Choices Trilogy Part 1 — Choices (by Cheaux)

Summary:   Joe Cartwright’s friends are dying and he doesn’t know why.  Part one of a three part story.   Note to readers:  There are other stories that start with the same opening, as the scene was provided as part of a challenge.  Each story turned out differently.  Mine begged to be continued in parts 2 and 3.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA (subject matter)
Word Count:  22,000


 

“Man is made or unmade by himself.  By the right choice he ascends.  As a being of power, intelligence, and love, and the lord of his own thoughts, he holds the key to every situation.”

 James Allen

 

Joe always forgot how cold the middle of the night could get when he was sitting still, doing nothing but watching a bunch of cattle. The moon shone full and round, and the stars sparkled like the lake water on a sunny day—all of which would have been just fine if he’d been in a buggy with Hattie Miller.  Even the crisp cold of the breeze that kicked up would have been fine then, because it would have given him an excuse to put his arm around her.

Instead, here he was, all by himself with a bunch of dumb cattle, and Hattie Miller was undoubtedly sound asleep, just like anyone else with a lick of sense.  But at least he had Hank Murray to keep him company for middle watch. Hank was new to the Ponderosa, and not much older than Joe, but he’d worked at pretty near every ranch between Kansas and California.  At least, that was what he said, and even if he was stretching the truth, there was no question that he was good at what he did.  Not that Joe had any plans for nodding off, but it was nice to know that if he did, Hank would be fine.

He yawned as he scanned the moonlit pasture for Hank, who had been assigned to keep watch with him.  He wasn’t over by the rocks where he’d been a few minutes ago.  He must’ve gone to tend to his personal business, Joe decided.  Nothing wrong with that.  His thoughts were just drifting back to Hattie Miller when he heard something that made him sit up straight.  A couple of the cattle raised their heads.  “Easy, now,” Joe whispered.  All it would take was for one or two to spook, and things could get bad fast.  He held his breath as he nudged his mount’s sides, trying to move as quietly as possible. He wanted to call out for Hank, but he’d be more likely to waken the herd and the sleeping cowboys than to get Hank’s attention from wherever he was.

“Joe!”

Joe’s head snapped around. He didn’t recognize the voice, but it sounded harsh, hoarse, and full of pain.  Without thinking, he drew his gun.  All traces of sleepiness vanished.

“Who’s there?” he hissed.

“Joe!” The voice was closer.

“Who’s there?” He still didn’t see anybody.

“It’s me.” A dark figure—on foot—stumbled toward him.

“What the—Hank?”  Frantically, Joe looked around. The herd wasn’t moving, but that didn’t mean everything couldn’t change in a second.  He couldn’t just leave them, but something was wrong here.  He was about to call out when Hank fell, landing solidly against one of the cattle, and that was all it took. The beast heaved itself up with a deep, startled moan.  In the next instant, it was as though the earth itself was rising up with a roar.  Joe shouted in an effort to divert the herd, and the peace of the night gave way to the thundering of hooves, the clashing of horns, and the yelling of cowboys.

It seemed forever before the herd was settled.  Nobody was sleeping now; they were staked around the herd, watching. They’d be slower tomorrow as a result, but it couldn’t be helped.

“Did you see what spooked them?” Ben Cartwright asked.

“It was—Pa, have you seen Hank?”

“Hank?  Hank Murray?”

Joe nodded.  “Something was wrong.  He was supposed to be over on the other side, but he was coming over here, and he was on foot.  He fell on one of the cattle and startled it.”

Ben shook his head.  Even in the moonlight, Joe could see his father frown. “If he was down when it started. . . .”  He didn’t need to finish.

“We should go back anyway, Pa.  Even if we’ve just gotta bury him.”

His father nodded, barked orders to the nearest men and turned to Joe.  “Show me where he was.”

They rode in silence to where Joe had been keeping watch.  “He was right here,” he said, considering the place where he’d last seen Hank.  “He was walking real unsteady, and he was calling me, and then he fell.”  He considered the place where he’d last seen Hank.  “Maybe he got himself out of the way.”  Ben allowed himself a small smile that Joe knew was a credit to his hopefulness.  Adam always said that Joe would believe for something long after any sensible fellow would have given up and gone home.

“Joe!” The voice was hoarser, weaker, but unquestionably the same.

“Hank!”  Joe was off his horse in a flash, with Pa right behind him. “Hank, where are you?” His eyes strained in the darkness.

“Here.”  There, in the shadow of a rock, lay Hank.

Ben knelt beside him. “Just take it easy,” he said in that soothing voice Joe knew so well. “Joe, get me your canteen.”  Joe obeyed, and Pa held it to the injured man’s lips.  “Take it easy, now, Hank.  We’ll get you back to camp.”

“No.”  Hank reached up as if to grab Pa’s vest.  “Joe. . . .”

“I’m right here, Hank.”  Joe bent over him.  Then, he whispered, “Pa?”  Ben nodded acknowledging he’d seen it, too; Hank’s face was bruised and bloody. Joe had seen men trampled by cattle, and they didn’t look anything like that.  Hank looked like he’d been beaten by somebody’s fists.

“Hank, what happened?” asked the elder Cartright.

“Joe.” The word was more breath than sound.

“I’m here, Hank.  What happened?”  Joe tried to get a better look at the man’s injuries.

“Be . . . careful.”

“Careful of what?”

“Looking . . . for . . . you.”

“Who’s looking for Joe?”   Ben asked. “What do they want?”

“Careful.”

“Just save your strength now, Hank.  We’ll talk when we get you back to camp.”

Hank reached up and caught hold of Ben’s vest, pulling him closer.  The injured man whispered something Joe couldn’t hear. Then, his hand dropped, and his head fell back.

“Is he—” Joe broke off as Ben nodded.  They sat silently beside the dead man for a respectful minute before Joe asked, “What did he say, Pa?”

“Let’s just get him back to camp.  Bring my horse over here.”

Joe did as he was told.  Once they’d loaded the body onto Buck he asked again, “What did he say?”

His father turned to him, eyes somber.  “He said—they wanted you.”

*****

Back at camp, Adam quickly reorganized the watch sending his youngest brother to get some rest despite the fact he had only come on duty a few hours before the stampede.  For once Joe didn’t argue but instead crawled into his bedroll and pulled a woolen blanket over his head.  The silent shaking of the cloth quickly betrayed earlier protestations that he was “fine.”

Adam handed a tin cup of hot coffee to his father and whispered, “Did you see what happened?”

“No.  Joe said Hank called to him then fell.”

“Fell?  Off his horse?”

“No.  He was on foot.”  Ben shrugged in response to Adam’s obvious disbelief that any cowboy would walk among cattle.  “It’s possible Hank may have been attacked beforehand.”  When Adam didn’t react, he added, “You don’t seem surprised.”

“Maybe his past caught up with him.”

“Joe trusted him.”

“Joe trusts a lot of people he shouldn’t like Dave Donovan.”

“He’s also been right about others like Danny Kidd.”

“Fair enough; and Hank has been a hard worker in the few months he’s been with us.”

“I’ll take the body into the Sheriff in the morning.   Can you get along without the two of us?  Roy will surely want to talk to Joe.”

Adam nodded.  “We’re close enough to the grazing pastures.  Another day should do it.  We’ll be fine.”

On the road to Virginia City the next morning, Ben allowed his uncharacteristically quiet son the room to grieve the loss of his friend in his own way.  Without Joe’s incessant chatter, however, Ben found his thoughts wandering through his own youth recalling friends met and lost at sea.  Images of places and events lapped at his memory as waves upon those foreign shores.  After his wife died and he journeyed west with his infant son, the prairie had become yet another ocean, another sea of waving grass to conquer, filled with people—and loves—long lost but not forgotten.

“Pa . . .  Pa!  We’re here, slow up.”

Ben shook himself out of his reverie and acknowledged Joe’s admonition with a sheepish grin.  “You caught me day dreaming, son.”

“Must be nice.  Guess a drink will have to do.” Joe was half way down the boardwalk towards the Bucket of Blood before Ben could respond.

“What have we got here?” Roy Coffee asked as he approached the pack horse next to Buck.

Ben forced his eyes to leave the back of his retreating son and look at the law man.  “Hank Murray.”

“What happened?”

“Stampede . . . or murder.  It’s not clear which.”

With the help of the deputy and a passerby, the body was carried into Paul Martin’s office for an examination.  The results were inconclusive and with no evidence to the contrary, Hank Murray’s death was ruled accidental and he was buried without further delay.

Life on the ranch went on as usual until six weeks later when Slim Russell was found slumped over the seat of a Ponderosa freight wagon behind the mercantile where he’d been loading supplies—multiple gunshots to the chest, his gun still in its holster, an ace of spades clutched in his hand.  And no one saw a thing.

Joe had been breaking horses in full sight of a dozen or more ranch hands that day.  Nevertheless, at the funeral Slim’s friends closed ranks and shut Joe out leaving him to stand with his family a distance away.  Sensing his distress, his brothers suggested a cold beer before heading home and Ben told them to go ahead without him.

When the three walked into the Silver Dollar, you could hear a pin drop.

“Three beers, Cosmo,” said Adam.  “And make ‘em cold.”

“Sure ‘nough.  Three beers comin’ up.”

“Don’t bother, barkeep,” a gruff voice said. “The Cartwrights aren’t welcome here, especially this one,” he added, shoving Joe hard.

“Now just a minute fella,” Hoss positioned himself between Joe and the aggressor.  “This here’s a public saloon—”

“—and this here’s a private wake for Slim’s friends; he ain’t one of ‘em!”

“Look here—” Adam started, but when the man who rivaled Hoss in size spun around with fire in his eyes and his hand on his gun, Adam put his hands up, open palms face out, away from his holster.  “—Mister?”

“McGready.  Mike McGready, foreman of the Box T over in Fallon.  Slim worked for me until this runt,” he gestured at Joe, “hired him away.  Slim would be alive today if it weren’t for him.”

“It seems to me where Slim worked was his decision, not yours . . . or Joe’s; he only did the offering.  Since Slim stayed on for more than one season, he must have been happy working for us.”

“That’s your opinion.”

“Yes, it is.  You’re entitled to yours.  And we’re entitled to have a drink in this fine establishment.  Cosmo, the beers.”

Joe had been watching the faces of the men at the tables while his brothers and McGready were talking.  Some of the patrons must have been from the Box T because he didn’t know them, but the others were either acquaintances or friends Joe had made through Slim.  They had played poker and caroused together in saloons across the Comstock for nearly two years, but when he looked in their eyes, he saw nothing but recrimination.

“Forget it,” he mumbled and turned to leave but Hoss grabbed his arm.

“Don’t see as we’ll be botherin’ ya none, Mr. McGready.  We’re just fixin’ to wet our whistles before headin’ home.”  Hoss picked up the stein and drained it, all the while maintaining his grip on Joe’s elbow.

Adam emptied his glass a second later and threw some coins on the bar.  “See ya, Cosmo.”   On the way out he grabbed Joe’s other elbow and together the three Cartwrights exited through the batwing doors.  Half way across the street, Joe dug his heels in and broke free, sprinting back to the Silver Dollar where he intended to finish his beer . . . slowly.

*****

Adam and Hoss rode home behind Joe who was slumped over his saddle horn, nursing a bruised stomach.  The older brothers were both in a foul mood and the long ride at a snail’s pace wasn’t improving their disposition.  It wasn’t until they dismounted in the yard that Adam saw the blood on the front of Joe’s shirt where he’d been pressing his hand.  Leaving the horses to a wrangler, he whisked Joe inside.

“Just what did you think you were going to accomplish with that little stunt?” Adam hissed, barely restraining his temper as he cleaned and bandaged a deep gash on Joe’s hand.

“It was your idea to go for a beer, remember?  Ow!”  Joe tried to jerk his hand away and get up from the settee but Adam’s grip was firm and Hoss pushed him back down.

“Yes, and vacating the premises when it was clear we weren’t welcome was also our idea.”

“If you’ll recall, I wanted to leave as soon as we got there.”

“Then why did you go back?”  Hoss wondered.

Joe countered, “Since when do the Cartwright brothers let outsiders run them out of their own saloon?”

Adam shook his head in disbelief.   “Joe, you are not a kid any longer, you’re 23.  There are over a hundred saloons in Virginia City and none of them belong to us.  Getting in a bar fight over who has the right to drink in one of them is . . . is—”

“Is what?  Stupid?  Is that it?  You think I’m stupid to stand my ground?”

“No.  Childish is more like it.  I asserted our right to be there and Hoss found a way for us to exit gracefully so everyone could win.  Only you had to go back and rub our presence in McGready’s face.  It’s a wonder you were able to walk away.”

“One punch.  One lucky punch, that’s all.”

“What about your hand?”

“That was an accident.  I fell on some broken glass.”

“Glass?”  Hoss asked, exchanging glances with Adam.

“Aargh!”  Adam started unwrapping the bandage he had just tied while Hoss fetched an oil lamp and a magnifying glass.

“What are you doing?” Joe again tried to pull his hand away, but Adam maintained his tight grip.

“Looking for glass.  Why didn’t you tell me this cut wasn’t caused by a knife?”

“Ow!  Stop poking!”

“I have to make sure there are no fragments in there or you’ll get an infection.”

“There was just one shard; I pulled it out.”  The doubt fairly radiated from his elder brother.  “Really, Adam, it’s okay.”

“It’s your left hand, Joseph.”

Joe looked up at Hoss and saw a flicker of fear in his eyes.  “All right, go ahead and poke,” he said, giving up the struggle.

When Adam was satisfied the wound was clean, he re-wrapped the bandage while Hoss gathered the first-aid supplies and tidied up.

