Always My Son (by Wrangler)

Summary:    A stranger with an interest in Joe arrives in Virginia City.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  36,410


 

Joe Cartwright flung himself into the saddle and the bronc took off before his feet were securely in the stirrups. He struggled to gain his balance as the horse reared to try and knock its rider off. Then it was like being caught in a hurricane; horse and a determined rider battled it out trying to get the best of each other.

Ben Cartwright perched upon the railing of the corral and watched in cautious awe of his youngest son’s ability to tame such wild animals. He saw the set on Joe’s young face and knew that the boy had an iron will and would never admit to defeat. A smile creased Ben’s face as he witnessed the control that Joe was rapidly gaining on the horse. He thought in his mind how much at that moment Joe resembled his late wife Marie. She too loved horses and had the control of them that few people — man or woman — had. Joe was at times a sad reminder of the love of Ben’s life. He was impulsive, full of life and laughter. Joe also shared his mother’s trait of risk-taking. That troubled Ben as he had watched his youngest son grow from infant to boy to now young man.

At seventeen, Joe was vastly losing that awkward teenage appearance and was turning into a devilishly handsome young adult. Ben worried always about Joe’s impulsive nature and the danger there could be from having it. Ben shook himself from his thoughts as he spotted Joe reining the horse over to the stall and dismounting. Joe sauntered proudly towards his father with a classic grin displayed on his face. “Good ride, son!” Ben exclaimed, patting Joe’s shoulder affectionately. Joe returned the smile and dusted his chaps off waiting for his chance. His father seemed pleased with his progress on the new string of horses, so it was a good time to make his request. “Yeah–that’s the last of them for today, Pa. I was kinda hoping I earned the rest of the afternoon off?”

Ben shook his head, amused at how Joe could be so seemingly adult one moment and the next show signs of still being a kid. The hazel eyes that now stared hopefully at his father made Ben cave into the request. “I guess—-since you have been working awfully hard lately. Where you running off to, as if I don’t already know!”

Joe swung himself up onto Cochise and replied, “Virginia City—-you know–see what’s going on?”

“Be careful, Joe. And make it home for dinner on time, okay?”

“Sure, Pa!” Joe winked and turned his horse toward town.

By the time Joe had found his way into Virginia City, it was a little past four o’clock in the afternoon. It was still too early for the night crowd and Joe found himself to be the only one in the Silver Dollar Saloon, other than the bartender. “Where is everyone, Bruno?” Joe asked accepting his mug of beer and placing a silver dollar on the bar.

“Been this quiet all day, Joe. It’ll pick up soon though. The miners usually get here around six and then it will be nonstop for me!”

Joe took his beer over to a table and sat down. It wasn’t the wild afternoon of fun he had in mind, but he was content to sit and relax for a while.

Almost an hour after Joe Cartwright had first entered the saloon, another man walked in and made his way over to the bartender. The man was very apparently a stranger to Virginia City and dressed in a fine tailored-made suit. He was just a little less than six feet tall and had an abundance of dark wavy hair with hints of white at the temples. “I would like some brandy, please,” he said; Bruno was quick with his delivery, hoping for perhaps a tip from such a wealthy looking gentleman. The man did not disappoint, and handed the bartender double what the drink was worth.

“Thanks! You new around here?” Bruno addressed the stranger.

“Yes, and I was hoping to find someone who could show me around a little.”

“You could ask Joe over there!” Bruno pointed and Joe nodded toward the man.

As the stranger made his way over to Joe, he smiled at the boy as if he knew him. Joe also felt that somewhere they must have met before, his appearance registering in Joe’s brain. The man had a brilliant smile and hazel eyes which twinkled as he introduced himself. “Rene Marchant,” he said and held his hand out to shake Joe’s.

“Joe Cartwright—nice to meet you! C’mon have a seat,” Joe replied and Marchant sat down.

Yes” Marchant thought to himself. Yes, it looks like fate has brought Joe to me. “So—Joe–do you mind if I call you that?”

“Naw, we ain’t formal around here. That’s fine. Where you from Mr. Marchant?”

“New Orleans. Actually I am just on a little pleasure trip; I don’t get away often due to my business.” Marchant marveled over how similar to himself Joe was. He had seen pictures of the boy, but seeing him in person confirmed all of his prior suspicions.

“My mother was from New Orleans.” Joe commented, still wondering why the man seemed so familiar to him.

“And you? Were you born there?” Marchant asked, even though he knew the answer to his question.

“No, I was born on the Ponderosa—that’s my father’s ranch—him and my mother were married in New Orleans and came here to live.”

“I’d like to meet your parents,” Marchant remarked sipping more of his brandy.

Joe turned more sullen and said, “Well…you can meet my father, but my Ma died when I was a baby.”

“Well, perhaps I will have the chance to meet your father then. Would you be so kind as to show this Easterner some of the sights of your great town?”

Joe finished his beer and gazed over at the clock. He knew he needed to head home in order to arrive in time for supper like he had promised his father. “Um…can’t today, but I’ll be glad to tomorrow. It’s Sunday tomorrow and I have no plans.” Joe stood and reached to shake the man’s hand to bid him farewell.

“That would be just fine. I am over at the International House—room eight. How about noon tomorrow?”

“That’ll be fine. See you then.” Joe found himself staring into the man’s eyes again. The eyes that were so familiar! He turned and left the bar.

*****

 Ben watched as Joe hurried in from the front door and took his place at the dinner table. He was late, not as late as he usually was, but late nonetheless. Adam and Hoss looked on amused as Joe did his best to avoid his father’s eyes. Ben was a stickler for rules, and one of them was to be on time for dinner. Ben simply shook his head this time, deciding against a lecture on being prompt. Joe looked tired and Ben took pity on him.

“So, little brother, get in any trouble today in town?” Hoss asked jokingly.

“Hey, he’s home; that should tell you he didn’t! Usually we have to go drag him out of that bar–or out of Roy’s jail!” Adam joined in on the nightly ribbing Joe was use to getting from his brothers.

“No–actually nothing was going on in town. Me and Bruno…” Joe started.

Ben cut him off, correcting, “Bruno and I!”

“Yeah–that’s what I meant–Bruno and I were the only ones at the saloon most of the time. Oh, but then this fellow came in–says he’s from New Orleans!” Joe said and wolfed down his food hungrily.

“Oh? What was the man’s name?” Adam asked and Joe looked back over at him.

“Marchant–Rene Marchant–and he wants me to show him around town tomorrow. I told him I would. That okay with you, Pa?” Joe now looked at his father who had a very far away look on his face. “Pa?” Joe asked again.

Ben dabbed at his mouth with his napkin and avoided his son’s questioning eyes. “We’ll see…” Ben paused and looked directly at his oldest son. He gave him a look which Adam knew meant there was trouble. “Oh, Adam, you know those plans finally got here for the new sawmill design. I haven’t had time to show them to you.”

Adam dropped his napkin on the table to announce he was done with his supper and replied, “Pa, let’s go into your den so we can see how they came out.”

With that, the two oldest Cartwrights left the two younger Cartwrights and walked into Ben’s den and closed the doors. Hoss looked at Joe, confused. “What was that all about? Seems kinda odd, don’t it?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders, bewildered himself at the rapid change in his father’s demeanor. “Don’t know, Hoss,” he said shaking his head.

*****

Adam sat down in the overstuffed chair in the den and watched as his father’s pacing became more vigorous. Finally, he asked, “Okay, Pa, let’s hear it. The moment Joe said the name Marchant, your face went white. Who is he?”

Ben sighed and he felt a twinge of sadness at the sudden reminder of Joe’s mother. “Marie was in love with him before she met me. She even had thought about marrying him, but she didn’t want to leave New Orleans. He wanted to start a new business in Europe. Her heart wasn’t in it, so they broke up and then we met.”

“So? What’s the problem? Why does him coming here upset you so much?”

Ben shot Adam a grave look and replied, “I don’t think it was any accident he running into Little Joe. I don’t know why he’s here–not after so many years–but I have a feeling that it isn’t good news!”

“You think he holds a grudge that you ended up marrying Marie?”

Ben shrugged his shoulders helplessly. He truly had no idea what the man was up to. “The only way I’m going find out is to go and see him. Don’t let onto Joe where I’ve gone. As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t need to know about his mother’s past.”

Adam nodded; he too felt that some things were best kept from his little brother. “You want me to go with you?” he asked as his father turned toward the door.

“No, you just make sure that your brothers don’t catch wind to all of this,” Ben cautioned and walked out of the den.

“Where you going, Pa?” Joe called from the settee, seeing his father strap on his gun belt and grab his hat.

“I promised Roy I stop by tonight. We missed our cribbage game last week and he’s been dying to beat me again!” Ben tried to give a sedate smile toward his three sons as he left. His heart pounded at what he was about to find out concerning Mr. Marchant and his reason for coming to Virginia City.

*****

Dave Bennett, the night desk-clerk at the International House, had finished tallying the day’s receipts as Ben Cartwright walked into the hotel. He hurried over to greet him, hoping that he was there to request a room for the night. Dave remembered how well Ben was at tipping him and that made Ben one of his favorite customers.

“Room for the night, Mr. Cartwright?” Dave smiled as he approached.

“No, Dave, actually I’d like to talk with one of the other guests–a Mr. Marchant.”

“Oh, he’s in room eight. He may have retired for the night, though.”

“Thank you,” Ben stated, paying no attention to whether he would or would not be disturbing Mr. Marchant.

Ben stood outside of room eight and gathered his thoughts. He couldn’t help the feeling of dread that hung in his mind. He would have been happy to never see Mr. Marchant in life! Here was a man whom Marie had loved and one who had come to town and may have some form of revenge in his mind. No, Mr. Marchant just needed to go away and leave the Cartwrights, Ben thought to himself as he knocked briskly on the door.

When the door to the hotel room opened, the two men stared at each other for a few moments without speaking. They each were thinking how Marie could even think of choosing one of them over the other. It was strange how the memory of the beautiful woman haunted both men so many years after her death.

“Mr. Cartwright—I cannot say I am surprised to see you. Won’t you come in?” Marchant said coolly and stepped aside so Ben could enter the room. Ben looked around the large suite, knowing it well. He had spent nights in that very room, usually after a late business meeting. He preferred a smaller, less elegant place to rest, but, Marchant obviously enjoyed the splendor of the best room in the hotel.

“Mr. Marchant, I’ve come to ask you what you are doing here. My son Joseph told me he had run into you today,” Ben said hastily wanting to get right to the point.

Marchant grabbed a snifter of brandy and sat down on the sofa. He pointed for Ben to join him, but Ben stood firm, not wanting to give the appearance of letting down his guard. “Would you like some brandy–or perhaps something harder?”

“Just an answer to my question would be fine.”

“I’ve come because of Joseph.”

“You don’t even know my son! And I’d prefer to keep it that way, if you don’t mind. The only connection you ever had to this family was Marie—and she died years ago!” Ben retorted angrily.

“You do know about Marie and me then?”

“Yes, she never hid anything from me.”

“Did she tell you we were lovers? That we were going to be married?”

Ben folded his arms across his chest to stay the pain he was feeling deep in his soul. “Yes, but she didn’t marry you–she married me! Now I’ll ask one more time–what are you doing here?”

“I have been in Europe for many years,” Marchant started and reached over to a leather briefcase on the coffee table. “I have done very well for myself; in fact. I am very wealthy. I have checked you out and found you have some wealth of your own, Cartwright, but of course it doesn’t come close to equaling my own!” He announced smiling conceitedly.

“Get to the point!” Ben commanded.

“In this folder I have some very interesting facts about your family and all the details on your life before and after Marie. I found it very interesting, and my people worked very hard to get it all together for me. Now, since you want to get to the point, I will tell you that I’ve come for Joseph. At my age, the chance of me having any more children is impossible, so I’ve come to take my one heir back to New Orleans with me.”

“Your heir!” Ben was now yelling. “You must be insane! Joseph is my son, mine and Marie’s. You must be out of your mind!”

“Here…” Marchant handed Ben some papers. “You can even have this one. I have several copies. It is your marriage certificate signed by Judge Wharton. And underneath that page you will see Joseph’s birth record.”

Ben studied the papers and looked back over at the man who still sat smugly on the couch. “This means nothing!” Ben answered and tossed the papers back on the table.

“Joseph was born seven months after you and Marie were married.”

“He was premature! That’s common knowledge around here!”

“Or was he full term?” Marchant walked over to stand toe to toe with Ben, each man looking seethingly at the other. “Marie and I were lovers for many months before I left. And it seems that right after I boarded that ship for Europe — within weeks — you met and married her. Joseph is my son! Just look at the boy! Can you not see the resemblance?”

Unable to control himself any longer, Ben reached for Marchant’s neck and wrapped his hand around his throat. “I should kill you here and now! But I’ll give you a chance to get out of town! You leave and never return and you will stay healthy!” Ben’s threats were real. He had never felt so much hatred for someone he hardly even knew. But the threat of this information leaking out and crushing his youngest son was something that Ben knew was now a possibility unless Marchant was forced to leave. And at the moment, no matter what Ben had preached to his sons in the past about the use of violence, Ben wanted to kill.

Marchant pushed down Ben’s hand from his neck and called out for his two bodyguards who stood in readiness in the alcove of the room. “Mr. Stern and Mr. Price will see you out, Mr. Cartwright. I will be seeing you very soon as I have already filed papers for custody of Joseph. You will find all the information at the courthouse if you would like to try to fight me on this. But it will be totally useless; I have prepared very well, and time has been on my side getting ready to bring my son home.”

Ben wanted to reach for his six-gun and take all three of the men out. But he knew that he would go to jail and that would hurt his family as much as Marchant’s threats. He looked deadly at Marchant just before he turned from the two bodyguards at the door. “You are gonna have one hell of a fight, Marchant! Just because Marie married me instead of you, you have to come and try to steal my son! Well, let me tell you something. You will have to kill me in order to accomplish that!” Ben warned and stormed out of the hotel room.

*****

Adam had fallen to sleep in his father’s chair by the fireplace, a book resting on his chest. He struggled to open his eyes as he heard his father enter in from the front door. Ben seemed slow in his motions and he had a very strong look of sorrow displayed on his weary face. Ben crossed the room and sunk down on the settee, both mentally and physically exhausted.

“What happened, Pa?” Adam asked quietly, concerned with his father’s appearance.

“Adam, go wake up Hoss, please. I might as well talk to both of you at the same time.”

“And Joe?” Adam questioned standing.

Ben shook his head adamantly, “No. Make sure he doesn’t hear you get Hoss. This is for you and Hoss only.”

A few minutes later, Ben turned to see his two eldest sons descending the staircase. Hoss was still in his nightshirt and rubbed at his head, trying his best to escape his tired state. Adam and Hoss sat on the settee as Ben took his stance in front of the fireplace. “Hoss, I need to tell you where I really went tonight. That man that Joe met today–Mr. Marchant–was someone that Marie knew in the past,” Ben started and Hoss looked over at him bewildered. “I went to see him and to find out what he was doing in Virginia City.”

“What’s he want, Pa?”

Ben took a deep breath, trying to think of how best to tell his sons what had happened and why he was so upset. “Marie and Marchant had a love affair—which ended a couple of weeks before I met her. Marchant had left for Europe after Marie told him she didn’t want to live the kind of life that he wanted to live. She didn’t want to leave and go so far away. She also told me that they were too different and it would never have worked.”

“But what does he want?” Adam repeated his brother’s prior question and saw his father’s face take on the strangest look. Adam wasn’t sure if his father was ready to cry or to yell. His demeanor was a cross between both of those emotions. Ben’s fists tensed and he looked away momentarily. Finally, he answered his sons, “He claims that Marie was carrying his child when I married her–and that child is Joseph.”

The look that passed between both of the Cartwright brothers was that of total disbelief and bewilderment. “That’s crazy! How the hell could he even think that!” Adam responded incensed with the whole idea.

“He has gotten copies of both Marie and my marriage certificate and also Joseph’s birth record. And just because Joe came early–almost two full months early — he claims the boy is his. He even said that Joe looks like him,” Ben stated. Then the weight of the situation fell on him and he sat down hard in the chair. He dropped his head in his hands and fought back tears. The tears were from many things. The reminder of a man that Marie had loved before she married him, the terrible ordeal that this fight would cost the family, and by far the worse, was what this would do to Joseph. Ben knew how Joe was; he had always been so extremely sensitive that even the shadow of a doubt that this accusation might cause would be enough to destroy the boy emotionally.

Both Adam and Hoss rallied around their father for support, one standing on each side of the chair. “Pa—we’ll get through this…” Hoss tried to reassure, but his heart was still pounding after taking all his father had said into his mind. He knew in his heart that Little Joe was his brother. Nothing else would ever be needed! But he also knew that this scandal would cause terrible damage to the entire family.

“Do you have a plan?” Adam asked, thinking also of his youngest brother and the strong bond that pulled the two of them together always. Adam knew Joe was different, not having the same ideals or temperament that he himself possessed, but his brother nonetheless.

Ben cleared his throat to gain his composure and responded, “We have to get Joe out of town quickly–before Marchant talks to him. I already had Dave Bennett promise to deliver a message to our lawyer to meet with me here tomorrow afternoon. Hoss, I would like you to get your gear together and leave with Joe first thing in the morning. You can catch the noon stage out and go to San Francisco. I will have to make something up—like a business deal that needs the both of your attention–something–to get him out of here until we can get it under control!”

Hoss nodded. “Don’t you worry about a thing, Pa. I’ll get him out of here. Maybe we can hole up with Hop Sings cousin; that way Marchant won’t be able to find us!”

“Yes–good idea! And if I need to pass word onto you, I can send it directly to our lawyer there. You think you can make this sound real, so that Joseph won’t know why I am sending him off?”

“Sure, Pa, now don’t worry about that; I’ll handle it.” Hoss patted his father’s shoulder.

“Pa…” Adam started but then stopped himself, unsure if he should ask a very important question.

Ben studied the intensity that reflected in Adam’s eyes and answered the unspoken question. “Joseph is mine—–and I don’t ever want to hear anyone in this house question it.”

Adam and Hoss both sighed relieved that they hadn’t actually spoken the words but that their father picked up on the smallest of doubt that was starting to bother their minds.

“We know it, Pa…” Hoss said without pause.

“Pa, you know those railroad contracts were supposed to be revised? You can tell Joe that you are sending him and Hoss to look them over and sign in your place.” Adam was now totally in to getting Joe thrown off from what they were trying to protect him from.

“Good idea! Now if he says anything about Marchant, I’ll tell him that Adam is going to show the man around,” Ben continued.

A dark, vicious grin creased Adam’s mouth as he spoke, “I’ll show that bastard around all right! There’s places around here where they will never find his lying carcass!”

Ben stared at Adam; he knew it was his place, as the young man’s father, to correct that kind of violent threat. But Ben couldn’t help but think the same thing that his eldest had spoken. He would have enjoyed nothing better than to dump Marchant’s dead body into the depths of Lake Tahoe. However, he knew they had to try their best to handle this awful situation legally. Legally, first, Ben thought to himself, but if that didn’t work, then Lake Tahoe might just be a fitting place.

*****

It was almost noon the following day when Joe Cartwright stood in front of the Overland Stage Line ticket office and waited for his brother Hoss to come out with their tickets to board the stage which would take them to San Francisco. He felt a combination of emotions; he was excited to be going on this trip as San Francisco had always been one of his favorite places. It had so much to offer with the fast-paced world on the Barbary Coast and there had always been beautiful women to see and flirt with. Yes, Joe thought to himself, he enjoyed going there. But, he also felt a bit bad that he wouldn’t be able to show Mr. Marchant around town the way he had promised he would. Ben had reassured Joe that morning that older brother Adam would take his place and show Mr. Marchant what he desired to see. Joe couldn’t help feeling a little intrigued by the stranger; perhaps it was because the man was from New Orleans.

Rene Marchant spotted Joe from across the street and quickly made his way over to him. He saw the travel bags that lay at Joe’s feet and had already put two and two together, reasoning that the boy was about to leave.

Joe turned as Marchant approached him. “Mr. Marchant, I’m sorry but I am going away for a few weeks, but my brother Adam will be in town later to show you around,” Joe explained.

“Joseph—please–I need to talk to you before you go. It’s vitally important!”

“Huh? What is it about?”

“Come with me.” Marchant led Joe into the alleyway between the stage office and the mercantile. Joe followed along, very curious as to the urgency of the man’s request.

“I didn’t want to tell you this way, but I have no choice,” Marchant started.

