Deception (by Blueyes)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word count:  13,500


Marshal Jasper Braden had spent the past three years chasing the notorious Peterson gang. They had been involved in everything from petty theft to murder, but of late they had been mostly linked with cattle rustling. The trail had started in Texas and was now leading him to the Nevada Territory, mainly Virginia City. Marshal Braden had received information that told him they had plans on hitting the largest ranch in the area, The Ponderosa.

Along with the Marshal was his deputy, Mark Johnson. He had been with the Marshal for the entire operation and was just as eager as he was to finally arrest them.

“So Jasper, have you decided how you gonna go about this? I think we need a new plan, don’t you?” Mark Johnson asked as he poured himself another cup of coffee and made himself comfortable by the campfire.

“Been thinking on that. I think we should have a person on the inside. You know, someone who can set the gang up, for us,” Jasper answered.

“Do you know anyone that lives in Virginia City that could help?”

“Nope, never been there before. But I’m sure we can find someone. Let’s ride in and check out the saloons and see what we can hear.”

*****

Little Joe listened at his bedroom door to make sure that everyone was finally in bed and asleep. Not hearing anything, he silently made his way out his bedroom window and walked his horse out of the yard. The moon lit the way as he followed the road that lead to Virginia City. Reining his horse in front of the Bucket of Blood saloon, he walked in and joined his friend Mitch.

“Hey, Little Joe, what cha doing here?”

“Hey Mitch, just thought I’d come in and grab a beer,” Joe said as he sat down and joined his friend.

“Sally, bring Little Joe a beer,” Mitch called and moments later the little blonde sauntered over with the beverage and placed it in front of Joe and herself in Mitch’s lap.

As the boys sat and drank, they were not aware of the men that watched them. Braden and Johnson were sitting at the table behind the boys. The Marshall pulled out his notepad, and flipping it to a page, he laid it in front of his partner. Johnson noticed that one of the names on the page was that of the cattle baron’s youngest son, Little Joe Cartwright.

Johnson leaned over and whispered, “He’s a little young, ain’t he?”

“Maybe, but let’s watch and see how he handles himself,” Braden answered.

They watched as Joe drank and played poker until around midnight. It wasn’t long after that Joe said his good byes, collected his winnings and walked out to his horse. The Marshal and his deputy walked out after Joe and watched as he vaulted onto the horses back and rode out of town.

“Whatcha think?” Johnson asked the Marshal.

“I think we need to have a talk with that young man. He may be just the help we’ve been looking for. We’ll make a point of seeing him tomorrow.”

*****

Little Joe had made it home and back into his room without any trouble. He was getting good at doing just that considering how many times he had in the last few years. His only problem was getting up the next morning.

“Trouble getting out of bed this morning, little buddy?” Adam asked with a smirk. He had heard his baby brother when he came in and though he had no intentions on telling their pa, he was sure gonna have some fun with him.

“No, just sleeping really good.” Joe answered as he caught the look in Adam’s eyes.

“Well, the next time I have to come get you up, you won’t be a happy young man, understand?” Ben stated. He hadn’t heard Joe’s late night entrance, but suspected that he had snuck out again.

“Yes sir, I’m sorry, Pa.”

“Fine, now eat your breakfast.”

Joe had worked his charms again and Ben allowed him to be the one to go to town for the mail. Taking his time on the ride, Joe had looped Cochise’s reigns over the horn of his saddle and was busy reading his latest dime novel. He was not aware of the two men that approached until he was only feet away from them. Pulling Cochise to a stop, he laid his hand over his gun and slowly released the tie down. Marshall Braden noticed the move and quickly made his intentions known.

“Whoa, sorry son, didn’t mean to startle ya.”

“You didn’t startle me. What cha doing on the Ponderosa?”

“Hoping to talk to you; that is, if you’re Little Joe Cartwright.”

“That’s what they call me. What do you want?”

“First off, let me introduce myself. The name is Marshall Jasper Braden, and this is my deputy Mark Johnson.”

“Ok, now what cha want with me?”

“Impatient little cuss, ain’t ya?” Braden said with a laugh.

“Look, I ain’t got all day. I gotta go get the mail and then go mend a lot of fence and I have a hangover the size of Virginia City. I don’t mean to be rude, but if you could get to the point.”

“Fair enough. We need to enlist someone to help us set up the Peterson gang. They’re headed this way and we have reason to believe they aim to rustle cattle from your ranch.”

“What makes ya think they’ll come here?” Joe asked as he relaxed and took his hand from his gun.

“I received information stating so, and so far my informant has been right. What we need is someone who can strike a bargain with Peterson, you know lure him into a trap.”

“And you think that someone is me?”

“Well, that’s what I was thinking, but seeing you up close, I ain’t so sure.”

“Oh, and just why is that?” Joe asked, the fire in his green eyes apparent to the others.

“I just meant that you are a lot younger than I thought,” Braden explained.

“I ain’t as young as you think,” Joe stated pulling himself up to his full height in his saddle.

“Just how old are ya, kid?” Johnson asked; he had placed Joe to be around sixteen or seventeen.

“Twenty one,” Joe lied, the truth being he was really only seventeen.

“No, really?” Braden asked with a smirk.

“Really. I know I don’t look it, but I am,” Joe retaliated.

“Ok kid, if ya say so. You willing to help us?”

“Yeah, what cha got planned?” Joe asked.

“We figure that Peterson will show up today,” Braden answered pulling out a wanted poster and showing it to Joe. “Take a good look at him so you can get the ball rolling.”

“Where you think I can find him?” Joe asked as he took the poster and studied it.

“Our guess would be the saloon you were at last night,” Johnson stated, receiving a questioning look from Joe.

“Yeah kid, we was watching ya last night. That’s when we came up with this plan,” Braden said as he took in the look on his young associates face.

“Let’s hear it.”

“Well it was obvious last night that you like to drink and gamble, so we figure that we set up a poker game and let you get way in the hole with a couple of our friends that’ll be here tomorrow. That ought to lead you into finding a way of paying it back. Understand what I’m getting at?” Braden asked

“Yes sir, I get the idea. I’ll stop by the saloon while I’m in town. Where can we meet?”

“How about right here?”

“Tell ya what, see that trail behind ya? Follow it up til ya come to a grave. Meet me there say around four,” Joe said turning his horse to leave.

“Hey kid, be careful. This guy has killed before.”

Joe tipped his hat and rode toward town. Johnson looked over at his boss, pushing his hat back, “You really believe this kid can pull it off?”

“Yep, if nothing else, just out of sheer stubbornness,” Braden laughed.

“He is about an ornery little cuss,” Johnson stated joining in the laugh.

*****

Joe rode into town and gathered the mail before making his way to the saloon. This whole plan was gonna be hard to pull off. He was gonna have to tell a lot of lies and break several of Pa’s rules. He had already lied about his age and here he was going into the saloon alone. That was a definite infraction, one that could cause him an uncomfortable night if he was caught. Taking a deep breath, he entered and ordered a beer. Joe had been there for only about an hour when he spotted Peterson and his gang walk through the swinging doors. He took note of the fact there was six of them, as he ordered another beer. He knew he needed to get their attention but wasn’t sure how to go about it, it wasn’t like he could just introduce himself. As Joe sat studying on the problem, Mitch walked in and spotted him.

“Little Joe Cartwright, what would your Pa say about you bein’ in here in the middle of the day?” he chuckled.

Seeing his opportunity, Joe took a long draw from his beer. Turning to face his friend he stated calmly, “Ain’t none of my ol’ man’s business what the hell I do.”

Mitch stood looking at his friend like he’d lost his mind. Joe knew that Peterson had taken notice, so he smiled at Mitch and offered him a beer.

“Sure Joe.” Mitch said accepting the offer. He joined Joe at the bar and took a swig. Looking over, he asked, “What’s up?”

“I can’t explain it now, just go along.” Joe answered softly.

Knowing Joe since birth, he accepted the comment. Joe finished his beer and bid Mitch goodbye, then left.

Ted Peterson sat watching the display along with his gang. He walked over to the door and watched as Joe vaulted onto Cochise and rode off. He returned to his seat with a slight smile.

