Where There’s Life, There’s Hope (by Territell)

Summary:  When best friends conspire to knowingly disobey their fathers, two families worry when a wolf and rustlers are mixed into the fray.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  24,720


 

Joe couldn’t take his eyes off her; she was beautiful and he found himself mesmerized. Although he had known her for more than half his life, it was only in recent months he had become aware of her many obvious attractions. Her eyes seemed to sparkle every time she spoke to him and her skin was as clear and fresh as early morning dew. As for the rest of her, well, he found himself getting hot under the collar just thinking about it. Many was the night he lay awake, tossing and turning, unable to get her out of his mind.

“Little Joe….erm….Joe, would you like another piece of pie?”

The sweetness of her voice was not lost on Joe and he smiled in her direction dreamily, but he couldn’t get his brain to function or his tongue to move in his mouth to give an answer. He licked his dry lips and tried to recall what this vision of loveliness had asked him, but his mind was a complete blank.

An elbow in the ribs from the small child sitting next to him soon brought Joe back to the present and he scowled at the grinning girl beside him as he rubbed the aching spot on his side.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wilkinson. Did you say something?”

“I was only asking if you would like another piece of pie,” Molly Wilkinson repeated, unable to keep an amused smile from forming on her lips.

“Oh…er…no, no thanks, Mrs. Wilkinson, I’m full to bursting. If you keep feeding me up like this, I’ll end up bigger than my brother Hoss.”

“In that case, why don’t you and Bobby head outside and finish the barn chores while I clear the dishes?”

“Come on, Joe,” Bobby called, rising from the table. “Once we feed the horses, I’ll show you my new rifle.”

A restraining hand was quickly placed on Bobby’s shoulder. “You just be careful, young man. Show Joe the rifle by all means, but that’s as far as it goes. I don’t want you loading it where the girls are playing. We don’t want any accidents,” advised Mr. Wilkinson.

Bobby looked at Joe and raised his eyes upwards in frustration at his father’s caution, but his reply was still respectful. “Sure, Pa; I just want Joe to have a look at it that’s all.”

As the boys left the house, Matt Wilkinson reached over and tugged gently on his twin daughters’ pigtails. “Go on, scamps; I’m sure you would just love to keep watch on those boys and make sure they don’t get into any mischief.”

The identical little girls started to giggle in unison as they slid from their chairs and followed Bobby and his friend out of the door.

Once they were alone Matt Wilkinson turned his attention to his pretty wife. “Speaking of mischief,” he admonished. “You are a vixen! I’m beginning to think you enjoy leading the Cartwright boy on.”

Molly’s mouth fell open in shock. “I don’t know what you mean, Matt Wilkinson. Joe Cartwright is nothing more than a child.”

“Don’t play the innocent with me, young lady,” he reprimanded. “That boy can’t take his eyes off you and you know it. Lord knows what his family must be thinking; he spends more time here than he does at home.”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about; Joe Cartwright has been coming here to visit with Bobby since they were small boys,” Molly protested.

Matt laughed as he pulled his wife onto his lap and planted a wet kiss on her gorgeous pouting mouth. “God, you are beautiful,” he sighed, before running his hands over her slim but curvaceous body. “A hard life and three kids has done nothing to ruin your looks. You look as lovely now………no even lovelier…….. than you did when I first met you.”

Molly started to chuckle. “I wish! I was seventeen when we met and that was sixteen years ago. And now you have the nerve to accuse me of trying to seduce a fourteen-year-old boy.”

Wrapping his large muscular arms tightly round her waist, Matt shook his head. “No, I didn’t say you were trying to seduce him; I said you were leading him on. Not that I can blame him, or you, of course, I can understand how you might feel flattered. I think most young fellows at that age lust for the experience of an older woman.”

Molly tried to pry his arms away. “I sincerely hope not,” she cried. “If I thought Bobby’s mind was going in that direction, I would dust his pants for him good and proper.”

“Oh, so it’s all right for his friends to lust after older women but not your precious baby,” he teased, before planting another kiss on her lips and allowing his hands to roam freely.

Just at that moment, the door opened and Bobby burst into the room followed by Little Joe. Completely ignoring his parent’s apparent intimacy, he asked. “Hey Pa, would you mind if Joe and me did some target practice? We’ll be real careful and go out to the clearing away from the twins,” he added before his father could refuse.

Molly pushed her husband’s hands away from her waist before standing and straightened her clothes. Matt smiled at his exuberant young son, and with a ruffle of the boy’s blonde locks, he conceded. “I’ll come with you; I want to see if you’re as good a shot as you say you are.” Then with a wink in his wife’s direction, he added. “But only for a short while; your mother and I have plans.”

The only person in the room that felt in the least bit uncomfortable with the scene was Little Joe. Having been raised in a house full of men, he was completely unfamiliar with such shows of affection and the obvious sexual undertones were playing havoc with his already overactive hormones.

“I-I-If you don’t mind, Bobby, I think I better be heading home,” Joe blurted out. His face was flushed and he couldn’t look anyone in the eye. “Pa said not to be late as I still haven’t done my homework and it has to be handed in tomorrow.”

“You can copy mine if you like,” Bobby volunteered without thinking. “I’ll meet you in the morning before school.”

Matt Wilkinson grabbed his young son by the back of the neck, and twisting him round to face him, he scolded. “There will be no copying young man. If Joe has homework to do, he better get off home and finish it.”

A relieved Joe said his goodbyes and quickly exited the house. Wiping the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his jacket, he made his way over to where his horse was tethered.

Seconds later, two small figures appeared at his side as he was about to swing mount. One little seven-year-old pushed the other one forward and whispered, “You ask him.”

Pushing her sister back, the first child sniped, “No, you ask him.”

“Ask me what?” Joe queried, looking from one expectant face to the other.

“Have you got a girlfriend?” they giggled shyly, both speaking at once.

Joe smiled; this he could handle. “Why? Do you have someone in mind?”

