Out of Control (by Linda J)

Summary: Note: This story was originally written and posted many years ago and has recently been revised and overhauled.   
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,800


 

Ben Cartwright was sitting on the front porch, leisurely reading the newspaper while waiting for his youngest son to return home from school. He normally did not wait outside for his son, but today Little Joe was late. Two hours late, in fact. Ben tended to get nervous anytime one of his sons was overdue, but he particularly got nervous when it came to 15-year old Little Joe. Joseph Cartwright’s wild spirit and carefree nature was reason enough for a father to worry.

Ben heard a sound and looked up again, hoping to see a sign of his son. Although he did not see the familiar pinto, he did see a black horse leading a buggy approaching. As it got closer, he could see it was Little Joe’s school teacher, Abigail Jones. Ben let out a deep sigh and wondered what kind of trouble his son had gotten into this time. He stood up and got ready to greet the young woman.

“Hello, Miss Jones, how are you?” Ben said, offering his hand to help her out the buggy. She was a thin woman, barely reaching Ben’s shoulder, and her hair was pulled into a severe bun, which made her look older than her years.

“Hi, Mr. Cartwright, I’m fine, thank you. I came by to check on Joseph. Is he all right?” Miss Jones asked with her voice full of concern.

“Well, he hasn’t made it home from school yet. Why, did something happen today?” Now Ben was the one who was concerned.

“No, nothing happened in school today. In fact, Joseph wasn’t even in school today. He’s missed the last three daysand I was concerned that he might be ill. I brought some of his school work with me so he wouldn’t get too far behind.”

“Three days?” Ben raised his voice and made Miss Jones jump. “Joseph has not been to school in three days?” Ben noticed the alarmed look on Miss Jones’s face. “I’m sorry, Miss Jones, I didn’t mean to startle you; it’s just that… I thought Joseph was in school. He’s not ill. Please, won’t you come inside; I think we need to talk.”

Ben led Miss Jones inside, and she seated herself on the sofa. Hop Sing had seen the arrival of the young woman and was already approaching with a tray. “Missy like some coffee?” he asked.

“Yes, please. Thank you, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing poured the coffee for her and Ben and then left the room.

“Now tell me again, Miss Jones, Joseph was only in school on Monday this week?” Ben asked.

“That’s right, Mr. Cartwright. He was there Monday. He got into a good bit of trouble, but he was there. Then he was absent Tuesday, Wednesday, and again today, so I was worried that he might have been sick.”

“What kind of trouble did he get into Monday?”

Miss Jones took a deep breath and began to explain. “We got two new students last monthMr. Cartwrightthe Farley brothers, Harry and Tom.Harry is Joseph’s ageand Tom is a year older. They’ve been trouble since the day they started, and Joseph, along with Sam Potter, has ganged up right along with them. They tell jokes and cut up during classand have been quite disruptive. Joseph hasn’t really been a problem until the last couple of weeks. I’ve been meaning to come tell you about it but just haven’t had a chance until today. The older Farley boy, Tom, quit school last week, but with Harry still there, and Little Joe and Sam as well, they are a handful.

“On Monday, Joe and Harry took one of the girls’ ribbons and would not give it back until I intervened. They were both tardy coming in from lunch, and they both failed the history exam. I lectured both of them quite severely and gave them lines to write. The lines were due the next morning, but as I said, Joseph was not in school.”

“That boy!” Ben scowled. “Sometimes I just don’t know what gets into him.”

“Well, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll expect to see Joseph in school tomorrow morning. I’ll certainly let you know if he doesn’t make it again.” Miss Jones stood and began walking towards the front door. “I don’t know if this has anything to do with Joseph’s whereabouts, but Harry Farley has also not been in school for three days. He had mentioned that he would be leaving soon, so I didn’t think too much about him being gone.”

“Miss Jones, Joseph will be at school in the morning. I’ll bring him and see him inside myself.” Ben saw Miss Jones to the doorand then walked her to her buggy. “Thank you for coming by, and I’ll make sure Joseph does this school work tonight.”

Just as Miss Jones drove away, Little Joe rode in. He had seen Miss Jones’s buggy and waited for her to leave and for his pa to go back inside before approaching the house. He knew he was in big trouble. He stabled his horse slowly, and when he finished he climbed into the hayloft, not wanting to face the consequences of his recent actions. Oh man, I knew I should’ve gone on to school today. I’m gonna be mucking out everyone’s stalls the rest of my life. He put his aching head in his hands and tried to think of something to tell his father. He knew the truth was out of the question. Suddenly the smell of the barn started getting to him, and his stomach did a flip. He quickly climbed down from the loft and ran out of the barn holding his hand over his mouth. He made it to the side of the barn and began to throw up.

“Hey, buddy, you all right?”

Little Joe was startled at the sound of his brother’s voice. “Uh, yeah, I’m all rightAdamstomach’s just acting up ‘s all.”

Adam looked at his brother with concern. “Well, you look a little peaked to me, little brother. Why don’t you come on inside and get cleaned up?”

Little Joe stood up and nodded and began to walk toward the house. He stopped and looked at Adam and said, “Must’ve been something I ate.”

Adam took in the disheveled look and wasn’t convinced. The smell of alcohol on Joe’s breath and clothes left little doubt in Adam’s mind what caused him to be ill. “More like something you drank,” he said under his breath. “Better get cleaned up as soon as we get inside.” He nudged Joe toward the house.

Ben had gone inside earlier and busied himself with paper work so that he would have a cool head when confronting his son. He heard the door open and looked up to see Adam coming in with Little Joe. He was surprised by Joe’s appearance. His shirt was untucked and he looked pale and clammy.Ben listened as Adam told him that Little Joe had gotten sick outside and, as Joe, insisted that it was just something he ate. Ben eyed Little Joe from a distance. “Go upstairs and get cleaned up,” he said.

”Yes sir,” Joe answered. He turned and slowly trudged up the stairs. Joe washed his face and changed his clothes before going back downstairs. He knew he was going to have some tall explaining to do, and he was trying to think of what he was going to say. His stomach still felt sour, but he thought that once he got some solid food in him he’d feel better. I didn’t know whiskey made you feel this bad. Wonder if Tom and Harry are as sick as I am… Joe laughed to himself. The threesome had managed to get a bottle of rot gut and had spent the morning trying to outdrink each other.

Ben gazed at the staircase after Joe went up, still angry, but now concerned as well. Adam reassured him that Joe was just fine, but he wanted to see for himself. He began to go upstairs when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it to find Roy Coffee, the sheriff of Virginia City.

“Hi, Roy, what brings you out this way?” Ben asked while gesturing for him to come inside.

“Ben, I have some things I need to talk to you about. Is now a good time?” Roy asked.

“Of course, now is as good a time as any. Come; have a seat.”

The two men were seated, and Roy began talking in a serious tone. Adam listened in from a distance.

“Ben, we’ve had some trouble in town the past couple of days. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your Little Joe is partly to blame.”

Ben’s shoulders sagged as he took a deep breath. “What kind of trouble has he gotten into, Roy?” Ben looked up at Adam, who was rolling his eyes.

“Well, Ben, it seems that Little Joe, along with them Farley brothers, was in Mrs. Tanner’s shop yesterday, rearranging all the merchandise and hiding stuff so that she couldn’t find it. Just typical kid stuff, not really any harm in it, but something else happened today. Mr. Simms over at the bank said the boys threw firecrackers in the bank lobby and nearly scared him half to death. It caused him to fall and bruise his shoulder.”

Ben thought he would be sick. He had taught Joseph better than this. Before he had time to dwell on it, Roy was speaking again.

“Ben, there’s something else.” Roy had seen the look on his friend’s face. He knew what he was about to say would make things even worse, but he knew that he had to be told.

“What is it, Roy? Out with it.” Ben was totally disgusted and felt that nothing could be worse than what he had already heard in one day regarding his youngest son.

“Well,” Roy began, “while I was asking questions around town after the firecracker incident today, Jarred Owens admitted to getting the boys a bottle of whiskey. Said Tom gave him the money, plus an extra dollar for buying it for them.”

