One for All and All for One (by Territell)

Summary:  What if Will remained and Clay chose to return?  How are the Cartwright lives affected?  I have taken a few liberties with the time line in this story, i.e. although this is written after First Born, Joe is still only 17.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  23,830


 

 

There were days when it just felt so good to be alive; the sun would shine, birds would sing and every moment was to be enjoyed. And then there were other days. Those were the days when it would have been better to stay in bed and let the world pass you by. Ben was not having one of the good days. His day had started bad and got steadily worse, and by the time he arrived home for supper, his mood was dark and unforgiving. Little did he know things were about to get worse!

The scene that met Ben when he finally stabled his horse and walked through his own front door left him completely speechless. Joe was sprawled across an upturned chair, blood streaming from his nose. Clay stood with clenched fists looking as if he might explode. Hoss was trying desperately to restrain his eldest brother and Will…..well, cousin Will was leaning against the fireplace with an amused grin on his face, enjoying the melee immensely.

“WHAT IN DAMNATION IS GOING ON HERE?” Ben bellowed looking from one son to another before allowing his eyes to scan the rest of the chaos in the room.

“It’s all Adam’s fault,” Joe piped up, wiping his bloody nose on the sleeve of his jacket.

“ME?” Adam cried with indignation, pushing Hoss’ long arms away from him. “I was trying to protect your scrawny butt, you ungrateful little weasel. In future, I’ll just let him pound you to death. You probably deserved it anyway,” he added, gesturing towards Clay who was trying desperately to regain his temper.

“I didn’t need your protection,” Joe screeched back. “I can take Clay any day of the week.”

“Oh you really think so?” was Clay’s immediate reply, finally giving up the battle to stay calm.

“ENOUGH!” Ben bellowed once more. “Outside all of you and stay out there until you can behave like the grown men you’re supposed to be.”

Knowing they had crossed the line and not wanting to provoke a further outburst, all the men in the room began to head towards the door.

“Not you, Joseph,” Ben growled, grabbing his youngest son by the arm as he tried to slink past. The others quickly made good their escape, leaving Little Joe to face the music.

“Why me?” Joe asked petulantly. “I didn’t start it.”

“Don’t ask me to go there, Joseph, because if I do and I find out you are at the bottom of this, you won’t want to face the consequences.”

Joe’s retort died on his lips as all the possible scenarios of his father’s punishment crossed through his mind.

The stresses of the day overtook Ben once more, and with a sweeping gesture at the disheveled room, he walked towards the stairs, calling over his shoulder. “I’m going to wash up before supper. When I return, I expect this room to look the way it did when I left the house this morning.”

Joe scowled behind his father’s back, but surprisingly he had the common sense to keep his mouth firmly shut. The blood from his nose was just dripping slightly by now, and before seeking out Hop Sing, he thought it prudent to pick up the overturned furniture.

Less than ten minutes later it would have been almost impossible to tell a fight had taken place, except maybe for the chip out of the corner of the table and a crack in the oil lamp nearest the fireplace. Well, as long as Pa didn’t notice, Joe figured he wasn’t about to enlighten him.

Sauntering into the kitchen, Joe adopted his best ‘puppy dog’ face and eased himself onto the stool next to Hop Sing’s table.

Hop Sing, in the middle of preparing supper, eyed the interloper over the top of the vegetables. “What boy do now?” he asked, noting Joe’s bloody nose.

“Not you as well, Hop Sing,” Joe complained. “How is it everyone always assumes I’m to blame?”

“Cause boy can’t keep out of trouble,” Hop Sing remonstrated as he reached over and slapped Joe’s hands away from the sliced carrots. “Keep hands away from food or boy have bloody fingers as well as bloody nose.” And just to reinforce the message, Hop Sing waved the knife in front of Joe’s face. But Hop Sing had always had a soft spot for the youngest Cartwright, and picking up a cloth, he walked over to the far corner of the room. Dipping the cloth into a basin of cool water, he rang it out tightly before returned to the table and handing it to Little Joe.

“Thanks, Hop Sing,” Joe smiled as he held the cloth against his nose, knowing full well that the cook’s hard exterior was just a facade.

Hop Sing bristled self-consciously. “Humph. No need to thank; Hop Sing only thinking of rest of family. No one want eat food after boy drip blood all over it.”

Meanwhile upstairs, Ben lay on his bed with his eyes closed and tried to forget his trying day. The bi-monthly meetings of the Cattlemen’s Association were something he would dearly love to miss, but they had elected him Chairman that year and so it was his duty to attend. Many of the men present were full of their own importance and took the meetings as an opportunity to preen and crow about their own accomplishments. Ben often found himself trying to keep the peace, as opposed to discussing the items on the agenda, and today had been no exception. Then to top it all, he returned home to yet another battle taking place in his own front room.

Only nine weeks had passed since his dead brother’s son, Will, had come to live with the family. It had been a time of adjustment for them all as Will Cartwright tried hard to fit in with the kinfolk he had never really known and Ben and the boys tiptoed round him on eggshells, giving him the space he needed to adapt.

Before their new living arrangements had become habit, another surprise addition to the extended family reappeared. Clay Stafford, Joe’s half-brother by his mother Marie, had by chance bumped into Adam down in San Francisco one weekend and, with a little persuasion from his stepbrother, Clay had agreed to return to the Ponderosa and give it another try. Six months before, Clay had left the ranch under a cloud and Ben had really believed he had seen the last of him. But Clay was Marie’s son and Ben welcomed him back as if he were his own. He owed that to his dead wife; after all, she had given her love to his own sons without question.

Needless to say, Joe had been delighted with the return of the brother he had never really had the opportunity to get to know, and so it was that Ben found himself sharing his home with five lusty young men, full of testosterone and attitude.

Ben reflected on how things had changed in those few short weeks. Gone was the peace and quiet he looked forward to at the end of a hard day; it was now a thing of the past. Even Adam, his most studious and level-headed son, was becoming more and more gregarious as he struggled to keep himself at the top of the pecking order with his siblings.

Will was almost the same age as Adam, with Clay about four years younger and Hoss about two years younger than Clay. This was probably where the problem arose. Little Joe had always resented being the youngest and smallest in the family and now, with his extra sibling and cousin, he felt his youth and inexperience even more. Rather than accept there was nothing he could do to change things, Joe fought and bucked at every opportunity, goading his brothers to take him on so that he could prove he was every bit as good as they were.

The day’s events took their toll and Ben drifted off to sleep. It only seemed like a few minutes had gone by when he felt a hand on his shoulder gently shaking him awake.

“Hey Pa wake up, supper’s ready.”

Slowly raising himself into a sitting position, Ben gazed sleepily at his eldest son. “Only closed my eyes for a moment. I can’t believe I dozed off.”

“You’ve been up here for almost two hours, Pa. Are you okay?”

Making a determined effort to pull himself together, Ben replied. “Oh I’m fine, son, just had a long day that’s all. Then to top it all, coming home to that scene earlier didn’t help.”

Adam looked sheepish. “I’m sorry about that, Pa, but we’ve all been putting in a lot of hours over the last few weeks and…well, one thing just led to another.”

Ben raised his eyebrows. “Clay and Joe at it again?”

Adam laughed. “They are so alike. You know, Pa, if I had to have another brother, why couldn’t God have sent me one like Hoss? Having another Little Joe around is too much for any man.”

Ben also started to chuckle; things had certainly livened up with the arrival of Clay in the household. “I think we had better be getting back downstairs, son, that is, if I want the house to stay in one piece.

*****

The days dragged until Friday finally came round and tempers mellowed as the Cartwrights looked forward to a night on the town. All past disagreements were put to one side as the brothers readied themselves for a night of drinking, gambling and a bit of female company.

Before they left, Ben couldn’t help giving Joe a last word of warning, “I want you to keep out of trouble, young man, and mind your brothers.”

“Why do you always assume I’ll be the one to get into trouble?” Joe complained. But one look at his father’s face forestalled another outburst and he quickly donned his hat and gun belt and hurried outside to his horse.

“Keep an eye on him, boys,” Ben instructed. “Remember you are all men; Joe still has a bit of growing to do.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” Hoss reassured. “He puts one foot out of line and I’ll hogtie him to his horse and bring him home.”

The evening started off well and all of the boys were in good spirits. With just a little persuasion, Clay soon joined his younger brother at the poker table and watched with amusement as Little Joe won game after game. There were five men seated round the table and not all of them were as amused as Clay at Joe’s success. Both Adam and Hoss, observing the rising tension, tried on several occasions to get Joe to quit while he was ahead, but Joe would have none of it. When the young man scooped up his latest winnings, the atmosphere in the room took a turn for the worse.

“There’s something very funny going on here,” the man to Joe’s right declared. “I don’t believe your streak of luck, kid. You must be cheating.”

Joe glared at the man and was about to give him more than a few harsh words, but one look at his eldest brother’s raised eyebrow was enough to stall his hand. “I ain’t cheating, mister,” Joe retorted. “But if you have any argument with that, perhaps you might want to take it up with my brothers.”

The man looked hard at Joe before scouring the room to see just who Joe could be referring to. “You think I’m frightened of your kin, boy, you got another thing coming. Where are these brothers of yours?”

Joe smiled at the man and nodded his head towards Clay. “Well, my brother Clay is sitting right next to you, mister, and I don’t think he likes you calling me a cheat.”

Sneering at Clay, the man dismissed him out of turn. “I don’t rightly care what he thinks,” the aggressor declared.

“In that case, maybe I should introduce you to my cousin Will. He’s the good-looking guy talking to the pretty girl at the next table.” The man looked at Will trying to assess his size. “Oh and then there’s my eldest brother Adam leaning on the bar over there,” Joe continued.

The man was by now beginning to have second thoughts; not only would he have the kid to contend with but also two brothers and a cousin, all of whom were considerably larger and tougher looking than the kid in front of him.

Joe was beginning to enjoy himself. “If that doesn’t convince you, I’m not a cheat, perhaps my middle brother Hoss might be the one to persuade you. He’s standing right behind you.”

The man leaned his head back and took in the huge bulk of the third brother standing just inches from him. If he had felt any bravado before, it now completely escaped him; there was no way he was going to tackle with this one. Picking up his hat and heading quickly for the doors, he shouted back over his shoulder. “You won’t always have your family with you, kid. Just don’t go wandering round town on your own if you know what’s good for you.” Then, before exiting the door, he concluded, “You’re not the only one who has friends; I got friends of my own, so just watch your step.”

As soon as the man was out of sight, Joe dissolved into a fit of giggles. “Did you see his face, Hoss?” he cackled. “He almost died when he clapped eyes on you.”

Clay and Hoss laughed with him, while Will just shook his head. Big brother Adam was not so amused. “You are setting yourself up for trouble, Little Joe,” he berated. “That fella isn’t going to just forget about this.”

“Aw, Adam, don’t be such a pessimist; that guy ain’t likely to hang around after seeing the lot of you.”

The rest of the evening passed without incident and it was a tired but happy bunch that decided to take their leave and head for home. Joe was the first one out of the door and it was only his agility that prevented the fist of the man entering from making contact with his jaw. Unfortunately, Adam, who was right behind him, wasn’t quite so lucky. Joe’s poker playing friend entered the saloon with fists flying, followed by at least six of his cronies. Looking at the Cartwrights he announced, “Now we’ll see how tough you are!”

Joe had quickly sidestepped the entering bodies and now stood outside the saloon doors watching the melee. His face screwed up in sympathy as Clay took a right one plus two to the stomach, and Hoss was set upon by at least two of the bigger brutes. Adam and Will were holding their own but had still taken a few direct hits to the face, the blood streaming from Adam’s nose being testament to this.

“All right, all right, break it up, boys” a voice called from behind Joe and Sheriff Coffee made an appearance. “What’s going on here, Little Joe?”

“Nothing to do with me, Sheriff,” Joe answered innocently with a shrug of the shoulders. “I’m just here for the view.”

Sheriff Coffee and Clem Forster waded into the saloon with guns at the ready and called for a halt to the proceedings. “Right you lot,” Roy Coffee bellowed. “You can all cool off with a night in the cells and we’ll sort out the damages in the morning.” With that, he herded the men in front of him across to the jail. Little Joe slunk back into the shadows as his brothers’ passed by, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that he hadn’t joined in with the fight.

It was only when they arrived at the cells and Clem ushered them inside that Adam looked round in confusion and asked, “Where’s Little Joe? Hey Clem, is the kid all right? I can’t remember seeing him after the fight started.”

Clem laughed as he turned the key in the lock. “From what I saw, Little Joe wasn’t involved; he’s free to go home whenever he chooses.”

As realization struck, Hoss’ face turned to one of thunder. “Why, that lily livered little runt; so help me, I’m gonna tear him limb from limb when I get outta here.”

“You’ll need to wait in the queue,” Will retorted, clenching his jaws tightly together. Normally he was the one to view Joe’s antics with laidback amusement, but on this occasion, his sense of humor deserted him. Will noted the two bunks between four of them and he mentally promised his young cousin that he would make his hide as uncomfortable as this night was likely to be for them.

*****

It was way past midnight when Joe arrived home and unsaddled his horse. Ben was on his feet to greet him as he opened the ranch house door.

“What’s happened?” Ben asked anxiously, looking at his young son’s face for any sign of injury. “I only heard one horse ride up. Where are your brothers and cousin?”

Joe bit on his bottom lip and rested his chin on his chest, not wanting to look his Pa in the face in case he guessed there was more to the story than Joe was willing to tell.

“T-t-there was a fight in town, Pa, and well…er…the others got involved and the…er…s-s-saloon got smashed up a bit. I’m afraid Sheriff Coffee locked them up for the night and he says he’ll assess the damage in the morning before letting them go.”

Ben’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “You mean to tell me your brothers were involved in a fight and you just stood by and watched?”