“Tell me what?”

“Ben Cartwright is sending you on this sudden trip due to the conversation him and I had last night.”

“Pa saw you in town? “ Joe asked, surprised that his father would have visited Marchant instead of seeing Roy Coffee as he had told his sons. “What did you talk about? Why do you think he’s sending me away because of it?”

Rene Marchant reached into his coat and drew out a locket the size of a pocket watch. He opened it and handed it to Joe.

Joe stared at the pictures. On one side was a picture of Joe’s mother and on the other there seemed to be a picture of Mr. Marchant. “This is you—-and my mother! I don’t understand. What’s going on? Did you know my mother? Is that what you and my father were talking about?”

“Your mother and I were going to be married. We were very much in love. But we parted ways because she chose not to go with me to Europe to start my business there. Weeks later, she met and married Ben Cartwright.” Marchant explained and watched as Joe took all of the information in.

“So what has all this got to do with me?”

Rene reached out and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and hoped he wouldn’t pull away from the gesture. “Joseph, your mother was already carrying you when she met Ben Cartwright. You are my son.”

Joe stepped back in the alleyway and leaned heavily against the brick wall. He felt as though he had been punched in the stomach, and fought hard to catch his breath. So many thoughts swirled in his mind. Surely Marchant is lying! But if he was lying, then why would Pa send me away so suddenly? And why the lie about going to see Roy? And why did this stranger seem so familiar? Was it the hair, the hazel eyes–or the fact that perhaps he was his father? Joe could feel tears well up in his eyes as this all fell on his heart. The possibility that he might not truly be a Cartwright was tearing at his very soul.

“You were born seven months after Ben and Marie were married. Ben claims you were premature, but I believe you were right on time,” Marchant continued.

“Why! Why do you come here after all these years? Why did you have to tell me this?! Don’t you know that Ben Cartwright raised me, loved me, took care of me?! He is my father!” Joe yelled.

Marchant shook his head and spoke softly to the lad. “I didn’t even find out about you until I returned to New Orleans last year. Once I had all the facts, I knew I had to find you. You are my son–my only heir! I want you with me!”

“I have to leave…” Joe fought to control his voice and it wasn’t working. “I have to think this whole thing out…” Joe turned and hurried down the alley. He all but ran to the livery stable, where Hoss had left both Cochise and Chub. Joe quickly mounted his horse and galloped down the street just as Hoss stepped out of the ticket office.

“Joe!” Hoss yelled as the horse passed him, but to no avail as Joe was determined to escape from all he had seen and heard.

Hoss spotted the elegantly dressed Marchant as he stepped out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. Hoss didn’t need an introduction to know who the man was as he hurried over to speak to him. “Marchant! What did you say to my brother?” Hoss’ face was red with anger and his fists had automatically readied for a punch to be thrown.

Rene Marchant studied the huge Cartwright he had already been informed about. “I simply told him the truth–which was more than your father did!”

Hoss reared back to throw a right punch at the man just as the two body guards made their presence known by flanking Hoss on both sides. “I wouldn’t even think about it,” Marchant said smiling at the angry man in front of him.

“I’ll deal with you later—-all of you!” Hoss shouted and turned toward the livery stable. Finding Joe was much more important at the present than mopping the road with Mr. Marchant. But Hoss vowed to himself he would put that on his list of things to do later.

*****

While Ben and Adam Cartwright were meeting with the family’s lawyer at the ranch house that afternoon, Hoss was frantically searching the ranch and surrounding countryside for his little brother. He went to all the places that Joe was bound to seek refuge, including Marie’s grave site overlooking Lake Tahoe. The search proved pointless, and after several hours, a very disheartened Hoss made his way back home.

It was dusk when Hoss opened the door leading into the house, and his appearance there shocked both Adam and Ben. “Hoss!” Ben exclaimed as he stood from his chair. “What are you doing here? You should be halfway to San Francisco by now!” Ben walked toward the door and noticed the pure regret controlling the large mans face. “What’s happened? Where’s Joseph?”

“Marchant got to him while I was in the stage office getting our tickets. I’m so sorry, Pa.” Hoss sounded like he would break down into tears at any moment, feeling awful for having failed his father.

Ben reached over and grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it affectionately. “It’s okay, son; just tell me what happened,” Ben consoled his middle son and Adam walked over to join them both.

“He somehow spotted Joe—-took him off somewhere and told him that he was Joe’s father. I saw Joe riding away just as I came out of the stage office. Joe was riding so fast to get away I don’t even know if he saw me or heard me yell to him. I’ve been out all afternoon looking for him. I even when up to the Marie’s grave—but he wasn’t there.”

“I’ll go get the horses,” Adam said and didn’t wait around for a reply; he headed directly out to the barn.

“Damn Marchant!” Ben cursed and strapped on his gun belt. “I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

“Don’t think that I didn’t want to do that myself, Pa! But Joe’s the only thing that matters right now. He’s probably all tore up inside now that he’s heard what Marchant is saying.”

“Did you check up at that line-shack–you know the one where you and he stayed last spring?”

“Yeah, there and just about every other place he usually goes when he’s troubled.”

“Not everywhere,” came Adam’s remark as he entered the house again.

“Huh?” Hoss said bewildered as he turned toward his brother.

“The hayloft,” Adam answered and looked at both Hoss and his father. There was somewhat of a relieved smile on Adam’s face and the other Cartwrights finally understood.

“Joe’s in the hayloft; must have gotten in right after Hoss did while we were here talking about him. I tried to go up there and talk to him but he yelled for me to stay away. He says he doesn’t want to talk to any of us. Oh and Pa, sounds like he’s been drinking.”

“So he went back to his former place of refuge, did he?” Ben spoke as he once more removed his holster and set it back on the credenza. He remembered Joe having spent a great deal of his childhood hiding up in the hayloft. Ben had often found him hiding there after getting a bad grade in school or getting into a fight with another boy. At least he was home, and the thought of that was relief in itself. But then Ben worried how he would be able to ease Joe’s mind from all he had heard in town. “I’ll go talk to him,” Ben sighed and left the house.

*****

The barn was already dark when Ben opened the planked door and walked inside. Joe was obviously sitting up in the loft in total darkness, trying to avoid everyone. Ben reached for a lantern and lit it, and approached the ladder that led up to the hayloft. By the time he had reached the top rung of the ladder, he could hear the faint sound of Joe crying. Ben pulled himself upright and walked over toward the sound.

Joe sat slouched against several large bags of grain, a bottle of whiskey clutched tightly in his left hand. Ben set the lantern off to the side and knelt down next to his son. He reached out and touched Joe’s arm But Joe pulled away from him and yelled, “Leave me alone! I don’t want to talk to you!”

“Joseph…” Ben whispered and sat down alongside of Joe. “I know you are angry–and hurt–but we have to talk this out.”

“Talk?” Joe laughed sarcastically and drank more whiskey, still not looking at his father. “You didn’t want to talk to me, remember? No, you just wanted to send me off to San Francisco! When was I supposed to find out about all of this anyway? When it was printed in the Territorial Enterprise?”

“I was trying to avoid you getting hurt…” Ben again started.

Joe cut him off in mid sentence. “How? By letting everyone else know but me? It sure was great to hear it from a perfect stranger! Oh wait, no, he’s not a stranger. He’s my father, right?”

Ben grabbed Joe’s shoulders and forced him to look into his eyes. “I am your father! You are my son. You will always be my son! Don’t believe Marchant’s lies!”

“And my mother? What about my mother? You gonna tell me that she never slept with him?” Joe forced his piercing gaze on Ben waiting to hear the truth at last.

“What she did or didn’t do has nothing to do with this!”

“Oh yes it does! It has everything to do with it! If she slept with him, then it is possible that I’m Marchant’s son! “

“Joseph, you are MY son!” Ben protested loudly, trying to get it to register in Joe’s brain.

“You didn’t answer my question! Did she have an affair with Marchant or not? You want to talk so badly–but you won’t even tell me what I need to know!”

Ben released his grip on Joe’s shoulders and sunk back down against the sacks of grain. His heart ached at the question that Joe had been persistent in asking. But Ben knew he had to answer it. He knew that it would all come out in court eventually.

“Yes, Joseph, your mother had an affair with Mr. Marchant. And it is true that she broke off their engagement a couple of weeks before I met her. But that proves nothing. I met her and I married her, and we loved each other. And it was from that love that you were conceived. You were born premature–I’ve told you that before.”

Joe turned back away from Ben, his heart also breaking to have the news of his mother’s affair being confirmed. It made what Marchant had told him seem that much more valid.

Ben reached over again, hearing Joe’s sobs become more strained. “I know this is an awful thing to have come out of nowhere for you. I know what you are thinking, but you are wrong. I have no doubt that you are my son. You need to stop doubting it.” Ben was more gentle in his words now, seeing Joe so utterly devastated.

“I don’t look like you!” Joe said between sobs.

“Neither do any of my other sons. All three of you favor your mothers,” Ben was insistent now.

“I look like Marchant,” Joe whispered, remembering the man’s hair and eyes.

“You look like your mother,” Ben repeated.

“If you are not my father, then Adam and Hoss aren’t my brothers–and this ranch is not a part of me either…”

“Your brothers feel the exact same way I do. We would all die for you if we had to! And every time you have ever been hurt, you have bled Cartwright blood!”

There was a long silence between Ben and Joe. Joe was exhausted from the emotions of the day and the large quantity of whiskey that he had consumed. Ben finally reached over and pulled Joe toward him, this time feeling little resistance from his son. “I’m so scared–scared about what all this means,” Joe cried and Ben reached over to push the tears from Joe’s eyes. “I just want it all back the way it was—but it never is gonna be that way again. Not with all this coming out–and never knowing for sure who really is my father.”

“Look at me!” Ben forced Joe’s face to stare into his dark eyes. “You are looking at your father. You are a part of me and you will always be my son–whether you like it or not.” Ben tried to draw a smile out of his son, but found himself to be failing miserably. He worried about the fact that during their whole conversation Joe had never once called him “pa.” Could it be possible that he was already losing his youngest? The thought of that was worse than any other fear that Ben Cartwright had known. He pulled Joe into his arms and hugged him. “Joseph, you are my son, but to tell you the truth, even if someone had dropped you off on my doorstep seventeen years ago, I would feel this same way about you. I love you so much.”

Ben felt Joe’s arms finally go around his shoulders and Joe whispered, “I love you too, Pa.”

*****

Ben watched his youngest son as he fell off to sleep with his head still on his father’s strong shoulder. Whether Joe had passed out due to exhaustion or from the alcohol, Ben wasn’t sure nor did he care. Joe was home and safe, and for the moment, the whole terrible ordeal with Marchant was pushed aside. Ben closed his own eyes and said a silent prayer that somehow there would be a resolution to the paternity issue. He did not care what the man from New Orleans had said or even how much difficulty there would be in proving that Joe was indeed a Cartwright. Ben Cartwright knew he was Joe’s father and that was all that mattered at the present. He watched as Joe slumbered on and remembered holding him as an infant and then a small boy. In the rebellious teenage years, he had too few opportunities to feel this close to Joe.

It tortured Ben’s heart and soul to see where Joe’s tears had stained his cheeks and knew the total grief that the boy was feeling. Ben thought on what Joe had said about the fact that he resembled Mr. Marchant in hair and eye color. He pushed all those things aside as he stared down at what he considered to be a reflection of his wife, Marie. Somehow he vowed to get through to Joseph that there was no doubt as to his parentage. He just needed some time to figure out some way to accomplish that feat. Ben pushed the abundance of curls out of Joe’s eyes and brushed them back as he had so many times in the boy’s life. He remembered Marie to have that same texture of hair, and the thickness of Joe’s surpassed even hers. From the first moment Joe had drawn breath, he was known for the curls which graced his head.

Ben was shaken from his remembrance as Adam appeared at the top of the ladder, staring over concerned at his father and brother. “You okay?” he whispered.

Ben smiled for the first time in two days. At least for the time being, the ranch was at peace with Joe slumbering on in his father’s arms. “Yes, I’m fine. Guess we need to get this young man into bed. Why don’t you go get Hoss to help us; Joe is out cold.”

Adam nodded and descended the ladder leaving his father a few more precious moments alone with Joe.

*****

At breakfast the next morning, Ben filled Adam and Hoss in on what had taken place the previous night with his conversation with their brother. Both brothers were saddened by Joe’s obvious lack of faith in being a Cartwright, but they understood where all the doubt was coming from.

“So when he comes down here, it’s probably best if we don’t mention it unless he does,” Ben finished.

“Does he know about Benton coming over here yesterday, Pa?” Hoss asked and Ben shook his head.

“We didn’t talk about the lawyer. I know Benton wants to talk with Joseph, but I don’t think today would be a good day for it.”

“Hoss, Benton told Pa and me yesterday that we have a good chance in dragging the case on for a while. Maybe Marchant will give up the cause if he’s forced to stay in Virginia City for a long time.” Adam tried to ease the worry he saw so vividly displayed on Hoss’ face.

“So, he can’t just take Joe?”

“No, Hoss…” Ben started and could see the expressions on both of his son’s faces become less strained. “Benton is going to make sure of that. If he even tries to do that, Marchant will have more trouble on his hands then he knows what to do with. You know I’d never let Joe go!”

“Neither would we,” Adam spoke for both himself and Hoss who nodded affirming his intent.

Joe slowly descended the stairs. He was feeling awful and it showed. Even after having cleaned up and changed clothes, he still looked much as he did the prior night in the hayloft. There were dark circles under his eyes which were dull from the night of intense emotion. That, coupled with far too much whiskey, made Joe seem so much older than his seventeen years. He took his place at the table and his family sat wondering how to best break the ice with him. Before the Cartwrights could think of anything, Hop Sing appeared out of nowhere and stood behind Joe’s chair. He placed both of his hands on Joe’s shoulders and spoke, “Little Joe! You look vely bad. Hop Sing get you something to make you all better!”

Joe nodded to the cook but did not speak. He looked around the table at each of his family members and found words impossible to come by.

“Joseph…” Ben started and sat his coffee cup down and tried for a cheery look. “How about some coffee?”

Joe nodded again and Ben passed him a cup. Joe sipped at it but still avoided the other’s eyes.

“Hey, Little Joe! That mare finally had her foal yesterday. After breakfast, let’s go look at it. It looks a little scrawny right now–but I think it’s gonna turn into a real beaut.”

“Okay,” Joe answered quietly.

Adam felt it was his turn to try to cheer his little brother and he spoke. “Mitch came by yesterday and wanted you to come over and visit him. I’ve been wanting to talk to his pa about the new mill. How ‘bout you and I going over there after lunch?”

Joe put down his coffee cup as Hop Sing came in with his breakfast. The cook had gone out of his way to make Joe all of his favorites. “Thanks, Hop Sing.” Joe tried his best to smile at the man but he couldn’t even fake it. Joe turned to look at Ben and asked, “I know what all of you are trying to do, but let’s all stop playing games here. I need to know what’s gonna happen now.”

Ben watched as the piercing hazel eyes turned on him, pleading to know what would happen with Marchant. He fought to choose the right words that wouldn’t set Joe off again. “We have to go and talk with Benton Hill today. We’ll know more after that.”

“I don’t want to go!” Joe protested.

Ben grabbed his arm, trying to calm the storm he saw brewing inside of Joe. “You don’t have to go, Joseph. Adam and I will go. Why don’t you go with Hoss and see the new colt? Try to take your mind off things for a while.”

“My mind off things?” Joe’s question came off acridly. “I don’t even know who I am anymore–but I’m sure going to see a new colt will make everything all better!” Joe stood and threw his napkin down and rushed outside.

“I knew that would happen,” Adam said after Joe had slammed the front door. “Pa, Joe is going to really lose it if we don’t somehow resolve this fast. Dragging it out in court may not be the best solution.”

“What do you want me to do, Adam? From what Benton said, Marchant is not the type to give up easily. He has money, so he can’t be bought off. We can’t kill him–though we are all in agreement here that we’d like to.” Ben was getting angrier at the whole situation, and even Hoss started to close his fists trying to control his urge to go after the man who had caused the whole problem.

“Let me talk to Joe, see if I can get through to him,” Adam replied quietly.

Ben settled back in his chair. He folded his hands and rested his forehead on his knuckles. “What Joseph needs is some kind of positive proof that I am his father. I’m afraid there is no medical way to get that. Benton said that even Doc Martin’s testimony would not prove positively that Joe was premature.”

“We’ll come up with something, Pa. But right now Joe just needs family.” Adam stood from his chair and saw Ben nod for him to go ahead and try to talk with his brother.

*****

Joe sat out on the porch step, deep in thought, as Adam approached coming from the front door. He sat down alongside of Joe and noticed how the boy seemed to tense up.

“I want to talk to you, Joe,” Adam started and Joe turned his face away from his brother.

“Not now.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what; I’ll talk and you listen. Hey, that will be a first, won’t it?” Adam tried to kid around and Joe was not having anything to do with it. He still sat stone-faced, looking in the opposite direction.

“Joe, you and I are about as different as two people can be really. Have you ever thought of that?”

“Thanks, Adam,” Joe replied sarcastically. “I really needed to hear something like that right now.”

“Let me finish before you punch me in the nose–okay?”

“Finish,” Joe retorted still upset.

“No matter how different we are, we do still share some things.”

“Like what?”

“Like loving this ranch, brother Hoss—and our father.”

Joe dropped his head down fighting off tears. He didn’t want to break down in front of Adam.

“Joe, you forget that I was around your Ma for quite awhile. And Pa is right–every time we look at you, we see her! I know you are not too happy with her right now, but I wasn’t happy at first when she came into our lives either. That all changed when I saw how she breathed life back into Pa and when she gave me this pesky baby brother to chase after.” Adam put his arm on Joe’s shoulder, something he rarely did as theirs wasn’t much of a physical relationship. Adam and Joe each respected each others space but that never stopped the love they felt in their hearts for each other. “Joe, before I’d let that bastard Marchant take you from us, I’d kill him with these two hands. And you know I don’t make idle threats.”

“You don’t understand. We may not even be brothers, don’t you see? Yesterday you were my half-brother, and today, I may not even be a Cartwright,” Joe whispered as a stray tear escaped his eye. He briskly brushed it aside before Adam could notice.

“I never considered you my half-brother–no more than I consider Hoss my half-brother. Both you and Hoss are one hundred per cent Cartwright. You are the same kid you were when you woke up yesterday morning. Remember? Driving me crazy with all your talk of the women in San Francisco and all the trouble you planned to get in to. Nothing has changed—-except that you let yourself believe some lame story that some idiot told you.”

“The idiot who might be my father,” Joe stated bitterly.

Adam grabbed Joe’s arm roughly, his frustration unleashed and his fear of losing Joe to Marchant increasing. He pointed his finger toward the front door and forced Joe to look at him. “The only father you will ever have is in that house! And he’s worried sick about you! Now stop the whining and temper tantrums and go in there and prove that you are a Cartwright! Go in there and tell him you are ready to fight Marchant!”

Adam let go of Joe’s arm and stood and looked down at him. “If you are a Cartwright, that’s exactly what you would do!”

Joe stood slowly and met Adam’s dark glowing eyes. There was no longer any anger in those eyes, only love for his brother and the hope that he had gotten Joe to the point where he would start trying to fight. Joe broke the gaze, looked over at the front door and then back at Adam who was now smiling. He knew what Joe’s next move would be. Joe walked directly into the ranch house and yelled over to where Ben and Hoss still sat in the dining room.

“I’m going to the lawyers with you! I’ll go hitch up the team.” Joe turned and once more left the house, leaving his family totally amazed at the boy’s sudden furor. Adam patted Joe on the back as he walked past him at the front door.

*****

Ben and Joe rode to Virginia City that afternoon in the buckboard. Ben tried his best to steer the conversation away from talk of Marchant. Joe fought the anxiety he was feeling as he thought of talking with the family lawyer. He dreaded what would come out concerning his mother’s reputation. Joe felt a surge of betrayal toward her and his heart was numbed by it.

Entering the law firm, Ben and Joe were immediately welcomed by the junior partner who just happened to be Benton Hill’s son Randolf. “Mr. Cartwright–Joe–come on in! My father has been expecting you.” Randolf led the way into his father’s office and the two Cartwrights took their seats as Randolf excused himself and withdrew from the room. Benton Hill smiled at his two clients, trying to make them feel less tense. He could almost feel Joe’s awkwardness at the situation and hoped he could ease the thick cloud of worry hanging over both Cartwrights.

