Gypsy Curses ( by Jules)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  33,000

 


Laughter rang out from within the doors of the Bucket O’ Blood saloon. Inside, the cause of the laughter was a small dark haired man who stood in the middle of the room, shouting at the rest of the night’s patrons.

“You people should believe,” he yelled back. “The curse of the gypsy people is real and can be very dangerous if I so desire,” he continued.

Seated at a round table to the left hand side of the bar was a silver-haired gentleman, approximately 50 years old, a younger gentleman with dark hair and dressed all in black and lastly a giant of a man with a loud laugh to match. They were the three older members of the Cartwright family, Benjamin Cartwright, Adam Cartwright and Hoss Cartwright.

“Tell us another one, Anton,” was the response from someone else leaning on the bar.

“You gypsies are nothing but no good liars.”

“You and your kind should be tarred and feathered, then run out of town.”

“It’s true I tell you,” the gypsy now shouted angrily.

The night’s conversation had begun with Anton coming into the bar and getting just enough alcohol in his system to be argumentative.

Anton was proud to be a Gypsy and often showed it with bouts of brazen stories about his people being able to perform miraculous healing on the sick and cast spells or place curses on living things. His people moved around the territory, camping with their caravans and horses wherever ranch owners would let them. Quite often, they were chased from their chosen camping sites, brought on by people’s fear of the unknown and general dislike of the nomadic ways of the Gypsy people.

“Prove it, then,” came the shout from somebody seated behind Ben and his boys.

“Okay, I will. I will prove to you that a curse can be placed upon anybody I so choose, and then you will believe me,” he stated, gesturing loudly with his hands and facial expressions.

This statement set the mob off again into wails of laughter and sneering.

“I will place a curse of Bad Luck upon the next person to walk through those saloon doors,” Anton began. “The curse will affect his or her whole family, but him or her in particular. That family will rue the day that they laughed at me,” he added with contempt.

Upon hearing this remark, the crowed now waited with anticipation to see who would be the next person to walk through the two dividing doors. Not that they believed in curses or Bad Luck, but they all wanted to make sure it wasn’t any of them due for the bad luck.

Ben and his boys had been watching the scenario played out with slight grins at the mention of Bad Luck and curses. They had not added to the conversation, but watched with as much interest as anybody else in the bar at that time.

Suddenly, the sound of foot steps walking upon the floor boards of the porch outside the saloon could be heard indicating that someone may be approaching.

Next thing people saw was a tan hat, green corduroy jacket and leather boots, come through the doors with a large grin on his face. He stopped abruptly when surveying the looks on the faces of the other patrons, and quickly wondered why he had become the centre of attention.

“What?” he simply asked, as he continued to walk in and look for the familiar faces of his father and brothers. He rubbed the tired feeling from his gritty eyes with his left hand and lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his flattened curls, trying to avoid the feeling of unease that was radiating from the room.

“Why did you have to walk in now, Little Joe,” Adam said sighing at the thought of what may be in store.

“Nice to see you today too, Adam,” Joe answered sarcastically and then proceeded to take a seat at the table beside his father and Hoss.

“It would have to be you younger brother,” Hoss commented and rolled his eyes in mock disgust. “Lord knows, what trouble you are going to cause now”.

Joseph Cartwright was now annoyed. He had spent a whole day from very early this morning, mending the fences in the North Pasture as his father had asked, he had made the long ride into town afterwards, looking for a nice cold beer to end the day and talk to his family.

He had not seen his family since last night, due to leaving so early this morning. Delays had occurred for most of the day with the fencing, having to ride back to the ranch on two occasions to obtain more tools, nails and wire. Now, with the task completed, all his ungrateful brothers could do was to make snide remarks about him being there. “Fine,” he said gruffly, “I don’t need your company today either, big brothers”. “I’m going to find somebody who appreciates me,” and attempted to rise from his chair and walk off.

“Not so fast Joe,” was the response from his father. “Your brothers didn’t mean to talk to you so rudely,” Ben said soothingly, giving his two older sons a look of distaste.

“Doesn’t sound that way, Pa,” Joe said and gave the same look of contempt to Hoss and Adam.

His train of thought was soon interrupted with Anton proceeding to stand up on a chair in the middle of the barroom and proclaiming: “I place the curse on Mr Joseph Cartwright. Bad Luck will follow him and is family wherever they go for seven days from today.”

Joe hadn’t really understood what was said and just stared at the man, his family and the rest of the crowd within the Bucket O’ Blood with confusion. Ben now buried his face in his hand and gave a small groan, followed by the words, “Why him; Lord, Oh Why Him? Why us?” he moaned, a little too loudly.

Nobody else in the room had heard the words except his sons. Joe was now even more madder than before, first his brothers, now his father. This was a conspiracy.

He angrily got up from his chair and pulled his arm away from his father, and walked off in a huff towards the saloon doors and his horse Cochise waiting outside.

“Joseph, wait please,” Ben said getting up from his own chair and attempting to go after his young son. When he reached the door, Joe was already in the saddle and turning his horse in the direction of the Ponderosa. He didn’t want to hear any excuses or reasons, he felt unwanted and unappreciated, and very thirsty for that beer he didn’t get.

Ben walked back into the bar, a saddened look fell across the features, and his sons Adam and Hoss realised that Joe was angry at his family, and Ben knew that he and they were the cause.

They quickly paid the bar tender their tab and proceeded to their own horses outside. The other patrons in the Buck O’Blood Saloon continued to laugh at Anton and his speech and Back Luck that would befall Joseph Cartwright and his family for the next week. 

*****

Little Joe had made it home a good twenty minutes before his father and brothers. He had heard the noise of their horses behind him, but was in no mood to wait for them to catch up. He barrelled into the yard of the homestead with a speed that would have seen his father rake him over hot coals had he seen him. He jumped off his mount and went about bedding Cochise down for the night with a rub down and fresh supply of hay and oats. He had just finished his chore, when he heard his father and brother approach the barn. He quickly finished what he was doing and went inside the house to avoid an ugly confrontation.

Joe entered the house and encountered Hop Sing in the kitchen making coffee for the members of the Cartwright family.

Hop Sing had heard Little Joe ride up to the ranch and assumed that the rest of the family would not be far behind. He always made sure that there was a hot pot of coffee at the end of the day when he beloved family came home.

Joe just grunted a quick and unfeeling “Hello” to his life long friend and confidante and climbed the stairs to his room. He made sure that the door slammed with a resounding thud, showing his displeasure and annoyance.

Joe had taken the reaction and comments of his family at the Bucket O’ Blood badly, even though he knew that there was probably something more to the situation. But at the moment, his hands smarted from the numerous cuts and abrasions from the barbed wire, his muscles rebelled at any movement and generally Joe felt more tired than he had felt for a long time. With his thoughts so muddled and his body resisting him somewhat, he did not want to hear the answers or explanations that his family had to offer.

He flung his body upon the bedspread, fully clothed, and lay face down, trying to erase the thoughts of the day.

Hop Sing had seen the displeasure etched on Little Joe’s face, the tired and almost hurt look in his eyes, along with the door slamming. He was unaware what the problem was, but when it came to Little Joe, Hop Sing only knew that the boy was unhappy over something. This did not sit well with the small Cantonese man, and he was determined to show this to the remainder of the Cartwright clan when they arrived home.

Ben, Adam and Hoss had now finished bedding their horses down for the night and entered the homestead to the divine smell of freshly brewed coffee. Their senses were brought alive with the overpowering aroma, but quickly regressed when Hop Sing gave them all a look of venom.

“What you do to Lil Joe?” he began to chastise. “Little Joe come in, angry and upset and slamming doors. What you do?” he repeated. “Hop Sing don’t like it when Joe upset. You all get your own coffee tonight.” Then retreated into his kitchen still muttering to himself about threatening not to cook for the family, and to leave, if Little Joe wasn’t happy by the morning.

Ben Cartwright and Adam had simply raised their eyebrows at the little man’s tirade, but knew that the threats by their resident cook to quit and leave were almost a weekly occurrence. However, they were surprised by the apparent display by Little Joe.

*****

Ben climbed to stairs to the bedroom of his youngest, full prepared to sort things out before they got out of control. If things were left until the morning, Joe would probably in a fouler mood than he was now and Ben didn’t relish that idea in the slightest.

Joe’s father knocked loudly on the door, signalling that he was entering and then turned the handle to walk into the room.

The door remained closed and Ben suddenly noticed that it was not only shut, but had been locked from the inside. Locked ……….


No matter what problems his sons had over the years, locking themselves in their rooms was not a common solution and Ben realized for the first time and his son was indeed very upset over what he heard.

Joseph Francis CARTWRIGHT!” he bellowed. “You open this door immediately, do you hear me. I will not condone locking your bedroom door like a five year old. JOSEPH.”

Adam and Hoss had been equally surprised as their father that Joe had locked his door. Joe had never locked his door before, did their remarks really hurt him that much ….

A slight click could be hear on the other side of the door and the door came slowly ajar.

*****

Ben was ready for the full onslaught of anger from his youngest son that he had become accustomed to. Joseph had inherited his mother’s temper and probably a little bit of his father’s Ben regretted, and was often prone to getting his temper firing at a moment’s notice.

However, Ben was not prepared for what he did see …….. a very solemn looking Joseph. His mild displeasure quickly evaporated and his heart was feeling a little heavier as he saw the look upon the face of his youngest son.

“Come to laugh some more, Pa,” Joe said bitterly.

Ben winced at the venom in the words but knew that they were only the temporary result of Joe’s feelings of resentment and probably from working too hard earlier in the day.

“No, son, I didn’t come to laugh at you,” Ben said gently. “I was hoping you would be willing to hear out the entire story about what happened at the saloon and why you heard the comments we made.”

Joe looked at his father a little perplexed, he doubted there was much of a reason for the comments he had heard, but he supposed he would listen to the excuses. “Okay, Pa,” he replied, “I will listen, but I want Adam and Hoss to be there too.”

“If that’s the way you want it,” Ben spoke. He knew that the uneasiness in the room had dissipated a little, but knew that he could be on dangerously thin ground and decided to make Joe feel more comfortable for the time being.

Ben then turned and returned down the staircase and proceeded to sit on his favourite blue leather chair and mentioned to Adam and Hoss to also take a seat, to take part in the ensuing conversation that was about to take place.

Little Joe made it down the stairs slowly and apprehensively, with a scowl for each brother clearly written on his face. He then moved to sit in the other single arm chair in the living room as Adam and Hoss were both sitting on the settee.

“Joe,” Ben began, “You only came in on half of the conversation at the saloon and any comments we said were unthoughtful and wrong.”

“Anton was talking about Gypsy people and casting spells on people,” he continued. “People were laughing at him and jeering, causing him to bristle a little and make a speech that made him feel that people would fear his people. Anton proposed that he could place a curse on somebody and he said he would place a curse on the next person that happened to walk into the saloon.”

“That’s when you walked in little brother,” Adam joined in “and that’s when you heard mine and Hoss’s comment.

“I’m sorry, Joe, I didn’t really mean to sound the way I did. I simply was scared for my younger sibling when a threat was made against him” Adam commented as he tried to smooth over the atmosphere.

“Yeah, Little Joe,” Hoss said, “We really didn’t mean the things we said; we didn’t even really believe what Anton was saying.

Joe looked at both of his brothers and then his father trying to gauge whether or not they were speaking the truth. He didn’t really believe that they were lying, but knew they were making an effort to make amends.

Joe’s face suddenly changed from the scowl to one of innocent looking. “I’m sorry too, Pa, and brothers. As usual, my temper just got the better of me after a long tiring day.”

Ben inwardly sighed in relief at this remark and knew that Joe was often impulsive in his emotions and actions, which were later regretted.

“Okay, then,” Ben said rising from his chair. “Let’s all try to get a good night’s sleep. After all, Joe has more fencing to complete tomorrow,” he commented as he looked in the direction of his youngest son.

This brought a laugh from Adam and Hoss and a exaggerated large groan from Joe as he thought of another day like today. But Ben noticed that Joe now seemed to have the slightest hint of a smile on his face as he proceeded back up stairs to his room.

*****

Everybody had forgotten about Anton’s curse until the next day. Joe had already left reasonably early to complete the fencing task in the North Pasture.

Adam and Hoss had been chasing strays all morning and returned to the homestead covered in dust and looking for lunch. Ben had been in town for the entire morning seeing to paying some accounts at the business houses and gathering the list of supplies that Hop Sing had given him before he left.

Hoss and Adam went about washing some of the layers of dust off their hands and clothes in the washroom before coming out ready to head to the front door. 

Both looked up as they heard the steady thud of hooves and wheels which signalled that their father was returning in the wagon from being in town. 

Normally, Ben was a very experienced wagon driver. He had driven over the same stretch of ground a hundred times or more over the past few years, never missing a best, but today …………..

Both Adam and Hoss were preparing to help their father unload the laden wagon with the supplies as it pulled up, when without warning …………

As Ben was trying to disembark from the driver’s seat, something made the horses move forward a little, making Ben loose his footing and crash to the hard ground.

“Oooopfff” was the only sound that Ben could get out as he tried to stand up erect.

 

He was a little embarrassed at his predicament, was wasn’t ready for his two eldest son’s rushing over to him and starting to treat him like it was their baby brother that was hurt.

Adam and Hoss had stared in disbelief when they saw their father fall from the wagon. They quickly recovered themselves and ran to their father’s aid.

“Boys, Boys,” Ben said trying to stand up. Adam and Hoss grabbed him gently on either arm and helped him to his feet. “I’m all right” Ben added, trying to reassure them.

It wasn’t until he tried to pull his arm away from Hoss, insisting his large son that he just had a small fall, when the pain from his injured shoulder hit him full on.

Adam and Hoss had started to believe their father was alright until they heard him cry out in obvious discomfort.

“Pa,” Hoss said worriedly “Do you want me to go and get Doc Martin?”

“No, Hoss, I’ll be fine, just jarred my shoulder a little,” Ben said to his son gritting his teeth against the pain.

“Let’s go inside and have a look at it, Pa” Adam said trying not to sound concerned.

The supplies were forgotten temporarily as the three of them entered the living room of the homestead.

“Hop Sing!” Adam yelled for the Cantonese man “Can you get some hot water and some bandages, please”.

The little oriental servant came out of his kitchen at the sound of Adam yelling something and gasped at the sight of his Boss being helped over to the settee by his two sons. Hop Sing could see that his shirt was torn at the shoulder and a small amount of blood appeared on the fabric.

Upon returning with the requested medical equipment, Hop Sing could see that Ben’s shoulder was badly grazed and had started to show signs of a large bruise on the shoulder blade.

Adam proceeded to clean the area with the water and then bandaged his father’s shoulder tightly, restricting any movement that could cause further irritation of the wound.

Adam and Hoss returned to the cattle after a late lunch, leaving Ben in the capable hands of Hop Sing. The little Chinese man swore that Ben wouldn’t do anything strenuous for the rest of the afternoon.

*****

The two older Cartwright sons returned just before supper that evening to find that Ben’s shoulder had indeed been bothering him a little more than he would admit, and their father had retired to his room to rest.

Hoss heard the sound of Joe and his horse coming into the yard and heading towards the barn. “You can tell him, big brother,” he commented and then made himself scarce, pretending to be washing up for the evening meal.

“Thanks,” Adam said to his younger brother’s broad back as he ascended the stairs. He did not relish the idea of telling Joe about the accident his father had that morning.

Ben was very protective of Joseph and openly showed it. But it was also no secret that Joseph would be worried sick once he heard his father had been hurt.

Joe entered the living room and placed his gun belt on the credenza and his hat on the peg behind the front door as was the normal practice twice a day.

He looked up to find Adam looking at him with a strange look on his face and his father and older brother, no where in sight.

“What happened?” he asked, immediately sensing something wasn’t right.

“Now don’t go flying off the handle, Little Joe,” Adam tried to say calmly to his younger sibling, who was more observant that Adam would have preferred.

This comment only made Joe more uneasy, and he now stood before his older brother with his hands on his hips with a look of Don’t treat me like a little kid and tell me what’s going on.

“There was a little accident today with Pa and the wagon,” Adam tried to say without too much emotion in his voice.

“A little accident?” Joe asked suspiciously. He knew that he hadn’t seen his father in the house yet, which meant he might be seriously injured.

“Pa fell out of the wagon this morning and bruised his shoulder a little” Adam admitted.

Too late, Adam thought, as he saw his youngest brother now scurry up the stairs, wondering about his father.

Joe stopped short of his father’s room and opened the door silently and peeked inside. His father was asleep. His shoulder appeared to be tightly bound. Joe wanted to go in and talk to his father and see if he genuinely was okay, but decided to let his father rest. He re-closed the door without making a sound and descended the stairs.

“Is he going to be okay?” Joe asked, still not convinced. He was now looking to his older brother, who over the years, took over the fatherly figure role whenever Ben was absent. Adam fell into his role purely by mistake a lot of the time, but didn’t mind one bit. He put an arm around the shoulders of Joe as he reached the bottom landing,

and told him his father was going to be just fine.

Later on that night, Ben awoke from a very fitful sleep and to his surprise found his youngest son asleep in the chair beside him. He looked fondly at the his son who looked so much like his mother and so angelic when asleep. He looked much younger than his 17 years. Joe looked like he had been there most of the night.

Ben tried to move his slumbering son without waking him, trying to take him back to his own room. His shoulder had stopped aching, but soon reminded Ben of his injury when he tried to lift Joe. He grunted in pain and only succeeded in disturbing Joe from his sleep.

