, all right.  But why are you in such an all fired hurry to get to Fort Benson?”

Joe’s body sagged with fatigue.  “I’m too tired to try and explain,” he said wearily.

“Can I have the horse?  You can keep this one until I get back.”

Fenner put his hand to his chin and studied Joe for a minute.  “All right,” he said finally.  “I’ll get you a horse.”

Joe nodded gratefully.  He dismounted as Fenner headed toward the barn. Once again, he unsaddled his horse.  This time, though, the saddle felt like it weighed three hundred pounds.  He wearily dragged the saddle toward the barn. He stopped at a water trough near the barn.  Joe knelt and plunged his hand into the water.  He used his hand as a cup, first to drink and then to splash water onto his face.  Finally, he stood, water dripping from his face.  Joe couldn’t believe how much effort it took to get to his feet.  Fenner led a black horse toward Joe.  Joe liked the look of the horse; the animal seemed strong.  “How far is it to the Fort?” Joe asked.

“About fifteen miles if you follow the trail,” answered Fenner.  “If you cut over the hills, it’s only about ten.  But that’s a rough ride.  You don’t look like you could make it.”

“I’ll make it,” said Joe.  He threw his saddle on the black and tightened the girth.  He started to mount, but he couldn’t get his tired legs to work properly. Fenner caught Joe as he fell back toward the ground.

“Son, you better come inside and rest for awhile,” Fenner said with concern.

Joe shook his head.  “No, I’ve got to keep going.  If I stop now, I’ll never get to the Fort on time.”

“I don’t know what’s going on, but it can’t be so important that it’s worth killing yourself,” answered Fenner.

“Yes, it is,” Joe said grimly.  He turned back to the horse, and, using more will power than strength,  pulled himself into the saddle.  “Thanks,” he said as he turned the horse and rode off.

“Fool kid,” muttered Fenner, as he picked the ax he had dropped.

Joe steered the horse toward the hills, keeping the horse going at a steady pace.  He was so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open.  He found himself starting to doze in the saddle as the horse slowed to a walk.  He tried to urge the horse on at a faster pace, but he couldn’t seem to make his aching muscles work.  He slumped forward onto the neck of the horse as the horse walked on. Joe woke with a start.  He was confused by fatigue and sleep.  The horse had stopped and was grazing on the grass.  The sun was high in the sky.  Joe knew he must have slept for awhile.  The nap didn’t seem to have helped him much. He still felt as if he could sleep for a week.  Suddenly, he remember his mission.  He gathered up the reins and jerked the startled horse’s head up.  He kicked the horse hard, sending the animal into a gallop.

Joe rode over the hills as fast as the horse could run.  He urged the horse down a steep hill, and hung on to the pommel of the saddle as the animal plunged down sharply.  At the bottom of the hill, Joe reined him to a stop, allowing both of them to catch their breath. Joe looked to his right.  In the distance, he could see Fort Benson. He checked the sun. It was close to noon.  Once again, Joe kicked the horse into a gallop.  A surge of adrenaline raced through Joe’s body now that he could see the Fort. The gates were partially open as he rode up, with two soldiers on guard duty.  The soldiers stopped him as he tried to ride into the fort.

“Hold it, mister,” said one of the soldiers, barring Joe’s path.  Joe pulled his horse to a stop.

“My name’s Joe Cartwright,” he said.  “My father, Ben Cartwright, is in the Fort. I need to see him right away.”

“Sorry,” said the second soldier.  “No one goes in until the Paiutes arrive and the treaty is signed.  Orders.”

Joe dismounted.  “Look,” he said urgently.  “I’ve GOT to delay that treaty signing.  If you don’t let me in, there going to be a massacre.”

The two soldiers looked at each other, trying to decide what to do.  “The colonel said no one gets in”  the first soldier finally stated firmly. “You can’t just ride up here with some wild story and expect us to disobey the colonel.”

Joe was too tired to argue with the men.  He turned as if he was going to walk away, then whirled and punched one of the soldiers in the jaw.  Before the other could react, Joe shoved him out of the way and started to run through the gates.  The two soldiers got up from the ground and started chasing Joe, yelling for him to stop.  One caught up with Joe and tackled him.  Joe struggled to escape his grasp, as the second grabbed his shoulders.  The three struggled and rolled on the ground.