“Ben, the court has set a preliminary hearing for the day after tomorrow. Joe, you won’t even have to be present for this one. It’s really just a formality. No testimony will be taken. The original complaint for custody will be submitted, as will our response and counter complaint.”

“Then what happens?” Joe replied without showing direct eye contact with the lawyer.

“I told your father yesterday, we intend to make this case as long as drawn out as we can. We hope to wait Marchant out and maybe he’ll give up. In your favor, you have lived with Ben your whole life and he has taken such good care of you that he would never be deemed unfit in any way. Marchant, on the other hand, doesn’t even know you at this point. And, even though we have no hard medical evidence to back us up, neither does he. That will also be greatly in our favor,” Benton reassured as much as he could.

“But, when this comes to trial—then what? Will all this come out about him and my mother?”

Benton sighed, frustrated at the truth of the matter, and replied, “I’m afraid so, Joe. There’s no way around that.”

Joe stared over at his father who had a very pained look on his face. Joe knew the revelation of his mother’s past would hurt a lot of people but his father the most. Joe knew that Ben still loved Marie, no matter what. Joe was unsure of how he now felt toward the woman who had given him life and now it seemed was ruining it. “Pa…” Joe started and even the sound of that one word felt uneasy for the first time in Joe’s life. “I know you don’t want this to come out–not here, not in front of the whole town. Maybe it’s just not worth it.”

Ben shot Joe an exasperated look and returned, “Not worth it? How can you even think that? Your mother would want me to fight for you with everything I have inside of me. She would be the last person to consider her own reputation over your welfare. Not worth it? Marchant can say anything he wants about Marie or me–as long as he doesn’t end up taking away my son!”

Joe looked down at the floor, breaking his father’s strong gaze. He knew that Ben had meant every word he had said, but it still made him feel guilty for being the reason that the past would be displayed in court.

Benton cleared his throat to relieve the awkward silence that had fallen over the room. “Let’s get the preliminary hearing over. Then we can put our heads together on what we want to say in court. Until then, just rest easy. Joe, we have no intention of letting you go off with Mr. Marchant, so don’t worry, okay?”

There was a knock at the door and Benton opened it and saw Randolf standing there. “Didn’t want to interrupt, but this message just came over here. It’s for Joe–and it’s from Mr. Marchant.” Randolf handed the envelope to his father who gave it to Joe.

Joe nervously opened it and read the contents. He then looked over at Ben. “He’s asked that I come over to see him at the hotel. He says it’s very important that I meet with him before the hearing. And he wants me to come alone.” Joe handed the letter to his father, who also read it and passed it over to Benton.

“What now?” Ben asked nervously, he knew the man was up to no good.

“Well, Joe, what do you want to do about it?” Benton asked.

Joe shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “Guess I’ll go see what he wants.”

“Not without me you won’t!” Ben retorted angrily.

“He said to come alone. I’ll fill you in after I talk with him.” Joe looked up at his father and fought to remain calm, even though he felt like running away again.

“I’ll go over with you…” Ben paused and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder for support. “But, I’ll wait down in the lobby,” Ben conceded and Joe nodded his approval.

“Let’s get this over with,” Joe stated flatly and turned to walk out of the office.

“Ben, come back into town tomorrow and we’ll discuss whatever Joe finds out from Marchant today.”

“I’ll do that, Benton,” Ben agreed and shook his hand and followed Joe out of the building.

*****

Ben and Joe made their way over to the International House and Joe stopped before ascending the long staircase. He looked briefly at his father and Ben’s worried look did not help the uneasiness Joe was feeling. “I’ll be right over there.” Ben pointed at the sofa in the lobby.

Joe nodded and started up the stairs. He paused as he reached room number eight and took a deep breath to ward off the sickness he felt in the pit of his stomach. Finally, gaining his composure, Joe knocked on the door. Marchant was quick to answer and opened the door and motioned for Joe to come inside. “So glad you came right over.”

“How did you know where I was?” Joe asked as he entered the large living area.

A smile creased the man’s face and he replied, “I have a lot of eyes working for me. Come on in and sit. I have so much to speak with you about.” Marchant led Joe over to the sofa and Joe sat at a distance from the man.

“I was so sorry that I had to reveal myself to you in the way I did yesterday, Joseph. But Ben Cartwright left me no other recourse when he tried to send you away.”

“What do you want from me?” Joe burst out not being able to stand the thought of the man thinking that he was his son.

“I want to get to know you–to spend some time with you. Is that asking too much?” Marchant’s voice came out with his own kind of compassion.

Joe stared into the hazel eyes in front of him; he ached at the thought that they looked so much like his own eyes. “Mr. Marchant, Ben Cartwright is the only father I need or want. Even if what you have told me is true—that I am your son by blood — it doesn’t change what that man has done for me.”

“No, it doesn’t, nor do I hold any contempt for him. But, you have to understand, Joseph, you are my son, not his. Isn’t it only fair that I have a chance to get to know my only son?”

Joe looked away from the man. He yearned for Ben Cartwright to burst into the room and break up what was going on.

“Now, Joseph,” Marchant continued on, “I know you don’t want everyone in this town to hear all the facts of all our lives being displayed in the courtroom. You don’t want your mother’s reputation sullied any more than I do. I loved her–and to this day I would give anything to have her back.”

“She’s dead. No one has her now–not you, not Pa, not me,” Joe corrected.

“But do you want the rumor mill to circulate the story of her past?”

“No, if only for Pa’s sake.”

Marchant frowned at the mention of Ben Cartwright, especially the term “pa” used in reference to him. He knew he could change that in the future so did not correct Joe at this time.

“I have a proposition for you, something that all of us–you, Ben and myself– will benefit from.” Marchant reached over to a folder on the table and handed it to Joe.

Joe opened it to find a written contract of sorts. He studied it to find it required his signature to be official. “Go away to New Orleans with you? For six months? Until my eighteenth birthday? Why would I agree to do that?” Joe asked bewildered and saw Marchant open another folder. This one held many papers, which the man spread out on the coffee table.

“Here is all the information on all of Ben Cartwright’s holdings. Every contract, every land deed, every stock option. Cattle—timber–it’s all here.”

“So, what’s this all about?” Joe asked his voice starting to tremble with dread.

“Joseph, wealth has its privileges. You will find that out soon. I can, in just a few days, totally bankrupt the Ponderosa. Ben’s wealth is not as vast as my own. This is what I will do if you do not agree to come to New Orleans with me.” Marchant spoke with complete confidence and Joe looked at him in disbelief.

“You would do all this? What–just to get even with my father?”

“I am your father! But, I can’t even start to get to know you until you get away from here. Now, I can see the great affection you have for the man–and for his sons. But, I promise you that I have no intention of sitting through a long involved custody battle. I need to get back to New Orleans.”

“What’s in this for me if I sign?” Joe stared again at the contract and his heart broke at the idea that he would probably end up signing it to save the Ponderosa and his father’s dream.

“If you agree to stay for six months, with no contact with Ben Cartwright or his sons, then after that time–if you decide not to stay with me–I will not protest you leaving, and I will not go after the Ponderosa or Ben Cartwright.” Marchant stared over at the boy, and knew by his facial expression that he had succeeded in swaying his mind.

“How do I know you’ll do as you promised if I leave after six months?” Joe did not trust the man in any way and it came out in his question.

“I will also sign this. And a copy will be sent to Ben’s lawyer. That way we are all in perfect agreement.”

“What do I tell Pa?”

“You tell Ben Cartwright nothing! He will see the contract after we leave. And I want to leave tomorrow!”

Joe was sure that his heart had stopped beating altogether now. Leaving the ranch, going away for six months and not even being able to explain his actions to his father was agony. But he knew that Marchant meant business and Joe couldn’t stomach the idea that Ben fighting for custody of Joe would cost him the Ponderosa. Joe knew how much of Ben’s own blood was in that ranch and he felt it would kill Pa to lose it. Knowing all this, Joe reached for Marchant’s pen and signed the paper.

“I will meet you just outside of Virginia City, on the road that forks toward Carson. Be there by six tomorrow morning. Don’t pack anything; I’ll see to all your needs,” Marchant said and followed the distraught Joe to the door.

“I’ll be there,” Joe barely whispered and left the room.

*****

Rene Marchant pulled aside the velvet lined drapes to the front window of his hotel suite and peered down toward the street. He watched as both Ben and Joe left the hotel and walked toward their buckboard. Rene smiled contented and said aloud, “Enjoy the afternoon with Joe, Ben Cartwright. It is the last one you will ever have!”

*****

Ben had noticed the strained appearance on his son’s face as he had descended the staircase at the International House. Ben decided to wait until they were alone and on their way home before he addressed what had taken place with Marchant. Joe seemed to watch the scenery more than usual, his father not knowing that the boy was trying to etch it all in his head for the long six months when he would be gone. They spoke only a few words until Ben finally pulled the wagon to a halt just above a clearing over looking Lake Tahoe.

Joe shook himself from his thoughts and noticed where they now were. He frowned when he realized they were at his mother’s grave. He looked down the well-worn path that led to her tombstone and fought off any thought of going there.

“Let’s get out and stretch our legs,” Ben said, tying the reins of the team to the front of the buckboard. Joe watched as his father stepped down out of the wagon and walked around to his side. “C’mon, Joe,” he called. The boy just sat there and crossed his arms at his chest.

“I can’t right now. I’m not ready,” Joe answered defiantly.

Ben came closer to his son. “Joseph, you have to make peace with all of this. You can’t blame your mother for what has happened,” Ben returned quietly but Joe just responded by shaking his head. “Marie is not the cause of this. If you want to be mad at anyone, it should be Marchant!”

“Don’t think that I’m not mad with him too!” Joe spoke out with great anger.

“Okay, Joe, what happened? I’ve been waiting for you to tell me, but you have barely spoken since we left town.”

Joe looked into his father’s eyes. So many thoughts permeated his mind. He wanted to confess all. He wanted Ben to go into town and tell that man to leave. Joe wished he could confess what Marchant’s plans were, but knew he couldn’t. The Ponderosa was at stake, and that meant his family was at stake as well. Joe dropped his head down in order to avoid the dark eyes of his father that always knew him far too well. “He just wants me to spend some time with him. Get to know him and all. It wasn’t much of a conversation actually. He said he wanted to apologize for breaking the news to me the way he did.”

Ben lifted Joe’s chin to make eye contact. “Was that all?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yeah.” Joe tried hard to lie to the man he loved so much.

Ben frowned and shook his head irritated at the thought of Marchant’s request. “You don’t have to spend any time with him! We’re going to win in court and then that…” Ben paused to choose his words; he wanted to use some foul language at this point, but he was talking to his youngest and rethought his statement. “That misguided fool—he has no right to even see you. Don’t worry, Joseph, it’s going to be okay. I promise you.” Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and noticed how his son had suddenly turned his face away again.

“It’s not going to be okay, Pa,” Joe thought to himself. “I have to leave you; I have to leave my brothers–and the Ponderosa! Six months, in a strange place with a strange person who thinks I’m his son! No it’s not going to be okay. But I have to do it to protect all of you, and what you have fought so hard to build.”

“Joe? Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” Joe shook the thoughts away once more. “I’m just tired. Let’s go home, okay?”

Ben looked down the path toward Marie’s grave. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he replied and walked down to the grave site. Ben pushed aside the dead leaves which lay on top of the tombstone baring the name of his late wife. He knelt alongside of the grave and whispered as if he was talking to the woman in life, not death. “Marie, we’ve got to get through to our boy that he is ours. Help him and help me to get through to him how much we both have always loved him. Help me rid him of these terrible doubts.” Ben pushed back the tears of sorrow that he still felt for the woman he loved so dearly. “I love you, darling,” he whispered and stood and walked away.

*****

After dinner that night, Joe and Hoss sat in the living room playing checkers while Adam and Ben sat in the study going over final details for the new sawmill construction. They had all tried to pretend that it was a normal evening at home.

“Dadbernit, Little Joe!” Hoss exclaimed after capturing Joe’s final checker. “You must be letting me win! I ain’t never beaten you three games in a row!”

Joe sighed and shrugged his shoulders, the defeat of the game meant nothing to him at this point. “Sorry, Hoss—guess I haven’t been paying attention.”

“Wanna try one more?”

“No–think I’ll just turn in,” Joe said standing and headed for the stairs.

Upon hearing of Joe’s plans, Ben walked over to him. “Going to bed so early? Are you feeling okay?” he asked.

Joe looked around the room and studied the faces of the only family he had ever known. His mind told him that it would be the last time he would see them in quite awhile and he wanted to remember the love and concern he saw displayed on their faces at the moment.

“I’m fine—-just a little tired is all. Goodnight Adam, Hoss.” Joe paused and stared into his father’s questioning eyes. “Goodnight, Pa.” Joe couldn’t help but give his father a quick hug. He hoped the urgency of it did not reveal his motive. He needed one more ounce of strength in order to proceed with what he knew he had to do.

Ben watched Joe as he ascended the staircase. He felt puzzled by the way Joe had clung to him, if only briefly. Ben wondered if it was simply due to the insecurity that the boy was feeling. Or was there something else, something that Joe wasn’t letting on to? Ben shook his head still confused, but decided to address the issue with his son in the morning.

*****

Joe tightened the cinch on Cochise and readied the horse to take him onto his rendezvous with Mr. Marchant. He had barely slept an hour the previous night with all the dread he was experiencing. He hated the thought of leaving his home and his family, and to do it without an explanation seemed cruel. Before he grabbed the reins to lead his horse out of the barn, he heard his name called and, startled by it, whirled around to see his brother Hoss standing there.

“Joe, where are you going? It’s only five in the morning?” Hoss asked still fighting off sleep.

“I have to go away for a while…” Joe paused as Hoss drew closer to him.

“Away? What for?”

“Hoss, you know I’ve always thought of you as more than just my brother; you’ve always been my best friend. I need you to keep a secret. It’s really important that you do it!” Joe spoke adamantly.

“Little brother, I have always kept your secrets—even from Pa–unless it meant you were going to get hurt or something.” Hoss put his arm around Joe’s shoulder and felt the unsteadiness in his brother.

“This secret is to prevent Pa from being hurt–and you and Adam too!”

“Tell me.”

“Marchant made me a deal. He said if I go away with him for six months that after that time, he will not go through with the fight for custody—and he won’t go after the Ponderosa or Pa.”

“What! Joe, he can’t do nothing to the Ponderosa or Pa. You can’t do this!”

“Yes, he can, Hoss! I’ve seen what he can do! He has all the information about Pa’s business transactions–timber, stock, everything. He will bankrupt the Ponderosa. I can’t let that happen. Ben Cartwright has done too much for me to turn around and be the cause of him losing all of this!” Joe eyes pleaded with his brother to understand what was at stake.

“Ben Cartwright? Don’t call him that. He’s your Pa! This Marchant is trying to confuse you with all of this talk of him being your father. I tell you, Joe, it’s just not true. And as for the Ponderosa, there’s not anyone here who wouldn’t put it at risk in order to keep you here.”

“I can’t let that happen, Hoss. You have to trust me on this. I can handle Marchant for a few months; he signed the contract just like I did. Six months from now, I’ll be heading back here. No matter if I’m a Cartwright or not, this is where I want to be. I love all of you.”

Hoss hugged his brother; he felt like his own heart was breaking at the thought of not having Joe around. Hoss worried as to how he could ever keep such a terrible secret from his father. But Hoss didn’t want to betray Joe either. Joe had told him the truth of the matter and was relying on the close bond they had, with the hope that Hoss would understand and keep all he had said in confidence.

“Tell me what Marchant has planned for you,” Hoss asked his voice starting to break.

“He’s just going to take me to New Orleans–get to know me–and let me come home if I choose to do it. I can handle him, Hoss. Honest I can! After being with me a few weeks, he’ll probably beg Pa to come and take me back.” Joe fought to make light of the intense situation.

Hoss pulled Joe away from him and looked directly into the boy’s eyes. “I ain’t for this; you know that. But, if you feel so strongly that you have to do it, then at least I promise not to run in there and tell Pa now. I’ll give you time to get started. But after that, I ain’t promising nothing!”

“Thanks, Hoss.” Joe hugged his brother, who did not want to let go.

“You be careful, Short Shanks, I don’t trust that Marchant fellow!”

“I will—and if I run into any problems I’ll send you a telegraph. Remember the code word we used when we were kids?”

Hoss smiled at the long-forgotten pledge they had made to each other as small boys. “Yeah, I remember. You use that word and I’ll come running. And I’ll bring a whole army with me too!”

Joe let loose of his brother and swung up into his saddle. “Who needs an army when I have you?” Joe gave his brother a pat on the shoulder before turning Cochise out toward the yard. “I’m gonna leave Cochise tied to that Carson City marker right outside of town; you be sure to bring him back!”

“I will. Be careful, you hear!” Hoss called as Joe rode out to meet up with Marchant.

“Damn!” Hoss swore to himself as he slowly walked back to the house. “Pa sure is gonna be mad. And here I just had to get in the middle of it.”

*****

A dark carriage sat off to the side of the road which led to Carson City. Behind the driver sat Rene Marchant, eager for the arrival of his son. Joe was right on time, Marchant confirmed as he stared at the boy as he dismounted and approached the carriage.

“Climb in the back with me,” Marchant instructed. Joe took one last look at Cochise and stepped into the carriage, taking his place next to the man who was determined to take Ben Cartwright’s place as Joe’s father.

“We have a long journey ahead of us, Joseph. But, it will give us time to talk and learn more about each other.“

“Yes, Mr. Marchant,” Joe returned with no enthusiasm.

“From this point on, I expect to be addressed as ‘father’,” he corrected.

Joe swallowed hard, sickened at the thought of calling anyone father other than Ben Cartwright. He reasoned it out in his mind that this was Marchant’s game now, and for the time being, must follow by his rules. “Yes, father,” Joe answered, holding back his rage.

“Driver, you may proceed!” Marchant called, content in what he had already succeeded on doing by taking Joe away from Ben Cartwright. Marchant felt assured that six months would be ample time to make Joe forget about ever being called a Cartwright.

*****

Ben Cartwright would always regret the fact that he slept late the day Joe had left with Marchant. It was almost eight o’clock by the time Ben made it downstairs. Hoss had already eaten his breakfast and was outside starting his chores; Adam stood out on the porch, savoring his second cup of coffee. Ben noticed only two place settings being taken away by Hop Sing as he sat down in his chair at the head of the table. “Has Little Joe eaten already?”

“Not see Little Joe—-only Mr. Hoss and Mr. Adam,” Hop Sing replied and returned to the kitchen.

Ben prepared his coffee as Adam walked back into the house. “Adam, why don’t you wake Joe up? Hop Sing has waited long enough on us late sleepers.”

“I’ll go get him.” Adam put his cup down on the coffee table and climbed the stairs. It was a short time later that he returned, and instead of going over to where his father sat, he hurried outside.

“Hoss!” Adam called over to his brother who stood by the front corral. “Have you seen Joe? He isn’t up in his room–and his bed looks like it wasn’t slept in!”

Before Hoss could answer, Ben joined his sons. “What’s going on? Where’s Joseph?”

Hoss looked down at the ground and ached at what he had to do. Joe had a couple hours head start now, Hoss figured, so it was time to tell the truth.

“Let’s go inside,” Hoss quietly answered and did not wait for a response.

By the time all three Cartwrights stood in the living room that morning, everyone already felt Joe’s absence and the unhappiness it brought with it. Ben stood, hands on hips, waiting for Hoss to reveal all that he knew about Joe’s disappearance.

“I’ve waited as long as I’m going to, Hoss. Now out with it!” Ben commanded.

“I didn’t have no choice, Pa. Joe made me promise to keep it a secret…”

“Keep what a secret?” Adam chimed in, irritated with his middle brother.

“Joe’s gone off with Marchant,” Hoss stated flatly and then winced knowing what was next.

“What!” Ben boomed. “How could you let him do that?”

“Pa, let me tell you what Joe said before you get all mad with me,” Hoss begged for understanding.

“I’m not mad with YOU. I am mad with Marchant–and your brother Joseph for that matter!” Ben corrected.

“It ain’t Joe’s fault, Pa. He did it to protect you.”

“Me? Protect me from what? Marchant?”

“Yesterday when Joe talked with him, he wrote up some kind of contract. In it he said that if Joe would come with him for six months…”

“Six months!” Ben again stopped Hoss in mid-sentence. This whole story was starting to get even worse than Ben had expected.