“There’s going to be no way to hide this from Pa, is there?”

“Unlikely.”

Joe’s shoulders slumped as he let out a long breath.  “I’m going to bed.”  He rose slowly, cradling his hand to his chest.  When he reached the stairs, he took hold of the banister and without turning said, “Thanks.”

Adam watched Joe haul himself up the stairs one step at a time.  He didn’t hear the door close and surmised it was left open so his brother would know when their father arrived.  Oh, Joe.  So old and yet so young.

After a minute, Adam heaved a deep sigh as well and went to the kitchen.  Hoss had finished washing and drying the basin and was pouring coffee.  Without being asked, he handed the first mug to Adam and poured himself another.  The two brothers sat in companionable silence at the table and listened to voices from the bunkhouse which could be heard over the muted strains of a guitar and concertina.  Soon a reedy tenor began signing.

“Milo sure has a purty voice, doncha think?”  Hoss asked.

“Hmm,” Adam responded noncommittally and retrieved the coffee pot.  “On key at least, which is an improvement over the usual songs we hear from those cowboys.”

Hoss held his hand over his mug to signal he had had enough.  “Might as well talk about tomorrow. Joe won’t be much help for a couple days.  Dependin’ on what you got lined up, we’ll need to shift the men around a bit.”

“Right.”  Adam ran through a mental list of work to be done and the men available.  “Actually, I think we’re in good shape.  The Army contracts were fulfilled ahead of schedule thanks to Joe.   He wasn’t going to scout for mustangs until next month and he’ll be able to rope and lasso by then.  For now, he can ride fence.  Make sure he wears gloves.”

“Aw, he’s gonna hate that.  Never did like wearing anything on his hands or feet.  Remember, this is the kid that went barefoot for years; never could get him to wear shoes until Mama brought back those boots from San Francisco.  Whoo-ee!  Tiny little things they was.”

Adam choked on his coffee as a vision came to mind.  “He was still in dresses and clomping around in those boots.”

“We couldn’t get ‘em off him.  Slept in ‘em.  Probably woulda taken a bath in ‘em if we’d let him.”

“Who knows, maybe someday we’ll have as much trouble getting gloves off him as on.”

“That’ll be the day!” Hoss snorted, and the two brothers broke out in fresh peals of laughter, feeling better for the respite after they day they’d had.  When they settled down, both refocused on business.  “Who ya thinkin’ of to take Slim’s place?”

“Wes Turner.”

“What about the haying?”

“Dakota can fill in.”

“Dakota has sneezin’ fits around hay, Adam; he can’t get anywhere near that stuff.  Let him fill the empty slot on B crew and move Wes to A crew until the haying is done.”

Adam thought through the suggestion, considering the mix of personalities and work ethics and nodded his head.  Unlike other spreads where men were classed by task—drover, wrangler, etc.—and work was predominantly the same day in and day out with only slight variations, the Ponderosa ran multiple crews.  Sure, they hired seasonally for major events like round up and branding, but otherwise they rotated crew assignments.  Not only did that keep the men from getting bored, but it assured that no one person was repeatedly stuck with the unpleasant jobs like gelding.  It also made for ranch hands who were cross-trained and able to fill in gaps when they were down a man.

“Good thinking, Hoss.  We can reassess in a month.”

Adam rocked back in the kitchen chair, hooking a boot under the table rung to keep his balance.  From a management perspective, multiple crews also allowed for the shifting of good men to alternate assignments when temperament or personality conflicts warranted a change without drawing attention to that fact.  I wonder.

“Hank and Slim were on different crews,” he mused out loud.  “Hoss, do you recall if they ever worked together?”

“Aside from that drive to California last year, they not only worked on separate crews but in opposite corners of the ranch.  What are you thinkin’?”

“Just wondering if there was a connection between them.”

“I don’t see how.  Different interests; different friends.  Their only connection would have been . . .”

“Joe.”

“You reckon that’s what Joe’s thinkin’ too?”

Adam nodded.

“And you think he went back in that saloon deliberate like?  I mean not just to prove a point?”

Again a nod.  “I think he baited McGready, hoping for exactly what he got.”

“That’s plum loco, Adam!  Why would he do that?”

Adam raised his eyebrow.  It took a moment for those crystal blue eyes to close in comprehension.

“He feels responsible,” groaned Hoss, “and thought he deserved it.”

*****

Joe heard his father ride in; heard the door open and muffled voices downstairs punctuated by “He what?” and “What were you thinking?”  Then silence.  He could picture his father pacing and waited for the sound of his boots on the stairs, which didn’t immediately come.  He dozed off, but soon became aware of his father’s presence in the doorway.

“I’m awake, Pa.”

“I understand you fell on some glass?”

Joe raised his left hand so his father could see the bandage.

“Does it hurt much?”

“I’m fine.”

“That wasn’t my question.”

“Not much.  Adam cleaned it out and said it didn’t need stitches.”

“Mmm.”

“I’m fine, Pa.  I can still work.”

“It’s not whether, it’s where.  I want you to stay on the ranch; no going into Virginia City or anywhere else, do you understand?”

“Yessir.”

“And, Joe.”

“Yes.”

“It’s not your fault . . . Hank, Slim.  You’re not to blame for their deaths.”

“Whatever you say, Pa.”

*****

“I DON”T KNOW!”

“Joseph, there is no need to shout,” Ben said firmly.  He, Adam, and Hoss were standing at the foot of the dining room table perusing the wanted posters Sheriff Roy Coffee had brought for everyone to look at.

“I’m sorry, Pa, but how many times do I have to say it?  I don’t know what Hank meant when he said it was me that was wanted.  I don’t know who would want to kill Slim or Wes.  I don’t remember having trouble with anyone.  And I don’t know any of these men!” Joe shouted as he swept the sheaf of papers from the table and bolted towards the front room.

Quick as lightning, his father grabbed him by the arm.  “Just where do you think you’re going?”

“To the outhouse,” Joe fairly screamed, breaking free of Ben’s grip.  “Tell the whole world, why don’t you!!”

Ben started to retort, but thought better of it.  Instead, he turned to Hoss and jerked his head in the direction of the door that just slammed into the credenza.

Hoss nodded and hurried out after Little Joe, looking pointedly at Adam as he passed.

“Don’t you think you’re being a little unreasonable?” Adam said, quietly.  “He needs some privacy.”

“Until this situation is resolved, that boy is to go nowhere unaccompanied.  NOWHERE . . . do you understand me?”  Ben poked his finger in Adam’s chest as he accentuated each word.

“Now, Ben,” began Roy.  “Adam’s got a point.  Little Joe is home.  He should be fine on the Ponderosa.”

“And you!” Ben swung his finger towards the Sheriff, “You have been badgering my son with questions for days now and you’re no closer to finding who’s behind these murders than you were when you started.  And I’ll remind you that he was home ON THE PONDEROSA when Hank was beaten to death three months ago; he was home ON THE PONDEROSA when Slim was shot a month and a half later; and he was home ON THE PONDEROSA when Wes was hung in our hayloft ON THE PONDEROSA three weeks ago!”

“Now, Ben,” the Sheriff replied.  “I recall ya told me it mighta been that stampede that did Hank in.”

Ben grabbed the back of the heavy, carved dining chair he was standing behind and lifted, then dropped it as he let out a primal, “Arrgh!” and threw his arms up in the air.

Not liking his father’s color, Adam interceded, “Roy, I know you came into this investigation late but, official report or not, the Doc felt that Hank died of injuries consistent with a beating, not in the stampede.  Before he died, Slim said the same thing Hank did . . . that someone was looking for Joe.  And Wes . . . well, Wes was long dead when we found him hung in the hayloft, but the card pinned to his chest said it all.”

Roy fished the playing card out of his pocket and turned it over.  They all paused to stare at the Ace of Spades, universally known as the death card.  Across the face of it was written, ‘Three—Death by Hanging.’”  Slim’s body had been found with an Ace that said ‘Two—Death by Gunshot.”  They had not found a card on Hank, but attributed that fact to the stampede or their own ignorance in not recognizing the card—if there was one—for what it was.

“The problem is,” Roy continued, “there is no name or demand; no hint of who is behind this.  I know I’m pesterin’ the boy, Ben, but he must know something that he’s not telling us.”

Adam retrieved the fallen posters from the floor and tossed them on the table. “You don’t really believe Joe knows someone here, do you? He’s just as perplexed as we are, Roy, and he’s beside himself with worry about the safety of people around him.  He hasn’t been into Virginia City in two months; he’s cut himself off from Hattie Miller, and he’s going stir crazy with us watching every move he makes.”

“I can see that, Adam,” replied Roy, patiently.  “But time’s running out.”

Ben and Adam exchanged a look, knowing full well what the Sheriff was getting at.

The interval between murders was growing shorter.

Joe could count as well as anyone—even if Adam always maintained arithmetic was not his strong suit.  He didn’t need his brother to smack him upside the head like he used to when he got his division tables wrong.  Not this time.  Joe Cartwright knew the days between each murder were halved and so he had returned to the house after doing his business, made his apologies to the Sheriff and his father, and asked if he could go to bed.

“Of course, son.  Get a good night’s sleep; you’ll feel better in the morning.“

“Nite, Shortshanks.  Sleep tight.”

“We’ll figure this out together, kid.  Don’t worry.”

Instead, Joe went up the stairs and out the window taking nothing with him but the clothes on his back, an apple he pilfered from the table, and what money he could quickly find.  He’d had a few dollars squirreled away in a jar in the bottom drawer of his dresser and he knew where Adam and Hoss kept their stash.  To ease his conscience, he left them each an IOU and made a quick exit, dropping quietly to the ground from the hallway window and made his way down to the lower corral.  Using only sweet whispers and the apple, he caught and mounted one of the newly-broke mares and rode bareback away from the ranch as fast as he could.  He figured he had about six hours before they came after him—less if his father checked on him before going to bed which he was bound to do.  It was a long shot, but Joe figured with the new moon Hoss would advise waiting until first light to better read his spore.  With luck, he had bought enough time to raid one of the line shacks for supplies and be well on his way before they found his trail.

There was no time to retrieve saddlebags, so at the first shack Joe came to he fashioned a pack of sorts, filling it with jerky and some canned goods.  At the second shack he added matches, rope, a knife and—as a last thought—a jacket against the colder nights about to come.  He hated to leave the mare behind, but without a saddle and bridle, there was no way she could take him where he was going, and with the Ponderosa brand newly burnt into her hide, she would mark him for sure.  So, with a heavy heart he turned the horse loose where there was sweet grass and plenty of water and headed out on foot over the mountains.

At first things went well.  The nights were warm and Joe loved being alone, under the stars, not having to worry someone else was going to pay the price for knowing him.  The thing he regretted most was not being able to go to the lake to visit his mother’s grave before he left because he knew that was the first place his family would look for him.  Before going to sleep, Joe made a wish on his Mama’s star and blew her a kiss, hoping she would understand and continue to watch over him like his Pa said she always would.

*****

“Confound that boy!”  Hoss was angry, but his fury masked an underlying fear that permeated every fiber of his being.  Joe was in way over his head on this one.  There was a maniac out there with Joe in his sights and Hoss felt totally powerless.  It was not a feeling he was accustomed to.

“Did he leave you a note, too?” Adam asked.

“Yeah, asked me to take care of Cochise and that he owed me twice what he took.”

“I get to look after Pa and get a triple return.”

“Dadburnit!  I’m gonna tan his hide!”

Hoss carefully surveyed the terrain, placing his size 15 feet carefully so as not to disturb tracks if there were any.  Only there weren’t.

“Dagnnabit!” he exclaimed, beating his sugarloaf hat against his leg.

“What?  What did you find?” Ben shouted.  He and Adam and two other ranch hands were waiting on the main trail while Hoss looked for leads.

“Nothing!  That’s what I found . . . nothing!”

As soon as he was sure he wouldn’t be spoiling any evidence, Hoss stomped down to where the men were waiting with Chubb.

“I’m sorry, Pa.  I done failed ya.  I’m just so sorry.”

“Hoss, it’s not your fault.  You did your best.”

“You didn’t fail, Hoss,” Adam added.  “If anything, you were a success.”

“Huh?  How do you figure that?”

“You finally taught Joe how to cover his tracks!”  Adam observed lightly, trying to ease Hoss’s mood.  “Remember all those failed lessons with Joe when he was just a kid?   We would give him an hour’s head start and then come looking for him.  The longest he stayed “hidden” was ten minutes.  Joe was pretty good at following tracks, he just never could seem to get the hang of covering them.”

“Yeah!” Hoss brightened for a minute, then cursed again.  “Dadburn, ornery, son of—”

“Hoss!”

“—sorry, Pa.  I’m just so darn mad at him.”

“I know Hoss, we all are.  He knows the family sticks together.  Taking this on alone is no solution.”

“No, it isn’t,” agreed Adam, “but it’s not surprising he ran.  We were smothering him; Joe doesn’t take well to having his freedom limited.”

“Reckon he’ll head out of the territory?”

“I don’t know, Hoss.   It’s possible.  Pa?”

“Maybe.  How much money did you say he had with him, Adam?”

“Two hundred from me.  Forty from Hoss and whatever he had of his own.”

“That’s enough for a bench seat to New York or anywhere in between if he had a mind to,” Ben groaned.

“Joe might still be in the territory,” Adam said.  “I propose we hire some extra men to keep looking north, east, south of here; into California or down to Arizona if we have to.”

“Offer a reward, Adam, but you make sure they understand this is no bounty hunt.  He needs to be found and kept safe until we can get there . . . wherever ‘there’ is.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And did you talk to Mitch?”