“Y-y-you told me to keep out of trouble, Pa, so that’s just what I did. I can’t be held responsible for the rest of them.”

Moving quickly towards the stairs in the hope of avoiding more questions, Joe called over his shoulder. “I’m real tired, Pa, so I think I’ll head up to bed. It’s gonna be a busy morning if there’s only me around to do chores. Who knows when the rest of them will get home?”

With that, Joe made good his escape and left Ben still standing with his mouth wide open, unable to comprehend what Joe had just told him!

*****

It was mid-morning the following day when the errant Cartwrights returned. Joe was in the barn cleaning out the stables when he heard the horses approach, and butterflies appeared in his stomach as he thought about his brothers’ reaction to his part in their demise. As he stood in the doorway watching the men dismount, the butterflies in his stomach turned to a stampeding herd as he looked at the grim faces of his disheveled family. “H-h-hi guys,” he called, trying to act as if nothing was amiss.

Adam turned to look at him in a way that made Joe feel like a small boy again, a small boy that had pushed his eldest brother too far and a ‘necessary talk’ was about to be metered out. The breath that Joe was holding was only released when he saw the ranch house door open and his father stride towards them.

“I thought I heard horses,” Ben barked, leaving the men present under no illusion that their escapades of the night before had not gone down well with their father. Looking at each of them in turn, Ben took in their unshaven faces and unkempt clothes. Adam was sporting a black eye and Clay’s lip was twice its normal size. Hoss looked relatively unscathed, but Will had a streak of dried blood running from his ear, where someone had obviously decided to take a bite out of his flesh.

“May I suggest you boys get washed up and I’ll see you inside? I’m sure you have a perfectly good explanation for your behavior…..at least, for your sakes, I hope so.”

As Ben turned to walk away, Joe hurried to his side. “I-I-I’ll come with you, Pa.”

“No, Joseph, I suggest you get on with your chores and wait out here.”

“Yes, Joseph,” Hoss repeated, grabbing hold of his younger brother by his shirt and yanking him back into the barn. “You get on with your chores.”

Joe tried desperately to wrestle his way free but to no avail; Hoss was not letting go. In a last ditch attempt to escape, Joe kicked out with his foot and made contact with his middle brother’s shins. Hoss yelled out in pain and released his hold on Joe’s shirt. Joe sprinted forward but he didn’t get far; he ran straight into the arms of his cousin Will. Joe raised his foot to lash out once more, but Will was too quick for him. With lightening speed, he turned Joe face about and in one swift movement he had his young cousin face down across an upturned barrel.

“Right, who wants to go first?” Will asked.

“D-d-don’t you dare,” Joe screeched. “I’m not a little kid. You let me up now or so help me I’ll…”

“You’ll what, little brother?” Hoss asked, at the same time removing his belt. “You’ll tell Pa!!!” With that, Hoss brought the belt down hard on his brother’s scrawny hide.

Joe yelled more in surprise than pain. “You got no right to do this!” he cried indignantly. “I’m too big for a tanning.”

“Oh, is that right?” Adam spat back at him, taking the belt from Hoss and adding a couple of swats of his own. “You’ve had this coming for a long time and you know it. I for one am not putting up with your bad behavior any longer. So let this be a lesson, little brother; from now on, if you behave like a kid – which you still are, I might add – then you will be punished like one.”

Joe was seething. “Just wait till I get up” he said through gritted teeth, “I’ll take you all on.”

But Joe didn’t get a chance to retaliate as they each took an arm and leg and unceremoniously carried him over and dropped him in the water trough.

“That will cool your scrawny hide and your temper,” Hoss admonished. “And if you’ve any sense in that dumb head of yours, you will think before you act in future.”

Spluttering to the surface, Joe was about to give his brothers a right mouthful of abuse when he caught sight of their laughing faces. Suddenly the absurdity of the whole situation tickled his fancy and he found himself laughing along with them. “I guess I deserved that,” he said sheepishly, at the same time scooping water from the trough and trying to give his brothers a dowsing.

“You know, I could be wrong,” Adam acknowledged. “The kid might be starting to grow up after all. Now let’s get inside before Pa busts a gut waiting for us.”

Less than ten minutes later, the elder siblings stood in front of their Pa and did their best to recall the events of the night before, without giving any indication of Joe’s involvement in the affair. Ben was not easily taken in, but if his sons decided to protect his youngest’s hide, then that was up to them. Brothers would be brothers after all.

“Thanks, guys,” Joe said shamefacedly that night after supper as they all made their way outside to bed the horses.

“No problem, little cousin,” Will declared, before landing a heavy swat on the young man’s already sore behind. “Just don’t give us any reason to make us regret what we did in there.”

“Oh I won’t, really, I won’t,” Joe declared, moving far away from his cousin’s long reach. Joe was thinking he may have to re-evaluate Cousin Will; he had always seemed the most laidback in the past, but Joe was beginning to think there may be a bit more of his Pa and Adam in his cousin than he first thought.

Later that night, they all sat round the fireside relaxing before turning in for the evening.

“Hey Pa, I just remembered,” Hoss declared. “I picked up the post this morning before we left town and it’s still in my saddlebags.”

With that, Hoss made his way to the credenza and returned moments later with a handful of letters.

“There’s one here for you Clay,” Hoss said with a quizzical expression on his face. “Who knows you’re here?”

Clay looked equally bemused as he took the letter Hoss offered him. “Well, I did leave Virginia City as a forwarding address with a few people, but I must admit I didn’t expect anyone actually writing to me.”

Clay tore open the letter and his face changed from one of puzzlement to one of surprise as he read the contents. The other men in the room tried to look uninterested, but it was obvious they were all dying to know who it was from.

Putting the letter down on the table, Clay looked first at Joe and then at Ben. “I think this is going to come as a bit of a shock; well, it certainly has to me. When I first went looking for my mother’s grave only to find that she hadn’t died after all, I also tried to trace my mother’s parents.”

Joe could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and his face drained of all color. Ben, aware of how sensitive his youngest was to anything pertaining to his mother, rested a reassuring hand on Joe’s shoulder and gently squeezed his support. “Go on,” he urged Clay to continue.

“Well, I found out that Marie’s mother died when she was twelve years old as a result of a cholera outbreak, but I was also informed that her father had been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.”

“M-m-murder?” Joe murmured. This was all news to him.

Ben nodded his head in agreement. “Marie did tell me her father had been in jail. She also told me he died there when she was about fifteen.”

Picking up the letter once more Clay shook his head. “Not according to this letter. The person who wrote this claims to be Francis De Val, my grandfather. He claims that he was released from prison ten years ago and was informed by Jean Marigny’s parents, my paternal grandparents, that Marie died in childbirth almost twenty-five years ago and that the child died with her.”

The room fell silent for a long time. Eventually Joe could stay silent no longer and asked in a shaky voice. “Are you telling me that I have a grandfather?”

Clay shrugged his shoulders. “If this man is really our mother’s father, then yes, I guess I – and you – have a grandfather.”

Ben licked his dry lips and tried to make sense of it all. “What else does he say? In the letter………what else has he told you?”

“Not much really. He says he decided to leave New Orleans; there was nothing left for him there. He also claims to have had money waiting for him when he got out of prison but he doesn’t elaborate where it came from. It seems he is living on a ranch just outside of Sacramento called the Southern Belle, and if I am truly his grandson, he would like to meet me.”

“But how did he know about you?” Ben asked. “Why would he go looking for a grandson he thought dead?”

“He didn’t go looking for me,” Clay corrected with a shake of his head. “Once I found out that my mother hadn’t died all those years ago and had, in fact, remarried and had another child, I wondered how many of the other things I had been told were really true. And so I placed an ad in the New Orleans paper stating who I was and asking if anyone had any information about my family. When I left New Orleans, I knew I would be coming to Virginia City and I asked for any mail to be forwarded to me here. Turns out a friend of Francis De Val sent a copy of the paper to him and that is why he has got in touch.”

Little Joe’s head was reeling; he couldn’t quite take it in. He had always been led to understand that his mother was orphaned quite young and so the idea of a grandfather had never crossed his mind.

“When are you going to see him?” Joe asked of Clay. “I want to go with you; he’s my grandfather too.”

Clay looked at Joe and then at Ben, seeing the concern in the older man’s eyes. “It might be better if I go first, Little Joe; after all we don’t know if this person is who he says he is.”

“But we can still go together,” Joe blurted out, his emotions starting to get the better of him. “I need to know if he is my grandfather, just the same as you do.”

Ben stood up behind his youngest son and placed both his hands on Joe’s shoulders, trying to ease the tension. “When do you intend to ride out, Clay?”

Clay shrugged. “No point wasting time. I’ll sort my stuff out and ride out in the morning — if that’s all right with you, sir?”

“Yes, yes, of course it is. I know how anxious you must be.”

“I’m going with you,” Joe declared, a look of defiance coming into his eyes.

Ben turned Joe to face him. “Now Joe, I know this has come as a shock to you. It’s come as a shock to us all. But I would be happier son if you wait until Clay has met with this man and can clarify he is who he says he is.”

Joe started to protest, but Ben was adamant. “That is my final word on the matter, Joseph. Once Clay is sure the man is his – and your – grandfather, then we can all ride out to meet him. But I won’t have you riding round the country on a wild goose chase. He may or may not be Francis De Val, but if he is, your brothers’ and I will accompany you to meet him. I’m not forgetting the man was tried and convicted for murder; I don’t want you riding into something you can’t handle.”

“Your Pa’s right, Joe; I’ll let you know as soon as I know for certain.”

Joe looked at the faces surrounding him and knew they were all in agreement. “Okay,” he conceded. “I’ll wait until I hear from you.”

Ben breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that Joe was not going to make a fuss, but Adam was not taken in. He could see the determined jut of the chin and defiance in the eyes of his younger brother and he decided to keep a good watch on Joe over the next twenty-four hours.

*****

The following morning was Sunday, and after the family attended church together, Clay headed out on his own. The journey would take him a couple of days, and as he prepared to leave, Hop Sing arrived with provisions. Looking at the size of the package Hop Sing gave to him, he joked, “Hey Hop Sing, are you trying to turn me into Hoss? There’s enough here to feed a small army for a week.”

Hop Sing beamed at Clay’s words. He had lately begun to regard the young man as family and, as such, he looked after him as he would any one of the Cartwrights.

“Which way you planning on going?” Hoss asked as he handed Clay the reins to his horse.

“Figured I would go by Geiger Road and camp out at Sulphur Springs,” Clay replied. “Thought that would be the quickest.”

“Just you be careful, young man,” Ben warned. “Remember, you don’t know anything about this man.”

“I’ll be careful,” Clay promised, surprised at how easy it was to become part of this family that he had tried so hard to escape from.

Once Clay had departed, Joe entered the house and changed from his church best into his ranch clothes. As he saddled his horse, Ben walked over to him.

“And where are you off to, Joe?”

“Thought I would ride over and see Mitch, Pa. He wasn’t at church this morning and I promised to make arrangements with him about going hunting next week.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” Ben replied, relieved that Joe wasn’t sulking over not being allowed to accompany his brother. “Just be sure to be home for supper.”

Joe smiled but didn’t answer; he had no intention of being home for supper, but he wouldn’t outright lie to his Pa. He was telling the truth when he said he was going to visit with Mitch, but that was only to deliver a note for Mitch to handover to Ben the following day to explain Joe’s whereabouts.

*****

Darkness had descended when Clay finally stopped to make camp. Sulphur Springs was an ideal spot – plenty fresh water and firewood. As he started a fire and prepared the stew that Hop Sing had made for him, he became aware of a noise off to his left. Drawing his gun from the holster, he stepped away from the fire and hid in the undergrowth; it didn’t pay to take chances when out on the range alone.

A lone figure rode up to camp and dismounted from his horse. As the man tied his mount to a nearby tree, Clay crept up on him, and with his gun pressed firmly into the stranger’s back, he whispered, “Don’t make any sharp moves, mister; raise your hands and turn around nice and easy.”

The man slowly raised his hands and, as instructed, turned very slowly round. When the firelight flickered on the stranger’s face, Clay let out a shout that would have woken the dead.

“You stupid little cuss, I could have blown your head right off. Of all the irresponsible things you have done, this has got to come near the top.”

Clay’s display of temper didn’t faze Joe at all. “I trust you implicitly, big brother. I knew you wouldn’t shoot before you knew whether you were in any danger or not.”

“You knew no such thing,” Clay threw back at him. “In fact, I’ve a good mind to hogtie you to your horse and take you home again.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Joe shouted back at him, his own temper now ignited.

“You think I can’t?”

“I know you can’t.”

With no other siblings around to pry them apart, the two brothers launched at each other and traded punches, falling to the ground and rolling backwards and forwards as each tried to land a fist on the other first. In many ways they were evenly matched, but Clay’s extra weight and height won out at the end of the day. Straddling his younger sibling and pinning his arms to his side, Clay slapped Joe several times across the face until the younger man stopped struggling. “Give in?”

“Go to hell.”

“Your Pa would swat your ornery hide good and proper if he could hear the blasphemy coming out of your mouth,” Clay admonished. “Now I’ll ask you again, do you give in?”

Joe tried with no avail to throw his brother from him and so reluctantly he said in a voice hardly above a whisper. “Okay, I give in.”

“I didn’t hear you.”

“I said I give in,” Joe shouted in a much louder voice. “Now are you going to get off me?”

Clay chuckled as he stood up and reached down to pull Joe to his feet. “You know, kid, you have quite a punch. I can see I’m going to have to watch out for you……when you grow up.”

As Joe’s left hand formed into a fist once more, Clay quickly retracted. “Don’t go and get all steamed up again; I was only joshing with you.”

Peace was restored and the two brothers sat down to enjoy Hop Sing’s stew together.