“Six months,” Hoss continued, “If he did that and stayed there, then Marchant agreed to not go after custody anymore. And he would not threaten the Ponderosa or you.”

“He threatened the Ponderosa?” Adam broke in.

“Pa, Adam—seems Marchant had all these papers; they had everything anyone could possibly know about this ranch–about all of our business deals–the whole works. He told Joe he would bankrupt the Ponderosa. Joe believed him. He thinks that by going away for the six months, it will solve a lot of things. There won’t be no custody hearing, his Ma won’t have her reputation soiled, and the ranch will be saved from what Marchant can do.”

“I can’t believe this! Why didn’t he tell me?” Ben asked thinking back on the previous night now. He wished he had spoken to Joe, especially after the sudden embrace he had given his father. It was surely a sign that he was somehow saying goodbye.

“None of us were supposed to know. I only found out because I heard him leave around five o’clock. He made me promise not to tell you. I only told him I wouldn’t tell you right off, Pa. Please understand. He came to me like he has all his life–always when he’s in bad trouble–I couldn’t let him down,” Hoss continued, pleading for his father’s forgiveness.

Ben walked over to his middle son and threw his arm around his neck. “I know, I know, Hoss. He put you in an awful spot, just like he use to do when he was little. You never had the heart to betray him.”

“At least there’s one person here he can confide in.” Adam’s remark came off with hurt in it that Joe did not trust him in that same regard.

“He didn’t confide in me either,” Ben returned trying hard to make Adam feel better.

“Pa, he said that he and Marchant both signed some kind of contract. You reckon that he left it in town?”

“Well, we’re going to find out right now! Then we are going to go find your brother and end this nonsense once and for all. Why in the world Joseph would do this is beyond me.”

“He did it ‘cause he loves us, and he said he didn’t want what you had worked your whole life for to be taken away.”

Ben fought back the tears he had felt coming on for a long time. To think that Joseph would sacrifice his own happiness to protect all the other Cartwrights touched him deeply. “Well…” Ben sniffed, trying to again return to his anger.”I’m going to show that boy who his father is. And lesson one will be that you don’t break up this team–no matter what!” Ben announced and headed over to the door to grab his holster and hat. They had some serious business to tackle in Virginia City.

*****

“Benton!” Ben’s baritone voice reverberated through the law office, sounding similar to a cannon blast. Both Randolf and Benton Hill came down the hallway and beckoned the three Cartwrights to follow them into the private room to talk. Ben, Adam and Hoss strode briskly toward the room and entered, their faces ominous in appearance.

“Have a seat.” Benton pointed and reluctantly the Cartwrights all sat. “I already know why you’ve come here.” Benton handed a piece of paper over to Ben, who quickly scanned its contents. “I received this contract here when I opened the office this morning. Marchant had a courier deliver it. By the time I read it, he had already packed up and left town.”

“This is ludicrous! This contract is not valid. You know Joseph in under age. He can’t sign something like this. It’s not even legally binding,” Ben fumed.

“You are right, of course…” Benton started and watched as anger passed back and forth between each Cartwright as they all read the document. “You know that, I know that, Mr. Marchant knows that; unfortunately, Joseph did not know that. Marchant must have used some very awful persuasion on the boy to coerce him into doing this.”

“He told Joe he’d bankrupt the Ponderosa,” Hoss replied.

“Well, that brings me to another point…” Benton started but Ben cut him off.

“We’re wasting time. We have to go get Joseph before they get too far!” Ben yelled standing.

“As your attorney—and as your friend–Ben, you have to listen to me! Now sit down and let me finish!” Benton was angered by the whole turn of events and was equally worried that his clients would run off half-cocked and get involved in some kind of full scale war.

Ben scowled, but returned to his seat. “Go on,” he stated flatly.

“I did some checking myself on Mr. Marchant. Yesterday I sent a wire to Judge Wharton. He wired back a little while ago. Seems Mr. Marchant is one of the wealthiest men in New Orleans. He built himself up quite a large import business with stores all over Europe. If he told Joe that he could bankrupt the Ponderosa, well, it’s just possible that he could.”

“Ponderosa be damned!” Ben lost control again.

“Ben, we need to think about what we are doing. I know what you are feeling, all of you; Joe leaving is a terrible shock. But, as your attorney, it’s my responsibility to point some very important things out to all of you before you go running off to New Orleans.”

“What things?” Adam asked, watching as his father’s posture became more rigid.

“Yes, it’s true that Joe was coerced into signing this contract. And even the part which states that he is signing it of his own free will would be easily challenged. Nevertheless, he signed it and he left with the man. I do not think you can catch up with them before they make it back into New Orleans, and there you will be on his turf. If we could have fought for custody here, things would probably have been in our favor. But there, especially in light of Marchant’s money and power, well, we might not win!”

“So, what are you saying, Benton? You want us to let Joe stay with that man? For six months?” Hoss was incredulous.

“What I’m saying is this. We don’t need to go into this haphazardly. We need to line things up. I have already started getting some things together which should help.”

“Like what?” Ben was back into the conversation, trying his best not to let his emotions rule his head, but that was a difficult feat when he thought of Joseph being with Marchant.

“I have hired a private investigator. Judge Wharton highly recommended him. He will be in place once Joe arrives. He will be watching both Marchant and Joseph. He will make sure that Joe is okay, and at the first sign of trouble, will get him out of there.”

Benton watched as the three Cartwrights, almost in unison, showed the appearance of having already suffered a defeat against Marchant. The attorney stood and walked around his desk and took on a more casual demeanor. “Now, back to this contract. I think it just may prove to be a weapon to use against Marchant in the long run.” He smiled wryly.

“How so?” Ben hoped for some kind of reassurance at last.

“Well, Joe’s signature was invalid, but Marchant signed this as well. He is not under age, and it can be used against him in court, whether it be court here or in New Orleans. You have a valuable friend in Judge Wharton, and it may just come down to all of us going there. My advice for the moment is to sit back and wait. Let’s get some more information on Mr. Marchant. The man we have hired, Avery Bastille, is a thorough man. Let’s see what kind of thing he can dig up on the man first. And, be assured, he will keep an eye on Joseph.”

“I’d feel a whole lot better if we all left right now and went to keep an eye on Joe ourselves,”  Adam interjected and Hoss nodded his agreement.

“I am your attorney. What I have just given you all is my professional advice. Personally, if the situation was different–and we were talking about my son–I would feel the same way and for the same reasons. But, if we enter into this as strategically as Marchant was able to, I know we can get Joe back–and keep him!”

Ben thought over all that Benton had said. So many thoughts circulated in his mind; his heart, however, was in shambles. All he wanted was to have his youngest son back. That, and to kill Rene Marchant. He knew that bringing Joe back and keeping him there would be a battle, but a battle that he was determined to win.

Ben finally stood and his sons followed suit. “You let me know as soon as you hear from Mr. Bastille. I want to know everything I can about Marchant. Then, I intend to go after my son–and bring him back for good!”

“I’ll do that, Ben. I know this is hard on all of you. Please just give me some time so we can do this by the book. I am staking my reputation on the fact that we can get you custody of Joe–and hopefully, long before the six months are up.”

“Thank you,” Ben said, offering Benton his hand. Benton shook it and watched as each man filed out of the room. The mood was still glum. But the stage had been set for one hell of a fight with Marchant, and the Cartwrights were determined to win this one.

*****

Joe Cartwright stared out the window of his personal sleeping car on the train that was now taking him onto the second leg of his journey to New Orleans. By this time, it came as no great surprise to Joe that Rene Marchant had secured private berths for his whole entourage. He was a man of great wealth and persuasion, and seemed to expect and receive special privileges wherever he went. The eastbound train was no exception. Marchant’s men included the two bodyguards who had made their presence known to both Ben and Hoss Cartwright in Virginia City, along with a manservant. Marchant had obtained two private cars for his employees and two separate ones for himself and his new-found son.

Joe was glad that at least this part of the trip afforded him some kind of privacy. He had spent a great deal of time with Marchant in first the carriage and then the stagecoach which had taken them to the nearest train station for travel east. Joe mainly just listened as the man talked about his business and plans for introducing his son to other persons of high society once they reached their destination. Joe had tried to stay focused on the one thing that kept him going: the thought of another day passing and getting the six months of forced visitation over with.

The night before they had boarded the train, Marchant had insisted on Joe changing into more suitable clothes. Despite a brief protest, Joe conceded and donned his new attire. The clothes, in many ways identical to Marchant’s, made Joe feel even worse. He felt as though he was being made into a replica of the man he was rapidly growing to hate. Joe felt his identity was being stripped from him, along with all ties to the Cartwrights. Marchant was quick to offer Joe anything he needed in the way of material things and had taken him to several stores before they caught the train. Joe hated to accept anything from the man, wanting only to fulfill his part of the contract and forget he had ever seen Rene Marchant when the six months ended.

Joe fumbled through the luggage that Marchant had purchased for him and searched until he found what he was looking for. It was something that Joe had purchased on his own at the last store they had stopped in. It was also purchased with the last of his own money that he had cleverly hidden in his boot. Joe knew Marchant wanted complete control of him, and that meant money as well as everything else, so that Joe would have to ask for it and be grateful. Joe didn’t want to feel beholding to Marchant for anything and was glad when he found he had just enough money on him to buy the leather-bound journal and several pencils. He figured it would be his only way to vent his feelings and frustrations without eliciting the ire of the man who seemed to have a great distaste for disobedience.

Day Eight: I’ve been watching as the scenery changes from the window of the train in which I am currently a prisoner. Each mile that passes is yet another mile farther from home and the ones I left behind. I am writing this in order to try not to go completely insane–though I may have already crossed over by now. I want to scream! I want to curse at the total injustice of what is happening to me! But, I can’t. I have to watch my tongue around Marchant–the man who insists on me calling him my father! God–how that makes me sick to my stomach! I am so mad–mad at Marchant–mad at my mother–mad at just about everything in my life right now. I am trying to do the right thing, but it gets harder as each day goes by. This crazy man makes me dress like he does and has some stupid notion that I am being groomed to take over Marchant Enterprises some day! And all I want to do is go home. But, if I don’t stay and stick this out then there might not be a home to go to. And, I couldn’t bear what that would do to those that I love so much. I think of them all the time, and wonder if they are thinking of me. I wonder if Hoss got in trouble for covering for me? I wonder what Adam said about what I did? And most of all I wonder how mad Pa is at me for leaving without a goodbye. Pa— that one word means so much to me, and yet it seems so strange to even say it anymore. What if the last seventeen years, while I was growing up on the ranch, was all just a lie? What if what this man is telling the truth and I am his son? I think I’d rather be dead. No, I know I’d rather be dead. If there is really a God, then somehow it will be proved that I am Joe Cartwright–Ben Cartwright’s son. I have to think about that in order to keep going. I know Pa, Adam, and Hoss wouldn’t just forget about me, maybe somehow they will find another way out of all of this. But until that happens, I will be Marchant’s dutiful son, hating every minute of it! Right now, saving the Ponderosa is more important than my own feelings. At least the first week is over. That leaves five months and three weeks to go. I’ll make it, too much is riding on all of this to give in to my desire to run in the opposite direction—and head back home.

Joe stopped writing in his journal when the knock sounded on the door to his room. He secured the journal back into his suitcase and walked over and opened the door. Standing in front of him he saw Marchant’s manservant, Jacques. Joe frowned knowing he was obviously going to be summoned to do something that he would rather not do.

“Master Joseph, Mr. Marchant requests you join him in the dining coach.”

“I’m not hungry,” Joe returned bluntly and walked back over to his previous position staring out the window.

“Mr. Marchant does not appreciate being kept waiting. I suggest you get dressed and join him promptly,” Jacques answered and started to lay out another suit for Joe to wear.

“I am dressed already!” Joe protested watching the man.

“You need to dress properly for dinner. Here, I have everything laid out. He will be expecting you in fifteen minutes.”

“Tell me something, Jack…”

“It’s Jacques,” the manservant corrected Joe’s English pronunciation.

“Yeah, whatever. Why is Marchant so formal anyway? And you–why are you at his every beck and call?”

“He is my employer. And this is the way he lives. If you are going to make any progress with your relationship, you need to do as he instructs.”

“Who said I wanted to make progress?” Joe replied sarcastically.

“Fifteen minutes, Master Joseph,” Jacques reminded the young man and turned out of the room.

Joe stood looking at the new suit which had been laid out for him. He cringed at the idea of obeying Marchant’s rigid orders. Finally, cursing under his breath, he started to change his clothes. Joe thought back on the many times he had broken horses back on the Ponderosa. He wondered if this was how they felt, taken out of the wild and caged and taught to act in a different way than how they were before being captured. At that moment, Joe felt sorry for ever trying to tame any animal, for now he was feeling caged himself.

*****

Rene Marchant stared at his gold pocket watch and shot an angry look at Jacques. “You did tell him when to be here, did you not?” he asked his servant.

“Yes, just as you instructed.” Jacques nodded and then saw Joe suddenly appear, coming down the aisle toward Marchant’s table.

Joe stopped at the table and Marchant glowered at him. “You are late, Joseph,” he chided the young man.

Joe fought back his anger and simply nodded. Rene pointed for Joe to sit down next to him and Joe reluctantly took his seat.

“You need to be more prompt,” Marchant continued to correct his son.

“Yeah, well, if I didn’t have to keep changing my clothes all the time…” Joe started.

Marchant cut him off in mid-sentence. “You are not back in the west any longer, Joseph! You are entering civilization now. You must dress appropriate.”

Joe unfolded his napkin and kept saying to himself in his mind, come on–five months and three weeks–I can handle this–just tell him yes, father and it will die down.

“Yes, father. I will do better,” Joe spoke and could feel his stomach knot up. He was sure if he ate at that moment, it would come right back up.

“That’s better. Now I have ordered for us and it will be here shortly. I have something to show you.” Rene handed Joe his pocket watch. It was solid gold and had intricate designs on it. Joe could tell it was very old, but wondered why it was being shown to him.

“It’s nice,” Joe said trying to sound as enthusiastic as he could.

“This is sixteenth century workmanship, Joseph. This is a very expensive piece. I bought it in France. You need to learn some things about jewelry and art and other crafts to be able to some day take over my business.”

Joe gazed at the watch and couldn’t for the life of him figure out why it was so special. To Joe, it was just a watch. He remembered his father’s pocket watch; it seemed more special, even though it was plain. Joe reasoned it was special because it was Ben’s watch and had been handed down to him by Ben’s father.

“I don’t know much about things like this.” Joe handed the watch back to Marchant.

“Oh? What do you know about? What is it you like to do?” Rene asked and gave off the appearance that maybe he was genuinely trying to learn more about the boy.

“I like to ride, I like to hunt and fish and all kinds of things.”

“So you like horses do you?” Rene nodded thinking back to his former love, Marie.

“Yes, I always have had a way with them,” Joe stated proud of his ability.

“Your mother loved to ride. Unfortunately, as I have been told, that is what killed her.”

Joe looked down at the table. The sudden reminder of both his mother and her death stunned him.

“You won’t meet the same fate, Joseph. I will see to that. You have so much to look forward to. When we get to New Orleans in a few days, I will open your eyes to a whole other world. A world in which you will become a master of many things and many people.”

Joe closed his eyes and thought about what the man was saying; his heart ached more now knowing that they were so many miles away from the Ponderosa already and would be even farther by week’s end. He tried to remember the faces of his family, how they had been the night before his sudden departure. Joe drew his strength from the memory. And only that helped him make it through dinner.

*****

Adam dismounted his horse in front of the ranch house and saw Hoss approaching from the front porch. Hoss noticed the urgent way Adam strode toward the house and he joined him at the door.

“What’s wrong?” Hoss asked.

Adam just shook his head disgustedly and turned the doorknob entering the house. He tossed his hat on the credenza and turned to face his brother whose face was full of concern. “Where’s Pa?” Adam asked looking around the front room.

“Where does he go every afternoon?” Hoss said as a statement and not really a question.

Adam looked toward the stairs. “In Joe’s room?”

Hoss nodded. “He just sits there and worries about him. It’s been more than two weeks and he seems more depressed each day.”

“Yeah, aren’t we all? I just got back from the attorney’s office. Benton is starting to get on my nerves with his infernal ‘wait and see’ attitude. I am all for thinking things out and planning strategy, but seems like all this is just dragging on.” Adam’s remarks were cold and laced with bitterness. He sat down on the settee.

Hoss stood in front of the fireplace, thinking on what his brother had said. “You got something in mind? What did Benton say exactly?”

“He heard from Mr. Bastille. Joe made it there all right. He has been watching Marchant’s house. Seems anytime Joe goes out, he has those two bodyguards with him. The kid is really a total prisoner. Bastille hasn’t been able to get close enough to him to let him know that he’s not really alone in New Orleans, that he has a friend on his side. Even when Marchant takes him to his business, he makes sure that Joe is well guarded.”

“I can just imagine how our little brother feels! He’s probably plumb stir crazy by now!” Hoss exclaimed, remembering his brother’s desire for independence.

“Well, Benton did say that some of Marchant’s business dealings aren’t on the up-and-up. He hasn’t gotten the goods on him, but he is checking with suppliers and such. Maybe he can get somewhere on that end of it at least.”

“But what will proving any of that do to help us get Little Joe back?”

Adam shrugged his shoulders, not exactly sure himself. Before he could answer, he noticed Ben standing on the bottom landing of the stairs. He had listened to the conversation and decided not to interrupt. He wanted to gauge his sons’ feelings with that of his own.

“I don’t know if we can wait any longer,” Ben finally spoke and moved to stand near Hoss.

Both Adam and Hoss read their father’s face and could see the worry lines had deepened. They were both concerned with something other than their brother’s well-being; Ben’s health was lately becoming an issue. He didn’t eat as well as he had prior to Joe’s departure, nor did he sleep much. He could not concentrate and Adam had to step in on some of the business dealings to keep the Ponderosa running smoothly. This was not at all like the father they had been raised by, and both men worried about what a long-term absence by Joe would do to Ben.

“What do you want us to do, Pa?” Hoss asked softly as Ben sunk down in his chair.

“At this point, despite what Benton has instructed, I am ready to go and get Joseph. Kidnap him if I have to! Then, if we can get him back here, we can have that custody hearing and we will have a greater chance of winning.”

“But, what about Marie? I know Joe acted like he was mad at her, but he sure wouldn’t want her name tarnished by going to court,” Adam responded, knowing full well that his father wouldn’t want that to happen either.

Ben turned and looked directly at Adam, his eyes burning with intensity as he spoke, “Marie would be the first person to sacrifice her name for the boy. She would want it done –no–she would demand it be done if it meant getting Joseph back.”

“Pa’s right, Adam. No matter what comes out in court, we’ve got to get him back.”

Adam thought for a moment and replied, “Okay, so we go to New Orleans. How do you plan to get Joe away from that man? You heard me telling Hoss about the bodyguards, didn’t you? It’s gonna be awful hard to fight him there on his own turf, just like Benton said.”

“Marchant took us by surprise. We’ll return the favor. I’ll have Benton send the papers to Judge Wharton, requesting a formal hearing on paternity to be heard here in Virginia City.”

“Huh?” Both Adam and Hoss asked at the same time.

Ben smiled, the kind of smile that comes from the total thought of revenge. “Marchant will think that we intend to sit here and wait on Joe being brought back, but by the time he gets the summons, we will be in New Orleans. If we time this right, it will work. And we’ll already have our travel plans worked out. We will choose the least likely way out of the city in case he plans to catch up with us. I’ve been thinking about this for days. It will work.”

Hoss looked over at his older brother and saw a grin appear on his face; Hoss felt the same emotion at that very moment. It was their father! He was back in rare form! He was not the beaten, hurt man they had been watching for weeks. No, it was the old Ben Cartwright. Full of fire and fury and determined to get Joe back at any cost.

“Do you think Benton will go along with this?” Hoss asked bluntly.

“Do you think he has a choice?” Ben laughed.

Suddenly, filling the room, there was the unmistakable Cartwright determination. It hung in the air, filling each man with a new strength that came from the love that they had for each other and for the absent member of the family. Finally there was a plan developing, some kind of abstract idea on how to bring Joe back home. The three men talked for hours that night, formulating the plan and putting together even the minutest detail. Hop Sing had stood off in the distance and watched the three men he held so dearly in his heart. He felt a burst of joy to see them together in this way and with such renewed vigor. His thoughts were never far from the boy he had raised from infancy–who he referred to many times as “his” Little Joe. Yes, it seemed to the Chinese member of the family, that now he would be seeing the boy before long

*****

Stretched out on the four-poster bed, lying on his stomach, Joe Cartwright penned another few pages in his journal. It had been another long day, full of internal frustration and what Joe deemed as total humiliation at the hands of Rene Marchant. He knew if he didn’t get it out of his system by writing, he would no doubt go downstairs and curse at the man and head for the nearest exit. Having given that idea great thought, he had reconsidered and instead excused himself from the dinner table and sought the solitude of his bedroom.

