This is for Debbie L, who inspired me to write my own WHN for “The Crucible” with a different slant.
Jeremiah Knowles was working at the anvil when he heard the horses coming and looked up. Instantly, he recognized the curly-haired young man on the big chestnut. He was the same one that had been there just over a week earlier. He’d come in on a little black-and-white paint with a split hoof and needed a fresh horse.
But Jeremiah hadn’t been prepared for the kid’s reaction when he’d seen the horse. And then, when the answer to his question of where he’d gotten the animal hadn’t come fast enough, he’d found a cocked pistol jammed in his face. Of course, looking back on it, Jeremiah didn’t blame him. After his fear had worn off and he’d realized that he wasn’t about to be killed, he’d plainly seen the sense of urgency and concern in the young stranger. And after being out here for almost twelve years, he knew what a tenuous thread life hung by.
The other three, two of them doubled up on a big black, he’d never seen before. But since the man had been looking for his brother, he surmised that they were family. One of them maybe even being the one sought.
He put his work aside and stepped from the lean-to into the sun as they rode in and reined up in front of him. Jeremiah’s reddish brown eyes stayed on them as the chestnut came out in front.
The young man got down and came to him, leading his mount. “I’ve come for my horse,” he said as light glinted in his warm green eyes.
“He’s still in no shape to be rode.”
“I know that, but I want to take ‘im back. Now we’re in a hurry, if you don’t mind.”
“All right, I’ll get ‘im.”
Jeremiah went to the corral around to the side of his cabin. He took a rope halter from where it hung over the fence rail and slipped it over the little paint’s head “Looks like you’re goin’ home, boy,” he said and gave him a healthy pat on the neck.
He led the horse back out front and the young man took the lead from him. “Thanks. How much do I owe you?”
“Three dollars oughtta cover it.”
Jeremiah watched as he dug into his shirt pocket and came out with three silver dollars. “There you go, mister. And thanks for takin’ care of ‘im.” He climbed back into the saddle. “I’ll come back for my brother’s gear later.”
“All right, it’ll be here. Maybe you’d like to stay the night. You all look mighty dragged out an’…”
“No, thank you,” the man on the buckskin spoke up in a tired, yet rich, voice, “we need to get as close to Salt Flats as we can before nightfall. But thank you anyway.”
Without anymore words, he stood back and watched as they started off. The black-haired one riding double with the big man had a look Jeremiah had seen all too many times. He’d seen men that hat been subjected to the heat and desolation of the desert, and this one had that look. But there was something else in the empty, dark hazel eyes that Jeremiah didn’t recognize, but it made him think of a trapped wild animal. “I hope they make it,” he said then went back to his anvil.
Eben Briggs had been sheriff if Salt Flats for nearly as long as the town had been in existence, fifteen years. And he’d seen the very best and the very worst of men.
He’d just left his office to go get his supper when they rode into town. He stood on the boardwalk and watched as they came closer. Four horses, one riderless and four men, two of them riding double. As they drew closer he saw that he’d already met one of them. Joe Cartwright, he’d said his name was. He’d been in not long back looking for two men that he’d believed may have killed his brother. Eben had hated to tell him that they’d been killed the night before trying to shoot up the town and some of its citizens. For anything that they could’ve told him had died with them, and he might never find his brother as the result.
The other two he soon realized were Cartwright’s father and brother that he sent the wire to. He’d made it a point to find out who they were, as he did with all newcomers. And he would never forget the look on the silver-haired man’s face when they’d ridden into town that first time.
The fourth one he didn’t recognize, but he had an idea he knew who he was.
As they came to a stop in front of him he saw the same pain and anguish in Joe Cartwright’s face that had been there before, but this was a little different.
“Evenin’, Mr. Cartwright, gents. I hadn’t figgered on seein’ any o’ you again. Somethin’ I can do for ya?”
“Where’s the doctor?” Joe Cartwright asked.
“Well, ya just go on down to the end o’ town till ya come to the last house on your right. Ya can’t miss it.”
“Is that the brother you was lookin’ for?” Eben asked with a nod to the dark one that seemed oblivious to everyone and everything around him.
“That’s him,” Cartwright said grimly.
“Well, I’m mighty glad ya found ‘im.”
“So are we.” Then Cartwright nudged the big chestnut and they started on.
Eben came down the steps and watched them go. He pushed his hat back, releasing a strand of his thinning hair and scratched his head. From the looks of Joe Cartwright’s brother Doc had his work cut out for him. He didn’t look like he’d been hurt, but sometimes the hurt you couldn’t see was deadlier and harder to fight than what you could.
