Summary: (Editor’s note: The first 18 lines of this story were given to the author as a writer’s challenge. Everything after those lines is the original work of the author).
Word Count: 4804
“Pa, I’ll be fine.”
It was the last thing Joe had said to him, his voice edged with irritation as he’d hurriedly fastened his gun belt and plucked his hat from the sideboard. He’d been eager to leave; even more so than usual thanks to the hovering attention of a concerned father.
Yet Ben couldn’t shake the nagging feeling in his gut he’d felt from the moment he had awakened that morning. A feeling that something was off, or wrong, or something was going to happen, and that it would surely involve his youngest.
The morning passed without incident, and soon logic reared its head and effectively stifled the nervousness to a mere hum, easily ignored as Ben busied himself with his daily tasks. There was nothing to worry about, after all. Joe was just going into town for the mail; something he’d done a hundred times before. Nothing to worry about.
Yet a father’s instinct is a stubborn thing, and Ben found himself surrendering to the feeling of unease as the day progressed. Adam later came upon him pacing the floor and glancing anxiously at the clock. He didn’t need to be told why his father was so agitated.
“How late is he?” Adam asked quietly.
“Late,” Ben replied. “He should have been back two, three hours ago.”
“Pa, he’ll be fine,” Adam admonished. “Joe’s not a little kid anymore. You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”
Ben forced a smile. “I know. Old habits die hard, don’t they?”
Adam sighed. “I think I’ll head out and see if Hoss needs any help in the barn,” he said, clearly in a hurry to rid himself of the company of an over-anxious parent.
Ben picked up the newspaper and tried to concentrate on the words in front of him. Adam was right, of course he was right. It was perfectly fine for a parent to worry, but not so fine to be consumed by it. Ben knew he could go on and on listing the numerous perils that could befall his son – both real and imagined – and he couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurd direction of his thoughts. He’d have to tell Joe later how silly he’d been.
His amusement, however, was abruptly extinguished at the sound of the slamming door, and Adam’s urgent voice on its heels.
“Pa! PA! Come quick!”
Ben awoke with a start, looking around for Adam, barely able to contain his urgent desire to know what Adam was calling him for. Was Joe home? Had he been hurt? What had delayed his youngest the better part of a day?
Several heart-pounding minutes of uncertainty ensued before level breathing returned and only then did Ben realize that he wasn’t sitting in his chair, paper in hand, startled at Adam’s admonition to “come quick!” Rather, he was sitting on his own bed, a warm afghan tucked around him, more than likely placed there by one of his older sons.
Leaning back against his pillows, Ben let the memories flow. Not that there were many that stood out since the note arrived two days prior.
Ben had been right to be worried. Unlike his prediction that he’d be fine, Joe had most definitely run into trouble. From what they’d pieced together that first day, someone must have ambushed him on the road home. The note, tucked inside Joe’s saddlebag, confirmed it.
Running after Adam into the front yard, Ben had stopped short at the sight before him. It would be hard to forget the look on Hoss’s face, the stricken expression as he checked Cochise for any sign and then found it. Blood on the saddle. No droplets or even a streak, but broad splotches from a rider who was clearly losing too much of the precious fluid. The three men stood around Cochise, silently praying that they were mistaken, until Adam found the note.
They’d followed the instructions, though there was some lively discussion on the topic. But Ben wasn’t willing to risk his boy’s life and the others finally agreed. They told Roy Coffee what was happening, but his loyalty to the family was sound. The Sheriff stayed in town, not even riding to the ranch until he was summoned almost a day later, after the drop was made and Joe was still missing.
Every option had included some risk; Ben just couldn’t forgive himself for taking the wrong one. He should’ve followed the man who took the bag. He should’ve let Adam place riders strategically around the area. And by God, he should’ve refused to leave the bag at all without some sign of his boy. He would’ve done one, if not all, of these things if it hadn’t been for the Lawson kidnapping six months earlier. That father, a well-known silver baron, refused to follow instructions, calling out every lawman he could find to watch for the kidnapper as he placed money in the designated spot. Lawson was rewarded with the lifeless body of his son delivered to his mansion with a note that read: “we warned you.”
Ben Cartwright was not about to make Lawson’s mistake. Money be damned. He just wanted Little Joe home safe. “I’ll be fine, Pa,” echoed incessantly in his mind as Ben replayed his last moments with Joe. But he wasn’t fine. He was hurt. They knew that from the blood on the saddle. The money had been paid and still Joe wasn’t home. For the last twenty-four hours, every ranch hand on the Ponderosa, along with a large group of friends from Virginia City, had combed the hills looking for any sign. There was none. It was like Joe had simply vanished from the face of the earth. Until yesterday. Yesterday, when they’d come upon that one rider in a far corner of the Ponderosa. The stranger had run at first, then finally turned to fight. Ben still winced at the memory of the man stretched across his saddle. No one knew him and there was no identification to be found. And for the first time, Ben felt his hope slipping away. Could this man have been the only link to his son? Would they ever find Little Joe?