“What’s on your mind, boss?” Red asked.

“That kid….he’s the son of the owner of the Ponderosa. He could come in right handy, he commented, tossing the shot of whiskey to the back of his throat. “Keep an eye on him; it just might pay off. Jack, you head on out to that ranch and see about a job. Check in with me tonight at the camp.”

Joe made it out to the north meadow to find his oldest brother irate. Knowing that he was three hours overdue, he made up his mind to just say he was sorry and beg for forgiveness.

“Well, it’s about time you showed up,” Adam said crossing his arms over his chest.

“Sorry, I got detained for a little while,” Joe said as he attempted to walk past him.

Grabbing his arm, Adam pulled him around in front of him. “Detained? Detained where? In the saloon?”

“So I had a beer. I didn’t get drunk or in trouble so can’t we just let this go?” Joe asked hopefully. He knew what it would mean if Adam told their Pa.

Adam sighed and looked at the pleading eyes of his baby brother. “Joseph, I covered for you last night and I will today, but understand this, I will NOT cover for you again. The very next time you pull a stunt like this you’ll have the choice of answering to me or Pa, understood?”

“Understood….oh…and thanks.”

*****

Jack Thompson rode into the Ponderosa around two in the afternoon looking for the job that would enable the gang to know what was going on around the ranch. Ben, Adam and Hoss were gone to the timber camp for the evening, leaving Joe alone. Joe recognized Jack when he rode up.

“Can I help ya?” Joe asked.

“Looking for a man named Cartwright,” Jack stated.

“Well, you found one of us, what can I do for ya?”

Jack looked at Joe with a smirk. “Looking for a job, son; why don’t ya run in and get ya daddy.”

“Look, I’m the only Cartwright around, so if you’re interested in a job, I suggest ya lose that attitude.”

“Sorry, it’s been a long ride and I’m just a little cranky. Are ya hiring?” Jack said, knowing how the boss would react if he lost this chance.

“Ever done ranch work?”

“Yep, real good with cattle.”

“Well, we are looking to hire a few men. Pays thirty a month, bunk and beans.”

“Fair enough,” Jack said extending his hand to Joe.

Joe shook his hand and showed him where the bunkhouse was.

*****

The time had come for Joe to meet with the Marshall and his deputy, so Joe rode up the trail that led to his mother’s grave. Seeing the horses tethered at the edge of the clearing, he dismounted and walked over to the grave. The men watched as he dropped his head in a silent prayer, then running his hand across the stone, he joined them.

“How’s it goin’, kid?” Jasper asked.

“Not bad really. Peterson and his gang are in town; saw them at the saloon this morning. He’s got six of them with him.”

“Sounds like he got a few additions since the last time,” Mark stated. “Did ya get him to notice you?”

“Yeah, a friend of mine come in and made a comment about me being in the saloon and what Pa’d think about it. I let him know right quick that it wasn’t any of Pa’s business what I did. Peterson took notice of that. Oh yeah, by the way, I just hired one of his men while ago.”

“Good job, boy. Try to get real chummy with this guy. The poker game is set for tomorrow night. Look for a man to leave the table once ya get there and take his place. Remember that you are to lose big.”

“Yes sir. That shouldn’t be a problem. Look, I need to get on back, before anyone misses me. I may be twenty-one, but to Pa, I’m still the baby of the family,” Joe said with a giggle.

“Sure kid, you go on and we’ll meet here again after the game tomorrow night,” Jasper said, patting Joe on the back as they all walked toward the horses. As they walked past the grave, the men noticed the look in the eyes of the boy. Jasper stopped and asked, “Who’s buried there, son?”

“My mama,” Joe said softly. “See ya tomorrow night,” he added as they watched him vault on his horse and ride away.

“How does he do that?” Mark asked shaking his head.

“Youth. Ah, to be young again,” Jasper laughed.

Joe rode into the yard from one side as his brothers and his Pa rode in the other way. He could see by the look on their faces they had something on their minds.

“What’s wrong?” Joe asked following them into the barn.

“Oh just a little trouble up at the timber camp, but it’s all taken care of now.” Adam stated.

“Joseph, I thought I told you to have the tack room finished by the time we got home,” Ben snapped placing his hands on his hips.

“Sorry Pa, it’s almost done. I really wasn’t expecting you back so soon,” Joe said, smoothing the back of his hair, as Adam and Hoss tried to hide their amusement.

“Well young man, that is no excuse, and you know it. You have about fifteen minutes to finish it and get in the house, or you can expect me back out here to join you, understand?”

“Yes, sir…..Pa?”

“Yes son,” Ben sighed wondering what kind of excuse his youngest would come up with.

“I hired a man today. His name is Jack Thompson. I know you or Adam do the hiring, but being we’re shorthanded, I didn’t think you’d mind,” Joe said biting his bottom lip.

“I see, and just what did you tell him about the job?” Ben asked.

“I explained what he’d be doing and asked if he had experience then told him the pay.”

“Are you sure about the experience?” Adam asked. He was a little upset about it seeing as how the hiring had been entrusted to him by his father.

“As sure as you ever are, Adam,” Joe replied hotly.

“That will be enough of that attitude, Joseph. I’m sure this man will work out fine. Thank you, son,” Ben said as he turned Little Joe toward the tack room. With a gentle warning swat he added, “Now, get busy before I add several more of those.”

“Yes sir,” Joe giggled.

*****

The morning broke bright and sunny, with a cool breeze blowing. Joe had convinced Ben that he should be the one to show Jack the ranch since he had hired him. Ben was glad to give Joe the job, thinking that maybe this would be a good way of keeping the boy busy and out of trouble. Joe and Jack rode down to the south pasture and checked the fence line and took a tally of the herd. Jack noticed that Joe was aware of all the aspects of the ranch and the herd. He decided that this was the herd they needed to hit. Now his job was to find out as much as possible about the boy and his family.

“So kid, how come ya know so much about ranching? I mean, looks like ya Pa’d have you off in some fancy school somewhere instead of out here working,” Jack stated.

“Naw, some fancy education ain’t for me. I’m happy right here on the ranch. Now, brother Adam, he’s a different story. He went to college for four years, before coming back here.”

“What about that other one, the big one? He go to?”

“Hoss? No, he’s like I am. He loves the ranch,” Joe added.

“So, what’s there to do for fun around here?”

“I usually go to town and hit the saloon. Have a few drinks and play a few hands of poker.”

“Ain’t you a little young for that? I’m surprised that your Pa’d let ya do those things,” Jack mugged.

“I’m plenty old enough to do as I please. It ain’t none of my Pa’s business what I do.”

“Big words from such a little fella.”

“Think what ya want, makes no difference to me. Let’s get this done; I got a date with a hot bath tonight and I need to take care of a few things at the house first,” Joe stated urging his horse into a gallop. Jack watched as the boy rode off with a smile tugging at his lips. This boy was going to prove to quite an asset.

Jack rode off to meet the gang and fill them in on what was happening with the ranch and the boy. Making his way north to the camp, he thought of what he could do to get the kid to trust him. Dismounting, he tied his horse with the others and sought out his boss.

“Jack, over here,” Ted Peterson called as he watched his man approach the fire.

“Howdy boss.”

“So what kinda news you got for me?”

“I think the kid’s a good bet. I’ve already spotted the herd we can hit. It’s down by the south border of the ranch. We can get around two hundred easy.”

“Now the question is how to handle the kid. Any idea how to get the kid to, say, ‘help out the cause’?” Peterson asked.

“I’m working with the kid again tomorrow; let me do a little diggin’. From what I can tell, he and his Pa don’t get along to good. Who knows, he might turn out to be a good addition to the gang,” Jack added.

“That spoiled brat?”

“Don’t count him short; he’s got spunk, and a determination to prove he’s a man.”

“See what happens, then come back here tomorrow night.”

“Will do, boss,” Jack answered and bid them all goodbye.

*****

Knowing what he had to do tomorrow night, Joe decided that he would be on his best behavior for the rest of the evening. Finishing his supper and completing his chores, he asked Hoss for a game of checkers. Adam studied him as they played.