Joe had only just opened his eyes at the noise and was greeted by his father standing at his side.

“Pa, what are you doing out of bed?” Joe asked, almost scolding his father like a little child who was supposed to be in bed asleep at this hour. He rubbed the sleep from his green eyes and started trying to take his father back to his bed.

“I’m not a little baby, Joseph,” Ben tried to say. He knew that Joe was only trying to help him like it would be if the roles of injured and nurse were reversed.

Ben sat up in bed with his back leaning against the headrest, Joe came and sat beside him and snuggled against his uninjured shoulder. They talked at first, Ben doing most of the talking. The subjects included the ranch, Adam and Hoss and Joe’s mother.

Ben stopped when he noticed that his audience had once again been lost to the land of nod. Joe felt warm and cosy when in his father’s arms. He felt very safe and secure and the sound of Ben’s evenly smooth voice had just lulled him to sleep. Ben just smiled at Joe’s sleeping face again and closed his own eyes. The both of them remained in this position for the remainder of the night.

Adam knocked quietly on the door the next morning and opened it with Hoss standing beside him. They could not believe their eyes at the sight of their younger brother snuggled in their father’s embrace sound asleep. He looked like he was seven again, not seventeen.

“How does he do it?” Hoss asked with honest intentions.

“Lots of practice,” Adam replied with a hint of sarcasm. “Lots of practice”. Inwardly he smiled though, there had been many a night when he found himself and Little Joe in a similar position. He too enjoyed the closeness it offered him and his younger brother. He felt like Joe’s protector and wouldn’t let anything hurt him.

Ben was awake, but felt just fine watching his youngest son sleep. He also was not ashamed to show his love for the boy. He put his fingers to his lips in a “SHUSH” motion to signal the boys that he didn’t want Joe disturbed.

“He’s been here most of the night,” Ben told them. “I couldn’t move an inch without him berating me to get back to bed and rest”.

“What ain’t that a switch, eh Pa,” Hoss replied with a smile. “Like he’s the best patient in the world when he’s sick or hurt”.

“He was genuinely worried about you last night, Pa,” Adam said to his father.

All looked fondly at the youngest of the family again and sighed. They didn’t know what life would be like without his energy and laughter. Adam and Hoss knew that he was the source of his father’s joy. They didn’t mind, they knew that they were equally loved, but also knew that the relationship with their father and Joseph was one they could only envy from a distance.

Ben managed to manoeuvre enough to let Joe lay down on the bed and then placed a gentle kiss on his temple before covering him with the quilt. “Let him sleep alittle while longer,” Ben said as he got dressed and left following Adam and Hoss downstairs to the breakfast table.

*****

The next incident would happen later that same afternoon.

Joe awoke to find himself in his father’s bed. He vaguely remembered waiting by his father’s beside last night and remembered them talking, but after that, nothing.

He came out of the room and walked down the stairs and looked and the grandfather clock in shock. 1.00 pm. Not only had he slept through last night, but breakfast and lunch the next day. Boy, he must have been really tired. He quickly went about getting a cup of coffee from the stove and was awaiting the grilling he would get from his

father and brothers about sleeping at that hour of the day.

He walked out onto the porch, with cup in hand. Ben was seated in a chair on the porch also and looked up and said a warm hello to his not yet, fully awake son.

“Why didn’t you wake me, Pa?” Joe asked, worried about the tongue lashing he was about to receive.

“Thought you could use a little rest today too son,” Ben said simply. “You looked pretty beat last night.”

“Yeah, I must have been more tired than I thought,” Joe said honestly. “Been working with those horses over the last few days and those fences and I think it’s beginning to catch up with me.”

Joe now pulled up a seat beside his father and was trying to gauge if his father’s shoulder was mending or not.

Ben didn’t miss the examination he was receiving from his son’s gaze.

“It’s a lot better this morning, thank you, Doctor Cartwright,” Ben told his son. He noticed that his son visibly relaxed at the news and just continued to sip at his morning kick start.

Adam and Hoss had remained around the house today. Both to keep an eye on their father and just to catch up on some chores closer to home.

They both had seen that their brother had made an appearance and just scowled at him as they saw him and their father talking idly to each other on the porch.

Ben and Joe could see that Hoss and Adam were carrying a large plank of wood from the barn and attempting to load it into a waiting wagon. The log was about three metres long and almost a foot thick. Even with Hoss’s effort, the load was very heavy and both men grunted at the exertion.

Hoss was on the end farthest away from the house, Adam was closest. They had just been walking out of the barn with their burden, when Hoss’s attention was distracted from the task at hand. He suddenly was trying to look back over his shoulder at something and following his brother with the plank of wood.

Without warning, with the enormous weight of the log and Hoss’s own bulk behind it, Adam felt himself being flung sideways. He tried to plant his feet firm on the ground and prevent the slide, but he was no match for his 300 pound younger brother and a log that probably matched him.

Adam suddenly found himself immersed entirely in the cold water of the trough position just outside the barn doors. He had dropped his load and now stood in the trough, soaking wet from head to tail and gasping at the coldness of the water. He had the blackest look of all for his younger brother, who still had not noticed what had happened.

Ben and Joe had been talking when they saw Adam suddenly travelling sideways and then dumped unceremoniously in the water trough. Both looked on for a moment just to make sure that he was okay. They saw that Adam was not standing and giving Hoss a very vicious stare.

Hoss, turned at the sound of the splash and the apparent shift in weight as Adam dropped the log at the other end. He looked at the water trough to see a very wet Adam looking at him with his hair plastered to his forehead. Adam was soaked from head to toe all 180 pounds of him and Hoss felt the knives of steel driving at him from his brother.

Joe had seen that Adam was okay and was now walking over towards his siblings. The sight of a wet, trembling Adam was too much. Joe began giggling and before long was almost rolling around on the ground laughing. He wiped tears of laughter from his eyes as he sat on the yard ground and continued to look at his brother with a mischievous grin.

Adam scowled at Joe and was about to chastise him when he could see that although Ben was still seated on the porch; he too had been laughing fitfully at his oldest son’s accident. Adam just glared at his family. Hoss had thought he was in big trouble until he spotted his father laughing at Adam almost as hard at Little Joe. He now joined in with his loud and unmistakable cackle.

Adam got out of the water trough and deliberately stomped all the way to the house. He was greeted with a barrage of words from Hop Sing as the little man saw the state of the dripping wet floor Adam left behind him.

*****

The next day, all had thought about the curse when they remembered Pa’s accident and Adam’s dip in the water trough. But nobody said anything aloud. All thought that they were just being silly and the events that had occurred were just Acts of God.

All had an early breakfast ready for a long day out in the pastures. Hoss was outside getting the horses saddled. Joe and Adam were checking the gear from the tack room and Ben was just finishing a few entries in his ledgers, before going outside for the day.

Hoss had been finishing saddling Joe’s horse Cochise, when he saw it…………..

The creature was just about to walk on the railing beside Hoss’s hand. Hoss could see the creatures hairy legs, the eight eyes looking at him, and most of all Hoss could see it’s size.

Hoss thought it was the biggest he had ever saw. He had never seen anything that big before. He was trying to back away from the creature in fear. If he could just move away quickly and quietly, everything would be fine……..

Then it happened, the spider was close enough to place a hairy leg on Hoss’s hand. The spider had no intention of hurting anybody. It had barely noticed what it was walking onto.

Hoss was not small by any standards. Everybody looked at him as a mountain of strength when it was needed. But few knew that there were a few things in this world that would bring this giant to his knees in fear. Creepy Crawlies. Hoss’s skin flinched at the mere thought of critters that crept and crawled their way about in the world.

Ben, Joe and Adam were buckling on their gun belts and getting their hat’s from the pegs when they heard the loudest scream they thought they had ever heard.

All stood in stunned disbelief for a moment and tried to work out what had made such a terrible sound. It was soon repeated by a second bellowing. All raced out the door with guns drawn, looking for the Indian war party, the wild beast or whatever had made that noise.

The yard was empty, a third scream came from within the barn and all three of them realized that it was Hoss that was screaming. What would make Hoss scream like that. Was somebody attacking Hoss with a rifle, a gun, a lump of wood or a piece of steel.

Ben ran into the barn, waving for Adam and Joe to stay back slightly in case they were needed to come to the rescue.

In one corner of the stall where Cochise stood, happily munching at her hay and oats, Ben noticed that Hoss was squished up trying to get away from something. He had tears of fright streaming down his large cheeks. He had his hands in front of his face, trying to defend off what ever was attacking him.

Ben was trying desperately to see a person, a grizzly bear or wild animal that could be scaring his large son so badly. He looked to where Hoss’s gaze was fixated in fright and noticed something black sitting on the railing.

A spider. A hairy spider. It looked to be a large spider, but still no bigger than a man’s hand. This couldn’t possibly what was scaring Hoss, could it?

Ben ushered Adam and Joe out of the door way, when he realised that Hoss was probably already embarrassed enough not to have onlookers as well. Hoss wasn’t like Joseph. He couldn’t lift Hoss into his arms and comfort him until he calmed down and Hoss didn’t have curly hair to caress and make things feel all better.

He would have to settle with a gentle talk and assure his son that nothing was going to hurt him. He put his gun back into it’s holster and walked over to the corner of the stall that was and sat down in the hay.

He put a hand on Hoss’s trembling knee to let his son know everything was alright. Hoss couldn’t find the words to speak. “Its. …. it’s giant, Pa,” was all Hoss to manage to stammer out.

Ben spoke quietly and gently to his son and tried to assure him that it was just a spider and meant no harm to him. He knew that Hoss was very scared and the best thing was to get him out of the situation.

He stood up and offered a helping hand to Hoss. Hoss reluctantly took the hand of his father but didn’t want to take his eyes off the critter for a second. He was still shaking and wiping tears from his eyes as Ben led him out into the light and away from the barn and the contents.

Adam and Joe had seen their father come out with a shaking and trembling, and crying Hoss. Both looked at each other with real concern. Hoss cry. Hoss scared. These were things rarely seen. Something had scared their large brother, but they couldn’t work it out.

Joe was more perplexed than Adam. Hoss was the one he would run to if he was scared of something. Hoss was the one he knew could protect him in a fight, or carry him if he was hurt. Hoss’s size and power had been there many times for Joe. Now looking at his brother, it couldn’t be the same brother.

Adam and Joe had remained outside the house as Ben led Hoss inside and tried to calm him down. Both had known better than to laugh at their brother’s situation. Both of them had returned to the barn to try and work out the solution to Hoss’s reaction. By this time, the culprit was long gone and there was nothing to indicate what had scared Hoss so much.

Ben had spent three hours calming Hoss down. Hoss had told Ben about the spider touching him, and how he felt about creepy crawlies. Ben honestly had no idea that his large son had such a phobia about crawling animals and insects. But he respected his son’s privacy. He just spoke to Hoss and told him that there was nothing to be afraid of.

Later that afternoon, Adam and Joe had returned to the house and listened intently as their father explained what had happened in the barn to Hoss. They heard the parts about Hoss’s phobia and both had expressed they had not known either about Hoss’s fears. Both tried to reassure their brother that nothing was going to hurt him.

Hoss looked at the faces of his brothers and father and knew they spoke the truth. He felt foolish and stupid at how he had reacted to such a small animal. But his skin broke out in goose bumps again when he thought about the hairy leg that touched his hand.

All four Cartwrights were talking calmly later that evening about the events over the last few days. All agreed that the events were strange and wondered what other odd things were about to happen.

Hoss was the first to suggest about the curse Anton had been talking about.

Ben and Adam were both logical people and the thought of a curse or imaginary threat lurking about the Ponderosa just didn’t fit into their theories of reality and fantasies.

Both looked at Hoss as he spoke, “Don’t forget what else Anton said, Pa and Adam. The curse was placed on Joe and the worst things would befall him.” Hoss licked his lips nervously as he said the words and looked at his younger brother.

Joseph tried not to be worried by what Hoss said. He was feeling trapped underneath the gazes of his father and brothers. They were all dreading about what other things would befall the family, and Joseph.

Adam tried to put some rationality into the picture. “They have only been minor Accidents, Hoss. Just a bad fright and a few bruises so far.” He was trying to convince himself as well as the others in the room.

“Curses are just superstitious nonsense,” Joe said in a rough voice. He escaped the bad mood lurking in the room and excused himself to bed, saying he was still tired from all the work he had been doing.

Adam, Hoss and Ben just watched at Little Joe climbed the stairs.

“What are we going to do, Pa?” Hoss asked, a little fear in his voice. The fear was no longer for himself but what might befall his younger brother.

“You don’t believe that curse thing, do you Hoss?” Adam asked his brother.

“How else would explain what has been happening, Adam?” Hoss asked. Adam had no reply to his brother’s question.

“Well, nothing bad has happened to him yet,” Ben tried to say sounding confident. “Maybe nothing else will happen”. He knew the words tasted sourly as he said them. Fear began to settle in the pit of his own stomach as he thought of what might happen over the next few days.

All had heard the threat of the curse made against Joe. All had had a taste of the results and all knew that Joe had yet to experience anything. All three wanted to lock Joseph up for the next five days until the threat was over. All knew that they would not be able to do so.

“We will just have to be vigilant and what out for him,” Ben said. “But don’t let on to Joseph that we are tailing him. We will go with him everywhere and watch him carefully.”

“He’s not going to like it, Pa,” Adam said frankly.

“He doesn’t have to like it, Adam,” Ben replied firmly. “I will not let some silly superstition hurt anybody else in this family.”

All were convinced that they would be able to successfully watch over the youngest Cartwright until this was all over. All were convinced that whatever might happen would only be pranks or minor incidents, like they had been over the last two days.

If they had any doubts about the curse working now, the chilling events that would happen over the next five days, would led to them believe that there was truly a bad cloud hanging over the Cartwright family. They would also come to realise the lines of Anton’s speech. And they would truly fear for the life of Joseph Cartwright.

*****

All four Cartwrights seemed to wake up in a better frame of mind the next morning.

They all made the breakfast table together and enjoyed the usual hearty breakfast.

Just to clear the air a little after yesterday, Ben suggested a day off and a little time in town for the day. Joe had jumped at the chance to go into town with his father’s permission. It was not very often Ben gave his boys a day off and Little Joe wasn’t about to argue.

Hoss and Adam had nearly fallen off their chairs at Ben’s idea. Like Joe, both of them knew it was rare for Ben to suggest a little fun in town over work that needed to be done on the ranch.

When they arrived in town, Joe had been anxious to get to the saloon and find himself a card game. Ben had been a little stern and said that they could have a lunch and a beer at the Bucket O’ Blood when they were finished picking up the mail and doing the weekly banking.

This only brought about a scowl on Joe’s face and he sulked for the best part of the next hour while he followed his father over to the post office to collect the mail. Much to his dismay, his father spent a good half an hour talking to Mr Wilson about the price of cattle and the price of lumber. All Joe wanted to know the price of was a glass of cold beer.

When Ben had finished picking up the few letters from the post office and said his goodbye’s to the postal manager, all four Cartwrights made their way over to Virginia City’s first national bank.

It wasn’t a very busy morning inside the bank. The only customers inside was old Mrs Butterworth and two cowboys who stood on either side of the door. They didn’t look like they were very interested in banking any money. They looked as though they barely had enough money on them to eat let alone deposit into a bank account.

Both men eyed Benjamin Cartwright and his youngest son Joseph as they entered the bank. Hoss and Adam had remained outside with the horses talking about the tasks that needed to be done back at the ranch tomorrow.

Ben had completed his business at the bank and was walking out towards the horses. Little Joe was about five steps behind him. Neither of them noticed the curt nod that came from one cowboy to the other signalling their intentions.

Ben had made it outside and walked down the stairs when he heard a muffled cry from behind him. He spun around and to his horror saw that one of the two men had grabbed Joseph and now held him in a choke hold around his neck.

The man had one arm around his chest and one around his throat. The pressure was threatening to cut off the young man’s breath.

Joe was trying to say something, trying to call out for help, trying in vain to get a breath in before he passed out.


Hoss, Adam and Ben had now drawn their guns, and pointed them at the two outlaws.

“Let him go,” Ben yelled at the two men. “Let him go now, or my boys and I will shoot you both”.

“I don’t think so, friend,” the man said gruffly. “You see, if you try and shoot me or my friend, then the boy will die. Bert here will snap his neck like a dried up twig”.

“Drop your guns,” the second man holding Joe roared.

Onlookers looked at the situation with fright. They dared not move. All could see that the man had Joseph in his clutches and indeed meant to hurt him.

“Back off,” the first man hissed as he trained his gun on the three Cartwrights before him.

The second man holding Joe was now trying to drag his struggling hostage towards a roan horse that was tied onto the hitching rail outside the bank.

Ben and his boys started to take a few steps back, but they had not lowered their guns. All wanted to kill these men on the spot, but knew they had to get Joe free first.

“Let him go,” Hoss said in a snarl repeating his father’s words.

By this time, the local Sheriff Roy Coffee had heard the commotion and was now standing behind the Cartwrights watching the men as they held onto Joseph Cartwright.

The two men could now see themselves getting backed into a corner. They saw that the Cartwrights had not dropped their weapons as first ordered and now the Sheriff also had joined in to the problem.

Joe was looking at his father with desperation in his eyes. He was trying to release the man’s grip from around his throat so he could take a breath. The man’s arm didn’t relax and seemed to increase it’s pressure with the looming threats from four guns pointed at him.

Adam was trying to work out a way of getting his younger brother out of harms way so that Hoss and his father could take a shot at the two men. With Joe held directly in front on the outlaw, it didn’t seem possible at the moment.

