Dangerous Trespass (by Tessa)

Summary:  After Ben allows the brothers some time away from the Ponderosa, their trip doesn’t go as expected.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  30,900


 

Adam adjusted the reins of his mount and leaned forward in the saddle, allowing Sport’s hind legs to power his way up the steep sloping trail. Leafy twigs and fronds, still damp with morning dew, slapped gently at his face as he and Sport pushed through dense bush. A few moments later he and his brothers made their way to the top of the incline. Adam emerged first with Joe and Hoss behind from the wooded area into the open. On level ground, all three brothers settled back in their saddles and took a moment to reflect on the landscape spread out in front of them.

Hoss took in a deep breath and then let it out. He leaned a little forward in the saddle and grinned big. “I love the fresh air smell you get early in the morning.” Hoss was always content when he was in the wide-open country. It felt home to him. It was where animals lived and he felt comfortable in their environment.

Joe smiled at Hoss, acknowledging that his brother always managed to find and enjoy some of the simple things. His smiled disappeared as he wiped the dew from his face with his shirt sleeve. “I sure hope we don’t have to ride a trail like this again. I don’t like being slapped.”

“And I’d say, little brother, that that is how most women react to you,” Hoss responded and chuckled. “You should be used to it.” He laughed again.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Joe teased in return.

“All right, you two, we’ve gotta ways to go, so I suggest we move on,” Adam commanded.

With that said, the boys directed their horses to move forward once again. The sound of iron-shod hooves was heard as the horses began a comfortable walk on hard ground. Their heads bobbing up and down in rhythm to their easy gait as their riders swayed in their saddles. Adam led the way with Joe following and Hoss bringing up the rear pulling a packhorse, which carried their supplies.

During the long winter months, all of them had to work to get chores done. Resting in bed, or reclining in a chair reading, or playing a card game just couldn’t happen. Mother Nature sometimes interfered with her frigid temperatures breaking axles on wagons loaded with hay being taken to cattle that stayed on the outer acres of the ranch. Or she provided so much snow on sheds that the roofs would partially collapse and some kind of patching was done to hopefully last until a more permanent material could be applied. Lady Ponderosa had to be taken care of year around. She gave the family much, but she demanded their best care, as a lady of refinement would do.

Ben knew his boys needed a break. He was so proud of their commitment to the ranch; he decided to give them a couple of weeks to go fishing. All three Cartwright boys readily accepted and wanted to go to a family friend’s spread to fish in a pond which intrigued them due to Ben’s stories of successful fishing there. To get there, the boys would have to travel a day or so through very rugged country. It was a challenge. But according to Ben, the fish was plentiful for the taking.

The pond and the rugged country were located on the California side of the Sierras. It belonged to Hank Cannon, an old friend of Ben’s. Much of the property was unfenced with parts being uninhabited. Hank only kept part of his property because of hunting and fishing opportunities the area presented. In return for being allowed to fish at the pond, the boys promised that they would give Hank a full report on the condition of the land and bring him back a fish dinner.

At first, the going was easy, crossing a flat grassy meadow where cattle casually grazed. But the deeper they progressed into the back country, the more rugged it became. There were many hills, bluffs, and wooded areas to maneuver, and by ten-thirty in the morning, the boys began to feel the effects of being in the saddle too long. They were facing many more hours before they reached their destination, but all three were eager and in high spirits as they pushed deeper into this unfamiliar territory.

As they rode along the top of the sloping ground, they were offered a lovely view of another meadow which stretched out below them on their left. Tall trees flanked a narrow path. A mild breeze gently blew passed them and brought the smell of fresh spring flowers growing nearby. The sky was a baby blue with no clouds for miles. The morning sun warmed their shoulders and backs. It felt good.

Joe turned in the saddle and placed his hand on the haunch of Cochise. He grinned at Hoss, who followed him and seemed to be in his own world. “Hey, Hoss,” Joe called and got his attention. “Hank sure is lucky,” he exclaimed with boyish enthusiasm.

“How’s that, Joe?” Hoss asked.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to own a pond with so much fish and the time to go anytime he wants. What a life!” Joe grinned, waiting to hear what Hoss would say.

Hoss was a little puzzled by Joe’s remark. “We got the Ponderosa and it has ponds with fish. We just wanted something different. So, I’d say Pa and us are lucky, too.”

Joe laughed at Hoss and knew he was right. The Ponderosa offered so much to all of them, and someday he’d have a cabin nestled among some trees where he could walk out and see a fish-filled pond every day. He just needed to hear a little conversation since all three of them have ridden so far without any discussion, even about fish.

Adam heard the conversation and decided to join in. “I remember how Hoss complained about coming to this pond when he worried about mosquitoes finding him delicious. Remember, Hoss? You wanted to go to the river a few miles from the house.”

“After all that hard work in the snow and rain, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for all this rugged country. But I’m glad I’m here. And I sure haven’t seen any of those big mosquitoes.” Hoss said contently.

They continued on with their leisurely ride in silence, once again. Joe looked to his right and saw a young doe grazing in the grass. Drawing back the reins, he stopped to watch; Hoss stopped behind him. They called out to Adam to stop for a moment. It’s not that the boys haven’t seen this sight before, but to stop and appreciate something like this just made the travel a little easier.

“You know, Joe, you said that Hank was lucky. Well, I reckon we’re the lucky ones to live in such beautiful country and not one of those loud, crowded big cities where people don’t notice things like this,” Hoss commented.

The doe’s head came up when one of the horses snorted, and on long slender legs, she bounded down the slope and across the meadow before disappearing into the safety of the foliage on the other side.

For a while, they again traveled in silence, passing through wooded areas, ascending and descending hills and following winding trails around the bluffs, watching the wildlife and listening to the sounds of nature.

The sound of a dog’s bark caused Hoss to turn around and look at the frolicking mutt trying to catch up to him.

“Hey, Belle, I was wondering if you would catch up.” Hoss said as his English Setter trotted just off the trail, making frequent excursions into the brush to look for stray birds. When her master got a little too far away, Belle would emerge quickly and run after him. Belle was raised from a pup by Hoss, who intended to take her on hunting trips. He thought the fishing trip would be good for the dog to get used to landscape like this for future hunting trips.

*****

By noon, the three Cartwrights were feeling the effects of hunger and needed to stop. A stream trickled soothingly over the pebbles in the streambed nearby. Adam pulled Sport to a halt; Joe and Hoss stopped behind him. Belle ran to the stream and lapped the water eagerly with her pink tongue.

“This looks like a good place for a bite to eat and rest, eh?” Adam suggested. Without waiting for a response, he dismounted and stretched the knotted muscles in his tired legs.

Joe dismounted next, stretching his legs and rubbing his hands up and down the seat of his pants. “Boy, my backside sure needed this break.”

Hoss dismounted and immediately stretched his back and yawned.

Belle yawned along with her master and plopped down in some soft grass under a tree. Her instinct told her that something to eat most likely was in her future. She watched Hoss as he walked to the pack horse and took down a saddle bag.

Joe found a comfortable place to stretch out. When he dropped the reins, Cochise joined the other horses for a much needed drink in the stream. Then the horses grazed the nearby offerings the landscaped provided.

Hoss peered into the saddle bag to see what kind of food Mrs. Cannon packed for them. He pulled out some sandwiches and handed one to Joe, then Adam. He sat down and pulled out his sandwich with Belle’s head resting on his arm, big brown eyes staring up at him, waiting for a welcomed bite of whatever it was. All she knew was that it smelled good. Not disappointing her, Hoss shared his meal.

Overhead, birds were nesting in the treetops, and a squirrel watched them from its perch. Its tiny nose wiggled as it sampled the odor of the sandwiches with interest. However, the squirrel was not bold enough to come out of the tree with the dog lying beside her master. And Belle was more interested in the sandwiches than the wildlife, as her brown eyes pleaded Hoss for each bite he gave her.

After their lunch and a short rest, Joe stood up and looked out into the distance. “Looks like we’re about halfway there,” he announced. “And it looks like the country gets more rugged the farther out we get. Look at all these hills and bluffs.”

“Okay, let’s get moving or we’ll be traveling in the dark later,” Adam said as he headed for his horse.

“I like adventure, but not that kind,” Joe responded.

Belle gave a couple of short barks as she bounced to a nearby bush to relieve herself and then joined Hoss, who had already mounted and was ready to go.

The five of them proceeded deeper into the property. For the next few hours, everything was quiet and peaceful as they pushed deeper into the wilderness. The light was subdued inside the shaded areas of the woods through which they were now traveling, where the canopy of trees prevented the sun’s rays from penetrating the leaves.

The boys were used to long rides, but the anticipation of fishing at this pond got to them.
Briefly, Adam stood up in the stirrups to give his backside a little rest from the saddle. Behind him, he heard Joe yawn into his hand, and farther back Hoss uttered some inaudible oath at the pack horse, which was lagging. Even Belle, a seemingly unending bundle of energy, was starting to slow down and had taken a position beside Chub. Her mouth was open wide, her tongue lolling out, and he could hear her panting.

“Aww-wah!” Joe yawned again.

“I sure hope we get there soon. For a fun trip, this is almost as bad as a cattle drive,” Hoss called out, not caring if either brother answered back.

“This is getting a little monotonous,” Joe replied. “I know I risk sounding like a crying kid, but how much farther is it?”

Silently, Adam agreed with both of his brothers, but kept it to himself.

Hoss hollered for Joe and Adam to hear, “Maybe, we can catch our dinner tonight.”

“I’m looking forward to that!” Joe answered.

As they rounded a bend, the boys abruptly pulled their horses to a stop. All three stared at the mound of rocks and dirt that blocked the narrow gap through which they must pass to reach their destination. Even the horses were standing quietly, looking at the obstacle that blocked their path as if realizing that it wasn’t supposed to be there. At the top of the high bluff, they could see the ragged edges where the debris had broken loose and fallen. Belle rushed ahead and climbed partway up the debris, then stopped and looked over her shoulder at her human friends, as if wondering why they were not following.

“Now what do we do?” Joe said, asking the obvious.

“Hank never mentioned anything like this. I wonder how long ago he tried to travel this old road to the pond?” Adam inquired.

“If he knew about this, he would have warned us about it” Joe said. He paused, his eyes traveling up the rocky slope with visible disappointment. “Well, the bluff is too high and too rugged to climb with horses, so what do we do now? Turn back?”

Belle barked as if she was telling them to follow her.

“Hey, you ol’ flea bag,” Hoss teased, “how about finding another way for us to go? We’re not turning back.”

Belle barked again, but then she came down the blockage to stand beside Chub.

Adam cocked his head as he surveyed the landscape before them and thought quietly for a moment. “Yeah, we can track down to our left and circle this bluff. It doesn’t look too bad. Let’s try it and see what happens.”

“I agree, Adam. I’m bound and determined to get to this pond,” Hoss answered. His blue eyes looked into the direction that Adam turned Sport into and began to slowly work their way around the landslide.

It was a lengthy stretch of rough, rocky ground, and when they emerged on the other side of the bluff, they found themselves inside a densely wooded area where the trees and undergrowth grew so close together that the horses had difficulty pushing through it.

Joe changed his position and now lagged behind Hoss and the pack horse. Suddenly, he heard a twig snap in the brush behind him. It startled Cochise and caused him to crowd close against the rump of the pack horse. Joe jerked Cochise to a halt and twisted his upper body in the saddle to look for the source of the noise that wasn’t too far away. His green eyes darted from tree to tree, but saw nothing in the perpetual shade of the dense forest except the leaves and branches nodding gently in the mild breeze. Whatever he had heard had apparently stopped as well. An uneasy sensation crept into Joe’s stomach, and he felt the hair prickle on the back of his neck. Whatever it was, he knew it was watching him. Cochise knew it too; his head was turned toward the direction of the sound, his ears pricked sharply forward. He was tense, as if prepared to flee if danger presented itself.

“Who’s there?” Joe called out as his eyes continued to dart anxiously. There was no answer, but he could feel its eyes watching him.

Joe looked for Belle. She was trotting ahead of them and had not heard the noise that had attracted his attention. Joe decided it was time to leave. There was safety in numbers, and it was not a good idea to lag behind without knowing what it was that was hiding. He nudged his horse into a jog and caught up with Hoss and Adam taking his place, once again, in the middle.

“Hey, Adam. Maybe this is bear or cougar territory?” Joe called out.

“Maybe. Why?” Adam answered his brother.

“Well, I thought I heard something behind us.” Joe looked over his shoulder, half expecting to see a bear lumbering toward them or a cougar stalking them, and felt relieved to verify that there was nothing there. “It sounded like a twig snapping under a heavy foot.”

“If it was a bear, the horses would be hard to handle,” Hoss pointed out, addressing the fact that the horses were plodding along quietly. “Anyway, if it was a bear, Belle would be going wild.” Hoss looked at Belle, who stopped to casually investigate a clump of brush next to the trail.

“Joe, I think you’re hearing things. It would be obvious to the dog and horses if something we needed to worry about was nearby.” Adam said, trying to ease Joe’s suspicion.

“Maybe,” Joe said, grudgingly. It had not sounded to him like an object dropping from a tree or anything nature would do. He glanced one more time over his shoulder to verify that they were not being followed. He heard no more noises during the rest of the day, and eventually put the matter out of his mind. Whatever it was had apparently intended them no harm, and had most likely been an animal browsing for food.

The detour took much longer than anticipated, for the area was extremely rugged and the travel was slow. They wondered if they would be forced to stop for the night without reaching their destination. Turning back was definitely out of the question.

Finally, as evening came, they started seeing flashes of sunlight on water through the forest foliage, and they knew that they were finally nearing the pond. The horses seemed to realize this, for their step became more brisk as they picked their way through the woodlands.

A few minutes later, they left the tree line and emerged in the open; a large grassy meadow with gently sloping ground and a large pond, fed by a runoff stream that trickled down from the higher elevations, stretched out before them, reflecting the clouds and hills. On their right, much of the ground was low and marshy from the overflow caused by the runoff. The hills and trees rose up behind the pond in a beautiful backdrop.

The three boys rode side by side, instead of nose to tail. They rode right up to the edge of the pond near the stream and stopped the horses. A frog, disturbed by Belle, leaped into the water with a “plop”, but the tired and thirsty dog was less interested in the frog than she was the water, and she rushed into the stream, lapping the cold water with her tongue.

“It’s even better than Hank described it,” Hoss said, quietly, breaking the silence that had settled over them as they observed the beauty and tranquility of the location.

“I’d say that everything we went through was worth it,” Adam said, eagerly.

“That stream will be a good source of fresh water for the horses,” Joe said. “Look how clear it is.”

“Yeah,” Hoss agreed. “Nature does a good job filtering the water.”

The Cartwrights found a level spot up from the bank just inside the tree line where they would be out of the sun. They set up camp, prepared the horses for the night, and settled down comfortably. It felt good to finally reach the very place that each one imagined what it would look like. Quietly, each son was grateful to their father for making this suggestion.

The pack harness was removed from the pack horse and placed on the ground near the spot where they would set up camp. Grateful for the rest, the tired horses stood quietly in the shade and dozed or nibbled the grass.

Joe gathered wood to build a fire while Hoss unpacked the supplies. Adam spread the bed rolls out for each of them to occupy when their camp was ready.

Since they were late arriving due to the landslide, there was no time to get in any fishing before the sun slipped over the western horizon and darkness settled over the camp. They ate some more food that Mrs. Cannon had packed. It wasn’t the fresh fish they talked about eating when they first arrived, but it filled their hungry bellies.

Joe took a short walk to the pond. It was a calm, peaceful evening. The moon had thrown a silvery sheen on the surface of the water, and the hills and trees were silhouetted against the starry sky. As he approached the edge, he heard a “plop” as a frog jumped into the shallows, apparently thinking him a predator. In the distance, he heard the screech of an owl, but was unable to locate it.

A few minutes later, Joe heard a snuffing sound near his feet. He looked behind him and saw Belle inspecting the ground for interesting smells. He knew that Hoss would not be far behind. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Hoss coming up beside him.

“Isn’t this worth all that hard travel, Hoss?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, Joe, it is. In a way, it makes me feel like we’re on the Ponderosa,” Hoss replied.

“This is so perfect. This would be a romantic place to bring a girl,” Joe said with confidence. He picked up a small rock and tossed it across the surface of the pond.

Hoss grinned, amused. “Do you think about anything else besides girls, Joe?”

“Sure I do,” Joe said in his own defense. “But you gotta admit this is really a romantic place.”

Hoss laughed. “Little brother, ain’t no one else as much fun to go fishing with but you. However, I can’t think of very many girls that would want to travel the road we have just to romance you at a pond like this.” Hoss then looked up and saw a shooting star streak across the dark sky. “I sure don’t need no woman to make me feel like I do right now.”

Hoss and Joe listened to the occasional stamping of a hoof from one of the horses. In the distance, they could hear the call of a coyote. Belle lifted her head, ears alert, as they all listened to the lonely sound until it faded away.

Soon Joe, Hoss, and Belle casually walked back to camp where Adam had already curled up on his bedroll. Joe and Hoss did the same with Belle resting next to Hoss with her head on his chest. He stroked her floppy ears before he fell asleep.

*****

It was still dark, but the night was coming to an end. The sky lightened, but the sun was still below the horizon. Joe wasn’t quite awake, but his first impression of awareness was the strange sensation of an unwelcome presence nearby. For a moment, he wondered if it was simply the after-effects of a dream. There seemed to be a slight, barely perceptible sense of movement near the tent, the quiet whisper of someone’s clothes as he moved among the supplies, but before the sounds could register in his mind, he was jolted fully awake by an abrupt bark from Belle. The bark was followed by the alarming clatter of the coffee pot being knocked to the ground by.