“Hey little buddy, you’re awful quiet tonight. What are you up to?” Adam said with one raised eyebrow.

“Adam, why is that every time I’m quiet you think I’m up to something?” Joe said, trying his hardest to stay on an even keel.

“Because, nine out of ten times, you are, little brother.”

“Well, let’s just say that this is the tenth time and let it go.”

“Adam, leave your brother alone. It’s nice to have a night run so smooth,” Ben added, wanting to keep the conversation from turning into a war.

“Thanks Pa,” Joe said shooting Adam one final glare. Ben caught the look and as much as he wanted to believe his youngest he had to agree with Adam. He too wondered if Joe might be up to something.

*****

“Say kid, got any plans tonight?” Jack asked as he rode alongside Joe.

“Yeah, goin’ to town later tonight. Why?”

“Oh, I was thinking about something to do and I don’t know anyone around here but you. But I understand if you don’t want to go drinking with the help.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Joe asked.

“Being the boss’ son and all I just thought…”

“Well stop thinking. I’m leaving for town around ten; wait around and go with me if you want.”

“Believe I will……by the way, why ya waiting ‘til that late?” Jack questioned although he figured he knew the answer.

“Well, I’m seventeen and my Pa will not accept the fact that I’m a man. So the best way for me to enjoy myself is to sneak out so he don’t come and drag me out of there,” Joe admitted. He figured that his being so young could be an advantage with the gang. It would show disharmony between father and son.

“I thought you didn’t care about what he said?”

“I don’t; it’s just that he’s about twice my size and I don’t wanna be embarrassed by him in front of my friends.”

“Alright then, I’ll be waiting on you at ten behind the barn.”

“Til then,” Joe said tipping his hat as he rode off to the other side of the herd and headed home.

*****

Little Joe stretched after eating the last bite of his supper. Yawning, he stood and moved over to the settee and relaxed in front of the fire.

“Short shanks, how about a game?” Hoss asked reaching for the checker board.

“Not tonight, Hoss; I’m just too tired,” Joe answered, forcing another yawn.

“What got you so tired today, little brother?” Adam asked easing himself into his blue chair.

“Me and Jack worked really hard today rounding up strays.”

“Jack and I,” Adam corrected.

“I didn’t see ya around anywhere. It was only me and Jack,” Joe stated with a half grin. He knew his brother was only correcting him, but he was in no mood for his smug attitude.

“Sometimes kid, I wonder why I bother,” Adam said rolling his eyes.

“Then don’t. I didn’t ask ya to,” Joe said hotly. He was trying his best to keep his cool but Adam was determined to rankle him.

Ben watched as his two sons tried to push the other a little farther each time they spoke. He knew it would quickly get out of hand if he didn’t intervene. He decided to use his booming deep voice that always got Joe’s attention, and hoped it would still work on Adam. Standing and placing his hands on his hips, Ben roared, “JOSEPH FRANCIS! ADAM ANDREW! Not another word or else.”

Joe and Adam stopped their bickering instantly and looked up at their father with wide eyes. Ben could hardly hold his laughter back as he looked at their faces. The whole scene was more than Hoss could stand as he broke into a fit of laughter. Ben whirled around facing him. “ERIK GUNNER!” This brought an end to it as Hoss stopped and dropped his head. “Now that I have the attention of all three of my little boys, I don’t want to hear another word spoken tonight in anger. Understood?”

“Yes sir, Pa,” all three said together.

“Come on Hoss, I’ll play you a game,” Adam stated moving over to the settee beside Joe. Looking at his little brother out of the corner of his eye, he reached over and nudged him with his elbow, giving him a half smile.

Joe returned the nudge and the smile. Joe watched his brothers for a while, before giving one more big yawn. Standing, he told his family goodnight and went upstairs to wait.

Hearing the last door shut, knowing it to be Adam, Joe silently got up and dressed. Carefully opening his window he made his way down the tree and into the barn.

“Psst. Hey, come on, kid, I done got ya horse ready for ya,” Jack whispered.

“Thanks, Jack,” Joe said as he took the lead from the man and walked out of the yard with him. Joe continued to think about sneaking out. What if Adam hadn’t been asleep and had heard him. What if he came after him and dragged him home to Pa. What if Adam decided to take care of it himself like he had said, and didn’t wait til he got him home. What if….”

“Hey kid, did ya hear me?” Jack asked, noticing the far away look on the boys face.

“What… I’m sorry, I was thinking about something.”

“I’ll say; you was a million miles away. I said did you get away without waking anyone?’

“I sure hope so. I really don’t want my night ruined.”

Joe and Jack rode up to the Bucket of Blood around eleven and made their way to the bar for a beer. Joe looked around and spotted the men playing poker. He waited for a moment as one of the men got up and left the table. Patting Jack on the back, he walked over and sat down. Jack walked over and sat down at the table next to the one Joe was at and watched the game. Ted Peterson sat with the rest of the gang and watched as the boy laid out a stack of bills that was big enough to choke a horse and asked to be dealt in.

“I hope this works,” Johnson whispered from the hiding place he and Marshall Braden had taken behind the tables.

“Me too. I hope the kid can keep a cool head.”

“How many, kid?” the dealer asked. He was one of the ones that had come into assist the Marshall with his plan.

Joe studied the cards in his hand and looked at the pot in the middle of the table. He had already ‘lost’ close to five hundred dollars and had another three riding on the hand he held. “Two,” he said tossing the cards on the table.

The dealer dealt out the cards and waited on the bets to be placed. The others placed their bets and waited on Joe to do the same. Looking at the time, he said, “This has to be my last hand. Let’s go all the way. I see your two and raise you another two.”

The dealer called and laid his cards on the table. All the others threw their cards in the middle of the table, including Joe. “Damn!” Joe said, kicking his chair over.

“Sorry, kid. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. Maybe you ought to wait til you grow up a little before playing with men,” the dealer stated smugly.

Jasper and Mark both winced at the statement, knowing from what they had seen of Little Joe it would bring a violent reaction. They watched as Joe lunged at the man, and was as surprised as Joe was that Jack grabbed him.

“Come on kid; it ain’t worth it. Can’t have ya getting locked up. Let’s go.”

Joe grabbed his hat and placed it on his head. Swallowing the last of his beer, he walked out of the saloon followed by Jack. Braden and Johnson breathed a sigh of relief and Peterson sat with a big grin on his face. He had made up his mind that Jack was right about the kid and intended on somehow getting him to help them.

Joe knew that the plan was taking shape as he and Jack rode along the road to the Ponderosa. He knew that now was the time to act. Taking his hat off he slapped his hat on his leg, “Damn, what am I gonna do now?”

“How much did ya lose, kid?” Jack questioned.

“Close to a thousand.”

“So what, you’re a rich kid. Ain’t like it’s gonna break ya.”

“I ain’t rich; my Pa is,” Joe stated.

“Then where’d ya get that kinda money?”

Joe pulled Cochise to a halt in front of the trail that led to the meeting place. He knew that the Marshall and Johnson would be close and listening. “I kinda…borrowed it from my Pa.”

“You mean ya stole it from him, right?”

“Don’t say anything at the ranch; he can’t find out. He’d kill me. I gotta come up with a way to get that money back before he misses it.” Joe stated. ‘Another lie’ Joe thought to himself. The money was actually supplied by the Marshall.

“Don’t worry kid, I ain’t gonna say anything. So what cha gonna do about it?”

“I don’t know, but I gotta come up with something.”

“I might have an idea. I’ll let cha know in the morning,” Jack said reining his horse around to go back to town.

“Hey, where ya going?” Joe asked.

“Gotta something to check out. I’ll talk to ya in the morning.”

Joe waited until Jack was out of sight and made his way up the trail, to meet with Braden and Johnson.

“Hey kid,” Braden said walking up to Cochise.

“Did ya overhear the conversation?” Joe asked.

“Sure did, and it sounds like he’s on his way to see Peterson. Good work, Joe.”

“Thanks; look, I gotta go, before I get caught. See ya tomorrow night.”

Braden caught a hold of the horse’s bridle and looked up at Joe. “Look kid, Peterson is a dangerous man; don’t take any chances.”