Second month of captivity: It’s been too long since I have written in here! I feel close to bursting with the anger I have eating at my insides. I truly and sincerely hate Rene Marchant! He is in essence, the exact opposite of Ben Cartwright! He is cold and indifferent. He buys and sells people like the merchandise in his store! Not only is he one of the wealthiest merchants in this part of the country, he also owns the most slaves. I can’t believe anyone could claim to own a live human being! It seems against the laws of nature and of God.  

When I first got here, I was introduced to a very nice woman who works as a cook here. She seems the motherly type, and despite her long hours working, always has a smile for me. Her name is Hattie and her daughter Rachel works here too. I was told right away by this so called “father” of mine that they are his personal slaves; he also told me I was to not sit with them and eat in the kitchen due to my high position! What a bunch of malarkey! I am not sure if he judges them on skin color or by their status of being simple workers. Probably both! But, when I learned that he “owned” them, I challenged him on it! That is when I was told that he has more than thirty slaves here on his estate and more than twice that working in the fields that surround it. He was very angered by my remarks and for a minute I thought he would actually hit me! He looked like he was using all the restraint he had to pull away and simply tell me to go to my room.  

Marchant thinks he is some kind of God or something. He has let his power go to his head. It seems as though I am not to have any views that are not in total agreement with his own views. Then there is the problem with the bodyguards that he has following me everywhere I go! Mr. Price and Mr. Stern (I don’t think these two men have first names–Marchant only calls them by their last names–another way to keep from any personal chit chat). Anyway,-I have tried to ditch them when I’ve gone into town, but they are good–really good. They even follow me better than Adam and Hoss do! 

 I did get past them one time, though. Rachel and I snuck out of this dungeon the night before last. The guards thought I was asleep but I came down the back stairs and met Rachel outside. We walked to this grove where she said she goes to think. The trees looked strange–moss hung down from them like dead bodies and there was a full moon that made it even spookier! She told me about all kinds of legends and about spells and such. She is so nice and my heart aches for her that she will never really be free. I told her how Marchant makes me feel like a slave too and she said that she would put a root on him. It seems like that happens a lot around here–people putting roots on each other. I never heard of it before, but she said it was like casting an evil spell or a spell to protect you from someone hurting you. She and I dug up some different plants and she spoke in a language that I have never heard. She told me she put a root on me to protect me–and then I put a root on her to protect her. She laughed at the way I said the words, but she hugged my neck and said she would always be glad we met. I wish things were different for her and her ma. I wish things were different for the other slaves too. Heck, right now I wish things were different for me! Maybe the root will work. I hope so! 

 Marchant seems to grow more impatient with me every day. I have not learned the business as he wanted me to. I guess it’s because I don’t want to and because I am not planning on taking over like he thinks. He has spent hours talking about antiques and old art stuff and it bores me so. You’d think he’d just give up! He’s made me take books up to my room and when he found out I didn’t read them, is now making me copy text down on paper and turn it into him each morning. That is why I haven’t been writing in this journal–my hand hurts from all of this copying stuff. 

Back to what I was thinking—-let’s see–oh yeah–after we got off the train, we got in his private carriage which brought us here to the prison–I mean his mansion. It is big and old and gloomy and gives me goose bumps. It’s one of the biggest houses I’ve ever seen, but feels so cold and empty and without any love inside of its walls. No one laughs here. Well, Hattie and Rachel and I laugh–when I can steal down to the kitchen and no one catches me. But I never have seen Marchant smile–not since we got here anyway. He has business meetings late into the night and always behind closed doors. I tried to listen in on one, but he almost caught me. He’s having another one tonight and I’m gonna see what that’s about. I have a feeling that this great wealth he has accumulated may not have been acquired honestly. Maybe I am imagining this but there’s something about him that seems really shady. Maybe I just hate him for taking me away from all those I love. I wonder if they miss me yet? I bet it’s awfully quiet on the Ponderosa without me stirring up trouble. Maybe they are better off without me —maybe that’s why I haven’t heard anything from them. I just really thought I’d somehow get a letter or something. Maybe pa thinks I wanted to go away. I hope someday he will understand why I had to do this. Well–gotta finish this, I want to go and see what’s going on behind those closed doors downstairs.

*****

Joe pressed his ear up to the solid oak door to Marchant’s study. He strained to listen to what was happening inside of the room. He recognized the voice of Marchant and then another man whom he had recently met — Stephan Lenoir, one of Marchant’s attorneys. Joe heard the mention of a contract and wondered if it was another mysterious business deal Marchant was hatching. Then, Joe heard his own name being mentioned, and he squeezed himself tighter against the door to find out what they were saying about him.

“….and after the six months are up, what then? How are you going to keep the boy here? He still thinks this contract is genuine. He has no idea that his signature was invalid. When he finds out that you never intended on letting him go, what happens?” Lenoir was insistent on an answer.

“You let me worry about Joseph. I can handle him. By the time the six months are gone, he will be ready to stay here with me,” Rene countered.

“From what I’ve seen, the boy is arrogant and ill-mannered and does not want to be here.”

“That will change,” Marchant assured.

Joe pulled back from the door his heart now racing. The contract was not real. Joe let the thought sink into his head. That monster lied to me! He never intended on sticking to the agreement! What am I gonna do now? How am I gonna get out of here?

Before Joe had the chance to formulate a plan, he felt the rough hand of Mr. Price grab him from behind. He tried to break free from the bodyguard but could not. Mr. Price pounded on the door and Rene opened it to see a very scared Joe facing him. “What is this?” Rene asked.

“He’s been here at your door listening,” Price countered.

Rene grabbed Joe by the arm and dragged him out of the hall and up the stairs. Joe struggled to free himself from Marchant’s grip, but to no avail. Once inside Joe’s bedroom, the man finally released Joe.

 “You are a liar!” Joe yelled and then felt the backhanded slap to his face. Joe stood stunned but did not back away. “You never were going to let me go! You made me sign that contract knowing it was invalid,” Joe persisted, unconcerned with any physical violence which might erupt.

“It was the only way to bring you here. I told you I had no intention of going to court.”

“I’m leaving!” Joe shouted again, and again felt Marchant’s hand to his face.

“You are my son–you are underage–and I can make sure that you stay.”

“Why would you want someone who hates you?” Joe asked vehemently.

“You hate me now. But, someday you will thank me. Once I rid your mind of all that Ben Cartwright taught you. Once I make you into the man that he never could have.”

“You are not my father. There’s no way I could be related to someone as evil as you!”

Marchant thought a moment and then walked over to Joe’s desk. He sat down, thinking of a new strategy to use on the boy. He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Come over here,” he instructed but Joe didn’t budge.

Rene tried again, this time holding the paper up and saying, “It concerns Ben Cartwright.”

That statement worried Joe and he walked over to the desk and looked at the paper. It was a purchase agreement. Joe read on to find out it was for the Zephyr mine in Virginia City.

“I purchased this mine last week. Interestingly enough, Ben Cartwright has been counting on winning the bid to provide all the timber for the large shafts which are being readied to be dug. Seems old Ben has been counting on the profits from this in order to fund other projects on his ranch. Guess I don’t have to tell you what I can do to prevent that, do I? Now, as new owner I can prevent Ben’s involvement not only in this venture but in others as well. One by one, his assets will fall and soon the Ponderosa is gone. Do you want that?” Marchant stared seethingly at Joe.

Joe dropped his head in despair. He knew this was but another form of blackmail, and yet he knew Marchant would do it in order to destroy Ben Cartwright. “Our deal was for me to stay here six months and you wouldn’t hurt Ben Cartwright or the Ponderosa.” Joe’s voice was more tame now, as he worried about what his actions would cause this time.

“Yes, that was our deal. And it can still be our deal. But, now I need something more from you. I need you to act as I have instructed you. Stop fighting me in my training.”

“And if I do? If I do as you ask?”

“Then I will uphold my end of our bargain; you can leave in six months as originally agreed and no harm comes to the Ponderosa.”

“What guarantee do I have?” Joe asked suspiciously.

“You have my word,” Rene answered and stared into Joe’s green eyes. He noticed the redness that appeared on the boy’s face from having been hit. Instead of guilt from causing the marks, Rene felt it was his responsibility to teach Joe how to be obedient.

“I’ll do as you say,” Joe agreed, still not trusting Marchant’s honesty.

Rene stood and retrieved one of the art books sitting on the desk. “You can start by copying the next forty pages in here. I want to see it tomorrow at breakfast; then I will quiz you on all you have learned.”

Joe reached for the book and pulled it to his chest. He dropped his head down, feeling totally defeated in mind, heart, and spirit.

“Well?” Marchant asked.

Joe fought back bitter tears and replied, “Yes, father.”

“Good.” Marchant turned and walked out of the bedroom.

Joe threw the book down on his desk and crawled into bed, burying his head in his pillow. It was then that the tears came, and accompanying them was the feeling of total despair.

“God—-if you are out there—please bring Pa here. I can’t do this anymore by myself,” Joe prayed as his tears dampened the pillow case. He was afraid to let sleep take over; he knew he had work to do. Joe brushed away the few remaining tears running down his cheeks and walked over to retrieve the book. He had to get forty pages written by daybreak.

*****

Breakfast the next morning was a quiet one. Joe had been informed when he awakened that morning that he would be joining Marchant at his store for the day. Jacques had laid out another elaborate suit for him to wear to Marchant Enterprises. Joe had chosen to do as he had been instructed, not wanting to cause further turmoil between him and Marchant.

“I trust you slept well?” Rene asked looking at Joe, who sat sullen in expression.

“Yes, father,” was all he could choke out. He had barely slept at all. He hadn’t completed his writing assignment until the wee hours of the morning. When Joe had finally fallen off to sleep, his dreams were full of rage and he had tossed and turned until daybreak.

“Today you will learn about being a salesman. Even though you will someday be the owner of the store, you must learn the business from the ground floor up.”

“Yes, father,” Joe repeated.

“Have you studied these pages?” Marchant asked looking over Joe’s night’s work of writing.

“Yes, father.” Joe responded monotonously.

“Good! I will quiz you as we ride into the city. I need to gather some papers and will meet you on the front steps.” Marchant left the table and Joe tossed his napkin down angrily.

“Yes, father!” Joe muttered sarcastically after the man had left the room. Rachel came around to take away the plates and stared into Joe’s eyes. She could detect the pain he was feeling and she noticed the discoloration on his left cheek where Marchant had struck him the night before.

“Master Joseph…” she started.

Joe cut her off. “Stop the Master stuff–please! You and I are friends, remember?” Joe broke into a smile.

“My root did not protect you it seems,” she sighed.

“Maybe we need to put one of those evil roots on Marchant.” Joe laughed at the thought. He really didn’t buy into the whole casting of a spell thing, but was intrigued by it nonetheless.

“I will take care of that today.” Rachel smiled and hurried away to the kitchen.

Joe frowned to be once more alone in the huge room. He stood and pushed in his chair. “Time to go to work,” he muttered and walked out to join Marchant.

*****

All morning long Joe learned the ropes of being a good salesman from one of the other employees. The man was in his early thirties, formally dressed, but didn’t appear quite as stuffy as Marchant. The salesclerk’s name was Henry Lebray, and Joe learned he had worked at the store for several years. Joe wasn’t sure if Henry really liked him or was just being nice to the boss’ “son.” He also did not want to say too much in the way of his feelings, never being totally sure of who was a Marchant spy and who wasn’t.

After lunch, Joe said he would try some sales techniques himself. Henry had shown him many items already and the prices were readily marked. Joe felt this would be easy and may help to take his mind off of his current woes. He spotted a customer walking into the store and watched as he examined an alabaster figurine.

“Let me try this one,” Joe whispered to Henry, who nodded his agreement. Joe walked across the room and over to the well-dressed man. “Good afternoon,” Joe greeted the man and the man looked over at the boy. “May I help you with something?” Joe asked.

“This figurine–it seems most unusual. Where is it from?”

Joe lifted the item and looked all around for a marking, but found none. “I’d like to tell you–but to tell you the truth I haven’t got a clue!” Joe laughed and felt a bit embarrassed.

“I have seem something similar to this before,” the man stated and then pointed over to the front window. “Let’s take it closer to the sunlight; I believe we can find the marking.”

Joe nodded; it seemed as though the man knew a lot more about fine art than he himself cared to. He strode over to the window and the two of them stood staring at the item.

“Don’t look directly at me.” the man whispered and Joe’s expression changed.

“Huh?” Joe asked bewildered.

“I work for your father—Ben Cartwright,” the man whispered.

Joe felt his knees go weak; he wondered how this could be true.

“We don’t want to raise any suspicion. I just want to know if I can pass anything onto your father for you. I have been hired to watch you–and to try and find some things out about Marchant.”

Joe noticed Henry starting over to them and changed his tone. “I think fifty dollars is more than a fair price for this, but we will see what Henry says about forty.” Joe turned as Henry made it over to them both at the window.

“Henry, can we sell this for forty dollars?” Joe asked, trying to seem nonchalant.

“Well, I suppose; we are getting more in a few days which are larger and more intricate.”

“Then it’s sold. I will purchase it,” the man said and Joe looked relieved. “Let this lad write up my bill of sale. He really is an excellent salesman.”

“Of course! Joseph, do you need any help?” Henry asked.

Joe shook his head. “No–I can do it. If you will walk over here, sir.” Joe spoke and Avery Bastille followed Joe to the service counter. Avery handed Joe the money and whispered once more, “If you have anything to tell your family, write it down quickly on the sales receipt.”

Joe had only enough time to write one word before Rene Marchant appeared. Joe handed the receipt to Avery and said, “Thank you for your patronage. Please be sure to come back soon. As Henry said, we have a new shipment coming in next week and I’m sure there will be other items that you would like.”

“I will do that. Good day!” Avery said and turned and walked out of the store.

Rene approached his son. He had watched as the sale was made and seemed to be delighted that Joe had made it himself. “Well, Joseph, maybe sales is your forte. I watched you from back there…” Rene pointed toward the back of the store. “You were very courteous and quick in making the sale.”

“Yes, father.” Joe nodded, finding it hard to concentrate on what the man had said to him. Joe’s thoughts were only of the stranger he had met, and the idea that Ben Cartwright had chosen someone to watch over him after all. That meant that Ben still cared, and might be able to get the one word message he had sent along with the private investigator.

“Joseph?” Rene tried to get more from his son. “Where is your mind?”

Joe shook himself from the daze and broke out in a smile. “Sorry…father…I was just thinking about how proud I just made you.’

“That you did. Now let’s look at some of the other items in the store so that you can sell them as masterfully as you sold the piece of alabaster.” Rene felt relaxed now, especially after having witnessed his son’s bright smile. Maybe, he reasoned, just maybe Joseph would grow to appreciate Marchant Enterprises after all.

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss Cartwright handed the luggage up to the stagecoach driver. They were more than ready to start on their long journey to New Orleans. Ben had briefed Benton Hill on their plans, and despite a lengthy protest, the lawyer had agreed to go along with it all. He would wait ten days before sending the telegraph to Marchant concerning the paternity summons. That would give them the time they needed to make it to New Orleans. Ben hoped that the timing would be perfect and they would catch Marchant totally off guard upon their arrival.

Just before the stage was about to leave Virginia City, Ben heard his name being called. He stepped down from the stage and saw a messenger from the telegraph office hurrying to catch him. “What is it, Sam?” Ben asked as he turned toward the man.

“Pete told me to catch you before you left. He said you needed to read this!” The messenger handed Ben a telegraph. Hoss and Adam joined their father wondering what was going on.

Ben studied the telegraph and looked over at his sons confused. “This doesn’t make sense.” Ben handed the piece of paper to Adam who read it and passed it onto Hoss.

“Avery said he spoke with Joseph briefly and Joe had a message for us, but all he wrote was the word Eric,” Ben stated wondering what it meant.

Hoss put his hand on his father’s shoulder and stared at him, his deep blue eyes clouded with extreme distress. “Pa, it does make sense. Joe and me, we had this code since we were kids; if either of us were in big trouble, we agreed to use my real name–Eric–and that would send the other one running to help!”

Adam and Ben looked at each other; both men feeling the same rush of adrenalin. “Let’s get going!” Ben called to his sons and they hurriedly boarded the stage. They knew they had more than a week’s worth of travel ahead of them, and now wondered if they would find Joe unharmed upon their arrival. Ben clutched the telegraph to his chest and said a silent prayer that God would keep his son safe until got to him.

*****

Joe pulled off all of the trappings of his formal evening attire. He was exhausted. After spending yet another day at the store with Marchant and then having to go to a formal dinner party, he felt spent. Joe collapsed on his bed and brought his left arm over his eyes. This whole endurance test was taking its toll on Joe’s body and spirit as well. It had been more than a week since Joe had last seen the private investigator and Joe worried that he had been found out in some way. He wouldn’t put it past Marchant to kill the man if he knew what he had been up to. Joe wondered if Ben had gotten his urgent message. And, even if he had, would he come all the way across the country to rescue him? Joe wasn’t sure how much longer he could take being a prisoner subject to the evil whims of Rene Marchant. Just calling him “father” was wearing thin and took more effort now to choke out that very word.

Joe decided it was time for another journal entry. Maybe that would make him feel better and give him some more badly needed stamina to continue with the masquerade he was enduring daily. He shuffled through his clothes drawer and his heart sank in his chest as he could not find the book. Joe, always careful to hide the journal, now worried if it had fallen into the wrong hands. Joe bent down to his knees and started pulling out clothes frantically, just as his bedroom door opened.

“Perhaps you are looking for this?” Rene Marchant’s voice came from the doorway. Joe stood up as Marchant entered the room, closing the door loudly behind him. Joe froze in his tracks. His mind dizzy with worry. He had written so many things in that journal about how he hated the man before him now. Joe knew in his heart that what happened next would be ugly.

Rene stepped over to the desk and sat down in the chair. He pointed for Joe to sit opposite him on the bed. “Shall I read to you, Joseph?” Marchant asked cynically.

“That’s mine—-give it to me!” Joe pleaded with the man, knowing full well that he had no chance of getting it back now.

“Let’s see–oh yes–here’s something. I truly and sincerely hate Rene Marchant. He is in essence, the exact opposite of Ben Cartwright. He is cold and indifferent…”

“Stop it!” Joe shouted. “I know what I wrote–you don’t have to quote it to me. I wrote it–and I meant it!”

“You are right in some respects, Joseph. I am surely nothing like Ben Cartwright. He is weak and I am strong. He obviously made you into the loud, aggressive, disobedient boy that you are.”

“And proud of it!” Joe laughed vindictively.

Joe’s insolence only angered Marchant more. He stood and walked over to Joe. Joe stood to face him, not cowering in the least. “By the time I am through with you, you will be well trained and well broken of all of these terrible habits of yours! Tonight will be your first lesson in obedience.” Rene Marchant drew off his belt. At this, Joe stepped away and tried for the door but was stopped. Marchant overpowered Joe and dragged him over to the bed.

“We will see how this changes your writing habits!” Rene laughed as he struck Joe.

****

 Joe cursed himself for being so careless with his journal. He worried about what he had written concerning Rachel and prayed it wouldn’t cause her any of the pain that he had had to endure at the hands of Marchant. Joe was in extreme physical pain but his emotional state was much worse at the moment. He felt humiliated to have been whipped as he was by Marchant. Joe wished now that he could cast one of those evil spells on the man, but knew it was hopeless to fight evil in that way. Joe wished he had a gun; that would be the only way to stop Rene Marchant for good.

Joe pulled himself slowly up from the bed and walked over to the bureau. He saw how his face had bruises from Marchant’s series of slaps. He could just imagine what his back looked like now. He ached with every movement as he tried to wash his face in the cool water from the basin. The water stung but cooled the burning somewhat. Joe worried that he had only been through round one with Marchant that evening. He knew there was much more to come. He wondered just how long it would take for Marchant to break his spirit. Joe never thought that could be accomplished, knowing he was known to be headstrong. But, Joe felt that strength of character diminish as each day wore on. His only hope now was that somehow his family would come to his rescue. But even that thought was fading fast as he had not seen the investigator and was not even sure if the man was still alive.

