Love’s Last Whisper (by Wrangler)

Summary:   The finding of an object at a gravesite has unthinkable consequences.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA (subject matter)
Word Count:  38874


“I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints—I love thee with the breath, smile, tears, of all my life!–and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”

(Excerpt from Sonnets from the Portuguese-by Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

 

 

Lake Tahoe was glistening in the summer sunlight and the breeze that swept down from the large stands of pine trees that flanked her shores gave off an aroma that was like nowhere else on earth.  Joe Cartwright took in the scent as he led his pinto pony down to the shore and knelt down to drink from the cool clear water.  Tugging at Cochise’s reins to signal that it was now the horse’s turn to drink, Joe scanned the magnificent view.  It didn’t matter that he had been to that exact spot at least a hundred times in his seventeen years of living, the picture before him was just as breathtaking as if it had been his first time gazing off into the distance.  The azure blue of the lake seemed as vast as an ocean and the mountain range over towards Mount Davidson seemed to reach up to the very heavens above.

Having taken as long as he could afford that late afternoon, Joe reluctantly stood and prepared to saddle up and ride back to the ranch house.  He was well aware of the fact that his grand swing down to the lake had eaten up most of the time he had been given off that day as a bonus for two days worth of back breaking work up at one of the Ponderosa’s timber camps.  Joe knew there were other chores waiting on him back at the house and he would be lucky to get them done if he dawdled any longer.  Just as he pushed his left boot into the saddle’s stirrup and prepared to swing up on Cochise, Joe’s eyes caught on something shining over by one of the boulders, which reached out into the lake.  Always full of youthful curiosity, Joe pulled away from the saddle and walked over to the water smoothed rocks and bent down.  Pulling the object into the palm of his right hand, Joe’s eyes grew big.  There, before him, was an exquisite diamond and emerald ring.  After further examination, Joe determined it to be of a solid gold construction and obviously worth a great deal of money.  Whistling through his teeth joyfully, Joe placed the ring securely inside the inner pocket of his green corduroy jacket and hurried back over to his horse. ****My lucky day**** Joe thought to himself and vaulted up into his saddle.  He couldn’t wait to show it to his father and his brothers.

Ben Cartwright patted his son Hoss’ back and praised the young man on his hard work.  Hoss responded with a big tooth-ful grin and began putting his tools away.  He had worked for hours adding a set of steps to the far right end of the front porch.  Naturally, it had been his older brother Adam, who had decided the amount of steps and how far apart they would need to be to conform with the steps that were on the other end of the porch.  But, then, Adam was the architect in the family, and Hoss was content with being the best carpenter of the three brothers.

Walking into the sprawling ranch house, Ben turned when he heard Adam call out to him.

“Pa—I found the error–come here a second!”  Adam sang out from the study.

Ben made his way to his large oaken desk and his son turned the ledger book so that he could see the entry.

“I went over that ledger five times, can’t believe I missed that, Son!  Now–does it all finally add up correctly?”  Ben smiled over at his eldest son.

“Sure does, Pa, to the dollar,” Adam replied and stood and stretched.  He didn’t want to admit it to his father, but it had taken him at least five times over the books to find the error himself.

“I sure appreciate your help, didn’t think I would have it straightened out before that meeting at the bank tomorrow,” Ben said and patted Adam’s arm as he changed places with him at the desk.

“Well–since that’s done–guess I’d better see how Hoss is coming with those steps.”

“Oh–he’s all finished.  Oh–and Adam?  Be sure to compliment him, okay?”

Adam grinned, “Like you have to tell me that, Pa.  It’s only Little Joe that I don’t dole out praise to.  That kid’s got a big enough head on his shoulders already.  Now—Hoss–that’s another matter.”

Ben laughed, knowing that only part of his son’s statement had been true.  He had heard both oldest and youngest sons complimenting each other, though it was a bit rare.  Ben began to stack his papers up in a more uniform order just as he heard the rather loud slam of the front door.  He knew, just from the eagerness of the incoming boot-steps that he would be seeing his youngest son charging in towards the study any minute.

“Pa!”  Joe yelled and jogged over to his father’s desk.  “You’ll never believe what I found today!”  Joe was full of excitement, as was typical of the youngster.

“Hold on–hold on—how many times have I told you not to come in here like a wild bull in a china shop?  Do you remember what I said about slamming the door last time, Joseph?”

“Oh–yeah–Hop Sing’s china cabinet,” Joe replied and winced his face thinking about the last lecture he had been on the receiving end of.

“Yes, Hop Sing’s china cabinet,” Ben nodded and then stood and looked down at his pride and joy.  It was never easy to stay angered for long at the boy with the twinkling eyes.  Joe possessed such youthful enthusiasm that it was contagious at times.  However, as his father, and only parent, Ben had to keep a tight rein on the youngster to try and quell some of his rowdy behavior.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe apologized sheepishly.  “I’ll try and remember next time.”

Ben laughed and replied, “I believe those were your very same words the “last” time, Joseph.  But—I don’t hear Hop Sing bellowing yet–so maybe that slam didn’t do as much damage.”  Ben gave his son a quick hug to let the boy know that the lecture was over and that he was, as always, forgiven.

“Hey–Pa–you just gotta see this–it’s really something!”  Joe was back to his fever pitch, rising to the same enthusiastic level, as he had been earlier.  He felt around in his jacket pocket in search of the ring.

“Hey–Joe!”  Hoss called over to his brother as he and Adam entered the study.  “Did you see the steps are done?”

“Yeah–well- I’ll check them out in a minute, Hoss,” Joe answered, waving his brother away for a moment while he continued to dig for his treasure.

“What’s all the excitement about anyway?  I heard Joe running in here like there was a fire?”  Adam asked and moved in closer to his father.

“Seems Joseph has something to show us–that is–if he can get it out of his pocket!” Ben winked towards his other sons, highly amused by the intensity on Joe’s face as he struggled to pull his great find from his pocket.

“Got it!”  Joe announced proudly and grasped the ring and then shot it out for all to see.  “It’s a real diamond too!  Ain’t it something, Pa?”  Joe smiled proudly.

Ben took the ring into his hand and sank down behind his desk.  It didn’t take more than ten seconds, if even that much time, to know the significance of his son’s find.  Adam saw the look on his father’s face, and it reminded him of the look that Ben wore some twelve years earlier.  It was the look of total bereavement.   He reached across the desk, and without words exchanged, Ben handed his son the ring.  Adam studied the design and felt like his heart had stopped.  A million thoughts went through his mind, and Adam knew how hard it was for his father not to break down in front of all three of his sons at the time. He handed the ring back to his father, and in his eyes he reflected his father’s pain.

“Hey?  What’s wrong with everybody?”  Joe asked totally bewildered by the response in the room.  “It’s real isn’t it, Pa?”

Ben bit at his bottom lip and drew in a deep breath hoping to summon enough strength to prevent the tears from leaving his eyes.  He stared over at Adam, and realized that the young man knew the ramifications of Little Joe’s find.  Ben wasn’t sure about Hoss, however.  His middle son was standing there looking as puzzled about everyone’s reaction as his younger sibling.  Ben next looked up at Joe.  The boy looked like someone had rained on his parade by not being as happy as he had been with finding the ring.  He didn’t have the heart nor the strength of spirit to tell Joe why the ring was undoubtedly a harbinger of the vilest act imaginable; the desecration of a grave.

Ben shot Adam a look, which fortunately the young man understood completely.  He would need the help of his eldest son as well as the cooperation of his middle son in order to keep the truth from leaking out to Joe.

“Hoss– I gotta ask you something about those steps–come outside for a minute will you?” Adam announced and tugged at his brother’s arm.  Hoss had started to put two and two together, at least enough to know that there was some serious trouble brewing, and didn’t object to the walk outside with Adam.

“Pa?  What is it?  Why’s everyone acting so strange?”  Joe asked again, moving over to his father and placing his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Oh–sorry—Joe–just wondering why such a nice ring was laying around somewhere.  Tell me, Son—where exactly did you find this?”

Joe sat down on the corner of his father’s desk and replied, “Oh, I was over at the lake—you know—-where I usually go to think and all.  It was just laying there on the shore–caught my eye right away.  It is real, right, Pa?  Wonder who lost it?”  Hey–maybe there’s a reward!”  Joe rattled on, not waiting for an answer to any of his questions.

“Joseph—if you were out there–well—I know you like to stop by your mother’s grave—did you go there?”  Ben tried in a round about way to see if Joe had noticed anything strange in the area.

“No–not this time, Pa—had to hurry back to finish the chores.  But—why do you ask?”

“Oh—just wondering—I hadn’t been up there for a couple of weeks—was just thinking about taking some flowers if you hadn’t done it already,” Ben replied, and tried his best to sound convincing.  He had now gathered what information he would need before heading up towards his late wife’s gravesite.  Ben hoped with all of his heart that the situation wasn’t what it seemed, but he held in his hand the awful evidence that something truly had happened, the extent of which would soon be known.

“I took her some wild flowers last week, Pa–don’t you remember?  I told you!”  Joe asked and stared hard at his father.  “Ever since I handed you that ring you’ve looked strange.”

“Sorry—-I have so much to do tonight, guess my mind is preoccupied.  About this ring–mind if I keep it and try to find it’s rightful owner?”

“Yeah–okay–but if there’s a reward or something—um–it’s mine, okay?”  Joe smiled and started to relax a bit more.  He figured that his father’s strange behavior must be due to something going on with business.

“Oh, I will remember that, Joseph.  Now—Adam and I have to meet with someone in town and you and Hoss will have to eat without us tonight.  I should be home before you go to bed, but if I’m not don’t get to worrying.  I never know how long these meetings will go on,” Ben said and stood and patted Joe’s arm.  He forced a smile, and it was the greatest acting job of his entire life.  Ben knew that Joe might be a bit naive, but he had always been able to key in on his father’s moods.  He prayed that his deception had worked and Joe was no more the wiser about what was really going on.

“Okay, Pa—I gotta get that wood hauled before dinner anyhow.  See you later. Oh–and let me know what you find out about the ring.  Maybe you can put an ad in the paper?”

“I’ll find the owner, Son.  You go on and get those chores done,” Ben replied and watched as Joe walked casually to the door.  It was then that Ben sank down in his chair again and covered his eyes with his hands.  He had held in the tears long enough, and the ensuing cascade of them came pouring down his cheeks.

Long withheld memories fell upon Ben and they took him back to a time when his life with his precious wife was filled with happiness.  He could still remember walking into the newly built ranch house and seeing his beloved Marie sitting by the great stone fireplace.  The glow on her face was warmer than the fire-logs that she stared pensively towards.  Ben watched as his wife reached for her ever-expanding stomach as she felt a hard kick. Marie was filled with joy to know that her baby was well and apparently very strong.

“How’s my beautiful wife this afternoon?”  Ben called cheerily and moved over to the fireplace and to the new blue velvet chair where Marie was knitting.

“Ben!  Feel this—” Marie gleamed and reached for her husband’s strong and somewhat calloused hand.

Ben settled the palm of his right hand onto Marie’s abdomen and was soon greeted by a good-sized kick.  “Well–I see Joseph is up to his normal tricks!”  Ben laughed and bent over and kissed his wife.

“Now, Benjamin, how foolish you will feel if this is not a boy.  You could be wrong you know?”  Marie teased and pushed back a fallen lock of hair from her husband’s forehead.

“Now, Madame, that is a boy’s kick if ever I’ve felt one,” he chuckled and moved to sit down on the hearth next to his wife.

“Perhaps—-but will you be upset if the baby is a girl, Ben?”  Marie asked, and Ben read the worry on her face.

“Not if she’s as gorgeous as her mother!  If she has the beautiful curls and emerald eyes of my wife then I will be most happy,” Ben comforted Marie with his words, which he meant from his heart.  He was just thrilled at the prospect of being a new father again, and it didn’t matter one iota to him whether his wife was carrying a boy or a girl.  Either way the child would be a reminder of the greatest love of his life.  Not that he didn’t still carry the reminders of his first two wives; whom he loved dearly.  There were times when he saw a bit of each of them in the way Marie laughed or in the tilt of her head. Ben fully believed that just like Job in the Bible, he had been given back ten-fold after having suffered so many personal losses.

“I think Adam and Hoss are counting on another brother,” Marie commented and set the knitting basket down next to her chair.  She reached over and took Ben’s hand into her own.

“They will love this child no matter what—just as they love you, Darling,” Ben corrected her assumption that the boys might be disappointed if they were given a sister instead of a brother.

“Now–what brings you home at this time of the day, My Love?  I wasn’t expecting you back until later.  I’m afraid I haven’t prepared a lunch for you.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, the boys and I just got back from town and we already ate there in that new fancy hotel.”

“Oh—and not so much as an invitation to your wife,” Marie scolded but the laughter in her eyes showed that she was only teasing.

“You know what Doctor Martin said about you traveling, Marie.  No more rides anywhere until that baby comes.  And—I hope you are finally taking it easy–because if you’re not–and I find out about it–” Ben started with yet another lecture about his wife’s health and was met with Marie’s hand to his mouth to cease his words.

“Don’t you growl at me—besides–I know you have Hop Sing spying on me!”  Marie laughed and Ben reached over and gingerly hugged his wife in response.

“I will take that as a yes–that you are being good.  And–since you’ve been such a good girl,” Ben chuckled and reached inside his vest pocket and pulled out a tiny box.  “Here–I brought you something to bribe you into being good just a little longer.”

Marie pulled the box close to her heart and smiled over at her husband, “Ben you spoil me terribly.  Not that I am complaining mind you!”  Marie gleefully pulled the top off of the box and was awestruck by the contents.

“Ben!” she gasped.  “This ring—it is so—so beautiful—I’ve never seen anything so exquisite in my life!”

“I have,” Ben winked and leaned over and kissed Marie once more.

“But–why?  Why now?” Marie asked curiously.

“Well, if you will recall, Mrs. Cartwright, our whirlwind courtship consummated in a rather quickly held wedding.  You missed out on some of the extras—like an engagement ring.  And so—” Ben paused and got down on one knee there in front of the roaring fire.  “Marie, will you be my wife?”

Marie giggled looking down at her obvious very rotund and pregnant belly, “If we aren’t married already we are going to have a lot to explain to this child!”

“You’re spoiling the moment–play along with this old fool will you?”  Ben pleaded.  “Now–as I was saying—will you do me the great honor of being my wife?”

“I said this before, and I will say it forever–yes, My Darling, I will be your wife,” Marie smiled and embraced her husband.

At that very moment, with both of their bodies huddled close together, the baby inside of Marie’s womb gave a strong kick which both parents felt.  Marie and Ben were filled with laughter at their child’s apparent decision to be the center of attention.

“I take that as an okay from you then, Joseph?”  Ben called down to his wife’s stomach.

“Here you go, My Love, after two years of marriage you now at last have an engagement ring to go with your wedding band,” Ben announced and slid the ring onto Marie’s finger.

Marie held the ring up to the light and tears filled her eyes.  She never doubted her husband’s love for her.  She couldn’t.  Ben spent each day of their marriage filling the hours with many reassurances of his love for her.  This was yet another way to show her that he loved her as deeply as he had that day in New Orleans when he had begged her to come west with him and start a new life together with his two sons.

“I will never take it off, not ever in life,” Marie choked out, full of emotion.

“Do you really like it?  I had it special made for you in San Francisco when Adam and I made that trip last month.  I know it’s a bit different.  But there’s a reason for it’s design you know?”

“Yes, it means you love me,” Marie responded and again hugged her husband tight.

“Oh—yes–well that is the obvious meaning–but I had this all planned on how to say it all romantic-like.  Perhaps I should have had Adam give it to you for me–he apparently is the smoothest talking of the Cartwright men so far.  Must be all of that poetry he reads.”

“You do just fine, Darling.  Now go on—I am listening,” Marie urged Ben out with his words.

“This diamond in the center, it is the hardest gem in the world and as unbreakable as my love for you.  Then—these three little emeralds—well they are to remind you that my love for you is a combination of our past, our present, and our future.  Also, it’s no coincidence that they are emeralds—I know how you love that gem—just as I love to look at those amazing emerald eyes of yours!”

“Ben, I don’t know what to say—you take my breath away—as you always do. Not in what you buy me–but in the man that you are and the father that you are,” Marie’s eyes were filled with loving tears as she kissed her husband’s cheek and smiled.

“Well, I was going to say that the three emeralds were there on that ring to signify our three sons—Adam, Hoss, and Joseph.  But, you made me change my little recitation when you told me a minute ago that we might just be having a daughter!”  Ben laughed and brushed the hair aside from his wife’s eyes.

“Well, the time will be here soon, My Love, and we will know if you have another son.  If not, we will have to keep trying,” Marie winked at her husband and broke into a string of laughter that sounded like heavenly music echoing through the ranch house.

“I like the sound of that–” Ben cooed and his hand fell again to his wife’s stomach and was met with yet another kick.  “But, one at a time—this one feels like he will be a handful if his kick is any judge of the matter.”

“I love you, Ben.  Thank you for this lovely ring—I will cherish it for the rest of my life,” Marie focused back on her gift and held it out towards her husband to show him how proud she was of it.

Ben pulled her petite ivory colored hand towards his mouth and planted a gentle kiss on her ring finger.  “Just as I will cherish you, My Love, for the rest of my life.”

*****

Ben heard the front door shut and was shaken from his recollection of one of the happiest times in his life.  He pushed away his tears and drew in a deep cleansing breath, not knowing which son would be making an appearance now.  As he stood, Ben saw that it was his eldest who had made his way back into the living room and walked briskly over the brandy decanter.  Adam poured two quick shots of the amber liquid and made his way over to his father.

“Figured you might need this before we go,” Adam said and handed one of the glasses to Ben.

Ben nodded, unable to speak at the time.  His heart was firmly implanted in his throat.  The awful thought that someone had desecrated his beloved’s grave hung heavy on his mind and made his chest feel like it was constricting.  Ben tossed down his drink and headed over to the hat rack in preparation to leave.

“Pa—I told Hoss what this is about–he’s gonna try to keep Joe from suspecting anything,” Adam said as he, too, moved over to retrieve his hat and gunbelt.

“Thanks,” Ben mumbled and cast a quick glance at his eldest.  “We have to get up there before it gets dark.  Better get going.”

Hoss handed his father Buck’s reins and offered him a sympathetic pat on his back as the man swung up into the saddle.  Ben nodded his thanks to his son and just as soon as Adam had mounted his horse, kicked at Buck’s sides to hurry out to Marie’s grave.

*****

The sunset was magnificent going down behind the mountain range on the west side of the lake.  The hues of orange, red, and gold would have, on any other evening, caused Ben Cartwright to take pause and thank the good Lord for having painted such an amazing scene in the skies over his land.  But, this day was not normal in any way, and as evening vastly approached the cold both Cartwrights felt had little to do with the temperature.

Ben dismounted and tied his horse to a chokecherry bush and waited on Adam to follow suit.  Gathering up the courage that he was known to possess, Ben started down the trail that led to Marie’s final resting place.  Adam followed along close to his father, praying that their worst fears would not be realized.  Within minutes, the devastating sight came into full view and Ben choked back a cry of pain.  Marie’s marble headstone was laying on the ground, and had been viciously fractured into two separate pieces.  Ben felt as though his heart was now in the same condition, as his eyes shot down at the opened crypt.  Staring down into the six-foot deep hole in the ground both men fought back tears as best they could.  Marie’s coffin was gone, leaving only the cold dark soil as a reminder that it had once held her remains.

Ben’s knees went out on him and he collapsed onto the ground.  He was as shattered in spirit as the headstone that lay before him.  Adam knelt down and draped his arm around his father but did not speak.  He wracked his brain to find one word of consolation to offer his pa.  The words still wouldn’t come, only tears of his own for the woman that he had learned to love as a teenager.

“Why!”  Ben shouted, more of a statement than a question coming out in his deep baritone voice.  “Why would anyone do this?  Where have they taken her?”

“Pa—Pa we’ll find her—I promise you,” Adam replied, choking back his own sorrow for the sake of the man at his side who had always been the pillar of the family.  He hated to see his father so totally bereaved, but understood full well the depth of love he had for his long deceased wife.

“Oh–Joseph–” Ben whispered and wiped away his tears.  “What will this do to your brother?  How many times has he come here—with his problems–and sought the comfort of his mother?  This will kill him,” Ben’s mind had retreated momentarily from his own pain and turned instead to the child he shared with Marie.

“We can’t tell him, Pa—we just have to find a way to keep it from the kid until we are able to find her,” Adam warned, knowing full well that his baby brother would go off the deep end if he was told the unbelievable truth.

“Marie–” Ben whispered and his hands fell to her broken tombstone.  He traced the words “beloved wife and mother” with his trembling fingers.  “My Marie,” Ben sobbed and with all the strength he had left pulled himself back to standing.

Adam was quick to brace his father with his own arms and turn him away from the devastating sight of the open grave.  Slowly, with heavy hearts, the two Cartwrights made their way back to the horses.

“When I find these monsters—they’ll be in need of their own graves!”  Adam swore as he swung up onto his saddle.

Ben was slower in his movements than he had been earlier.  He also appeared to have aged right in front of his oldest son’s eyes.  Adam was starting to worry about his father’s health as he watched him barely make it up onto Buck.

“Monsters—no other name for the ones who could do something like this, “ Ben replied and pulled back on his reins.  “And you don’t have to worry about killing them, Son—I am going to have that pleasure myself!” Ben vowed, and in his dark brown eyes it reflected the sincerity of his threat.

*****

Ben and Adam somberly dismounted in front of the barn and pulled their mounts into their stalls.  Having made the long way into Virginia City after leaving Marie’s gravesite, they had spoken to family friend and local sheriff Roy Coffee.  Ben urged the man to help in their investigation, but to do so without spreading word as to what had happened.  They needed time to get Joe out of the area before the news spread of the theft of his mother’s coffin.

Hoss glanced at the grandfather clock as he had done every fifteen minutes all that evening.  He had done his very best to gear his thoughts on keeping up the masquerade and not allowing his sadness to show while he ate dinner and later played checkers with his younger brother.  Joe had called it a night and headed up to his bedroom just before Ben and Adam came in the front door.  Their faces were glum and Hoss knew exactly what that meant without asking.

Unbuckling their gunbelts, both men scanned the living room before speaking, well aware that Joe could be close by.  Ben was relieved to find the boy nowhere in sight as he moved over to Hoss.  The bighearted middle son reached over and embraced his father, knowing what the affect of the day had been on the man.

“I’m sorry, Pa—real sorry,” Hoss whispered and released his hold on his father to allow him to sink down into a chair.

“Thanks, Son,” Ben replied and watched as both Adam and Hoss sat down on the settee to begin the discussion.  “Before we tell you what has happened—where’s Joseph?”

