The Darkness (by Susan G)

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Summary:  Adam and Hoss spy Cochise standing in front of the saloon and no Joe in sight.  After being informed someone else had ridden the horse, they threaten the rider to learn the truth.

Word Count:  12,500  Rated:  T

The Darkness

 

 

The sun shone a mottled pattern between the trees as Joe Cartwright rode slowly through the woods. The country he was riding in was wild and rough – mostly mountainous and covered with thick trees and heavy brush. It was the land of hunters and mountain men, not ranchers. But Joe knew this was the quickest route home.

Stopping his horse momentarily, Joe reached down to pull his canteen from the side of his saddle. He uncorked the canteen and took a long drink. As he replaced the stopper and hung the container back on his saddle, Joe took a quick look around. He figured he was about thirty miles from home. Thirty miles from a soft bed and Hop Sign’s good cooking, he thought ruefully.

It seemed to Joe that he had been on the trail for longer than just three days. A week ago, he and two hands had been at Fort Churchill, delivering a string of horses to the Army. After paying off the hands, Joe enjoyed a few days of relaxation before heading for home. Now he was only about a half day’s ride from the Ponderosa.

Eager to get home, Joe chucked his horse forward, emerging from the thick trees and starting down a rocky slope. He guided his pinto carefully, keeping a close watch that the animal didn’t stray too close to the edge of a deep ravine which paralleled the right side of the trail. Suddenly hearing a rumble, he looked up to see a number of rocks cascading down from the hill to his left. Joe pulled his horse up short and struggled to control the animal as it shied away from the landslide.

“Put your hands up!” a voice yelled.

Turning his head a bit, Joe saw a man climbing down from the hill to stand in the middle of the trail. The man was about 40, wearing a blue shirt with a black vest, both of which were covered with dust and dirt. He also had a pistol pointed directly at Joe.

It took Joe another minute to calm his prancing horse, then he slowly raised his hands. He immediately thought of the money in his saddlebags, payment for the horses. He was sure the man meant to rob him.

“Get down off the horse,” the man ordered gruffly.

Hesitating, Joe tried to calculate his chances against the man.

“Don’t try anything,” advised the outlaw, almost as if he was reading Joe’s mind. “I’ve got you dead in my sights.”

Nodding his understanding, Joe slowly dismounted. As he reached the ground, he put his hands back up in the air.

“Unbuckle that gunbelt and drop it to the ground,” ordered the man. Joe slowly did as he was told. “Now move away from the horse,” continued the bandit. Joe took two steps to his left.

Walking slowly toward Joe, the bandit said, “My horse fell and broke its leg. And I don’t much like walking. I thank you for the horse.”

Instantly, Joe realized the man had no idea what was in his saddlebag; he was only after his horse. But that was little comfort to Joe. He loved that horse, a pinto his father had given him as a present several years ago. “Mister, you’ll have a hard time riding that horse,” Joe advised. “He don’t like strangers.”

“We’ll see about that,” growled the man. He motioned Joe away with his gun, and Joe took another step to his left.

“Suit yourself,” remarked Joe, feigning a look of unconcern. But he moved a bit again, bracing his legs and getting ready to spring at the man.

Grabbing the horn of the saddle, the outlaw started to pull himself up on the horse. As he started to mount, Joe’s pinto whinnied and bucked, throwing the man to the ground.

Immediately, Joe rushed forward and grabbed the man, but the would-be thief was bigger and quicker. The outlaw pushed Joe away, knocking the young Cartwright backward and to the ground. Scrambling to his feet, Joe started toward the man again. Quickly, the bandit brought his gun to his hip and fired.

As he felt the bullet slam into his left shoulder, Joe staggered backward. A searing pain seemed to be setting his shoulder on fire. Stunned, Joe let out a gasp and took another step backward. But instead of solid ground, the heel of his boot met only air. He had staggered back to the edge of the ravine that paralleled the trail, and now his foot had moved past the edge. Off balance, Joe tumbled to the bottom of the gully and then laid still.

A bit surprised to lose sight of his prey, the man walked to the edge of the ravine and looked in. Joe lay face down at the bottom the deep ditch, deathly still as blood seeped from a jagged hole in the back of his jacket. Giving a shrug of indifference, the outlaw turned and walked away from the ravine.

Picking up the holster that Joe had dropped, the man admired the fine tooling of the leather. He pulled the gun from the holster and whistled as he saw the pistol. It was a beautiful weapon, a blue steel revolver with a pearl handle. Immediately, the man unbuckled his gunbelt and put Joe’s around his waist. He frowned for a moment when he realized the holster was for a left-handed man. The outlaw was right-handed, but he hated to give up his prize. He turned the pistol around in the holster so that butt of the gun pointed toward the front. Reaching across his body with his right hand, the man experimented with drawing the gun out of the holster. Satisfied that he could draw the pistol easily, the man rolled his old holster and walked to Joe’s horse.

The pinto eyed the man nervously but stood still as the bandit patted and talked soothingly to the animal. Taking a step to his right, the man opened the saddlebag draped over the horse’s flank, intending to put his old holster in the leather pouch. Suddenly, he froze, a look of astonishment crossing his face. The man pulled several bundles of money from the saddlebag, grinning at the paper bills which filled his hand. “Wilkes, this is your lucky day!” he muttered to himself. Quickly, he shoved the money back into the saddlebag, then stuffed his old holster into the pouch on top of the bills.

Grabbing the reins that were dangling over the neck of the horse, Wilkes put his foot in the stirrup and started to mount. The pinto bucked, but this time Wilkes was ready for it. He bounced with his foot in the stirrup a few times, then quickly threw his free leg over the horse. The pinto reared and kicked a bit but Wilkes jerked the horse’s head around with the reins. He slapped the pinto several times on the neck, not hurting the horse but causing a loud noise which startled the animal. The pinto stood still, confused and not sure what to do next. The man kicked the horse in the side, and with another short buck, the pinto started forward.

**********

Slowly, Joe emerged from the darkness into which he had descended. As he regained consciousness, he felt an agonizing pain in his left shoulder. He started to pull himself up, but the movement caused a jolt of even stronger pain. Collapsing back to the ground with a groan, Joe lay still, breathing hard. Carefully, he turned over onto his back, grimacing at the sharp twinge even that movement caused. He laid on his back for a few moments, waiting for the wave of agony to abate. When the pain became more bearable, he opened his eyes and looked around.

At first, all Joe saw the side of the ravine. He lifted his head slightly to look up at the rim and could tell that the land above it was empty. Both his horse and the man who shot him were gone. Bending his left leg, Joe pushed himself up slowly, using his good arm to help him into a sitting position. He felt exhausted by the effort and sick with pain. Leaning back against the side of the ravine, Joe closed his eyes. His head slipped to the side as the darkness descended on him again.

**********

Strolling down the streets of Virginia City, Adam and Hoss Cartwright were enjoying an hour or so of freedom while their father, Ben, visited with his old friend Sheriff Roy Coffee. Suddenly, Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm and pointed.

“Ain’t that Joe’s horse in front of the Silver Dollar?” asked Hoss, pointing to a pinto tied to the hitching post in front of the saloon.

Adam peered at the animal. “Sure looks like it,” he agreed. “Come on.”

Crossing the wide street, the two men slowly approached the horse, which was caked with sweat and dirt. Hoss ran his hand slowly over the flanks of the pinto and looked at the Ponderosa pine tree brand burned into the animal’s hide. “What’s Joe thinking, leaving his horse like this?” demanded Hoss angrily.

“What’s he doing in town?” asked Adam. “He knows Pa expected him back at the house.”