“I guess you didn’t tell your Pa you were coming after me.” It was more a statement than a question and Joe shook his head.

“I’ve left a note with Mitch to give to him in the morning, telling him what I intended doing.”

“He’s gonna be real mad at you,” Clay added, stating the obvious.

“Yeah, I know,” Joe admitted, failing to keep some of the worry from his voice. “But Francis De Val is my grandfather too; I have every right to meet him.”

“I won’t argue with that, Joe. Let’s just hope the guy is who he says he is,” Clay added. “To tell you the truth, brother, I’m glad to have you along.”

“Glad to be here,” Joe smiled. “Suppose we better get some sleep; we’ve got a long dusty day ahead of us.”

*****

When Joe didn’t turn up for supper that evening, Ben didn’t have to wait for the message from Mitch to know where his youngest son was.

“You want me to saddle up and ride out after him, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head. “No, Adam, let him go. Maybe I was wrong to forbid him in the first place; he’s not a child any longer.” Then with a heavy sigh he added, “At least he has Clay to look out for him.”

“That’s what worries me,” Adam muttered under his breath.

“What’s that, son?”

“I said, ‘we’re worry free’ then, Pa. Clay is bound to keep them out of trouble.”

Ben looked hard at his eldest, trying to work out if he was being flippant or not. “That may be, but if we don’t hear from them by the end of the week, we set off after them. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Hoss, Adam and Will said in unison.

“Well, I suggest you all go to bed and get a good night’s sleep. After all, there will be two less hands working fence tomorrow.”

“In Joe’s case, we won’t notice the difference,” Hoss concluded, chuckling as he made his way to the stairs.

*****

Joe enjoyed the next couple of days with only Clay for company. At almost 25, Clay was nearly eight years older than Joe, but unlike Adam and Hoss, he was more of a kindred spirit. He had Joe’s fiery temper, wicked sense of humor and a ‘devil may care’ approach to life.

On reaching Sacramento, the brothers didn’t have to ask many people before they were directed towards the ranch of Francis De Val; he was almost as famous as the Cartwrights were in and around the Virginia City area.

As they entered the land belonging to the Southern Belle, they were surprised to suddenly find themselves surrounded by half a dozen men, heavily armed and looking none too friendly.

“What you doing here?” one of the men asked. “This is private property.”

Clay was quick to answer, “My name’s Clay Stafford. I’m here to see Francis De Val; he’s expecting me.”

Without uttering another word, the man who had first spoken ushered the brothers forward towards the house.

Joe and Clay entered the yard and dismounted. Tethering their horses to the fence, they ascended the steps of the house and headed towards the front door.

Taking hold of Joe by the arm and firmly pulling him back, the same man spoke yet again. “Not you, kid. We was told to expect a man by the name of Stafford. No one else is allowed in.”

Clay shrugged his shoulders at Joe and reassured, “Don’t worry, Joe; as soon as I tell him who you are, he’ll want to see you as well.”

“That’s okay,” Joe said without malice. “You go ahead; I’ll be waiting right here.”

Taking a deep breath, Clay slowly turned the handle and pushed open the door. Stepping just inside, he stopped and looked around unsure what to expect.

A voice called out to him. “Qui est celui?” When Clay did not immediately reply, the heavily accented voice called again, “Who is that?”

“The name’s Stafford, Clay Stafford,” Clay replied, still unsure whether he should continue into the room or not.

There was a sharp intake of breath, before the man called out again. “Come in, come in. I want you here where I can see you.”

Clay’s eyes were drawn in the direction of the voice. There in front of him stood a grey haired, thin man, probably in his middle sixties. Looking hard at the elder man in front of him, Clay couldn’t help but think he looked familiar.

Francis De Val stood up to meet his grandson. “My God, it’s true, you are Marie’s boy.”

“So you believe me?” Clay asked, surprised that this elderly man accepted him without question.

Francis De Val started to laugh, a deep throaty laugh. “It’s not a case of believing you; I just have to look at you. It’s like turning the clock back forty years. You are me as a young man.”

It was then that Clay knew why the man looked so familiar; he was indeed an older version of himself.

“But why do you use the name Stafford?” the old man asked curiously. “Your father’s name was Marigny was it not?”

“Let’s just say Marigny was a name I no longer wanted to be associated with.”

The next fifteen minutes were filled with questions from both sides as each man tried to glean as much knowledge of the other as possible.

“My poor Marie,” Francis said when there was finally a pause in the conversation. “To die so young and in childbirth.”

“But she didn’t die in childbirth,” Clay corrected.

“What are you saying? I was told your mother died giving birth to you.”

“That’s what I was told as well,” Clay confirmed. “But she didn’t die. My mother was told that her baby died at birth; she never knew that I lived.”

“Who would do such a thing?” Francis demanded.

“My paternal grandparents,” Clay said quietly. “They never felt that my mother was good enough for their son. So now you know why I changed my name. I no longer wanted to be associated with them.”

Francis De Val sat down and tried to comprehend what he was hearing. For so long he had believed his darling daughter had died in childbirth at the tender age of twenty.

“But what of my Marie,” Francis now asked the hope evident in his voice. “Are you telling me she is still alive?”

“I wish I was,” Clay answered wistfully. “No, my mother married again years later, but sadly she died in a riding accident about twelve years ago.”

The hope died in Francis eyes and he sat down defeated. “All those years my beautiful Marie was still alive and I believed her dead.”

Clay was puzzled. “But I was told she also believed you to be dead. How can that be?”

Francis hung his head in shame. “That was my doing. When I went to jail, my Marie was only a young girl, I thought it better that she think me dead than know the truth.”

It was then that Clay remembered Joe waiting outside the house.

“There’s something else I need to tell you,” Clay said enthusiastically, already not wanting to see the despondency in his grandfather’s face.

“What is it?” Francis asked, his natural curiosity taking over.

“Marie, my mother, she had another baby, a boy…”

Francis interrupted “You mean I have another grandson?”

Clay smiled in reply. “Yes, he’s here, he came here with me. In fact, he’s right outside waiting to meet you.”

“Then bring him in,” Francis demanded, hardly able to contain himself.

Clay couldn’t wait to do his bidding, and rushing outside, he shouted for Joe and then ushered him into the room. Joe was unsure what to expect and stood awkwardly with his hat in hand, shifting from one foot to the other.

Francis De Val moved forward and looked hard at Joe, but didn’t utter a single word. Joe looked to Clay for help, but Clay just shrugged his shoulders; this man was just as much a stranger to him as he was to Joe.

Thinking that maybe his grandfather doubted the legitimacy of his claim, Joe began, “I can prove who I am, sir, if you have any doubts.”

Without warning the elderly gentleman reached forward and pulled a startled Joe into his arms in a fierce bear hug. Joe had no idea how to react and stood stiffly in the man’s arms. Finally releasing Joe from his hold, Francis De Val pushed the boy away from him, and with eyes moist with unshed tears, he almost whispered, “You have no need to prove anything, young man. I have no doubt who you are, no doubt at all.”

“You don’t?” Joe asked, shuffling from side to side with embarrassment, when faced with the intense stare of the old man in front of him.

“How could I ever doubt you?” Francis stated simply. “You are the spitting image of my darling Marie. While you live, she will never be dead.”

*****

The next few days were ones of discovery as Francis De Val found out all he could of the two grandsons that up until recently he had no idea existed.

Clay had led a very different life from Joe. As a child he had been over-protected and spoilt by his grandparents. During his teenage years, he was reluctant to follow the rules his grandparents tried to impose on him and desperate to break free from the constraints laid upon him; he left home early and spent his time perfecting both his gun and card-playing abilities. As far as he was aware, his paternal grandparents were still alive, but since finding out the lies and deception they had practiced throughout his life, he found he had no wish to return to their home. Much as they may have loved him in their own way, they had also deprived him of his mother’s love from the day he was born and that he could never forgive.

Joe had led a charmed life by comparison and he knew it. He had experienced his mother’s love, if only for a short while, and the love and support of a doting, if sometimes strict, father and brothers from the day he was born.

Despite their different upbringings, it was easy to tell they were brothers. Both were hot-headed, impulsive, fun-loving individuals with a deep sense of loyalty, and Francis De Val was only sorry that neither he, nor his beloved Marie had been around to watch them grow into manhood.

On the second evening of their arrival, they were sitting having dinner together when the door opened and a large imposing man in his forties strode in. He still had trail dust clinging to his clothes, but he made no apology for his appearance. Taking but a second to take off his hat and gun belt, he walked over to the table, and with curiosity in his voice, he asked of the owner of the house. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to our guests, uncle?”

Francis De Val was quickly on his feet and with more than a hint of pride he declared, “Jacque, come and meet my grandsons.”

Jacque Martinique couldn’t have been more surprised if Francis had said the world was about to end. His mouth hung loose and he struggled to find his voice.

As the two young men sat at the table made to rise, their grandfather made the introductions. “Clay and Joseph, meet my nephew Jacque. He is my late sister’s son and the reason I come to be living here in Sacramento”

Jacque made no attempt to shake hands with his new relatives, but instead turned on his uncle in disbelief. “What do you mean grandsons? You don’t have any grandsons.”

Francis placed a calming hand on his nephew’s arm. “Calm down, Jacque. Go wash up and come and join us, I will then explain everything.”

Without glancing at the young men now standing feeling foolish, Jacque pushed his uncle’s hand from his arm and made his way towards the stairs. Through gritted teeth, he called over his shoulder. “I’ll be back in five minutes and this had better be good.”

An embarrassing silence settled in the room that was only broken by the clink of cutlery on plates as the three men waited for Jacque’s return. Fifteen minutes later, he arrived back in the room after having washed and changed, but he looked no happier than he did when he left.

Once seated, he looked from Clay to Joe before turning to his uncle and demanding, “Now, would you mind telling me how I leave here ten days ago the only living relative you have and return to find you now have two so-called grandsons?”

Joe was about to open his mouth to speak when Clay kicked him under the table and shot him a warning look to keep quiet.

With utmost patience and leaving nothing out, Francis explained to his nephew the events that led up to Clay and Joe appearing at the ranch. Jacque reluctantly allowed his uncle to finish, but as soon as he did, he asked incredulously. “And you believe that cock and bull story?”

“What reason would they have to lie?” his uncle asked.

“Take a look around you, uncle,” Jacque said with contempt. “This ranch, the house, the land. This place is worth a small fortune.”

“But you are forgetting one thing, Jacque, one very important point in all of this,” Francis continued even more patiently.

“What may that be?”

“I found Clay; he didn’t find me! He didn’t know I existed anymore than I knew he did.”

Jacque couldn’t answer that one. His uncle was right; Clay hadn’t gone looking for a grandfather. It was his uncle who had contacted Clay.

“There is one more fact, a one that can’t be denied.” Francis continued. “Look at them, Jacque; there is no doubt that Clay is my grandson, and as for Joe, he is the spitting image of his mother. You and Marie were children together; surely even you must see the likeness?”

Jacque no longer put up any argument; he could see that it was pointless. But there was no welcoming tone in his voice when he addressed the brothers. “So now that you have found yourselves a grandfather, what do you plan to do?”

“Plan?” Clay queried. “What do you mean plan? Joe and I only came here to see if Francis was indeed our mother’s father. Other than that, we have no business here. Joe and I will be returning at the end of the week to Virginia City.”

Jacque was skeptical. He was sure that the brothers would hang around once they realized the true worth of the land, but he wisely kept his own counsel. There was no way these two interlopers were going to come between him and the inheritance that was rightfully his!

*****

The following day Clay and Joe were at the corral watching a couple of the men breaking in new horses. There was a particularly ornery black stallion that all the men were wary of. He was an expensive horse and none of the men were keen to ride him. If they were unsuccessful in breaking him, it would make it doubly hard for the next man and Jacque would no doubt be angry and someone would suffer.

As they argued who would be the reluctant rider, Joe piped up that he would like to give it a try. The men were a bit reluctant, but he was the old man’s grandson after all, so they shrugged their shoulders and told Joe to do his best.

Joe was overjoyed at being given the chance to show off. He was an excellent horseman and there was no doubt in his mind that if anyone could tame this horse, it would be him. Climbing over the corral fence, he made his way over to the horse and, much to the surprise of the assembled men, he spent a few minutes talking to the animal in a reassuring tone and stroking its head, trying to calm the skittish colt.

Once he was ready, Joe indicated for the men to hold the horse steady as he prepared to mount. Just as he was lifting his left leg from the ground, he found himself being yanked from behind and forcibly and dragged backwards.

“What the hell do you think you are doing, boy?” bellowed Jacque Martinique, as he landed a heavy swat on Joe’s butt and pushed him from the corral.

Joe’s cheeks burned with embarrassment and he was ready to explode. “What did it look like?” he screeched, unable to believe the man had treated him like a twelve year old.

“Oh you really think so?” Jacque bellowed even louder than Joe. “Well, if you think I am going to let some wet behind the ears punk kid try and break my best horse, you have another thing coming. Stick to your toys until you grow up, boy. Leave the men’s work for the men.”

That was it. The red mist descended, and if Clay hadn’t intervened Joe’s fists would have made contact with Jacque’s face.

The angry voices had drawn the attention of Francis De Val and he was quick to approach the corral. Looking from his nephew to his youngest grandson, he demanded. “What is going on here?”

“Your so-called grandson here was just about to ruin a $200 horse, that’s what’s wrong.” Jacque replied, with just the right amount of contempt in his voice to send Joe completely over the top.

Clay wrapped both his arms tightly round Joe’s body in order to restrain him, which was just as well because if both his arms hadn’t been occupied, he may well have taken a pop at Jacque himself.

Trying to diffuse the situation, Francis turned to Joe and asked calmly. “You think you can ride this horse?”

“I know I can,” Joe spat back disrespectfully, forgetting that he was addressing his elderly grandfather.