Noises downstairs, accompanied by hushed voices, interrupted Ben’s thoughts. He sat up, pulling back Mrs. Paulson’s afghan. He’d purchased it at the last church bazaar, a swirl of colored wool creating a cheery pattern. Looking at it now, Ben wondered if he’d ever feel cheerful again.
The room was lit only by one lamp turned low. Ben eased out of his leather vest, folding it over the back of the footboard as he gazed around the room. He’d only come up here at his sons’ insistence, and had no intention of sleeping. Not when Joe was still missing. But once he sat down on the bed, he must’ve relaxed into sleep almost immediately. He had no recall of even lying down, let alone having anyone come in, much less cover him with a blanket. Adam. It was probably Adam.
The clock on the mantle showed the time to be 5:00, and pulling back the heavy damask drapes, Ben saw that it was still dark outside, the pre-dawn pink only now beginning to pierce the inky darkness. He’d slept over six hours.
Drawers opened, soiled shirt replaced by a clean one, Ben quickly readied himself for another day. The rest had probably done him good, but he’d be damned if he’d admit it. There was too much to do and no excuse for him to leave his work to others. Knotting a fresh bandana around his neck, Ben slipped the vest back on and headed for the door.
Out in the hallway, the sounds from below were clearer, and even before he’d reached the stairway, Ben had identified almost everyone in the room. Adam and Hoss were busy stuffing items in their saddlebags while HopSing filled the table with bowls and platters of steaming hot food. Roy and several others were already ladling eggs and ham onto their plates even as they discussed their plans for the morning.
“Pa, I was just coming to get you.”
Adam met him at the bottom step, his dark eyes boring into Ben’s as they met. Searching. Analyzing.
“You let me sleep.”
Adam’s expression darkened, a sure sign that he was ready to go head to head. Ben didn’t give him the chance. “How long before we ride?”
“Thirty minutes at the most.”
“Make it twenty.”
Adam nodded. ”Twenty.”
Ben moved past his son, eyeing the coffee HopSing was pouring. He reached for a cup as Roy looked up.
“Morning, Ben. You’re looking a mite better.”
Ignoring his friend’s obvious concern, Ben held his cup out to HopSing while surveying the men around the table. “We’ll split up again today.”
“Sure, Ben. Just like we discussed last night,” Roy answered as he turned back to his breakfast.
Carrying his coffee to his desk, Ben sat down and pretended to busy himself with the papers there. With a simple glance, he’d refused HopSing’s offer of food, unwilling to admit that he didn’t think he could stomach the fare. But even here, Ben felt that he was being watched, probably evaluated. It didn’t matter.
Suddenly realizing what he was looking at, Ben fumbled with the map they’d all studied the night before. It didn’t take long to trace the ground they’d already covered. After that, he simply stared at the paper, wondering which small ink spot marked his son’s exact location.
“Pa. You have to eat.”
Hoss stood next to the desk, hands filled with plate, napkin and silverware. Just as it had been with Adam, Ben recognized the look on his son’s face. Hoss was yet another Cartwright ready and willing to do battle. Ben knew he was still in charge, yet he also knew his sons were only doing what he would in their shoes. Giving in with a shrug, he watched as a grin spread slowly across Hoss’ face. At any other time, it would’ve been worth a good laugh, as his son realized he’d won without even trying. Still, Ben found that he could barely manage a forkful of eggs when he tried. He picked at the food, took several tentative bites of the toast and finished it off with the coffee. It was the best he could do. Every mouthful made him wonder if Joe had anything to eat since the morning he disappeared.
Weary, bone weary, Ben got to his feet, surveying the map one last time. At the credenza, Adam and Hoss were donning hats and buckling on gunbelts. The rest of the men had already headed out to their mounts. His sons seemed to be waiting for something, and Ben was willing to oblige. “We’re going to find him today.”
He knew they were watching as he walked out the door in front of them. Ben didn’t look back, nor did he attempt to explain how he knew this with such certainty. But he knew. With the same certainty he’d known Joe was in trouble that first day. God help him, he knew. The only thing he didn’t know was what shape Joe would be in when they found him.
They were only a few miles from the house when they spotted him. In the middle of a meadow, sprawled face up in the grass, the youngest Cartwright lay as still as death.