“Maybe he decided to take the money for those horses right to the bank,” Hoss suggested, trying to excuse his younger brother’s behavior.

“Then what’s his horse doing here at the saloon?” Adam asked with a frown. “I think we ought to have a talk with our baby brother.”

Taking three quick steps, Adam approached the swinging doors of the Silver Dollar. Hoss followed as Adam pushed opened the doors and walked into the saloon.

Since it was the middle of the day, the Cartwrights weren’t surprised the bar was practically empty. A poker game was being played at a table in the middle of the room with six men, each of whom was studying his cards and ignoring the new arrivals. An old miner stood at the bar, nursing a beer. There were no other patrons in the saloon, and none of the men at the poker table resembled Joe.

With a puzzled expression on his face, Adam walked over to where the bartender stood behind the wooden bar cleaning beer glasses with a white towel. “Hello, Adam, Hoss,” the bartender greeted them. “What can I get you?”

“We’re looking for Joe,” Adam answered. “We saw his horse tied up out front, and just assumed he was in here.”

“Joe?” repeated the bartender in surprise. “No, he hasn’t been in here all day. In fact, I haven’t seen him for more than a week.”

“But his horse is tied up out front,” insisted Hoss. “Where else could he be?”

“That ain’t Joe’s horse,” offered the old miner was listening to the conversation.

“What are you talking about?” said Adam to the man. “Of course, that’s Joe’s horse.”

“I thought so, too,” admitted the miner. “But I saw the fella that rode him into town and it weren’t Joe.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged worried looks. They knew the pinto was Joe’s horse; if nothing else, the brand proved it.

“Who rode the horse into town?” asked Adam.

The miner pointed to one of the men sitting at the table. “See that fella in the blue shirt and black vest? He was riding the pinto.”

“He came in about an hour ago,” added the bartender. “Sat right down at the table and pulled out a stack of bills. I wouldn’t have expected a man like that to have so much money.”

“Thanks,” said Adam with a distracted air. He motioned with his head for Hoss to follow him, then approached the poker table. Adam stood behind the man in the blue shirt, apparently watching the game but in reality studying the player. Glancing down at the gunbelt the man was wearing, Adam thought the holster looked familiar. The gunbelt was strapped to the man’s left leg but the pistol was turned the wrong way, as if for a right-handed man. Adam pointed at the holster and Hoss nodded.

The man wearing the blue shirt and black vest threw down his cards. “I’m out,” he announced with disgust and reached for a glass of beer. Suddenly, the man felt himself yanked to his feet. “What the…” he started. Swiveling his head, he saw a big man holding his right arm and a dark-haired man holding his left. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.

Reaching down with one hand, Adam pulled the pistol from the man’s holster. Still grasping the man’s arm with his other hand, the oldest of the Cartwright brothers examined the gun. “It’s Joe’s,” he declared. “His initials are scratched on the bottom of the handle.” Adam glared at the man next to him. “Mister, you have exactly 30 seconds to tell us what happened to our little brother.”

Turning his head quickly, Wilkes looked back and forth at two men who were holding him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said nervously.

“You rode into town on my brother’s horse, you’re wearing his gun, and I’ll venture that you’re playing poker with the money he was carrying,” Adam stated, his voice deadly calm. “Now, what happened to our brother?”

Beginning to sweat, Wilkes swallowed hard. “You fellows are crazy,” he protested. “That’s my horse.”

Adam nodded at Hoss, and immediately the biggest Cartwright jerked Wilkes toward him then spun him around so that Wilkes back rested against Hoss’ chest. Before Wilkes could react, Hoss had his massive arms wrapped around the man’s torso.

“I’m going to ask once more,” Adam declared in an icy tone. “If you don’t give me a straight answer, my brother here is going to slowly crush your ribs.”

“No! No! You can’t do that!” Wilkes cried in terror. He looked at the other men at the table. “Stop him someone!” pleaded Wilkes.

The other five men at the table knew the Cartwrights well and all felt a measure of affection for Joe. They stared back at Wilkes with stony expressions. None made a move to help him.

“What happened to Joe?” asked Adam again. “How did you get his horse?”

“I found the horse,” Wilkes shouted. “My horse broke his leg, and I found the pinto just wandering. That’s the truth, mister, I swear.”

“You’re lying,” Adam stated in a voice that held no doubt. “My brother might have lost his horse, but he would have never given up his gunbelt voluntarily.” Adam nodded at Hoss who began to tighten his grip on Wilkes.

Immediately, Wilkes grimaced in pain. “I swear, I found the horse,” he gasped. He could feel those huge arms squeezing him and he was finding it difficult to breathe.

“You know, I hear it’s painful when those ribs start cracking,” Adam remarked almost casually. “If you don’t tell us the truth right now, you’re going to find out.” Hoss tightened his grip again.

Wilkes felt as if an iron band was squeezing his chest. He couldn’t catch his breath. “All right,” he wheezed. “Let me go. I’ll tell you.”

Easing his grip a bit, Hoss put his mouth near his prisoner’s ear. “Start talking, mister, and it better be the truth this time,” he growled.

“I stopped a young fellow on the trail,” Wilkes explained in a shaky voice. “I took his horse and his gunbelt, and rode off.”

“And he just let you ride away?” Adam countered. “I don’t believe you.” Hoss tightened his grip again.

This time, Wilkes screamed more in terror than in pain. “We had a fight,” Wilkes cried. “He fell down a ravine. I rode off before he could get out.”

Again Hoss eased his hold on the man. “Where did this happen?” asked the biggest of the Cartwright brothers.

“I don’t know the name of the place,” Wilkes admitted as he gulped air. “I’m a stranger around here.”

“Describe it,” demanded Adam.

“It was up in mountains, a couple of hours from here. There was a ravine on one side of the trail and a hill with some rocks on the other side,” Wilkes answered.

“Sounds like Benson’s Pass,” Hoss observed.

Adam nodded his agreement. “And our brother was all right when you left him?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah, he was fine,” lied Wilkes. “He fell down the ravine and I rode off before he could catch up with me.”

“What do you think, Adam?” asked Hoss.

For a moment, Adam studied the man in Hoss’ arms. “I’m not sure he’s telling the truth,” Adam replied. “But I don’t think we’ll get any more out of him. Let’s take him to Roy Coffee.”

Nodding, Hoss released the man. As Wilkes bent over at the waist and began rubbing his sore sides, Adam grabbed the man’s’ arm and pushed him forward. “Start walking,” Adam ordered grimly. The Cartwright brothers hustled Wilkes out of the saloon and down the street to the sheriff’s office.

Sitting at his desk playing cards with Ben Cartwright, Sheriff Coffee looked up in surprise when the door of his office burst open. Wilkes stumbled through the door, followed by Adam and Hoss.

“What’s going on here?” asked Roy Coffee in startled voice.

“This man robbed Joe,” Adam told the sheriff grimly.

Immediately Ben jumped to his feet. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“We found Joe’s horse in front of the saloon,” Hoss explained. “A miner in the saloon saw this fellow riding him. He had Joe’s holster and gun, too. And he was playing poker with a lot of money. Joe would have had a couple of thousand dollars in his saddlebag.”

Rushing across the room, Ben grabbed the front of Wilkes’ shirt. “What have you done to my son?” he shouted in an angry voice.

“Nothing,” answered Wilkes, his eyes wide with fright. “I took his horse and gun and left him. The kid was fine when I rode off.”

“If you’re lying…” Ben threatened.

“Ben, hold on,” Coffee said quickly. “He just admitted to robbing Little Joe. I’m putting him under arrest.”