Ben bowed his head and absently rubbed his forehead with his fingers. Finally, he looked up at Roy. “Roy, what do you know about the Farley family? What does their father have to say about all this?”

“I spoke to Mrs. Farley before I rode out here. She said the boys’ father ran out on them a couple years ago, and she hasn’t heard from him since. The boys were upset about her moving to Virginia City, afraid their father wouldn’t be able to find them. She says they’ve rebelled ever since,and she’s not sure what to do with them. She also said the boys took off a couple days ago, and she hasn’t seen ‘em. Supposes they ran away. Said they’d done this before but always came home after a few days.”

Ben nodded slowly and said, “I’ll take care of Joseph, Roy. Thanks for coming out and telling me.”

Both men got upand Roy walked towards the door. “Ben, I don’t want Joe in town without an escort for a while. I hope you understand.”

Ben nodded in understanding. After Roy left, Ben sat down and put his head in his hands. What am I going to do? Well, at least I know why Joe was sick this afternoon. Whiskey!

“Pa?” Adam sat down next to his father.

“Yes, what is it, son?”

“I heard what Sheriff Coffee said. Is there anything I can do? You want me to go up and talk to him?”

“There’s one thing we’re all going to have to do for a while… not let Little Joe out of our sight! And no, I’ll talk to him after we eat.”

As soon as Hop Sing called everyone for supper, Ben watched his young son descend the stairs and noticed that he looked much better than he did when he first came home. The four Cartwrights sat around the table and began their meal.

Hoss had no idea what had gone on with Joe that day, although he sensed something was not right between his brother and father. “Hey, Little Joe,” Hoss asked, “did you ever get Rachel to agree to go to the dance with you Saturday night?”

Joe glanced nervously at his father and then responded, “Um, yeah, I asked her Monday, and she said she’d go with me. Took her long enough, though. I been askin’ her for weeks!”

“You mean her Pa finally agreed to let her go with you?” Hoss asked.

“Well, her Pa is going to bring her to the dance and bring her home again, but at least she’ll be mine while we’re there!” Joe smiled.

“Hey, Pa.” It was Adam speaking this time. “Are we still delivering that herd to the Lazy K Saturday morning?”

“Yes, Adam, but we should be back by 3:00 or so. You’ll be home in time for the dance, but I’m riding on to Carson City to look at some horses, so I won’t be back until Sunday.”

“You want me to go with you?” Adam asked.

“Let’s finish eating, and then we’ll discuss weekend plans.”

Adam took a deep breath, sensing something unpleasant was going to take place. He quickly ate the last few bites on his plate and stood up. “Hoss, uh, can you give me a hand as soon as you’re done? I need some help in the barn.”

Hoss could tell there was something going onand he was anxious to learn what it was, so he got up and went with Adam. The two of them walked outside leaving Joe and Ben alone.

Joe immediately felt uncomfortable when his brothers left the room. Uh-oh, here it comes.

“Joseph, we need to talk,” Ben stated flatly.

“Yes, sir,” he replied, adding a big sigh.

“I had two visitors todayJoseph. Do you have any idea who they were?”

“Um, wellI saw Miss Jones driving off earlier,” Joe said, looking down at his feet.

“Joe, she told me you haven’t been to school in three days! THREE DAYS!” Ben’s voice began to rise, and Little Joe shrunk back in his chair. “And to make matters worse, Roy Coffee came by and told me what you were doing in town while you were supposed to be in school!” Ben was full out yelling by this time.

Joe, on the other hand, was completely silent.

“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?” All patience was gone.

More silence.

Finally, Joe raised his eyebrows and looked up at his father with a wide-eyed innocent look. “I’m sorry I disappointed you, Pa,” was all he could say. He shrugged and sighed deeply, looking down at his half-eaten food. He hated having his father angry with him, and he really did not understand what got into him sometimes. He just started out to have a little fun and excitement, and as usual it landed him in trouble.

“Joseph, I am going to have to punish you for your disobedience.”

Joe continued looking down. He was dreading what his father was going to say. “Yes, sir,” he answered.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Joe looked at his father but found it difficult to maintain eye contact. He did it nonetheless. Ben could see that his son was genuinely sorry for the trouble, but he knew he had to be strict with him for his own good.

“For the next two weeks, either myself or one of your brothers will escort you to school, and we will walk you all the way inside the building. Tomorrow I will pick you up, and after school we will go to the bankMrs. Tanner’s shop, and to see the sheriff and you will apologize to each of them! Do you understand?”

Joe nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“The next two weekends will be spent at home doing chores, and you may not go to town for any reason—including the dance.”

“Oh, come on, Pa…” Joe started, but the look on his father’s face told him to argue would be pointless. He couldn’t believe it. It was bad enough to have to be escorted to school like a 6-year old, but on top of that he would have to miss the dance and his date with Rachel. His stomach began to feel queasy again, and he was hoping that this was all he would have to endure of his father for tonight. “Is that all?” he asked with his voice a little harsher than he meant it to be.

“Not quite, Joseph, there’s another matter we need to discuss. I want you to stay away from the Farley brothers.”

“You can’t choose my friends for me, Pa,” Joe retorted.

“Joseph, those boys are trouble, and you are to stay away from them. Do I make myself clear?” Ben could see the taunt lines in Joe’s face and his set jaw. He knew this matter was far from over, but he was at least hoping that Joe would see that these boys were not just out for fun and games. “Miss Jones brought the school work you have missed this week. I want you to complete it and go to bed. I’ll be bringing you to school in the morning, and I’ll pick you up in the afternoon.” Ben got up from the table and walked outside to join Adam and Hoss.

Joe stood up angrily after his father left, grabbed the school workand ran upstairs. “I am so sick and tired of doing what everybody tells me to do all the time,” he mumbled. He sat on his bed and wearily laid his head on the pillow with books still in hand.

*****

Early the next morning, Joe awoke to a pounding headache. He tried to go back to sleep, but the pain in his head would not allow any comfort. He slowly got up and realized he had slept in his clothes all night. His father knocked on the doorand Joe opened it.

“Little Joe, you’re up and dressed already?” Ben asked, although one look in the room told him that his son had fallen asleep doing his homework.

“Well, yeah, Pa, but I still need to wash up and change… I… uh… sorta fell asleep in my clothes last night. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

“That’s fine, oh, and Joseph, ask Hop Sing to give you something for that headache.”

“Okay, Pa,” Joe said without thinking. Wait, how’d he know I had a headache? He looked in the mirror to see if a headache would show up in his reflection.

“Get a move on now; we don’t want to be late for school.” His father’s voice floated from below.

Joe looked into the hallway, “Yessir,” he called. How am I going to face my friends when my Pa brings me to school? Soon another thought came to him. Wait -if I get there early enough, no one will see that Pa brought me. I still got time to beat the other kids to school. Quick as a flash, he ran downstairs while tucking in his rumpled shirt.

“Come on, Pa, let’s go,” he called.

“Just a minute, young man, you come over here and eat some breakfast first.”

“No thanks, Pa. I’m not hungry this morning, just want to go on to school and get it over with. I’ll go saddle Cooch.”

“Oh, no, you won’t, Joseph. I guess I wasn’t clear enough last night. You’ll be riding with me on the buckboard—and riding home the same way. Adam’s getting it hitched now.”

Joe’s heart sank. He walked to the table and sat down in defeat. He’d never make it to school before the other kids on the buckboard, especially with his father driving. Hop Sing saw him sit down and quickly brought him a plate. “Plenty breakfast still on table. Mr. Hoss not up yet.”

“Thanks, Hop Sing,” Joe mumbled, and then he added, “Hop Sing, is there anything I can take for this headache?”

“Hop Sing fix Little Joe right up; you wait here.” Hop Sing scurried away and returned a few minutes later with a cup containing a warm beverage.

Little Joe smelled the brew suspiciously, scrunched up his faceand asked, “What is this?”

“You drink and not ask questions; make head feel all better!” Hop Sing replied as he began picking up dishes left from breakfast. He stopped and made sure Joe was drinking before he walked back to the kitchen.

