Raising the Stakes (by Wrangler)

Summary:   A series of unfortunate occurrences raises the stakes for Joe.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,940


 

Joe Cartwright rolled up the large wad of dollar bills and placed them securely in his coat pocket. His eyes twinkled with delight as he bid goodnight to his friends. It had been a profitable night at the Silver Dollar Saloon and Joe had increased his week’s pay by more than two hundred dollars. He only stopped with the poker game when Sam the bartender had made one last call for drinks. It was only then that Joe realized it was almost two in the morning. Mounting Cochise he turned the horse toward the Ponderosa. He would have the long ride back home to think of a good lie to tell his father should he still be awake and waiting on his youngest son’s return.

Turning the doorknob quietly Joe cautiously entered the ranch house. His spirits soared as he saw the lights had all been put out and even the fireplace’s embers were dead. That was the sign he had prayed for on the way back home. Joe had thought of several different stories to tell his father, should the man still be up. Fortunately they would not be needed until morning, giving Joe at least four hours to hone his lies to make them more believable.

Joe took off his boots when he made it up the staircase. He knew his father was a light sleeper and was not about to take the chance of waking him with the heaviness of his boots. Joe crept past Hoss and then Adam’s bedrooms and then stealthily past Ben’s room. A broad smile creased the corners of Joe’s mouth as he made it into his own room. The brief moment of glory was short lived as Joe lit his lamp as he entered. Turning, his eyes caught sight of his father sitting in the dark waiting on his wayward youngest son.

“Pa—” Joe began but was having trouble catching his breath. “What are you still doing up?” Joe started rethinking his story plans and tried to pinpoint the one that sounded the most truthful.

“Why do you think I’m still up, Joseph?” Ben stood and approached his son.

Joe looked down at the floor. It was very evident that Pa was extremely mad and Joe did not want to say anything that would upset him more. “Waiting for me?” He asked weakly and tried to look as innocent as possible.

“Good deduction. You are so very clever, aren’t you? You are so smart but you haven’t learned after over seventeen years how to tell time!” Ben’s voice grew louder and he stood so straight that Joe was dwarfed in comparison.

“I can explain–” Joe started but Ben cut right back in.

“No more lies! I am so sick of your tall tales. I have no idea what has gotten into you lately. You never have been this awful before. You stay out till all hours drinking and playing poker then you come home and spin some yarn that you know very well I don’t believe.”

“I was just having a little fun. That’s all, Pa.” Joe replied breaking away from Ben’s disappointed gaze.

“Well, you can just have all the fun you want. But, it will be right here on this ranch. No more drinking no more poker playing. Understood?” Ben forced Joe to look into his dark eyes.

“That’s not fair!” Joe protested. “I work just as hard as Adam and Hoss and they drink and they play poker.”

“They don’t sneak out of the house and sneak back in the next morning telling their father lies. You do. Now, until you prove yourself to be more reliable what I said stands.”

Joe walked in a huff over to his bed and plopped down on it showing his disgust.

“And about this chip on your shoulder, Young Man–lose it if you know what’s good for you. You have been very disrespectful–not just of me–but also both of your brothers. I want that stopped right now.”

Joe folded his hands behind his head and did not think about any consequences as he fired back at his father. “Well, no-one shows me any respect–so why should I?”

Ben neared his son and put his hands on his hips. He fought to control his own temper even though he could see Joe was not trying to control his. “Do you want to rephrase that statement, Joseph?” Ben made the question come out more like a threat and Joe looked over at the man before him.

“Okay—I’m sorry. But, I still don’t think any of this is fair.”

“Whether you think it’s fair or not does not matter to me at this particular moment. I am your father and I make the rules. Understand?”

Joe sighed deeply. He wasn’t going to push the issue right then. He had seen the set in Ben’s shoulders before and knew that his father was beyond reasoning with. Joe hoped he could soften him up in a day or two. “Yes, sir.” Joe mumbled.

“What was that again?” Ben raised his eyebrows in gesture.

“Yes, sir.” Joe replied louder.

“You had better get some sleep you have about three hours now before you get up and start a long day of chores.” Ben said and walked out of his son’s bedroom.

Joe frowned and thought on how he would break his father down to see things his own way. It was a challenge but Joe loved a good fight. He would wait until Ben was having a good day to start pestering him about a trip into Virginia City. With that Joe’s final thought, he fell into a deep sleep.

*****

Ben surveyed the dining table and its occupants. Adam and Hoss were present and ready to eat their breakfast, but, as ususal, Joe was nowhere to be seen. Hoss caught his father’s glance and knew what he was thinking.

“You want me to go get Joe?” Hoss asked and saw the frown that took over Ben’s face.

“Why must he start the day by making me angry?” Ben responded.

“He was out again late last night I take it?” Adam joined in on the conversation.

“Drinking and playing poker till two in the morning.” Ben returned irately.

“Seems to be his normal habit of late. What lie did he tell you this time?”

“None. I didn’t want to hear it. That boy is getting way out of hand.” Ben sighed frustrated at his inability to control his youngest son.

“I’ll get him up.” Hoss offered. He hated to see his little brother getting in trouble again. Hoss had tried his best in the past several weeks to both alibis for the boy and also to keep him at a distance from their father to avoid an all out fight.

Joe was sound asleep in his bed as Hoss approached him. Never having taken the time to even change his clothes, Joe looked like a rumpled vagabond.

“Get up Short Shanks!” Hoss yelled into his brother’s ear. “Pa’s waiting on you down stairs and he ain’t too happy either.” He continued. Joe’s only response was to pull his pillow over his head and roll over trying for another few minutes of slumber.

Seeing this, Hoss had to take more extreme measures and reached for the water pitcher on the nightstand. “I hate to have to do this–but–” Hoss paused and drew back Joe’s pillow and tossed the water all over Joe’s head. Joe sprang up in bed looking very similar to a drowned rat. The curls from his forehead limply hung down to his eyes.

“Hoss! What are you doing?” Joe snapped and reached for his brother’s shirt. “Trying to drown me or something?” Joe spit out some of the water he had taken into his mouth inadvertently.

“I’m trying to save your ornery hide! Pa is downstairs and you sure don’t want him coming up after you. He’s really mad at you right now. Better go change your clothes and put a move on it.” Hoss left his brother sitting there, a soaked young urchin who obviously had no sense.

*****

Joe found his way to the breakfast table looking a bit untidy. His shirt had not yet been tucked in and his sleeves hung loose and were not buttoned. Ben shot a scathing look at his youngest as Joe took his seat. Joe never looked up at any of the others as he began to fill his plate with eggs and bacon.

“Good morning.” Ben said full of sarcasm directed at Joe.

“Oh–yeah–good morning, Pa. Hoss–Adam.” Joe answered but still avoided his father’s burning brown eyes.

“Is this the way we dress for breakfast now?” Adam chimed in looking at the mess that was his little brother.

Joe sneered at Adam but did not respond verbally. He knew he was already in hot water and did not want to push the issue.

“Joseph, is it asking too much that you come to this table on time and dressed decently?”

“Sorry, Pa. I guess I over slept. When Hoss woke me, I just hurried so as not to keep you waiting.”

Ben sat down his coffee cup trying to control his temper as he stared again at Joe. Hoss and Adam both knew the look that was on Ben’s face meant there was going to be trouble. Deciding it would not be advisable to stick around, they finished their breakfast quickly and after being excused, left for the barn.

Joe slowly ate his meal, his mind continuing to try to come up with something to say to his father that would take his mind off of the previous night. He was having no luck.

“Joseph, when you are done eating come into the study I want to speak with you.” Ben’s voice seemed very cold as he walked away from the dining room table. Joe stared down at his food. He hoped to make it last as long as possible to give his father time to simmer down.

*****

Joe took the seat next to his father’s desk and waited for the lecture that was surely coming. Ben cleared his throat and put down the legal papers he had been reading.

“Do you remember our little talk last night, Joseph?” he started.

“Yeah, Pa. I remember. Do we have to go over this stuff again?” Joe frowned at the thought.

“Yes, I believe we do. Just so we are both on the same page here and understand what is expected. “Ben stood and looked down at his son.

“Okay–I know. No poker or drinking. That sums it up, right?”

“Joseph, how much money have you lost lately on this gambling anyway?”

“I won over two hundred dollars last night.” Joe protested.

“OH–you did, did you? Well–how much have you lost so far? I mean, you have been sneaking out of this house on a regular basis for several weeks now.” Ben’s eyebrows furrowed trying to get to the well-hidden truth of the matter.

“Don’t exactly know, Pa.” Joe fibbed again. He knew too well that his losses far out-weighed his gain of the previous night.

“I remember a week ago hearing you hitting on your brother Hoss to borrow some money. And that was right after I paid you your wages.”

“C’mon, Pa—-can we talk about something else?” Joe shifted nervously in his chair.

“No we can’t. I am trying to get through to you that gambling is something you shouldn’t do–especially on a regular basis. Unless you have lots of money to throw away it’s not a very good idea.” Ben continued to bring home his point.

“Okay–whatever you say. Can I go now?” Joe stood up and Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and stared directly into his eyes. He could tell that his son was trying to brush the whole matter off and really had not listened to the point of the lecture.

“Joseph, this time I am not playing around. I mean it. You have gotten away with far more nonsense that I ever let your brothers get away with and it has to stop now. Your attitude and your behavior have been awful lately.”

“Maybe ’cause you are trying to make me in to an Adam or a Hoss, Pa. I’m never gonna be the perfect son and you know it. I don’t think it’s really fair of you to compare me to them either.” Joe was now showing both anger and hurt in his reply.

“I know that you are different, I also know that you are the youngest. But, that doesn’t give you special privileges. Now I want you to start pulling your weight around here and acting more respectful. You do that and you will get that respect back from me and your brothers as well.” Ben’s statement held more of a gentleness in it than previously as he fought to get Joe to understand its meaning.

“Can I go now?” Joe asked again.

Ben sighed and shook his head in defeat. He gazed at his youngest son and knew deep in his heart that the boy had never in his life learned things the easy way. It always took bumps and bruises and a whole lot of regret to get Joe to understand the things he had already been told. Ben knew that was the way of the boy and feeling at somewhat of a loss of how to change Joe, he finally nodded. “Go on out and help your brothers. But, you best mind what I’ve told you.”

Joe shot his father a very peculiar grin. The smile came from the feeling that somewhere along the line he had gotten the better of his father as usual. Feeling a bit triumphant, Joe walked off to retrieve his coat and holster leaving behind Ben’s worried gaze.

*****

Adam and Hoss entered the ranch house late at night. The three Cartwright brothers had spent a week moving the large Ponderosa herd to better grazing land. Ben stood from his chair by the fireplace and smiled on seeing of their return.