“Can we be your girlfriend?” Jenny asked hopefully, grabbing hold of her sister’s hand.

“What both of you?” Joe asked, pretending to be shocked, but secretly amused at the turn of events.

“We share everything,” Josie declared, her big blue eyes full of anticipation.

“Tell you what, girls,” Joe informed them, bending down slightly and giving them his full attention. “How about I think about it for a couple of days and then we’ll talk about it again? It’s a pretty serious business for a fella, having a girlfriend, and I don’t want to rush into things.”

Two blonde heads nodded together, and then turning as one, they headed back to the house, calling out as they went. “Hey Mama, Little Joe’s gonna be our boyfriend.”

Joe smiled to himself as he vaulted on his horse and took off for home. The Wilkinson twins had been following him round since they were not much more than toddlers and he generally paid no heed to their adoration. But this time it left him with heat on his cheeks and a warm satisfying glow.

*****

It was almost supper time when Joe rode up to his home and dismounted. As he entered the barn, Adam turned to his middle brother and teased, “Hey Hoss, would you believe the prodigal son has returned.”

Hoss feigned amazement and shouted out at the top of his voice, “Hey Hop Sing, start cooking the fatted calf; the youngest son has finally come home.” With a wide grin, he winked at Adam before adding, “We better get it eaten quick before he takes off again.” One look at Joe’s face and he doubled over with laughter at his own joke.

“Very funny, guys,” Joe scowled. “I haven’t been gone that long.”

“Seems to me, you are never here these days, little brother,” Adam stated. “What is the attraction over at the Wilkinson house anyway? Could it be they have a pretty lady visiting them that we don’t know about?”

Joe’s coloring heightened immediately and Adam knew at once that his comment had hit near the mark, but he was pretty sure the Wilkinson’s didn’t have any visitors. It was several moments before the penny dropped. “Not Mrs. Wilkinson!” Adam thought to himself. But then again was that so strange? Adam himself remembered being attracted to several older women at Joe’s age. Not that the said women knew anything about it, or if they did, they had the good grace not to let on.

“Just as well you’re not late for supper again,” Adam admonished as he walked out of the barn and towards the house. “Don’t think Pa would tolerate it two nights in a row.”

As the front door opened, Ben Cartwright looked up from the papers he was reading and glanced in the direction of his eldest son. “Was that Joe I heard riding in?”

“Yes Pa,” Adam called back as he took off his gun belt and laid it on the credenza.

“Glad to see he’s early for once,” Ben declared. “Just what is it he finds so interesting about the Wilkinson place all of a sudden?”

“I’m beginning to think it is more of a ‘who’ than ‘what’ Pa,” Adam replied with a knowing smirk.

Ben was intrigued and stepped out from behind his desk. “What do you mean by that?”

“Well I could be wrong, but I think Little Joe might have a crush on Mrs. Wilkinson.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Adam. Mrs. Wilkinson is old enough to be his mother,” Ben retorted, dismissing Adam’s theory immediately.

“You have to admit she’s a fine looking woman, Pa, and to Joe, the unobtainable is a lot more alluring than facing rejection by girls his own age.”

Ben was going to dismiss Adam’s supposition once more — the whole idea was preposterous — but even before the words could leave his mouth, little tell-tale signs came to mind. Joe had been taking an awful lot of time over his appearance lately, which was a relatively new phenomenon, considering only a few weeks ago Ben had needed to check behind his ears before he left the house.

“You could be right, I suppose,” Ben mused. “I better have a word with him. I wouldn’t want him to do or say anything inappropriate.”

“Aw Pa, surely you’re not that old you’ve forgotten what it feels like to be 14. I’m sure Joe would die if he thought Mrs. Wilkinson even suspected what was going on inside his head.” Adam then started to laugh. “Heck Pa, he would die if he thought you even suspected what was going on inside his head.”

Ben looked uncomfortable. “I don’t even want to think about it. Little Joe seems so young still.” Then with a heavy sigh he had to admit, “I guess I forget he’s not a little boy anymore.”

“It’s all part of the growing process, Pa,” Adam advised. “Don’t you remember Mrs. Carlton who opened the dress shop in town when I was about twelve? Now she was a good looking woman. I remember trying to find any excuse to visit the shop and, believe me, that was hard since she sold nothing but women’s things. Marie must have wondered why on earth I was always so willing to do her errands.”

Ben laughed at the recollection. “Oh, Marie did wonder at first, but I think the truth began to dawn on her in time. In fact, she even played along and often sent you on errands for ribbon and such that she didn’t even need.”

This was news to Adam and he thought, not for the first time, how lucky they had been when Marie entered their lives. Although he had been resentful at first, over the years he had grown to appreciate the beauty and wisdom of his young stepmother.

Supper was a light-hearted affair and everyone was in good spirits. Ben and Adam had signed a contract with Malcolm Watson in San Francisco to supply all the beef they could deliver and at top rate. All their hard work was finally paying off and the Ponderosa was becoming one, if not the, most prominent ranch in the Nevada territory. It was hard to believe this was the same land Ben had settled in all those years ago with two small boys in tow and not even the price of a meal in his pocket.

Hoss was looking forward to his twenty-first birthday only two weeks away. Ben had promised him the new saddle he had been eyeing in town for the past few months and Adam had already purchased a new rifle for him. Little Joe said that his present would be a surprise but Hoss already suspected that Joe had been saving his allowance and, with a little help from Pa, had bought him the new bridle he had set his heart on.

“Sure wish I had me that new rifle now,” Hoss said wistfully. “Especially if we are to track that wolf that’s been bothering the herd in the bottom pasture near Sunrise Pass this past week.”

“What wolf? I don’t know anything about any wolf!” Joe chipped in, a bit put out that no one had mentioned a wolf to him.

Ben raised his fork and shook his head. “Well, we won’t be doing any hunting anytime soon, Hoss. We have plenty to keep us busy getting the cattle ready for the drive to San Francisco. Much as I would like to get the varmint, we don’t have the time, or the manpower, to be running off round the countryside looking for one lone wolf.”