“Joseph, go make sure Hoss is getting up and then meet me outside,” Ben said as he walked out the door.

Joe finished the drink from Hop Sing, hoping it would help his head and not hurt his stomach in the process. He walked slowly up the stairs and into his brother’s room.

Hoss was still sleeping soundly with his mouth gaping open in a relaxed state. “Hey, Hoss, you gonna sleep all day?” Joe poked his brother in the ribs as he spoke. Hoss stirred a little and then rolled over. Joe poked again and spoke a little louder, “Come on, brother, time to get up. What’s with you? You’re usually the first one up around here! Come on, I gotta go, can’t be standing around here all mornin’!”

Hoss opened his eyes wearily. “I’m up; what time is it?”

“It’s time for me to be leavin’ for school, so you’d better hurry up and eat if there’s anything left!”

At that, Hoss managed to sit up a bit. He looked at his brother and thought how strange it was that Joe was waking him up instead of the other way around. He still felt tired despite the extra sleep he’d gotten and found it hard to pull himself out of bed. He splashed some water on his face, which didn’t help much, and he got dressed and made his way downstairs.

Hop Sing was pleased to see Hoss, and presented him with a plate full of hot pancakes. “You eat, Mr. Hoss,” Hop Sing said with a smile. Hoss found that he wasn’t nearly as hungry as he normally was but decided he had better eat all he could due to the busy morning which awaited him.

*****

Joe reluctantly climbed aboard the awaiting buckboard and sat next to his father. Once on their way to Virginia City, Ben asked his son if he’d done the school work that Miss Jones had given him.

“Well, not all of itPa. I sorta fell asleep before I had a chance to finish it. I’ll work on it at school today,” Joe replied solemnly. As they approached town, he sank as low as he could on the buckboard and pulled his hat low on his head as if that would keep him invisible to the eyes of Virginia City. The buckboard came to a stop right in front of the school.

“Come on, Little Joe,” Ben said as he climbed down. Joe was soon at his sideand the two of them walked toward the school.

“Hey, Little Joe!” called a classmate named Mark. “You in trouble?” he asked. Joe simply shrugged without answering and continued walking. He wished he could disappear. Mark started laughing, and Joe could hear him bringing his plight to the attention of the entire school. “Heylook everybody! Little Joe’s being dragged back to school by his Pa! Guess he was having trouble finding the way here himself!”

Little Joe brushed past his father and quickly made his way inside the school, feeling totally humiliated. He walked straight to his seat and threw his books down a little harder than he had intended. He was finding it difficult to contain his anger. This can’t be happening.

“Miss Jones, let me know if Joseph gives you any trouble whatsoever today. I’ll pick him up this afternoon myself. He has some apologies to make,” Ben said while looking at Joe.

Joe glanced at his father but could not maintain eye contact, so he looked down at his feet instead. This is gonna be a long day.

*****

Hoss did his morning chores and returned to the ranch for lunch. However once he sat down at the table, he felt too tired to eat. Adam joined his brother at the table, and after several bites, he looked up to see Hoss staring at his untouched food. He took in Hoss’ somewhat flushed face and grew concerned, something wasn’t right.

“Hoss, you feeling all right?” Adam asked.

“I’m feelin’ kind of poor, Adam. Think I’m gonna go take me a nap.” Hoss let out a big sigh, “Maybe I’ll feel better by supper.” The extra effort it took to climb the stairs surprised him. Opening the door to his room, he was relieved to see his bed and the comfort it promised. He laid on the bed, not bothering to fold back the covers, and was soon asleep.

Adam was nearly out the door when he remembered that Hoss had gone upstairs. He made a quick check and found Hoss to be fast asleep on top of the covers, his boots still on. Adam placed a hand on Hoss’ forehead and grimaced at the heat he felt. He reached for the quilt draped over the chair and placed it over his brother. Before he left to finish the day’s work, he would need to let Hop Sing know. No doubt the cook would soon be ready with broth and an unpleasant tasting tea.

*****

Little Joe couldn’t see how life could get much worse than it was at school that morning. When the teacher dismissed the class for lunch, he looked around and decided to sit by himself to avoid the questions and comments about being escorted to school. However, Rachel soon joined him, and she began talking about the dance.

“Oh, Joe, I just can’t wait til tomorrow night. We’re gonna have such a great time,” she said with her big blue eyes causing him to melt.

“Well, we woulda had a great time,” Joe frowned. “I can’t go to the dance tomorrow, Rachel, but I might be able to sneak out later and meet you after!”

“Little Joe! You know my Pa’s gonna be bringing me. I’d never be able to get away after! Why can’t you go?” she pouted.

“Awe, it’s a long story, but I have to go with my Pa tomorrow. He’s a might upset with me for skipping school this week.”

“Oh, Little Joe! Why did  you skip school? I thought you liked seeing me during the school day.”

“Oh, I—I do like seeing you, Rachel. It’s just that, well, I guess I just got a little carried away ‘s all. I’m sorry about the dance. I promise to make it up to you soon.”

“Well,” she sighed, “ask me again when you grow up a little bit.” She got upwalked away, and went straight to where Mark and his group of friends were sitting. Joe glared in their direction. Rachel glanced back at Joe, and she could see his eyes narrow as she sat close to Mark.

“Mark,” she cooed, “it seems I no longer have an escort for the dance tomorrow.”

“Is that so?” Mark asked. “Well, we have to do something about that, now don’t we?”

“I was hoping you’d say thatMark!”  Rachel smiled. It felt good knowing she could get any boy she wanted, and she liked it when they got into fights because of her.

Mark put his arm around her shoulder and called out to Little Joe. “Better luck next time, Little Joey!” Then Mark laughed so hard he fell over backwards, bringing Rachel with him. They both stood up and looked at Joe. Rachel just began laughing with Mark as he said, “Little Joey’s gotta have his Pa bring him to school holding his hand!” The laughing continued.

Little Joe felt like he was going to explode. His body was tenseand his hands were balled into tight fists. He heard the teacher calling them and saw the other students making their way inside. His anger still raging, he turned quickly in the opposite direction. Finding himself at the outhouse, he let his pent up anger out on the door, punching it hard with his left hand. In the second he made contact, he knew that was a stupid thing to do.

“Oh, God,” he said as pain replaced the anger he was feeling just moments before.

“Joseph!” He heard Miss Jones calling. He took a quick look at his hand and grimaced at the red and swollen knuckles. He turned and headed back to the school house, masking the pain he felt.

“SorryMiss Jones, I was in the outhouse,” he said, trying his best to smile. He heard Mark and Rachel laugh, and the anger he felt before quickly returned.

Miss Jones smiled at him and walked to the front of the classroom. “I want everyone to take out your slates. I have put several math problems on the board for you to work on your own. You have 20 minutes. Begin.”

Little Joe’s hand hurt too much for him to write with it. He was trying to copy the problems with his right hand, but was having some difficulties. Miss Jones noticed what he was doing. “Joseph, is there a problem?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Aren’t you left-handed?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She was clearly getting frustrated with Joe’s short answers. “Well, then why are you trying to write with your right hand? I can’t even read this!” she said, pointing to his work.

Joe wished he could just disappear. He felt everyone’s eyes looking at him. He took a deep breath and looked up at Miss Jones. “I hurt my hand,” he said in a low voice.

“Let me see, Joseph,” she said with concern. Joe showed her his hand, trying to keep it from the view of his classmates. “How did this happen? It wasn’t hurt when you came in this morning. Were you fighting?”

“No, ma’am, I wasn’t fighting. I—I fell outside during lunch.”

“Can you move your fingers?”

Joe moved his fingers. It hurt, but he moved them. Satisfied that nothing was broken, Miss Jones told Joe to let his father take a look at it this afternoon. Joe nodded, relieved that she had finally left him alone.

The end of the school day could not have come fast enough for Joe, and he finally heard the words he had been waiting for. “Class dismissed,” the teacher said. Joe stayed in his seat until the room cleared. Just as he was about to get up he heard his father greeting Miss Jones. He let out a big sigh. Here we go again. 

“Mr. Cartwright, Joseph hurt his hand this afternoon. I don’t think it’s broken, but you might want to have the doctor look at it before you go home.”