“He turned in a little while ago, Pa,” Hoss answered.

“Does he suspect anything?”  Adam asked, worried that somehow Joe had figured out what was really behind the finding of the ring.

“No—just thought the meeting you two had to go to must have taken awhile like Pa said it might.  He’s okay.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” Ben announced and then moved in a little closer to tell Hoss what they had learned.  “Someone has stolen Marie’s casket–they also destroyed her headstone,” Ben whispered, just in case Joe had heard their entrance earlier.

“Why would someone do that, Pa?  After all these years?”  Hoss fought to find logic in an act that had none.  He could not for the life of him come up with anything that was more vile an act than defiling a grave.  And, grave robbing was something that was virtually unheard of in the territory.

“I have no idea,” Ben replied and fought back tears.  He couldn’t get it out of his mind, the image of the empty grave.  He could not comprehend anyone violating something so sacred to him.

“We told Roy–he’s gonna keep it to himself until Joe leaves tomorrow,” Adam continued and was met with Hoss’ confusion.

“Tomorrow?  How you gonna get Joe outta here that fast?  You know he’ll suspect something!”

“The boy can’t be here for this—there’s no way I will allow him to feel as devastated as we all are now.  I’m sending him to Sacramento on the morning stage.  I’ll tell him it’s to visit the Gentry’s—maybe that will work?  I told him not long ago that we’d go there and see how Steve and Jennifer were doing with their new farm.”

“Think he’ll go along with it, Pa?”  Hoss asked, and watched his father stand to head up to Joe’s bedroom.

“He has no choice,” Ben stated emphatically and slowly ascended the staircase.

*****

Joe washed and dressed for bed and had just started to doze off when the light streaming in from the hallway summoned him back to reality.

“Joseph?”  Ben whispered and moved into the room carrying a lamp in his right hand.  “You awake?”

Joe pulled himself upright and smiled over at his pa and yawned.  “I was just about under, Pa—how’d your meeting go?”

Ben crossed the floor and settled in a chair by his son’s bed and tried once again to bluff his way through yet another lie.  He set the lamp down on the nightstand and replied,  “Oh–it went fine, Son.”

“What’s wrong, Pa?”  Joe asked, becoming more and more aware of the hurt that showed behind his father’s eyes.

“Nothing’s wrong, Joe.  I just wanted to talk with you for a minute before turning in.  Haven’t seen you a whole lot lately–what with you up at the timber camp most of the week.”

“C’mon, Pa—-as much as I missed you—and as much as I’m sure you missed me–that isn’t the reason you are up here.  I can tell something’s wrong.  How about leveling with me?”  Joe asked quietly and reached over and touched his father’s arm urging him out with the truth.

“Joe—I want you to go and see Steve and Jennifer—see if you can help them out for awhile,” Ben fought to ignore his son’s concern and get right to the point of his visit.

“Why?  Is something wrong at their place?”  Joe asked confused.

“Well–no–but I promised them we would help them out–and well it has been close to six months since they moved to Sacramento.  So—how about going out there for a few weeks?”

Joe frowned and reached for his robe lying on the end of his bed.  He pulled it on and stood next to the bed and looked down at his father.  “Pa—you wouldn’t come up here, as late as it is to ask me to go on a trip.  Why won’t you tell me what’s really going on?”

Ben stood and placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and looked into his troubled eyes.  He couldn’t help noticing at that moment how much the boy resembled his late wife, Marie.  The curls that danced softly on Joe’s forehead and his brilliant hazel eyes were a stark reminder of why he was now so bereft.

“Joseph—I need you to do this for me.  Please, don’t ask me any questions.  I’m taking you into Virginia City in the morning to catch the stage,” Ben responded as stern in tone as he could muster considering his fragile state of mind.

“How are you ever gonna consider me a man if you treat me like a baby?”  Joe shot back, hurt that his father wouldn’t tell him the truth.

“I don’t treat you like a baby!” Ben defended himself and watched as Joe broke free of his hold and walked across the room angrily.

“I’m not going—not till you tell me what’s really going on around here!”  Joe called across the room, defiance in his voice.

Ben didn’t want to get into an argument with the boy he was trying with all his power to protect from harm.   He knew that there was no way possible that Joe could hold up to the grief he would feel once he learned about his mother.  Clearing his throat and striking a paternal stance, Ben looked over at Joe.

“This is not up for discussion, Joseph.”

Joe looked back around and turned his questioning eyes on his father, hurt in their glow.  “Why don’t you trust me, Pa?” he asked sadly.

Ben walked over to his boy, his and Marie’s boy, and wrapped his arms around Joe, pulling him to his broad chest.  He stood that way for several minutes, remembering the woman who had loved them both with all of her heart.  Joe was the only concrete thing that Marie had left her bereaved husband to hold on to now.

“I trust you with my life, Joseph.  I’m not sending you away as a punishment, I’m sending you away to protect you,” Ben choked out.

Joe could feel the intensity in his father’s embrace and thought he had detected a few tears in Pa’s warm umber eyes.  He was sure that he had felt a stray tear streak downwards from his father’s face and land on his cheek.  Joe didn’t have any idea what the terrible problem was that his pa was trying to protect him from, but felt it had to be something truly awful.

“Protect me from what?”  Joe begged for an answer.

Ben pulled back from his son and drew in a deep breath.  He leaned down and planted a kiss on Joe’s forehead and turned abruptly, heading for the door.

“Get some sleep, Son, we have to be heading to town by eight in the morning.  Goodnight,” Ben called as he stepped out into the hall.

Joe stood in his room feeling scared for his father and himself.  He wondered what had happened to have shaken his pa so badly.  Joe wondered why his father had made the decision to send him away.  Confused and upset by all that had been said, Joe sat down by his window and worried about what it all meant.

*****

None of the four Cartwrights slept soundly that night.  Ben, Hoss, and Adam were plagued by the thought of the theft of Marie’s remains, and Joe by the abruptness in being sent away.  A forced conversation at the breakfast table by them all told the story as far as Joe was concerned.  He knew by the looks on the faces of his brothers and his father that they were all in on whatever the trouble was and were doing their best to hide the true facts from him.  Joe had no appetite, and only pushed his food around on his plate.  Even Hoss, the heartiest eater of the whole Cartwright clan ate little more than a piece of toast due to his emotional state.

The long ride by buckboard into town was a quiet one.  Joe had made one last attempt to draw the truth from his father, but it was met with silence on the subject.  By the time the two of them pulled up in front of the stage-line Joe had come to the assumption that there was no way to get out of boarding the stage much to his chagrin.

“Here’s your ticket, Son,” Ben said and handed it to Joe.  The boy stood rigid and stared in the opposite direction avoiding his father’s eyes.  “Joseph—please don’t be angry with me.  It’s only for a couple of weeks.  Besides—you always liked hanging around both Steve and Jennifer–and I know they will be happy to see you,” Ben tried his best to plea bargain with his son to no avail.

Joe walked over to the Overland Stage Depot and sat down on the wooden bench to await his stage.  He thought about telling his father to go ahead and leave for home and he would wait alone, but knew the man would not fall for his obvious attempt to escape.  Ben eventually sat down next to his son and tried one last time to get the boy to accept his decision to send him away.

“Joe—it’s my job as your father to protect you from harm–” Ben stopped and lifted Joe’s chin so he could stare directly into his hurt-filled eyes.  “Please don’t blame me for doing my job.”

“Pa—I know that Hoss and Adam know what’s going on.  They know—and yet they aren’t being sent away.  But–then—neither of them are the baby of the family!” Joe responded bitterly.

Ben looked away from Joe’s eyes and sighed.  There was no rethinking his heart wrenching decision to send the boy away, no matter how much guilt Joe was piling on him.  Ben was eager to get on his way out to the gravesite and meet up with his other sons to see if they had yet come up with any clues.  Joe would only get in the way, get hurt or both.  Ben stood as the stagecoach thundered up in front of them and passengers disembarked.

“Hi ya, Ben—Little Joe!” the stage driver called down to them both.  “You two riding with me to Sacramento?”

“Joseph will be, Sam—now you take good care of him for me,” Ben smiled up at the driver.

“Thanks a lot, Pa,” Joe said as he stood, his anger back in the forefront.  “Make me feel like a little kid by telling Sam to take care of me!”

Ben caught his son’s arm and spun him around.  “That’s not what I meant!” Ben shot back.

Joe tossed his bag up to the driver, who secured it behind him in the luggage compartment.  “I feel like a four year old—thanks,” Joe replied and pushed away from his father and started up the steps to the stage.

Ben didn’t want Joe’s departure to be filled with bitterness, not now, not with all that had happened.  He reached for Joe’s arm again and this time tugged on it.  Joe turned back around and stopped his climb.  He focused in on his pa’s face and could see how hurt he was.  The sight made Joe sorry to have spoken the way he had to him.

“I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, Joseph–and I promise to explain it all to you then,” Ben said and watched the reaction on Joe’s face.

“Okay,” Joe answered sullenly.  He was still upset and disappointed that his father apparently didn’t trust him as much as he did his brothers, however, he knew that pa was in pain for some reason and chose not to make it any harder on the man.

Ben hugged Joe briefly to his chest and whispered, “I love you, Son.  Have a safe trip.”

Joe fought back bitter tears and nodded.  “I love you too,” Joe choked out and then hurriedly entered the stage.

Two other passengers boarded the stagecoach and then within minutes Sam yelled to his team and sent them on their way out of town.  Ben stood there and watched as the stage carrying his son disappeared into the distance.  His heart sank in his chest, feeling the second loss in two days.  With great effort, Ben walked back to the buckboard and headed back to the Ponderosa to meet up with Hoss and Adam.

Joe’s mind never stopped plotting his escape, the wheels kept turning in his head until he had it all worked out.  The other passengers looked at the boy very strangely as he climbed out of the stage’s window while they were moving at a very fast clip.  Sam Hardigree was never one for falling behind schedule and he had already made ten miles by the time Joe pulled himself up alongside of him.

Sam wasn’t surprised to see the boy sitting there next to him, as he had ridden with Joe before in the past.  On one particular trip to Ogden, Joe had spent two-thirds of the trip helping the driver with the team of horses.  They had even spoken about the profession of an Overland Stage driver, and once or twice Joe had told the man that he was thinking about signing on with the company once he was a bit older.  Sam never took Joe’s plans seriously, but he enjoyed the company, especially on long routes.

“Gonna give your old pal a hand, Joe?”  Sam called over to the boy smiling.

“Not this time, Sam—but I gotta ask a favor of you,” Joe replied and tried to put on his most serious facial expression.

“What is it?”

“I didn’t realize it until a minute ago—but—I forgot to bring the contracts that Pa just signed.  He wanted me to take them to a man in Sacramento—and–well–I must have left them somewhere back at the ranch. Without those papers this trip will be a waste.  So—can you let me off?”

Sam frowned, not happy at all about stopping his stage, especially not when he was making such good time.  “You know there’s not another stage to Sacramento for days, Joe!”

“Yeah—I know–but–well, nothing I can do about it–Pa will understand.  He has two weeks to get the contracts done so we still will have time.  So?  Will you let me off?”

Sam growled a bit but then looking over at the worry on the young man’s face, he caved in to the request.  Pulling back on his team, Sam slowed the stage in preparation to let Joe off.  Joe grabbed his bag from the luggage compartment and patted the man on the arm thankfully.

“I sure appreciate it—sorry to make you do this,” Joe nodded over to the driver as the stagecoach came to a complete stop.

“Next time be more prepared!”  Sam called to Joe as he hopped down from his perch.

“I will–thanks!”  Joe replied and watched as the stage departed again.  As soon as it disappeared, he scanned the area and thought on where he would be able to find a horse.  Realizing that he wasn’t more than five miles from his best friend’s ranch, Joe started walking.  He was sure that Mitch Devlin would loan him a mount for the ride back to the Ponderosa.  Once he made it home, Joe was determined to find out what all the secrecy had been about.

*****

Ben stopped back at the ranch house in order to fetch his horse, trading off from the buckboard he had used to deliver his son to the stage-line.  He hurriedly rode off to meet with Adam and Hoss.  Just a little past noon, Ben reached the shore of Lake Tahoe, just down from where his wife’s grave lay on the incline above.  He noticed the three horses coming towards him, and realized the sheriff had joined up with his sons.

“Howdy, Ben,” Roy called as he dismounted and approached his friend’s horse.

Ben eased out of his saddle, as did his two sons from theirs.  “Hi, Roy–so–you men find anything yet?”

“Hoss found some tracks—which went right over yonder—guess that’s about where Joe found Marie’s ring,” Roy replied pointing over towards the boulders.

“Where did they go from there?”  Ben asked as his eyes scanned the area.

“They circled a spell and then looks like they headed towards Virginia City, Pa,” Hoss explained. “Oh–and Pa—there were two different sets of them.”

“You mean two riders?”  Ben asked confused.

“No, I mean two different groups of men.  Those over there are the prints of two horses—and up yonder are wagon tracks.  Guess they–” Hoss stopped short.  He was just going to explain how the men had obviously planned all along to steal the casket by bringing along a means by which to move it.

“Go on, Son—I have to know,” Ben urged Hoss on, knowing why he had stopped.

“They had a wagon with them on purpose—we found boot prints all around by the grave—a lot more than you and Adam made there yesterday.  Looks like they dug up the grave–and carried the —well—the casket down hill to a wagon that was waiting to take it away.”

“That means it was all well thought out then doesn’t it?”  Roy jumped in, giving Ben some time to come to grips with the new information.

“They desecrated Marie’s grave—then they took her body—why in the name of God would anyone do that?”  Ben still fought for an answer, which no one could offer him at the time.

“Roy–” Adam started and his face was filled with confusion, “Joe found that ring—you think they might have meant to drop it?  I mean—it’s an expensive ring and all—you think they were careless or that they wanted someone to find it?”

“I been asking myself that all morning, Adam,” Roy sighed and reached for his canteen and took a swig.  “If that ring was buried with Marie–” Roy began but Ben cut him off abruptly.

“If!  I know it was—I was the last one to see her—” Ben tried to fight the rage that was taking over his body.

“Sorry, Ben—I didn’t mean it to sound like that,” Roy apologized softly.

“No–I’m sorry—guess my nerves are about as raw as they can be right now.  I know you are trying to help.  Go on,” Ben replied and put his hand on the sheriff’s shoulder in an effort to show him how badly he felt about his outburst.

“Well—the ring was buried with her—so they had to get into that coffin—to get it.  If they was just gonna rob the grave–then–why take the casket with them?  And why not take care of the most expensive piece of jewelry that was inside anyway?  It just don’t add up!”  Roy continued, though he was just as dumbfounded as the others.

“I think they wanted someone to find the ring—to let it be known what had happened to Marie’s grave,” Adam spoke out angrily.   “For all we know they watched Joe yesterday—and set the kid up–knowing what a find he would think it was!  So, they wanted to bring us out here—to hurt us.  Now—-who would want to inflict this kind of pain on our family?”

Ben simply shook his head and sighed.  All that they had accomplished so far was to come up with more and more questions.

“I’m gonna try to follow that trail that they took towards town.  Maybe we can see where they turned off?”  Roy stated and climbed back up into his saddle.

“We’re coming along,” Ben nodded and watched as his sons walked back to their horses.  One by one they turned their mounts and headed off to try and figure out which way the wagon had gone.  Ben waited until the others had gotten a little farther down the trail and then glanced up towards the tree line and fought tears as he thought about Marie being gone from him.  He knew that the casket only held her earthly remains, but, he had every intention of tracking down those remains, just as if it was Marie herself in life, that he was trying to save from the evil that had stolen her away.  Kicking at Buck’s sides, to urge him into a faster gallop, Ben rode to catch up with his sons and the sheriff.

*****

Joe had walked four of the five miles to the Devlin ranch and the whole time ran numerous scenarios through his mind of what was going on that had caused his father to send him away.  Breaking through the oak grove, Joe heard his name called and shot a look behind him.  There, riding up at a good clip was his best friend.

“Hey Joe!”  Mitch shouted happily and pulled his horse to a halt next to the other young man.

“Mitch—I’m sure happy to see you!  I was just heading to your place to see if I could borrow a horse,” Joe smiled up at him.

“What’s the matter?  That crazy pinto of yours throw you?”  Mitch laughed.

“Naw–long story—how about giving me a ride to your ranch?”

“Climb on up!”  Mitch replied and reached down for Joe’s hand.  He had noticed the carpetbag in Joe’s left hand and it seemed a bit odd, but waited to hear the story behind it.

Joe swung up behind the saddle and soon the two old friends were heading to the Devlin ranch.

“Well–Joe—what happened to your horse?’  Mac Devlin asked as he approached both boys.  He set down the harness he had been repairing and stared up at Joe as he readied to dismount.

“Had a little problem, Mr. Devlin,” Joe answered and tried to come up with a believable lie to tell the man.  He didn’t want Mitch’s father to suspect that something was amiss.  “Can I borrow one of your horses–just for the day?”

“Of course you can.   Mitch take Joe into the barn and saddle up the sorrel.”

“Okay, Pa,” Mitch nodded and pulled his horse along with him.

Inside the stall, while the two young men saddled the horse Mitch stared over at his friend to see if he could read exactly what was on his face.  By the look Joe wore, his friend assumed he was in some trouble.

“Spill it, Joe.  What’s up?”  Mitch said and tightened the saddle cinch.

“Nothing—just was riding one of the new stock and got thrown,” Joe lied.

“Joe–you know I can read you like a book.  Now how about not shooting me a line for a change?”

Joe stared down at the hay in the stall and sighed wearily.  “Mitch–something’s going on at the ranch and none of my family will tell me what it is.  In fact—well—this bag I’m carrying kinda gives away the fact that I was supposed to be heading out of town, doesn’t it?”

Mitch laughed and patted his friend’s shoulder.  “I didn’t say nothing when I saw you out there—but I bet my pa figured you were running away from home or something!”

“Getting sent away is more like it,” Joe frowned.

“So—what did you do—accidentally miss the stage on purpose?”

“No—I got on the stage—but I got off of it too.  I ain’t going nowhere until I find out what the heck is going on!”  Joe replied emphatically.

“You know I saw your pa and brothers earlier today when I was coming back from town.”

Joe looked over at his friend hoping for some information as to what they were doing.  “Did you talk to them?”

“Naw—they were heading off the other way when I spotted them.  Matter of fact Sheriff Coffee was with them too!”  Mitch answered and started to wonder the same thing Joe was at the time.  Something very strange had to be going on for Joe to have been sent away and that same day the other Cartwrights being out with the sheriff.

“See?  It’s gotta be something bad—something that Pa didn’t want me to know about.”

“So–what now?  You just gonna show up at the ranch?  Your pa’s gonna have a fit when he sees you left that stage, Joe!” Mitch exclaimed as he grabbed the horse’s bridle and secured it over its head.

“I’m gonna go home and wait for them to get back.  They won’t be expecting me–so maybe I’ll hear something?”  Joe replied and walked out of the barn pulling the horse with him.

“Good luck, Joe–let me know okay?”  Mitch said as Joe swung up into his saddle.

Joe hitched his carpetbag onto the saddle horn and waved to his friend.  “I will–thanks again–I’ll get the horse back to you tomorrow!”  Joe called as he sent the horse into a gallop and headed back to the Ponderosa.

*****

Shortly before dusk the three Cartwrights rode their horses up in front of the ranch house and dismounted.  They were hot, tired, and dusty.  They were also discouraged after having chased tracks that seemed to lead nowhere all day.  The one good set of prints from the wagon the grave robbers had used stopped abruptly right before heading down the main road of Virginia City.  Another set of tracks led in the opposite direction and from the width of the wagon wheels it showed that it was a totally different one than the original wagon that had obviously carried the casket away.  Roy, who was a seasoned lawman, didn’t know what to think of it.  They were evidently dealing with an entirely different kind of criminal than he had ever come up against.  Assuring the Cartwrights that he would not give up, Roy had headed back into town to get some rest before deciding what the next plan of action would be.

Joe was glad that the cook and family caretaker was away in Carson City for a few days.  It made it much easier for him to sneak unnoticed into the house.  He had left the horse Mitch had loaned him down in the lower pasture to not attract any attention.  His plan was to stand off from the kitchen in hopes of hearing his family’s conversation upon entering the house.  Joe braced himself behind the door to the kitchen and bided his time.

The three men untied their holsters at the front door and tossed their hats on the rack on the wall close by.  Filled with despair, they all settled down by the fireplace quietly.  Ben stared over at his two sons and tried to think of something positive he might say to raise their sagging spirits.  He couldn’t think of anything.  The thieves had done their homework and had planned the evil deed so well that there wasn’t much that any of the Cartwrights could do other than wait and worry.

“You want me to fix some supper for all of us, Pa?”  Hoss called over to his father.  He really wasn’t hungry and thought that neither of the other two men would be, but he wanted to do something other than sit and agonize over a day of useless searching.

Ben forced a tired smile and replied, “Thanks, Son–maybe later.”

Adam stoked the fireplace and then turned and said what everyone else was thinking, “Damn it!  How could they do this to us?  How could they do this to Marie?  Just tell me what they were trying to accomplish!”

Ben stood and put his hand on his son’s shoulder to try to comfort him.  Adam had always been the kind of man who thought with his head and not his heart, but apparently his stoic facade was chipping away.  Ben knew that Adam, though almost a teenager when Marie had come into their lives, had loved the woman as deeply as the much younger Hoss.

“Somehow—someway—we will find all that out, Son.  We just have to keep it together.  Marie would not want us destroyed by this,” Ben said quietly and felt the tightness in his son’s shoulder ease up a bit.

“Pa!”  Hoss gasped and pointed towards the dining room.  Joe was just standing there, right by the entranceway to the kitchen.  The boy’s mouth was open but he was not talking, he looked stunned.

Ben turned and a mixture of emotions filled his body.  He was in a way glad to see the boy, but that was soon gone when he realized what his presence there meant.  Ben was not at all sure of what Joe had already heard.  It was then that the pent up anger inside of him came pouring out and he yelled across the room, “Joseph!  I put you on that stage myself—what in the devil are you doing here?”

“I got off,” Joe finally spoke up, and there was a sharp edge to his reply.

Ben started towards the boy and shouted, “I ought to put you over my knee!”

Joe squared off with his father as he approached.  He was not backing down, and from the look on his face, neither was his pa.  Joe squinted his eyes, defiance written all over his face.

“Go ahead—put me over your knee—but not until you tell me what my mother has to do with all this!”  Joe shouted right back at his father, to show his hurt and anger.

Ben clamped his hand on Joe’s wrist, and for a split second the room fell hushed.  Hoss and Adam were not sure what their father was going to do with the boy.  They did know that the man had been pushed beyond all endurance and there was no telling how that anxiety might be displayed.