“He’s still in St. Louis, but his Pa’ll bring him in to see Roy soon as he gets back.”

Although Mitch and Joe had come to a tentative truce following a serious falling out several years before, they didn’t spend a lot of time together.  Joe helped out at the Devlin Ranch on occasion and Mitch did likewise at the Ponderosa, but the days of them being inseparable had passed.

“Ain’t there nothing else we can do, Pa?”  Hoss said.

“Pray, son.  We can pray the good Lord sees fit to watch over your impetuous younger brother.”   More than usual.

“Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.  What are you thinking?”  Ben looked heavenward for an answer, but there was none forthcoming.

*****

“That was a delicious meal, Hop Sing,” Sheriff Coffee remarked, pushing back from the table and rubbing his stomach.  “I always appreciate being invited to supper at the Ponderosa.”

The cook was pleased.  “You tell Hop Sing favorite dish.  I make for you next time.”

After Hop Sing cleared the last of the dishes and set a fresh pot of coffee on the table, Roy got down to the business he came for.

“I did what you asked and sent telegrams to all the rail stations between here and San Francisco, east to New York and south to New Orleans.”

“New Orleans?”  Ben startled at the prospect.

“You know Joe’s always talked about going there someday, Pa,” Adam said gently. Noting the way Ben’s shoulders sagged in defeat at the prospect, he added, “We really should consider all possibilities and we’ve exhausted every lead we’ve had so far.”

Acknowledging the truth of that statement, Ben nodded.  “Thank you, Roy.  I know those telegrams are a long shot, but as Adam pointed out, we are grasping at straws.”

“I understand, Ben.”

Hoss pulled a face which did not go unnoticed.

“What is it, son?”

“Pa, I know ya’s not wanting to leave any stone unturned, but I don’t reckon Joe would do any of those things you’re talking about.   This is his home.  I just don’t believe he would leave the Ponderosa.”

“Boy’s got a point, Ben.  Joe knows every nook and cranny of this ranch, you told me so yourself.  We need to think like him.”

“Ha,” Adam snorted. “Joe’s thought process at the best of times is often irrational.  I can’t begin to imagine what he’s thinking now.”

“Well, he ain’t thinking about running away!  He ain’t no coward.”  Hoss said indignantly.

“I never thought he was.”

“That’s enough, both of you!” Ben thundered.  “Hoss, no one is implying that Joe ran away because he was a coward.  Do I think he’s afraid?  Of course I do, but he’s not afraid for himself . . . he’s afraid of what is happening to people he knows.  In his mind, if he stays away from people—like us, his friends, his girl—they will be safe.”

“So what are ya thinkin’, Hoss?” asked Roy.

“He walked out of here with nothing.  His jacket and hat are still on the hook over there.  He didn’t take food or water.”

“Or Cochise.  Or any other horse in the barn.”  Adam added.

“What about the lower stables, Adam?  The working stock?”  Ben asked.

“All accounted for.”

“Say, what about those new mustangs you were telling me about?” Roy asked.

“I’ll get Charlie.”  Adam exited through the kitchen to the bunkhouse.  A few minutes later, he returned with a younger man in tow.

Carlos Little Feather, a Mexican-Paiute half-breed (Charlie to his friends), was Joe’s right hand when it came to managing the horses.  The family had had their doubts when Joe picked him over a more experienced wrangler to oversee the remuda, but as usual, Joe’s sixth sense about people and horses and putting them together was correct.  Charlie also had an uncanny knack for reading a horse’s temperament and finding it a suitable rider . . . for that is how Charlie approached the task, not the other way around.  His style suited Joe who was often amused at the reaction of the cowboys when told they weren’t “right” for a particular horse rather than the reverse.

“You wanted to see me, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, Charlie, thank you for coming in.  We’re trying to figure out if Joe was on foot or on horseback when he left the ranch.  We’ve accounted for all working stock.  How many mustangs did you and Joe round up?  I counted twenty-five in the corral this morning.”

Charlie thought a moment, then responded, “Twenty-eight.  We let two go immediately.  Too old.  Then we branded a few straight off that Joe wanted for breeding.”

“We need to track one of those horses, Charlie,” Hoss said quietly.  “Joe’s gone.  We think he mighta taken one of ‘em when he left here.”

“None of the horses have been shod, much less broke.”

“Did he seem partial to any when you were rounding them up?” Ben asked.

Charlie stared at the floor thinking.  When he raised his head, he looked straight at Hoss.  “Si.  There was a skewbald mare that took a shine to Joe; started following him, watching him.  Ella es dulce en él,” he smiled.  “She is sweet on him, I think.”

*****

Ben unrolled a large map of the Ponderosa and placed it on the dining table.  Unlike the one on the wall behind his desk, this map was topographic, showing the contours of the terrain with detailed markings related to ranch operations—pastures, the mill, corrals, stables, hay barns, equipment sheds, etc.

“All right.  “There are line shacks starting here.”  Ben pointed to an area on the map and tapped his finger at each landmark he identified.  “And here.  Then more up over the ridge, here, here, and here, and across the divide and back down over here.”

“I think we should send three or four men and have them fan out to cover each section.  Tell them to look for any sign that Joe was there or stocked up and report back as soon as possible—shouldn’t take more than a week.  Joe set out with nothing; odds are he is either holed up in one of them or took what he needed to move deeper into the mountains.”

“How many line shacks do you have, Ben?” Roy asked.

“One every 10 miles, more in the higher elevations.”

“Why?”

“The further from civilization, the more supplies needed, scarcer the game, colder the climate . . . you name it.”

“Pa,” Hoss said. “My guess is Joe would limit taking too much from any one cabin so as not to alert us that he’d been there.”

“Agreed.  Adam, give each man a copy of the inventory checklist of what should be in the shack.  Have them check the contents against it.”

“What else?”

“I don’t know.  One day at a time.”

*****

Joe was a mess; anyone could see it.  Anyone that could find him, that is.

He’d been on the run for over a week now, doubling back, staying in the rocks as much as he could, switching back and forth, up and down; employing every trick Hoss ever taught him.  But it had cost him, too.  He was worn down, hungry and tired.  He had to come out of the rocks to find food, but every time he did he ran the risk of being spotted, so he had taken to foraging at night and sleeping in the day in whatever shelter he could find.

Joe had convinced himself that if he could just stay hidden, then bad things would stop happening to people around him.  It appeared to be working; no one had died since he’d been gone.  He’d overheard that much from two men who were obviously looking for him when they stopped to water their horses near a small cave he was using as a base camp.  Joe hadn’t dared peer out in order to see who was talking.  He didn’t recognize the voices, but he caught enough of their conversation to learn they were part of a posse.

A posse?  He hadn’t counted on that.  Sure, he knew his family would be searching, and maybe a few ranch hands—those that would still speak to him.  But he hadn’t figured the Sheriff would organize a formal posse to scour the countryside for one man who hadn’t done anything wrong.

Joe crawled on his belly to the edge of opening in an effort to hear more clearly.  It was something about old man Cartwright having the money and power to hire half the men in the state to find his boy.  What did they care?  If they were getting good food and better wages to gallop around the Territory looking for some snot-nosed kid, then they’d make the most it.

“Think there’s any truth to the rumor the kid’s a Jonah?  Three men dyin’ in as many months and all?” one man asked as they were checking the cinches before mounting.

“Maybe.  For sure no one’s bit the dust since the kid disappeared.  Those stupid cowhands should hope he stays gone.”  Then they both laughed and rode away.

Joe sat up as soon as soon as it was safe and pondered his next move.  If the search perimeter had widened to all of Nevada, then his only recourse was to leave the state.  They’d expect him to go south or east so Oregon, maybe.  Or Canada.  One thing, for certain, he would need more gear than what he had scavenged.  Like it or not, Joe knew he’d have to return to civilization long enough to get provisioned for a journey like that.  He gathered his few belongings; counted the money he had borrowed from his brothers and set out on foot once again, calculating he’d be in Placerville in two-to-three days.  With any luck maybe he’d have enough money left for a bath and a haircut.  Boy, wouldn’t Pa get a kick out of that!  Better yet, a hat and a new pair of boots.  He wished now he’d never turned the mare loose.

Even though they changed the name of Hangtown back in 1854 to something more civilized for the benefit of the newly-arrived, the businesses, and the general populace, the town continued to be a haven for outlaws, immigrants, the indigent and the marginal fringes of society.   The streets were still unpaved and rutted; the boardwalks the only respite from mud, gunk and horse manure.  Cast iron boot scrapers placed in front of each establishment were put there so cowboys could remove the dung from their heels before entering.  It helped but was not a panacea.   Shopkeepers were constantly sweeping, pushing the dried mud out the door, onto the boardwalk and into the street where it mixed with other trash and waste similarly dumped, only to be attached to other boots, repeating the endless cycle.

At least, there were no longer miners digging in the middle of the road, Joe thought.  His Pa had said that in the early days of the gold rush miners dug everywhere for gold . . . sometimes right in the middle of the street and traffic had to go around them.   It was rumored a building even collapsed because men had dug gold out of the mortar with their pen knives.  More than once a burial was interrupted when the mourners spotted gold sparkling in the newly-turned earth and flung the body out of the open grave, laying claim to the land beneath.

With no horse to stable, Joe wandered the streets looking in shop windows and observing the goings on.  Arriving at the center of town, he saw the oak tree that gave the town its name and thought back to the last time he was here with some of the drovers.  Pa had given his blessing on a couple extra nights before heading home after the drive.  Well, not exactly.  What Pa had said was that he was to be home by the end of the month so he could get started on the fulfilling the Army contract.  In his mind, that meant that if they could finish the drive early, then they had those extra days coming to them and were free to spend them as they wished as long as they were back at the ranch and ready to work on the first.   As usual, he was very good at holding to the intent of the Law According to Ben Cartwright, but not necessarily the letter.

They had ridden into town high on the success of the drive and in good spirits and nearly got caught up in a vigilante-style hanging.  Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, they made their way over to the Jackass Tavern, out of harm’s way.

Except for the bartender, one saloon girl and the piano player, the place appeared empty.  He had ordered beers all around and the group settled at a table near the back of the establishment.  They shot the bull for a while.  Hank talked about his family in Kansas and how one more drive like this and he’d have enough money to go back home.  Slim had just booked passage to the Sandwich Islands and was looking forward to spending the winter in paradise.  Wes was saving up for marriage.  So—not to be out done—he stated that he was saving up for a new saddle for Cochise.  The resulting silence lasted only for a moment before the men dissolved into laughter and let loose a few ribald comments.

In due course, someone produced a deck of cards and they decided to play poker.  The first card he dealt was the death card which had a sobering effect on the group after witnessing the events at the courthouse.  Although they played a few hands, no one was much in the mood to gamble so they made an early night of it.

Joe shook his head to clear the memory.  So much for saving.  Not only had he taken every cent of what he had put away, but he had “borrowed” money from his brothers to finance his escape.   Well, he would get a job up in Oregon and repay first his brothers, then the homesteads where he had “borrowed” food while on the run, and then save again so he could afford to visit his family when it was safe. But Hank would never be able to go home; he was dead and buried far away from Kansas.

Sullen and morose, he did not notice the figure lurking in the shadows behind him.

*****

The first sensation Joe experienced as he regained consciousness was one of waking after a deep sleep.  He started to arch his back and stretch, but something soft was holding his chest and arms in place.   Joe frowned slightly and willed the arms of Morpheus to claim him once again.  Instead, he curled his toes and was vaguely aware that his boots had been removed, and he was barefoot.  When he tried to move his legs, however, the same soft restraints pinned his thighs and shins, and the reality of being bound was exacerbated by the sudden realization that he was naked.  The truth brought him to full consciousness and he blinked several times to drive the sandman from his eyes.

The room was a murky, smudged charcoal grey—not totally dark, but neither was it light.  It existed as he did in a shadow world of nothingness.

Bound and naked—his worst nightmare had come true.   Joe was a man of action; to be immobilized—no matter how comfortable the restraints, was unthinkable.   He began to panic, his breath coming in short pants, sweat coating every inch of his body as he struggled against the ties that bound him.

“Help!” he screamed. “Help me!  Please, help me!  Someone.  Please!”

But there was no sound other than his own heart-wrenching shrieks piercing the grey abyss.

*****

It was late afternoon when Hoss finished straightening the felloes on a wheel from Hattie Miller’s buckboard.  He had found the young lady stranded on the road near the house and offered to fix her bent wheel in return for first dibs on the basket of goodies she was bringing to the family.  Hattie was his brother’s latest conquest and he knew full well she was hoping to see Joe or hear if there had been any word from him.

Just then, Adam rode up, curious as to who Pa was talking to on the front porch.  No sooner had introductions been made when Charlie came riding in.

“Mr. Cartwright!”

“What is it Charlie?”

“The skewbald. She is back.”

“Joseph?”

“No, just the horse.  I saw her running with the mustangs in the pasture.”

“You’re certain it was the same horse?”

“Si, Senor.  She has the pine brand.”

“Hoss?  What do you think?”

Hoss frowned deeply at this news.  He didn’t want to upset his father any more than he had to, but there didn’t appear to be any getting around it.  “He’s gone to ground.”

“What?  What does that mean,” Hattie asked.

“He’s gone into hiding—like a fox would go underground to avoid a dog,” Adam explained.

“But you’re here to help him, not hunt him.” Hattie said, clearly confused and upset.

“Joe’s trying to get away from us, Hattie.  He thinks . . . we believe he thinks that his friends won’t be hurt if he isn’t anywhere around.   Until we can find who is committing these murders, I’m afraid Joe will remain in hiding.”