Joe sighed again and sat lower in his seat. How could I have done something as stupid as hitting a door? He looked down at his swollen knuckles.

“Oh?” he heard his father say, “How did this happen, Little Joe?”

“It was just an accident, Pa; I fell.” Joe said, looking down. Once Ben finished talking to Miss Jones and was satisfied that Little Joe had not caused any problems at school that day, they finally left. They stopped at Doc Martin’s office first, and he concurred that the hand was not broken and advised Little Joe to keep it elevated and put a cold rag on it to help the swelling go down. Ben then escorted Joe to the bank, to Mrs. Tanner’s shop, and to the sheriff’s office, where he told each of them that he was sorry and it would never happen again. He was relieved when they were finally headed home.

About halfway there, Ben finally broke the silence that was looming between them. “How’s your hand, son?”

“Better. The swelling’s gone down some I think.”

Ben nodded. “Good.”

Another few minutes of silence passed.

“You didn’t really fall, did you, son?

Silence.

Ben continued when he got no reply from his son. “Looks to me like you hit something. Something pretty hard at that. Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“Well, hopefully it won’t interfere with our trip tomorrow.”

“What trip?”

“I’m going to Carson City to sell some horses tomorrow, and I’m taking you along. Hoss and Adam have to finish the branding, so it will just be the two of us.”

More silence. Joe didn’t know what to say. He wanted time to be alone. He was grateful when he saw the house in the distance.

*****

Ben tried to keep the mood light during supper that evening, but it proved to be difficult. Little Joe barely spoke two words and struggled with his food onehanded. Hoss was obviously not feeling well, which Ben noted with concern, and even Adam seemed more tired than usual. Ben felt Hoss’ forehead and was relieved that it was only slightly warm.

“I’m all rightPa,” Hoss said, “Just been working too hard here lately.”

“I’m afraid it could be more than that. I was informed just before supper that two of the hands are down sick in the bunkhouse.  Hoss, I think you need sleep in tomorrow. We’ll send for the doctor in the morning. You are to take the day off and get some rest.”

“All right, Pa, thanks. I think I’ll start that rest right now.” Hoss stood up and pushed his chair under the table. “Good luck on the trip tomorrow, Pa, Joe. Be careful.”

“We’ll be fine, son. Goodnight. Oh, I’ll check in on you before we leave.”

“‘Night, Pa,” Hoss said, and then he headed upstairs.

“Pa,” Adam asked, “what’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”

“Well, Adam, you go ahead with the branding. If Hoss is okay in the morning, Joe and I will go ahead with our trip. We should be back sometime Sunday afternoon.”

Adam got up and stretched. “Sounds good, Pa. I’ll see you in the morning, and don’t worry about Hoss; he’ll be fine.”

“Goodnight, Adam.” Ben smiled, knowing he could trust Adam to handle things while he was away.

“Pa, you need me for anything else tonight?” Joe asked.

“No, son, you go on to bed. Be sure you keep that hand elevated.”

Joe nodded and walked upstairs. It had been a long, stressful day, and he was looking forward to sleeping and forgetting all his problems for a few hours.

The next morning Ben and Adam were sitting at the table for breakfast. Ben had checked on Hoss, and although the fever seemed slight, he was sound asleep. He told Adam just to let him sleep, and Hop Sing assured them both that he would take care of him. Ben had also gone in Joe’s room and had woken him up, but Little Joe still had not made it downstairs yet. Ben was just about finished with his breakfast when Joe made his way downstairs.

“Come on, Little Joe, and eat some breakfast.  We need to get a move on,” Ben said. “Chuck got the horses ready an hour ago, so we’re just waiting on you.”

“Welldon’t wait on my account, let’s just go. I’m not hungry, anyway.” Joe threw an angry glance at his father and turned and walked out the door.

Ben looked at Adam and said with a sigh, “It’s gonna be a long couple of days.”

“Better you than me,” Adam replied.

*****

Ben and Joe made it to Carson City with no problems, and delivered the horses to their destination. Ben was paid $2,000.00 in cash, so they headed to the bank to trade it in for a draft. When they arrived at the bank, there was a large sign on the door “Closed due to the death of Josh Smith. Will reopen next week.” Although the bank would have normally been closed on a Saturday afternoon, Ben had made arrangements with Mr. Smith to get the draft that afternoon. After some investigation, they learned that the bank had been robbed by a couple of young teens on Friday. The posse was still out looking for them. Ben decided to go ahead and spend the night in Carson City as planned and head for home in the morning. He hated traveling with that much cash, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Ben and Joe got up early the next morning and prepared for the trip home. Ben concealed the $2,000.00 in his saddle bag. Joe had been quiet and moody the entire trip, so Ben decided he would try to get his son to talk on the way home. Ben was not riding his own horse, Buck, but was testing out a new horse he had purchased last month. The horse had been skittish throughout the trip the day before, so he broke the ice with Joe by talking about what should be done with him.

“You probably should have sold him with the other horses, Pa. He ain’t never gonna be good for anything,” Joe said. That’s not what Ben wanted to hear.

“How can you say that, Joe? He’s a fine animal, just needs some work, that’s all.” Ben replied.

“Well, I agree that he’s a beautiful horse, Pa, but with that temperament of his, it’ll be more work than he’s worth, if you ask me.”

“We’ll see, Joseph; we’ll see.”

“Pa, can I ask you something?”

“Of course you can.”

After hesitating a moment, Joe spoke. “Pa, I was wondering about my punishment. Do you think we can come up with something else, like extra chores or something? I promise I won’t skip school anymore. There’s no need for you to bring me there everyday. I’ve learned my lesson.”

“Joseph, considering what you are being punished for, the answer is no. The only way I can rest assured that you are in school is to bring you there myself. There will be no more discussion of it.”

“But Pa, do you have any idea how I felt having you there yesterday? I’m not a child that has to be walked into school.” Joe’s temper was beginning to escalate.

“Do you have any idea how I felt when I learned of what you had been up to last week? I won’t be made a fool out of by not knowing the whereabouts of my own son. Now I said there will be no more discussion of it.” Ben felt his own temper rising.

“Fine, Pa, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I just won’t be going to school anymore.”

“What did you say?”

“I am not going to school anymore. I will not be humiliated like that again. I just—I just won’t do it!” Joe’s voice rose along with his temper, and he found himself ready to explode once more. Feeling like he was being suffocated, he screamed at his father, “I won’t do it!  Just leave me alone!” and he raced his horse off the road heading into a wooded area on the right.

Ben stopped for a moment, unsure of what to do. He wanted to follow his son, but he was in shock by Joe’s sudden outburst and did not want another confrontation. Finally he decided the only choice he had was to go after Joe. Ben was following Joe’s trail when his horse suddenly began to bolt. Taken off guard by the sudden movement, he fell hard to the ground. The horse raced away at a fast gallop. As soon as he got his bearings, Ben saw what had spooked the horse. About three feet away from him was a rattlesnake, poised and ready to strike.  He carefully drew his weapon, and just as the snake began to make its move, he fired. Seeing that the snake was dead, Ben took several deep breaths, relief pouring over him.

*****

Back at the ranch, Adam was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Dr. Martin. Hoss had appeared to be better Saturday, but Sunday morning he was delirious with fever. Adam was relieved when he heard someone approaching the ranch. His relief turned to discouragement when he realized it was the sheriff and not the doctor.

“Adam,” Sheriff Coffee said, “I got news from the doc. There’s an influenza outbreak in the area, and he can’t come to the ranch just yet. I’m asking everyone to stay put in their homes until it’s under control. How’s Hoss?”

“Not good, Roy; his fever’s really high. When do you think the doc will be here?”

“I don’t know, son; he’s got a lot of sick people he’s tending to. Is everyone else here okay?”

“No, a couple of our hands are sick, too. Pa and Little Joe are fine. They went to Carson City and won’t be home ‘til later today.”

“Well, when they get home, make sure they stay put until you hear from me or the doc.”  Roy started to leave, but added, “Adam, might want to have the doc check you over as well. You’re lookin’ a might pale.”