“I won’t. See ya.”

*****

Adam laid awake waiting on Little Joe to return. He had heard the boy when he left and had gotten up with the intentions of following him but decided against it in case of awakening their father. He listened as Joe climbed into the window and closed it. He weighed the options of either confronting him tomorrow or watching him for a few days to see if he could figure out what was going on. Choosing the later, he decided to talk it over with Hoss and drifted off to sleep.

*****

“Adam, go and wake your brother.” Ben said sternly. “I don’t know what’s getting into that boy lately. Do either of you know what’s up with him?”

“No Pa,” Hoss said between mouthfuls.

“No sir,” Adam agreed as he walked over and climbed the stairs to his brother’s bedroom. Knocking on the door and not receiving a reply, he walked in and stood over the youngster. “Joseph, come on wake up.”

“No, leave me alone,” Joe mumbled.

Adam reached down and pulled the blankets back, then shook him. “Come on, get up. Pa sent me after you, and you know what he said he’d do if he had to come after you.”

Joe rolled over and sat up yawning. “What time is it?”

“Nearly six. Pa wants you downstairs, now. I wouldn’t keep him waiting. He’s not in a good mood.”

“Great.”

“Why aren’t you already up, Joseph?” Adam asked, hoping that Joe would admit to sneaking out.

“I was havin’ a pretty good dream until someone interrupted it. Tell Pa, I’ll be right there.”

After a lecture from his father and the smug looks from Adam, Joe made it out to meet with Jack and started on the way to the south pasture. Jack noticed the downcast look on Joes’ face. This couldn’t be working out better for the gang.

“You alright kid?” Jack asked cutting his eyes around to the boy at his side.

“No.”

“I think I might know something that would make ya feel better, that is if ya willing to do it.”

Joe stopped his horse, “What is it? I’m about willing to do anything right now.”

“I know of someone who would be willing to take say two hundred head of cattle off ya hands. Your cut in the deal would be two thousand dollars.”

“I don’t own any cattle alone; they belong to my Pa.”

“So did that money you lost. But listen if ya ain’t interested…’

“I didn’t say that. What would I have to do?”

“Just pick out the cattle and have them in a good location. The man will pay ya for them and you write him out a bill of sale.”

“Ain’t that illegal?”

“No more than stealing that money.”

“What if my Pa finds out? Is this man willing to take that risk? He’d hang for rustling.”

“He’d be gone by the time anyone missed them. You wanna?”

“Thought you didn’t know anyone around here.”

“Met him at the saloon last night.”

Joe sat as if thinking about the arrangement for a few minutes. Looking over to Jack, he nodded his head. “Yeah.”

“Good. I set it up for him to meet us at the box canyon this morning,” Jack said slapping Joe on the back. “Perk up, kid; daddy will never know.”

“I sure hope not. I wouldn’t get off as lucky as the others. They’d just hang, I’d have to answer to Pa,” Joe added as they started to the canyon.

*****

While Joe and Jack rode off to the south, Adam and Hoss rode to the north meadow. Hoss looked over at his brother, who had yet to say anything since leaving the ranch house. “Ok big brother, what’s abotherin’ ya?”

“Your little brother.”

“Whoa, he ain’t only MY little brother,” Hoss laughed.

“Well, OUR little brother is up to something, and I have a feeling it won’t be good.”

“Awe, what makes ya say that?”

“He snuck out again last night. It was nearly three when he came home.”

“Why didn’t ya say somethin’ to Pa.? It’s gettin’ outta hand.”

“I was thinking we’d watch him and see what he’s gettin’ up to first.”

“Guess we better. Who knows what kinda trouble he’s gettin’ up to.”

*****

“Joe Cartwright, this is Ted Peterson, Jack said as he introduced them.

“Of the Peterson gang?” Joe asked trying to act surprised.

“That’s right, id. Now ol’ Jack here tells me that you done went and got yourself in a peck of trouble. That right?”

“Yeah, you could say that. I gotta come up with a thousand dollars fast,” Joe answered.

“Did Jack here explain to ya what we had in mind?” Peterson questioned.

“Yep. Sounds a lot like rustling to me. That what ya talking about?”

“Rustling is a strong word; we’re talking about buying the cattle,” Jack smirked.

“See the difference is that I don’t own them; that makes it rustling,” Joe said, pushing his hat back revealing a mass of curls. “Look, lighten up. I don’t care if ya take the whole damn herd. Ain’t nothin’ to me.”

“Fine, you make out a bill of sale for two hundred head of cattle and I give you two thousand dollars,” Peterson stated.

“Why so generous? I mean, the extra thousand,” Joe asked.

“Let’s just call it your share. You know, kid, Jack here has taken a liken’ to ya. Think on it. We pull out Friday night; you’re welcome to join us.”

“I’ll think on it. We better head back. Come on Jack. When ya wanna see the herd?”

“Tonight around eleven?”

“Sounds good. If they’re ok, I’ll round up the ones for ya and box them in here,” Joe stated.

Joe and Jack took off toward the herd and Peterson headed back to the camp.

*****

“Where ya think he’s sneaking off to? Hoss asked his older brother as they stood in the shadows of the house, watching as their baby brother led Cochise out of the yard for the third time that week.

“I don’t know, but I intend on finding out. Let’s get the horses and follow him. And be quite and don’t wake Pa,” Adam replied.

It didn’t take long for them to pick up Joe’s trail and were surprised to find it didn’t lead to Virginia City. Instead it led to the south pasture where one of their biggest herds were grazing. Dismounting a safe distance behind their brother, they proceeded on foot and found a vantage point in which to watch. What they saw at first made no sense; Joe sat atop of Cochise at the edge of the herd. It was only a few moments later they heard the sound of a horse approaching and watched as a man around Adam’s age of thirty rode up on a sleek bay. Adam and Hoss moved in closer to hear the conversation.

“I was about to give up on ya,” Joe stated calmly.

“I told ya I’d be here, kid; now let’s get down to business,” Ted said. He had been somewhat apprehensive when approached by the youngest Cartwright, until Jack had told him of how the boy had come across all the money he lost playing poker.

“First course of business is for you not to be calling me, kid,” Joe snapped.

“Why? That’s what ya are, a spoiled little rich kid that’s scared of his daddy. If’n ya wasn’t, you’d have gone to him for the money instead of stealing from the man,” Ted smirked.

“Look, I ain’t got much time. Take a look at the herd and see what cha think, ‘cause if ya don’t want them, I know someone else that does.”

“Take it easy, kid. The herd is fine. You’ll have the money Friday by lunch. So have that bill of sale ready.”

“Meet ya in town around one,” Joe said, turning his horse around to leave. He watched as Peterson rode to the north before heading off to the lake.

“Adam, was that what I think it was?” Hoss asked, hoping what he had heard was wrong.

“Sounds like to me that baby brother is trying his hand at rustling,” Adam commented through clenched teeth.

“We had to have misunderstood. Ain’t no way Little Joe would break the law or steal from Pa.”

“Then you explain it to me. What else could it be? You heard it just like I did.”

“Ok, if the kid is involved in rustling, then he must be in trouble. What are we gonna do?”

“Well, the first thing we do is get on home. We have to talk to Pa about this,” Adam said mounting Sport.

“Awe Adam, this is gonna kill Pa.”

“He has to know, Hoss.”

“I know,” Hoss conceded as they made their way home.

*****

Adam woke before dawn. Dressing, he made his way to Hoss’ room. He was surprised when he found his brother dressed and waiting for him. Peeking into Little Joe’s room, they found him sleeping soundly. Closing the door softly, they made their way to their father’s room and entered.

“Pa, wake up,” Adam said shaking his shoulder.

“Wh…What’s wrong Adam?”

“Pa, Hoss and I need to talk to you. Can you get dressed and met us in the barn?”

“Is Little Joe alright?” Ben said sitting up quickly.

“He’s fine, he’s asleep. Please be quiet and hurry.”

Entering the barn, Ben waited until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Seeing his two eldest sons standing with their heads down by the bales of hay, he remembered back to the days when he saw the same scene with younger versions of the men in front of him.