“Poor Joe, he must be suffering so, not knowing who to trust, who to believe in.”

Adam regarded the young woman with interest.  She was unlike the usual type of girl Joe romanced.  For one thing, she had dark hair; Joe seemed to favor blondes of late.  She was also taller than he was, or close to it.

“May I take you home, Hattie?   Joe would not want you out this late without an escort.”

She blushed.  “Of course, Adam.  That is very gallant of you.”

“Pa, I’ll be ready to ride come first light.

“See that you are son.  Be careful.”  Ben thought better of having one son return home alone.  “Hoss, go with them.”   After all, he thought, there was safety in numbers, or so he hoped.

*****

It was hot, even for . . . what . . . August?  Was it still July?  September?   Joe didn’t know.  He didn’t know how long he had been here.  Hell, he didn’t even know where here was.

He was tied to a chair, but not uncomfortably so.  The chair was soft.   He figured the ties were made of silk.  In front of him was a table on which there was a partial deck of cards.  Joe snorted.  His captor was not playing with a full deck! 

He didn’t need the missing cards to tell him that.  The Shadow—for that’s how Joe thought of him now—The Shadow never spoke above a whisper, never raised his voice, never chastised him or berated him for some real or imagined sin; never beat him.  He just kept asking Joe to choose.  Choose what?  He didn’t know.  Joe pleaded; he cried; he begged.  But all the Shadow said was “choose.”  Hour after hour; day after day; Joe thought he would go mad at the sheer insanity of the situation.

Exhausted and desperate, he finally asked, “What are my choices?”

“Please,” he begged.  “Please give me my choices.”

“You know what they are.”

“I don’t,” he cried.  “I don’t know.  Tell me.  Please.  Tell me.”  Sobs once again wracked his thin frame as his chin dropped to his chest.

The Shadow gently lifted Joe’s head and placed some ice chips in his mouth.

“Do you want me to help you?”

“Yes.  Oh, God, yes,” Joe murmured, sucking the ice as if it were the nectar of the gods.

The Shadow dealt five cards face down on the table.

“Pick two.”

“What?”

“Pick two.  Any two.”

Joe stared at the cards, barely able to focus on them.  “The ends,” he said, finally.

“Excellent choice,” the Shadow whispered and turned the end cards face up.  “Death by Crossbow and Death by Drowning.  Your friends will be surprised at your choices.”

“Wha-What?”

“You are clearly not up to making any more decisions today and you did ask me to help you, did you not?   So I will select which of your friends meet their death by crossbow or drowning.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOO!”

*****

The rooster was crowing when Roy Coffee knocked on the front door of the ranch house.

“Good morning, Hop Sing.”

“Hello, Sheriff.  Breakfast all ready.  You come sit.  I call Mistah Cartwright.”

Roy smiled when he saw a place had already been set for him.  He handed Hop Sing his hat and sat down to a steaming cup of coffee.  A few minutes later, Ben descended the stairs while tying a green scarf around his neck.  He had just reached the landing when there was a singular loud knock at the door.

“Go ahead and serve, Hop Sing.  I’ll get it.”  Ben glanced at the grandfather clock and wondered who would be calling at this hour of the morning.

“Dear Lord!” he exclaimed as he swung the door open and was nearly hit in the face by a body impaled on the door by an arrow.

Roy and Hop Sing joined Ben at the front door and stood still too stunned to do anything much more than stare at the hapless victim.  Within seconds Adam and Hoss joined them.

“Who?  Who is it, Ben?” asked Roy.

“Shamus, our chuck wagon cook.”

It was Hoss who moved first, reaching out to remove an Ace of Spades from the cook’s apron pocket.

“Thank goodness Little Joe ain’t here to see this,” Roy mumbled, taking the card from Hoss’s hand.

“Pa, it’s too soon,” Adam said.

“What?”

“It’s too soon.  This killing is off schedule.”

“Roy?  What do you make of it?”

“Well, Ben, it could mean the person responsible is getting more desperate.”

“Desperate?  We’re the ones who are desperate!”

“Calm down Ben.”

“Desperate for what, Roy?” asked Adam.

“To find Joe.  Maybe he thinks Joe will come out of hiding if the murders are closer to his home.  I think you, Hoss and your Pa ought to come into town . . . into protective custody.”

“That is ridiculous, Roy!  I am not leaving this ranch.  If Joe comes home we will be here where he expects to find us.”

“Ben, this man—whoever he is or they are—is sick.  There’s no telling what he will do next.  I can’t protect you out here and do my job in Virginia City.”

“Roy, we’ll hire more men.”

“Now, Adam, I can see that makes sense to you, but do you know who you are hiring at this point?  Do you?   Could be one of them men you hired is the one we’re looking for, just waiting for a chance to get you—any one of you alone.  How else could someone get this close to the family under any other circumstance?”

“I don’t know, Roy.  But we can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

“All right, but let’s be methodical about this.  Adam, go ahead and send the hands out to canvas the line shacks as we planned.”

“I copied the inventory sheet over last night.  We’re ready to ride.”

“No, Adam.  You three are to stick together, no one goes anywhere alone.  We’re going to take the body to town and see what the doc can tell us.”

Adam was frustrated with the turn of events.  He was normally a patient man, but it seemed he’d done more than his fair share of waiting these last few weeks and he was growing more and more impatient to take action, to do something, anything that would bring closure to this nightmare. “He’s dead, Roy, what more do you expect the doc to say?”

“But how did he die?”

“THERE’S AN ARROW THROUGH HIS HEART!” Ben shouted.

“Pa, I think what Roy is getting at is that there’s no blood,” Hoss said.

“What?”

“That’s right, Hoss.  A man shot in the chest would likely have hemorrhaged heavily.  No blood—”

“—means he was dead already.” Adam wiped his hand over his face. “So some person or persons propped Shamus up against the door and shot an arrow through him and then vanished before we opened the door?”

Hoss frowned.  “A bow and arrow is a short-range weapon.  That means whoever it was, was very, very close.”

“Or, is still here,” Ben added.

“Everyone inside . . . now!” Roy commanded.

*****

It didn’t take long for word to spread that another body had been found on the Ponderosa.  Given the ranch’s return to relative normalcy following the disappearance of Joe Cartwright, the news was hard to hear and rumors even harder to dispel.  Shamus, the Ponderosa’s trail cook, had been impaled on the Cartwright’s front door by an arrow.  The news item in the Territorial Enterprise told all of the gory details, save one—in his apron pocket was an Ace of Spades with the words “Four—Death by Crossbow” written across its face.

Ben was loath to ask any more men to assist with the search for Joe after Shamus was found.  Several, in fact, had already given their notice and departed the ranch.  One was heard claiming the family was cursed as he galloped away but not after Roy had taken names and obtained information where they could be contacted should the need arise.  The rest were loyal employees who vowed to stand by the Cartwrights no matter the danger.  It was a comfort to Ben, but a small one.

The men who were searching the line shacks eventually returned with the inventory lists tallied as Adam instructed.  It didn’t take long to confirm Joe had done exactly as Hoss predicted, removing only one or two items from each shack so as not to arouse suspicion if someone came to check.  If they had just eyeballed the interior, each would appear fully stocked or if an item had been missing, it would have been attributed merely to oversight.  Ben thanked the Lord again for his detail-oriented first born.  It renewed his hope for a brief moment that an answer was near at hand if only they could determine the last shack visited and the direction Joe had set out from there.  However, as Hoss had pointed out, Joe could have ridden to the furthest shack first and worked his way back.  Or, given this newly-developed talent for covering his tracks, he could have zigzagged randomly.  There was just no telling which trail or path Joe might have taken or how long ago.

­­­­

It had been nearly six months since Joe disappeared and every lead was a dead end.  The results of Roy’s numerous and repeated wires to towns and cities across the west were negative.  The extra men hired to search had been paid and released.  Ranch business continued unabated, attended to by the older Cartwright brothers while their father criss-crossed the Sierras looking for a sign, any sign that his youngest son was alive.

On November 1, a despondent and utterly inconsolable Ben Cartwright knelt before his third wife’s grave begging forgiveness.  For the first time in 24 years, he had not held their son in his arms on his birthday.  Oh, Marie!  I’ve failed to protect our son; I’ve failed you.  Forgive me, my love.  My dearest love.  Forgive me, Joseph.

It was there on the promontory over the lake that Deputy Foster found the grieving father.

*****

Ben rode into town at a gallop and dismounted in front of the Sheriff’s office before Buck had even come to a halt—something he admonished his sons never to do—and rushed through the open door as if the devil himself were on his tails.

“Clem said you had news,” Ben gasped, brushing aside a man who was trying to talk to him.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry to—”

“Not now,” Ben said brusquely.  “Roy?  What have you heard?” he demanded.

Roy stood and gestured to a chair.  “Ben, I think you’re gonna want to hear Mitch out.”

Ben turned to the young man, who stood with hat in hand looking as if he were about to throw up.

“Mitch?  What do you know about this?  Have you seen Joe?  Do you know where he is?”

“N-no, sir.  I ju-just—”

“Spit it out, boy!”

“Ben, let the boy talk.  Mitch, you sit down before you fall down.  Ben you sit over here and let’s listen to what he has to say.  All right?”  Just then, Adam nearly ripped the door off its hinges as he skidded over the threshold.

“Any more Cartwrights out there?” Roy asked, not too kindly.

“Hoss is at South Camp; I sent someone to fetch him.”

“All right.  Now Adam, you take a seat right here.  Mitch has something he wants to tell us he feels is important and I’d like all of us to listen to him without interrupting.  Is that agreed?  Good.  Now, Mitch, you just take your time and tell us from the beginning what you got to say.”

“Thanks,” Mitch said.  He took the glass of water the Sheriff offered and then began.  “I’ve been in St. Louis with my Ma the last six months, helping close out the family farm and sell it otherwise I’d a been here sooner.”

“Sorry to hear about your Grandfolks, Mitch,” Roy said.  Mitch nodded his appreciation and continued.  “Now you just go on and tell us about that cattle drive last year.”

“After the drive, Joe and me and a bunch of the drovers took our time coming back home.  You remember, Mr. Cartwright, you gave us some extra days off and a bonus for bringing in the herd in ahead of schedule.”

“Yes, yes, get on with it,” Ben said rather curtly, then apologized.  “I’m sorry, Mitch.  Please just tell us as succinctly and quickly as you can.”

“But don’t spare the details,” Adam added.

“O-Okay,” Mitch took a deep breath.  “Well, we went home by way of Frenchtown ‘cause Wes had a girl there he’d met over the summer when she’d come to Virginia City—“

Adam raised an eyebrow and asked, “You mean Wes Turner?”

“Yeah, that’s him.  Wes Turner.  Anyway, we drank pretty heavy—sorry Mr. Cartwright—wound up staying the night, and were kinda late leaving the next morning, if you know what I mean.”  Mitch looked around and saw nothing but stony faces, so he swallowed hard and continued.  “So we were late getting to Hangtown—Placerville, I mean—and there was some trouble over a trial.  Folks took exception to the verdict and broke the defendants outta jail in order to deliver a little vigilante justice.  When they started stringin’ up ropes in that tree in Elstner’s Hay Yard we decided to get off the street.  We were sitting in the back room of the Jackass Tavern playing cards, but nobody was feeling very talkative.  There were five of us.  Me, Joe, Hank Murray, Wes, and Slim somebody.”

“Slim Russell,” Ben said matter-of-factly.  It wasn’t a question, but Mitch confirmed it nonetheless.

“Yeah, that’s right.”  Mitch couldn’t read their faces, but he did see the look that passed among them.

“But not Shamus?” Adam asked.

“Shamus?  You mean Cookie?   No, he wasn’t with us.  Why?”

“Never mind; go on,” said Roy.

“Like I said, we were playing, but nobody was talking.  Joe was dealing 5-card stud, calling out the cards.  First up was Hank’s and it was the Ace of Spades.  Joe stopped and everybody just stared at it.”  Mitch looked around the room and added by way of explanation, “it’s the death card.”

“We know,” said Ben.

“Well, I don’t remember who started it, but we began talking about the different ways there were to die and then someone mentioned cats and their nine lives and I made a joke that if Joe were a cat, he would have already used up at least half his lives considering how many times he’d been beaten, gun shot, arrow shot, not to mention almost hung.”

You could hear a pin drop in the Sheriff’s office.

“Was there anyone else?” Adam asked quietly.

“Anyone else?”

“In the room with you; overhearing the conversation?”

Mitch searched a spot on the wall for his answer.  After a moment he said, “There was an old guy at the table behind us with a bottle of whiskey.  I don’t remember that he was drunk exactly, but his voice was . . . rough, raspy like.  And he . . . he must have been listening ‘cause he said something about some people dying over and over and others just once.”

“’Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.’” Adam quoted and when everyone turned to look at him, added, “Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2.”

“Can you describe this man, Mitch?” Roy asked.

“Mmm.  Like I said, old guy – maybe 40; grey hair . . . big bushy grey eyebrows.  He wasn’t standing so I can’t say how tall, but he looked to be about average.  Wore a fancy grey coat and vest like he was goin’ to a shindig.  Come to think of it, everything about him was grey.”  Mitch shuddered at the memory.  “There was definitely something odd about him, but I don’t know what it was exactly.  Sorry.”

“Nothin’ to be sorry for, boy,” Roy said, standing.  “You can get along home now.  I know your folks are waitin’ on ya outside.”

“Thank you, Mitch,” said Ben.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry I wasn’t here when Joe went missin’.  I know he and I have had our differences, but if there’s anything I can do—“

“We’ll let you know,” Adam escorted Mitch to the door and had a few words with the elder Devlin about keeping Mitch close to home before he shut the door and returned to the others.