Joe felt the strength in his father’s hold, but did not back down.  He figured if he was going to be spoken to like a child, then at least he would act like a man during the conversation.  Joe didn’t try to pull away from Ben’s grasp but continued to stare into his anger filled eyes.  It was the look of the boy’s eyes, which stared back at Ben that finally broke the heated battle.  For a brief moment the hazel embers softened and they were the replica of Marie’s own green eyes.  That was all it took to melt away Ben’s ire and remind him that it was his love for the boy that was now at stake.

Joe wasn’t sure just what to make of the expression on his father’s face.  One minute the man had given him the impression that he was going to hit him, and the next minute his countenance changed so abruptly that Joe was sure he was about to find himself in the Pa’s arms.

“Oh, Joseph–” Ben sighed and released the boy’s wrist and pulled him into an impromptu embrace.

“Tell me, Pa—-I have to know,” Joe begged, choking back his fear of the unknown.

Ben pulled away from his son and walked solemnly back into the living room and sat down on the settee.  He signaled Joe over with a point of his finger and Joe moved to sit next to him   Joe glanced over at his two brothers, who had both moved over to the fireplace, bracing themselves for what was going to happen.

“I wanted to spare you this—but you’ve left me no choice,” Ben began and draped his arm around his son, hoping to control the boy once he had heard the awful truth.  “That ring you found yesterday—-it was your mother’s.”

“I don’t understand?  You mean—she lost it?”  Joe asked, taking in the first part of the story and trying desperately to process it in his head.

“No—it was her engagement ring, Son.  She never took it off her finger—not since the day I gave it to her,” Ben continued, grasping for the words to make it sound less traumatic to the boy.

“Then—how—how did it get out there by the lake, Pa?”

“Joseph—now I want you to listen to me carefully—no matter what’s happened, we’re going to take care of it.”

Joe looked back over at Hoss and Adam and his heart started to pound hard in his chest.  A mental picture was starting to form and he prayed that his intuition was grossly wrong.

“Did someone—-did someone steal it out of her casket, Pa?”  Joe stuttered as his chin started to quiver and his eyes began to form tears in them.

“Joseph—there’s no easy way to tell you this—so—I just have to tell you the whole awful truth of the matter.  Son–” Ben paused and put his hand on Joe’s right arm to steady the boy.  “Someone vandalized your mother’s grave—-they broke her headstone—” Ben couldn’t get the words all out before Joe lurched back and sprang to his feet breaking his father’s strong hold.

“No!  No!”  Joe shouted and looked to his brothers for confirmation that what his father said had been wrong.

Ben stood next to Joe and pulled him to his chest, he could feel the boy’s body shake and he knew that the worst was yet to come.  “Joseph—they stole your mother’s casket.”

Joe pushed back from his father and stared up into his eyes.  He couldn’t speak.  Joe felt as though the room was spinning and he had to swallow hard to prevent losing the contents of his stomach.

Ben’s worst fears were now realized when he saw how his son was taking the terrible news.  He tried to pull the boy back towards him to shelter him from the reality of what he had heard, but Joe suddenly bolted across the room.  Pulling the front door open the boy sprinted outside hoping to escape from the heartbreaking story his father had just conveyed.

“Poor kid,” Adam whispered as he and Hoss gathered around their father for support.

“I’ll go talk to him,” Hoss insisted but Ben stopped him.

“I’ll go,” Ben replied and walked slowly out of the living room.

Darkness had fallen and as Ben walked slowly to the barn his heart battled his mind as to what to say to his son.  He knew the depth of Joe’s love for his mother, and though he was not quite five years old when she had died, the image he had built of her over the years was monumental.  As the boy’s only parent, Ben had done his best to tell Joe all about his mother to try and enforce a more concrete picture of the woman.  He tried to fill in the gaps that her death had left open and addressed any question his son had asked over the twelve years since Marie had passed away.  Ben still remembered the long talk he had with Joe, a few years after Marie had taken the fatal fall from her horse.  No matter the years, nor the his stoic resolve to go on with his life, Ben could still taste the grief over losing his wife.  It didn’t have to be any special day or event that sparked the awareness in his heart that the woman was gone.  Sometimes it could be something as simple as a waft of the perfume she had worn or his youngest son riding up to the ranch house, just as his mother had.  Ben had become, over the years, quite an actor.  He gave off the appearance that he had overcome his heartbreak.  In all reality it was as fresh as the day Marie had died, and once in a while would cause such intense sorrow that he wondered how he could go on with his life without her.  There were three things that Ben clung to, like a rope that prevented the fall into despair; his sons.  Now he knew he had to go into the barn and try his best to bring Joseph from that same deep well of despair.  The bitter truth was that Ben wanted to do exactly what Joe had done.  He wished he could run and hide and let out his pain away from the sight of his boys.  That was an impossibility, especially now, with Joseph in such dire need of a strong shoulder.  As he reached for the door handle, Ben drew in a deep breath and forced himself to go back into the “pa” mode.  It was time to prepare for yet another acting job.

Moving inside of the darkened barn, Ben first heard the sound.  Lighting a lantern just inside the door, Ben turned toward where Joe stood.  Ben drew closer, holding the lantern while witnessing his son’s expression of pain and anger.  Two chairs and a small table had already been on the receiving end of Joe’s volatile temper.  They were in pieces on the hay-covered floor.  Joe apparently had tired of inanimate objects and was in the process of punching the rough-hewn boards of the barn’s interior with his fist.  Ben moved quickly to the boy and grabbed his left hand, ceasing the brutal assault.  Joe struggled against his father’s tight grip.

“Let go of me!”  Joe screamed and tried again to pull away from his pa.

“Settle down, Joseph—this isn’t the way!  You’re only gonna hurt yourself more,” Ben protested and further locked Joe with his other hand.

Joe wasn’t going to give up that easily, he was enraged and didn’t care what anyone thought anymore.  It took a few minutes before he finally relented and stopped fighting Ben’s fierce hold.

“I’m gonna kill them, Pa—-I swear to God—I’m gonna kill them!”

Once Ben realized that Joe was giving up on the idea of fighting his hold, he set the lantern on a near by shelf with his right hand, all the while keeping the other hand planted on Joe’s wrist; just in case.

“Come over here,” Ben said quietly and moved with Joe to a bench.  Joe had no choice but to follow his father’s move, as he was still very much in his grasp.  The two of them sat down and Ben pulled Joe’s left hand up closer to his face to get a look at the damage.  The boy’s knuckles were raw and bleeding from having pounded the wall so vigorously.  Ben pulled off his neckerchief and wrapped it gently around the injury.

“Joseph—-I understand you are mad–” Ben began but was immediately cut off by his son.

“Mad!  Hell no—not mad—no where nears that—there isn’t even a word for what I am right now!”  Joe yelled and pulled his hand back away.

“I know exactly how you feel,” Ben replied, and there was a bitterness in his tone that finally caught Joe’s attention.

Staring into his father’s eyes, Joe saw the anguish and pain and for the first time realized he wasn’t the only one suffering at the time.  “You should have told me, Pa—you should have told me,” Joe whispered and turned away from the man and covered his face with his hands.

Ben placed the palms of his hands on Joe’s trembling shoulders and knew that the anger that was prevalent earlier had now turned the corner and had changed to acute sadness.  Joe was doing his very best to hide the tears but to no avail.

“Hey—didn’t we say–just a few months ago that we wouldn’t hide our feelings from each other?”  Ben asked and squeezed the boy’s shoulders affectionately.

“Yeah—” Joe answered, his voice strained.

“Then—come on in the house, Joseph—we’ll all talk about this,” Ben offered.

“No—I don’t want Adam or Hoss to see me crying,” Joe replied.  “You all think I am just a kid —that will only confirm it to them.”

Ben pulled Joe around to face him and pushed his hands away from his face so he could get his point across better.  “Wait just a minute—I think you have some things wrong there, Joe!  First of all, I do not think of you as a kid—you are a young man now.  I wasn’t sending you away because I thought you were a little kid—I sent you away to prevent all this—all this pain.  And, as for not wanting to cry in front of your brothers—well—do you think they haven’t shed some tears over this themselves?”

Joe stared into his father’s eyes and looked strangely at him but did not respond with words.

“They have—we all have—that’s why we didn’t want you to go through this same kind of hurt.”

“She was MY mother—” Joe insisted but his father caught his arm, breaking his statement.

“Joseph—Marie was their mother too—both Adam and Hoss—they loved her–and they are distraught over what has happened.  Don’t you dare think that they don’t want to kill whoever did this–just the way you do—and I do for that matter,” Ben tried to bring his point home.

“I’m sorry—-I was only thinking about myself–” Joe apologized and looked away from his father once more.  “But—Pa—why?  Why would anyone do this?  I just don’t understand–how could they take her from us? I keep thinking of Mama—out there somewhere—” Joe stopped abruptly as the awful images reappeared in his mind.  The very thought of his mother in the hands of strangers crushed the boy.  Joe felt as though his heart had been ripped from his chest leaving only a gaping hole that was festering by the minute.

Ben pulled Joe to his chest and held on tightly.  He had no answers for the boy.

“I don’t know the why’s and how’s of this yet, Son—but we will bring your mother back—that’s a promise.  But–Joe—I want you to listen to me–” Ben stopped and Joe looked back up into his eyes.  “Your mother is in heaven—you know that—she is as much with us now as she has always been.  What was stolen—well—it’s sacred to us—but no matter what happens from here on out—never forget that she is still in your heart–like she is in mine.  No-one can steal that from you–or me.”

His father’s words, coated with his empathy and love, caused the floodgates to open up and Joe fell forward into Ben’s arms crying.  Ben allowed himself to use that moment of emotional release to expend some of his own tears.  They trailed down his cheeks and fell lightly on the brown curls that adorned his youngest son’s head.  Together they mourned their loss and sought comfort in each other’s arms.

*****

Walking into the ranch house a short time later, Ben’s facial expression told the whole story as to what had happened in his conversation with Joe.  A combination of grief mixed with resolve displayed in the worry-lines on his brow.  Both Adam and Hoss moved to stand next to their father.

“Where’s Joe?”  Adam asked, noticing that Ben had shut the door behind him.

“He said he’d be in soon—-he wants to pull himself together a little bit first,” Ben answered.

“Pa—I’m gonna go talk to him for just a minute,” Hoss insisted and moved to the door.

“Hoss—I’m not sure that’s the best thing right now,” Ben replied, worried as to whether Joe would take his brother’s visit as an intrusion of his privacy.

“Go ahead and let him, Pa,” Adam jumped into the debated issue, “I think Hoss might be able to help the kid some too.”

Ben frowned and shook his head, but when he looked over at Hoss’ insistent blue eyes he knew he had to cave to his request.  He nodded towards his middle son, and Hoss walked out of the house.

“Let’s you and I go fix some grub, Pa,” Adam offered and they both turned for the kitchen.

*****

Ben had made it a point to leave the lantern sitting right next to Joe in the barn.  The idea of the boy grieving his loss in the dark, as he had been earlier, was too overwhelming for the father to bear.  Joe still sat on the bench that his father had earlier pulled him over to and sheltered his eyes with his arms, which were securely wrapped, around his knees.  Hoss entered the barn and spied the soft glow of the lantern and then the forlorn appearance of his baby brother.  It struck his heart, wounding it even worse than it already was.  Hoss crossed the barn in a slow fashion, still trying to get all his thoughts straight in his mind before unleashing them on his brother.

“Joe?  Okay if we talk for a spell?”  Hoss asked softly and dropped down on the bench next to the boy.

Joe made a sound, which was quite obviously an attempt to hide the pain and send any remnants of his tears back to where they should be.  He had asked his pa to leave him alone for awhile so that he could alter his appearance in order to look more adult when he returned to the house.  It hadn’t worked.  The longer he sat there in the barn alone, the more his thoughts fell to his mother and the more tears which were summoned because of that image.

Joe attempted to clear his throat again, and his voice came out strained as he replied, “I told Pa I would be in soon—-you didn’t have to come out here, Hoss.”

Hoss threw one massive arm around his little brother and it engulfed the boy.  “I wanted to come out here to talk to you, Little Joe.  Now, I ain’t the great orator like old Adam—nor anywhere’s near as smart as our Pa—but I still wanted to tell you a few things–that is–if you will listen?”

Joe lifted his head from his arms and for the first time stared over into his brother’s eyes.  For such a huge man, who actually possessed the strength of ten, he could be so gentle that it was amazing to Joe, even after seventeen years of watching his brother.  Joe nodded for Hoss to continue.

“Joe—I was in there awhile ago, thinking about all of this—and how you must feel.  And, I don’t know if Pa told you this—but if he didn’t—I will—we weren’t sending you away to treat you like some kid.  When we all found out what happened —-well—all we could think of was how it would hurt you.  We couldn’t stand the thought of you being as devastated as we all are.  So, if’n you’re still angry at Pa–don’t be—cause all of us decided to send you off for a few weeks.  We were sure that we would have your Momma back by then—we still are.”

“I know that now—I ain’t mad no more,” Joe whispered and pushed away a tear.

“Well—-there’s something else I wanted to tell you.  Don’t think I’ve ever told you this—but when I was just a little guy—and don’t laugh–I was little once–” Hoss stopped and winked towards Joe, trying to lighten the dark mood some.  “Anyway—when Pa finally got around to telling me how my ma died—-and how she’s out there–somewhere on the prairie in an unmarked grave—well—it made me sad for the longest time!  He told me all about the Indian raids—and why they had to cover up her grave to prevent them from desecrating it,” Hoss stopped again, as and old pain ripped at his heart.

Joe could see what Hoss’ remembrance was doing to him, and it only made him love the big man more.  He knew that Hoss was somehow trying to relate his feelings in order to make his little brother feel better.  Joe touched Hoss arm to let him know he appreciated what he was trying to do.

Hoss cleared his throat and continued, “Anyhow—-it took me a good long time to get over learning all those details–you know—I always thought I could go and find her—just to place a few flowers on her grave–and maybe carve her a decent headstone.  But, there’s no way–from what Pa said to even pin point the area.  So, I used to gather the first wild flowers in spring time and take them out to the meadow over-looking the eastern border of the ranch–you know—down by what’s now Miller’s Pond?  Anyways—I would put them there and remember her that way.  It helped me.”

“This is a little different, Hoss—my Ma had a grave—that someone has dug up,” Joe replied, but tried to be a bit more soft in his tone to let Hoss know he did feel for his plight and how he had lost his own mother.

Hoss patted his brother’s shoulder and nodded, “I’m getting around to that—I told you I ain’t exactly good with these lectures—-but I’ve been watching Pa—and well I’m trying my best—so bear with me a little longer, okay?”

Joe forced a smile and nodded for his brother to continue.

“Okay—well—your Ma came into our lives—and she was the only Ma I ever knew.  At first I was a bit shy—as I wasn’t much older than Adam was when he met my Ma you know?  I liked your Ma right away—seems like she was always smiling–that’s what I remember the most about her.  Well, that—and the way she brought life into Pa.  I was having problems at school when Marie came here to live—-I had just started school and everyone teased me about being so dad gone big.  I was half the size of my teacher–and I wasn’t even six!  Pa would come and pick me up in the afternoon and I never told him how awful things were for me.  Those other kids could be so mean—and the teacher wasn’t much of a help from what I can recall.  But, you know what?  It was your Ma that helped me through all that!”

“She did?  How?”

“She never saw me as some huge lummox –she never commented about my height or my weight—-not like all those others!  She was proud of me—she called me her gentle giant.  She would read me books about all these brave gladiators in the old days—way over in Rome and she said I would have been the best of them all.  Anytime I would start to feel like I was out of place—Marie would lift my spirits and make me glad that I was so big and all,” Hoss stopped again and sighed.  He could still see the woman with the bright green eyes sitting by the fireplace reading to him and smiling.

“I know you loved her, Hoss—-I know this has got to hurt you too—guess even Adam.”

“We all loved her, Joe—and when she died—well—it was the hardest time of my life.  I know I never told you—never brought it up much—didn’t feel the need to.  But, I always go down to her grave—and when I do—it’s like she listens to me–and my problems just like she was here.  When I bring flowers—I always carry two bunches of them—one for my Ma—and one for Marie.  Now they’ve stolen that from me—and I promise you—-with every amount of strength I have in this big ox of a body—I am gonna bring her back!”

Joe put his arms around Hoss and hugged onto his brother.  It had touched him so deeply that Hoss would reveal such personal details to him in order to make him feel better.  Joe knew how difficult that must have been for the man to do.

“I know why Ma was always so proud of you, Big Brother—-and you know—you were wrong about one thing–”

Hoss fought back some of his tears and replied, “What?”

“You are just as good an orator as Adam and Pa—and you’re not some ox of a man neither—you are just like Ma pictured you.   You are a gladiator—and the fiercest one in this whole country!  I’m glad you’re my brother,” Joe whispered.

“Thanks, Little Brother—-but do me a favor huh?”

“What?”  Joe asked as he pulled back away from Hoss and stood to leave.

“Don’t tell Pa nor Adam about my great performance in here—-I like them to think they have all the brains in this family!  I’m content just being the gladiator of the bunch of us!”  Hoss laughed and grabbed the lantern as both boys turned towards the door.

“I’ll keep your secret, Big Brother,” Joe smiled, and felt for the first time that his mother would be found and somehow things would return to the way they had been.

*****

Dinner was a meager selection of soup and cold sandwiches but no-one minded the meal that had been provided by both Ben and Adam.  The three eldest Cartwrights went to great lengths to bring Joe up to all the facts that they had ascertained concerning any clues about the theft.  Joe listened intently, but spoke little.  His mind worked out different scenarios as to what he would do to the perpetrators should he be lucky enough to come upon them.  Ben insisted that his sons should get to bed right after supper so that they could all head out to Virginia City early the next morning.  He knew that all of them were emotionally spent by the time they bid him goodnight and headed up to their bedrooms.

Joe spread out on top of his comforter and tried to force himself to fall to sleep.  He never even pulled off his clothes, just his boots.  Thinking that he would be the first one downstairs the next morning he didn’t see the importance of donning his nightclothes. Just as he was starting to feel the tug of sleep in the back of his mind and feel his body giving in to the softness of his bed, Joe’s eyes flashed open again.  The image of his mother’s grave had popped into his thoughts and had propelled him back to reality just at the last second.  Joe slung his legs over to the side of his bed and sighed deeply.  There just wouldn’t be any sleep for him that night; Joe was sure of it now.  Quietly, hoping not to attract his father’s attention as he moved into the hallway, Joe slowly made it to the staircase.

From the top step Joe looked down into the living room.  There, seated on the coffee table with pensive eyes staring into the fireplace, was Adam.  Joe hesitated momentarily, not knowing if he should make his presence known.  He was sure he would be rebuked in some way and told to go to his room like some little kid.  Adam could be worse than Pa at times in that regard and Joe wondered if he should just turn back down the hallway.

“Joe?”  Adam called in an exaggerated whisper, when his eyes noticed the form on the stairs.  “What are you doing?”

“Nothing—nothing, Adam,” Joe replied and decided that he might as well make the trip downstairs now that he was caught.  He moved to the bottom landing just as Adam reached for the fire poker and toyed with the logs.

“Thought you’d be asleep, Kid,” Adam continued.

“Thought you would too,” Joe replied, all the while forcing himself to ignore the “kid” comment his brother had made.  He wondered how many times he had asked his oldest brother to stop calling him by that juvenile term.  Joe wasn’t sure if Adam used the word as a put-down or as just a subtle reminder that he was older and wiser than his little brother.

“I couldn’t sleep—couldn’t shut off my mind,” Adam admitted and sank back down on the coffee table.

Joe sat next to his brother and watched the flames dart back and forth on the cordwood.  They sat there like that for a long while without speaking.  Finally Adam broke the silence and turned to look into his brother’s forlorn eyes.

“Joe—I know this has been hard on you.  It’s been hard on all of us.  But, I know that gravesite is a special place to you–always has been.  I was thinking just a little while before you came down here—about that place.  Did I ever tell you that your mother and I used to go there quite a bit?”

Joe looked at his brother surprised by his words, “No–you never told me that.  I know Pa said that Ma loved the view there.”

“Yeah—-she sure did.  I can still remember the first time I went up there with her.  Well–not with her exactly,” Adam paused and a brief smile filtered across his lips.

“Huh?”

“Well–I went there—Pa and I had an argument and I took off.  She found me up there and we sat there and talked.  It’s funny—it wasn’t until that day that I realized how much she cared about me.  I guess I was pretty hard on Marie at first—you know—I wasn’t quite sure she was right for Pa.”

“Why?”  Joe asked a bit defensively.

“I don’t know if I was ready for anyone to come into our lives–no matter who it was, Joe.  Seeing Pa so devastated when Inger died—-I just didn’t ever want him to go through that again–nor me either.”

“So—why did you and Pa argue that day—and what did Ma say to you?”

“I had broached the subject of college—-and Pa wasn’t all too keen on the idea.  He felt my place was here–you know the Ponderosa was just becoming a reality.  But, I wanted to go off and see what I could do away from here.  I didn’t know until that afternoon that Marie had argued with Pa to my defense about it.  When she came to me about it—-and urged me to go back home and talk to Pa a bit more adult-like—well—it kinda shocked me.  I could read the sincerity in her eyes and on her face, and knew she was really behind me.  It kinda made me feel a little guilty too—” Adam stopped and looked down at the floor and away from Joe’s eyes.

“Guilty?  Why?  Cause you didn’t like her?”

“I did like her, Joe—-I just didn’t want to love her,” Adam replied gruffly and stood and crossed the floor.  He poured a glass of brandy and fought with his memories before returning to his brother’s side.  Sitting down again he continued, “It was a lost cause—–I did love her—though she wasn’t like Inger—hell–no-one was like Inger!  Hoss’ ma was too good for this earth–that was for sure.  But, Marie—she had such depth—one minute she could tell you the darkest story and the next she could make you feel happy to be alive.  She was a lot like you, Joe—-a strange combination of aggravating and endearing!”

“I guess that’s a compliment?”  Joe asked and stifled a laugh.

“If I hadn’t loved her I wouldn’t have been hurt so much by losing her.  I still wish I had remained aloof in that respect.  But, there was no shutting it off once I saw the woman that she was inside.  She radiated life into this house—and into all who were around her.”

Joe noticed that Adam’s recollection had stopped and he wondered if there were tears in the brown orbs there looking back again at the floor boards.

“So–I take it that you and Pa had it out about college and all was well, huh?  Since you left and all,” Joe tried to restart the conversation for his brother’s sake.