Francis was not prepared to overlook Joe’s tone, regardless of the provocation. “I think you forget who you are talking to, young man!” he said sharply.

Joe was immediately contrite and hung his head. “Sorry, grandfather,” he said quietly. Then looking up with sparks still igniting his eyes he said passionately, “But I do know horses and I’m sure I can break that one.”

Francis looked questioningly at Clay and raised his eyebrows. Clay loosened his grip on Joe and now smiled at his grandfather. “From what I’ve seen, Joe is about the best horseman there is; he’s been breaking horses since he was fifteen years old.”

Jacque could see the way things were going and he was not happy. “Surely you are not going to let the kid ride? He’ll probably break his scrawny neck in the process, but more to the point, I paid $200 for that horse.”

“I would like to see him ride,” Francis decreed. “His mother was a fine horsewoman; maybe he inherited more than her looks.”

Joe smiled triumphantly as he pushed past Jacque and once more entered the corral. Once again he took a few minutes to reacquaint himself with the stallion before he attempted to mount.

This was not an easy ride and the men watching from the sidelines could not help but be impressed as the slip of a lad moved as one with the animal. To a greenhorn bystander it may have looked as if Joe was simply hanging on for dear life, but to men who had spent their whole lives working with horses, every toss of it’s head and every clenching of Joe’s knees looked rehearsed and choreographed.

When the horse finally stood still and Joe slid from the saddle, the men cheered and patted him on the back. “Great ride, Joe,” Clay shouted, before hugging his young brother to him in a rare show of affection.

His grandfather too was very impressed; horsemanship was a De Val trait and he was pleased that a family tradition was being carried on.

Only Jacque failed to be impressed; inside he was seething and he was having a hard job disguising the fact. One way or other, he had to get rid of these kids and he wasn’t going to be too particular how he did it.

Later that day, Francis invited his nephew and grandsons to join him in his den. “I have something to show you,” he declared enthusiastically, before opening the safe and pulling out a casket. Inside was the most exquisite diamond necklace any of them had ever seen.

“It’s priceless,” Francis said proudly. “It belonged to your grandmother and one day I intended to give it to your mother.”

“It’s beautiful,” Clay exclaimed.

“Yes it is,” Francis confirmed. “I was so sad not to have been able to see your mother wearing it, but maybe now, sometime in the future, you will have a daughter and she will wear it.”

Clay smiled and nodded his head, while Joe just looked embarrassed.

Turning to his youngest grandson, Francis chuckled, “In your case, young man, that great granddaughter needs to wait a good few years, do you hear?”

“Yes sir,” Joe replied. “You can be assured of that.”

Jacque Martinique looked on with disdain. Although never promised, he had always assumed the necklace would come to him. More than ever, he felt the need to be rid of his cousins.

*****

The next morning bright and early, Joe was up and raring to go. “I need to go into town and wire Pa that everything is okay,” he informed Clay. “I’m sure I’m in enough trouble as it is without provoking him more than I have already.”

“Want me to come with you?” Clay asked.

Joe laughed. “No, I’m a big boy, Clay; I think I can manage to send a telegram on my own.”

Clay held up his hands in mock surrender. “No argument from me on that score, little brother. Just thought I would do a spot of fishing this morning that’s all.”

“Make sure you catch a couple for me,” Joe cajoled. “After a long ride and a couple of cool beers, I’ll be ready to eat a horse.”

“Just take it easy with the beers, Joe,” Clay warned. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“Since when did you get so sanctimonious?” Joe retorted. Then with a wink of his eye, he mocked. “Don’t worry, big brother, I’ll be a good boy.”

As Joe prepared to ride out, he was joined by Jacque and a couple of the ranch hands.

“We’ll ride with you,” Jacque insisted. “My uncle would be most upset if we didn’t look after his youngest grandson,” he added sardonically.

Joe shrugged his shoulders at Clay, but resigned himself to having company.

The ranch was about an hour’s ride from town, and during that time, Jacque decided he would find out as much as he could about his young cousin. Francis De Val had tried on several occasions to involve Jacque in their discussions over the last few days, but so far his nephew had shown no interest at all in anything to do with Joe or Clay.

“So Joe, what do you do back in Virginia City?” Jacque asked.

“Break horses, ride fence, work the ranch, much the same as the other cowpokes,” Joe replied with a shrug of his shoulders. He didn’t feel inclined to give Jacque any information about his family.

“Did I hear my uncle say it was your father’s ranch you worked on?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Jacque looked at the other two men riding with them and smiled. If Joe was obliged to work alongside the other cowboys at his father’s ranch, it didn’t sound as if it was very successful. This just confirmed Jacque’s suspicions that Joe and his brother were out to cash in, on what he believed to be, his inheritance.

“So how long are you and your brother planning on staying at the Southern Belle?”

Joe looked sideways at the man beside him before answering. Jacque was smiling but Joe didn’t trust him one bit and he was tempted to tell the man that he didn’t have any plans to go home just yet, but thought better of it.

“I’m sending a telegram to my Pa to say we’ll start home on Sunday. I don’t suppose he’ll be too happy if we stay away any longer; it’s a busy time of year.”

After the first few interchanges, Jacque found it hard going trying to make conversation; he really had nothing in common with the boy and he certainly had no interest in his miserable ranch back in Virginia City. The rest of the journey passed in silence.

On reaching town, the men split up. Jacque directed Joe to the telegraph office and arranged to meet him at Sutter’s Saloon in an hour’s time. He didn’t tell Joe what his business was in town and Joe didn’t ask.

Less than an hour later, Jacque had concluded his business and after meeting up with his two henchmen, he made his way to the saloon. By this time, Joe had also done all he needed to do and was halfway through his second beer and happily flirting with one of the saloon girls. Pulling out a chair and sitting down at Joe’s table, Jacque instructed the saloon girl to bring them all a beer.

Joe held up his hand and protested. “Not for me; I’ve had enough.”

“Oh that’s right,” Jacque goaded. “Joe here’s not old enough to be drinking. Better make that three beers, Mandy, and bring the boy a sarsaparilla.”

Joe’s face flushed red with embarrassment. “Just bring four beers,” he called to the girl’s retreating back.

“Are you sure about that, kid?” Jacque mocked.

“I’m sure,” Joe retorted, knowing his cousin was enjoying his humiliation.

Three beers led to four, then five, plus a bottle of whisky that Jacque insisted they share. When Joe tried to stand, he found his legs buckling under him. At seventeen, he was usually restricted to a couple of beers when out with his brothers and his body was not accustomed to this amount of alcohol.

Before Joe hit the floor, Jacque’s men grabbed him at either side and almost carried him back to his horse. It was an unpleasant ride for Joe back to the Southern Belle as he desperately tried to hold onto the contents of his stomach.

As they approached, Francis De Val came out of the house to greet them and he looked at Joe disapprovingly. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded of Jacque.

Jacque looked at Joe slumped across his saddle, and with a shrug of his shoulders, he defended, “It’s not my problem if the kid can’t hold his liqueur. I’m not his keeper.”

If Joe had been in any shape to notice, he would have seen a look in his grandfather’s eye that very much resembled his father. Turning to Clay, Francis said sharply, “See to your brother.” Then, as he walked away, he added, “I expect him to be at the table for supper this evening, so I suggest you make his coffee extra strong.”

Clay pulled his brother from his horse, and with one arm round Joe’s waist and his other arm holding onto the arm draped over his shoulder, he half dragged his brother into the house. Taking Joe straight to the kitchen, he sat him in the nearest chair and set about making the extra strong coffee.

“What were you thinking of, Joe?” he berated. “You promised me you wouldn’t have more than a couple of pints.”

Joe sat with his head in his hands moaning softly. “I only intended to have two pints but Jacque was goading me.”

“If he said to stick your head in the fire, would you do it?” Clay found himself saying, then added, “I can’t believe I just said that; I’m beginning to sound like your Pa.”

That brought a chuckle from Joe, but it was short lived. “Clay, I think I’m gonna be…”

“No, no don’t, Joe, hang on a second.” Clay grabbed the first thing he could lay his hands on and was just in time to put the fruit bowl under his brother’s head and prevent Joe from messing all over the floor. Clay’s nose screwed up with disgust but he held the bowl in place until Joe was finished. He then disappeared outside to get rid of the contents and rinse the bowl.

On returning, Clay looked at the ashen face of his young brother and sighed. “You know, Adam’s right; you do need a keeper.”

By supper time, Joe was sober enough to present himself at the table but it was obvious to those present that he was not feeling well. Francis surveyed the young man thoughtfully. “Joseph, do you have anything to say?”

Joe stopped pushing the food around his plate and looked over at the elder man. “I’m not really feeling very talkative at the moment, Grandfather.”

“That is not what I meant, Joseph,” Francis added and then waited for Joe’s response.

Joe was puzzled and was about to say so, when a kick to the shins from his older brother caught his attention and he glared across the table at Clay. At first he couldn’t tell what his brother was mouthing at him, but then the penny dropped and he turned sheepishly back to his Grandfather and said, “I’m sorry about my behavior today, Grandfather; it won’t happen again.”

Francis De Val had been a young man himself and his voice softened as he replied. “Well, see that it doesn’t, young man.” Joe visibly relaxed and Francis asked him. “Did you at least manage to send the telegram to your father?”

“I told him we would start back on Sunday. With a bit of luck, he will have forgiven me by then,” Joe added without thinking.

“Forgiven you for what, Joseph?” his Grandfather asked, raising his eyebrow.

Joe’s chin dropped to his chest as he realized his blunder. “W-w-well, I didn’t exactly tell him I was coming here with Clay…..I-I-I left a message for him with a friend.”

The silence that followed this statement was deafening and Joe closed his eyes as he waited for the tirade that he was sure would follow.

At first the sound that came from Francis was indiscernible, but then as it got louder, the men round the table looked at each other in surprise; he was laughing and Joe’s mouth dropped open in surprise as his Grandfather started to chuckle uncontrollably. After several minutes, Francis wiped his eyes and looked at his youngest grandson.

“Joseph, there is no doubt you are your mother’s son. Marie could try the patience of a saint and I’m sure your father feels the same way about you. Now off to bed, young man; if tomorrow is your last day I want you at your best.”

*****

Joe’s telegram never reached his family. It hadn’t appeared that urgent to Bert in the telegraph office and so he thought he would give it to whichever of the Cartwright’s arrived in town the following day to pick up the mail.

It was Saturday morning and Ben, Will, Hoss and Adam were sitting down to breakfast. Ben was unusually quiet and the other three kept exchanging knowing glances.

Eventually Ben clattered his coffee cup back into the saucer with a bang and said angrily. “That boy has no consideration for his family. Not a word; not a single word. First he leaves without permission and then he doesn’t even have the decency to send a telegram to say he’s arrived safely and when to expect him home.” Before any of the others had time to express an opinion, Ben continued. “Even if Joe is that irresponsible, I would have thought Clay would have more sense.”

Adam raised his hands up in mock surrender. “No point getting all worked up, Pa. You know Little Joe; he’ll be so caught up in his big adventure he won’t be thinking about us.”

“Oh I’ll give him adventure when I get hold of him.” Ben continued, still not willing to calm down.

Hoss was ever the peacemaker. “You know, the young’un don’t mean anything, Pa; he just forgets all about time when he’s having fun.”

Ben glared at his middle son and Hoss tried to smile but it froze on his face.

“If you’re that worried, Uncle Ben, why don’t you take a trip to Sacramento and see for yourself that he’s okay.”

The other three men at the table stopped talking and looked at Will. Ben started to protest, “I can’t just leave the ranch and go gallivanting across the country.”

“Why not, Pa?” Adam said with a shrug of his shoulders. “We are all up to date here and Charley is quite capable of looking after things when we are gone.”

“What do you mean ‘when we are gone’? Since when was it decided that everyone was going?”

Hoss smiled at his father, but he was with Adam on this one. “Well, I don’t know about Adam and Will, but I think if we have a grandfather in the family, it’s only right the rest of us get to meet him.”

Ben thought for a minute, then looked round at the expectant faces, before allowing a smile to grace his lips. “Okay boys, you win; it would appear we are going on a little trip, so you better get your bags packed.”

*****

Joe could hardly drag himself out of bed on Saturday morning; he was no longer nauseous but his head felt as if he had been kicked by a mule and his tongue was so thick he found it difficult to swallow.

Clay was rather amused at Joe’s predicament as they sat at the breakfast table and took great pleasure in eating a large plate of fatback bacon and eggs as Joe drank his coffee and tried not to look at the greasy food on his brother’s plate.

“Come on, Joe, look lively,” Clay cajoled, rising from the table. “Grandfather is waiting for us outside and he won’t want to be kept waiting.”

Joe groaned loudly as he stood to his feet, but he gritted his teeth together in grim determination and followed Clay from the room.

Francis De Val was delighted to have the company of his grandsons as he went about his business, and by the end of the day, the boys were saddle sore and tired as they rode back to the ranch house.

As the brothers’ washed for supper that evening, Clay marveled at the old man’s stamina. “How does he do it? He almost rode the two of us into the ground.”

“Beats me,” Joe replied. “But I think we had better get a move on, ‘cause I’m willing to bet he’s already changed and sitting waiting for us.”

All too soon, the day came to an end and the brothers’ retired to bed that evening knowing they would be starting the journey back to the Ponderosa early the following morning.

*****

As the brothers slept soundly in their soft beds that evening, the rest of the Cartwrights prepared to sleep beneath the stars on the hard earth.

“What do you suppose he’s like?” Hoss asked, lying flat on his back with his arms crossed behind his head looking up at the dark sky.

“What who’s like?” Adam asked crossly, pulling his bedroll over to a piece of land that wasn’t quite as lumpy as the one he had first tried.

