Boy to Man to Boy (by Territell)

                                       

It was a Wednesday morning just like many other Wednesday mornings in the Cartwright household. Ben was preparing to leave early for a business meeting in Carson City and Adam was going to Virginia City for a meeting with the bank and also to meet his ex-girlfriend, Sophie Jenkins, off the stage from San Francisco. Sophie had been gone more than six months visiting her mother’s sister and family. Her and Adam had courted for nearly a year and everyone had expected them to marry, but when it came down to it they both realised that the passionate spark between them was no longer there and what remained was a deep friendship but nothing more. Rather than face the constant questioning from friends and relatives about their split, Sophie decided to visit her mother’s relatives until the interest in their love life was no longer at the forefront of people’s minds.

Little Joe was moaning as usual because he didn’t want to go to school. He was 16 and there was only two months left of the summer term. His father had finally relented, much to Adam’s annoyance, and agreed that Joe could leave school at the end of the term and start work on the ranch. As usual given an inch and Joe would try and take a mile, he was now working on trying to get out of attending school for the last two months.

Ben was losing patience and after one more outburst from Joe, turned sharply and said “Joseph, the decision with regards to you leaving school can always be rescinded, if we have to have this conversation one more time I think I will have to reconsider the whole matter.” Realising that his father’s temper was beginning to surface, Joe decided it would be better to say no more and he quickly grabbed his school books and lunch pail and headed for the door.

Hoss smiled at his brother’s retreating back and turned to find his father and Adam smiling with him. “Thanks for that Pa, I don’t think I could have put up with his whinging for another day”. Hoss proceeded to start on the remainder of the eggs and bacon on the table before Hop Sing arrived to clear. “When you’re finished eating, son, I’m sure there is a fair amount of fences in need of repair up in the north pasture which will help burn off some of that energy you’re busy storing” said Ben slapping his middle son on the back before heading out of the door.

*****

Later that morning Little Joe was hurrying along C street not taking much notice of where he was going. He was trying to think of a good excuse to give Adam if he were caught out of school without permission. His luck just ran out. On turning the corner he walked straight into Sophie Jenkins who, without his big brother’s quick intervention, would have ended up on her backside. “Sorry Miss Sophie, I guess I wasn’t watching where I was going” yelped Joe.

Making sure that Sophie was OK, Adam quickly responded “That figures, what are you doing here anyway. Aren’t you supposed to be in school. I’m sure Pa would have something to say about you wandering around Virginia City at this time of the morning”.

Little Joe tried to put on his most innocent smile as he said “I was feeling unwell so Miss Jones said I could go outside for some fresh air and I thought I would take a little walk to settle my stomach”.

Adam stood with his arms crossed over his chest and his feet spread apart. He gave Joe what Joe referred to as ‘his evil eye’ look and said, “Thought you could come up with something better than that Little Joe, now turn around and get that little butt of yours back to school or else I may feel obliged in having a quiet word in Pa’s ear. And Joe, don’t even think about making any detours, cause be assured I’ll be looking in at the school before I head back to the ranch to check up on you.”.

Joe scowled at Adam and then turned to Sophie and gave her his most charming smile, “Welcome back Miss Sophie, you look as lovely as ever” and with that Joe winked, turned around and began jogging back to school.

Once Joe was out of earshot both Adam and Sophie split their sides laughing. “Would you believe it, that boy will never change” said Adam.

“On the contrary” corrected Sophie, “he has certainly changed since the last time I saw him. Really, I can’t believe how much he has grown. In fact Adam, I can see you are going to have some major competition from that young man”.

Adam looked after Joe’s retreating back trying to see him through Sophie’s eyes. Stroking his chin he responded “Yeah, I guess he has grown some over the last few months, come to think of it he doesn’t look the little one when I see him with his friends these days. Don’t see him growing as tall as either Hoss or I, or Pa for that matter, but I’m pleased to see him sprouting up. He always used to get so upset about being the little one amongst his peers.”

“Well I hope you have had a talk to him about how to keep out of trouble” said Sophie giving Adam a knowing look.

Adam looked puzzled, “Sophie as you well know, I have spent my life talking to that boy about keeping out of trouble – without much success I may add”.

Sophie smiled “Not that kind of trouble Adam, girl trouble is what I was thinking of. There are plenty of girls around here that would stop at nothing to get themselves a Cartwright and since they haven’t had much luck getting you or Hoss up the aisle, I am quite sure they will now hone in on Little Joe and believe me they won’t be too choosy how they get him into that church.”

Adam was a bit taken aback, “Come on Sophie, Little Joe’s just a kid” he chuckled “he’s still trying to steal a kiss from the little girls behind the school house. Don’t worry Pa’s given him the ‘birds and bees’ talk and has also made it very clear to him what is expected of him when he is with a young lady, and one of those rules is not to compromise himself or the young lady by being caught alone”

“Look Adam, I’m not having a go at Little Joe, I’m sure he does know how to behave, but looking at that boy today the girls in Virginia City are not going to see a little boy anymore” Sophie said. As Adam began to frown she quickly added, “I’m sure there is nothing to worry about from the little girls at school, it’s the older girls I was thinking about. Think about it Adam, Joe has very little experience and believe me those girls would think nothing of leading him astray in order to get what they want. Look, I just think it would be better to close the stable door before the horse has bolted. Knowing Joe he would probably take it better if it came from you and not his Pa. If I was you I certainly would have a talk to him about how to be careful” she looked coyly up at Adam before pointedly saying “You know what I mean Adam. I think you underestimate the determination of some of the girls around here.”

Adam looked decidedly uncomfortable as Sophie hinted at their previous relationship. “No way am I getting into that conversation with him Sophie, for one thing I don’t think Joe is ready for that talk, but more importantly, as everyone keeps pointing out ‘I am not his Pa’. I think I will certainly leave that little discussion to the patriarch of the family.”

“Well don’t say I didn’t warn you” admonished Sophie. “Oh come on, let’s give the town something to gossip about, take me to lunch at the International House. I’ve just seen that nosy Mrs Parker go in there and I know she’ll be just bursting at the seams when she sees us”.

Adam began to laugh and taking Sophie by the arm proceeded to cross the street and head for the hotel.

*****

In Carson City Ben was having a pleasant lunch with Gregg Higgins. Ben and Gregg had been friends since their paths had crossed whilst both men were heading west to start a new life. Gregg had just agreed to purchase 1,000 head of Ben’s herd and they were working out the details for the drive to San Francisco. Ben’s only problem was that he was a bit shorthanded at the moment and was unsure if he would be able to employ enough men to complete the drive. Gregg thought for a moment and then suggested that his foreman, together with another couple of his ranch hands, join Ben’s men for the duration of the drive. As it transpired Gregg’s foreman turned out to be a former ranch hand of Ben’s. The guy’s name was Pete Davis and he had once worked for the Cartwrights for almost 5 years. He had worked at the Ponderosa until about 10 years ago when he had left to get married. He was now about 36 years old and had often kept Gregg entertained with stories about his times working at the Ponderosa.

“Come to think of it Ben, he has some mighty interesting tales to tell about what those boys of yours got up to whilst you were too busy to notice. You might want to spend some time with him. In fact if everything he tells me is true it should be quite an eye opener for you” chuckled Gregg. Gregg and his wife Mary had one grown up daughter, slightly older that Adam, and she was now married with two small children. He had always admired how Ben had managed to run a large spread like the Ponderosa and raise a family single-handed.

Ben shook his head, “Don’t you believe it Gregg, those boys got very little past me. I just chose to ignore some of their more harmless escapades. You know if I had pulled them up for every misdemeanour they would have had to grow up standing up.”

Gregg laughed along with Ben, “Well I guess you are mighty glad those days are over. It certainly must take it out of you raising three boys on your own” Gregg raised his eyebrows whilst looking at Ben “And you’ve certainly got the grey hairs to prove it”.

“Hmmm” sighed Ben “You forget, those days are not quite over for me yet, Gregg. One of those boys is not quite full-grown and believe me he has managed to get into more scrapes than the other two put together. By the time that boy reaches maturity I’ll be lucky to have any hair, never mind a grey one.”

Ben and Gregg continued to reminisce for several hours about their days on the trail when both of them worried more about where the next meal was coming from, rather than how many cattle they had. Before Ben left it was agreed that Pete Davis would meet with Ben at the Ponderosa on Saturday in order to go over the details for the drive that was to start the following Monday.

*****

Back on the Ponderosa Hoss was making his way back to the house for lunch. Hoss looked forward to being the only one home, as he knew that Hop Sing would take that as an opportunity to spoil him and he was looking forward to some extra treats instead of the usual sandwich lunch. Hoss was thinking about Joe’s antics that morning and he smiled. In lots of ways he was looking forward to Joe leaving school and working with him at the ranch, but he also worried that it would mean Joe dragging him into more of his scrapes, which ultimately ended with Hoss in as much trouble, if not more, as Joe. Hoss could never understand how that boy always managed to get him to do what he wanted. Most of the time Hoss was aware that Joe’s ideas would lead them into bother with Pa but somehow he just couldn’t help himself, one look at his brother’s face, especially the puppy dog look, and he was putty in his hands.

Hoss’s thoughts then drifted to Bessie Sue. He had been seeing quite a bit of her lately and things seemed to be getting serious. Bessie Sue was proving to be quite a handful and Hoss was secretly pleased at how jealous she became when he as much as looked at another girl. He wasn’t ready to settle down just yet – he was only 22 after all and a fellow needed to sow a few wild oats before getting hitched, but he certainly liked having a steady girlfriend. Hoss smiled to himself and thought how ironic it was that he was the only Cartwright sparking a girl at this point in time – that was certainly one in the eye for his two handsome brothers.

*****

Saturday came around all too quickly and it found Pete Davis riding out to the Ponderosa to meet up with Ben Cartwright. Pete felt good to be back riding the land he knew so well, the beauty of the Ponderosa never failed to impress him and he was looking forward to seeing Ben and the boys after all these years. Little Joe had been a little mite of 6 when Pete had left the Ponderosa ten years before and now he was returning a married man with two boys of his own. His own sons were 7 and 9 and that morning when he had hugged them goodbye he had been quite choked at leaving them. Returning to the Ponderosa had brought back memories of the three Cartwright boys and the tragedy that had occurred in their lives just the year before he left. Pete had held onto his own children and wife a little tighter than usual that morning and prayed to the Lord that his boys would always have both parents to help them throughout the years. He hoped they would never have to face the grief that those boys had faced that year.

When he rode up to the ranch house he immediately recognised Ben out in the yard talking to a couple of hands. On seeing Pete approach Ben smiled broadly and walked over to meet him. Pete had always had a great respect for the patriarch of the family and like most people he was always impressed how Ben had managed to build his empire whilst raising 3 boys.

