The Fire Inside (by freyakendra)

Summary: A surprise assault on the Ponderosa tests twelve-year-old Little Joe’s mettle, and proves he truly is his father’s son.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word count: 4400


 

Little Joe Cartwright sat on the top rail of the corral fence, his eyes locked on its single occupant: a wild stallion his brothers had wrangled just a few days earlier. It was a magnificent beast, full of fire and fury. The boy couldn’t help but lose his thoughts to daydreams as he watched the stallion test its new confinement. He imagined himself on its back, turning it to his will.

“Little Joe get down!” Hop Sing shouted suddenly with a fury of his own. “Boy not allowed in corral!”

“Aw, Hop Sing!” Joe complained as he jumped back to the ground outside the fencing. “I wasn’t in the corral! I was just sittin’—”

“Boy no argue Hop Sing! Father say stay away from horse! Boy no listen! How many time Hop Sing find boy head in clouds?”

The man’s next words went unheard. “Wait, Hop Sing!” Joe hollered back. “Listen!”

Cuing in to the thundering hooves of approaching horses, Joe grinned, thinking his pa and brothers were home. But Hop Sing’s scowl reminded him that the sound was far too thunderous. Surely there were more than three horses. Many more. Maybe even as many as rode in that band of comancheros Joe had heard folks talking about in town just a few weeks earlier.

Old Mister Grizzly had said those comancheros had killed off a whole family someplace on the other side of the mountains, over California-way. Pa had scolded the old man, telling him he was wrong to scare children with talk like that; and besides, wherever it had happened was a long ways away. At twelve-years-old, Joe had been angry to hear his pa call him a child. Still, he hadn’t complained about it until a long time afterward, after he’d stopped thinking about what Old Grizzly had said.

“Boy go! Now!” Hop Sing grabbed hold of Joe’s shoulder and started pushing him toward the house. “Inside!” Hop Sing commanded. “Chop chop!”

And suddenly Joe was scared all over again. All he could think about was comancheros. What else could all those thundering hooves mean, especially with Hop Sing as worried as he was?

Fear propelled Little Joe forward. He was determined to reach the house, and maybe even to grab up a rifle or two. But it was already too late. The hoots and hollers of a dozen or more men sounded behind him before he’d even reached the porch … and then something far more worrisome stopped him barely ten feet from the front door. Those hooting and hollering men started shooting. One of their bullets hit the porch in front of Little Joe an instant before his foot landed on the exact same spot.

*****

Ben Cartwright was a proud man. His cattle herd was growing and he’d recently discovered silver on his land, his Ponderosa. Yes, he was proud of what he had accomplished since settling in the Washoe. But his greatest measure of pride was in his sons. He had three fine sons to carry on his legacy.

As he put the new mining operation behind him, riding back home with his two oldest boys at his side, he took a deep breath of fresh mountain air and thought of his youngest. Little Joe had nearly as much fire in him as the nitro Ben had left in the capable hands of his mining foreman. Both Joseph and nitroglycerin could look innocuous enough when they were sitting still, but both could explode in an instant with careless handling.

“You reckon he’s still sulking?” Hoss’s question proved Ben wasn’t the only one whose thoughts had wandered to the fourth and most volatile Cartwright.

Ben smiled. “Oh, I think he’s well past that by now.”

“Don’t forget,” Adam added, grinning, “it’s too much work for him to stay angry. And you know how much he hates work.”

“Nah,” Hoss countered. “He don’t hate work. He hates chores, but not work. He’ll try to work harder’n anyone when we let him.”

After filling his lungs with more of that invigorating mountain air, Ben nodded. “Which is precisely why I didn’t allow him to come with us. That mine is far too dangerous a place for a twelve-year-old boy who imagines himself a grown man.”

Adam ducked his head in only partial agreement. “You could say the same for a corral full of wild horses or a meadow crowded with anxious beeves.”

“Yes, well, at least those are dangers he’s learned to be wary of.”