“Joe’s Grandpa, of course. Who else would I be talking about?”

“Well if he’s anything like Joe or Clay, God help us,” Adam replied, lying down once more, but not finding the comfort he desired.

“Let’s just get some sleep,” Ben said wearily. His first night on the trail and already he could feel himself getting tetchy. He really was getting too old for this.

As for Will, he was already sleeping like a baby. Will hadn’t had it quite as easy as his cousins and he took the minor discomforts in his stride.

*****

Sunday morning and Clay and Joe were all ready to leave. Their grandfather hugged them to him in a fierce embrace and begged them to visit him often. Both boys promised to be back the first opportunity they had, and after a final goodbye, they mounted their horses and left for home.

Jacque had not put in an appearance before the boys’ left, but neither of them was sorry; he had spent as little time as he could with the brothers.

About four hours into their journey, Clay pulled his horse to a stop and asked his brother to do the same.

“Why we stopping,” Joe asked.

“I could be wrong,” Clay said guardedly. “But I think we’re being followed.”

Joe looked all around and was just about to ask his brother why he thought that when men rode out from amongst the trees and surrounded them. They were mean looking and had guns at the ready.

“Now you boys just get down from your horses nice and easy,” one of the men ordered. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt.” The man had removed his hat, revealing a completely bald head.

“What’s going on here?” Joe demanded. “Who are you?”

“I’ll be asking the questions, sonny,” the man replied calmly, but there was a veiled threat in his voice when he added. “But I suggest you get down off your horse like I asked.”

“Just do as he says,” Clay advised as he swung his own leg over the saddle and jumped to the ground.

Joe did likewise, but he left the men around him under no illusion that he was doing it under protest.

“Look in their saddlebags,” the first man instructed once more, keeping his gun trained on the young men in front of him, ready for any trouble they might give.

“What are you looking for?” Clay asked this time, as he leaned slightly forward and put a calming hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“We’ll know if we find it, Mister,” one of the other men informed him, at the same time pushing Clay forward and away from his horse.

The brothers’ belongings were thrown down and scattered across the ground. Joe could feel his temper rising and it was only Clay’s hand on his shoulder that warned him not to do anything rash.

“Well, well, what have we here?” one of the men declared, lifting something from Joe’s saddlebag.

“What is it?” the bald headed man asked, leaving them under no illusion who was in charge.

It was then the man lifted it up for them all to see – Francis De Val’s diamond necklace.

“W-w-where……h-h-how, I mean it couldn’t be.” Joe looked at his brother dumbfounded. There was no way he could explain how the necklace came to be in his saddlebags.

Clay looked equally shocked and just gaped at his brother.

“Clay, I-I-I never,” Joe declared, now desperate to assure Clay he was innocent.

“It’s okay, Joe, there’s got to be an explanation for this,” Clay reassured. But before he could say anything else, the bald headed man interrupted him.

“Very convincing boys, but you don’t fool anyone.”

“Just who are you?” Clay demanded. He was beginning to suspect that he and Joe had been set up.

“Bob Denver’s the name,” the bald headed man replied. “I’m the sheriff in these parts and you boys are under arrest.”

“There’s got to be some mistake,” Joe exclaimed, finally finding his voice.

“No mistake, son,” the sheriff affirmed. “Now put your hands up and keep them there.”

But Joe wasn’t listening; he needed to make this man understand that they weren’t thieves. He took two steps forward before the butt of the gun on the back of his head stopped him dead in his tracks.

As Joe slumped to the ground unconscious, the sheriff shouted at the man who did the deed. “Now why did you go and do that?”

“The kid wouldn’t do as he was told,” the man stated, trying to defend his actions.

Clay knelt down and took hold of his brother’s head. “Joe, Joe,” he whispered, but Joe wasn’t listening, and already Clay could feel the stickiness of Joe’s blood as it seeped through his fingers.

Bob Denver shook his head in annoyance. “Handcuff him,” he said, pointing his finger at Clay, “and hogtie the other one over his saddle.”

Two of the men roughly pulled Clay to his feet, cuffed his hands in front and manhandled him into his saddle. Then as Clay looked on helpless, they lifted Joe from the ground and threw him face down over his horse.

It was a long ride back to town and Clay became increasingly concerned about his brother, as Joe was still out cold and the blood was now a congealed mass on the back of his head.

When they finally arrived, the men carried Joe into the jailhouse and, taking him into the cells, they slung him unceremoniously onto the nearest bunk. The handcuffs were removed from Clay and he was pushed into the cell beside him.

“How about a doctor?” Clay called after the men’s retreating back. “My brother needs a doctor.” But the men ignored him. They walked away without a backward glance and closed the door between the cells and the sheriff’s office.

An hour later a familiar figure walked into the jailhouse and sat down opposite the sheriff. The man didn’t waste any time on niceties. “You got them?” he asked.

“I’ve got them,” the sheriff replied. “The younger one’s got a bump on the head, but he’ll live.”

“What about the necklace?”

The sheriff opened his drawer, lifted out the necklace and handed it to his visitor.

“What now, Jacque?” the sheriff asked.

Jacque smiled the devious smile his cousins had come to hate over the last few days and shrugged. “They are thieves,” he stated simply. “I’m sure the judge will have no compunction about sending them to prison for a very long time.”

Just then a loud noise was heard from the back room and the sheriff rose and went out to the cells. “What do you want?” he asked.

“My brother’s hurt,” Clay stated simply. “If you won’t allow him to see a doctor, could I at least have some water and a clean cloth so I can look after him?”

The sheriff looked at the still form of the boy lying on the bed and relented. “All right” he agreed. “I’ll get you what you need.”

“Just one more thing sheriff,” Clay pleaded. “Can you send word to Ben Cartwright at the Ponderosa Ranch just outside Virginia City and let him know we are here?”

The sheriff was confused. “Ben Cartwright? What do you have to do with Ben Cartwright?”

“He’s our Pa,” Clay stated simply, surprised at how easily the words slipped from his tongue.

The sheriff walked back to his office and closed the door behind him. He turned to Jacque and said accusingly. “You told me the boys’ were named Stafford,”

Jacque didn’t know what the sheriff was getting at. “That’s right, Stafford.”

“The kid just told me their name’s Cartwright.”

“Stafford, Cartwright! What difference does it make?” Jacque said in frustration.

“Haven’t you heard of Ben Cartwright?” the sheriff asked incredulously.

“No, why should I?”

The sheriff looked at Jacque in disbelief. “If you haven’t heard of Cartwright, surely you must have heard of the Ponderosa.”

Jacque was becoming annoyed. “Of course I’ve heard of the Ponderosa; everyone round these parts knows of the Ponderosa.”

“Well Ben Cartwright owns the Ponderosa,” the sheriff informed him. “And when he finds out I’ve arrested his boys, he ain’t gonna be too happy, and I for one don’t want to be taking on the likes of Ben Cartwright.”

Jacque caught hold of the sheriff by the arm and held him tight. “You’ve been well paid for your part in this,” he said through gritted teeth. “Just make sure those boys are in court tomorrow and that the judge knows what he has to do.”

“I may have been paid,” the sheriff answered. “But that was before I knew we were dealing with the Cartwrights. I want double what you gave me.”

A furious Jacque had no alternative but to pay up.

*****

Clay gently bathed the back of his brother’s head and checked the damage. The wound had bled quite a bit, but head wounds always did, and it wasn’t as bad as Clay had thought it would be. Joe would certainly have quite a head ache when he came round, but it didn’t look as if the cut required stitches.

A low moan escaped from Joe’s lips, and Clay sat back and waited for him to open his eyes.

Joe’s eyelids fluttered for a few seconds and then he slowly and cautiously peeked out from under his long lashes. A quick look was enough before he scrunched his eyes tight shut once again. “What happened?” Joe asked at last. His throat felt dry and dusty and he quickly pleaded for a drink.

Clay held a glass of water for him until he had drunk his fill. “That better?” Clay asked as he replaced the glass on the floor next to the bunk.

“Yeah, thanks,” Joe said in a raspy voice. “My throat feels like I’ve been riding drag for a week.”

“After they knocked you out, they hogtied you over your horse,” Clay informed him. “I’m willing to bet you ate more dirt on the ride here than you would at the back of the herd.”

Joe nodded and reached round and touched the back of his head. He winced in pain and made to sit up.

“Take it easy,” Clay warned. “That’s quite some lump you’ve got there. You might feel a little dizzy at first.”

“A little?” Joe said sarcastically, as he slumped back onto the bed. Then as if he remembered all of a sudden why they were there, he sat back up again and asked. “Where did the necklace come from, Clay? I swear I never touched it.”

Clay placed a hand on Joe’s arm and reassured him. “Don’t you think I know that? We’ve been set up Joe and I’m willing to bet I know who by.”

“Jacque,” Joe stated simply.

Clay nodded his head. “Yes, Cousin Jacque. Who else would go to such lengths to get rid of us?”

*****

Ben and the boys broke camp early on the Monday morning. Hot coffee and the leftovers of Hop Sing’s biscuits had to suffice until they could replenish their rations, but Hoss was the only one to complain.

“As soon as we hit town, I’m gonna have me the biggest steak I can find,” Hoss declared hungrily. “Little brother’s just gonna have to wait; I can’t go meeting no grandfather on an empty belly.”

“Well, let’s get a move on,” Ben said, winking at his eldest son as he added. “I don’t want to be accused of starving any of my children.”

Will laughed at the good natured banter and lamented, not for the first time, on what he had missed out on by being an only child. He had spent most of his young life travelling from place to place with his father; never stopping long enough to make friends. It was the only life he knew and he didn’t regret it, but in the few months he had spent with his relatives he had come to realize that there was a different way of life; a one he would have liked to of experienced.

*****

Clay and Joe were totally unaware that their family was only a few hours ride away when they were roughly awoken that Monday morning. The sheriff was in no mood for conversation as he and his deputy ushered the brothers from the cell and marched them over to the courthouse.

The building was almost empty as they stood in front of the judge and listened to him reading out the charges against them. When either of them opened their mouth to speak, they were forcibly told to remain quiet, and in less than 15 minutes rough justice was dispensed. The brothers were found guilty of theft of the diamond necklace and sentenced to five years in prison.

“You can’t do that!” Joe screeched at the judge, as the deputy took hold of his arm and tried to remove him from the dock.

Clay was equally upset and struggled to release the hands that grabbed him. “This is all a set up, Joe,” he said angrily. “It’s obvious the sheriff and the judge are in the pay of Jacque Martinique.”

“For that outburst, young man, the sentence will be increased to six years. Maybe by the time you are released you will have gained some manners and a bit more common sense,” the judge said with disdain, before rising and leaving the room.

The brothers were immediately taken back to the jailhouse and returned to the cell. After about twenty minutes, Clay started banging on the cell bars and shouting for the sheriff. It wasn’t the sheriff who came to see them but one of his deputies.

“What you making all that noise about?” he bawled, a half eaten sandwich in his hand.

“It’s my kid brother; he doesn’t look too good. His head has started bleeding again and he looks real sick. I think he needs a doctor.”

The deputy looked past Clay and into the cell where Joe was lying on the bunk holding his head and moaning.

“He seemed okay before,” the deputy said, unsure of what he should do.

“Does he look okay to you now?” Clay said in a worried voice, going over to the bunk and bending down and running his hand over his brother’s face.

The deputy shuffled from one foot to another. The sheriff had gone for breakfast over at Jenny’s cafe. If he went over and brought him back and the kid was okay, Bob Denver wouldn’t be too pleased and he had been on the end of the sheriff’s wrath all too often; he didn’t want to experience it again.

“I suppose I better take a look at him,” the deputy finally decided, returning to the office and coming back with the key.

With gun in one hand and the key in the other he motioned for Clay to move away from the bed. Keeping his gun firmly fixed on Clay, he walked over and looked down at Joe. The deputy had to admit the kid didn’t look too good; his face was ashen and his eyes were rolling to the back of his head.

“What do you suppose is wrong with him?” he asked.

“Take a look at the back of his head,” Clay instructed. “I think maybe whoever cracked him one with that gun did more damage than we thought.”

The deputy leaned in closer towards Joe and, taking the only opportunity they had, the brothers moved into action. In one swift movement, Joe brought his fist up into the unsuspecting jaw of the hapless man and, at the same time, Clay hit him as hard as he could from behind. With nothing more than a surprised yelp, the man slumped to the floor unconscious.

Joe and Clay were quickly on their feet and, without a word passing between them, they gagged and tied the man to the bed. Taking the keys and the gun, they crept out of the cell, locked it behind them, and made their way into the outer office.

“What now?” Joe asked, a touch of panic in his voice.

“Now we get out of here and find somewhere to hold up,” Clay replied. The truth was he didn’t have a plan; he only knew that he wasn’t prepared to be carted off to jail for something he hadn’t done.

Joe wasn’t so sure. “Once they realize we’re gone, they’ll have the whole town looking for us. They’ll probably shoot us down on sight.”

Clay looked at his brother in exasperation; he could do without the questions at this point in time. “Would you have rather gone to prison?”

“Pa would have come and got us out,” Joe argued. He had always been taught to respect the law and he didn’t want to think what Ben was going to have to say about them knocking a deputy unconscious and breaking out of jail.

“I’m sure he would,” Clay admitted. “But that could take a week or more.”

“A week wouldn’t be too bad,” Joe persisted.

“An awful lot could happen in that week, Joe, especially to a kid like you. Believe me, you don’t want to find out.”

“What do you mean? I can look after myself.”

“Forget it, Joe. Just trust me on this one; prison is one experience you don’t want. Now quit talking and take a look and see what’s happening outside.”

Joe reluctantly dropped the subject and peeped through the barred window to the world outside. “Looks pretty quiet to me,” he said.