“Yeah—-I had to wait until my pesky baby brother was born—and until I was a little older before I could head out.  I didn’t end up going when I wanted to—I waited until a couple years had passed after we lost her.  But–you know my first drafting set—you know the one I keep in my room?”

“Yeah?”

“Marie bought it for me—the day before she died.  I carried it with me and every time I used it to draw up plans in college I could feel her there with me urging me to do better.”

Joe fought back his own tears now, so glad that Adam had related the things he had.  He was never really sure of his oldest brother’s relationship with his mother.  Adam didn’t talk about the woman much, no where near as much as Hoss always did.

“Thanks,” Joe whispered.

Adam put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and forced his gaze.  “I’m sorry I never told you this before, Joe—guess I should have.  But, I just wanted you to know–that all of this—all that has happened to Marie’s grave—-is personal—to all of us!  And, just so you understand, I am as determined as all the rest of you to get the monsters who did this!”

Joe nodded as he read the fierceness in his brother’s eyes.

“But—I also want you to know–that no matter how badly you feel–or Hoss or I feel—Pa is suffering a hell of a lot worse.  It almost killed him to bury your Ma—can you imagine him doing it for the second time?”

“No—no I can’t-” Joe stuttered, he was becoming more and more aware of the impact the desecration was having on his pa.

“We gotta do everything we can to help keep Pa’s spirits up, Joe—okay?”

Joe nodded again and replied, “I will—don’t worry about me.  I may be a pesky baby brother—but I’m just as worried about Pa as you are.”

Adam laughed and patted Joe’s shoulder.  “Well—maybe you aren’t quite as pesky as you use to be, Kid.”

“I guess that’s another one of those compliments, huh?”  Joe returned his brother’s smile.

Adam stood and moved towards the staircase pulling Joe with him.  “Let’s try and get some shut-eye—we’ve got a lot of riding to do tomorrow.”

Standing on the very top of the staircase, Ben hurriedly moved into the hall so as not to reveal his intrusion into his son’s conversation.  He was glad, however, to have witnessed the exchange.  Ben often worried about the rather shaky relationship between his oldest and youngest sons.  His heart eased a bit now.

*****

The luminescence of an oil lamp lit up the small living area in a cabin that sat in seclusion thirty miles east of Virginia City.  Seated there at a small dining table was a man who held a brandy glass in one hand and the latest edition of the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in the other.  A sinister grin drew up the left side of his mouth, while the other side clamped down on a cigar.  Satisfaction, the kind that came from a fulfillment of revenge, showed in Bristol Ford’s cold black eyes.  He went on to read the rest of the article which told all about the plight of the Cartwright family, who had gone to great lengths to find their deceased family member’s final remains.  Bristol chuckled when he read the words at the bottom of the newspaper’s piece, which stated a reward was now being offered for any information concerning Marie Cartwright’s coffin.  The man had waited as patiently as possible for two weeks to see the effect his evil plan was having on the entire Cartwright family, but, especially Ben.  The patriarch of the Ponderosa was the man of whom Bristol hated above all others.  Just thinking about Ben out there living like some kind of a king to a country he had created and named the Ponderosa made Bristol nauseous.  He felt as though it was the biggest irony of his life that he lost his own spread while the Cartwright family had what was obviously the Midas touch in everything they did.  It had been eight years since Bristol had his last face-off with the contemptuous Ben Cartwright.   In a last ditch effort to win a timber contract, which would have saved his ranch, he was undercut by the Ponderosa’s bid.  That had been the last straw, the one that not only had broken the camel’s back but had also broken his dreams and sealed Bristol’s fate.  A few short months later, he was penniless. The memory of that day had burned like a knife in his gut and grew more fatal each moment.  He had made a vow to himself the day that his ranch was sold on the courthouse steps that he would seek his revenge on the entire Cartwright family.  It had taken years to plan, but Bristol had been a man on a mission and had worked harder on his revenge than he had on trying to save his fortune.  He had garnered the funds needed to purchase the hired guns necessary to pull off the theft of Marie Cartwright’s remains.  He felt as though it had been worth every extra hour of back-breaking work, every missed meal along the way, just to have gotten to the point he now found himself.  He was now the one in charge of his destiny, not Ben Cartwright.

****Just who the hell does Cartwright think he is anyway?**** Bristol thought to himself as he threw the newspaper down on the table and walked with his brandy over to the meager fireplace.  ****He owns half the territory of Nevada but he’s never satisfied!  He’s got to have the best herd sent to market each year, has to have the best contracts with the railroad, everything has to be the best!  Never giving anyone else the chance to catch up to his wealth–always eating up and spitting out the people who get in his way.  Well—this time—this time I am in control and I finally have him exactly where I want him.  How’s it feel, Cartwright?  How’s it feel to know that someone has finally gotten the better of you?****Bristol stopped his internal recitation when another man entered the cabin.  He turned towards the door and saw it was one of his hired guns.

“Cole?  Thought I told you to stand guard tonight?”  Bristol hollered over to the other man.

Cole settled down into a chair and uncorked his bottle of whiskey, apparently disregarding his boss’ questions.  Infuriated by the man’s lack of respect, Bristol charged over to his employee and slapped the bottle from his hand.  It careened to the floor, causing the contents to explode all over Cole’s trouser legs.

“Damn it, Bristol!  What was that for?  I was just taking a break!”  Cole shouted and retrieved what was left of his liquor.

“Are you forgetting why I hired you?  Cause if you are—-well—you can get out right now!”  Bristol fired back.

“You hired me to do a job—which, in case you don’t remember got done just as you wanted it!  For two weeks I’ve done nothing but watch a tree line and wait for you to make the next move.  Come on—let’s get that ransom note sent and get the hell out of this dump!”

Bristol grabbed the other man’s shirt collar and stared piercing into his eyes.  “We move when I say we move—-you got that?”

Cole believed the man before him to be at least half insane, and decided it wasn’t the right time to make his move on him.  He tried to force a smile to calm Bristol and to get him to ease up on his tight hold of his shirt.

“Okay–okay—-I just thought—well—since Cartwright is offering a reward now—and since they’ve been running around like crazy for weeks–that you would be ready to end this.”

“Not nearly—he hasn’t suffered enough yet—not nearly enough,” Bristol replied and reached across the table and into a basket, which contained some walnuts.  He placed two of them in the palm of his right hand and closed his fingers around the shells.  With a quick snap, the pressure from his fist broke both of the walnuts.  Slowly he opened his palm and stuck it in front of Cole’s nose.  “That’s what I want to see—I want to see them all crack—just like these!  When I see that—well–then you will get your money and we will leave.”

“You don’t think they haven’t started to crack already?” Cole asked incredulously.  “I’ve seen their faces—watched each one of them coming back and forth from their ranch to the sheriff’s office.  They look pretty broken to me!”

“Soon—you and the others just have to be a bit more patient,” Bristol answered and broke into another wicked smile as he patted the man’s shoulder.

“Well—I wish you had let us keep that ring—imagine how much money we would have gotten for that thing!”

“We did it the way I wanted it—-that youngest boy of Ben’s—he carried it right back to him didn’t he?  Oh, how I wish I had been able to see the look on the old man’s face!  Seeing that ring—and knowing where it had been!”  Bristol smiled and sank down in a chair opposite of Cole.  “Don’t you worry about money—-that ring is nothing compared to how much it’s gonna cost Cartwright to get his precious wife back!  Now you go on out there—and spell one of the other men.  I’ve got it all under control.”

Cole sighed, but looking over at his boss, he knew not to argue with him again.  He pulled himself up and grabbed his bottle.  “Okay—-whatever you say.”

Bristol watched as the man made his exit and then drew the newspaper back in front of him.  He laughed again as he reread the article, knowing he had Ben Cartwright at his wits end running around in circles trying to find his late wife’s body. ****You haven’t seen anything yet, Ben****Bristol said to himself and poured more brandy to celebrate his victory.

*****

Ben and Hoss walked into the ranch house and stopped at the door to remove their hats and guns.  They had been out most of the day chasing tracks that led nowhere as they had been doing for weeks.  The mood in the house had only worsened in the days following the theft of Marie’s body.  Their only hope was that someone would either tire of their hideous prank and return the coffin, or perhaps offer the body for a price.  Neither had happened.

“Any news?”  Adam asked as he drew closer to his father.

“No,” Ben replied blankly and took a quick glance around for his youngest son.  “Where’s Joe?”

“He’s out on the back porch with Hop Sing.  Got the kid peeling potatoes for supper,” Adam answered.

“Guess Hop Sing is trying to take Little Joe’s mind off of the trouble, huh?”  Hoss asked as he followed both Ben and Adam into the living room.

“Yeah—-Joe’s done a good job so far–you know he hasn’t even broken down once since the night we told him about his mother,” Adam said and sank down in a chair.

“He’s a whole lot stronger than we give him credit for,” Hoss nodded.

Ben frowned and lingered by his chair deciding whether or not to sit or to go and check on the boy.  “Well—Joseph is hurting—-I’ve heard him in his room late at night—crying.  He’s holding it in for all of us.  I wish to God we could figure out what’s going on—and get this solved.  I don’t know how much longer any of us can go on like this.”

“As long as we have to!”  Adam insisted.  “We’ve got some great folks helping to run this place for us, Pa.  The ranch isn’t suffering if that’s what you are worried about.”

“No—that’s not what I meant—- I meant how much longer can I stand to see the hurt on my sons—all of my sons,” Ben replied, his eyes showing the compassion he felt for his boys.

“Yeah—well–you might be worried about all of us—but we are all worried about you, Pa,” Hoss stated earnestly.

Ben smiled, touched by his son’s words.  He patted the big man’s shoulder and turned towards the kitchen.  “I think I’ll go see how they are doing with those potatoes.”

Hop Sing sat perched upon a milking stool right behind where Little Joe sat on the top step of the back porch.  He watched Joe’s slow motions as he one by one peeled the potatoes and handed them to the cook to pare.  Hop Sing’s thoughts were on the boy in front of him and not on what he was going to fix for dinner that night.  He remembered that morning weeks earlier when he had returned from Carson City and learned the sad story of what had happened.  The shocking indignity of the whole event tore at the Chinaman’s heart.  Looking now over at the living reminder of his beloved friend Hop Sing wondered how the human spirit could be dark enough to have done such an awful deed.

Worst of all, Hop Sing had not been able to help his surrogate family.  Yes, he did his best to insist on them eating though it had gotten to be a battle of late.  Even the normally voracious appetite of the middle boy had diminished to that of a sparrow.  The grief and sorrow had curbed everyone’s interest in eating.  And, though Hop Sing loved and worried about each of the family members, he couldn’t help but to worry more about the youngest son who now sat there looking so hopeless.  He had asked for Joe’s help with dinner just to give the boy something else to focus on.  In fact, potatoes weren’t supposed to be on the menu that night and now it would take some doing to blend that side dish in with all the other food Hop Sing had already prepared.

Joe reached over and handed the cook a skinned potato and grabbed another to peel.  He seemed mechanical in his actions, and though Hop Sing had tried to talk to the boy he had offered nothing more than one word replies.  Hop Sing looked up towards the sky and noticed how it was darkening with rain clouds.  It took him back in his mind to that sad day so many years ago.  He remembered so well lifting Little Joe out of the carriage and taking the little boy’s tiny hand into his own and walking towards the newly dug grave.  Hop Sing could still see the forced expression that Ben had worn as he moved with his two older boys up to the tombstone.  Little Joe had broken from the cook’s grasp and ran to his father grabbing his legs.  Hop Sing could still see the mourners all looking at the heartbreaking sight of a little boy begging for his mother.  His mind took him back to how Ben’s facade had finally broken down as he looked at the curly headed toddler pleading for his mother.  Ben had waved the minister to wait for a moment before continuing with his eulogy and gathered the little boy in his arms and walked off with the child.  Hop Sing had diligently followed, just in case he was needed.

Kneeling down with the boy in his arms, Ben had stared eye to eye at Little Joe.  Hop Sing could still hear Ben’s words, as they had been seared inside his heart and mind.  It reminded him always of what kind of a man he worked for.  Despite his tragic loss and a heart that surely was broken, the father had only thought of his little boy needing him at the time.

****Now, Joseph—-we have to put your Ma to rest now.  Remember?  We talked about this—that she’s in heaven now—not in that coffin over there****Hop Sing recalled Ben’s calming words to his son.

****Papa—no—Mama’s in that box—I seen her—go get her out—she’ll wake up—you’ll see.  Go get her Papa–please!**** Joe had insisted with tears streaming down his face.

****Son—we have to let her go—now I need you to be a big boy for me–okay?****

****She’ll be cold—-Papa—-don’t put her in the ground—please—don’t!**** Joe had pleaded and grabbed his father’s neck and hung on.

Those had been the words that finally broke Ben’s stoic countenance.  As he hugged onto his and Marie’s precious child he could not fight the tears any longer.  Hop Sing had heard it all and knew that he had to do something to help both of them.  He ran down to the carriage and reached inside for a small blanket that Little Joe always carried with him.  Though he was almost five, the little boy could not part with the thing and slept with it every night.  Hop Sing took the blanket up the hill with him and knelt next to both father and son.

“Little Joe—we give Momma blanket—to keep warm into next world—she not be cold then.”  Hop Sing had insisted and handed the blanket to the little boy.  He felt that it would make sense to the child and he was right.

Joe held the blanket up to his father and looked at him with tear-filled eyes and said, “Give this to Mama—so she not be cold.”

“I’ll give it to her, Joseph.” Ben nodded and pushed away the little boy’s tears as well as some of his own that had drifted down his cheeks.

*****

Ben pulled both the boy and the soft yellow blanket up in his arms and headed back towards the gravesite.  Turning towards Hop Sing, Ben gave him a look, which let him know that he had helped more than anyone else that day in dealing with the little boy.  Hop Sing nodded towards the bereaved man and reached out his arms.  Ben handed Little Joe to the caretaker and then moved towards the casket.  Gently, and out of the view of all others surrounding the grave, Ben pulled the lid open one last time and placed the blanket across his beloved’s shoulders.  He closed the coffin and walked back to join his sons and Hop Sing.

Hop Sing had held the trembling little boy during the rest of the service.  Little Joe was not at all sure about what was happening.  He only knew it was a sad day and that everyone was crying over his mother.  When the mourners had left, slowly Hoss and Adam walked down the hill leaving only Ben, Hop Sing and Little Joe.  Hop Sing knew Ben needed time for himself, and probably would for quite awhile.  He moved next to the man and called down to the boy in his arms.

“You give papa kiss then we go home and make dinner together!”

“Papa—you coming?”

“In a little while, Son—you go on with Hop Sing now.”

Joe reached over and planted a kiss on his father’s lips.  He gave a funny look at Hop Sing afterwards.  Joe wondered why his father tasted so salty.  He would have to ask the cook later. “Mama won’t be cold now, Papa—don’t be sad,” Joe whispered and Hop Sing watched as the words hit the father head on.  Ben turned his back on them both and walked up towards the trees.

On the way back to the carriage Joe had asked the cook why his father looked like he did and why he tasted salty.  Hop Sing thought for a few minutes and tried to put it all together so that the child would understand.

“That Papa’s tears—Little Joe—-Papa sad–like you sad–like brothers sad–like Hop Sing sad.”

“Papa said Mama’s in heaven—and that we should be happy for her–then why Papa cry?” Joe asked confused.

“Sometime tears are for sad, sometimes tears are for happy, Little Joe.” Hop Sing tried to make sense to the boy.  It was at that moment that the skies opened up and rain began to fall.

The little boy looked at Hop Sing as he held out his hand to feel the raindrops.  Joe looked very pensive for a minute and then spoke up. “Mama’s tears—see?  She is in heaven–and she’s crying just like Papa is!”

Hop Sing pulled Joe to his chest and hugged onto him tightly.  He hoped that what the little boy had said had been true and that Marie was giving all of her family and friends one last sign. “Yes, Little Joe—Mama’s tears.” Hop Sing whispered to the child.

“Hop Sing?  Hop Sing?”  Joe called to the man who seemed to be in a daze.

“Oh–what you say?”  the cook asked, forcing the memories back to where they hid most of the time.

“It’s starting to rain—-maybe we should take this inside?”  Joe asked as he stood with the porcelain bowl full of the spuds.

Hop Sing watched the raindrops as they hit the ground and smiled to himself.  Marie was still sending them messages. “Mama’s tears” he thought to himself and then smiled over at Joe.  “Have lots peeled already—we go make into something now!” he announced and moved with the boy into the kitchen.

Ben was just heading out to the back porch when Hop Sing entered the kitchen with Joe following close behind him.  Joe set the bowl on the counter and turned towards his father.

“Find anything, Pa?”  Joe asked hopefully.

Ben shook his head and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder.  “Not yet, Joseph.  Looks like you’ve both been busy, huh?”  Ben forced a smile and turned his attention to the cook.  “Looks like you peeled enough potatoes for an army here!”

Hop Sing could tell that Ben was purposely changing the subject that had been broached by Little Joe.  He wanted to play along.  “Little Joe peel enough potatoes for today, tomorrow and day after!”

“Oh?  What are you planning to make with all of these?” Ben grinned over at the cook.

“Mashed potatoes for supper, fried potatoes for breakfast, potato soup for lunch—all kinds of potatoes!”  Hop Sing giggled and patted Joe’s arm as he turned for the stove.

“Well—we’ll both leave you to your cooking–come on, Joseph–let’s give Hop Sing some room to create!”  Ben said and turned with his son to the dining room.

*****

At dinner the conversation drifted back to the problem at hand.  Ben updated Joe and Adam on what he and Hoss had done all day and waited for their suggestions.

“Pa—don’t you think it’s strange that we haven’t gotten a ransom note by now?  I mean–what would these men have to gain by just holding onto what they stole?”  Adam asked the question that they all had asked at one time or another.  He was, however, conscience of the his choice of words and had kept Marie’s name out of his remarks.

“We all thought that it was a ploy to get ransom money, Adam, but now—after all this time we might have been wrong,” Ben replied grimly.

“I’m going up there tomorrow, Pa,” Joe stated firmly.  He had waited as long as he could stand to go and see what had been done to his mother’s grave.  His father had urged him for weeks to stay away.

“Joseph–there’s nothing to see—it’s all gone.  But, Hoss and I ordered the new headstone today.  Why don’t you wait until it’s done and then we’ll go on up there?”  Ben urged, knowing how devastating the sight would be for the boy.

“New headstone!”  Joe shot out, his temper flaring at the thought of it.  “What’s the point in that?  If her body is gone—there’s no point in having a headstone now is there?”

“Joseph–” Ben started, trying his best to calm the tempest he saw in the boy’s eyes.

“I’m not hungry,” Joe jumped back in and threw his napkin down on the table and ran across the living room to the stairs.

All eyes looked across the room as Joe charged up the staircase.  They knew that Joe was close to his breaking point, though he had held up a lot longer than any of them thought possible.

“Want me to go and talk to him?”  Hoss asked his father.

“Let him be, Son.  He’s trying his best to stay strong–but right now I think it’s starting to wear thin.  Let’s give him a little time.”  Ben responded, all the while wanting to go after his son and console him.  He wished he could find some words of comfort, but he too, was running out of things to say to help the boy.

*****

A few days later, two cowboys stood at the bar in the Silver Dollar Saloon and talked about the plight of the Cartwright family.  They had only been in Virginia City for a few days and were between jobs and running out of money.  Reading the paper they had learned of the thousand-dollar reward for information concerning the remains of Marie Cartwright.  Always looking for an easy way to earn some cash, the wheels began to turn in the head of one of the two men.  He had already asked about the Cartwright family and had seen the youngest son earlier in the day over by the telegrapher’s office.

“Jess, I just got a great idea. How’d you like to earn five hundred dollars?” the man asked his friend.

“Five hundred?  You aren’t talking about that reward thing again are you, Kirk?” Jess said setting down his beer mug.  “I told you there ain’t no way we can find that missing coffin!  There’s been a half a dozen men or more out there combing the bushes for Cartwright’s late wife.  How the hell do you think we can luck up and find her?”

“Meet me behind the mercantile as soon as it gets dark.  I got a great idea!”  Kirk said and tossed his two bits on the counter and headed for the door.

Ben decided to send Joe into town the next day to pick up some household supplies.  He was running out of errands for the boy to do, still trying to keep him too busy to go up to his mother’s empty grave.  Joe reluctantly agreed to fetch the supplies Hop Sing needed and headed out in the buckboard shortly before noon.  He stopped by the mercantile and carried out the previously ordered can-goods and other staples for the kitchen, securing the groceries in the back of the wagon.  Just as he was hopping back into the driver’s seat, two men approached him.

“You Joe Cartwright ain’t you?”  Kirk asked as he moved next to the wagon.

“Yeah—why you ask?”  Joe replied, staring suspiciously at the rather grungily clad men.

“We got some information for you—about your ma,” Jess announced.

Joe’s face paled at the rather blunt way the men had brought up his mother.  He wondered for a moment if perhaps they were the ones who had stolen her body.

“What information?  You know where they’ve taken her?” Joe asked, his voice giving away the anger that was building up in his soul.

“We can take you to her—but you gotta keep quiet about this!  We’re not sure when the thieves are coming back—we’ve gotta get out to their hideout right away,” Kirk replied in a whisper.

“Well–let’s go then—take me to her!”

“Well–not so fast, Cartwright—there’s the matter of reward you know?” Jess smiled.

“You’ll get it when I have my mother back!”  Joe protested.

“NO—we get it when we take you to her–then we get outta there before those maniacs come back and kill us all.  You go get the money–we’ll take you there–then when you see that it’s your ma you pay us!”  Kirk insisted.

Joe frowned and stared across the street to where the Virginia City bank stood.  He couldn’t wait to get his father and brothers.  Joe didn’t want to risk losing his one chance to find his mother.  Jumping down from the buckboard Joe headed across the street to get the reward money.

The bank president wasn’t too happy with Joe’s request for funds.  He usually insisted on Ben Cartwright’s written approval before doling out any of his money.  But, Joe had told the man all about what was going on and how important it was to get right out with the two men who had approached him.  Mr. Gentry, the president, growled a bit but finally caved into the boy’s request and withdrew a thousand dollars from one of the Cartwright accounts.  He handed it to Joe along with a stern warning to be wary of the men.  He also promised to send word to Joe’s father to let him know where Joe was heading.

Joe stuffed the money into his billfold and headed out across the street again.  He jumped up in the wagon and called to the two men, “Let’s get going!”

Jess and Kirk walked to the hitching post in front of the mercantile and untied their reins.  Mounting their horses they turned and rode down the street with Joe following close behind in the buckboard.  They journeyed for more than an hour making it a good twenty-five miles from Virginia City before stopping.  Kirk held his hand up to signal a stop and turned his horse to address Joe.