Ben could see that his son was scared. He could see that the boy’s oxygen supply had been restricted. He knew that if he didn’t act quickly, Joe could pass out from lack of oxygen. At the moment, Little Joe’s face was a pasty white. His green eyes large with fright.

“Back off, I said,” the man holding Joe hissed for a second time and walked a step closer to the stair, still holding his hostage in a vice like grip.

The Cartwrights and the Sheriff had no choice. They didn’t want to see Joe hurt any further. They took a few more steps back from the bank building.

The first man had made it to the waiting horse and was beginning to unhitch a second one from the railing for his friend. It appeared that they were intending to take Joseph with them as they escaped.

“You let us get out of here safely, old man Cartwright,” the first man said to Ben. “And your boy will live. He’s coming with us and if you want to see him alive again, you will need to dig up lots of cash for his return.

“You can’t take him with you,” Ben was almost pleading with the men as he thought of the man taking Joe with them. If they took him away, he may not be able to save him.

Adam and Hoss now were equally worried about the threat to kidnap their little brother for ransom. Both tried to stare the outlaws down, and continued to hold their guns erect, just in case.

Roy Coffee, wanted to shoot, but knew that Ben Cartwright would never forgive him if Joseph was caught in the middle. He knew he had to try and talk these men into letting Little Joe got without hurting him.

Bert had made his way down the first step. He was now worried more about his own escape than actually taking his hostage with him. He knew that with using the boy as a shield, he was safe from any stray bullets for the time being.

He looked from one Cartwright to the next, to the Sheriff, to his partner and the waiting horses and then to his captive who was continuing to struggle. The efforts were now a lot weaker, due to the strangle hold he had on the young man, but they were still there.

Suddenly a thought of how to escape came to the man’s head. He knew that his partner and him had planned to take the Cartwright kid for quite a while. They both knew that old man Cartwright would pay plenty to get one of his

boys back. The choice of which one had been easy. The middle boy was just too big to try and carry, the other dark headed one was probably too smart. So without much hesitation, they had chosen Little Joe as their target. He was

smaller, didn’t weigh much and probably meant a bigger ransom due to being the youngest.

With his free arm, he now drew his gun from its holster while still holding onto the Cartwright kid.

Ben and the other’s saw him draw his gun as did his partner and now feared more for the young hostage.

Without warning, the man holding Joe rammed the butt of the pistol into Joe’s right temple. The boy immediately sagged, and blood started to seep from the wound. Joe’s knees had buckled, and he was holding onto consciousness with a thin thread.

Ben had let out a cry of anguish when he saw the man hit Joe with the gun. Hoss and Adam seethed with rage.

The man now propelled a very groggy Joe at his father and brothers. The boy’s booted foot caught on the bottom step and he stumbled. He was now falling rapidly, falling towards them and the hard ground.

Ben, Adam and Hoss all dropped their guns accidentally as they had all tried to catch the almost unconscious Joe before he landed in the dirt. Ben and Hoss collectively held onto Little Joe’s now limp body.

The dizziness from the blow soon swept Joe’s senses away and Ben and his son’s now noticed with concern that Joe had fainted.

The distraction enabled the outlaw to mount the waiting horse and he and his partner now sped off towards the city limits.

Ben was too busy trying to arouse Joe to worry about chasing after the men. Hoss and Adam had dropped their guns. The only one now holding any sort of weapon was the Sheriff.

Roy attempted to hit the two outlaws as they rode away, but the cloud of dust kicked up by the horses gait made it difficult to get off a shot.

The men rode away and had escaped the law. There would be other opportunities for them later to get their ransom money.

*****

The unconscious Joe had been gently lowered to the dirt street and Ben now anxiously tried to wake him up. He took off his bandana from around his neck and pressed it up against the still bleeding wound on Joe’s temple.

Somebody had taken off down the street trying to get the doctor’s attention.

Hoss now stepped in front of his father and picked up his little brother and started walking towards the doctor’s office. Adam, Ben and Roy Coffee closely followed behind.

Joe never moved from when he fainted until now and still showed no signs of waking to his family’s requests.

Adam opened the door to Doctor Paul Martin’s office as Hoss made his way through and laid Joe down on the bed as directed.

Doctor Paul Martin had been the Cartwright’s doctor ever since the family moved to Virginia City and the Ponderosa. Joseph had been one of his first’s deliveries in the area. He knew that Ben, Adam and Hoss well enough to know that they were concerned over Little Joe.

Over the years, Doctor Martin had been there for all the dramas in Little Joe’s life. He had seen cuts and scrapes, head wounds, gun shot wounds and fevers that left the boy very thin. He had begun to consider the young man

laying on the bed as a surrogate son of his own. For now, he had to be the strong one for the rest of the Cartwright family.

Paul leant over Little Joe and began probing his patient to gauge the total extent of his injuries. He lifted Joe’s eyelids and used a small lantern to check the pupil’s dilation to the light source. He checked Joe’s ears and

gently checked the now very visible bruises on Joe’s neck.

He dipped a rag in some coolish water and began dabbing with it at the wound on Joe’s temple. The wound had stopped bleeding and the dried congealed blood now made a few of Joe’s loose curls clump together in a sticky clump beside his ear.

The shock of the cool water and the pain from the pressure seemed to bring the young man back from his dark prison.

Joe tried to turn his head slightly to avoid the pressure of the cloth on the wound. His head ached terribly and his mouth felt extremely dry. He tried to swallow to alleviate the soreness, but this was quickly replaced by the stronger pain from the bruising around his throat.

He let out a small whimper and opened his eyes. He was trying to focus on the room and the light when he saw the worried faces of his father and brothers looking down at him. He gave a wane smile and tried to close his eyes again.

“No, Joe!” came in unison from all in the room. The comment was almost yelled at the boy and he reopened his eyes at the shouts.

Ben and the doctor knew that letting Joe go back to sleep after receiving a head injury was very dangerous. They would need to keep Little Joe wake a little longer to make sure the effects of concussion were minimal.

“Why are you yelling at me?” Joe tried to ask in a whisper through a hoarse voice His throat burned and was very sore to the touch. He knew that somehow he was hurt, but his family and the doctor were shouting at him.

Paul tried to reassure his nervous patient. “You have a nice bump on your head. Little Joe,” the doctor explained. “You only just woke up. We need you to stay a little while longer just to make sure you’re okay”.

“I don’t like doctoring, Pa,” he stated firmly to his father despite his obvious discomfort. “I want to go home”.

Ben couldn’t be mad at his boy, he knew Little Joe was hurt and needed Paul’s services. Adam and Hoss also knew he was the worst patient in the world.

Ben took Joe’s hand in his own and tried to talk soothingly to his youngest as the doctor continued his administrations.

“You can go home shortly, Joe,” Paul stated, and then added “But only if you promise to rest for a few days. Or else I will give you something to keep you in bed”.

“I promise,” Joe said trying to give his most innocent look. Everybody in the room only rolled their eyes in mock disgust when they saw the performance Little Joe was trying to put on.

Paul had placed a small patch on the wound on Joe’s temple. He said there was nothing much he could do for the bruising around Joe’s neck. He told the boy to drink plenty of water and keep solid food slightly mushy for the next few days until the soreness eased.

The doctor noticed that Joe was getting very sleepy, “Ben, could I see you outside for a few minutes? Hoss, you and Adam try to keep Joe awake a little longer, please. You can take him home in just a few minutes.”

Ben Cartwright followed the Doctor out into the corridor, leaving Joe with his more than capable brothers.

“Ben, I don’t want to worry you unnecessarily, but you and the boy’s will need to keep a close eye on Little Joe over the next two days,” Paul told his old friend. “The bruises on his neck will fade in a couple of weeks, and the wound on his temple will start to heal nicely. Due to the seriousness of the head wound and it’s position, Joe might experience some dizziness over the next week or so. Just keep him in bed a couple of days and get as much of Hop Sing’s good food into him as possible. He may have some headaches for a while, I’ll give you some powders for them to take home. Just see he rests as much as possible for the first few days. I will come out and check on him in a week.”

Ben noted the doctor’s word well and promised that Joe would rest just as ordered. He told Paul he would get Adam and Hoss to watch over him as well.

Both men walked back into the room with their young patient. Both smiled when they saw that the three brother’s were sharing a joke and laughing.

A little colour had returned to Joe’s face and he looked a little more alert. Ben winced a little bit every time he saw the bruises on his son’s throat. He dreaded to think what might have been.

”Can I go home now, Doc?” Joe asked impatiently. “I feel fine” he added for emphasis.

“Yes you can go home, but you are to ride with your father on the way home,” Paul said in a stern voice. “No riding on your own for the next week, Joseph.

This statement brought nothing but a pouting lip to Joe’s face as he thought of not being about to ride Cochise for a whole week. Ben and Adam helped Joe sit up, and Little Joe swung his legs over the edge of the bed and attempted to step down onto the floor.

As soon as his feet reached the floor, Joe let out a loud gasp of pain as his left ankle gave way and threatened to spill Joe into a heap. Adam and Ben had managed to hold him upright just in time.

Joe was quickly re-seated on the edge of the bed as Paul tried to examine the offending ankle. He was trying to remove Joe’s boot with care, but every effort brought a small yelp of pain from the young man.

“I thought you said you felt fine,” Adam said to his younger brother as he saw Joe’s swollen foot.

“It didn’t hurt that bad a minute ago,” Joe tried to lie. “I thought I had just pulled a muscle or something.”

“Joe, you wouldn’t admit to being trampled by a team of wild buffalo unless you where coerced into it,” Hoss replied grimly. His knew that his brother often neglected to advise when he felt poorly or had aches and pains somewhere. Often he had to fall over before anybody knew something was wrong.

All looked at the swollen and blackened ankle. All knew that Joe must have been in considerably pain.

Paul continued to observe the ankle and prodded and poke the area with his index finger. Joe had buried his face into Adam’s broad chest to hide his tears of pain. His ankle hurt more than he was willing to admit.

“Looks like some ligament and tendon damage, Little Joe,” Paul diagnosed. “You might be off your feet, longer than you think,” he added with a grin, now noting the definite scowl on Joe’s face as he heard the verdict.

“Ben, when you get home, soak his ankle in some warm water every few hours for the next twenty-four hours. That will help to take the swelling down. Don’t let him walk around on it for two or three days. I’ll check it again when

I visit in a week,” Paul explained. “I’ll give you some pain medication to relieve the discomfort, but don’t use them unless you have to. They are fairly potent and I wouldn’t like to use them too much on someone with a concussion like Joe.”

“Okay. Ben,” Paul stated as he got up from his crouched position. “You can take him home, but keep an eye on him and let me know if you need anything”.

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said sincerely as he shook the doctor’s outstretched hand.

Joe was helped down off the bed once again, but this time he was prevented from putting weight on his foot. He leaned heavily on his brother Adam and his father as they exited out the building and made their way towards the horses outside.

Ben had mounted Buck and Adam had helped Joe into the saddle in front of his father. Adam now mounted Sport and Hoss followed behind leading Cochise. All made their way out of Virginia City towards home. All had the fear of black magic at work against their family on their minds as they rode in silence.

Half way home, Adam signalled to Ben. Ben looked down at his youngest son nestled in his embrace and noted that the boy was deeply asleep. He was worried at first that maybe the concussion was worst than Paul had been able to pick up. He admonished himself quickly and convinced himself that all Joe needed was a little rest and a little tender care to get over this nasty incident.

*****

Joe never awoke when they arrived home. Ben told Adam to take him inside.

Adam was about to take Joe up the stairs to his room, when Ben told him to put the sleeping boy on the settee. He reminded Adam that they needed to soak Joe’s ankle, just as the doctor had ordered.

Adam lay Little Joe down while Hoss got a blanket from the cupboard to cover his younger brother.

Hop Sing had seen the boy and drilled the three eldest Cartwright’s about his injuries. After he had been told what had happened in town, he went about getting the bowl of tepid water and Epsom salts needed.

*****

Little Joe awoke the next morning with the sun streaming through his bedroom window. Every muscle in his body seemed to ache ten times worst than it had yesterday. He winced as he managed to manoeuvre himself in a partial sitting position.

He was listening intently for any noise downstairs. His father was not seated by his bed as was customary when he was sick or injured. He couldn’t hear Hop Sing rustling about in the kitchen downstairs and his brothers could not be heard either.

Joe knew it was later than eight o’clock from the position in the sun coming through his window.

He wanted to get a glass of water. His head ached more than the rest of him put together. He placed his hands on either side of his head and tried to massage the pain away.

He didn’t want to make a fuss for anybody else and determined from his sitting position that he was well enough to go downstairs and get that drink of water for himself.

He sat on the edge of the bed momentarily and then pushed himself into a standing position. Big mistake; he had to hold onto the post at the end of his bed just to stay upright. The dizziness was strong.

He had briefly forgotten his swollen ankle until it reached the wooden floor. It reminded him with a wave of pain pulsating through the foot all the way up to his hip joint. He had almost had to clamp a hand over his own mouth to stem the scream that was clenched between his teeth from the pain.

He waited for the giddiness to pass, still persuading himself that he could make it downstairs on his own. He managed to steady himself again and take the weight off his hurt foot and transfer is to the other.

‘So far, so good,’ he thought to himself as he limped on his uninjured foot to the bedroom door. He gingerly opened it so as to not make any noise. He peeked outside just to make sure that he wasn’t being watched. The last thing he wanted was for his father or one of his brothers to spy him out of bed. He just had to make it downstairs and get that drink of water and get back again and nobody would ever know.

He shuffled his way over to the landing of the stairs. He knew that going down the stairs was going to be a tedious process on one foot. He again put his hand to his forehead trying to ease the throbbing headache he had gained since waking up. He held onto the railing very tightly as he went to take the first step down. He was not prepared for what was about to happen……….

Joe had thought he was alone in the house. He assumed that his father and brother were outside doing their chores or attending to the many various other projects of the day. He didn’t know that is was almost lunch time and that his brother’s and father had actually returned to the house to eat.

Hoss had been upstairs washing his hands and brushing some of the dirt off his clothes before seating himself at the table. He stepped out of his room to see the back of his brother standing at the top of the stairs. He knew that his brother had been hurt yesterday and he couldn’t fathom why Little Joe was out of bed. He was worried about Joe getting around on his injured ankle. He thought that Joe would have called out if he wanted something.

“Joe,” Hoss said in a reasonably loud voice.

Little Joe had failed to hear anybody behind him, and just about jumped out of his skin when Hoss spoke to him. He had been holding onto the railing of the stairs ready to take the first small step down carefully nursing his injured foot. His reaction to Hoss’s words almost made him tumble down the stairs in an untidy heap. Luckily Hoss had seen his brother start to fall and had grabbed him just at the last moment.

Ben and Adam had just walked into view of the staircase when they saw Joe on the top of the stairs and they saw him trying to take his first step. Both of them had gasped out loud as they saw his almost lose his balance to being startled from behind.

Hoss had managed to grab Joe under his arms and now pulled Joe into a standing position again. He was genuinely worried about his brother’s almost bad fall and was surprised to look at Joe and see the angry look on his face.

“Hoss, you almost gave me a heart attack,” Joe declared hotly.

Hoss tried to mumble a few words of sorry and are you alright before his father was at the top of the stairs ready to scold his youngest son.

“What are you doing out of bed, Joseph?” Ben replied in a voice that was more out of fear than anger. “You shouldn’t be out of bed”.

“I woke up and nobody was around, Pa,” Joe answered. “All I wanted was drink of water. I thought I could at least manage that on my own”.

“You are under strict orders to rest, Joseph,” Ben stated. “If you want something, Adam or Hoss or Hop Sing and I are here to help you. You were knocked unconscious yesterday Joseph, the doctor said you might have some dizzy spells from it for the next few days.” Ben sounded angry, but was just trying to scare Joe enough to make him follow doctor’s orders.

“I just wanted a drink of water, Pa,” Joe repeated, his hands again going to massage his temples from the intense pain. Ben eyed his son for a moment and recognized that Joe was experiencing pain. His tone softened some what and he spoke more gently.

“Are you hurting, Little Joe?” Ben asked quietly. Hoss also looked at this brother’s expression with concern.

“Just a little headache,” Joe replied through eyes squeezed shut trying to block out the pain. The dizziness that his father had been talking about and he had when he stood up from his bed now re-emerged and threatened to overtake him again. Luckily his big brother Hoss was their to support him.

“Come on, Joe,” Hoss said tenderly as he guided his young brother back to bed. “Let’s get you settled again”.

Adam had returned from the kitchen with the needed glass of water in his hand and a bowl of Hop Sing’s soup for lunch.

“I don’t want anything to eat, Adam,” Joe said with a little annoyance. Actually the annoyance came from his un-abating headache. Adam knew that the tone of Joe’s voice was betraying the real pain he was feeling, so he ignored it.

“Do you want something for the headache, son”? Ben asked gently.

“No thanks, Pa,” was the response. He was annoyed with himself at having to rely on his family too much. Independence was strong in Joe Cartwright and any attempt to curb it or control it did not sit well with him.

Ben motioned to his elder two sons to leave Joe alone for a while and try and get some rest to ease the headache. Ben didn’t particularly want to get into an argument right at this minute.

Ben and Adam hadn’t been able to take their eyes off the very visible bruises that still marred Joe’s neck. They were now even darker than the night before if that was possible.

“I’ll be back to check on you in an hour, Little Joe,” Ben said to his son on his way out the door. “If you are still not asleep then, maybe you can come down and spent some time on the settee this afternoon.”