“Where did this happen?” Ben demanded, ignoring Roy.

“I don’t know the name of the place,” Wilkes explained in a shaky voice.

“From how he described it, we think he left Joe up at Benson’s Pass,” Adam offered.

Nodding, Ben pushed Wilkes away. “Roy, you can arrest him now,” he stated in an angry voice.

Walking over to Wilkes, Coffee grabbed the man’s arm. Giving a small shove, the sheriff pushed Wilkes toward the cellblock.

For a minute, Ben stared at the floor, then he turned Adam and Hoss. “Do you think he was telling the truth about Joe?” he asked in a worried tone. “Do you think Joe’s all right?”

“I don’t know, Pa,” admitted Adam. “I don’t think Joe would give up his horse and gun without a fight.”

“Pa, that country up by Benson’s Pass is mighty wild,” added Hoss. “Even if Joe isn’t hurt, that’s pretty rough country for a man on foot.”

“Get the horses,” ordered Ben, “And pick up some trail gear here in town. We’re going to go find Joe.” Nodding, Adam and Hoss walked rapidly out of the office.

Carrying a large ring of keys, Roy Coffee re-entered the office and put the keys on the desk. Then he faced his old friend. “Ben, I’m going to make sure that fellow goes to jail for a long time,” he promised.

“Roy, the boys and I are going to look for Joe,” Ben announced.

“It’s going to take me a little while to get a posse together,” replied Coffee. “It’ll probably be morning before we can get up to Benson’s Pass.”

“We’re not going to wait for a posse,” Ben stated firmly. “We’re leaving now.”

Coffee nodded. “All right. I’ll get as many men as I can together. We’ll get up there as soon as possible. If you haven’t found Joe by morning, send Adam or Hoss back to Benson’s Pass to meet us. We’ll decide how to split up then. The sheriff saw the concern on Ben’s face. “Don’t worry too much about Joe,” he added in a comforting tone. “He knows how to take care of himself.”

**********

Once more, Joe regained consciousness, keenly aware of the ache in his shoulder. The pain seemed less intense, but it was constant. Moving slowly, Joe sat up. He pulled his jacket and shirt open with his right hand and looked at the wound. His shoulder was covered with blood but he could see the ugly hole from the bullet. The back of his shoulder ached also, so Joe figured the bullet went right through. He released the clothes from his hand and laid back against the ravine. He was hurting but he also was thirsty, desperately thirsty.

Thinking hard, Joe tried to figure out where he was. He knew he was near Benson’s Pass and remembered a stream not too far away. He felt tired but his need for a drink was greater than his fatigue. Turning on his belly, Joe began to claw his way up the ravine, using his right hand and legs to push himself over the hard dirt and rock.

Once he got to the top of the gully, Joe pulled himself up and over the edge. Looking around, he saw he was on the far side of the ravine, away from the trail. Joe laid still for a few minutes, breathing hard as his lungs gulped in air. As he began to struggle to his feet, Joe’s left arm dangled uselessly from his shoulder, and each small sway caused a stab of pain. Joe grabbed his left arm with his right hand, hoping to still the movement of his arm and ease the pain. Then he began a slow, shuffling walk away from the ravine.

For about ten minutes, Joe staggered across bare, dusty ground. Then the land began to slope gently downward, and the trees and brush thickened. Joe heard the rushing of water and began to walk faster. Finally spotting the stream, he increased his pace, pushing through the bushes until he reached the water. Stumbling forward, Joe fell onto his chest, landing on the bank of the creek. The water rushed by just below him.

Using his right hand, Joe reached down and began cupping water into his mouth. He had a powerful thirst, and felt like he could drink all the water in the stream. When he had finally slaked his thirst, Joe began searching through his pockets. He pulled out a blue bandanna and soaked the cloth in the cool water. Moving to a sitting position, Joe opened three buttons on his shirt and peeled back the cloth. He awkwardly wrapped the bandanna around his shoulder, using his hand and teeth to tie the ends into a knot. Then, he pulled the shirt and jacket back over his shoulder, and collapsed back on the ground.

The ache in his shoulder seemed to be getting worse as Joe rested. He was breathing hard, and his face was covered with sweat. Lying still on the ground, Joe waited for the sharp pain to ease to a throb. As the pain subsided a bit, Joe began to take stock of his situation.

He knew he was about thirty miles from the Ponderosa, and separated from home by some of the roughest country in Nevada. Joe shook his head slightly. The thought of walking through thirty miles of wilderness with a bullet hole in his shoulder…Joe knew he probably wouldn’t make it. But he also didn’t simply want to stay here and die.

“Think!” he said out loud to himself. He needed a plan, some way to get help. Joe heard a rustle behind him and turned to see a deer standing a few feet away. The deer stared at Joe nervously then bounded away through the woods. Joe had a fleeting thought that he wished he was up here hunting with Hoss.

Hunting! Suddenly, Joe remembered that the last time he was in this area with Hoss, they had stopped and spent the night at Sam Carter’s cabin. Sam was an old friend of the Cartwrights, a mountain man who spent his days hunting and trapping. Abruptly, Joe sat up, wincing at the pain the movement caused. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. Sam’s cabin was somewhere to the west of here, probably no more than six or seven miles. If Joe could make it to the cabin, Sam would help him. Even if Sam wasn’t there, Joe could find food and shelter.

Reaching down with his right hand, Joe splashed a handful of water from the stream into face. He tried to clear his head, tried to picture in his mind how to get to Sam’s place. Joe thought for a few minutes, visualizing the land around him. He’d have to go through some thick woods and up a pretty steep mountain, and Joe wasn’t sure if he could do it. But he knew he couldn’t make it to the Ponderosa, and he sure didn’t want to just lay here and die. There was a chance he could make it to Sam’s – a slim chance, but a chance.

Once more, Joe reached into the stream and began cupping water into his mouth. He wasn’t sure if he could find water between here and Sam’s cabin. Hoss always told him the best way to carry water without a canteen was in your belly, so Joe drank until he couldn’t swallow another drop.

Grimacing at the pain caused by movement, Joe pulled himself to his feet. He grabbed his left arm again with good hand and eased himself down the bank of the creek to the shallow water. The water rose only to his ankles, and the bed of the creek seemed solid. With an unsteady gait, Joe splashed through the stream and climbed out the other side. He pushed through the bushes on the far bank and started walking.

**********

The sun was getting low in the sky when Ben, Adam and Hoss got to the area of Benson’s Pass. “There’s the ravine,” shouted Ben, pointing to the left. He kicked his horse forward as Adam and Hoss followed closely. When Ben reached the edge of the gully, he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted hastily. Rushing to the rim, he began searching the long narrow slit with his eyes. Adam and Hoss quickly joined him.

“Pa, look!” called Hoss as he pointed about twenty feet to his right. “That looks like Joe’s hat.”

The three Cartwrights climbed down into the ravine and hurried to the object Hoss had spotted. Stooping, Ben picked up the light colored hat from the ground. “It’s Joe’s,” he announced, looking around.

Crouched closed to the ground, Hoss looked at the tracks, then turned his face up to Adam and Ben. “Pa,” he said slowly. “There’s blood on this ground. A whole lot of it.”

Quickly, Adam and Ben knelt, and Adam felt the dirt. “It’s still damp,” he observed. Ben paled at his oldest son’s words, knowing what little hope he had that the blood was old had disappeared.

Once more, Hoss began looking around; he suddenly walked two steps to his right. “There’s some more blood over here,” he declared, pointing to the side of the ravine. “And it looks like someone pulled themselves out of here.”