“Right over there, Cartwright—just past that clearing—there’s a cabin hidden in the pines.  Me and my partner seen these three men carrying in a casket about a week ago.  Didn’t think nothing of it–not till we got to Virginia City and read all about your ma.  I’ll ride on ahead and make sure no-one’s around.  Be right back,” Kirk said and kicked at his horse’s sides and headed towards the trees.  Joe and the other man waited for a few minutes and then Kirk reappeared.

“Coast is clear–let’s go!”  Kirk shouted and Joe sent the team ahead.

Pulling up in front of the dilapidated shack, Joe looked around cautiously before he climbed out of the buckboard.  Kirk and Jess dismounted and neared Joe.

“Okay–where’s our money, Cartwright?”  Jess asked holding out his hand.

“Not till I’m sure—now you two go in first,” Joe ordered the men, not totally sure that he wasn’t walking into a trap.

“Okay–geesh—here we are helping you and all!”  Kirk fussed but went on up the steps and pushed the door open.  Jess stepped along next to his partner and called over his shoulder towards Joe.

“There it is, Cartwright–look for yourself!”

Joe pushed past the two men and walked through the door.  He could see a casket sitting by itself at the end of the main room of the cabin.  Feeling his knees going weak, Joe leaned against one of the walls and tried to hold his emotions in.  He had finally found his mother, and the vision of her casket had stolen his breath away and sent tears forming in his eyes.

“So—now do we get the money?  We delivered you to your ma–just like we said!”  Kirk smiled at Joe.

“Yeah—here-” Joe whispered and handed the wad of bills to the man.  “Give me a hand getting the casket into the wagon.”

“Sure—no problem,” Kirk nodded and then looked behind him and winked at Jess.  The other man knew what was coming next.  Slowly all three men walked towards the casket.  Joe was the first one there and placed his hand solemnly on the top of the weathered lid of the coffin.

“I’m gonna take you home now, Ma,” Joe whispered, still fighting his tears.

Before Joe knew what had hit him, the two men grabbed him from behind and lifted him into the air.  Kirk drew open the lid of the casket and threw Joe inside.  The two evil men slammed the top down on Joe and locked the latches securing it closed.  Joe’s muted screams echoed outside of the coffin.  The two men laughed and walked out of the cabin, closing the door behind them.

“Hey, Kirk?  Think anyone will find him before he suffocates?”  Jess asked as he swung up onto his horse.

“Yeah—probably–but we’ll be long gone by then!  There’s some holes in that old coffin–the kid won’t die!”  Kirk laughed and turned his horse away from the cabin.

“Dumb kid thinks he’s laying in there with his mother—bet he’s scared to death!”

“That’s his problem!  Let’s get going–we’ve got a thousand dollars to spend, Partner!”  Kirk replied and urged his horse into a gallop.

*****

Ben, Adam, and Hoss pushed their mounts to the limit hurrying into Virginia City.  After receiving the message that had been sent by Mr. Gentry they were all terrified that Joe had walked into a trap.  It seemed very suspicious that strangers would have approached Joe rather than taking the information to Ben Cartwright out at the Ponderosa.  With a feeling of dread, they all finally dismounted in front of the Virginia City Bank.  Mr. Gentry had been watching at the window and hurried outside to tell the Cartwrights everything he knew.

“I’ve never seen those two before–the ones Joe left with,” the bank president began as he stepped onto the sidewalk and addressed Ben.  “Joe left heading that way—following them.  I told the boy he should get you first, but he insisted that there wasn’t enough time,” he continued and pointed towards the west end of town

“Hiram—tell Roy what’s happened will you?  We’re gonna try to catch up with Joseph!”  Ben said hastily and turned to call orders to his sons.  “Go over to the mercantile, Hoss—grab some lanterns in case it’s dark by the time we get out there.  Adam—water the horses real quick and we’ll head back out.”

“Right, Pa,” both young men said and headed to do their assigned tasks.

Ben briefly turned his attention back to Mr. Gentry.  “Did you get a good look at either of those two men?”

“They just looked like cowhands to me, Ben—nothing unusual.  Joe didn’t tell me their names or anything–just that they were gonna take him to where his mother’s coffin was hidden.”

“I wish to God the boy hadn’t left with them—-no telling what those men are up to,” Ben sighed and then shook the man’s hand and headed across the street to catch up with his sons.

“Good luck, Ben!”  Mr. Gentry called out after him.  He then walked back into the bank and told one of his tellers to go and fetch Roy Coffee.

*****

The tracks that had been left by the two men on horse back and the buckboard were easily followed at first.  But, as the late afternoon turned to evening it made it more difficult to follow them.  Hoss would, every few miles, hop down from his horse and light one of the lanterns and check the ground to make sure they were on the right trail.  It was slow going, but by seven that night the three men rode up into the small clearing in front of the old cabin.  The Cartwright buckboard was still pulled up in front of the homestead just where Joe had left it.

Ben dismounted and reached for one of the lanterns and lit it.  Moving up onto the porch, all three men listened at the door.  There was no noise to indicate anyone was inside the building but they all drew their guns just in case.  Ben pushed the front door open and they all stepped precariously inside.  Holding the lanterns up, the Cartwrights could see over to the end of the room where a coffin was laid out on the floor.  The sight stunned all three men.  Hoss and Adam exchanged mournful looks but Ben’s face was filled with confusion.  He knew that the dark mahogany casket was not Marie’s.  Ben would never forget the day he had chosen the casket which would house his beloved’s body.  It was golden oak with bronze handles, and not the cheaper version sitting across the room of the cabin.

“It’s not your mother’s—” Ben whispered to his two sons and then held the lantern out to further survey the room for Joe.

Adam and Hoss stepped closer to the coffin while Ben walked around the room for any sign as to what had happened to his youngest son.

“Pa!”  Hoss gasped as he bent down closer to the coffin.  “I hear something—inside this thing!”

Ben’s heart stopped that moment and it took a few seconds for his legs to cooperate and head over to where his sons were standing.  He, too, could hear what seemed like a faint whimper and it was coming from inside the casket.  With trembling fingers he unhooked the front latches of the coffin and threw the lid open.

“Oh my Lord!”  Ben’s strained words echoed across the cabin.  There, lying to the side of a decomposed body was Joe.  The boy’s eyes were fixed in a stare and he was whimpering, apparently scared half to death.  Ben and Hoss pulled Joe out of the casket and carried him across the room.  They laid him out on an old bunk and then went about examining him, with Adam holding a lantern close to help their view.

“Looks like he’s in shock, Pa—he’s shaking pretty bad,” Hoss whispered to his father.

“We’ve gotta get him home—you two get the saddle blankets off the horses and lay them in the back of the buckboard,” Ben instructed, trying to pull from his inner strength and resist the overpowering need for revenge on whoever had done such an awful thing to his son.

Hoss and Adam were quick to follow their father’s commands and headed outside.  Joe continued to lay on the bunk, his eyes still fixed in a blank stare and his whole body trembling.

“Joseph—Joseph—it’s all right—we’re taking you home—it’s all right, Son,” Ben called down to the boy over and over again.  He knew that his son was far from hearing him at that point.  Ben closed his eyes and tried his best to push back the tears.  It was very clear to him by that time as to what Joe had gone through.  He knew that Joe was under the assumption that it was Marie’s casket that he had been thrown into.  “It wasn’t your mother’s coffin, Joe—listen to me–it wasn’t your mother’s–” Ben whispered and pushed the curls from off the boy’s forehead.

“All set, Pa!”  Hoss called from the doorway.

Ben pulled Joe into his arms and carried him away from the cabin.  He placed him gingerly into the back of the buckboard and crawled in alongside the boy.  Hoss tied both his and Ben’s horses to the back rail of the wagon and climbed up into the driver’s seat.  Adam led the way out of the yard and off to the Ponderosa.

Ben had dispatched Adam into town to get the doctor and the sheriff before the buckboard crossed the eastern border of the ranch.  He knew Joe would need medical attention and he also wanted Roy to head on out after the vile men who had harmed the boy as soon as possible.  Holding Joe in his arms in the back of the buckboard Ben couldn’t get it out of his mind what the boy had gone through.  He wished he could get through to him that the coffin had not contained Marie’s remains.  Not that being in a coffin with any other corpse wouldn’t be terrifying, but the notion that he had been thrown into one that was his mother’s obviously had mentally harmed the boy far worse.

As soon as the buckboard pulled up in front of the ranch house, Hoss quickly jumped down from the driver’s seat and untied Chubb and Buck to make way to get to his little brother.  Ben handed the still shaken boy over to Hoss, who carried him in his arms into the house.  Ben followed close behind and hollered into the kitchen for Hop Sing to aid them.  Carefully, Hoss carried his brother up the long staircase and into Joe’s bedroom.  Ben and Hop Sing gathered around the bed.

“His hands are pretty tore up, Pa,” Hoss remarked, his face wincing up at the sight.  “Looks like he tried to claw his way out of that coffin.”

Ben gently pulled up the boy’s right hand and examined it then set it down and checked out the other one.  They were a mass of bruises and cuts.  There were also remnants of splinters underneath the boy’s fingernails. Ben shook his head aghast at what he had already seen.

“Doc will be here soon—let’s get Joe’s clothes off and get him cleaned up,” Ben commented and reached across the bed to unbutton the boy’s shirt.

“What happen to Little Joe?”  Hop Sing asked, shocked by the sight of the boy.

Hoss looked at his father for approval and saw him nod to tell the cook.  “Somebody locked Joe inside a casket—Joe thought it was his momma’s—-he must’ve been in there for hours.  He’s in shock.”

Hop Sing’s mouth fell open from the big man’s explanation.  He hurried to the head of the bed and shot his hand down on Joe’s forehead.  “Was body in casket–or just Little Joe?”

“There was a body in there—-we have no idea whose casket it was,” Hoss answered.

“Must clean—must clean good—-many disease—boy get very sick.  Hop Sing get tub ready now!”  Hop Sing insisted and hurried out of the bedroom.

Ben frowned and looked over at Hoss.  “I wasn’t even thinking about that—-I’ve been more worried about Joe’s mental state.  Now—we have to worry about that too!”

“Hop Sing’s right, Pa—just washing Joe off isn’t gonna help–he’s gonna need to soak.  He’s sure out of it though–this ain’t gonna be easy.”

“Nothing’s easy any more!”  Ben remarked bitterly.  He had just about had his fill of all the evil that roamed the earth at the present time.  Here he had to deal with the theft of his late wife’s body and now, on top of that grief, he had to contend with someone pulling such a vile deed on his youngest son.  It was almost too much to bear.  “Help me with his boots and trousers–then we’ll take him downstairs and put him in the tub.”

By the time Doctor Paul Martin arrived, Joe had been given a bath and taken back to his bedroom.  It had taken awhile to get him scrubbed down good, considering he was barely conscious and totally unresponsive.  Paul moved alongside the bed and cast a quick glance at Ben.  Having known the patriarch for more years than he could remember, Paul was well aware of what the man was thinking and feeling at the time.

“I’m glad you got him all cleaned up—-how long do you think Joe was in that coffin?”  Paul asked as he felt the boy’s pulse in his right wrist.

“Near as we can figure about four or five hours,” Hoss replied and stepped in closer along with Adam to see what the doctor was going to do.

“Adam told me about the body—and that it was not totally in the skeleton stage—makes me worry about disease.  Has Joe said anything at all?”

“No,” Ben replied flatly, fear taking over at that point.  He knew what could happen to his son, depending on the age of the corpse Joe had been subjected to and what the body’s cause of death had been.

Paul checked Joe’s pupils and then felt of his forehead.  “Let’s patch up those hands first–then we’ll see what else we can do for him,” Paul said and opened his black bag.  He pulled out some antiseptic and a pair of tweezers.  Examination of the boy’s hands revealed that the cuts weren’t deep enough to require stitches, however, some of the splinters were deeper than any of them had realized.  Turning to look over at Ben, Paul carefully chose his next words.  “Ben—he’s gonna have to lose a couple of these fingernails—there’s no way around it.  How about you and Hoss go and grab some coffee for us all while Adam helps me with this?”

Ben shook his head and then stared at Hoss and Adam.  “You boys go and get the coffee—better bring up some brandy too.  I’m going to help Paul with this.”

“Pa—maybe you should do as Doc says–” Adam started but then noticed the fierce determination on his father’s face and knew it was a lost cause.

“Come on, Adam,” Hoss whispered and tugged at his brother’s arm.  They both knew there was no talking their father out of helping Joe, no matter how hard it was going to be on him.

Ben sat down on the side of the bed and drew up Joe’s right hand readying for Paul to begin the procedure.  He braced the boy’s shoulder with his right palm, just in case he tried to move while the doctor was working.

“Mama—-Mama–” Joe muttered, shocking the two men by the abruptness of his words.

Paul stopped what he was doing and called down to the boy, “Joe?  Joe can you hear me?”

“Mama—-Mama—NO! NO!”  Joe took on an appearance of total panic and tried to pull up from the bed wildly.  “Mama!” he shouted again at the top of his lungs.

Ben reached for the boy’s shoulders and held onto him.  He could feel Joe’s entire body quake.

“Mama!”  Joe shrieked and tried to battle his father in an attempt to seek freedom.

“Hold on to him, Ben—let me get him something to sedate him,” Paul said and drew some medicine up in a syringe.  He quickly placed the needle in the crease of Joe’s elbow.  Within minutes Joe started to go lax in his father’s arms.

Ben pulled the boy close to his chest and continued to whisper his assurance that everything was going to be okay.  When Joe’s breathing had evened out, his father eased him back against the pillows and planted a kiss on his forehead.

“Oh–Joseph–” Ben sighed and placed the palm of his hand against the boy’s cheek.  “My poor boy— how could anyone have done this to you?  What kind of a world has this become?”

Paul reached across the bed and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder to comfort him.  “Ben—you sure you can help me with this?  Perhaps I should go and get Hoss or Adam?”

Ben drew in a deep breath and turned his attention back to the doctor.  “I need to do it–just give me a minute to get myself together, Paul,” Ben replied and stood from the bed.  He walked across the room and looked out the window into the darkness.  For a brief moment Ben closed his eyes to shield his mind from the cruelty he had witnessed.  It was then that a concrete picture of his late wife, Marie, formed in his mind.  He could almost hear her whisper ****help our boy, Ben.**** It was enough to give the heartsick man the strength to walk back over to the bed to assist the doctor.

By the time Hoss reappeared in Joe’s bedroom, the doctor had his patient patched up as best he could.  He had to remove three of the boy’s fingernails in order to pull the splinters out from underneath them.  Paul applied the antiseptic and then the salve onto each of the wounds and wrapped both of Joe’s hands with a loose layer of gauze.

“Pa—thought you could use this,” Hoss said as he handed his father a stiff shot of brandy.

Ben turned towards his son and accepted the drink.  “Thanks,” he said and downed the liquor in one swallow.

“Roy’s downstairs–he wants to talk to you, Pa.  I’ll stay up here with Joe,” Hoss stated and sat down in the chair next to his brother’s bed.

“Go on, Ben—I’m just about done now anyway,” Paul urged the man to leave.  It never ceased to amaze him how the anguished father could hold up at such times.  He knew it had to come from the man’s bountiful love for his three sons.

“Okay—be right back,” Ben sighed wearily and stood from the bed.  He cast one last worried gaze at his youngest son and turned and left the room.

*****

Roy had already drank his second cup of coffee by the time Ben appeared at the top of the staircase.  He watched his old friend’s slow movements as he descended the stairs and started over to the living room.

“Howdy, Ben—how’s Little Joe doing?”  Roy asked and stood from his position on the settee next to Adam.

“Not good,” Ben replied grimly and sat down in his chair.  He motioned with his hand for the sheriff to sit back down in order to discuss what had happened.

“Adam already told me about most of the details.  I’ve got my deputy Clem and some men I rounded up out after those jaspers.  I think we’ve got a pretty good description of them—-from what Sam told me.  He noticed the drifters hanging around the Silver Dollar most of the week.”

“They should be hung for what they did to my boy,” Ben fumed and reached across the coffee table to pour more brandy into his glass.

“I don’t figure they are the ones who desecrated Marie’s grave—just two men who thought they’d get some easy money,” Roy explained.

“I wonder where they got that casket from?”  Adam jumped into the conversation.

Roy groaned and helped himself to some of the brandy and poured a good dose of it into his coffee cup.  “Soon as I talked with Hiram I was heading on out to catch up with you fellows and I got sidetracked.  Seems Lillie Harper went down to the cemetery to put some flowers on her husband’s grave and spotted the grave next to his plot.  Looks like they dug up Jed Winthrop—his grave was empty.  Must’ve done it last night when no-one was looking.”

“This is all too awful to comprehend!”  Adam said, his temper building by the minute.  “To think that two different sets of criminals are out there digging up bodies—and hurting this family even more than imaginable.  They’d better catch up with the men who did this to my little brother—or I’m gonna do it myself!”

Roy looked over at Adam and it surprised him to see the normally level-headed young man with such fierce anger covering his face.  But, Roy knew perhaps better than any other outsider how pushed to the limits the whole Cartwright family were at the moment.

“Settle down now, Boy—we’ll get them–they ain’t got much of a head start.  Is Joe gonna be okay, Ben?”  Roy turned his attention back to the boy who he had known since Joe’s birth.

“Physically—in time—mentally—I have no idea.  He was in that casket for hours–and all the while thinking he was in there with his mother’s remains,” Ben answered sadly.

“Well—I ain’t gonna try to talk to the boy until he’s better.  I’ll keep you all posted –and let you know when we catch these varmints,” Roy vowed and stood to leave.

“Thanks for coming out, Roy,” Ben replied and stood to walk his friend to the door.

Roy left the ranch house and headed back into town to see if his posse had any luck in tracking down the men who had harmed Joe.  Ben walked across the room and headed to the staircase.

“Pa?  Maybe you should get some rest?  Hoss and I can watch after Joe,” Adam called across to his father.

“I’ll rest when I know Joseph is all right—and I don’t know that right now,” Ben replied and slowly walked up the stairs.

Adam followed his father up to Joe’s room, hoping that there was strength in numbers.  He could tell that his father was wearing thin after so many weeks of worrying over Marie and now with Joe being hurt.  As usual, the family would form a tight circle of love to try and somehow help Joe through his terrifying ordeal.

*****

The doctor had left medicine for Joe to help sedate him if he should awaken and become as fearful as he had earlier in the evening.  He had also assured the family that he would drop in the next day to see how the boy was doing and to make sure there was no infection in his wounds.  Paul was worried about the chance of Joe having encountered some form of disease from being trapped in the casket so long with a corpse.  Ben had informed Paul that the occupant of the coffin had been Jed Winthrop, who fortunately, had died of a heart attack and not a communicable disease.  It helped ease the doctor’s mind a little bit, but there was always the chance that the decomposing body could have harbored other forms of contaminates.  He would have to watch for any signs of disease in the boy for several days before breathing a sigh of relief.

Ben had ordered Joe’s brothers to their bedrooms just after midnight.  He could tell they were both well spent and didn’t see any use in the entire family being exhausted in the morning.  Hop Sing had lingered in the room for a long while before he, too, was told to leave and get some sleep.  Ben was use to the chair in his youngest son’s room, having spent many hours in it during other illnesses and injuries Joe had encountered during his seventeen years.  In fact, the bottom cushion of the chair seemed to conform quite nicely to Ben’s body after so much use.

The summer breeze lifted the sheer curtains and they flapped as the wind grew stronger.  Ben stood and stretched and moved to the window to see if rain had once again started up as it had off and on for days.  The cooler air helped to breathe a little more life into the exhausted father, and he closed his eyes and took in the feel of it on his face.  It was then that he heard the sound from across the room.  Joe had awakened at last.

“Papa—-Papa–” Joe muttered, his eyelids still closed.

Ben hurried across the room and sat down next to the boy on the bed.  He put his hand on Joe’s right arm as he began to move a bit in the bed.  “Joseph?  Can you hear me, Son?” Ben asked quietly.

“Papa—Papa–” Joe continued and slowly opened his eyes.

Ben thought it a bit strange that his son had called him by the name “papa”.  Joe hadn’t referred to him that way in quite a few years.  Even before he had left grade school the boy had dropped the name papa in lieu of the simple word “pa”.

“I’m right here, Joe,” Ben whispered as he stared into the sad hazel eyes of his son.

“Papa—Mama—-Mama—you shouldn’t have put her in the ground, Papa—she’s not dead—I heard her—you shouldn’t have,” Joe’s voice broke as tears started down his cheeks.  “Papa—-go get her back—-don’t put her in the ground—too cold—too cold.”

Ben took Joe’s right hand into his own and fought his own tears at the time.  He didn’t know if Joe was totally conscious.  If he was, then it wasn’t a good sign at all.  Marie had been gone for so many years and here her son was insisting that she was still alive.  Ben struggled to find something to say to the boy.

“Everything’s going to be okay, Joseph,” Ben replied and squeezed the boy’s hand tightly.  “Joe?  Do you remember what happened today?”

“Mama—Mama fell—but Papa—she’s not dead—she’s just sleeping.  Please–please Papa–please don’t leave her in the casket—she’s so cold!”  Joe replied and his face took on a panicked expression.

Ben pulled his son into his arms and held him tight, not sure what was going on in the boy’s mind.  He knew that the incident that day would surely have left a terrible impression on his son’s mind, but now it seemed to have taken the boy back some twelve years.  It appeared as though Joe was reliving his mother’s tragic death.

“Joseph—your mother’s been gone for a long time now—Son–she’s in heaven,” Ben said his voice quivering with emotion.

“No–Papa—I heard her–today—she’s alive–Papa do something–please!”  Joe sobbed and clung to his father, as if for dear life.

“Joe–those men—those men put you in that coffin–but it wasn’t your mother’s–do you understand?  It wasn’t your mother’s!”  Ben tried to bring his son back to reality with his strained words of explanation.

Joe pulled back from his father’s embrace and stared into his eyes, trying to seek the truth in them.  “She’s not dead, Papa, I know she’s not—I heard her-today–I felt her next to me!”  Joe insisted once more.

Ben shook his head sadly, totally at his wit’s end with the boy after such a grueling day.  He decided to wait until morning to try and get through to Joe when they both would be more rested.  Ben eased Joe back gently onto his pillows and reached for the medication that Paul had left.  Pouring the liquid into a glass, Ben stirred in some water and handed it to his son.

“Now you drink this, Joseph, and you and I will talk all about this in the morning,” Ben urged his son to swallow the medicine and Joe reluctantly did as he was instructed.

“You’ve got to go get her, Papa, she’s cold–so cold in there,” Joe whispered as his eyes started to give into the medication as well as to the stress he had endured that day.