“Hey, Pa?” Hoss asked then. “Ya’ think Hop Sing managed to keep him away from that new stallion?”

“Of course he did!” Ben answered more tersely than he’d intended. “And you think so, too, because if you didn’t, you’d be practically whipping that horse of yours to get home and make sure your little brother is all right.”

“I reckon I would at that.” Hoss’s responding smile put Ben at ease, making him realize he’d shown a bit of his own volatility.

The apple surely didn’t fall far from the tree, now did it? Joe wasn’t the only one with a bit of explosive fire lurking just beneath the surface.

“Hop Sing’s bound to come after us,” Hoss went on, “with that heavy fry pan of his, complainin’ up a storm about all the trouble he got Little Joe out of while we were gone.”

“In Chinese,” Adam added.

Chuckling softly at the vision of an irate Chinaman shaking a fist wrapped tightly around the handle of a cast iron skillet, Ben found himself eager to get home. But when they rounded the next bend, wisps of dark smoke wafting above the trees ahead kindled a new kind of fire in his gut.

“Dear God,” he said, his voice muted by fear as he kicked his horse into a wild gallop.

His home, his Ponderosa, was burning.

*****

The barn was engulfed in flames by the time Ben and his sons arrived. Fortunately, a steady wind pushed the smoke across the empty corral and away from the house. Still, Ben knew the wind could shift at any moment.

“Get the buckets!” he hollered to his sons as he dismounted quicker than he would have believed possible. “Joseph!” he yelled next. “Hop Sing!” Where were they? Why weren’t they trying to douse that fire? “Joseph? Little Joe! Hop Sing!”

“Pa!” Hoss called at his shoulder. “The house!”

“I know! I don’t care about the barn, but we’ve got to keep that fire from reaching—”

“I mean look, Pa!”

Confused, Ben turned his attention and saw what he hadn’t before. The front door was open wide … wide enough to reveal the mess inside. “What in heaven’s name….”

“Bandits, ya’ think?” Hoss asked when Ben left his own statement unfinished. “Took the stallion and … whatever else they could find?

“I don’t….” Ben started absently. And then, his eyes widening at the implications playing out in his mind, he shouted as loud as he could. “Little Joe! Hop Sing!”

“We’ll find ‘em, Pa.”

But the fire…. “No,” Ben decided. “The fire, first. Let’s just—”

“Pa! Hoss!” Adam cried out suddenly, drawing them both to the barn where he had already begun trying to douse the flames. “There’s someone inside!”

Ben forced back a dizzying wave of fear. “Get some wool blankets!” he ordered Hoss while Adam went for another bucket of water.

Moments later, under the cover of a wet mantle of wool, Ben braved the flames himself, refusing to risk his sons. He followed Adam’s shouted directions through the blinding smoke until he came across a prone form that was too stout and tall to be Little Joe. Quickly swallowing a very brief instant of relief, he knew before he even reached forward that he had found Hop Sing.

*****

It seemed hours later — yes, it had to have been hours, hadn’t it? — before Ben and his oldest sons were finally able to leave the barn, allowing it to smolder into dust.

“Get the doctor,” Ben asked whichever of his boys could hear him. His voice was soft, his mind numb. “And the sheriff. We need to….” He took in a heavy breath. “We need to find the men who did this.” Looking up at the falling sun, he added. “In the morning, we’ll … we’ll sift through the rubble. We’ll … find your brother.” The last words barely escaped his lips.

“Pa…,” Adam started. His mouth worked uselessly for several breaths before he finished. “It’s possible Joe wasn’t with Hop Sing in there.”

Ben studied him, wanting to share that hope, needing to share it. But…. “We’ve already searched everywhere else.”

“I know, but….” Adam filled his chest with more of that soot-choked air. “They might have taken him with them.”

Ben’s thoughts darkened. “For what? To sell him as a slave to the Indians? Or worse?” His tone was harsh, too harsh. Adam looked stung. “I’m sorry, son. You’re right. If they took him, then at least we have some hope of finding him alive. Come on. Let’s—”

“Hey, Pa?” Ben turned to find his middle boy already mounted. “What’s that?” Hoss asked.