Straightening his hat, he started on across the street. He was hungry and a hot cup of coffee beckoned.
Samuel Ryman had hung out his shingle and been doctoring in Salt Flats for close onto ten years. And he’d come up against a lot of things since then, from chicken pox to stabbings to gunshot wounds to stupid accidents. Once even an epidemic of cholera that had threatened to wipe out the town.
He was just coming out of the examining room at the back of the house after fixing Amy McCardle’s broken arm, when he heard the commotion out front. Children could get hurt in the most imaginative ways.
With a frown, he picked up his pace as he hurried out to see what was going on. As he stepped out onto the porch of his white clapboard house he saw four horses, one without a rider. As he came forward the man on the big buckskin got down and came up the steps. The doctor couldn’t miss his fretful exhaustion.
“Dr. Ryman?” he asked as he glanced at the sign by the door that read: Dr. Samuel A. Ryman, MD.
“Doctor, my son needs help. We found him wandering in the desert.”
Ryman looked at them, and he didn’t need to be told which one it was. “All right, bring him inside.”
He watched as the one with the curly brown hair slid to the ground and rushed to the black horse. As he held onto the one in front the man in back dismounted and together they got him down. They stayed on either side of him gripping his arms firmly and held him up as they walked toward the porch. But as they reached the bottom step the dark one looked up and his eyes – hollow and bottomless – seemed to look more through the doctor than at him. And as they did, his knees seemed to buckle as his eyelids fell, and he started to go down. But the other two caught him, and the big man scooped him into his arms like one would a baby.
Ryman rushed into the entryway as they followed him inside. “Bring him back here,” he said as he led them to the examining room. He commanded that his new patient be placed on the table, and he was amazed at the tenderness of such a large man. And the doctor got the impression that his immense hands lingered.
“How long was he out there?” Ryman asked as he began cutting away the filthy tatters of what had once been a white shirt.
“Two weeks,” the older man said.
“Two weeks!” Ryman said as he shot them a quick look. “He’s lucky to be alive. Most men give in long before that.”
“I know that, Doctor.” He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his silver hair. “I know that.”
The man’s skin was hot and dry, but not as bad as he would’ve expected after that length of time at the mercy of the desert. But that wasn’t what was really bothering him right now. It had been the blankness in the eyes that had looked at him as if he wasn’t there. It had been like looking down a long, dark tunnel, and it disturbed him.
“Have you been able to get any water and food into him?”
“We’ve been giving him water along, but he doesn’t have the strength to eat. We’ve tried, and he just doesn’t seem to want it,” the eldest man said.
“That doesn’t surprise me with the state he’s in. Right now probably all he wants to do is sleep, and that’s good, but we need to get water into him more than anything.” Then he turned to them and wasn’t surprised by the anxious faces that greeted him. “Now I think you’d better wait outside while I take care of him.” He could see that this father was about to object, and he took his arm. “Mr.…. I don’t even know your name.”
“Ben Cartwright, and these are my sons, Joe and Hoss and that’s Adam,” he said with a nod to the one on the table.
“I understand that you want to stay with your son, Mr. Cartwright. And I know you want me to do everything I can for him, but I work better alone. So, if you’ll please just wait outside, I’ll get to it.” A compassionate smile turned his mouth and reached his sapphire eyes. “I’ll take good care of him. I promise.”
He gently shooed them from the room and closed the door, then turned to the unconscious man. He raised one of his arms and couldn’t miss the deep ligature marks about his wrist, and he felt a tiny flame bud to life inside him. “What was done to you?” he asked softly without expecting an answer. Man’s inhumanity to man never failed to anger him.
It was almost twenty-five minutes later when he stepped out into the hall and quietly pulled the door together behind him. A troubled father and two apprehensive brothers sat on the long bench along the wall.
Ben Cartwright’s hat was on the floor by his feet, and his head was lowered over clasped hands, and his lips were moving silently. The one called Hoss emulated his father, but his mouth didn’t move. The one called Joe was the restless of the three and the first one to see him. “Pa,” he said softly as he grasped his father’s shoulder.
His head shot up as did his other son’s, and they all came to their feet as the doctor approached them.
“Doctor, how is he?”
“He’s resting, and he was conscious long enough for me to get some water into him, but he didn’t say anything. It’s what you’d expect. He’s dehydrated, malnourished and suffering from exhaustion and exposure, but it’s not as bad as it should be after that amount of time. Do you know anything about what happened to him?”