“Now if I remember correctly,” Clay pondered, “once we get outside if we go to our right we can be in the back street in seconds. Let’s just hope our luck holds and no one spots us.”

With that, Clay slowly opened the jailhouse door, and when he was pretty sure there was no one around, he motioned for Joe to follow him; the next moment they were out the door, round the corner and into the backstreet.

There was no more time for talk; with their senses on heightened alert, they made their way through the streets, avoiding contact with anyone. They had almost made it to the outskirts of the town when their luck ran out. As they came round the corner, one of the saloon girls, who was late for her shift and taking a short cut in the dirty back streets came rushing round the bend and straight into the arms of Clay.

“Hey, what you doing, creeping up on a gal like that,” she protested, trying to push Clay away from her.

“Mandy?” Clay uttered in surprise.

The girl looked at him for several seconds, before a smile widened across her face. “Clay…..I don’t believe it. Clay Stafford. Where have you been this past couple of years?”

“No time to explain,” Clay cut her off. “Look Mandy, we’re in trouble; we need to get away from here.”

Mandy looked beyond Clay at this point and noticed Joe. “Hey, ain’t you the kid that was in the saloon with Jacque Martinique?”

Joe nodded.

“Look, Clay,” she cried. “I don’t want anything to do with Martinique. That guy is trouble.”

“Yes, we know,” Clay acknowledged. “It’s him and the sheriff we are trying to get away from.”

Mandy looked around her uncomfortably, a touch of fear on her face. “Okay,” she said finally. “For old times sake. Come with me.” With that, she turned back the way she had come and led them through two more streets to her home. Unlocking the door, she walked in and ushered them in behind her.

“Make yourselves at home, gents. No one will think of looking for you here.”

“Thanks, Mandy,” Clay whispered, pulling her into his arms and kissing her gently on the lips.

“You always were a smooth talker,” Mandy chuckled. “Now I have to go to work, otherwise, it will look suspicious. I’ll be back here just after 3, so you fellas lay low and I’ll see you then.”

With that, she was out of the door and gone.

Clay looked at his brother and smiled. “Well Joseph,” he asked “what do you fancy for breakfast? And before you answer, just remember you’ll be cooking it.”

“In that case,” Joe replied, a smile on his own face. “How does coffee and toast grab you?”

“Oh no, little brother, you don’t get off that easily. I have found us salvation and that at least deserves bacon and eggs!”

*****

It was lunchtime when the Cartwrights rode into town, dusty, tired, but most of all hungry.

“Wonder where we’ll get something to eat?” Ben asked, surveying the street in front of him.

“Don’t you worry about that none,” Hoss replied. “My nose will find us the best eating house they got, I guarantee you that.”

“In that case, why don’t you and Will go and order steaks for us all, while Pa and I find out how to get to the Southern Belle?” Adam instructed.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Hoss agreed. “But if you ain’t arrived when I finished eating mine, I might just have to start on yours.”

Hoss and Will soon found somewhere to eat and ordered huge steaks with all the trimmings for them all. The plates had only just been put on the table when Ben and Adam joined them.

“Now ain’t that a sight for sore eyes?” Hoss declared, looking not at his father and brother, but at the juicy steak in front of him.

“Don’t you ever think of anything else?” Adam asked, as he eased himself down into his chair.

“When a man’s hungry, Adam, his belly don’t let him think of anything else.”

Ben smiled at his son’s banter. “Seems there’s a lot of excitement around here today,” he informed Hoss and Will.

“What do you mean?” Will asked. “The place looks pretty quiet to me.”

“We just came from the saloon,” Ben continued. “Apparently there’s been a breakout from the jail this morning. Two men overpowered the deputy, tied him up, took his gun and hightailed it out of there. Just about the whole town are out looking for them.”

“Let’s just hope they catch them,” Adam stated, before tucking into his steak; the way Hoss was making his disappear, he wouldn’t have put it past him to start on his if he didn’t hurry up.

“You find out where this Southern Belle is?” Hoss asked between mouthfuls.

“We found out,” Ben replied. “Apparently Francis De Val is well known in these parts.”

“Soon as I have me another one of those steaks,” Hoss declared, looking at his now empty plate, “we’ll head out and see what Clay and Little Joe been up to.”

“I just hope your little brother has been behaving himself,” Ben added. “Francis De Val doesn’t know what he has let himself in for.”

“You know you might be wrong there, Pa,” Adam smiled

“Why is that?” Ben queried; a look of puzzlement on his face.

Adam chuckled before replying. “Well if Little Joe is as much like his mother as you keep telling us, then I would think his grandfather will know just how to handle little brother, don’t you?”

*****

It was the middle of the afternoon when the Cartwrights’ entered the perimeter of the Southern Belle. They had hardly gone more than a hundred yards when they were surrounded by a number of ranch hands, guns at the ready.

“Who are you and what do you want?”

Ben looked hard at the man asking the question before replying. “I’m Ben Cartwright,” he said tersely, “and I’m here to see Francis De Val.”

The man turned and looked at the other men with him. “Did Mr. De Val say he was expecting visitors?”

All the men shook their heads, and the spokesman turned back to Ben. “Sorry Mister, but my instructions are not to allow anyone on the ranch without an appointment.”

“My sons are staying with Mr. De Val,” Ben explained. “We might not be expected but I’m sure we’ll be welcome.”

The man spat on the ground in front of him and leaned over his horse. “We ain’t got no visitors on the ranch. The two fellas that were staying here left yesterday. So I guess you don’t have business with Mr. De Val after all.”

“What do you mean they left here yesterday?” Adam questioned. “Were they heading home? How come we never passed them on the way here?”

The man shrugged. “I’m not their keeper. Nothing to do me with me where they went, but it is my business what happens on this ranch and I’m asking you to leave.”

Ben and the boys had no alternative but to turn round and head back to town.

“I just don’t get it,” Hoss complained. “If Clay and Joe set off yesterday, there’s no way we wouldn’t have met up with them.”

“Maybe they didn’t head straight home,” Will interjected.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“I think what Will means is the boys might have decided to have some fun before going home Pa.” Adam explained. “How about we head back to town and ask some questions.”

*****

Clay’s stomach didn’t feel right and he was thinking that maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to force Joe into the cooking.

“Something wrong Clay?” Joe asked, feigning innocence.

“You know what’s wrong,” Clay groaned back. “I think you do it on purpose so no one asks you to do it again.”

Joe pretended to look upset. “What do you mean? Don’t you like my cooking?”

“In future, I think I’d rather starve,” Clay replied, rubbing his hand over his aching belly.

“Hey, Clay?”

“What now?” Clay asked, lying down on the sofa in the hope that the sick feeling would pass.

“How come you know Mandy? I thought you hadn’t been to Sacramento before.”

“I didn’t meet her in Sacramento; I met her in San Francisco, oh, it must be about three years ago,” Clay reflected.

“You must have made an impression on her,” Joe conceded. “She’s certainly putting her neck on the line for you.”

Clay smiled. “Let’s just say we were more than good friends for a while.”

“So what happened?”

Clay sighed. “What always happens? The sheriff didn’t like my poker playing and he moved me on.”

“And you haven’t seen her since?” Joe asked, anxious to know all the details.

“No” Clay admitted. “She did want to come with me, but my type of life ain’t fit for a woman.”

At 3pm, Mandy returned as promised and filled the boys in with what was happening.

“The sheriff has everyone riled up,” she said. “The way he’s talking you two are dangerous criminals and are to be shot on sight.”

Joe looked at his brother with fear filled eyes. “What we gonna do, Clay?” We’ve only got one gun, no horses and no way to get word to Pa.”

Clay hadn’t got a solution. “I don’t have an answer, Joe. I just wish we could get word to Grandfather, I’m sure he knows nothing of this.”

“Grandfather? Who’s your grandfather?” Mandy asked, looking from one to the other.

“Francis De Val,” both brothers answered in unison.

“But Francis De Val is Jacque’s uncle? I thought that was who you were running from.”

“That’s right,” Clay explained. “Jacque set us up to be framed for theft of a diamond necklace. I think he will stop at nothing to get us away from Grandfather.”

“In that case, how about I get word to your Grandfather?”

Clay shook his head. “That’ll never work, Mandy. They don’t allow anyone on the Southern Belle unless they are expecting them. You’ll never get past Jacque’s men.”

“Oh I think I just might,” Mandy smiled. “You know, Clay, you might just be a chip off the old block, Francis is quite a ladies man.”

“Well I’ll be,” Clay chortled. “The old dog!”

Joe wasn’t quite so amused. “Y-y-you don’t mean you and Grandfather…..

not like that…..ugh…..he’s an old man.”

Mandy and Clay fell about laughing. “Oh, you have a lot to learn about the ladies,” Clay admonished. “There’s more to life than a pretty face, Joe.”

“I know that,” Joe bristled, “I don’t just go for girls with pretty faces.”

Clay laughed even harder. “I wasn’t referring to the girls, Joe!!!”

*****

The Cartwrights arrived back in town and booked into the Doubletree Hotel. After freshening up and a change of clothes, they headed over to the Sheriff’s office but it was all locked up. Their next port of call was the saloon in the hope of getting some answers.

It was still early and the saloon only had a couple of patrons, both of which were old and not very talkative. Ben tried to quiz the man behind the bar, but he wasn’t any more helpful. “Look mister,” he stated. “I get paid to serve drinks, not give out information. If you want to know anything, why don’t you ask the Sheriff?”

“We’ve already tried the Sheriff,” Hoss informed him. “But the place is all locked up.”

“That’s on account of two prisoners escaping,” the bartender replied, now happy to give them the benefit of his knowledge. “Sheriff Denver and his men are out looking for them; they’re a real dangerous pair by all accounts.”

“So what do we do, Pa?” Adam asked, now ignoring the bartender.

Ben sighed and pushed his hat far back on his head. “Not much we can do tonight, boys, but tomorrow we see the sheriff. If we get no satisfaction with him, there’s no way I’m leaving this town without seeing Francis De Val.”

“In that case, bartender, we’ll have 4 more beers and a deck of cards,” Will demanded. Then looking at the others, he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s been a dry dusty couple of days; we might as well have some fun while we can.”

Ben laughed but the laughter never reached his eyes. He was worried about Joe and Clay. Something wasn’t right; he just couldn’t put his finger on it.

“You boys have fun, but I’ll just have this beer and then head back to the hotel; my old bones need their rest.”

*****

It was Mandy’s night off so she didn’t return to the saloon that evening. Instead she set about cooking the boys a good hearty supper, which certainly made up for the breakfast that Joe had cooked that morning.

Once they had eaten, Clay and Joe helped Mandy clear away; however Joe was oblivious to the veiled messages that were being passed between the other two.

“You know it’s been quite a day, I wouldn’t mind an early night,” Clay remarked as he put away the last of the dishes.

Mandy smirked at his comment and replied, “Yeah, that would certainly suit me. I’ll need to be up early in the morning if I’m to ride out to the Southern Belle.”

Joe looked from one to the other in astonishment. “It’s only 7 o’clock; you can’t be tired.”

Clay raised his eyes to the ceiling and Mandy started to giggle. Then, as Clay and Mandy both headed towards Mandy’s bedroom door, all Joe could utter was ‘Oh’ as he realized what was really going on.

Looking at Joe’s forlorn face, Mandy took pity on him. “You know, Clay, I have a friend, Josie. She’s really cute and not much older than Joe.”

Joe’s face lit up immediately but Clay raised his hand and voice in objection. “No way. For one thing, we can’t risk someone else knowing we are here, and for another, I think Joe will be in enough trouble with Pa without adding to it.”

Joe raised his chin in indignation. “Pa doesn’t need to know.”

Clay laughed. “Nice try, buddy, but even if I was willing to risk Pa finding out, we can’t risk letting someone else know we are here. It isn’t just for our safety but hers as well.”

Joe had to concede that Clay was probably right, but it still didn’t stop him from slumping down onto the sofa in a sulk as the couple left him alone. It was going to be a long night for Joe.

*****

Joe eventually fell asleep with a cushion over his head in an attempt to blot out the sounds of lovemaking from the adjoining room, but his peace was short-lived. By 3am, he was wide awake and unable to settle. He paced the floor, made coffee and paced the floor again. The day and night had been too long for Joe; he didn’t take well to being caged up for extended periods of time and he longed for fresh air.

Donning his jacket and only hesitating for a moment, Joe opened the door to Mandy’s house and very quietly crept outside. It was the middle of the night and Joe reasoned that the streets would be quiet and empty. He didn’t intend to go far; he just wanted to stretch his legs and clear his thoughts.

Joe was right; everywhere was still and he never saw a soul as he wandered through the back streets aimlessly. After about thirty minutes, he decided he had better return to the house in case his brother awoke and found him gone. But the deceptive calmness of the night made Joe careless, and as he turned one corner, he was taken unawares. The arm round his neck was strong and the gun that was pressed into the small of his back left him under no illusion that he could escape.

“Well, well, well, look who I’ve got, Danny?” the man gloated. “Wait till Denver claps eyes on this one.”

Even in the half light, Joe was able to make out two of the men from the posse that had arrested him and Clay in the first place. Removing his arm from around Joe’s neck the man pushed him forward in front of him and ordered, “Move. I don’t think I have to tell you where we’re going.”

Panic began to race through Joe’s brain; this was bad, real bad. They would no doubt want to know where Clay was and he dreaded to think how they would try and extract that information.

*****

“I’ll ask you one more time,” Sheriff Denver began. “Where is your brother?”

Joe looked at the man before him with pain-filled eyes. He didn’t think he could take much more; on the other hand, what choice did he have? Joe would never give his brother away, even if it cost him his life. Only about thirty minutes had passed since Joe was captured but already it felt like a lifetime.

There were five men in the small cell besides Joe and the tension mounted with each passing second.