“What?”

Hoss pointed toward the empty corral. “There’s somethin’ over by the rail. See it?”

All Ben saw was a tangle of ropes. “It’s nothing, Hoss. You just ride. Hop Sing needs—”

“No, Pa,” Hoss argued softly as he nudged his horse closer to the corral. “It ain’t … ain’t nothin’.” Dismounting, he stepped through the open gate.

“Hoss,” Ben scolded. “Hop Sing needs the doctor. He—”

“It’s Joe!” Hoss shouted then, rushing toward that tangled heap.

Fear warred with hope. Ben ran forward, feeling ill and raw, until two words nearly dropped him to his knees.

“He’s alive!”

Moments later, Ben did drop to his knees. He knelt beside his all-too-still youngest son. The boy was cocooned in rope, as though he’d been lassoed not once but twice, and each length of raw hemp had been coiled around him again and again, and knotted too many times to count. Joe’s arms were pulled unnaturally in front of him and held tight to his chest, his right wrist clearly broken in the process. And he was covered head to toe in mud, blood and manure.

“Use a knife!” Ben commanded, unwilling to wait to free the boy.

“Easy, Pa,” Hoss said in the same calm, gentling voice he’d used with the stallion they’d brought to that very corral days earlier. “Adam’s takin’ care of it. Ya’ see? Here he comes now.”

It seemed an eternity before Adam sliced through the last of the rope. All the while, Ben held a hand to the boy’s chest, finding strength with every rise and fall that proved his son was still breathing.

“Go,” Ben said then, letting his eyes move upward just long enough to recognize his own fear mirrored in the eyes of both of his older sons. “Get Doctor Martin. Hurry.”

And then, finally, Ben scooped Little Joe up into his arms to carry him on leaden, wobbly legs into the tarnished sanctuary of his home … his Ponderosa.

*****

2

Ben did everything he could for Little Joe, as Adam had set about doing for Hop Sing just down the hall. He washed away the filth, cleaned and bandaged a myriad of bleeding wounds — the most troubling of which included a deep gash just below Joe’s left collar bone and another on his right thigh — and then resigned himself to waiting and praying for the doctor to arrive … for the sheriff to send a posse out after the men who’d dared harm his boy … and, most of all, for the boy to open his eyes.

Joe looked so … wrong lying still and quiet in his bed, his skin mottled by cuts and bruises and his wrist twisted and swollen. He was far too young to have been so brutally attacked. How could any man do such a thing to a child? And how could….

How could Ben have left his young son so unprotected, so vulnerable? Hop Sing was a cook, for heaven’s sake. A cook, not a gunman. Ben had settled his family a long way from the civilized east. How could he have been so thoughtless as to expect his cook might offer the boy sufficient protection there in the uncivilized west?

“How is he?” Adam’s question pulled Ben’s attention to the doorway.

Finding himself unable to answer, he turned back to Joe while Adam moved closer, and then sighed when his oldest son’s hand fell upon his shoulder. Somehow, that connection renewed his strength enough to allow him to speak. “It’s bad, Adam. He’s been kicked. The horse must have still been in there when they … when they….”

Adam’s grip tightened. “Doctor Martin’s on his way, Pa. Joe will be just fine; the doc will see to it.” His tone sounded as strong as his grip. His eyes were less certain.

“Of course,” Ben answered, as he knew he must. “What about Hop Sing?”

Adam drew a deep breath before answering. “He took quite a beating; and all that smoke didn’t do his lungs any good. But … at least he wasn’t burned.”

“Thank God for small favors,” Ben said absently.

“Pa….” Adam withdrew his hand and turned away, taking a few steps toward the window. “It might have gone worse….” Swiveling to face Ben once more, he added, “if we’d been here?” The way he turned the statement into a question was as clear a sign of his uncertainty as what Ben saw in his eyes.