“Glad to see you boys back! Everything go okay?” He asked as he neared them.

“The herd is fine, Pa.” Hoss replied tossing down his holster and hanging up his hat.

“Yeah—all settled in and getting fat.” Adam returned his father’s smile.

Ben looked around a big question on his face. “Where’s Joe?”

Adam put his arm around his father’s shoulder and led him back to the living room. “I’ve got some things to say about that boy.” Adam paused and noticed his father’s face took on a look of dread. “All good things believe it or not.” Adam laughed and noticed the dread had now changed to confusion on his father’s face. “He’s out putting away our horses right now.”

“We are talking about Joseph, right?” Ben asked bewildered.

“Yep–Pa, Joe has been a pure joy to work with here lately. He actually worked harder than either of us.” Hoss stated proudly.

“And he’s putting your horses away voluntarily?” Ben couldn’t believe what he had heard.

“Yes, sir, I don’t know what all you said to him two weeks ago but it sure took root. He’s a different kid all together now. We’ve told him how proud we are of him.”

Ben stood again as Joe entered the house and approached them all. “Hi, Pa.” Joe smiled and was surprised when Ben gave him a great big bear hug. “Hey–what’s that for?” Joe laughed coming out of the embrace.

“Just glad you’re home,” Ben stammered. He didn’t want to embarrass his son at the present with high acclaim and make him feel that he was truly terrible in the past. Though the fact of the matter was that he had been.

“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m beat. Think I’ll turn in.” Joe turned toward the staircase.

“Joseph—I was just going to tell your brothers that I am giving you three the next two days off. I’m sure you can all use it.” Ben neared Joe at the stairs.

“Good–it will give me time to catch up on some sleep.” Joe grinned.

“I was going to lift my ban on Virginia City–that is if you want to go there?”

Joe looked around the room. This was the moment he had waited for; it fell right into his plan. “Naw–don’t feel like going in to town. You all go and have a good time. I’ll just hang around here. But, thanks just the same. Goodnight.”

The amazed stares of the oldest three Cartwrights followed Joe up the stairs.

“It is Joe isn’t it? Not some impersonator?” Ben asked his other sons.

“That’s what we’ve been telling you, Pa. He’s like another person. He is polite–never once lost his temper on the trail. He has been totally respectful and helpful. I don’t know what’s going on–but I welcome the change.” Adam was jubilant in his description of his formerly outrageous brother.

Ben stood and stared into the flames of the fireplace. He wondered if it could be possible that Joe had indeed listened to his lecture and took heed to it. If that were true, it was a definite first for the young man.

*****

The following morning Adam and Hoss turned their horses out of the front yard and towards Virginia City. They waved goodbye to Joe who sat on the porch with his morning coffee. Soon, Ben came outside to join his youngest son. Sitting down along side of the boy, Ben stared over at him.

“You sure you don’t want to go into town with your brothers, Joseph?”

“No, Sir. I’ll just hang around here. Looks like the wood boxes need to be filled. I’ll go cut some wood and bring it into the house as soon as I finish my coffee.”

“Joe–don’t take this the wrong way, but I am a little surprised by your sudden diligence to work. Your brothers both told me about all the hard work you put in last week.”

“I thought that was what you wanted from me, Pa?” Joe responded meeting his father’s eyes.

“It is of course, but I think you deserve some time off for doing so well. Just the same as Adam and Hoss. Now you are given the opportunity and instead you choose to stay and work. This does confound me, I must admit.”

Joe shrugged his shoulders innocently and replied, “I’m just trying to prove myself to you and to my brothers the way you said I should. I thought it would make you happy–not suspicious of my intentions.”

Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “You have proven yourself, Joseph. I am very pleased. I never meant to deprive you of some relaxation time, though. You can still go into town even though the poker playing is still off limits.”

Joe stood and poured out the remainder of his coffee into the yard. “Thanks, Pa. I still would rather hang out here. I’m gonna go cut that wood now.” Joe smiled at his father and walked away.

*****

It was almost five in the afternoon when Joe was met by his friend Mitch out in the barn. “I saw your two brothers in town, Joe. How come you ain’t there too?” Mitch sat down on an over-turned keg and rested.

“Not just yet, Mitch. What’s the news in town anyway? Any games going on?” Joe put down the pitchfork and leaned back against one of the horse stalls.

“There’s a couple of high stakes games going on now. I also heard tell that there’s gonna be an even bigger one in town tomorrow night. But you’d have to have a whole lot of money to get in that one.”

“I have a pretty good size stake right now. If plans work out I might just be able to get in on that one. And if my luck is as good as it was last time, I could come out a rich man.” Joe grinned at the thought.

“When I talked to you last time you said that your father told you that you couldn’t gamble anymore. That changed now?” Mitch was surprised to hear of Joe’s restrictions being lifted so fast.

“I have a plan. Can’t go into it now. Just look for me tomorrow, okay?” Joe stated cryptically as he saw his father approaching from the doorway of the barn.

*****

If Joe had wanted to make a good impression on his father that day he had surely succeeded. He had stayed at home working until after dark and had even turned in for bed long before his brothers had returned from town. The conversation that evening between the oldest Cartwrights was one of both what had happened in Virginia City that day and also about Joe’s change of nature. Ben decided that, although he enjoyed the peace which Joe’s new attitude had brought the family, he wasn’t happy that the boy had nothing to look forward to other than work. Ben wondered if he had perhaps been too hard on his youngest to begin with and maybe had over done the restrictions he had forced on Joe.

*****

The next morning after Hoss and Adam had left the house, Ben summoned Joe into his study to address the issue that had troubled his mind the previous night.

“Joseph, I want you to do me a favor today.” Ben paused and handed Joe an official looking document. “I was able to beat Ira Wilkins out of his bid for that north shore property. It comes in real handy right now as the snow won’t hold off much longer. The herd will have to be moved now and you and your brothers will again be busy for a couple of days moving them further up the border.”

“I know you really wanted this land, Pa–but what does that have to do with a favor?” Joe was confused as he looked at the land deed.

“I want you to take it to the land office in Virginia City, let them get it recorded. Then I want you to go and enjoy yourself. Just because I talked to you about over-doing things doesn’t mean I wanted you to stay here and just work. You deserve some time off.” Ben stood and smiled at his son.

Joe’s mind flashed wildly. This was going according to his plan and he felt more pride in that respect than in what Ben was congratulating him about. He had proven himself and gotten his way also. Joe looked up at his father and grinned. “You mean it, Pa? You don’t mind if I go and have a good time–I may be back late you know?”

“Come back at a decent hour will you? But, go and have some fun. But, first get this to the land office.” Ben patted Joe on the arm affectionately and saw the sparkle had returned to the hazel eyes of his youngest.

“Sure thing, Pa! See you later.” Joe wasted no time heading out of the house.

Adam and Hoss stood out in the front yard watching the cloud of dust that Joe’s horse brought up as Joe happily galloped off to Virginia City.

*****

It was already late morning when Joe made it to his destination and tied his horse up in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon. He turned on his heels as he heard his name being called.

“I can’t believe it! You made it!” Mitch gleamed as he approached his best friend.

“I told you I would.” Joe stated ego creeping into his tone.

“Let’s go grab us a few beers to celebrate.”

“Not just yet, Mitch–I have to get to the land office first.” Joe replied.

“Heck, that’ll be open for awhile–let’s get a drink.” Mitch threw his arm around Joe’s shoulder. Joe laughed at the other young man’s persistence.

“Okay–just a couple then I’ve got to get over there.” Joe walked with Mitch through the swinging doors of the saloon.

*****

Conversing with other patrons at the saloon and looking wistfully at the saloon girls, Joe and his friend lost all track of time. By the time they had polished off their fourth round of drinks, Joe stood abruptly and said, “Hey–I forgot–I gotta run before the office closes.” Joe hurried out onto the street and all but ran down the two blocks to the Virginia City land office. Too late. The doors were closed and Joe knew he’d have to wait until Monday now. He had forgotten that Saturday hours at the office were shorter than weekday hours.

Joe drew from his coat the deed and stared at it. He hated to think of what Pa would say. Then, it dawned on him that he could just make a quick trip into town Monday and his father would be none the wiser. Content with that thought Joe headed back down the street to the saloon.

Both Joe and Mitch took time off from their partying at the saloon to go to the International House for some dinner. They knew they would need something on their stomachs to absorb the alcohol they planned on consuming that evening. When they made it back to the Silver Dollar they saw that a poker game had formed in the back room already.

“Did you bring your stash of money, Joe?” Mitch asked looking at the poker table and the large amount of money that was already in the pot in the middle.

“Yeah–I got it. Let’s watch awhile first. I want to get a feel of how everyone is doing first before I jump into it.” Joe drank at his beer and watched the six men at the table.

*****

Hours later, it was down to two players. After out playing all other takers, the last two with money were Joe Cartwright and Ira Wilkins. The money along with the alcohol had totally intoxicated Joe. He had amassed a very large amount of winnings and was looking greedily at the mounting pot that still remained on the table. Every time Ira called Joe turned around and raised the pot. This went on and on with each man checking their cards nervously. Ira raised one last time and the stake now was more than Joe had on him.

“Check or fold Cartwright–but you’ve got to match what I have in there.”

“That last raise wiped me out—can I write an I O U?”

Ira laughed loudly and Joe felt the embarrassment from the sound. “If you are gonna play with the big boys you’d better have the funds, Boy.”

Mitch leaned over and whispered in his friend’s ear. “The deed, Joe–put the deed in-you’ll get it back. Don’t worry.”

Joe stared at his cards again. He had lucked into four eights. He reached in his coat and his hand was sweaty and shook nervously. Could he really put the deed up? It really wasn’t his to lose. But the thought of the large pot of money on the table and the sight of his four eights egged him on. “Here–this is worth more than you got in there. Last raise–let’s see what you have.” Joe said and tossed the deed on the table.

Ira Wilkins looked at the deed and sighed. This night could not have turned out better. He knew he was going to win the pot and also the deed, which Ben Cartwright had taken great pains to out bid him on. “Here you are, Cartwright—I have four tens–what do you have there?”

Joe swallowed hard, he couldn’t believe his luck–or lack of it. Joe laid down his cards and watched as the greedy man scooped all of the money and the land deed into his hands.

“Better luck next time, Kid.” Ira laughed again.

“Hey–Mr. Wilkins–will you give me a chance to win back that deed?” Joe pleaded.

“No chance.”

“I’ll get the money–how much do you want for it?”

“More than you have.” Ira grinned.

