Summary: After receiving a surprise invitation to the governor’s inaugural ball, Ben soon discovers that he has more to fear than just the governor’s intentions.
Rated: T (9,400 words)
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
“The new governor is coming to Virginia City?” Adam repeated, sounding surprised. “Isn’t that kind of risky?”
“I would have thought so,” Ben agreed. “He didn’t make himself very popular here in the run-up to the election.”
“What does it have to do with us?” asked Joe, his youngest son.
Ben brandished the letter he had in his hand. “We’ve been invited to the meal and ball.”
“I hope you have a nice time,” Joe commented. He started to pull his jacket back on, in preparation for going back to work.
“No, Joe, you don’t understand,” Ben corrected him. “The invitation is for all of us: you, me, Adam and Hoss.”
“Why us, Pa?” Hoss, the middle son asked. “We ain’t never met him.”
Shrugging, Ben replied, “I don’t know, Hoss. All I can tell you is that the invitation mentions us all by name.” He held out an engraved card for Hoss’ perusal.
Crowding in close, Adam and Joe read over Hoss’ shoulder.
The Governor of the Territory of Nevada
Requests the Pleasure of the Company of
Mr. Benjamin Cartwright
Mr. Adam Cartwright
Mr. Erik Cartwright
Mr. Joseph Cartwright
on November 21, 1860
At the International House Hotel
Virginia City 8 pm for 8:30 pm
“Oh look!” Joe cried, “You’re gettin’ your Sunday name, Hoss!”
“And you’re getting your ‘in trouble’ name,” Adam joked right back.
“Are we gonna go?” Hoss asked.
Frowning, Ben took the card back and looked at it as though he would find the answer to Hoss’ question there. “I don’t know,” he replied, honestly.
Exchanging glances with his brothers, Adam found he had been elected spokesperson for all three of them. It was a pity, because he knew that Hoss would rather stay at home, whereas Joe was desperate to go. Adam could see both their points of view, but he sided with Joe this time. Giving Hoss an apologetic look, he said, “What have we got to lose by going, Pa?”
Looking up, Ben accurately read each son’s face. “Nothing, I guess,” he admitted. “All right, we’ll go.”
“All right!” Joe exclaimed, and slapped Hoss on the back. “Do I gotta call you Erik all night, Hoss?”
“Only if ya wanta die,” Hoss told his brother, grabbing him by the collar and holding him an inch or so off the floor.
“Put me down!” Joe cried, struggling to get free. “Hoss! You big lug! Put me down!”
Smiling, Ben went back to his desk, hearing the thud as Hoss let go of Joe. But he wondered why the new governor wanted all four of the Cartwrights at the ball.
Over the course of the next few days, Ben did his best to find out. He discreetly sounded out his friends to discover who else had invitations. Roy Coffee had received an invitation, but wasn’t planning to go. Paul Martin, the town doctor, had also received one and hoped to be there, depending on the medical emergencies of the day. Several other of the Cattleman’s Association had also been invited and were going. Ben acted as though he had just been curious, but he was still uneasy. Everyone who had been invited had opposed the governor’s election.
Had Ben not known the governor very well, he would not have been so suspicious. As it was, Ben had clashed heads with Seymour Dawson several times while he was still just a town councilor and his heart had sunk into his boots when he learned that Dawson had won the election. During his campaign, he had offended a great many people by branding Virginia City ‘an ignorant backwater, filled with stupid yokels’.
But that wasn’t Ben’s only complaint against the new governor. He knew that as a business man, Dawson had been less than honest in some of his dealings. Ben couldn’t prove it, but he suspected that he had used sharp practices to force one or two of his competitors out of business. Certainly, the few dealings that Ben had had with him had always involved a very close eye being kept on the details. The mistrust between the two men went very deep.
Yet Ben hesitated to believe that Dawson had some nefarious deed in mind. Perhaps he just wanted to apologies to everyone. Shaking his head, Ben realized that he had no clue as to why Dawson was hosting this ball, to which he had agreed to go, complete with all his sons. It was too late to back out now, he reflected. He would just have to stay alert. The thought didn’t alleviate his unease.
November 21st dawned wet and raw, and as the day progressed, the rain turned first to sleet, then to snow. There were always fewer chores to be done on the ranch in winter, and so the Cartwrights were able to quit working at noon without feeling they were losing most of a day. Hop Sing had water heating so they could all bathe and they were ready to leave for the town in plenty of time.
It was clearly going to be a late night, so Ben had reserved a suite of rooms for them for the night. Arriving shortly after 6pm, they had plenty of time to get changed into their dress suits. By 7, Joe was putting the last touches to his hair, Hoss was looking as if he wished he were anywhere else on earth and Adam, dressed and ready, was deep in a book.
There was a knock at the door and a bellhop handed Ben a note. Giving the boy a tip, Ben read the note in growing astonishment and apprehension. “What is it, Pa?” Adam asked, looking up from his reading.
“Seymour Dawson wants me to go to his suite for a few minutes before the ball starts,” Ben replied. “I wonder what he wants.”
“Are you going?” Joe asked, seeing the frown that marred his father’s face.
“Well, I’d better, I suppose,” Ben answered. “Having accepted his invitation to the ball, it would be rude to refuse.” He picked up his suit jacket and began to shrug into it.
“I’ll come with you,” offered Adam.
“You don’t need to,” Ben replied.
“I know I don’t, but I’d like to,” Adam assured him.
“We’ll meet you in the reception room, Pa,” Joe told him.
“All right,” Ben agreed. He nodded to Adam, who also had on his suit jacket and the pair of them left the room.
Hoss sighed, gloomily. “I sure hope there’s some good picking’s at this meal,” he muttered. “Its bin a long time since lunch an’ I’m getting’ plumb puny.”
As always when faced with a social occasion, Joe’s excitement was palpable, and he had Hoss persuaded into going to the reception room by 7:45. There were a few people there already and a man servant handed them each a glass of sparkling wine.
