The Intruders (by Jane)

 

Summary:   Unexpected company arrive at the Ponderosa.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,235


 

 

Joe whistled happily as he rode towards the ranch.  It was an unexpected turn of events that led to his freedom so early in the day.  His teacher, Mrs. Judson had tripped and fell during the morning recess and after a thorough examination by Doc Martin, everyone was sent home for the rest of the week.

“Hurray” the boys had hollered, as they mounted their ponies and headed away from the school.  Most of his friends had stopped off for a day of fishing at Washoe Lake, but Joe had other plans.   With Pa, Adam, Hoss and even Hop Sing out on the roundup, there would be no one at the ranch house to monitor his activities.   He was free to do as he pleased.

Roundup was always a busy time at the Ponderosa and even more so this year.  There had been another big silver strike up on the Comstock and men were once more flocking to the mines in the hope of getting rich quick.  This left many of the ranches short on help, and the Cartwright spread was no exception. Joe could go almost anywhere on the ranch and no one would be the wiser.  But the place he really wanted to be, was out with the rest of the Ponderosa hands. There were so many things to see and do during roundup time—cows being herded in from all over the ranch, new calves being branded, and the horses!  Oh, how he loved the horses!  Joe loved to watch the men work with the wild ones, especially when one of those men was his big brother.

Adam had a special way about him when he was up on a wild one.  Sometimes Joe could almost feel the spirit of the animal as it bucked and kicked it’s way around the corral.  More than anything else, he wanted to be up there too.  But as with everything else, Pa, Adam, and even Hoss would say he was too young.

How he hated those words: too young, too little.  “That’s probably what they’ll tell me today,” Joe grumbled to himself as he made out the line of the barn against the tall Ponderosa pines.  He knew Pa would find work for him to do, but not the one thing he really wanted.   “I have to find a way to get Pa to give me a chance with the horses” Joe mused.  Then suddenly the boy was inspired with a new thought.  Maybe I’ll take a ride on Adam’s new stallion!

All this was running through the twelve year old’s mind as he rounded the corner of the barn.  He expected the yard in front of the house to be empty, and was surprised to count four horses tied up in front.   As he sent Joe off to school early that morning, Pa had explained that they needed every hand out working the roundup, so Joe was suddenly worried that something must have happened to bring them home this early.  But as he tied up his horse, Lucky, Joe realized that none of these horses looked familiar and none carried the familiar Pine Tree Brand.

Walking quickly towards the front door, Joe could hear voices raised inside.  It sounded like singing and laughing which puzzled the boy.  Who would be inside their home when Pa wasn’t here?  A sudden urge to sneak in and check things out instead of just walking through the front door  caused Joe to change his course and let himself quietly in through the kitchen door.  He made his way past the familiar objects of Hop Sing’s domain as quickly as possible.  If he could at least get to the door of the dining room, he might be able to make out who was in the house.

Suddenly, an arm clamped down around his throat and there was no chance for Joe to scream out as his windpipe was being effectively squeezed shut.  He struggled and kicked, but the man behind him just laughed wickedly.   “Walt!  See what I found here in the kitchen,” he hollered as he pushed Joe roughly through the doorway and into the startled vision of two other men.

“What the hell is he doing here?” one of them shouted.  “Every man-jack on this place was suppose to be out on roundup, you said.”  Walt hollered accusingly at a short, curly haired man.  “You also told me this kid wouldn’t be home from school ’til late afternoon, Shorty” he continued.  “Can’t trust you for anything!” he finished.   Shorty looked just as angry.  “Hey Walt” he shouted back.  “This kid isn’t suppose to be here!  I’ve been watching this ranch for a week and I got all kinds of information in town.  He never comes home from school this time of day.  Can’t help it if the kid screws things up.”

The men stood and looked at each other, seemingly not knowing how to proceed.  Their plan had changed drastically.  What should’ve been a simple robbery was now something much more.  There was a witness and that was something they could not afford.

“What should we do with him?” said the burly man still holding Joe in his arms.  No longer kicking and struggling, it was all Little Joe could do to drag a meager breath into his burning lungs.  “You’d better ease up a little, Red, or there won’t be any question of what to do with him.  Looks like he’s almost dead already.”  The man was right.  Joe had become like a rag doll in the big man’s arms and there was no fight left in him.  Red loosened his grip, as the blackness engulfed Joe and he heard only a mumble of voices far off in the distance as his body dropped and his head struck the wooden floor with a resounding thump.

*****

The sudden rush of air in his lungs caused Joe to cough and sputter, but the haze in his head would not clear.  Where was he again?  Was that Pa talking to him?  Probably telling him to get up or to go do his chores.  The voices were louder now and more insistent.  They seemed to be arguing.  But what about?  Why would Pa or Hoss or Adam be arguing right over his head while he was trying to sleep?  He opened his eyes and the searing pain in his neck brought him back to the present.  It wasn’t Pa or his brothers, it was those three men standing here in his father’s house.   Joe struggled to raise himself, but realized that while he’d been unconscious, they had trussed his hands and feet with a length of rope.  The hemp sliced unmercifully into his wrists as he twisted and turned in a futile effort to free himself.   Anger burned within him as Joe realized that these men hand intruded in his home and they weren’t planning to leave soon.

The man they called Walt was standing with his back to the large stone fireplace, resolve standing out distinctively in his piercing blue eyes.  “We’ll have to kill him” he stated with absolute finality.  “Daddy’s little boy gives us no choice!”  His statement was met with nods of approval from his cohorts.  “How should we do it, Walt?” Shoot him?” asked Shorty.   “I ain’t decided yet” answered Walt as he took a swig from a newly opened bottle of whiskey.  “Heh, this Mr. Cartwright sure drinks fine liquor” he grinned as the amber liquid slid down his throat.  “Makes a man feel good” he sighed.  “Think we’ll just stick around a little while and enjoy the good life.  This boy’s Papa won’t be home for hours and I need to think on how we’re going to bring about his unfortunate end.”

 The man they called Red returned from the kitchen with a platter full of Hop Sing’s tender roast beef along with biscuits and fruit that had been set-aside for supper.  “Anybody hungry?”  He bellowed.  “These people sure have good eats.”  He set the platter down on the table as he reached to grab Joe’s arm.   “You’re in my way, boy,” he mumbled as he dragged Little Joe from the floor.  The room swam in front of Joe, the colors and shapes of things had no rhyme or reason, just one swirling mass of confusion.  He blinked and shook his head as if to clear his mind of the haze.  “What do you want here?”  he asked with more bravado than he truly felt.