“Well Pete, you are a sight for sore eyes, what happened to that cocky young man that used to break broncs for me” laughed Ben.

“Marriage and a couple of kids, Mr Cartwright, you probably know better than I how that can settle a man down” responded Pete.

Ben invited Pete to join him in the ranch house and as they entered he shouted for Hop Sing to bring them a cold drink. Before long they were sharing stories of old times and Ben was surprised how quickly the time went. He was quite startled to hear the front door bang and Adam arrive home. “Hi son, come and join us” shouted Ben “do you remember this young man. Some days he used to break broncs for us whilst on others he was used as a substitute babysitter to keep you and your brothers in line”.

Adam smiled as he walked into the room extending his hand to Pete. “I sure do Pa, how are you doing Pete?” The two young men facing each other were of a similar height and build. Pete couldn’t help but be impressed with the tall handsome man in front of him. Last time he had seen Adam he had been almost 19 years old and was preparing to go to college back east.

Adam helped himself to a coffee then sat down to join the in the conversation. Originally Pete had arrived at the ranch shortly after Little Joe’s birth and left about a year after the death of Marie. Being a few years older than Adam he had been something of a mentor to him and Adam had been grateful for the support that Pete had given him, especially in the year before he left for college.

There was a lull in the conversation before Pete asked “How are those other two boys, Mr Cartwright. When I left I think Hoss was about 12 but even then he was already as big as most men on the ranch and boy and was that kid strong. Surprising though, he was as gentle as a lamb underneath it all, especially when it came to looking after animals.”

“Well Pete, he just kept on growing and growing, he is by far much taller – and wider, than the rest of us. I am sure he is the main reason Hop Sing has stayed with us all these years, ‘cause he’s the one who appreciates his cooking the most. But one warning, just be sure to be quick off the mark when lunch arrives if you want to get your fair share of the meal.” replied Ben.

“And what about the little mischief maker. Boy was he a little charmer, face of an angel, curly hair, big green eyes and a beautiful smile. What a little con artist, no offence, but I think the only time that kid could be angelic was when he was asleep. Never known a kid to have his little butt warmed so much”.

“Well that description still fits him pretty well, doesn’t it Pa” smirked Adam “on reflection maybe the butt got a bit bigger, but otherwise no change.”

All three men laughed thinking about Little Joe and his antics when there was the sound of a rumpus out in the yard. Led by Ben, Adam and Pete walked out onto the porch just as two riders dismounted from their horses. One guy was huge and he looked fit to burst, his face was red and he was shouting up a storm with the guy on the other horse. It didn’t take much working out for Pete to gather who the two guys were.

Without any warning the big guy walked over to the little guy and yanking him off his horse by his jacket front, half carried him over to the horse trough and unceremoniously dunked him in. The little guy came up spluttering but found his head being pushed back under the water and held for a few seconds. Gasping for air as he was released from the other man’s grasp he said “Aw come on Hoss, it was only a joke”. He found his head been dunked again and held even longer. With his hand still held precariously on the little guy’s head the big guy growled “That don’t sound much of an apology to me little brother”. This time the little guy had well and truly had enough and sounding more contrite he said “OK Hoss I’m really sorry, come on let me out of here before I catch pneumonia”. Hoss did not reply but releasing his brother he walked over to his horse, grabbed hold of the reins, and stomped off into the barn.

Little Joe slowly climbed out of the trough looking very much like a drowned rat. It took all of Ben’s resolve not to burst out laughing. Looking at his youngest son he barked “See to your horse Joe and then strip off in the wash house, I don’t want Hop Sing screeching the house down about you dripping water all over the place. And when you are ready to join us I want an explanation of why your brother is so angry.”

Little Joe looked up sheepishly and said “Hey Pa, do you think you might ask Hop Sing to bring me a dry set of clothes to the wash house.” then with a cheeky grin at Pete he said “I wouldn’t want to wander in naked in front of our guest.”. Ben grumped a reply and Joe set off to look after Cochise.

Twenty minutes later the four men were sitting at the dinner table when Little Joe hurried to join them. “Sorry Pa, I was as quick as I could, but I think I might have caught a little bit of a chill” he sniffed, as he slyly eyed Hoss through half lids.

“Just be glad if that’s all you get young’un” replied Hoss with a twinkle in his eye. The anger was all gone and he was beginning to see the funny side of dunking his little brother in the trough. It didn’t matter what Joe did Hoss couldn’t stay mad at him for long.

Ben wanted to know what all the rumpus was about but Hoss obviously wanted to keep it between him and Joe so Ben decided to let the subject drop. The fact of the matter was Little Joe had been teasing Hoss about Bessie Sue’s jealousy. Joe had kidded Hoss that he had mentioned to Bessie Sue that Katie had been flirting with Hoss in town that morning. It was true that Katie had been flirting with Hoss but Joe had only been kidding Hoss about telling Bessie Sue. Hoss’s temper had exploded before Little Joe had been able to tell him the truth and Little Joe had been quite taken aback by his brother’s reaction – Hoss almost never lost his temper and very rarely with Little Joe. Hoss was usually Joe’s protector against everyone and inside Joe was a little upset at his brother’s reaction to the joke. He was beginning to realise that for the first time in his life Hoss was willing to put the feelings he had for a girl before those of his little brother and although Joe was glad for Hoss he was unsure how he felt about this change in their relationship.

Pete looked round the table at the three boys and smiled to himself as he thought of the men they had become, or in Joe’s case, had almost become. Obviously they had all got older but otherwise were exactly as he remembered them. Adam had grown into a tall handsome man. Initially on meeting him he looked very serious but when he smiled and his face dimpled, Pete could see how he would be quite the lady killer. Adam had always been a very intelligent and organised boy and was obviously now his father’s right hand man. Hoss was a gentle giant of a man and Pete could still see the same traits in the man as there were in the boy. As he talked about the ranch and his love of the land they worked, Pete could appreciate the man’s knowledge and was again in awe of the man’s understanding of the nature around him. He was truly in harmony with his surroundings. But the person who had changed the least for Pete was Little Joe. Sure he had grown quite a bit and was now an extremely handsome young man (on reflection that was hardly surprising as he had also been a particularly beautiful baby and child, as Marie had never ceased to point out to anyone who would listen) but otherwise the mischief and fun just oozed out of him. In contrast Joe had always been an overly sensitive boy and behind the brash and cocky image, Pete could still see the little boy desperate to prove himself to his big brothers.

The conversation turned to the arrangements for the impending cattle drive that would start on Monday. Little Joe was keen to join the men and pleaded with his father to let him out of school, but Ben was determined to stick to his guns and was adamant that Little Joe would remain at school for the last two months of term. Hop Sing would stay behind as usual and look after the youngest Cartwright just as he had throughout the years.

Joe started to sulk and Ben’s patience began to wear thin. Hoss thought he had better get his baby brother away from the table before Little Joe was confined to his room for the rest of the weekend or even worse. When Joe got that stubborn look on his face his smart mouth was likely to get him into more trouble than he could handle – and he was no match for his Pa when that happened.

“Hey, come on Joe boy” Hoss cajoled “it’s time you were getting spruced up if you’re gonna sweep those little ladies off their feet this evening”. Sensing that his father was not going to back down, Little Joe sighed and followed Hoss up the stairs to start getting ready.

Adam asked Pete to join him and his brothers at the dance that evening. It would probably be the last time that they would have for socialising for a number of weeks to come and they were all anxious to let off some steam. Pete thanked him for the offer but declined. If Ben didn’t mind he would prefer to spend the evening at the Ponderosa with him talking over old times before turning in for an early night. Since Pete had married he preferred not to attend social gatherings without his wife.

By the time the boys were ready to leave Little Joe was back to his normal self and was excitedly chatting about the girls he was hoping to see at the dance that evening. This was the first dance that Virginia City had held for over 3 months and it was likely to be a very good turn out. When it was time to leave Ben felt it necessary to remind his youngest son about his behaviour. Ben emphasised that although he did not mind his son having two drinks of punch that was to be his limit. He also felt it necessary to remind him of how he was expected to behave around young ladies. Little Joe blushed scarlet when Ben delivered this part of the lecture, especially in front of a guest, and he could not wait to get out of the door and onto his horse.

*****

The three brothers ribbed each other relentlessly all the way into town and they were all in a very good mood when they arrived. Adam had arranged to meet Sophie at the dance as they knew they would need to be careful if they were not to start tongues wagging again. Hoss was meeting Bessie Sue and even though they were already ‘going steady’ he still had butterflies in his stomach before entering the hall. Little Joe had not arranged to meet with anyone in particular but was hoping to dance with as many girls as possible.

As the evening progressed Adam and Sophie soon became aware that Little Joe was the centre of attention for a great number of the single girls. Adam was dismayed that most of the girls that were approaching and fawning over his little brother were considerably older than Little Joe, a number of them even older than Hoss. Sophie gave Adam that “I told you so” look and once again reminded him that someone needed to have a talk with the boy about what the girls’ intentions were likely to be. “Don’t wait until it’s too late, Adam” Sophie admonished.

While his older brother worried about the dilemma Sophie had presented him with Little Joe was thoroughly enjoying himself, he couldn’t believe that all these beautiful older women were paying him so much attention and he was in his element. He had grown over 6 inches in height in the last few months and he was amazed at how the girls who had treated him as a child only a few short months ago were now blatantly throwing themselves at him. Joe and Jessie had just finished dancing and were helping themselves to some punch when Joe almost choked on his drink – Jessie asked him if he would escort her outside for some fresh air. Joe knew that this was something his Pa would not approve of and he would be furious if he left the dance with a young lady unescorted, but he chose to ignore his Pa’s warning. He was now on his fourth drink which gave him a sense of false bravado, and he certainly did not want to appear like a little boy to Jessie by checking with his older brother before going outside. As Joe escorted Jessie towards the door he gave his friend Mitch a wink as he passed him by. Mitch’s mouth fell open in utter astonishment as Joe left hand in hand with Jessie.

Back in the hall it was about 15 minutes before Adam realised that his little brother was missing. At first he was unconcerned thinking that his brother had made a trip to the outhouse, but when Sophie pointed out that Jessie was also missing, he began to feel his temper flare and he and Sophie thought they had better go outside and investigate.

It was Sophie who spotted them first. They were in the stables at the bottom of the road and Jessie had Little Joe pushed up against the wall. She had almost removed his shirt and was kissing him passionately. At first Little Joe had been nervous and had wanted to go back inside, his insides were shaking and he felt completely out of his depth, but when she started to kiss him and snaked her tongue into his mouth he was lost. His mind couldn’t focus on anything else and he felt himself getting hotter and hotter. When he heard Adam’s voice shout “Joseph” only a few feet from him he almost fainted on the spot.