Seeing that there were place cards set out, Joe made it his business to discover where each of them was sitting, finding that they were scattered up the length of the table. Hoss looked disappointed. He examined the names of the ladies that were sitting on either side of him and made a face. Both of them were old enough to be his mother!
“Ah, cheer up!” Joe cajoled him. “The menu looks good.” He directed Hoss’ attention to the printed menu and laughed cheerfully as his brother began to peruse it with interest. He drifted back towards the door to wait for his father and brother to appear.
“Ben!” Seymour Dawson rose to his feet as Ben and Adam were admitted into his rooms and hurried over to shake hands. “It’s been a while.”
“Seymour,” Ben returned.
“Sit down,” Dawson invited, gesturing to a plush sofa. “Brandy?” He poured three glasses without waiting for an answer.
Exchanging a glance with Adam, Ben saw that his son had noticed the same thing he had; Dawson was unaccountably nervous. As Ben accepted the brandy glass, he saw that his host’s hand was trembling. He raised the glass in a silent toast and took a sip.
The liquid burned a path down to his stomach and there lit a fire. Ben savored the after taste. “You keep a good brandy,” he offered.
“Thank you,” Dawson murmured. He gulped his one down, far too fast and poured another. Both Ben and Adam demurred. “Ben, you’ll be wondering why I asked you here,” he blurted.
“I am curious,” Ben admitted.
“I… I wanted to apologies,” Dawson stuttered. “I know you won’t believe me, but I do.” He met Ben’s eyes. “Ben, when I ran for governor, I didn’t give a thought to anyone else. I just wanted the job. I said whatever I thought people wanted to hear. And here I am, about to host my inaugural ball. But I had a small problem with my heart last month, and there’s nothing like heart pain to make a man repent of his sinful past! The doctors tell me I’m fine, but what do they know? I have to make amends, Ben, and this is the best way I know how. Tonight, I want to get up in front of the good people of this town and beg their forgiveness.” He raked a hand through his hair. “I’ve invited everyone I’ve wronged. But I wanted to talk to you first, so that you would know that this isn’t just another stunt.”
“Go on,” Ben urged.
“You and I have crossed swords on a number of occasions, and I have to be honest; I often said the opposite to you just to annoy you. I thought you had far too much influence on the other members of the town council and I didn’t feel that it was right that you had an equal voice to the others and you didn’t even live in town!” He waved away the remark that Ben began to make. “Oh, I know, you don’t have to say it! I was being childish. But I was jealous of you, Ben! Look at you! You’re successful, happy, you have three wonderful sons. How could I not be jealous of you? But, I’ve grown out of that. I also want tonight to announce my engagement! See? Love and sickness. The two most powerful things in the world.”
“I’m very happy for you,” Ben replied. He glanced again at Adam and wished that his son’s face wasn’t so unreadable.
“But do you believe me?” Dawson demanded. “Do you believe I’m sorry?”
“Yes,” Ben admitted. “Yes, Seymour, I do believe you.”
With a relieved sigh, Dawson slumped bonelessly in his seat. “Thank God,” he said, simply. After a moment, he sat up straighter and caught Ben’s eye again. “There’s something else.”
“I thought there might be,” Adam remarked.
“I guess I deserve that,” Dawson sighed, and Adam wished he’d kept his observation to himself.
Giving Adam a scorching look for his lack of manners, Ben urged, “Go on.”
“I’ve had death threats,” he whispered. “I’m scared. I had hoped that I could ask you to keep an eye on Belinda – my fiancée – for me this evening. If anything happened to her…” His voice trailed off miserably.
“We’ll do anything we can,” soothed Ben.
“Thank you,” breathed Dawson. “Thank you. I’ve arranged to meet Belinda downstairs. Shall we go, gentlemen?”
Finishing off their brandy, they rose to their feet and left the room.
From his post just inside the door, Joe watched as Hoss made polite conversation with the people who had already arrived. Doctor Paul Martin was there, talking to the Edwards, who ran a dry goods store. Their ‘old maid’ daughter was making eyes at Hoss, who was trying to escape her clutches and simultaneously keep an eye on the canapés that were being circulated by a waiter. Hoss’ obvious disappointment when he first caught sight of the size of the canapés had Joe chortling quietly to himself yet.
A young lady with jet black hair had entered the room a few minutes before, and although Joe had smiled warmly in her direction, she had done no more than nod at him. A moment or two later, Joe saw the ring sparkling on her left hand and realized that there was no point in pursuing her any further.
Behind Joe, the door opened again and a shot splintered the air. There was a horrified scream from the ladies present, and Joe instinctively ducked, reaching for a gun that was lying upstairs, in the suite. But before he could move, a hand snaked around his neck and a gun barrel – still warm from the shot – was pressed against his head. “Nobody move!” a voice ordered.
Gasping for breath as the arm tightened around his wind pipe, Joe reached up to try and pull the arm away. His hands had barely reached their target when a second gun crashed down across his knuckles. Joe’s right hand dropped to his side, blood streaming down over his fingers.
Across the room, Joe could see that Hoss had pushed to the front of the small knot of people and was glaring at the men who were holding Joe hostage.
“Stay where you are, fatso!” ordered one of the men. Joe tried to turn his head to see how many there were, but the grip on his throat tightened and he choked.
Hoss froze. “That’s ma little brother, mister!” he warned them. “If’n anythin’ happens ta him, you’ll be sorry!”
“Then you good folks in here had better behave yourselves,” retorted the man holding Joe. “Otherwise, your little brother is gonna pay. Understand?”
Putting his hand onto Hoss’ arm, Paul Martin came forward. “What do you want?” he asked, calmly.
“We want Seymour Dawson,” the man replied.
“That sounded like a shot!” Ben exclaimed, stopping on the stairs.
“And it sounded as though it came from the ballroom,” Adam added, breaking free from his momentary shock. “Joe and Hoss are in there!”
“Adam, wait!” Ben commanded, grabbing his son’s arm. “You can’t go rushing in there until we know what we’re going to face. What good will it do your brothers if you’re killed or injured?”