Joe’s eyes popped open just as Belle burst forward from where she slept. Joe heard the sound of footsteps beating a hasty retreat from their camp. Snarling and barking, the dog tried to leap over Joe just as he was sitting up, and she collided with him forcefully, sending them both to the ground in a tangled heap. Disengaging herself from the startled human, Belle scrambled to her feet again and gave chase, but then seemed to think better of it as she stopped just beyond the edge of the camp. At the same time, Joe also jumped to his feet with his gun in hand. He looked past the dog and saw something dark just before it disappeared into the trees.

“What’s going on?” Hoss asked, staring at Joe with his gun in his hand pointing towards the thick trees.

Adam was on his feet, also, and just as puzzled as Hoss. “Joe, what’s the matter with you?”

“Someone was in the camp,” Joe replied. He pointed toward the darkest part of the wooded area. “He went into the woods over there.”

“Did you recognize who it was?” Hoss asked.

“Way out here, Hoss? Who would we know way out here?” Joe answered. He looked at Adam. “It wasn’t a bear. I know that for sure.”

Belle was still trotting back and forth with excited, springy strides, uttering an occasional bark as if to remind the intruder that she was still there, patrolling the edge of the campsite.

Adam walked over to Belle and stood next to her. He tried to look into the darkness of the thick trees to see if he could see anything. “Good girl, Belle.”

The horses looked in the same direction in which the dog had barked and where Joe had seen the figure disappear. Their ears were pricked and they were tensed to flee if danger presented itself.

“I suspect whoever it was won’t be back. Not with the dog as our watchdog,” Adam assured his brothers. But the look on both his brothers’ faces showed that they didn’t quite agree.

Hoss tried to go along with Adam. “Sure. I bet it was someone lost maybe, and Belle put up such a fuss that it just scared ‘im away. That’s it.” Hoss nodded his head.

As if on cue, Belle returned and stood protectively beside Hoss. He reached down and gave her an affectionate pat on her head. “You’re gonna be a great huntin’ dog, Belle.” The hackles were standing up all along her back and she kept her eyes and ears alert to the direction in which the stranger had fled.

“Whoever it was would have fired at Joe if they had a gun. I think they might have just been looking for food or something like that. If they wanted to hurt us, I think it would have happened,” Adam said. His brothers agreed.

As the sun finally peeked over the horizon, Joe arranged the wood and stoked it into a blaze. Then, he measured coffee into the tin coffee pot and set it on the fire. While the coffee brewed, he sat down on a log and looked over the peaceful landscape. He tried to forget their uninvited visitor, but it was too hard. “Who was he?” Joe thought. Most important, “Why was he out here in the wilderness?”

Daylight arrived and the crickets and frogs finally became silent, but with the quiet came a new sense of uncertainty. Joe wondered if they would need to stand guard every night to prevent a recurrence, or should they simply decide to pack up and go home? The incident had certainly put a damper on their fishing trip.

Hoss responded to the aroma of the morning brew.

Adam inhaled deeply. “That smells good!” he said.

“What a gorgeous day!” Hoss exclaimed. “I’d say it will be a good day for fishing.”

With her master up now, Belle sat down next to Hoss, panting happily and wagging her tail. He paused to pat her on the sides and stroke her head as he joined Joe and Adam.

Joe set his cup aside and stood up to stretch. “I’ll take the horses down to the stream for water while one of you rustles up some breakfast.”

Adam volunteered to make their breakfast. By the time Joe returned to the camp, Hoss had already begun to dig into his plate of bacon and eggs.

“With a little luck, we’ll have fried trout for lunch and supper,” Adam said, casting a longing glance toward the pond that shimmered beckoningly in the early morning sunlight. “I was sure hoping we’d have some time to fish before dark last night, but we didn’t count on that trail being blocked like that.”

“I wonder what happened there,” Joe said.

“You think that guy who came into the camp last night set off the avalanche that blocked the trail?” Hoss wondered while chewing his food.

Adam tossed Belle a piece of bacon. “Here, girl. You earned this.”

“I don’t know,” Joe answered Hoss. “The question is, why?”

“Maybe he’s someone traveling through that’s staked out this area for his own and doesn’t want any intruders,” Hoss said.

“If that’s the case, he will probably be keeping an eye on us. He could be watching us right now,” Joe mentioned as his green eyes scanned the surrounding area.

Belle nudged Adam’s hand wanting another bite. Adam obliged her.

“I think we’re jumping to conclusions here and getting ourselves spooked,” Adam said, the calm voice of reason. “We have no evidence that anyone deliberately blocked that trail. There are a lot of rocky bluffs around these parts, and there are loose rocks and debris on all of them. And the man who came into the camp could simply be a vagrant passing through the area and saw an opportunity to try and maybe steal some food. With Belle along and he knows we have guns, he’s probably long gone.”

Joe gave Hoss an unconvincing glance. Hoss just shrugged his shoulders not sure whose side he was really on. The statement about Belle and the guns he did believe.

“What if he wanted one of our horses?” Joe asked.

Adam’s eyes wandered to the horses, which grazed near camp. “I don’t think he was able to get to the horses because we have them so close to our camp. We’ll keep our eyes on them and the camp while we’re fishing.

“Dadburn it, you guys. I’m here to do some fishing, and I don’t intend to let this ruin a good fishin’ trip,” Hoss said.

Joe sighed. “I suppose you’re probably right.”

“Belle will notice anything suspicious,” Hoss said. “Let’s do some fishing!”

As soon as the breakfast was done, all three Cartwrights took up a fishing pole. It was a perfect day for fishing. There was only a mild breeze which stirred the grass and rippled slightly on the surface of the water.

Belle trotted ahead. Suddenly, she froze as still as a statue. Her attention focused on a clump of shrubs. Hoss moved quietly up behind her, then flushed out the pair of quail that was hiding there. They took flight, never knowing that had he been hunting, they would have been brought down with a quick shot.

“Good girl!” Hoss praised his dog, patting her side. His eyes gleamed, “I knew I picked a good one from Henry’s litter. She’s gonna be a great hunting dog.”

She waved her tail high in the air. She didn’t understand why, but she knew she pleased him.

Each Cartwright found a place that suited them — not far from each other but not close enough to interfere with the other fishing. They cast their lines into the water and waited for the prized fish. That’s all Hoss could think about right now — fresh cooked fish at camp for a satisfying meal.

Eventually, time went by with the patience of each man becoming shorter and shorter. Not one of them caught any fish. They would separately pulled their line out and cast it into the water again and again.

With a gesture of disgust, Joe finally yanked his line out of the water. He looked over his pole and line only to find that it appeared to function properly. But for some reason, he had not pulled in a single fish all day.

By lunchtime, all three of them gave up and headed back to camp. Lunch was meager without the fish.

“Dadburn it! I come all this way for a fishing trip and here I am eating cold beans.”

“I don’t think there are any fish in this pond,” Joe said looking confused. “I mean, Pa said there would be plenty, but there’s no fish.”

“I remember Hank saying that there was another pond nearby so I think we should saddle the horses and ride on over there and see if that one has any fish in it. Maybe Hank forgot which pond he was talking about,” Adam suggested.

“Sounds good to me,” Hoss agreed.

“Count me in,” Joe added.

“What about the pack horse?” Joe said. “I don’t think we should leave her behind, just in case that intruder is still hanging around.”

“We’ll let her carry the fishing gear and our provisions,” Adam said. “It might not be a good idea to leave the rest of our food here, either.”

“Who knows?” Hoss added. “It might even be a better campsite than where we are now.”

They saddled the horses and placed the fishing gear and supplies on the pack horse. They mounted and road toward the other pond.

It was another pleasant day for the ride. The three men had great hopes that Hank had simply been mistaken about which pond contained the best fishing. The morning sun was still high in the sky with plenty of time for enjoying the fishing and the scenery around them. They traveled for nearly an hour, moving in and out of the woods.

As they rode single file along the edge of the woods, following the curve of the rocky bluff, Joe, riding in front, approached one of the many shallow streams that cross-crossed the landscape. A couple of times, Cochise flicked his ears at the sound of the running water. He hesitated briefly and then leaped over the stream. Sport followed Cochise down the slope with Hoss and the pack horse close behind. The pack horse briefly pulled back not eager to get his feet wet. Hoss gave a yank on the reins and the pack horse reluctantly splashed in the water.

When they were all on level ground again, they emerged into an open meadow and the pond sparkled in the sunlight ahead of them.

“There it is, gentlemen!” Joe said, enthusiastically and turned to look at Adam and Hoss behind him.

“It’s even prettier here than at the other pond!” Hoss exclaimed. “I vote we move our camp here!”

Adam was more cautious than his brothers. “I say we give it a try and see if we get any fish.”

“Ah, Adam, don’t be so doubtful. Just because one pond didn’t have fish, it doesn’t mean none of them have any.”

Not wasting any time, the three Cartwright brothers retrieved their fishing rods and looked for the special place they just knew would have a lot of fish. Hoss found a small grassy knoll next to the pond. Joe walked ahead of Adam as they circled around the pond to find their own good spot.

Adam had been watching where he was walking when he heard Joe say, “Ugh!” When he looked up, he saw Joe begin to fall to the ground.

Joe didn’t see the object that tripped him. His focus had been far ahead of him. He twisted his body as he fell so that he would land on the other side of the object. He wound up on his back with his legs draped over the unknown matter. Surprised by the fall, it took him a moment to realize what this was.

“Joe, you okay?” Adam asked. He dropped his fishing pole to go help Joe get back on his feet.

Once Joe was on his feet, both men froze and said nothing for a moment when they saw what Joe had tripped over. A dead body lay on the ground, almost completely obscured by the tall weeds that had grown up around it at the edge of the pond. The legs were partly in the water and the fact that the water level was down indicated that the body had been completely submerged during some recent rains. Time had reduced it to almost skeletal, with bits of skin still clinging to the bones. It was dressed in a shirt, trousers and boots.

“He’s been here a while,” Joe said, solemnly. “I wonder who he is.”

Adam shook his head, slowly. “No idea, but I bet someone back home is missing him.”

Across the pond from them, Hoss’ brow creased in a frown, wondering what his two brothers were doing. They were looking intently at something on the ground, and obviously were discussing it. “Hey!” he called. “What’re you two looking at?”

“Get over here!” Adam shouted back in a voice that left no room for argument.

Hoss realized they found something important. He pulled in his line and began walking fast around the bank of the pond toward them. Belle bounded ahead, thinking it was playtime. But then the dog came to alert attention and rushed forward to investigate the object that Joe and Adam were still observing with grim expressions. Her ears lifted anxiously, but Hoss called her back. “Belle! No!” he commanded. Belle stopped in her tracks, but her curious eyes were riveted on the unfamiliar sight on the ground.

Hoss stood next to his brothers. “Looks like he bled to death,” he said, pointing to a huge, colored stain on the shirt and trousers. Both Joe and Adam agreed. The water and elements had bleached the stain, but there was no doubt what it was, especially with the three round holes in the abdomen area of the shirt.

“Looks like he was shot, and then thrown into the pond to hide the body,” Joe speculated as he looked up, and his eyes met those of his brothers.

“Are you guys thinking what I’m thinking?” Adam asked, tensely.

“If you’re thinking that the killer might be the guy who came into our camp last night, then yeah, I’m thinking the same thing,” Hoss answered. “He could be someone who is around here to escape the law.”

The three men immediately scanned the area that surrounded them. They hoped to find anything that might give them some clues. They saw only the gently waving meadow grass, the placid ripples on the pond, and the woods. Farther up the bank, the horses were grazing in the tall grass, swishing their tails back and forth across their flanks. They didn’t seem to be alert to any grim scenario or to any stranger in the immediate area. Cochise quickly lifted his head and looked at Joe while chewing some of the grass. Then he lowered his head again to continue his meal.

Joe turned his attention to his brothers again, “He could have been living up here in the wilderness, fishing in the pond, which would explain why we haven’t caught anything.”

“Most likely, Joe,” Adam agreed in an unhappy voice. Adam looked around, again. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve lost interest in fishing, right now.”

“I never thought I’d agree with Adam about not being interested in fishing. But this sure does it for me,” Hoss said.

“I think we should head back to camp.” Adam said as he looked sympathetically on the victim again. “We don’t know who he is or why this happened. All we can do for him is report it to the Sheriff when we get back to Hank’s ranch.”

Hoss followed the progression of the sun. “There won’t be time to get back before dark, and it’s too dangerous to travel on horseback at night in this country, so I guess we’ll have to stay there again overnight.”

Since the body was too decayed and they didn’t have anything to bury him, the boys left the poor murdered soul where they had found him. Hoss removed his hat and lowered his head while his brothers made their way to their horses. Soon Hoss put his hat back on and joined them.

Hoss noticed Joe staring off into the distance. “Joe, what you lookin’ at?”

“I don’t know. Something’s just not right with that area over there.”

“What are you talking about, Joe?” Adam inquired.

Joe didn’t say anything, but walked Cochise towards the west. Adam and Hoss were puzzled by Joe’s troubled expression, but followed to see what was on his mind.

After a short distance, Joe abruptly jerked back on the reins. Startled, his horse locked its hind legs and came to a quick stop.

“Look over there,” Joe said when Adam and Hoss stopped beside him. “Can you see them through the brush?”

Adam stood up in his stir-ups. He looked at Hoss, “Hoss, can you see what Joe found?”

Hoss stood up slightly. “I sure can. But what’s so suspicious of cattle grazing in a meadow?”

“Come on, Hoss,” Joe answered, “way out here? Hank said he doesn’t put cattle on this part of his ranch.”

“Joe’s right, Hoss,” Adam said as he sat back down in his saddle.

“I don’t see anyone around tending to them,” Joe commented.

“Let’s carefully ride closer and take a look-see,” Adam said and then led the way as the three of them quietly moved in on the cattle.

They were speechless at what seemed to be around a hundred of cattle casually grazing the meadow. No fences. No men to tend to them. Just cattle, some grass, and what appeared to be many man-made watering holes dug into the ground filled water.

The three brothers separated a short distance from each other to look at some of the cattle individually. Then they joined each other to exchange information on what they saw.

Hoss asked, “Did you see that the cattle had a bunch of different brands on them?”

“Yeah; I even found a couple that had Bill Carlson’s brand on them,” Joe responded.

“Pretty suspicious, I’d say. A bunch of stolen cattle with different brands grazing where the tall meadow grass can help hide them. It just seems like if you were really taking care of cattle, you’d want them close to the pond, instead of digging all these holes,” Adam said looking around to see if, by chance, any riders seen them and headed their way. There was nothing.

“Well, I don’t like it, Adam. I think we oughta get outta here before we get visitors that might out-number us and aren’t too friendly,” Hoss cautioned. He adjusted his hat as the rising sun shined into his eyes. Belle barked once as if she felt the uneasiness that Hoss expressed.

“That poor ol’ guy over there just might have wondered onto this at the wrong time and met his fate,” Joe commented.

Without saying another word, all three wheeled their horses around and galloped headlong for the trees, slowing down only when they were safely inside the trees. Belle bounded along behind, trying to keep up with the longer strides of the horses.

They wasted no time crossing a stream and making their way back through the woods toward their campsite. When they were more than halfway there, they heard the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of where they camped the night before. It was muffled and distant, but there was no question that the sharp, popping sounds came from a rifle.

They pulled their horses to a stop before getting too close to their camp. Finally, the firing stopped. Adam got off his horse and took a couple of careful, quiet steps forward.

“Can you see who’s shooting, Adam?” Joe asked. He stayed in the saddle, making as little movement as possible.

“No, or who they are shooting at. Bullets would be flying this way if we were seen. I would suggest tying the horses out of sight and walking in on foot.” Adam suggested.

Hoss looked down at Belle, who was by his side. He hoped she wasn’t getting into an excited state and ready to bark, which would give away their temporary hiding spot. He noticed she was on alert, but wagging and not in a tense state.

All of them moved slowly and kept well back in the trees, as they made their way back to their camp, wondering what they would find when they got there.

Their moods were subdued as they neared their camp. After the gunfire, they approached with caution. They kept the horses in the thinner parts of the forest where they would not rustle leaves and twigs as they passed.

They were nearing the camp location when Adam suddenly stopped. He raised a cautionary hand in a silent gesture to halt his brothers behind him. They listened to the sound of a horse running through the brush. There was no doubt that this was the person who fired the shots. The Cartwrights heard the hooves of the horse fade quickly away and they knew the threat was gone, for now.

“I reckon he’s more familiar with this rugged country than we are. Dadburn it! If we caught him, we could know what all this was about,” Hoss said in disgust.

“Maybe, Hoss,” Adam responded.

Belle gave a low guttural growl as if she was agreeing with Hoss.

Joe said nothing, but his expression indicated that he was sorry the person got away.

Panting wearily from the long jog from the other pond, Belle stayed close to Hoss. She suddenly came to alert attention. With ears lifted and nose twitching to detect scents that the humans could not, she looked apprehensively around the wooded area. A low growl rumbled deep in her throat.

“Quiet, Belle,” Hoss commanded in a whisper.

She looked at him anxiously, but after a pleading whine, she promptly obeyed.

The brothers cautiously approached the open area where they had camped. Belle walked around the grounds of the camp, sniffing every inch of the area.

They hadn’t left much behind when they went to the other pond, but the camp was basically destroyed. Bullet holes had ricocheted off logs and tree trunks. The cooking pots that they left behind had suffered extensive damage, dents and holes.

With her tail carried low and the hackles standing up along her back, Belle tiptoed among the debris, sniffing anxiously as she detected the strange scent of the men who had done this. The odor of gunpowder faintly lingered in the air.