“Hush now, Joe–you just rest—just rest,” Ben replied softly and brushed his hand through the boy’s abundance of curly hair.

“So cold—so dark—so cold–so dark,” Joe muttered and drifted into a troubled sleep.

Ben watched as the sedative took affect and his son’s eyes closed for the last time.  He bowed his head and prayed for God’s intervention so that he could get through to Joe the next day.

Hoss wasn’t sure if he was dreaming, but if he was, he figured that it was a very real one at that.  He could hear someone murmuring his name and then felt a warm but scratchy sensation on his right cheek.  When the whispers grew louder, Hoss fought to open his eyes.  The dim light from a hallway lamp shone into the room and cast a strange glow on the boy who knelt alongside Hoss’ bed.

“Joe?  Joe what’s wrong?”  Hoss asked hoarsely as he pulled himself to a seated position.

“Hoss—we gotta go get Mama—she’s out there in the cold–help me get her,” Joe replied insistently.

Becoming more aware of his surroundings and of what was going on, Hoss stared at his little brother sympathetically.  He had already guessed that Joe had somehow slipped out of his room without their father catching onto his departure.  Now the boy was looking pleadingly at him for help and Hoss didn’t know what to say or do to calm the kid.

“Little Brother—you need some rest–you’re hurt,” Hoss began and pointed towards his brother’s bandaged hands.  “Let’s get you back to bed, okay?”

Joe pulled himself to his feet and shook his head frustrated.  “No!  We’ve gotta help her, Hoss—she’s out there—it’s dark–it’s cold!”  Joe raised his voice in protest.

Hoss reached for his robe and threw it around his broad shoulders and then stood from his bed.  He placed his right arm across his brother’s shoulder and tried to steer the boy towards the hallway in the hope of getting him back to bed.  Joe was not cooperating and bolted just as soon as they made it out of the bedroom door.

“Joe come back!”  Hoss yelled as his brother dashed to the stairs.  The noise awoke Ben who had given into exhaustion and passed out in the chair next to Joe’s bed.  He hurried out towards the loud voices and was met by Adam coming out of his room as well.

“Hoss?  What’s going on?”  Ben asked groggily, still trying to get his bearings.

“Joe–he’s headed downstairs–come on!”  Hoss called over his shoulder as he raced to catch up with the boy. Ben and Adam joined in the pursuit and were soon bounding down the stairs after Hoss.

Joe made it to the front door and slung it open and ran outside.  His nightshirt flapping in the night air, the boy dashed barefooted towards the barn.  The three other Cartwrights made it to the barn and were surprised to see Joe attempting to saddle his horse.  Cochise was shaken by all the noise and pawed at the ground angrily.

“Joe–wait!”  Ben called and soon had Joe in his grasp.

“Gonna get Mama—let me go!”  Joe yelled as fought his father’s hold.

“Simmer down, Joe—let us help you,” Hoss tried for a more gentle approach to calm his brother.

Joe turned and looked over at his two brothers and tears filled his eyes once more.  “She’s out there somewhere–and she’s cold—help me get to her—Adam–Hoss–please!”  Joe begged.

“Joseph—your mother is dead,” Ben responded, grief filling his words.  “There’s nothing you can do for her now.”

Joe stopped fighting his father after hearing what the man had said.  His legs going weak, the boy collapsed.  Ben pulled Joe into his arms and carried him out of the barn.  Hoss and Adam followed them into the house, all the while wondering the extent of damage that had been done to their brother mentally. Between having endured the theft of Marie’s casket and having been imprisoned in a foreign coffin earlier, Joe seemed to have snapped emotionally.  Worst of all, none of his family members knew what to do to help the boy.  All they could do was to offer him comfort and some more sedatives to get him through the long night.

The posse tracked Joe’s abductors for two days before catching up with them.  Jess had been winged in the arm before he and Kirk surrendered to the authorities and were herded back to Virginia City.  During those two long days, the Cartwright family struggled to somehow get Joe to let go of his haunting images of the past and realize that his mother had long been dead.  Nothing they said or did appeared to be of help and everyone was worried that the boy might never come back to them as he had been before spending hours trapped inside Jed Winthrop’s coffin.  When news arrived, by way of one of the Ponderosa’s hired hands, that Roy had captured the men who had harmed Joe, Ben hurriedly rode to town leaving the boy in the care of his brothers and Hop Sing.

Dismounting in front of the sheriff’s office, Ben turned to see the posse coming down C Street with both Jess and Kirk in tow.  Roy positioned himself in the lead and pulled up next to Ben’s horse calling down to the man.

“At least we had some luck with these criminals, Ben.  Hopefully we will soon have the men who stole Marie’s casket too,” Roy said and swung down from his saddle.

Deputy Clem Foster held his gun on both Jess and Kirk and they dismounted next to Roy.  Ben saw the smirks on the evil men’s faces and it sent his blood to boiling.  He had always been a law-abiding man, and one who advocated that the courts handle punishment for crimes committed.  But, having endured so much over the past few weeks, Ben’s temper surged and he could not control it.  Before Roy or Clem could stop him, Ben rushed over to the Jess and Kirk and began to pummel them with his fists.  Unleashed, Ben’s anger was that of an army.

“Ben!  Stop—stop it right now!”  Roy yelled and tried to subdue his friend before he could kill the two men with his bare hands.

Ben was beyond listening; he sent a series of punches at Jess and then turned on Kirk, sending the man sprawling down into the street.   Clem moved in along with Roy and finally had Ben’s arms pinned behind his back, though he was still battling their hold.

“Ben—-it’s gonna be okay—they’ll be punished–but by the law–not you!”  Roy yelled, trying his best to get through to the man.

“Nothing the law can do to them will equal what they’ve put my boy through!  Go ahead–go ahead get them outta here before I kill them!”  Ben screamed and watched as Clem herded Jess and Kirk to safety.

“Ben—now simmer down—that’s it—I’ll let you go as soon as I know you’re calm,” Roy said and this time offered a bit of consolation in his tone of voice.

“Calm?  How am I supposed to be calm, Roy?  Those men will get what—a couple of months–maybe a year in prison?  While Joseph—-sits at home thinking his mother is alive!”

Roy slowly eased up on his hold and Ben pulled his arms back to his sides.  “I understand all that, Ben—and I know that the law ain’t perfect–but at least we got those animals locked up where they can’t harm anyone right now.  Your anger ain’t entirely towards them neither—I know you wanna get the men who are still holding Marie.  Now—come on—let’s go and get us a drink and talk.  Okay?”

Ben sighed deeply and stared into the sheriff’s sympathetic eyes.  He reached down to the street and retrieved his hat and then nodded to Roy that he was ready to go get the drink he had offered.  Together the two men walked down the street and over to the Silver Dollar Saloon.

*****

“It doesn’t get any better than this!”  Bristol laughed as he read the headlines of the Territorial Enterprise the next evening.  Spread out on the first two pages was the whole saga of how Joe Cartwright had been duped by two men and ended up locked inside a casket that turned out not to be his mother’s.  The reporter went on to tell of the posse’s exploits in capturing the two men and also of Ben Cartwright’s big scene in front of the sheriff’s office the previous day.  Bristol was ecstatic over the news.  He reached for the basket of walnuts and pulled two into his hand, as before.  Cracking them loudly he laughed and said to himself, “How’s it feel, Ben?  How’s it fill to know your son has cracked under the pressure—and you along with him?”

Cole and one of the other hired guns walked into the cabin and over to their boss.

“I see you enjoyed the news, huh?  From what I heard in Virginia City those two men took Joe to a cabin not five miles from here.  A bit too close for comfort in my opinion,” Cole said as he sat down next to Bristol.

“So?  Do we make our move now, Boss?” the other man asked.

Bristol smiled and lit the end of his cigar, blowing the smoke from the match right in the other men’s faces.  “I think we are just about ready—get all the other men together, Nick, and we will all have a little run- through.”

Bristol’s response relieved the two men, who had worried about pressing their luck by waiting so long.  It had already been over three weeks since they had stolen the remains of Marie Cartwright.  Nick headed for the door to gather the other men.

*****

Hoss walked into the ranch house the next afternoon and headed into his father’s study.  Hearing the door shut, Ben looked up from his paperwork.  He had left Adam in charge of handling most of the books during the previous weeks, but wanted to try to focus on something other than the problem he was having with Joe.

“Pa?  I saw Doc leaving—anything new with Joe?”  Hoss asked hopefully and sat down next to his father.

Ben looked up wearily and shook his head.  “No—his hands are doing better—but we still can’t get through to the boy.  Did you and Adam accomplish your task?”

Hoss nodded, “Yeah—the new headstone is in place, Pa.  Looks real good too.  We wasn’t sure if you wanted us to fill in the grave—I mean just until we get Ma back?”

“I’ve thought it over—and well—let’s wait just a little while longer.  Will you hitch up the buckboard for me, Son?”  Ben asked as he closed his ledger book.

Hoss looked over at his father confused, the man hadn’t said anything about going anywhere.  He hoped he could keep Pa at the house, especially after he had heard how he had lost his cool with the men who had abducted Joe.

“You going somewhere?”

“I’m taking Joseph up to Marie’s grave,” Ben replied and stood from his desk.  He could tell that Hoss wasn’t thrilled by his answer.  “I have to try to bring him out of this, Hoss, and I don’t know anything else to do.”

“But, Pa—how’s this gonna help?  I mean—since her casket hasn’t been returned yet!”

“I have to try—now go get the wagon ready will you?  I have to go and get your brother,” Ben explained and turned for the stairs.

*****

Joe hadn’t said one word the whole way up to the lake.  He sat with his arms crossed in front of him as if he was trying to hold in his emotions.  Joe had been very angry with his father and his brothers as well.  The more he insisted that they go and help him find his mother, the more they insisted that she was dead.  He knew otherwise.  Joe was sure he had heard her talk to him, he knew she was out there somewhere.  As far as Joe was concerned his family didn’t want his mother to be rescued and it increased his anger daily.  If he could have gone after her alone he would have, but found himself to be guarded too well by the family.

Ben pulled back on the reins as they neared the path, which led down to his wife’s gravesite.  He turned and stared over at his son and could see recognition in his eyes.  Ben hoped that it was a good sign.

“Joseph—let’s go for a little walk, okay?”

Joe’s eyes followed the worn path that led into the trees, and his heart began pumping blood so fast that he felt faint.  There was something beyond the trees at the top of the hill that scared him to death.  He couldn’t remember what it was though, only that he wasn’t about to get out of the wagon.

“Come on, Son,” Ben insisted and hopped down from the buckboard.  When he noticed that Joe was not going to budge, Ben walked around the wagon and reached for his son’s elbow.

“No!”  Joe shouted and jerked away from his father’s touch.

“You know where we are, don’t you, Joe?”

“Take me home, Papa—take me home now!”  Joe screamed.

Ben hated what he had to do, but he had no choice in the matter.  He knew that Joe had to go to the grave and if he had to be dragged every step of the way then so be it.  Reaching up again for Joe’s arm, Ben got a better hold and pulled his son out of the buckboard.  Joe continued to try and break free but his father was far stronger.  Fighting him each step of the way, Joe was pulled down the path, which led to the grave.  Ben stopped short of the opened grave and instead focused on the newly placed headstone.  He forced Joe’s gaze so he would have to see whose name was on the granite marker.

“Joseph—-your mother—she died twelve years ago,” Ben whispered as he saw his son’s eyes staring down at the headstone.  “See those dates on there?  Joe—it was years ago—you have to understand!”

“No–Papa—you’re lying to me!”  Joe screamed and tried to run away.  Ben caught him and held on tight.

“I wish I was, Son—I wish to God I was—and that she was still with us–but she’s not!”

“I heard her—I saw her—she was cold—so cold,” Joe cried.

“Joseph—listen to me—it wasn’t your mother—those men took you out to that cabin and locked you inside a coffin that they stole from the cemetery –it wasn’t your mother’s casket!”

“NO!  Papa—she’s alive!”  Joe yelled and struggled once more, trying to break free.  With all the pent up hurt and anger Joe had left inside of him he lurched forward and knocked his father to the ground.  He started to run away but stopped suddenly when he finally noticed the open grave.  It was the first time he had seen it, having only focused on the headstone and in getting away from his father.  Joe stood staring as if mesmerized by the sight of the empty grave.

Ben sprang to his feet and neared the boy, all the while wondering what was going on in his head.  He watched in anguish as Joe fell to his knees and began sobbing.  Ben knelt down next to him and wrapped him in his loving embrace.

“Pa—- Pa—where did they take her?  Where did they take my mother?”  Joe asked as he looked into his father’s eyes.

Ben encased Joe’s face with the palms of his hands and his eyes filled with both astonishment and tears.  He had caught onto the simple word “pa”, and then looking into the hazel eyes he could see the real Joe staring back at him.

“Joseph?”  Ben asked, almost afraid to believe that the boy had somehow snapped out of the mental trauma that had held him prisoner for days.

“Pa—-where did they take my mother?  Why isn’t her casket back yet?”  Joe asked again.

Ben clung to his son and thanked God for the breakthrough.  “Joe—do you remember what happened to you?”

Joe looked strangely at his father and then closed his eyes as pictures of his abduction randomly flashed through his mind.  The reality hit him and hit him hard.  He could still see the thin shaft of light, which had pierced through the casket before night had fallen.  Joe could see the decaying corpse lying at his side and heard his own screams echoing against the coffin’s interior.

“Oh, Pa!”  Joe gasped and began crying harder.  It all came upon him like a living nightmare shaking the fibers of his being with its impact.  “Oh, Pa—it was so awful–so awful—I was so scared–so scared that I would never get out of there!  It wasn’t Mama—it wasn’t her!”

“No, Joseph—it wasn’t your mother,” Ben replied softly and allowed Joe to feel safe in his tight hold.

“Pa—I thought it was her—I thought it was her—oh, God!  Pa—-why did they do that to me?  Where’s my mother?”  Joe continued to relive his experience and each new scene that popped into his mind was more horrifying than the last.

“I don’t know why—but Roy caught up with those men—and they can’t hurt you any more,” Ben tried to ease Joe’s fear a little with his news.

“Then—they aren’t the ones who took Ma?  They just did it to get the money?”  Joe asked incredulously.

“Yes, Son–they’re not the ones who took your mother–they were just after the reward money.”

“Oh —Pa—this world is so bad—so bad,” Joe cried.

Ben held his son and closed his eyes, fighting back tears.  He happened to be of the same opinion as his youngest son at the time; the world had turned into a bad place, full of evil.  Looking towards the lake, Ben’s eyes caught onto the sunset.  It was even more spectacular than it was the day he and Adam had first gone to the empty grave.  He lifted Joe’s chin and stared once again into the boy’s eyes.

“It’s not all bad, Joe—-there’s still some beauty–some good in it.  Look there,” Ben pointed towards the view across the lake.

Joe pushed aside his tears and stared at the sunset.  He sat there for a long while, still held in his father’s protective embrace, as they watched the sun disappear behind the mountain range.   It was the only peace either Cartwright had known for weeks.  Together they walked back towards the wagon and headed home.

*****

The ride home that evening was much better than the ride out to Marie’s grave.  Ben explained to his son what had happened with the men who had locked him in the coffin and Joe was glad to know that they were now behind bars.  He continued to assure Joe that they would somehow catch up with whoever had stolen Marie’s casket, and that no stone would be left unturned in order to do just that.  When they pulled up in front of the ranch house, Adam hurried out to the buckboard.  Ben wondered why his eldest son had a smile on his face, and hoped it meant good news for a change.

“Pa—Roy’s in the house—and he’s brought someone who might be able to help us!”  Adam called to his father.

“Who is it, Adam?”  Joe asked as he jumped down from the wagon.

Adam stared at his little brother bewildered, he didn’t appear to be the same confused young man who had left earlier.  “Joe?  Joe you okay?”

“Your brother is fine,” Ben replied, with relief in his tone.  “Who did Roy bring with him?”

“Dex Farwell,” Adam answered and turned to walk into the house.  Ben and Joe followed behind him.

Sitting by the blazing fire, was the Pinkerton detective who had months earlier saved Joe’s life.  He had also ended a long spree of killings, solving a crime that had seemed almost unsolvable at the time.  One by one boys who were Joe’s age were being murdered in Virginia City and surrounding towns, and it had been due to the quick thinking of Dex Farwell that Joe was still alive and well.  Just as the killer had readied to kill the boy, Dex had fired the shot that killed the evil man.  Joe had sustained a severe stomach wound but had lived to tell the story.

“Ben–Joe–good to see you!”  Dex smiled as he stood from his seat next to the hearth.

Ben walked briskly across the room and shook the detective’s outstretched hand.  “Dex–thought you were down in Texas?”

“I was—solved another one and then I got Roy’s telegram.  Sorry to hear about what happened.”

Ben nodded and watched as Joe moved over to Dex and also shook his hand.

“Thanks for coming,” Joe said and shot the man a grateful smile.

“Well—I hope I can help.  Roy and your brothers have told me all the facts.  How about we all sit down and try to get to the bottom of this?”  Dex suggested and they all gathered around to go over the details of the case to try and find something that they might have missed.

Dex listened carefully to all the Cartwrights and even Hop Sing came into the conversation with his own theory.  The general consensus was that there was someone out there somewhere who obviously hated the family and was seeking a personal vendetta against them.  Dex had to agree, as there was no other logical answer at the time.

“Anyone who’d go to these lengths to hurt you all quite obviously is close by seeing what their actions have done to the family.  Roy said there were two different sets of wagon tracks and at least four horses.  That’s quite a lot of evil cohorts—whoever thought up this plot must have the funds to pay for so many associates,” Dex commented grimly.

“We’ve combed the whole area—within a twenty five mile radius of the Ponderosa.  Still no luck,” Roy shot in, showing his frustration.

“And those men–the ones who took the thousand dollars from Joe—you sure they had nothing to do with all the rest of this?”  Dex asked.

“I’ve questioned them—I also found out that they were in Frisco when the casket was taken.  They were serving a couple of weeks in a jail there for a minor fracas in one of the bars.  No way they were a part of the original theft,” Roy answered.

Dex frowned and then turned his attention to Ben.  “Any idea of who could want to see you go through something as awful as this, Ben?  Any recent trouble that you could pin point?”

“I can’t think of anyone who could hate me—or this family so badly that they would do such a terrible thing to us!  I’ve gone over and over all this in my mind–and still can’t figure it out,” Ben sighed wearily.

“Well–let me do a little snooping around–see what I can come up with, Ben.  You folks try to hold on just a little longer, okay?  I know this is rough—but we’ll get to the bottom of it,”  Dex reassured the family as he stood from his seat.

“I didn’t think there was anyone who could do something as awful as to desecrate a grave–to steal my mother’s casket.  And now—after what I went through with those other men—I don’t have any faith in mankind,” Joe spoke out with bitterness in his words.

Adam and Hoss shared a worried glance at what their brother had said.  They could tell that he was fully aware that his mother was dead now, but his words had come out with so much despair that they wondered if it might spawn another mental set back.

Ben moved next to the boy and placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder, offering whatever solace he could at the time.  He knew that his youngest had gone through far more than someone his age could take emotionally.  Ben was also worried that Joe had given up on the rest of the world after having witnessed such an abundance of cruelty.

“Joseph—don’t forget that this family has a lot of good friends–you are looking at two of them right now,” Ben whispered, referring to Roy and Dex.

“We’ll get your mother back, Joe—we just need one little break–just like we had when we finally got Marcus Hunter.  Remember there was a point when we thought we’d never catch that killer either?”  Dex reminded the boy that there was always hope.

“Yeah–another reason to wonder how this world could be filled with such evil people,” Joe responded, his mind taking him back to the killer who had almost added him to his list of victims.

“You’re too young to be so cynical, Boy,” Dex admonished Joe.

Ben wanted to break up the doom filled conversation, he turned once again towards Dex and said, “Anything we can do to help your investigation?”

“I’m gonna get settled in the hotel and then pour over the facts.  I’ll stop by tomorrow and we’ll see where we want to start, Ben.”

“You know you are more than welcome to stay here, Dex,” Ben offered.

“Think I’d prefer to be based out of town for the time being–I can do a lot more snooping there.  I’ll catch up with you men tomorrow.  Roy—want to ride back with me?”

“Yeah–I got them criminals in my jail–guess I need to get back and relieve Clem so’s that he can go to supper,” Roy nodded and moved with the detective towards the door.

“Thanks for coming–we really appreciate it,” Ben called to the two men as they turned to leave the house.

“See you all tomorrow,” Dex replied, and he and Roy headed out for Virginia City.

*****

The Cartwrights went to bed with hope in their hearts that the detective would come through for them as he had in the past.  Sleep wasn’t in the cards for Joe that night and by one in the morning he yielded to the inevitable and pulled on his robe and headed downstairs.  Sitting in front of the newly stoked fire, Joe tried to doze off in his father’s chair.  Visions of his imprisonment inside the casket prevented him from falling to sleep, just as it had up in his bedroom.  An hour after he had come down to the living room, his father appeared at the bottom of the stairs.  He frowned when he spotted his youngest sitting staring intently into the flames as they darted back and forth on the logs.

“I guess you couldn’t sleep any better than I could,” Ben called to his son and slowly made his way over to him.

“Hope I didn’t wake you, Pa—I tried to be quiet,” Joe replied solemnly.

Ben sat down on the hearth and warmed his hands before answering the boy.

“No—I fell off for a little while and then started to toss and turn.  Guess I was having a nightmare,” Ben said and stared at his son, hoping what he had conveyed would encourage Joe to come out with what had prevented his own sleep that night.

“Yeah–me too,” Joe confessed and looked away from his father’s eyes.

“Want to tell me about it, Joe?”

Joe shook his head, trying his best to force the images back in his mind.  It wasn’t working.  “I close my eyes and still feel like I am in that casket, Pa.  I even tried leaving my lamp on—but it didn’t help.”

Ben moved closer to the boy and dropped his hand down on Joe’s arm.  “I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be to go through, Son.  It’s gonna take awhile–but it will eventually go away.”

“I hope so,” Joe replied, and his words were laced with a combination of doubt and fear.

“You want to go upstairs and try again?”

“No—don’t think so, Pa.  You go on ahead—I’ll just stay down here,” Joe said and this time moved over to the settee and reached for the Indian blanket, which rested on one of the arms.  He placed it around his shoulders to keep warm and looked back over at his father.  “I’ll be okay, Pa–go on,” Joe insisted.

Ben smiled and moved to sit down next to his son on the settee.  He knew Joe wouldn’t ask him to stay with him, even if he wanted him to do just that.

“Hand over some of that blanket.  We’ll see which of us passes out first.”

Joe grinned at his father, who was very apparent in what he was trying to do.  Knowing the man well, Joe did as instructed and handed half of the blanket to him.