For a moment, Ben and Adam merely stared at the marks in the dirt. Then Ben raised his head and began shouting, “Joe!” Joe, can you hear me?” Immediately, Adam and Hoss joined in, shouting their brother’s name. After a few calls, they stood quietly, listening. The only noise they heard was the caw of a blue jay in the trees.

Hurrying to the side of the ravine, Ben crouched close to the ground. He studied the dirt for a moment then looked off into the trees. “The tracks lead off that way,” Ben said, pointing to the trees. “Get the horses.”

************

Joe wasn’t sure how far he walked. He kept concentrating on moving, trying not to think about the growing pain in his shoulder. He pushed through the thick brush and walked unsteadily over the rough ground. Occasionally, he stopped to check the sun, to make sure he was heading west. He knew he wasn’t moving in a straight line, but as long as he went west, he knew he was getting closer to Sam’s cabin.

The day was warm, and Joe could feel the sweat running down his face and body. Despite all the water he had drunk, he was beginning to get thirsty again. He was breathing hard, and his head was aching. Joe willed himself to keep walking, to simply put one foot in front of the other.

Pushing through the undergrowth, Joe walked around some fallen branches. He stumbled several times, but always managed to catch himself before he hit the ground. Joe closed his eyes as he plodded on, trying to think of nothing except getting to Sam’s cabin. Suddenly, he tripped over an exposed root and, this time, fell to the ground. As he hit the hard dirt, Joe felt a jolt of pain through his shoulder. Groaning softly, he laid on the dirt, too exhausted to get up.

**********

Ben, Adam and Hoss followed Joe’s tracks to the stream. Once they reached the water, they immediately began shouting Joe’s name again. When they got no response, the three men organized a search on the bank of the stream, looking for any sign of Joe. Hoss was the one who spotted the footprints leading into the water as well as the marks on the other side.

“Pa! Adam! Over here!” Hoss shouted, as he led his horse into the water. He crossed the stream and then stopped so he could crouch down to look at the tracks on the far bank. Adam and Ben came up behind him and waited impatiently.

“These are Joe’s tracks,” stated Hoss in a puzzled voice. “But this don’t make sense. He’s heading off to the west, away from the Ponderosa.”

“If he’s badly hurt, he may not know where’s going,” suggested Ben anxiously. “He may just be wandering.”

“He’s not hurt so bad that he can’t walk,” Adam remarked, trying to comfort his father.

“Yeah, he’s made it this far,” agreed Hoss. “And it weren’t exactly a walk in the park.”

His sons’ words offered some consolation to Ben. Joe had made it through some thick brush to the stream, so he must be able to walk at least. The question was: how much longer would Joe be able to stay on his feet?

“How old do you think these tracks are?” asked Ben.

“Hard to say, Pa,” Hoss answered, shaking his head. “There’s some leaves and sticks in the tracks. Couple of hours old, I’d say, maybe more.”

Pulling his gun from his holster, Ben fired twice into the air. He stood and listened for any kind of response, but heard nothing.

“Come on, boys,” Ben said, his voice tinged with anxiety. “Let’s follow these tracks.”

***********

Hearing the distant sound of gunfire, Joe struggled to a sitting position and looked around, He tried to figure out from which direction he had heard the sound. He was confused by the noise, wondering who would be shooting out here in the middle of nowhere.

Hunters, he thought, and maybe help. Wearily, Joe pulled himself to his feet and looked around again. He had no idea from which direction the shots had come. He was trying to spot any sign of movement, any sign of the hunters. But the bushes around him were still.

Briefly, Joe thought about going to look for the hunters. But he had no idea where they were. He could wander for hours, maybe days, and not find them. He decided it was best to stick to his plan and head for Sam Carter’s place.

Once more, Joe tried to get his bearings. He realized the ground was beginning to slope upwards. He thought he was at the base of the mountain but the territory didn’t look familiar. Joe figured he might be too far south.

Gritting his teeth at the agony caused by the movement, Joe started walking. He had gone only about five yards when he spotted the blueberry bush. Rushing forward, Joe began pulling the berries off their stems and cramming the fruit into his mouth, grateful for the liquid and the nourishment. He stood eating berries until there virtually none left on the bush.

With a quick movement, Joe wiped his hand across his mouth to erase the traces of berry juice, and then rubbed the hand on the leg of his pants to dry it. He felt a bit better now that he had something in his stomach. He smiled ruefully as he thought about how he must look. His left shoulder and arm were stained with blood, his pants had berry juice rubbed into the leg, and his shirt was damp with sweat. His face was dirty and covered with the stubble of a beard, the result of three days on the trail. Joe decided he must look like the worst bum he had ever seen in Virginia City. He wondered if Sam Carter would even recognize him.

Determined to keep going until he reached the trapper’s cabin, Joe started walking again. He spotted an opening in the trees and recognized it as a hunter’s path — a trail, Joe guessed, that would lead him to Sam’s cabin. He felt a sense of satisfaction as he turned and started up the pathway. He hadn’t missed it by much. Pretty good, he thought to himself.

The surge of energy Joe felt was short lived, though. As he started up the trail, his shoulder began to throb, and his legs started to feel shaky. The sweat was streaming down his face and back again. He began to feel weak and tired once more.

Stopping, Joe looked ahead of him. The trail snaked through the trees and climbed upward; he had a long way to go to get to Sam’s place. Joe realized the sky was darkening, and soon it would be night. He knew he couldn’t get to the cabin before dark, and didn’t think it was a good idea to try to follow the path at night. Besides, he was tired, more tired than he could ever remember. Joe decided he needed to find a place to spend the night.

Slowly, Joe climbed up the trail, barely able to walk. His eyes were beginning to close, and he knew he had to stop soon. As he trod almost mechanically along the path, Joe spotted some pine branches lying on the ground. The needles were still green, evidence that the branches had only recently fallen. Looking ahead into the dusk, Joe could see the trail in front of him wound through an open stretch of ground. He had no desire to spend the night out in the open, with no protection from the cool air and the predatory animals that might be around. Joe stumbled over toward the branches and saw a huge boulder a short distance away. A small ledge, about waist high, was near the base of the rock, as if part if the boulder had split off. Grabbing the branches with his good arm, Joe dragged them behind him toward the rock. He climbed up onto the ledge and pulled the pine branches over him. Almost immediately, he fell into an exhausted sleep.

***********

Ben was in the lead as the three Cartwrights rode slowly, following Joe’s tracks. He chafed at the slow pace, but the tracks were barely visible. He knew if they rode any faster, they might lose sight of the footprints.

Bent over in the saddle, Ben peered at the ground. The sun was starting to set, and he was finding it hard to see the tracks as the light faded. Finally, he stopped his horse and dismounted. He crouched down on the ground, looking for footprints.

“Pa, I think we ought to stop here for the night,” Hoss said from atop his horse.

Ben whirled to look at his son. “No, we’ve got to keep going,” he insisted.

“Hoss is right,” Adam declared as he leaned forward in his saddle. “It’s getting dark. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to see anything.”

“Let’s make some torches,” suggested Ben. “That should help.”

“Pa, Joe’s probably hole up someplace for the night,” Hoss pointed out. “In country like this, we could ride right by him in the dark.”

“We can’t stop,” Ben repeated, his voice betraying his worry. “Joe could be badly hurt. We have to find him!”

“We will, Pa,” agreed Adam. “But we have to do this the right way. Let’s camp here and as soon as it’s light, we can start out again. We’ll probably find him in the morning.”

Standing in the darkening woods, Ben knew Adam and Hoss were right, but he hated to stop. He knew Joe was in trouble, and he was desperate to get to his youngest son. Ben looked around, trying to spot some sign of Joe. He shouted Joe’s name several times, and listened hard for some type of response. All he heard was the twittering of birds in the trees.