Sophie aware of Adam’s darkening mood sought to intervene before the sparks began to fly and going over to Jessie she suggested that they go back inside and get a glass of punch. As the two ladies walked back into the hall Adam turned a furious face on Little Joe. He yanked Joe forward by his shirt and demanded to know what he thought he was doing outside with a woman far too old for him and in a state of near undress. For once Joe was speechless, he was still trying to get his emotions under control and all he could do was stand with his head down, blushing furiously.

“I think we will need to have a very necessary talk when we get back home tonight” said Adam. Joe looked up in fright and automatically his hands went behind him to protect his bottom. At that Adam couldn’t help but smile, “No Joe, I don’t mean to warm your butt this time, although Pa might think differently, but I do mean we need to talk. If you are going to mess with older women boy, there are a few things you need to be aware of. Now straighten up your clothes and get back inside. And Joe, don’t leave my side for a second, if I see you take one more drink I’ll change my mind about that tanning.” Joe quickly buttoned his shirt and adjusted his clothing. With his chin resting on his chest and his eyes looking at the ground he meekly followed Adam back into the hall.

The rest of the evening passed without incident. Hoss was the first of the brothers to leave as he had agreed to escort Bessie Sue home and it was quite a ride. He was unaware of the tension between his brothers and happily bid them goodnight as he left. Little Joe accompanied Adam to walk Sophie to her door before both brothers mounted their horses and rode home. Joe never spoke a word all the way home and Adam was trying to think how he would approach the subject when they arrived. When they were back in the barn and rubbing down the horses Adam took a deep breath and thought he had better begin.

“Joe what on earth were you thinking about going outside with that girl alone. Pa would really have your hide behaving like that”.

“It wasn’t my idea, Adam, Jessie suggested it and before I knew it we were in the stables and she pounced on me” stuttered Joe.

“That’s hardly very gentlemanly Joe” said Adam. Joe again felt ashamed of himself and hung his head.

“Look Joe, I know Pa has given you the ‘birds and bees’ talk and all that, but….”

Joe began to feel annoyed, “I’m not a little boy anymore Adam, I do know what goes on, I don’t need you to tell me”.

“Oh, is that right Joe so you are ready to become a father are you”.

Joe was stunned “No of course not. It would never have gone that far”

“And at what point were you proposing on stopping Joe, for heavens sake boy she almost had your clothes off” Adam shouted.

This took the wind out of Joe’s sails and the annoyed young man was replaced by the confused little boy. “It all happened so quickly Adam, when she kissed me like that, I…I just couldn’t seem to think straight”.

Adam looked at the young boy in front of him and his anger subsided “Look Joe, I hoped you wouldn’t be ready for this talk at 16 but we have to talk about the consequences of situations like this getting out of hand and what you need to do to protect yourself and the girl”.

At this point Joe looked as if he was going to be physically sick. “No Adam I don’t need no talk cause it ain’t gonna happen ever again” and with that he fled from the barn and ran for the house and the sanctuary of his room. Adam sighed, Little Joe was leaving him no choice, he would have to discuss the situation with his father. Someone had to get through to Joe and if he couldn’t, well as everyone was always reminding him – he wasn’t Joe’s father, he would leave this little task to his Pa.

As Adam entered the front door, Ben stood up and walked towards him. “What’s happened son, Little Joe just ran in here like a jackrabbit and bounded up the stairs before I could say a thing to him”.

Adam swallowed; this was going to be hard. His father would have to face the fact that his baby boy was growing up and needed more than the ‘birds and bees’ talk. He needed to be informed of the more harsh and intimate facts of life, and more importantly, the consequences and responsibilities that went with them. Going over to the table Adam poured himself and Ben a large brandy before beckoning his father to join him in the sitting room. Adam tried to get assurance from Ben that he would sit and listen to everything Adam had to say before he flew off the handle. Ben was annoyed that Adam was pre-empting his response but he reluctantly gave his assurance.

Adam relayed the events of the evening and watched as his father got hotter under the collar by the second. When Adam finally paused Ben stood up and clenching his fists to his sides said “That boy won’t sit down for a week when I’m finished with him. He has been well taught what is acceptable behaviour. I can’t believe he would jeopardise the girl’s reputation, not to mention his own”.

“Hang on a second Pa, it was the girl that was trying to jeopardise her own and Joe’s reputation. The boy was way out of his depth. Think about it Pa if you were 16 and a beautiful 24 year old girl asked you to go for a walk in the moonlight, would you have refused”.

Ben took a deep breath trying to regain control. Finally smiling he had to admit that he would certainly have been tempted, but the fact of the matter was it had never happened to him at 16.

“Me neither Pa” smiled Adam.

Realising that Ben was starting to calm down a bit, Adam then told Ben how he had tried to talk to Joe about what the girl was trying to do and also to bring Joe up to date with some facts he ought to be aware of. He informed his father that this was the point at which Joe had taken his leave and rushed to his room. “I’m sorry Pa, but I tried, it looks as if you are going to have to be the one to give him that little talk. At least he won’t dare run away when you talk to him”.

Ben still didn’t want to face it “Come on Adam, he’s only 16, if I speak to Joe about how to be careful in these situations he may see that as me giving him my blessing to go ahead and not have any moral restraints. You were nearly 19 when we had that little talk and I only felt it was necessary because you were going away to college and I didn’t want you going away totally green”.

“Believe me I wasn’t as green as you think Pa, but come on, there were hardly the same temptations in Virginia City when I was 16. I don’t think there was more that a handful of pretty girls in the territory at that time” smirked Adam.

“Yeah, perhaps your right. Come to think about it I don’t think I have ever got round to having that talk with Hoss, I know he’s only 22, but he seems to be getting mighty serious with Bessie Sue. Do you think maybe I should have a talk with him as well?”

Adam laughed “Don’t worry about Hoss Pa, he and I had that talk quite a few years back. Hoss may blush and stammer alot when around girls, but believe me, I know, he isn’t as naive as he appears.”

“Is there something about your brother Hoss that I should know about Adam – perhaps I have a misconception about your younger brother.”

“No way Pa, Hoss is a grown man, what he does is his business” said Adam not wanting to discuss his middle brother’s private life with his father.

Ben sat down once again looking pensive. Looking at Adam he said, “I need time to think about how to approach this Adam. For all his bravado Joe has a habit of changing the subject very quickly when there is something he doesn’t want to discuss. The main problem is when I can talk to him, we are all going to be leaving on Monday and Joe will be in Hop Sing’s care. which is just going to add to my worries”.

“Well I’ve been thinking about that too Pa, and I think maybe we should take Joe with us. I know, I know I’m probably going to regret this, but that’s probably the only way we can keep him out of trouble and out of Virginia City. It will also give you the next couple of weeks to talk to the boy and impress on him his responsibilities when it comes to his actions in these situations. After all if he is going to play grown up games he needs to be aware of the grown up consequences.”

Ben thought long and hard about what Adam said and had to agree it was probably the best solution all round. He really didn’t like the idea of taking Joe out of school as it would look to Joe as if he was being rewarded for bad behaviour, but on the other hand he didn’t want to leave Joe unsupervised for the next couple of weeks. Hop Sing would do his best but he was no match for Joe when he had mischief on his mind.

“There is one other bonus” said Adam “if Joe is not here for Hop Sing to look after, there is no reason why Hop Sing can’t join us on the trail and that will sure make the biggest member of the family very happy”. Ben laughed releasing the tension in the room. Throwing an arm around his eldest son’s shoulders they both headed off to bed.

Ben lay in bed that night unable to sleep. His thoughts kept thinking of a tiny little boy with curly hair and twinkling green eyes that had climbed into his bed most nights. Joe had found it very difficult to sleep on his own after his mother’s death and for a long time afterwards he would wake in the middle of the night suffering from nightmares. At those times either Ben or Adam would lift the crying child into his arms and carry him to their bed to be comforted. Ben closed his eyes and tried to think where all those years had gone, it seemed like only yesterday that Little Joe was getting excited over Christmas and Santa Claus and at the thought of the tooth fairy leaving him money under his pillow after losing another baby tooth. How was he going to have that particular talk with his baby son, he just couldn’t bear to think of him in the adult situation that Adam had outlined to him. The more Ben thought about it the angrier he became at the young woman who was determined to take his child’s innocence from him before he was ready. Well, it was his responsibility as a father to protect his child and if it meant shadowing his son for the next couple of years until he thought he was grown up enough, then he would do it. Smiling once again to himself he thought “Joe’s not going to like this, not one bit”.

Back in his room Joe was also unable to sleep. He felt confused about the various feelings he was experiencing. Joe had felt very flattered by all the attention he had received that evening, even he couldn’t believe that girls, or more to the point women, of that age had been interested in him. At first he thought they were just making up to him as a way of getting to Adam, but as the night had progressed he realised that they were definitely vying for his attention. When Jessie had suggested they go outside he had no idea how things would turn out and he really got a kick out of the look on his friends’ faces when he headed out of the door. Although he couldn’t say he didn’t enjoy the kiss he had experienced with her and also her hands on his body (Joe blushed once again just thinking about it), he had been relieved when Adam had arrived and put a stop to it. When Adam had started ‘giving him the talk’ upon arrived home he just couldn’t handle it, he wanted so much to be grown up but he knew he wasn’t ready for this aspect of adulthood just yet and for the first time he was beginning to regret the extra maturity his body had shown that year. He knew Adam would tell Pa and he cringed inside at what his father was going to say to him, he began to feel ashamed of his behaviour as he thought how disappointed his Pa would be in him.

*****

The following morning Little Joe was last to arrive at the breakfast table. He descended the stairs slowly and made his way to the table saying a quiet ‘Good morning’ to his family but not raising his head to look at any of them.

Hoss was oblivious of the atmosphere around him and happily dived into the pancakes that Hop Sing continued to pile on the plate in the centre of the table. He was happily thinking of Bessie Sue. After taking her home the previous night they had spent a pleasant few minutes kissing good night on the porch before her mother had called out to Bessie Sue to come into the house for bed. As a smile came over his face thinking about the previous evening he pondered on how much he was going to miss her over the next couple of weeks. Catching sight of his father and brothers giving him strange looks he quickly wiped the smile off his face and filled his mouth with another pancake, the last thing he wanted was his father to quiz him about his thoughts.

Ben had other things on his mind – how was he going to approach the subject of Joe joining them on the cattle drive. The last thing he wanted was for Joe to get the wrong impression about how Ben viewed his behaviour of the previous night. There was no doubt that Joe would view being allowed to miss school as some sort of reward and Ben wanted to make sure that Joe understood that that was not the case.