Joe crawled back into bed, hoping that sleep would take him away fast so he could escape at least in thought from the locked bedroom. He knew the peace would be short lived and he also knew Marchant would have more to say to him in the morning. Joe closed his eyes; he wanted to pray, but in his heart he had totally given up on everything.

*****

The dark carriage pulled behind the alley way behind the long stretch of stores which lined Vieux Carre. As the three men departed from the carriage, a man approached them and quickly introduced himself. “I am Avery Bastille. So glad you arrived on schedule!”

The Cartwrights shook his hand and Ben said, “What now? Do you have a place for us to change?”

“Yes, we are going to my office. It is in an obscure building just behind the bakery over there. I have everything you need. Let’s go before we are spotted.’

The Cartwrights sat in Mr. Bastille’s office and were grateful for the brandy which the man had waiting for them. It had been a long and emotional journey east. Now they were so close to Joe that they wanted to rush right over to get him, but knew they had to keep with the plan.

“I have proper attire for each of you. Mr. Hill sent on sizes so that I could have the clothes ready for you to change into. You need not be conspicuous in your appearance if we are to pull this off. And please, gentlemen, wear your guns under your cloaks at all times!”

“Do you know if Marchant has received the telegraph from Benton yet?” Ben asked, drinking heavily of his brandy.

“I saw a messenger on his way from the telegraph office, heading over to Marchant’s attorney’s office a little while ago. I imagine it was the one from Virginia City he was taking over there.”

“Okay, let’s get the kid!” Adam stood up; he had enough of the chit chat and felt they needed to go into action.

“First you all must change your clothes. By that time, I will see if Mr. Lenoir has sent someone for Marchant. Shortly after that, when Marchant leaves to go to the attorney’s office, we will go to his house. I have secured rooms for you at a hotel just down the street from here. I will take you there once we have Joseph in our hands.”

“Have you gotten the request for temporary custody filed with Judge Wharton?” Ben asked. Avery nodded and smiled. “He has already issued an order. You will have the papers waiting at the hotel. I can see that you have your own line of defense built up already.”

“Fortunately the judge and I go way back. He is a great ally,” Ben announced and stood as Avery led the way to the changing room.

*****

Sunlight streamed in from the window and pierced Joe’s eyes. He slowly arose and looked at the clock on his dresser. He wondered why Marchant had let him sleep so long. It was almost ten o’clock now. Joe wasn’t sure of what the plans were for him that day based on the events of the previous evening. He did know that Marchant had locked him in his room so there was little he could do but wait and see what was to happen next.

Joe had just taken off his shirt and started to wash off at the basin when the door opened and Rene walked into the room. Joe put the hand towel down and stared over at the man. Marchant held a book in his hand along with several papers. He approached Joe and noticed the deep bruising and cuts on the boy’s back.

“What now?” Joe asked quietly, uneasy at the man’s gaze.

“I have something for you,” he said and handed Joe a book. Joe looked at it and saw it was a new journal. “Since you enjoy writing so much, I decided to start you on a new diary. This one will be filled with much kinder expressions of your father.”

“No thanks,” Joe said and put the book on the dresser. “I am no good at writing fiction.”

“I can see you are ready for my second lesson on manners, Joseph!”

“I can hardly wait,” Joe replied, turning around to face Marchant.

“I have something else for you as well. I saw my attorney last night. He drew this up.” Marchant handed Joe a legal document. It was a request for legal name change from Cartwright to Marchant.

“Oh, yeah, another thing that needs my invalid signature, right?” Joe remarked laughing at the idea of how he had been tricked before.

“No, this one will be considered by the court. You sign it and we will present it to Judge Costas today. It will set everything into motion. Despite your age, it states your desire to be my son. It is indeed legal this time.”

“I’m not signing this. Kill me if you want, but make sure the tombstone reads Cartwright!”

“I don’t have to kill you, nor do I want to do that. But I do want you be more respectful than what you have shown me. Do I have to use force on you this time–or will you sign this willingly?”

“What do you think?” Joe sneered viciously at Marchant.

“It’s your choice, Joseph,” Marchant said and again removed his belt. Joe held his breath; he hoped to somehow over power the man this time. When Marchant grabbed for his arm, Joe threw a punch that met its target on the man’s face. Unfortunately, that was the only successful one Joe made. Marchant was bigger and stronger and quickly got total control.

*****

Marchant looked down at the signed request for name change; he blew across the ink to dry it and then stared over at Joe who lay unmoving on the bed.

“I told you the choice was yours, Joseph. You need to remember this so you don’t keep making the same mistakes. I am your father, and the sooner you learn to respect me the better off you will be,” Rene taunted the young man and then turned as a knock came on the bedroom door. He walked over and opened the door to see Jacques standing there.

“Sorry to interrupt, but Mr. Lenoir sent a message for you to see him right away. He said it was extremely urgent.”

“That’s fine. I think Joseph and I are done here.” Marchant left the room, locking the door behind him.

*****

Four men watched in hiding the carriage as it left from Rene Marchant’s estate. Along with him rode both Mr. Price and Mr. Stern. Rene had obviously thought that Joe was not a threat to leave the house after being locked securely in his room.

“Adam, you and I will deal with the butler and anyone else who is around. Let Hoss and Ben get Joe out and bring him to us. Then we will get out of here,’ instructed Avery.

Adam nodded his understanding as he and Avery walked up the steps to the house. They knocked on the front door and Jacques was soon there to answer. He saw Avery Bastille but not Adam nor the other two Cartwrights who stood hidden, pressed closely to the front walls of the estate. “May I help you?” Jacques asked.

“Yes, you can…” Avery smiled and then Adam came around with his Colt revolver pulled out.

“You have something of ours!” Adam shouted and Jacques backed into the foyer. They were soon joined by Ben and Hoss.

“Where’s my son?” Ben asked threatening violence in his manner.

“Your son?” Jacques asked confused.

“Joseph Cartwright!” Hoss yelled and moved nearer to the frightened manservant.

“Upstairs—second room on the right…” His voice trembled in its reply.

Hoss and his father wasted no time charging the stairs. When they reached the second floor, they hurried to the room only to find it locked. “Go get the key!” Ben instructed Hoss.

“Don’t need no key.” Hoss smiled and, with one thunderous move, he crashed through the door shattering the door jam. Both men rushed in only to be stopped by the horrendous sight of Joe lying still on the bed.

“Joseph!” Ben called as he hurried to his side.

Joe’s mind fought its way back to reality, or what he hoped was reality anyway. Never did he think that his family would come as they had–charging into the room to save him. He pulled himself up and climbed down off the bed. He took a few shaky steps toward Hoss and Ben and then collapsed on the floor. Ben was quickly at his son’s side and helped him to stand. Joe’s shirtless back was bleeding and his face was a picture of the abuse he had suffered. That sight gave way to deep regret in the minds of both Hoss and Ben at having taken so long to come to rescue Joe.

Ben cupped Joe’s face in his hands gingerly and gazed at the boy who was a large part of his heart. He wondered how anyone could do that kind of savage beating to someone they professed to care for. Joe’s eyes met Ben’s and he yearned to be taken away from New Orleans, away from the man who had dared to make him call him father. Tears filled his eyes as he looked wantingly at the man he so desperately wished was truly his father. The shared moment between the two was broken as Hoss called out, not being able to stand the sight of his brother’s battered body any longer.

“Why did Marchant do this to you, Little Joe? Why would he give you a beating?”

Joe closed his eyes and confessed, “He said I needed to learn some manners. He whipped me–then he told me I had to sign some papers. I held out as long as I could.” Joe’s voice broke and he fell into Ben’s waiting arms. “Oh, Pa!” Joe sobbed.

Ben held onto the trembling boy. Hearing Joe call him “pa” for the first time in so long eased his heart a bit, but the rest of it was in a fragile state after seeing what had happened to his youngest. Ben held Joe and stroked the back of his head soothingly, at the moment not being able to tell for sure if the sobs he was hearing were Joseph’s or his own. He finally pulled Joe back to once again stare into his eyes, and caught sight of the hand-print on Joe’s left cheek.

Ben, never releasing Joe completely, turned to Hoss and said, “You take your brother over to the hotel and don’t let anyone near him. I’m going to show Mr. Marchant some manners myself!”

“I’ll take care of him, Pa. The only way to get to Little Joe is to kill me,” Hoss returned deadly serious in his tone.

“No! Don’t you see?” Joe forced his gaze on Ben suddenly. “It’s no use. I signed the papers; I’m no longer a Cartwright. He’s changed my name to Marchant.” Joe wept bitterly at the thought of the final connection being broken forever, knowing the Cartwright name had been stripped from him.

Ben gathered Joe up into his arms and whispered, “That is just a piece of paper, Joseph–nothing more. You will always be a Cartwright. You will always be my son. Somehow I will prove this to you–so that you can truly understand. But, right now you just have to have faith in me and your brothers. There’s no doubt in our minds–or in our hearts–that you are part of us.”

Hoss walked over to the bureau and pulled out a shirt and took it over to his brother. “C’mon, Short Shanks, let’s get you the hell outa here!”

Joe winced as Ben helped him on with the shirt and he turned once more to stare into Ben’s compassionate eyes. “You don’t know Marchant like I do, Pa. He’ll kill you!”

Ben smiled and winked at Joe, totally unconcerned with any danger there might be. “You just leave it to your father. I’ll handle it.”

Adam and Avery held their positions in the foyer, still keeping Jacques at bay. They looked up as they saw the three Cartwrights descending the long staircase. Sandwiched between the protective arms of Ben and Hoss, Joe slowly made his way to the last step and over to where his oldest brother now stood. Adam was shocked to see Joe in the condition that he was in. He reached over to him and carefully lifted Joe’s chin so that he could inspect the damage Marchant had caused. “You okay, little brother?” he asked softly.

Joe could see the tenseness displayed on Adam’s face. He appeared to be struggling with an intense rage that was building fast. “I am now.” Joe tried to smile but his facial bruising stopped him and he grimaced instead.

“Marchant do this?” Adam questioned but deep inside he knew the answer.

“Yeah.” Joe nodded and dropped his head down.

Ben noticed that Joe appeared to be tiring with the simple act of standing there by the door. He worried about Joe’s health, both physical and emotional. Ben decided there was no longer time for talking, Joe needed to be taken directly over to the hotel and away from the awful memories Marchant’s house held.

“Hoss, get going now. Then have the driver come back for us,” Ben announced.

“You and Adam staying around here?” Hoss’ worry mounted at the thought.

“We are going to have a little talk with Mr. Marchant. We’ll come join you shortly.”

Hoss read both Ben and Adam’s faces and knew that there was going to be a free-for-all very soon. He wished he could stay and join in, but knew he was needed to get his brother to safety. “We’ll see you in a little while. Be careful.”

Joe turned to look at his father one last time; he paused at the door but didn’t speak.

Ben reached over and touched Joe’s arm and urged Joe to leave. “You go on now, Joseph. You are safe as long as you are with Hoss.”

Ben watched as his two youngest sons left and then turned around to face his oldest. “It won’t be long now, Adam. Now I want you and Avery to hold off Marchant’s bodyguards. But I want Marchant for myself!” Ben was adamant and Adam knew the hatred for the man was growing rapidly in his father’s heart.

Adam felt the same way and for the same reasons. “You have to give me a chance too. He beat the hell out of my little brother. I want to teach him a lesson.”

“I said he is mine,” Ben repeated. To this Adam frowned, even though he understood exactly why his father wanted to fight the man himself.

“Okay, Pa, go ahead; get it out of your system,” Adam finally conceded and grinned at Ben.

*****

It wasn’t a long wait for Marchant’s return. He had gone over the telegraph with his attorney and then headed straight back to his home to think out his next move. Mr. Price and Mr. Stern led the way into the mansion. By the time Marchant entered the house, he could see both men standing to either side of the foyer. Their guns had been removed by Avery Bastille and Adam Cartwright. And standing to meet Marchant head-on was a very furious Ben Cartwright.

“How dare you burst into my house like total barbarians?” Rene yelled.

“You are the only barbarian here,” Ben countered and shrugged out of his coat. He dropped his hidden gun belt to the floor in preparation to fight the man before him.

“You get out of my house!” Marchant screamed as he backed away from the approaching Cartwright.

“Not until I settle up with you. Joseph tells me you taught him some manners last night. I think it’s only fair that I return the favor,” Ben said venomously and charged Marchant. The two men crashed to the floor and Ben’s fists were rapid in their delivery. Marchant reached for anything he could get his hands on and several books that were on a table by the entrance hall went sailing past Ben’s head. Adam and Avery watched the bodyguards; they continued to have their guns drawn just in case the two Marchant employees had any thought of helping the man. Marchant got one good punch thrown that hit Ben’s right eye, but Ben countered with a series of his own punches that sent the man flying across the room and landing on the floor next to an umbrella stand.

Marchant wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth and spat out a number of curses which came off in his native French tongue. Ben stood and readied himself for the next charge just as Adam handed Avery his Colt. He glanced at his father and called across the room, “Sorry, Pa, it’s my turn now!” With that he rushed to Marchant and threw a right cross at his face. Ben moved over to Avery and took Adam’s gun from him. He guessed that his oldest needed to get this out of his system now, and he watched as Adam’s fury was unleashed on Marchant.

“Beating a boy–is that how you get your thrills?” Adam asked vindictively as he threw another punch. Marchant blocked this one and tried to run across the room. Adam was faster, perhaps because of his age, or perhaps because of the need for revenge. He grabbed Marchant by the collar of his coat and spun him around and punched him in the mid-section. Marchant went down again, this time not getting back up.

Ben walked over to where both Marchant and Adam were and looked down at the battered man. “It’s not over by a long shot, Marchant. But, we will let you live for now.”

“I’ll get Joseph back; you know I will,” Marchant warned angrily and tried to catch his breath again.

“I have a court order granting me temporary custody. Try to take him and you will answer to the court–and to me,” Ben cautioned the man and he gathered up his coat and gun belt.

Avery and Adam walked to the door and Ben joined them. “Pa, I see why he needs bodyguards,” Adam laughed and the three men made their exit to the waiting carriage.

*****

Hoss settled his little brother in one of the three bedrooms in the master suite at the hotel. He had help from one of Avery’s associates in getting Joe safely to their room and the man stood guard outside of the room. Hoss watched sympathetically as Joe struggled to sit back against the pillows and rest his head against the huge oaken headboard. He could see the pain spread across the boy’s face. Hoss ached at the thought that someone had done this much damage to Joe. He wished he could have gotten to New Orleans earlier. In his heart, Hoss regretted that he had kept Joe’s secret in the first place. He wondered if he had gone directly to his father whether it would have changed the whole course of events.

“It’s gonna be okay, Joe. I promise you,” Hoss reassured as best he could.

“Hoss, how are we gonna get Marchant to let me go? He has so much power here.”

“We got it all worked out, trust me. When Pa gets back, he’ll fill you in on the plan. But right now you are going to get some sleep.” Hoss pulled up the covers on Joe and could see that his little brother wasn’t planning on arguing this time. The kid was down right exhausted and was soon asleep. Hoss sat by his bedside and kept a faithful vigil.

An hour later, Hoss heard noises from the main room and quietly left Joe in order to check it out. It was the return of his family and Hoss was extremely glad to see that they were in good shape. He did notice that Ben had the beginnings of a black eye, but other than that, looked well.

“How’d it go?” Hoss asked walking over to where both Adam and Ben now sat on the couch.

“Great, Hoss! You should have seen Pa–he mopped the floor with Marchant.”

“Did you really?” Hoss grinned and saw a big grin take over his father’s face.

“Well, I guess you could say I showed him a manner or two. How’s your brother?”

“He’s sound asleep. Poor kid is about wore out. Marchant beat the hell out of him, looks like.”

“I’ll fix him up when he wakes up.” Ben nodded and poured brandy for his sons and leaned back to enjoy his own. It was one brief moment of calm in the long storm of a calamity that the family had endured.

Adam brought in a tray of food just as Joe awoke from his nap. He sat down next to his brother on the bed. “Brought you some grub,” he announced.

Joe took the tray. “I ain’t exactly hungry.”

“Well, you have to get your strength back, Joe.”

“What happened with Marchant?” Joe asked. He took the fork and toyed with his food.

“You would have loved it. Pa was great. He beat the hell out of him. And you know he did it for all of us! I got in a couple licks myself.” Adam smiled.

Joe stared into his brother’s dark eyes. The thought of how much they all loved him, made Joe feel good inside. But, in his heart, he still felt the twinge of uncertainty over who was really his father.

Adam could tell what was going on in the boy’s mind as the conversation had suddenly stopped. He reached over and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, I know what you are thinking. Stop doubting yourself, okay? Hey, if I wasn’t really your brother, do you think I’d come halfway across the world to bring your ornery hide home?”

The statement made Joe grin and he nodded at his brother. “Well, no matter who I am, I couldn’t be happier to see any other three people in the world! Thanks for coming, Adam.”

“Wouldn’t have missed a good fight?!” Adam exclaimed and ruffled Joe’s hair playfully.

Later that evening, after Joe had eaten his meal and the other Cartwrights had gone over their next steps of the plan to get Joe home, Ben entered Joe’s room. Joe sat stiffly with his back against the headboard and he looked deep in thought.

“I thought Adam told me you had gone back to sleep?” Ben asked as he sat down in the chair next to the bed and reached for Joe’s arm.

“Couldn’t sleep, Pa,” Joe confessed. His left hand moved toward his father and touched his face. “You are gonna have a real shiner in the morning.” Joe sighed, upset that his father had fought because of him.

“Well, looks like you will finally notice the resemblance that you and I share,” Ben chuckled.

Joe knew he was referring to his own face and Joe’s face and the bruising they both had.

“I wish we had more,” Joe whispered remembering his resemblance to Marchant.

Ben moved to sit next to Joe on the bed. He put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. It was time to straighten some things out. Ben knew that Joe was struggling with many things, but always in the forefront was his insecurity over whether he was truly a Cartwright. “You know, Joseph, you have mentioned about the fact that Marchant has the same color eyes as you–that he has the same kind of hair as well. But you and I are alike in more ways than that.”

“Huh?” Joe asked not seeing where this was going.

“Now just where do you suppose you get your stubborn streak? And just where do you think you get that explosive temper of yours?” Ben raised his eyebrows waiting for an answer.

“From you?”

“That’s right –from me. Though I have mellowed a bit in my old age.” Ben paused and laughed at the thought. “But when I was young, I was a real hellion–such as you!” Ben was now teasing to relieve some of the burden which had fallen on his son’s young shoulders.

“I never knew you were that bad, Pa.” Joe shook his head and flashed a smile and then winced at the bruises again.

“Well, maybe not QUITE as bad as you, but pretty darn close. Now, tell me why you left the way you did.” Ben was back to the point of his questioning now, knowing he had much more to accomplish with Joe.

“I had to. I couldn’t stay and let you lose the Ponderosa. It’s always been your dream.”

“The Ponderosa was the dream I had when I was coming west with two small sons. But it became a reality when I had my third son.” Ben was gentle now in tone and he could see Joe’s eyes go glassy. “Without you, there is no dream. And without you, the Ponderosa is just a big piece of land.”

Joe turned his face into his father’s strong shoulder and put his arms around him. He had waited to feel the immense strength which only came from the source that was Ben Cartwright. “I’m so glad you got my message, Pa. If you hadn’t come, I don’t know what I’d have done,” Joe confessed.

Ben brushed the curls out of the boy’s eyes and looked down at him. “Joseph we were boarding the stage when we got that telegraph. That is not what brought us here. We couldn’t stand the idea of you being here and were determined to bring you back.”

Joe looked up at his father, surprised at what he had revealed to him. “How are you going to bring me back?” he asked, his voice trembling with fear of what Marchant would do.

Ben grinned and gave Joe a very strange look. “Well, Joseph, how would you feel about being kidnapped?”

“Huh?”

“Well, Marchant now thinks that we are in for this long court battle. He doesn’t know that we have already planned our route of escape. We are leaving at first light. And so, dear son, we will be heading back before that man even wakes up tomorrow.” Ben delighted at the thought.

“Pa, I would love to be kidnapped, but only by you and Adam and Hoss, of course.” Joe let his head fall back on Ben’s shoulder content with the idea that he would be heading home.