“But Pa…”

“No, I’m sorry, Hoss; we really just don’t have the time. The wolf will have to wait.”

“We can’t just leave the wolf to roam free, Pa, not if it’s killing our cattle,” Joe piped up. “And it would give me a chance to show you how good I am with the Kentucky rifle Adam got me for Christmas. I’m the best shot around.”

“You won’t be hunting anything, Little Joe,” Adam replied. “Pa’s right; we have enough to do without taking time off to go hunting. If the wolf gets close, we’ll frighten it off, but otherwise it will have to wait.”

“But you know it just won’t go away,” Joe whined, not willing to concede.

“Let’s just drop the subject,” Ben said in a tone that brooked no argument. Then looking over at his youngest son’s gaping mouth, he barked. “Joseph, please close your mouth while you’re eating; your table manners leave a lot to be desired young man.”

Joe’s mouth closed instantly and his head bent forward as he focused his eyes on the plate in front of him. Maybe his Pa and brothers wouldn’t have time to hunt the wolf, but he was sure he would find a way; he just had to think how to get his rifle out of the house without his Pa finding out. The opportunity came round even quicker than he could have hoped.

“Isn’t it typical,” Ben was saying. “We have so little time to get ready for the cattle drive and Bill Thomson has finally decided to put the timber contract out for tender.” Then with a resigned shrug, he added, “Well, we can’t do everything; I guess we’ll just have to miss out on that one.”

“No, we shouldn’t, that’s an important contract, Pa,” Adam acknowledged, trying hard to think of a solution. “You know, if we worked on some figures after supper, you could travel to Reno tomorrow, submit our tender, stay overnight and be back on Wednesday. I could get things moving here.”

Ben pondered Adam’s suggestion for a few minutes. “You really think you can handle things, Adam?” As he was speaking, Ben indicated his head towards his youngest son. Lately Joe and Adam had been locking horns and he had tried to keep the two of them apart as much as possible. Joe didn’t take kindly to Adam giving him orders and Adam refused to put up with any of what he referred to as, Joe’s nonsense.

Joe hadn’t missed the inclination of the head and, under different circumstances, he would have been full of righteous indignation, but this time he could see the situation working to his advantage. “I could stay at the Wilkinson’s tomorrow night Pa, Mrs. Wilkinson’s always saying I can stay over if you are away on business. Bobby and I have a project to do for school and it would be easier if we did it together.”

Ben and Adam exchanged glances; Joe was never this amenable. Under different circumstances Adam would have been suspicious about Joe’s motives, but thinking of his younger brother’s crush on Mrs. Wilkinson, he just smiled at Ben and nodded his head in acceptance of Joe’s suggestion.

“Well, if you think Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson won’t be put out, that would be an ideal solution, Joseph. Just you be on your best behavior and don’t give me any reason to speak to you on my return.”

Joe rolled his eyes and inwardly grinned at the idea that had formulated in his head. After all, what could he possibly get up to?

*****

The following morning Ben was up bright and early and left the house before the rest of the family had risen.

After being woken by Hoss, a sleepy Little Joe, still dressed in his nightshirt, sauntered into his eldest brother’s room. Adam was in the middle of shaving and stopped for a second to hurry Joe along.

“Don’t you think you should be getting a move on, buddy? You don’t want to be late for school.”

Joe was unconcerned and sitting on his brother’s bed; he watched closely as Adam resumed shaving.

“Adam?”

“Yep.”

“When do you suppose I will need to start shaving?” Joe asked, jutting out his chin and rubbing his fingers backwards and forwards over the smooth skin.

Adam tried hard not to laugh. Reaching over, he stroked Joe’s cheek and thought how best to answer. “It may be a little while yet, Joe; you’re still a bit young to be thinking about shaving.”

Joe scowled and kept on rubbing his chin. “When did you start shaving, Adam? Hoss says he was about sixteen.”

Adam tried to think back. Hoss probably was about that age. Even though Hoss was as tall as most men by the age of twelve, his chin had remained hairless for at least another three or four years. Adam attributed it to Hoss’ fair hair and skin.

“I think I was probably about the same age as Hoss,” Adam lied. In fact he was younger than 14 when a thick dark shadow had started to form, indicating the changes taking place in his body. Unlike Joe, Adam had been tall for his age and puberty had come to him much earlier in life. Even now, Joe’s voice was not quite broken and often went up a few octaves when he was excited.

Changing the subject, Adam asked. “Are you okay staying at the Wilkinson’s, Joe? You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Hoss and I won’t be around much over the next few days, but I’m quite sure you’ll manage well enough without us.”

“Oh I’ll be fine staying with Bobby, Adam,” Joe quickly answered. “Mrs. Wilkinson’s really nice.”

Once again, Adam suppressed a smile. “Yes she’s a very pretty lady,” he said slowly, waiting and getting the reaction he expected; Joe’s face reddened immediately. Adam looked the other way and continued to dress, pretending not to notice.

“Adam?” Joe asked hesitantly, making his eldest brother hold his breath, wondering what on earth Joe was going to ask him next. “Did you think my mother was very pretty?”

“Oh, oh!” Adam thought. “I hope this is not going where I think it’s going.”

“Yes, your mother was a very pretty lady,” Adam replied, hoping that would be the end of it and Joe’s frog-hopping mind would go off in a different direction.

“But wasn’t it strange when she came to live with you? I mean, having a woman in the house after all those years. Did you think of her, well, you know, like a mother?”

Now it was Adam’s turn to blush. How could he ever explain the complex relationship he had with Marie to Joe?

When Marie had entered his life, he had been eleven years old. At first, he had resented her and not wanted her to be part of their family, but as time went on, he had grown to love her as his own mother. But…..and there was a but……there had been an in-between stage when Adam was about twelve or thirteen when he had all sorts of mixed feelings. His body was changing and it wasn’t easy having a beautiful woman in the house who wasn’t his mother and, more to the point, wasn’t anywhere near old enough to be his mother. Those had been difficult years and he didn’t like to think back to that time. Poor Marie must have wondered why he was so rude and avoided her so much, never suspecting the real reason.