“I’ll wire the Sheriff in Placerville; see what I can find out about this ‘old’ man,” Roy said, shaking his head at the arrogance of youth.

“Adam and I will leave immediately.  We’ll check in with the Sheriff when we arrive.  Will you tell Hoss when he gets here what’s happened?”

“Of course, Ben.  Be careful, both of you.”

When Ben and Adam stepped outside the office, they looked at each other.

“Go ahead and say it, Adam.”

“All right; there’s no guarantee Joe is in Placerville.  I know we want to find justice for Shamus and the others, but our first priority should be to find Joe.”

“He could be right under our noses—” Ben began.

“—or he could have high-tailed it to any number of places,” Adam finished.

“I have a very bad feeling about this.  Joe is in trouble—serious trouble—I know it deep in my bones.  Wherever he is, the answers begin in Hangtown.”

“Then let’s ride.”

*****

Time had lost all meaning.  Joe had no way to track the passage of the days and nights except by the change in temperature.  Although the light level remained virtually the same from hour to hour, the air was cold at night and unbearably hot during the day, reminding Joe of the desert he had often been left to die in.  Death by Desert.  That’s one you forgot, Shadow.  He tried to laugh, but his lips were cracked and bleeding and the effort just wasn’t worth it.

He was hungry, always hungry.  He kept thinking about how famished Hoss could get and he swore he’d never tease him again if this is how it felt.  It got so bad he’d rather not be fed at all.  But if Joe refused to open his mouth, the Shadow would hold his nose until he gasped for air and then just force the thick soup down his throat.  It wasn’t that it was bad; in fact it was quite good, rich and well-seasoned.  There just was never enough of it so that his stomach was constantly growling for more.  He was fed just enough to keep him alive and to know hunger.  Always the hunger.  And the growling.  Until Joe believed the Hunger was a beast gnawing on him from the inside out, and he had to kill it.  Death by Crossbow.   I will find the beast, kill it, and end the Hunger.

And thirsty.  God, I am so thirsty.  A container of ice, tantalizingly full, was always within view, always just out of reach.  Joe watched the ice melt; saw the condensation form on the outside of the glass and followed the beads of sweat as they meandered slowly down the smooth surface in tiny rivulets, joining together at last to pool on the polished table.  Death by Drowning.  Oh, how he longed to dive into that puddle and drown in the delicious coolness of water.

“Water,” he croaked, his throat parched.  “Please.  Water.”

But there was no answer except the caving of the ice which brought fresh torment.

*****

Aengus Mason, the Sheriff of Placerville, was tall and muscular, with flaming red hair that reached his shoulders and a handle bar moustache he claimed could predict everything from earthquakes to riots; from gully washers to drought.  He had been hired to deal with the vigilantes and clean up the town.  Gus, as he was known to his friends, was a fast draw with a quick wit which he drew upon frequently in order to diffuse precarious situations.   When he received Coffee’s telegram, his upper lip twitched—a sure sign that trouble was brewing.

He knew exactly to whom the good Sheriff was referring in his urgent telegram . . .  Silas Wellencamp.  The man had been a prominent citizen at one time, before his wife and daughter died under mysterious circumstances and his son committed suicide.  While folks were marginally sympathetic to the man because of the loss of his entire family, Wellencamp had never been completely exonerated in the eyes of the law even though there was no physical proof of any wrong doing.  The gossips said that he drove his family mad with his aberrant sense of free will.   He was viewed as somewhat eccentric, a little twisted, and very creepy.   If the facts alluded to in the telegram proved out, this young man—Joe Cartwright—was in definite danger.

Gus folded the telegram carefully and placed it in his vest pocket before tipping his hat to the telegrapher.  “Much obliged, Mort.”

“Any time, Sheriff.  Why doncha come by after supper for some fresh peach pie?  My Gracie makes a good one.”

“Well, now, that sounds verra temptin’, Mort.  My best to your lady.  Good day!”  As the Sheriff strode purposefully to his office, the smile and easy manner dissipated with each step.  By the time he reached his office, he was all business.

“Travis, you and Pete stay here and keep the peace. Mac, you’re wi’ me.”

“Aye,” said deputy Kam MacPherson, better known as Mac.  He tossed Gus a rifle and grabbed two for himself along with four boxes of shells. When Gus had that glint in his eye, Mac knew more than the usual trouble was a foot.  The clansmen had come over to North America as lads, trapping their way across Canada and down through the Cascades until they reached California where the warm weather and plentiful sunshine entranced them. They settled on the Truckee, took wives, raised families and made a decent living until the Bannocks burned out their village, left them childless and widowers.  Now all they had was each other . . . and a fierce determination to see justice done no matter the cost.

This time when the Shadow fed him, Joe was allowed to eat until the hunger was all gone.  The Shadow said it was because Joe had made a good choice; the beast was dead and he was satisfied.   Joe smiled, happy to have pleased his caretaker.

The Shadow lit a candle and held the newspaper in front of Joe, wiping the sweat away so he could read it.  Shamus was dead; killed by a crossbow.  Joe frowned slightly, but his attention was diverted by the adjacent article on the death of the progeny of one of Virginia City’s first families; Hattie Miller had drowned.

The smile vanished.

The omnipresent, oppressive greyness of his world turned black and swallowed him whole.

*****

Sheriff Mason and Deputy MacPherson met the Cartwrights at the Pony Express junction.  When Gus heard the details of the last several months, his mustache was practically twirling.  He sent Mac back to town for more men and led the Cartwrights to what was left of the Wellencamp home about 5 miles out of town on the road to Coloma.

It was nearing sundown when they arrived.  The home was large, what some would call it a mansion.  Adam immediately identified the style as Gothic Revival.   It must have been a handsome house at one time, stately and substantial.  The signs of neglect and abuse were evident in the chipped paint, weathered beams, lopsided shutters and a broken window or two.  It didn’t appear occupied as there was no light coming from the windows.  On second glance, however, Adam realized the windows were either boarded up or painted over preventing anyone from looking in or light from leaking out.

The men dismounted in the grove of trees to the south of the house and approached on foot, silently.  Gus used hand signals to motion for Adam to go to the right, Ben to stay put and watch the front door, while he circled to the left.  In his path lay out buildings and a barn, which he quickly checked for signs of habitation.  The barn sheltered a wagon and there were two horses in the stalls.   Gus saw the feed and water were both fresh.  Someone is either here or there’s a caretaker.   With this new information he drew his weapon and stood silently just inside the barn door listening for any movement or noise.   Before moving outside, he noticed the wagon bed contained blankets and rope.  Used to transport your victim? 

It was all Ben could do to refrain from calling his son’s name.  He was sure Joe was in there; he could feel it with every fiber of his being from his scalp down to his toes.  Why didn’t the Sheriff and Adam return?  What did the reconnoiter reveal?

Adam located a storm cellar on the right side of the home near the back of the house.  He tried the lock on the door, but it was brand new and shiny bright in stark contrast to the dilapidated condition of the rest of the premise and it held tight when he pulled on it.  He thought about shooting it off, but he knew that would alert whoever was inside.  There was something sinister about the house.  He could almost feel it breathing.  This is ridiculous.  It’s just a house.  As he came around the back of the structure, he could see Gus emerging from the barn with his weapon drawn.  Adam drew his as well.

Again without speaking a word, Gus used hand signals to direct Adam back to where Ben was waiting.  A few minutes later he joined them.

“Horses in the barn were recently fed and watered,” he whispered.

“New lock on the storm cellar,” Adam added.   “Windows are covered over.  I didn’t hear anything, but—”

“But what?” asked Ben in hushed tones.

“But there’s a . . . presence.  I don’t know how else to explain it.  I’d almost say something otherworldly if it didn’t sound so trite.”

“Nae, no to a Scotsman,” Gus said, his Gaelic accent becoming more pronounced.  “My homeland has a long history of hauntings.  And, aye, I feel the tannasg, too, Adam.  This house is evil.”

“You’re being ridiculous, both of you.  My son is in there; I can feel it.  Let’s go!”  Ben started to move when both Gus and Adam held him back.

“Tis’ no a verra good idea. We dinna ken what’s inside.  Weel wait for my men to get here.”

No sooner had Gus said that than Mac and two other deputies arrived.  They were barely visible through the trees, keeping low to the ground, but Gus knew they were there.  It wasn’t long before the six of them formulated a plan.

*****

Joe never minded the dark when he was little.  Hoss did though.  Big ol’ Hoss would get scared and Joe would crawl in bed with him and pat his back and tell him stories until he fell asleep.  How silly was that?  A Big galoot like Hoss being comforted by a skinny little kid like him.  Pa always lit a candle for Hoss so he wouldn’t be scared.

Joe opened his eyes and saw the candle burning on the table.  Hoss? 

I’m comin’ little buddy, hang on!

“Choose.”

“What?”

“How many in your family, Joe?”

“Four.  Four Cartwrights.”

“There are only three cards left.  Choose.”

“Whaa—?”

The Shadow enumerated the choices, tapping each card in turn, “Death by Poison.  Death by Dagger.  Death by Fire.”  Then he said again, “Choose.”

“Where’s the fourth?”

“Fourth?”

“The fourth card.   The fourth way to die.”

“Ah, but there are only three choices.”

“But there are four Cartwrights,” Joe argued.

“I have decided you will live.  These three cards are for your father and brothers.  Who will die by which card?  That is for you to choose.”

“NO!”

“No?  Very well; I will help you as I did before.”

“NO!  NO!  NO!  NO!  NO! ” Joe raged over and over again, thinking of Shamus and Hattie; Hank, Wes, and Slim.  Five friends; five deaths on his head.  He struggled violently against the bindings but succeeded only in moving the heavy chair a few inches before he collapsed in utter exhaustion.

“A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero but one.  Are you a hero, Joe?”

“No,” Joe wept uncontrollably but his strength was ebbing rapidly.  When his sobs turned to soft hiccups, the Shadow said,

“I’ve decided you can save one person.  Who will it be?”

When Joe didn’t answer he took the boy’s face in his hands and whispered, “Pick a card and take your own life by that means . . . spare the one for whom it was meant.  Save yourself or save one of them.  Your choice.”

For the first time, Joe looked directly into the hoary face of his captor and saw what insanity looked like.

When he woke again he was on the floor, untied, and fully clothed.  The chair was gone and so was the Shadow.

In front of him was a jug of kerosene and some matches, a dagger, and small bottle sporting a skull and crossbones on the label.  Who would he save?

Save yourself, son.  I’ve lived my life.  This is your time.

“Pa,” he mouthed silently.

You’ve got your whole life a head of you, kid.  Make the most of it.

“Ad-am.”

When you get hitched and have a parcel of kids, name one after me, okay Shortshanks?

“H-Hoss.”

“Your choice,” the Shadow had said.

My choice.  Mine.  Not yours.  Not this time.  Mine.  Joe picked up the jug of kerosene and poured it over himself, gaging at the fumes.

I choose.   Then he plunged the dagger into his abdomen and quickly swallowed the poison.

“My family.  I choose my family.”

“All of them,” he raged to no one there.  “My family lives.”

And he struck the match.

*****

With two deputies standing guard, Ben, Adam, Gus and Mac used a fallen pine log as a battering ram and ripped the ancient front door off its hinges in one swift move.

Although the setting sun streamed light into the entry way, the boarded-up windows in the rooms off the main hallway were heavily draped, shrouding the downstairs in deep shadows which grew darker as Ben groped his way further into the crypt-like interior.  He could hear retching, but he couldn’t tell where it was coming from.  Restrained no further, he yelled.

“Joseph!   Joseph!   I’m here, son.  Where are you?”

There was no response, but the further he moved into the house his senses were assaulted by an overpowering smell.

“Dear God!!”  Ben yelled as soon as he realized it was kerosene.  “Put those torches out!” he yelled unnecessarily for the odor was reaching the other men as well and they quickly extinguished the flames.

Gus ordered the men to break out the windows to allow fresh air inside.

Adam’s eyes grew accustomed to the dark more rapidly than his father’s and he saw a faint light at the top of the stairs.  “Upstairs,” he shouted, taking the steps three at a time, gagging as he came closer to the source of the fumes which he realized in horror was his brother.  Not only was Joe drenched in kerosene, he was striking a match.

“NO!” Adam launched himself across the open space, plowing into his brother, slapping at his hand.  He needn’t have bothered.  Joe’s hands, wet with blood from his stomach wound had already rendered the match ineffective.

The cry of anguish that emanated from Joe and echoed throughout the house was blood curdling.   They wouldn’t learn until much later that it was because Joe thought the Shadow was thwarting his attempt to save his family.

When Ben reached his son seconds later, he struggled to hold him close but Joe was fighting him with everything he had which, despite his weakened condition, was considerable.

“You’re safe, Joseph.  You’re safe now.  Your family is here.”

Horrified at finding a bloody knife on the floor and a bottle with a skull and crossbones on it, Adam shouted, “He’s been poisoned and he’s bleeding.  He needs medical care NOW!”

Before either of them could get Joe under control, however, Gus cold-cocked Joe with an uppercut to the jaw and threw him over his shoulder.

“I’ve got him.  You two get out of here,” the Sheriff yelled, pushing Ben and Adam out the door in front of him as he ran down the stars shouting “Out!  Everybody out!   Now!”

No sooner had Gus made it down the porch steps than an explosion ripped the entire top of the house off.  The force of the blast threw him forward and he passed his burden off to Ben who collapsed under the sudden weight.  Lying on his back, Ben could see thousands of sparks and cinders were showering down upon them.  When flecks of fire pricked him he realized the danger.