Ben talked more with Joe until sleep over took the boy and he was lying peacefully on the bed. Ben had wanted to tend to his son’s back before he fell asleep but decided he would take care of that in the morning instead. He gave one last long look at the boy and then turned out of the room to talk with his other sons and Avery. There were plans that still needed going over.

*****

The strange voices, though somewhat muffled, were enough to rouse Joe from his troubled sleep. He sat up on the bed and knew he had heard his father’s deep voice protesting and other voices unfamiliar to him. Joe made his way over to the bedroom door and opened it a crack to see what was going on. He saw two men in uniform, Rene Marchant, and his father surrounded by Adam, Hoss and Avery.

“This court order supersedes your court order. Judge Costas signed it an hour ago,” Marchant announced angrily.

“My order was granted by Judge Wharton. Until he says otherwise, it stands!” Ben protested.

“Don’t listen to that fool. Go and get my son!” Marchant insisted, turning to face the officers that flanked him on both sides.

“Did Marchant tell you men how he beat Joseph half to death last night?” Ben asked staring directly at the chief of police. The officer scowled at Marchant and waited for a reply.

“I did no such thing. This man is lying. Now do I have to get Joseph or are you two officers going to do your job?”

Adam and Hoss drew their guns, totally disregarding the fact that they were going up against the law. “Try to take Joe and there’s gonna be shooting!” Adam warned loudly.

“No call for guns, gentlemen. We can work this out. I will take Joseph over to the police station and we will wait until morning to get this straightened out,” the policeman insisted, worrying about needless bloodshed on his watch.

Joe closed the door quietly and could feel the instinct inside him telling him to flee or die. He pulled on his boots quickly and made his way over to the outer door that let out onto a private balcony. The rain was coming down hard and Joe peered over to the next balcony. He thought that he could make the jump over there and then to one more balcony on the corner of the hotel where he spied some outer stairs that led down to the street below. Joe pulled himself up onto the railing and took a deep breath to muster all the strength he had. Then he lunged for the railing of the next balcony. His hands found their target and he pulled himself up again. The distant thunder mounted and the rain pounded Joe’s frightened face. One more balcony to freedom. He stood again on the railing. Taking one giant leap, he sailed over to the final balcony but only his left hand caught hold of it’s railing this time. Joe struggled to pull himself up but the rain-slicked iron railing caused the one hand to slip and Joe plummeted two stories down onto the cobblestone walkway below.

*****

The chief of police burst into Joe’s bedroom at the hotel, having had enough of dealing with both of the men who were claiming to be the boy’s father. He decided to take Joe into protective custody at least for the night to settle the heated debate. He saw the door was open that went out onto the balcony and had almost made it outside when he heard the bloodcurdling scream from the street below. He looked down and saw an un-moving figure laying crumpled on the street and saw a woman standing over the injured person. It was then that the officer knew the still figure was the boy he was trying to take into custody. Before the chief could turn completely around, he was joined by all of the men from the other room and they stared down at the sight of Joe. Gathering up their senses, all seven men hurried out of the hotel room and down onto the street.

Ben pushed aside the bystanders who had gathered around his son. He knelt down and examined Joe. Blood seeped from his ears and Ben reasoned that Joe had sustained a terrible head injury. The boy lay totally still, almost as if dead. Ben felt of Joe’s wrist and detected the weak pulse. It was then that Rene Marchant made his way over and also went to Joe’s side. He looked over at Ben and saw the devastation on the man’s face. “Use my carriage. We will get him over to the hospital,” Rene insisted. Ben wanted to vent out his anger at the man who he felt had caused the whole tragedy, but instead, agreed that Joe needed immediate help. Despite how he felt about Marchant, he accepted the offer of the carriage and both men lifted the unconscious Joe into the back and sent the team of horses hurriedly onward.

The Cartwright and the Marchant entourage took over the waiting room at the Sisters of Charity hospital. Both factions stood on opposite sides of the corridor waiting for the admitting doctor to return with his findings. Hoss and Adam tried to keep their father’s spirits up, even though they had grave doubts as to Joe’s chance of survival. They had seen his condition as he was brought in and had witnessed the appearance on the doctor’s face when he had first looked at their brother. It seemed like hours before a doctor, Charles Charneal, made his way out of the examining room and stood to address both Rene Marchant and Ben Cartwright.

“Who is this boy’s legal guardian?” the doctor asked and saw the two men glare at each other.

“I am Joseph’s father,” Ben said and shot Marchant a warning look.

“That has not been proved–I believe I am!” Rene countered loudly.

Frustrated and angered at what he was witnessing, the doctor remarked, “I don’t have time to solve any paternity issue right now! I am trying to keep the boy alive. To do that, I have to have permission to start surgery on him.”

“What are you going to do? How bad is my son?” Ben was quick to ask.

“He has a very bad skull fracture, Mr. Cartwright. And currently there is pressure building up against his brain due to internal bleeding. If we don’t do the surgery, he will die.”

“What will you do to relieve the bleeding?” Ben returned, feeling weak from the thought of brain surgery being done on his son.

“We need to cut into his occipital bone to relieve the pressure. It won’t be too drastic an incision, just enough to drain off the blood. I assure you that I have performed this kind of surgery many times.”

“Hand me the consent form,” Ben stated flatly, knowing it would be his signature, and his alone, that would decide Joe’s fate. He glanced over at Marchant who, although seething, nodded for Ben to do it. Ben signed the form and continued with his questions. “How long—before we know?”

The doctor touched Ben’s arm, sympathizing with the man who he could sense loved the injured boy more than anyone in the room. “We have to get him prepared for surgery first. We will need to shave his head. He should be in surgery within the hour. Hopefully, if all goes well, we will know very soon if it has worked.

“Thank you. Please do whatever you can.” Ben fought the tears that were building up in his eyes. The doctor hurried off to get ready for the surgery.

*****

Ben sat in the surgical waiting room praying constantly for Joe’s survival and recovery. Adam and Hoss brought him some coffee and began nervously pacing. Every now and then they would stop to shoot Marchant an evil glance. The brothers hated Marchant even more now. They blamed him for Joe’s frantic attempt of escape. The plan that they had so tediously worked out to have Joe out of New Orleans at daybreak was now useless. Now their only thought was to have the boy survive his serious head wound.

*****

If anyone had told Ben Cartwright that the pale boy lying in the hospital bed was his son, he probably would have laughed and called them a liar. The motionless body looked nothing like Joseph Cartwright. So thin, so battered and with his head swathed in bandages, he did not look like the lively boy Ben had raised. Ben had been seated in a chair next to the bed ever since the attendants had brought Joe up from surgery. Adam and Hoss made their way in and out of the room every couple of minutes, waiting for a progress report. Unfortunately for the worried family, little progress had been made. Joe lay in a coma, totally unresponsive to their pleading voices as they begged him to reawaken.

 Rene Marchant had also visited the injured boy and Ben did his best to hold his tongue. It was no place for an argument and the doctor had warned both men that they would be removed physically from the hospital at the first sound of trouble. Marchant simply stared at Joe and walked back out. Feeling that he could do nothing at the hospital, the man had left in search of his attorney. Even though no one knew for sure if Joe would indeed survive, Marchant persisted in his efforts to gain custody of him.

Ben reached out to touch Joe’s forehead to detect any sign of fever. The total absence of a stray curl riveted the bereaved father. For seventeen years, Ben had fought and lost the battle to control the unruly curls which drifted downward from Joe’s forehead. Now the curls were gone. Ben felt tears fall from his eyes and down to his cheeks. He felt he had somehow let the boy down. He had failed to protect him as he had always promised Joe that he would. When Ben thought on the desperation Joe must have felt to have tried fleeing as he had, it ripped at his soul. Ben wanted vengeance even more now than before. But, that feeling was surpassed by his desire to be at Joe’s side when he came around.

“Any change?” Hoss asked as he and Adam both made their way back into the room and took seats on both sides of the bed. Ben simply shook his head, not being able to control his voice at that moment. Adam and Hoss saw how Ben’s hand drifted away from Joe’s forehead and they both knew what their father was thinking.

“Hey, Pa, Joe is gonna have a real fit when he sees all of his hair gone.” Hoss tried to sound encouraging, that his brother would survive.

“Yeah,” Adam stepped in now. “But I bet the both of you that it’s almost fully grown in by the time we get back to the ranch!”

Ben looked from one son’s face to the other. He appreciated them more at this moment than at any other time. He needed the pep talk in order to try to think positively about Joe’s recovery.

“He’s had that head full of hair since he first drew breath. He looks so different without it now.” Ben remarked.

“Once he comes around and starts hollering about getting out of bed, well, then you will see it’s the same Joe, hair or no hair,” Adam teased and saw a slight grin appear at the corners of Ben’s mouth.

“I’d gladly listen to his complaints right now,” Ben remarked, turning suddenly grim again.

“Pa, Joe’s got the Cartwright determination; he can come out of this,” Adam reassured softly.

“Yes, the Cartwright determination.” Ben nodded at the idea. No matter what had happened in the last two months, he had been steadfast in the knowledge that Joe was indeed a Cartwright.

 Two longs days and nights passed and Joe still remained in a deep coma. The uncertainty of the situation was taking its toll on all the other Cartwrights as they kept their silent vigil. Doctor Charneal had come into the room many times checking on his patient and always saw Ben Cartwright there. He slept in the chair for only a few hours at a time, but mostly continued to talk to his son, coaxing him to come back to them.

The doctor also witnessed the apparent lack of concern that Rene Marchant had for the boy. Though he had visited several times, he never stayed long and made no physical contact with Joe at all. Whereas Ben constantly held Joe’s hand or stroked his arm trying to rouse him, Marchant stood back and just stared. Doctor Charneal was drawing his own conclusions as to who should be the boy’s father from what he had observed. He decided to finally address the issue with Ben late in the evening of the third day after Joe’s surgery.

“I am worried that one of the reasons that Joe has not come around as he should is because of what he is subconsciously avoiding,” came the doctor’s statement.

Ben turned in the chair and stared over at the man perplexed at what he had said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, from what you and your sons have told me, Joe might be thinking that he is going to be taken back to live with Rene Marchant. That was the conversation he overheard the night he tried to escape, right?”

Ben nodded angrily. “He heard our loud discussion when Marchant came to present papers to try and get custody of Joe back.”

“And Joe may still have that in his mind. Maybe in a way he is not fighting as hard to come around because of this fear.”

Ben stood and paced the room deep in thought. He turned back to the doctor and asked. “What can I do, Doctor? It all comes down to this paternity issue. I know this boy is my son. I have no doubt about it. But, unfortunately, the court would insist on more proof than I have. He was premature, but even the doctor who delivered him would not be considered to be an expert by the court.”

Doctor Charles Charneal thought for a few moments and then walked over to stare directly into Ben Cartwright’s troubled eyes. The question he was about to ask would change the whole paternity issue and end the months of uncertainty about Joe’s parentage.

“Mr. Cartwright, I was going to wait until Joe came around to ask you this, but since we are not sure when that will be, I will ask you now. We found something when we shaved Joseph’s head for surgery.” He stopped.

Ben looked over at Joe and then back to the doctor who was in the middle of some deep revelation. “What?” Ben cautiously asked.

“A birthmark. A very unusual birthmark. Have you ever noticed it?”

Ben was more than confused now and more than a bit curious. “No, Joe has always had a head full of hair. I never knew he had a birthmark at all. Why do you mention it?”

“Because it is what we call in laymen’s terms a strawberry birthmark. It’s appearance being of the color of a strawberry. Unlike a mole, it is very distinctive and also can be a link to a direct family line. In other words, it is passed down from one generation to the next. “

Ben Cartwright knew what it was like to have peace, but not the total inner peace that he had just experienced upon hearing what the doctor had revealed. He looked over at Joe still unconscious and wished he could tell him now what he was about to tell the doctor.

“Do you have any scissors?” came the only words that Ben could speak at that moment.

The doctor was puzzled by the question. “Yes–but why?”

“Bring them to me and I will show you why,” Ben answered as a smile found its way across his face. The doctor turned out into the hall to find the scissors.

Adam and Hoss watched the doctor as he strode briskly down the hallway and was back in a few moments time carrying a pair of scissors. They exchanged confused glances and followed the man back into the hospital room, convinced that Joe had taken a turn for the worse.

“Here they are. Now what do you want them for?” Doctor Charneal asked as he approached Ben.

“What’s going on, Pa?” Adam asked as he and Hoss joined the two men.

“The doctor said that Joe has an unusual birthmark on the back of his head. He said that it is hereditary.”

“So? What are the scissors for?” Hoss replied.

Ben smiled, about to reveal his secret. “When I was just a little boy, my mother gave me a haircut. It was purely awful! She cut it way too close in the back. When I went to school the boys who sat behind me teased me dreadfully. They laughed because they could see this bright red mole on my head.” Ben turned his head around and pointed to the spot. “Cut away!” He called to the doctor.

Doctor Charneal cut a swath of hair from the far right corner of Ben Cartwright’s head, just behind his right ear. He then turned around to face the man, his eyes giving way their total contentment with what he had witnessed.

“Well?” Ben asked impatiently.

“Not only is it the exact same kind of birthmark, but it is the exact same place where your son has his. And I do mean your son! I’d gladly testify in any court that this is conclusive proof that Joseph is one hundred per cent your son!”

Ben looked into the glazed eyes of both Hoss and Adam. The tears they were shedding were tears of joy. There was no longer any bit of doubt concerning the unconscious boy who still lay in the hospital bed unaware of the magnitude of this current revelation.

“I can’t wait to tell Joseph,” Ben announced proudly. He was happy at the thought that the birthmark would end the question of paternity, even thought he never needed that type of medical fact to know that the boy was his. Ben walked over to Joe and took his hand in his own and stared at him. He knew that Joseph needed this assurance even more than the courts did. Ben prayed that he would have the chance to tell him.

*****

The following day came. The chance Ben had been praying for. Joe started slowly to stir in the bed. Adam had been by his side and hurried out to the outside corridor to track down his father who had left in search of coffee. Ben saw his eldest son as he rounded the last hallway and he was quick to rush to the hospital room.

“Joe is coming around, Pa,” Adam said with great fervor.

 Ben sat down next to his youngest son and held his hand and began coaxing him back to reality. “Open your eyes, Joe.” He spoke gently.

Slowly Joe’s eyelids began to open and though the vision before him was somewhat blurred, he could make out the distinctive face of his father. “Pa?” Joe said faintly.

“Welcome back.” Ben smiled.

“Where am I?” Joe asked, confused at his surroundings.

“You’re in the hospital. How do you feel?”

“My head hurts,” Joe replied wincing from the pain that shot from his eyes and straight back to the back of his head.

“I imagine it would! You took some fall, Joseph! Do you remember?”

“Yeah–kinda. Marchant was gonna take me back. I had to leave.”

“I swear you have more lives than a cat!” Adam teased, approaching the bed from the other side just as Hoss walked back in the room to join the rest of the family.

“You trying out for the circus, little brother?” Hoss laughed, so very relieved to see his brother awake again.

Joe reached with his hand to feel of his head and felt only bandages. “Where’s my hair?”  he asked weakly.

“I told you, Pa!” Hoss laughed remembering his prior conversation with his father about what Joe’s reaction would be to the baldness of his head.

“Son, they had to shave your head. They had to do surgery on you. You are very lucky to have survived. But if it will make you feel any better, I can tell you that your hair fell to a good cause. In more ways than one.”

“Huh? What are you talking about?” Joe didn’t understand his father’s apparent joy over the loss of his son’s abundance of hair.

“Well, you had the surgery and it saved your life. But something else came of this as well.”

“What?”

“Do you remember that story I use to read you from the Bible? The one about Doubting Thomas?”

Joe thought for a minute, his mind still clouded by his head injury, he fought to remember. He finally answered, “Yeah, he was the one who made Jesus prove to him that he was really Jesus. He put his hands into Jesus’ palms to feel where he had been nailed to the cross. But, what does that have to do with me?”

Ben gently took Joe’s hand and said, “Feel this.” He led Joe’s hand to the back of Joe’s head. Joe’s fingers found the mark that Ben was trying for. The strawberry birthmark which fell right behind the boy’s right ear was easily felt now that there was no hair to block it.

“What is that?” Joe wondered out loud.

“That is a birthmark–a very unusual birthmark, it seems. Your surgeon found it when he operated on you. He said it’s rare and it’s passed directly from one family member to another.”

Joe’s brow furrowed as he fought for understanding. He really could not comprehend what his father was now talking about.

Ben smiled at Joe and continued, “Now, to prove this point with you, Doubting Thomas, feel this.” Ben pulled Joe’s hand to touch the back of his own father’s head. His fingers once again finding their mark over a birthmark. Ben moved closed so Joe could see it better.

Joe stared at the missing patch of hair from behind Ben’s right ear. Sudden and supreme understanding encompassed Joe’s mind. Ben was showing him the link, the tie that bound him to his father. It did not come from having the same hair color or eye color, but instead was a hidden reminder by their maker that identified them as father and son.

Ben turned back around to see the tears fall from his youngest son’s eyes. They were tears of happiness and not sadness. He reached down and gingerly hugged the boy. Ben knew that now that Joe finally believed he was a Cartwright, that it was a sure sign that the boy would do the impossible and recover fully.

“Doctor Charneal said he would gladly testify, whether it is here or in Virginia City, that you and I are father and son,”  Ben whispered and gently pushed the tears from off Joe’s cheeks.

“Then it’s over? I don’t have to go back to Marchant’s–not ever?” Joe’s voice broke with the emotion.

“Not ever. You will be going back where you belong–to the Ponderosa, along with your brothers…and your father.” Ben laughed at the smile that broke suddenly out on Joe’s face. The boy did look rather funny, Ben thought to himself. A head totally absent of hair and only the whiteness of several bandages to cover the hairless head. But the smile was pure Joseph Cartwright, and that could not be challenged no matter whether he had hair or not.

“When do I get out of here?” Joe finally asked and he heard Adam laugh in the background.

“I told you, Pa. I told you he’d start complaining and you’d know it was Joe under all of those bandages,” Adam declared with a grin.

Ben looked at each of his sons, so proud at what he had already accomplished in their rearing. “Well, young man, first you get some rest and build yourself back up. Then we will make the travel plans.” Ben tried for his best stern voice but they all read through it and saw the joy their father had at the moment.

“Yeah, guess I am tired,” Joe whispered and closed his eyes only to open them right back up again. “Pa?” he called weakly.

Ben bent down closer to hear his request. “Yes, Joe?”

“Show me again?” Joe referred to Ben’s birthmark. Ben obliged his son and bent even closer so Joe’s eyes and hands could see and feel the telltale sign. Joe felt of it again and then his eyes closed and he drifted off into a content sleep.

*****

The next day, while Joe was recuperating from his head trauma, Rene Marchant was in the midst of a heated discussion with his attorney. Both men stood in Marchant’s closed den and went over all of the details of the discovery of Joe’s rare birthmark.

“This won’t stop me. It is some farce the Cartwright’s have cooked up!” Marchant yelled.

“Rene, I’m telling you that it is not. I spoke with the doctor; he is willing to testify that it is valid proof that Joe is Ben Cartwright’s son.” Mr. Lenoir went over the facts for the third time. He couldn’t get his client to listen to reason and was afraid of what Marchant’s next move would be.

“If you think that I am giving up on this, you are wrong. That boy is my son. And before I’d stand still and let Cartwright take him out of New Orleans, I’d kill that man. If I can’t be Joseph’s father, then no one will be his father!” Rene shouted again and drank more whiskey.

“Rene, you must calm down and think this all through. As your attorney, I must caution you about making those kinds of threats.”

“If you want to continue to be my attorney, then you better understand I am not giving up on this. And I am very serious about getting rid of Ben Cartwright!”

Outside of the den, a young girl listened, frightened about what she had just heard her master say. She knew she couldn’t idly stand by and see Joe hurt again. Joe had confided to her of his love for Ben Cartwright and his brothers. Rachel had hoped that once they had stolen the boy back the other day that Joe would finally be safe and in the hands of all those who loved him. Deciding to do something about the threat she had over heard, she crept silently out of the house.

*****

Joe sat up in his hospital bed and ate the dinner that had been brought in for him. He had been thoroughly fussed over by all of his family and was actually enjoying the attention he had received. His thoughts took him back to the day when he had left the Ponderosa, so unsure of what would happen to him in New Orleans. Joe sighed as he reflected on the whole matter of paternity. He was so joyous in the fact that without a doubt he was a Cartwright.

“You keep eating like that and you’ll be better in no time.” Hoss grinned as he took away the tray of food. Joe had finished almost everything he had been given.