Denver was fast losing patience, and when Joe once again failed to give him the answer he wanted, he let his fists do the talking. Two men stood at either side of Joe, as much to hold him up as restrain him, but as Denver’s blows reigned down on Joe’s helpless body, the two men gave up on the fight to keep him standing and allowed him to slump to the floor.

Denver was angry with himself because of the position he now found himself in; angry with his deputy for allowing the brothers to escape, but mostly angry with Joe for not telling him what he wanted to know. Giving vent to his frustration, Denver kicked out again and again at the boy at his feet and only stopped when one of his men stepped forward and put himself between the Sheriff and Joe.

“Come on, Bob” the man cajoled. “The kid’s out of it; he can’t tell you anything now.”

The red mist cleared and Bob Denver looked down at Joe’s blood-stained face. Taking a deep breath and running his hand over his bald head, he gestured to the men. “Get him cleaned up, I’m not finished with him yet.”

Denver took time out to have a coffee and think about his next move. He just had to find the other prisoner and soon. The quicker both brothers were shipped off to prison and out of his town, the better. Only then, if their father came looking for them, could he say he had done his duty and as far as he was concerned, the matter was closed.

“Is he conscious?” Denver asked as his deputy came to join him for a coffee.

“Yes, but only just,” the man replied. “A couple of punches and he’ll just black out again. This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Denver thought for a minute, before standing up and removing his belt.

“What’s that for?” the deputy asked.

“I just figured if I work on his hide instead of his face, we might just get somewhere,” Denver replied with a grin. “He ain’t likely to pass out from having his ass whipped, but he’ll feel it just the same.”

The deputy shrugged his shoulders and followed Denver back to the cell where Joe was waiting with the other three men.

Joe was sitting on the bed when the men entered. His face had been cleaned, but already the swelling round his eyes was beginning to discolor and his lips were swollen and red. Joe tried not to show it, but fear shone from his eyes and he visibly flinched as Denver approached with the belt in his hand.

Denver reached out and stroked Joe’s cheek in a teasing way. “Not such a pretty boy now, are we?” he mocked. “Now, son, why don’t we do this the easy way? You tell me where your brother is and we all get some sleep.”

Joe averted his eyes away from Denver’s face and sucked his painful lips between his teeth; no matter what, he wasn’t saying anything.

“Okay if that’s the way you want it, but you know whatever happens, I’ll find him and all of this will have been for nothing. Bend him over, boys.”

Two of the men pulled Joe into a standing position and roughly turned him round and forced him face forward over the bed.

Raising his hand high in the air Denver brought his belt down on Joe’s hide over and over again. At first Joe gave no sign of how painful the beating was, but before long he couldn’t help but yell out as the belt made contact with his inflamed and tender flesh. The yells turned to screams of agony but still Denver continued.

When he was sure that Joe couldn’t take anymore, Denver finally stopped and turned Joe over so he could look him in the face. The movement caused Joe to hold his breath in anguish; his flesh was on fire.

Denver bent forward so that his face was only inches away from Joe’s. “Are you ready to talk?” Denver growled menacingly.

With great effort, Joe got his emotions under control and looking Denver squarely in the eye he muttered “Go to hell” before the blackness welcomed him once again into oblivion.

*****

Clay awoke early that morning and decided he would surprise Mandy by making breakfast. Sliding quietly from the bed, he pulled on his pants and crept silently from the room.

Fumbling his way to the stove in the semi-darkness, it was several moments before Clay realized that his young brother was not asleep on the couch where he had left him. Cursing under his breath, Clay opened the door to the house and stepped outside. The street was empty and there was no sign of the bustle and noise that would permeate the area within the couple of hours. Frantic with worry, Clay ventured further afield than was probably safe, hoping to pick up a sign of where his brother had gone. His bare feet did not fair too well on the rough earth, but Clay was unaware of the pain as his thoughts raced ahead.

With a sense of dread looming over him, Clay retraced his steps and went back inside the house and rushed into the bedroom to wake Mandy. All thoughts of breakfast were forgotten as Clay blurted out his worries.

“Where do you suppose he went?” Mandy asked sleepily, still not awake enough to register the seriousness of the situation.

“The fool kid can’t stay still for two minutes,” Clay replied. “You can bet Denver and his men have got him by now.”

“You don’t know that, Clay,” Mandy tried to reassure. “He’ll probably walk back in the door any minute.”

Clay shook his head. “Somehow I don’t think so. He’s not stupid enough to go out just before dawn, so my guess is he went out in the early hours, thinking he was safe. The fact he isn’t back tells me they’ve got him.”

By now, Clay was fully dressed and pulling on his boots, flinching as he became aware of the damage to the soles of his feet. Mandy worried as to his intentions. “Where are you going, Clay? There’s nothing you can do?”

“Have you thought what they will do to him to find me?” Clay retorted. “And I know Joe; no matter what they do, he’ll never tell them. I can’t leave him to face them on his own; he’s just a kid, after all.”

Mandy placed a restraining hand on Clay’s arm. “Giving yourself up won’t do any good, Clay; in fact, you’ll probably make things worse. Just wait a couple of hours. I’ll get dressed straight away and ride out to the Southern Belle. I’ll bring Francis back with me and we’ll get this sorted out once and for all.”

Clay hesitated.

“Please Clay, let me do this first. I just can’t see how giving yourself up is going to help matters. If this doesn’t work, you need to be free to try and get help from the Cartwrights.”

Doing nothing didn’t sit easy with Clay, but he understood the reasoning of her argument. If Mandy didn’t return with his grandfather, he would have to think of a way to pass word to the Ponderosa and get help and he couldn’t do that from inside a cell. “All right,” he conceded. “I’ll wait here. But if you’re not back by lunchtime, I’ll have no choice but to try and do something else.”

Mandy kissed him swiftly on the cheek, “Don’t worry; no matter what, I’ll bring Francis De Val back to town with me,” she promised.

*****

Less than one hour later Mandy had rented a buckboard and was approaching the Southern Belle. Several ranch hands rode out to meet her but, unlike when the Cartwrights had arrived, the men were friendly and courteous to their female visitor. Mandy’s impromptu visits were the norm and they saw no reason to question the validity of her visit.

“Bit early in the morning for you, isn’t it, Mandy?”

Mandy smiled sweetly at the man. “I’m working at the saloon this afternoon, Mattie; I can’t afford to lose a shift.”

“Oh I’m sure Mr. De Val would make it worth your while,” Mattie replied with a cheeky wink and a tip of his hat before he left her to ride off in the other direction, the other men following.

Jacque Martinique was just leaving the yard on his horse when Mandy approached. His uncle had not said the girl was expected, but Martinique wasn’t privy to all the old man’s business and he didn’t give it much thought.

Mandy and Jacque had never been friends; she had always thought him arrogant and unapproachable and he thought of her as common and a gold digger. They gave each other nothing more than a cursory nod as they passed and Mandy breathed a sigh of relief when Jacque rode off.

Francis De Val was delighted to see her and ushered her into the house. Kissing her lightly on each cheek, he noticed the anxious expression on her face and held her at arms length to look at her.

“Mandy my dear, what is wrong? Don’t you have a smile for me?”

With those words, Mandy poured out the whole sorry story and didn’t finish until Francis understood how serious the situation was.

“I can’t believe he would do that,” Francis said in almost a whisper. “They are his cousins, his own flesh and blood. I always thought I had taught him better.”

“I don’t suppose he sees them as cousins,” Mandy surmised. “They are just strangers to him.”

Francis looked at Mandy and shook his head. “Clay and Joe were strangers until a few months ago, but when it boils down to it, blood is thicker than water. Something that Jacque fails to understand.”

“He obviously doesn’t think about Clay and Joe that way,” Mandy argued.

Francis became angry. “It is not something he should need to think about; he should feel it in his heart.”

Mandy didn’t know what to say; she needed Francis to act and act quickly. Looking at her forlorn face, Francis was contrite for his outburst. “I’m sorry, my dear,” he apologized. “My temper has always been too quick. Let me dress and we will go to town and sort out this mess before it goes any further.”

*****

Breakfast in the hotel was a somber affair and Ben was not amused.

“I can’t believe that all of you are hung over,” he growled at the three young men sitting opposite him.

“I ain’t hung over, Pa,” Hoss contradicted, as he stuffed a fork full of pancakes into his mouth. “It weren’t me that was drinking whisky.”

Adam glared at his younger sibling but didn’t contradict him. He hadn’t intended to drink so much the night before, but the poker game had gone on a lot longer than he expected. Why he had kept pace drink for drink with Will was a mystery to him, but somehow his cousin seemed to bring out a competitive streak in him that he didn’t normally feel.

Ben was about to give them the benefit of his opinion when a disheveled man wearing a deputy’s badge walked over and sat at the table next to them.

“How’s it going, Walter?” the waiter asked. “Can I get you a coffee?”

“Thanks Bert,” the deputy called back. “It’s been a long night.”

“Did you get those escaped prisoners?” Bert queried. There hadn’t been much excitement lately and the story of the escaped prisoners had been the talk of the town.

“Funny you should mention that,” Walter shouted back, making sure everyone in the vicinity could hear. “I caught one of them in the early hours of this morning.”

“No kidding,” Bert was now all ears.

“Yeah, it was the young’un,” Walter boasted getting into full swing. “Right tough kid he is too. Still hasn’t told us where his brother is, but it’s only a matter of time, he can’t hold out forever.”

All conversation stopped at the Cartwright table and the four men looked at each other, not wanting to put into words what each of them was thinking. Finally Ben threw his napkin onto the table and standing he declared, “I think it’s time we paid a visit to the Sheriff’s office.”

*****

“What do you mean I can’t see my son?” Ben shouted, banging his fist down on the desk so hard that the Sheriff’s coffee cup spilled its contents everywhere.

“Your son’s a prisoner here, Mr. Cartwright, tried and convicted for theft,” the sheriff shouted back at him. “Added to that he attacked one of my deputies and escaped. Now as far as I’m concerned, he ain’t seeing anyone until he tells me where his brother is.”

“Adam,” Ben snapped at his eldest. “I want a lawyer here as soon as you can get one, but I’m not moving from this office until I see Joseph.”

The sheriff wiped a hand over his sweating brow; this was the one thing he could do without, getting on the wrong side of Ben Cartwright. The Cartwrights’ had the reputation of being tough, and if he’d known the kid in his cell was a Cartwright right off, he would never have got involved.

Denver was just about to insist that Ben leave his jail, when the door opened and Francis De Val, Clay and Mandy stepped inside.

Two of the deputies stepped forward and grabbed hold of Clay’s arms. Will and Hoss stepped forward to protect him and Ben and the Sheriff both started shouting at once.

Francis De Val stood to one side and surveyed the scene in front of him. Raising his own voice just enough to get everyone’s attention, he called for some sort of order.

Everyone in the room turned to face him and once he had their interest he demanded of the sheriff. “Perhaps you will now explain why you arrested my grandsons?”

Sheriff Denver tried to defend his actions. “It was reported to me that a diamond necklace had been stolen. It was found in their possession and they were arrested, tried and convicted.”

Clay pushed his way forward. “That necklace was planted on us and you know it.”

The sheriff retaliated immediately. “I know nothing of the sort. You were tried fair and square.”

Francis again raised his voice and demanded silence. “This diamond necklace, where is it now?”

Licking his lips and considering his reply, the Sheriff could not look at De Val when he replied. “The necklace was returned to its owner.”

“And who might that be?” Francis asked, although he knew the answer.

“Jacque Martinique,” Denver replied.

Francis De Val’s voice took on a threatening tone when he stated, “The necklace did not belong to my nephew and it was never his to have. The necklace belonged to me and I say it was never stolen.”

“B-but we found it on the boy,” the Sheriff insisted.

“I gave it to him,” Francis stated. It was an untruth but it was easier than trying to prove that Jacque had deliberately tried to frame his cousins.

Sheriff Denver knew he was beaten but he wouldn’t give up without a fight. “There is still the matter of attacking one of my men and escaping,” he persisted.

“Do you really want me to pursue that?” Francis questioned his voice so low it could hardly be heard.

Sheriff Denver remained quiet. He didn’t want his part in all of this to be known; otherwise, it might be him behind bars.

“Now take me to my grandson.”

With shaking hands, the Sheriff picked up the keys and led the men through to the cells.

Joe was curled up on a bunk moaning softly. His arms were wrapped round his head and his knees were tucked into his chest. He had heard the door opening and a sense of dread came over him. What were they going to do to him now?

Sheriff Denver unlocked the cell door and stood back to allow the others to enter.

Ben was the first person to cross the short space between the door and the bunk and he reached out for his youngest son. The light pressure of a hand on Joe’s back made him yelp in pain and he pushed himself further back into the bed.

“Joe,” Ben said softly, kneeling down beside him.

Joe could hardly believe his ears. Removing his hands from his head, he slowly peaked out from behind hooded lids at the men assembled. “Pa?” he whispered, not sure if he could believe his eyes.

“My God,” Ben exclaimed, as he noted the bloodied and bruised face. “Hoss, get a doctor.”

“N-n-no, no, please Pa, no doctor. At least not here.”

“All right, son,” Ben appeased. “Let’s get you back to the hotel first.”

Hoss and Adam went to help Joe stand, but again Joe flinched away from them. “Don’t,” he almost shouted. “I’ll get up myself.”

Joe’s back and buttocks were on fire, and it was with great pain that he pushed himself up from the bunk and into a standing position. Walking was almost too much for him, but the helping hands that came to his aid only added to his discomfort. “Please,” he begged. “I would rather no one touched me; believe me, it feels better that way.”

With his family hovering around him, Joe slowly walked from the jailhouse and over to the hotel.

As they were leaving, Francis grabbed the Sheriff by the arm and hissed, “You will pay for this, all of you; that I promise.”