“I would have thought the two of you were past ‘discussions’ with me in the barn,” Ben said crossing his arms over his chest. “Now would one of you like to tell me why we’re sneaking around to meet in here?”

“Pa sit down, what we have to say won’t be easy,” Adam suggested.

“I’ll stand; just get on with it.”

“Pa, now don’t get mad, but Hoss and I followed Little Joe last night when he snuck out.”

“SNUCK OUT! Just wait til I get my hands on that boy!” Ben bellowed. “He was told of the consequences if he done that again.”

“Now Pa, hang on there jist a minute; let Adam tell ya the rest,” Hoss said as he blocked the doorway to keep Ben from leaving.

“FINE! What else has that little scamp been up to? Let me guess, busting up the saloon he’s not even supposed to be in, again?”

“I wish it were that simple. See, this is the third time this week, so we followed him. He went to the south pasture and met up with this man named Ted. Pa…Little Joe is working out a deal to let this man rustle two hundred head from us. He’s suppose to meet this fella in town Friday to get the money and give him a phony bill of sale.”

Ben stood stock still, staring at Adam. It took a moment for the words to sink in. “Are the two of you trying to tell me that Joseph is rustling?”

“Sorry Pa, but yes,” Adam said looking over at Hoss.

“Our cattle?”

“Yes sir.”

“Adam are you and Hoss completely sure that you heard right?”

“Pa, we overheard the entire conversation. There is nothing else it could be.”

“I’m sorry, boys, I will not believe that he is involved in something like this. They hang men for that,” Ben said shaking his head.

“Pa, we don’t want to believe it either, but we know what we heard. And think about it. This is our cattle, and he knows that you won’t have him hanged for it.”

“I still refuse to think he would steal from me.”

Hoss walked over and placed his arm around his father’s shoulders. “Pa, as much as it breaks ma heart ta say it, it’s true. I’m sorry.”

Looking up at the window of his youngest son’s room, Ben said, “I guess we better go wake him and confront him with it.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, son?”

“Why don’t we wait awhile?”

“Why?”

“This is so out of character for Little Joe. I can’t help but think they have something on him. Maybe he’s in trouble, or they’re forcing him to do this.”

“Hey Adam, ya might be right,” Hoss said hopefully.

“Ok, we wait and watch. Come Friday, we follow him to make the trade,” Ben added. This was the only time he could remember hoping one of his sons was in trouble. The only other choice Ben could see made the boy a thief.

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss were seated at the table having coffee, when they heard the door shut upstairs. They watched as a tired, sleepy Little Joe walked slowly downstairs and took his place at the table. Although Ben had made the decision to hold off on the rustling issue, he had decided to address the one concerning sneaking out.

“Good morning Joseph, it’s good of you to join us.” Ben stated, fixing him with a glare.

“Sorry Pa, guess I didn’t sleep well,” Joe answered softly, taking the platter of flapjacks from Hoss.

“You might sleep a lot better young man if you stayed in your BED!” Ben bellowed.

Wincing and knowing he was caught, Joe looked up at his Pa and smiled, “Oh…ah…well ya see Pa, I couldn’t sleep last night so I went for a ride.”

“Just where did you ride to?” Ben questioned, getting madder by the minute knowing his son was lying to him.

“Around the ranch.”

“What have you been told about sneaking out?”

“I know, and I’m sorry Pa. I just figured it’d be ok since I didn’t leave the ranch.”

“This is the last warning you will receive. The next time you do this for any reason, earns you a trip to the barn. Understood?”

“Yes sir.” Joe answered shortly. Ben could see the tight jaw line and the hint of fire that flickered in his sons bright green eyes.

“Adam, I need you to check the herd in the south pasture today,” Ben said, wanting to see what reaction he would get from his youngest.

“Pa?”

“Yes Joseph.”

“Well, I kinda thought I’d do that. I’ve been working there all week.”

“I figured you might want a break from that by now,” Ben offered, stealing a glance at both Adam and Hoss.

“Yeah short shanks, what’s up with that herd? Ya dun named them or somethin’?” Hoss laughed.

“No, I ain’t named them,” Joe snapped. “It’s just that I plan on finishing what I started.”

“Fine son, you can check them. Adam, you and Hoss go to the north meadow.”

“Sure Pa,” Adam said. He had stayed quiet during the conversation. Watching his little brother squirm was an obvious admission to his guilt.

*****

Joe rode to the pasture and watched the herd as they mingled around grazing. Knowing that the next day was Friday and the night that Peterson would be back, Joe began his job of separating out the cattle and herding them into the makeshift corral in the box canyon. “Cooch, ya ready gal? We got a busy day ahead of us. Thought Pa’d done ruined the whole thing this morning, trying to send ol’ Adam out here. Well, don’t matter now; we’re here so let’s get busy. At least I ain’t gotta do this with a sore backside yet.”

“What’s he adoin’?” Hoss asked as they all three sat and watched Joe from the rocks above the canyon.

“Looks like he’s getting the cattle ready for pick up,” Adam stated.

“Look over there; see that fence blocking the canyon? He’s picking out the ones to be taken and putting them there,” Ben added.

Adam looked over at his father and saw the tears of disappointment welling in the dark eyes. Placing his arm around his fathers shoulders he said, “I’m so sorry Pa. I can’t believe it either.”

Ben smiled at his eldest two sons and looked back to where his seventeen year old plotted against him.

“Pa look!” Hoss said, pointing to the large man that was ridding up to Joe.

“Is that this Ted fella?” Ben asked.

“No Pa, I ain’t never seen that fella before,” Hoss said. “Wish we could get close enough to hear what theys sayin’.”

Joe watched as the big man rode up to where he was. No matter how many times he was around him, Joe was still in awe of the man. He was a good six or seven inches taller than Hoss and had to out weigh him by at least sixty pounds.

“How’s it going today, kid?” he asked.

“Fine now, Marshall Braden.”

“Now? Did something happen?”

“No, just a family thing. You all set for tomorrow?” Joe asked. He couldn’t let Braden know about Pa’s threats. He wanted to help catch the gang and knew that if either the Marshall or his Pa found out about all the lies he had told, he wouldn’t be allowed to get involved.

“I got all my men ready. When do ya meet with Peterson?”

“Tomorrow around one, then he’ll come to collect that night.”

“You know we’ll have to take you in also, but you won’t have to stay long. We’ll get someone to bail ya out. By that time, we can fill ya family in on what’s going on and let ya Pa or one of your brothers come get ya.”

“Think they’ll put up a fight?”

“Wouldn’t doubt it kid, I hope not. I’d hate to have to tell ya family ya been killed.”

“Hey, don’t worry about me. I can outride and outshoot anyone on this ranch. I can take care of myself.”

“You be careful and don’t get too cocky, kid. We’ll see ya in town and tomorrow night,” Jasper said as he rode away.

*****

Ben watched as the man rode away from his son. Turning to his other boys, he said, “Let’s go see Roy and tell him what’s going on.”

“But what about Little Joe, Pa?”

“We’ll have to tell Roy the whole thing. I’ll ask him to let me take Joe, since he’s underage. Don’t worry, I’ll do everything I can to keep him out of jail, and I promise you that I will not let them hang him, even if it means dropping the charges against the entire gang.”

“That should be easy enough if you don’t press charges,” Adam added. “What are you going to do about this? I mean, with little brother.”

“Find out what’s going on in that head of his, and then make sure that young man doesn’t leave the ranch until he’s your age, and he won’t sit again comfortably for at least a month. AND, that’s just a start,” Ben said then turned to mount his horse. Adam turned to Hoss and let out a low whistle.

*****

The three elder Cartwrights rode into Virginia City and hitched their horses in front of the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Roy Coffee and his deputy Clem were busy doing paperwork when they heard the door open.

“Ben, boys come on in,” Roy said to his oldest friend and his sons. “What brings ya here today?”

“Roy, I need to talk to you if ya have a minute,” Ben stated.

“Of course, Ben; what’s bothering you?”

“Roy, I believe that part of my herd is going to be rustled tomorrow night,” Ben said as he leaned on the desk.

“Ben, why on earth would ya be thinkin’ somethin’ like that?” Roy asked.