Walt answered with a sinister laugh as he rose to his feet and stretched.  “Don’t matter to you boy, what we want here” the big man answered.  “You ain’t gonna be around to tell Papa we were here or what we look like, and that’s the important thing.   Take him upstairs, Red.” he instructed.  “I’ve gotta decide what kind of accident’s gonna take place here today.  Might take me some time to think up a good one,” he laughed as he returned to the overstuffed chair near the fireplace.  “Need me another drink of this here good liquor,” and he raised the bottle to his lips for another draught.

Joe’s famous temper was beginning to make its appearance as the gray haze cleared from his mind.  “This is my father’s house!”  He shouted as Red dragged him towards the stairs.  “You’ve got no right to be here!  You’d better get out before he gets home” Joe continued, but Red had heard enough.  “Shut up you stupid kid,” he spat as they reached the landing.  “We ain’t scared of your Pa,”  he laughed as he pushed Joe towards the next flight of steps.  As he lifted his foot to start the ascent, Joe’s boot caught on the woven rug and he fell hard against the wooden stairway.  Red laughed again, as if the boy’s misfortune caused him no end of pleasure.  He grabbed the boy’s shoulder and pulled him upwards at the same time giving Joe another push forward.  Again Joe fell towards the stairway, this time twisting as he fell and hitting his ribs against the hard edge of the step.  Ominous laughter escaped from Red’s lips, but this time it was joined from the group below as the band of intruders gathered to watch this sadistic play in action.  “What’s wrong Red, can’t the boy walk up them steps alone?” laughed Shorty.   “Nope, don’t think he can” replied Red.  “He’s just a little boy, too young to do much of anything.”

These all too familiar words rang through the jangled noises within Joe’s mind, and the sudden red-tinged anger was hot within his chest.  “No, I’m not!”  he yelled as he pushed with one enormous effort back from the steps and against the shadowed frame of what he now knew as his worst enemy.  Red tried unsuccessfully to right himself against this unexpected assault, but his large frame crashed through the railing and he fell hard on the floor below.

“You little . . .” he yelled as he scrambled to his feet.  Over the broken railing he climbed as Joe flew up the steps;  but Red was right behind him.  “You little . . .” he repeated as he grabbed the boy about the waist.  “You’re gonna pay for that!”  Red threw Joe backwards against the wall of the upper hallway.  Spittle flew from his lips as he leaned down over Joe and the red-hot anger seemed to fly like flaming sparks from his glassy eyes.   Once again laughter could be heard from the great room but no one had followed the pair.  Joe knew that for now at least, he had only Red to worry about.  His muddled mind searched for any clue to use for escape.  He needed a weapon, something to use against this man who loomed over him.  But there was nothing.

Once again, Red slammed Joe’s battered body against the wall.  “You’re gonna pay the price”  the enraged man hollered as he reached past Joe and opened the massive door behind him.  Red roughly shoved Joe through the doorway and onto the floor as he slammed the door behind him.  Through the sharp pangs stabbing his side and the driving pain within his head, Joe instantly recognized the woven rug that graced his father’s room.  “Pa” he whispered as he rolled over and tried to get up to his knees.  “You’re Pa can’t help you now” Red answered with a deft kick to the boy’s side.

Joe looked up into the furious countenance of his attacker and knew there was no escape.  His earlier temper turned suddenly to fear and no attempt at boldness would stop this brutal man from his present path.  “You embarrassed me in front of my friends,”  Red stated  “and nobody does that to Red McCall!”  With only hatred in the ice cold blue of his eyes, Red reached down and pulled the boy toward him.  The blows that descended upon Ben’s son were not to be remembered.

Joe’s beaten body lay upon his father’s bedroom floor, but his mind was released from the awful scene.  The only thing Joe remembered was the black billowing cloud that engulfed him and took him safely away to the memory of his Pa.

****

Down the hall, a door clicked shut ever so softly.  The watchful eyes blinked tears of remorse for what they’d just witnessed, but the girl stood helpless in her grief.  There was no way for her to help this boy.  She’d tried before to stop her brother, but his fury had only been redirected towards her.  The suffering that this one man could impose was unbearable, and Sarah had learned years ago that her life was subject to his wrath.  The girl had dreamed many times of the escape she might make from these men, but her dread of the consequences halted her every effort.  Her only alternative was to be agreeable and subservient at all times.  Then and only then was she safe in their presence.

“Where is that sister of yours? Need her to fix us up some food to carry,”  grumbled Walt a short time later when Red had returned to their company.   “Don’t know,” answered Red as he took another swig from the bottle.  “She’s around here somewhere.”    “Sarah!” he hollered as he grabbed a chunk of beef.  “Git down here and help out.”

Sarah ran quickly from the room where she’d been hiding.  She knew the mood they were in and had felt it best to stay out of their sight as much as possible.  The room upstairs where she’d found refuge was a wonderful haven indeed.  There was a soft bed to lay in and books of every kind in a hand carved shelf above the desk.

Sarah loved to read and was amazed that anyone could have so many books at their disposal.   Even now, a thin volume was tucked into the pocket of her faded calico skirt.  She wasn’t one to steal like her brother and his friends, but the red linen volume was more than she could resist.  The precious words she’d found inside it’s cover could take her away from this ghastly life she led and into a paradise one could only imagine.

“Coming” she called to the band below.  As she passed the doorway where the young boy lay, she could hear a faint moan within.  A moment’s hesitation was all that was needed to incur the wrath of the men below, but she took a chance and peeked through the door that had been left standing slightly ajar.

The sight that met her eyes was one of the worst displays of Red’s murderous outbursts.  The young boy was sprawled across the floor and blood seemed to be oozing from every part of him.  “Red’s almost killed him,” she murmured.   “Help me,”  Joe moaned as he looked up into her sympathetic eyes.  He seemed to sense at once that she might provide an avenue of escape that until now had seemed unattainable.    A sudden desire to gather the boy into her arms and carry him away from the danger below was almost overwhelming.  “Help me!” he breathed again through lips that were swollen and bleeding.

Sarah could see that there was little strength left in the boy’s meager frame, but a distinctive will to surmount this evil was evident in his expressive hazel eyes.  If this young boy could withstand such a beating and still struggle to survive, why couldn’t she find the strength to stand up against her brother and his friends.  She bent down,  “I want to help, but don’t know how” Sarah whispered gently in Joe’s ear.   “Back way out” he groaned.  “I know a place to hide, but can’t make it by myself.  Help me . . .”  his voice was thin and his breathing raspy, Sarah wondered if he’d really have the strength to attempt what he was suggesting.   “I’ll try,”  she started, but an insistent voice rose once again from the room below.

“Sarah!”

Sarah’s face was expressionless as she meekly descended the stairs a moment later.  No tell-tale signs were there to distinguish the racing thoughts within.  Her mind was made up.  No matter what happened, she must help the boy upstairs.  Her conscience would not allow her to do otherwise.