“Adam, did you?” Joe persisted, bringing Adam out of his reverie.

Instead of replying, Adam pulled Joe from the bed and onto his feet. With a swat to Joe’s behind, he pushed him from the room. “Get ready for school now, or else you’re going to be late.”

On his own once more, Adam leaned back against the closed door and wiped a hand over his brow. “Phew” he thought. “Joe must have it real bad for Mrs. Wilkinson.” Then, with a knowing smile, he relaxed. This would pass; he knew that from personal experience.

And so shortly after breakfast, when Adam and Hoss left for the day, Joe was able to put his well thought out plan into action and take his Kentucky rifle, plus enough provisions for one night, and leave for school without anyone being any the wiser of his intentions. Now all he had to do was get Bobby Wilkinson to convince his parents he was staying at the Ponderosa that evening and they could then hunt the wolf without worrying about being found out.

*****

That day at school, Bobby Wilkinson and Joe Cartwright hatched their plan. This was going to be so easy. And sure enough, that afternoon, Bobby explained to his mother about the project he and Joe had to finish and she readily agreed that he could stay overnight with Joe. The hard part was going to be sneaking his rifle out of the house without anyone noticing. His father was still working and probably wouldn’t be back until supper time, but his mother was no pushover and he didn’t want to raise her suspicions.

Bobby’s mother went to his room to pack an overnight bag and he hovered irritably in the background, insisting he was quite capable of doing it himself. Then, just when he thought he was going to have to leave the house without the rifle, one of the twins screamed at the top of her lungs, “Mama! Jenny pulled my hair!” Her twin yelled back just as loudly, “You pulled mine first!”

Throwing exasperated hands in the air, Molly Wilkinson went to sort out the quarrel with her warring daughters. This was just the opportunity Bobby had been waiting for, and picking up his overnight bag, he rushed down the stairs, collected his rifle from the gun rack and ran out into the yard, calling over his shoulder. “Bye Ma, see you tomorrow night.”

Bobby’s escape wasn’t quite as smooth as he hoped. As he put his left foot in the stirrup and prepared to mount his horse, a little voice whispered from behind, “You’re gonna be in big trouble with Pa, Bobby Wilkinson.”

“What’s it got to do with you, little girl?” Bobby whispered back to his young sister as she stood looking at him in that ‘I’m gonna tell Ma’ kind of way’.

“You’re not supposed to have your rifle unless Pa says so,” Jenny persisted. “He’ll whip your hide,” she added, trying to sound as much like their Pa as possible.

“Not if you don’t tell him,” Bobby wheedled. “And if you keep our secret, I’ll buy you candy when we go into town on Saturday.”

Jenny pondered his proposition. “Can’t I tell Josie?” She didn’t hold with keeping secrets from her twin.

Bobby shook his head. “No. You tell anyone at all or there won’t be any candy.”

“Okay,” Jenny said finally, happy to divide the candy with her sister and knowing that would make up for not sharing the secret.

*****

The boys met up at the end of the lane and excitedly talked of their adventure. “Where we going to start looking?” Bobby asked.

“Why don’t we make our way over to Sunrise Pass? That’s not far from the herd and Hoss said he saw the wolf there one time.”

“Aren’t you afraid that Adam and Hoss might see us?” Bobby asked nervously. He was more than a little afraid of Joe’s eldest brother and wouldn’t put it past Adam to tan both their hides if he found out what they were up to.

“Naw, don’t worry about them. They’ll have gone home before we get there. There’s only a few men left to look after the herd at night; we can easily avoid them.”

Two hours later, the boys were scouting round the outskirts of the herd, taking great pains not to be seen by the men left behind on watch.

“Why don’t we have supper and wait until dark?” Joe suggested. “I’ll bet the wolf is more likely to show itself then.”

By now Bobby was anxious to make camp, for the idea of tracking a wolf in the dark was becoming less and less appealing by the minute. “Joe, do you really think this is a good idea?”

Joe looked at his friend in disbelief. “Don’t you go backing out on me, Bobby Wilkinson! We’ll never get another chance to do this.”

“But what if we get found out?”

“Who’s gonna find out? We’ll go to school in the morning and home in the afternoon. Easy as pie.”

“But what if your Pa speaks to my Pa?” Bobby persisted.

Joe shifted nervously in the saddle. “We’ll just have to keep them apart for a few days; after that, my Pa, Adam and Hoss will be away on a cattle drive and there won’t be a problem.”

Bobby visibly relaxed knowing if Mr. Cartwright and Joe’s brothers were away for a week or two, maybe things would work out after all.

The boys made camp and ate the provisions Joe had brought with him in silence. Now that their adventure was here, both boys were feeling more than a little nervous about the prospect of tracking a wild animal in the dark.

The night proved to be a long one. Hour after hour passed by with no sighting of the wolf whatsoever and it was looking as if all they would get for their trouble was saddle-sore behinds and a night without sleep. The boys were wearing warm jackets, but once the sun had gone down, the night air took on a chill that seeped through the material and penetrated their bones.

This wasn’t turning out to be the adventure they hoped. Just as they were about to head back to camp, a spine chilling howl screamed out into the night.

Both boys came to an abrupt halt and looked at each other in trepidation. Their horses became skittish and Joe stroked Cochise’s long neck in an effort to calm him.

“What now?” Bobby asked in hushed tones.

“It’s coming from over there,” Joe whispered back, pointing over to his right towards Turner’s Rock. “Why don’t we tie the horses here and track it on foot?”

The boys dismounted, and keeping close together, they crept through the undergrowth and over towards the hills. The moonlight cast shadows through the trees, making the whole experience even eerier than it would have been in black darkness.

Climbing over the rocks, Joe and Bobby made their way to the top of the hill, all the time with eyes popping out of their heads and their senses on full alert. Breathing heavily, they reached the summit and looked around.