“If I get up a couple of thousands–will you sell it?” Joe was in a panic now.

“I’ll think about it. Depends on how many thousands, Kid. Well, goodnight. Oh, and thanks for making me far wealthier than I was when I got here tonight.” Mr. Wilkins rubbed in Joe’s loss once more and headed out of the saloon.

Joe put his head down on the table and felt Mitch’s hand on his shoulder.

“I’m dead.” Joe whispered shaking his head at the thought of what Ben would do once he found out.

*****

The doorknob to the ranch house gave a soft groan as Joe entered later that night. It didn’t matter, Joe knew Ben would be there waiting for him and he would not have to tiptoe in as he had previously done.

“Joe–why it’s only eleven o’clock–glad you kept your promise to return at a decent hour.” Ben smiled and greeted his son at the door. Joe undid his holster all the while wondering if he could pull off the appearance that all was well. He was having a difficult time living this particular lie.

“Not a whole lot going on in town so I came back.” Joe replied and started to head for the stairs and away from his father. Ben caught Joe by the arm and stopped him.

“What is it, Son? Is everything okay? You look troubled about something.” Ben surveyed Joe’s face.

Joe dropped his head so that he wouldn’t have to stare directly into the eyes of the man who knew him better than anyone alive. “Everything’s fine, Pa. Guess I’m just a little tired.”

Ben searched his youngest son’s face once more. He saw a sadness that could not be hidden. “I thought you’d be all excited from a day off–you sure you are okay?”

“Yeah, Pa–really–just tired.” Joe struggled to put on a better demeanor.

“Did you get that deed into the land office?” Ben asked and couldn’t help but notice Joe became more rigid in stature.

“Sure, Pa. I told you I would.” Joe hoped the words didn’t sound like the lie that they were. “Goodnight.” Joe all but whispered and headed up the staircase leaving his father standing there shaking his head wondering what really had gone on in Virginia City that day.

*****

Joe laid in bed all night cursing his stupidity and wondering just how he could possibly get out of the mess he had gotten himself into. He felt awful about losing the deed and wished he had the courage to tell his father the bitter truth of the matter. Whereas he had been known in the past to stretch the truth, what he had told Ben was an out and out lie and it ate at Joe’s insides. Joe had let his father down, the ranch down, and caused more trouble. He would have to try to somehow come up with the money to persuade Mr. Wilkins to sell the deed back to him. Once he got the deed back, he could confess his sins and hopefully beg his father’s forgiveness. With that his final thought, Joe drifted off into a troubled sleep.

*****

Hoss sauntered into the barn the next afternoon in search of his little brother. They were always so close that when either boy was in trouble they could sense it. Always having come to each other’s aid, Hoss knew instinctively he was needed at the moment. He had witnessed the way Joe had refrained from conversation all day and had only insisted on working to be away from the rest of the family.

Closing the barn door Hoss called over to Joe. “Joe–let’s you and me have a little talk.”

Joe turned from straightening the mass of tack that had been shoved over in the corner of the barn. “Pa wants me to get these harnesses fixed. I don’t have time to talk right now.”

Hoss moved over and pulled the various pieces of leather from his brother’s hands and tossed them to the ground. “You have time–you just don’t want to, is all. Now, I know something must have happened last night and you and me need to talk about it.” Hoss pulled Joe over so the two of them could sit down. Joe reluctantly sat down on one of the barrels and dropped his head.

“I’m in big trouble, Hoss. But, this time you can’t help me.” Joe whispered.

“Tell me about it, Joe–maybe I can.” Hoss patted his brother’s shoulder in a show of support.

“No–I don’t want you to know. Then at least Pa won’t end up being mad at you too.”

“Is it that bad?” Hoss raised his voice in astonishment. He wondered just what his little brother had gotten into this time. Joe just nodded and stood up again.

“I’ll find a way out, Hoss. Don’t worry–and please don’t say anything to Pa or Adam. Give me a little time, will you?” Joe’s eyes reflected a look of both desperation and determination in them.

“Okay, Joe–but you just holler out if you need me. I’ll be right there.” Hoss reluctantly agreed with his hard-headed brother and walked out of the barn.

*****

Joe had put his mind into his problem all day and had done his best to avoid the rest of the family and their prying eyes. When, at last, he had made it into his bedroom that night he decided to do a personal inventory on his assets. He looked at his most prized possessions and found them to be lacking in monetary value. What he needed was something very special that would draw a large sum of money. It could either pay Wilkins for the deed outright or maybe be enough to at least draw the man back into another poker game.

Joe, discouraged by his search of his room fell down onto his bed exhausted by all the worry. It was then his eyes caught sight of a painting, which hung on the wall next to his bed. It had been given to the youngest Cartwright as a present by a distant relative of his mother. The painting was exquisite and was surrounded by an ornate golden frame. It was then that Joe had remembered what his father had said about the painting. He mentioned that the painter had been well known in Europe and someday the artwork would be priceless.

Joe stood from his bed abruptly and walked over to the wall. His thoughts now turned to a dealer in Virginia City who collected fine works of art especially paintings. Joe decided to sneak out of the house early the next morning with the painting and see if it indeed was as valuable as his father had mentioned.

*****

“Where is that Dad Blasted boy?” Adam yelled as he looked out of the front door. “He knows we’re supposed to be moving the herd to the new grazing land today.” Adam turned to Hoss exasperated at the thought of his little brother once again shirking his duties on the ranch.

“Aw–Adam–simmer down–he’ll catch up later. Let’s you and me get those cows started and Joe will meet up with us.” Hoss cajoled his older brother, still trying in some way to protect Little Joe. Hoss had a feeling that wherever Joe now was that it had something to do with the big trouble he had talked about the previous day.

Ben approached his two oldest sons. “You both get on with it–Joseph will eventually show up here and I’ll send him out to join you. We need to get those steers up to north shore –there’s a hint of snow in the air already.”

“Right, Pa.” Adam nodded not wanting to cause a scene with his usual ire towards his brother Joe. “Let’s go, Hoss.” Adam said and they both hurried toward their horses.

*****

Joe had spent most of the day in town waiting for Philip Porter to return to his antique shop. When he spotted him pulling up in front of the store, Joe had hurried inside carrying his picture. After a half of an hour of dickering over the price, both Joe and Philip were happy in their exchange. Joe had two thousand dollars in his hand, and Philip had a treasure in the painting that seemed to be worth much more than he had paid the young man.

Feeling a bit light-hearted for the first time in days, Joe indulged in a beer at the saloon before he mounted Cochise and turned toward the Ponderosa. He would be sure to stop by and see Mr. Wilkins later that night to see about the trade for the deed.

*****

As Joe made his approach into the front yard of the ranch house, Ben spotted him. He stepped down off of the front porch a stern look on his face and a set to his shoulders.

“And just where have you been?” Ben asked, his irritation bleeding out in his question.

“Sorry, Pa–Um–I had to take care of something. I’m ready to go to work–you want me to go check on those fences?”

“Fences? Joseph–haven’t you listened to one word that has been spoken in this house lately? If you had, you would know that your brothers are both up at north shore moving the herd there. That’s where you should be instead of gallivanting off to God knows where!”

Joe felt as though he had been hit between the eyes with an axe. The north shore property! That’s where his brothers were. Not having any idea that the land they were moving Ponderosa cattle on now belonged to Ira Wilkins. Without another word Joe reined Cochise hard and galloped out of the yard and in search of both Adam and Hoss to stop them.

*****

Clouds of dust were everywhere. Screams from the drovers as they tried to get the scattered herd under control could be heard long before Joe arrived at the border, which now separated Ponderosa land from Wilkins land. “Where’s Adam—Hoss?” Joe shouted as he dismounted quickly and ran over to one of the hired hands.

“You don’t know? Joe–there was a stampede–your brother Hoss got hurt. He’s hurt real bad. Adam and a few of the other men took him back to your house. They should be there by now.”

“Stampede?” Joe’s voice trembled at the thought. “How–how did it happen?”

“As soon as we started to cross over to the new piece of land your Pa purchased, them other drovers from the Wilkins ranch started shooting up in the air to run us off. That spooked the herd and they went all over this ranch. Hoss fell off his horse and was pretty busted up. You’d better go on home and see how he is. The rest of us will stay here and try to get the herd back together.”

Joe did not answer the man. He slowly made it back to Cochise, his eyes blinded by the tears, which were falling from them. Joe knew whose fault all of this was. His alone. Joe also knew that whatever had happened to his beloved brother Hoss was also his fault. Joe vaulted up into his saddle and turned toward the ranch house.

*****

Darkness fell on the Ponderosa ranch house. Doctor Paul Martin was upstairs tending to the very badly injured Hoss while Ben stood off to the side of the bed and with each bandage that was placed on the big man his anger at his youngest son increased ten fold. Adam heard the horse first, and peered out of the bedroom window to see that Joe had indeed returned. Without notice, Adam slipped out of the room and hurried down the stairs and out of the house. He met his youngest brother out by the hitching post.

“Adam–is Hoss gonna be okay?” Joe asked breathlessly as he stared into his brother’s dark foreboding eyes.

“Doc’s still with him. It hasn’t been a good night. I think he’ll pull through.” Adam paused as he saw Joe turn towards the house. “Joe–why don’t you go and put Cochise up. Take your time about it too.”

Joe turned back around, confused by what Adam had said. “I gotta go and see Hoss. I also have to face Pa. I guess now’s about as good a time as any.” Joe spoke with regret pouring out in his words. Adam drew closer to Joe. As angry as he happened to be at the boy, he couldn’t help feeling a strong surge of protection toward him. He knew that Joe had really pushed his father too far this time and it was not going to be pleasant once he confronted Ben.

“Give it awhile, Joe. Pa is beside himself right now.”

“Does he know what I’ve done?” Joe’s question came out like that of a small boy who had gotten in trouble and was hoping for any sign of hope.

Adam nodded. “He knows about the deed–he knows about everything now. I have never seen Pa this mad–not in my whole life.” Adam saw how the tears had begun to form in Joe’s soft green eyes. “Joe—I am not happy about what you’ve done either–but, I don’t want to see you go in there until things have settled down. Maybe once Hoss is a little more stable—-” Adam was cut short by his brother.

“No–I have to face the music. If I don’t do it now, I might not have the nerve to do it later. I appreciate you caring about me–” Joe stopped and out of fear and worry suddenly was drawn towards his brother’s shoulder for comfort. “It’s all my fault, Adam—you all have the right to hate me right now.” Joe sobbed.

Adam patted the boys back trying to remain as in control as possible. He couldn’t help being a little proud of his little brother at the moment. Wanting to stand up and face their father on his own was a very brave thing to do at the time. “You go on then, Joe. I guess you are right, now’s about as good as any other time to face Pa. Maybe he will respect the fact that you are coming in of your own accord.”