“You’re right, Pa,” Adam apologized. He glanced anxiously down the stairs. “But how are we going to find out?”
Their answer came a moment later as a young man ran up the stairs towards them. “Governor!” he gasped. He pushed Adam out of the way and confronted Dawson. “Governor, there are three men. They went into the ballroom and are holding everyone in there hostage. They want you!”
“What?” Dawson gasped and sagged back weakly against the wall. “Oh no, is Belinda there?”
“Yes,” replied the man. “They’re holding a gun against this young fellow’s head!”
“How do you know all this?” Adam demanded, a pang of fear shooting through his belly.
“I was taking the invitations at the door,” he replied, miserably. “When I told them it was a private party, one of them hit me and knocked me down. When I got up, I could hear what they were saying and I peeked in through the doors.”
“This young fellow,” Ben queried. “What does he look like?”
“Curly hair, blue suit,” answered the man. “I couldn’t really see his face.”
“Its Joe,” Ben pronounced, tonelessly. “They’ve got Joe.”
Grasping Ben’s arm, Adam squeezed it wordlessly. He, too, had feared that the ‘young fellow’ would be Joe. He had not wanted to ask, because asking would only confirm his brother’s peril. “Pa, we’ve got to think of a way to get them out of there,” Adam insisted. He noticed how pale his father was. “Are you all right?” When Ben nodded, Adam suggested, “I’ll go get Roy Coffee.”
“Good idea,” Ben agreed. He glanced at Dawson. “Seymour? Are you all right?”
“Yes, I think so,” Dawson replied. “You said Joe. Does that mean your son, Joe?”
“Yes,” Ben answered, his gaze drawn back down the stairs. “They have my son!”
Inside the ballroom, Joe kept his gaze locked with Hoss’ trying to reassure his brother that he was all right. When Joe had tried to speak to Hoss, he had received a vicious punch to the stomach that had silenced him. Hoss had made a move, but Doc Martin was able to restrain him, although Joe could feel the medic’s eyes on him, too. The arm around his neck loosened slightly, and Joe was able to breathe more easily. As his immediate situation eased, he became aware of the throbbing of his right hand. Joe’s left hand still held the sleeve of his captor.
“Dawson ain’t in here!” exclaimed one of the men. He had moved around so that he had all the guests covered by his gun.
“He’ll be comin’,” assured the one who held Joe. “That little weasel outside the door will be blabbin’ to him right now.”
“What if he don’t come?” asked the third man.
“He’ll come,” assured the leader. “After all, we’ve got his fiancée in here, don’t we? He’s said to be desperate in love with her.” He laughed, and Joe clearly heard the gasp from the young lady he had smiled at such a short time ago. “Did ya think we didn’t know who ya was, Miss Belinda?”
Every head turned to look at Belinda. She was pale, and clutched her wrap close around her neck. Hoss moved over to shield her with his body. “Leave her alone!” he warned.
“Yore so gallant, Cartwright,” sneered the leader. He saw the surprise on Hoss’ face. “Oh, yes we know who ya all are.” He shook Joe. “Where’s yore father?”
Not realizing that he was being addressed, Joe was taken aback when he received another punch. Gasping for breath and trying not to groan aloud, Joe muttered, “I don’t know.”
“What about ya?” the leader asked, nodding at Hoss. “Ya know where yore father is?”
His fists balled, Hoss took a deep breath, trying to control his temper. “No,” he answered shortly. It was true, he didn’t know the exact whereabouts of his father or older brother, but he could have made a guess.
“All right, it don’t matter. Ya men, git over there.” The man who had hit Joe indicated the seats to the left of the room. “The ladies over the other side.” There was a perceptible hesitation, and the choke-hold on Joe tightened again dramatically and the leader cocked his gun, pressing it so hard against Joe’s head that the skin whitened beneath the barrel. Joe’s injured hand came up to clutch weakly at the arm that was causing him so much torment. No one hesitated at that point.
With everyone sitting to the gunmen’s liking, the leader decided that the time had come to show how serious he was. Clicking the safety back on his gun, he nodded to one of the other men. He grinned, wolfishly, and pulled some lengths of rope from his pocket. Hoss straightened abruptly, but once more Doc Martin reminded him to be prudent.
Letting go of Joe suddenly, and pushing him away, the leader crashed his gun down on Joe’s head as the young man fell forward. Joe was unconscious before he hit the floor. There was a shocked murmur and a muted scream from one of the women. “That’s what he’ll get again if anyone steps out of line,” the leader mentioned, then knelt by his unconscious prisoner and tightly bound his hands behind his back.
Standing on the first floor landing, Roy Coffee looked grim. “What do ya think these men want, Governor?” he asked.
“I think they want to kill me,” Dawson answered. He was sitting in a plush dining chair that had been brought for him. Ben alternately leant against the wall or paced up and down. Adam leant against the corner by the stairs.
“That don’t make sense,” Roy declared. “What good would killin’ ya do?”
Lifting a shamed face, Dawson admitted, “I haven’t been altogether honorable in my business dealings in the past. I haven’t done anything illegal, but there are a lot of people who were hurt by what I did.”
“But still,” Roy persisted.
Sighing, Dawson said, “Do you remember Floyd Billings?”
“Floyd Billings?” repeated Roy, frowning. It was Ben who supplied the details.
“He used to own the blacksmith’s shop on the edge of town?” he asked.
“That’s him,” agreed the governor. “Well, I drove him out of business. He owed me a lot of money, and I made him sell his forge to me to cover the debt. As he left town, he vowed that one day, when I was least expecting it, he or his sons would get me. I don’t know, of course, but it could be his sons. There were three of them.”
Roy exchanged glances with the Cartwrights. “Well, it could be, I guess,” Roy admitted.
“It doesn’t matter who it is!” Ben roared. “We’ve got to find out what they want and get those people out of there! My sons are in there!”
“I know it, Ben!” Roy shouted back. “And I’m jist goin’ down ta speak ta them right now. You stay here!”
“I’m coming with you,” Ben declared.