“Do you see anything?” Bobby asked in a barely audible whisper. Joe shook his head and indicated to Bobby to get his rifle ready.

With shaking hands, both boys loaded their rifles and sat down with their backs to each other so that they wouldn’t be taken unawares. With eyes darting in every direction, they waited and waited for another sign. Several minutes passed before the howling sound was heard again. With the hairs on the back of their necks standing on end, they looked in the direction of the wolf and their hearts almost stopped when they saw it standing less than forty feet from where they were sitting.

Although Joe’s heart was pounding in his chest, he willed his hands to be steady as he lifted his rifle and pointed it towards the wild animal that was still unaware of their presence. Just as he was about to pull the trigger a sharp tug on his arm made him waiver and he turned furious eyes on his friend.

“Why did you do that?” Joe asked through gritted teeth. “I had him in my sights; he was as good as dead.”

Bobby ignored his friend’s temper, instead pointing down the hill and into the pasture beyond.

Straining his eyes in the moonlight, Joe was barely able to see what Bobby was pointing at. About half a dozen men on horseback were herding about thirty head of cattle away from the main herd.

“Who do you think they are?” Bobby asked.

“Rustlers!” Joe said with conviction. He knew enough about the operations on the Ponderosa to know this was not a normal procedure.

“Shouldn’t we go and tell your brothers?” Bobby asked. Knowing how serious a crime rustling was, he was willing to risk a tanning in order to capture the men responsible.

Joe thought for a second, then shook his head. “No, by the time we get to the house and back, they’ll be long gone and we’ll never find out what they’re up to. We need to follow them and see where they go first.”

Bobby wasn’t too sure of his friend’s suggestion but he kept his own counsel. Once Joe got an idea in his head, he very rarely changed his mind.

The wolf now forgotten, they scrambled down the hill and back to their horses as quickly as they could. With no time to return to camp, they set out in pursuit of the men, with not a thought as to what might happen if they were seen.

It wasn’t long before the boys had the men and cattle in their line of vision and they trailed behind as far back as possible, hoping the men would be too occupied to be aware of their trackers.

Several miles passed before the men turned the cattle into the entrance of a ravine that Joe had long since forgotten existed. Dismounting, Joe and Bobby secured their horses before following on foot once again. Climbing up the nearest rock, Joe looked down in shock and anger at the scene below. Several hundred of what he assumed were his family and neighbors cattle, were herded together in the tight space.

“We better get help, Joe,” Bobby whispered. “This is far bigger than we first thought.”

“It’s almost light,” Joe observed, ignoring his friend’s plea.

“Joe, what we gonna do?” Bobby implored.

Joe looked at his friend’s anxious face. “You ride back to the ranch and let Adam know what’s going on,” Joe instructed. “I’ll wait here and keep an eye on things. They may decide to move the herd and I need to know where they go.”

Bobby wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but something needed to be done. “I’ll be back as quick as I can,” he promised and scurried off to get his horse.

The only thought in Bobby Wilkinson’s mind was to get to Adam Cartwright and pass on the responsibility of the situation to an adult. Even the knowledge that he and Joe would probably receive a tanning for their efforts was an unfortunate consequence he was prepared to live with. Unfortunately, in his hurry he forgot about the reason they were in this predicament in the first place: the wolf!

Bobby was passing close to where they had last seen the wolf when it struck without warning. Leaping into the air, the wolf knocked the boy from his horse and sank its teeth into his leg as he lay there helpless on the ground. Bobby didn’t even feel the pain; he hit his head on a rock as he fell and was rendered unconscious immediately. However, as luck would have it, the boy’s terrified horse probably saved his life. Rearing high into the air, it kicked out franticly and one lucky kick connected with the wolf, sending it scurrying off in pain.

The wolf ran in one direction and the horse ran in the other, leaving Bobby alone and bleeding from the head and leg, miles from home and help. Only Joe Cartwright was aware he was out there, but Joe was having enough problems of his own without worrying about his friend…………

Bobby had only been gone about forty minutes and Joe was having difficulty keeping awake as he lay on the rock and watched the men and cattle below. His eyes closed for about the tenth time, but this time they didn’t reopen and Joe’s body gave way to his fatigue, and as his head slumped forward onto his chest, he slept.

It was only the persistent dig in his back that brought him back to the present and he awoke disorientated, completely unaware for a minute where he was.

Once his faculties had been restored, a sense of dread passed over Joe, and he turned his head with trepidation, fearing what he would find.

“On your feet boy,” his awakener spat, kicking his foot into Joe’s spine with cruel accuracy. Joe glanced towards his rifle now lying on the ground next to him. “Don’t get any ideas, kid; I can blow your head off in the blink of an eye.”

Joe struggled to his feet and stood with his hands raised in front of him. The man stooped down and picked up the rifle before turning Joe round and pushing him down the hill.

Several men looked on in disbelief as Joe was marched in front of them. “Where the hell did he come from?” one of the men demanded, grabbing Joe by the front of his jacket and lifting him bodily from the ground.

A voice piped up from behind. “Put the kid down, Dusty, I know who he is.”

Dusty released his grip on Joe and turned to confront the other man. “What do you know about this, Bart?”

Bart Meadows walked out from behind Joe and retaliated. “I don’t know what he’s doing here anymore than you do, but what I do know is he’s Cartwright’s kid. The one they call Little Joe.” It was then Joe recognized Meadows as one of his father’s ranch hands.

The surrounding men became agitated; they couldn’t afford for this to go wrong, and being recognized by Cartwright’s brat was something they had not envisaged. Dusty reached out and grabbed Joe once more. Striking him hard across the face with the back of his hand, he shouted, “Okay kid, who knows you’re here? I want answers and I want them now.”

“No one knows,” Joe cried, trying to shield himself as another blow followed the first and another one after that. “I’m on my own.”

Bart Meadows wasn’t convinced. “There’s no way Cartwright would let the kid go running around alone at night. There has to be a good reason why he’s out here.”