Joe broke from the embrace and left Adam in the yard by himself as he stepped up onto the front porch and headed towards the front door.

*****

Doctor Martin was the first person Joe spotted as he entered the well-lit living room. The doctor was putting on his cloak and turned toward the sound of Joe entering the house. Paul could tell how upset the boy was and shook his head wearily. At least Hoss was going to make it, that thought occurred to Paul as walked over to Joe.

“I’ll be back in the morning.” Paul said and patted Joe’s young shoulder in an attempt to show compassion for the boy who he knew was in serious trouble at the time. Joe let the doctor out just as Ben started down the stairs. Passing Hop Sing on the bottom landing Ben turned toward the cook and said, “You go sit with Hoss right now, Hop Sing. I’ll be up after awhile.”

As the Hop Sing hurried up the stairs Ben made his way over to the fireplace and then shot a glance over at his youngest son. Joe removed his holster and his coat and with great trepidation neared his father. For what seemed like hours neither of them spoke. Joe read his father’s face and saw how he looked almost like a different person all together. His eyes were dark, cold and unrelenting, his mouth in the form of a bitter scowl. Joe dropped his head down trying to find some words to offer.

“Is Hoss all right?” Joe finally managed to all but whisper.

*****

“And why would you ask that, Joseph? As if you care about him?” Ben fired off angrily.

“Pa–” Was all Joe could get out of his mouth before Ben jumped back in.

“Tell me something–would you have even bothered to come home if he had been killed?” Ben was now yelling at the top of his lungs and moved closer to Joe, his temper mounting.

“I didn’t know this was gonna happen—” Joe tried to explain but was cut short once more.

“And if you had known? Would that have stopped you? I don’t think so! You care only about yourself—Hoss–Adam–me–none of us matter to you. And this ranch! This is all just a cute little game for you isn’t it?”

“Please, Pa–” Joe begged to be heard, to explain what there really was no explanation for.

“You lied–you stole from your own family—and you risked the lives or your own two brothers! How dare you come in here and think that I am going to listen to anything you have to say!”

“I was trying to get the deed back, Pa. Honest I was–” Joe cried.

Ben grabbed Joe roughly by the shoulders and forced his gaze on him. “Back? What gave you the right to take it to begin with? And why did you have to lie about it once you did lose it? And why did you let Adam and Hoss and a dozen other men ride on to property that you knew damn well wasn’t Cartwright property!’‘ Ben screamed at his son and shook him with each harsh question. “Answer me!” Ben continued to shout.

“I don’t know!” Joe, at a loss for what to say or do, said a little too loudly in response. Ben loosened his grip on his son and struck him backhanded across his face. Joe reeled from his father’s slap and stood stunned by what his father had done to him.

“You have disgraced this family–you have disgraced yourself as well. Go up to your room and we will finish this.” Ben’s voice was sharp and still held a coldness in its tone.

“I’m sorry, Pa–please—don’t do this–” Joe begged only to be met with his father’s stern countenance.

“An ‘I’m sorry’ is not going to do it this time, young man. Now go to your room!” Ben shouted and Joe backed away. His eyes caught the sight of Adam who had been standing in the doorway of the kitchen watching the whole time. Full of embarrassment and humiliation Joe charged the stairs and ran to his room.

“Pa—” Adam called softly as he walked over to the fireplace. “Wait until morning–you are so mad right now–” Adam’s statement was cut short by his father who turned and cast a long glance at his oldest son.

“You of all people are defending that boy?” Ben asked confused by the interruption.

“I’m not defending him, Pa. I know he has to be punished–but right now you are very upset.” Adam tried to get his point across.

“Yes, I am upset. And it’s all because of what that boy did. Now, he’s going to be taught once and for all that lying and stealing are wrong. And believe me he will remember this lesson.” Ben turned abruptly and made his way to the stairs. Adam’s worried gaze followed the stern figure as it ascended the stairs and headed to Joe’s bedroom.

*****

Later that night, Adam paused at the door to his youngest brother’s room. Listening through the planked door he could still hear the muffled cries coming from the room. Adam closed his eyes feeling the pain in his own soul as well. Despite the vastness of the two brother’s temperaments as well as their ages, Adam did love his brother. Sometimes it was hard to feel that way towards the boy who always seemed to be in to some kind of trouble. But, in all of the seventeen years that Joe had lived, he had never gotten into this much trouble. Adam had never felt this overwhelming compassion for the boy either. But, after hearing the sounds which filtered down the stairs that evening, he could not help what he now felt in his heart. Adam could still hear his father’s booming voice as he relentlessly admonished Joe. He could still hear the sounds of the form of punishment that had gone on behind the closed door to the boy’s bedroom. Adam knew that somewhere along the line, his father would have a deep-seated regret for having acted out in anger at the boy he loved so much. He knew that Ben would eventually be consumed with guilt for having resorted to physical pain in punishing Joe. Never in the past twenty-five years had Adam witnessed his father losing his composure with any of his sons. Never had his father struck any of his children without first thinking it out. Never until that night had his father purposely chosen to hurt and humiliate the boy he so often doted on.

Adam walked onward to Hoss’ room and over to the window by the bed. He glanced out to see his father still standing out in the yard. There was just enough light from the full moon above to make out the older man’s form as it leaned heavily upon the front hitching post. Adam could sense what his father was thinking. He also noticed how his father’s head would turn every now and then and gaze up at the second floor window, the one that belonged to his youngest son.

*****

Joe rinsed his face in the water basin by his bureau. The night had afforded him little sleep as each movement of his body held with it pain. Any other pain would have been well accepted and brushed off. But, knowing the pain that he was feeling had been inflicted by his own father, made it hurt that much more. Joe would not have been able to tell anyone if they had asked which pain hurt worse; what he was feeling on the outside of his body or what he was feeling on the inside. Joe had cried so much the previous night that now all he felt was the total absence of emotion. He was spent, physically and mentally. He walked to retrieve a shirt from his drawer and caught a quick glance at his reflection in the mirror. There was a noticeable red streak on one side of his face. Joe closed his eyes and could still feel the intensity of his father’s hand as it had struck him. Though that had only been the very beginning of his punishment, it stuck out in his mind as being the absolute worst of it. For, no matter what happened next at the hands of his father, from that moment on Joe felt that the man no longer loved him. After that point nothing else had mattered.

*****

Joe pushed the door forward that led into Hoss’ bedroom. He peered in to see if he was awake. Adam turned from his place in the chair next to the bed and waved Joe in. Joe cautiously approached his two brothers. He could see the massive bandages, which covered Hoss’ shoulders and swept cross-wise around his chest. Hoss was still out cold, and the vision of him made Joe bite at his bottom lip to avoid the tears, which were trying to form in his eyes.

“Oh–he’ll be okay.” Adam whispered trying to put his little brother at ease. He could see some of the damage on Joe’s face from the previous night and Adam’s heart felt heavy at the thought of it all.

“What happened to him? They said he took a fall from his horse.” Joe asked weakly.

“Got some broken ribs–and that collar bone is fractured. The Doc said he’d be okay in a couple of weeks. He’ll have to stay in bed for awhile.”

“Has he come to yet?” Joe responded by placing his hand on Hoss’ massive right hand.

“A couple of times last night. He’s on some strong pain killers right now.”

*****

Joe brushed his eyes with his sleeve forcing the tears back. “I gotta go to work.” Joe said lamely and walked to the door. He paused briefly to gaze at his injured brother one last time.

Joe walked briskly down the stairs and over to the credenza hoping and praying to escape the house before seeing his father. His hopes were dashed when Ben came around the corner from the dining room and approached him.

“Where are you going?” Ben asked with little emotion in his voice.

Joe didn’t look up at his father but instead concentrated on adjusting his gun belt. “I’m going to go help with the herd.” Joe all but whispered.

“No–I think you’ve done enough damage with the herd already. You are going to stick around here. Here is a list of chores.” Ben handed his son a piece of paper. Joe reached for it, still not looking into the other man’s eyes. Staring down at the list, Joe noticed how it was composed of menial chores that were usually done by other Ponderosa ranch hands. There was the mention of cleaning out all of the stalls in the barn, polishing the saddles and chopping cords of firewood. Joe closed his eyes knowing why he had been given these tasks. It was yet another way to humiliate him. Joe tucked the list into his coat and turned toward the door.

“Don’t go anywhere other than where those chores are, Joseph.” Ben called to him. Joe walked out of the house without a reply.

*****

Joe busied himself with all the many tasks that his father had laid out for him that day. He managed to accomplish them all even though his body ached with every move. He never came in for lunch and talked to no one other than a quick hello to Doctor Martin as he arrived to check on his patient. Adam had ridden out that morning to help to move the large herd back to their former position in the lower pasture. He made it back right before dark and brought his horse into the barn. It was there he met his little brother who was finishing the last of the saddles.

“Long day?” Adam asked as he removed the saddle from Sport and tossed it up on the railing to the stall.

Joe nodded but never stopped what he was doing. As long as he was working he tried to refrain from thinking about the terrible fight he had with his father. Joe was sure once he was back in the house it would all be forced back in his mind again. He dreaded to see his father again.

“Let’s go get some supper, huh?’ Adam’s smile was not returned. Instead Joe looked away from his oldest brother.

“I ain’t hungry. You go on without me.” Joe replied.

“Joe–you haven’t eaten all day.” Adam protested. Joe just kept working and avoided his brother’s eyes. Discouraged, Adam walked out of the barn and on into the ranch house.

“Supper’s ready.” Ben called as he heard his oldest son walk inside. Adam tossed his hat and gun down and met his father at the dinner table.

“Where is Joseph?” Ben asked thinking that Joe would be right behind Adam.

“He said he isn’t hungry.” Adam replied and his eyes turned on Ben. “I know that can’t be the truth–he hasn’t eaten all day.”

“He is not big on telling the truth is he?” Ben remarked coarsely and poured some wine and passed it down to his son. It was at that moment that the two men heard the door open and watched as Joe tried to make it to the stairs unnoticed.

“Joseph!” Ben called loudly and Joe froze in his tracks.

“Yes, Sir?” Joe answered meekly.

“Come over here and eat your dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.” Joe replied hoping he would be free to go to his room.

Ben stood from his place at the table and neared the young man who was seeking the refuge of his room. “I did not ask you if you were hungry. I told you to eat your supper.” Ben stated with a sternness in his tone.