They walked grimly around their camp, examining the destruction. Nothing was salvageable.

Joe spoke, “Well, I guess the message is clear, huh?”

“Yeah. Get out!” Hoss answered.

“I’d say that our being here has made someone quite nervous,” Adam offered.

Suddenly, one of the horses whinnied, a loud shrill call that seemed to reverberate through the still air, and all three brothers stopped and turned toward it. One of the horses had become anxious and called out a reminder that “it” was still there. All three of the men looked to the area of the horses. They froze realizing that all three brothers had left their guns in their gun belts and their gun belts had been slung over the backs of their horses. None of them had a gun incase danger came toward them. What was worse was the rifles were still secured in their cases on the horses.

In the trees, the instinct of the horses let them know that someone strange was coming near them. They smelled the scent and turned toward the stranger. Their ears alert, they sidestepped away from him. Cochise snorted in protest and shied away from the hand that reached for the reins. In a quick movement, all of the horses were freed from where they had been tethered. The skittish horses ran from the area after the stranger waved his hat in the air to scare them off.

Hoss, Joe, and Adam whirled toward the sound of thundering hooves as the horses burst into the clearing of the camp. The men stepped in front of the stampede, waving their arms in an attempt to stop the horses, but the panicked animals merely swerved around them. Helplessly, they watched as their means of transportation thundered past them, galloped across the clearing and vanished into the trees on the other end of the meadow.

All three started to give chase, knowing that the horses would be needed. After a short chase, they stopped as they realized the futility of their actions. Belle bounded excitedly ahead of them, then stopped and turned around, as if wondering why they had stopped.

“Okay, what are we supposed to do now?” Joe asked.

Hoss looked angrily back at the place where they had left the horses.

Joe walked around the camp kicking some dirt.

“We certainly can’t stay here,” Adam commented. He squinted his eyes and looked around as if he was expecting to see gunmen emerge upon them. But it didn’t happen. All was quiet. “I don’t see anyone coming this way. But I can’t help but feel there is more than one gunman around here. I think we have no choice but to walk out on foot.”

“Let’s get outta here. No reason to hang around,” Hoss said.

Belle gave a sorrowful whine and followed Hoss.

“We’ll have to stay under cover as much as possible,” Adam added. “Out here, we’re easy targets.” His eyes studied what was left of their campsite. “Let’s get out of the open and talk about this.”

They sprinted into the trees at the nearest entry point. The horses were long gone and would likely make their way back to Hank’s stable. They were mildly reassured that Hank would realize that something was wrong and would help, but in the meantime, they were on their own, most likely outnumbered and outgunned, against a dangerous enemy that so far has been unseen.

The high bluff that had flanked their camp could be seen farther back in the trees. Adam figured it would be the best place to be as they would be able to see more from high ground. He tilted his head back and looked up at the bluff. He gestured toward it. “Let’s get up on that bluff. We should be able to see the camp, and if this guy comes back, we can see what we’re dealing with.”

Hoss and Joe nodded in agreement to older brother’s thinking.

As quietly as possible, they picked their way through the undergrowth, seeking a suitable place to climb the bluff. They found a narrow path that led up the sloping ground among the rocks, twisting and turning as it snaked upward toward the summit. Without speaking, they automatically followed it. Realizing where they were headed, Belle brushed past their legs, determined to take the lead, and she reached the top well ahead of them. The bluff was high, but it wasn’t as hard to get to as they first thought. When they reached the top, they turned to look back down the path they had ascended.

“Is it me, or does that look suspiciously like a trail?” Adam asked.

“I was thinking the same thing, but I was hoping it was just me,” Hoss responded.

Hoss took the lead, with Belle still trotting ahead. He gave a short, low whistle to attract the dog’s attention, then he patted his left leg that was a silent command to heel. With a soft sigh, Belle lowered her head with disappointment and obediently moved beside him. Hoss gave her a quick grin. “Be patient, girl. This isn’t the kind of hunting I planned for us.”

The trees grew thick on the summit of the bluff and the slopes. The boys picked their way cautiously toward the edge nearest their camp. Hoss crouched down and gave a “down” signal to Belle, pushing his hand, palm down, toward the ground. The dog dropped onto her belly and looked in the direction all three Cartwrights were now looking.

There were plenty of trees between the bluff and the clearing and much of the camp was obscured by the limbs and leaves, but there were gaps that offered a suitable place for viewing the campsite. Lying down on their bellies, propped up on their elbows, they settled down to watch, and discovered that the camp was no longer empty.

Four men appeared at the campsite. All four were dressed in dirty-looking clothes; all either had unshaven faces or were very dirty. They looked as if they hadn’t seen civilization in quite awhile.

All three boys thought of the same thing — that these men likely were the ones that killed the man they had discovered at the fishing pond. The story of the victim was unknown, but the Cartwrights were all smart enough from experience to know they had to use caution. The well-deserved fishing trip was over, and now they had to try and survive as they would make their way back to safety.

They heard one of the men call to another nearby his position. “Yeah,” he said. His voice was faint, but detectable to the Cartwrights who watched. The man continued, “They know enough now to get us all hanged.”

Joe shook his head. “I guess besides making out way out of this country, we gotta watch out for them, too.”

“Yeah, and they’d get a fair trial if we caught them. But they catch us, we ain’t gonna get anything but hung from one of these trees,” Hoss speculated.

Adam responded, “Or just a bunch of bullets like the body we found. Quick death.”

The men at the campsite spread out and looked at the ground for clues to the whereabouts of their prey. Finally, one of them gestured with his rifle in the direction that the horses had gone, and they started walking across the meadow.

“They’re following the horses,” Adam said, quietly, “They think we went into that direction.”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed, solemnly. “I wish I could take a couple of them out right now. It’d give us a better chance to get outta this mess.”

No one answered. There was no need to. They totally agreed, but even Joe, the son that can become angry faster than his brothers, knew without any guns that they couldn’t do anything but stay hidden. They saw four men, but who was to say that more could be around?

Partway across the meadow, the four men stopped and appeared to be discussing their course of action against the campers who had unintentionally stumbled onto their illegal operation of stealing cattle and hiding them in country they thought was safe. They were calm and unhurried, as if confident that they would find and eliminate their prey.

“I wish I could hear what they were saying,” Hoss remarked, quietly.

After several moments, two of the men continued toward the trees where the horses had gone, while the other two turned back toward the campsite.

“They’re splitting up,” Joe said. Then he asked the question they were all wondering, “Do you think they’ll kill the horses if they find them?”

“Maybe. Or at least, make sure we don’t get any access to them,” Adam answered. “Hopefully, they will stay far enough ahead of them that they can’t catch up.”

Hoss was silent for a moment, pondering a question. “I don’t get it,” he said at last. “They’re obviously looking for us; two following the horses like they expect us to be with them and two coming back just in case we’re not with them. If they knew we had returned to the camp, wouldn’t they have sneaked up on us? I mean, what’s the point of freeing the horses and driving them through the camp like that?”

All three boys were silent, thinking about that.

“Unless they aren’t the ones who released them,” Adam suggested.

“That means there’s someone else out here,” Joe said. “I bet he’s the one who sneaked into the camp last night. If he was one of them, they would have dealt with us long before now.”

“Yeah,” Hoss agreed. “You’re probably right. So, who is this other guy, and what’s he doing out here? And why did he get rid of the horses?”

They looked at each other again and shook their heads, unable to come up with an answer. Even Adam’s logical mind wasn’t able to come up with a reasonable answer.

Turning back toward the camp, their eyes continued to follow the two men who returned to their camp and seemed to be looking at the ground, as if searching for tracks to follow.

Hoss watched the men perused the trampled grass and soil in the camp. He knew that an experienced tracker would be able to figure things out fast — that there were three of them and probably be able to determine about how big each one of them was by the size of the footprint and even how deep the print was in the dirt.

“Do you think they’re skilled at tracking?” Joe whispered, as he looked at Hoss.

“My guess is that they’re not experienced in tracking.” Hoss said not looking at his brothers.

Adam and Joe turned their heads to look at him. “Why’s that?” Joe asked, quite curious, yet he knew Hoss had a lot of knowledge about tracking.

Hoss answered, “Because if they were, they would have realized that we left the camp chasing the horses and then never returned to the camp before we went into the trees.”

“Makes sense,” Adam said.

In the camp, the two men finally gave up their study of the ground. One of them called out to the others nearby. The Cartwrights cocked their heads and listened intently, trying to make out the words. This time, the man was farther away, and his voice muffled.

Belle laid still on her stomach. Her head laid on the ground between her two front paws. Her eyes were the only thing that moved as she occasionally glanced at Hoss and then at Joe when one of them would speak. She took a deep breath and let it out in a big puff as if to let Hoss know how much she wanted do something to help. Like bite one of the strangers.

Although Hoss and Belle didn’t speak the same language, Hoss completely understood her. Even he wanted so bad to bear hug one of them and then beat them in a good fight.

Finally, the armed men apparently decided that there was nothing to be learned from examining the camp. They slowly moved off to their right. Their posture was alert and attentive, their eyes sweeping the area around them as they continued to search for clues to tell them if their prey were on horses.

Adam offered a solution, “I think we should find a place to lay low until dark. Then we can travel with less risk of being seen.”

“I dun know, Adam,” Hoss answered, “Don’t cha think that they might figure that’s what we’d do?”

“Maybe,” Adam said, “I surmise they have experience in that when evading the law who might be trailing them.”

Hoss gave Adam his usual unpleasant, puzzled look when Adam used his college repertoire of words. But now wasn’t the time to ask for a definition. He just figured Adam agreed with him.

Careful to avoid knocking any rocks down the face of the bluff, they scooted backward away from the edge before standing up. Placing their feet cautiously on the loose rocks and twigs, they crept back into the brush.

Hoss signaled Belle, and even though she did not quite understand the desperate situation they were in, she sensed their nervousness and seemed to understand that she must be quiet and obedient, for she promptly obeyed his hand signals and remained at his side as they pushed deeper into the undergrowth traveling down the gently curving back slope of the bluff.

The forest was denser in this area. Vines, snaking along the forest floor and rotting limbs that had dropped from the treetops provided unstable footing beneath last year’s accumulation of leaves. They were forced to keep their eyes low, watching for tripping hazards as they picked their way through the woods. There were no sounds of gunfire, so the men had not yet found the horses, and the boys could only hope and pray that the animals would make it safely back to Hank’s ranch. At the moment, that was their only hope.

The sun continued its path across the sky as they proceeded deeper into the forested slopes and valleys of Hank’s enormous undeveloped land. Travel to the campsite had been pleasant to them with the offerings of beautiful meadows that appeared after riding through some pretty thick forest. But now, all that pleasure was gone. Circumstances were considerably different. An open meadow now could put their lives in jeopardy. The dense forest provided needed protection.

Hoss noticed there were no rabbits or squirrels, yet the area seemed to be a perfect place for populations of small wildlife. Besides the fish in the ponds, he figured the lack of these animals indicated they had been food for the rustlers.

After a long time, the three stopped to rest, leaning against trees rather than sitting down. They listened intently, trying to catch the sound of a human foot passing nearby. They heard nothing except the ever-present sound of the cicadas and the trickling sounds of a nearby creek.

“There’s a stream over that way,” Joe said, keeping his voice low.

“I sure hope so, little brother. I’m mighty thirsty, right now,” Hoss said.

Pushing himself away from the tree, Hoss began the continuation of their journey through the woods, moving toward the happy gurgling sounds of the stream that they could not yet see, until at last they saw the jagged edges of the bank.

Reluctant to move into the less dense areas, they approached it with caution and paused at the edge of the tree line. From their position, they could not see the water at the bottom, for it had a high bank carved out of the ground many years earlier by higher, fast moving currents. They could hear it, a soothing sound as it trickled over the rocks.

They left the cover of the trees and walked to the edge. It had once been a very wide, deep creek, but now it was reduced to a mere trickle at the very bottom of the shallow ravine. A flat bank of pebbles and rocks stretched on either side of the narrow stream, reaching toward the sides of the ravine.

The sides were steep, but Joe pointed to a spot on their right. “I think we can get down over there.”

The three moved toward it, and Joe took the lead, picking his way slowly down the steep ground. The soil was loose and the footing unstable, but he managed to make it down without mishap.

Belle was not so lucky. In her haste to catch up with Hoss, she lost her footing and rolled most of the way. She jumped up and shook herself off with an expression that Joe swore was doggie embarrassment. Looking up at Hoss, she offered a tentative wag of her tail.

“Belle, I’m sure glad I brought you along. You could be a lot of help in us getting out of here,” Hoss said as he stroked her head with a smile of amusement.

Adam gave Hoss a smile. He protested when Hoss wanted to bring Belle, figuring she would be more trouble than help. But watching Hoss and her work together made him glad she was along.

They crossed the bed of pebbles and knelt down beside the stream to splash their faces. The water was cold and refreshing.

“Let’s walk down here in the streambed,” Adam suggested. “Our tracks will be harder to follow in the gravel than in the soft dirt, just in case they make their way to this area.”

They walked along the streambed with the gravel crunching under their boots. Hoss looked behind them, verifying that they were leaving no discernible trace of their passing.

The streambed widened and narrowed in places as it meandered through the countryside. Sometimes they were forced to step into the water to navigate narrow passages; other times they were able to walk three abreast.

After nearly half an hour, they paused to rest for a few moments. Here, the creek bed was around five feet deep, very wide, and heavily eroded. On their left, at the top of the bank, a tree grew right at the edge in the eroding soil, its gnarled, exposed roots, extending outward toward the stream. The wind and water had washed away the soil, forming a cave-like cavity which yawned beneath those snarled, twisted roots. It seemed large enough to be a possible hiding place. All three stooped to peer between the two most widely spaced roots. Additional roots snaked throughout the cavity, but there appeared to be just enough room for three men and a dog to hide inside.

“What d’you think?” Joe asked.

“I need to rest a while before going on,” Hoss replied. “California country sure has some strange stuff. But, right now, this looks good enough.”

Adam shrugged. “Well, better than we would be out in the open, anyway.”

Joe slipped inside first and stepped up onto a small ledge of earth, then sat down, his back pressed against the cool soil. Hoss stooped and slipped inside next, and sat down on the ground just below Joe, his back against one of the many roots that jutted down into the soil, anchoring the tree to the ground. Belle crowded in beside him and snuggled down at his side, her chin resting on his thigh. Adam cast a wary glance in all directions before joining his brothers beneath the root-cavity.

It was close and cramped quarters hidden there among the tangle of roots that jutted down out of their natural ceiling, but all of them were grateful for the opportunity to rest in relative safety.

Joe peered towards the opening. “It’ll be dark in a couple of hours.”

“With any luck, those guys will settle down for the night,” Adam said. “At the very least, we’ll have the darkness to help conceal our movements.”

Inside the close quarters of their hiding place, the three bothers settled down to rest. They could see outside between the thick, ropey roots and knew that anyone walking along the creek bed would likely see them, but they hoped their pursuers would pass right by at the top of the embankment without realizing that they were there.

*****

Back at Hank’s ranch, he laid awake much of the night, his mind plotting and planning a possible business opportunity regarding all that land he owned for years that had no real use. Hope for a successful plan came when the Cartwright boys wanted a fishing trip there. If anyone could see potential in something, it was Ben and his boys. A positive report from them just might get Ben thinking in a way Hank would like to see. He hoped he’d get a little financial backing from his old friend. On that thought, Hank could easily turn onto his side and fall asleep. His eyes begged for the rest they needed. But Hank’s excitement over this potential plan had him tossing and turning just thinking about the things that could go wrong, but best of all, what could go right. Soon, the Cartwright boys will return to his ranch with stories of fishing. Lots of fish, he kept thinking to himself. He would be able to ask a few questions about their experience of that piece of land. Then he’d know for sure if it would be a good idea to approach Ben.

The land was rugged. He knew he’d have to address that. But there were several large ponds on the property, and all of them should be the habitat of a large number of fish. There were also plenty of game birds and deer. He might have to hire an employee to guide some of the parties in, but that should not be too difficult. He had a couple of sons who had their own farms. But if he had patience and figured out a good business plan, they just might be willing to help make this happen.

His mind swirled with the same thoughts over and over. The notion simply would not let go of him, and he was still thinking about it when he rose the next morning. His eyes burned from lack of sleep.

“You were restless last night,” his wife, Clara, said as he shaved in front of a mirror hanging on a wall in the bedroom. She noticed his eyes were slightly red.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” he said, the flutter of excitement still present. “I was thinking about something.”

“Problems?”

“No. A possible business venture, maybe.” As he finished shaving, Hank explained his idea to her. “I hoping when the Cartwright boys get back that the news about that land will be good and I can interest Ben to go into business with me.” He stopped long enough to look at her. “What do you think?”

Clara shrugged. “I don’t know, Hank. We live a simple life and I’ve never complained about it.” She didn’t want to sound doubtful about Hank’s plans, but she was always honest with her husband. Now, shouldn’t be different. “With a simple life, I know pretty much what is in our future. But a business when we don’t really know how to do it means everyday our future is unsure.”

Hank smiled at her as he rubbed a small towel over his face to get rid of the excess shaving soap. “It’s worth thinking about it, Clara. It’s worth talking about it and give it serious thought. Ben would know for sure. But I need to hear what the boys have to say and they’ll be back here in a day or so.”

“You been a good husband, Hank. I reckon I shouldn’t be so worried about something different. After all, we changed our lives when we brought our children out here from a more secure life in the East.”