“Hardly anything,” Ben Cartwright said. “He was talking when we first found him, but after that he just seemed to pull into a shell, when he isn’t asleep.”
“What did he say?”
“None of it made any sense,” Joe Cartwright said. “He was going on about there not being any gold and no more games. He was laughing, but not like you would at something funny. And then he started to cry, but there weren’t any tears.”
“I see,” the doctor said, and then he looked at them individually. “Did you notice his wrists?”
He watched as Ben Cartwright’s already dark eyes grew darker, and he couldn’t miss the controlled rage in the brothers.
“Yeah, we noticed, Doc,” Hoss Cartwright snarled.
“Do you have any idea who did this to him?”
“He was draggin’ a dead man on a travois behind ‘im,” Hoss Cartwright went on. “An’ if’n I knew he was the one he’s lucky the sun got to ‘im before I did.”
Ryman felt a chill run through him, as well as admiration for the way he wanted to fight for his brother.
“Now why don’t you come on back and see him?” he said as he consolingly took a distraught father’s arm.
They followed him back to the examining room, and he stayed by the door while they assured themselves that he was still with them.
He’d seen men with grown sons in Ben Cartwright’s position before, but never one any more gentle and loving. He stroked his boy’s hair as he held his hand, and Ryman knew he was bordering on tears. And he suspected that when this strong man was alone with his son that they would find an avenue of escape.
Joe Cartwright took his brother’s other hand. “You stay with us,” he said softly in a voice that cracked. “Don’t leave us now after all the trouble we’ve gone to find you.” His fingers tightened their grasp and his eyelids batted.
Hoss Cartwright stood at his brother’s feet and Ryman couldn’t see his face, but he didn’t have to. The big man‘s head dropped, and his shoulders began to shake.
The doctor decided to leave them alone for a few minutes. What could it possibly hurt?
When he finally went back in they had regained some of their composure, if only a modicum. “I think we should let him rest, but I don’t think it’ll do any harm if one of you stays. Mr. Cartwright, would you like to?”
“Yes, Doctor, I would. Thank you.”
The doctor pulled a chair alongside the table and with another thank you from this grieving father, he and the sons left.
“Doc,” the big man asked as he rested a firm hand on Ryman’s shoulder, “is our brother gonna make it?”
“As far as I can tell, aside from being just plain exhausted, lack of food and water and too much time in the sun is all that’s wrong. And finding him when you did saved his life. So, unless there’s something there I don’t know about, he should be all right. But the night’ll tell us, and I’ll know better in the morning.”
“But, Doctor, his eyes,” Joe Cartwright said. “It’s like there’s nothing there.”
The young man’s comment unnerved the doctor, and he wasn’t exactly sure how to answer him. “Why don’t you two get yourselves a room at the hotel and have something to eat? It’s going to be a long night.”
“No, Doctor, we’ll stay here in case they need us,” Joe Cartwright said forcefully.
Ryman knew that his insistence would only fall on deaf ears so he acquiesced. From what he was seeing this was a very close-knit family that stuck together through the hardships that life dealt them. And who was he to try to supersede that?
As the doctor had said it was indeed turning into a long night. It was around midnight when Ryman went into the examining room. Ben Cartwright thoroughly refused to leave his son’s side. He and the other two had tried to relieve him, but a concerned father and a stubborn man would have nothing of it.
“I brought you a cup of coffee,” Ryman said as he stepped to the table.
Cartwright thanked him and took it, and the dark eyes only briefly flitted from his son. He continued to decline any offer of food, and the doctor was beginning to worry for his health as well.
“I’m told he’s your oldest.”
“That’s right. And my confidante and good right arm. Don’t misunderstand,” he finally turned to the doctor, “I love and treasure all my sons and would die for any of them if I had to, but this one keeps me alert.” He took a sip. “Do you have any children, Doctor?”
“No, I’ve never married. So far I haven’t found a woman who’ll put up with me,” he said with half a grin.
“You’re missing something very special. Our children can be the source of our greatest joy,” a shadow cast itself over his face as he turned back to his son, “and our greatest sadness.”
“His mother must be worried sick.”
“His mother died when he was born. I’ve been married three times, Doctor, and each one gave me a fine son. But not one of them lived to see that son become a man.”
The room went silent enough to hear a snowflake fall. After that there was nothing left to say. Ryman watched as he quietly drank his coffee, and his eyes never left his eldest.
The sun was just beginning to peep over the horizon when the doctor went back to the examining room. Ben Cartwright hadn’t left his son’s side all night and not all the wheedling and cajoling from him or the man’s other sons would change that.