Joe took a deep breath and held it in as long as he could. He wanted to vent out his anger at being treated like a child but knew exactly what that action would bring. And, he was not up to another night like the previous one. He slowly followed Ben back to the dining room and took a seat at the table. Adam began passing him around the platters of food and Joe took off just enough to prevent his father from protesting further.

“I sent Jim into town to see if he could talk to Mac Henshaw about that other parcel of land up by north shore. He should be back later to let us know if Mac wants to sell. It’s not as prime as the one that Joseph decided to gamble away, but it will keep the herd in graze for the winter,” Ben explained to Adam. Adam watched as Joe’s head drifted down at the mention of the deed. He could feel the hurt as he watched his little brother close his eyes fighting his emotions again.

“That piece of land will do just fine, Pa. Maybe Jim will have some good news for us.” Adam tried his best to sound up-lifting for Joe’s sake more than his father’s.

“May I be excused?’ Joe quietly asked his father.

“Once you are done.” Ben countered, still seeing Joe’s plate had barely been touched.

Joe could stand no more of his father’s bad feelings toward him. He covered his face with his hands to shield his emotions and hide the tears. Adam nudged his father’s arm as a sign for him to ease up on Joe. Ben frowned, not wanting to give his youngest even the slightest notion that he was in any way forgiven for his many sins. Finally, Ben cleared his throat to gain the attention of the table.

“If you aren’t going to eat anymore, Joseph, you might just as well go to bed.”

Joe turned away from both men and hurried up the stairs.

Adam had seen and heard all he could take concerning Ben’s anger towards his brother. He threw his napkin down madly and stood. “This has got to stop! What are you trying to do to the kid anyway, Pa?” Adam asked in a harsh unrelenting way.

Ben also stood and squared off with his eldest. “No, I am not going to stop and I am not caving in this time. Joseph has got to learn his lesson.”

Adam gave a slightly sarcastic laugh and stared directly into the eyes that mirrored his own dark brown ones. “Now this is a switch isn’t it?”

“What are you talking about?” Ben snapped back.

“You were always the one who told me all these years to have patience with the kid. You always reminded me of how much younger than me he was and how different he was in nature to both me and Hoss. Now look at you! Where was your great patience last night? Where was your great compassion towards the kid? Just now you humiliated him again with your talk of the deed. How much more do you really think he can take?”

“Oh–I see–so you think I should go up there and give him a great big hug and tell him everything is just fine?” Ben retorted upset by Adam’s words.

“No–I think you ought to go up there and hit him some more! That’s what you want isn’t it?”

Ben’s eyes flared wildly. He couldn’t believe that his oldest son had so blatantly said the things that he had. Not wanting to say anything that would make matters even worse than they were, Ben sat back down and tried to gain his composure. Adam walked around his chair and over to his father. Ben had dropped his head to rest on his folded hands. Adam placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to sound off on you. This whole thing is just getting to me. I mean all these years–” Adam stopped and stooped down to gain eye level with the man. His sincere brown eyes met their target and he continued. “All these years it seemed to me that you were always soft when it came to Little Joe. Like he could do nothing really wrong in your eyes. He was always the baby, the one that we all looked out for. There’s been a whole lot of times I wished you had smacked him around. God knows he had it coming on plenty of occasions! But, last night was different. You were rough on him, maybe too rough. The look in his eyes this morning–you know what it reminded me of?”

Ben shook his head but couldn’t speak. Words were hung in his throat daring to come out.

“He reminded me of a wild stallion—-like that beautiful black one that we all tried to break a few years back. Remember how it lost all of it’s will after it was put to saddle? It never had the fire, the speed, or the will to run after that. Joe looks like that broken horse. What happened between you two last night took a whole lot out of him.”

“Adam–I am not saying that I was completely in the right last night. I do admit that I was angry–maybe a little too angry. But, what’s done is done. I have to keep him in line or it will all have been a waste. I am not trying to hurt him or break him. I am trying to teach him. And sometimes the lessons are tough, but they have to be taught.” Ben’s voice was softer now and Adam could see the anguish that controlled his father.

“I just hope that the lesson that you are trying to teach Joe doesn’t cost you both too much.” Adam sighed and stood again. He walked out of the house and on to the front porch in search of some peace.

*****

The knock on the front door sounded loudly at nine o’clock that evening. Ben was just making his way down the stairs with the empty tray from Hoss’ room. He felt a little more relaxed now, after having watched his middle son eat a hearty meal for the first time since his injury. Ben strode to the door and opened it to see Jim Casey, the ranch hand he had previously sent into town to secure the north shore property.

“Jim! Good to see you–how did it go?” Ben shook the man’s outstretched hand and led him to the settee. Jim sat down and looked over at his boss.

“Well–I guess there’s some good news. Mac said he has another bidder from Carson City but he would meet with you in a few days about it before he decides anything.”

Adam entered the room and made his way over to the other two men and took a seat.

“You think he’ll sell to us?” Adam asked and passed over some coffee to Jim.

“You have a good shot at it; the other bidder is Ira Wilkins.”

Ben frowned at the thought of the man who had won the deed from his youngest son. It had taken a whole lot of effort to get that piece of land and he figured that Ira was a very happy nemesis now.

“Oh–there’s some other news for you.” Jim passed over a letter to Ben who opened it hastily. It was from the Cattleman’s Association.

Adam noticed a proud smile spread across his father’s face. “What is it, Pa?”

*****

“Here.” Ben passed it over to his oldest son. “They are recognizing Hoss for all his achievements this year with the new Arizona stock. They are having a dinner tomorrow night and present the award.”

Adam’s grin faded as he realized that there was no way that the big man would be able to attend. “He’ll be happy with the award, Pa. Wish he could go though.”

“That’s out of the question, but we will go in his place. Let’s go upstairs and tell him.”

“Think I’ll go turn in, Boss. It’s been a long day.” Jim said standing up slowly.

“You go on ahead. Thank you for all that you did today, Jim. We really appreciated the help.” Ben patted the man’s shoulder and Adam escorted him out of the house.

*****

“They didn’t have to go and do that.” Hoss remarked after looking over the letter.

“You deserve it, Son.” Ben corrected. “I just wish you could go tomorrow. This is another thing we can thank your younger brother for. He sure has made a mess with things around here.” Ben’s mind fell back again on all of the trouble that Joe had caused.

“He didn’t know all this would happen, Pa.” Hoss was quick to come to Joe’s defense as always.

“He knew better than to gamble with something that was not his.” Ben answered.

“Sure would like some more coffee. My head is still spinning from that medicine the Doc gave me.” Hoss changed the subject.

“I’ll go get you some.” Ben smiled and walked out of the room.

Adam sat next to Hoss on the bed. “Okay–you didn’t want coffee. You just wanted to get rid of Pa, right?” Adam grinned knowing his brother well.

“I wanted to find out what went on between Pa and Little Joe. He hasn’t said much.”

“Believe it or not, Pa absolutely went off on the kid. I couldn’t believe it! Joe has pushed him to the limit before, but this time Pa pushed back–and big time!”

“What did he do?” Hoss’ expression turned to worry.

“From what I’ve seen and what I heard last night, I guess he gave Joe one hell of a tanning. Joe looks awful and Pa is still upset with him.”

“Poor kid,” Hoss whispered solemnly. The conversation was muted as Ben walked back into the room carrying a pot of coffee and three cups.

“Figured we all could use some coffee.” Ben smiled and set the tray down on the nightstand.

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances and decided not to bring up their brother any more that night.

*****

Both Ben and Adam were already dressed and ready to leave for Virginia City and the awards ceremony the next evening. Ben paced the floor in the living room and waited for the appearance of his youngest son. Tardy as usual, Ben decided to go up the stairs and see what was keeping the wayward young man.

Joe sat on the end of his bed just staring at the suit that Hop Sing had pressed and laid out for him to wear that evening. Joe had already told his father that he didn’t want to go. He had hoped that they would give up and just leave without him. He couldn’t stand the thought of his brother Hoss not being able to accept his well-deserved award himself. Joe knew that receiving such high praise from the association was a rare and treasured honor. One that Hoss had never before received.

Ben turned the doorknob to his son’s room and his mouth fell as he saw how Joe had blatantly disobeyed his orders to get ready. He moved swiftly over to the boy and scowled at him.

“Joseph, you are trying what little patience I have left with you. Didn’t I tell you an hour ago to be dressed and ready?”

“Please don’t make me go, Pa.” Joe begged, hoping to get out of having to attend.

“Oh–no–you are going!” Ben stated loudly. “And you are going to accept that award for Hoss. It’s due to your actions that he can’t be there tonight. It’s the very least you can do.”

“I can’t get up in front of all those people.” Joe whispered fighting back his emotions and trying not to cry in front of his father.

“You have ten minutes, young man. If you are not dressed and downstairs by then, I will come up here and personally dress you myself.” Ben threatened and turned and left the room closing the door behind him angrily.

*****

Stepping into the surrey, Joe did not make eye contact with his father. He did, however, look over at Adam, who was going to ride along with them on his horse. Joe wished that he could trade places with his oldest brother and not have to ride to town seated next to his father. Ben had already shown his displeasure in the fact that Joe had kept them all waiting. He sent the horses forward and toward Virginia City.

The banquet tables were set up in the large main dining area of the International House. The Cartwrights were seated at the main table where all of the award winners had been placed. Joe could feel his stomach knot up, sitting there with his father on one side of him and Adam on the other. He fumbled nervously at his napkin, twisting it into knots. The meal was a lavish one and served with the finest wine from the local vineyards. The talk around the table was amicable and the room was filled with much chatter. When the after dinner drinks were passed out the president and vice-president of the Cattleman’s Association began to give out the various awards. This annual event was a cherished one and all the ranches that surrounded Storey County were represented.

When at last it came to Hoss’ award, the president turned toward the Cartwright family.

“Unfortunately, Hoss Cartwright is not present to accept his award, due to an injury. But, to accept it for him is his younger brother Joseph Cartwright.” The man said and the room was filled with applause. Joe’s sad eyes met his father’s and they pleaded to be let out of the assigned duty.

“Go on.” Ben whispered and his eyes were warning his son to represent the family with honor. Joe stood and walked over to the podium that stood in the front of the room where all could see. The president handed Joe a gold plaque, which bore Hoss’ name and the honor for all his special services. Joe took it in his trembling hands and tried to pull from an inner strength to speak.

“My brother Hoss couldn’t be here tonight to accept this himself. But he would want to thank every member of this associate for the honor you have awarded him. On his behalf I accept this fine plaque along with your well wishes for him. Thank you.” Joe hurried away from the podium and the applause followed him back to his table. Joe looked at his father with tears in his eyes and handed the award to him. He then turned and left the room.