*****

By the time Joe had slowly made his way painstakingly to the hotel and up the stairs to his father’s room, the doctor had been sent for and arrived.

Ben tried to get Joe to lie on the bed but Joe insisted he wanted to stand.

“Where does it hurt most?” the doctor asked, in an attempt to glean knowledge of his patient’s injuries.

Joe’s face flushed scarlet. “My butt,” he replied with embarrassment.

“Well, the best thing is for you is to get out of those clothes,” the doctor declared, looking at the blood stained, dirty clothes Joe was still wearing. “Maybe then I can see what I have to work with.”

Joe looked round at his family and whined, “I don’t need an audience; I’m sure the doctor and I will get on fine on our own.”

Ben smiled at his youngest’s discomfort, but ushered everyone from the room. Joe was about to declare he didn’t need his Pa either, but Ben chose to ignore his wishes.

“The doctor hasn’t got all day, Joseph; things will be a lot easier if I help.”

Joe didn’t have the strength to put up an argument and, quite frankly, he doubted whether he could remove his clothes without help.

With gentle hands borne of long experience, Ben removed Joe’s shirt. He sucked in his breath at the sight of Joe’s bruised torso and tried hard to stop his temper rising when he witnessed the red welts on his son’s back.

Removing Joe’s pants and boots took longer. Joe found it hard to balance on one leg and had to rest his hands on his Pa’s back to stop himself falling over. His lower body was so inflamed he could hardly bend his knees and he found himself crying out in pain as his boots were pulled from his feet.

Once naked, Ben gently encouraged Joe to turn round so that the doctor could examine his back and buttocks.

“I think it would be easier if you lie face down on the bed,” the doctor encouraged.

Joe stumbled over to the bed and with a low moan gratefully eased himself into a lying position.

The doctor didn’t need to ask how Joe had sustained his injuries; it was obvious. His backside had taken the brunt of the punishment and the flesh was bruised and swollen, making it almost impossible for the doctor to touch him without inflicting more pain.

As best he could, under the circumstances, the doctor gave Joe a thorough examination from top to toe. The facial injuries were superficial and would heal the quickest. His ribs were sore but not broken and didn’t need to be strapped. As for his bruised and inflamed back and buttocks, there wasn’t really anything to be done.

Shaking his head the doctor turned to Ben. “There’s not a lot I can do,” he declared. “I have some salve that will help to heal the flesh, but other than that, I suggest he stays in bed and allows nature to take its course.”

“I don’t plan on going anywhere soon,” Joe stated with conviction.

“What about something for the pain?” Ben asked. “I don’t think he’ll get much rest otherwise.”

“Don’t worry,” the doctor replied, taking several packets of powder from his bag. “Just mix one of these in a glass of water and he’ll sleep like a baby. I’ll call back tomorrow to see how he’s doing.”

“Thanks, Doctor,” Ben said as he showed the doctor out of the door.

As the doctor left, the rest of the family piled into the room and walked over to the bed to inspect Joe’s injuries.

“Ooohweee, that looks mighty painful,” Hoss winced, as he bent forward and lightly touched Joe’s backside.

“Ouch,” Joe screamed, more with indignation than anything else. “Pa, get them out of here!”

“Hold on a minute little brother,” Adam joined in. “We only want to help.” Then picking up the jar of salve next to the bed, he opened the lid and asked. “You want me to rub this on your hide for you. You know it will be like old times; I used to change your diapers.”

“PA!” Joe shrieked once more.

“All right, boys, that’s enough,” Ben warned. “Out of here, all of you, Joe needs his rest.”

Clay bent forward and ruffled Joe’s hair, “See you later, buddy,” he promised. “Try and get some sleep.”

Joe smiled back at his brothers and cousin’s smiling faces. “Yeah, see you a lot later. Maybe you could bring me up a beer or something. Don’t think I’ll be up to coming downstairs.”

Once they were alone once more, Ben began the painful task of smoothing the cool salve all over Joe’s inflamed flesh. Joe buried his head in the pillow until the task was done, but the sweat still dripped from his brow and he couldn’t fail to hide the pain in his eyes.

“All done,” Ben declared thankfully. “Now here drink this.”

Ben handed Joe one of the powders the doctor had left and then sat with him until it worked its magic. Once Joe was sleeping peacefully, Ben took the opportunity to ease down the bedclothes from under his son and then gently pull a sheet over his naked body.

About an hour later there was a knock at the bedroom door. Ben was a little surprised to find Francis De Val stood before him; he had not had time to give the gent a second thought since finding Joe.

“May I come in?” Francis asked quietly. “I would like to know how the boy is fairing.”

“Yes of course,” Ben replied, moving to one side to allow access.

Francis walked over to the bed and stood for a few moments gazing down on his grandson. Then he lifted the sheet slightly to inspect Joe’s injuries, flinching as he witnessed for himself the beaten flesh. Turning back to Ben, he declared, “They will pay for what they have done.”

“I will make sure of it,” Ben confirmed. “He’s my son.”

“And my grandson,” Francis said quietly.

The two men looked hard at each other, neither willing to concede by dropping his eyes first.

Finally Francis coughed slightly and pleaded. “I don’t want to make an enemy of you, Mr. Cartwright; I only have Joe’s best interests at heart.”

“Then maybe you had better explain to me what has been happening here?” Ben warned. “Because from what I have heard so far, you are mixed up in all of this.”

Francis nodded his head. “Yes I am, but I will tell you my story from the beginning and you must tell me yours. Then we will have a better understanding of each other. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Ben said warmly, unable to keep up the hard countenance. This man was Marie’s father after all – his father-in-law and Joe and Clay’s grandfather.

*****

Ben and Francis talked long into the night. Francis regaled stories to Ben of Marie’s childhood and the idyllic existence they had had at that time.

“What changed?” Ben asked, curious to know how Francis had ended up in prison.

“Marie’s mother died,” Francis said simply. “Marie was twelve years old at the time. When her mother died, I was inconsolable, I loved Marie with all my heart, but the loss of her mother caused something to die in my heart and I felt as if I couldn’t go on. I sent Marie to a convent school and I took to drinking, and…..well, other things.”

Ben nodded in understanding. “That’s how I felt when Marie died. I look back at that time and thank God I had Adam to hold things together; he wasn’t much more than boy, about Joe’s age now, but without him I doubt our family would have survived.”

“You are a lucky man, Ben Cartwright,” Francis acknowledged. “I didn’t have a son like Adam, and unfortunately my family didn’t survive. The drinking and gambling got worse over the years, and with my wife gone, I developed quite an eye for the ladies. Well, one of the ladies I was involved with turned out to be married; her husband found out and challenged me to a duel. It would probably have been better if I had died at the time, but I didn’t and he did. He had a very influential family and I was charged and convicted of murder.”

“Marie knew nothing of this?” Ben stated.

“No, she didn’t. And that is the way I wanted it. Can you imagine the shame for a young girl to know what her father had become? I thought it better if she believed me dead.”

“So how did you get to be living in Sacramento?”

“Now that is a long story,” Francis smiled. “But let’s just say that I had some influential friends of my own. They eventually proved that it was not murder, but in fact a duel. I was released from prison and came to join my sister here on her ranch. Her husband had died; her boy was still not big enough to run things and she didn’t have the money to keep things going. I had the money and nowhere else to go. I believed my Marie to be dead. What else was there for me?”

Now that his story was finished, Francis was anxious to hear about Marie. How had she lived from leaving school and marrying Clay’s father? When had she met and married Ben and, sadly, how she had died? He needed to hear it all, good and bad.

Ben did his best to fill in the gaps but some things he found best left unsaid. He didn’t see the point of tarnishing Marie’s good name by regaling how she managed to keep a roof over her head after Clay’s father left. Ben loved and respected her memory too much for that.

At the end of a long night, the two men had a mutual respect and fondness for each other. Their joint love for a beautiful young girl united them and a fierce protection for that same girl’s sons would bind them together forever.

“Well Ben,” Francis declared. “I think it’s time my old bones had some rest and I’m thinking you could do with some yourself.”

Ben looked anxiously at the boy still sleeping soundly in the bed, “You go to bed, Francis, but don’t worry about me; I’ll just nap here in the chair. I’ll be fine.”

Francis smiled. He wasn’t about to argue with this lion protecting his cub; he knew better than that “Goodnight then Ben, I’ll see you in the morning.”

*****

Joe slept most of the next few days as his body concentrated on healing. When he was awake, his family tried to get as much food into him as possible and then gave him another powder to help him rest.

On the third morning, Joe awoke to find the hotel room empty. Daylight was shining through the window and, although his body still ached, it didn’t feel on fire as it had done previously. Easing himself into a sitting position, Joe sucked in his breath and prepared to stand. It wasn’t as bad as he thought it was going to be and that made his mind up. He was going to dress and go for breakfast.

It was painstakingly slow going, but Joe eventually managed to put on the clean clothes his father had left out in preparation for this day. Ben just hadn’t imagined it coming this early.

Making his way downstairs wasn’t quite so easy; Joe gritted his teeth together so tightly that his jaw ached, but there was no way he was going to spend another day lying prostrate on the bed.

Several of the patrons in the hotel stared unashamedly at the young man’s battered and bruised face as he passed them by, but Joe ignored their rude stares. His stomach rumbled and he tried to use Hoss’ usual method of finding out where the food was being served. He smelled the air. His nose wasn’t quite so attuned as his brother’s and eventually someone tapped him on the shoulder and pointed towards a door off to his right. “I think you’ll find them serving breakfast in there,” the stranger volunteered.

“Oh thanks,” Joe replied gratefully and gingerly headed towards the now open door.

As Joe entered the room, he smiled as he saw his whole family gathered round a large table tucking into breakfast. “Hey, any room there for a hungry man?” he called as he walked towards them.

Everyone turned to face him but it was Hoss that was first on his feet. “No room for a man, but I’m sure we could squeeze a little fella like you in,” Hoss cajoled, pushing his own chair to one side and inserting a chair from another table into the gap.

“How you feeling?” Adam asked; the concern showing in his eyes if not his voice.

“Fine,” Joe replied not too convincingly, giving his eldest brother a knowing wink as he added. “Just thought I better get down here and eat while there is still some food left.”

Ben suppressed his natural urge to fuss over his youngest and they all spent a pleasant hour eating. But then they needed to get down to business and discuss how they were going to transport Joe home.

“Don’t worry about me, I can ride,” Joe declared, but they ignored the comment completely. It was obvious that Joe would not be sitting a horse for some weeks to come.

“We could always rig up a buckboard,” Will volunteered. “Lay a couple of mattresses in the back and take it easy. Can’t say it will be the most comfortable, but I think it’s our best alternative.”

“I can ride,” Joe chirped in, only to be ignored yet again.

“We may have to take a slightly different route,” Ben added. “It may be longer, but it will probably be the easiest on Joe.”

“I can ride,” Joe declared, this time more forcibly.

All conversation stopped and they glared at Joe, making him go red in the face and squirm uncomfortably in his seat.

“Joseph,” Ben said quietly. “I suggest you sit there quietly and let us do the planning. Come to think about it, if I drive the buckboard, it will give you and I plenty of time to discuss your little disappearing act just over a week ago and also time to reinforce some basic rules of obedience that you seem to have forgotten lately.”

Joe groaned audibly and Ben couldn’t help adding. “Don’t know whether three days will be long enough to get the message over, but it’s a father’s duty to try.”

*****

Much had happened in the few days that Joe had been convalescing. Ben had sent word to Sheriff Coffee, who in turn had contacted the necessary authorities, who then made arrangements for a US Marshall to go to Sacramento to take charge. The Sheriff had been relieved of his duties and faced charges with regards to perverting the course of justice.

Jacque, when confronted by his uncle, had come clean about his involvement in the whole affair. He had admitted to the jealousy he felt towards his cousins and how he worried they would come between him and his uncle and lay claim to the fortune he believed to be rightly his.

Although Francis was angry with his nephew and insisted that he would still need to be made accountable for his actions, he didn’t have it in his heart to disown him.

When it came to say goodbye, Francis rode into town to meet with his grandsons.

Standing outside the hotel, he shook hands with Ben and his sons, but when it came to Joseph, he clasped him to his breast as he would a small child. With tears in his eyes, he said huskily, “Mind your father Joseph. Come back and see me soon.” Then looking over at Ben, he added, “But ask your father’s permission first, or you’ll have me to answer to.”

“Yes sir,” Joe agreed, his own eyes swimming with tears as he said his goodbye to the old man he had come to love in such a short time.

“And now, where is my other grandson?” Francis asked, looking around for a sign of Clay.

“He’s just saying his own goodbye to a young lady,” Joe informed him mischievously. “You know what they say about being a chip off the old block.”

Francis gave his grandson a stern look, “I’ll have none of your cheek, young man. Now, do you need a swat to get into that buckboard?”

“No sir,” Joe exclaimed in horror at the idea of anything quite so hard making contact with his still tender hide.

Just then Clay came rushing round the corner and towards them, a satisfied grin on his face. “Sorry everyone,” he apologized. “Didn’t realize I would be so long.”

“Never mind, you are here now,” Francis chided, before drawing him to him in a hug similar to that of Joe.

They were just about to take their leave when Ben turned to Francis and asked, “What of Jacque?”

Francis shook his head sadly, “He will need to take the punishment for what he has done, but he knows he has done wrong and I’m sure he has learned his lesson.”

“You forgive him, after all that’s happened?” Adam asked incredulously.

Francis smiled at the young man before him. He could see why Ben spoke so highly of his eldest son; he was obviously a man of great principle and Jacque only wished that his nephew had turned out half the man he was.

“Adam, I can understand how you feel; your natural urge is to protect your family and that I applaud. But you also have to remember that Jacque, for twenty years or more, has been like a son to me and as I’m sure you know better than anyone, blood is thicker than water.”

***The End***

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