*****

The room around him seemed to grow in size, then fade like the lapping waves on the shores of Lake Tahoe.  The roaring inside his head had become an ever-present sensation and no position would give him relief from the excruciating pain in his body.  Everything hurt!  His back, side, stomach, even his legs, felt like they were on fire.  Joe wasn’t sure what was wrong, but knew that things inside him couldn’t be right.

The youth had been no match for the stocky man who’d used his fists and feet in every possible way to damage the boy.  In some ways, Joe was surprised that he was still alive.  Only the persistent thoughts of his Pa and brothers kept him struggling now for consciousness.  He prayed that every passing moment would bring his family closer to home and his rescue, but somewhere, way back in his thoughts, lurked the fear that they wouldn’t make it in time.  It was roundup time and Pa had warned him that they may be home late.  What would Pa think if he arrived home to find Joe gone, or worse yet, dead on the floor of his own room?  Joe’s mind filled with a vision of his father’s eyes filled with sadness and despair

“Gotta. . get. .outa. .here” he muttered as he struggled on his knees towards the door.  Joe knew his father had experienced crushing grief at the loss of his three wives and the family that was left to go on had grown closer with each passing year.  They all depended heavily on each other and Joe couldn’t imagine the family without his Pa or brothers; he hoped, then knew deep in his heart that it was the same for them.  Even though they teased him constantly and angered him with comments like “you’re too young”, their love for him was certain fact.  “Can’t let Pa be hurt again.”    Increasing waves of pain and nausea caused Joe to stop every few minutes and his progress was exceedingly slow.  “How am I going to make it out of the house?” he pondered.

Suddenly the door swung open and Joe drew back in alarm.  Fully expecting to see Red standing in the doorway, he was surprised and relieved to see the girl there instead.  He looked at her, silently pleading with his dark eyes.  “I’ll help you” she answered his unspoken request.   “But we have to hurry.  They’re busy trying to break into the safe and when they’ve finished there, we’re leaving,”  Sarah informed him.   “What about me?” Joe questioned.  “Is Red leaving me here?”  “Yes, but not alive” Sarah answered in an anguished voice.  “He’ll be coming for you soon, and we’d better be gone.”  She reached down and carefully helped the injured boy to his feet.  He was unsteady, and she knew that it was taking every effort for him to stay upright.  “How do we get out of here?” she whispered.   Joe didn’t try to respond, he only motioned for her to follow as he weaved his way towards the open doorway.  He knew he must stay alert if they were to be successful in their endeavor.

The two figures moved soundlessly down the hallway and into Adam’s room.  “Out this window” whispered Joe as he moved carefully to the opening.”  Sarah shook her head in dismay.  “I can’t make it!” she stammered as she looked at the drop below but Joe was insistent as he moved the sash quietly upwards.  “It’s ok, I’ve done it lots of times,”  he smiled at her.

Sarah was amazed at the resolve evident in a boy so young.  With great care they made their way through the window and onto the overhang below.  The pain in his eyes was a stark contrast to the dauntless look upon his face.  She wondered how long he’d be able to keep up the façade as she watched him move towards the edge of the roof.  “Quick now,”  he warned,  “we have to get down this trellis and up the slope before they see us.”

With a sure-footedness born of desperate fear, Sarah followed the boy down the trellis.  At one point she saw him slip and thought for sure he’d fall to his death, but the tenacious youth grabbed hold with a strength that even surprised himself.  She knew the men inside need only step out the door and the two would surely be discovered.  But her silent prayers were answered as they successfully reached the ground and headed towards the rocky hill behind the house.

“I know a place where we can hide,” Joe muttered as they started the ascent.  Sarah just prayed he’d be able to make it there before he collapsed.  Though her resolve had not faded, her panic had grown.  If Red found out she’d left and helped the boy escape besides, she knew there would be no saving herself from his vicious wrath.

Upwards they climbed as the sun beat down in a fiery blaze.  The hillside was steep and Sarah still had no idea where they were headed.  She had tried to talk to the boy but was answered with unintelligible grunts.  She knew that he must be using all his energy to make this final effort for it seemed that he stumbled now with almost every step.  Sheer will was all that kept him going and she marveled at his endurance.   How long he would he be able to continue?  She could only pray it would be long enough; her attempts to help him were useless as they traversed a narrow rocky path.  Sarah had all she could do to keep herself erect and she feared that any mis-step would signal a warning to the men below.

A line of trees hid the pair from the ranch house now.  Far below Sarah could hear sounds of men talking and laughing and wondered if they’d accomplished their goal in opening the safe.  Suddenly she heard her name being called.  “It’s Red” she moaned.  “He’s discovered we’re gone.” Joe stopped on a ledge above her and bent over to rest.  “Hurry,”  he muttered as he reached out his hand for her.  “We have to hurry if we’re gonna make the cave before they see us.”

The voices below were louder now,  and even from this height she could hear the anger in her brother’s calls.  Her resolve was slipping away but she knew no other course to take.  There was no chance of returning to the house and feigning ignorance; they’d have to know she’d helped the boy.  There was just no other way he could have escaped.  Her course was clear and the choice had been made.  Successful or not, she’d fight to the end to protect herself and this boy.

*****

In what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was a mere half hour, Joe and Sarah reached a cluster of rocks on the ridge, indiscernible from the ranch below.  The youth collapsed to his knees, his head hanging low and his breathing ragged.  Sarah noticed again how much blood covered his shattered form.  Struggling to regain her composure, the girl carefully grasped his chin and lifted his face towards her.  “Where are we?” she begged.  “I can’t help us if I don’t know where we’re going.”  “We’re here” came his faint reply.  “Behind these rocks, there’s an opening into a shallow cave.  Can’t be seen from below, hard to find,” he gasped.

The air didn’t seem to fill his lungs like it should, and the constant razor-edged pains had frightened Little Joe as they climbed the slope.  Now that they’d made it to his hideout, he didn’t seem to have the strength to crawl the few remaining feet to safety.   He knelt on the unforgiving rocks and could feel the life draining from him.  “Help me. . .” he pleaded once again as he raised his hand towards the girl.  “Don’t . . . think . . . I . . . can. . . make . . . it,”  he groaned.

Sarah was dumbfounded.  They’d made it so far and couldn’t give up now!  She reached out to him as the boy fell into her arms.  He was unconscious and they were still in grave danger.   With a strength she didn’t know she possessed, terrified of making a sound lest the men should appear behind her, she pulled the boy’s lifeless form behind the rocks.