Adam turned in his chair and made the motion of getting up from the table when Ben’s hand caught his arm. “No. Let him be.” Ben insisted and Adam reluctantly sat back down.

“That was awfully hard for the kid to do, Pa. Getting up in front of all of these people, especially knowing why Hoss isn’t here.”

“If his conscience is bothering him, it’s a good thing, Adam. It means he does have some regret and maybe he will learn from this.” Ben replied and noticed how Adam’s look on his face suddenly changed.

“He thinks you are humiliating him on purpose, Pa. That’s what he’s thinking right now.”

“And is that what you are thinking?” Ben’s brown eyes searched the face of his eldest son.

“If you are just trying to teach him a lesson, then it’s one hell of a lesson.” Adam admitted and drank from his wine glass to calm his nerves. He still was having a hard time believing that his father had kept the fuel of his anger towards Joe burning so long.

Joe waited patiently by the surrey for the awards banquet to let out. He wanted nothing more than the solace of his bedroom at the moment. Almost an hour later people began to filter out of the International House. Ben and Adam approached him followed behind by some other friends of the Cartwrights. They bid them goodnight and walked away. From down the front steps walked Ira Wilkins and made his way over to where all the Cartwrights now stood.

“Hey–Joe–how about a game of poker?” Ira laughed. Joe dropped his head embarrassed to be confronted by his father’s rival about the lost deed. “That deed sure did come in handy.” Ira continued.

“That’s enough, Wilkins!” Adam broke in hotly.

“No need getting sore, Cartwright.” Ira smiled. “Just wanted to tell your brother that I enjoyed our little game the other night. Got any more Ponderosa land you want to give me, Boy?”

With that, Ben saw Adam’s fist start to fly through the air towards Ira and he caught it before Adam was able to land his punch. “Not here. This was a night of celebration. We are not going to ruin it by Ira’s ill suited remarks.” Ben motioned for Joe to get up in the surrey and Adam reluctantly walked towards his horse. They pulled away still hearing Ira’s laughter as it filled the night air.

*****

Mac Henshaw sent a message to Ben Cartwright the next day by courier. He gave notice that he would be in Carson City that evening and would meet with Ben about the desired purchase of his acreage on the north shore. It also mentioned that he would be meeting with Ira Wilkins the following day and make his decision as to who had won the bid.

Ben pulled on his coat and glanced over at Adam who sat with Joe on the settee. “Are you ready, Son?” he called over. Adam nodded at Joe not to worry. He knew his brother was on pins and needles about the purchase of the land that they drastically needed to be able to winter feed the cattle. There had already been snow flurries on the ranch and it was getting down to the wire as to whether the herd would make it if they were left at their present place in the lower pastureland.

“Yes, Sir.” Adam responded and walked over to get his hat and coat. Ben turned toward his youngest son and approached him.

“We won’t be back until very late tonight. It all depends on Mr. Henshaw. You are not to leave this ranch, do you understand?” Ben warned.

Joe felt his blood go cold. He had fought for several days to hold back his emotions and not challenge his father in any way. But, he was finally brought to the boiling point. Joe could no longer take his father’s tone of voice. He could no longer stand the unnecessary threats that Ben continued to make. Joe had done everything that he had been told to do for days without the slightest bit of argument. The reminder of him being restricted to the ranch, in front of Adam was the very last straw. He jumped from his place on the settee and faced his father head-on.

“Of course I understand! I understand everything you say. You are never ever going to forgive me for what I did and you are going to remind me of it for the rest of my life!” Joe voiced loudly.

Ben placed himself within inches of his son and his face turned red with anger. “Talk to me like that again and you will be very sorry!” Ben shouted.

“Oh?” Joe started with a hint of sarcasm in his tone. “What are you gonna do, Pa? Hit me? No–wait –that’s already been done, right?”

Ben grabbed Joe’s shoulders tightly and shook him. “Yes, I’ll hit you—if I have to beat sense into you I will. You obviously haven’t figured out just who is in charge around here.”

Adam moved to break up what was going on. “C’mon–both of you. Just simmer down.” Adam pleaded and Joe dropped his head down breaking his contact with his father’s own blazing eyes. “Pa–we’ve got to get into Carson. Joe–you stay and keep an eye on Hoss.”

Ben slowly released his grip on his son. “As I was saying, Joseph. You stay in this house–is that understood?” Ben repeated his question for effect.

Joe pushed past both Adam and Ben and made his way to the stairs.

“Is that understood?” Ben asked again waiting for an answer.

“Yes, Sir.” Joe replied, his voice now trembling from the emotions that were still hanging heavily in the air.

“Let’s go.” Ben said to Adam and they walked out of the house.

*****

Joe rummaged through the top drawer of his dresser until he found the money he had squirreled away there. He had two thousand and two hundred dollars all from the sale of his painting. He stuffed the money into his pocket and turned out of his room. When last he had checked on Hoss he had been peacefully sleeping. He looked in his brother’s room to check one last time and noticed Hop Sing was at his bedside and had fallen asleep in the chair. It was all working out perfectly. Now he could head into Virginia City unnoticed.

All the way into town that evening Joe’s mind flashed memories of the last several days. He couldn’t shake the vision of his father, nor the many harsh words that had been exchanged. Joe felt that Ben no longer loved him and that he saw his youngest son as a complete failure. Joe admitted to himself that Ben had the absolute right to feel that way about him. Joe knew how badly he had let the family down and he detested himself for doing it. Seeing the disappointment in his father’s eyes was as painful as any of the physical punishment that he had endured. Joe’s only thought now was to pray that he could get a hold of Ira Wilkins and plead with him to sell him back the deed. He thought it was the only way he could ever win back his father’s love.

Pushing open the swinging doors to the Silver Dollar Saloon Joe spotted Ira sitting at a table by himself. Joe sauntered over to the man, trying to hold back the ill will that he carried towards him.

“Mr. Wilkins–” Joe started and fidgeted with his holster. “I was wondering if you would let me buy back that deed.”

“Sit down, Kid.” Ira smiled and signaled the bartender to bring over another shot glass. He poured the young man a drink and pushed it over to him. “If we are gonna talk business we need to have a drink.”

Joe looked at the whiskey and knew he had been told by Ben not to drink. It seemed a stupid thing to worry about at the present. Joe reasoned that he was already in as big a trouble as he could ever be in with his father now anyway. Here he was in Virginia City, the place was supposedly off-limits to him. Joe accepted the drink and tossed it down hoping it would give him some strength.

“I’ve got over two thousand dollars with me. If it’s worth more than that to you I will gladly write up some kind of agreement to pay the rest out to you on your own terms.” Joe stated and pulled out his money.

“No sale, Cartwright–I don’t need the land as bad as your Pa does–but I just like the fact that I got it from his son. Makes me feel like I finally beat the old coot in something!” Ira was now laughing and Joe’s stomach knotted up. Ira looked at the intensity that the kid wore and decided to get the better of him again. After all, there was two thousand dollars of Cartwright money on the table and he was not going to pass that up. “Tell you what, Kid. I happen to have the deed on me now–what do you say to another game?”

Joe swallowed hard. His thoughts turned to another issue that had been raised by his father. He wasn’t allowed to gamble. Joe frowned. He figured that, too, would not matter now as he was sitting in a saloon in Virginia City drinking whiskey with his father’s nemesis. Joe wondered internally just how he could get himself into such terrible fixes all the time.

“I ain’t got time for poker.” Joe muttered looking up at the clock in the corner of the room.

Ira smiled and slapped a deck of cards down onto the table. He looked piercingly at the youngest of the Cartwright clan. “One game–we will play high card. You beat me with your card and the deed is yours. I beat you–and the money is mine. What do you say?”

Joe knew he would probably lose anyway, but was in so much trouble at this point it really didn’t matter anymore. He poured himself another drink from Mr. Wilkin’s bottle and tossed it down.

“Okay–high card wins.” Joe’s words came out strained.

“You go first, Kid.” Ira smiled. He had seen the boy so many times lose that he felt this was a sure thing. Joe’s shaky left hand went towards the deck. He pulled up a third of it with him and turned the card to find the eight of hearts. Joe gulped hard. Not another eight! That was what cost him the deed to begin with–he thought as he showed it to Ira.

“Hey–eights again huh? Guess they follow you around don’t they?” Ira chuckled as Joe put the cards back on top of the deck. Ira sipped at his whiskey and confidently reached for the cards. He drew up half of the deck. It was then that his mouth fell open in disbelief. He had drawn the seven of hearts. When he showed it to Joe, the boy jumped up out of his seat and shouted for joy.

“Want to try again?” Ira asked, disturbed by the sudden change of Joe’s luck.

“No, Sir!  I am never gonna gamble again!” Joe smiled elated as he stuffed the deed inside of his jacket. He pulled out a silver dollar and tossed it over to Ira. “At least I’ll leave you enough to get another bottle!” Joe called and hurried out of the saloon.

*****

All the way home Joe thought of his triumph. The deed was once again the Cartwrights now. Though it would not make up for losing it, at least it was a start. When Joe entered the ranch house, he could see that neither his father nor oldest brother were back yet. He walked over to Ben’s safe and unlocked it and placed the deed inside. Joe then had a terrible image come over him of what his father would say about the way he had procured the deed. Joe sank down into the leather chair at his father’s desk and put his head in his hands. He had been so jubilant over getting the deed back that he failed to think of the repercussions of his trip into town.

*****

yeah–I say–here Pa–here’s the deed–won it back at the saloon in Virginia City—while I was drinking and playing cards with Ira—yeah that will go over big time. He almost killed me the other night—this will make him finish the job ,Joe thoughts kept coming back to his disobedience and the terrible fight that had resulted. Finally, after much soul-searching, Joe grabbed a pen and piece of paper from off his father’s desk and composed a letter to him. When he was finished, Joe had tears falling from his eyes. He knew he had to leave before Ben returned from Carson City. Joe ran up the stairs to pack.

*****

“Well, at least Mac didn’t say he wasn’t gonna sell to us, Pa.” Adam stated as he pulled off his coat later that night. “He said he’d tell you after he talks to Ira tomorrow.”

“It’s already starting to snow, Son. We only have a few days to make that move now.” Ben replied and then spotted a hat and jacket missing from the coat rack next to the door. His confused look caught Adam’s eyes and he knew what his father was seeing.

“Maybe he took them upstairs, Pa.” Adam said and hurried to find out if it was indeed true that his little brother was gone. He walked up the stairs and within minutes walked back down slowly carrying a letter in his hands.

“What is it?” Ben asked moving over to meet his son.

“Joe’s gone, Pa. He left you this letter.” Adam’s voice was quiet knowing it had to be bad news.