“No you ain’t!” Roy told him. “I’m charge here, an’ I say you ain’t going anywheres near. I know you, Ben. You’d agree to exchange yourself for your boys, an’ that ain’t gonna help the situation one bit! I need ta find out what’s goin’ on in there afore we decide ezzactly what we’re gonna do.”
As Ben prepared to argue further, Adam straightened up. “Pa, Roy’s right,” he admitted reluctantly. “Besides, the men probably wouldn’t be willing to give up their hostages, but they’d likely be happy to have another one.”
Drawing in a deep breath, Ben admitted the logic in the argument. “All right,” he capitulated. “I’ll wait here.”
“There’s someone comin’, George,” reported the man at the door, nervously.
“Who is it, Dan?” George asked, looking up from his position beside Joe. He pressed his gun slightly harder into Joe’s right cheek. Joe did not react. His head was thumping and he was desperately uncomfortable, lying on his belly on the floor, with his left cheek pressed hard against the fancy carpet and the gun never more than inches from his right cheek. His hands were slowly going numb. George had one hand on Joe’s back.
“Looks like the sheriff ta me,” Dan replied. He caressed the hammer of his gun uneasily.
“All right,” George replied sounding pleased. “Now it really starts.” He glanced over at his captives. “Now, better behave yourselves, folks, ‘cos the sheriff is payin’ us a visit, an’ I’m sure nobody wants anythin’ else happenin’ ta Joe Cartwright here.”
Seeing that they all understood his threat, George turned slightly, so that he could still see the hostages, but could also see out of the partially open door. He nodded to Dan, who opened it further. “What do ya want, sheriff?” he called.
“Ta talk ta ya,” Roy replied. “Who are ya an’ what do ya want?”
“Well, we’s the Billings boys, sheriff, an’ what we want is real simple; we want Seymour Dawson.” George kept his eyes on Roy. “That’s far enough,” he warned, pressing the gun into Joe’s cheek.
Coming to a stop, Roy’s eyes swept over the hostages. As far as he could see, the only one in immediate danger was Joe, although the other two men kept their guns trained on the hostages all the time. “What do ya want him fer?” Roy asked, trying to make the question sound reasonable. “He ain’t goin’ ta do ya no good.”
“It’s like this,” George declared, suddenly sounding angry. “He’s due us a debt, an’ he’s gonna pay! If’n Dawson don’t get hisself in here real soon, we’re gonna start killin’ hostages.” He yanked Joe to his feet, shaking the helpless youth. “We’re gonna start with young Cartwright here, ‘cos his father owes us, too! Our pa went to him for money help, an’ he refused! Now, Dawson better git in here, or Cartwright dies and the next one ta git it is Miss Belinda! You tell him!”
“Now, hold on, boys,” Roy began, making an attempt to talk them out of this crazy course.
“Ya want proof?” George pushed Joe away from him and calmly pulled his trigger.
With a groan of pain, Joe collapsed in a heap on the floor, blood pouring from a wound on his thigh. Hoss lumbered to his feet with a roar of anger, and a bullet sang past his ear, fired by the third Billings son. Doc Martin and Edwards wrestled Hoss back into his seat, although it was no easy task.
“Now, I ain’t killed Cartwright yet,” George panted. “But next time I will. You git that message ta Dawson, ya hear me?”
“I hear ya,” Roy agreed, and turned away. The last thing he saw as the door shut was Joe, eyes shut, hands bound, bleeding on the floor.
As the door shut, Paul Martin rose slowly to his feet. Frank Billings eyed him. “What do ya want?” he asked.
“Please, I’m a doctor,” Paul began. “Please, let me see to Joe.”
“What’s the matter, doc? Ya think he might die?” George asked, and laughed.
“Please,” Paul repeated. “Please let me help him.”
“Ya can come an’ look,” George allowed. “But ya don’t do nuthin’ without askin’ me first. Got it?”
“Got it,” Paul agreed. “Can Hoss come, too? Joe is his brother.” Paul kept his hand on Hoss’ forearm as a warning, which the middle Cartwright son heeded.
“All right, but don’t try anythin’!” George warned. He backed away from Joe, keeping Paul and Hoss covered.
Kneeling by Joe, Paul felt for the pulse in his neck, finding it rapid and thready, as he had expected. Hoss picked up Joe’s head and cradled it on his lap, brushing the hair back from his brother’s forehead and wiping away the sweat that had gathered there. Glancing at George, Paul said, “I’m going to split the leg of his pants so I can see the wound.” George nodded.
Ripping the fabric up the seam, Paul was soon examining the wound. As he had feared, the bullet hadn’t gone through and was lodged in Joe’s thigh. He glanced up at Hoss, who could see the seriousness of the situation at once. “I need to operate,” Paul stated, still in that voice of calm.
“No,” George replied. “Ya can bandage it up, if’n ya must, but no more’n that. An’ ya, fatty, don’t even think o’ tryin’ ta untie him!”
“He’s badly injured,” Hoss protested.
“Ya got a choice, fat boy,” George told him. “Ya either leave him like he is, or I put him outa his misery! Which’ll it be?” He laughed as Hoss subsided. “I thought that might be yore choice!” He glanced over his shoulder as Paul Martin began to rip up a tablecloth to make a bandage. “I hope yore watchin’ real close, Miss Belinda, ‘cos ya might be next!”
The brandy burned a path down into his stomach and set Ben to coughing. He looked up into the worried dark brown eyes of his oldest son, and read there the pain that he himself felt. “I’m all right, son,” he insisted, realizing that he had to be strong for Adam’s sake. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” Adam replied, although his voice was hoarse.
“I dunno what we’re gonna do,” Roy admitted. “I cain’t allow ya ta go in there, Governor. They’ll kill ya fer sure!”
“But I can’t allow them to kill innocent people!” Dawson replied.
“It’s a stand-off,” Roy commented. “An’ I don’t see no way outa it.”