That pleading, needful look, one Ben hadn’t seen since his oldest boy had left for college years earlier, did more to inspire anger than the confidence Adam sought. “Yes,” Ben declared firmly. “We could have fought them. We could have—”

“Like that family in California?” Adam’s tone gained strength, reminding Ben of the man he’d become during those long years away. “They fought and they died for their efforts: Every last one of them, even a ten-year-old boy!” For an instant his eyes sparked fire, but only for an instant. “At least….” A hand went to his hair and his eyes grew uncharacteristically watery, prompting him to turn his back and look to the window again. “At least they didn’t kill them outright. They left them for dead, but … they didn’t kill them outright.”

“Yes, son. You’re right. Things could have gone far … far worse.”

Facing Ben once more, Adam’s gaze took on a calculating look. “Do you think they knew we were coming?”

“Does it matter?”

“It might.” Adam’s brows drew downward, as they tended to do when he was searching for answers to life’s puzzles. “Maybe that’s why they left Joe and Hop Sing alive, and why they set the barn on fire.” His tone began to grow lighter. “They knew it would prevent us from going after them. It would give them a chance to get away.”

“Perhaps,” Ben considered.

“I bet they did know. And I bet I know why.” Adam looked to Little Joe. “Because of him.”

“What?”

“Think about it. You know how Joe gets when he’s too angry to be frightened. Too … stubborn.”

Ben let a small, sad smile slip into place. “With me perhaps. Until the switch comes out. But….” The smile fell. “In the hands of ruthless comancheros?”

“You know how he can be, Pa. The angrier he is, the less he thinks. The consequences of his actions are the last thing he worries about. You just wait, I bet he’d say. You just wait ‘til my pa and brothers get back!” Adam chuckled mirthlessly. “As though the men who did this were no more dangerous than schoolhouse bullies.”

“Yes.” Hop Sing’s voice, weak and raspy, drew them both to the doorway.

“Hop Sing!” Ben exclaimed, pushing himself to his feet. “I’m glad to see you awake, but you shouldn’t be out of bed.”

Adam hurried forward. Two steps quicker than his father, he took hold of Hop Sing’s arm and guided him to Ben’s vacated chair. “Pa’s right, Hop Sing. You don’t look much better than Little Joe right now.”

“Hop Sing … fail,” the cook responded quietly as he settled into the chair without argument. “Not stop…. Boy hurt. Hop … Hop Sing let men hurt boy.” He gasped, as though struggling to catch his breath.

But … That wasn’t it, was it? He was crying softly, Ben realized then. Hop Sing was crying. It was strange and disturbing and … and Ben couldn’t bear another moment of it. “Nonsense! You didn’t fail. You were outnumbered, outmatched. There was nothing you could have done.”

“Little Joe … fight. Much fire in him. He yell. Make threat. Kick. Bite. But Hop Sing….” He shook his head slowly. “They kick Hop Sing. Like dog. Like….”

“No.” This time the argument did not come from Ben. It was a whispered rattle that drew all eyes toward the bed. “No,” Joe said again, his lips barely parting and his eyes remaining closed. “Don’t … don’t hurt him.”

“Joseph?” Moving past Hop Sing to return to his son’s bedside, Ben gave his full attention to his young son.

“Boy protect Hop Sing,” the cook said behind him.

“Don’t…,” Joe repeated. His breaths were coming more quickly and he was beginning to thrash about. “My pa…. Pa’s coming. Pa…. Pa’s coming.”

“I knew it.” Yes, Adam did know his little brother … perhaps because they were more alike than either might ever admit.

The thought of his boy standing up against such brutality made Ben feel both guilty and prideful. “Shhh, Joseph.” He pressed Joe’s shoulder into the mattress and gently brushed his other hand across the boy’s hair. “I’m here, son. I’m here. You’re safe now. Do you hear me? You’re safe.”

“They’re … coming. You’ll never … never get away. They’ll … hunt you down. …Never … get away.” The boy’s struggles grew stronger.