“The boys witnessed a conversation between one of the gang and the one that’s plotting it. Then today, we all saw the corral they’re being held in,” Ben stated.

“Who’s behind it all?” Clem asked.

“I don’t know anything except the fact that one of the men’s name is Ted.” Ben paused and let out a long sigh. “And the one that’s setting it up is Little Joe.”

“What?!” both of the lawmen said.

“Look Roy, I don’t know what has gotten into Joe; we haven’t confronted him with it yet. But when they are all arrested, I want to press charges against all except my son. He’s underage, so I have that right. I’ll take care of that one myself.”

“That’s fine by me; I’d hate to lock the boy up. But I might have part of an answer fir ya, Sam over at the Bucket of Blood told me that Joe lost nearly a thousand dollars the other night in a poker game.”

“Pa, where on earth would the kid get that kind of money?” Adam questioned.

“I guess he stole that from me too,” Ben said in a whisper, then turned and left the office.

*****

Supper that night found the Cartwrights sitting silently. No one trusted having a conversation for fear of letting on to the plan. Joe noticed the attitude of his family and wondered on the reason. Nowhere had he figured in his head that they knew what was going on.

“What’s wrong with everyone?” Joe asked as he spooned more potatoes on his plate.

“Guess we’re all just a little tired,” Ben said.

“I’m a little tired myself.”

“Well, you had better make sure that you DO NOT sneak out of this house again tonight.”

“Yes sir.”

“If you will excuse me, I have some work to do in the barn,” Adam said as he stood.

“Me too,” Hoss added and joined his brother.

Joe sat and watched as they walked out the door. He knew that something was up, but couldn’t figure what. “Everything alright, Pa?”

“Yes Joseph, finish your supper and get the rest of your chores done,” Ben said without looking up.

“Yes sir.”

Joe walked out to the barn to where his brothers were. Seeing them busy, he went to Cochise’s stall and started rubbing him down.

“Do either of you know what’s bothering Pa?” Joe asked.

“What makes ya think somethin’s bothering him?” Hoss asked not looking up.

“All of you seem to be avoiding me. Did I do something wrong?”

“I don’t know, Joseph, did you?” Adam questioned.

Before Joe could answer, Jack walked into the barn. “Joe, can I see ya a minute?”

“Yeah, comin’,” Joe said as he dropped his eyes, to break the contact he had had with his brother. Tossing the brush down on the table, he walked out of the barn.

“What’s wrong, Jack.”

“Nothing, the boss wants you to join us at the camp for a little while tonight.”

“Why?” Joe asked. He didn’t trust these men at all.

“We always have a little ‘celebration’ the night before the big event.”

“You know I can’t leave now. It’ll have ta be later.”

“Fine, meet ya right here around the normal time. Say, ya decided if ya gonna go with us tomorrow night? I think the boss would like to have ya in the gang.”

“Yeah, I decided. It’s about time for a change.”

“Good,” Jack said patting Joe on the back.

As Joe stood and watched Jack walk back in the bunkhouse, Adam eased away from the door. He had been listening to the conversation and was utterly irate that his baby brother was planning on leaving with these men.

Waiting to see that Joe had returned to the house, Adam joined Hoss and filled him in on what had been said. “Come on, we have to tell Pa.”

“Adam, I’m worried about Pa. I don’t think he could take losin’ his baby.” Hoss stated.

“Hoss, I’m afraid he already has,” Adam said as they walked to the house.

*****

“He’s what?” Ben said looking at his two eldest.

“Yes sir, I’m afraid he is.”

“Well, I know that won’t happen. How can he if the others are in jail?”

“Pa, what’s to keep him from leaving alone?” Adam said. He didn’t want Ben to be blinded to the fact that Joseph was set on leaving.

“If I have to, I’ll have him locked up in jail or in his room. I don’t care how, but I won’t lose him that way. Well, I guess that rules out the chance they were forcing him to do this.”

*****

No one followed Joe when he snuck out that night. They knew that he’d be back later. They waited to follow him to town and watch as he made the exchange.

Joe rode into town and hitched Cochise. Walking into the saloon, he joined Ted Peterson and the others.

“Sit down, kid,” Ted said. “Men, this is the newest member of our little organization, Joe Cartwright, from now on known as ‘the kid’. And before ya get ya nose outta joint, I give them all nicknames. He pointed around at the group and called their names: Red, Shorty, Slick, Slim, Chaps, and Jackknife.”

“Fellas,” Joe said; he had only seen two of the men the night before and hadn’t met any of them.

“Let’s get outta here, kid, and get this taken care of. You got the paper?”

Patting’ his vest pocket, “Right here,” Joe answered as he walked with the men to the horses and mounted up. “Where to?”

“Just outside of town; no witnesses that way. Wouldn’t want word of this gettin’ back to ya Pa before we’re done and gone.”

The gang and Joe rode to the edge of the town and headed toward Eagle’s Nest. About a half hour out of town, they stopped and the exchange was made. Ben and the boys sat in the brush and watched as the money was handed to Joe and he counted it. Finished, he took the paper and handed it over to Peterson.

Peterson looked it over and stuffed it into his pocket. “Good job, kid. See ya tonight.”

“What time?”

“Eleven, be there.” Peterson said as they rode away.

Joe turned his horse and rode for the lake. He knew that the Marshall and Johnson would be waiting on him. Ben, figuring Joe was on the way home, sent the boys to the house and said he’d join them after filling Roy in.

Joe waited until the last minute before leaving the ranch. He knew that this was it. After tonight he’d have a lot of explaining to do. He hoped his Pa and brothers would forgive him for upsetting them. He met Jack at the clearing above the herd. They made their way down to the herd and waited. A short time later the gang showed up and they started to work the cattle. Joe rode along one side as if helping. He was in the position Braden had said to be in, in case of gunfire. That way he was easy to spot.

Ben, Adam and Hoss followed behind Joe and took to their hiding place. They were soon joined by Roy, Clem, Mitch, Peter, and Charlie Devlin. Ben looked at the men and sighed. “No matter what else, I want Joe brought to me.”

“Ben, there has to be some reason for this. That boy, our boys, might get into a lot of trouble, but ain’t a one of them capable of this,” Charlie said.

Before Ben could respond to Charlie’s comment, they heard a gunshot. “Drop the guns and get down off those horses.” Braden said as he and his men walked out of the bushes on the opposite side of the herd. Ben couldn’t see the men but could hear them. “This is US Marshall Jasper Braden and each of you are under arrest.”

“Ben, you all stay here. I’ll be back in a minute. Clem and I are gonna go on down there and help the Marshall. One of us will come and get ya.” Roy said.

“I’m going to get my son.” Ben stated, as he stood.

“Ben, let Roy and Clem handle this. We’ll wait with ya til he gets back,” Charlie said patting Ben on the shoulder.

“Fine, but Roy, you take care of Joseph.”

“Ben ya know I will,” Roy said as he and Clem rode down the hill to meet with the other lawmen.

Marshal Braden spotted Roy and Clem and rode out to meet them. “Sheriff”

“Marshal, whatcha got agoin’ on out here?”

“Just brought down the Peterson gang. Can we take them to your jail?”

“Of course. But I do have one question ‘bout the boy on the Pinto.”

“What about the kid?”

“What’s ya plans for him?”

“Well settle all that down at the jail. We have them ready to go; wanna ride along with us?”

“Yes. Clem, go tell Ben to get to the jail; we have ta take Little Joe in.”

“Sure thing, Roy,” Clem answered as he rode off toward the ridge.

As Roy and the others led the way to the Virginia City jail, Clem rode up to where the anxious family waited. He knew it would be hard to tell Ben that they had taken Joe to jail.

“Clem, where’s Joe?” Ben asked.

“Roy said to tell ya to get on to the jail; the Marshall said he had ta take Joe in until he could speak with him.”

“Boys, let’s ride.”

*****

It was a long ride into town for Joe. He had his hands tied to the saddle horn and his legs to the stirrups. Roy was holding the lead to Cochise, and for a long time he rode out in front of Joe and didn’t speak. Joe could tell that Roy was very angry with him. Halfway there, he pulled the lead causing Joe’s horse to come alongside of him; this put Joe between Roy and Braden.