‘What’s going on here?” an authoritative voice shouted.  The soldiers let Joe go and stood at attention.  Joe looked up wearily and stared into the face of a colonel.

“Colonel, this man tried to break into the fort, “ one of the soldiers said stiffly, still standing at attention.

“That’s my son!” a voice said from behind the colonel.   Ben Cartwright brushed past the colonel and helped Joe to his feet.  Several other officers and soldiers hurriedly joined the group.

“Joe, what are you doing here?” Ben asked in astonishment.  He was alarmed at his son’s appearance.  Joe’s eyes were bloodshot and his face was etched with fatigue.  Ben noted with concern the bruise over his son’s eye and the streaks of blood on the side of his face. It seemed he could see more dirt than skin on Joe’s face.

Joe grabbed his father’s arms. “Pa, you’ve got to delay the treaty signing.  If you don’t, you all are going to be killed,” Joe blurted out.

“You two, get back to your post,” the colonel gestured toward the two soldiers. Both saluted and left. The colonel turned toward Joe.  “Now, what’s this all about?” asked the colonel sternly.

Joe glanced at the colonel, and took a deep breath. He looked straight at his father, confident that Ben would believe him.  “Hoss and I followed Charley Scroggins yesterday morning near Oak Meadow,” he explained.  “He met a man there, and we heard him tell the man that one of the captains here was trying to start a war. Scroggins was going to sell guns to the Piautes once the war started.”

“Start a war!  That’s preposterous!” the colonel said.

“No sir, “ Joe said.  “It’s the truth.  The captain’s name is Johnson.  He’s going to blow up your office once everyone is in it.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said one of the officers, stepping forward.  “I’m Captain Johnson.  That’s the most outrageous lie I’ve ever heard.”

“Do you have any proof?” the colonel asked Joe.

Joe shook his head.  “All I know is he planted a load of dynamite under your office.  He was going to leave the office once everyone was in it and light the dynamite.”

“Colonel, this man is obviously crazy,” Johnson said.

“My son doesn’t lie,” said Ben.  “Colonel, I suggest you send someone to check under your office immediately.”

The colonel nodded toward one of the officers.  The man ran toward the back of the fort,  followed by two soldiers.

“Captain Johnson,  you wouldn’t mind if we searched your quarters, would you?” asked the colonel.

“Searched my quarters? Why?” said Johnson nervously.

“To see if there’s any evidence of what this young man says is true, “ answered the colonel.  The officer returned with a dozen tightly wrapped sticks of dynamite in his hand. He showed them to the colonel.  “We found these under your office, “ the officer said.

“Looks like at least part of this young man’s story is true,” the colonel said.  “Major,  I want you to search Captain Johnson’s quarters immediately.”

Johnson suddenly bolted toward some horses tied nearby.  Several soldiers grabbed him as he neared the horses.  Johnson struggled briefly, then stopped. His body sagged in defeat.

“Take the captain to the guardhouse pending a full investigation,” ordered the colonel.  Johnson was led away.

The colonel turned back to Joe.  “Looks like we owe you a big debt of thanks, young man,” said the colonel.  Joe started to say something when a sense of fatigue overwhelmed him.  His head started to spin and his knees began to buckle.

Ben grabbed his son’s arm and helped him stand.  “Joe,” Ben said in a worried voice.  “You said you and Hoss caught Scroggins yesterday morning.  How long have you been riding?”

Joe shook his head wearily.  “I don’t know, “ he mumbled.  “Since we caught Scroggins.”

“You’ve been the saddle almost thirty hours!” Ben said in dismay.  Joe nodded.  He started to sink to the ground again when an officer grabbed his other arm.

“I’m the post doctor,” said the officer.  “Let’s get him over the infirmary.” Ben and the doctor half-carried an exhausted Joe across the yard; the colonel followed close behind.  The doctor pushed the door of the infirmary open. A row of empty beds lined the wall of a big room.  The doctor led Joe to the first bed and laid him across it.  Ben lifted his son’s legs onto the bed.  The doctor bent over Joe, examining him, while Ben and the colonel hovered anxiously behind him. Joe closed his eyes, already falling asleep. After a few minutes, the doctor straightened and turned toward the men.