“Easy Joe.” Ben pressed firmly against both of his son’s shoulders, his concern over aggravating the still-bleeding wound overridden by his worry that the boy’s movements might worsen whatever hurts lie hidden beneath a score of unsettling bruises on Joe’s chest and abdomen. “You must lie still! Do you hear me, Joseph? There’s nothing to worry about. You’re safe. You must lie still!”

“Let me go!” Joe cried out. “The horse! The …. Please….” His voice grew softer, his words more slurred. “Please let me go.”

When the boy’s struggles abruptly ceased, Ben feared the worst. He watched, stricken, as the cadence of Joe’s frantic breathing slowed. The time between one breath and the next grew incrementally longer, causing Ben to hold his own, until finally settling into a weak but steady rhythm.

Ben exhaled slowly and drew away, disturbed to see fresh spots of blood seeping through the bandage wrapped around Joe’s shoulder.

“Hop Sing not protect boy,” the cook said in a stronger voice than before. “Hop Sing life—”

“Killed him,” Joe whispered. His brows began to curl, showing Ben a telltale sign of despair. “You … killed him,” he sobbed quietly. An instant later despair became rage. “You’ll hang. Pa’ll…. He’ll find you…. See you hang.”

“Joseph!” Ben reached forward, determined once more to stop his son’s thrashing.

But this time Joe didn’t struggle. Instead, he blinked his eyes sluggishly open. Pa? The word formed soundlessly on his lips.

Relaxing, Ben eased his grip and smiled. “Well, hello there, young man. It’s about time you woke up.”

“Pa?” The word finally spilled out on the trail of a spent breath.

“Yes, son. I’m here.” He gave Joe’s good shoulder a gentle squeeze.

“Hop Sing….”

“He’s here, too. And Adam—”

“They killed him,” Joe interrupted softly. “They killed Hop Sing,” he cried. “I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t—”

“No, son. Hop Sing’s fine! He’s fine Joe! He’s right here!”

“Hop Sing?”

Nodding, Ben smiled again, hoping to settle his son’s confusion. Then he stepped aside.

Joe’s eyes followed him until he noticed the figure in the chair. “Hop Sing?”

The cook lowered his head, looking downward. “This unworthy one owe life number three son.”

Joe’s eyes widened. He shot up in bed … or tried to. Ben was as stunned by the boy’s reaction as Joe was by the result. He fell abruptly back to his pillow, his eyes closing, his brow scrunching and his chest heaving in pain.

“It’s all right, Joseph.” Ben squeezed his good shoulder again. “You’ve been hurt. But you’re going to be just fine, as long as you give yourself a chance to rest and heal.”

“I thought….” Joe looked up at him, and then let his heavy lidded eyes move toward Hop Sing. “I thought they killed you. You told me to run, but I didn’t. You … you made them attack you so I could get away. But I didn’t. I didn’t listen. I’m sorry, Hop Sing! I’m sorry….”

Weary sobs stopped the boy’s tongue and made Ben eager to pull him close, to wrap his arms around Little Joe and soothe the hurt away. But this wasn’t a stubbed toe or skinned knee. Holding Joe close would only cause more pain.

“Number three son have fire … here.” Hop Sing looked up long enough to lay his hand across his breast. Then he cast his eyes downward again. “This unworthy one foolishment … shoo fire. Bring wind … to flame. Make number three son … fire too big … too hot.” Hop Sing paused and looked at Joe again. “Chinese proverb … say … inside fire burn self … more … than enemy. Hop Sing make number three son burn self. Much hurt. Too much … hurt.”

“None of this was your fault, Hop Sing. Joe is—”

“I couldn’t,” the boy interrupted. “Couldn’t leave you, Hop Sing. I couldn’t let them….” Moaning softly, Joe closed his eyes and bit down on his lower lip.