“Little Joe? How in the name of all that’s right did ya git yaself messed up in this?” Roy questioned. The only answer that he received was a shrug of Joe’s shoulders. Marshall Braden wanted to fill the lawman in on what was happening but feared for Joes’ safety. He wanted the rest of the gang to be locked away first. Joe had to be kept safe until the trial.

“Boy, that ain’t no answer. Joseph, I feel like pullin’ ya across this here saddle o’mine and wearin’ you out fer what cha puttin’ ya Pa through, but I guess Ben’ll take care o’that.”

Joe knew he had to keep up the charade for a little longer, as much as he hated it. He didn’t like thinking he was hurting his family or his friends. “Lighten’ up, Sheriff. What’s it to ya anyways?” Joe snapped, hearing Peterson in the background saying ‘You tell him, Kid.”

“Shut up, Peterson,” Braden said cutting around to look at him.

“It’s a lot to me, Little Joe. I’ve known ya since ya was born and yer Pa’s a good friend o’mine.”

“Tell it to someone who cares,” Joe stated with a smirk.

Roy shook his head; he couldn’t believe the change in the boy. He wasn’t even sure that Ben ought to drop the charges. With this attitude, he was afraid that Joe would get into even more trouble. Stopping in front of the jail, Braden’s men took turns untying each member and taking them into the jail. As Braden and Roy were cutting the ropes from Joe, Ben and the boys rode up. Ben waited for a moment until they were through, then pushed past Roy and grabbed Joe, pulling him roughly from his saddle. Joe could do nothing but allow it as his hands were still tied.

“Get off that horse. What’s gotten into you?” Ben bellowed shaking Joe.

Joe swallowed hard and looked into the disappointed and angry eyes of his father. He wanted to tell him so bad but knew it was too soon.

“Answer me, NOW!”

“Sir, there will be time for that later; right now I have to get my prisoner inside,” Braden said pulling Joe from his fathers clutches. He knew it must be hard on the kid, because of the tears that were building in his eyes.

Braden pulled Joe inside and put him into the cell with others. Ben couldn’t believe that Joe hadn’t even tried to defend himself. Marshall Braden closed the door to the office and looked at the faces of Joe’s family. Making his decision, he opened the front door.

“Sheriff, Mr. Cartwright, would you men care to join me in a drink. I think we need to talk.”

Roy, Ben and the boys walked over to the Silver Dollar saloon with the Marshall and sat at one of the tables.

“What’s this all about?” Ben asked.

“First let me say on thing then I’ll explain it all to ya. To start off with, Little Joe was not a part of the gang. The kid has been working with me all along.”

“What? Are you saying that my son set this whole thing up?” Ben said as he sat in disbelief.

“That’s just what I’m saying. Kid did a good job. He met with them and played the whole thing out like a pro,” Braden laughed. “But don’t get him riled.”

“So all the sneaking out and lies he told was to help you?” Ben asked.

“That’s right. I know he hated to do it but he was determined that he was gonna help.”

“How did you come to choose Joe?” Adam asked.

“The first night we got here, oh about four days ago, we watched him and a friend of his in the other saloon drinking and playing poker. Once I knew who he was, we approached him.”

“So he’s been sneaking out before this again,” Ben stated, his anger growing once more.

“Yep. Can I say something?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t ya think you should treat the kid more according to his age? I mean he shouldn’t have ta sneak out to have a beer.”

“Marshal, just how old do you think Joseph is?” Ben questioned.

“Boy said he was twenty-one. Why? Don’t tell me he lied about it?” Braden asked, starting to feel his own anger take hold.

“My son is only seventeen, so you see, we have both been lied to. Now don’t get me wrong; he did it for a good reason, but he should have never been involved in this.”

“I’m starting to agree with the Sheriff here,” Braden stated.

“Excuse me?” Ben asked.

“Well he threatened to pull him across his saddle and wear him out. Damn if I ain’t tempted to take him in the alley and introduce him to my belt.”

“You have no need to worry about that Marshal; that young man won’t be sitting comfortably for a while when I get through with him,” Ben said rising from the table. “Can I get him now?”

“Of course, but we have to make it look as though he’s bein’ bailed out and placed in your custody until the trial.”

The men walked into the jail. The Marshal went to the cell where Joe was at. “Come on, kid, ya Pa’s here to get ya. I’m releasing you into his custody, seein’ as how you’re a minor.” Braden said, glaring at Joe.

The youngster could tell that the Marshal was furious with him. “Uh… I think that I’d be safer in here.”

“Let’s go; you deserve everything your Pa aims on givin’ ya,” Braden said, taking Joe by the upper arm and leading him into the outer office.

Joe looked up at his family and gave a weak smile. “Hi Pa,” he said cautiously.

“Don’t you Hi Pa me, young man; you are in so much trouble. Get on that horse and wait. Hoss, go with him.”

“Yes sir,” Hoss said shaking his head at his baby brother.

“Pa…” Joe started.

“I said GO!!” Ben shouted and smacked Joe on his retreating backside.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’ll be by tomorrow and talk with the boy.”

“Thank you, Marshal,” Ben said as he walked out the door and mounted his horse.

“I kinda feel sorry for the kid; Ben looks really mad.”

“That will probably be the last time that boy rides that horse for a while. He won’t be able to sit the saddle,” Roy commented as they shared a laugh.

*****

The ride home was a silent and tense one. Joe rode beside Hoss and Ben with Adam. Joe knew that his father was beyond mad; he dreaded reaching the ranch.

“How are you going to handle this, Pa?” Adam asked. He had been watching his father and his brother. He couldn’t remember seeing his father this mad since they had caught Joe and Mitch pulling pranks on the town and surrounding ranches and drinking. That had led to the boys getting tanned in front of everyone they wronged.

“You know as well as I do what I’m going to do to that boy. I promise you he’ll think twice the next time he decides to pull a crazy stunt like this.”

“Pa, he was trying to do the right thing…”

“Save it, Adam; I know all of that. I’ll praise him for that, but it’s all the lies and other things he’s going to go to the barn over.”

“But Pa…”

“Not another word, unless you’d like to join him,” Ben stated glaring at Adam. His eldest chose to let the matter drop. At twenty-nine, he felt confident that his father wouldn’t carry through with it, but then again, in the mood he was in, he wasn’t real sure.

Dismounting in front of the house, Ben asked Hoss and Adam to take the horses. “Joseph, in the house and go to bed. We’ll take care of this in the morning. And don’t even think of leaving that room, if you want to be sitting this time next month.”

“Yes sir,” Joe said turning and walking to the house. He knew there was no reasoning with his Pa when he was in this state. Maybe by morning he’d be in a better mood.

*****

Joe awoke to the sounds of his family walking in the hall and figured it to be time to get up. After dressing, he walked out into the hall and nearly collided with Adam.

“Mornin’ Adam,” Joe said looking into the hazel eyes of his eldest brother. He saw the anger, hurt, disappointment, and what he thought to be a hint of pride.

“Morning, little buddy.” Adam said with a smile.

“You ain’t mad at me?” Joe questioned.

“A little, but I’m also proud of what you did. You showed a lot of guts out there kid.”

“I just wish Pa thought so. He’s really mad ain’t he?”

Adam crossed his arms and studied his brother’s face. “Yep.”

“He’s gonna give me a tannin’, ain’t he?” Joe asked.

Looking at Joe biting his bottom lip and shifting nervously, Adam saw the little boy of six that had asked him that same question in this very spot, and his heart melted. “Afraid so.”

“Guess I deserve it. But it was worth it,” Joe conceded.

“Let’s get some breakfast,” Adam said putting his arm around Joe’s shoulders.

“I don’t know if I can eat, Adam.”

Squeezing a little tighter, Adam said, “It’ll be alright, come on.”

Ben and Hoss were already seated at the table when Adam and Little Joe walked into the room. Joe looked at his father and chanced a greeting. “Mornin’, Pa”.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said not looking up from his plate.

“Mornin’, short shanks,” Hoss greeted with a smile. He too knew the intentions of their father and wanted to show the boy some support.