The light was dim here with huge boulders all around and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust.  There was no opening!  The boy had been wrong!!   What was she to do now?  Sarah shook him roughly but there was no response.  His head rolled onto his chest and a faint gurgling cough was his only reply.  Looking around again, terror striking at her heart, the forlorn girl noticed a slight depression near one of the largest boulders.  Several steps closer she could make out an opening and she realized with grateful relief that the boy did know what he was talking about after all.  There was a hiding place here and a good one at that.

Sarah moved quickly to the boy’s side and dragged him unceremoniously through the opening.   Worry for his wounds would come later, for now she had to make sure they were safely hidden.  Pulling a well-worn petticoat from under her dress, Sarah returned to the hillside and did her best to obliterate any footprints or sign of the boy’s blood.  From her past experience, she knew that these men could be effective trackers when necessary, but the rocky slope was to her advantage, and the men had been drinking heavily.  Maybe they’d miss the trail, she prayed.

Returning to the rocky opening, Sarah looked down once more but there were no longer any sounds coming from the ranch below, only a lonesome whistling of the wind high above her in the pines.  She glanced upwards to view the sky and was surprised to see dark clouds gathering over the mountains.  The breeze had cooled and the sun seemed fainter in the bright blue of the heavens.  “No use worrying about the weather now,” she mused as she slipped through the opening to the safety of their hiding place.  “I’ve got much bigger problems.”

*****

The three angry men gathered in the great room around saddlebags filled with money, silver and other expensive items.  “We’ve got to make up our mind here, boys” grumbled Shorty.  The apprehension was thick in his voice as he glanced once more towards the doorway.  “Are we gonna keep looking for that rich kid, or get ourselves out of here before Cartwright gets back?” he questioned.  Walt grumbled from his seat near the hearth.   “Darn girl” he muttered.  “Knew we should’ve gotten rid of her months ago,”  he glared at Red.

Red hung his head to one side, trying to decide which avenue to take. His sister had been a thorn in his side for many years, but Red kept her with him, not out of any sense of love or duty, but as another man might keep a keepsake or special belonging.  She was his.  Sarah was his property to do with, as he saw fit.  But now she’d done turned on him, and she knew better too!  Knew of the beating Red could and would give her when he caught up to her.  Trouble was, he didn’t have the time to go lookin’ right now.

Shorty was right, Cartwright was due back soon and they needed time to make a clean getaway.  The men had already lost time looking for those two up on that dang hill.   Walt was anxious to do away with any witnesses but Red was just intent on getting even with the kid.   His pride continued to suffer from the little stunt that Cartwright brat pulled on the stairway.  Shorty was still poking fun at him about how the kid got in a good lick.  Red didn’t think he could let it go.

Walt stood up with a low growl and abruptly headed for the saddlebag.  “Let’s go boys,” he asserted.  “We ain’t stickin’ around here to get our heads in a noose.  If that boy’s found dead now, we’re right here to get the finger pointed at.  Hit the trail now and we got a chance to be out of the country before they’re on to us. Let’s go” he said again as he grabbed a bag and moved towards the door.

Shorty and Red nodded in agreement as they gathered the other bags and followed Walt towards the hitching rail.  They all knew they’d stayed longer than planned.  It was time to move on.  “This was one job that sure got messed up,” Shorty complained as he mounted his roan.  Red glared at him silently.  He knew that a lot of the blame lay in his yard.  “That damn Sarah,”  he mumbled under his breath.  “Walt was right, should’ve gotten rid of her long ago”.  The two men were mounted and waiting as Walt returned from the barn leading a handsome black stallion.  “Whew,” Red whistled softly.  “What a Beaut!”   “Yes sir, and this one is all mine,” replied Walt as he climbed onto his mount.   “Horse stealin’!  You know they hang men for that too,”  breathed Shorty as he looked over his shoulder.  “Yea!  If they get caught,” chuckled Walt as he kicked his mount into a trot.  “Let’s not get caught, boys” and Walt laughed out loud as they rode away.

*****

It had been a long day and Ben was bone tired.  Everyone had worked hard, but there was so much left to do.  This last silver strike was sure putting a crimp in his roundup plans.  He turned Buck back towards the makeshift corral, looking over the horses as Adam rode up.

“Hi, Pa,”  he smiled as he pulled Sport up, and grabbed his canteen for a quick drink.  “How’s it going?”

“It’s going slow, son, but we expected that,” replied Ben.

He glanced up at the sky as Hoss rode up from the branding pen.  “Hi, Pa, Adam,”  moaned Hoss as Chubb came to a halt.  “Isn’t it time for some grub?  My stomach’s been growlin’ for hours” he complained.

Pa and Adam broke into laughter as they surveyed the 18-year old Hoss.  “You’re stomach’s always growling, brother” grinned Adam.  He pushed the stopper back into the canteen and returned it to it’s designated position on his saddle.

“Wonder where Joe is?” Pa worried out loud.

Ben had been watching for his youngest son for quite some time.  It was almost suppertime and Joe should’ve been home from school hours ago.  Ben knew better than to assume his young son would’ve settled in to do his school work or chores about the ranch.  Roundup time was exciting for a boy and Ben knew that sooner or later Little Joe would be out here in the thick of things.  “Have either of you seen Joe?”  Pa asked again.

“No, Pa,” answered Hoss.

“Come to think of it, things have been pretty quiet around here Pa” said Adam.  “Guess the kid figured he’d give us a break today.”

Pa didn’t think Adam’s comment was overly funny and the dark look sent in his direction confirmed that fact.

“Aw Pa, Adam’s just joshin’ ya” soothed Hoss.  “We know Little Joe just wants to help out.  But he does tend to get in the way sometimes.”

  “Never mind” said Ben.  “Your brother is as much a part of this family as any of us, and he’s just anxious to be included.”

Ben grinned to himself as he thought of Joe and his running disagreements with Adam.  The boy tried so hard to do everything like a grown man, but his youthful enthusiasm and quick temper usually ended up setting him on the wrong side of his eldest sibling.  Now, Hoss and Joe were a different matter altogether.  In Hoss’ eyes, Joe could do no wrong, or at least nothing bad enough to warrant an argument.  And when his brothers got themselves into a shouting match, an event that seemed to occur more frequently since Adam returned from college, Hoss was the peacemaker who kept his two brothers in line.

Ben’s attention returned to the activity before him and once again he wondered at his youngest son’s absence.  Even Adam seemed to be looking about now with a worried glare.

“Wonder where the kid is?” he muttered out loud.  “I did expect he’d be under foot today.”

As the three men sat their mounts for this brief interchange, the sky behind them had changed in hue and thick clouds gathered and boiled together over the distant peaks.  Soon their attention was drawn to the changing light and Hoss noticed a faint flicker of lightning across the mountain.  No answering rumble was heard.  Still, a storm this time of year could be quite severe.  The men were tired and hungry anyway.