Ben took the letter from Adam’s hand and walked over to the fireplace to read it. He stood there with his back facing his eldest son as he read to himself.

Dear Pa, well by now you know that I have left. I couldn’t stay and face you with all that I’ve done. I know you hate me for what I did before and figure that this will only make it worse between us. But, I have to tell you what I did today–I owe you the truth up front this time. The painting in my room—the one that you said was expensive–well, I sold it. I am surprised you didn’t notice it the night that we had our fight. Or should I say your fight–as I wasn’t the one doing any of the hitting. Anyway, I sold it and got two thousand dollars for it. I tried to buy the deed back before anything happened–but ran out of time as Hoss got hurt the same day. So, tonight I went into town. I did everything that you said I shouldn’t. I drank and I gambled. But, this time I was lucky. I won the deed back from Mr. Wilkins. I put it in your safe along with the two thousand dollars. I know that this does not make up for all that I’ve done–but wanted to leave you with something to let you know how sorry I am. I know what you are now thinking and you are right. I am not the type of son that you can be proud of. Knowing this hurts me more than anything else that you did to me. I am leaving. I may not come back, I don’t know right now. Maybe time away may somehow help you to forget what I’ve done and how I have let you down. I will write sometime. Not sure where to go right now. Please tell Hoss, Adam and Hop Sing goodbye for me. No matter how you feel about me, I love you and I am sorry for everything.    Joe.

Ben dropped the letter down on the coffee table and hurried outside. He didn’t want Adam to see the tears that were flowing freely out of his eyes. Adam, stunned by his father’s abruptness, reached for the letter and began to read it. After finishing the letter he knew why his father had hurried out. Adam knew that the guilt he had suspected his father would eventually have was now pouring out.

Ben leaned up against one of the support beams on the front porch and stared off into the nothingness. He felt an emptiness that overwhelmed his soul. His youngest son was gone and it was his fault and not Joseph’s. Ben had let his anger rule his actions and had been relentless in his treatment of the boy. The very idea that Joe thought that his father hated him made Ben feel consumed with regret. He prayed that somehow he could find the boy and patch the deep rift in what had been an unbreakable bond between the two.

“You want me to go out after him?” came Adam’s solemn voice from behind his father.

Ben wiped at his eyes with his sleeve and tried his best to gain his composure. “First light I will go after Joseph.” He countered turning to face his son.

“Then what?” Adam’s question came off with a worry in it.

Ben stared down at the horizontal planks in the porch and his mind fought for an answer to the question the eldest son had asked. Ben cleared his throat out of habit trying to come up with the words. “Then I bring him home.” He replied flatly, fighting again the emotion he was trying to hide.

“But will he come willingly? And what about what he did? You gonna bring that up to him?” Adam felt that he had to ask. He worried that the distance between his little brother and their father had grown so much not only in miles but in feelings that Ben would not be able to pull the boy back to him.

“He’ll come back. He has to.” Ben finally made full eye contact with Adam. “I know that the majority of this is my fault and not your brother’s, Adam. And you were right. I never should have punished him when I was so upset. I just hope it hasn’t cost me Joseph.”

“He said he loves you in this letter, Pa. It’s he that feels you don’t love him.”

“I’ll correct that when I find him.” Ben nodded and they both walked back into the house.

*****

Joe stood slowly from the cot, which had been his bed the previous night. It had been a very uncomfortable sleep. He was sore and stiff from the lumpy worn out cot in the line shack. He had planned on leaving the ranch completely but changed his mind when the weather turned on him. There, on the far southern border of the Ponderosa it had already snowed over a foot the previous day and more was coming in. Joe had brought with him enough supplies from home to hold up for a week so he could contemplate his next move.

Joe looked into the pot-bellied stove and saw the last of the wood was now gone and only slightly charred embers remained. He knew he had to find some firewood and fast. Joe shrugged into his heavy coat and pulled up the lamb’s wool collar. He then walked outside and first checked on his horse to make sure it was comfortable in the lean-to up against the cabin. It provided just enough shelter for the animal, and Joe patted the pinto’s neck as he poured out some grain for him. The next step was to head up the hill and over a gully to grab as much wood as possible to stay the chill off of the cabin.

Joe made several trips back and forth gathering firewood. He had stoked the stove so it would be ready when he got back from his last trip out. Joe trudged through the deepest snowdrift to collect the last of the wood. As he turned and stepped over a fallen tree, he stepped into something that sprang with the sound of door slamming shut. Joe fell paralyzed into the snow bank. He screamed in pain as he looked down at his right foot. He cursed his luck at the fact that there was a large wolf trap chewing through his boot and foot now. Joe tried to sit up with the hope that he could get it to release its hold on him. He fought to no avail, the rusty sharp teeth of the trap were unrelenting. Joe watched as scarlet drops of blood pooled from underneath his boot. Realizing that it was only a matter of time before he would pass out due to the loss of blood, Joe decided to somehow try and make it back to the cabin. He pulled himself to his feet leaning only on his left foot for balance. He tried to hop but the weight of the trap and the deepness of the snow was a hindrance to his progress. Joe made it about twenty yards and then collapsed face down in the snow.

*****

Ben Cartwright saw the smoke from a distance and it made his mind wonder if his son could be in the old-line shack. He figured it would either be Joe or perhaps some vagrant who had fallen upon the place. Ben remembered back to Joe’s youth when he had run away from home and this was where he had found him after several days of searching the large ranch. Ben hoped that Joe was a creature of habit and had ended up there once more.

Tying Buck’s reins next to Cochise in the lean to, Ben entered the cabin only to find Joe not there. He did spy the boys holster and hat sitting on the table and felt a little more at ease that the boy had indeed been found. Next, Ben noticed the wood that was thrown in a disorganized pile in front of the stove. Ben touched it and discovered it was still wet. He then knew where his son had gone. He was out in search of firewood. Ben walked back out of the cabin and started to follow the depressions in the snow. He made it to the gully and started to see how in several places the snow was tinged in blood. Ben’s heart pounded and he yelled out his son’s name. When no response came he continued to follow the bloodied tracks until he spotted the figure lying face down in the snow.

“Joseph!” Ben yelled as he ran to his side. Turning the boy over, he brushed the snow from off his cheeks. “Joe—” Ben again started but his eyes hit on the site of the trap clawing its way into his son’s ankle. Ben swooped Joe up in his arms and with giant strides rushed back to the cabin.

Once he had Joe lay out on the cot, Ben covered the boy with another blanket. Ben knew it would have been better to get the wet clothes off of Joe first, but with the trap still impaling the ankle, he could not get his son undressed just yet. Ben reached for the coffee that Joe had placed earlier on top of the stove. He poured a cup and then brought it over to his son. Lifting Joe’s head he tried his best to bring him around. “C’mon, Son–you’ve got to come out of it–we have to get that trap off of you.” Ben placed the cup up to Joe’s lips. Joe’s eyes fluttered and as his vision cleared he was shocked to see his father leaning over him.

“Pa—” Was all Joe could get out before he reeled back in pain and screamed.

“It’s okay, Joe–we’re gonna get it off right now. But, I need your help–now don’t go out on me, okay?” Ben tried to assure his son holding back his own worried look as he saw that the blood from Joe’s ankle was increasing in volume. “Now when I yell to pull you need to yank that foot out fast! It’s going to take both of my hands to bend the mouth of the trap open–so you gotta do it. Understand?” Ben asked as he made his way down to the bottom of the cot and took his position over the steel of the trap. Joe nodded his head and chewed at his bottom lip fighting back the terror he felt. It took every ounce of strength that Ben had to pry apart the teeth of the trap as it was old and rusty, and when it had clamped down on Joe, part of the spring had broken apart sealing it almost permanently shut.

“Pull!” Ben shouted and Joe managed to move his leg enough to yank his foot out of the trap. Ben tossed the vile thing on the floor in disgust. He had long insisted that nothing that cruel be used on his ranch. He was always afraid that the traps would injure something or someone that it had not been intended to. He was now proven right as he gazed down at Joe’s right foot.

“Joseph–I’m going to have to cut that boot off—your ankle is broken and it has doubled in size. You hold real still you hear?” Ben looked at how pale his son now was and his own fear increased as to the extent of the boy’s injuries. Slowly and carefully Ben’s pocketknife sliced through the rough leather boot until the boy’s foot was free. Almost immediately the blood began to flow more freely and Ben grabbed a sheet from the other cot on the other side of the room.

“It’s broken.” Ben spoke more to himself than to his son. Joe seemed to be drifting off at the moment and Ben deemed that to be a blessing as he inspected the damage. The ankle would have to be set but worst of all was the worry about infection. The trap being so rusty and having held onto the skin for so long, infection would surely set in soon. Ben found a small pot and poured water from his canteen into it. After it was boiled he soaked some of the ripped up sheet in it and tried his best to clean the wound. Joe came to during this process and screamed out again.

“No! It hurts!” Joe yelled and tried to pull his foot away.

“I know—but it’s going to get infected if we don’t do this. Wait a minute–let me look around here–” Ben stood and did a thorough check of the cabin. He was lucky to find an old bottle of whiskey that had been hidden away in a remote cabinet, a stash that someone had obviously forgotten about. Ben took another tin cup and poured a good couple of shots into it. He knelt down next to Joe and raised his head. “Drink this–it’ll help with some of the pain.” Ben lifted the cup up to Joe’s mouth.

“Wait just a second–” Joe started and stared into Ben’s eyes. “I thought you said no more drinking?” He asked a bit sarcastically.

“Oh–you were listening then were you?” Ben forced a smile in his reply and Joe accepted the contents. Ben watched as Joe’s head fell back onto the pillow and it wasn’t long before the boy had settled down long enough for Ben to continue to doctor the wound.

Deciding that cleaning and wrapping the injury was enough for the moment, Ben chose to set the ankle later after his son had built up his tolerance to the pain it would cause. Ben pulled a chair up along side of the head of the cot and stared down at the boy. Joe’s eyes were starting to look a bit cloudy and Ben knew that the alcohol was working well.

“Why did you come here anyway?” Joe said a bit of a slur to his speech.

Ben grinned at his son, he could tell that Joe was now inebriated and he was eager to hear what the boy would come up with now that all his inhibitions were gone.

“Well—I guess I came here ’cause I was thinking that you just might step into a wolf trap!” Ben returned his own sarcasm now firing back.

“Looks like you were right–” Joe commented and stared down at his foot. “Damned thing—who the hell would have put that thing way out here?” Now Joe was cursing and didn’t even realize it. Ben could not admonish the boy, since he had been the one to give Joe the liquor, anything that came out of his mouth was fair game now.