“Joe’s soaked with kerosene!” Ben shouted frantically.  “Strip him!”   Pocket knives immediately drawn, he and Adam began cutting away Joe’s pants and shirt tossing them as far away as they could.

Ben gasped as he pulled the clothes away and saw the emaciated frame of his son.  “My, God!  What has been going on here?!”

Gus began shouting orders.  “Mac!  Grab the canteens and bedrolls.   Travis, hitch that wagon out in the barn and bring it over here.  Sam, you go fetch the doctor and hurry!”

Adam, focused solely on the wound to Joe’s stomach, was concerned about staunching the flow of blood.  He immediately ripped the sleeves off his own shirt to use as a dressing.  As he worked, the smell of kerosene was still noticeable.  “Pa, your shirt and vest.  They’re soaked, too,” Adam noted.  Ben quickly stripped to his waist, tossing both garments far from his sons.

While Mac poured water over both father and son to rid them of any remaining kerosene, Adam continued to apply pressure to the cloth covering Joe’s wound and prayed the intestines had not been punctured.

*****

It was pure luck that Hoss had been at South Camp when the deputy found him as that placed him closer to Placerville than he would have been if he were elsewhere on the ranch.  Chubb was a big, strong horse bred to carry a giant of a man but he was built for endurance, not speed.  With the head start his location afforded, however, Hoss was not far behind his father and brother and was nearly to the Pony Express junction when he first saw the orange fireball over the trees, then heard the explosion.  Chubb seemed to know what was required and, without prompting, changed his gait covering the road to Coloma quickly.

The horror Hoss felt when he rode into the yard surrounding the inferno was unspeakable and abated only when he saw Adam and his Pa illuminated by the fire . . . and they were holding Joe.

After assuring that his brother was alive, Hoss checked the out buildings to make sure there were no stock trapped and then he, too, sat down and watched the house burn.  No doubt Joe would have a tale to tell when he was ready, but there was no purpose served by leaving behind a monument to insanity.  No one made any effort to save it or anything—or anyone—inside.

At one point, Joe began to regain consciousness and started to panic at being hot and naked and bound once again.   When Ben felt Joe struggle, he wrapped his arms around him all the tighter and reiterated the soothing words while rocking him, “You’re safe, Joseph.  You’re safe now.  Your family’s here.  Everything is all right.”

Joe smelled the bay rum that neither water nor sweat could wash away and nestled into the crook of his father’s neck.  The scratchy wool blanket against his flesh felt good.  Better, when he asked for “water,” the cool liquid was held to his lips immediately and he was allowed to drink his fill.  Best, he was with his family.  His first choice.  Always.

*****

The fire continued to burn brightly.   Mac and another deputy patrolled the area confirming there was no one lurking in the trees or within rifle range while Gus stood guard over the Cartwrights who were attending to Joe.

The wind was still a factor, but once the embers from the initial explosion settled down, there were only occasional pops and cracks that caused the parties to duck.  The dry and rotted wood of the structure burned quickly producing a great deal of heat and light which afforded Adam and Hoss an opportunity to observe Joe.  What they saw shocked them.

The man before them bore little resemblance to the brother they knew.  Always slender, Joe had nevertheless developed into a well built, muscular young man once he left school and began working full time on the ranch.  Now, he appeared shrunken, his sunken eyes unfocused.  Thankfully, he responded when offered water and seemed to realize he was with family and safe at last.  Once the kerosene soaked clothes had been removed, they could see how thin his arms and legs were, his hips protruding.  Hoss, concerned about how uncomfortable the ground would be with no padding on those bones, grabbed the bedrolls and made a softer pallet for Joe to lie on.

Adam continued to apply pressure to Joe’s abdomen although the bleeding was now minimal.  If he was causing any pain in his administrations, Joe seemed oblivious to it.  It was only when Hoss inadvertently poked Joe’s leg when he was tugging off his boots that Joe reacted and began struggling anew.

Ben held on tight continuing the now familiar litany and Joe settled again.

*****

It seemed an eternity, but at last the doctor arrived and took charge.  The light provided by the burning building was almost as good as daylight, but he asked for a lantern anyway.

“I’m Dr. Newell.”

“Ben Cartwright.  This is my son, Joseph.”

“What have we here?” he asked as he felt for a pulse, then listened to Joe’s chest with his stethoscope.

“He was stabbed with this,” Adam held out the knife.  The doctor gave it a cursory glance and grunted.  “We also think he drank whatever was in this bottle; it’s marked poison. He threw up whatever he swallowed.”

“Keep the bottle and the knife.  I’ll want to look at them later.”

The doctor continued to examine Joe, checking his heart, eyes, and running his hands over his chest, arms and legs.  As he did so, he asked more questions.

“Cartwright.  Ponderosa Cartwrights?”

“Yes.  These are my other sons, Adam and Hoss.”

“We need to move Joseph to my office.  Is there a wagon?”

“Aye,” Gus replied, motioning to his men to bring up the wagon that was hitched earlier.  Mac and the other deputy had taken off their jackets and placed them over the horses’ eyes so they wouldn’t be afraid of the fire that was still raging.  When the wagon was in position, Gus saw Mac had layered hay from the barn inside the bed and he nodded his approval.

With the wagon in place, the doctor stood up.  “Good job on cleaning that wound, Adam.  Let’s hope it’s enough.”  Then he backed away allowing Hoss access to his brother.   Tears pooled in Hoss’s eyes as he lifted Joe and felt how little he weighed.  Adam helped their father to his feet then grabbed a blanket off the ground, shook it out and laid it on top of the hay while Ben scrambled into the wagon.

Gently, Hoss deposited Joe so that his head rested against Ben’s chest.  Gus and Adam took the remaining blankets and covered Joe.  The journey to Placerville, though not far, would be chilly now that it was dark and they were moving away from the fire.   Still shirtless, Ben began to shiver slightly and Adam handed his father his shirt which was now mostly dry due to the heat from the fire.   The doctor climbed into the wagon on the other side of Ben.  Adam tied Chubb and the doctor’s horse to the back and mounted up, but not before shaking the hands of Gus, Mac, and the rest of the men and giving them his sincerest thanks.

“Ach!  Dinna fash yourself.  Weel be staying behind a bit to make sure the fire is out,” Mac said.

“The doc’s a good man . . . for an Englishman,” Gus added.  “I wish your brother well.”

Adam nodded and turned to take one last look at what had once been a beautiful specimen of Gothic architecture.  What sort of insanity had occurred in this grand lady could only be imagined.  This would not be a night he would soon forget, but he hoped against hope, that his brother could.

Once they made their way down the hill to the main road, Hoss drove as fast as he thought his little brother could tolerate.  The doctor was monitoring Joe, keeping his fingers on the carotid artery.  All was well for the first few miles; then the doctor called out.

“What’s wrong?” Hoss said, twisting in the seat.

“We’re losing him.  Hurry!”

*****

“Any word?” Adam said as he entered the doctor’s office.  He had been to the cafe and returned with two stacked trays of food . . . one for Hoss and the other to share with his father.

Hoss was leaning heavily against the far wall, shoulders stooped.  He looked over at Adam and shook his head then jutted his chin toward their pa.  Ben was sitting on a window bench his head in his hands.

Adam set the trays on the nearby table, lifted the lid on a bowl and carried it over to Ben.

“Pa, here, eat,” he said, nudging Ben’s shoulder.  “Joe will need you when he wakes up.  You’ve got to keep up your strength.”

It took a moment for Adam’s words to register with him, but Ben slowly sat up straight and took the bowl in hand.

“Hoss, you, too.  Eat.”

“Don’t seem right somehow.  Skinny as Joe is that we’re out here eatin’ and he’s in there barely holding on.”

“I know, Hoss.  But like I said to Pa, you’ve got to eat so you’re strong enough for Joe when we take him home.”

The door of the surgery opened and Dr. Newell stepped into the room.  Ben rose quickly shoving the bowl into Adam’s chest.

“Doctor?”

“He’s stable for the moment.  I got some fluids into him . . . a combination of diluted salt water and sugar.  His heartbeat is still erratic, however.  That’s common with severe dehydration.  We’re not out of the woods yet, I’m afraid.”

“May I see him?”

“Yes, for a few minutes.  He’s moving in and out of consciousness.  Don’t expect too much.”

Ben nodded soberly and moved quickly to Joe’s side.

“Doctor, I gave the knife and bottle to your nurse.”

“Yes, she told me.  Thank you, Adam.”  He paused in the doorway.  “You all should get some sleep.  I imagine your father will not want to leave your brother.  There are several beds in the infirmary—though, Hoss, you may find them a little short and narrow—but there are no other patients this evening so you should be fairly comfortable.  You’ll find clean linens at the end of each cot; I’m afraid you’ll have to make up the beds yourselves.”

“Sure thing,” Hoss said to the doc, then to Adam, “I’ll fetch our gear.”

“Sit down and eat before you pass out.  I’ll get it.”

“Adam?” Hoss asked quietly so as not to be overheard.  “Did you see how thin he was?”

“Yeah. I saw.”  Adam debated with himself whether to tell Hoss the rest.  He’d give anything not to share this burden, but he didn’t think he could deal with their father alone if it came out anyway.   He looked into those crystal blue eyes and swallowed hard.  “But I saw something more disturbing.  I saw—”

“Saw what brother?”

“Joe striking a match.”

Hoss staggered backwards and if the wall hadn’t been right behind him, he might have toppled over.  “That a fact?”

Adam closed his eyes and nodded.

“Does Pa know?”

“No.  Stay with him.  I’ll get our saddle bags.”

*****

Throughout the night and the following day, Joe remained semi-conscious.  It pleased the doctor that the elder Cartwright was adept at forcing fluids and he suspected the man probably had had plenty of opportunity over the years to perfect his technique.  As Joe responded to the increased hydration, the color and elasticity of his skin improved, as well as his heart rate.  However, his patient had not yet spoken even when conscious and became agitated when his father was not present, leaving the elder Cartwright exhausted.  Of increasing concern to the doctor was a growing suspicion that in addition to the severe malnutrition, emotional trauma was involved.

The next evening the doctor called a meeting in his office.   Ben was seated in front of the desk; Adam and Hoss stood nearby.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m afraid I’ve done everything I can for your son.”

“I thought he was improving?”

“He has, but not enough.”

“Are you saying there’s nothing more we can do?”

“No.  I’m saying that I’ve done all I can.  I’ve been in contact with your Dr. Martin.  We’ve been trading wires the last two days.  I’ve brought him up to date on vitals, given him my medical opinion.  He is of the mind that Joe’s best chance for survival is at home.  While I wouldn’t normally condone travel for a patient in this condition, I can’t ignore the recommendation of his personal physician or the power that familiar surroundings might have in decreasing Joe’s agitation and restoring his speech.”

Silence followed the doctor’s pronouncement.  Hoss moved quickly behind his pa placing a massive hand on Ben’s shoulder while Adam knelt before him with a hand on his knee.

“Pa, I think Paul is right.  Home is where Joe needs to be.”

“I agree, Pa.  You know how Joe feels about the Ponderosa.  If he could tell ya, he’d say he wants to go home.”

“Make the arrangements,” Ben said, his voice trembling.

*****

With Sheriff Mason’s help, the Cartwrights were able to obtain the loan of a carriage for the long ride home thus ensuring a more comfortable ride for father and son.  Adam would ride along side; Hoss would drive.

“Adam, might I be havin’ a word with ye before ye leave.”

Adam noted the stern expression on the Sheriff’s face.  Despite the light tone, his red eyebrows were drawn together so they almost formed one continuous line across his tanned face.  “What’s wrong?” he said quietly after crossing behind the carriage ostensibly to check the wheels and brakes, but in reality to move out of his father’s earshot.

“Aye. There’s somethin’ amiss.”  The Sheriff was leaning nonchalantly against the building, one foot tucked up against the siding.  He struck a match against the rough wood and lit a cheroot.  For all intents and purposes he was a man enjoying the sun and having a smoke.  “Funny thing about flames.  They burn hot like the fires of hell,” he said, blowing a smoke ring.  “But no for eternity and no near long enough to burn bone.”

“There was no body,” Adam stated matter-of-factly as the bile rose in his throat.

“Aye.  Weel keep a look out.”  The Sheriff dropped his cigar to the boardwalk and ground it out with his heel.  As he crossed the street, he turned and said loudly,

“I’ll be sendin’ Travis along so ye needna worry about returnin’ the carriage ye selves.”

“Thank you, Sheriff.  That’s very considerate.  And thank the owner again for the loan.”

“Aye.  Haste ye back.”

With Travis already sitting in the driver’s seat, Hoss moved to the rear of the carriage to untie Chubb and saw Adam’s face was a mask.

“What is it?” he asked while checking the cinch on his horse.

“I’ll tell you when we’re on the road.”  Adam whispered.  When he was sure all was ready, he told Travis to move out.

Both Adam and Hoss were watchful, but nothing untoward happened on the way to the Ponderosa.

Aside from asking for water when they first escaped the mansion, Joe had not uttered a sound, but that did not stop Ben from speaking to him.  He talked almost incessantly the entire ride home, telling Joe what had happened while he was gone, how they had searched and searched, stories about sailing ships, about Joe’s mother, the horses Joe loved, everything he could think of.  He even sang some of Joe’s favorite songs—with Adam and Hoss joining in heartily—anything to connect with his son, to keep him focused on the here and now, and to know he was surrounded by those who loved him.