“There’s got to be a way!” Ben declared. “We have to think, and fast.” He had been appalled to realize that Joe was suffering for a sin not his own. He did remember Billings coming to him for financial help, but Ben had been having a bad year, and his cash reserves were low. He had no money to spare for Billings, much as he wanted to help. He had explained that, and Billings had accepted it. But somewhere along the line, the story had been changed; whether by Billings or his sons, Ben didn’t know and could care less. It didn’t matter any more. What did matter was getting those people, and especially Joe and Hoss, out of there!
Adam glanced across at Clem, the deputy. Their eyes met and Clem nodded. Exactly what he meant, Adam didn’t question. He just needed to know that he had a supporter for his risky plan.
“I think this might work,” he began, and went on to outline his plan.
“No!” Ben said, definitely.
Exasperated, Adam replied, “Look, Pa, I’m going to do this whether you approve or not! Even if Dawson went in there, the hostages wouldn’t be safe! Those men are mad! Joe is injured and we need to get help for him. Even though Paul is in there, he won’t have his medical bag with him! Pa, they could all die, and for what? To satisfy a grudge that’s years old?”
“Adam,” began Ben, but his son over-rode him.
“Clem is with me, aren’t you, Clem?” he demanded and the deputy nodded.
“I think Adam is right,” he agreed. “I was about to suggest something very similar myself. Yes, it’s risky, but so is doing nothing.” He glanced at Roy. “This will work much better if you help us, but there are no guarantees.”
“There are no guarantees in life,” Ben said, softly and Adam felt his father’s warm hand on his shoulder and knew that his father, for whatever reason, had made peace with Adam’s plan.
“But we can have faith,” Adam agreed, and they began to make their preparations.
Tenderly lifting Joe’s head, Hoss gave his brother some water. Joe took a few sips before his head lolled back. His breath panted away from him as he tried to control the pain in his leg. “Thanks,” he whispered. He tried to move, to find a more comfortable position, but there wasn’t one to be had and he winced.
“Paul,” Hoss pleaded.
“No, Hoss,” Paul replied. His tone was still measured, but only he knew how much the façade of calm was costing him. “Joe, I’m sorry you’re so uncomfortable, but with the amount of blood you’ve lost, sitting up would make you faint. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, doc,” Joe panted, valiantly. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right.”
“That’s the spirit, Joe,” Paul replied. He was keeping a close eye on Joe’s leg, for the wound seemed to him to have taken an age to clot. Unobtrusively, Paul kept one hand on Joe’s ankle, so that if the youngest Cartwright tried to move his leg, he would be able to prevent it. With that bullet still in there, doing heaven knows what kind of damage, Paul wasn’t willing to allow Joe the slightest chance to make things worse.
“How much longer are we gonna wait, George?” asked Frank. He was beginning to sound a bit panicky, Paul thought. He glanced at Hoss to see if he had noticed that, too, but Hoss’ concentration was focused on Joe, who once more had his eyes shut. “Why’nt ya kill Cartwright now, and then we can start on Dawson’s lady love.” He moved towards her.
Glancing over, Paul saw that most of the women drew back as Billings neared, but Mrs. Edwards put her arm protectively around the younger woman, and her daughter, Annabel, moved in from the other side.
“Leave her alone fer now,” George replied. “It ain’t been half an hour yet. Gotta let Dawson find his backbone ya know!” He laughed uproariously at his own joke.
“Well, how long ya gonna give ‘em?” Frank wanted to know, sounding petulant now. He moved away from Belinda, who allowed herself to relax into Mrs. Edwards’ embrace.
“I’ll tell ya when its bin long enough,” George replied. “Now, keep yer eyes on them hostages.” He wandered over to the small group huddled on the floor. “How is he?” he asked, kicking Joe in the side.
Joe let out a fearsome groan, and Hoss gritted his teeth, tightening his grip on his brother’s shoulders to give him support. “Leave him alone!”
“Please let us untie his hands,” Paul begged. “This is sadistic.”
“That’s a big word,” George shot back, clearly unimpressed. “I don’t know what it means, but if’n ya think it’s a bad thing, then I think it’s a good thing! His hands stay like that, an’ if’n ya don’t like it, I c’n arrange for his legs to be tied, too. Ya think a hogtie will do him much good?” He laughed at the look on Paul’s face and wandered away again.
“Take it easy, Joe,” Hoss soothed. He used a bit of torn-up tablecloth to wipe Joe’s face.
“I’m all right,” Joe mumbled, but he didn’t convince anyone.
Checking Joe’s leg once more, Paul wished that if rescue was going to come, it would come quickly. The longer the bullet was in Joe’s leg, the more chance there was of infection setting in. Joe had lost a lot of blood; he didn’t need an infection or blood poisoning on top of that.
“Ready?” Roy asked, and Dawson, although as white as a sheet, nodded.
“I guess so,” he agreed. He pulled himself up straight and drew in a deep breath. “How long?”
“A minute,” Roy replied. He looked at his watch for a moment longer before tucking it away. “All right, let’s go.”
Together, the two men approached the door of the ballroom. It opened as they drew closer and Dan Billings aimed his gun at them. “We don’t want ya, sheriff!” he warned. “Ya git outa here.”
Backing away, Roy took a long look at Dawson, relieved to see the man looking quite steady. The trickiest, most dangerous part of their plan lay ahead, and Dawson was the one putting his life on the line.
As Dawson entered the ballroom, a murmur of surprise and admiration broke out among the hostages. Belinda half rose to her feet, her face even paler than it had been. Dawson smiled at her. He looked down at Joe. Paul had Joe’s legs elevated, and several coats and tablecloths covering him, helping to keep him warm so that he didn’t go into shock. Joe was extremely pale, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
“I’m here,” Dawson announced, loudly. “What do you want?”
“We’re gonna kill ya, Seymour!” George sneered. “That’s what we want! Our Pa died a broken man, an’ its all yore fault!”
“You’re right,” Dawson replied. “It is my fault, and I’m very sorry.” There was a gasp from the hostages. “I asked everyone here to apologies to them, but I guess its something that I’m years too late in doing. I just hope that they will accept my apologies.”