Spurring his horse forward, Ben was still almost a length back when Adam leaped from Sport to kneel at his brother’s side. By the time Ben dismounted, Hoss was kneeling there too, while Adam dipped his head to Joe’s chest. The look on his face was answer enough.
“Ben?” Roy Coffee stood behind the family, his question hanging in the air while Ben struggled to find his voice.
“All right men, fan out. Go careful and keep your eyes open. I don’t want any tracks disturbed, but I want to know how this boy got here and if there’s anyone still around.”
Ben felt Roy pat his arm then heard the men riding off, even as his hand grabbed hold of Joe’s cold one.
“He’s got a bad head wound, Pa.”
Adam had lifted Joe up to lean against his leg, while Hoss checked arms and legs for injuries.
“Found where the blood was coming from.” Hoss had pulled back the green jacket to reveal Joe’s blood soaked shirt. A long cut ran along his left side, already festering with infection.
“That explains the fever.” Ben mumbled.
“Hoss, help me get him up on my horse, then get Doc Martin,” ordered Adam.
Adam was already moving Joe off his lap, but stopped when Ben grasped his forearm.
“Put him on Buck,” declared Ben.
Ben was relieved that Hoss didn’t wait for any more discussion, but gathered Joe in his arms and headed for the horses. Settling Joe in the saddle, Hoss held him there while Ben climbed up behind.
Wrapping one arm around Joe, Ben took the reins in the other, turning Buck towards home. He didn’t look to see if his sons were following, knowing instinctively that they were holding a private discussion of their own. But in a moment, Hoss galloped past, headed for the Virginia City road and Adam reined Sport in next to Buck.
Adam stayed close, in case his help was needed, but there was no conversation. Neither man gave voice to the many questions: Who did this to Joe? How did he get here, so close to home, without anyone seeing? And had they found him in time?
The miles were covered quickly, even at their deliberate pace, and Ben was relieved to see the ranch house in the distance. Joe had yet to stir, though Ben had spoken to him repeatedly. He could only hope that his son could hear him on some level, know that his pa was holding him close.
Adam spurred his horse forward as they reached the yard so that by the time Ben pulled up at the porch, HopSing was waiting there too. Between the three of them, they managed to get Joe off the horse and upstairs to his own room.
Hours later, cleaned up and bandaged, Joe lay quietly between stark white sheets. Sitting next to the bed, gently rubbing his thumb over Joe’s hand, Ben noticed that his son’s coloring perfectly matched the bedding. Paul had been worried, which didn’t instill a lot of hope. He’d talked about blood loss, infection, and too much time without food or water. Each item ticked off the list only added to the fear already taking residence in Ben’s heart. He would never admit it to his friend, but Ben had been relieved when Paul left to check on another patient.
Three chairs ringed the bed now, each occupied at various times. HopSing kept the family supplied with coffee, and there was beef broth simmering on the stove for Little Joe when he woke up. But other than watching, waiting and praying, Ben could do nothing to help his son. It was more than any father should have to bear.
Joe remained silent, lost in a world they couldn’t see. He was feverish but not delirious. So Ben talked to him, repeated old stories, talked of Marie, made plans for the ranch, anything that would let Joe know he was there beside him. The minutes sped by and his voice grew hoarse, but Ben talked on. When Adam or Hoss were in the room, they joined in, the conversation flowing about Joe as if he were a part of it. Occasionally there would be a break, a time of peaceful quiet as they dozed or simply sat, but then someone would make a comment and they would start again. Ben knew it was a vigil he was keeping; he just hoped and prayed it wasn’t the final one.
Afternoon sunlight filtered through the windows when Roy Coffee rode up to the house. Adam went down to meet him but was back within minutes. “Pa. Roy says he needs to see you.”
“Can’t it wait?”
Ben pushed himself reluctantly from his chair. He had no desire to talk of kidnappers or ransom money, not when his son lay near death. There was nothing that could change that, and no retribution would make Joe better. But Roy and the others had been good friends, riding day in and day out in an effort to find his son. Ben couldn’t ignore their efforts now. “I’ll only be a few minutes. Call me if anything . . .”
“Yes sir,” Hoss answered quickly. “Go ahead, I’ll be right here with him.”
Ben nodded but stopped for a moment at the doorway. Call it superstition but he felt like he had to look at his son once more before walking away. Studying his son’s silent form, Ben wondered if it would be the last time he say Joe alive, yet he’d had that same thought every time he left the room.
“Just tired,” Ben muttered then ducked his head at Hoss’s questioning look. Turning on his heel, he followed Adam into the hall and down the stairs. Roy stood near the fireplace and Ben wasted no time in greeting him. “Roy. I want to thank you for all you’ve done.”