Adam nodded and watched as Roy rode away. He shrugged away the ache in his bones. It was up to him to help his brother now.

*****

Ben stopped to assess his situation. He was about halfway between Carson City and the Ponderosa, and he was on foot. It would take him at least an hour just to make it back to the main road. There was no sign of Little Joe. He decided his best option would be to head back to the road, and hopefully someone would come along that could give him a ride home. Then he could decide what to do about Joe.

*****

Joe rode at a fast gallop for about an hour before he finally slowed down.  He thought he had heard a gunshot but decided against turning back to investigate. He was nearing the abandoned shanty that he and the Farley brothers had made into their own camp. It was well hidden and in a remote area. As he neared the camp, he got off his horse and began walking. He stopped short when he heard the click of a gun.

“Stop right there,” Tom Farley said.

“Tom, it’s me, Little Joe,” Joe said with his hands still up in the air.

“Little Joe!” Tom said with relief, “Did anyone follow you?”

“No, I don’t think so. What’s got into you, Tom? Put that gun away before you hurt someone!”

“Come on into the camp, Little Joe. Harry and I done something, and we’re in a heap of trouble.”

Little Joe followed Tom into the shanty. He saw Harry’s big frame leaning over a table counting a large stack of money.

“Hey, where’d you get all that money?” Joe asked.

“We stole it,” Tom said matter-of-factly, brushing his long sandy hair out of his eyes.

Joe suddenly had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and wasn’t sure he wanted to know anymore about the money.

Harry started laughing and said, “We actually robbed a bank! Can you believe it? And we got away!”

“The bank in Carson City?”

“Yep, that’s the one! How’d you know?”

“Tom! You didn’t just rob a bank; you shot and killed a man!” Joe couldn’t believe his friends were responsible for such a crime.

“We didn’t mean to kill him, Little Joe; it was an accident. We just needed the money so we could get away and start a new life for ourselves. Our Pa left us, and Ma don’t want us anymore, so we figured we get ourselves off to a good start.”

“A good start!” Joe was clearly agitated. “Do you know there’s a posse out looking for you? Accident or not, you killed a man, and they’ll hang you for it! What kind of start is that?”

*****

It was nightfall when Ben arrived home at the ranch. He was fortunate enough to find transportation from a traveling salesman. He thanked the man, paid him for his trouble, and then headed into the house. Adam greeted him with a worried look on his face. Ben’s thoughts immediately turned from his troubled teen to his 21-year-old son, Hoss.

“What is it? Is Hoss still sick?” Ben asked.

Adam nodded. “It’s influenza, Pa. The doctor hasn’t been able to get out here yet, and we’ve been asked to stay put until we hear otherwise. Apparently it’s a widespread outbreak. Hoss has been pretty much out of it today. Hop Sing is with him now.” Adam barely finished giving his father the update before Ben was headed up the stairs to Hoss’ room.

As soon as he entered, Hop Sing got up shaking his head. “Mr. Hoss very sick boy. He no eat. He hardly drink anything.”

Ben sat next to Hoss and picked up the rag that was on his forehead. He rinsed the rag in cool water and replaced it on his son’s head. “We’ve got to get this fever down. When did the doctor say he could get over here?”

“Roy said that the doc told him he’d be here as soon as he could. That was over five hours ago.” Adam suddenly realized that Little Joe was not inside yet. Adam presumed that Joe was stabling the horses, but he should have been finished by now. “Where’s Little Joe?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head with a frown. “I don’t know.”

“What?”

“I don’t know where he is,” Ben repeated. “We got into an argument, and he rode off through the woods. I went after him, but my horse spooked and threw me. I was lucky to get home at all tonight. Wouldn’t have if someone hadn’t have come along and given me a ride. I was hoping maybe Little Joe would have calmed down and come on home by now.”

“I haven’t seen any sign of him.  Do you want me to go look for him?”

Ben shook his head. “Let’s wait until morning, and if he’s not home by then, you can go look for him.” Ben looked at Hoss again. “Influenza is highly contagious.  I just hope Joe doesn’t get sick out there.”

*****

Little Joe was sick— sick with worry. He had no idea his friends were capable of doing such a thing, and wasn’t sure what he was going to do about it. He knew he needed to get away from them.

“Awe, stop your frettin’, Little Joe; Tom knows what he’s doing,” Harry said. “There’s no way that posse can find us. We’re safe here, right Tom?”

Tom nodded. “That’s right, and now that we’ve got company, we got to have us a celebratory party! Look what I got!” He walked out of sight,leaving a bewildered Joe staring after him. A moment later he came out, carrying a bottle of whiskey and some hand-rolled cigarettes.

Joe smiled apprehensively. “How did you get that?” he asked.

“How is not important, Little Joe. You ask way too many questions! Just relax and celebrate our good fortune with us!”

“You sure that’s a good idea, Tom? I was sick as a dog after our last ‘party’, and besides, you’d better keep your wits about you right now! I think you should turn yourselves in.”

“Little Joe, you worry too much!” Harry said, “Tom said we’re safe here, and look, I’ll give you something to make you feel better. Wait here.” Harry got up and went inside the shanty. He came out holding a gun and handed it to Joe. “Here’s an extra gun. Never know when you’ll be needing it, especially with a posse after us. You’re one of us now.”

Joe took the gun. He looked it over and checked to see that it was loaded. He looked at Harry and then at Tom.

“Don’t think of goin’ anywhere, Little Joe,” Tom warned. “Like Harry said, you’re one of us now. You know what we did. We can’t just let you leave. But don’t worry none; we’ll give you an equal share of everything.”

Joe chewed on his bottom lip nervously. Now what have I gotten myself into? I’m with a couple of bank robbers and killers with a posse after them. If I stay with them, the posse will be after me too. If I leave… well, Tom may not let me leave. I better play along for just a little while…

Tom laughed. “Little Joe, you know how to use a gun, don’t you?” Tom looked older than his 16 years as he lit a cigarette and let it hang from the corner of his mouth.

“I know how to use a gun; I just don’t think I want to carry one is all. Besides, I don’t have a holster.”

“Little Joe, you’re our friend. And the fact is, there’s a posse after us, and three guns is better than two if we have a stand-off. Better to keep the gun than be defenseless, don’t you think?” He patted Joe on the back, and Joe nodded as he tucked the gun in the front of his pants. Joe’s mouth was suddenly feeling very dry.

“Now, let’s celebrate! We’ll have us a party tonight and won’t worry about anything else ‘til tomorrow!” Tom took the first swig from the whiskey bottle and passed it to Joe. Joe looked at the bottle and sighed. “None for me.” He passed it to Harry.

”Hey, Tom, Joe’s not drinkin’,” Harry said as he took a swig.

”Come on, Little Joe,” Tom said. “Enjoy it while you can.” He handed Joe the bottle.

Joe took a reluctant swig, coughing as the hot liquid burned his throat. Harry followed, and the bottle continued to be passed among the three boys.

Thirty minutes later, there were no thoughts of the posse. Joe had told Tom and Harry what had happened to him at school Friday and about Rachel going to the dance with Mark. His words were beginning to slur, and he was feeling a bit drowsy.

“Hey, I got an idea,” Tom said, his words slurring as much as Joe’s as he started to laugh. Joe and Harry were soon laughing too, even though they had no idea at what they were laughing. Tom finally stopped laughing long enough to tell his idea.

“Hey, let’s help Little Joe get even with Rachel. She don’t live but a couple miles from here. They was paintin’ some fence there not long ago, and I bet there’s a buncha that paint left over!”

Harry’s eyes got real big with excitement, “We could pour it out all over everything!”

Joe grimaced at the thought, “Great, just add vandalism to the list…”

“Come on!”

“Tom, you sure it’s safe for us to be riding around?” Harry asked.

“Little brother, you’re beginning to sound like our friend heredon’t worry! It’s late, and that posse’s far away from here and probably sound asleep somewhere. Besides, you know I wouldn’t let anything happen to you! Let me just put the money away first.” Tom disappeared for a few minutes and then returned. “It’s safe.”