“Face it, Hop Sing,” Adam said then. “Joe’s as stubborn as they come.” His young brother’s eyes flashed with a spark of anger, but Adam didn’t give Joe a chance to argue. “He’s his father’s son, after all,” Adam went on. “No matter how foolish or dangerous or….” He took a long breath before continuing in a gentler tone. “No matter how impossible the odds, he couldn’t just abandon you. None of us could have. I think my little brother here has just made it very clear he’s growing up.”

Joe’s eyes softened, and the lines of pain on his brow smoothed for a brief moment.

“Don’t get cocky, Little Joe,” Adam added. “Hop Sing’s got a point. You’re going to have to learn how to control that fire of yours or it’s bound to cause more harm than good. Next time you might not be so lucky.”

While Ben blanched at the thought that there could ever be a next time, Joseph focused on a different word, altogether.

“Lucky?”

“Yes,” Adam answered. “Lucky. You lived through it. And so did Hop Sing. Your temper could have just as easily worked against you. That’s why soldiers are trained to follow orders, so they don’t let their thinking — or their inability to think — get in the way of survival.”

“Soldier?” Joe asked. “Me?”

Adam met his father’s gaze, grinning. “You do seem to have your share of battle wounds, little buddy.” He winked. “Just try to follow orders next time.”

“No.” Joe’s response startled both of the elder Cartwrights.

“No?” Ben repeated. “Are you refusing to follow orders, young man?”

“Yes,” Joe answered. “I won’t leave someone I care about … no matter … who … orders me to do it.” Pain grew increasingly evident in his eyes as he looked from Ben to Adam, and then, finally, to Hop Sing. “I’m sorry, Hop Sing. I just … couldn’t leave you.”

The cook’s tense features softened. He gave a small, almost imperceptible nod. Ben even detected the trace of a smile. But like Little Joe, he, too, was hurting.

“Well, that’s enough talk for now,” Ben said as the sound of hoof beats pulled Adam toward the window again. “Back to bed with you, Hop Sing. And that’s an order!”

Hop Sing looked up at him. “Mister Cartwright take good care number three son.”

“You know I will. Just like you do whenever I’m not here.”

Satisfied, Hop Sing bobbed his head once, and then allowed Adam to help him rise.

“Pa?” Joe asked as they shuffled into the hallway. “Why’d you let ‘em get away?”

“What?” Ben started more from Joe’s unexpected question than from the sound of the footsteps on the porch and the clatter of the front door latch.

“You … shouldn’t be here. Should be … goin’ after ‘em. I told ‘em you’d … track ‘em down. I … I told ‘em you’d….”

“I’m here, son, for the very same reason you refused to leave Hop Sing. And I will be here looking out for you until you’re well enough to look after yourself.”

“But they’ll get away. Can’t … let ‘em get away.”

Ben heard men in the hallway an instant before Sheriff Coffee announced his presence by responding to Joe before Ben even had the chance. “Don’t you worry about anyone gettin’ away.”

“We sure won’t let that happen, little brother.” Hoss pushed past him to reach Joe’s bedside. “Adam and me’ll see to it. We’ll catch the men that done this, I promise you that.”

“It’s my job to track those men down,” the sheriff said firmly. “And don’t you forget it. If you insist on bein’ a member of my posse, it’s your job to do as I say.”

Joe smiled. “You mean like … followin’ orders?”

“I mean exactly that.”

Doctor Martin finally managed to push his own way to Joe’s bedside. “Well, it’s my job to get this young man’s injuries seen to; and I have a few orders of my own, starting with commanding everyone to clear this room so I can get to work!”

Ben smiled in gratitude, even while his young son’s smile fell victim to his fear of the doctor’s prodding. And for the first time since he’d spotted that thick smoke above the tree line, Ben began to feel a surge of his own fire deep inside, a fire that signaled warmth for the sanctuary of his home, his Ponderosa, despite whatever had been stolen. He youngest boy was safe, and in good, caring hands. And Joe was every bit his father’s son, just like both of his brothers.

Yes, Ben Cartwright’s sons, all three of them, were worth more than every trace of silver in the entire Washoe valley.

***The End***

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