Suddenly, Ben’s shoulders slumped. “All right,” he said in a low voice. “We’ll stop here for the night.”

An hour later, the woods were pitch dark except for the light coming from the campfire that the Cartwrights had built. Standing a few feet from the fire, Ben peered out into the darkness. Hoss and Adam were crouched near the fire, and Adam poured some coffee from a pot on the edge of the fire into a battered old cup. He stood and walked over to Ben, then handed the cup to his father. Ben nodded his thanks with a distracted air, and continued to stare out into the woods.

“Pa, Joe knows how to take care of himself,” Adam observed in a soothing voice. “You taught him just like you taught Hoss and me.”

“That’s right,” added Hoss from the fire. “And Adam and me probably taught him a few things even you didn’t know.”

Smiling, Ben sipped his coffee. “You probably did,” he agreed. “Joe once told me that he had three fathers when he was growing up, and all three of them showed him different things.”

“I’m not sure he always appreciated having three fathers,” remarked Adam with a grin. “Especially when he got into trouble.”

The howl of a coyote suddenly split the night. The single howl was echoed by two more howls further away.

Abruptly, Ben turned to Hoss. “I want you to build up that fire,” Ben ordered. “Make it a big one. And I want to be sure we keep it going strong all night.”

“Pa, those coyotes won’t bother us,” Hoss replied with a frown. “They’re out hunting for something that’s smaller or weaker than they are.”

“Or something that’s injured,” Ben added grimly.

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances.

“Let’s make the fire a big one,” Ben repeated. “If we can’t see Joe, maybe he’ll see us.”

Giving a quick nod, Hoss began adding wood to the blaze.

On the trail far above the camp, Joe slept on the ledge of the boulder. Exhausted by the pain and his journey through the wilderness, he never woke, never stirred. He never saw the light of the campfire flickering through the trees below him.

***********

The bright sun of morning shone on Joe’s face, waking him. Reluctantly, he left the comfort of unknowing sleep, and stirred to face the day. He groaned as he felt the shooting pains in his shoulder.

Slowly, Joe emerged from the warm cocoon of the pine branches, pushing the branches away as he sat up. Immediately, a wave of dizziness swept over him and Joe fell back to the ledge. He closed his eyes, trying to stop the spinning and the queasy feeling in his stomach. His head ached, and he knew he was feverish. The throbbing in shoulder seemed to get worse. Joe put his right hand on his shoulder and felt a wet stickiness. He pulled his hand back and saw it was stained with blood. The wound had broken open and was bleeding freely again.

Lying on the ledge with his eyes closed, Joe wondered if it was worth the effort to keep going. Maybe it was better to just lay here. Maybe it was better to just give up.

With a frown on his face, Joe shook himself mentally. The Cartwrights weren’t quitters, he told himself. He had to keep moving. He couldn’t just lay down and die.

Once again, Joe sat up, moving much more slowly this time. Swinging his legs over the edge of the ledge, he eased himself to the ground. He swayed as he tried to stand, and grabbed on to the ledge to steady himself. After a moment, he seemed to have his balance, and Joe started walking.

Joe had walked several feet before he realized that he had no idea where he was going. Stopping, he shook his head, trying to remember where he was suppose to go. His brain didn’t seem to be working right, and his thoughts were muddled. Joe looked up at the sun. West, he remember, he had to head west. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew that was the direction to go. He started walking slowly, making sure he kept the sun to his back.

Crossing the open ground, Joe saw the trail winding through the trees to his right. He knew he was suppose to follow that trail, but he couldn’t remember why. He was too tired to try to work it out in his mind. Instead, he simply shuffled over to the trail and started to follow it.

***********

Ben, Adam and Hoss were saddled and ready to ride as soon as the sun peaked over the horizon. They had taken turns sitting by the fire, feeding wood into the flames, so each man would have a chance to get a few hours of sleep. But the truth was, none of them had gotten much sleep. Each of the men spent the night worrying about Joe.

As soon as it was light enough to see, the riders searched for the tracks they had followed yesterday. Hoss spotted some footprints and the three men started slowly to follow the trail again.

The trio followed the footprints past a blueberry bush that was practically stripped of its fruit. They saw the footprints on the trail through the trees and rode slowly up the path. They stopped when the footprints seem to disappear from the trail.

Dismounting, Hoss crouched low to the ground. He studied the grass and then motioned for the others to follow him. Hoss walked slowly through the grass until he came to a large boulder. There was a small ledge at the base of the boulder, and two pine branches laid nearby.

“Looks like Joe spent the night here,” Hoss said pointing to the ledge. “Those tracks we were following were old. The ones leading away from here are fresh.”

Dismounting, Ben walked to the ledge. “He must have used the pine branches as a cover,” he mused. He stared at the ledge for a moment, then at the footprints that led away from it. Suddenly, Ben rushed back to his horse and mounted. “Come on,” he said quickly. “Let’s move!”

Adam was surprised at the urgency in his father’s voice. He looked at Hoss with a quizzical expression.

“There’s blood on the ledge,” Hoss explained in a low voice. “Joe’s bleeding again.”

***********

Joe walked stiffly along the trail, no longer knowing or caring where the path was leading him. The pain in his shoulder was almost unbearable and his head ached with fever. He was thirsty, and unbelievably tired. He kept walking because he knew if he stopped, he would never move again. And he knew he had to keep moving, although he was no longer sure why.

As Joe plodded slowly through the woods and up the slope, his walk became more of a shuffle, and he found it hard to keep on his feet. He neared the crest of the hill, took a few more steps and then simply crumpled to the ground.

Lying in the dirt, Joe was too tired to care what happened to him. All he wanted was to end the pain.

With his face resting on the ground, Joe heard a noise. As first he wasn’t sure what it was. He listened for a while before he decided it sounded like someone chopping wood. He raised his head and looked up the trail ahead of him. Joe blinked his eyes and shook his head. He wasn’t sure he believed what he saw. Over the crest of the hill, he could see the roof of a cabin.

Using almost the last of his strength, Joe struggled to his feet. As he stood, he could see more of the cabin up ahead. He began walking rapidly up the hill, a feeling of hope growing within him.

Walking with a shuffling gait, Joe followed the trail out of the trees and into a small clearing. Set in the middle of the clearing was a cabin with a cord of firewood stacked neatly by the front door. An ax was laid across the top of the wood pile and an empty corral stood a few feet to the right of the building. Joe could see smoke coming out of the chimney.

Joe stumbled across last few yards of the clearing, falling twice as he made his way toward the cabin. He knew his strength was almost gone. He struggled to his feet each time he fell, trying to reach the cabin before he collapsed for good. When he finally reached the building, his body crashed against the wall next to the door. Joe raised his right hand and rapped his knuckles on the door.

When the door opened a few seconds later, a big man in his forties, with a red beard and hair and wearing a checked shirt, stood in the entrance to the cabin. He looked at Joe in stunned silence, his eyes wide with surprise.

“Help me!” Joe gasped in a weak voice. Then his knees buckled, and he fell into the man’s arms.

***********

With Adam and Hoss close behind him, Ben followed the footprints from the ledge through the clearing and back onto the trail. He stopped when he could not longer see the tracks.

“This ground’s too hard to pick up prints,” Ben announced in a voice full of despair. He looked around, desperately hoping to find some sign of his youngest son. “Joe could be anywhere.”

Sitting on his horse, Adam looked off in the distance with a thoughtful expression on his face. “Pa, I don’t think Joe’s just wandering”

“What do you mean?” asked Hoss.