“Well then, what are we waiting for? Let’s ride!” Harry started giggling at the excitement. “Come on, Cartwright!”

This’ll probably be my chance to make a break for it, Joe thought. He took one last swig from the near empty whiskey bottle for good measure.

The three boys were off in the night, trying hard to sit straight in their saddles and to not talk or laugh too loud. For a time, they were just three carefree boys out on a mission. No thoughts of the bank robbery, the shooting, or the posse entered their minds. For a time, Little Joe did not think of his father or his brothers. His thoughts turned to Rachel. He had really liked her and was hurt by the way she turned her back on him. He shrugged off the aching he felt in his muscles and thought about what they would do once they got to Rachel’s house. As soon as Tom and Harry start looking for the paint, I’ll ride off. It was well after dark, and Joe thought the others might not be able to see a thing. The boys continued on their mission not knowing that the posse was hot on their trail.

*****

When the boys arrived near Rachel’s house, they dismounted their horses. Still very much feeling the affects of the whiskey, they huddled together and discussed their plan of action.

“The paint is stacked up in the shed,” Tom said.

“How do you know?” Joe asked, feeling a little ticked that Tom knew so much about Rachel’s family.

“Well now, Little Joe, this ain’t exactly my first time out here!” Tom started laughing, and Harry grabbed his mouth to quiet him.

“Shhh, you gonna wake the dead with that much racket!”

“Okay, okay, I certainly don’t want to do a thing like that! Come onboys, we’ve got some paintin’ to do!” Tom, crouching low, led the way to the shed.

“Joe, you be the look out!” Harry whispered as loud as he dared.

Joe looked towards the house and saw a lamp go on in a window. He caught his breath as he saw Rachel walk past the window. He could see her brushing her longgolden hair.

“How could she go out with Mark?” Joe asked himself. Harry was making his way towards him with a bucket of paint. Joe decided this was the time to make a run for it. Unfortunately, the effects of the whiskey had him off-balance, and he tripped. As he fell, he made a loud crash.

Before Joe had a chance to get back on his feet, he heard Rachel’s father.

“Who’s out there?” her father called with rifle in hand.

“Ohdamnlet’s get out of here,” Tom said, and he began running towards the horses. Joe quickly followed, and then Harry.

As the boys ran, they heard the sound of a rifle firing. They continued to run as more shots were fired. Tom thought he’d never make it, but once he got to his horse, he quickly mounted and began riding towards the camp. Joe got to his horse moments later, and he turned to see if Harry were following.

Joe didn’t see Harry.

He saw Tom riding off at a fast clip and decided to go back and look for Harry. Joe only had to go a few feet to see Harry lying on the groundcovered in blood.

“Oh my God, Harry, you’re hit! Can you hear me?” Little Joe asked as he approached the still form of his friend. Harry did not answer, and the sound of a bullet whizzed past Joe’s head, reminding him that he was not safe. He tried to pick Harry up, but he found that he did not have the strength to do it. He lowered his head to Harry’s chest, listening for any sign of life. Tears began to form in his eyes as he realized his friend was dead.

“Harry, come on, wake up!” Joe began shaking Harry’s shoulders trying to will him to open his eyes. The sound of more gunfire took Joe’s thoughts from his fallen friend. He began running toward his horse once more. Looking back one again, he watched as Rachel’s father approached the body of his friend. New fear took hold as Joe realized the posse was also there. They had stopped and were talking to Rachel’s father.

In a panic, Little Joe mounted his horse and rode quickly towards the camp. He hadn’t gotten very far when he heard gunfire once again. The posse was shooting at him! He knew that the posse had no way of knowing that he was not one of the bank robbers. Crouching low in the saddle, he rode as fast as he could. Not wanting to lead them to the camp where Tom would be waiting, he veered off to the left. Almost as soon as he turned, he felt a white hot pain in the upper part of his arm.

He knew stopping was out of the question, so he pressed on in his attempt to lose the posse. After about thirty minutes of riding, he felt it safe to stop and check his pursuers. Seeing none, he took the time to examine his injury. The bullet had gone straight through, so he took his bandanna and tied it around his arm. He found this difficult to do as his hands shook and sweat dripped into his eyes.

Joe debated whether or not to go on home or return to the camp to tell Tom what had happened to Harry. His arm was stinging, but he decided his wound was not bad enough to require immediate attention. He felt weak and shaky, and his head was pounding, but he figured it was from the alcohol and being scared out of his wits. He decided that he would go tell Tom what happened and then return home.

Little Joe arrived back at the camp hours after Tom. He dismounted his horse, and found that he was unsteady on his feet. He stopped for a moment to get his balance and prepared to face Tom with the news about Harry. As he approached the shanty, he heard the hammer of a gun clicking.

“It’s me—-Little Joe,” he called out in a soft voice.

He heard another click of the gun as it was being safely put away.

“Oh, Little Joe, you scared the life outta me! What took you so long? Where’s Harry?”

Tom had still not gotten a good look at Joe yet. Joe said nothing as he came closer to Tom, who was holding a lowly lit lantern. The dim light was all Tom needed to see that Little Joe was covered in blood. It seemed to be everywhere.

“Oh my God,” he said to Joe as his voice became panicked. “Wh—what happened? You get shot? Where’s Harry? Did the posse get him?”

Joe’s brow was covered in sweat, and his face was deathly pale. His jacket was stained the crimson red color of blood from where he had tried to carry his friend. Blood from his own injured arm was caked on the sleeve of the jacket. As Tom questioned Joe, the realization of what had happened sank in. He began shaking his head as tears started flowing.

“Little Joe, what happened?” Tom repeated, “Where’s Harry?”

Feeling that his legs would no longer support him, Joe slumped to the ground.

“I—I couldn’t carry him—he was too heavy,” Joe finally managed to say.

“What are you talking about?” The panic in Tom’s voice was obvious. “Was Harry hit?”

“He’s deadTom. All the shooting Rachel’s pa did brought the posse. They started shooting at us too. I tried to get him to his horse,” Joe’s voice cracked, “I tried, but he was too heavy. I couldn’t lift him. He was already dead…” Joe’s voice broke off, tears flowing freely.

Tom shook his head. “What do you mean he’s dead? He can’t be dead! How could you just leave him? How could you?”

Tom was clearly getting angry. He walked closer to Joe and stood right in front of him. Joe was beginning to feel weak as the adrenaline rush wore off. He put his head in his hands, fighting back the urge to cry. There was no way he’d let Tom see him cry.

Tom continued to get agitated and began to pace next to Joe. He looked at Joe and at all the blood that was on him, and the realization of what happened started to sink in.

“Little Joe, all that blood on you—it’s all Harry’s?” Suddenly Tom’s voice was hard and cold.

Joe’s hand instinctively went to his wounded shoulder. “Most of this—most of this is Harry’s blood.”

“And you just left him there.”

A chill ran down Joe’s spine, not so much at the words, but at the way they were spoken. He looked up at and was horrified to see Tom pointing agun directly at him.

“Tom, what are you doing?”

“You left my brother alone to die, and now I’m gonna kill you.”

Joe shook his head, “No! I’m not the one who left him. You did. You rode off without ever looking back.”

The words hit Tom like a slap in the face. “NO!” He screamed.

“Put the gun away, Tom; you don’t want to kill me.”

Tom stood frozen, still pointing the gun at Little Joe. Time stood still for Joe, and he began thinking about his argument with his Pa. How he wished he could take back this last week and do it over again.

Suddenly Tom brought the gun down. “No, I don’t want to kill you.” His voice was barely a whisper.

Before they had a chance to say anything further, a shout was heard from outside the shanty.

“You in the camp! We have you surrounded! Come out with your hands up!”

“It’s the posse! They found us!” Tom said in a panicked voice. “What are we going to do?”

“Tom, what can we do? We have to give ourselves up!” Joe pleaded.

Tom shook his head. “No, I can’t do that. If they don’t shoot meI’ll be hung. I won’t give them that satisfaction. You go on, Joe. You’ve been a good friend.”