Hank grinned. He got her to thinking about the possibility. “Thanks, Clara. I’ve seen those pretty blue eyes sparkle every time you look at that dress with all that pretty lace on it. I wanna see you wearing that dress someday and a bonnet to match.”

Clara let out a big, loud laugh. “You always could make this old woman have a good laugh, my husband. But promise me that Ben would have the final word on this. He’s experienced and knows a lot more than we do.”

“Promise,” answered Hank.

Hank left the house to do his chores. Right now, his dream had to be put on hold as everyday life and taking care of the ranch continues. The morning air was fresh and clean. He loved this place so much. To build something good to leave to his sons someday, would be a well lived life. He listened to the birds sing and the whisper of the breeze in the trees. The sun was up and the temperature was pleasantly mild and warm.

Suddenly, he pulled up short, the smile faded from his face. Cochise stood beside the stable door, flapping his tail across his spotted haunches. He was still wearing his saddle and bridle, but the saddle was askew on his back, as if the rider may have fallen out of the saddle and onto the ground. The thought gave him a chill.

Cochise looked at Hank as if he wanted to tell Hank something. He nickered softly through his nostrils. Cochise stood still waiting to see if Hank would remove the saddle and blanket from his back. He had carried them a long way and needed a rest.

Hank stood there in bewilderment. His eyes scanned the area for the other three horses and found them quickly. Chub and Sport were grazing in the grassy area beside the stable. Then Hank noticed the pack horse was also there, but the supply pack was gone from his back.

Hank stroked the mare’s soft muzzle; he walked around to her side. Moving past the mare, he walked the rest of the way to the stable and slid the doors open to look inside. His mind tried to tell him something was out of normal, something wasn’t right. But he checked the stalls, thinking the three Cartwrights might have returned late and fell asleep in the barn in order not to wake him and Clara.

Hank’s stomach clenched with apprehension when he found the barn void of sleeping men. ‘Something must have happened,’ filled his thoughts.

Cochise had followed him inside the barn and nudged at his arm with her muzzle, as if imploring him to remove her tack. Chub crowded close behind and Sport came toward him. All of them were eager to be relieved of their saddles and blankets. Unfortunately for the horses, there was no time at the moment. Hank felt a rush of chills at the sight of rifles in stabbers and gun belts flung over the horses. Where were the Cartwright boys?

As fast as he was able, he ran back to the house. “Clara, Clara! I got to go into town.”

Clara ran to Hank. “My God, Hank, you’re scaring me. What’s the matter?”

“I can’t explain now, Clara. But I’ve got to get to town and send Ben a telegram.” As he rushed out the door, he yelled to Clara, “Don’t worry, woman. I’ll be back soon.”

*****

Ben sat quietly on the front porch sipping a fresh cup of coffee. Winter weather had moved on and left behind a warmer, calm climate. A couple of small, white, puffy clouds slowly crawled across the blue sky gradually changing their shape. His eyes shot up to the top of the barn when he heard the familiar sound of the Mountain Chickadee sing its three note whistle. One of his favorite birds stopping by to say, “hello.” But the biggest smile came to him when he saw the Steller Jay poking around looking for something to eat. It reminded Ben of the times when Hoss would sit out at the table to eat and purposely put pieces of bread nearby just for the Jay to believe it steals the bread from Hoss. It was pleasant, but simple entertainment that he and his boys have often enjoyed.

That memory of Hoss brought many thoughts to his mind, wondering how the fishing trip was going. Who got the most fish and did they really like the travel over such rugged country, even though the pond was quite promising and piqued their interest?

The thoughts stopped as Paul Cauldren rode into the yard. Ben rose to greet him. Paul didn’t dismount, but instead, pulled out a telegram to hand to Ben. Ben’s smile abruptly turned to a frown as Paul’s arrival didn’t seem like it was a friendly visit.

“Ben. I was told to get this to you as soon as possible.” Paul said. He immediately rode off as soon as he handed the telegram to Ben.

Ben opened it. His stomach churned and sickened him at the urgency of the message. He ran into the house immediately after reading Hank’s words that his boys might be missing. The word, “might,” was enough for him. It was possible that it would all turn out just fine. But any possibility that something may have happened to his boys was enough to get him to rush to the Cannon ranch.

*****

Joe awakened with a start, unsure of where he was or how he got there. An uncomfortable sleep fogged his thinking. Then the hard ground beneath him and the musty odor reminded him that he had slept inside the grotto created by the tangle of roots.

Sensing the movement of his youngest brother, Hoss rose up on his elbows. “You awake, Joe?”

“Yeah,” Joe answered a little groggy. “Think they’re still looking for us?”

Hoss yawned, but not from a good sleep. Musky, damp cavities near a stream bed were not like sleeping in a familiar comfortable bed. Sleeping in their barn would have been better than this. “I’d bet on it. I just hope we get out of here before morning.”

“Yeah, I don’t mind telling you, a part of me would rather just stay here in the hopes that they get tired of looking.” Joe said.

“My old bones say that’s not going to happen,” Hoss commented as he looked around. Nearby, they heard a low groan and then a yawn.

“Adam?” Hoss whispered.

“I’m here,” the oldest Cartwright brother replied in a low voice. “Let’s sit tight for awhile to make sure no one has come after us.”

They were uncertain how long they had been there when they were alerted to an unwelcome presence by the sound of pebbles crunching under heavy boots. Rousing themselves to full alertness, they watched as one of the heavily armed men walked along the edge of the water, eyes averted, looking for tracks in the soft soil at the water’s edge. Occasionally, he stopped and squatted down to observe something interesting, then proceeded, still keeping an attentive eye to the ground.

As he neared the tangle of roots in which the three boys were hiding, he uttered a soft, “ah-ha!”, and knelt down to closer examine a track he had found at the water’s edge. With a jolt, they realized that Belle had probably left her paw prints in the muddy soil at the stream’s edge.

The three Cartwrights watched apprehensively as the gunman rose to his feet and slowly advanced toward them. As luck would have it, he stopped directly in front of the tangle of roots, turning slowly as he scanned the area, searching for his prey. He held his gun in his hand ready to shoot.

On reflex, the three unarmed brothers shrank back into the dusky recesses of their cave-like depression watching as the stranger scanned the area. Desperately, they hoped he would keep his back to them. He was large and muscular, built like a grizzly, and probably weighed well over 200 pounds.

As if aware that he was being watched, the man slowly turned toward them. Seated nearest the opening of the roots, Joe launched himself at the man before he could raise the gun into firing position. The two of them went sprawling on the ground. The firearm leaped from the startled man’s hands, and landed in the stream with a loud splash.

Then Adam and Hoss burst from the hideout to assist Joe, but the man managed to drive Joe back with a well-placed kick to the shin. Joe stumbled back with a painful curse, his hands going to the injury.

The first instinct of Hoss was to go after the gun, the one object that could level the playing field somewhat, but he saw that Adam was getting the worst end of the fight. Skidding to a halt on the loose gravel, he left the weapon where it was and rushed into the fray while Belle stood back barking frantically. Setting aside his pain, Joe also jumped back into the fight.

The man was even stronger than they had anticipated. He managed to throw Hoss off, sending Hoss surprisingly reeling backwards to land heavily on his back in the gravel. Grabbing Joe by the front of the shirt, he flung the smaller man to the ground and pinned him by the neck with one big, beefy hand. He withdrew a hunting knife from a sheath at his belt with the other.

“He has a knife!” Adam croaked a warning. He was still on the ground recovering from a hard hit on the back of his head. He managed to draw in enough air to combat the suffocating sensations of having the breath knocked out of him when punched hard in the chest.

Hoss grabbed the man’s wrist from behind in an effort to prevent the downward plunge that could end Joe’s life. It became a tense arm wrestle as each man struggled against the other.

Suddenly, the stranger yelled with annoyance, and Hoss saw that Belle had jumped into the fight. She had realized that her human family was fighting for their lives against this strange. She had latched onto the hem of the man’s pant leg and was tugging on it with enough force to pull him part way off Joe.

Distracted, the stranger viciously kicked the dog away, but after a yelp of surprise, she scrambled to her feet and latched onto him again, this time sinking her teeth into his calf. He yelled again and attempted to swipe at the dog with the knife. But Belle had pulled him off Joe enough for Joe to grab the man’s wrist securely in both hands and forcibly held it at arm’s length.

Hoss jumped back into the foray and seized the wrist as well. He knew he had to end it, and he was the only one in a position to do so, as Adam was just now getting onto his feet.

Quickly, Hoss wrapped one arm around the man’s neck and twisted his head sharply to one side. There was a sickening crunch and then the attacker went limp.

The three men stood silently for several moments, staring down at the dead stranger. Belle backed up, still barking from the excitement of the unpleasant event.

“Dadburnit,” Hoss sounded out in disappointment. “I didn’t mean to kill him. But he was stronger than I would have ever guessed and I was afraid for Joe.”

Adam put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You did what you had to do, Hoss. Anyway, we’ve just eliminated one of the people that would like to see us dead.”

“I agree with Adam, Hoss,” Joe commented. “It was just something that had to be done.”

The three boys finally allowed themselves to relax. Then they became of aware of Belle’s frantic barking.

“Belle, quiet!” Hoss commanded.

The dog became quiet, but only after a couple of whines, as it took a moment for her to shed her fright. She understood the danger they had been in.

“We need to get moving!” Adam said.

Hoss picked up the gun from the stream, grimacing at the water that poured from the barrel.

“We have to get out of this creek bed,” Adam said. “His friends just might be heading in this direction. We don’t really know how much noise we all made.”

“Is it salvageable?” Joe asked Hoss about the gun.

Hoss sighed heavily and shook his head. “Well, maybe with proper cleaning back at the ranch. But right now? Not a chance.” He pitched it back into the water. There was no point in burdening themselves with a weapon that was useless at this time.

Joe bent down and retrieved the hunting knife. It had a long sturdy blade and might come in handy.

The three men and the dog proceeded downstream and found a good place to climb back out on the other side.

“I sure wish we had gotten hold of that gun before it landed in the water,” Hoss lamented as all three climbed out of the creek bed using a more gently sloping bank they had found a quarter mile from the body.

“I know,” Joe said. “Let’s not worry about something we can’t help. A gun would sure be nice, but let’s just keep moving forward with what we have.”

“Good thinking, Joe,” Adam complimented. “Having you along isn’t so bad, after all.”

Joe smiled at Adam, knowing that his brother was only trying to lighten things up a little.

“They seem to have completely split up to search for us. A foolish thing to do, if you think about it. Still, it gives us a bit of an edge,” Adam commented.

“As long as we spot them first,” Joe reminded him. “Obviously, they figured that they could cover more ground if all of them separated.”

“We’ll have to keep alert,” Hoss said. His eyes fell upon the dog, which scrambled up the sloping bank behind her master, and shook the dust from her coat. “She can be helpful in warning us when they’re coming close, but she can also give away our position.”

Realizing that Hoss was talking about her, Belle looked up at with solemn brown eyes and gave an apologetic wag of her tail.

“We’d better get going,” Adam suggested.

“Hey, Adam,” Joe called out as he walked a little ways behind Adam. “You think our horses might have made it to Hank’s?”

“I don’t know, Joe. If they didn’t, then let’s hope we run into them. We could sure use a break right now. They have our guns.”

Keeping a wary eye turned to the foliage around them, they moved deeper into the forest in the general direction that they believed Hank’s ranch to be. But the truth was, none of them knew for certain that they were headed in the right direction. No one spoke this grave concern, but it weighed heavily on their tired minds.

Belle was no longer interested in seeking out game as she walked at her master’s side. She occasionally came to attention to peer into the forest with her nose twitching. Each time, her alert posture brought the brothers to an abrupt halt, looking and listening for sounds of leaves crunching or of twigs snapping under a heavy boot or small branches and saplings being pushed aside as someone moved through it. After a few moments, satisfied that there was no danger, the dog would relax and they would proceed.

The forest soon became dusky beneath the canopy and they knew they would soon lose the light. They had moved into curiously rugged terrain, filled with hills, bluffs, small ravines, and rocky precipices.

As they climbed the sloping ground, Hoss said, “I have a bad feeling we’ve wandered onto some land behind Hank’s property. I can’t imagine this being part of his ranch.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Adam agreed. “I just didn’t want to say it.”

Joe trudged ahead of the others, having taken the lead through a particularly dense stand of trees and brush. He listened quietly to the concerns presented by the other two. He was not particularly surprised to discover that they were probably headed in the wrong direction. Without the map and without the ability to see the sun’s progression across the sky due to the thick foliage, it was impossible to determine where they were going.

“Do we continue in this direction?” Joe asked.

“For now,” Adam offered. “Let’s see where this might lead us.”

In the perpetual shade beneath the canopy, there was little grass on which to tread. A few moss-covered rocks and cool brown earth was dotted here and there. There was no path to follow. They all walked carefully and glanced frequently at the ground in front of him to avoid tripping or slipping.

The ground continued to rise subtly and they knew they were steadily climbing. One more hill among countless other hills in the territory. They were getting tired. They had been walking nonstop ever since overpowering the dangerous stranger. All three had feet that were aching, and throats were parched. The jugs of drinking water they had brought with them had been destroyed by the gunfire at the camp -– all except the one that was still attached to backpack horse.

The surface on which they walked was rough. Joe managed to stub the toe of his boot against the edge of a half-buried stone, bringing his attention back to the ground in front of him. Recovering from his trip, he discovered with a start that he was advancing toward the edge of a ravine. He stopped abruptly, observing the deep, rocky abyss that lay in front of them

The ravine was too wide to jump across. A few trees gripped a tenacious foothold on the very edge. It was beautiful and picturesque, but at the moment, it presented an impenetrable obstacle.

“Guess we can’t go this way,” Joe called out.

Adam and Hoss stopped behind him. They looked down at the deep ravine, not saying a word for a few moments. Each seemed to be in thought about their situation.

“Which way?” Joe finally asked.

Hoss pointed to his right. “I guess that way is as good as any.”

No one had any better suggestions, so they moved off to the right, following the edge of the ravine. They had not gone far when Belle suddenly stopped in her tracks and uttered a low growl, her attention directed down the trail behind them. Someone was following and their footsteps heard only by her.

Their first instinct was to melt back against the rocks, hoping whoever it was would pass by in the vanishing light and never see them. The situation would be greatly in their favor if they took the upper hand and dealt with the man before he saw them.

The area was dense with undergrowth, and Hoss’ eyes fell upon a low clump of shrubs along the path behind them. “I’ll take him down,” he whispered. “When he goes down, you know what to do.” Turning to Belle, he commanded firmly, “Stay. Quiet.”

Hoss hunkered down low to stay well behind the shrubs and waited. Within minutes, he heard the crunching of leaves and twigs beneath a booted foot, and then the man came into view.

Like the first one, he was large and muscular, and carried a rifle his hands. Hoss wanted the rifle so desperately. This stranger stopped a few yards from the clump of shrubs Hoss was hiding. The man looked around, clearly searching for his prey. Then his eyes dropped to the ground and he examined the rocky soil for evidence that they had passed that way. Finding a paw print in the dust, he knelt down to examine it. It could be a coyote; they were abundant in that area. But more likely, it was the dog belonging to the intruders he was following.

He smiled with satisfaction. “Gotcha!” he muttered. Rising up again, he proceeded up the trail.

Suddenly, something grabbed him and pulled, yanking him off his feet. He landed heavily on the hard, rocky ground with a thud and a grunt, and before he could recover, two men leaped from behind the trunks of large trees while a third, the one who had tripped him, snatched the rifle from his startled hands. An instant later, he was looking up the wrong end of the barrel of his own gun, and he instantly froze.

“Get your hands where I can see them,” Adam commanded in a voice that meant business.

Slowly, the man raised his hands in surrender, laying them beside his ears on the ground.

Hoss and Joe backed off a little and stared down at him. The stranger was quick to notice that there was no fear on the brothers’ faces. He was merely something that needed to be dealt with. He glared back, waiting to see what would happen next. The dog rushed up and sniffed at his boots, but he dared not try to kick her away.

Stepping forward, Hoss roughly flipped him over onto his abdomen and stretched him out full length face down. Joe knelt down with his knee pressed forcefully into their captive’s back. While Hoss stood watch over the man, Adam and Joe pulled the man’s hands behind his back.

He glared up at them, lips parted and teeth clenched, revealing gaps where several teeth had been knocked out at some point in his life. The remaining teeth were stained yellow.

Adam held the man firmly by one wrist while Joe held the other. Joe fumbled through the man’s pockets, searching for something they could use to tie him up. To his surprise, he found a pair of handcuffs in the front pocket, and he held them up for all to see.

“You a lawman?” Adam asked.

“Naw, I got them from a stupid sheriff that found our cattle.” The man grinned, showing his dirty teeth and looking proud about his kill.

Joe looked up at Hoss. “He was a sheriff. He apparently came upon the stolen cattle and then ran into these guys.”

“That’s what happens when you nose into someone’s business,” the man said with hatred in his voice.

“We saw the body. Killing him puts noose around your neck,” Adam answered.

Joe, while continuing searching the man, found a long hunting knife in a sheath on his belt, which he removed and tossed aside. “Obviously, you murdered him and threw his body in the pond to hide it.”

Their captive continued to glare at them, but he remained silent.

Joe added, “It was you guys who barricaded the gap to try to keep people out, wasn’t it? I don’t know how long you were up here, but it was only a matter of time before you were discovered.”

When their queries failed to bring a response, Adam and Joe flipped the man over on to his back and dragged him to the nearest tree, positioned near the edge of the ravine, where they snapped the cuff on one wrist then wove the cuff chain around the trunk and snapped the other cuff closed on the other wrist. Satisfied that he was safely secured, they stood back to look at him, noticing the expression of sheer hate that glared back at them.