  “Let’s call it a day!” signaled Ben.

The men began to gather their tools and supplies, even Hop Sing breathed a sigh of relief as the word made it back to him at the chuck wagon.  He didn’t mind helping out when Mr. Ben was short a cook, but he much preferred his own kitchen back at the ranch and would enjoy cooking the evening meal at home where he belonged.

*****

As the hands rode back to the ranch, Ben and his sons watched the trail closely for any sign of their wayward brother, but there was nothing to indicate that Joe had ridden out this way.  Riding up to the house, they were surprised and relieved to find Little Joe’s horse tied to the hitching rail, although Ben mumbled something under his breath about a boy and his chores.

“Joseph” he shouted, as the men dismounted.  “Joseph, come out here and take care of your horse.”

Hoss led Buck and Chubb into the barn as Ben turned toward the house. Adam was already stabling Sport with a measure of grain and a good rub down.

Ben continued to mutter about his youngest son and responsibility as he opened the front door.  Immediately he drew his gun as he peered about the great room in shock and disbelief.  Through the dim light of the setting sun, Ben sensed the confusion and disarray that was evident in his home.  “Joseph” he shouted again.  This time, tiny spears of fear reached up and down his spine as he listened for his son’s reply.  There was none.  No sound at all, save the ticking of the grandfather clock.   Ben quickly lit the kerosene lamp placed on the table near the door.  The warm light revealed a savage scene that Ben instantly knew was the cause of his son’s disappearance.  “Adam, Hoss” he called with increasing alarm.  “Get in here quick!!”

Adam and Hoss reached the front door as their father climbed the stairs.  Their eyes traveled warily over the shambled leavings of their home.  “My God, Adam, look at the railing” said Hoss, pointing a shaking finger towards the stairway.  They moved about the room looking for something that might help them make sense of this chaos.

Suddenly the silence was rent with a piercing “No” from the room upstairs.  Both men dashed up the steps to join their father in his room.  A shaking Ben knelt on the carpet in the middle of his floor, head hanging low on his chest, one hand holding the blood spattered jacket of his youngest child.  “Joseph,” he whispered.  “Where are you, son?  What’s happened to you?”  He lifted his tear-streaked face to his oldest sons and they could hardly bear the look of pain and suffering in his eyes.  “Who’s been in our home?” he begged them.  “Who’s hurt my son and why?   WHY??”

Ben’s shoulder’s sagged as his head slumped back to his chest.  Adam could see great sobs wracking his father’s body.  Quickly, he moved to his father’s side and leaned down to help him to his feet.  “Come on, Pa,” he whispered.  ‘”We’ve got work to do.  We gotta find Little Joe.”   Hoss nodded his head in agreement as he headed out the door.  “Send for Roy Coffee,” called Ben as his son disappeared from sight.  He let Adam help him to a chair as Ben pulled himself together.  “You’re right Adam, we’ve got to find the boy” agreed Ben as he fingered the green jacket.  “Maybe he was able to get away . . . “

Adam only dipped his head in response as he looked about the room. A feeling of dread overcame him as he saw the blood upon the floor.  His little brother was obviously hurt bad and needed help fast.  But where should they look?   Night was fast approaching, and with it a storm that could hamper their efforts to locate any kind of trail.  With this in mind, Adam suddenly bolted from the room.  “Hoss” he called.  “Get some lanterns quick!”

Outside, the two brothers made their way around the house, carefully looking for any sign that might lead to their brother’s whereabouts.  They could see the horse’s tracks leading away from the yard and Adam was suddenly aware of the empty paddock where his black stallion should have been.  Had their brother rode away with these men?  His horse was still tethered in the yard, schoolbooks still tied to the back of Little Joe’s saddle.  “Maybe they took him on one of their horses?”  Adam wondered aloud.   Many of the ranch hands had joined them in their search but Adam kept them away from the house.  “Don’t want to mess up any tracks,”  he explained as Hoss continued his search.  Adam glanced up as he crossed the yard to see Ben’s silhouette in the doorway.  He was still holding Joe’s jacket.

“Adam” called Hoss from the back corner.  As Adam rounded the corner of the house, the unmistakable roll of thunder could be heard over the mountains.  He knew they might have only minutes before a downpour would wash away all traces of Joe’s trail.  “What’d you find?” asked Ben.  He stood behind Adam with an air of calm about him.  “What is it son?” he repeated.

“It’s footprints, Pa!” answered Hoss.  “Looks to be two sets from what I can tell.  The one is Joe’s for sure.  See how he points that one foot in like he does, but it sure looks to me like he’s dragging the other foot a might.  The other tracks are small, like a woman’s shoes would make.   From what I can see, it looks like they might’ve climbed down the trellis and dropped to the ground right here,”  he pointed to the deep imprints.  “They took off runnin’ in this direction, Pa” Hoss continued, but they headed up into these rocks here behind the house.  Where d’ya suppose they was headin’?” he finished.

Ben and Adam shook their heads, there was nothing up the ridge but rocks and boulders and some pretty rough trails at that.  “Surely Joe wouldn’t have led a lady up in that direction, though come to think of it, that would be good area to lose someone if they were chasing you” wondered Adam out loud.

“Hoss, get some lanterns and slickers.  Ask the men to join us.  Adam, let’s gather some bandages and such.  We need to get started.”  Ben was running back towards the house even as he was shouting instructions to his sons.  Little Joe was in trouble and needed his help.  Joe, with the dark, curly hair and the large green, expressive eyes.  His youngest son, with the infectious laugh and quick temper.  “Dear God” prayed Ben.  “Let my boy be all right.”

It was only a quarter of an hour and the men were on the trail, but in that short time, the boiling mass of storm clouds had descended over the Ponderosa like a mighty mass of evil.  The darkness cut out the brightest stars and soon even the moon was a lost cause as the clouds scudded past its brilliant path.  Only an occasional flash of white light illuminated their path.  And a difficult path it was.  The slope was steep and once they were a short distance from the house, they lost all sign of a trail.  Only Ben’s insistence that they must continue kept them moving upwards.  The simple truth was, he didn’t know where else to look, and some unseen force seemed to push him towards the ridge.  Adam and Hoss exchanged wary glances as the storm approached.  They were worried not only about their brother but also their father.  The brothers well knew how close Ben was to his youngest son.  It was no secret that Joe held his father’s heart not only with his looks, so much like his mother’s, but his very love of life.  Joe could always bring their father out of the darkest mood with his winning smile.  There were many times the older boys had seen the loving caresses Ben saved only for his youngest son.  What would happen to their father if anything should happen to Joe?  The thought itself pushed the brothers onward.