“Well, he kept heading west until he found this trail, and then he started following the trail,” explained Adam. “I don’t think Joe’s lost. I think he’s trying to get to someplace.”

“Where could he be heading?” asked Ben. “Where does this trail lead?”

“Sam’s cabin!” Hoss exclaimed in an excited voice. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. Joe’s trying to get to Sam Carter!”

“Are you sure?” asked Adam.

“Well, Sam’s cabin ain’t very far from here,” Hoss replied. “Joe and I stopped up there when we were hunting last spring. Joe knows he could get help there.”

“Let’s head for it,” urged Adam.

“Now wait a minute,” interjected Ben, frowning. “We don’t know for sure that’s where he’s headed. If we’re wrong, we could miss him. We could lose track of him completely.”

“Pa, I know that’s where’s he’s going,” insisted Hoss. “And even if he isn’t, we can get Sam to help us. He’s the best tracker around.”

“I agree with Hoss,” Adam added. “If Joe needs help, he knows Sam’s is the closest place to get it.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, still not convinced. “Let’s head for Sam Carter’s place. If Joe’s not there, we’ll come back here and start looking again.

Kicking their horses into a fast trot, the Cartwrights headed up the dirt track, keeping their eyes peeled for any sign of Joe as they rode. If the youngest Cartwrights had collapsed along the trail, they didn’t want to ride by him. But the riders saw no sign of Joe.

As Ben, Adam and Hoss pulled their horses to a halt near the cabin, a big man with red hair and a red beard was walking out the door, carrying a bucket. Ben jumped down from his horse and rushed forward “Sam, have you seen Joe?” he asked in a breathless voice. “He’s hurt and we think he’s heading in this direction.”

For a moment, Sam Carter just stared in surprise at the white haired man in front of him, then he slowly nodded. “He’s inside, Ben.”

Brushing past the trapper, Ben ran into the cabin, with Hoss, Adam, and Carter following closely.

Pausing for a moment, Ben looked around the inside the wooded building. To his left, he could see a fireplace and a table with several chairs. To his right was a wide bed, piled high with blankets. Ben let out a sigh of both relief and concern as he stared at the bed.

With thick blankets covering him up to his chest, Joe laid unmoving in the bed. His shirt had been replaced by white bandages, wrapped around his left shoulder then across his chest and around his waist. A thick pad lay across his shoulder, held in place by the network of bandages. Joe’s pale skin was covered with a fine sheen of sweat, and his breathing was rapid and shallow. His eyes were closed, and dark rings of exhaustion circled them.

Almost in a daze, Ben moved slowly across the cabin. He eased himself down on the edge of the bed and slowly stroked Joe’s arm. Adam and Hoss stood behind him, next to Carter, and the trio watched as a father tried to comfort his injured son.

“Where did you find him?” asked Adam quietly.

“I didn’t,” answered Carter. “He found me. Knocked on the door, polite as you please, and then just fell into my arms.”

“How bad is he hurt?” asked Ben as he examined the bandages.

“He’s got a bullet hole in his shoulder,” replied the trapper. “Bullet went straight through. Must have happened awhile ago, because the wound was festering. I cleaned it out as best I could, then put a poultice on it to draw out the poison.” Carter turned to Hoss. “Joe never said a word. What happened to him, do you know?”

“He got bushwhacked yesterday up by Benson’s Pass,” Hoss answered grimly.

“Benson’s Pass?” Carter said in surprise. “You mean he made it all the way from Benson’s Pass to here with a bullet hole in his shoulder?”

“Yes,” acknowledged Adam. “It was quite a trek.”

Ignoring the talk going on around him, Ben stroked Joe’s forehead. “He’s burning up with fever,” he murmured in a worried voice.

“I was just heading up to the creek to get some cold water when you fellows rode in,” explained Carter, holding the pail up.

Hoss snatched the bucket from the trapper’s hand. “I’ll go fill it,” he offered and walked rapidly from the room.

**********

Joe heard voices, some close and some far away. He struggled to open his eyes, and managed to lift his eyelids a bit. His father’s face faded in and out of focus in front of him, but when he tried to lift his head to talk, Joe found he didn’t have the strength. He saw faces in the distance, but they too seemed out of focus. Joe groaned and shuddered as a wave of pain seemed to radiate from his shoulder and through his body. Closing his eyes, he collapsed back on the bed as the now familiar curtain of darkness descended again.

************

Still stroking his son’s arm, Ben saw Joe open his eyes and struggle to lift his head. He heard the groan escape from his son’s lips and felt him shudder. A stab of fear raced through Ben’s heart as Joe seemed to fall limply back on the bed. He quickly put his ear to Joe’s chest and was relieved to hear a rapid heartbeat. Abruptly, Ben sat up and turned to Adam. “He needs a doctor.” Adam nodded and started for the door.

“It’ll take you most of the day to get to Virginia City and back,” Carter called to Adam’s retreating back.

“I’ll cut some time off of that,” promised Adam over his shoulder as he rushed out the door. A minute later, the sound of a galloping horse echoed through the cabin.

A few minutes later, Hoss walked into the cabin, sloshing water from the full bucket in his hand. He carried the pail to the bed and poured some of the liquid into a bowl on a small table next to the bed. Immediately, Ben grabbed a towel that laid next to the bowl and plunged it into the cold water. He twisted the cloth above the bowl, wringing out the excess water, and turned back to Joe.

“Adam go for the doc?” asked Hoss as he watched Ben wipe Joe’s face and chest with the damp cloth. Ben just nodded in reply.

Once more, Ben dipped the cloth into the bowl and twisted out the dripping water. He placed the damp cloth across Joe’s forehead. Then he stood slowly.

“All we can do now is wait,” Ben said to Hoss. He put his hand on his middle son’s shoulder. “I want you to ride back to Benson’s Pass and tell Roy Coffee that we found Joe.”

“Pa, don’t you think I ought to stay here?” asked Hoss. His voice implied he was less than willing to leave his injured brother.

“Hoss, there’s a posse of men searching through some pretty rough country, looking for Joe,” replied Ben. “I don’t want to take the chance that someone could be hurt for no reason. We need to tell Roy to call off the search.”

“All right,” agreed Hoss reluctantly. “I’ll go, but I’ll back as soon as I can.”

Ben patted his middle son on the shoulder. “We’ll be here,” he promised. “All of us.”

************

Joe felt the cold water on his face and chest. He wasn’t sure where it came from but was grateful for the coolness. He felt hot, uncomfortably hot. He wondered if he should try to open his eyes again, but decided he was too tired. All he wanted to do was slip back into that black void again. Back to where there was no pain, no need to struggle. He let the darkness wash over him once more.

***********

The hours passed slowly for Ben as he sat by his youngest son’s bed. He wiped the sweat from his son’s face, and tried to cool his burning fever with the cold water, as well as force some water into Joe’s mouth. Ben was aware of Carter moving around the cabin but his attention was focused on Joe. He felt rather than saw Carter come up next to him.

“I thought I’d put a fresh poultice on that wound,” said Carter, holding a cloth in his hand.

When he saw the cloth covered with a pasty green mixture, Ben frowned. “What is it?”

“It’s made out of moss and some herbs,” answered Carter. “An old Shoshone medicine man showed me how to make it. I’ve seen it work.” Carter could tell that Ben was reluctant to let him put the poultice on. “Ben, you know I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt that boy,” he added quietly.

Nodding, Ben watched as Carter slowly unwound the bandages from Joe’s shoulder. He winced as he saw the wound on his son’s body. A dark scab was beginning to form, but streaks of red still radiated from wound. Carter laid the poultice over the scab and gently wrapped Joe’s shoulder again.