With the man securely bound, Hoss relaxed the rifle, but remained alert, ready to bring it into firing position again if circumstances warranted such a response.

“Who are you?” Adam asked.

The man spat at him. Adam watched the foamy saliva arch through the air and land with a splatter on the pebbles at his feet.

“Didn’t your mama teach you that spitting is impolite?” Hoss asked in a taunting fashion.

“Go to hell!” the man snarled.

“You first!” Joe responded.

Hoss raised the gun into firing position and pointed it at the man.

Their captive believed Hoss would shoot him. He grimaced and looked away, not wanting to see it coming. Finally, the man blurted, “All right! Don’t shoot! What do you want to know?”

“For starters, you might tell us your name,” Joe suggested.

“Crowe,” the man volunteered.

“All right, Crowe. My name is Adam Cartwright. These are my brothers, Joe and Hoss. Who do you work for?”

“Why? If you ain’t the law, then I don’t have to answer any questions,” Crowe responded.

Adam lifted a curious eyebrow. “Why do you ask that?”

“The way you handle yourselves.” Crowe jerked his head toward Hoss. “The way he handles my rifle.”

“Very observant,” Joe responded with a chuckle. “No, just men angry because some stupid, murderous men killed an innocent man and ruined our fishing trip.”

“Fishing trip, huh?”

“Yeah. We were up here fishing,” Hoss answered. “We never would have ridden over to the other pond and found the body or the stolen cattle if the pond near our camp hadn’t been emptied of fish.”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that. We never even been to that other pond until we came on to your camp.”

“So why did you shoot up our camp?” Hoss asked.

“We seen your campfire and knew that someone was too close. We went to check things out and decided to leave you a warning.”

Crowe looked at each of the boys with a nervous expression. He wasn’t sure what these men would do to him or with him. He glanced down the path to see if any of his buddies might have found where they were and come to his rescue.

The three Cartwrights also glanced apprehensively in that direction and wondered if any of the other men were coming toward them. To their pleasure, there was no sign of anyone else.

Turning his attention back to their captive, Adam asked again, “Who do you work for?”

Hoss didn’t wait for an answer. He leaned toward their captive, pointing the rifle directly at Crowe’s face.

Crowe’s eyes focused on the rifle. The end of the black barrel was mere inches from his face, and with surprising speed and accuracy, he lashed out with one foot, kicking the weapon from Hoss. The rifle catapulted end over end on the rocks and disappeared over the edge of the ravine, clattering and banging all the way to the bottom.

For several moments, the three brothers stared in shocked disbelief at the edge of the ravine where the rifle had disappeared. Belle crept up to the edge to look. Her ears lifted curiously as she looked down at the rifle, which now lay broken at the bottom.

Enraged at the loss of another rifle with which to defend themselves, Hoss snatched the hunting knife and pressed its sharp blade against its owner’s fleshy neck. “I should use this on you!” he threatened. His face was flushed with fury and his typically kind blue eyes were harsh and dangerously narrowed.

Crowe looked directly back at him and chuckled, nervously. “But you won’t,” he said, trying to demonstrate more confidence than he actually felt. “You ain’t got it in you, boy. You ain’t like me. I’d have killed all three of you without batting an eye, but you won’t commit murder. I seen your kind before. Honorable men,” he spat as if the word was foul. “Honor won’t let you murder a man while he’s bound and helpless.”

Hoss was breathing hard as he struggled to control his temper, but he knew that Crowe was right; no matter how infuriated he was, he was no murderer. Angrily, he elbowed his captive in the face, splitting his lip, then stood up and backed away, forcing himself to calm down.

“That’s okay, Hoss. I can do it,”

“All right, you two,” Adam said as he stepped in to give his brothers caution. “Let’s not lower ourselves to his level.”

Joe looked over at Hoss. He understood the immense frustration that his usually calm brother must have been feeling at that moment. “Adam’s right, Hoss,” he asked.

Hoss rubbed his hand along the back of his neck, as if nursing a headache, and nodded, still too angry to speak.

Crowe laughed at Hoss, mockingly. “See? Ain’t got it in you. You fancy yourself better ‘n me, don’tcha?”

“I think you should shut your mouth,” Joe warned.

Apparently Crowe decided it might be prudent to follow directions, for he became silent, waiting to see what they would do with him.

“So, what are we going to do with him?” Joe asked. He looked at Adam for the answer.

“We have no choice but to leave him here,” Adam answered.

Crowe tensed visibly. “Wait, you can’t leave me here!” He glanced apprehensively at the wilderness around him. “There’s wild animals around here! Even bobcats and cougars!”

“That’s your problem,” Hoss said, coldly. “You were right about one thing, Crowe. We’re not murderers. We follow the law. However, we can’t take you with us, so that means you have to stay here and take your chances with the animals.”

“When we get out of here, we’ll send someone back for you,” Adam added. He gestured with a nod of his head, and the three men and the dog started up the trail.

“Wait!” Crowe shouted in a panic. “You can’t leave me tied up like this!”

Joe momentarily stopped and looked back at Crowe. “If you get loose and need something to protect yourself with, your rifle’s at the bottom of the ravine.” Joe smiled, turned, and joined his brothers.

*****

After about a half hour of walking, Joe spoke up. “I think we’re lost.”

Adam said, his voice breaking the silence that the trio had maintained during their hike through the forested slopes. “Damn it, I wish we’d gotten that map out of the saddle bag before losing the horses.”

“I wish we hadn’t lost the horses,” Joe responded, glumly. “On horseback, we could have gotten far ahead of those guys. In fact, we’d probably be back at the ranch house by now eating some homemade apple pie.”

“Please, don’t remind me of food!” Hoss told him, his hand automatically going to his empty stomach.

They stopped walking and stood grouped together as if for protection. A cloud drifted across the moon, blocking out the light. They had no clue to the direction they should travel to get back to Hank’s ranch. The silence around them was intense, and they listened for the sound of twigs snapping under a booted foot or the rustling of leaves that would indicate that someone was following. But all they heard was nothing except the monotonous chirping of crickets and the trilling sound of tree frogs.

*****

When Hank heard a horse ride up, he went outside to find Ben arrived. The look on Ben’s face wasn’t pleasant, but worried. Frown lines and squinted eyes stayed on his face as he dismounted and extended his hand to Hank for a greeting.

“I’m so glad, Ben, to see you finally get here,” Hank told his friend, “but I just don’t know what to tell you.”

“I came as soon as I got your telegram. Tell me what you know.”

Hank put a hand on the back of Ben’s shoulder. “Come on in and we’ll talk. Clara’s got some coffee for us.”

After hugging Clara, Ben sat down with Hank to get some information about his boys.

“I notified the Sheriff, Ben, about the boys; they may be in danger or just lost,” Hank began.

“Anyone try to look for them?” Ben asked. He was a little worried that Hank might have just notified the Sheriff and no one made any attempt to begin looking for his boys. He shivered a little from the thought that his boys could be hurt or something worse.

“Yeah, the Sheriff got some men together to begin looking for them. I stayed behind until you got here.”

“Lost is what I will believe until we know something better. Anyone could get lost in that country,” Clara said as she wanted to try and encourage Ben.

“I hope so, Clara,” Ben answered. “My boys know how to take care of themselves in the wilderness. And there wouldn’t be any way they could let us know they were lost.”

“No, Ben. That’s right. Who knows? I mean, they’re on foot with the horse’s running back here to the ranch.”

“Horses? What do you mean, Hank?” Ben inquired. He didn’t know the boys didn’t have their horses.

“That’s how I knew something was wrong. All the horses, including the pack horse, came back to the barn without the boys. Their gunbelts was slung over the backs of the horses. That’s when I telegrammed you.”

Ben bowed his head and took a deep breath, then let it out. “That doesn’t sound good.”

Clara was about to let Ben get depressed. “Now Ben, that doesn’t mean anything. We don’t know what happened and it doesn’t mean anything bad did.”

Ben looked up at Clara and smiled. She was trying hard to give him some hope.

You get some rest and we’ll head out and start looking ourselves,” Hank said.

“No, Hank. Now. I want to go now. I wouldn’t be able to rest or sleep anyway,” Ben stated as he stood up. “Thank you, Clara, for the coffee.”

“I’ll fix some food for you two to take with you,” Clara offered as she retreated towards the kitchen. Her footsteps were hard on the floor as she scurried off.

*****

They had been traveling for hours, but without the map to follow, their direction was rather aimless. They chose hard, rocky ground over soft turf to keep from leaving footprints. Tension was high and they used all their experience to evade detection. Slowly, the clouds continued their path across the sky, and the moonlight brightened their path again.

“Well, as long as we stay ahead of those guys, we should be okay, regardless of where we’re headed,” Adam’s voice finally broke the silence. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting tired.”

“Yeah, me too,” Hoss responded. He looked up at the sky, observing the silvery moonlight that shown down on them like a spotlight. “Let’s get in that thicket over there,” he added, pointing with his finger toward a dense clump of brush. “The bushes and trees are pretty thick there, so we should be able to see anyone approaching before they see us.”

No one acknowledged the suggestion verbally, but it seemed like a good idea, so they moved as quietly as possible through the thick shrubs and into a stand of young trees. Finding a suitable spot well under cover, they sat down to rest on the cool ground amid the tangle of vines and last year’s fallen leaves.

Belle crowded close to her master and rested her head on his thigh. Absently, he stroked her soft head and floppy ears. Joe folded his arms on his raised knees and rested his forehead on them, but he was in no danger of falling asleep; he had never felt less like sleeping in his life. Adam was restless, shifting position several times in an attempt to find the best vantage point to observe their surroundings, and finally leaned back against the tree behind him. For a long time, no one spoke as they rested from their hike through the back country. Thin ribbons of moonlight penetrated the dense foliage.

Finally, after an indeterminable amount of time, Joe lifted his forehead from its resting place on his arms, and broke the silence. “I’ve been thinking.”

Ordinarily, these words would have brought a teasing round of “Uh-oh! We’re in trouble now!” from his brothers, but now no one felt like joking. They turned towards him and waited for him to continue.

“We’ve been traveling in the dark to make ourselves less visible, right? Well, I think we need to stay under the cover of a lot of this thick bush as much as possible. We don’t really know how good these guys are finding us.”

Hoss and Adam were quiet for a moment taking in what Joe just mentioned.

“That’s true,” Hoss agreed. He sighed, heavily.

“I think we need to find a place to spend the night, and then start out early in the morning. We need to rest,” Adam commented.

An owl hooted directly overhead, causing them and the dog to jump involuntarily. Looking up, they saw the shape of the large bird sitting on a tree limb turning its head as if looking for prey.

“You know,” Joe said, quietly. “The Indians say that the owl is a messenger from the spirit world. They’re thought to bring omens of death.”

“Where did you hear that?” Adam asked.

“From a Paiute girl I met once.”

“I should’ve known Joe would remember something like that now,” Hoss responded. “Right now, I’m too tired and hungry to care what it means.”

The owl spread its wings and launched itself into the air in search of a meal. The three young men watched as it sailed into the sky, silhouetted against the moon, until it disappeared into the forest. Belle looked, too, and gave a quieted bark.

A half hour later, Belle suddenly scrambled to her feet, attracting Hoss’ attention. He could see her light coat through the darkness, and knew that her attention was riveted on something that was approaching from the direction they had just come. She did not bark, having been told so many times to be quiet, but he heard a low growl deep in her throat. Quickly, he gave the “quiet” signal. She nudged his hand urgently with her nose, as if imploring him to heed her alarm, but she obeyed his command.

Moving slowly down the slope on the other side of the meadow, they saw the beam of a light moving slowly toward them. The beam was occasionally obscured by foliage as the bearer moved behind trees and shrubs. The glow of light was always present. It was too far back in the trees to see the person who carried it, giving it the illusion of being suspended in mid-air as it slowly advanced.

“Don’t those guys ever sleep?” Joe whispered, even though the predator was too far away to hear him.

“They’re desperate,” Adam whispered back. “They know they have to catch us before we get to the authorities or their illegal operation will be found out.”

They didn’t dare move a muscle for fear of snapping a twig or somehow alerting him their presence. Even Belle stood rigidly beside Hoss. Her body froze like a statue as she watched the man coming toward them. Her nose twitched, testing the air for his scent.

The beam of light continued to sweep slowly back and forth across the ground, then it came up to light the surrounding area. The stranger moved slowly in their direction. He stopped once or twice to scrutinize some object with suspicion before moving on. He emerged from the tree line and entered the meadow, a solitary figure that continued to advance toward them. Again, he raised his light, sweeping the area where the three brothers had concealed themselves.

Eventually the man got close enough where the moonlight briefly brightened his face, revealing a long scraggly beard and long un-kept hair. He was carrying something in his hands, but it was too dark to identify what it was. When he moved closer to the area where the three Cartwrights were hiding, he paused, as if detecting a presence that he could not see. His eyes caught a reflection from the moon, as bright and frightened as a startled deer as he turned his head quickly from side to side, trying to determine if someone or something was nearby.

Suddenly, Joe launched himself toward the stranger and took him down quickly, his hand pressed against the man’s mouth to prevent him from shouting. He felt the harsh exhalation of air against his hand as the man uttered a muffled scream. The object he had been carrying was a lantern and he dropped to the ground beside him.

“Don’t make a sound,” Adam commanded as he leaned down close to the man’s face. “We won’t hurt you. We just need to talk to you, but if you try to run, we’ll sic our dog on you.”

With wildly frightened eyes, the man looked at the dog that stood beside Hoss and he nodded quickly. Joe slowly withdrew his hand from his mouth and rose onto his knees.

“Are you one of them?” Adam inquired.

Still lying on his back, the bearded stranger seemed too frightened to speak. He stared up at the man who knelt beside him, then shifted his gaze to the other two.

“Are you one of them?” Hoss was the next to ask.

The bearded man apparently decided it would be prudent to make some sort of response, for he shook his head quickly. “N-no,” he whispered. “Wh-what are you going to do with me?”

“That depends on who you are and what you’re doing out here,” Adam told him firmly.

There were several moments of silence as they continued to look at the man on the ground, waiting for him to answer. He seemed reluctant to reveal any information about himself to them.

Adam and Hoss kept their eyes on the stranger, but Joe chanced a glance over his shoulder. He was still leery of the man and the possibility that he could be a part of the men they were trying to avoid.

Finally, the man spoke up, “We can’t stay here; the men you’re hiding from might find us. They’ll kill us.”

“You know about them?” Hoss questioned.

“Please, we need to get away from here,” the old man begged.

“Why should we trust you?” Joe asked, “Some place safe?”

The man hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with the notion of taking them to the only safe place he knew but more terrified of staying where they could be found by the cattle thieves and killers. “I know a place where we can talk. You can trust me.”

In spite of rugged country, lack of food and water, and most of all, running into men with a desire to kill them with no weapons to defend themselves, it was a miracle that none of them has died. Meeting this stranger and going with him wasn’t something they wanted to do. But fatigue and hunger swayed them to trust this old man and his “safe” place.

“Let’s take a chance on him,” Adam said to Joe and Hoss. “Lead the way, but don’t even think about running off,” he warned. “Remember, the dog can run faster than you can, and she’ll take you down on our command before you can get more than a few yards away.”

Hoss and Joe exchanged amused glances, both thinking the same thing. Belle was not an attack dog. If they told her to “sic ’im!” she would probably just watch him run away, wagging her tail happily. Adam was clearly bluffing, and it was obvious that the stranger was buying it completely, for he seemed almost eager to comply.

Hoss helped the man to his feet. Then the old man began to slowly walk in the direction of his safe place with the three brothers and the dog close behind. He led them through the thick bushes and trees for about twenty minutes.

The brothers stayed silent, but each one was wondering to himself if they should have trusted this man or not. They had walked a long way already and felt they should have reached the man’s place by now. But they diligently followed the old man. Trusting him wasn’t a decision; it was the only thing they knew to do at this time.

Bringing up the rear, Joe glanced over his shoulder again, making sure they weren’t being followed.

Adam nudged the bearded man with his hand. “Are you sure you know where you’re going? If we find out that you’ve been leading us on a wild goose chase or into a trap…”

“We’re almost there,” the man responded, not letting Adam finish. “Just be patient.”

They reached a creek bank with a tall bluff on the other side, and the bearded man made his way across it, stepping carefully on large rocks that looked like they had been placed in their position by a human hand as stepping stones for easier crossing.

When he reached the other side, the man made his way along the foot of the bluff. The Cartwrights looked cautiously about for any sign that they might be walking into a trap. Finally, the man slipped behind a large shrub. At the base of the bluff, protected by the shrub, was a narrow black slit in the rocks.

“A cave?” Hoss asked, bending over to scrutinize the waist-high opening.

“Watch your heads,” the man said. “The ceiling is low when you first go in.” Kneeling down, he slipped into the hole and disappeared from view.

In the moonlight, the three boys exchanged glances again. None of them were eager to go into that low, narrow hole in the ground, uncertain of what they would find inside. But they knew that danger could be lurking behind them and this, at the moment, seemed it was their only choice.

With a sigh of resignation, Joe made the uncomfortable decision to go first, and stepped closer to the entrance. “You know, he could be waiting inside with a club to pick us off one by one,” he pointed out.

“We’ll be listening for a hollow thud if he does hit you on the head,” Adam joked with a hint of a smile. “That way, we’ll know whether or not to follow you.”

“Thanks, older brother. You bring comfort to me,” Joe teased back. Then he crouched down and slipped into the narrow opening.

As the stranger had cautioned, the ceiling was very low, and it, the sides, and the floor were solid rock, but Joe’s groping hands discovered that the passage was not circular in shape. It was more of a narrow vertical cleft carved into the rock.