Joe clinched his fists, uncertain about what to do. His head felt fuzzy and he couldn’t think straight. He reached for the gun he had tucked awayand looked at it for a moment. He laid it carefully on the ground and slowly stood up, swaying slightly. He blinked his eyes trying to get his world in focus, and looking at Tom he said, “Wh—what are you going to do?”

“The way I see it, I don’t have a lot of choices. Oh, if my Pa could see me now!” Tom began laughing. “My Pa said I was trouble. He said I couldn’t do anything right. He said I was stupid and useless, and now I can finally see he was right…even my ma got fed up with me. She said I was nuttin’ but trouble. Harry was the only one who ever believed in me, and look where that got him. Well, I’m gonna do the only thing there is left to do now, but you’re gonna leave first. No sense you getting caught up with my trouble.”

Joe just stood there, not sure of what to do. Then Tom screamed, “Get out!!” which caused Joe to jump. Tom gave him a push that caused Joe to stumble. He stood slowly and walked towards the awaiting posse.

“I’m coming out! Don’t shoot!” Joe called.

“Come out with your hands up!”

Joe did as he was told. Just as he reached the waiting menhe heard a single gun shot fire from inside the shanty. He instinctively fell flat to the ground as he heard the sheriff tell his men to hold their fire. Hearing no more gunfire, two posse men roughly grabbed Joe and pulled him to his feet. “Is the other one coming out?” they asked Joe.

“I—I don’t know,” Joe said shaking his head. He saw Harry’s body draped over his horse, and Joe’s lip quivered involuntarily.

After what seemed like a very long time to Joe, the posse decided to charge the shanty since there was no response from Tom. They went in withguns drawn. Moments later the sheriff came out shaking his head. He walked over to Joe. “What’s your name, boy?” he asked.

“Joe—Joe Cartwright.”

“You Ben Cartwright’s boy?”

Joe nodded.

“These fellas friends of yours?”

Joe nodded again. “Where’s Tom?” he asked looking towards the shanty.

The sheriff looked at Joe and shook his head. “I’m sorry, son. He must have taken his own life. He was dead when we found him.”

Joe shut his eyes tight. He stood frozen for several minutes, hoping to somehow wake up from this nightmare. Finally, he looked up. He saw Tom’s lifeless body being carried out.

“OhGod!” he said feeling suddenly very ill. “Why?” He bent over right where he stood and began throwing up. A few minutes later with his stomach still in knots and blinded by tears, he managed to get on his horse with the help of the sheriff.

The sheriff ordered his men to take the bodies to Virginia City after Joe managed give their identities and tell where their mother could be found. He also explained that he had nothing to do with the robbery – that he’d met up with the Farleys afterward and had known nothing about it until then.

“Where are you taking me?” Joe asked.

“Wellson, you don’t look so good, and we’re just a few miles from the Ponderosaso I’m gonna take you home.”

Home.

Home would never be the same.

*****

“Where is that doctor?” Ben lamented. Hoss was sick, and Adam had gone to bed exhausted. Between caring for Hoss and worrying about Joe, there had been no rest for the rest for him. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, the doctor arrived. He was let in promptly and immediately went upstairs. An hour later, he was downstairs having some breakfast and a very much needed cup of coffee with Ben.

“Ben, just keep him cool to help with the fever and give him that medicine like I showed you. There’s plenty here for Hoss and the men in the bunkhouse. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get back here. If any of them get worse or if anyone else gets sick, I’ll be in town at the church where we’re setting up a hospital. Dr. Hoyt from Genoa is already there while I’m making rounds, but I’ll have to join him soon before it becomes too much for one person to handle.”

“I understand. We’ll be fine here, thank you for coming out. Have you had enough to eat?” Ben asked.

“Yes, thank you, I’m fine. I’d better be on my way.”

Ben walked the doctor to the door, opening it just as the sheriff and Joe approached. Ben felt his blood drain as he saw that the sheriff was half carrying his youngest son. “Little Joe! Are you all right?” Ben asked as they got Joe inside and laid him on the sofa. Fear gripped Ben’s heart, and he felt himself go weak at the sight of the blood and the smell of vomit on Joe’s clothes.

As soon as Joe lay down, he closed his eyes. His exhaustion left him with no strength left to answer his worried father.

“What happened?” Ben asked the sheriff. Little Joe was unconsciousand the doctor was already working on him.

The sheriff told Ben how and where he found Joeand all the events that had taken place the past couple of days. Joe was cleared of having any part of the bank robbery once Ben confirmed that he was with him when the crime took place. The sheriff was easily convinced since he knew there were only two boys involved initially. Once he left, Ben turned his attentions to his son.

“Doctor, how is he?”

“Well, his wound’s not too bad, Ben. He’s got a pretty high fever though. We need to get him cooled off.”

When a cold rag was placed on Joe’s forehead, he began to stir. His eyelids felt heavy, and it took a lot of energy just to open them, but he finally managed. The cold cloth placed on his head caused a chill that made Joe shiver. He saw his father and the doctor leaning over him, both watching intently.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said with tears filling his eyes.

Ben nodded as his own eyes filled with tears. “Shhh, you rest now, Little Joe. I want you to rest and get your strength back.”

Joe turned his head away from his father and the doctor and let the tears silently fall as recent events began to sink in. He turned his mind from the events that had occurred in the past 24 hours and focused only on the patterns in the fabric of the sofa.

It was after dawn before the doctor felt comfortable enough to leave the Cartwright home. Joe was brought upstairs to his room, and Ben was ordered to get some much needed rest. Adam woke up and resumed caring for his siblings.

Later that morning, Hoss was feeling better and, much to Hop Sing’s delight, was requesting something to eat. His fever was down, and although he was weak from his illness, he was on the road to a full recovery.

Joe, on the other hand, was still fighting a high fever. Adam and Hop Sing took turns bathing him down in cool water and forcing him to take some broth. Moments after they got the broth down him, Joe threw it all back up again. Adam couldn’t remember ever seeing his brother so sick, and it scared him. Joe was delirious and talking out of his head. Hoss heard the commotion in Joe’s room and came to investigate.

“Maybe you’d better wake Pa,” Hoss said to Adam.

“I think you’re right. I’ll get him,” Adam said and then quickly left the room.

Joe began to ramble incoherently, “I wanna go home,” over and over again. Then he started to get out of bed. Hoss was alone with his brother, and he stood on his own shaky legs to stop Little Joe from getting up.

“Hey, I need some help in here!” Hoss called.

“Little Joe, get back in bed. You’re home, and you’re safe. Lay down now.” Hoss soothed.

“No, I wanna go homelet me go,” Joe continued. “I don’t want to do this; let me go home.” Joe tried to get up but was unable to support his ownweight and fell to the floor. Just at that moment Ben and Adam came running into the room. They both got Joe off the floor, and then Adam helped Hoss back into his own bed. Hop Sing arrived with more cool waterand they took turns rubbing Joe down in an attempt to reduce his fever.

The day quickly passed without much change. Hoss continued to improve, but Joe was still fighting a high fever and could not hold down any of the broth that was offered to him. Throughout the night, Ben, Adam, and Hop Sing took turns caring for him. Ben was sitting in a chair next to Joe’s bed as a new dawn approached. Joe had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep. Ben couldn’t help but watch the rise and fall of his youngest child’s chest with every breath. Joe had been through such a horrible ordeal; Ben wondered what effect it would have on his son. He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t hear Adam enter the room.

“Pa, Hop Sing has some breakfast ready for you. Why don’t you go down and eatand I’ll stay here with Little Joe.” Ben looked up at Adam and wearily rubbed his temples as he slowly rose and stretched his stiff muscles. “Oh, Chuck said your horse made it home this morning – the saddle bag is downstairs with all the money still intact.”

“Well, at least there’s some good news. Call me if there’s any change with Joe,” he told Adam. Just as he neared the bottom of the stairs, he heard a knock on the front door. He walked to the door and opened it, wondering who would be calling this early in the morning. He was surprised to see Roy Coffee standing in the doorway.

“Good morning, Roy, what brings you by this morning?”

“Well, I’ve got some news for ya, Ben, good news, I think. I also wanted to see how the boys were doing.”