“Oh, Yippee,” Joe replied snidely and rolled over on his opposite side, trying to avoid his family and not letting them see the tears of frustration fall down his face.

Ben just sighed a little at his son’s rebelliousness and closed the door quietly and went back stairs to have lunch with Hoss and Adam.

*****

Joe did in fact go to sleep briefly, but the headache prevented him from resting any more than half an hour. So when Ben knocked on the door fully expecting that Joe would have drifted back to sleep despite his protests, he was surprised when an answer came from the other side of the door.

With much reluctance on Ben’s part, he had to keep his bargain, and Joe was allowed to go downstairs and rest on the settee in the family room. Joe had to lean against his father rather heavily to hold the dizziness at bay as he descended the stairs.. Ben was ready to change his mind, but Joe kept his father true to his word and made it to the couch.

Adam and Hoss had returned outside to complete the day’s chores. Ben seated himself at his desk, in full view of his youngest and went about completing the books for the ranch. His mind wasn’t really on the task, but he knew he would have to look like he was doing something or else Joe would complain about the constant attention he was getting.

Joe sat on the settee appearing that he was grossed in one of Adam’s books. Actually he was trying to work out how he could get his father to allow him to go into town tonight and grab a beer at the saloon. He kept thinking about it and decided that it was probably best if his father didn’t know about it at all.

He continued to mull over his plans in his head whilst still holding the book in front of him. He had deduced that if he waited until after Adam and his father went to bed, he should be able to sneak out and be back within an hour or so before anyone noticed he was missing. Hoss wouldn’t wake up unnecessarily. He just had to figure out how to

make it look like he was still in bed where he should be if his father should look into his room when he was gone.

Ben was unaware of what thoughts invaded Joe’s mind and was inwardly praising his son’s quiet nature this afternoon. He was proud that Joe had been able to stay most of the afternoon confined to the house without complaining and seemingly engrossed in reading a book.

*****

Joe worked his way over the family table for the evening meal. To his relief, the headache the had pounded for most of the day had eased to a somewhat tolerable level. He knew what he had to do now. He wanted to start laying the foundations but knew he couldn’t spread it on too thick or he would give himself away.

He talked casually as with his father and brothers about their day’s events. He ate what he thought would be ample enough to keep his father happy tonight. His stomach was tightening in knots just a little from the little deception he was about to play out.

He started to make a face as though in pain at the table. His father turned to him with concern written all over his face. He assured his family that it was just his foot giving him a little more trouble tonight. He said that the swelling had gone down, but the ache in the tendons and ligaments was beginning to increase.

“Do you want me to get Doc Martin, son?” Ben asked as he pulled his chair out and bent down to floor level to examine Joe’s bandaged ankle. He pressed his fingers very lightly around the bruised area. Joe proceeded to give a little gasp of pain each time his father’s hand came into contact with his foot.

“No, I be fine, Pa,” Joe said and added another small grunt of pain. “Maybe I just need to soak it in warm water again. Maybe that will help a little. My throat feels a little raw tonight, too”.

“Maybe your little excursion downstairs today was premature,” Ben tried to convince Little Joe. “Your body may still need rest after your ordeal”.

“I think I will soak my foot for half and hour and then head upstairs to bed, if that’s alright with you, Pa?” Joe said innocently. “I do feel a little tired,” he added extra.

Ben thought that Joe’s foot must really be troubling him if was offering to go to bed without any arguments. Adam got up from his chair and offered to help his brother over to the settee. Hoss went about asking Hop Sing to get some hot water for Joe’s foot.

“No, that’s okay big brother,” Joe said to Adam, as he refused the help. “I can make it on my own.”

He proceeded walk over to the settee, making sure that his family saw every exaggerated limp and heard every small moan on the way. Should have been an actor he thought to himself as he saw that his efforts were working. His family were giving him lots of attention and had very concerned looks on their faces.

Hop Sing came into the living room carrying a large steel basin of water. He had added the Epsom Salts they had used the previous night. He placed the bowl in front of Little Joe.

Joe let his father ease off his boots and socks and then place his feet in the water. It actually felt very relaxing. Joe laid back against the back of the chair and let the vapours from the salts and the hot steam invade his senses. He was enjoying every bit of it.

Adam, Hoss and Ben left Joe for a few minutes to let the water do it’s work. They finished their meal and then sipped at their coffee at the table.

All smiled tenderly as they looked over at the sight of Joe sound asleep on the couch. He knew that he would not be able to sneak out until much later that night so he fully intended to go to sleep just to make his efforts a little more genuine.

“I think he is more tired than he will admit,” Adam said as he looked at his slumbering brother.

“Yes I agree,” Ben added “But I’m sure that a good night’s sleep will do him wonders. That foot seems to be giving him a little more trouble than we first thought.”

“Hoss, would you mind?” Ben asked as he indicated that Joe should be put in bed to be more comfortable. The water in the basin was now only lukewarm and wouldn’t be helpful anymore.

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss answered. He had no problem at all at being their when his little brother was sick or injured. He hoisted Little Joe in his arms and headed for the stairs. Ben followed behind him.

Little Joe had felt himself being lifted from the couch. Normally he would have protested most strongly about being carried around like a baby. But tonight, when he was trying to persuade them that he was injured and tired, he just let them mother hen him all they wanted. He smiled to himself as he saw the look on Hoss’s face as he peeked a look without being seen. I really should have been an actor he repeated to himself. Everything was working out just as he had planned.

*****
As Joe had predicted, about 10:30pm that night, his father had checked up on him as usual before retiring to his own bed. He had been awake for about half a hour prior to this, but now resumed his feigned sleep. He evened out his breathing to a slow rhythmic pattern and keep his face poised in a sleep like mode.

He felt his father rearrange the bed clothes over him and then got the curls on his forehead ruffled from Ben. His guilt about sneaking out was threatening to get the better of him for a moment, but only for a brief moment. Joe felt he was well enough to go out for awhile. He would be gone and back before anyone ever knew.

Little Joe proceeded to wait another twenty minutes and then slipped out of bed and began puffing up the pillows in the middle of the bed and covering them with his blankets to assume he was still asleep if anybody watched from the door before he got back.

He pulled on his pants and took out a new shirt from the drawer. He placed his green jacket over the top of his shirt and sat down on the chair in the room in order to put on his boots.

It was not the easiest of tasks and he gnashed his teeth together preventing any grunts of pain to escape at the effort.. Once the boot was actually on his foot, it gave him a false sense of security and he thought he would be able to walk around without much of a limp.

He silently lifted up the window in his room and climbed out onto the roof very carefully. He re-closed the window just as quietly and very gingerly crawled down the drain pipe attached to the roof and landed with a soft thud on his rear end in the dirt. He stood up and brushed the dust of his pants and walked very slowly, almost hopping over towards the barn and his waiting horse Cochise.

Cochise had started to greet her owner with a few noises, but was quickly shushed from Joe as he went about saddling her. Once that was completed, Little Joe led the pinto out of the barn and climbed on, carefully avoiding putting full weight on his ankle as he mounted.

*****

Joe thought he had made it away from the Ponderosa homestead unseen. What he failed to notice was two silhouetted figures which followed him from a distance all the way to town.

When he reached town, he headed straight for the Bucket O’ Blood Saloon and hitched Cochise to the rail out the front. He knew that he couldn’t be anymore than an hour. He got of his horse and walked with a slight limp over to the swinging doors and went inside the bar and ordered a beer.

A few minutes later, the two men, one of Mexican descent and the other a half caste Indian, walked into the same barroom and took up a table at the rear of the room. From their table, they could clearly see Little Joe and watch his every move.

Joe was appearing to enjoy himself. He had one hand clasped around his mug of beer, and the other around the young saloon girl standing beside him. His cute laughter could be heard by many in the bar that night. Nobody took particular notice of his limping and did not seem to notice the particular attention being paid to Joe by the two men seated in the back.

*****

“Why couldn’t we have taken him on the way here?” the Indian man had said to his friend. His name was Curt Rigley. His mother had been full apache, his father, a prisoner in the state prison.

“Because, I want this to go right this time,” the Mexican answered. “I don’t want Ben Cartwright knowing what we are doing until we are ready. We messed up at the bank, but I ain’t aiming to make the same mistakes again”.

The Mexican’s name was Bert Sancho. His father had been Mexican, his mother just another saloon girl in another dirty little town. He went into his pocket and removed a small calico bag with a draw string at the top.

“Tell me about this magic powder again, Curt,” the Indian asked as he watched the man pull open the draw string on the bag and pour a small amount of white crystals onto his open palm.

“It’s a powder that your people have been using for a number of years,” Bert explained. “In small amounts, it is a very useful drug for many ailments. People use it for arthritis, the fever and even headaches. In larger doses, it becomes like a poison. It causes many of the symptoms it is supposed to be curing. It can cause headache, pain, fever, muscle stiffness, and respiratory distress,” the man continued to explain the powder’s properties to the Indian man.

“It’s made from ground up thorns of cactus and a few other medicinal herbs,” Rigley added as he replaced the crystals back into the bag. “I don’t want to kill him with it, though. Just give enough to make him get a little sick from it. When the powder has served it’s purpose, the young man should be weakened sufficiently enough for us to take him without much of a struggle. Ben Cartwright will pay plenty to get his youngest back. Best of all, I’m going to make it look as though somebody else did it. We’ll be able to collect the ransom money and get away scott free while they have got someone else in jail for the kidnapping.”

“If we keep the boy tied up and blindfolded the entire time, he won’t be able to point the finger at us,” the outlaw added. “In the end, all Ben Cartwright will get back, is any empty money bag and a very confused son. The drug should affect him enough to keep him quiet and if it starts to wear off, we just give him a bigger dose next time.

He’ll be too out of it to know if he’s coming or going, let along be able to describe us to the sheriff.”

The two men now let there evil minds come together to work out the finishing touches to their devious plans for Joe Cartwright.

Without warning, the Indian got up from his table and started walking over towards the bar, shouting and waving his hands about as if he were drunk. He yelled at the bartender to give him more to drink, he brought his fists down on the end of the bar with a loud bang and knocked one or two glasses onto the floor.

Joe had turned around to see the commotion and had his back turn to Curt Rigley as he watched the apparently drunk Indian make more noise. His beer now sat on the bar unattended.

Everyone in the bar was now focusing there attentions on the antics of Bert Sancho as the bartender and a few of the patrons tried to eject him from the establishment.

With the bartender momentarily away from his post and the crowd’s attention distracted, Curt Rigley walked up very calmly behind Joe Cartwright and with a hidden flick of his wrist, poured the crystal’s into Joe’s beer. His actions remained unnoticed and the crystals quickly dissolved into the amber liquid, masking their presence.

Rigley sat back down at his table and he saw the Indian thrown out onto the street outside. He watched with a sly smile on his face as he saw Joe Cartwright put the glass back to his lips and consume the contents. He casually walked out of the bar and mounted his horse outside next to Cochise and rode towards the town. About halfway down the street, the Indian could be seen to ride up along side him and they both rode out together.

*****

Joe was now headed for home. He had his two beers and was now making his way home at a steady pace astride Cochise. He started to whistle to himself as he thought that everything had gone very smoothly.

As he got close to the house and barn, he dismounted from Cochise and led her back into the barn as quiet as possible. He removed her saddle and gave her a rub down and some fresh feed before trying to get back inside.

As he surveyed his escape route, he didn’t think he would be able to climb back up the drain pipe and go in through the window. He sighed as he realised that he hadn’t thought about getting back in again and would probably have to go in via the front door.

He creaked open the large wooden door and closed it behind him ever so silently. He made his way over to the banister and listened intently to the stairs as he climbed them up to his room. He knew that number eight and number ten were dicey, he knew that step number six was warped and he couldn’t trust number two either.

He mumbled to himself as he thought what his family would think as it looked like he was trying to play a late night game of hop scotch up the stairs.

He breathed a sigh of relief as he made it to his room without complications. It was almost midnight now and he was grateful to take off his boots and sink into the warm covers and soft pillows on his bed. He slipped into a dreamless sleep without so much as another thought.

*****

The next morning, Joe was awoken by his big brother Hoss shaking his shoulder. He opened his emerald green eyes and looked a Hoss with a confused look on his face.

“What time is it?” Joe mumbled whilst rubbing his eyes and squinting into the bright sunlight that bathed the room.

“Time to get up, Pa says,” Hoss replied and yanked the covers off Little Joe.

“Hoss, it’s cold!” Joe yelled back at his brother and yanked the bed clothes back over himself again.

“Cold?” Hoss looked incredulously at Joe. “It’s already 30 degrees outside this morning. You feel alright, Joe?

“Yeah, I feel alright, but I’m cold,” he retorted back. Maybe his body clock was out of whack. He had been asleep for almost eight hours and felt like he hadn’t been asleep at all. It was only one beer, he told himself.

Hoss just left Joe’s room in disbelief. He couldn’t believe that Joe had told him he was cold. The back of Hoss’s shirt already had a fine sheen of sweat on it from the early heat of the day.

“Pa, Joe says he’s cold,” Hoss told his father simply as he descended the stairs. “Personally, I think he’s nuts,” he added.

“He says he is cold”? Ben asked with the same level of disbelief in his voice. He was about to go upstairs and see if Joe was alright, but was too late and saw that Joe was already dressed and coming down to meet the family for

breakfast.

“Are you all right, son?” Ben asked plainly trying to look the young man over without touching him.

“Yeah, Pa, I’m fine,” Joe said with a sigh. “I’m okay now; don’t know what came over me. Feel just fine now”.

The brief sensation of coldness seemed to have evaporated and Joe now sat down casually at the breakfast table to join in the morning ritual.

Breakfast seemed to continue without any complications and Joe was pleased to note that his family had not noticed his midnight rendezvous.

*****

Later that same morning, Adam and Hoss had been sent out to complete some chores with the stock, while Joe and Ben completed some menial tasks around the ranch.

Joe had been working at the log pile, chopping for the last half and hour when he felt the same cold sensation he had felt when he woke up.

“What’s going on?” Joe asked himself. The sensation came and went just as quickly as this morning. Now all that remained was a slight aching in his joints and muscles. He knew he had been chopping furiously, but thought he must have been out of condition to feel so out of breath so quickly. Maybe he was getting a cold from the cool breeze from his little visit into town last night.

Lunchtime came and went. Adam and Hoss had returned and were now doing some mending to the corral railing near the barn. Ben was inside completing some more of the ranch’s bookwork for a quiet afternoon.

Joe had been busy bushing Cochise. He had changed her water bucket, given her a fresh supply of hay and oats. He now paid close attention to brushing her coat to a glossy sheen. He now suspected that he had indeed caught a slight cold from being out last night. His muscles and jointed now protested at much movement and his head was beginning to join in with a mild throb in his temples.

Joe continued to brush Cochise but didn’t know how long he could stand upright. He was beginning to get very dizzy. He wanted to try and hide his discomfort and giddiness from the rest of his family. He didn’t want the fussing that would result if they thought he was sick. And he definitely didn’t want to see Doc Martin.

Finally, Joe succumbed to his dizziness and swayed briefly before landing with a silent thud in the hay on the floor of the stable, unconscious. It would be a good ten to fifteen minutes before he was noticed by his brothers.

*****

“Hang on a minute, Adam,” Hoss bellowed as he started walking towards the barn door. “I’ll get that bigger hammer from the barn and some more bolts.”

Hoss had walked through the open door and headed to the walk where the various tools were hanging up on the wall. He had seen Joe in the barn earlier, attending to Cochise like he always did. Little Joe spent more time grooming and tending to that horse each day that any other chores for the entire week.

Hoss looked over towards the stable where Cochise was happily standing in her stall. ‘I wonder where Joe went’ he said to himself.

Hoss had walked over to where the tools were stored and selected what he wanted and grabbed a handful of coach bolts on his way out. He briefly glanced over his shoulder towards Cochise’s stall. He was surprised that he didn’t see Joe still standing there fussing over that animal.

He went to take another step forward towards the door when he noticed Little Joe laying in the hay, appearing to be asleep. He grumbled and now set down what he had in his hands, and walked over to Cochise. He was about to scold Joe and tell him off about going to sleep in the middle of the day when he and Adam had been working in the hot sun for most of the day.

Hoss bent down and was about to jerk Joe up by his shirt collar, when he noticed how pasty Joe’s face was. He was even more surprised and let out a gasp of shock when he felt the heat that radiated through the fabric of Joe’s shirt. He immediately forgot about scolding Joe and now was trying to rouse his brother with concern etched all over his face.

There was no response. Joe remained unconscious and oblivious to his brother’s attempts to revive him. His face was very pale and the fever burned without relief.

Hoss couldn’t believe that a an hour ago Joe was happily attending to his horse. Now, he lay unconscious with a high fever. Hoss didn’t know what he should do. He didn’t want to leave Joe alone to go at fetch Adam or his father.

Without much more thought he scooped up his fragile brother and raced towards the barn door with Joe in his arms.

“Adam, come quick!” Hoss said as he ran out of the barn with his burden.

Adam looked up from his task as he heard Hoss’s shout. He hadn’t really understood what was yelled at him, but he also gasped out loud when he saw Joe lying limp and unconscious in Hoss’s arms.

“What happened?” Adam said now doing a little shouting of his own.

“I don’t know, he was fine an hour ago,” Hoss answered “He was brushing Cochise. I just went in to get that hammer and bolts. I saw him lying in the hay and thought he was slacking off again. But he’s burning up, Adam.”