The Billings boys were gaping at each other, taken aback by this admission of guilt. This was exactly what Adam had been hoping for, and before the Billings could recover, there came a tinkling of glass and three men crashed into the room through the windows. Ben, Adam and Clem.
“Don’t move!” Ben ordered, as Roy Coffee barreled through the door.
Dan and Frank dropped their guns, stunned. But George couldn’t bear to see his plans go up in smoke. He whirled away, firing his gun at Dawson, who went down, a sudden bloom of red on his ornate vest. It was Hoss who acted to stop George; Hoss, who had been agonizing over his brother’s safety all evening. In one smooth move, he rose and walloped George across the ear. The stunned man barely knew what hit him as he tumbled across the floor, to end up at Clem’s feet. The deputy aimed his gun at him, and it was suddenly all over.
While Roy and Clem took the Billings down to the jail, with help from Edwards, Ben and Adam hurried over to Joe. Hoss was already crouching by his brother once more, this time freeing his hands. Seeing the state that Joe was in, Ben trembled with a combination of anger and fear. He dropped to his knees, one hand touching Hoss’ shoulder. Hoss put his huge hand over his father’s and squeezed. “I’m all right, Pa,” he assured him.
“Joe?” Ben whispered, brushing the damp curls back from his son’s forehead.
Drawn by that voice, Joe opened pain-filled green eyes. “Pa?” he croaked. He tried for a smile, but winced as Hoss carefully drew his hands out from behind his back and began to rub some life back into them. Adam moved to take Joe’s right hand, but froze as he saw the blood on it.
“You’re going to be all right, Joe,” Ben assured him. “Paul’s going to take good care of you.” Glancing over to where Dawson lay, Ben felt a sudden tremor of fear. If Dawson’s wound was more serious, Joe would have to wait. While Ben didn’t grudge Dawson the treatment necessary to save his life, he could wish that there was another doctor around who could help Joe.
As though sensing Ben’s eyes on them, Paul Martin turned round. “Adam,” he ordered, “run down to my office and get my things. Alert Mrs. Carmody, and tell her I’ll need bandages, chloroform, splints and sutures. Hoss, get the kitchen to boil me some water. I’ll have to operate here.”
“How is Dawson?” Ben asked, not relinquishing his place by Joe’s side, as his other sons hurried off to do the doctor’s bidding.
“It’s a flesh wound,” Paul replied. “Went straight through his side. Plenty of blood and he’ll need a few stitches, but he’ll be all right.” He turned to smile at Belinda, who was kneeling by Dawson’s side, oblivious of the blood staining her dress.
Relief flooded Ben’s being. The gamble had paid off and both Joe and Dawson would be all right. He glanced down at Joe, and realized that his son’s eyes were closed. “Joe?” he asked. When there was no response, he repeated, “Joe?”
Moments later, Paul was at his side. “He’s gone into shock. I’ve got to operate at once, or we could lose him! Where is Adam with those supplies?”
The atmosphere in the ballroom was tense. All the hostages had left, apart from Hoss and the only people who remained in the room were the Cartwrights and Paul Martin. Dawson had been helped upstairs after his wound had been temporarily bandaged by Belinda. Paul had worked frantically over Joe while they waited for Adam to arrive with the things he needed.
Now, the instruments were all sterilized, and Paul had washed thoroughly. “Ready?” he asked Ben, who was assisting him.
“Ready,” Ben agreed, although he wasn’t at all sure he was ready to see his son’s flesh being cut in to.
Throwing aside the covers, Paul used scissors to cut away the torn pants leg. Ben gasped as he got his first view of his son’s injury. Joe’s leg was red and swollen, stained with rusty dried blood. As Paul began to wipe away the blood, the wound began to seep again. “Here goes,” Paul said and took up the scalpel.
There was blood – lots of it – and Ben was kept busy wiping it away. Paul cut carefully through the muscle, avoiding the major blood vessels. He kept silent, for the inside of Joe’s leg was a mess, and would need more stitches to put it back together than the external wound would.
But at last, he located the bullet, against Joe’s femur. With a sigh of relief, he extracted it. Now, the work really began. Threading a needle, he began the long job of closing up the injury. Ben kept wiping away blood, but as Paul repaired the damage, the bleeding slowed, then stopped. Paul could feel his hands shaking with fatigue, and he didn’t speak, except to ask for something he needed. Eventually, the last stitch went in, and Paul sat up. His back ached from the uncomfortable position he had been forced to work in.
“I’ll just clean up, then bandage his leg,” Paul told Ben. “I’m going to put on a splint, too, to prevent him from moving that leg.” He washed swiftly, relieved to get the blood off his hands. He wondered if the Cartwrights knew how much blood Joe had lost. Looking at their faces, he thought they had a fair idea.
“As soon as this is done,” Paul commented, “We can move him to a warm bed. I’ll have a look at Seymour, then I’ll be back.”
“Thanks, Paul,” Ben murmured. He closed his eyes for a moment, drained. He opened them again as Hoss asked,
“What cha doin’ that fer, doc?”
“The best splint in the world for your leg is your other leg,” Paul explained. He almost sounded amused. He had tucked the long splint board between Joe’s legs and was now bandaging them together. He wound them around Joe’s ankles, before knotting the ends together.
Working together, the Cartwrights transferred Joe to the stretcher Adam had brought and they carried him carefully up to their suite, where Joe was tucked into bed. Paul checked his pulse. “He’s stable, and his pulse is steady,” he announced. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, Ben. But expect him to run a temperature. His body has had a dreadful shock. Get as much fluid into him as you can, and take turns sitting with him. It won’t do Joe any good if his family get sick, too.”
“Hoss, why don’t you get some sleep now?” Adam proposed as Paul left. “You’ve had quite an evening, too. Use my bed.”
“All right,” agreed Hoss, reluctantly. Even though he hated to admit it, Hoss was exhausted. The emotional strain of the evening had taken its toll on him.
“Pa, you lie down on Hoss’ bed,” Adam suggested. “Then you’ll be right here if Joe needs you.”
“I’m fine,” Ben replied, briskly.