“Nothing wrong with him that  a nice long  sleep won’t fix,” said the doctor reassuringly. “He’s just exhausted. That cut on his head looks worse than it is. It won’t even need stitches.”

A soldier suddenly opened the door and poked his head in.  “Colonel, “ he said. “The Paiutes are here.”

The colonel nodded.  “Come on, Ben, we have a treaty to sign.”

Ben looked at the colonel and then at his sleeping son.  A look of uncertainly flickered across his face.

“Go ahead, Mr. Cartwright,” said the doctor.  “There’s nothing you can do here. Your son will sleep for hours.  I’ll clean him up and make him comfortable.”

Ben continued to gaze at Joe.  His face was filled with concern.  Finally Ben nodded.   “All right,” he said with a tinge of resignation in his voice. “Keep a close eye on him, doctor, “

“Don’t worry,” said the doctor.  “He’ll be fine.”

Ben turned and took a few steps toward the door. He stopped and looked back at his son. He took a deep breath, then left the room.  The sound of a bugle and the bustle of the fort starting the day finally woke Joe.  He rubbed his eyes and yawned as he sat up in bed.  Someone had removed his jacket, shirt and  boots, and covered him with a blanket.  The dirt and blood had been washed away.    Joe pushed aside the blanket.  His body was sore, every muscle aching.  His shoulders and legs throbbed.  He looked across the room.  Ben was asleep in an overstuffed chair  by a desk.  The bed creaked as Joe slowly swung his legs over the edge of the bed.  The noise woke Ben.

“Joe,” he said with a smile.  “So you’re finally awake.  How do you feel?”

“Stiff and sore, “ admitted Joe.  “How long have I been asleep?”

Ben walked over to his son.  “Since about noon yesterday.  For awhile there, I didn’t think you were ever going to wake up.”

Joe took a deep breath.  “Pa, I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired.  But at least I got here in time.”

Ben laid his hand gently on his son’s shoulder.  “Yes, you got here in time.  How you did it, I’ll never know.  I’m proud of you, son.”

Joe gave him an embarrassed smile.  “I guess that stubborn streak you’re always complaining about came in handy this time.”  Ben laughed and clapped him lightly on the shoulder.

“Did you get the treaty signed?” Joe asked.

“Yes. A lot happened while you were asleep. Captain Johnson confessed after they searched his room and found some more dynamite. The colonel sent a patrol to Virginia City to pick up Scroggins and that other fellow. They’ll let Hoss know everything is all right.  And, most important, the Paiutes signed the treaty.”

“I hope the treaty works this time,” said Joe.

“So do I,” Ben said.  “This one almost cost me more than I bargained for.”

The door opened and the doctor entered the infirmary.  He was carrying a covered tray. “I thought you might be awake by now,” said the doctor with a smile.  “I’m Dr. Williams.  You look a lot better than you did yesterday. Hungry?”

“I could eat a horse, “ said Joe, eyeing the tray.

“Well, this is only army chow, but I guarantee it’s better than a horse,” the doctor said.  He handed the tray to Joe.  Joe whipped off the cover and started eating. He almost shoved the food into his mouth.  “Slow down,” said the doctor.  “You’ll make yourself sick.”

Joe looked up.  “I always eat fast, ” he said with his mouth full. “You’ve never been at the table with my brother, Hoss. If you don’t eat fast, you don’t get any food!”

Ben laughed.  “I think this one’s going to be all right,”  Ben said. Joe grinned at his father.

“Pa, we’ve got some horses to return on the way home, “ Joe said as he finished eating.

“We’ll take care of it.  There’s no rush,” Ben replied.  “You rest for a day or so. We’ll start back then.”

Joe nodded.  “Let’s take the easy way back,” said  Joe. “I’ve already done it the hard way.”

Ben laughed again.  “Anything you say, Joe,”  he said, taking the tray from his son.

Joe eased his legs back on to the bed and sat back against the pillow.  It was nice to hear his father’s laugh, he thought.  He knew how close he came to never hearing it again.  Hearing that laugh was worth what he went through, Joe decided.   It was definitely worth it.

*****End*****

 

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