The darkness was intimidating and he came to a halt in the pitch blackness, fearful of falling over an unseen ledge or walking into a solid obstacle. “It’s really dark in here!” he called, his voice echoing against the stone walls. “I can’t see anything!”

In a moment, Hoss and Adam followed. Both stopped behind Joe feeling the same insecurity of the darkness. Belle groped her way into the cave and stopped behind Hoss. Her eyesight was much better than her human family’s. She whined as she felt their apprehensiveness.

The three of them heard the old man chuckle as he lit a match for the men to be able to see the floor of the cave. “I guess I forgot to tell you my name. It’s Willis.”

“Nice to meet you, Willis,” Hoss answered for the three of them.

Hoss, Joe, Adam and Belle joined Willis on the cave floor. The space was much larger than they expected. It wasn’t something they would call home, even temporarily, but they could see why Willis would feel safe here.

Adam said. “Willis, we’re going to be heading out of here pretty soon. I think you know that you can trust us not to betray you to those men out there. But I think you also understand that things have happened up here that must be reported to the law.”

Willis immediately became uncomfortable, and he busied himself adding more wood to a smoldering fire and stoking it into a strong blaze. “I never let the fire go out,” he said, in an effort to dominate the conversation. “When I need to clean out the fire pit, I put it over there. That way I’m never without light.”

“You maintain a good fire,” Hoss said, patiently. “You know how to keep it nearly smokeless, and it gives off a lot of light.”

Barely visible in the low light, an underground stream trickled lazily along the edge of the wall, winding its way out of sight in the darkness beyond. Rock formations jutted up from the floor, with some protruding downward from the ceiling. Other rock formations formed small recesses and alcoves. Rocks of varying sizes were scattered about the floor of the cave.

“No one should have to live like this,” Joe spoke up. “You don’t have to live like this.” His voice was kind and friendly, with a trace of sympathy as well, for he understood the man’s reluctance to help them.

“Willis, there is a man lying dead out there. He probably has a family,” Adam stated.

Willis’ busy hands slowed, then they stopped as he sank back onto the hard ground. He avoided looking at them, but his expression was remorseful. “I feel bad about that, I really do. But if I testify to what I saw, they’ll kill me, I know they will!”

Encouraged by the man’s acknowledgement, Adam added, “We’re going to do everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

Willis looked up, his eyes flashing in the light from the fire. “You can’t guarantee that those killers won’t find me. This isn’t a bunch of small-time thieves here! They don’t like people interfering with their stuff. That’s what got that lawman killed! He should’ve known not to come out here on his own! He should’ve known better!”

“Maybe he didn’t know for sure what he was going to find and just happened upon them,” Joe answered.

Willis realized he had said too much, and began nervously rearranging the stones around his fire pit. “I done said too much already. I’m not saying anything more.”

Although Belle was a little apprehensive when she first entered the wide space of the cave, she was now the first to become relaxed with the environment. She sniffed around anxiously at the different scents. But one scent caught the hungry dog’s attention. The Cartwright boys looked at her when they heard the sound of an empty can and saw Belle had stuck her nose and tongue inside and busied herself with the scarce contents.

The bearded man was squatted down by the fire, adding wood to the flames. Beside him was the object he had been carrying. It was a dead rabbit. Apparently, it was intended to be his evening meal, for when he was satisfied with the blaze, he picked up his knife and began to skin the animal.

Outside of the noise Belle made, it had been pretty quiet as the three brothers found places to make themselves comfortable. They had all silently hoped Willis was planning on sharing the rabbit meat. They have been so busy trying to stay alive and not get caught when they were on the trail that they didn’t realize how much they needed to eat something.

Adam broke the silent among them. “Are you the one who released our horses and scared them off?”

The man nodded affirmatively, keeping his eyes on the rabbit.

The three brothers spoke at the same time after seeing Willis nod. Their voices colliding so that it was impossible to determine which words belonged to whom:
“Why did you do that?” “Why would you do such a thing?” “We needed them to ride out of here!”

Willis lifted his eyes from the rabbit, studying the men carefully. “You fellas are lucky. Mighty lucky. Them boys are mean to the core. I’d say they want you bad.”

“You know they’re stealing other people’s cattle and hiding them in that field out there, don’t you?” Hoss asked.

The man nodded, his eyes shifting back to his work. “I know about ‘em. But they don’t know about me. I’ve seen just about everything they’ve done.”

“Including the murder?” Adam asked.

Willis fell silent for several moments, his knife poised over the rabbit, and it was clear that he was both uncomfortable and very surprised with the question. After a moment, he resumed his work.

“You boys shouldn’t have come here! Now that they’re looking for you. It makes it more dangerous for me. Why are you up here, anyway?”

“We just rode in to do some fishing,” Joe told him. “This is private property, by the way. We have permission to be here, but I suspect that you don’t.”

“You Marshalls or something?” Willis asked.

“We’re just here on a little vacation,” Joe said.

“Look, it would be easier to talk with you if I knew what to call you,” Willis said, again not looking directly at any of the boys.

“My name’s Adam and this is my brother, Hoss and that’s our younger brother, Little Joe.”

“Uh, Joe, just Joe,” Joe corrected.

The man’s eyes darted from one to the other again. “Who’s the dog?”

“Her name is Belle. She belongs to me,” Hoss answered.

“Huntin’ dog?” Willis questioned.

“Well, huntin’ dog in the making, I guess you’d say. This was supposed to get her used to being in the wilderness and seeing how she’d act,” Hoss acknowledged.

“Used to own a dog myself. Long time ago.” He was silent for several moments as he carefully peeled the rabbit skin away from the flesh. “Ever felt a rabbit’s fur?” he asked. “There ain’t nothin’ quite as soft.”

“Sure; we’re not from a big city. We live on a ranch with our Pa. We’ve touched many animals,” Hoss said.

“Are you from around these parts?” Adam asked.

“Here and there,” was the vague answer.

“So, we’ve told you why we’re up here,” Joe said. “Maybe you should tell us what you’re doing up here.”

“I live here,” Willis replied.

“We can see that. But why? Don’t you have a family somewhere?”

Willis laid the rabbit skin across a large stone, fur down, apparently intending to preserve it. He then began gutting the animal and removing its organs. Belle was watching eagerly, licking her lips hungrily with her nose fully switching.

“Ain’t got no home no more.” Willis commented.

“You’re the one who stole our food last night, weren’t you?” Joe asked.

“Reckon I over-fished the pond. Kept me going for a long time, but there ain’t no more fish in it, and most of my snares are comin’ up empty now. I got several of ’em scattered around that I check every day. Mostly, they’re empty, but sometimes I get lucky, like tonight. Big fat buck-rabbit,” he said proudly. “I’ve had to go farther and farther to find food. When I seen you fellas ridin’ in here yesterday with that pack horse all loaded down, I decided to follow, thinking I might be able to snatch some food and maybe some of your cook pots and pans.” His eyes darted up again, and they detected a hint of amusement there. “Sorry if I scared you last night. If it hadn’t been for your dog, you’d a never know’d I was there until you got up the next morning.”

“I’d say the dog gave you a bit of a scare too, the way you lit out of there,” Joe said.

Willis smiled. When he did, it took over his entire face, even causing his small dark eyes to almost shut. “That is a fact,” he admitted. “I ain’t run that fast since…we’ll, I can’t remember when.” He chuckled. “Looks like you’ll be spending the night here.”

All three watched as Willis finished cleaning the rabbit and placed it on a long stick which he used as a sprit, and positioned it over the fire, laying it on the forked tops of two upright sticks.

“I ain’t accustomed to havin’ company,” Willis said, sliding back away from the fire to rest his back against one of the rock formations. “That’ll take a little while to cook.”

“How long have you been up here?” Hoss asked, curiously.

“A spell,” Willis answered, evasively.

“You saw the murder, didn’t you?” Adam prompted.

“Ever had rabbit before?” Willis asked, ignoring the question. His discomfort was obvious, leading them to wonder just how much he had seen.

Hoss could feel his stomach rumble from hunger. The smell of the rabbit cooking didn’t help, either. He could actually eat three rabbits all by himself. But he understood that Willis wasn’t expecting dinner guests and part of that rabbit was better than nothing. At the beginning of the trip, eating fresh fish from a day’s fishing was his priority. Now, it was simply survival and to get home to Hop Sing’s delicious, complete meals.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just come back with us and tell what you saw — and we know you saw it — than it would be to stay out here struggling to find food?” Hoss asked.

Joe added. “Look at you! You’re half starved!”

“I make do.” Willis prodded at the rabbit with his knife. Some of the fat from the rabbit dripped into the flames and made them flare up.

“That looks mighty good, Willis,” said Hoss as he swallowed from his mouth watering from the thought of eating fresh meat.

“It ain’t big enough to fill all four of us up, but I reckon it’ll take off the edge,” offered Willis. His eyes fell on the dog. “Reckon she can have the scraps.”

Adam looked over at Joe and sensed that he was about to make an annoyed comment about Willis’s evasive answers, so he grasped his arm to silence him.

Joe held back his asking anything.

So,” Adam said, calmly, understanding that small talk and coaxing would go a lot farther with a reluctant witness than anger and threats. At least, he hoped. “What do you do in the winter?”

“The cave provides good shelter. It’s a consistent temperature and keeps the weather out,” Willis replied.

Yes, I’m sure it does, but you have to get out of here to find food. I know it doesn’t get as cold here as in other parts of the country, but it does get pretty chilly.”

“That’s a fact,” Willis agreed. “I made a poncho out of animal pelts that helps keep me warm. I gather nuts in the fall and store ‘em; use rocks to break ‘em open. Sometimes, I dig up wild onions and garlic, and there’s other roots that are edible. I learned ‘em by trial and error. Some of ‘em made me sick, but others are sufficient. Rather tasteless, though. I get by.”

Adam watched as Willis scratched at his beard, then exchanged an amused glance with Joe, both of them thinking that he was probably chasing some unseen critter around inside all those whiskers. Almost subconsciously, Joe reached up to scratch his own cheek, feeling the stubble that bristled there. He had not shaved since leaving Hank’s ranch the morning before.

Adam wasn’t done with Willis. “Willis, we need your help. You tell what you know and these guys will never see daylight again. And we’ll help you get settled somewhere so you don’t have to keep living this way.”

Willis got up abruptly. “I ain’t talkin’ about this no more.” Turning, he walked into the darkness beyond the fire’s reach, leaving the three young men alone to wonder what he was doing. He returned a short time later with a small, handmade pail, which he handed to Joe who sat nearby.

“You fella’s must be thirsty. The water there is clean and cold. I been drinkin’ there for years and it ain’t harmed yet.”

Joe looked at the pail for a moment, still reluctant to drink the water, but they were all extremely thirsty, so he finally stood up and went to the stream.

Adam and Hoss watched as Joe dipped the pail into the water, and took a sip. It was cold and crystal clear, like well water. “It’s good,” he said.

After drinking his fill, he passed the pail to Adam, who drank and then passed it to Hoss, who made sure that Belle drank downstream to avoid contaminating it. He was pretty sure his brothers wouldn’t appreciate any slobber she dripped into the bucket.

“How are we going to get him to talk?” Joe asked his voice low.

“I’ve dealt with people like him when I’ve been on the trail,” Adam replied. “When people are scared, they clam up. We can’t force him to talk until he’s ready. We’ll have to just make small talk with him tonight and try to win his confidence. We can try again in the morning.”

With that said and after quenching their thirst, they joined Willis at the fireside again, and returned the pail.

“Thank you very much,” Adam said politely as he sat down near the fire again.

“You’re welcome,” Willis responded.

The roasting meat was permeating the cave with mouth-watering aromas, and all three of the Cartwrights watched Willis finish his cooking it. Belle scooted herself a little closer, but not enough to get a command from Hoss to backup. Her nose switched as she smelled the welcoming aroma. In a short time, all four men, including Belle, ate some rabbit.

As Adam had suggested, no one brought up the subject again that evening, and after they had eaten the rabbit, they stretched out on the hard ground to sleep, determined that tomorrow they would try again to convince Willis to talk to them about the things they knew he had seen.

Morning came, and one-by-one the brothers woke, stretched, and sat up quietly, not saying a word until they felt completely woke up.

“Morn’in, boys,” Willis said with happy voice. “I got some coffee ready.”

Hoss scratched his head, yawned, and grinned at Willis. “I don’t know about you, Willis. You sure seem to know how to have some conveniences.”

“Yeah, I kin go a long time without food, but I make sure I keep coffee handy. Gotta have some of that in the morning.”

Joe and Adam went over to the stream to wash some of the sleep from their eyes and then returned to their places around the fire. Hoss joined them as Belle did after she walked off to one side of the cave and relieved herself on the wall.

Again food and coffee was scarce, but enough to provide some energy to all of them. Joe, Hoss, and Willis engaged in some idle talk about living in the wilderness.

Adam stayed quiet during this time collecting his thoughts. But then he broke his silence. “Willis. I’m going to ask you again to come with us. You have to. You know too much and it can help a lot of people that’s been hurt.”

The enjoyable conversation that had been going on suddenly stopped as Willis stared at Adam. He thought he had convinced them he wasn’t going to say anything about the incident and that he planned to keep himself safe by being quiet. But obviously the older brother thought different.

Hoss put his hand on Willis’ shoulder. “I know you’re tormented by what you saw. It couldn’t have been an easy thing to see, and we all know you saw what happened. Tell us about it,” he urged, his voice kind.

Willis sighed heavily with regret, and was shaking his head back and forth, either in refusal or in resignation, yet he remained silent, reluctant to speak.

Hoss was watching him carefully, observing the shame on his face and in his slumped posture, and the reality struck him abruptly. “You’re one of them!” he said, accusingly. “You didn’t just witness it; you were in on it!”

Willis was shaking his head, helplessly. “No, no! That isn’t the way it was. I wasn’t involved in shooting him! You don’t understand what happened. You don’t understand.”

“No, we don’t understand!” Adam agreed. “But what are you really afraid of, Willis?”

Willis fell quiet for a long time, and the other two men kept glancing at Adam, wondering how long he was going to wait for an answer.

Joe was patiently prodding at the wood in the fire with a stick, watching the popping and crackling of the dry wood.

Hoss found the drinking gourd and went to the stream for water. Belle followed Hoss, reluctant to let him out of her sight inside the uncomfortably enclosed environment of the cave. When he returned, the men around the fire were still silently waiting.

Willis’s posture was slumped, his expression one of humiliation as he struggled with his conscience. Finally, after considerable time had passed, he spoke, his voice quiet, as if fearful that he might be overheard. “What year is it?”

“Eighteen sixty seven,” Joe answered.

“Only a year.” He shook his head, slowly as if in disbelief. “It happened almost a year ago. Somehow, it seems a lot longer than that.”

When the mysterious squatter fell silent again, Adam moved closer to Willis sensing that the man was about ready to talk. “Talk to us, Willis,” he said, gently. “Tell us what happened, so we can help you.”

Willis finally he began speaking: “It wasn’t supposed to be like that. No one was supposed to get hurt. It was just a way to get cattle since no one had money to buy any.”

Joe cocked his head, curiously. “You knew the cattle were stolen?”

“Sure, and I didn’t like it a bit. But I couldn’t take on all those big guys with hearts full of hate for anyone that disagreed with them.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to take them on, myself,” Joe threw in a comment.

Hoss was curious, “So, how’d you know these guys in the first place?”

“I’m a farmer, and for years, I was given a small bit of land by the Cannons just south of here. In return, I’d give the family some of my harvest. It worked well for years. Then old man Cannon died. Then the son turned me out and made me leave.”

“Hank Cannon?” Joe asked.

“Naw, there was an older brother, Harry. He wasn’t a very nice man. Never liked him.”

The three Cartwrights leaned forward without realizing that they were doing so, anticipating the revelation of how Willis had gotten involved in the illegal operation.

Willis’s eyes glittered in the firelight as his mind traveled back to the day, seeing it as fresh in his mind as if it was just happening. Finally, he continued. “This man told me that he know’d I was outta work and barely getting’ by, and he offered me a proposition I couldn’t refuse. He said they needed someone to help watch over some of their cattle. That there was so many, they needed extra hands. Someone who was willin’ to keep their mouth shut and just do the work. Well, I was so hungry and desperate, I guess, that it sounded good enough.” He gave a lame shrug. “I had already lost nearly everything I owned. My girlfriend left me because she knew there was no future in hanging around with a bum like me, so I jumped at the chance.”

“But you were on Cannon land. Didn’t you think that they’d find out?” Hoss asked.

“I knew Harry never went out in that area that doesn’t offer much to someone other than fishing.”

“Harry Cannon died a few years ago. Hank Cannon, his younger brother, and wife live on the ranch now.”

“Didn’t it bother you at all that those people were taking cattle from different people that needed them? You didn’t look at the different brands?” Adam asked.

“I tried real hard not to notice,” Willis said, and hesitated for a moment. “It bothered me some. But sometimes, a person’s gotta look out for themselves, you know what I mean? I’d sampled the hard times, the hardest I’d ever thought possible, and I didn’t ever want to go through that again. And, like I said, they’s mean men. You don’t want to betray them. So, I just kept quiet. I sure wasn’t gettin’ rich, but the money they gave me for the job I did was enough.”

Hoss shook his head and replied, “Willis, you knew it was all wrong.”

“I objected to it too, at first,” Willis admitted.

“What about the lawman?” Adam prompted.

“I’m gettin’ to that!” Willis said. “One day I was walking around the cattle that was grazing with some of the men. We heard the neigh of a horse and looked west to see a man standing up in the saddle. When he realized we had seen him, he sat down and started to get out of there.”