*****

The cave was shallow and cramped, but it offered the protection that Joe and Sarah needed.  It seemed like hours before the boy moaned weakly and his long lashes fluttered revealing large hazel eyes filled with pain and fear.  “Where are we?” he moaned.  “Did we make it to the cave?”  “Yes, Yes” Sarah answered soothingly.  “Told you it was here,” he smiled.  “Come up here sometimes. . .  My secret place. . .”  Joe’s eyes squeezed shut as a finger of pain raced through his body.

The sunlight had disappeared and Sarah suddenly felt as if they were trapped in a dark and confining tomb. Earlier she had been grateful for the cave’s warm and secure existence, but the descending shadows of night brought out long hidden fears and Sarah struggled to control her trembling.  “You’re going to be all right,” she reassured the boy as she wiped his sweat streaked brow.

Sarah didn’t think he believed a word of what she was saying, ‘Heavens’ she thought, I don’t believe it myself.’  The boy’s body was hot to the touch and she had no way to relieve his suffering.  There was no water here or medicines of any kind.  There wasn’t even a blanket to cover him with.  The best she could do was to talk to him, comfort him, and maybe say a prayer for him.  The rest was up to God.

“What’s your name?” Sarah asked as he continued his fretful moaning.  “Joe,”  he answered in a weak voice.  “Little Joe to my friends.”   “Glad to meet you, Little Joe,” Sarah murmured as she wiped his brow.  “I’m Sarah.”   Joe nodded in greeting as his body began to shake.  “Cold, so cold,”  he whispered.  “Hope Pa comes soon.”

“What’s your Pa like?” asked Sarah; but it was too late, he was unconscious again.    The fretful movement of his body continued, like a silent torture.  Sarah worried that he might not wake up again.    Somewhere she’d heard that you shouldn’t let someone with a head wound go to sleep, so she grabbed the boy’ shoulder and roughly shook him awake.  “Little Joe” she called, “wake up.”

The voice came to him from a distance and Joe wasn’t sure who it belonged to.  The sound was sweet and he tried to pull himself upward to meet it, but the black fog enveloped him and he could not resist its soothing promise of peace.  There’s too much pain where the voice is, he reasoned.  I’ll answer in a little while, but first I have to rest.  “Where’s Pa?” he murmured from some unseen depth.  But Sarah’s answer could not be heard from where he slept.

*****

The darkness covered them like spilled black ink covers a page.  There was no hint of light, save the occasional flashes from the approaching storm, and the bobbing lanterns cut only a thin sliver of path ahead.  Already one of the hands had been injured in a fall and it required two men to help him back to the ranch.

“Pa,” Adam called from off to his left. “We need to stop a minute.”  Ben was eager to continue the search, but he felt as much as heard the pleading in Adam’s voice.  “Yes, Adam,”  he answered as his son reached his side.  “We can’t go on this way much longer Pa, there’s no light and we’re in danger of hurting someone else up here.  We don’t even know if Joe’s on this hill.” Adam continued.  “It might be best if we come back at first light.” Adam was right, and Ben knew it, but his heart wouldn’t let him return to the house without his youngest son.  “Just a little while longer, Adam,”  he mumbled.  “Send the men back if you want, but I’m not turning back.”

Inside the narrow confines of the cave, Sarah kept constant vigil over the injured boy.  She could tell from the shallow breathing that he was sinking further into shock; the frustration and helplessness she felt was almost unbearable.  Her neck and back were stiff, every effort to change position bringing aching response from her tired muscles.  How do we get out of this fix?  She thought.  The night was full upon them now and the blackened sky would lend them aid in escape.  But escape to where?  She didn’t dare return to the house too soon.  What if the Cartwright’s had not returned or worse, what if Red and the boys decided to circle back and watch for her.   The tangled questions spinning in her mind were suddenly halted by voices from below.  They seemed to be growing closer but were indefinable.  Was it Red?   Sarah stiffened against the rock wall.

*****

“Joseph!”  A voice called out.   “Joe, where are you?” another voice echoed.

It was the boy’s family!  Tears fell from Sarah’s eyes as she tried to move. “Mr. Cartwright” she exclaimed.  “Mr. Cartwright, we’re in here!”  It was only moments before she discerned a silhouette in the rock opening.  The flickering light of a lantern dispelled the gloom she’d come to know and her eyes blinked with its brightness.

“Joe,” breathed Ben as he squeezed into the narrow confines of their hiding place.  “Joe, are you alright son?”  Ben asked again, as he gently stroked the boy’s damp curls from his feverish face.

Sarah regarded him with an air of trepidation.  She didn’t know these people, and while she was happy they’d found the boy, Sarah worried about the final outcome.  Would they be thankful for the help she’d supplied to their son in escaping, or would there be only anger for the horrible crimes she had been a party too?

“He’s been unconscious for a long time, Mr. Cartwright” she breathed.  Only then did Ben seem to be aware of her presence.  “Who are you miss, and what’s happened to my son?” he roared as he roughly grabbed her by the wrist.  Sarah shrunk back against the cold rock and stared into his blazing eyes.  She could see there the deep love and concern for his child and knew she must not be put off by his intense reaction.   As quickly as the man had lashed out, he returned to his gentle ministrations.

“Adam, Hoss!  He’s here!”  Ben called as the boys milled around the opening,  As Ben returned to the dark of the night he caught each of his sons by an arm.  “He’s alive boys, but he’s bad off.  We need to get him off this hill as quickly as possible.”  The search party gathered around as the men discussed their options for moving the injured boy down to the house.  It only took minutes for them to agree that their only choice was to have Hoss carry his brother to safety.  There was no time to rig a stretcher of any kind and in reality the trail was too steep anyway.

Adam made his way through the opening as Ben delivered instructions to the hired hands:  “Hank, you and Charlie will stay with us and help get Joe out of here.  The rest of you boys can head down to the house; Tom you help Hop Sing get ready.  Chuck, you need to ride for Doc Martin, and Son, please ride fast!”

As Adam’s eyes found his brother lying on the cold, hard ground, he felt a wrenching twist of fear deep inside.  “Miss” he acknowledged Sarah as he knelt by his brother’s side.  “Hey, Buddy,” Adam whispered in Joe’s ear as his arms encircled the silent youth.  “We’re gonna get you out of here right now.”

Hoss was too large to make his way into such a narrow cavity and Adam himself was having a hard time getting Joe in his arms and out of the cave.  With a nod of his head, Adam thanked Sarah as she clawed her way to her feet and reached for Joe’s legs.

“I’ll help you” she mumbled softly, as they maneuvered the limp frame out of the opening and into the chill air of the stormy night.

As Sarah moved from the familiar protection of their shelter, a bright stabbing finger of lightning seemed to reach from the sky and the following roar of thunder was deafening to her ears.