Dusty wasn’t the waiting kind; drawing back his fist he punched Joe in the stomach. It wasn’t the hardest of punches but it was still enough to make Joe crumple to the ground, gasping for breath. “Now kid, you better start talking and quick. I want to know why you’re out here and how come you were sneaking up on us?”

Joe tried hard to clear his thoughts, but the pain in his stomach and face made it impossible. Fighting back unwelcome tears, he blurted out half-truths that he desperately hoped would satisfy them. “I wanted to hunt a wolf that’s been bothering the herd. My Pa went away for a few days and I wanted to hunt it on my own. I was looking for it when I saw you take the cattle. I-I-I followed you here, but my brothers don’t know I’m out here or else I’d be in big trouble.”

The men laughed at the last statement. “Don’t you think you’re in big trouble now, sonny?” Dusty asked, pulling Joe’s hair back so that he could look him in the face.

“Yes s-s-sir,” Joe whispered, closing his eyes so he didn’t have to gaze at the vicious thug in front of him.

“That doesn’t give us much time,” Bart Meadows said with a shake of his head. “When they find out the kid is missing in the morning, they’ll have every available man looking for him. I know old man Cartwright and there will be hell to pay if he gets back and finds the boy gone.”

“T-t-they think I’m staying at a friend’s house; they won’t be expecting me home till evening,” Joe butted in, hoping he could stall things a bit longer. He would love to have the satisfaction of telling them help was on the way just to see their faces, but on the other hand, he didn’t want to spook them into taking off before Bobby raised the alarm.

Dusty tightened his grip on Little Joe’s hair making the boy wince in pain. “You better be telling me the truth runt or I’ll skin your hide.”

Joe did his best to nod his head in earnest and Dusty finally let go.

“So what do we do with him?” one of the other men wanted to know. They were all beginning to feel jittery about how things were working out. It was one thing to steal Cartwright cattle but to beat up on the Cartwright kid was not something they particularly wanted to be involved with. Ben Cartwright would eventually stop tracking them for taking his cattle, but for hurting one of his sons, he would track them to the ends of the earth.

Pulling Joe to his feet, Bart Meadows pushed him over to the man that had spoken. “Since he worries you so much, why don’t you tie him up so he doesn’t give us any trouble?”

“Then what?” the man asked.

“Then I try and think of a way to get rid of him that won’t implicate us,” Bart replied with a shrug of his shoulders. “He knows my face; I can’t just let him go.”

“I didn’t sign up for no killing and I certainly don’t hold with beating up and murdering some kid hardly big enough to wipe his own nose.”

“You get paid to do as you’re told. Unless of course you want out?” Meadows asked menacingly. The man knew without being told what the ‘out’ would be and he backed off immediately.

Joe wasn’t prepared to give in quite so easily; after all, it was his life they were talking about. “Just tie me up and leave me here,” he pleaded. “I won’t tell anybody who you are, I-I-I promise I won’t.”

“Sorry kid, no deal,” Meadows replied walking back over to the boy. Then running his fingers across Joe’s bloody and dirty face, he wiped away a tear mockingly, “Forgive me if I don’t trust you Little Joe, but I know your Pa and he won’t rest until he finds out who messed up his boy’s pretty face.”

Joe didn’t get the chance to say another word before he was gagged, laid face down on the ground and bound hand and foot. Not for the first time in his short life he had time to reflect on his impulsiveness and he prayed to God that Bobby would raise the alarm in time and give him a chance to make it up to his Pa for the trouble he caused.

Little did he know that, at that precise moment in time, Bobby Wilkinson was in a worse shape than he was?

*****

Hardly any time had passed before Bart Meadows thought he had come up with the perfect solution. Not caring whether Joe heard him or not, he gave his instructions to Dusty. “Take the kid back to the herd and shoot him with his own rifle.”

Dusty looked perplexed. “How’s that gonna help? I could be riding back into trouble.”

“Don’t you see?” Bart explained. “The Cartwrights will soon realize the kid’s gone. When they come looking for him, they’ll find him dead, shot with his own rifle.” Then as if talking to a ten-year-old, he continued. “Kids shouldn’t be out on their own with a loaded weapon. Old man Cartwright will think the kid fell and shot himself, and they’ll have no reason to suspect foul play.”

“What about his face?” Dusty asked. “He’s gonna have a few bruises after that walloping I gave him.”

Bart didn’t have to ponder the problem long. “Simple — just make sure you take him to high ground,” Bart continued. “By the time he reaches the bottom, he’ll have so many bruises on him, his own mother won’t recognize him.”

Dusty thought for a few seconds and then began to laugh. “You know, Bart, I think you’re right. Cartwright is likely to blame himself, or those other sons of his, for not watching over the kid. By the time they finish mourning him, we’ll be long gone.”

Joe listened to the exchange in disbelief; they were talking about him as if his life meant nothing. He knew it was pointless to try and appeal to their better nature; they clearly didn’t have one.

As Dusty strode over and pulled him to his feet, Joe looked pleadingly at the other men gathered. Knowing what Joe’s fate was to be, a few of the men had the good grace to look uncomfortable, but none of them intervened on his behalf. Joe prayed once more that his friend had raised the alarm and help was on its way.

For a fleeting moment, Joe thought that Bart’s plan wouldn’t work as they didn’t have his horse, and without his horse, his father would become suspicious. But again his hopes were dashed when one of the men came forward holding Cochise by the reins.

Seeing the look of disappointment on Joe’s face, Dusty began to laugh. “The horse wasn’t hard to find, boy, or didn’t you think we would look?”

Taking a knife from his belt, Dusty bent down and cut the binds that tied Joe’s feet. Futile as it was, Joe couldn’t let the chance pass; as soon as his feet were free, he kicked out at Dusty with all his strength, knocking the surprised man over onto his back. Joe then took off running as fast as he could with his hands still tied behind him.

The ensuing mayhem caused Bart Meadows to look over to see what was happening. “Grab hold of that kid,” he shouted in exasperation. “Dusty, can’t you control that brat?”