“How’s he doing, Ben? Adam said he’s in pretty bad shape.”
“Paul said we should know by morning.”
Roy bowed his head slightly, then raised it to look straight at Ben. “We didn’t find hide nor hair of ‘em, Ben. Just like they vanished into thin air. Course, we don’t know how many of ‘em there were. Had to be more than just that one fella who went to shootin’ at us.”
Ben simply nodded, too tired to put much thought into the missing kidnappers. He knew he should care more, be angry or ready for revenge, but all he could think about was getting back to Little Joe in the room upstairs. Maybe the other feelings would come later, but right now, he just didn’t have the energy.
“We did find this.” Roy pulled a bag from the hearth behind him.
Several minutes passed in silence as Ben stared at the familiar bag. The Wells Fargo stamp was still visible on the side, and he knew instantly that it still held a treasure inside its canvas walls.
“Found it at the edge of the meadow. Looked inside enough to see that it’s still full, but we didn’t count it. Figured you’d want to do that,” Roy continued. “I can take it to town for you, or send someone out for it later.”
Ben continued to stare at the bag, trying to comprehend the situation. They’d kidnapped his son, clearly thinking they’d end up rich. Yet these faceless kidnappers had returned his son to within a few miles of his home, then the left the money, too. It didn’t make any sense.
Adam was watching him closely, his own curiosity clearly showing in his dark eyes.
“Dump it out.” Ben suddenly commanded.
As if understanding immediately, Adam grabbed hold of the Wells Fargo bag and tipped its contents onto the low table. Bundles of bills tumbled from the bag, piling one on top of the other until the wood was covered by greenbacks. Ben sank to the settee, stunned by the return of the money. The three stared at the pile, wondering at the circumstances that brought them back to this point, remembering the money piled on Ben’s desk only days before.
Ben reached into the pile, pulling out a folded piece of paper. Slowly opening the note, Ben stared at the words, too surprised to speak. He handed the missive to Adam who read it then passed it on to Roy.
“I’ll be back on the trail in the morning, Ben. We’ll find ‘em.”
One hand reached slowly toward the sheriff, palm up as it waited for the note to be returned. When it was silently placed in his hand, Ben spoke, carefully choosing his words. “Let him go, Roy.”
“Let him go. He brought my boy back.”
“But you don’t know if Joe’s gonna… You can’t just let him ride away!”
“Let him go.”
Roy shook his head at Ben, then Adam, but in the end, he nodded in agreement. Ben knew it went against everything Roy was sworn to uphold, yet he knew in his heart that he was making the right decision. “Thank you, Roy.”
“Night, Ben. Adam. I’ll ride out tomorrow to see how Joe’s doing.”
Adam quietly stuffed the bills back into the bag, not bothering to count them, while Ben stared again at the penciled words on the white paper. Then he slowly crumpled the note in his hand before tossing it into the fire.
Without a word, he slowly climbed the stairs, using the time to start yet another prayer for Joe’s recovery. It was all he could do for now. Wait and pray.
They brought the body of his youngest to him, bloodied and lifeless. Ben Cartwright had lost three wives, but all of those losses combined couldn’t equal the overwhelming sorrow that suddenly wrapped around his heart. He remembered an old man telling him once that a father should never outlive his sons. My God but that man was right. A faint noise grew louder until the cacophony of sound prompted him to cover his ears. Knees weak, Ben started to sag, his slow descent to the floor stopped by Adam’s strong arm.
Ben couldn’t focus on Adam, couldn’t hear the words his oldest was shouting. His mind was centered on the vision before him. His son. Joseph. Dead.
The sound when it came from his throat was a combination of roar and sob, terrifying even to his own ears. The depth of grief that bore it was crushing in its intensity.
Adam’s hand squeezed harder until Ben was forced to acknowledge his son’s presence. Reaching up to push the hand away, Ben’s own hand was caught and held as Adam tried again to reach him.
“No! Pa! He’s not. . Joe’s not dead!”
Unable to focus on his son’s statement, Ben watched in silent agony as Hoss shouldered past him with Joe’s body cradled in his arms. Ben reached out, fingers searching for one last touch.
The cry was weak yet managed to break the spell.
Ben opened his eyes, looking warily around the room, unwilling to admit that it was true. But he wasn’t downstairs watching Hoss; he was in Joe’s room, in a chair pushed close to the bed so he could touch his son with ease. Quickly scanning the room, he counted two other chairs pushed close, both of those empty. There was no one here. No one to call out to him.
He didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed the green eyes looking up at him. Barely open but still focused, Joe gazed at him and Ben’s heart lurched inside his chest.
“Pa… Pa… you…all right?”
”Me?” Ben practically jumped out of his chair to sit on the side of the bed. “Of course I’m all right, boy; it’s you we’ve been worried about.”
“It’s okay, Joe. It was just a dream. Everything’s fine now.”
Ben stroked his son’s arm, drinking in the sight of his boy, awake and aware. It took several minutes to get his emotions under control, his heart beating at a more normal pace. When it did, Ben sat up a little straighter, studying Joe critically. “You’re looking a little better, young man. How do you feel?”
A smile grew wide upon his face prompting a chuckle. “How about something to drink? You must be thirsty.”
Ben held the glass to Joe’s lips, careful to tip it gently so that only a sip or two crossed his son’s lips. He knew they were going to have to take things slow and easy, even though he felt like running, yelling and jumping like a boy. “There, that enough?”
Joe’s eyelids drooped, even though he’d only been awake a few minutes, but Ben wasn’t alarmed. His son was awake, his color was better, and the fever was down. He couldn’t think of one more thing he could ask for. “Go to sleep, boy. Next time we’ll try a little broth.”
Joe’s fingers gripped his hand a little tighter. “Pa… I…I didn’t think. .”
“It’s okay, Joe. We can talk later. Just rest.”
Joe’s breathing deepened until Ben thought he was asleep, but the weak voice managed one more question.
“I’m right here, Joe.”
“You’ll stay… “
“I’ll be right here, boy. Your pa’s not going anywhere.”
Ben stroked his son’s arm, then reached his hand up to wipe one lone tear from his son’s cheek. “You’re safe, Joe. Sssh. Go to sleep.”
This time Joe didn’t respond, and Ben sat back as his son relaxed into sleep.
“Is he going to be all right, Pa?” Hoss questioned from the doorway.
Ben turned to see his sons standing close by, each grinning happily. “Yes, son, I think your brother’s going to be all right.”
Adam’s smile faded only slightly, but he clearly had something on his mind. “He tell you what happened?”
Ben looked back, reassuring himself that Joe was still asleep, before answering Adam. “No. And I didn’t ask him. For now, I’m just happy he woke up and knew me.”
Adam stepped closer, dropping on hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Pa. You’re right.”
Hoss had returned to his seat near the bed, his gaze settling on his brother. “We might never know, Adam, but you know, I don’t think I care.”
Ben silently agreed. It could’ve turned out so different. He thanked God he hadn’t had to walk in Lawson’s shoes. He wouldn’t be forced to visit his young son in the cemetery; he had him right here. Ben felt blessed, and Adam must’ve sensed it, for his hand squeezed a little tighter.
“You’re right, Hoss. I don’t think I care either.”
Staring down at Joe’s peaceful face, Ben thought of how it might’ve ended. He shivered at the eerie comparison, seeing Joe sleeping like this and transferring that image to a lifeless Joe laid out in his Sunday best. With a sigh so deep that it physically hurt, Ben lowered himself back into his chair, committed to staying close until Joe woke again.
Looking from Adam to Hoss, and back to Joe, Ben mumbled his unspeakable fear. “What really matters is that Joe came out of this alive. Because I don’t think I could bear to lose a son.”
High on the ridge, a lone rider surveyed the country below, contemplating his escape. He’d done everything he could to save the kid. His partner taking that posse’s bullet clinched the deal, and the rider had to admit he wasn’t one bit sorry. Never had wanted in on the kidnapping anyway. Just waited too long to tell Will that he wanted nothing to do with it; by that time, it was too late.
But after his partner beat the poor kid, cutting him bad in the process, he’d done his best to keep Cartwright alive. He hoped that counted for something in the whole scheme of things. Then there was the money. He left it there in the Wells Fargo bag, all $19,900 of it, along with that note.
He sure didn’t think he’d done the wrong thing when he wrote the message, and if the kid’s father felt about his son the way most fathers did, well, Ben Cartwright would probably think his $100 was well spent. He thought back to the fevered ramblings of the kid when he was calling for his pa, and knew with some certainty that he was right.
One last look toward the lake and the rider turned his horse to the north. It’d take a lot of riding, but a man could lose himself up in Oregon. Maybe get a fresh start. For sure find himself a better set of friends. One thing was for certain, he’d never get mixed up in this kinda business again. He’d do his own father proud. Maybe even have a son of his own someday. If he did, he hoped the kid would feel about him the way that Cartwright kid felt about his pa.
Finally, the rider disappeared over the ridge while far below, another lone rider watched him ride away.