“Pa, we’re gonna have to hurry” encouraged Hoss.  That storm’s almost over us and should it start to rain while we’re on this slope, we’re all in a heap of trouble.”

Ben nodded his head in answer, his eyes intent on his youngest son’s limp form.  “Careful, Adam” he murmured as they slowly emerged from the cave.  Hoss gathered his unconscious sibling in his strong arms and the small band began a careful descent to the ranch house below.

*****

The intensity of the approaching storm was awesome, and Sarah felt a sharp sliver of fear deep within.   The lightning was almost a constant display now, one flare touching off another as a seemingly endless light show ensued.  The beginning rumbles had developed into a cacophony of sounds, each trying to drown out the other until the din was almost unbearable.

As Sarah and the men increased their pace down the narrow path, the first drops of rain began to fall.  They were large and slow, descending with a gentle plop causing the dust to scuttle away in small puffs of smoke.  However, in an instant, those gentle drops had transformed themselves into a torrent of water that cascaded downwards, washing over the frantic group and on to the rocks below.  Within moments, their narrow path was quickly becoming a writhing stream, threatening to sweep them from their feet to an uncertain result below.

Hoss looked into Joe’s face as he almost ran down the trail.  Their necessary flight caused a dangerous amount of jostling to his little brother and lines of worry deepened around the big man’s eyes.   “Pa!” he called to his father ahead but the deafening roar of the storm stamped out his cries.  Besides, he knew in his heart there really was no alternative.   Every fiber of his being was intent now in reaching the bottom of the slope with his brother intact.  Adding to his distress was the startling fact that the youth was totally oblivious to the dramatic activity around him.

The men buttoned their jackets tighter and pulled their hats down low against the coming storm.  “We’ll keep looking too, Adam,” stated the ranch foreman.  “We don’t want to leave the boy out on a night like this, especially if he’s hurt.”   Adam expressed his thanks with a slap on Charlie’s shoulder and they turned to the trail once more.  Ben moved up the path following the larger form that was his middle son.  Hoss hadn’t spoken to anyone since leaving the house.  It seemed his single purpose was to find something, some sign that would point him towards the location of his youngest brother.

“Pa!  Pa!”  Hoss shouted from above.  “Come quick!”  The men hurried up the narrow trail and gathered around Ben and Hoss.   A single strip of cloth dangled loosely from Ben’s hands.  Torn and bloody, it was clearly a piece of a white shirt.   “We’re on the right path!” grinned Hoss.  “We’re gonna find him Pa!,”  he said as he grabbed his father’s arm.  Once more on the trail, Hoss peered at every speck on the path with renewed vigor.  Ahead he could make out the line of trees that graced the top of the ridge.  Hoss knew from that point, the path might lead in any direction and there was little time left before the impending storm would break.

*****

Hop Sing had kept the hands in a flurry of activity since their arrival a short time ago.  There were many things to gather and prepare if there were injuries to attend to, and he had also worked feverishly to set the room in some semblance of order before Mr. Ben should return.  The sight of his home in such a state of upheaval could only cause more anguish to a man who would already be overcome with worry for one of his sons.

A sudden “thump” caused Hop Sing to turn quickly and rush to open the massive door.  The rain-sodden group seemed to burst into the great room with such a fury that he was speechless with surprise.  Ben led the way upstairs followed quickly by Hoss, Joe bundled tightly in his protective arms.  Adam seemed to hesitate at the foot of the steps.

“Miss????” he queried softly.

“Sarah.  Sarah McCall” the girl answered meekly.

“I’ll want to talk with you after I help get my brother settled,”  he stated firmly.  Sarah nodded as she moved silently towards the large hearth,  “I’ll wait here” she assured the intense, dark haired man as he quickly ascended to the rooms above.   The girl settled herself gingerly in front of the warmth of the fire to await his return.  Sarah knew there would be many questions for her, knew in her heart that the answers would be hard for her to furnish.  If it weren’t for her brother, his friends, and yes, even her own presence, this family would not be enduring this incredible trial.  She closed her eyes briefly as she prayed.

*****

Adam stepped into his brother’s room and was surprised at the calm that had overtaken his father.  Ben was at Joe’s side, murmuring softly to him, touching his body soothingly as he removed his son’s torn and bloody clothing.  Then slowly but tenderly, he began to clean his son’s wounds.

The sight of his youngest brother’s battered and bruised torso was almost more than Adam could stomach.  He’d give anything if Joe would jump up out of his bed like this was one of his outlandish jokes.  “Come on Buddy” he whispered, “you’ve got to be alright.”  Adam moved quietly to stand at the foot of Joe’s bed as he watched his father’s ministrations and vaguely realized that Hoss was standing there also, wearing the same shocked expression that Adam knew was evident on his own face.

“What did they do to him, Pa?” stammered Hoss.  “Will he be all right?”  Ben could not answer, did not even want to think.  His whole focus was on his son’s body and what these animals had done to him.   As he gently wiped the blood and grime from Joe’s many cuts and bruises, Ben could feel the heat radiating from the still form, and tears formed in his own eyes for the pain and suffering his son had to endure.  “Get me some ice, boys” he directed quietly.  “We need to get his fever down.“

The next few hours were filled alternately with anguish and anger.  Anguish at the life and death battle Joe was waging, and red-hot burning anger at the men who caused it. Doc Martin arrived and immediately set to work to reduce Joe’s fever but nothing he tried seemed to have any effect.

As Joe’s condition deteriorated, the doctor gathered the family together.  “Ben,  Adam,  Hoss,”  he began.  “I’m not going to try to hide the seriousness of Joe’s condition.   Along with a severe concussion, possibly even skull fracture, Joe has sustained several broken ribs.  I am very concerned about the degree of bruising around his ribcage and although I think his lungs are still clear, I am worried about this high fever.  There is also the possibility of other internal damage that we don’t know about yet.”

The doctor’s announcement was met with stunned silence.  Ben knew it was bad, but while hearing the doctor’s report of Joe’s injuries, the room suddenly seemed to shift and turn.  He felt himself being settled gently into a chair, and a cold rag was placed upon his face.   Hoss squeezed his father’s shoulder as he watched Ben struggle with the news.  Tears burrowed a soundless path down his cheeks.

Sitting quietly in the chair where his sons had placed him, Ben saw Joe moving towards him across the room.  Joe’s face was creased with that special grin of his that always accompanied his devil-may-care attitude.  The jaunty spring in his step relieved his father – “He’s all right”, Ben thought to himself.  “It was a just bad dream.”