“You get him inside, Hoss,” Adam told Hoss as he raced towards his own horse Sport. “I’ll go get Doc Martin.” and galloped away before his brother could return any words.

*****

Ben Cartwright had been descending the stairs when Hoss barraged his way through the front door.

Ben’s heart almost stopped dead at the sight of his youngest son lying prone in Hoss’ arms. He raced down the stairs in a manner he would have given a stern lecture for and knelt beside Little Joe as Hoss laid him on the settee in the living room.

He repeated Adam’s word: “What happened?”.

Hoss found him repeating himself for his father again as he told Ben how he had found Little Joe laying in the hay in the barn.

Ben yelled to Hop Sing to bring some cool water and a cloth. Hoss had already told him that Adam had gone to fetch the doctor.

Hoss and Ben now both attended Little Joe. Hoss wiped his hot face with cool water attempting to cool him down, Ben whispered in his youngest’s ear trying to get him to come around. While Hoss felt he was at least helping his brother a little with the cool water, Ben’s efforts were in vain for the moment.

It was a good hour before Doctor Paul Martin returned with Adam to the ranch. During this time Little Joe woke only briefly once. Again to everyone’s amazement he said he felt cold. He was asking his father if he could have a blanket.

Little Joe had closed his eyes again at the end of his sentence and so was unaware that his request had gone unfulfilled. Ben wasn’t sure what to do. He could feel the heat of Joe’s fever and was trying desperately to cool it down with the water from the basin Hop Sing had brought. Now, when Joe had awoken momentarily, he was whispering he was cold again. He was beginning to suspect that whatever ailed Joseph was messing with the boy’s senses.

Joe had his curly head resting on the striped fabric of the settee arm. Ben tried to move him slightly to put a small cushion underneath his head. Joe made a few grunts and moans, but never regained full consciousness.

Ben’s train of thought was interrupted by the sound of horses hooves and a buggy pulling up out front. Hop Sing pre-empted his boss’s thoughts about not wanting to leave Joe alone and walked towards the front door and opened it in readiness for the doctor’s entrance.

“Hello, Ben,” Doc Martin said as he removed his hat. “Sorry we have to meet in these circumstances. What’s that young son of yours done now?”

Doc Martin wasted little time, he took a quick look at Joseph and told Hoss and Adam to move him upstairs to his bed where he could perform a more thorough examination and diagnosis.

Adam lifted his brother into his arms and scaled the stairs to Joe’s bedroom. Once inside he was laid on soft bedding. Hoss and Adam removed a boot each as Ben and the doctor worked Joe’s green jacket off. All could not believe that Joe had even bothered to put his jacket on today, it was very warm outside.

Paul proceeded to try and rouse Joseph to try and get some background information from him. He lifted Joe’s eyelids and peered at them with a light source. He felt Joe’s neck and found a pulse, a little erratic perhaps, but a pulse none the less. He put his stethoscope to Joe’s bare chest and listened to his heart and lungs.

He frowned slightly at the sound of Joe’s breathing. He wasn’t entirely happy about the noises he could hear. It was apparent that Joe was having a little trouble breathing deeply. He knew he would need to try and compensate that with some sort of remedy in order to prevent the noises getting louder or worse and affecting Little Joe’s breathing even more.

He felt Joe’s forehead and was alarmed like his family at the amount of heat that was present. He stuck a thermometer into Joe’s slack jaw. He then went amount probing the rest of Little Joe’s still body without resistance. He felt Joe’s stomach and lower waist area. He was looking for a clue. He thought he had a theory and he knew it wasn’t going to be very popular with the Cartwright clan when they heard the verdict. He was observing the colour of Joe’s skin all over, trying to find a mark that would indicate a wound, a bruise or anything other symptom that would lead away from his diagnosis.

He finally pulled Joe’s nightshirt back down over his body and replaced the covers, but only one sheet and a very thin blanket this time. He didn’t want Joe getting any hotter than he already was, despite Joe’s affirmation that he was cold, not hot.

Doc Martin took the thermometer from Joe’s mouth and looked at the reading before standing up and facing three very anxious faces. He tried to tell them as gently as possible what symptoms he found on the youngest Cartwright. “He’s temperature is a little higher than I would like. It’s 102 degrees. We need to get that temperature down as quickly as possible. I was going to suggest we use some ice, but maybe that will create more problems than it will solve.” Doc Martin explained as he dug into his black medical bag.

“For starters, lets give him a little medicine to try and ease his breathing. Next for the next 48 hours we will use cold compresses to try and relieve the fever. We will take more drastic measures later if called for,” Paul continued.

“Don’t leave him alone too long,” he added as he prepared to depart the room, “he maybe a little confused and disorientated when he wakes up.”

Doc Martin, Ben and Adam all moved downstairs while Hoss stayed with Little Joe.

“Ben, what has Joe been eating in the last 24 hours?” Paul asked in a very serious manner.

“Oh, um, I don’t really thing much out of the ordinary,” Ben stammered as he tried to answer the question. The question seemed odd. He called for Hop Sing to come out from the kitchen. The little Cantonese man had been busy preparing a hearty beef broth for his favourite Cartwright, once he began to feel a little better.

“Hop Sing, what has Little Joe eaten today and yesterday?” Ben asked.

“He eat what you eat, Mr Cartwright,” Hop Sing answered. “Eggs and ham for breakfast this morning, roast beef and salad for lunch. He didn’t eat all of his lunch, had to throw out to chickens afterwards”.

“I think that he was probably feeling unwell by then,” Paul tried to tell the faithful servant. “Don’t worry, Hop Sing, he will be back to eating your good cooking in no time.” He then turned back to the two Cartwright’s with a strange look on his face.

“Do you know what’s wrong with him, Paul” Ben asked his friend.

“Yes, I think I do Ben, but I’m not sure you or your boys will like the answer,” he said with a little in trepidation. Without waiting for a response he told them of his diagnosis. “I think Little Joe has been poisoned,” he stated with reserve. “All the symptoms are there, the fever, the pasty skin, the dilated pupils, the lack of response and the listlessness. You all know Joe; if he’s sick, he generally lets everybody know about it. But this is something different. I think his body is too busy trying to fight off the enemies inside to make much of a fuss right now.”

“Poisoned?” Adam and Ben said in unison with alarm evident in their voices.

“Are you sure, Paul?” Ben asked, knowing that it was rare for the Doctor to make a wrong judgment.

“Who would want to poison Joe, and how?” Adam asked. He tried to think of any time in the last 24 hours that somebody might have had opportunity to put something into Joe’s meals without being seen. He couldn’t come up with a relevant answer or name or face, no matter how hard he thought.

“Little Joe hasn’t even been off the ranch in days,” Ben said without knowing about his son’s little adventure a the night before last. He too was trying to come up with a valid excuse for Joe’s illness other than what he had been told. He didn’t want to think for one moment that somebody could be as callous enough to want to harm his youngest.

“What can we do, Paul?” Ben said with worry.

“I don’t think the dose of whatever he induced was enough to be fatal, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now,” Paul tried to tell the Cartwrights, the seriousness of Joe’s ailment without directly spelling out that the poison had not been enough to kill him. “We will just have to play this out for the next few days and watch him very carefully. We won’t know the full effects of the poison are going to be until it has had a chance to work its way through his system.”

“Just do what I have told you upstairs. I have left some medicine with Hoss and told him the dosage – one spoonful every six hours to help his breathing. Keep the cold compresses on him to try and bring down his fever. I will be back to check on him in the morning, Ben,” Doc Martin said and put a reassuring arm on his friend’s shoulder.

He knew that Ben Cartwright wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight.

*****

With the doctor gone, Ben and his boys now went back upstairs to look after Little Joe.

After about an hour, Adam decided it was time to tell his father to take a break. He walked up beside Ben who was seated in a chair next to Joe’s bed.

“Let me do that for a while, Pa,” Adam said as he watched his father wring out a cotton cloth in the bowl of tepid water on the bedside table.

Ben looked up at his eldest son, ready to give him an argument to the contrary, but he knew that this was probably going to be a long couple of days. He would indeed need to rest and let his sons help with Joe’s care.

After the doctor had left, Joe had not awoken again. His body was sweating profusely from the fever that continued to rage within him. Ben had tried to remove the covers off him on more than one occasion in an attempt to abate the heat. Joe, even in his sleep had tried to wrestle the covers from his father. He lost, but once the sheet and blanket were removed from his perspiring body, he began to shiver. The sweat rolled down his face and neck towards his chest and even pooled in various crevices, but as soon as the perspiration ran down his skin, Joe was shaking from its touch.

******
It would be four hours after the Doctor had left before Little Joe showed any signs of waking up again.

Adam was still in the room. He had been watching over his brother as promised, but had brought out his guitar and softly struck the strings to avoid the boredom. At first, Joe didn’t seem to hear the playing or singing from his older sibling, but now ….

Adam noticed his brother’s head move slightly from side to side Joe appeared to be trying to wake up. Adam placed the back of his hand on Joe’s forehead and grimaced when it felt as hot as it had done when Doc Martin was here.

Joe licked his lips and was gesturing for some water. Adam held the small cup close to his brother’s lips and let him drink his fill. Joe’s eyelids flickered and he briefly opened them to look at his brother with glazed, sunken eyes.

“Hey, there buddy.” Adam said soothingly, “How are you feeling”. He didn’t know if he would get an answer.

“Just fine Adam, just fine,” Joe said in a very groggy voice. His eyes started to close again. “Play some more, please Adam” and he was then lost again to his weariness.

Adam just smiled at his brother’s comment. He grimaced again when he looked at the clock and knew it would be another two hours before he could give Joe any more medicine to relieve the fever. He silently whispered a prayer for his brother and vowed that he would find out who had poisoned him. He knew that his father wouldn’t condone any violence about bringing the people responsible to justice, but he knew that he had to help Joe somehow. At the moment, with Joe lying very still in his bed, he just felt so helpless.

*****

Joe continued to keep his family fairly busy for the remainder of the day and into the early evening.

He only woke a few times, just long enough to take a few spoonfuls of Hop Sing’s beef soup and a few sips of water.

Even when he appeared to be asleep, his body failed to remain still for very long. The fever caused him to fight against unseen enemies and cry out often in delirious speeches about every possible subject. One moment he would be talking about having a gun fight with some desperado, the next he was talking soft and sweet as if to one of the many barmaids in the saloons he frequented.

He received his second dose of medicine when required, but this still didn’t seem to help his breathing much. Whilst his family could take a little solace in the face that the fever seemed to be no higher and his breathing no worse, they couldn’t say that either of these symptoms where better either. Ben had checked his temperature again just a little while ago and was sad to see the reading at 100.7 degrees. The breathing seemed to be a little quieter, but Adam and Hoss could still hear their younger brother struggle against his lungs to draw enough air in.

By supper time that night, Joe was exhausted. His body could take no more at the moment and he fell into what seemed to be a very deep sleep. His family hoped it would be a healing one.

Hop Sing called for the Cartwrights to gather at the table to partake in an evening meal together. All had wanted to remain with Joe while he was still so sick, but each gave a glance towards the young man lying on the bed in a sheen of sweat and decided that they would need to refuel their own bodies. The night looked as though it may be a long one.

*****

In fact, the sleep Joe was having wasn’t as deeply as first thought. While the rest of the family were dining downstairs, Joe’s eyelids fluttered opened and he gazed about his room in a fever racked state.

He tried to sit up slightly, and was rewarded only by the dull aches that had been in his arms and legs, now coming full awake. The ache was now a throb that matched the one his head behind his eyes.

He felt cold, but the rivulets of sweat streamed down his naked chest and back and dropped off his body and soaked into the already dampened sheet.

He had managed, through gritted teeth to sit himself up slightly against the back of the bed. His fevered mind was talking to him. Where is everybody he asked himself. He knew from previous experience that when he was sick or injured, his family would dote on him night and day if necessary. He didn’t remember the doctor’s visit nor the spoonfuls of vial tasting medicine, but he suspected that he had been given something from the residue that was left on his tongue.

He wanted to speak out and get his family’s attention. He tried to use his voice and found that it was very weak, almost a whisper. Nobody’s going to hear you with that, he announced.

His mouth was very dry and he needed a drink of water. He remembered the last time he wanted to get a drink of water after his head wound, and thought of the scolding he had received from his father. But at the moment, his mind continued to tell him that he needed to get up and go get that drink. His body resisted his mind’s biding and gave bursts of pain through his muscles and joints to reinforce the feeling. His headache had gotten slightly worse and was now very painful. He decided to ask his father for one of Doc Martin’s powders to try and ease the headache. He could then kill two birds with one stone and have his drink of water to wash down the powder.

Little Joe threw the saturated covers from his legs and eased his hurting body over to the edge of the bed. So far so good he thought, at least he wasn’t dizzy this time. He could do this easily.

They were final last words he would rue when looking back later at his attempt to get out of bed and walk to the bedroom door.

The dizziness that hadn’t been there, now snuck up behind him and hit him full force as he took his first gingerly step towards the door. He lacked something to grab onto to steady himself and to his frustration, falling heavily to his knees on the wooden floor. For a moment, he just stayed in this position. He was breathing heavily again and couldn’t seem to get enough air into his starving lungs.

He tried to regain some strength. At the moment, he wasn’t sure he could have even lifted his own body from the floor and return to his bed. Too late anyway he said to himself with a grimace as he heard three pairs of feet pounding up the staircase and coming towards him.

Ben, Hoss and Adam had been eating and talking about what more to do for Little Joe when they heard the thud from upstairs. All had thought he was deeply asleep and all looked up at the ceiling at first, trying to make sure that they had heard right.

Ben was the first as usual to burst through the door, he surveyed the scene and shook his head at his son’s rebelliousness even in times of pain or sickness. Adam and Hoss also couldn’t believe that their youngest brother, as sick as he was, trying to get out of bed in his condition.

“Hi, Pa,” Joe said in a whisper and gnashed teeth. He was trying to fight off two enemies at the moment, one was his own body, the other was the sheer embarrassment he now felt with his family seeing him in this weakened state.

“What, in heavens name, are you trying to do, Joseph?” Ben asked as he stood just inside the doorway with hands on his hips.

“Trying to dance the tango, Pa,” Joe said with a little more cheekiness than intended. “What does it look like? Help me up please.” He was annoyed with himself, but it just came out sounding like he was angry at the entire world.

Ben and his sons ignored the snide remarks and Adam and Hoss bent down to help their brother stand up. His efforts to remain upright were very feeble and he was very grateful to feel his bed underneath him as Hoss and Adam placed him on it. The dizziness had not abated nor had the heat from his fever. His skin was awfully pale and Joe now was clutching aimlessly at his stomach area as the poison moved slowly through his system.

Joe felt like his stomach was being torn out. He was glad he hadn’t had much in his gut, because anything in there threatened to make a reappearance anytime now. The nauseous that Little Joe felt came in surges, first slight cramps, then full on pain, then back to slight cramps again.

It was very traumatic for Joe’s family to watch the youngest member struggle so much. Ben wanted to race into town and get Doc Martin again. Adam and Hoss were about to agree with him when they saw that Joe had succumbed to his body’s wishes and was once again asleep. All felt a small lump in their throats at the pain left Joe’s features unblemished and looking so young and vulnerable at the moment.

Ben, against his better judgment, decided to let Joe sleep a while and watch his progress before heading off into town on half a notion. He told his sons that he would be remaining for the rest of the night and he would call them if needed.

Hoss said he would come and relieve his father in about two hours time. Ben didn’t acknowledge that he had heard his middle son’s words. He just sat on his stool again, as close to Joe’s bed as he could get. He held the sleep limp hand in his own and bowed his head in prayer, hoping that his pleas would be answered and Little Joe would start to recover.

*****
Hoss did relieve his father that night. Joe’s fever was still present and the young man continued to toss and roll about in his sleep. The cold compresses were kept up constantly and they shed almost every ounce of love they had, hoping that Joe would soon get better.

Hoss now rubbed his eyes as sunlight streamed through the window of his youngest brother’s room. Sometime during the last two hours before dawn, he had drifted off.

Hoss now looked over at this brother and saw with relief that he was at least lying still on the bed. Joe looked a little better. His cheeks had a slightly natural glow to to them this morning. Hoss placed his hand on Joe’s forehead and felt that the skin was almost normal to touch.

He couldn’t hold back his jovial expression of relief as he shouted for his father and Adam to come and look.

Ben and Adam had been downstairs and now came into the room and looked at Hoss’s beaming face. “His fever is almost gone, Pa. He’s going to be alright now.


Ben felt Joe’s forehead himself, just for his own peace of mind. He noted with relief 
also that the heat was now almost gone. “Maybe that poison has finally worked its way out of his body.”

Adam just stood and looked at his younger brother with a smile on his face.

Joe had stirred at Hoss’s outburst and now looked about sleepily at the faces looking at him.

“Mornin, Pa and Brothers,” came the response in a very thick voice. “I don’t feel so cold anymore now,” he announced.

“Hi, young man,” Ben spoke to his son. “How are you feeling this morning, Joe?”

“Just great,” came the reply. “Let me get dressed and I will go out to the barn and take Cochise out for some exercise.”

“Before you do any of that Joseph, don’t you think you ought to have some breakfast first and let the Doctor take a look at you?”

“Naw, Pa,” Joe said sleepily, “I’m too tired to eat breakfast right now.” Almost immediately his eyes were again closed to the world. He shifted slightly in the bed and snuggled down and was asleep.

“Too tired to eat, but not ride that pony of yours,” Ben said to his son who wasn’t listening. He laughed a little and motioned for his other sons to leave Joe rest some more. All knew that Joe wouldn’t be getting out of bed today at least and certainly wouldn’t be riding Cochise anywhere.