“You’re exhausted,” Adam noted. “Pa, lie down. I’ll waken you if there’s any change, I promise.” He tried a smile. “After all, you’re right here in the same room.”
“All right,” Ben agreed, wearily. He moved across the room and lay down on the bed that Hoss had been going to sleep in. Despite his worries, it took him only a few minutes to fall asleep.
Throughout the night, Joe’s temperature raged unchecked. Adam bathed his head constantly, and about 3 am woke Ben. “Pa, he’s worse.”
Alert at once, Ben scrambled from the bed to cross the room. Two hectic spots burned on Joe’s pale cheeks and sweat beaded his face and chest. “Where’s Paul?” Ben asked.
“Sleeping,” Adam replied. “I’ll go get him, but I didn’t want to leave Joe alone.” He exited the room quickly, glancing back only once.
“Paul,” Adam said, urgently, shaking the sleeping physician’s shoulder. Paul was sprawled on the couch in the living room of the Cartwright’s suite. “Paul!”
Coming from a deep sleep, Paul looked momentarily confused, but as he focused on Adam’s face, he realized at once what was wrong. “Is Joe worse?” he asked, sitting up and throwing off the throw he had been using as a blanket.
“Yes, he’s burning up,” Adam replied and followed Paul back across the room.
“Has he roused at all?” Paul asked, reaching for his stethoscope, which he had left lying beside the bed.
“Briefly,” Adam answered. “He opened his eyes, but went straight back to sleep.”
“When?” Paul wanted to know.
“A couple of hours ago,” Adam told him. “He did try and smile at me.”
“Turn up that light,” Paul instructed as he put his stethoscope aside, apparently satisfied. He carefully unwrapped some of the bandages around Joe’s leg, and studied it closely. The leg had swelled, and Paul was forced to loosen all the bandages and splints. He swabbed the wound with alcohol again and gave Joe some quinine. After forcing some more sugar water down Joe’s throat, he sat back and waited.
“Well?” Ben questioned, looking anxiously at Joe.
“He’s very hot, certainly,” Paul replied, calmly. “And although he looks bad, he could be much worse. The leg has swelled, and I really should have expected that, given the damage and the amount of work it took to repair it. But it’s not infected, so let’s see how the quinine does.”
For a time, they sat in silence. Ben bathed Joe’s head continually, but he gradually noticed that Joe was becoming cooler. He glanced at Paul, who was holding Joe’s wrist between his fingers. Paul smiled. “Yes, he’s a bit cooler,” Paul nodded. “The quinine has helped. His heart isn’t having to work so hard now.” Laying Joe’s hand down beside its mate, he nodded. “I’m going back to bed and Adam, I suggest you get some sleep. Joe should be able to rest more peacefully now.”
Convinced by Paul’s calm demeanor, Adam agreed. He lay down on the bed that Ben had vacated such a short time before and was asleep in an instant.
By morning, Joe was conscious, although in a great deal of pain. Paul checked over his wound again, and was pleased to note that the swelling was no worse and the redness was fading. He took the time to check Joe’s bruised, scraped right hand in more detail and although he bandaged it up, to protect the swollen skin on his fingers, he was pleased to be able to report that the hand wasn’t broken. Paul gave Joe some morphine and the young man drifted back off to sleep.
While Paul was off checking on his other patient, Hoss insisted that Ben and Adam go downstairs to have some breakfast. He had eaten while Paul was with Joe. Hungry now that his worry was assuaged, Ben agreed. He realized that he hadn’t eaten since the previous lunch time, and even then, anticipating the feast at night, lunch had been very light.
Halfway through their bacon and flapjacks, Roy Coffee came into the dining room and looked around. Ben lifted an acknowledging hand and Roy joined them, helping himself to coffee. “Mornin’, Ben, Adam,” he muttered. “How’s Joe?”
“A little better,” Ben allowed. “His fever is down a bit. Did you have any trouble with the Billings?”
“No,” Roy answered. “They was all blamin’ each other for their plan goin’ wrong. Don’t worry, Ben, they won’t be walkin’ free fer a long time.” He took a sip of his coffee. “How’s Dawson this mornin’?”
“I haven’t seen him,” Ben confessed. “Paul was going up to check on him when we came down here.” Ben was rather embarrassed to discover that he hadn’t given Dawson a single thought since the previous night, and yet, if it hadn’t been for the man’s courage, Joe might well have died. “I really ought to check on him,” Ben muttered.
“Don’t worry, Ben, he’ll understand if’n you don’t. You’ve got Joe to worry about. I’m sure Miss Belinda is up there right now, fussin’ over him!” Roy gave Ben a clumsy pat on the shoulder and heaved himself to his feet. “I’ll jist mosey on up there an’ see him.”
The two Cartwrights sat in silence for a few moments. Ben looked with sudden disgust at the food on his plate and pushed it away. “Joe’s going to be fine, Pa,” Adam assured him.
“I sure hope he is, son,” Ben replied. “We came so close to losing him.”
“But we didn’t,” Adam reminded him. “Joe’s tough. He’ll get better, Pa, I know he will.” He studied Ben’s face closely. “What’s worrying you, Pa?”
“Joe’s leg,” Ben answered, honestly. “I saw how bad it was. Do you suppose he’ll ever walk straight again? Or will he always have a limp?”
“Does it matter?” Adam asked. “Of course we want Joe to get completely better, but we won’t love him any the less if he limps, will we?”
“Of course not,” Ben replied. “I’m sorry, Adam, that was so silly of me.”
“Well, we’re all entitled to be a bit silly sometimes, Pa,” Adam assured him. “And especially after a night like last night.”
Since the hostage taking had involved the governor, it was amazing how quickly the whole thing came to trial. Seymour Dawson was back on his feet within a few days, and came to visit Joe as soon as he was allowed visitors.
“How are you, Joe?” Dawson asked, sitting down carefully in a chair.
Still lying flat on his back, Joe replied, “Fine, thanks, sir.”
From behind Dawson, Ben made a tutting noise. “That means he’s not going to die right this minute, Seymour,” Ben explained. “Joe always makes light of his health.”