Opening his eyes, Ben realized the bad dream was one he was living, the other was just a vision.  For the ghastly reality remained:  his son, Little Joe, might die. And for what?  Because he simply walked into his own home; a place where he should have been safe.  Instead, he was met with ruthless intruders.  Would he ever feel safe here again?

The storm was beginning to pass when Sheriff Coffee arrived at the Ponderosa.  He spent a long time talking to Sarah; Adam joined them during most of their conversation.  He realized how terrifying it must have been for her; the chance she was taking when she decided to help Joe escape.  He vowed that he would do all he could to help this young woman get a fresh start, no matter what happened to Little Joe.

As the first pink rays of dawn broke through the clouds, Roy left with his posse to track down Walt, Red and Shorty.  Adam was torn between the ‘desire’ to join the sheriff’s search for the outlaws and the ‘need’ to remain at Ben’s side. In the end, there was really no choice.  If Little Joe didn’t make it, Adam had to be there for Pa and Hoss.

The next two days were a blur for Ben and his sons.  The fatigue that descended upon them was born not only of physical labor but also mind-numbing fear; the fear that their brother might not survive.  They worked smoothly together, following the doctor’s every directive, but still the fever raged within Joe.  The tortured movement of his body only increased his suffering and more than once Adam or Hoss would hold him still while Pa tried desperately to calm his son with words of love and reassurance.  At times, Joe seemed to be holding conversations with someone unseen and as he grew more agitated, his words would become incoherent.   Ben added a new to worry to his list:  ‘If Joe did survive, would he be the Little Joe as they knew him?’

*****

The three men were settled around their campfire; their mounts standing only a few feet away.  Red hadn’t wanted to stop, but Walt was feeling the effects of the Cartwright whiskey and insisted they stop for a cup of coffee and a hot meal.  Shorty seemed the most restless.  Walt didn’t seem to be thinkin’ clearly and although he didn’t have the nerve to cross the bitter man, Shorty was anxious to ride.  “No one’s after us yet” Walt stated flatly.  “Rain washed out our trail” he insisted as he drank down more of the black coffee.  Red was uncertain, but had always trusted Walt to lead the band.  He turned again to the fire and its meager warmth.

*****

On the third day after Joe’s rescue, as twilight deepened into night, Adam and Hoss stood outside the house watching Roy Coffee ride away.  The sheriff had stopped by the ranch to notify them of the posse’s success and return Adam’s black stallion.   The lawmen had found the three outlaws gathered about a small fire and the frightened men had tried to shoot it out with the posse resulting in Walt and Red’s death.  Only Shorty remained to stand trial.

Adam and Hoss found themselves feeling slightly relieved over this latest development, yet with each passing hour,  they were becoming increasingly concerned for their father.  “How much more of this can he take?” worried Hoss.

“Don’t know,” Adam answered curtly.  “Guess he’ll take what he has to, the same way he always has.”

Hoss dropped his head to his chest, as Adam gripped his shoulder.  The brothers stood there in the darkness for a long time.

“Joseph” murmured Ben softly.  “Joseph, come back to me.”  He lightly caressed his son’s feverish brow as he continued to whisper Joe’s name.

*****

The blackness was everywhere, like a great warm blanket enveloping his body.  Joe tried to lift his head to peer past its ardent embrace, but there seemed to be no end to its presence.  Far off in the distance, past the black cloak, there was a voice, a familiar voice.  It seemed to be calling his name.  Yet it wavered then faded, as if the dark cloth was shielding him from the voice and its demands.  But again the voice returned, closer, gently insisting that it be heard.  Joe struggled against the black fog that surrounded him and he stretched toward the sound of the voice, as if wanting to reach out and physically touch its presence.

Slowly, as if a curtain were being drawn back from a long-covered windowpane, the blackness receded and was replaced with a faint light.   Joe’s hands grasped the air above his head as he continued to search for the voice.  “Joseph!”  Ben demanded, more firmly now.  “Little Joe, it’s time to wake up now.”  He grabbed the boy’s flailing arms and pulled them towards his chest.  The boy was struggling against him as if fighting some unseen attacker and Ben wondered if Joe was reliving his harrowing experience.  “Joe” he commanded.  “Wake up, Son.”  As if suddenly aware that his Pa was calling him, Joe went limp in his father’s arms.   “Pa!” he groaned weakly.  “Pa, you came.”

“Yes son, I’m here with you and so are your brothers.  We’re all here at home, and no one is going to harm you.”  The boy’s thin frame seemed to shiver, if only for a moment, then a deep sigh issued from his lips.

“Pa!” was all that he could whisper before he fell into a deep, but peaceful sleep.

“He’s going to be fine now, Ben” assured Doc Martin as he grasped his friend’s shoulders.  He’s made it through the worst of it.”

Ben could only nod as grateful tears filled his eyes and he returned to his seat next to Joe’s bed, his son’s limp hand held firmly in his own.

****

There seemed to be a light on in every room of the house.   Music was being played in the great room next to a table loaded with every kind of good food that Hop Sing could deliver.  In the middle of the gathering were gaily-dressed couples dancing and laughing.

Standing at the end of the room deep in conversation with a group of men stood Ben Cartwright.  He stopped in mid-sentence as he heard the joyful sound of an infectious laugh that only his youngest son could produce.   It had been some time since Ben had heard that laugh and a slow smile spread across his face as he observed his son from across the room.

It had been almost a month since that dreadful ordeal and still Little Joe carried the scars.  Of course the dark coloring of the bruises was fading away and only faint soreness remained in his ribs.  But severe headaches plagued his son and nightmares that Joe had not experienced since he was very young had returned. And too, Ben was aware that Joe would not stay in the house alone.  Of course Doc Martin assured him that all these difficulties would be overcome with time.  Still, Ben worried about the change in his son’s disposition and the possibility that he would be changed forever by the horrible experience.

Ben had not been sure if the party was a good idea, but the boys had been adamant that life should continue as normal as possible, and the Cartwrights had always put on a party for their neighbors when roundup time was over.  So here they were, good friends gathered to share their good fortune for an evening.  Adam danced by with Sarah McCall in his arms.  She had found employment in a seamstress shop and had moved into the boarding house in Virginia City.  She still came out to visit Joe regularly; it seemed the family had forged a special bond with the young lady and Ben knew it was one that would never be broken.

Hoss had ambled over with a sandwich in one hand and a drumstick in the other.  “What’s little brother find so darn funny?” he wondered out loud.  Moments later, Adam and Sarah stopped in front of Ben, breathless from their last round of dancing.  “What’s so amusing over there?” Adam questioned.

Ben looked again at Joseph huddled with a group of his friends near the stairway.   “I don’t know boys, but I sure hope they keep it up.”  And Ben grinned widely as he heard his son’s laughter ring through the room.

***The End***

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