Cartwright had fallen asleep and was leaned forward with his head resting on the table and one hand on his son’s arm. As he drew closer, Ryman became aware of a pair of dark hazel eyes, and they were as vacant and lifeless as they had been the night before. The unease returned full strength, and he knew that what this man needed was beyond his abilities.
“Mr. Cartwright,” Ryman said softly as he reached across the table and grasped the man’s arm. “Mr. Cartwright.”
The silver head shot up and the doctor read blind fear in his face.
“It’s all right. Take a look.”
As he saw his son the fright melted away leaving only relief. “Adam, son, how do you feel?”
But as Ryman watched he saw relief swing back to fear.
“Adam, do you hear me?”
Adam Cartwright only seemed to be able to manage one lethargic blink and no words were forthcoming. If he did hear his father it caused no reaction and emotion of any kind was out of the question.
“He’s been like this almost since we found him. I’d thought… I’d hoped that with a decent night’s rest that he would be better.”
“Mr. Cartwright, nobody knows exactly what your son went through while he was out there. We know that he was tied up and deprived of food and water and rest, but other than that we can’t say for sure.”
“Can’t you do something for him?”
“My best recommendation is to get him back home to familiar surroundings, someplace where he feels safe.” The doctor’s mouth crooked into a warm smile. “I don’t need to prescribe love and understanding; I can see that he’s already got that. And with time and prayer, who knows?”
Then, much to the doctor’s amazement, Adam Cartwright raised his hand, and his father gripped it. But then his eyes closed, and the hope drained from his father’s face.
“He knows you’re here,” Ryman said. But he believed that he was simply reaching out to whoever happened to be there, for he had yet to make direct eye contact with anyone and the doctor doubted he was capable of it. Of course, he had been wrong before, though he didn’t think he was now.
After breakfast, which the doctor put his foot down and insisted that they eat since it wasn’t going to help anyone if they got sick, they decided to head home.
“You’re not going to try to take him all that way on horseback, are you? It’ll wear all of you out, including the horses.”
“No, Doctor, we’ll buy a wagon and team in town and get some food.”
“Well, you don’t have to do that, the wagon, I mean,” Ryman said. “I’ve got one in the barn that’s just sitting there collecting dust and taking up space. I got it last year as payment for taking out an appendix.” His face lit with a grin. “No horses, just the wagon. So you might as well take it, I’ve got no use for it, and you do.”
“I need it too badly to say ‘no’.”
“And I’d be offended if you did.”
The youngest Cartwright son bought two horses at the livery and got some
provisions from Henry Frazier’s store. The big one brought the wagon from
the barn and cleared the straw and a couple of old hens’ nests, minus any
eggs, out of the bed. And it wasn’t long before they were ready to leave.
With a brother on either side of him, Adam Cartwright was able to make it
under his own power, and they got him into the back of the wagon. The doctor
gave them a blanket and they filled their canteens at the well.
“Thank you, Doctor,” Ben Cartwright said, and his hand came out. “For everything you’ve done. And you’re fee just isn’t enough.”
“The money’ll help me out, but it’s you’re gratitude that’s my real payment. I’m only sorry I couldn’t do more,” Ryman said and shook the man’s hand. “What he needs now I can’t give him, and I know he’s in good hands.”
Cartwright gave his hand another shake then climbed in with his oldest son. Hoss Cartwright drove and Joe Cartwright climbed onto the chestnut, the other horses had been tied to the back of the wagon. Then, with another round of ‘thank you’, they started back through town.
The doctor walked along behind them as they lumbered along, and he stopped in front of the sheriff’s office as he watched them continue on. Eben Brigg’s came out and down the steps and stood next to him.
“Good morning, Eben.”
“They’re on a long trail, ain’t they? An’ I don’t just mean the one takin’
“I’m afraid so. I don’t know what all was done to Ben Cartwright’s oldest son, but I think it could’ve made me shoot somebody.”
“You, Doc?” Eben said and raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Yes, me,” Ryman said angrily. “His hands were tied and whoever did it wasn’t a bit gentle about it. And judging by the deep marks and bruising he fought hard against it. But those’ll heal and his body’ll recover in time, it’s what’s in here that worries me,” he said and gestured to his head. “Whatever was done to his mind was far worse than anything his body went through. I believe he was tortured and probably will be for the rest of his life. He’s in a dark place where I don’t think anybody can ever get to him. But I didn’t tell them that.”
“I hope you’re wrong, Doc.”
So do I, Eben. For their sake,” and he gave a nod toward the retreating family, “so do I.”