Doc Martin came about mid morning and was pleased to hear that his patient was doing much better. He heard Ben’s comment about Joe wanting to ride Cochise when he woke this morning despite being almost asleep again and had laughed as the family had done at the things that seemed more important to the youngest Cartwright.

Joe had not re-awoken to the Doc’s brief examination. Paul had sighed his own relief at the boy’s apparent recovery. He felt the world was a better place, knowing that Joseph Cartwright would be getting better. Joe needed to get better in order to restore the happiness into the heart of his family, especially his father.

“Just keep at eye on him today, Ben,” Doc Martin said upon his departure. “I’m sure he will still need a decent amount of rest over the next day or so before he can go back to him old self.”

“Thank you Paul, for coming,” Ben said honestly. “Don’t worry, we’ll watch him carefully. But you know how Joseph is”.

“Yes, I do know,” Paul said. “That’s why I told you to watch him carefully. That boy will have you all wrapped around his little ring finger again in no time.”

“Didn’t you know he already has?” Adam now added in. “That boy could put an angel’s face on the devil if he had a mind to. Good Day, Doc”.

*****

The three well Cartwright’s were able to go about their daily chores a little bit more today, safe in the full knowledge that Joe would remain safe and sound.

All went outside to complete their allotted tasks for the day as Hop Sing did the daily household chores and kept checking in on his favourite Cartwright. Each time he looked, Joe was still sleeping very soundly. Repairing the damage from the poison that his body demanded through rest.

Doc Martin had returned to town and was re-entering his office when he saw two men sitting outside his office. One was Curt Rigley, the other was Bert Sancho. Doc Martin had not seen the faces of the two men who had attacked Little Joe Cartwright at the bank only days earlier. Both of the men got up as the doctor approached and smiled at the doctor.

“May I help you, gentleman?” Paul asked as he held out a hand gesturing for a handshake.

“Yeah, you might, Doc; you see my buddy here ain’t been feeling to well lately” Curt Rigley started to explain. “He ain’t been sleeping right, up all hours of the night”.

“Well,come in and I will take a look at your friend,” Paul stated as he ushered the two into his clinic.

The Doctor had finished his examination of Bert Sancho and went about filling a prescription for a small quantity of medicine in a small brown jar. “Take this only when necessary, Mr. Sancho and make sure you take only the prescribed dosage on the bottle. If the symptoms persist for more than a week, come back and I will do some more tests.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Bert Sancho mumbled as he placed the small bottle in his pocket and got up to leave.

“Oh, Doc” Curt asked as he made his way to the door “Have you heard about how that young Cartwright is doing now?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” Paul asked “Just been to visit him this morning, he is doing much better. Is still very weak though and sleeping a lot for the moment. Probably will for the next day or so. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just being neighbourly, that’s all,” Curt said trying to cover his tracks. “Just wanted to make sure the lad was going to be okay now.”


“I’ll be pleased to pass on your get well message next when I see Ben Cartwright,” Paul said. “Thanks, gentleman
.

“Oh, the pleasure’s been all ours,” Curt said and left with a very fake looking grin on his face.

When the two made it back outside, Bert handed the small bottle over to his partner.

“What do we do now, Curt?” Sancho asked.

“We get that wagon I was talking about and start making plans,” Curt said seriously “You get all the supplies I asked for?”

“Yeah, but I still don’t see why we have to get this caravan,” Bert said sincerely. “It will make us stand out too much.”

“Exactly,” Curt replied, “Only Ben Cartwright won’t be looking for our hides when his youngest son is kidnapped. When he sees that caravan, he is going to be too busy chasing after them damn gypsies. They get the rap, we get off scott free with the ransom money.”

“You just make sure your on time and at the right place tonight,” Curt reminded his friend and the two separated and went in opposite directions so as not to be seen together.

*****

Later that day, almost upon dusk, Joe Cartwright was getting very frustrated with himself. He knew he was supposed to be resting. They had told him that his body had taken a battering and that he needed to take it easy over the next few days. But honestly, the frustrated started to gather in large numbers inside himself.

Throughout the afternoon he had been awake only for brief period of time. He would awaken and his muscles would still protest at any movement. He was force fed some very thin beef broth until he wanted to puke it back up again. When he wasn’t being forced food or water, he was being given some vile tasting medicine the doctor had left behind.

Joe’s mind didn’t want to sleep any more, but his body said something completely opposite. Without much effort at all he would find his energy totally spent and he would drift off into another dreamless sleep for the next hour or so.

This was the pattern for the remainder of the evening. A couple of times, Adam and Ben had seen the signs of frustration and anger from Joe’s confinement and constant tiredness, but they tried to be as patient as they could with the young man.

“Joe, you will be alright in a day or so, if you rest, the doctor says,” Ben tried to explain to his youngest. “It’s only natural that your body would be so tired. You had a very high fever there for a while, Joseph”.

Little Joe just rolled his eyes in mock disgust. He knew what his father was saying to be true, but he didn’t like it all the same.

About 7pm that night, Joe had been given his ration of watered down soup and a small glass of milk to go with it. The doctor had not wanted to give Joe much more for the first day. He wanted the poison to make it’s way out of his system totally before assaulting it with solid food again.

Joe had been permitted to sit at the table with his family. He had walked very slowly down the stairs on his own shaky legs.
Once the meal was coming to an end, he was beginning to feel the relentless tiredness again from before. His muscles were trembling, screaming for rest and rejuvenation. His headache had returned slightly and he tried to massage it away before it was noticed.

“Joe, I know you don’t want to, but your body is telling you to rest again,” Ben said gently as he spied the massaging that Joe was trying to hide. He knew that Joe wanted nothing more than to hide his weakness from his family.

It frustrated him to no end that he couldn’t feel normal at the moment.

“Yeah, I guess your right, Pa,” Joe said in defeat. “I just feel so darn tired.” He had no more fight left in him tonight. He stood up and with his shoulders slumped, climbed the stairs back upstairs to his bedroom without looking back at his family seated at the table.

Ben was a little more worried about Joe’s constant tiredness that he wanted to admit. It was something he made a mental note of to talk to Paul about tomorrow. He couldn’t wait to get the old energetic Joe back again.

*****

Outside, Curt Rigley and Bert Sancho had made their way through the back roads of town and out towards the Ponderosa. They were careful not to let anybody see them.

They travelled towards the ranch in a Gypsy caravan. The cabin was fully stocked with supplies, food, bedding and weapons. They knew that they would need enough stuff to keep them going for the best part of three days before they would be through with their intended captive.

They stopped just before the turn off to the barn and homestead. They left the caravan in behind the brush so it couldn’t be easily spotted from somebody travelling on the roadway.

They made their way on foot over to a hill a little distance from the ranch. They wanted to watch the goings on for the time being before they sprung their trap.

They watched until the lights in the house were turned out downstairs and they could see lanterns lit upstairs in the bedrooms. They waited until the house was totally silent before making their move.

*****

Before retiring that night, Ben Cartwright had checked on his son a number of times. Joe seemed to be sleeping alright. Ben placed a hand on his forehead to check his temperature. It felt a little warm, but nothing to be alarmed at. He unconsciously brushed the brown unruly curls from the boy’s face. Little Joe Cartwright sighed at his father’s touch but didn’t awaken. He rolled over on his side and allowed his father place a quilt over him without so much as a word of protest.

Ben doused the lantern on the bed side table and made his way out of Joe’s bedroom towards his own room.

About an hour later, two dark figures made their way to behind the barn and out through the front doors of the wooden building into the yard area. They had been able to see from their look out position, a number of green broken horses in the corral beside the barn. This would be to their advantage. They needed a diversion to enable them to get to their hostage without being seen at first.

Curt Rigley lifted the bolt that held the top railing in place and swung the log of wood away from its closed position. Bert Sancho had climbed through the railings and now walked up behind the horses, not too close, but close enough

to suddenly give a loud yell of HOORAH to spook the already nervous animals.

The horses in the corral had gotten whiff of the two men near them and had started snorting and breathing harder in uneasiness. The yell that Bert Sancho let go, now drove the frightened two mares and a stallion from the corral and out into the yard area. The horses were now making loud noises of their own and rearing up from in fright.

The two men slipped back into the shadows behind the barn and waited to see the performance take place.

*****

Adam Cartwright woke with a start at the sound of shouting outside in the yard and the noise of horses running around. He jumped out of bed and pulled on a pair of trousers and ran to the door, not bothering to put a shirt on.

Hoss had heard the commotion and appeared at his own door when Adam came out, but Hoss had managed at least to put on both pants and a shirt. Being Hoss he quickly grabbed at his had beside the door too. Night or day, Hoss just didn’t feel like Hoss Cartwright without his white Stetson.

Adam and Hoss pounded on the door of their father, who was none to happy about being disturbed. All three Cartwrights now made their way downstairs and out the front door. They had all briefly thought about waking Joseph, but decided against it, one because it would take more time to wake Joe and two because in his weakened

state at the moment, they would have better peace of mind to know that he was safely tucked away in bed.

Outside in the yard five of the hands were running around trying to catch the terrified horses before they did any damage to the corral or injured anyone.

Hoss and Adam had a job trying to calm the animals themselves. All had wondered how the corral gate had gotten unlatched, but right now there were more important issues at hand.

Ben was standing outside the barn trying not to get in the way of the hands or his two eldest sons. He was shouting orders and commands over the whinnies from the horses and the yelling from the hands as they tried to round them back into the corral. On two occasions the situation turned a little more dangerous when the stallion had reared up on his hind legs, splaying out with his hooves.

While this was all happening ….


*****

Curt Rigley and Bert Sancho were satisfied that the ranch hands and the Cartwright would be kept busy long enough to carry out their task.

They edged their way to the back door and opened the unlocked door. They were in the kitchen area. They had not known about the Chinese servant and were surprised when Hop Sing appeared from around the corner.

The little Cantonese man had been awoken by the chaos outside also, but he decided his place should be well away from the action. He was no horseman and knew that the Cartwrights could handle the situation without him.

Hop Sing had heard the back door open and wondered who would be coming in this way. It was a well known thing that the only person allowed in the little man’s kitchen apart from himself was Joe Cartwright and Joe rarely came through the back door at this late hour. Unless he had been out on the town at the saloon and was trying to sneak back it. Hop Sing knew that tonight it could not have been Little Joe. He knew that he boy was still recovering from his illness and was sleeping soundly in his bed upstairs.

“Who you? Want you want? You get out!” Hop Sing shouted at the two men. Hop Sing’s conversation could not have been heard by the people outside due to noise. Everybody outside was blissfully unaware of what was going on inside the ranch at this time.

Without saying a word, Bert Sancho went up to Hop Sing and grabbed him. He punched the servant in the face making him fall backwards towards the table in the kitchen. Sancho now delivered a second blow that rendered the Chinese man unconscious on the floor. The two men went about tying the servant up and placing a gag in his mouth and tucked him away in a corner of the kitchen so he couldn’t be easily seen.

With that now taken care of, the two men went about climbing the staircase to the bedrooms. They came across Hoss’s bedroom first and noted that it was empty, they didn’t know which one Joe would be in but figured it wouldn’t take long to find him.

Luck proved to be on their side and they checked the room at the end of the hall next. Inside, Joe was still sleeping peacefully. Curt Rigley now stood over the young man and grinned devilishly.

Curt made a sound against the bedside table just to see if his victim would wake up in a hurry. Joe didn’t show any signs of hearing the noise.

“You got that bottle with you?” Curt asked Sancho.

“Yeah, boss, right here,” Sancho replied and tried to take a step towards the bed and his partner. “How much do we need”

“Doesn’t matter what the bottle says; just soak a rag with the stuff,” Curt said impatiently.

Bert Sancho pulled the bandana off from around his neck and proceeded to soak the cloth with the pungent ether from the bottle. They had been given a bottle of mild sleeping pills from Doc Martin today, but thought it would take too long to work. They needed to subdue their victim quickly and quietly and taking five or ten minutes to dissolve some little white pills in some water would take more time than they could spare at the moment.

Sancho took another small step towards the bed ready to place the cloth over the young man’s face. He had twisted the top back on the bottle, but hadn’t put in back in his pocket. Trying to manoeuvre the cloth and the bottle caused him to loss his grip on the small brown glass container and it hit the floor with a loud thud. Luckily the glass did not shatter, but the sound was enough to disturb Joe this time.

The young man turned his head slightly and started to open his eyes and see what the noise was. He looked through fuzzy windows at first and wasn’t quite sure about what he was seeing. It looked as if there were two men standing over his bed. He cleared his vision and took another look.

“You useless, dumb idiot,” Curt yelled at Sancho. He could see that Joe was now beginning to wake up. He ripped the drug soaked cloth from Bert’s hand and now dived on top of Little Joe and tried to secure the rag over his mouth and nose to allow him to inhale the fumes. Joe had managed to get himself into a sitting position and was now fighting like a tiger to get the man away from him. He could smell the foul stench from the rag and was now plain scared. He hadn’t known who the men were at first, but now recognized the pair as the ones who had threatened him from the bank. Joe could here a lot of shouting still coming from outside, but he didn’t know what the reason was. He needed to yell to get the attention of his father and brothers.

“Pa! Adam!” Little Joe tried to yell, but the rag soon closed off any sound trying to escape his lips. “HMMMH, HELPHMMMmm.” He could see spots dancing before his eyes and his mind was now spiralling away rapidly.

It didn’t take long for the liquid to work. The rag was soaked and probably had more on it than necessary, Curt said with dismay. He started to relax his grip on his victim now as he saw the posture of the young man now starting to sag as he lost a hold of consciousness.

Curt now stood up from the bed and surveyed the room. They needed an escape route. They had planned to take the unconscious youth back downstairs and out the back door through the kitchen and out to the waiting caravan. But the Chinese servant downstairs had put a hole in that idea. They knew if somebody found him, the jig would be up and

they would be discovered before they would escape with their hostage.

Curt walked over to the window. It was unlocked. He now opened the window and looked out over the roof of the homestead, being careful that nobody outside saw him standing there. Fortunately, the view of the bedroom was a little more obscured due the being closer to the rear of the house. If they could manage to do things silently, they might be able to make it out this window and out over the back section of roof and climb down to the back of the house from there. It was worth a try.

Curt now looked back at his partner and spied a green jacket draped over a chair beside the window sill. He picked up the jacket and threw it at Sancho.

“You’d better put that on him,” he announced. “Put it on him and haul him over to here. You can lower him down to me from here and we’ll go over the back part of the roof and out to the barn.” said Rigley as he relayed his plan to his partner.

“You think this is going to be enough?” Sancho said looking at the thinness of the material in the jacket. “It’s a might bit cool out there”.

“Will you stop worrying about him and do what I tell you,” Curt snapped back. “After we get the money, I don’t care what happens to him. Now get him over here before somebody comes back into house.”

Sancho pulled Little Joe’s body up from off the bed and then picked him up over his shoulder and walked over to the window sill. He lowered the young man out the window to his partner. Curt Rigley had no intention of being as gentle with their captive as Sancho did and grabbed the unconscious Joe roughly and literally half dragged him half carried him across the roofing tiles at the back of the house.

The roof level at the back of the house was a little lower than at the front. Sancho had climbed out the window by now and was waiting to scale down to the ground and let his partner pass the young man down to him. Rigley had not even bothered to tell him what he intended to do. The ruckus outside was quietening down but still loud enough for their efforts to be concealed. He gave Joe’s limp body a slight nudge and it tumbled unceremoniously over the edge and hit the dirt ground. Luckily the young man was drugged, Sancho thought to himself, but he had no doubts that Joe Cartwright would have a few bruises to show for that little incident.

Rigley climbed down from the roof as did Sancho. Sancho was at least a little concerned for their hostage. He knew that they needed to keep him alive in order to receive a ransom from Ben Cartwright. He made the point to pick up Joe himself and carried him to the waiting caravan behind the barn.

*****

Ben and his boys together with the help of the ranch hands had managed to get the nervous horses back into the corral and lock the gate behind them.

All now stood around together and tried to catch their breath. Out of the corner of their eye they had seen a team of horses and a caravan being pulled along the road in the direction of town. All thought seeing a caravan out on a road this time of night was a little strange, even for wandering gypsies, but left it at that. They were in no mood to

go have an argument with any of Anton’s extended family tonight.

Ben dismissed the ranch hands and bid goodnight to them, thanking them for their assistance and offering a bonus in their next pay packet.

“How’d those animals get out of the corral, Pa?” Hoss asked. “I only checked that gate myself this afternoon. It was locked.”

“I don’t know, Hoss,” Ben said trying to come up with a plausible reason. “Maybe it wasn’t as locked as you thought, son”.

Adam had heard the conversation. He had questions of his own about how the horses might have gotten out. He knew his brother Hoss. If he said the gate was locked then the gate was locked. Somebody must have opened it. But who and why.

“Somebody must have opened the gate,” Ben said, reiterating the thoughts of his older son out loud. “But why?”

“Maybe it was supposed to be some sort of warning,” Hoss said as he remembered the crazy events of the last few days.

“A warning,” Adam repeated. “Or a distraction.”

“Distraction?” Hoss said doubtfully. “Distraction from what?”

“I’ll give you one guess, brother,” Adam said. “Whose was the only person not to venture outside with all of this going on?” His thoughts suddenly found themselves back to seeing the caravan heading towards town. With a feeling of great dread, he now had an idea. He just hoped he was wrong.