Paul Martin had been alerted by telegram and was waiting at the ranch house when the carriage pulled into the yard.  Before he allowed Joe to be moved, however, he climbed in to check his patient.  Although Dr. Newell had relayed detailed information regarding Joe’s condition, Paul was unprepared for the young man’s appearance.  Nevertheless, he donned his professional face and assumed his best bedside manner as he leaned in to listen to Joe’s heart.  As he did so, Joe opened his eyes.  Doc?  Joe reached up, touched the doctor’s face, and smiled.

“Hoss, go ahead and take your brother upstairs; Hop Sing has everything ready.  Adam, please get your father inside and to bed.  No excuses, Ben,” the doctor said, wagging his finger.  “I will be in to see you as soon as Hop Sing and I get Joe settled and I will give you a full report.”

*****

In getting Joe to bed, Hop Sing and the doctor worked together with an efficiency borne out of many years of too many similar situations involving one Cartwright or another, sometimes more than one at the same time.  What Paul needed now, he thought, was a natural substance to encourage deep sleep, but until he had examined Joe thoroughly, he would not—could not in good conscience—administer a drug.   Before he voiced this concern, however, Hop Sing had cradled Joe’s head in one arm and held a cup to his lips, all the while whispering to him softly in the sing-song cadence of Cantonese.

Paul had often wished for a nurse who was as attuned to his needs as the Chinaman was.  True, he had had many good assistants over the years, but none who knew so instinctively what had to be done, nor read his mind so well.  That Hop Sing also had knowledge of ancient Chinese practices and remedies—many of which were scorned by practitioners of Western medicine—was an added bonus.  The good doctor had learned to respect, even venerate, such wisdom and had often asked Hop Sing for recommendations on herbs and teas to ease the suffering or promote the healing of his other patients.

Without Ben in the room, the burden of masking his feelings was thrown aside.  Paul moved his hands over Joe’s body palpating here and there to feel the glands and organs beneath the paper thin translucent skin.  He could almost see the heart beating within the rib cage and cursed out loud as he worked, not caring that he was heard.  When he had finished his exam, Hop Sing handed him a handkerchief.  At first, Paul was at a loss as to why until he realized his face was wet with tears.

Paul turned away to blow his nose before washing up in the nearby ewer.  When he finished drying his hands he returned to the bedside and observed the nearly imperceptible rise and fall of the quilt covering Joe, counting the respirations.

“Crosses and losses,” he whispered.

“What you need?”

“Nothing, Hop Sing.  I was just talking to myself.”

“I no hear what you say.  What you say?”

“This pattern,” he said, tracing the indigo half-square triangles on the field of white.  “It’s called Crosses and Losses.  My wife has made many quilts like this.”

Paul watched the Chinaman cock his head from side to side as he studied the covering.  “It was Ben Franklin who said, ‘After crosses and losses men grow humbler and wiser.’  It means that men learn from all they experience in life—the good and the bad—and that as they get older they become humbler and wiser . . . not so sure of themselves or their invincibility . . . and they become more careful in the chances they take and the choices they make.”

Hop Sing nodded his understanding.  “Confucius say, ‘By three methods we learn wisdom:  first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is bitterest.’”

“Franklin and Confucius were both wise men, Hop Sing.  God only knows what Little Joe has been through and what he will learn from it.”

Wearily, Paul sat down at the desk and pulled a sheaf of papers and a leather-bound volume from his medical bag.  After reviewing once more the wires from Dr. Newell, he entered his own observations into the casebook.

What Paul had deduced from the examination was that Joe was fed only enough to be kept alive and that his movements had been restricted.  He surmised that the reduced muscle mass could not be attributed solely to weight loss but must have been the result of inactivity as well.  Strangely, there were no marks on Joe; no bruises, no scars, no scratches.  No sign that he had been beaten or physically abused.  Further, he was kept clean; no bedsores, no dirt under the fingernails.  To what purpose?

As he put the pen down, Hop Sing reappeared carrying a silver tray holding a bottle of brandy and four glasses.   It was time to share his findings with the family.

Ben was in bed as ordered but awake.  Hoss took the tray and while Adam helped their father sit up, he filled each glass with a substantial portion of brandy.  From the look on the doctor’s face, they were all going to need it.

Glasses distributed, Paul began.

“Dr. Newell was very thorough in his assessment and in my opinion completely correct in his diagnosis and treatment.   Ben, I know you must have felt he wasn’t doing as much as you thought he should, but getting fluids into Joe was critical and that action was most assuredly what saved his life.  Adam, Dr. Newell said you cleaned the stomach wound immediately with alcohol and kept pressure on it.  Is that correct?”

“Yes.  It was . . . all I could think to do at the time.”  Adam hung his head, certain it had not been enough and infection had set in further debilitating his brother’s already precarious state.

“You did the right thing, Adam.  The wound was not deep most likely because of Joe’s weakened condition when stabbing himself, but also because the blade was deflected by a rib.”

“Wait a minute,” Ben protested.  “Are you saying the wound was self-inflicted?!”

“Yes, Ben.”  The doctor looked at Adam and raised his glass slightly.

“Pa, the brandy.”

“Nevermind the . . .”  Ben started to say, but seeing the look on everyone’s face threw back the amber liquid in one gulp.  “What about the wound?” he coughed.

“There was a bit of infection, but Dr. Newell removed the diseased tissue before you left Placerville.  The incision appears to be healing well.  In another day, I’ll remove the packing and take stitches to close the wound.”

“What about the poison?” Hoss asked.

“We heard retching when we entered the house,” Adam offered.

“The fact that he threw it up immediately certainly helped.  I don’t think enough poison remained in his system to do any lasting harm.”

“He hasn’t spoken,” Ben said, “Could swallowing it—”

“A valid question, Ben.  Dr. Newell originally thought the poison might have been strychnine, but it wasn’t, thank God.  Give him time, Ben; time to heal; time to rest.”

“How can we help, Doc?” Hoss asked.

Paul was closer to the Cartwrights than any other family in Virginia City.  He could see their exhaustion and frustration and despite his skill felt powerless to alleviate their concerns.  Joe’s speech was the least of his worries at the moment as the young man was a long way from being fit and recovery was a matter of time—but not a matter of certainty.

“The morning will be soon enough to have that discussion.  Right now rest is the most important thing.  And speaking of rest, it’s time for each of you to get some.  Hop Sing and I will stay with Joe this evening.”

*****

With diet and exercise, Joe’s physical state improved.  Ben had a tendency to assign simple chores to keep Joe occupied.  Hoss thought of ways to increase the difficulty and scope of even simple tasks in order to build stamina.   The most difficult task, however, fell to Adam and that was in getting Joe to talk about what had happened to him.   Joe had thus far been unable or unwilling to discuss how he got to be in that old mansion or what had happened to him while he was held captive.

Joe went about whatever activity their pa assigned without argument or comment.  That alone was enough to unnerve the family.  The Joseph Francis Cartwright they knew was rarely without opinion and his indifference was becoming the most distressing aspect of his recovery.

After Joe had gone to bed, over brandy and coffee Adam and Ben talked about the next steps they would take.

“We’ve got to get him to open up, Pa.  You know what he’s like when he keeps everything bottled up.”

“That’s the odd thing, Adam.  It doesn’t seem like he’s ‘bottled up’ anything.  He’s not a walking powder keg like he usually gets.  He’s pliant and amenable, not argumentative at all.”

“In short, not like Joe.”

“Has he talked about Hank or Wes or Slim?” asked Ben.

“No.”

“What about Hattie?  Has he tried to go see her?”

“No.”

“Why not?  Do you think he knows what happened?”

“I don’t know how he could.   We haven’t mentioned it and he hasn’t had contact with anyone who could give him that information.”

“He must wonder why she hasn’t been around to see him.  I thought they were quite the item before . . . all this.”

“Mmmm.  Perhaps that’s a place to start.”

*****

The next day Adam took a chance.  “Tell me about Hattie.”

“What’s to tell.  She’s dead.”

Adam let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.   So he knows Hattie is dead.

“We’re you in love with her?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I’d like to know.  Was it just friendship or was there something more.”

“I’ll never know, will I,” Joe said bitterly.  “Leave it alone, Adam.”

“Not talking about someone doesn’t make them go away.  They linger there in the shadows of your mind.”

Joe flinched at the word “shadow” he noticed, but otherwise remained fixated on hammering a horseshoe back into shape so it could be reused.  Although Hoss could have accomplished the task in a fraction of the time, he had thought this chore would be a good way for his brother to build up his arms and chest muscles and Joe didn’t seem to mind.  Perhaps he was pounding out his suppressed anger on the hapless piece of iron.  What face do you see when you strike the blow, kid?

“Death is a part of life, Joe.  Some religions feel that it is the duty of the living to remember the dead.  We honor their memory by talking about them and as long as they are remembered, they live on.”

Joe plunged the hot iron into the water barrel, paused a fraction before tossing the straightened metal into the box and then just stood there.

“How did you two meet?” Adam persisted as he absentmindedly grabbed a horse shoe with the tongs and put it in the forge until it was hot enough to form.

“We met at the Founder’s Day race.  Her brother was riding a buckskin that pulled up lame on the outbound portion of the figure eight course near the crossing.  Jimmy hit the ground pretty hard.  I stopped to help.”

“You threw the race.”

The shrug of indifference told Adam Joe didn’t care if he had.

“Was Jimmy okay?”

“Broke an arm.  Pretty bad break.  And concussed.  Hattie and her father drove up in a buckboard and we got him back to the doc’s.  I hung around to make sure he would be all right.  We started talking.  One thing led to another.”

Of course it did.  “What do you remember most about her?”

Joe turned away but Adam could see him swipe his eyes with this arm.  Was it tears or sweat?  He hoped it was the former for if it were, it would be the first emotion Joe had showed other than fear.

“I met her, too.  After you disappeared.  She came to the house to see if she could help in some way.  Brought a basket of cookies if I recall.   Pretty girl; not beautiful, but nicely put together.”  Joe still wouldn’t turn around, but he could tell his brother was listening so he pushed a little further.

“She had a delightful laugh.  Almost . . . musical.”

Joe nodded slightly in agreement.  “I liked to make her laugh just so I could hear it.  Her eyes would crinkle up and then. . .”  Joe froze.

“And what, Joe?”

“I chose.”

Adam was totally confused now.  “Chose?  To be your wife?  Did you ask Hattie to marry you?”

“My choice,” he said, “Death by Drowning.”

So that was it; Wellencamp twisted the facts to make Joe believe he was responsible for yet another friend’s death.  Hank, Slim, Wes, Shamus, and then Hattie.  My God!  What the hell had Wellencamp done to him?

“Yes, she drowned, but it was an accident pure and simple.  When I took her home, she mentioned that Jimmy was learning how to sail.  During the inquest, he admitted he had convinced her to go out on the lake with him even though their parents had said no.  The wind came up suddenly, the water turned rough; he couldn’t handle the sail in the sudden change and the boat capsized.  Jimmy was able to swim clear of the mast and clung to the hull until help came.  Hattie . . . well the water was too cold, her skirts too heavy; she may have been stunned by the boom.  Whatever, happened, she wasn’t able to hang on and she slipped away.”

Adam waited for his brother to absorb this information, but there was no outward, visible sign that Joe heard much less internalized what Adam was telling him so he repeated the message again.  “Joe, there was no one there except Hattie and Jimmy.  No one knew they were going sailing that day.  There was no premeditation on anyone’s part.  Do you understand, Joe?  You are not responsible for what happened to them.”

Joe pulled the iron from the fire and began hammering again; stroke after stroke after stroke.

“Joe?”

*****

The family expected nightmares would be an inevitable consequence of Joe’s ordeal.  When their slumber was not disturbed as anticipated, they ran the gamut from relieved to puzzled to concerned.  It seemed everyone was walking on eggshells without knowing why; only Joe seemed oblivious, doing what was asked of him without question or argument, voicing no objection to chores, not caring what was served at meals—in short, not behaving as the Joe they knew and loved.

Hoss was the first to voice concern but his complaint was over something so trivial and inconsequential neither Ben nor Adam paid him much attention at the time.

“Joe don’t play fair,” Hoss complained one day.

Adam was reading in the blue chair by the fire and had so often heard this complaint that he gave it no weight whatsoever.  He knew their youngest brother was not above cheating at checkers if he thought he could get away with it.  It wasn’t that he was mean spirited or devious or even calculating.  He just did it to get a rise out of Hoss.  Anyone who knew him could honestly say that Joe never cared, one way or the other, whether he won or lost.  It has always been for him the playing of the game alone that mattered because of the time spent with family, especially with Hoss, whom Joe had adored since he was a child.  Hoss had always been his playmate, his guardian, his biggest fan and supporter.  Adam, on the other hand, was the older brother, conscience, teacher, parental surrogate and disciplinarian when needed—which was far more often than he would have liked.  Six years older than Hoss and twice that to Joe, sometimes he longed to have been born last.

Ben mumbled one of the beatitudes which seemed to placate Hoss for the time being and Adam returned to his book.  It never occurred to him to ask what Hoss meant by “not fair.”

Adam got a second chance a few days later.

“Joe won’t play checkers,” Hoss said, his hands in his pockets as he shuffled into the kitchen one night where Adam was eating the late dinner Hop Sing had kept warm on the stove.  Ben was seated at the preparatory table having a cup of coffee while Adam devoured the savory hot beef swimming in well-seasoned gravy along with roasted carrots and potatoes.

“What do you mean he won’t play checkers?   Didn’t you two have a game tonight?  I saw the board up,” Ben said.

“He don’t play fair.”

Again with the fair.  Something is definitely not right.  “What do you mean by ‘fair’, Hoss?” Adam asked.

“Ah, shucks.  He’s taking too long to make his move.   Ain’t no fun no more and I told him so.”

“What happened?”

“He got mad and went to bed.”