“He’s going to be all right, Ben,” advised Carter in a soothing voice as he stepped back from the bed. “You wait and see. He’s a strong kid. He’d have to be, to make it all the way from Benson’s Pass to here in the shape he was in.”

“That’s what worries me,” said Ben.

“What do you mean?” asked Carter

“It took a lot for him to reach this cabin,” answered Ben. “He must have used just about every ounce of strength he had. I just wonder how much he’s got left.”

“He’s a fighter, Ben,” offered Carter.

“Yes, but does he have anything left to fight with?” asked Ben.

************

Joe struggled out of the darkness once more. He could hear voices but couldn’t make sense of the words. He felt something cold and wet being placed on his shoulder, and felt the bandages being wrapped around it. Almost immediately, he felt a burning sensation in his shoulder. He wanted to tell the voices to help him, to do something to ease the pain, but he couldn’t seem to talk or move. He felt so tired, too tired to even try. It was easy just to slip back into the darkness.

************

It was mid-afternoon when Ben heard the horses outside. He walked expectantly to the door, but was disappointed to see Hoss and Roy Coffee coming toward him. He had hoped Adam and the doctor would be back by now.

“How is he?” asked Hoss, his voice filled with fear.

“About the same,” answered Ben almost sadly. “His fever’s still very high and he hasn’t regained consciousness.”

“He didn’t say anything about what happened?” asked Coffee.

“No, he hasn’t been able to say anything,” Ben replied.

“We sent the posse back to Virginia City,” the sheriff explained. “I thought I’d better come back with Hoss and talk to Joe.”

“Has Adam gotten back with the doctor yet?” asked Hoss.

Ben just shook his head. He turned and walked slowly back to the bed.

With sharp attention, Sam Carter had been watching the scene from the fireplace. Now he motioned to the two men by the door. “Come on over and have a cup of coffee, boys.”

For a moment, Hoss and the sheriff stood still, uncertain about what to do. Finally, Coffee shrugged and walked over to sit at the table near the fireplace. Sighing, Hoss followed.

Over another hour passed before the men in the cabin heard the sound of horses again. Once more, Ben rushed to look out the door, and this time was rewarded by the sight of Adam and Doctor Martin dismounting from their horses. The doctor had a small black bag clutched in his hand.

“Paul, thank you for coming,” said Ben as he held open the door.

“Sorry it took so long, Ben,” answered the doctor as he brushed past. “I’m not much of a horseman.”

Standing in the doorway, Adam asked, “How is Joe doing?” Ben just shook his head in response. As he walked into the cabin, Adam was surprised to see Hoss and Roy Coffee sitting with Sam Carter around the table near the fireplace. He moved to join them, his face reflecting the worry that was evident on the other men’s faces.

For almost an hour, Doctor Martin worked on Joe. He carefully cleaned out the wound, and poured medicine over the injury. He forced medicine from another bottle down Joe’s throat, and wiped his patient’s face and neck with cold water. Joe groaned a few times as the doctor ministered to him but never woke.

Finally, the doctor stood and stepped back from the bed. “I’ve done everything I can,” announced Dr. Martin as Ben anxiously looked at him. “That wound is badly infected. The medicine will help, but I’m really relying on his constitution to fight off the infection.” The doctor turned to the men who were watching from the table. “What was that poultice?” he asked.

“Moss and herbs, an old Indian remedy,” answered Carter.

“Well, I don’t know if it helped any,” observed the doctor, “but it sure didn’t make things worse. The infection is bad, but not as bad as I would have thought for a two-day old bullet wound.”

“What now?” asked Ben, his voice betraying the dread he felt.

“Now we give him a dose of medicine every two hours and wait,” replied Dr. Martin. “It’s up to Joe now.”

**********

Joe felt the darkness fading around him. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he knew he no longer wanted to sink back into the void. The pain wasn’t gone but it had abated considerably. He still felt tired, but not the bone-deep exhaustion of before. Even the uncomfortable heat seemed to have eased a bit. Joe wondered about the voices he had heard and the faces he had seen. Where had they gone? It was so quiet. He decided to rest a bit. In a while, he would look for the faces. Not yet, but soon.

***********

The light of the early dawn streamed through the windows of the cabin, brightening the interior. Men were sprawled throughout the cabin, almost all of them asleep. Sam Carter and Roy Coffee were in chairs next to table, gently snoring while their heads resting on the flat surface of the table. Adam and Hoss were stretched out on the floor near the fireplace, also asleep. Eyes closed, Dr. Martin sat in a chair at the end of the bed, his elbow resting on the edge of the mattress and his hand propping up his head. Only Ben, sitting on a chair near the top of the bed, seemed awake. He had dozed a few times during the night, but now felt alert. He anxiously watched Joe for some sign of movement.

During the evening and early part of the night, the cabin had been filled with a flurry of activity. Ben and the doctor had spent the time dosing Joe with medicine, changing his bandage, and forcing watery broth down his throat. Hoss and Adam had continually gone out for wood and kept the fire roaring. Sam Carter and Roy Coffee made pot after pot of coffee, as well as cooked a meal of stew for the hungry men. Hoss had heated more broth for Joe while Adam had washed plates and cups. The night had been full of actions which were both designed to help Joe as well as keep the worried men busy. Only when no one could think of anything else to do had the men settled down for a few hours sleep.

As Ben’s eyes scanned his youngest son once more, he felt a bit of hope. He thought Joe’s color looked better, his breathing seemed less labored. Even the fine sheen of perspiration he had washed away several times seemed to be gone. But Joe continued to lay unmoving, still as a statue on the bed. Ben wondered if he really saw some improvement or was just seeing what he wanted.

Rubbing his eyes, Ben looked around the room at the sleeping men. He was deciding whether to make a pot of coffee when he heard a rustle from the bed. He turned to see a pair of green eyes staring up at him.

“Doc!” Ben shouted as he jumped up from the chair. “He’s awake!”

The men in the cabin seemed to rise all at once and rush to the bed. Dr. Martin quickly moved to the front of the men and sat on the edge of the bed. Joe’s eyes followed the movement.

Pulling the tubes his stethoscope from around his neck, Dr. Martin put them into his ears. He placed the far end of the instrument on Joe’s chest and listened carefully. Then he put his hand gently on Joe’s forehead. With a smile, the doctor removed the tubes from his ears and turned to the anxious group of men hovering behind him. “His fever’s broken,” he announced. “He’s going to be all right.”

Whooping loudly, Hoss slapped Adam on the back while the sheriff and Carter just grinned. “I told you that little cuss would be all right,” declared Hoss happily.

Smiling, the doctor turned back to Joe. “Well, young man, you’ve attracted quite a crowd. What do you have to say for yourself?” asked Martin.

A weak grin appeared on Joe’s face. “I always like a good audience,” he replied in a soft voice. The men around the bed laughed.

Eyes darting back and forth, Joe searched the sea of faces in front of him. “Pa?” he asked in a faint voice.

Pushing forward, Ben sat next to the doctor on the edge of the bed. “I’m here,” Ben answered in a soothing voice.

“Pa, this fellow jumped me,” Joe explained weakly. “He took my horse and the money.”

Gently, Ben patted Joe’s hand. “Don’t worry about that,” he told his son. “We’ve got that man locked up in the Virginia City jail.”

“You do?” said Joe in a puzzled tone.

“Sure,” stated Adam, standing at the end of the bed. “How do you think we knew to go tromping through the woods looking for you?”

“You were looking for me?” Joe asked, his confusion growing.