“Thanks,” Ben nodded to his son and then grinned and pointed towards the coffee table, “you don’t have your boots on–so if you were to kinda rest your feet across there I am sure your father won’t yell at you this time.”

Joe laughed, and it felt so good to do so after enduring so much stress and worry.   Pa had always been a stickler in his insistence that no-one use the coffee table as a footstool.   Joe knew that his father was trying to use his own brand of consolation by offering to bend the rules.  He lifted his stocking feet and placed them on top of the coffee table stretching out to be more comfortable.  Ben followed suit.  Together they sat there and stared towards the fireplace waiting for exhaustion to set in so they could fall to sleep.

*****

Dex Farwell was a thorough detective and had gotten right to the business at hand and started to track down as many leads as he could find.  His investigation had taken him into Carson City where he dug up some information that he deemed important enough to take straight to the Cartwrights.

“Dex–come on in!”  Hoss welcomed the man heartily as he opened the front door of the ranch house.

“Thanks, Hoss–is your dad around?”

“Yeah—he’s in the kitchen–I’ll go get him,” Hoss answered and headed into the next room.

Ben was surprised to see the detective so soon after their last meeting and hope filled his heart that the man had found some clue as to Marie’s whereabouts.

“I got some news,” Dex called over to Ben and sat down on the settee.  Hoss and his father gathered around the coffee table and directed their attention on Dex.

“What is it?”  Ben asked anxiously.

“I got to thinking about what you all told me–about there being two wagons involved in this.  I already checked the livery stable in Virginia City and had no luck.  But over in Carson they had a record of the purchase of two different wagons.  The date was the day before Joe found that ring.  Chris Jennings, the owner of the livery in Carson said that the man who signed the receipt was Cole Rivers.  Ever heard of him?”

Ben and Hoss both thought for a few minutes and then shook their heads, signifying that they didn’t know of any such person.

“Well, Mr. Jennings also noticed another man who had helped to drive away one of the wagons.  He had seen him years before and is sure it was a man named Bristol Ford.  You know him?”  Dex continued.

Ben could still see the anger on Bristol’s face, years earlier when the Ponderosa’s bid for railroad ties had undercut Bristol’s bid.  The man had been enraged and had sworn to get even with the Cartwrights.  But, that had been years ago, and he had never seen or heard from Bristol ever again.

“I know the man—well I knew him that is.  It’s been years—probably eight or more.  He had a ranch not far from here, but he lost it due to some bad investments and shady deals.  We outbid him for a railroad contract—that was the last time I saw him.  I heard that a short time later he lost his ranch and moved away.  He swore to get even with me for winning that bid–but it’s been so long ago–that I would never have thought of him as being the one who’d do something like this,” Ben replied and shook his head for not coming up with the man’s name in earlier conversations with Roy Coffee.

“Well, he sure waited long enough–if it is him,” Hoss commented, seeing the look on his father’s face.  “I wouldn’t have thought about him either, Pa.”

“Well, if he’s the one in charge then he sure has had this planned out for awhile,” Dex said and then stood to leave.  “I still have more work to do.  We need to find out where they are getting supplies–maybe track them down from that?  Surely someone’s seen either Ford or one of his associates getting grub.  They’ve holed up for weeks now.  I’ll get right on it, Ben.”

Ben stood and walked the man to the door, “You’re doing a good job already, Dex–at least now we have a name.”

“It’s a start—but there’s a whole lot more to figure out.  I’ll report back as soon as I have something else for you,” Dex replied and walked out of the door.

Ben turned around to face Hoss and could see his face scrunched up as if the big man was thinking very hard.  “What is it, Son?”

“They go and buy two wagons, he has that Cole feller sign for it–but doesn’t mind being spotted.  Sound strange to you?” Hoss asked.

“This whole thing sounds strange to me, Hoss!”  Ben exclaimed.  “Maybe Bristol didn’t think anyone would remember him after all these years?  Hopefully the next time Dex comes out we will have a location and get this over with once and for all.”

“Okay if I go tell Joe?  Maybe the news will cheer him up a little?”

“He’s out in the barn–go ahead maybe it will help.  Oh, and check on him to make sure he isn’t doing too much.  He’s supposed to be taking care of those hands, and I think he’s been overdoing it lately.”

“I think Joe is working so hard to try and escape from all that has happened, Pa.”

“Yeah—I know he’s still having nightmares.  Hopefully there will be an end to this and soon,” Ben sighed, remembering clearly all that the family had endured.

“I’ll make sure he’s okay,” Hoss nodded and headed out to the barn.

*****

Late that night the Cartwrights were about to turn in when they heard the sound of a horse outside.  Expecting that the rider was perhaps Roy or Dex with news, they waited for the knock on the front door.  When it didn’t come, Adam headed over to see what was happening.  Pulling the door forward his eyes tracked down to the walkway where an object had been left out in the open.  Adam scanned the area and the mysterious rider had obviously vanished.  Bending down, he pulled up a note that had been weighted down with a rock.  He turned hurriedly back into the house.

“Pa!  Come here!”  Adam yelled and waited as the rest of the family met him over at the door.  “Look at this,” he said and handed the note to his father.

Ben read the message aloud, “To Ben Cartwright, come to Emerald Point at noon tomorrow, bring with you fifty thousand dollars for the return of Marie Cartwright’s remains. Come alone or we will otherwise dispose of her casket.”

Joe immediately reached for his gun and holster, preparing to head out after the messenger.  His father stopped him as he was buckling the gun belt.

“No–whoever left this has already gone–no sense trying to track them in the dark, Joseph.”

“But, Pa—” Joe started to argue only to be cut off.

“We do this as they say—it’s the only way, Son.  Now just simmer down.”

“I wonder if they know that we are on to them?”  Adam asked.  “Maybe they’ve been watching this place and saw that we brought the detective in on it?”

“Who knows?”  Ben sighed and waited until Joe had given up on the idea of leaving and started to remove his holster.  “But, we are going to go and get the money first thing in the morning, that will give me time to get up to the drop off place.”

“What if it’s not them–and someone just after money like those men who got to Joe?” Hoss jumped in with his own suspicions.

“Well—we can’t take the chance that it’s not the real thieves—not now.  First thing in the morning we’ll go into town and get the money and alert Dex and Roy as to what we’re gonna do.  We’ll have them close by for back-up in case they are pulling a scam.”

“I’m going too!”  Joe insisted, worried that his father would forbid it.

Ben put his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder and looked him squarely in the eyes. “You can ride behind—with your brothers and Roy–but you have to follow directions.  Understand?”

“Yeah—just as long as we get them–and make them pay for what they did to my mother!”  Joe responded angrily.

“We’ll get them, Little Brother,” Hoss tried to calm the boy with his tone of voice.

“Let’s all try to get some shut-eye, we’re going to have to be alert tomorrow in order to accomplish what we want to,” Ben offered and they all headed up the staircase.

*****

The plan had been carefully reviewed most of the morning.  Ben recalled his conversation with Roy and Dex as he rode out to Emerald Point to make the drop off.  Roy had promised that they would all hang back at least five miles so that the money could be exchanged for the casket.  Once the casket was in Ben’s possession the Cartwright brothers along with Roy and Dex would race to intercept the criminals and the money.  Ben hoped all would go smoothly, and that no-one would be hurt.  His stomach churned with worry as he headed up the incline, still a few miles from the selected meeting spot.  Ben prayed that it wasn’t another hoax and that the family would be able to recover Marie’s casket after almost a month of it being held.  They were all about as emotionally stretched out as they could be.  Nerves were wearing thin and his sons were about ready to go out on their own after the evil men.  It had taken a great deal of persuasion on Ben’s part to make his sons stay put while he dropped off the money.  None of the boys wanted their father to go to Emerald Point alone, but he had insisted on it.

Ben could see the backs of two horses through the trees and heard what sounded like the cocking of a rifle as he made it up to the top of the hill.

“Get off your horse, Cartwright!”  Bristol shouted and stepped towards the man.

Ben did as instructed, and dismounted right where he had been told.  He untied the saddlebags, which contained exactly fifty thousand dollars.

“Surprised to see me, Ben?”  Bristol laughed as he reached for the money and relieved Ben of his six-gun.

Ben reluctantly turned over the saddlebags and looked vehemently at the man before him.  “No, as a matter of fact I am not, Bristol.  But I didn’t think anyone would stoop this low, not even you!”  Ben answered angrily.

Bristol pointed his rifle, indicating that Ben should step up towards the other horses.  Ben was not about to get shot, so he did as he was instructed.  With Bristol walking close behind him, Ben made it up the hill and was pushed down at the base of a pine tree.

“You won’t mind me tying you up, now will you old friend?”  Bristol said as he reached for a coiled lariat laying close by.  He pointed for his associate, Nick, to keep his gun on Ben while he tied him tightly to the tree.

Ben could now see the buckboard and underneath a tarp caught the sight of a casket.  His heart leapt in his chest when he saw it.  One look and he was convinced that it was indeed his beloved wife’s casket.  He had finally caught up with the ones who had desecrated her grave.

Joe had thought everything out in his mind, he knew what he had to do.  There was just no way he was going to let his pa go into the enemy’s camp alone.  He had for weeks been so worried about his deceased mother, that he had forgotten about something a bit more precious to him; his pa.  Knowing in reality that his mother was already lost to him in life, Joe’s number one concern had turned to Ben and in protecting him from harm.  With all that in his mind he had struggled to come up with a plausible plan of action.  It had come to him just as Roy and Dex had waved to the Cartwright brothers to dismount and wait for Ben to appear after making the money drop.  Joe knew he couldn’t wait that long.  If his father were killed he would blame himself for not having done something to prevent it.  He also knew that there would be no getting over the death of his father, should that happen.  Joe had struggled for years to try and get over his mother’s death and hadn’t been able to get past the grief.  But, if he were to lose his only source of strength then Joe figured he might as well be dead too.

Joe grimaced as he dismounted and grabbed at his hands, as if in great pain.

“What is it, Little Joe?”  Hoss asked, noticing the strained look on the boy’s face.

“My hands—they’ve started to bleed again.  I can’t hardly move some of my fingers,” Joe replied, giving it his best acting job.

Adam heard what his little brother had said and moved closer to him.  “Listen, Kid, maybe you should head back home?  We can get them without you–and that’s all that matters.”

Joe forced a frown, he knew he had to play it up a bit more.  “I can’t leave now—what about Pa?”  Joe complained, his voice going up several octaves.

Hoss put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “Joe–now you don’t worry none about Pa–he’s gonna be okay.  We’ll make sure of it, I promise!  Now go on home–this shouldn’t take long.”

Joe looked at each of his brothers, his eyes filling with tears.  “Just make sure nothing happens to him—come home as soon as you can!”  Joe said quietly and mounted his horse, still grimacing to make it look good.

“We’ll be home soon–you go home and rest now, you hear?”  Hoss called up to his brother as Joe turned the reins of his horse.

“Okay–be careful–all of you!”  Joe replied and rode towards the ranch house.

Ben had been tied up to the tree for almost thirty minutes.  He had also listened intently to what Bristol had been saying to his partners.  He had sent three of them off with the buckboard along with the casket.  Bristol had told Ben it was just for safety sake and that he would be allowed to fetch the wagon as soon as they were gone from the site.  Ben tried to commend to memory the names he had heard along with the facial features of the men.  There would be a time for pay-back, that was for certain.

Bristol and Nick were the only ones left in the camp other than Ben.  Giving the buckboard and his other partners time to clear the area, Bristol waited patiently.

“Had you going for awhile, didn’t I, Ben?  You didn’t know who or why someone would steal Marie’s casket, huh?”

“If you wanted money–why did you wait a month?”  Ben asked, agitated by the humor on the man’s face.

“I wanted to see you crack–all of you.  That was almost as satisfying as the money!  And your boy- Joe–when I read about him getting locked in that fake casket–well it was priceless!”  Bristol laughed.

“It wasn’t funny!” Joe’s voice sang out from behind the tree, which held his father.  He stepped in closer, with his pistol drawn.

“Joseph!”  Ben yelled, and cast a worried glance back at him.

“It’s okay, Pa–I’m gonna get you out of here,” Joe said kneeling next to his father.  He pulled his jackknife out of his pocket and started to free Ben, all the while keeping his gun pointed at ristol and his partner.

All of a sudden Nick dropped to the ground, catching Joe off guard.  Just the motion of Joe looking towards the other man gave Bristol the chance he was looking for.  He jumped towards Joe and knocked him over the head.  Involuntarily Joe dropped his weapon.  Bristol retrieved it while Ben struggled to get free to assist his boy.

“You violated the rules, Ben–now you are gonna pay!”  Bristol yelled madly and grabbed Joe under the arms and dragged him towards his partner.  “Nick–show Mr. Cartwright what we do to folks who don’t follow directions.”

Nick smiled menacingly and kicked the boy in the ribs hard.  Joe started to come back around just in time to feel the impact of the man’s boots.  He reeled from the blow and tried to roll away from the man.  Nick grabbed Joe up by his jacket and pounded his face into a bloody pulp. Joe had tried his best to fight back, but his fingers were in such bad shape, with several fingernails still missing, he was no match for the man.  Ben watched in horror as Joe was rendered unconscious.

Something inside of Ben snapped.  Maybe it was the pent up worry and anguish he had endured for weeks over the loss of Marie.  Perhaps it was all the awful memories that her disappearance had dredged up.  Or it could have been the sight of their child lying unmoving there on the ground in front of his eyes.  Most likely it was a combination of all three that suddenly gave Ben Cartwright the strength of ten men.  Joe had begun to carve the ropes that bound his father but had been stopped.  But, it had weakened the bindings just enough to allow Ben to, with all of his might, break them.  In one blurry rush Ben charged Bristol.  Nick reached for his gun, but Ben was quicker.  The angered father had been able to make it to his son just long enough to grab the boy’s Colt still laying next to him.  Falling to the ground in one spinning motion, Ben shot Nick.  The man screamed in pain and fell to the pine-straw covered soil, not a foot from where he had left Joe after beating him.

Ben turned his attention on Bristol.  He walked towards him, six-gun in hand.

“Drop your gun, Bristol,” Ben ordered with deadly tones.

Bristol looked into Ben’s umber eyes.  What he saw in them was one hundred per cent vengeance.  He decided very quickly to do as he was instructed and dropped his weapon onto the ground.  Ben walked closer and kicked the gun into the brush.  It was then that all hell broke out.  Ben tossed his own gun away and lunged towards Bristol, punishing him with his fists.  With the savagery of a wild animal Ben pummeled the man and they both dropped to the ground.  Ben was beyond all reasoning at that point.  He was fighting for the honor of his wife and out of revenge for the vile deed that Bristol had done to her and the rest of the Cartwright family.  Bristol reeled from the blows and his skin on his face ripped apart, bleeding profusely, from the assault of Ben’s fists.

Joe groaned as he slowly came back to reality.  He heard the loud sounds of the fight going on across from him, and through blood filled eyes he made out the form of his father.  The boy had never seen such primal fierceness in his pa before.  Joe could tell, as he pulled himself to his knees, that Bristol was going to be killed at the hands of his father.

“No Pa!”  Joe screamed and staggered over to the two men.  Bristol was almost unconscious from the beating he had taken already.  He was laying up against the tree where Ben had first been imprisoned.  Ben had his hands around the man’s neck and was choking the life out of him.

Joe fell to his knees next to his father and tried with all his might to pull him away from Bristol.  “No–Pa–don’t do it—don’t kill him!”

Ben could vaguely hear the words of his youngest son, he was too caught up in the emotions that had plagued him for weeks.  He had held back his own despair in order to keep his sons at bay, but each day that they had struggled to deal with Marie’s desecration it had eaten more of the grieved husband’s heart away.

“Pa–don’t –please Pa!  You can’t kill him–you can’t!  Not after all you’ve taught us–not after all we’ve been through.  Pa—don’t be like him—let him go!”  Joe begged, all the while tugging on his pa’s shoulder.

The touch of his son’s hand and his cries slowly brought Ben back to his personal beliefs and he reluctantly released his hands from Bristol’s throat.  Bristol fell to the side gasping for air.

Ben turned to stare at the battered face of his and Marie’s boy.  He gently placed a hand under Joe’s chin and saw the tears.  He knew he had scared the boy by his ruthless actions, and it made his heart hurt.

“I’m sorry, Joseph—sorry–” Ben whispered and pulled the boy into his trembling arms.

“It’s okay, Pa–it’s okay,” Joe replied and clung to his pa.

After taking a few moments to calm themselves and decide on what to do with Bristol, Ben stood and checked out the man’s partner.  Nick was stone cold dead.  Ben reached for the ropes, which had earlier bound his own arms and decided to return the favor.  Both he and Joe secured the semi-conscious man to the pine tree and then retrieved all the weapons and the saddlebags containing the money. Ben and Joe ran to their horses knowing that they had a buckboard to catch up with.

As soon as the others had heard the sound of a shot being fired they had thrown caution to the wind and raced to catch up with Ben.  Just as Joe and his father were coming down the hill on horseback Adam spied them and called out to Hoss.

“What’s Joe doing there?”  Adam yelled.

Hoss had to forcibly remove the smirk from his face as he, too, spotted the pinto pony that carried his little brother.  “Guess them hands wasn’t hurting all that bad,” Hoss replied and raced with Roy and Dex to catch up with Joe and Ben.

“Going to catch up with the wagon!”  Ben shouted as he and Joe met up with the other four men.  “That way!”  Ben pointed towards the tracks and they all raced up the trail to rescue Marie’s casket.

“Split up—Roy and I will head that way–we will take them from all sides!”  Dex yelled pointing at the wagon that was spotted in the distance.  He surged up ahead with Roy following close behind.

As they all gained on the two men on horseback and one behind the reins of the buckboard, Joe spotted for the first time the back of his mother’s casket.  The sight sent a determined set to his shoulders and he spurred Cochise faster.

When Bristol’s two other partners on horseback noticed they were being followed they both split up and went in opposite directions.  Roy and Dex came out up ahead of them and pursued them at top speed.  Ben, Adam and Hoss were gaining on the buckboard, but  Joe was much closer.  When he felt he was near enough to make his move, Joe jumped from Cochise and onto the back of the wagon.  Just as he was attempting to make his way up to the driver, the man panicked and jumped off his seat and landed on the side of the trail.  When he had dropped the reins of the team of horses, they took off at a faster clip.  After clearing several boulders up the narrow trail, the leads suddenly broke and the team parted from the buckboard before Joe could do anything about it.  The wagon came to a sharp incline and turned over.  Joe was thrown first down the steep hill and then the casket, which had been in the back of the wagon sprung from its tie-downs and careened down after him.

Joe only had a few seconds to think of what he could do as he landed flat on his back on the slope.  He could see his mother’s casket free-falling towards him.  Taking a quick glance down below where he had landed, Joe knew that if the casket fell past him that it would surely break on the rocks in the ravine below.  He wasn’t about to let that happen.  Just as the casket made it to where he was still laying on his back, Joe shot one leg forward in a brave attempt to stop its fall.  The casket came to rest on Joe’s right leg and he screamed due to the harsh impact.  It took all his reserved strength to keep his left leg up, bent at the knee, trying to steady the casket and prevent it from going any further down the hill.

Ben and his other two sons had seen the fall and were paralyzed with fear when they spotted the boy laying half way down the incline.  Shouting for ropes, Ben carefully dismounted and slowly made his way down to the boy.

“Can’t hold on–much longer–help me–Pa!”  Joe begged and fought to keep control of the casket with his left foot braced against the end of it.

“It’s okay, Joe–just lie still—I’ll get the end–” Ben replied and lifted the casket so that Joe could pull down his foot and rest a bit.

Hoss eased the rope down from where it was secured to his saddle and watched as Adam wrapped it around the casket.  As soon as it was secure, Ben and Adam lifted it completely off of Joe’s right leg.  Adam helped guide the casket back up the hill as Hoss pulled with all of his massive strength.  Within a few minutes, Marie’s casket was safe on solid ground.

Ben did a quick examination of his son’s right leg and determined the weight of the casket had broken several bones.  He looked down at his son and tears filled his eyes.  Ben knew that Joe’s grand act of unselfishness was done for one reason; Joe loved his mother so much.

Joe could tell that his father was upset by all that had happened, but also very relieved to have Marie back safely.

“Let’s get Ma home now, Pa,” Joe whispered and reached for his father’s hand and squeezed it.

“That was a very brave thing you did, Joe–but your mother wouldn’t have wanted you to risk your life like that–anymore than I would!”  Ben insisted and pulled his son into a seated position.

“You’d have done the same,” Joe argued.

“Yes—guess I would.  Now let’s take you home and get you fixed up!” Ben grinned and turned to see Hoss standing next to him.

“Since them hands of yours hurt so dad gum much, Little Brother–guess I should carry you up the hill, huh?”  Hoss teased, alluding to Joe’s big charade earlier.

“Um–not my hands now–it’s my leg–and this time I ain’t playing!”  Joe grinned sheepishly and soon felt his brother’s strong hands underneath him pulling him up.

“Oh–now you ain’t playing?  That mean you wuz before?”  Hoss laughed and Joe could see the relief in the big man’s eyes to have his little brother in his arms.

“Just get me up this hill, you nit wit—think I’ve got a leg to get set–then we’re gonna make sure Ma is safe and sound.”

“You got it, Little Brother.  It’s over,” Hoss replied and carried his brother up to safety.

Ben stood for a moment and looked downward at the ravine.  He cringed when he thought of the possibility of Marie’s casket having crashed below on the sharp rocks.  Ben looked skyward and said a solemn prayer thanking God that Joe had been able to prevent that from happening.  He slowly trekked up to where his sons were all waiting.  Ben bent down and kneeled at his wife’s casket and gently placed his hands on the lid. ****Marie, my love, we’re never going to let this happen again.***Ben vowed to himself and then stood and faced his sons.

“Hoss, we’re gonna need a wagon for the casket and for Joe.  There should be one up at the logging camp–will you go fetch it?”

Hoss set Joe down gingerly on the side of the trail where there was tall grass to cushion the boy some.  “Sure, Pa—won’t take long—I’ll be right back!”  Hoss replied and mounted his horse.

Ben and Adam gathered around Joe.  Retrieving a canteen from his horse, Adam handed it to his father who began cleaning the boy’s battered face.  He noticed that Joe was not focusing on the pain his father’s movements were causing him, but looked over towards the casket.  There was an expression of worry on the boy’s face.

“Joseph?  What’s wrong?”  Ben asked as he finished wiping the blood away from Joe’s cuts.

“Pa—I hate to ask—but—you sure that it’s Ma’s?”  Joe asked, his voice quivering.