‘Joseph, Adam and I have been discussing the possibility of you joining us on the cattle drive.’ When Joe went to speak, Ben held up his hand silencing him. “Don’t think that this is any way reflective of good behaviour Joseph, these next few weeks will give you and I time to discuss some aspects of your behaviour that Adam has made me aware of”. At this Joe blushed and fixed his eyes on the plate in front of him, not daring to look at his father.

Although Joe was embarrassed at the thought of his father having knowledge of what happened the night before, he couldn’t contain his excitement at the thought of missing school and joining his father and brothers on the cattle drive. He felt like jumping up from the table and shouting out his joy. Joe had to bite on his bottom lip to stop the smile from spreading across his face. Adam looked at him and frowned at the obvious sparkle in the green eyes, he thought Joe should be across his father’s lap at this time having a well-deserved tanning. Joe couldn’t contain himself any longer, “Pa, could I leave the table, I have a lot to do if I am to get everything ready for tomorrow”.

Ben gave his son a hard look but then sighed and said “Go ahead, but mind Joseph you and I will need to have a discussion this afternoon about what I will be expecting from you over the next few weeks. You will obey Adam and I at all times, without question, and I will not have any of your complaining when the going gets rough”.

Joe just smiled at his father as he rushed for the stairs and with a quick “Sure Pa” he took the stairs two at a time and made his way to his bedroom. When Joe entered his room he started jumping up and down hugging himself like he used to do when he was a small boy and something exciting happened. He couldn’t believe his father was allowing him to go with them. Ten minutes later he was brought back to earth when he heard his father’s booming voice shouting up the stairs “Joseph, as you said there is a lot to be done before tomorrow morning – your chores are waiting young man and I expect to find you in the barn within two minutes or else”. Not wanting to antagonise his father in any way, Joe did not dawdle for a second and rushed down the stairs two at a time “Don’t run in the house Joseph, and don’t slam the door” the latter part was spoken too late, the house reverberated as the door was almost slammed off its hinges.

By late afternoon Joe was beginning to think his head couldn’t take anymore. First Hoss had taken him to one side to warn him how hard he would be expected to work, that it wasn’t a vacation and he would have to pull his weight if he was to be accepted by the other cowboys. This was followed up by a long talk with Adam. Adam made it very clear that he would stand none of Joe’s nonsense over the next couple of weeks and if he stepped out of line he would be treated the same as everyone else. Joe made the mistake of retorting

“Well that’s good, if I’m treated the same as everyone else at least my hide will be safe on this trip”. As soon as the words left his mouth Joe knew he had made a mistake.

Adam’s finger came very close to Joe’s face “Don’t get smart with me little boy, if you behave like a naughty child, be assured you will be treated as such” and with that he walked out of the barn. Joe didn’t realise until Adam left that he had been holding his breath. As he let out a sigh of relief he felt his Pa’s hand on his shoulder. His father motioned for him to sit down on one of the bales of hay.

“Well Joe, this is a big opportunity for you to prove to your brothers and I just how much you have matured over the last year. I will be expecting you to work hard and follow orders at all times. It will be hard”, Joe made to protest that he was very capable of working as hard as his brothers, but Ben raised a hand to silence him “You may think it will be easy riding cattle all day, but believe me Joe you have never had to sit a saddle all day and everyday. You are going to find aches in bones you never knew you had”.

“I know Pa and I won’t let you down” said Joe looking up into his father’s eyes. Ben motioned that that was all for now and Joe was only too pleased to get away from his father before his father decided to follow another line of discussion.

Later that morning three men rode into the yard and Ben and Adam went out to greet them. One of the men introduced himself as Frank Carter and informed Ben that he was under the impression that they were hiring men for a cattle drive to San Francisco. After a brief chat about their experience it was decided that the men would be hired and they were told to report to Pete Davis for instructions. Normally Ben and Adam liked to vet any prospective hands a bit more closely but they were so short of men at this particular time that they hired them on face value.

That evening Joe was sent off to bed earlier than usual because of the early start they would have in the morning. Ben, Adam and Hoss waited until they thought Joe was asleep before they began discussing the following weeks. The three men decided that Joe should be with one of them at all times. There were a lot of dangers to be had on a cattle drive and even though Joe was an expert horseman, his very impetuous nature put him more at risk than most. It was decided that Hoss was probably the best one for Joe to spend most of the time with. He was less likely to feel smothered by Hoss as they rarely rubbed each other up the wrong way, unlike Joe and Adam. Unfortunately Ben would have to leave the drive sometime in the second week to tie up some business to do with a lumber contract. He would rejoin them in the last few days and would be bringing with him the payroll to pay the men at the end of the drive.

*****

The following morning was a hive of activity; Joe was running round getting in everyone’s way until Ben could stand it no longer. “Joseph, please calm down, this is the start of a very long and tiring day and I don’t want to begin with a headache.” Adam raised his eyebrows and Joe scooted over the yard to Cochise to wait restlessly for the others to be ready. It was at this point that Pete rode into the yard and seeing the expression on Adam’s face couldn’t help but smile. This was sure going to be an interesting drive with the young’un along – well he would just sit back and wait for the fireworks that were bound to come.

Twenty minutes later the men rode out of the yard and made their way to join the rest of the crew out at the north pasture. Hoss and Joe rode out in front with Joe chattering incessantly. A couple of times Hoss looked back at his Pa and older brother giving them a wink and a smile. Hoss was very indulgent of the youngest Cartwright and was happy to listen to his never-ending prattle if it kept the rest of the family relaxed and happy.

At the end of the first day Ben made his way back to the camp very tired and dirty. As he made his way over to the campfire, Hoss approached him with a cup of coffee and a plate of food. His father always rode out in front directing the drive and was always first up on a morning and last to retire at night. Ben smiled at his two elder sons and a couple of ranch hands that were also taking a break. Looking round and not seeing his youngest Ben looked to Adam for an answer. Adam nodded his head to a mound lying next to the chuck wagon. Ben went over and looked down into the dirty sleeping face of his youngest son. “He’s not washed” said Ben “has he even eaten”.

“No” replied Adam, “he was so tuckered out when he returned he climbed into his bedroll and was out for the count in seconds”. Ben smiled indulgently at the sleeping boy, much to the amusement of the other men who were used to a very stern and unbending boss when out on the trail. “How did he do”.

Hoss swelled up with pride, “He was great Pa, worked like a little pro, he never let up for a second, thought I was gonna have ta pound him to come back in for the night”.

“Hoss’s right Pa, he put in as good a day’s work at the best of them” added Adam.

Ben sat down to eat his supper and warm himself next to the fire. When finished he walked back to the sleeping boy and gently shook his shoulder “Come on son, you need to get up and get washed and have something to eat. You can’t do a full day’s work on an empty stomach, you’re gonna need your strength for tomorrow”. The amused men sitting round laughed out loud when Joe turned his face to his father and with an outstretched hand pushed him away saying “Aw go away Hoss, it ain’t time to get up yet”. Ben stood up and looked back at the men with an embarrassed smile. He turned once more to his sleeping son and putting on his deepest Ben Cartwright voice bellowed “Joseph Cartwright, I want you out of that bed this instant, washed and ready to eat in 5 minutes”. It had the desired effect and Little Joe jumped up out of his bedroll and stumbled into his father’s outstretched hands.

With a dazed look on his face he stuttered “S-S-Sorry Pa, what’s going on”. Ben shook his head and led his tired son over to the water bucket. He almost had to wash him the boy was so tired. He then manoeuvred him to sit down at the camp fire and handed him a plate of food “Now eat” he grunted. Joe proceeded to eat all on his plate. Immediately he was finished Ben walked him back to his bedroll and the boy climbed in and was asleep immediately.

“Well, I’ve found the answer” smiled Ben, “keep him working like this over the next couple of weeks and he won’t have any energy left for getting into mischief”.

“And we wouldn’t have to put up with his never ending chatter either” Adam pointed out. Hoss felt obliged to come to his younger siblings defence, “Aw come on Adam, he ain’t that bad, the kids done better than most, it wouldn’t hurt to tell him”.

“I’m only joshing Hoss, I’m really proud of the boy and don’t worry when the times right I’ll tell him”.

Over the following days Little Joe become used to the long hours in the saddle and although his butt was sore and he could never get rid of the dust in his throat, he loved every minute of it. The freedom he felt from being outside exhilarated him and the thought of only having to return to school for the last couple of weeks was like a dream come true. Once he had gotten over his initial tiredness his natural exuberance returned and the men were subjected to his incessant chatter and the occasional prank. A number of the men had known Little Joe for most of his life and were fond of the young boy, they were used to his tomfoolery and in the main thought it brightened up a rather tedious cattle drive. There were others that thought young boys should not be allowed on the drive and the fact that he was the boss’s son just made their animosity worse. When Joe was being particularly irksome a few of the newer hands commented behind his back how they thought what the brat needed was a good tanning and if it wasn’t for his Pa and brothers they would certainly have been happy to give it him. One of the men, Frank Carter, took particular pleasure in winding up the boy as much as possible. He made a big point of calling him ‘Little Boy’ and Joe tried to avoid him as much as possible. There was something about the man that made him nervous and he was always grateful if one of his brothers was around whenever his and Frank’s path crossed.

On one particular evening Ben and the boys were sitting at the campfire with a few of the old hands and they were laughing about some of the antics the boys had got up to in the early years. Pete was recalling his time with the Cartwrights and was making them laugh as he reminded everyone of the time he was at the receiving end of Marie’s temper. Marie’s temper was quite legendary and it was only one of a number of traits she had passed on to her son. Little Joe was always interested in stories about his mother and pressed Pete to tell the tale.

Pete began by telling them how when Joe was even smaller than he was now, he loved to follow Pete around the yard imitating everything he did. On one particular occasion he had wanted to help Pete groom Ben’s horse but was told to stay back as he was too little to reach up to the horse’s coat. Joe was upset and Pete had laughed saying “What you need is manure in your boots little’un, that’s sure to make you grow”. Pete had not given it another thought until later that day when a very angry Marie emerged from the barn and proceeded to give him a right ear bashing about filling Little Joe’s head with nonsense. Before Pete had time to respond Marie returned to the barn and appeared seconds later carrying at arms length a very smelly small boy with manure all over his face and hands. Following behind her was Hoss carrying a small pair of boots with manure coming over the tops. All the men laughed and Hoss could even remember the incident and how it had taken Marie all night to convince a stubborn Little Joe that Pete had not really meant it when he said it would help him grow.