“You bet,” answered Hoss. “We were about two hours behind you all the way to Sam’s cabin here.”

A look of satisfaction crossed Joe’s face as his eyes scanned the room. “Sam’s cabin,” he repeated softly. “I made it. I made it all the way.”

“You sure did,” advised Carter with a grin.

Smiling weakly, Joe looked at the trapper. “Sorry to drop in on you like this,” he said to Carter. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

“Proud you thought of me, boy,” Carter replied gruffly.

“I think that’s enough talking for now,” the doctor ordered firmly. “He needs some rest and then some solid food. He won’t get either with all of you hanging around him.”

“Yeah,” agreed Joe as he closed his eyes and settled back into the bed. “It’s awfully crowded in here.”

The men chuckled as they turned from the bed. Ben grabbed the doctor’s arm and pulled him aside. “You’re sure he’s going to be all right?” asked Ben softly.

“He’ll be fine,” Dr. Martin reassured him. “You Cartwrights are too tough to kill.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Ben closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them to look at the doctor. “How soon can we take him home?” he asked.

Dr. Martin thought for a few minutes before replying. “It’ll be at least a week before he’s strong enough to sit a horse. If you take things real slow, you should be able to get him home then.”

Nodding, Ben turned to Carter. “Looks like you’re going to be stuck with Joe and me for awhile, Sam,” Ben advised.

“Happy to have you,” Carter answered.

During the rest of the morning, the doctor alternated between looking after Joe and showing Ben how to care for his son. In between brief naps, Joe talked with Roy Coffee, describing the man who had bushwhacked him and confirming they had the right man in jail. Dr. Martin left about noon, asking Roy Coffee to guide him back to Virginia City. “Adam led me on such a wild ride up here that I don’t think I could ever find my way back on my own,” the doctor complained.

Assured that Joe was going to be fine and they weren’t needed, Adam and Hoss left a few hours later. “Somebody’s got to look after the ranch,” Ben advised his older sons. The two were reluctant to leave but eventually conceded they could be of more help back at the Ponderosa than sitting around the cabin.

“Yeah, and don’t forget to do my chores for me,” Joe had mumbled in a weak voice from the bed as Adam and Hoss got ready to go. That was all the reassurance his older brothers had needed to know that Joe was on the mend.

***********

For the next week, Ben and his friend Sam Carter looked after Joe. The first few days were easy; Joe slept most of the time, and did what he was told. The next few days were tougher. As Joe felt increasingly stronger, the two men had a hard time keeping him in bed. Only Ben’s threats and Carter’s uncompromising glare kept the young man from ignoring their orders to rest on the soft mattress. Joe had felt like cheering when the two older men had finally let him get up and get dressed at least for a few hours each day. Being able finally to sit at the table for a meal felt like a winning a battle for the youngest Cartwright. When he was allowed outside briefly to get some sun, Joe felt that he had won the war.

Ten days after the shooting, Adam and Hoss once again rode out of the woods toward Carter’s cabin. Leading a pinto horse and a mule carrying a heavy load, they stopped their horses in front of the cabin.

Bathed in sunlight, Joe was sitting on a log at the front of the cabin, his back resting against the wall. He was wearing a plaid shirt that was obviously too big for him; the tail of the shirt almost reached the knees of his stretched out legs. His left arm was resting in a dark sling and his battered hat was pulled low, covering his face.

“Don’t it figure, Adam,” observed Hoss with a grin as leaned forward on his horse. “Joe’s out here sunning himself while Pa and Sam are doing all the work.”

“He does look awfully natural, just sitting around doing nothing,” Adam agreed with a smile.

“I’ll lay odds you two haven’t done much work while Pa’s been gone,” offered a voice from under Joe’s hat.

Slowly, Joe pushed his hat back from his face with the index finger of his right hand. “Have you got all my chores done?” he asked.

“Little brother, we wouldn’t want to deny you that fun,” replied Hoss with a smile as he dismounted. “We’re saving ‘em all up for you.”

“Figures,” grumbled Joe.

Just then, Ben came around from the back of the cabin carrying a load of wood, followed by Carter who was toting a pail of water.

“See, I told you Sam and Pa were doing all the work,” Hoss remarked.

Dropping the load of wood near the cabin, Ben walked over to his older sons. “Adam, Hoss,” he greeted them warmly. “What are you doing here?”

“We figured Sam would have had his fill of Joe by now,” answered Adam. “And the doctor said he should be ready to travel. So we came to get you.”

Setting the pail of water on the ground, Carter strolled over to join the group. He looked at the mule standing a few feet behind the horses. “You fellows figuring to go home by way of Oregon?” he asked.

“No,” Hoss replied with a smile. “This is for you, Sam. We figured the least we could do is replace all the supplies that Joe and Pa must have eaten up. And since we don’t really need a mule, you can have him, too.”

Surprised, Carter looked at the small, sturdy animal and the large load. “There’s enough supplies there for a year!” he exclaimed. “Your Pa and brother didn’t eat that much!”

“Just our way of saying thanks,” Adam said.

“You don’t have to do that,” insisted Carter. “I don’t expect no thanks.”

Getting to his feet slowly, Joe walked over to the man. “Sam, I owe you a lot. If you hadn’t been here, I probably wouldn’t have made it,” he pointed out. “This isn’t near thanks enough.”

“I agree,” added Ben. “I only wish we could offer you more.”

Looking to the ground, Carter turned red with embarrassment. “Well, I’ll take these things off your hands,” he agreed in a gruff voice. “Just so you don’t the trouble of taking ‘em back.” Looking up, he grinned at the Cartwrights. “And it’s my turn to say thanks.”

While Adam saddled his father’s horse in the corral, Ben gathered his things in the cabin. He came out of the building as Adam was leading the buckskin from the corral into the yard. With a small smile, Ben noted Hoss was helping Joe onto the pinto. “Now, we’re going to go real slow, you hear, Joe,” Hoss was ordering his brother sternly. “I’m not stopping to pick you up off the trail if you fall.” Joe grinned and nodded his understanding.

Quickly, Ben threw his saddlebags over the back of this horse and tied them with a leather thong. As he and Adam also mounted their horses, Carter walked over to the men on horseback to say goodbye.

“When you get to feeling better, Joe, you come back up here,” Carter invited. “There’s some real fine hunting left in these hills.”

“I think it’s going to be a while before we let this young man go off on his own,” said Ben.

“Aw, Pa, it wasn’t my fault,” Joe protested.

“No, but you sure seem to have a nose for getting in trouble, little brother,” observed Adam. “I think we’d better keep an eye on you for a while.”

“Don’t worry, Sam,” Joe said, winking at the trapper. “I’ll be back in the spring.”

“Come on, boys, let’s head for home before he gets any ideas,” Ben ordered in mock despair. Giving a nod of farewell to Carter, he turned his horse and started down the trail. With a wave to the trapper standing nearby, Adam followed his father. Hoss let Joe go next, then brought up the rear of the line of riders, touching the brim of his hat in salute at Carter as he passed the trapper.

As the Cartwrights rode single file back into the woods, Joe looked around at the rough country surrounding them. He had a hard time believing he had actually made it through this wilderness to Sam’s cabin. Admittedly, he didn’t remember everything that happened after the shooting, but he did remember that awful darkness, those terrible descents into a void of nothingness. Joe shuddered slightly. He didn’t know exactly what that darkness was but he was sure he never wanted to experience it again. All he wanted to think about now was going home.

Home…where there was always a light waiting for him. A small smile crossed Joe’s face as he lifted his head toward the sun.

*****End*****

 

3 thoughts on “The Darkness (by Susan G)”

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