“It is—I’m sure of it.  Now don’t think about it anymore.  Right now we have a leg to set and Hoss will be back shortly with the wagon.”  Ben answered trying his best to assure the boy.  He could understand why Joe had asked the question, thinking back to the phony casket that the boy had been imprisoned in earlier.

Joe eased back, content that his father would know for sure if it was Marie’s casket.  Before Ben began to prepare to set his son’s leg, Roy and Dex appeared.  They had three men with them, and each of them had their hands secured behind their backs.  Two of the criminals were riding together on one horse and all three of them were looking down the barrel of Roy Coffee’s rifle.

“Got the wagon driver and the other two—now how many more?”  Dex asked pulling up next to the Cartwrights.

“Bristol—we left him tied up back at the drop off site,”  Ben replied looking up at the detective.

“Joe?  You okay, Boy?”  Roy asked as he noticed what Ben was getting prepared to do to the kid.  There were two make-shift splints laying at his side, which Adam had prepared while his father had cleaned Joe’s face.

“Yeah—just fine,” Joe nodded and closed his eyes.  He knew what was coming, after having had his leg set a time or two in the past.

“Go get Bristol, we’ll watch these three,” Adam said and drew his gun, pointing it at the Bristol’s partners.

“Be right back!”  Roy called and turned and followed the detective down the trail.

In thirty minute’s time,  Roy and Dex had returned to where Ben and Hoss were lifting Joe into the buckboard, preparing for the trek back to the ranch house.  They both dismounted next to the Cartwrights, and discouragement painted both Roy and Dex’s faces.

“Where’s Bristol?”  Ben asked as he turned from the wagon and stared past both men.

“Ben–don’t know how–but he’s gone.  We searched the whole area.  Someone had to untie him,” Roy replied.

Adam stood from his position on the ground guarding the three men they had captured earlier.  He pointed his gun on them as he spoke, “Any of you men want to tell us who could have untied your friend?”

Dex walked over next to the eldest Cartwright son and also turned his attention on the prisoners.  “You might just as well speak up–you boys are all going to jail anyhow!”

“Cole—Cole stayed back aways—he must’ve been the one.  It was just the five of us and Bristol in on this,” the man, later to be identified as Jim Haywood, ratted on his former boss and associate.  He was already angered when he had learned that his friend Nick had been killed, while Bristol had escaped unscathed.  Now Jim wanted nothing more than to see his boss captured and punished with the rest of them.

Ben shook his head, disgusted that he had not taken Bristol along with him when they had hurried off after Marie’s casket.  It looked as though the ringleader was still on the prowl, and he was the one Ben wasn’t done with; not by a long-shot.  If it hadn’t been for Joe’s earlier pleas, Ben knew he would have killed the man with his bare hands.

“We’ll take these men into town, Ben—and send for Doc to head out your way,” Dex said as he watched Ben move to the driver’s seat next to his son Hoss.

“Pa–think I’ll go with them–there’s some things I want to check on,” Adam called to his father and reached for Sport’s reins and swung into his saddle.

Ben gave his eldest son a questioning look, wondering what Adam had in mind.  “We’ll see you back at the ranch then.  We need to get Joe home,” Ben nodded and watched as Roy and Dex led the prisoners back towards Virginia City, where there were jail cells awaiting them.  Adam followed along after the detective and Roy, having thought of a few things that perhaps his father had missed.  It was clear that Ben was emotionally played out, it was obvious just in looking at the man, as the wagon started back towards the Ponderosa.

Joe stretched out in the back of the buckboard.  There was a mixture of relief and bittersweet joy as he stared over at his mother’s casket, sitting next to him.  He thanked God that he had been able to save the coffin as it had plummeted down the hillside.  Closing his eyes and wincing from the pain, which had come back in full force, Joe reached out his left hand and placed it against the oak casket.

Ben would, every now and then, cast a quick glance backwards to see how his son was handling the trip home.  When he saw that the boy was apparently asleep with his hand still resting against Marie’s coffin, it tugged at his heart. Ben knew that the adrenalin that had coursed through Joe’s body as he tried valiantly to protect his mother’s remains, had subsided lending way for the pain to take over.  It would never cease to amaze the worried father how that boy of his could be so strong, so courageous, and yet so vulnerable to the evils the world hurled at him.  An image of Marie popped in Ben’s mind and he remembered how she was just like her son in that respect.  She was brave, strong, willful, but so abused by the ways of the world.  It had taken his own loving arms to shield Marie from the harshness and pettiness of the people who had gone up against her at times.  Seeing their son going through much of the same things she had in life, was yet another poignant reminder of how much of Marie existed in their child.  He, too, needed Ben’s arms to shield him from the world at times.  But, when the chips were down, Joseph had turned into a great force to be reckoned with; just like Marie.  They both would have fought to their deaths to protect someone they loved. ****rest, Joseph****Ben sighed to himself.

While Doctor Martin went about the task of checking on Joe’s injuries later that afternoon, Adam came home and asked Hoss to bring their father down into the living room.  Ben rather reluctantly left his youngest son in the skilled hands of the physician and walked wearily down the flight of stairs to see what it was that Adam wanted to tell him.  By the time he reached the bottom steps, he started to figure it out for himself.  Sitting on the settee was the coroner and old family friend, Patrick Moody.

“Pat—how are you?”  Ben asked as he moved over to the man and reached out to shake his hand.

“I’m okay–question is–how are you, Ben?”  Patrick replied and stood from his seat.

“A little worse for wear I am afraid—” Ben trailed off as he looked at Adam.

“Adam thought I could help you,” Patrick started to explain.

Ben nodded towards the coroner, he had already assumed why his son had brought the man.  There might have been a question as to whether the casket did indeed contain Marie’s remains.  Ben had tried all the way back to the ranch house to put the question out of his mind but had fought a losing battle with the thought.  If Bristol and his partners were evil enough to steal the woman’s casket they could’ve been just deranged enough to remove her body as well.  Ben reached into his vest pocket, where he had kept the engagement ring ever since Joe had brought it home weeks ago.  He handed it over to Patrick.

“Will you take care of this for me? —I don’t think I could bear it,” Ben asked in a whisper.  He hated to even ask the coroner to place the ring on Marie’s finger, but knew there was no-one else he could trust to do so.  He surely couldn’t ask either of his oldest sons, and Ben knew he would probably snap mentally if he opened the casket himself.

“I’ll see to it, Ben.  Now—was there anything else in there with Marie?  It’s been so many years–” Patrick broke his sentence off quickly, not wanting to hurt either Cartwright by his question.  He had just started as coroner the year that Marie had passed away.  Though he was not in the capacity of mortician, the Cartwrights had trusted him enough to have him assist them in the burial of their beloved Marie a dozen years earlier.

“Yes—there was Joseph’s blanket—” Ben stopped and could feel the advance of tears leaving his eyes.  It had fallen on him like a ton of bricks.  The images of her funeral and his infant son crying for his mother and insisting on putting his yellow blanket in the coffin to keep her warm.  “Excuse me—I have to—I will be back–” Ben choked out and hurriedly left the house.

Patrick turned towards Adam, and saw how the young man’s face looked almost as grieved as his father’s.  “I’m sorry—hope I didn’t say anything wrong.”

Adam patted the man’s shoulder and looked wistfully towards the door.  “No–you didn’t–Pa’s been holding it all together–for all of us–all these weeks.  Now that we’ve got Marie back–well he’s finally starting to show some cracks in his usual stoic facade.  Just give him a few minutes and he’ll be back.  Let me get you some coffee—or would you prefer brandy?”

Patrick smiled and replied, “I think I’ll take some brandy—it might help with what I have to do in a little while.”

Adam walked into his father’s den to pour two drinks.  He figured he could use some liquid courage himself right about then.

*****

When the Ponderosa had first been built, the decision was made to have a small bunkhouse built on the far corner of the main house just off to the left of Ben’s study.  Over the years the room had been converted to an extra room for visiting guests and a larger bunkhouse had been constructed by the barn.  The room was still and the light from several candles gave off a warm and peaceful glow.  When Ben stepped inside, after trying to gain his composure, he saw that Hop Sing was sitting right next to where the casket had been laid out.  In Ben’s mind it could have been twelve years earlier, the sight of Marie’s kindred soul keeping guard over her remains just as he had back then.  Walking over to the Oriental, he dropped his hand down onto Hop Sing’s shoulder.

“Missy Cartlight at peace–no worry Mister Ben,” Hop Sing whispered.

“I hope so—would you mind giving me a few minutes with her, Hop Sing?”

Hop Sing stood and relinquished his chair to his boss and gauged his facial expression.  He could read the pain that Ben was experiencing.  The evil men who had stolen Marie’s remains had dug up more than just a casket.  They had dug up some pretty excruciating memories for all the Cartwrights, but especially the woman’s adoring husband.

“Hop Sing go see how Little Joe doing—you take time,” Hop Sing stated warmly and turned out of the room.

Ben noticed that Hop Sing had meticulously cleaned the casket   It hardly showed the wear of so many years of use.  The cook had also placed a small bouquet of roses from his garden on top of the lid.  Ben placed his hand on the casket and tears drifted down from his eyes. ****My Marie—I am sorry—sorry I couldn’t protect you from all this—just as I couldn’t protect you from that fall—I miss you so much—the thought of burying you again—I just can’t bear it****Ben thought to himself. ****Forgive me, Darling–forgive me for all of this****

Ben sat in the room next to his wife’s remains for hours, until the knock on the door, which shook him from his many remembrances of the love of his life.  He stood and pulled the door open and saw that Patrick and Adam had decided it was time to begin the task of confirming whether Marie’s body had been taken or left inside the coffin.

“Pa?  Is it okay now?”  Adam asked quietly.

Ben nodded and drew in a deep breath to ward off his emotions.  “Yes—go ahead, Patrick.  I’m going to check on Joseph,” Ben answered and headed out of the door.

Hoss looked across the room from his brother’s bed as their father walked into the room.  He stood and stretched as Ben made his way next to the bed and sat down next to Joe.

“How is he?”  Ben asked, seeing that the boy was asleep.

“Doc kinda re-did the set–but said it wasn’t too bad.  The kid’s going to have to stay off of it for about two months though.  Doc said he would be back out tomorrow and left some pain powders if Joe needs them.

“I’m just glad it wasn’t any worse than this—he could’ve been killed in that fall,” Ben nodded towards Hoss and then reached up and pushed the curls from off Joe’s forehead, out of habit.

“Pa?  You all right?  You look pretty rough,” Hoss worried over the exhaustion, which showed on his father’s face.

“Yes—I’m okay—thanks for watching after your little brother for me—I should’ve been up here.”

“No—you were where you should have been—Joe knew where you were–and if he wasn’t laid up he would’ve been down there with you.”

“Once Patrick’s done—I want to make the plans to bury your ma—and do it so this will never happen again,” Ben said, with determination in his tone.

“Yeah–me and Adam got to talking about that earlier—and he said that Dex spoke to him in town about it too.  We can talk about it downstairs—lets go get some grub.”

Ben shook his head and replied, “I don’t think I could eat right now, Son–you go on ahead.”

“Joe’s okay Pa—you don’t have to worry none.”

“I’ll be down in a minute–you go ahead and have Hop Sing get it on the table and we will all sit down and eat a decent meal for a change.”

“Promise you’ll be down soon?”  Hoss asked as he moved towards the door.

“Promise,” Ben said and forced a smile on his face for Hoss’ sake.

“Okay–we’ll get it ready,” Hoss grinned back over at his pa and walked out of the room.

Ben watched his youngest son slumber on and wondered what he was dreaming about.  Every now and then a smile lifted the corners of the boy’s mouth and then it faded just as fast and he took on a sadder countenance.

“Joe?  Can you hear me?”  Ben whispered and held the boy’s hand.

Joe blinked a couple of times and then slowly his father’s face came into focus.  “Pa?  How long have I been out— and where’s Doc?”  Joe asked groggily.

“You’ve been out a good long while, Joe.  But, that’s good–you need to rest up.  You got pretty banged up in that fight–not to mention your fall down that hill!”

“Where is everybody?”  Joe asked again, he didn’t remember hearing Doc Martin leave the room earlier. And, he wondered what happened to his brothers too.

“Everyone’s downstairs—we’re about ready to eat dinner.  How about I fix you something and bring it up?  You hungry?”

Joe stared up at his father and could see his brave attempt to hide something from him.  Noticing the redness, which encircled Pa’s eyes, Joe knew that the man had been crying.  “Pa?  Is everything okay—I mean with Ma—something didn’t happen while I was under did it?”

“No–nothing–now you just settle down—everything’s fine.”

“You don’t look very fine to me,” Joe countered and tried to get his father to look him directly in the eyes to determine if he was telling him the truth.

Ben sighed and squeezed his son’s hand, “Okay–you got me there—I guess I don’t look all that good right now.  But—saying goodbye—again—well—it hasn’t been easy.”

“Thanks,” Joe whispered and leaned forward to hug his father.

Ben was confused by his son’s actions, but held onto the boy to offer him comfort.  “Thanks?  For what, Joseph?”

“For not making me feel like a kid—for telling me what you were really feeling and not candy coating it for a change.  Pa—I know this whole thing has been harder on you than any of us—and you’ve kept it together.  But, now—well—you need to let it out,” Joe tried to console his father as best he could.

“You know–you’re getting very wise here lately—and that shows me that you aren’t really a kid anymore, Joe,” Ben smiled and eased the boy back against the pillows.

“Well—after seventeen years of lectures from my father–guess it was eventually gonna wear off on me, huh?”  Joe laughed.

“Nice to know I had something to do with it,” Ben teased and stood from the bed.

“No you had everything to do with it, Pa,” Joe replied, and in his eyes he showed the respect, admiration, and love he felt for his father.

“Up in that camp—when I had Bristol—well—I was wrong, Joseph—and I’m glad you were there to set me straight.”

Joe laughed and winked up at his father, hoping to get him off the hook temporarily.  He knew that Pa felt bad for what he had almost done to Bristol and Joe didn’t want to make him feel any worse.  “Pa?”

“Yes?”

“How many times do I have to tell you to watch that temper of yours?”  Joe sounded out, and tried for a stern expression to match the ones he usually got from his father.

Ben nodded, “Like father like son I guess.  Now–if you are done with this little lecture–how about some grub?”

Joe settled back against his pillows and smiled.  He could tell that the little banter between the two of them had eased some of the grief that was earlier painted on Pa’s face.  Joe took that as a small victory.  “Sure—you go and eat–then bring me up some–I’m gonna take another nap.”

“See you in awhile–and Joseph?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks,” Ben called across the room and winked at his boy.

“Anytime,” Joe nodded and closed his eyes.

*****

Ben’s appetite came back with the news that Patrick had offered.  Marie’s remains were indeed in her casket and intact.  The coroner confirmed that Joe’s blanket was still with the body and that he had secured the ring to her finger where it would remain for all eternity.  Patrick ate dinner with the family and then headed back into Virginia City.  Not long after they had all finished dinner and Hop Sing had taken a plate of food up to Little Joe, Dex Farwell appeared at the ranch house to update the Cartwrights on what he had learned from the prisoners.

“So the plan was to see us suffer, huh?”  Hoss asked Dex, and his voice was full of anger.

“Yes—afraid so.  When Bristol was finally convinced that you all had been through enough grief he sent out that ransom note.  There was going to be a six way split of the fifty thousand dollars.”

“Now there’s three men in town who won’t get anything but hard time,” Adam announced.

“Yes—at least the money was recovered.  Just like that thousand dollars that those other two fools took from Joe,” Dex nodded.

“Money be damned!”  Ben fumed.  “I would give all of it to get Bristol in my sights again!”

“Roy has a posse out after him and that Cole feller.  I expect they high-tailed it out of here but maybe we will get lucky again and capture them,” Dex explained.

“Well, when they catch up with him I’ve got a few things to say to Bristol–with my fists!”  Hoss exclaimed hotly.

“Settle down—let’s get to the matter at hand, shall we?”  Dex tried to calm the thick cloud of revenge he felt hanging over the living room.

“Hoss said that you had some ideas as to Marie’s grave?”  Ben asked and passed the detective some coffee.

Dex accepted the offered drink and nodded towards his host.  “Yeah—but before I tell you what I think you should do—we have to make certain that no-one ever hears of this other than all of you.”

“It won’t go any further than this living room–now what’s your idea?”  Ben asked, his curiosity now at its peak.

Dex smiled and huddled with the Cartwright family as he revealed what he had come up with to prevent another attempt to steal Marie’s remains.

*****

During the next two days the preparations for the re-interment of Marie Cartwright were shrouded in secrecy.  Hoss, Adam, and Dex worked in the darkness, with only the light of a lantern to illuminate the grave.  The plan had been carefully reviewed and no one other than the Cartwrights and Dex Farwell knew what was going on up at the overlook by Lake Tahoe. On the third day after they had recovered Marie’s casket, Ben mounted his horse and followed the carriage up to his wife’s gravesite.  Adam, Joe, and Hop Sing rode along in the surrey while Hoss followed behind in the buckboard carrying the coffin.

Ben had asked Dex and Roy to meet them all up at the grave at noon, wanting to thank the men who had made the recovery of Marie possible.  Solemnly Dex, Roy, Hoss, and Adam carried the casket up to the grave and lowered it on ropes into the earth below.  Joe was helped up the hill by Hop Sing and Ben.  It was slow going as he had to maneuver the crutches past the many obstacles in his way.  When at last they all surrounded the beloved woman’s grave, Ben pulled out a small bible and read a short passage.

“****and if I go and prepare a place for you I will surely come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there ye may be also–amen,” Ben finished with the reading and turned towards his sons.  They each said a silent prayer and tossed in a rose that Hop Sing had provided for them.

****Rest easy, Ma—this gladiator of yours won’t never let anything happen to you again. ****Hoss told the woman and walked off.

****Marie—I hope I’ve made you proud—as proud as I am of you–thanks for loving me. ****Adam told the woman and headed down to the surrey.

Dex and Roy turned and looked at Ben and Joe and walked away to give them privacy.

Hop Sing stood next to Little Joe, of whom he had protected since birth and would never cease to do so.  In his mind and heart he could still see the little boy with the blanket crying at his father’s legs.

Joe looked down into the open grave at his mother’s casket and tears streamed down his cheeks.  His memories of her first funeral were just brief flashes of time.  Now he began to understand how his brothers had felt on that rainy day so many years ago.  With age came the understanding that death was forever.  As an infant he didn’t really know that his mother wasn’t coming back.  Now he did.

****Goodbye, Mama—until I see you in heaven.****Joe whispered.

Hop Sing’s arm reached towards Joe’s shoulder and he said quietly, “You give father kiss–then we go home and make dinner.”

Joe looked over at his father and could see the intense sadness taking over the man’s face.   Carefully planting his crutches, Joe leaned over to his pa and kissed him on the cheek and turned away.  Assisted by Hop Sing, Joe slowly walked down to the others.  By the time they made it over to the surrey and Hoss helped his little brother into the seat, the skies opened up and rain began to fall.

“Mama’s tears,” Joe whispered to Hop Sing.

Hop Sing’s smile arose on his face like an Oriental sunrise.  He had thought that Joe had forgotten, but that memory was still very apparent as he squeezed the boy’s hand.

“Yes, Little Joe–Mama’s tears,” Hop Sing nodded and waited for Adam to take the reins.

“We’ll stay here–you boys go on home.  We’re gonna fill in the grave once your father is done with his goodbyes,” Roy said and walked away with Dex.  They stayed just far enough away from the grave so that Ben would have total privacy.

Adam sent the carriage onward as Hoss grabbed the reins of the buckboard, following the others back home.

Ben held the long-stemmed red rose in his hand so tightly that the thorns cut into his palm.  He didn’t want to place the flower inside the grave, as it would mean the end.  Grief he had known so many times in his life that it was like and old unwanted ailment that refused treatment.  He had no idea how he could walk away from his wife this time.  Ben hoped that someday he would be resting side-by-side Marie in his own grave.  There had been times he had almost prayed for it to happen quickly.  But, always, there were his boys to consider.  How could he leave them?  Ben knew he was the glue that held the family together, just as Marie was before her death.  He would have to go on, no matter how he felt inside.

Ben knelt next to the grave and reluctantly tossed the flower down onto the top of the casket. ****Until I am with you again, Darling.***he whispered and brushed back tears.  As he stood and felt the coolness of the raindrops on his face the wind picked up in the pines that surrounded the site.  A strange rhapsody filled the air and Ben closed his eyes and felt the touch of a soft hand upon his cheek. ****Ben, you are always with me.****came the sound of Marie’s gentle voice whispering in his ear.  When he opened his eyes again the wind had abated and the rain all but vanished completely.  Through tears and sorrow, Ben forced a smile towards the heavens and walked away from the grave.

*****

Epilogue:

There was one strange secret that all four Cartwrights, Hop Sing, and Dex Farwell took to their own graves.  It was never again spoken of, nor passed down for other generations of Cartwrights.  Even their dear friend Roy Coffee had been unaware of the plan that the Pinkerton detective had come up with to make sure there would never again be a threat of losing Marie Cartwright’s earthly remains.  Though Roy had stayed behind with Dex that day that they re-buried the casket and filled in the six-foot hole in the ground, he had no idea what had been behind all the secrecy.  The Cartwrights didn’t think anyone else needed to know that Marie’s casket was actually buried twelve feet under her tombstone.  And, above it, some six feet worth of dirt along with another casket that was an exact replica of hers.  It might have been an unnecessary ruse, but it did make all of the family rest a bit easier to know if anyone in the future had a plan like Bristol’s they would be sorely disappointed.

Life slowly began to get back to normal for the family, though there were many more visits up to Marie’s grave from everyone shortly after she was buried for the second time.  It wasn’t just the fact that the family had become even more protective of the grave-site, it was also a reminder of how much they had lost that made them visit a bit more often than before.  The experience seemed to help the Cartwright brothers address their feelings towards the woman they all knew as their mother.  Oddly, it had worked as a catharsis that drew the three young men closer to each other.  The ordeal had brought so many hidden memories back into the forefront of their minds that it was almost like they had a chance to visit with their mother again and remember all the gifts she had given them.  Especially the gift of unconditional love.

Ben also had to address many things he had locked away in his mind and heart over the years since Marie’s death.  Saying goodbye to her for the second time, there surrounded by sons who were almost all grown, helped him.  He could draw strength from his boys now, the way they had always drawn it from him.  With their help, and with the ever- present memory of Marie’s voice whispering that she was still with him, Ben felt he could bury some of the bitter past and move on with his life.

There was only one thing that had not been settled concerning the whole awful ordeal that the Cartwrights had endured.  Where was Bristol Ford—and what was he planning next?

*****End*****

Note: Thanks to my friends, Deb, Leesa, and Carol for all their help and encouragement in the writing of this story.

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