“I think we all know he didn’t make it out,” Hoss casually commented.

“No, he didn’t make it,” Willis answered. His voice died down in sadness. “He didn’t really have a chance. Too many of the men firing at the same time. Don’t know who actually killed him.”

Willis fell silent for a long time, reliving the event as the light from the fire danced in his somber eyes, giving them a haunted look. Finally, he continued, “They brought him back and laid him out on the ground so we could all see him, and they warned us about what would happen to us if we dared tell anyone what we saw.”

“We can see why you cooperated with them. You wouldn’t have had a chance either if you protested or tried to get away.” Adam commented.

Willis continued, “They dumped the body in the pond. They took ownership of the man’s horse after they searched his saddlebags. Didn’t find nothin’. They still using the horse as their own.”

He fell silent again, and after allowing him several minutes to sort out his thoughts, Joe’s curiosity prompted him to ask, “What happened then?”

“I couldn’t sleep that night, not at all. I kept hearing those shots and seeing that poor man lying on the ground, and I finally acknowledged what I knew all along but refused to accept — that these people are dangerous. You don’t ‘quit’ men like that. They don’t let you just walk out. And I knew I couldn’t go to the Sheriff in the nearby town

“So you went to work with the others the next morning?” Hoss asked.

“No. I gathered up what little I owned and used my knife to cut a slit up the back wall of my tent. They had a guard posted, so I had to be careful, but it was dark and I managed to slip away without being seen. I had found this cave years ago so I just hid out here. I couldn’t head back to town. It’d take days to walk, and I knew they’d be waiting for me when I got there, if they didn’t catch me long before that.” He sighed, as if in defeat. “I didn’t have no place to go, anyway.”

“Is this part of the property you farmed?” Joe asked.

“No, but it’s near here. I’d go over some times and fish the pond and just scout around.

“Didn’t you think that the farther you got from those men, the safer you’d be?” Hoss asked.

Adam just listened and let his brothers ask some questions. He was listening to Willis’ voice for any deception that might be there. So far, he didn’t detect any.

Willis answered Hoss’ question. “Of course I did! I thought about it plenty, but I knew they were lookin’ for me. Every time I stepped out of this cave, I imagined them all around me, hiding behind every tree and rock. I knew some survival techniques, and there was plenty of fish in the pond, so I knew I’d be okay for a while, as long as I was careful not to be seen. But the longer I hid, the easier it became to simply stay out here. I’ve been holed up in this cave for nearly a year, venturing out only long enough to find food, mostly in the pond where you boys camped last night. Then I started snaring small game, like rabbits and squirrels, but now they’re becoming scarce as well.”

Willis looked at the three men who listened with intense interest. “Now, I told you boys everything you wanted to know to satisfy your curiosity, but I can’t tell the law about any of this.”

Adam exchanged glances with Joe and Hoss. It was quite a story, but quite believable. Willis looked back at the boys, wondering what they might ask next.

“Listen, Willis,” Adam said with an air of calm authority. “If you cooperate with the Sheriff and the court, I’m sure you will be granted some form of immunity to testify against the people you were working for.”

“Immunity?” Willis asked.

“Immunity, Willis, is where the court would look at the situation you were in and understand the danger you felt you were in. You probably wouldn’t get charged with anything. You didn’t have anything to do with the killing,” Adam tried to explain. He raised his hand quickly to cut off Willis’s protest. “We will help you find a good lawyer.”

“People don’t try to help me. Never did and I don’t expect them to now,” Willis protested.

“You have an obligation to tell what had happened!” Joe told him.

“Because you remained silent, there are more families getting hurt by the thefts…and maybe deaths,” Hoss added.

Adam was frustrated. He glanced at his brothers and saw that they looked like he felt. “I don’t think there will be any trouble bringing these killers to trial,” he said to Hoss and Joe. “We’ll go back and tell the Sheriff about the body and about the cattle.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Hoss agreed. “We got one tied up already. We can try to bring him back, and with our statements, it should be enough.”

“Okay, we have a long walk ahead of us, so I guess we’d better head that way.” Adam said and stood up to head for the entrance to the cave.

Hoss and Joe followed Adam. Belle followed their lead, her tail wagging with the realization that they were leaving. But as they moved toward the entrance, Willis suddenly called, “Wait!”

All of them stopped and turned around, curiously.

Willis was rummaging around in his gear, and to their astonishment, he withdrew a small handgun and held it toward them on his palm.

Hoss exchanged glances with Adam and then Joe, and went back to accept the offer of the weapon. He opened the chamber and saw that it contained five bullets. Snapping it shut, he asked, “Where did you get this?”

“It was mine in my other life, before I got hooked up with those guys. I almost sold it for the cash several times, but kept it around in case I needed it. After I escaped, I used it once to kill a deer, and those boys were there to investigate within a half hour. I didn’t dare use it after that. This here cave’s a bit damp, so like I said, I don’t know if it’ll still work, but you boys are welcomed to take it.”

Joe was grinning. “It just may be what we need to increase our odds.”

“Thanks, Willis,” Adam said. “Be thinking about what we talked about.”

“I ain’t likely to change my mind,” Willis replied.

With gun, rest, and food, the boys felt more confident and headed out to get closer to the Cannon Ranch.

*****

Ben arched his back to stretch it out. He and Hank took a short break after a couple of hours riding.

“Hank, I’m afraid I forgot how long it’s been since I’ve been on this part of your ranch,” Ben said and straightened up again.

Hank laughed. “Maybe your saddle got to you because you’re a lot older than you were.”

“I guess. But I’m going to push us til we find my boys.”

Ben and Hank mounted their horses. Hank led the way further into the rugged country as Ben followed pulling the reins for Sport, then Chub, and finally Cochise. Subconsciously, when he lined up the horses of his sons, he put them in the order of the boy’s birth. It was just a natural thing to do. The men pushed forward without saying much to each other than to suggest directions to head.

*****

1As they passed through the narrowest part of the cave entrance, Hoss took the lead with Willis ‘pistol, feeling a great deal more optimistic now that they had a way of protecting themselves. The weight of it in his hand was enough to inspire confidence, and his right thumb stroked the smooth metal surface as his left hand felt his way along the rough rocky wall toward…

Thud!

“Ow!” Hoss exclaimed as his head connected with the hard, rocky ceiling. His other hand went to his forehead, and he instantly bent his body forward to avoid additional injury.

Following behind, Joe grinned, “Forget to duck there, Hoss?” The possession of the weapon had lifted his spirits considerably, and it was easier to joke and make fun of his brother’s failure to remember the gradual narrowing of the walls and the lowering of the ceiling.

“Thanks for the reminder,” Adam added from the rear. He smiled at his brothers’ good attitudes. It’s what they’ve needed after what they have been through.

“Don’t mention it,” Hoss replied, rubbing the sore spot furiously with his hand. Belle crowded close against his leg, eager to be out of the narrow dark place, and her shoulder pressed against the back of his leg as she tried to go around him. “Belle, quit pushing. I can manage to bump into things on my own. I don’t need your help,” he told her.

Belle barked as if she was letting him know how happy she was to leave. She obeyed Hoss and stayed close.

The small procession of the Cartwright family started forward again. They began to see the faint glow of daylight from outside the mouth of the cave. They were bent almost double now to avoid banging their heads on the low ceiling.

Spying the opening ahead of her, Belle finally succeeding in squeezing past Hoss. But his hand shot out lightning fast and caught her to hold her back. “No, Belle,” he said firmly, pulling her back. “You’re no more happier than we are.”

Joe grabbed onto Belle and pulled her back towards him. She seemed to relax slightly and she lapped once at his face with her soft, moist tongue, then watched with anxious ears as Hoss moved slowly to the entrance of the cave.

Joe pressed his face against her head, feeling the softness of her fur against his cheek. There was something profoundly comforting about petting and stroking an animal, and his hand continued to move from her head down her neck and back in repeated strokes, thinking it might be nice to have his own dog some day.

Hoss paused just inside the entrance to the cave. The shrub that spread its limbs across the dark opening was sufficient to prevent people on the outside from actually seeing the cave unless they were looking for it, but it was not so heavily foliated that it prevented him from seeing between the limbs and leaves. He could see and hear the gently trickling stream which acted as a shallow moat to protect the opening, and the stepping stones that provided access across it.

Cautiously, he stepped through the opening, gripping the pistol in a firing position as he turned first to the left and then to the right, his eyes darting quickly from point to point, seeking out any sign of danger.

Belle whined softly as she wanted to be the first to get outside.

Deeming it safe, Hoss motioned with his hand for the others to join him. Joe stood up and stepped outside. Belle broke free of his grasp and splashed into the stream, eager to be as far away from the cave as she could get. She stopped and looked back as if wondering why her human family wasn’t joining her.

Adam emerged last. All three men stood against the bluff, surveying their surroundings, knowing that the pistol Hoss carried was no match for the many guns the killers had access to.

“So, which way?” Joe asked, thinking that one direction was probably as good as another.

If you’re headed back toward the ranch, it’d be that way,” Willis told them from the mouth of the cave. Turning back, they saw that he was pointing to his right. He had followed them out, apparently realizing their uncertainty.

Maybe you should guide us out of here,” Adam suggested. “We got lost yesterday.”

Willis grinned. “Don’t doubt that none. You ain’t used to this country.”

I wouldn’t mind that myself,” Hoss said, his voice a bit defensive at what sounded like ridicule.

Willis glanced nervously at the surrounding forest. “Don’t like to get out much,” he told him. “It’s too dangerous.”

“You got out yesterday,” Adam reminded him.

“Had to find food.”

So you can walk with us for a spell, just long enough to keep us in the right direction, and maybe you can find some food along the trail,” Joe suggested.

We’ll even help you catch it.” Hoss gestured toward Belle. “Remember, she a hunting dog.”

Willis’ eyes fell on the dog as he considered the proposition, then he nodded his agreement. “Okay. You got yerselves a deal.” Using the stepping stones, he moved to the other side of the stream. The boys and the dog followed.

For a long time, they spoke very little, and their eyes were on the trees and shrubs around them, searching for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. Willis was especially nervous, and jumped at every sound.

The morning passed uneventfully, if not slowly, as Willis was not in good physical condition, but they were at least confident that he was leading them in the right direction.

Joe heard and felt the rumbling protest of his stomach. He brushed his hand across his abdomen as if to sooth it. The small portion of rabbit that Willis had shared with them last night had done little to stifle the burning hunger, and he longed for a full meal.

The others were just as hungry as he was, and as he trudged along the rough terrain he quietly observed Willis, who now walked in front of him. The man was positively skinny. His arms were thin and boney, and the ragged clothes he wore were too big, even though he knew they had probably fit when he was healthy.

Suddenly, Willis uttered a happy“Ah!” Stopping before a thorny shrub, he began picking the berries that grew thick and plump and shoving them eagerly into his mouth. “Dig in, boys,” he said.

“What are they? Adam asked as he scrutinized the berries with critical eyes, unconvinced that eating them was a wise thing to do. Hop Sing did pick berries that grew on the Ponderosa, but this wasn’t their ranch, so he was a little apprehensive about the wild fruit.

“Blackberries! Hoss exclaimed, recognizing the clusters of juicy berries. He carefully reached between the thorns and picked a couple of them. “I didn’t remember they came on this early.”

“Round late June through August,” Willis told him. I ate lots of them last year, before the birds and bears got them.”

“These are good! Joe said, approvingly.

“You from a poor family? Willis inquired, curiously.

Hoss laughed at Willis. “Naw, we just aren’t the ones that pick the berries on our ranch. And many times, we eat berries in a pie that our cook makes.”

“You gotta cook?” Willis laughed, “You ain’t poor if you gotta cook. So, where’s your ranch?”

Adam smiled and answered up. “It’s the Ponderosa on the Nevada side of the lake.”

“Ponderosy?” Willis replied.

Joe laughed, “No. It’s the Pon-de-rosa. We live and work there with our Pa.”

Hoss stepped forward and carefully picked one of the berries. He examined it for anything objectionable, then slipped it into his mouth. They were good. He reached for another and offered it to his curious dog. She sniffed it and then took it in her mouth. It didn’t stay there as she dropped it on the ground and pushed it around with her nose, trying to determine if it was really edible. Just because Hoss liked it, it didn’t mean she would.

All of the men spent several minutes eating the juicy berries, until Belle suddenly stiffened, her attention directed back down the trail they had just come up. A low growl rumbled in her throat.

“I think we’ve got company,” Adam cautioned. “Quiet, Belle.”

Hoss looked around quickly, and pointed with the muzzle of the pistol toward a fallen tree and a cluster of laurel. “Get behind that log over there.”

“What are you going to do? Joe asked.

“See about capturing one of those guys, if I can, for a gun. I’d rather we had another one just to better our odds.”

Adam and Joe started toward the log, but Willis had gone rigid with fear. He looked like a rabbit that was uncertain whether to bolt and flee or remain frozen still in hopes that the predator will pass right by without noticing.

Joe came back and grasped his arm. “Willis, we have to hide.”

“They’re gonna find me!” he said, his voice shaking. “They’re gonna find me and kill me! They’re gonna kill all of us!”

“No, they’re not. Hoss has a plan, so come with us, and you’ll be safe,” Joe insisted.

Willis finally submitted to the persistent tug on his arm, and he followed Joe and Adam behind the log, where they stretched out on their stomachs to wait. Since Adam took charge of Willis, Joe took Belle and forced her down beside him. The center of the log did not make contact with the ground, so they were able to see beneath it, and watched as Hoss moved off the trail and hid behind a tree.

The men lay quietly hugging the cool ground watching as the boots of their pursuers slowly walked past. Belle lay between them, fighting the urge to growl a warning to Hoss. Joe whispered a quiet “shhhh,” so she reluctantly obeyed. But he would never know just how difficult it was for the dog to lay still and see and smell the stranger that she knew meant harm to her family.

Willis laid still, his eyes were huge and his fists clenched in fear as he listened to the sounds of the killer walking through the gravel and leaves.

Adam cast frequent glances at the frightened man, concerned that he would panic and betray their position by trying to get up and run or making some sound to alert the intruder. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Willis’s shoulder, drawing his attention. “Shhhh,” he whispered. “We’re going to be fine.”

Willis put his head down on his folded arms, apparently deciding it was better not to watch, and Adam turned his attention back to the narrow gap beneath the log.

A pair of boots entered their line of vision and stopped beside the blackberry bushes. They were heavy boots. The man stood there for several moments, and it occurred to Joe that he was examining the berry bush, noticing that the berries had been picked. Realizing that his prey had been there, he turned a slow circle, searching for some proof that they were nearby. Spying the fallen log, a perfect hiding place, he started toward it.

Adam and Joe tensed, watching the boots moving toward them. With his head still buried on his arms, Willis apparently did not notice, and for that, Joe was grateful, certain that the man would have panicked and tried to run, an action that would have gotten him and possibly the others shot.

Concealed by his tree, Hoss watched as the intruder moved slowly toward the fallen log, exposing his back to him. He knew that now was the time to act. Stepping from behind the tree, gun in hand, he crept quietly toward the unsuspecting man and aimed the gun directly at the man’s head. With his thumb, he cocked the trigger.

Hearing the unexpected “click” of a pistol being cocked, the man turned around and found himself staring into the small round hole in the muzzle of a pistol. He jumped involuntarily, taking a step backward as his eyes shifted beyond that hole to the face of the man who held it. He took a chance and brought the muzzle of his rifle into firing position.

“I wouldn’t,” Hoss warned. He didn’t actually want to pull the trigger. If Willis’ revolver did not fire due to the conditions in which it had been kept for the past year, they would lose any advantage they had over the man, so he decided to bluff. “You may have a more powerful weapon than me, but all it takes is one well placed shot.”

He heard the man shallow hard. “True enough,” the man admitted. “Looks like we got ourselves a stand-off,” he said in a raspy voice. “But remember, if you shoot me, my finger’s gonna press this trigger and spray you with bullets. And you ain’t gonna survive it.”

“Same here,” Hoss cautioned. “Shoot me, and I’ll put a bullet between your eyes. And you won’t survive that, either.”

The man nodded, acknowledging the likelihood of such a scenario. “Probably so.” He and Hoss stared into each other’s eyes, each one waiting for the other to make a move, and it occurred to the man that there was no fear in the eyes of the big man who stood before him. “So, what’re we gonna do about it?”

“I’ll tell you what you’re going to do,” Hoss said firmly. “You’re going to lay your weapon down on the ground and back away from it. Otherwise, my brothers may just crush your brain with those rocks they’re holding.”

An expression of uncertainty flickered across the man’s face, and without moving his head, his eyes darted quickly from side to side, seeking evidence that Hoss was speaking the truth. He saw nothing, nor could he hear anything to back up the claim. “You’re bluffing,” he said in a nasty tone.

“Not a bluff. You already know there’s more than one of us, and you also know that we didn’t split up. If you don’t believe me, look behind you.”

“You really think I’m that dumb? You really think I’m gonna turn my back on you so you can get the drop on me?”

“My family already has the drop on you.”

“He’s right,” a voice said directly behind him.

The man jumped and started to whirl around, but Joe thumped him on the back of the head with a stone, not hard enough to kill him or even knock him out, but just enough to send him sprawling onto the ground. The rifle the man held dropped onto the ground and was instantly scooped up by Hoss, who passed the pistol off to Joe.

Hoss stepped away from the fallen man, who was on his hands and knees, shaking his head as if to clear it. There was no way was he going to make the same mistake twice and assume he had the edge.

“Sit down and stay put,’ Hoss commanded.