“I was just about to have some breakfast, Roy. Why don’t you join me while we talk?”

“Thank you, Ben, don’t mind if I do.”

Hop Sing heard the visitor and brought a fresh pot of coffee. The two friends exchanged tired looks. “Well,” Roy asked, “How’s Hoss and Little Joe?”

“Hoss is much better. His fever’s down and he’s gaining back his appetite. Little Joe is still a pretty sick boy,” Ben sighed.

“That’s too bad, Ben, I was hoping to talk to him about what happened. You know the sheriff in Carson City hasn’t been able to find where those boys hid the money they stole from the bank. I was hoping Little Joe might know where they hid it.”

Ben sighed and shook his head, “He couldn’t tell you anything right now, even if he did know.”

“Ben, the influenza scare is about over. We haven’t had any new cases reported or anyone brought in to the church for a while. The Doc told me to tell you he’d try to get out here later today.”

“That’s good to hear. Roy…” Ben hesitated, “How—how is Mrs. Farley?” Ben had never met the woman, but he couldn’t imagine how anyone would feel losing two sons at once especially in this manner.

“To be honest with you, Ben, I don’t really know. We’ve been so busy with the influenza scare that I haven’t gone back by to check on her since the day she was told. Must be about the hardest thing anyone would ever have to go through.”

Ben just shook his head as his eyes wandered towards the stairs. His own son was still so sick. He only hoped he would not have to find out how Mrs. Farley felt.

Just then Adam called excitedly down the stairs, “Pa! Little Joe is awake. He’s calling for you.”

Ben went racing up the stairs without a word to Roy. When he looked at his youngest son his heart ached. Joe was palehe had dark circles under his eyesperspiration beaded his facehis dark curly hair was matted to his head from laying on it so longBut what broke Ben’s heart more than anything else was the look on Joe’s face. His eyes were dull, and his lower lip quivered involuntarily. Ben sat down on the bed next to his son. He brought his hand to Joe’s face and brushed his hair back before feeling his forehead. He looked up at Adam with a smile and a nod.

“Yes, fever’s down.” He turned to Joe and asked, “How are you feeling, son?”

Joe’s eyes welled up with tears at the sound of his father’s voice. No more words were spoken as Joe began weeping. Ben lifted his son’s shoulders and held him tight, his own eyes filling with tears.

“It’s okay, son,” Ben soothed, “Let it all out. You’re safe now; everything’s going to be all right.”

Joe began shaking his head, “No,” he sniffed, “Nothing will ever be all right, Pa; I’m sorry I ran away…”

“Shhh, I knowson, I know. You just rest now. There’s plenty of time for talk later. Let’s see about getting you something to eat.” Ben looked up at Adam who took the hint and went to fetch Hop Sing. Moments later Adam returned.

“Pa, Roy is still downstairs and wants to know if he can talk to Little Joe.” Adam said.

Ben looked at Joe, “I don’t think he’s up to visitors just yet,” he told Adam.

“It’s okay Pa, I’ll talk to Sheriff Coffee now,” Joe replied weakly.

Ben sighed, “Okay, but just for a few minutes.” He looked at Adam who nodded and left to get the sheriff. “Little Joe, you just stop anytime you need to.”

Joe nodded with a sigh; he was uncertain what the sheriff would need to talk to him about.

Roy was somewhat shocked at the youth’s appearance. This was not the same boy who had caused a commotion in his town just a week ago! That boy had been full of life, energy, and mischief. It seemed so unfair to Roy that someone so young could get so sick. “Little Joe, sorry to hear you’ve been sick, boy, how’s the arm?”

Joe shrugged, “It’s all right, I guess; haven’t really had a chance to tell yet.”

“Little Joe, do you think you can answer a few questions about what happened with the Farley boys?”

Joe hesitated, and then looked at his father. He looked back at Roy and nodded.

“Little Joe, did the boys admit robbing the bank to you?”

“Yes,” Joe almost whispered.

“Did they say anything about the shooting at the bank?”

Joe became visibly pale. “Yeah.” Joe stopped and rubbed his eyes with his hand. “They said it was an accident.”

Adam saw the distress this was causing his young brother. He grabbed Roy by the elbow, “Roy, maybe you should save this for another day.”

Roy nodded in agreement, but before he could leave, Joe sounded out in a stronger voice, “No, let’s just get this over with. I’m okay.”

“Little Joe, do you know where they hid the money?” Roy got right to the point.

Joe shook his head. “They had it at the camp, but Tom hid it before we rode out. I don’t know where, but it has to be close.”

“Okay, son, that’s all I need to know for now. You just get yourself better,” Roy said. He bid his thanks and farewell to the family and left.

“I’d like to be alone now,” Joe said weakly.

Ben looked at his son and said a prayer for wisdom to guide him through this. “Little Joe,” he said, “I know things are difficult right now, but in time it will get easier. It doesn’t mean the pain ever goes away, but it just becomes easier to deal with. It’s like that wound in your arm there. In time it will heal, but there will always be a scar.” Ben paused a moment.

“I remember when we lost your mother…. Those first few days and weeks were so painful.” Joe began to gaze out the window at the mention of hismother; he was mentally exhausted. Ben continued, “But as the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months, the wounds heal; the pain becomes easier to bear…and remember, son, I am always here if you need to talk, as are your brothers.”

“Pa…,” Little Joe started.

“What is it, son?” Ben asked.

“Pa, I was just thinkin…. why do you put up with me?”

Uncertain why Joe would say such a thing, Ben looked at him questionably.

“I mean,” Joe continued, “I’m always getting into trouble… and seem to have one problem after another. My life gets totally out of control. Why do you put up with me?”

Ben smiled. “Joseph, do you remember a conversation we had about a horse not too long ago?”

Joe looked at his father, uncertain of the conversation, and shook his head.

“Let me remind you then. We were on our way home from Carson City, and I was riding that new stallion that was skittish; you told me I should have sold the horse, that he’d never be any good; remember?”

Joe nodded; it was coming back to him.

“Well, Joseph, we once had another horse just like that one. We worked with that horse everyday, and do you know something? He’s turned out to be one of the finest horses we own. I’m talking about Buck. You see, son, just because things aren’t always perfect or easy, that doesn’t mean you give up on them. Sometimes the finest metals are the most difficult to mine. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

Joe sniffed and nodded, comforted by his fathers words.

“I love you, son. I will always put up with you, no matter what scrapes you find yourself in. And remember, choices you make can have dire consequences. No matter what, you will always have me and your brothers to back you up and stand by your side.” Seeing that Joe was becoming weary, Ben said, “Now, you get some rest. We’ll talk more later.”

The rest of the day went by in a blur as Joe was visited by the doctor, who reported him to be on the mend, and by Hop Sing, who kept bringing him broth. By that evening, Joe slept soundly for the first time.

*****

Two weeks later, the time had finally arrived that Little Joe was dreading. He was well enough to return to school. It was Sunday night, and the family was eating supper together. Ben looked at each of his sons and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving for each of them. Little Joe was still awkwardly trying to manage with one arm in a sling, but he was rapidly regaining an appetite, and only having one good arm wasn’t slowing him down at the supper table.

“Well, boys,” Ben said as they finished eating, “We’d better get to bed early tonight. It’s the first day back at school and work for Hoss and Little Joe.”

At the mention of school, Joe grew solemn. He wondered if his Pa was still going to escort him. It was going to be hard enough having to return to school after the death of his two friends, and after being gone for two weeks. He knew he’d have a lot of work to catch up on.

“Um, Pa,” he finally ventured, “I’m well enough to sit a horse, so… well… I was wondering if I could ride to school by myself.”

Ben looked at his son and smiled. “Well, Little Joe, considering all you’ve been through lately, I will let you ride to school on your horse; however, I’ll be riding along with you,” Joe’s heart sank for a moment until he heard his father continue, “…at least until the edge of town!”

Joe smiled, “Thanks, Pa.”

***The End***

This was my very first fanfic, originally written in 1998 or sometime around there. Modified and rewritten in April, 2008. Special thanks to DJK, Islanddigs, and Mel for the help with the revised version.

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