Once one story was told a few others joined in and at first Little Joe was enthralled listening to the stories he had never heard before which involved his mother. After about an hour Ben noticed that Joe had left the campfire and had wandered over to where the horses were tethered. Ben went over to him and put a hand on his shoulder making the young boy jump momentarily. Even in the moonlight Ben could see that something was upsetting Joe and he was a bit bewildered, as he couldn’t think of anything that anyone had said that might upset the boy. He knew that Joe would not open up to him with everyone around and he suggested that they stretched their legs for five minutes before turning in for the night. As they walked along Ben put a comforting arm around Joe’s shoulders and asked if talking about Marie had upset him in some way.

At first Joe didn’t know how to explain his feelings but when Ben took hold of his chin and looked into his eyes Joe blurted out “I don’t know why it is Pa, but although I love hearing stories about my Mama, sometimes it hurts real bad. It just seems that everyone, Adam, Hoss, Pete – even some of the older hands, know more about her than I do. They seem to remember so much about her, what she looked like, sounded like, everything. All I remember is her smile, how she used to sing to me and sometimes I even think I smell her perfume, but even then I don’t know if my memories are mine or just things that you and Adam have told me. Sometimes I think I want to know everything there is to know but then when people start talking about her, I get jealous and I want to tell them she’s mine not theirs.” Joe stopped talking and looked into his father’s eyes “I guess I sound like a silly jealous little boy, Pa”.

Ben’s heart was breaking, he always knew that Joe was sensitive where his mother was concerned, but he had no idea how much hurt the boy carried after all these years. He pulled Joe into his arms and stroking the back of Joe’s head said “No Joe, I don’t think you are silly at all. I can understand how you feel son. I can think of no greater pain for a child to experience that that of losing their mother. It’s understandable for you to feel jealous, you were robbed of memories that should have been yours and if there was anyway I could change that for you I would, but son all I can do is be there for you as best I can”.

Joe held his father close for a few more seconds then pulling himself together he smiled into his father’s troubled face and said “Thanks Pa”.

“For what”

“For being the best Pa in the whole world, what would I do without you”.

Father and son looked at each for a few moments, smiled in acknowledged understanding, then walked back to the campfire in harmony.

The following day as Adam, Hoss and Ben stopped to get fresh horses and a drink, Adam quizzed his father about Joe’s sudden mood change of the previous evening. Normally Ben was reluctant to discuss private moments he had with one son with the other two but on this occasion he thought it might be better if his sons were sensitive to Joe’s feelings with regards to his mother. Adam nodded in understanding; he often witnessed the hurt in Joe’s face when he and Hoss talked about Marie. Adam and Hoss never intentionally excluded Joe from the conversations but he was just so much younger than them they sometimes forgot that he would have no memory of the incidences they recalled.

“At least he does have some memories of his mother” said Adam wistfully, “I’m sure Hoss and I would love to be able to remember something of ours”.

Hoss thought for a second and then added “You know we always assume that Little Joe has had it the easiest of all – he’s never really had to rough it – but in one way he has missed out more than the both of us”.

Ben looked at his middle son and asked “How do you figure that out Hoss”.

“Well think about it, Adam never knew his own mother but he did have a couple of years mothering by my mother, and like you always say Adam, she couldn’t have treated you better if’n you had been her own.” Adam nodded in acknowledgement. “Then there was Marie, she was a wonderful mother to the both of us for almost seven years. But Little Joe’s never really had that. Marie couldn’t have loved him more, but unfortunately for Little Joe she died when he was too little to really remember her. So although our mothering wasn’t by our own at least we do have the memories of how good it was ”.

Adam pondered what Hoss had said and then admitted “Guess you’re right, Hoss, never really thought about it like that before and thinking about Marie it sure helped having her around when I was Joe’s age”. Adam then looked at his father and smiled “She sure saved my butt on many occasions”.

“Hmm, she was altogether too soft where you were concerned” retorted Ben, “but on reflection she may have saved your butt from me a time or two when you had me riled, but thinking back she wasn’t above giving you a swat herself when the occasion demanded it”. Adam winced at the thought and laughed.

The conversation was brought back to a lighter note and all three Cartwright’s saddled up their new horses and went back to work.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

Chapter 2:

It was nearing the end of the second week when Ben finally got the opportunity to have Joe on his own for a couple of hours. He wasn’t sure how to broach the subject of what had transpired between Joe and Jessie at the dance and found himself going back over a conversation he had with Joe on other occasions with regards to what was expected of him when with a young lady.

Joe was well aware where the conversation was leading and sat on a rock looking at his feet unable to look Ben in the face. When Ben began discussing the consequences of giving in to his emotions, Joe wanted the earth to open up and swallow him. Joe’s face was beetroot when Ben started to discuss various methods of birth control, he found he was holding his breath and was almost on the point of passing out when he realised he hadn’t taken a breath for more than a minute. As Joe started coughing and gasping, Ben decided that perhaps his first instinct had been right and Joe was not yet ready for the information he was trying to impart to him.

“Look son, you know what I think is proper and acceptable behaviour” sighed Ben “but I am well aware how things can go too far when you are young and inexperienced. I expect all my sons to be respectful of the young ladies they are with. Her reputation and yours is not something you can get back if you lose it. On the other hand I am not naïve enough to think that these things never happen and all I want to do is ensure that you are aware of the consequences of your actions and how mistakes can be avoided if possible”. Ben realised that Joe was once more holding his breath and he decided that perhaps the lecture would be better left for another day – or hopefully a year or two.

Joe had not said a word throughout his father’s lecture, the embarrassment of having his father discuss ‘that’ with him was just too much. The whole business was beginning to make him feel sick and he decided that it would be much easier if he just avoided girls altogether for the foreseeable future, he managed to get into enough trouble as it was without adding a whole new complication.

*****

Two days later Ben left the cattle drive to go and meet with a business associate to finalise details with regard to the timber contract they had with a mining company and also to collect the payroll that would be needed to pay the hands at the end of the drive. Ben was reluctant to leave Joe behind and seriously considered taking him with him. He was worried that without him around Joe may get into mischief. Although he was normally quite happy to leave Adam in charge of Joe on other occasions he was afraid that Adam had his hands full enough without having to deal with the youngest Cartwright. Joe was quick to allay Ben’s fears, after all it was only for three or four days, and he promised to be on his best behaviour – one look at Adam’s face was enough for Joe to say the words and mean them.

Later that morning Hoss and Joe were riding together when Hoss’s horse appeared to be labouring. Joe joked with Hoss that it was all the extra weight his poor horse had to carry. Hoss reached out and swatted his younger sibling across the back of the head.

“You’re just jealous of my manly physique boy, now if you don’t start eating more you’re never gonna get any flesh on those skinny bones of yours. And speaking of food, I’m gonna head back, change my horse and fill up at Hop Sing’s chuck wagon. You follow on when you’re ready.”

With that Hoss headed back to camp leaving Joe to chase after another stray forty minutes later Joe arrived at the chuck wagon just as Hoss was finishing his second plate of Hop Sing’s stew. The boys exchanged no more than a few words as Hoss was anxious to get back to work and he left shortly afterwards instructing Joe to join him as soon as he was ready.

Joe found that the smell of the food was making him extremely hungry and he could hardly wait for Hop Sing to fill his plate. He was just turning from the wagon when Frank Carter and a couple of his cronies also arrived for lunch. On several occasions over the last few days Frank had tried to provoke Joe into losing his temper and it was only because of Hoss’ quick intervention that things had not escalated. Hoss was angry at the men for teasing his brother but thought it would only make things worse if he made too much of it.

Joe was anxious not to have any interchange with Frank and the others and he went to move as far away from them as possible. As Joe passed by Frank took the opportunity to move in front of Joe and tip his plate of dinner down the boy’s clothes.

Joe was livid “You did that on purpose” he screamed.

Frank laughed “Get a grip kid, it was only an accident”.

Joe was beyond reason and he was about to lunge at Frank when Adam rode into camp. As Joe raised his fist Adam sprang from his horse and grabbed hold of his younger brother in a vice like grip.

Adam quickly took in the situation as he looked at the smirking faces of the older men and Joe’s soiled clothes, “You lot get back to work, I’m not paying you to sit on your butts all day”.

The men got to their feet and left the camp without another word.

Joe thought that Adam would give him a right dressing down and was amazed when a calm Adam patted him on the back and said, “better hurry and change your clothes kid, if you are to ride with me for the rest of the afternoon”. Adam was not annoyed at Joe but he was angry at the men. Joe was a kid and he could expect a bit of ribbing but these men had a malicious way about them and Adam was pretty sure that they were deliberately goading his brother over and above what would have been acceptable. Adam decided to keep Joe with him for the next few days until things had cooled down, he didn’t want to risk Joe getting into a situation he couldn’t handle, especially when things had gone so well up to now.

Joe was quite pleased but a little nervous to be spending the time with Adam. It was rare for him and Adam to spend much time in each others company and although he would never admit it to Adam, Joe missed the closeness he had once shared with his older sibling. Adam usually complained about Joe’s relentless chatter but for once he was indulgent and let Joe talk away as much as he wanted. To Adam’s amusement the day passed quickly and he was pleasantly surprised at how Joe’s enthusiasm for the job was contagious.

His brother’s handling of horses was exceptional and Adam had always pointed out he was a natural, but Joe was quick to learn other skills and Adam had to admit that the boy was proving he was more than capable of holding his own with the best of them. Joe glowed with pride as they sat at the campfire that evening and Adam praised him for the job he was doing. Hoss was Joe’s best friend, but Adam was still his hero and although Joe never admitted it to anyone, least of all himself, Adam’s approval was what he craved more than anything.

The next few days passed without incidence and Adam and Hoss were very pleased with the way Joe was knuckling down and working hard. Adam decided to give Joe a break. They were not far from a water hole and Adam gave Joe permission to take a couple of hours off to go and bathe. There was no-one around except cattle and Adam couldn’t think of any mischief Joe could possibly get into.

Joe enjoyed having a couple of hours to himself and washing the trail dust from his dirty body. As he was lying behind a rock allowing his body to dry naturally he became aware of voices not far off. He realised very quickly that it was Frank Carter and a couple of his cronies. As the men stood there waiting another two men, who Joe had not seen before, joined them. They discussed quickly the arrangements they had made for ambushing Ben Cartwright on his way back to the drive carrying the payroll. Not wasting any time the men jumped on their horses and left.

Joe quickly dressed and took off after the men. He was afraid that if he went back to warn Adam and Hoss it would be too late for them to track the men before they harmed his father and that was not a risk he was willing to take. With his own safety pushed to the back of his mind, he tried to work out just what he would do when he caught up to them.

It was some time later that Joe crept up a hillside and looked down on three of the men, who were obviously making camp in a position where they would be able to see Ben Cartwright’s approach well in advance. Joe knew he had to do something quickly, he was afraid that if he waited too long they would shoot his father before he had time to warn him. Joe slid down the hill until he was perched just above them; he had his gun in his left hand and his rifle in his right and was aiming them at Frank.