“I don’t know, Joseph–I guess it was a pretty damn stupid thing to do.” Ben countered laughing at the way Joe’s eyes would open and then close and then the perplexed looks that he was giving his father.

“I ran away from home–” Joe added.

“I know you did, Son.” Ben patted Joe’s arm.

“I ran away from home–you know why–why I ran away from home?” Joe repeated his own words over and over again.

“No, why don’t you tell me why you ran away from home?”

“I ran away from home ’cause–’cause you hit me–no—not that, it was something else I think–but I don’t remember. Oh–yeah I ran away from home ’cause I won the deed back. Yep–I won it back all right—I had an eight and Ira had a seven—but that is why I ran away from home.”

“Maybe we should talk about this tomorrow? What do you think? You are kinda out of your head right now, Joseph.”

Joe reached up and grabbed the lapel to Ben’s coat. “It’s all my fault—-all my fault—” Joe could not finish his sentence; all of a sudden he was consumed with sadness and began to sob. Ben wasn’t at all sure if they were tears from the pain the boy was feeling due to his injury, pain he felt due to the trouble he had caused his family, or crying due to his intoxicated state.

“It’ll be okay, Joseph—you just rest right now.” Ben tried to get his son to lie back down but Joe resisted.

“You hate me now—-you don’t love me anymore—it’s all my fault—I have to run away now.” Joe actually tried to get up from the bed shocking his father by the kid’s strength.

“No-you stay down there, Young Man. You aren’t going anywhere.” Ben pushed him and held him down on the cot. Joe reluctantly gave in to the control of his father and settled back against the pillow.

“You do hate me, don’t you?” Joe asked weakly, his face taking on that of a child’s face and his question coming out in a way that it pierced his father’s heart with its meaning.

“No, Son. I don’t hate you at all. I love you and I always will. No matter what stupid thing you do, no matter how many white hairs you put on my head, I will always love you.”

“You love me? Maybe I don’t have to run away from home,” Joe whispered as he fell off into a deep sleep. Ben pulled the covers up on the boy and kissed his forehead. He had almost enjoyed seeing Joe intoxicated this time, as it afforded him to say in the words of a child what he was feeling. Ben knew once Joe was sober, the feelings would be more guarded when they talked things over.

“No–you don’t have to run away from home, my son.” Ben whispered and leaned back in the chair.

*****

Daybreak brought a more conscious Joe back. He stared over at the slumbering Ben and his thoughts swirled as he realized all that had happened the previous day. **Damn–look what I’ve done now! I can’t even hide out in a cabin without causing some trouble. Pa’s never gonna let me hear the end of this one! I wonder why he came here anyway? Was it to drag me back home so he could punish me even more? I am dreading this. Damned trap anyway–I am a captive now–nowhere to run. This is just another great thing I’ve done*****Joe thought to himself and then saw his father’s eyes start to open.

“Guess I dozed off a little there.” Ben smiled and stretched. “How are you feeling?”

“Stupid.” Joe muttered at the thought of stepping into a trap in the first place.

Ben stood and checked out the swollen ankle and the surrounding area.

“Well, at least the bleeding has stopped, that’s a good thing. But, we do have to get that ankle set real soon. Let’s get some food in you first.”

“I’m not hungry.” Joe replied and Ben could see how he had turned his face away suddenly.

Ben sat back down and sighed, he guessed that they needed to talk to air it all out. “Do you remember anything that you told me last night, Joseph? He asked quietly.

Joe still had his face turned away from his father. “No.” He said flatly, he really didn’t remember anything other than pulling his foot out of the trap. Everything else was a hazy blur.

“Well, we had quite a talk I’ll tell you. And you said some things—and even though you were very very drunk, I think we need to address them.” Ben reached over and pulled Joe’s chin over so he could make eye contact.

“I said it all in my letter to you. There’s nothing more to say.” Joe answered coolly.

“Well, then you can just listen to me then. Of course you don’t tend to listen to me very often–and that just could be part of the problem.”

“You don’t have to tell me, Pa. I know how rotten I have been, that’s why I left. I know that everything that happened is my fault–from losing the deed to stepping in that trap.” Joe’s confession came out full of pain.

“Well—not everything was your fault. I made some mistakes along the way myself.” Ben admitted his tone turning softer and his eyes were gentle and understanding as he looked into his son’s troubled green ones.

“You?” Joe asked surprised. “You never make mistakes. You are always right.”

“I made a bad mistake the other night. And it’s one that has been eating at me ever since then. You were in the wrong for all that you did. I believe you know that now and you are sorry for it. But, in my anger, I was wrong too. I never should have hit you when I was so very upset. A lot of the things I said to you that night I didn’t mean to say.” Ben’s eyes mirrored Joe’s at the moment as both sets of them had now formed tears in them. “If I made you think that I hated you, then I was wrong for doing what I did. Because, that is so far from the truth that it makes my heart hurt. I could never hate you. Yes, I was disappointed–I won’t deny that. And, yes you never should have done what you did. The lying was the worst of it I think. I had never witnessed you blatantly lying to me and that really got to me. But, I know you never meant for the things to happen that did happen to Hoss. So, to again answer the question that you posed to me last night–I do love you. No matter what, it’ll always be there, it’ll never go away.”

Joe closed his eyes and rubbed at them with his hands. “I messed up so badly this time.” He choked out.

“You sure did!” Ben agreed firmly and then reached for the boy and took him in his arms. “But, it looks like I did too. So, Joseph—if you agree to forgive me–then I guess I can forgive you as well.”

“I’m so sorry, Pa.” Joe sobbed in his father’s arms. It felt so good to be held in the protective embrace of the man he loved so dearly. He had worried that they never would feel that close again.

“I am too, Son.” Ben whispered and eased Joe back onto the cot. Both Cartwrights tried to gain some composure and Ben broke in to ease the tension in a peculiar way. “Now what about that painting? I didn’t even notice it was gone–how did you sneak that out?”

“Ummm, Pa–I think I’d rather let you set my ankle than to go into it about the painting.”

Ben laughed. “Okay–you are off the hook for now, Young Man. But, we will talk about it once you are all better.”

“Then, I hope I don’t heal too fast this time.” Joe remarked grinning sheepishly.

“You hungry now?” Ben smiled at his son.

“Starving, Pa.” Joe admitted, for some reason his appetite had just come back.

“Well, lets get you something to eat. Because after that we have an ankle to set.” Ben warned and Joe grimaced.

“Why is it always me?” Joe asked thinking back to his numerous injuries.

“I’ve been asking that very same question for seventeen years now!” Ben laughed and walked to the stove.

*****

As it turned out, Adam’s instincts were absolutely correct and on target that day. He had headed out early in search of his missing father and brother. Tracking them to the cabin, he hurriedly dismounted and ran inside.

“Shhhh-” Ben called and walked over to his eldest son. “Joe is asleep right now. Talk quietly I want to let him rest awhile.” Ben motioned Adam over to the table and they sat down.

“What happened to the kid this time?” Adam stared over at the boy’s propped up foot.

“Oh–the typical things. He stepped into a wolf trap. Broke his ankle,” Ben said matter of factly.

“Huh? Is he okay?”

“Well, I got the ankle set, but we need to get him home and let Doctor Martin see what he thinks. I’m still worried about infection setting in.” Ben handed Adam some coffee and sipped at his own cup.

“And what about you and him? Did you have another argument?”

Ben smiled and Adam had his answer already. “We had a good talk. Cleared a whole lot of things up. It’s going to be okay now, Son. And I have to admit that you were right about a lot of things.” Ben confessed and patted his son’s arm affectionately.

“I can’t tell you how relieved I am to hear that, Pa. But, looks like my chores will pile up now that you have two sons who are laid up.”

“How is Hoss?”

“Doing real good–the doctor and I almost had to hogtie him to keep him in bed today. Doc says he can start getting up in a day or two. Oh–I sent the hands out to move the herd to north shore. So, looks like we are almost back to normal now.”

“Normal? With Joseph around can anything truly be normal on the ranch?” Ben laughed at the slumbering boy.

“He’s a caution, I’ll sure admit that. But, he’s really a good kid at heart. Just a little wild is all.” Adam spoke out with affection toward his little brother.

“Kinda like a wild stallion, huh?” Ben stated and Adam grinned at the earlier comparison that he had made toward Joe.

“Glad to see he hasn’t lost that part of him, Pa.” Adam nodded feeling relieved that both father and son seemed to have patched things up.

*****

With Joe up in his saddle sitting sideways to protect his ankle, Ben turned Buck toward the ranch house. Adam led Cochise and followed close behind the other two as they made their way back home. He couldn’t help noticing how Joe held on a bit more tightly to his father than was really necessary to stay on the horse. Adam smiled knowing it was the closeness both of them needed at the moment.

“Well, Joseph, you heard the doctor. Six weeks off of that foot,” Ben stated as he walked back into his son’s bedroom. He walked over and sat down on the end of the bed and noticed the frown that took over his son’s face.

“Six weeks stuck here.” Joe muttered irritated at the thought.

“Well, it just happens to be the exact amount of time I was going to restrict you to the ranch due to your last adventure in Virginia City. So, you shouldn’t mind it too much.” Ben laughed and Joe rolled his eyes unamused.

“Hey—” Joe began as he stared over at his wall. The painting which he had sold, was once again back hanging there. “How’d that get there?” Joe asked.

“Adam took that two thousand dollars and added a bit more and bought it back.” Ben replied. “I expect you to thank him for it too.”

“Yeah–I will.”

“But you never did tell me how you snuck it out of here.” Ben reminded his son.

“Now, Pa–remember our deal–I tell you all of the rest of the bad stuff when I’m all better. Which according to the doctor will be weeks and weeks from now.” Joe grinned at the thought of the postponement.

“Okay—” Ben stood and then thought some more. “Rest of the bad stuff? You mean there’s more?” He asked as Joe’s words struck a nerve.

“Ask me in six weeks–believe me neither of us wants to talk about this right now–it wouldn’t be healthy.” Joe nodded at the thought.

Ben sighed. He decided that he really didn’t want to know anything further at the present time anyway. “Well, you need some rest now. Goodnight, Son.” Ben started toward the door and then walked back up to the head of the bed. He leaned down and kissed Joe’s forehead and said, “No more running away from home, okay?”

“Huh?” Joe asked confused.

Ben just smiled thinking back to the little boy he had talked to in the cabin, a younger version of the young man who looked up at him now. “Nothing—-go to sleep.” Ben said and walked out of the room.

Joe settled back under the heavy comforter and a grin creased his mouth. “No, Pa–I’ll never run away from home again.” Joe whispered remembering the night in the cabin.

*****End*****

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