Adam had started to walk back to the house, just to check out his theory, but making himself walk as to not alarm his brother or father.

Too late, Ben Cartwright had been going over the question Adam asked. Ben came up with an answer and wasn’t about to walk. He started to run and run as fast as he could towards the house.

Hoss now let out a gasp as he know recognized what his father and brother now feared. JOSEPH.

All three Cartwrights barrelled into the front living room, calling out Little Joe’s name. They were shouting but didn’t care, they did needed to know they were wrong in their way of thinking. The horses hadn’t been a distraction, this was all just some mix up. Little Joe was still asleep in his bed. For the once, they all wanted to hear Joe’s angry retort to being woken up from their shouting. But the house remained silent.

Ben and his boys were about the bound up the stairs when they heard a muffled noise from the kitchen. They all walked in and looked about. They couldn’t see anybody straight away. They could still near the muffled noise and continued to look about.

Hoss had wandered over to a little niche in the room and gasp out loud “HOP SING” and reached in to pull out the trussed up Cantonese man. Hoss quickly went about untying the man and removing the gag from his mouth.

“Hop Sing,” Ben asked as he knelt beside his faithfully friend, trying to see any signs of injury. “What happened, who did this to you?”

“Two man come in back door of kitchen when you outside, Mr Cartwright, ” Hop Sing explained. “I tell them ‘what you do here’; they don’t answer just tie Hop Sing up and put in corner.”

Ben now repeated out loud the thoughts about the one person missing from all of this JOSEPH. Ben quickly got up, satisfied that not too much harm had come to the Chinese man.

Adam had already made it back out the kitchen and got to Joe’s bedroom before his father and Hoss. Hop Sing now also followed his family to check on the youngest Cartwright.

Ben looked about the room. Joe was nowhere to be seen. The bed clothes were all over the place, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. The two things that grabbed his attention the most and sent a chilling message down his spine where the opened window and a small glass bottle that lay on the floor beside Joe’s bed.

Adam picked up the bottle and screwed off the lid to examine the contents. He almost reeled himself from the overpowering fumes ETHER. He now held the bottle out for his father to see and noted the fear in his father’s eyes.

Somebody had been in the house, Somebody had come in and taken Joseph while he slept. They knew that if the people responsible had used the ether, then Joe wouldn’t have been able to put up much of a fight. And all knew with regret that Joe was far from well enough to be going anywhere with anyone tonight.

Ben’s eyes now grew dark with anger in them. How dare someone take his child. How dare someone take Joe while he was too weak to fight them off. How dare they…….

“Hoss, you go into town and get Roy and as many men as you can,” Ben now said trying to keep a level head. Something inside him wanted to go and reek revenge for Joe, but he knew that getting angry wasn’t going to find his youngest any sooner.

“I’ll get Roy alright, Pa,” Hoss said now with anger of his own “And then I’m going to find that piece of scum Anton and rip his arms and legs off until he tells me where Joseph is.”

“Now, Hoss,” Adam tried to interject, he had as much anger as Ben and Hoss about Joseph being kidnapped and probably drugged by the look of things. “You are not going to rip anything from anybody until we find out where Joseph is. Just go into town and get Roy and organize the search party. Pa, I’ll go rouse the hands in the bunk house.”

“Right, Adam,” Ben said as he could see Adam using his cool at the time of crisis. “And tell them to bring their guns and rifles too”.

“Hoss, you might want to tell Paul to come out here, too,” Ben said. “We don’t what they might have done Joseph by the time we find him.”

The three of them now went about getting the necessary equipment and men together. Once organized they would use everything at their disposal to bring home the one that meant the most to them all. Little Joe. All knew that great

harm would befall the people responsible. All knew that the gloves would be off if they found Little Joe and he was injured in anyway or sick again due to his unfair treatment. All gloves were off………….

*****

It was in the early hours of the next morning before everyone was assembled outside the homestead at the Ponderosa.

Hoss had managed to drag Roy Coffee out of his warm bed at the jailhouse, but once the sheriff knew what the reason was for the early rising, he had gotten together twenty good men with horses, ready to search every stretch

of Nevada territory for Ben’s youngest.

Ben had them all gather round and was trying to split them up into manageable size search parties so as they could cover more ground quicker.

One man from the search party now dragged up enough courage to speak out at Ben, “Mr Cartwright, do you have any idea who we are looking for?”

“No, I’m afraid not, Carl,” Ben said to the man. “The only information is that somebody came here about five hours ago, maybe two or more of them, and took Joseph be force after they drugged him. We noted a strange looking

gypsy caravan travelling along this road towards Virginia City just before me son was found missing.”

“Do you think is was them gypsy people, Mr Cartwright?” the man asked again. All of the search party were a little superstitious when it came to talking about gypsies. Especially after the recent rumours floating around town about the curse that Anton had proclaimed on the family and the events that had seemingly resulted from that curse.

“I don’t know, Carl,” Ben said. “I just want to find Joseph and the people responsible, no matter who it is.”

“Where would they take Joe, Pa?” Adam now asked his father. He hated to think of Little Joe back in the hands of those two men from the bank.

“I don’t know son, but at least we have one clue about them….. the caravan, ”Ben said.” The caravan should stand out somewhere to people. It was headed for Virginia City when we saw it on the road.”

“But that’s a bit too obvious don’t you think,” Adam said. He doubted that men like Rigley and Sancho would take a hostage and hide out in town. They would probably get as far away from town as possible.

“Something in my heart tells me that Joseph is still on the Ponderosa somewhere,” Ben said with a definite pain in his heart from his youngest’s plight. “Don’t ask me how I know but I know.” Nobody doubted what Ben Cartwright said was true. When it came to him and Joseph, there seemed to be an interconnection that only existed between the two of them. Both could sense each other’s emotions and feelings, even when they were apart from one another.

“Tell the men they can leave when they want to. Tell them to look under every rock and up every tree if necessary. I don’t want nothing left to chance when it comes to finding your brother. Oh, and make sure they all know thecorrect

signal if they find something,” Ben explained to Hoss and Adam. “Sheriff, you go with the ranch hands. Hoss, you go with the first search party; Adam, you go with the others.” Everyone nodded their heads at their appointed positions.

*****

As the search parties split up into their respective groups and headed out in opposite directions, the caravan at the centre of this controversy was headed towards Lake Tahoe.

Curt Rigley had intended it to look like they were headed back towards Virginia City, but once out of view from the Ponderosa homestead, they now turned down a rough dirt track towards the lake.

The old road was once a well used cattle trail, but now was deserted and neglected. The caravan found the going tough and hit numerous ruts in the road and jerked suddenly to the said when striking an unseen rock or culvert.

The unconscious figure inside the caravan remained unaware on the terrain underneath him. His sleeping body was tossed about a few times as the caravan made it’s way down the road. Joseph Cartwright was still in his drugged induced coma as the caravan pulled up beside the Tahoe lake approximately 5 miles from the safety of his bed.

Bert Sancho had been leading the team to pull the caravan and now jumped down from up off the driver’s seat in the front of the vehicle. He proceeded to walk around to the back and open the rear door to the caravan. Curt Rigley had been following on his own horse, leading Bert’s mount behind him. He now also pulled up beside the caravan and hitched the reins of both horses to a fallen tree limb nearby.

“Go and see it he’s awake,” Curt said gruffly and then went about setting up a campfire beside the lake.

Curt had been bending over, tending to the fire when he partner yelled back at him from inside the caravan.

“He’s still out of it, Curt,” Sancho said. “You gave him too much. You’d better hope he’s not dead already”.
Curt had turned around angrily to face the other man. “I didn’t give him too much. Grab him and bring him out into the fresh night air for a while,” he retorted. “He’ll be all right”. He had been worried himself about the amount of ether he had poured onto the rag before he used it, but didn’t openly want his mistakes to be thrown back at him.

Bert Sancho proceeded to haul Joe’s prone and unconscious body out of the caravan. He had managed without assistance from his hostage to place the green jacket on the young man. He placed Little Joe up against a log some distance from the camp fire. For the moment anyway, he didn’t need to worry about his captive’s probably escape.

His partner had other ideas about this.

“Make sure you tie him up good, too,” Curt said as he continued to stoke the campfire. He had now put a coffee pot on the fire and waited for the black liquid to become drinkable.

“He ain’t going anywhere soon,” and ignored Rigley’s requests. He glanced back over to where Joe was laying just to satisfy his own mind. Little Joe hadn’t moved.

Sancho now propped himself up against him saddle and waited for the coffee to boil. The night was coolish. It wasn’t winter, but the snow up in the mountains still melted it’s way down the rivers and streams each day.

“How much do you figure we can get for him?” Sancho asked and gestured his head nod towards Little Joe.

“Oh, I think Old Man Cartwright will cough up plenty to get that young pup back,” Curt said with greed in his eyes. “I reckon we could get $100,000 if we had a mind to.”

“A $100 000 dollars!” Bert said with a smile on his own face now. And by the looks of things, they wouldn’t have any trouble from their young friend. This was going to be the easiest money they ever had for fortune of not earning.


“You want I should write the ransom note, seeing as your writing ain’t all that good, Curt?”

“Nah, leave it til morning; I’m bushed,” Curt said and sat down to drink the thick black substance he was trying to palm off as coffee.

Both of them thought they would have a few hours sleep before they would worry about Little Joe Cartwright and the ransom note. They both laid down and turned over on their sides and felt asleep. The only sound that could be heard a little later was loud snoring.

*****

Little Joe Cartwright started to stir just before dawn that morning. At first he just moved his head from side to side and tried to clear the fuzziness. He felt like the morning after a big night at the Bucket O’ Blood Saloon.

He briefly stopped moving his head because it was giving him an awful headache. Then his memory came back to him. He remembered being in his bed and two men, the two men from the bank standing over him with a drug soaked rag in hand.

He suddenly sat up and immediately regretted it. He laid back down again to stop the merry-go-round ride his mind seemed to be enjoying. He let out a soft groan.

He started to assess his predicament. Mercifully he saw that he hadn’t been tied and foot. He could actually move his arms and legs without restrain and realised that the two kidnappers must have thought he would remain in his drugged state for some time to come. He noted that someone had put his green jacket on him, but he still shivered slightly. The thin material was little shelter from the cool night breeze blowing from the lake this time of year. He also noticed to his embarrassment, and his face flushed bright red, that he was only clad in his striped night shirt. Although it covered him up to just above the knee, he hardly wanted to be seen out in public dressed like this. He also saw that his feet were bare. Great, almost no clothes, no shoes, no gun, no hat, no horse, he mumbled to himself. How do you get into these messes Joe Cartwright he asked himself.

He sat back up again and surveyed the scene, trying to locate his captors in the darkness. He could see the small campfire and noted that he was some distance from it, probably a good ten metres. The two men seemed to be asleep and unaware that their hostage had come around.

Joe got his mind working on a plan to escape. Although he wanted to just get up and run. His body still reminded him of his recent illness. Despite being in a drug cloud, and having more than five hours sleep, the exhaustion had started to niggle at him again. There was also the problem of his ankle. Although it didn’t bother him at the moment, he doubted that he could run more than 20 yards before he was noticed and he certainly couldn’t have outrun anyone with his ankle like that.

Little Joe managed to get himself into a crouching position and looked to see if his enemies had noticed him trying to stand up or move about at all. So far, so good it seemed.

He gingerly stood up to his full height and tried to rub some of the stiffness from his wrists and thigh muscles. He now looked about the immediate area and tried to estimate his escape route.

He could see the gypsy caravan and the team horses but decided they weren’t going to aid him very much. He would need to make a silent get away if he was to be successful.

Bert now mumbled and rolled over in his sleep. Joe held his breath for a moment. Thankfully, the man seemed to be still asleep. Joe let out the breath very slowly. He tried to take a small step forward on his ankle, just to gauge if it support his weight. Unfortunately, the stab of pain he felt from the step let him know that he needed another plan.

Little Joe had thought both men were asleep. But now to his horror, before he could lay back down and recommence his charade, he had been spotted by Curt Rigley.

“Damn you, Sancho!” Curt yelled angrily as he now recognized that Little Joe was awake. Not only awake, but now standing on his feet and ready to run.

Both men jumped up and grabbed at their guns.

Joe looked around for an answer to his problem. The only thing he could see was the swollen Tahoe lake. Without waiting any further he tried to limp very fast towards the water. He might be able to get away and follow the shore line back towards home.

Too late. Joe had made he way over to the bank of the river, his ankle not relenting in its assault at all. Joe heard the firing of Curt Rigley’s gun and gave a gasp of shock as he felt a searing pain above his knee. The pain was almost more than he could stand, and made his loss his sense of balance. His face lost all of it’s natural colour and he

fell, head first, into the cold water of the lake.

“Well, there goes our $100 000 dollars,” Curt Rigley said grimly as he watched Joe’s body fall into the swift current and float down stream.

*****

At some point during the night, the search parties all ended up in Virginia City about approximately the same time.

Ben had pulled his horse up outside the Saloon ready to confront Anton and his friends about his son’s disappearance.

Ben had learnt from the stable boy that a gypsy caravan had been at the livery for about two days now. Anton had brought it in with a busted right wheel and had wanted the blacksmith to repair it. The repairs had been completed a day or so ago and was awaiting the return of its rightful owner. The stable boy assumed that Anton had claimed his property when he noticed that the wagon was gone this morning.

Ben looked down the street a little and saw the Adam and Doc Martin were standing with Hoss and the Sheriff. He walked over to them to see what was being said.

Adam had been filling Doc Martin in on how they had found Joe’s bedroom when they noticed him missing and the horses out the front and showed him the bottle of ETHER that had been on the floor.

Paul examined the bottle, but suddenly a previous encounter with two strangers from yesterday seemed to seep into his short term memory. He know went back over the conversation he had with the men and the prescription he had filled. At the time he didn’t think it odd enough to mention when the two of them had been asking about Little Joe Cartwright’s recovery.

“OH, Ben,” Paul sighed as he spoke to his old friend “I fear I have made a bad mistake in judgment.” He couldn’t feel any worse than he did right now that he possibly knew the men responsible for Joe’s disappearance.

“What are you talking about, Paul?” Ben asked. He noted the almost pained look on the Doctor’s face and wondered if he was alright himself.

Paul walked up to Ben and gave a warm hand shake and a faint smile. There wasn’t much you could say in at a moment like this.

“Ben, I don’t know how to tell you this,” he began. “but two strange men came to my clinic yesterday, one of them was complaining about not feeling very well. I gave the man an examination and prescribed him some mild sleeping pills and they left. ut before they walked out the door, they were asking about Little Joe.

“What do you mean, they were asking about Little Joe?” Ben now asked with uneasiness in his voice.

“I didn’t think much about it at the time, Ben,” Paul said. “They asked how he was getting on with his recovery. I did ask them what there interest was, but said they were just being neighbourly. I sorry Ben; I really am, should have been paying more attention.”

Ben tried to ease the Doctor’s own self punishment. “You weren’t to know, Paul,” Ben said with a fake smile. “Can you describe these two men for us?”

By now Sheriff Roy Coffee had overheard the tail end of the conversation and was wondering about the same thing himself.

Paul Martin described him as best he could. Noted all of their characteristics he could remember, distinguishing marks or scars, facial hair or no facial hair, height approximate weight and their possible country of origin. If it was Anton or one of his people, hopefully the gypsy blood in them would give their identities away.

At the end of the description, Ben had vaguely recognized the two men that might have been involved, but the name Anton did not come it mind.

Ben turned to face Hoss and Adam and asked them to join in the conversation now. “Boys, from what Doc Martin has just said, and he repeated the most important parts, it seems I have seen these two men before recently, and so have you.”

Adam and Hoss listened. “Sounds like those two men at the bank who tried to take Joe with them then, Pa,” Hoss said as he heard the descriptions of Curt Rigley and Bert Sancho. None of them had a name for the two men, but had remembered well the faces of the two men who had harassed and hurt Joe just days ago in Virginia City.

*****

Ben Cartwright’s search team had been close to the old cattle trail when they smelt the smoke from the outlaw’s burning campfire. They could see the tracks of a wagon or cart in the soil and many horse hoof prints. All now drew their guns and followed the markings and tracks.

They went very carefully and silently. Ben wanted desperately to get to Little Joe, but knew that if the boy was being held, then they needed to tread very cautiously indeed.

Ben and the others had now gotten off their horses and now walked on foot towards the campfire and the caravan. Under the shadows of the trees they could make out the forms of two men standing beside the Tahoe Lake.

The other people in Ben’s search party let the patriarch of the Cartwright family have the honours.

Curt Rigley and Bert Sancho continued to stand beside the cold water looking at were Joe Cartwright had fallen in and floated away with the strong current.


Ben had crept up behind Rigley and the man now felt the cold steel of a gun barrel at the base of his neck.

“Please give me an excuse.” Ben growled. “Now, where is my Joseph” and put a little more pressure on the gun barrel.

Curt Rigley now attempted to turn around and to Ben’s disbelief had an evil grin all over his face. “He’s in there, if you want him” and proceeded to gesture towards the dark brackish water.

Ben had now lowered the gun in shock at the man’s statement. He had thought Little Joe might be in trouble, but nothing prepared him for the fact that his youngest was now flailing around in the freezing cold water of the lake.

“Oh and by the way,” Curt said, still with the grin on his face. “Don’t worry about that sore leg of his. Bert here remedied that problem with a bullet to his knee”.

Curt Rigley fell unconscious to the ground as Ben now rammed the pistol he was holding into his temple, just as his partner had down with Little Joe in town the other day. Not a moment’s thought was given to him as Ben scrambled to the lake’s edge and tried to see any signs of his son. There was nothing.