“Okay, you down there, drop your weapons nice and slowly and put your hands up” shouted Joe without a trace of the nervousness he felt. All three men looked up startled but visibly relaxed when they realised it was just the boy. Even though Joe was shaking inside he didn’t falter and the men started to look apprehensive. When it became obvious that Joe would certainly carry out his threat and shoot if necessary, the men dropped their guns to the ground and held up their hands. Joe kept his guns aimed at the men as he slowly made his way down to their level.

“Right, back off slowly and get on your horses”. Joe decided if he could keep them in front of him he could ride them into the town and hand them over to the sheriff and hopefully meet up with his father on the way. Unbeknown to the men and Joe, Ben had had a change of plan and was going to be delayed for a further day in town doing business.

The men climbed on their horses and Joe was just preparing to mount Cochise, still holding his gun in his left hand when he heard a voice behind him,

“OK, sonny drop the gun, nice and slowly”. Joe turned to see the other two men standing only a few feet away. He had been so engrossed in keeping watch over the first three he had been totally unaware of their approach.

Once Joe dropped the gun to the ground, Frank dismounted from his horse and walking over to Joe, he raised his hand and backhanded the boy viciously across the face.

“You are going to regret your interference sonny, oh boy are you going to regret it”.

Lying on the ground with blood streaming from his cut lip, Joe was beginning to regret his impetuous decision and wished that he had now rode back to inform Adam of what he had witnessed.

Joe found himself being dragged to his feet and surrounded by the five men. “What do we do with him now” asked one of them.

Frank thought for a while then said “Maybe this will prove to be even better, this pup is the apple of the old man’s eye, I’m sure he would pay almost anything to get him back alive. Tie him up, we’ll make camp further up in the hills and get word to his kin to come up with the money. He has got to be worth more than a measly payroll”.

Two of the men roughly held him while another tied his hands in front of him and pushed him up onto his saddle. “Hey, I’ve just had a thought” said Frank “Get the kid back off the horse. We’ll leave a note tied to the saddle where his brothers or Pa is bound to find it. That way we don’t run any risk trying to deliver a message. The kid can ride double with you Ron.” Joe was pulled back off the horse and pushed up to sit in front of the second man. Ron Shepherd puzzled Joe, although he was always hanging around with Frank he didn’t seem to have the same vicious streak as the others. They rode further back into the hills before making camp and all of the time Joe had to listen to them joking about how they were going to spend his “daddies” money.

Joe felt very young and foolish about how easy it had been for them to take him prisoner and he kept his head down for most of the ride. As the men started to set up camp Frank insisted that Joe was tied to a tree to stop him from escaping. As time went by Joe began feeling very uncomfortable and in need of emptying his bladder. When he couldn’t hang on any longer he turned to one of the men and asked if he could be untied to relieve himself. Once again Frank took the opportunity to goad the youngster, he stood in front of him and said “Ask real nice and polite sonny and I may let yer, otherwise you can sit there and pee your pants for all I care, it’s up to you”.

Joe had no alternative but to swallow his pride, the resulting consequences didn’t bear thinking about. “Please may I go pee” he blurted out.

“No way kid, when I said polite, I meant real polite”

“Please sir, may I be allowed to relieve myself” said Joe through gritted teeth.

“Now that’s better, real polite, untie him Ron and take him behind those trees, but don’t take your eyes off him for a second and mind you tie him right back up again”.

Ron untied Joe’s hands and led him over to the trees. Joe’s hands by that time were so numb he could hardly manage the buttons on his trousers and he was afraid he wouldn’t make it in time the urge had become that strong. Minutes later, with great relief, Joe finished his business and readjusted his clothes. As Joe was returning to the camp, Frank started on him again, “Daddy’s gonna be real pleased with you little boy, costing him all that money. If you’d a stayed put instead of chasing after us you wouldn’t be in this situation. Don’t see your Pa being very happy with ya”.

The red mist came down and Little Joe lunged for Frank hitting him square in the jaw. The big man fell backwards and Joe jumped on top of him. He managed to get in a few good punches before two of the men grabbed hold of him and yanked him off. He was so mad he was hitting out at everything and anything. Frank got to his feet and while two of men held Joe up he pulled back his arm and hit Joe in the stomach as hard as he could. Joe’s knees buckled and he gasped for breath. Frank grabbed Joe by the hair and pulling back his arm he hit Joe in the face – the blood spurted immediately from Joe’s nose.

Before Frank could hit him again Ron stepped between them. “That’s enough Frank, he’s only a kid. I don’t hold with beating up on kids.”

Frank looked as if he was going to turn on Ron, but then he smiled and said, “Yeh, you’re right Ron, he is a kid, and when kid’s get too big for their boots they get a whipping and that’s just what he’s gonna get”.

With that Frank quickly removed his belt and grabbing hold of Joe he pulled him over the nearest rock. Joe struggled but Frank instructed two of the men to hold him down making it difficult for Joe to move. The first time the belt hit him Joe sucked in his breath in surprise. He was determined not to cry out and he bit down on his bottom lip to suppress any sound escaping. The belt came down on him time and time again, he could feel the buckle biting into his flesh and after a while Joe could no longer hold his cries and he shouted for Frank to stop, but Frank just laughed and kept on going.

Once again Ron stepped forward and catching hold of Frank’s arm said “You’ve had your fun, Frank, let the kid go”.

Frank stood back and released Joe allowing him to fall to the ground. “Let that be a lesson boy, I won’t take any more of your smart mouth, and try something like that again and you won’t get back up again”.

Ron and one of the other men lifted Little Joe to his feet and Ron tied his hands once again in front of him. Joe kept his head bowed trying to hide the tears that streamed down his face. Ron took hold of Joe’s arm and led him back over to the tree where he had first been. He was conscious of the fact that Joe would probably prefer to remain standing and leaving him there he went to fetch some water and a cloth.

To Joe’s embarrassment, Ron set about cleaning his face where the blood was still dripping from his nose. As Ron cleaned him up he said “Sorry about this kid, you weren’t meant to be involved in any of this. Now just keep your mouth shut and don’t antagonise Frank over there and you’ll be back with your family before you know it.”

Joe couldn’t trust himself to speak but nodded his head in thanks.

“I’m gonna have to tie you back to the tree now son, so I know this ain’t gonna be real comfortable but you’re gonna have to sit back down.”

Joe slowly sank down to the ground letting out a low groan as his rear end made contact with the hard earth.

*****

Meanwhile back at the cattle drive Adam and Hoss were becoming increasingly alarmed at Little Joe’s failure to return. Anger was Adam’s first reaction and Hoss was trying to smooth things over by joking that Little Joe was so tired he probably had fallen asleep whilst sunning himself. As time went on it was obvious to the brothers that something was not right. Hoss went looking for him and returned after a short time to inform Adam that Little Joe was nowhere to be found. There were recent tracks of not only Cochise but five other riders and Hoss and Adam began to have a sense of dread as to what could have befallen their little brother.

Pete Davis joined the anxious brothers at the campfire. It was now obvious to them all that Joe had gotten himself into some trouble as there was no way he would have gone with those other riders willingly. Pete also informed the brothers that Frank Carter and a couple of men that joined with him were also missing and Adam and Hoss looked at each with concern. Adam and Hoss were keen to set out after Joe as soon as possible, both feeling guilty for not keeping him safe whilst he was in their care. Pete insisted that he could take charge and complete the cattle drive and would meet the brothers in San Francisco at the end of the trail. They were nearing the end of the drive and Pete also urged the brothers to take a couple of the men with them, the rest of them would work round the clock if necessary for the remaining days in order to get the cattle to market. Adam thought it would be quicker if he and Hoss continued alone so he gave last minute instructions to Pete about what was to happen when they reached San Francisco with the herd and then he and Hoss set off.

*****

Frank had decided he needed someone to watch over Joe’s horse to see who found it –whether it be the brothers or Ben. He wanted that person to then trail them into town to keep an eye on the proceedings. The last thing he wanted was for Ben and the boys to arrive back with a posse in tow. Ron saw this as his opportunity and he quickly volunteered to be the one. Frank trusted Ron implicitly and was happy with this arrangement. He was confident that Ron would be able to complete the task in hand without raising any suspicion. He didn’t think the other three had a brain cell between them and mainly kept them around as hired guns.

Ron’s only concern was how Joe would fare being left to the sadistic nature of Frank. Up to now he had been able to stop Frank from hurting Joe too badly but he worried that Frank would go too far if he wasn’t there to stop him. Before leaving Ron made a point of going over to Joe to check out his condition. Although Joe had a few bruises and a very sore and bruised butt, Ron decided that he wasn’t faring too bad. He made sure that Joe had something to eat and drink and untied him for a short time so that Joe could stretch his legs and see to his personal needs. He hoped that that would suffice until his return, as he doubted that the others would give Joe the same consideration.

Ron leaned into Joe and said, “Look Joe it won’t be long now, your Pa will pay the money over tomorrow and you will go free. I have to leave for a while, but I need you to do something for me, can you do that”. Ron looked into Joe’s eyes and waited for Joe to respond. Joe was hurting – his butt caused him intolerable pain, his face hurt, his pride hurt and he was worried in case he broke down. He didn’t trust himself to speak in case the tears started again, so looking at the only person who he felt was on his side he nodded.

“Joe, all I ask is that you don’t say or do anything to antagonise Frank, I won’t be here to stop him if you do. So please Joe just be a good boy and promise me you will keep your mouth shut. OK”. The fight had gone out of Joe and he nodded once again. He just wanted his Pa to come and take him home; even the thought of the last few weeks of school seemed good.

*****

The trail was easy to follow and a couple of hours later the brothers found Cochise tied to a tree. Adam quickly dismounted and checked his brother’s horse. He was relieved to find no trace of blood on or around the saddle and he hoped that this was a good indication that his little brother had not been hurt. Adam soon discovered the note that had been left in one of the saddle bags, it read:

“We have the kid, don’t try anything. Be back here in one day with $50,000 or the boy dies. Don’t think to contact the Sheriff, we will have someone watching you at all times.”

“What are we going to do Adam” Hoss asked.

“Guess we don’t have much choice, the only thing we can do is to ride into town, we should meet up with Pa on the way. We need to arrange the money from the bank and get back here as quickly as possible,” replied Adam.

Meanwhile in the hills Ron watched the brothers from a safe distance. As the brothers moved off he kept well hidden and proceeded to follow.