Ben’s upturned eyebrow mirrored Adam’s.  They were both thinking the same thing . . . that Joe ALWAYS plays checkers with Hoss and has since he was old enough to be trusted not to put the pieces in his mouth.  The second thing was that, though he and Adam had both tried, they could seldom interest Joe in a game of chess—it is a game that takes far too long to his way of thinking.  According to Joe, a man of action should not be inclined to sit around pondering his next move.

Adam felt Joe could be a grand master chess champion if he would only apply himself to the game.  He instinctively saw the long-range possibilities of each piece on the board and made strategic choices which were often unconventional and overtly daring but nonetheless sound.  It was a pity Joe had little patience waiting for others who took longer to make decisions than he did.

Ben and Adam again shared a look, but said nothing to Hoss.

“I noticed he didn’t eat much dinner.  Perhaps he’s just tired,” Ben said. “Why don’t you set up the board again.  I’ll give you a game . . . if you promise not to beat me too bad, that is.”   Hoss brightened considerably at that and Adam realized uncomfortably that his brother was hungry for companionship.  He resolved to rectify that as soon as he was able.

After Hoss left the kitchen, Adam asked, “What do you mean Joe didn’t eat?  He filled his plate.”

“Oh, he made a good show of taking a little of everything—including food he wouldn’t normally touch with a ten-foot pole.  But aside from pushing it around his plate, little passed his lips.  Do you have any ideas?”

“Something’s wrong.  Once, maybe.  But not twice.”

“Twice?”

“The other night Hoss said something similar.  I didn’t stop to ask him what he meant, but obviously it was that Joe wasn’t playing the way he usually does.”

Ben frowned trying to remember.  “Not playing fair.  So that’s what he meant.  I thought he was complaining that Joe was cheating.”

“He expects Joe to cheat; that’s part of the game for them.  He must have meant that Joe wasn’t playing at all.”

“It doesn’t sound like Joe.  What do you make of it?”

Adam shook his head while contemplating several options, none of which were good.

“I have a theory, but I’d like to check it out first.”

“What kind of theory?”

“I think something happened to Joe in that house beyond his just being held captive.”

“There were no marks on him; no signs of . . . abuse.”

The look on his father’s face made it clear he couldn’t bring himself to think much less verbalize what might have happened, so Adam said it for him, “You and I both know there are other kinds of torture than physical abuse.”

“You’re thinking of Kane?”

“I try not to think of him at all,” was all Adam said.  It doesn’t always work.

“Wellencamp was not Kane.”

“I never said he was.”

“No, you didn’t have to.  Your brother is home and he’s recovering; that’s all that matters.  I don’t want you stirring the pot.  It will do Joe no good.”

Adam wasn’t so sure about that, but his Pa wasn’t someone he could easily disobey no matter how old he was.  Nevertheless, he felt strongly that for Joe to heal properly they had to know why he was taken.  The secret lay buried in El Dorado County and Adam meant to find it.  At the suggestion of Samuel Clemens he had contacted the owner of the Placerville Daily News to obtain as much information as possible.  Jesse Yarnell responded right away and promised not only to send him whatever he had in the morgue but to follow up with what leads he could extract from his newspaper colleagues both here and abroad.

The next time they had this conversation, he would be prepared.  And there will be a next time.

*****

Adam was humming a tune while he packed his carpet bag unaware he was being observed from the doorway.

“Where are you going?” Joe asked.  There was a note of hostility to his voice which Adam ignored.  He had anticipated his younger brother’s reaction to this business trip.  Joe had been stuck like glue to him for the last few weeks.  It reminded Adam of when Joe was six and wouldn’t let him out of his sight after he learned that his older brother, on whom he had depended for everything after his mother’s death, was going away to college.  The concept was something that a six year old couldn’t quite grasp but surely an adult could.

He was wrong.

“Sacramento.  I’ve got to sign that contract with the Southern Pacific Railroad.  You remember, for the railroad ties?  We outbid the Bar W Ranch to get the contract.”

“You’re not coming back, are you?”

“Of course I am.  Why would you think otherwise?”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Adam. You don’t know that do you? Not for certain. Look at Hank. He planned on going home. Told his brothers and sisters he’d be back for Christmas this year and what did they have but an empty stocking on the mantle.”

“Joe . . .”

“Don’t ‘Joe’ me. You know what I’m saying is true.”

“I’m not saying . . . All right I’ll admit that we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I could fall off a horse or get run over by a freight wagon. So could you. So could Pa or Hoss. That’s life, Joe; full of uncertainty, but also full of opportunity if we just grab on to it.”

“And that’s what you want? To find an opportunity to do something else . . .?”

“I like to apply my education to something besides contract negotiation.”

“You don’t think it’s been useful here?” Joe sounded surprised.  Adam had brought back many innovations and ideas from Boston. He’d made a difference in all their lives.  Couldn’t he see that? And not just their lives, but a difference to Virginia City miners and their families when he worked with Diedesheimer to implement a new method of shoring.  Or helping Roy Coffee by riding in posses to ensure that justice prevailed; or the time he insisted that Bill Enders was guilty of murder when everyone else thought he was innocent.  Or the school board where he served as an adviser, sometimes even teaching.  Why weren’t these things enough for him?

“It is about choices, Joe. Pa made a choice to come west and I had no say in the matter.”

“You were a baby!”

“Yes, I was.  And then I was a boy who still had to do whatever Pa wanted to do; follow Pa wherever he led.”

“And then you went to college.”

“Yes. And I made the choice to come back here to repay Pa—”

“Is that the only reason? To repay Pa for your education?”

“No, of course not. I wanted, needed to be with my family.”

“And now you don’t.”

“Joe, stop twisting my words.”

Joe started to protest that he wasn’t, then thought better of it because in truth that was exactly what he was doing . . . using Adam’s words against him.  Or trying to.  It worked better with Pa.  Maybe because Pa could be as hot tempered as he was and didn’t always choose his words carefully. Adam on the other hand always weighed every syllable as if each were gold.  Maybe that’s what was wrong here . . . because there was something wrong, Joe could feel it; he just couldn’t identify it.

Adam had his arms folded across his chest and leaned. He usually did that when he was trying to get a different perspective on things, as if he were standing back, assessing his environment before making a pronouncement.

“Joe, I have business to attend to.  You’ll be fine while I’m gone.  Hoss is here, Pa is here, and Hop Sing, too.  You’re physically fit.  Whatever happened in Placerville is behind you.  Move on.”

“Sure.  Easy for you to say.  You weren’t there.  He’s still out there looking for me.  Or my family.  Because I tricked him . . .”

“What do you mean you tricked him?  Tricked who?”

The only response to Adam’s question was the slamming of the door.

Wellencamp; that’s who.  A man that deranged should have a history; a history that can be revealed.   Pa might think it doesn’t matter, but Joe needs to understand what happened if he is ever to stop blaming himself for what transpired in that house.

A side trip to Placerville and the Daily News was definitely in order.

*****

During winter, when the family was housebound for long stretches of time, they retreated to four corners, tended to their own projects, and stayed out of each other’s way.  At dinner they would come together to discuss what they were reading, play checkers or chess or have a sing-a-long.  Sometimes they would take turns reciting passages from books or read a play, each of them taking one or more parts.  The difference this year was that Joe, who normally was the first to go stir crazy, preferred to stay in his room reading or sleeping and, as Hoss had pointed out, was not inclined to play checkers with anyone.

Adam spent a great deal of time devouring the material he received from Yarnell, the newspaper editor in Placerville.  What he learned about Silas Wellencamp was even more disturbing than what Sheriff Mason had shared.  An Englishman by birth, Wellencamp had married a woman of German descent and they had settled in Bruge where he had built from scratch a successful business in lace.  They had two daughters, one son.  Wellencamp was a disciple of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and had followed the philosopher’s writings since his days at university.

One daughter—rumored to be his favorite—died in Bruge, apparently a suicide.  After that Wellencamp began writing letters to the editor which became increasingly irrational.  He seems to have disappeared for a time.  Perhaps he was hospitalized with a breakdown.  At any rate, after he surfaced, the family immigrated to the United States, New York specifically, where Wellencamp had business acquaintances in the garment and home furnishing industries.  He apparently became an importer of lace from Europe and was again brilliantly successful in business.  Urged to bring his product to the burgeoning west where gold and silver were flowing like a river, he uprooted the family once again and moved first to San Francisco, then to Sacramento, and finally to Placerville.

In their first few years of residency, the Wellencamps were solid citizens, philanthropic, and socially active.  Then he began to write letters to the editor regarding ascetic life styles and free will.

Soon another daughter died of unexplained causes.  Shortly thereafter, his wife dropped out of social circles and there were vaguely disguised tidbits in the gossip columns common to small town life alluding to affairs, mysterious noises emanating from the mansion, apparitions at the windows, and all manner of phenomena more appropriate to a dime novel than a newspaper.  Adam had to hand it to Yarnell, he left nothing unturned in the materials he sent, circling even the most esoteric pieces of news, including ads for ‘going out of business’ sales for Wellencamp’s store, and notices of foreclosure on the store and mansion.

Adam continued to scan the clippings and articles noting repeated references to Wellencamp’s obsession with Schopenhauer.  He frowned at the reference; although he was acquainted with Kant and Kierkegaard, he did not have even a cursory familiarity with the German philosopher’s work but he knew someone who did.  During a break in the weather when he was able to get to town, Adam wired Karl Luzader, a college mate now living in Chicago.  Karl had done post-graduate work abroad in Hamburg where he obtained dual doctorates in philosophy and medicine.  When Adam had asked him why both disciplines, Karl replied, “Anatomy treats the body; psychology treats the soul.”

Adam believed that Joe’s soul had been dealt a serious blow.  He was moved to learn all he could about Schopenhauer in order to make sense, if possible, out of Wellencamp’s obsession with this philosopher and how it had subsequently manifested itself in Joe’s captivity.  He received a wire from Karl almost immediately, ensuring that he would send information within the fortnight.

Joe’s continued rapid progress—a testament to the resilience of youth—bolstered the family’s belief that they were doing everything needed to restore the youngest member of the family to full health.  As spring neared, however, cracks began to appear in the facade of “wellness” that Joe had carefully built around himself.

Talk at the dinner table turned more and more often toward the business of the ranch.  Plans for repairs were discussed and decisions made regarding moving the cattle from the lower pastures into high country.  Joe’s withdrawal from conversation increased as time passed though no one seemed to notice except Hoss who invariably sat across from Joe.  Each Cartwright had their appointed spot at the table.  Joe sometimes changed sides, usually when there was company at the table, but always on the open end to accommodate his left handedness.

Hoss brought the subject up with Adam while they were cleaning out the stalls in the barn down by the lower corrals.  Ben hadn’t yet hired men for the drive and had given those hands who remained with them all year long a week off in anticipation of the long season ahead.

“Adam, did ya notice Joe at dinner tonight?”

“Notice?  I thought he ate pretty good.”

“Oh, he ate all right.  Second helpings on taters and greens, too”

“In what way then?”

“When ya brought up hiring men.”  Hoss clipped the wire on a bale of fresh hay and they both took pitch forks and started spreading it in the stalls.  “Reckon he’s thinkin’ on Hank?   This is about the time of year we hired him.”

“Possibly.  Has he said anything to you?”

“Nope.  Ya know he usually only talks to you about that sort of stuff.”

“Mmm.”

“I think he’s dreamin’ again.”

“Talking in his sleep?”

“No—not that I’ve heard anyway.  I check in once or twice a night.”

“Me, too.  Pa must also.  It’s a wonder Joe gets any sleep at all with us traipsing in and out of his room all night.”

“Reckon we’re all feelin’ it then?  What do you think he’s gonna do come the drive?  Think he’ll go?”

“I hadn’t thought about it, actually.  But, no, that doesn’t seem likely.”

“Think Pa will let him stay here by hisself?”

Adam humpfed, his doubts evident.

“So, what are we gonna do with him?”

“We’ve got a month yet.  I have an idea I’d like to talk to Pa about.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“If Joe is starting to have nightmares again, then it is time to do something more drastic than ply him with the basic necessities of life. Bachelard said, ‘The repose of sleep refreshes only the body.  It rarely sets the soul at rest.  Sleep opens within us an inn for phantoms.  In the morning we must sweep out the shadows.’”

“Fancy words, Adam.  Not sure what this bachelor was getting at.”

“Bachelard; he’s a French philosopher.  I am going to propose to Pa again that it is time we help Joe sweep away the shadows and the only way I see to do that is to shine a light brightly on Wellencamp.  I think Pa will be more receptive this time.  He must be aware we’re approaching the anniversary of Hank’s death.”

Adam was wrong.

“So you expressly went against my wishes to conduct this investigation, is that what you’re telling me?” Pa roared.

Adam was surprised at the intensity of his father’s reaction but had learned over the years to wait him out.  His Pa, like a gorilla, needed to beat his breast and vocally assert his dominance from time to time.  Unlike his brothers, Adam didn’t take the bait.  He knew Pa usually calmed down if met with a quiet, rational explanation of the facts and was banking that it would not take long for his common sense to reappear.

Ben was, in fact, well aware that Adam had returned from Sacramento with a rather large package wrapped in newsprint—The Daily News newsprint.  Since the Ponderosa currently had no business dealings with anyone in Placerville, Ben was quick to surmise that Adam had been digging up bones that should remain buried.  His blustering may have been a bit overstated, but he didn’t let on and neither did Adam.

It was a standoff that would soon be resolved in a way neither man had anticipated.

***End of Part One***

May 2011

Next in the Choices Series:

Part 2:  Shadows
Part 3:  Hunger

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