The commotion had brought Hoss’s and Adam’s search parties to the same spot. Both had been travelling in opposite directions, Hoss towards town, Adam back towards the ranch when they smelt the same campfire that Ben and his party had. They had arrived just as Ben struck the outlaw with his gun. They had been there long enough to hear

that their young brother had been shot and as a result fallen in the cold water.

Bert Sancho had tried to do a runner after his partner was subdued and took off without really looking where he was going. His escape was soon cut off by him crashing straight into the broad chest of Hoss Cartwright. He gulped and looked up to see a very angry face. Hoss grabbed the Indian man by the front of his shirt and lifted him about three inches off the ground.

Hoss tossed the man aside like a sack of corn. He wanted to beat the man into a pulp, but was more concerned about finding his younger brother at the moment.

The two outlaws were left in the hands of the ranch hands and other search party member’s as the Cartwright’s now tried to judge the best course of action to take. Roy Coffee would take them to jail and tied them to their own horses and led them away. The sheriff gave a brief farewell to his friends and said he would be back as soon as the two men were secured in the Virginia City jailhouse.

Ben and Hoss had both shed their boots and socks and rolled up the legs of their pants. They were about to enter the water when they saw a shimmer of something in the water.

*****

The freezing cold water had the opposite effect on Joe Cartwright to begin with. When he had fallen into the water he had expected to black out and lose whatever slim consciousness he was holding onto. Instead he was brought back to alertness very quickly. Well as alert as one could be when they were shot and had pain in every nerve ending of their body.

He felt himself being dragged downstream by the unrelenting current. Normally Joe Cartwright was an excellent swimmer, but tonight, with his ankle throbbing and his leg feeling as if somebody was trying to wrench it off at the knee, it was just too much of an effort to make.

He tried to stop himself from going under, but was fighting a losing battle. With the last few threads of consciousness he had left, he saw that close to the back on the left hand side of the lake was a fallen old log that fell partly over the bank and into the water.

If he could just grab onto the tip of it, he could hold himself up prevent his body being taken further down stream. It was his only chance. The cold was seeping into every cell of his body and his teeth were chattering uncontrollably. He could not remember when he had felt so cold. It was almost numbing and for a few brief seconds before he did spiral into the dark fog that surrounded him, he felt no pain at all.

Joe Cartwright at the last second had grabbed out blindly towards the fallen timber. His hands had missed on first attempt and he doubted he had the energy for a second one.

As he was almost beyond the fallen log and out of the reach of the help he sought from the log, his wet and sodden night shirt caught on a smaller twisted branch. The small, but thick twig pierced the fabric and held the limp form of Joe Cartwright in the arms of the tree.

*****

Ben and his two other sons ran down the bank towards the shimmer they had seen about 200 yards downstream.

Ben would never forget the image he saw before him. As he got closer to whatever it was he could see in the water, he realised with horror that it was his youngest son Joseph.

The thing they could see in the water was the whiteness of Joseph’s night shirt. He seemed to be caught up in some sought of tree debris in the lake. Ben also noticed that the white thing in the water lacked any movement at all. He ran a little faster.

Adam and Hoss had overtaken their father as they too saw with shock that their brother’s body was laying in the shallows of the cold water from the lake. Adam reached his little brother and tried to untangle his night clothes from the branches that held him. All the time he keep beseeching his brother to give them some sought of sign he was still alive.
Adam placed two fingers on the cold flesh of Little Joe’s neck and almost sat back in the water himself from the relief of finding a faint throb of life. Ben was now also in the water and trying to keep his son’s unconscious body afloat. All could see and feel the coldness of Joe’s skin. The young man’s skin was tinged blue and took on an almost translucent appearance under the night’s cloudy sky.

Ben kept calling Joe’s name and stroked his son’s freezing skin. There was no response. Whatever strength Joe had when he awoke near the campfire and mustered to get to the lake and use to prevent himself from drowning in the water was now totally spent.

Joe laid still in his father’s arms, unaware of the pleas from his family and the worried looks from their faces at his condition.

The three of them managed to work Joe free of the tree branch and now moved him onto the bank of Lake Tahoe. The young man, although unconscious, was still trembling from the cold, his teeth chattered together relentlessly. They needed to get him warm and fast if he stood any chance of surviving.

Adam stripped of his buckskin coloured jacket and placed it tightly about Little Joe. All knew that they couldn’t leave Joe where he was and thought that it would be safer to get him back to the Ponderosa as soon as possible and into the care of Doctor Martin.

Ben carried Little Joe, wet and shivering back to the caravan. When they got there, Hoss rummaged through the empty caravan and grabbed almost every scrap of blanket or fabric he could find. They kept the warmer ones aside for the time being and used others to dry Little Joe as much as possible. Hoss also grabbed a pair of pants he found inside the caravan. Well, they looked like pants anyway. They were bright red in colour and had a yellow trim of lace down the sides. They were ten sizes to big, but they would have to do for the time being.

Hoss smiled to himself briefly. “Oh, Joseph, what would you say if you could see yourself in these?” and chuckled to himself again. The attire that Joe was in was the least of their worries at the moment. Ben wouldn’t have cared if his youngest son was dressed in a tutu, just as long as he was going to be alright.

Ben tried to take a quick look at the bullet wound on Joe’s leg, but saw to his relief that the blood flow was only a trickle at this point in time. They would have to wait until Doc Martin could take a look at it and he couldn’t do that here on the bank of the river.

They debated for a short time about how to carry him back to the ranch, but soon all decided that the quickest method would be by horse in front of one of them.

They wrapped Little Joe into the remaining warmer blankets from the caravan and placed the unconscious young man up in front of Hoss on the huge black horse. Hoss climbed into the saddle and put one arm securely around the waist of his youngest brother and let the other free to hold the reins of the horse. Hoss knew that the only asset he could truly offer his younger brother was his strength. His didn’t have the magic touch that his Pa had, and he couldn’t recite the comforting words that seemed to come so naturally to Adam. All he had was his sheer bulk and muscle and he was willing to give it all at the moment.

The journey back to the ranch was very sombre. They wanted Joe to make some sort of noise or a movement that would help stem their concern, but nothing came. Joe laid as still in Hoss’s embrace as when he had been in the cold water. His face seemed to get paler and paler. The skin was very cold to the touch.

Ben had bid the ranch hands good night as they rode away and promised bonuses for all of them as well as offering hearty handshakes of thanks to his friends and neighbours. The search parties moved towards their own homes and families and the ranch hands returned to the Ponderosa and took care of the animals for the Cartwright family.

Sheriff Roy Coffee told Ben he would send Doc Martin to the house when he got back to Virginia City with his prisoners. Ben just nodded his head in acknowledgement.

The journey back to the ranch was twice as long as it had been to get to the spot beside the lake. Ben had not wanted to cause any further pain to Joe and Hoss had ridden very carefully back down the dirt track, carefully avoiding the ruts and potholes where he could.

Upon their arrival back at the house, Doc Martin had just pulled up outside the house and greeted them, but saw the condition of Little Joe was very serious and ordered that he be taken upstairs without delay.

Adam jumped down from Sport and obeyed the physician. Once Joe had been laid on his bed, Paul had ordered the other Cartwrights get dried themselves before they caught colds or worse. Ben was about to give the doctor an argument, when he sighed and walked back out of Joe’s room towards his own. He decided that he would need

to help the doctor as much as possible, not fight against him at this point in time. The only thing that mattered now was Joseph and getting him well again.

Hop Sing had taken care of the medical needs of the Doctor. He had brought basins full of heated water, fresh blankets and bedding and bandages as requested.

Once dried all returned to Joe’s bedroom to see where they could help. Doc Martin had taken off the colourful clothes from Joe’s body. Thankfully there was no shoes to remove,

Once Joe’s body was undressed, the shivering escalated and Doc Martin quickly placed some heavy blankets over the young man’s chest and upper legs. He left the lower legs and feet exposed for the moment. Joe still showed no signs of coming around.

Paul gave Joe a thorough examination, which his patient slept through. The doctor noted that there was no head wound, no obvious signs of injury to the upper body. The injuries seemed to be concentrated to the left leg except for the symptoms of exposure to the freezing cold water.

Ben looked at the bullet wound area and the injured ankle. The skin was turning even blacker than before if possible around the ankle. The bullet wound seemed to be relatively clean and showed that the projectile had gone right through the skin and muscle.

Paul ushered Adam and Hoss out of the room as he went about fixing the damage to Little Joe Cartwright.

About an hour later, Ben and Paul descended the stairs to anxious faces downstairs awaiting the news. The Doctor looked at them for a moment and then smiled.

“He’s going to be all right, boys,” Paul said. “He will be out of action for a while I suspect. But he will recover. His lungs sound a little wet, but that is probably as a result of swallowing some of the silt and water from the lake. We will just have to wait and see over the next couple of days”.

“The bullet went right through his thigh and thanks to the cold water; he didn’t lose the amount of blood that normally would be expected from a wound like that. He has re-injured that ankle, but both injuries as confined to the one leg, so with some good food and lots of rest, he should to start to get better quickly,” Paul continued

to explain his patient’s list of injures.

“The cold water actually probably saved his life,” Paul continued. “He is still shivering slightly, keep the blankets on him for the next 24 hours and I don’t think there will be any long term effects. He might have a slight cold and cough. I have left some pain killers for his ankle, Ben. Only use them if you have to. I’ll come back out tomorrow to see how he is. He is still unconscious, but I think that’s more of a sign of total exhaustion than anything else. His body was already at rock bottom before he was taken. That coupled with the effects of the ether and the bullet wound may keep him asleep for many hours to come”.

“You sure he’s going to be okay, doc?” Hoss said nervously. He wanted to believe the Doctor, but had seen the condition his brother was in when they found him. He couldn’t remember being so scared.

Paul put a comforting hand on the big man’s shoulder, “Yes, Hoss, with your help and that of your brothers, he be just fine.”

Ben saw the doctor to the front door and thanked him for being there when he was most needed. Paul just shook his head and repeated that he felt a little guilty about his role in this whole mess and told Ben he would be back tomorrow sometime.

*****

Ben returned upstairs to sit with Little Joe, while Hoss and Adam got some sleep. Both said that they would relieve their father later that night. It had been twelve hours now since Joe had been forcefully taken, and all sighed with relief that Joe was back safely in his own bed.

Ben sat talking to Little Joe most of the night, knowing that his son probably couldn’t hear him, but praying that the young man would soon awake to ease the heaviness that laid over his heart. He looked at the photograph of Marie, his third wife and Joe’s mother that was on the bed side table.

Marie seemed to be smiling back at him and he just said two words as he looked into those emerald green eyes he knew so well, “THANK YOU”.

It was almost dawn the next day when Joe showed signs of waking up. Ben had been relieved by Hoss about three hours ago, and Hoss was now sitting holding his brother’s thin hand in his own. The skin felt a little warmer, not the shocking ice blue cold of the previous night.

Hoss looked instinctively at Joe’s face as he heard a small groan escape his lips. The sound was repeated again before Joe tried to move his head from side to side on the pillow. He seemed to be trying to be waking up, but was finding the task difficult. He moved his head a few more times and then to Hoss’s pleasure, opened his green eyes and gazed up at his big brother.

Hoss had hollered for his father and brother to come see that Joe was trying to wake up. Both had raced to the bedroom in time to see Joe looking up at them, confusion on his face and a little pain etched in his face.

All knew that Joe would be experiencing some pain from his ankle and leg but just seeing him awake was a gift in itself. Ben took Hoss’s position at the side of the bed and now stroked the unruly curls that fell over Joe’s forehead.

“Hi, Pa,” Joe said in almost a whisper and looked as though he might he falling back to sleep.

“How are you feeling, Little Joe?” Ben asked in a voice filled with love and kindness.

“Cold,” was the reply and then Joe was asleep again. All laughed slightly at the comment. It was the same comment he had been giving for the last few days about how he felt. All knew that it was probably right after being in the freezing lake. “It hurts, Pa,” came a voice that sounded too far away to be in the same room. Ben’s heart was aching. He would gladly take the pain for his youngest if that was to be God’s will. He just held Little Joe until his breathing evened out and his body relaxed slightly, signalling that he had fallen back into sleep.

Ben fussed with the blankets on the bed. He got up to leave the room to allow Joe some rest and gently kissed the sleeping boy on the forehead before he left.

Adam and Hoss had both spoken words of comfort and relief at Joe waking up and now followed their father out of Joe’s bedroom.

*****

Over the next few days, Joe’s condition slowly improved daily. Slowly at first, but then a little faster. He had a great deal of pain initially and he did nothing but sleep for the first two days. His body had had enough and would take no more until completely healed.

By today, three days after the attack, Joe was recovering nicely and beginning to complain about his confinement to his room. Today was the tenth day of the curse allegedly placed on Joseph Cartwright and his family. All thought that the curse had run it’s full course and now ended peacefully and thankfully happily, but then………….

Ben had finally given in to his youngest’s pleas of mercy and allowed Joe to sit on the settee downstairs that morning. He was in full view of everybody and wasn’t allowed to move a muscle without being told to, but anything was better than nothing he grimaced. His left leg was bandaged almost from thigh to ankle and the throbbing of both wounds now interconnected with each other to form one unending pulse of pain in his leg. He gritted his teeth when he had too and tried to put his mind on other things instead.

He had been fed, much to his displeasure, his lunch on the settee. He was told that his leg needed to be elevated at all times and that sitting at the table with everybody else was out of the question.

Adam and Ben were ready to sit down at the table. Hoss was upstairs washing up from the morning’s chores.

Joe had complained about being uncomfortable and needing some extra padding behind his back and head on the settee. He didn’t want to go back upstairs and compromised that Adam should go to his room and grab some more pillows from his bed.

Adam had proceeded to the bottom of the stairs and Hoss was almost at the top of them upstairs. Hoss had seen his brother, Adam had seem Hoss. Both were unprepared for what would happen…………

Before Adam could take more than two steps forward, Hoss had started to descend the stairs. Halfway down, Hoss stumbled on one of the wooden steps and was toppling in a downwards direction.

Adam looked up and couldn’t move quick enough to avoid the inevitable. The only thing Adam could see was the large shadow of his younger brother, towering over him. He knew what was going to happen, there was no way to stop it.

Adam felt himself propelled backwards and land with a large thud on his back at the bottom of the stairs, Hoss’s full 300 pound body on top. Both brother’s were uninjured physically, Adam had the wind knocked out of him, but was otherwise unhurt.

Joseph who had been watching the whole episode couldn’t hold himself back and found himself laughing himself silly at the sight of Hoss’s large frame falling on the much smaller one of Adam. Joe laughed so hard that he had begun to cough and Ben had needed to give him a drink of water to stem the flow of hiccups. Joe had tears of laugher streaming out of his eyes and remained grinning and smirking at the event.

Ben had seen the accident, and, although he didn’t show his mirth as openly as Little Joe, he too stifled back great whales of laughter and gave small laughs and smirks at the predicament. Adam just scowled at his father and youngest brother before bellowing at Hoss to get off him.

Joe and Ben’s laughter had been interrupted by a knock at the door. Ben walked over to the front door and opened the heavy oak wooden door. He was surprised to see the face of his old friend Doc Martin, but was in fact greeted by his other old time friend, Sheriff Roy Coffee.

“Hi, Ben,” Roy said. His happy voice betrayed the news that he had come to give to the Cartwright family.

“Thought you might have been Paul, Roy,” Ben said with a smile. He failed to note the wariness displayed by the Sheriff.

“Come out to tell you a few facts, Ben,” Roy said. “And of course, to see how Little Joe is doing”. The Sheriff looked over and saw that the young man was laying on the settee, but looking much better than the other day.

“Hi, Joe,” Roy mumbled.

“Hi, Roy” Joe said happily back. “What’s new in Virginia City?”

“Ben, I hate to tell you this, but I had to come out here for some official business too,” Roy said with uneasiness.

Ben’s sense of alarm suddenly started ringing loudly and he looked over nervously towards his still injured and recovering son on the couch.

“The GOOD NEWS is that Anton and his family have moved on from Virginia City, yesterday,” Roy started. “Just packed up all of their caravans and headed towards San Francisco”.

“What’s the other news?” Ben asked, not wanting to include the word BAD.

“Got a telegram from Clem this morning, Ben,” Roy Coffee said. ” He was supposed to heading to the prison with those two fellows that hurt Little Joe there.”

Ben Cartwright now stood up and awaited the news he knew he didn’t want to hear. Adam and Hoss had managed to pick themselves up and now stood protectively beside their Little Brother who laid defenceless on the settee.

“Seems, that about 20 miles out of Carson City, the wagon got overturned somehow, Ben,” Roy said. “Clem got a knock on the head, but he will be okay. That Sancho fellow was killed.”

“What about the other one, Roy?” Ben asked with dread.

By now, Joe Cartwright’s face had paled slightly at the news and now he kept his hands in his lap under the blanket to avoid anybody noticing that they were trembling slightly from fear.

“He got away. The name of the escapee who got away was Curt Rigley,” Roy finished. He didn’t know what else to say to the family at the moment.

Everybody turned their attention to Little Joe, but couldn’t find any words to describe their feelings at the news. Ben Cartwright walked over to his youngestson, Joseph and put a comforting arm around him and just held him close.

Upon on top of a hill a little away from the house, a silhouetted figure stood watching the house. Some day Joe Cartwright, we will meet again………. we will meet again !!!!

They thought this nightmare had ended. Maybe it was only just beginning…

***The End***

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