To an outsider Adam appeared in control and business like, anxious to get on and sort things out as soon as possible. Inside he felt panicked, he did not relish informing his father of the danger Joe was in, but overriding that was the worry he felt for his brother’s safety. He took his responsibilities with regards to his brothers very seriously. Many times he had had to step into his father’s shoes over the years and although he regarded Hoss as a friend as well as a brother, Joe was more like a son to him and he felt responsible for allowing Joe to go off on his own.

Adam and Hoss made good time in arriving in town, they had expected to meet their father on the road and they immediately set about tracking him down when they arrived. It didn’t take them long and upon seeing his two elder sons walk into the hotel reception Ben knew immediately that something was wrong. Adam sucked in a deep breath before imparting the news to his Pa. Ben sensed his eldest son’s feeling of guilt and he draped a comforting arm round his shoulder and tried to reassure him that it was not his fault. They would arrange the money immediately and get Joe back safe and sound.

*****

Ben quickly took charge, he put off his business meeting and immediately made arrangements for the money to be withdrawn from the bank. It was whilst he was talking to Adam and Hoss about how they would go about things to ensure Joe’s safety that Ron approached them.

Hoss took one look at the man in front of him and recognised him as one of the missing hands. He grabbed Ron by the front of his shirt and growled at him “OK mister, I know you haveta be mixed up in this, how about you tell me where to find my little brother”.

It took both Adam and Ben together to get Hoss to release the man. Ron looked relieved and stepped back. Addressing Ben he said “OK, ok, this won’t get us anywhere. Look I need to speak to you in private. I will meet you at your hotel room in 10 minutes”.

Reluctantly Hoss allowed the man to walk away and Ben and the boys made their way to Ben’s hotel. Ten minutes later there was a knock on the bedroom door and Adam opened the door and ushered Ron into the room.

The thing the three Cartwrights needed to know first of all was how Joe was doing. Ron reassured them that although Joe had been roughed up a little he was generally OK. When Hoss heard that his little brother was hurt he immediately wanted to pound the man into the ground. Ben growled at Hoss to back off and he told Ron to keep talking.

Once Hoss had calmed down a little Ron proceeded to tell them all that had happened from the time that he and the others left the cattle drive. It was then that he revealed his true part in at all. He was working with a US Marshall who had been trailing the gang for a number of months, but so far Frank and the others had alluded the law. It had been decided that Ron would infiltrate the gang and get as close as possible to Frank in order to gather enough evidence against him and the others to convict them for various murders and robberies that had been committed throughout the territory. Ron explained how Frank’s original plan was to bushwhack Ben and steal the payroll and he had prewarned the Marshall and his deputies to follow Ben when he left the town and returned to the cattle drive. With the arrival of Joe, Frank’s plans had changed and this was the first opportunity that Ron had had to make contact with the Marshall to tell him of the latest developments.

Ron had only just finished explaining all of this to the Cartwrights when there was another knock at the door and Ben opened it to find a US Marshall standing there. The Marshall introduced himself as Dave Watson. Dave explained to them that his men were ready and that they would go out ahead of Ben and the boys in the morning. Ron had explained to the Marshall where Frank was holed up and the plan was for the Marshall and his men to surround the camp prior to Ben and the boys arriving at the meeting point. It was hoped that Ben could lure Frank and his men out of the camp and away from Joe. The Marshall planned to try and rescue Joe before arresting the bandits. Dave explained that although he was making Joe’s safety his first priority, there were no guarantees, and it was up to them all to follow his orders if things were to work out. Ben was only willing to go along with that providing there was no danger to Joe’s life – if it looked otherwise then Ben said that him and his sons would do what they thought best. Dave could see that the anxious parent was not likely to budge on this and he let it ride.

*****

The following morning Joe tried to stretch out his limbs after his uncomfortable night. He was still tied to the tree with his hands secured in front of him. During the previous night he had managed to doze off a couple of times but for the most part he had remained awake. His body hurt, he was hungry and thirsty but most of all he was cold, it had been a chilly night and Joe had not been provided with a blanket or covering of any sort. Joe became aware that someone was staring at him and he began to feel uncomfortable. Now that Ron had left the camp he was feeling very vulnerable and did not want to attract any unwanted attention. Joe kept his eyes to the ground and was not aware of Frank’s approach until a pair of large boots came into his line of vision.

“Well kid, today’s the day we become rich men. Once we have that $50,000 from your pappy we are out of here for good. But what are we gonna do with you, do you think I should let you go?” It was obvious Frank was waiting for a reply and Joe looked up at him and shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe I should give you back to your pappy a piece at a time, or maybe I should just blow your dumb head off now.” Frank laughed and removing his gun from the holster he placed it on Joe’s brow. “Bang, just one little squeeze and it’s all over.” Joe tried to be calm but the fear he felt inside was reflected in his eyes. As the seconds went by and Frank kept the gun in position, Joe’s chin began to quiver and his body was beginning to shake. Frank’s body was also shaking, but with him it was with laughter. He enjoyed making the boy squirm, it helped to relieve the boredom. He put the gun back in its holster and returned to the fire to pour himself a cup of coffee. Joe breathed a sigh of relief but hoped that Frank would not be back to taunt him again any time soon. He didn’t know if he could hold it all together, his natural reaction was to lash out and try and hurt Frank or at least to tell him what he thought, but he knew to do either could result in a beating for him at best and the worst didn’t bear thinking about.

Frank watched the boy for several seconds before returning to him. He untied Joe from the tree and pulled him to his feet. He ran his rough hand over Joe’s dirty and tear streaked face and laughed, “Snivelling little brat aren’t you.” He noticed the angry look that crossed Joe’s face. “Think you can take me do you boy” he taunted.

“Without my hands tied I could wipe that smile off your face.” The words were out of Joe’s mouth before he had time to think.

Frank chuckled menacingly “OK, little boy, I’m getting a bit bored here. You got your chance”. With that he cut the ties binding Joe’s hands together.

Before Frank had time to replace his knife Joe lunged at him. The other three men were drinking coffee unaware of the exchange that had taken place but they quickly moved forward to enjoy the entertainment.

Frank was a bit taken aback at the ferocity of Joe’s first punch but he quickly regained his feet and struck out at the boy. Even though Joe’s limbs ached he was very nimble on his feet and he had been well schooled by his brothers in the art of boxing. He deftly moved out of the way and Frank’s punch hit mid air. Joe took the opportunity to hit him square in the middle and Frank sank to his knees. The older man was now beyond mad, he couldn’t have no kid make a fool out of him. Instead of climbing to his feet he lunged forward and knocked Joe’s feet out from under him. Joe hit the ground with a thud knocking all the wind out of his lungs. Frank stood up quickly and stepping forward proceeded to kick Joe again and again as he lay on the ground. Joe curled his body into a foetal position in a vain attempt to protect himself. By the time Frank had his temper back under control Joe laid unconscious on the ground, battered and bruised. Frank walked back to his gun belt and took out his gun. He walked back to Joe’s prone figure and pointed it at the back of his head.

*****

The Marshall and his men were now positioned around Frank’s camp and Dave Watson looked down in horror at the unconscious boy on the ground. Dave was relieved to see Frank reholster his gun and walk away from Joe, he didn’t want to get this far and have to explain to Ben that things had gone terribly wrong.

Shortly afterwards Ron returned to the camp and was shocked to find Joe lying motionless and beaten on the ground. Ron quickly informed Frank that Ben and his boys were not far behind him and would be at the meeting point within the next couple of minutes. Frank smiled and went over to Joe giving him one more kick for good measure. Joe groaned as he began to come back from the darkness that had engulfed him.

“Hey Frank, why don’t you leave the kid with me and you and the boys go and meet those Cartwrights and get the money. Get them to agree to give us a head start if they want the boy alive, that way we get the money and a head start on them” said Ron.

Frank thought about this for a minute but decided that their best chance would be to use the boy as a shield. There was no way that Ben Cartwright would start shooting if there was a chance that his precious son could be hurt.

Frank hauled the semi-unconscious boy to his feet and with the help of Ron half carried him in front of him to the meeting point. Looking over at Ben, who only stood about 20 yards from him, he placed the barrel of his gun up against Joe’s head. Ron and the other three men were spread out behind him.

Ben looked over at Joe and gasped, he was sickened to see how beaten and bruised Joe was. Adam had to put a restraining arm on Hoss in order to hold him back. Frank would pay for what he had done to Little Joe, Adam would see to that.

“OK Cartwright, let’s see the money” shouted Frank.

Adam opened up one of his saddlebags and showed Frank the money.

“Right, now this is what we’re going to do. Ron here is coming over to collect the money. Once we know it’s all there, we are riding out of here. Providing you don’t follow us and we have a 2-hour head start, we will release the boy. I was planning on giving him to you unhurt, but this boy sure has a smart mouth on him – he needed to be taught a bit of respect.” Seeing the anger in the Cartwright faces, he continued. “You can thank me for his little lesson another time, but in the meantime any tricks and I will have no qualms about putting a bullet in his head. It’s up to you, I have nothing to lose.”

Ron walked over and took the saddlebags from Adam. As he turned and walked back towards Frank he could see Dave Watson’s men taking up positions to challenge the other three men. Ron knew he had to try and get Joe away from Frank before the shooting started. He walked slowly back towards Frank and as he came level he swung the saddlebags over his head bringing them violently into contact with Frank’s head. At the same time he grabbed hold of Joe and threw him harshly to the ground. The surrounding air erupted with gunfire as everyone seemed to go for their guns at the same time.

When the gunfire stopped Ben immediately rushed over to Joe and pulled him into his arms. Joe was dazed and not sure what was happening. He was almost afraid to open his eyes, when he heard his father’s soothing voice and the caress of a large calloused hand on his face. “Joseph son, open your eyes. Pa’s here, you’re safe now”. Joe slowly opened his eyes and looked into the smiling face of his father. “Oh, Pa” was all he managed to say before he buried his head into his father’s broad chest and cried. The strong arms of his father circled round him as the blackness claimed him once more.

Frank was wounded and his henchmen lay dead on the ground. The Marshall and his deputies set about putting the dead men’s bodies over the horses for the trip back to town. Ron pulled Frank to his feet and proceeded to tie his hands in front of him before none too gently pushing him onto his horse and tying him to his saddle. Frank scowled at Ron and said “I should have had you pegged from the start, but don’t worry your card is marked”.

Ron retorted “That ain’t gonna worry me none, cause come next week you are gonna be hanging from a scaffold and I’ll be going on with my life.”

Frank looked at him slyly “I ain’t dead yet. I’ll be back to repay you and that snivelling brat over there, just you wait and see.”

*****

The trip into town was a hard one for Joe. Ben wrapped him in a blanket and Hoss had lifted him like a baby and placed him on his father’s horse in front of him. Joe drifted in and out of consciousness, moaning softly in his father’s arms. Every now and again he would let out a small yelp as the horse went over rough land and his family were relieved when the town was in sight.