“Mornin’, Hoss,” Joe said softly.

Breakfast proceeded in silence for some time. Finally Adam, unable to take anymore, spoke. “Pa, what do you want Hoss and me to do today?”

Ben looked up the faces of each of his sons, sighing deeply he said, “I want the two of you to work on yard chores. Marshal Braden, his deputy and Roy will be out around lunchtime and I figure you would want to hear more about the stunt your young brother here has pulled this time.”

Joe knew that he was already in deep trouble with his Pa, so he figured he might as well say what was on his mind. “Pa?”

“Yes, Joseph,” Ben said looking into the sad eyes.

“I know I went about things the wrong way, but I ain’t sorry for what I done.”

“Oh you aren’t are you? Well you will be very sorry for how you went about all of this when I get through with you. Joseph, do you have any idea how much danger you put yourself in? Do you have any idea what Adam and Hoss were thinking when they followed you and saw you meeting with that Peterson man? Do you have any idea how I felt when they came to me and told me what you were up to? Or how I felt to sit and watch you cutting out our cattle to help rustle? DO YOU?!!” Ben bellowed.

“I’m sorry if I hurt ya. I didn’t know ya’ll knew,” Joe said as he sat in front of his family feeling lower than a snake’s belly.

“Joseph, sorry isn’t enough this time. I’m starting to think that Adam was right when he said I was too easy on you. But not any more. You have lied more times than I can count, to your family, and to the Marshal. You have snuck out of the house and been gone till all hours at least four times that I know of. You put yourself in danger, and I’ll not have it happening again.”

“Yes sir,” Joe said quietly, trying to hold back the tears. He knew he had worried his family and that everything his Pa had said was true.

Ben stood from the table and walked over to where his youngest sat. Laying his hand on his shoulder, “Are you through with your breakfast?”

Joe simply nodded, not trusting his voice.

“Adam, you and Hoss, stay in the house for a while. Joseph, let’s take a walk.”

Joe laid his napkin on the table and looked at each of his brothers. He saw the sympathy and compassion in both their eyes. Slowly he followed his Pa outside and to the barn.

Ben walked over to the bales of hay that were stacked in the far corner and waited. Looking up he watched as the boy he loved more than life itself walk up to him. Ben wrestled with the task ahead of him. He knew that his son had done everything in order to do something good, but he couldn’t shake the fear he felt, that something could have happened and Joe would have been hurt or even killed. He knew he had to get through to his young son, no matter what it took. It was his duty as his father.

“Joseph.” Ben said lifting his son’s chin to force eye contact. “I know you were trying to do the right thing, and for that I am very proud of you. The punishment is for all the wrongs you did to achieve that goal. Do you understand, son?”

Little Joe looked into his fathers eyes and answered as a tear rolled down his cheek, “Yes sir, I…I understand.”

Ben pulled the belt from his trousers and motioned for Joe to bend over the bales. Joe did as he was told and fought to keep from crying out as his father administered the tanning he had promised. Joe stood with his back to his father from the embarrassment, listening as Ben replaced his belt. Lost in his own thoughts of how he was able to always get into trouble, he was startled to feel the pressure of Ben’s hand on his shoulder. Turning he fell into his strong arms and cried, “I’m so sorry, Pa. I just want you to be proud of me.”

“Oh, Joseph, I am proud of you, and I love you so much, son.” Ben soothed as he rubbed his sons back.

Father and son stayed locked in a warm embrace for several minutes. Ben pulled Joe around and looked into his eyes, “Better now?” Receiving a nod, “I want you in your room until the others get here then you can come down. I want you back in your room after they leave. You will not leave this ranch for the next two weeks, clear?”

“Yes sir,” Joe said as he walked out of the barn with his father.

Adam and Hoss watched as their baby brother walked into the house and went upstairs. They could tell by the stiff way he walked that Pa had carried through with the punishment.

“Hoss, you go see to little brother, and I’ll check on Pa,” Adam stated headed to the door.

“Yeah.” Hoss agreed and walk upstairs to Joe’s room, and knocking softly he entered. What he saw broke his heart; the boy was lying on his stomach asleep. Hoss saw the streaks on his cheeks from the tears he’d shed and the long wet lashes curled over those same cheeks. Under his arm laid his faithful stuffed dog. ‘Carrying a gun one minute and a stuffed dog the next. Oh punkin, stop trying to grow up so fast.’ Hoss thought to himself.

Sitting on the bed, Hoss leaned over and rubbed Little Joes’ back. Joe slowly opened his eyes and gave Hoss a slight smile. “How ya feeling, punkin?”

“Most of me is fine.”

“Hurt much?”

“Like the dickens is all. I really worried Pa this time, didn’t I?”

“You worried all of us this time.”

“Sorry Hoss, I didn’t mean to,” Joe said feeling a whole new set of tears forming.

“Don’t cry, baby, I forgive ya,” Hoss said with a smile. “You gotta stay up here?”

“Yeah, til the others get here. Then I gotta come back afterwards.”

“I hope ya learned something from all this.”

“I did. Pa made sure of that,” Joe said as he rubbed his tender little backside.

Hoss patted Joe on his shoulder as he stood. “I’ll call ya when the others get here.”

“Thanks, Hoss.”

“No problem, little brother.”

Adam walked outside and saw his father standing by the corral. He knew that Ben was having trouble dealing with what had happened. Walking over and leaning on the fence, he faced his father. “Pa, you ok?”

“Yes, I guess so.” Ben smiled.

“I take it you carried through with it?”

“What other choice did I have, son? Adam, he scared the life out of me this time. We could have lost him for good.”

“I know, Pa. He scared me too,” Adam said looking into the troubled eyes of the man he loved the most in the world.

“Every time I think about what he did I want to put him back across my knee,” Ben fumed.

“Pa, he’s been punished. He knows what he did was wrong. You have to let go of this.”

“I know,” Ben answered as the two turned to see their company ride up.

“Howdy Ben.”

“Roy, Marshal, deputy. Nice to see you. Come on in.”

The men entered the house to find Hoss already sitting on the settee working on a harness. Hop Sing brought out a tray of coffee, announcing dinner would be ready shortly.

“Hoss, will you go tell Joseph to come down,” Ben asked.

“Sure, Pa.”

As the men sat and talked they looked up at the sound of Hoss and Joe entering the room. It didn’t go unnoticed that the boy was upset. They could see it in his eyes, as they lacked the fire that had always been present. “Howdy Little Joe,” Roy said trying to break the ice.

“Hi sheriff, Marshal Braden, Mr. Johnson,” Joe said standing beside Adams’ chair.

“Hello there, young man. I have a bone ta pick with you,” Braden stated pointing a finger at the youngster.

“Yes sir. I want ya to know how sorry I am for lying to ya about my age. I just wanted to help,” Joe said trying to keep eye contact with the big man.

“Well, thank ya for that anyways. I had a good mind to pull you out to that barn and tan ya hide for that. But Sheriff Coffee here assured me that ya Pa would take care of it.”

“Yes sir, he did, that’s for sure,” Joe said quietly, which caused all of the men to suppress their laughter.

The dinner went well and all the Cartwrights enjoyed getting to know the Marshall and his deputy. Joe had shaken off most of his sullen mood and was enjoying filling in the parts of his adventure no one else knew about. Hours passed before the men stood to leave. Braden closed his note ledger where he had written all of their comments for the trial. Putting his arm around Joes’ young shoulders, he walked toward the door. “Little Joe, we did appreciate all the work ya done to help us. I want ya to know ya did a fine job.”

“Thanks Marshal,” Joe said with a smile.

“How about handing my hat?”

Joe turned to retrieve the hat and was startled when the ledger the Marshal was carrying connected with his already sore backside. “OWW!”

“That was for the lie. See ya round, kid,” Braden said, ruffling Joes curls.

“Bye, sir,” Joe said swallowing hard and rubbing his bottom as he shot a glare at his two older brothers snickering at the scene.

The four Cartwright men, one shaking his head at the other three, two giggling and one still nursing his stinging rear end, stood in the yard of the Ponderosa and waved goodbye to the lawmen as they rode away.

***The End***

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