Joe darted from one side to another doing his best to avoid capture, but in reality, there was no escape. It didn’t take long for one of the men to tackle him to the ground, where he lay panting and gasping for breath.

Dusty by now was back on his feet and wasn’t prepared to put up with any more nonsense. Walking over to where Joe was lying, he looked down on the boy and laughed. “Got to admit it, kid, you’ve certainly got some spunk, but it’s not going to do you any good.” Reaching down, he pulled Joe to his feet and slung him over his shoulder before carrying him back to his horse, landing a few heavy swats on Joe’s rear as he did so.

Once Joe was mounted, with his hands re-tied at the front, Dusty turned their horses in the direction where the main herd was still located. Bart Meadows stepped forward to give him last minute instructions.

“As soon as you’ve sorted out the kid, get going as quickly as you can and meet the others at the old Dawson place just outside of Placerville.”

“Okay, but what about you?”

Bart smiled, “I’ll head back to the herd as usual. Don’t want those Cartwrights’ getting suspicious now do we?”

“You’ve got some gall, I’ll give you that,” Dusty laughed. “I wouldn’t want to hang around if it was me.”

“Yeah, well you’re not me. Just get going and do what you have to.”

Dusty knew better than to stick around after being given an order, so taking hold of Cochise’s reins, he headed off as quickly as he could.

When they were about a mile from the herd, Dusty surmised that this was as good a place as any to do the deed. Looking round, he decided it was feasible the wolf could have been spotted in the area and was just the place where a fool kid would go hunting. He stopped and pulled Joe from his horse and untied his hands. Taking the boy’s own rifle, Dusty motioned for Joe to take the lead, and without another word, the two of them climbed high up into the hills.

The moment of truth had finally come and Dusty was finding out that cold blooded murder wasn’t quite as easy as he thought it would be. He had killed many a man in his time — it was an occupational hazard — but never at point blank range and never a kid.

“Don’t look at me like that, boy,” Dusty demanded, wishing he hadn’t made the mistake of examining the boy’s face before shooting him. Joe’s eyes were swimming with unshed tears and his fear was plain to see. “Turn around,” Dusty now instructed. Maybe it would be easier if he didn’t have to look at his victim.

As Joe slowly turned his back on the man, his shoulders trembled with trepidation of what was to come. Again, this did not go unnoticed by Dusty and he berated himself for being sentimental. ‘Get a grip on yourself,” he whispered under his breath, ‘remember it’s him or you. You could just as easily be hung for stealing cattle as murder.”

Dusty stood up close behind his captive, and taking the boy’s own rifle in his right hand, he reached forward with the gun and put his finger on the trigger. Pointing the rifle at Joe’s chest, he whispered “sorry kid” and prepared to fire.

Joe’s reaction was instinctive; he was a Cartwright, after all, and he wasn’t giving up without a fight. Kicking backwards, he landed a hefty blow on Dusty’s shins, causing the man to drop the gun and clutch his leg in pain, but not before the gun had gone off.

Joe didn’t get the chance to feel the euphoria of success; the bullet that exploded in his chest made him double in pain and roll down the hill into oblivion.

Dusty scrambled shakily to his feet and frantically strained his eyes to see where the boy had fallen. Joe lay motionless on his stomach as a mounting pool of blood began to seep from beneath his body. The fleeting moment of concern that Dusty had had for the boy’s welfare was past and now all he felt was panic surging up in him for the crime he had committed. He had to get away and quick. The law would certainly hang a man for rustling cattle, but for killing a child, the mob was likely to tear him limb from limb.

As Dusty rode off to meet up with the rest of the gang, the morning sun rose high in the sky, and he prayed that the boy was telling the truth and his family wouldn’t come looking for him until supper time, giving him more than enough time to get away from the scene of the crime.

*****

Little Joe Cartwright’s first conscious thought was one of total confusion. Where was he? Why did he feel so strange? At this point, his brain was still numb with shock and the agonizing pain that would follow was still a few moments away.

Joe tried to rationalize his thoughts, put them in some sort of order, but the effort to concentrate was just too much for him and he gave up. He wasn’t in his bed — that much he was certain — but where was he? “I’m outside,” he surmised, “I can feel the sun.” With that thought, Joe tried to lick his dry lips and that’s when it happened.

The excruciating agony that racked his body was instant. One moment he felt nothing but the sun on his face, the next he could feel nothing but pain — total enveloping pain. Many times during his short life he had been hurt or ill, but nothing that had gone before could compare with this. His whole body was on fire, and if asked — and he had been able to answer — he couldn’t have told anyone which part of his insides was torturing him the most.

For what seemed a lifetime, Joe writhed and thrashed about the hard ground as he tried to break free of the body that was causing him to wish he was dead. The pool of red liquid that spilled out from under him grew larger and larger and a steady stream of blood and mucus ran from his nose and mouth. Without even being aware, Joe lost control of his bodily functions and his own urine and excrement expelled from him and added to the whole indignity that goes hand in hand with dying in such dire circumstances.

The full heat of the midday sun was burning relentlessly down before Joe’s body finally relinquished its instinctive fight to survive and he succumbed to a darkness that promised an end to his torture.

*****

Ben Cartwright made it back to Virginia City from his business trip early on Wednesday afternoon. He decided to pass the time away with Roy Coffee until school finished so that he could return to the Ponderosa with Joe.

Right on time, Ben stood outside the school house waiting for Little Joe to emerge. At precisely 3.30pm, the bell rang and Miss Jones opened the door and allowed the children to leave.

Several minutes later, Ben stood looking at an empty schoolyard with a frown on his face. He dismounted from his horse and, with a knowing sigh, he entered the school house expecting to find Joe held back for some misdemeanor or other. But he was surprised to find an empty room, with only Miss Jones sitting at her desk preparing for the next day’s lessons. When she looked up to see Ben Cartwright standing before her with a deep frown on his face, she was on her feet immediately to greet him.