“It’s rude to make light of someone else’s health,” Joe replied, so politely, that it took Ben a moment to realize that he was being cheeked!
“Just wait until you’re up and around again, young man!” Ben threatened, but Joe looked singularly unworried, he noticed.
“I wanted to apologies to you, Joe,” Seymour went on. “It was my fault you were in that position in the first place. I’m sorry.”
“It was just bad luck,” Joe replied, uncomfortably.
“Well, either way, I’m sorry you got hurt.” Seymour rose. “Will you be able to testify at the trial? It’s starting in a few days.”
Startled, Joe shot a glance at Ben, who intercepted it smoothly. “It will depend what the doctor says,” Ben replied. “Joe hasn’t managed to sit up yet and walking is out of the question.”
“Oh, I see,” Seymour muttered, sounding disappointed. “Joe’s testimony would be wonderful.”
Giving Joe a reassuring smile, Ben ushered the governor into the living room, pulling the bedroom door closed behind him. “Seymour,” Ben hissed, “Joe almost died! Do you know how much blood he lost? How long Paul operated on him?” He shook his head. “He won’t be testifying at the trial in a few days, believe me!”
For a moment, Ben saw before him the arrogant man who had run for governor. He held Seymour’s gaze for a long moment, and the other man dropped his eyes. “Of course, what was I thinking of?” he muttered. “Ben, I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Ben replied. “I understand. But at least you’ll have Hoss. He was there, too.”
Giving Ben a mischievous grin, Seymour replied, “Joe would have been better.”
“Get out of here!” Ben laughed.
When the trial began two days later, Joe was sitting up for the first time. He was also complaining, as he had been for several days, about having his legs bandaged together. The pain from his wound had settled into a deep ache, but within himself, Joe was feeling better. He wanted to get home, but Paul had vetoed that idea for another few days.
The first day of the trial, Adam and Hoss went off together in the morning, and Ben stayed with Joe. In the afternoon, Adam stayed with Joe and Ben went with Hoss. Hoss wasn’t called to give evidence until the second day, and despite defense counsel’s attempts to make a fool of him, Hoss kept his head and gave his evidence in a cool, clear voice. By the end of the third day, the Billings were sentenced to twenty years in jail.
As they took Joe home a few days later, Adam commented, “So Seymour really has turned over a new leaf. Who’d have believed it?”
“Well, stranger things have happened,” Ben commented, sagely. “I can’t think of any right now, but I’m sure I will, given time.” They all laughed. “I still can’t get over him thinking Joe would be well enough to give evidence at that trial.” He glanced over his shoulder to where his youngest son was deep in a drugged slumber for the journey.
“He’s pretty single-minded,” Adam responded. “I think Belinda will keep him on the straight and narrow though.”
Beside them, Hoss sighed. Ben cocked an eyebrow at him. “I jist hope Joe gits better quick,” he explained. “It weren’t fair, them pickin’ on him like that.”
“I know,” Ben agreed, hiding his deep fear that Joe was going to be left very lame indeed.
It was almost 2 months before the swelling in Joe’s leg was gone. Until then, he had had to borrow pants from Adam and Ben that would allow his swollen leg to fit in. It had bruised almost every color of the rainbow, but the scar was fading nicely. By then, Joe had discarded his crutches and the stick he’d graduated on to and was limping around.
Coming into the house one wet afternoon, Ben found Joe standing leaning morosely against the chimney breast, gazing into the flames as though mesmerized. He glanced up when Ben came in, but didn’t speak, his gaze returning to the dancing flames.
“What’s wrong, son?” Ben asked, shucking his coat and going over. “Are you in pain?”
Sighing, Joe replied, “Not really, Pa. My leg kind of aches. Well, not really that, either. I’m just kind of aware of that bit of my leg all the time. It feels different. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I think so,” Ben agreed, hesitantly. “And are you worried about it, Joe?”
“I was,” Joe answered, honestly. “I went in to see Doc Martin.” He caught the surprised look on Ben’s face before his father could hide it and smiled, ruefully. “I know – I’d do anything to avoid the guy usually and here I went in to see him. Pretty funny, huh?” He couldn’t quite hide the quaver in his voice.
“What did Paul say?” Ben queried gently.
“He explained about the damage to the muscles. He said that although he stitched it all back together as best he could, muscles don’t always heal that well. He says there might be a little weakness there all my life, but he’s confident the limp will go. Some things might make my leg hurt more than others. He said I would have to decide whether or not to continue doing those things. Was the enjoyment worth the discomfort?”
“Which things?” Ben asked, knowing this was the crux of the matter.
“Riding mostly,” Joe replied in an off hand manner. “He also reminded me that it’s not that long since the accident and I ought to give it another few months before I become too fed up with things.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think I can put up with the discomfort,” Joe responded. “Paul says it’ll probably not hurt as much as time goes on, and I’ll get used to it.” He met Ben’s gaze. “And this is how I see it, Pa. I can either sit about here and moan and complain that my leg isn’t what it used to be, or…”
“Or?” Ben prompted, when Joe stopped.
“Or I can just do what I’ve always done and get on with things. The limp will work out soon enough; I’ve noticed an improvement recently. I’m young, and I’ve got my whole life ahead of me. I’d be pretty poor company for you if I complained all the time, wouldn’t I?”
“I think that’s a very sensible attitude, Joe,” Ben responded, slowly. His heart swelled with pride for the young man in front of him. “I’m very proud of you, son.” He put his arms round Joe and Joe responded eagerly.
They broke apart as Adam and Hoss came in, shedding raindrops with their slickers. “Sorry,” Adam said, seeing that Ben still had his arm round Joe’s shoulders. “Did we interrupt something?”
“No,” Joe assured him, his face still glowing. “I was just telling Pa that this leg is getting better and better and do you know what he did?” He turned a mock-indignant face to his father, who raised his eyebrows.
“What?” Hoss asked.
“He called me sensible!” Joe complained, jovially, and they all laughed.
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