“Good. The sooner I’m out of here the better,” Joe replied and looked over at Adam and Ben. “Just when am I getting out anyway?”

“In a week or so–that is, if you continue to get your rest,” Ben reminded.

There was a sudden knock on the door and Adam walked over and opened it. He saw a nurse standing there and stepped back to let her in.

“Time to check on my brother again?” Adam asked smiling.

“Actually no, not this time. There is a young servant girl outside of the hospital. She told an orderly that it was important that she spoke with the Cartwright family.”

“Well, send her in here!” Joe answered quickly, knowing it must be his friend Rachel.

“I’m sorry…” The nurse paused and looked somewhat embarrassed. “She can’t come in here. We have our rules. No servants are allowed in this hospital.”

Joe shook his bandaged head angrily and responded looking directly at his father. ‘See, Pa. This is how they are out here. These servants are good enough to do all the hard work, but not good enough to be treated as anything other than slaves!”

Ben walked over to the bed and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder trying to calm him. “Now, Joseph, you have to quiet down. I know how you feel; I feel the same way. But there’s nothing we can do about this.”

“She’s my friend, Pa,” Joe protested.

“I know that, but you getting all worked up is only going to aggravate your condition. You have to settle down.”

“I’ll go see her,” Adam interjected, seeing the despair as it fell upon his brother’s face.

“Yes, go on, Adam. See what she wants,” Ben agreed and saw Joe start to settle back against the pillows once more.

“Tell her I miss her,” Joe called over to Adam as he started to turn and leave the room.

“I’ll do that, Joe.”

“Pa…” Joe closed his eyes to quell the headache which came on him from all the emotion. “Pa, do you think they’ll ever do away with slavery?”

Ben looked over at Hoss and tried to come up with an answer to that tough question. Ben sat down on the bed next to his son. “Joseph, I’m not sure. I do know that there’s some stirrings going on about it. There has even been talk about abolishing it completely. But there’s a whole lot of people who still favor it.”

“Those people are idiots!” Hoss insisted, his anger coming out at the total unfairness of the situation he had both seen and heard about.

“Yes, I think you’re right, son.” Ben laughed at how eloquently Hoss had summed up the situation.

“So then you think it will happen?” Joe asked again, his hazel eyes earnestly questioning his father for an answer.

“I believe you will see it in your lifetime, son. And I hope to see it in mine!”

Joe closed his eyes, thinking over all he had witnessed in New Orleans. There seemed to be two classes of people and they were only divided by the color of their skin. Then Joe thought about Rachel. He wondered why she had risked coming to see him. Joe hoped she was okay.

*****

Adam spotted the servant girl standing just outside of the hospital’s entrance door. He moved over to her. “Well, you must be Rachel!” He smiled warmly. “I am Joe’s oldest brother Adam.”

“I saw you when you came to the house to get Joe. I stayed away because I thought there was going to be shooting,” Rachel explained.

“Well, I’m sorry if we frightened you. Let’s go over to that bench over there and you can tell me what’s going on.” Adam pointed to a wooden bench sitting over to the side of the entrance-way.

They sat down and she turned her deep brown eyes on Adam. “I overheard Master Marchant talking to his lawyer, Mr. Lenoir. He said that if he couldn’t be Joe’s father, then nobody would be his father. He sounded like he was going to come after your father.”

“When was this?”

“About an hour ago. That lawyer was begging him to let all this rest but Master Marchant wouldn’t listen. I had to warn you all.”

Adam reached out and touched the young girl’s arm. “You are very brave to come all the way out here. I know Marchant would be very angry to know you have warned us.”

“Joe is my friend. I had to come. But, I do need to go now—before he finds me gone.” Rachel stood now, readying to leave.

“Rachel, we will somehow get Joe over to see you before we leave New Orleans. I know he’d want to say goodbye to you. He’s told us all about you and your ma.”

Rachel grinned up at Adam. “You tell Joe that I have put an extra special root on Master Marchant,” she announced proudly.

“Root?” Adam replied not knowing what the girl was talking about.

“He will know—just tell him. I have to go.”

“Thank you, Rachel. You be careful, you hear?” Adam’s statement coming out with great concern for the girl’s well-being.

“I will,” she called and left hurriedly, finding her way back home in the dark of night.

Adam made his way back to Joe’s hospital room and looked grimly at his father and Hoss. When Joe opened his eyes, Adam attempted to change his rueful countenance.

“Is she okay?” Joe asked waking upon hearing his brother’s entrance.

“Yeah, she just wanted to know if you were feeling better. Oh, she did tell me to tell you that she had put a special root on Marchant.”

Joe laughed out loud and saw his family questioning him with their eyes. “It’s a spell–you know? Like putting a hex on somebody? Rachel and I got very good at doing that. She put a root on me to protect me too.” Joe smiled, remembering the time they had stolen out of the house and went off to make their own kinds of potions.

“Well, guess it didn’t work too well, huh?” Adam asked pointing toward Joe’s head and the reminder of the terrible fall he had taken.

“Who said it didn’t work? I lived through it, didn’t I? And we never would have known about the birthmark if I didn’t get my head shaved, right?” Joe was serious in his response.

“Well, you got to admit it–Joe’s got a point!” Hoss laughed, shaking his head, amused by it all.

Ben stared over at Adam and read the concern on his face. He knew that Rachel’s visit was more than a casual visit to check into Joe’s condition.

“I need some coffee–and you need to get back to sleep,” Ben stated emphatically and Joe sank back down onto the pillows. “Adam, come on, we’ll go rustle up some coffee and bring it back for Hoss,” Ben said and shot Hoss a brief glance that the big man knew meant there was some kind of trouble brewing. Hoss knew Ben needed him to stay in the room and protect his little brother.

Adam handed his father the coffee that they had obtained from the kitchen in the hospital. They had gotten to be very friendly with the hospital staff, and were now given pretty much a free rein to wherever they needed to go. “Rachel said she over heard Marchant threaten to kill you, Pa.”

Ben frowned; he knew the man hated him even more now since it had been proved he was indeed Joe’s father. He hadn’t worried much about any form of retaliation, having been far more worried about Joe’s physical condition at the time. “I don’t plan on leaving the hospital any time soon. So if he wants me, he knows where to find me. I doubt he’d try a frontal assault here–not around so many witnesses.”

“He has a lot of people around here. Joe says there were Marchant spies all over town. If you give him the chance, he will try something.”

“Then let’s do just that. Let’s flush him out into the open.” Ben nodded as he started to plan his next move. He needed the Marchant business over with. He longed for Joe’s release from the hospital so they could make their way safely back to the Ponderosa.

“You got a plan?” Adam was now grinning at the thought of one more chance to get even with the man who had caused his family so much pain. Adam was ready for revenge now, ready for his family–but especially for Joe. Adam never forgot the way Joe had looked after being beaten so badly by Marchant. He swore to himself that day that he would get even if it was the last thing he did.

“Yes…” Ben said and the two of them stood and mapped out what they would do next.

*****

Joe had been in the hospital for more than a week. He was rapidly recovering and just as rapidly, getting bored with staying in bed. The doctor was amazed by the boy’s extremely fast recovery. But then he had been told of Joe’s many run-ins with near death accidents, and it made more sense to the doctor now. He was starting to believe what Adam had originally assumed–that Joe had more lives than a cat.

Ben and Adam stood just outside Joe’s hospital room and readied themselves for what was going to happen next. Ben knew that Joe would be released from the hospital in two days and he figured this was the day to end Marchant’s game. He had seen the bodyguards many times in front of the hospital waiting to spot Ben Cartwright to report it back to Marchant. He never gave them the chance. But this day was the day they would have some news to pass on to their boss. Adam and Ben would walk casually across the street to eat their lunch inside a cafe. They would be spotted and it would be only a matter of time before Rene Marchant would make his presence known.

Both Cartwrights checked their guns to make sure they would be ready. Then they secured them underneath their long over coats. Finally, Ben and Adam walked across the street and entered Le Chateau, a cafe which faced the hospital. They took their seats and could see the sidewalk out front clearly. Ben and Adam sipped some wine as they waited for news to be spread that they had left the hospital.

It wasn’t long before the two Cartwrights spotted Rene Marchant’s carriage as it pulled up in front of the cafe. They still sat, patiently waiting for Marchant to be the first one to make a move. After several minutes, just as they thought, Rene entered the cafe and walked right over to the Cartwright’s table.

“Go away, Marchant,” Ben said coldly.

“You think I am through with you? I am going to ruin you, Cartwright! I will destroy the Ponderosa,’ he threatened loudly.

“Well, I’ll just build another one then,” Ben laughed vindictively.

Adam saw the move first. Rene’s hand reached into his pocket and Adam could see the bulge of a gun. Adam pushed the table forward just as a shot aimed at Ben rang out. It was echoed by a second shot which came from Ben Cartwright’s own gun. Rene Marchant fell to the floor. Ben’s bullet had found its target whereas Marchant’s had missed and entered the wall right behind where Ben had been sitting.

Ben knelt down to see the extent of Marchant’s injury. He had a mortal wound and Ben felt a lot of things–none being regret. Adam saw the man’s wound and knew that getting a doctor over to tend him would be useless.

Rene Marchant reached up and grabbed the collar to Ben’s coat and tried to catch his breath. He was bleeding profusely but before he took his last breath he looked at Ben, venom pouring from his eyes and said, “Joseph…Joseph is…always my son…”

With that final evil statement, Rene Marchant died. Ben stared over at his oldest son and shook his head in disbelief. The man to his dying breath insisted that Joe was his son. Ben was glad that Joe was not there to hear those words. And both Ben and Adam made an agreement never to tell the boy what Marchant had said the day of his death.

*****

Ben helped Joe on with his new clothes. They had been purchased earlier that day and were more to the boy’s liking. A simple brown shirt and black pants. His days of wearing formal suits were now over. Ben was satisfied that he had chosen the right sizes for his son, and other than the still bandaged head, Joe was starting to look like his former self.

Doctor Charneal had agreed to the release from the hospital with the stipulation that the boy get as much rest as possible on the long journey back home. He also had instructed Ben to have Joe seen by the family doctor upon their return. Joe had begrudgingly nodded at the doctor’s advice and gave his word that he would not even consider getting on a horse for a couple of months. Joe still had bouts with headaches, but the doctor assured the family that they would eventually go away and Joe would completely recover.

Ben stared at Joe as the boy pulled on his boots. Joe had been unusually quiet ever since he had been informed of Rene Marchant’s death. Ben worried that the whole incident with Marchant would haunt his son for a long time to come.

“I’m ready,” Joe announced as he saw his brothers enter the room.

“Let’s go then.” Ben assisted Joe toward the door, just holding his arm enough to help with Joe’s struggle for balance.

The carriage pulled up in front of the law office of Judge Zachary Wharton. Hoss and Adam assisted their brother out of the carriage and Ben came around from the other side to also lend a hand if needed.

“I don’t understand why I’ve got to go talk to the judge. Marchant is dead. What’s the point?” Joe asked nervously as they started up the steps.

“He said he needed to see all of us, Joseph. He has been a tremendous help to this family. We won’t keep him waiting,” Ben answered and they all entered the office.

Judge Wharton came around from his desk and was quickly over to Ben shaking his hand happy to see his old friend. “Ben, so glad things are back to normal now!” he exclaimed and then caught sight of Joe. “He looks just like Marie,” he announced and Joe gave a sheepish grin in response.

“Yes, I’ve been telling him that for quite some time. Unfortunately, he has a very hard head!” Ben laughed.

“Good thing he does or he wouldn’t still be with us.” Judge Wharton implicated Joe’s bandaged head and the fall he had taken.

“So, what’s this about?’ Ben asked as all five men sat down. Judge Wharton shifted through some papers and then looked directly at Joe.

“Joseph, it seems that Rene Marchant changed his will when he came back to New Orleans with you. He made you his soul heir and beneficiary to all his holdings. The business, the mansion, the farm–all of it.”

“But I’m not his son!” Joe protested loudly. “It doesn’t mean anything now. I don’t want it.”

“Joseph, it is legally binding. Of course, since you are underage, you will need an executor to over see all of this.”

“I said I don’t want it. I don’t want anything that he ever touched.”

Ben reached over and grabbed Joe’s arm. “You settle down, young man, or we go back to the hospital,” Ben warned.

Joe frowned again; he wanted to be on his way back to the Ponderosa, not dealing with the memories of Rene Marchant.

“So, what are you suggesting, Judge Wharton?” Joe asked settling back into the chair.

“Your father has told me so much about all you went through here. You have had a very rough go of it, but I suggest you put the experience — as well as the estate — to good use!”

“Huh?”

“I suggest you appoint someone to take over Marchant Enterprises until you turn twenty-one. Then, at that time, you can liquidate those assets as you see fit.”

Joe thought hard for a few moments and then he had a great idea. An idea that dealt directly with his friends Rachel and Hattie.

 “Hey, why can’t I just give it all to Rachel?” Joe asked getting excited at the thought.

“Who is Rachel?” The judge asked.

“She is a servant who worked for Marchant,” Ben explained.

“I’m afraid they don’t let slaves own property. You can make their lives a little easier perhaps. You can instruct whomever you appoint to take good care of them.” The judge tried to sell the idea to the boy.

“If they abolish slavery, then can I give it to them? I mean Rachel and Hattie. They work really hard. So do the other slaves who work the farms; they deserve something for all that Marchant made them do.”

“If that day comes, then, yes you can. Have any idea who you want to appoint to watch over them?”

“How about Avery? He sure helped us out–and he has a heart. I think he’d do whatever you wanted him to do,” Adam suggested.

“Yeah. Think he’d do it?” Joe asked, starting to like the whole idea now. At least he could help Rachel and her mother out; that would make sense out of all that he had to go through in New Orleans.

“I think he will be happy to. I will speak to him today.” Judge Wharton stood from his desk. “Well, your father tells me you need more rest if you are going to travel back home tomorrow. So, you all better go get some sleep at the hotel now.”

Ben stood and shook his friend’s hand again. “I don’t know what I would have done without your help, Zachary,” Ben stated gratefully.

“Wait till you see my bill!” The judge laughed and shook hands with the remaining Cartwrights as they turned to leave his office and move onto the hotel.

*****

The following day the four Cartwrights left the hotel. Before they made their way out of town by carriage, they had stopped to visit Rachel and Hattie at what was now Joe Cartwright’s mansion. The two women greeted the men warmly and Rachel stood next to Joe.

“You sure look funny without hair, Joe,” she teased mercilessly. Joe blushed and pulled her toward him. He kissed her cheek and said, “I am really gonna miss you, Rachel. But, I will keep in touch. Avery Bastille will look after the both of you. If there’s anything you need, just ask him. You write me…”

“I will, you know I will.” Rachel felt somewhat heartsick at the thought of Joe being so far away. She would always keep him in her heart and knew he would keep her there as well. “Got something for you!” she said excitedly and rushed into the den. A few minutes later she was back and handed Joe a book. Joe looked at it, only to discover it was his original journal.

“How did you get this?” he asked amazed. He figured that Marchant had destroyed it.

“It went out to the trash. When I found out what it was, I hid it–hoping to give it to you some day.”

Joe hugged the girl and then turned and hugged Hattie. “Take care of Rachel for me. Don’t let her put any roots on me again!” Joe laughed.

“I’ll take care of her. You be safe–and thank you for everything.” Hattie hugged Joe and turned and smiled at the other Cartwrights. Joe took one final look at Rachel before he walked out of the house. He would always remember the smile she had on her face that day. It wasn’t the smile of being totally free, but it was a start on the way to finding that freedom.

*****

Ben and Joe shared the same sleeping car on the train that was heading west. Adam and Hoss had the adjoining car and were already asleep for the night. Ben stared over at his youngest as he lay sleeping on the bunk. Joe looked more peaceful than he had ever seen the boy. Ben reached for Joe’s journal again. He had almost finished reading all the entries in it. With each page Ben could feel the hurt, the loneliness, that his son had endured. Ben was touched by Joe’s question of whether the other members of his family had been thinking of him. Ben wondered how Joe could ever write such nonsense. For there had not been a day, nor even an hour, during Joe’s absence that he hadn’t been in all of the other’s minds. When Ben read the entry about Joe meeting Avery for the first time, he noticed the mention that “maybe Ben Cartwright still cares”. Ben looked over at his son. How could the boy have ever thought differently, he wondered? Ben walked over to Joe and pulled up the blanket which had fallen down.

Joe opened his eyes. “Pa?” he whispered.

“Go back to sleep,” Ben replied quietly.

Joe sat up in the bunk and he was suddenly wide awake. “Pa, I just thought about something,” Joe announced seemingly very excited about something.

“Now, Joseph, we can talk in the morning…” Ben started but Joe cut him back off.

“No, Pa, I was thinking about that bid on the shoring for the Zephyr mine. You know, you said you put the bid in but haven’t heard anything yet.”

Ben was confused; he couldn’t understand what would bring the mining contract up in his son’s head all of a sudden. “We’ll check on it when we get home. We’ll know a few days after we get back. Now, stop worrying about business and go back to sleep,” Ben retorted sternly.

“Pa, you’ve got the contract; I can assure you that you have.” Joe grinned mischievously.

“And just how do you know that?” Ben asked staring strangely at the boy.

“Well, let’s just say I know the owner really well,” Joe laughed.

Ben shook his head bewildered. “Oh you do, do you? Who is he?”

“The same person that you are trying hard to make go back to sleep.”

“What?” Ben asked and then thought on it a minute. “Did Marchant buy the Zephyr mine?”

“Yep, and now I own it. So, if you promise to be really nice to me…” Joe started.

Ben cut in on his teasing. “I’ll show you nice…if you don’t close your eyes and go back to sleep!” Ben feigned being mad at the boy.

Joe laughed. “Well, maybe we’ll have to make some kind of deal when we get home,” Joe continued.

“Yes, that’s what we will do. And you will be running the Zephyr from your locked bedroom, young man!” Ben’s warning could not be done with a straight face and he burst out laughing as well.

“Okay, okay, you got the contract. A little threatening goes a long way with me,” Joe conceded happily.

“Now will you please go to sleep?” Ben asked tiredly.

“Okay.” Joe nodded.

Ben stopped short. Usually he would have ruffled Joe’s head of curls but had to settle for a gentle touch of the boy’s arm.

“Goodnight, Master Joseph,” Ben teased and walked back over to his own bunk.

*****

Epilogue

Joe Cartwright strapped on his holster and reached for his hat. The hat dipped down over his eyes and he tried his best to adjust it to meet with his lack of hair. He had been back home on the Ponderosa for two weeks now and the appearance of dark brown curls were starting to inch their way out of his scalp, but it would be several months before he would feel comfortable not wearing a hat. At least he was content in the fact that his father would not be pestering him to get a hair cut for a long while.

“And just where do you think you are going?” Ben asked spotting Joe by the front door.

“Oh, Pa, I thought you left with Adam and Hoss,” Joe replied weakly, having been caught attempting to escape.

“I thought you looked like you were up to something. Now where do you think you were going?”

“Just for a ride, that’s all.”

“Joseph, we have been through this before. No riding for another month. You heard Doc Martin!”

“I’ve got to go out for a while,” Joe said, his voice turning serious. He stared into his father’s eyes and at that moment Ben knew where Joe had been heading.

“I’ll take you up there. Let me hitch up the team.” Ben nodded and left to go and get the buckboard ready.

Joe found it to be somewhat amazing that his father knew without asking that he wanted to go to his mother’s grave. The hour’s journey had been a quiet one. Neither of them spoke. Ben worried about how Joe would react; remembering the last time the two of them had been to the grave site. Ben reasoned that Joe had something he needed to say to his mother, and this was a needed venture out of the house.

Ben pulled the team to a halt and Joe stepped down from the wagon.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” Joe said quietly and slowly walked down the path that led to Marie Cartwright’s final resting place. Joe kneeled down at the tombstone and took off his hat. He tried to find the right words to say and could feel the tears as they started to drift from his eyes.

“I’m sorry…so sorry. I shouldn’t have doubted you, Mama. I’m so sorry for the things that I said about you. Thank you for giving me Ben Cartwright for a father instead of Rene Marchant. I promise I will never doubt you again. I love you.” Joe wiped his eyes on his sleeve and stood once more. When he turned around, he was surprised to see his father standing there. He hadn’t even noticed his approach.

Ben walked over to Joe and hugged him tightly. “Always my son,” he whispered to the boy.

*****End*****

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