Disarmed, injured, and more than a little puzzled that he had unwittingly allowed himself to be so easily taken, he had no choice but to obey, but there was a resentful fire in his eyes as he sat down on the ground.

“Well, that was easy enough,” Joe said. “That’s three down. Willis, it’s safe to come out now,” Joe called.

Cautiously, Willis crept from his hiding place and stared in disbelief at the big, grubby man, who was rubbing his hand on the knot that was forming on the back of his head. “You got him!” he exclaimed.

Their moods were considerably lighter due to the firearm that was equal in power to those of the rest of their pursuers, but they knew they must deal with the man who now sat on the ground before them, watching and listening to them.

“Want to tell us your name?” Adam asked.

The man spat at him. The discolored spit landed in the dirt just at Adam’s feet.

“You and that other guy, Crowe, must have learned your manners from the same person,” Adam said with disgust.

The insult seemed to fly past the man’s head, for he was more interested in the mention of his partner. “What’ve you done with Crowe?”

“Let’s just say we took care of him,” Hoss told him, calmly.

“You killed him, didn’t you? Just like you killed Warwick.”

For a moment, it looked as if he was considering the idea of rushing at Joe, but was quickly reminded that he was facing the wrong end of his own rifle, and thought better of it. If they had killed Warwick and Crowe, they would not hesitate to kill him.

“We only kill when we have to,” Adam replied. “Warwick gave us no choice. Unlike you, we’re not murderers. Crowe is probably fine, unless the wild animals got to him last night. Now, you never did tell us your name.”

The man glared at them silently, clearly intent on being uncooperative.

“Say, that there’s Phipps!” Willis exclaimed, as he suddenly recognized the man.

Upon hearing his name, Phipps looked up with no apparent recognition, his eyes focused on the thin bearded man who was staring at him. “Do I know you?”

Willis was stunned. “You don’t know who I am?”

“Should I?”

Willis looked at the Cartwrights as if for instruction. “Should I tell him?”

“Up to you,” Adam replied. “He can’t harm you now.”

Willis was uncomfortable giving out the information. “Well, I guess it will be okay. My name’s Virgil Willis. I was one of the men that helped with the cattle last year.”

Phipps frowned as his mind struggled to remember. “Ah, you’re the little weasel who slipped out in the middle of the night. Hart had some of us waitin’ for you back in town in case you showed up, and when you didn’t, he figured you’d gotten eaten by one of the bears or cougars.” Mockingly, he looked the malnourished man up and down, and with a grin said, “So, you managed to survive out here all this time. Still, it looks like you ain’t doin’ too well. You’re skinnier than a scarecrow.”

“I’m doin’ better than you’re gonna be doin’,” Willis shot back, surprising himself and the others with his boldness. “He’s one of the men who murdered that lawman.”

“You little…” Phipps began, but was immediately halted by a warning sound from Hoss and the rifle that he held.

“Joe, search him and see if he’s carrying something we can tie him up with.”

“Okay, but keep him well covered.” To Phipps, Joe said, “Lie down on your belly.”

Phipps looked at him defiantly.

“Do it,” Adam warned.

Phipps slowly stretched out on his abdomen, then shot a resentful look at Joe when the young man kicked his feet apart. Hoss moved to a position where Phipps could see the rifle, a constant reminder that he would shoot if necessary.

Cautiously, Joe began searching the man’s pockets, keeping a wary eye on his hands in case he made a move to try to grab him to use as a shield, but Hoss had apparently made a believer out of him, for he submitted to the search without moving.

A hunting knife was found in a sheath on his belt, and a small knife was removed from a front pocket. A satchel was draped over his body, hanging from the right shoulder so that the pouch rested against his left hip, and Joe grasped it and pulled it off.

“Hey!” Phipps exclaimed, possessively reaching for it to reclaim it.

Hoss gave a warning command from Hoss, “Don’t!”

Phipps froze as he stared into the muzzle of the rifle.

Stepping away from the prone figure, Joe opened it and his expression changed from intense scrutiny to surprise. “Well, look what we have here.” Carefully, he removed a stick of dynamite and held it out for everyone to see. “There are four more in there, plus extra rounds of ammo. No rope, but we can use the handle on the bag.”

“Put your back against that tree and wrap your arms around it,” Adam demanded.

“You boys ain’t gonna get away with this,” Phipps growled as he sat up and moved against the tree that Adam had indicated. “Booth is still out there, and he won’t let himself be taken down as easily as I was.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Joe replied as he detached the cloth handle from the satchel with the help from the hunting knife, then set the bag aside, noticing that the man had moved against a rough-barked tree, apparently thinking it would be a good place to rub his tethers.

“Not that tree,” Hoss instructed. “That one. That’ll slow you down if you decide to rub the bark in an attempt to break the tether.”

Phipps glared at him and then scooted to the next tree and wrapped his arms around it from behind.

Kneeling behind him, Joe tied the man’s wrists together securely. “That ought to do it,” he said, stepping back.

“We’ll send someone back to get you,” Hoss said, still holding the rifle on him.

“Now, we have a few more questions for you,” Adam said. He stepped forward and squatted down in front of him. “How many of you are there?”

Phipps grinned. “Guess you’ll have to find that out on your own.”

Adam gave an unconcerned shrug. “Well, let’s apply some powers of deduction here. We saw four of you in our camp yesterday. Warwick is dead, Crowe is sitting against a tree in the same position you are. You mentioned someone named Booth, so he’s obviously the fourth man. I’m guessing that’s all that’s left. Am I right?”

Phipps clenched his teeth, but again made no comment.

“Well,” Joe said, cheerfully. “We should be able to handle that okay. After all, we took down Warwick and Crowe when we were totally unarmed. And we took you down with a rock.” He gave Phipps that Joe Cartwright smile and winked, “You guys really aren’t very good, you know that?”

Phipps’ face darkened with anger at the insult, but there was nothing he could do to retaliate.

Joe gave the hunting knife to Willis. “This probably has a sharper blade than yours, so it’ll be better for skinning game.”

Willis accepted the knife with a grateful expression, but having witnessed the take-down of one of the men he feared and hearing about the capture and killing of the other two had inspired him to think seriously about his life in the woods and the information they wanted from him.

As they started to walk away from Phipps, Willis called, “Hey, boys. Wait a minute.”

They stopped and turned to face him.

“I’ve been thinkin’ about what you said. You know, about needing my statement to put these guys away. I’m tired and I’m hungry, and visitin’ with you boys has shown me how lonely I am. And I know my health is failing out here. If you boys can promise that I’ll get a fair shake and protection, I’d like to tell what I know.”

Smiling, Hoss reached out to give him a friendly slap on the arm. “You’re making the right decision, Willis. I promise, we’ll do everything we can to protect you.”

Adam nodded in agreement.

“Then let’s do it,” the nervous man said. “I can’t live like this any longer. I want to be part of society again.”

That Willis smile made Hoss chuckle a little.

“Lead the way,” Adam urged.

Taking the lead again, Willis guided them through the woods toward the edge of the forest that would eventually open up into a meadow with golden grass that would be dead and chest high from winter’s bitter cold.

It was quiet, as if the birds and squirrels were watching and listening, waiting safely in the treetops to see what would transpire between the humans. Even the whisper of leaves in the trees had fallen silent in anticipation of what might happen.

*****

Ben was both emotionally and physically exhausted, but nothing was going to slow him down until he found his boys. He tried not to think about what might have happened to them. If he did, it made him shiver — the thought of something bad, something he never wanted to hear or see, might be the reality he had to face. He buried three wives and having to bury three sons would be the end for him. He was considered strong. But when you lose your children, no matter how old they are, it’s more than any man can live with. He birthed them. He raised them through hard times and tragedy, so he wasn’t going to give up now. He would rather face death than give up on them. Silently, to himself, he had said the same prayer over and over — that God will bring him to them and they will be alive and well.

“Ben!” Hank called out, “I think we need to stop and take a rest.”

Ben was too tired to answer. He just shook his head “no” and kept riding forward.

“Ben!” Hank called out, again. “The horses need a rest. We need to stop.”

Ben would never hurt his animals. Reluctantly, he stopped and looked back at Hank. He then dismounted, but made no attempt to sit down. All he did was let his horse have some needed water from his canteen. He took a quick drink himself. He looked around the area. He quietly resented the birds flying from tree to tree and singing. It didn’t bring him the pleasure like it did when he was relaxed on his porch at the ranch. He hoped it was a sign, possibly the birds telling him he needn’t worry, that everything was fine.

Hank pulled his horse alongside Ben and dismounted. “Ben, I know you want to keep going. But we have to be reasonable and give the horses a rest. Some of this country can beat any man or animal down.”

Ben looked at Hank. “I know, Hank. I just want to keep going until we find something. If they are hurt or something, I can’t help but feel that even one moment is all it would take to make a difference.”

“We’re going to find them, Ben. And they are going to be okay. You’ll see.”

Ben smiled. It was all he could do. Hank was a true friend and he knew that Hank was trying to keep his hopes up. Ben waited for a short minute and then was in his saddle again ready to move forward.

Hank no more mounted his horse when he and Ben heard a shot in the distance ahead of them. Without looking at each other, both Ben and Hank kicked their horses into a fast gallop up the slight grade that lead into a forest.

Coming straight at them were several men on horses. They had a horse with what appeared to be a body lying over the saddle. Two other men, who had their hands tied to the horn of their saddles, had their horses pulled along by other men.

Hank exclaimed with some excitement. “Ben, it’s Marshall Webster and his posse.”

“Hank,” the Marshall greeted. He and his men stopped in front of Ben and Hank.

Ben just nodded and was hoping he had some news.

The Marshall looked directly at Ben, “I’m sorry that we haven’t found your sons. But we did find these three,” the Marshall used his head to point in the direction of the two men that were captured alive. “These two admitted that they were captured and tied up by three men that sound like your sons.”

Ben let out a breath of relief. His sons weren’t found yet, but from the Marshall’s words, it sounded good. Good enough to give him more than hope and inspired him to move on. A few small clouds had covered the sun, but suddenly Ben felt warmth on his face. He looked up into the sky and saw the sun break through the clouds that had covered it. He smiled and knew it had a message for him.

Hank commented to the Marshall, “We heard a gunshot just before you came out of the forest.”

“Yeah, there might be one more. He got a shot off at us, but missed. A couple of my deputies are searching for him now. The rest of us need to get these guys back to town and put in jail. So we can’t continue the search at the moment.”

“It’s okay, Marshall,” Ben said. “Hank and I can continue on and search. I know we’ll find them.”

“Just be careful. We do think that whoever shot at us more likely is running back further into the forest.” He pointed northwest towards a clump of trees with a narrow path running between trees. “My deputies went in that direction. You need to catch up with them.”

“We will, and we’ll find the Cartwright brothers, too,” Hank offered. He felt good, because he knew Ben felt much, much better. Hank read Ben’s body language and knew he had been a little depressed.

The men parted with Hank and Ben heading into the dense forest in the direction the Marshall pointed. Silence was present again between Hank and Ben as they focused intensely on the land they were headed to and listened for any sign of the deputies or anything else they needed to be alert to for their safety.

*****

Willis and the Cartwrights stopped in unison when they heard a single gunshot in the distance. None of them said anything to each other as they listened to hear if someone was coming their way.

Finally Joe spoke up in a low voice. “Who do you think made that shot?”

“Dunno, Joe. But we better be careful and pay real close attention to what might be ahead of us,” Hoss responded.

Adam said nothing but glared into the dark forest. He then heard the rustling of branches above them. His eyes shot up into the canopy. He then felt relief when he saw some birds fly off into the sky. They may have been scared off by the shot. However, he stayed alert, not knowing for sure what may have caused them to abandon a comfortable place on a branch.

Willis looked back at his companions and then pointed into the direction he was about to lead them.

A little time passed when another shot was heard, this time closer than the last one. Instinctively, all four men fell to the ground onto their bellies. Belle was on her stomach and crawled carefully to be near Hoss. She quietly whined to let him know that she was frightened.

Hoss put his hand out onto her head. “Shhh, Belle. Just stay there and wait.”

Belle moved closer to him, but did as he said and made no more noises.

Adam and Willis stooped next to each other as they scanned the area ahead. They could see a burly man with a dark beard on his back in a shallow creek.

“There’s someone lying in that creek bed just ahead of us,” Adam whispered. “Can you tell if he’s alive?”

Willis responded. “Impossible to tell. Though, he ain’t moving.”

Joe heard the conversation. “You think someone shot him? Maybe one of his buddies after an argument or something.”

“Hard to say, Joe,” Adam answered. Then he asked Willis, “Do you recognize him?”

“Never seen him before. Might be a new guy. That bunch could recruit just about anyone with promises of making some big money.”

Adam responded, “I wouldn’t be surprised. Becoming suddenly rich from an act of crime has been the demise of many men who believe it.”

Once again, the four travelers became quiet as they heard some voices and the clicking of hooves on hard ground. Adam and Willis could only see parts of the men’s clothing. They listened.

“Give it up, mister.” A male voice was heard.

“I’m hurt.” A different male voice was then heard to respond.

Adam moved slowly and quietly ahead of Willis. He carefully pushed some of the branches away for him to move closer to the voices. It was tight as the shrubbery had closely woven leaves and twigs that made it difficult for Adam to proceed. But he needed to see who was in front of them. Soon, he could see the legs of about four horses and boots in the stirrups. They faced the man lying on his back.

“What’s your name?” the first male voice asked.

“Booth. William Booth. Please, I need help,” was the response from the man on his back.

Adam could barely view the scene, but managed to see two of the men dismount and walk to the man. They helped him up, tied his hands in front of him, and then helped him up onto one of the horses. In a moment, the riders turned and headed in the direction from where they came. Adam retreated back to where Willis and his brothers were.

“What’d you see, Adam?” Hoss asked.

“Looks like about four men on horses who took the man we saw lying in the creek away. I couldn’t see well enough to tell who these men were.”

“William Booth?” Willis said trying to remember if he knew the name. “Naw! I just don’t know who he is.”

Adam looked at his brothers. “Let’s move forward carefully. Who’s to say they may return and we don’t know who they are.”

“Yeah, and that pistol you got ain’t gonna stop four men with gun,” Hoss replied.

Once again, they moved forward, pushing thick brush aside when the narrow path disappeared. They walked for about three miles when they suddenly stopped.

“Look!” exclaimed Hoss.

“I knew I was right,” Willis cried out with a happy voice. “I knew we’d find the edge of this dang forest if we just kept going this way.”

Belle sensed the joy the men expressed and bounced her way forward with ears flopping up and down with her steps.

“Belle!” Hoss called. “Come on, git back here, girl.”

Belle reluctantly obeyed. Her tail wagged showing that she still felt happy about whatever her family was feeling.

Adam grinned at the dog. “We still need to be careful. It looks like we’re making progress, but we just don’t know who those men were and if they’ll come back our way.”

They moved forward to a small clearing, but soon came to a sudden stop again.

The silhouettes of two men on horses appeared. They moved slowly forward. They stopped their horses and squinted in the dark to see who was in the clearing. Any fear the Cartwrights had felt dissipated when they recognized the men were their father and Hank.

Ben and Hank dismounted and Ben ran towards Adam. He put a hand on each of Adam’s shoulders and stared at him. Neither father nor son said a word for a moment. Hoss and Joe stepped forward to greet Ben. Willis just stood and waited to hear who these men were.

None of the Cartwright boys needed to say a word as they looked at the grateful expression on their father’s face. They knew what he felt. And so did he in return.

*****

Afterward

Back at the Cannon ranch, all the tense feelings by all of the men were gone. Willis and the boys learned that the mounted men they encountered in the forest were the Marshall’s men who were sent to find the boys, although they found the fourth man in the cattle theft. They cattle were recovered and were gradually returned to their owners, although it took about a month to do this.

Ben had his boys back and they were safe. Even Willis was relaxed and glad he traveled with the boys. Belle had no trouble settling down. Her belly was full of the chicken Mrs. Cannon gave her and now she was taking a much needed nap.

Talk was short that evening at the ranch, but the next day after a good rest, everyone had a lot to say. That afternoon, the Cartwrights mounted and headed home. Willis was welcomed as a needed hand at the Cannon ranch. He liked Mr. and Mrs. Cannon and agreed to help in return for a home that was not in a cave. The Marshall, after hearing Willis’ story and the Cartwright boys confirming how he had helped them, had agreed not to charge Willis for any crimes. Willis’ would be required to testify against the other rustlers, but that was now something he was more than willing to do. The people he was once wary of were now trusted, and were, indeed, his friends.

Hank didn’t say much about his idea for a business. After what the boys had been through, he felt it should wait. He wanted to talk to Willis first, who would have a lot of things to say about the country. Then, if it was the right thing to do, he’d talk to Ben.

As the Cartwrights rode toward the Ponderosa, Adam told his father about the lack of fish in the pond. Ben frowned and shook his head. “I’m sorry to hear that. It used to be a great spot. Well, there’s another spot I used to fish that’s…

“Stop!” Joe called out. “Pa, I think we’ve all had enough fishing for awhile, especially at one of your out-of-the-way ponds.”

The conversation had all four Cartwrights in laughter.

Ben nodded. “I guess you’re right. Let’s get home, boys. Hop Sing probably has a feast of a dinner all ready for you.”

Hoss grinned at the thought of dinner, and rubbed his stomach. Then he added, “I sure hope Hop Sing is cooking up some good roast beef. I don’t want to have nothing to do with fish for a long time.”

Belle bounced in front of the family. She sensed she was on her way home. Her tail wagged so hard that it hit the sides of her thighs. She barked twice in excitement. The Cartwrights gladly let her lead them home.

***The End***

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