Adam rode ahead to alert the doctor to be on standby. As Ben and Hoss pulled up outside of the hotel, Hoss jumped from his horse and took the precious bundle from his father’s arms. Hoss carried his brother to the hotel room and laid him on the bed. The doctor and Adam joined them seconds later. Ben and Adam quickly went about stripping the dirty blood stained clothes from Joe’s body. Hoss winced in the background at the extent of his brother’s injuries became apparent and the tears blurred his eyes when Joe began groaning with pain.

Hot water was delivered to the room and Ben asked Adam and Hoss to leave so that he and the doctor could have room to administer to Joe’s many injuries.

It was nearly two hours later that the doctor left and Adam and Hoss joined their father once more at Joe’s bedside. Joe looked so impossibly young lying there. His eyes were swollen and bruised, his lip was split and his nose still looked bloody. “How is he Pa” Adam asked, looking down at the pale face of his brother on the pillow.

“Well” sighed Ben “he’s been beaten up pretty bad, but hopefully there is no lasting damage. The worrying part is the concussion. We will have to keep waking him up every hour or so as there is always the possibility that he could sink into a coma, but that is just a precaution as the doctor is reasonably confident that the concussion isn’t too bad. He has a couple of busted ribs and most of his body is covered in bruises. That Frank fellow whipped his butt real bad and broke the skin in several places.”

At this point Ben lifted the covers so that they could survey the results of the beating their brother had taken. The skin was broken in several places and the bruising was extensive, starting halfway down Joe’s back and continuing nearly to his knees.

Adam had to swallow the bile that he suddenly felt is his throat. He couldn’t help but feel responsible for not being able to protect his brother from that animal and turning from the bed he quickly walked out of the room before he was physically sick.

“Go after him Pa” said Hoss “I’ll watch over Joe. You know Adam, he takes all the weight on his shoulders and blames himself, even when logic tells him he couldn’t have prevented it”.

Ben gave one last stroke to his young son’s sleeping head and headed out after his eldest. He found Adam in the bar with a glass of whisky in front of him. “Get one for me too son, in fact get the bottle. I think we could both use a drink.”

“Why did I let him out of my sight Pa, I should of known something like this could happen. I can’t believe I employed those men – why didn’t I check them out more thoroughly” Adam remonstrated with himself.

“Now hold it right there Adam. None of this is your fault. We can’t keep Little Joe wrapped up in cotton wool, he has to be allowed on his own at some point, and as far as the men go, well we would never get the job done if we had to check them all out individually. Sometimes we have to take people on trust and if it doesn’t work out we have to live with the consequences. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me, I should have taken Joe with me when I left the camp, that way none of this would have happened.”

“If you had done that, then those men would have bushwhacked you and Joe when you were returning to camp” Adam pointed out.

“Ok, ok, let’s stop competing for who is the most to blame. That’s not going to help Joe. He’s going to be alright and that is the main thing. Now how about another drink and then we can work out a rota for looking after that young rapscallion”.

Adam sighed and reached for the bottle, his father had a way of making him put things in perspective and he felt the tension easing from his body as the next shot of whisky hit the back of his throat.

Five minutes later Ben and Adam mounted the stairs and headed back to the room for what was going to be a long night.

It was late the next morning when Joe began to open his eyes from his drug-induced sleep. The painkillers he had been given were having an effect and he felt reasonably comfortable as he lay face down on the bed. That quickly changed as he tried to turn over and change position. He yelled out in pain bringing his father quickly to his side. “Easy now son, I think it’s better if you keep lying on your stomach for the moment. How do you feel?” It was a pretty pointless question as one look at Joe told his father how he must be feeling, but Joe replied in his usual manner, “Fine Pa, thirsty though”. Ben helped Joe to take a drink, which was difficult due to the position Joe was lying in.

A few minutes later Adam and Hoss walked into the room, having just finished breakfast, and they were pleased to find their little brother awake and taking notice. They had all taken turns on waking him during the night and administering him with painkillers, but Joe had been dazed and had hardly been aware of their presence.

“Boy, oh boy do you need a keeper” Adam teased “what will you do next in order to get out of work, little brother?” Joe tried to laugh but it came out more as a grimace.

“Well, let’s see what we can rustle you up for breakfast young man. Afraid Hop Sing has continued with the cattle drive, but I’m sure we can get the hotel to make you up something tasty” Ben chirped trying to keep the mood light. He didn’t want Joe to think about the ordeal he had gone through over the last few days until he was stronger. Plenty time for a post-mortem when Joe was feeling better. Before Ben had time to return with the food, Joe had once again drifted off to sleep and the three men hovered over the bed and the sleeping boy like mother hens with their chick.

*****

In less than two weeks Joe was almost back to normal. Except for a few bruises – where no one could see – it would have been hard to detect the beating he had taken. He was anxious to get out of the hotel and start exploring the City, as the ‘mother hens’ were beginning to play on his nerves and his temper was getting shorter by the day.

Adam and Ben planned to spend the afternoon with Gregg and Pete. The cattle drive and sale had gone really well and the men had decided to have one last meal together before the Cartwright’s headed for home. Joe had declined to join them and in some ways Ben and Adam would be glad to escape his short fuse for a few hours. He was fed up being cosseted and had persuaded his father, with a lot of whinging and whining, that he should be at least allowed a look around before he was once again confined to the schoolroom back home. Ben had given in under pressure with the proviso that Hoss go with him.

Joe joked, “That’s what I figured. Why is it that this is first time in weeks I get to go and have some fun and I end up with Hoss tagging along with me.”

“Just lucky I guess little brother, but hey who said we won’t have some fun” replied Hoss giving Joe a knowing wink.

“Well let’s get to it big brother, the city awaits us” chuckled Joe heading for the door.

Hoss and Adam exchanged a knowing smile at their little brother’s enthusiasm. How come this kid could be beaten half to death one day and bounce back like nothing had happened a few weeks later. He certainly had a zest for life.

“Before you go, young man” interrupted Ben, “I want you to call at the doctors so he can give you a final check over and a clean bill of health. Only after that can you hit the town”.

“Now hold on a second Pa” shouted Joe “I ain’t seeing no doctor, there’s nothing wrong with me” he then attempted to leave the room. Hoss easily stopped him in his tracks with a large hand on his chest.

Ben indicated for Hoss and Adam to leave them alone and the two men made a quick exit before their little brother’s temper tantrum could erupt further.

“Joseph” stated Ben in a voice that would stand no argument, “On this occasion I will overlook the fact that you have raised your voice to me, but believe me when I say this, there is no discussion on this subject, the doctor has been instructed, BY ME, to give you a full examination. I want no argument, you will do exactly as he asks and answer him as honestly as you can. Is that clear.”

Joe knew when he had lost “Yes sir, sorry Pa” he replied grudgingly.

Once the battle was won, Ben softened and told Joe it would soon be over and then providing the doctor thought everything was OK, Joe and Hoss were free to be on their way and his Pa could rest easy.

It didn’t take long for Joe’s good humour to return and by the time father and son joined the other members of the family peace had been restored.

The visit to the doctor’s office didn’t take long. Joe undressed and allowed the doctor to poke and prod him without the usual fuss. The doctor seemed happy enough with his patient’s recovery and he gladly gave him a clean bill of health.

Hoss was true to his word and he did make sure that his little brother had a good time. They spent their day visiting as many places of interest they could until it was almost time to meet up with Ben and Adam.

Hoss and Joe made their way to the saloon. Ben had agreed that the two boys could go in and order beers and wait for him and Adam to join them. This was the part Joe loved, he felt so grown up entering the bar and ordering the beers, and Hoss got a kick out of watching Joe enjoying himself. Looking at the little brother in front of him now, so cocky and sure of himself, compared to the gravely hurt boy of a few weeks ago, made Hoss look to the sky and thank the Lord for the way things had turned out.

They were sat with their beers minding their own business when a saloon girl made her way over to the table. “Well ain’t you the cute one” she said to Joe making him blush. “Why have I never seen you round here before” she continued.

It was at this point that Ben and Adam entered the bar and took in the situation immediately. The girl was just beginning to drape herself over Joe’s lap. One of the men in the bar looked over and laughed “Hey girl, leave him alone, can’t you see he’s just a baby. He shouldn’t even be here, he should be in school getting himself an education.”

The girl wrapped her arms around Joe’s neck and looking deep into his eyes said “Oh I could give you an education all right honey, believe me”. Before Joe could respond a deep voice from behind growled “Joseph”.

Joe leaped off the chair depositing the girl on the floor. Adam and Hoss had to cover their mouths in order to hold back their laugh at the look on Joe’s face. Adam reached down and helped the young woman to her feet. She smiled at Adam and Ben and coyly winked in their direction before turning back to Joe and saying “Look me up in a couple of years cutie” and with that she placed a light kiss on his cheek and walked over to another table.

Joe glanced at his father’s face. Ben’s lips were twitching and he was having a hard time trying to appear firm. Joe said mischievously, “You know Pa, if you were to offer me an education like that, perhaps I would consider going back to school”.

“Why you scamp” boomed Ben as his hand stretched forward to deliver a smack to Joe’s posterior. Joe anticipated what was coming and sidestepped quickly out of the way, after all, his butt had taken more than enough punishment over the last weeks to last a lifetime.

*****

The following morning Hop Sing, who had taken the opportunity over the last few weeks to visit his many cousins, joined the Cartwright family at the hotel. The men rode out together later that day heading for home. They had been away much longer than any of them had expected and they were all looking forward to returning to the Ponderosa.

Ben longed to sleep in his own bed once again, knowing that his sons were all home and safe. He was getting too old for long days in the saddle and the thought of a nice long bath followed by one of Hop Sing’s dinners and a glass of brandy was his idea of heaven. Adam found himself looking forward to seeing Sophie, he had enjoyed her company in the days before they left and he wondered if the romance he thought was dead was rekindling itself once again. Hoss was looking forward to the fantastic meal Hop Sing had promised on their return, he was also looking forward to seeing Bessie Sue – but he was not sure of his order of preference. Joe looked forward to meeting with his friends and telling them of his adventure – maybe a slightly embellished story than the real one, but hey he had to be the hero.

As the men rode on in comparative silence, each thinking his own thoughts, they were unaware of the furore that was happening back in San Francisco. There had been a jailbreak, six men had stormed the Jail at gunpoint. The injured prisoner had been spirited away in the middle of the night – Frank Carter was free…………………….

***The End***

Return to Territell’s homepage

The Boy to Man Series:

Boy to Man to Boy
The Best Days of our Lives
To Become a Man

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.