“Mr. Cartwright,” she declared in her high pitched voice. “How nice to see you. Have you come to discuss Joseph?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Ben replied. “Namely, where is he?”

Miss Jones was most perplexed. “But I thought that was what you had come to tell me? Joseph hasn’t been to school today, nor has Bobby Wilkinson. ”

“Oh, haven’t they,” Ben growled, trying hard to keep his temper under control.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but I wasn’t unduly worried when Joseph didn’t attend; after all, he told me how busy it is at the ranch at this time.”

It was now Ben’s turn to look perplexed. “I’m sorry, Miss Jones, but I don’t see what that has got to do with Joseph’s attendance.”

“As you know, Joseph has had quite a bit of time away from school lately, but he explained how short-handed you are and I fully understand his first duty is to you and the ranch. But I must say I’m a little surprised,” Miss Jones continued with a slight sniff of her nose. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, Mr. Cartwright, but I would have thought, with you sitting on the School Board, Joseph’s education would have been your first priority.”

Ben Cartwright was completely taken aback. “I can assure you, Miss Jones, Joseph has not had permission to be away from school. When his brothers were his age, or even younger, there were times I couldn’t have survived without their help on the Ponderosa, but those days are long gone and I have plenty of grown men to do the jobs that need doing.”

Miss Jones began to fluster. “Oh Mr. Cartwright, I do apologize; if I had any inclination whatsoever that Joseph was not telling me the truth, I would have informed you immediately.”

Ben raised his hand and tried to calm her. “Don’t worry, Miss Jones; this is not in any way your fault. Joseph is my responsibility and you can be sure of one thing — Joseph will be at school tomorrow and every day for the rest of the year. He may not be able to sit down properly for the next few days, but he’ll be here, I can promise you that.”

The ride home to the Ponderosa was not an easy one for Ben as he wondered where he had gone wrong with his youngest son. Joe always tried to push the boundaries further and further, which meant he needed to come down harder on him than he had with his other two sons. Why couldn’t he be more like his brothers? Adam had given Ben a fair few sleepless nights in his time, but nothing compared to his youngest. As for Hoss – well, he was no angel but he had always been respectful and, when his father had set a rule, he tried his best to follow it.

Ben’s initial anger was cooling when he arrived home but inside he felt a deep hurt. He had always prided himself on being a truthful man and he thought he had instilled that same honesty in his sons, but it looked very much like he had failed to install that particular commandment in his youngest.

Almost as soon as Ben walked through his own front door, Hop Sing was there to greet him with a coffee. “Boys not home yet, Mr. Cartwright,” Hop Sing announced, “but supper will be ready on time. If they late, Hop Sing won’t be warming up food. Hop Sing have plenty to do taking care of house and laundry without running round after boys that know better than be late…”

Before Hop Sing could continue with his tirade, Ben cut him off in midstream, “I’m sure the boys will be home on time Hop Sing and if not, they can reheat their own suppers.”

Hop Sing seemed mildly satisfied and was walking back towards the kitchen, when Ben asked, “Is Joseph home yet?”

“Little Joe go stay with friend last night,” Hop Sing called over his shoulder. “He not come back yet. He should tell Hop Sing if he not coming back. Hop Sing prepare food for boy and boy not here. Waste time, all time waste Hop Sing time.”

Ben was saved from any further explosions, when the front door opened and Hoss entered.

“Hi Pa,” Hoss called cheerfully. “How was your trip?”

Adam entered just a few seconds behind his brother and was also anxious to know how Ben had fared.

“It went well,” Ben replied, “but we’ll talk about that after supper. Right now, I have more important things on my mind.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged worried glances. “What’s up, Pa?” Hoss asked full of concern.

“Not ‘what’. Who,” Ben replied, a deep frown on his face.

“Little Joe?” Adam stated with irritation. “Come on, what’s he done now?”

“It appears your younger brother has been skipping school quite a bit lately and has been using the excuse that I need him to help out on the ranch.”

Hoss sucked in his breath; skipping school was serious enough, but lying to the teacher – Joe had really gone and done it this time.

“I take it from that he wasn’t at school today?” Adam asked, feeling his own temper rise at Little Joe’s deception.

“No he wasn’t and neither was Bobby Wilkinson,” Ben acknowledged. “So whatever they have been up to, we can safely assume they were in it together.”

“What does Joe have to say for himself?” Adam asked.

“He’s not home yet,” Ben replied, glancing at the grandfather clock to check on the time. “I would have thought he would be home by now in order to keep up the pretence that he had been to school after all.”

A worried frown crossed Hoss’ face. “Don’t you think we may be judging Little Joe a bit hastily, Pa? If both him and Bobby weren’t at school today and Joe ain’t arrived home for supper, maybe, just maybe, there is a problem at the Wilkinson’s that we just don’t know about. Some one could be sick or something.”

Adam raised his eyes to the ceiling, “If this was the only time Joe had been absent from school, Hoss, I may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but you heard what Pa said. Little Joe has been skipping school quite a lot lately.”

“Still,” Ben pondered. “I think Hoss is right; we should check out that everything is okay at the Wilkinsons before we jump to conclusions. If Joseph hasn’t returned by the time we finish supper, I suggest we ride over and pay them a visit.”

Forty minutes later, the Cartwrights saddled their horses and set out for the Wilkinsons. Even though Ben didn’t want to admit it, there was something gnawing away inside of him. He couldn’t explain what it was, but a sense of foreboding was hanging over him and he couldn’t shake it off.

As they rode into the Wilkinson yard, they found Matt Wilkinson preparing to saddle his own horse. On seeing the Cartwrights’ approach, he called out,

“Hi Ben. Boys. I was just saddling up to ride over to your place.”

“Is there something wrong?” Ben asked, the concern beginning to mount for his youngest son.

“Well that’s what I was going to ask you,” Matt replied. “When Bobby didn’t come home from school, Molly couldn’t remember whether he said he was staying one or two nights at your place, and well, you know what women are like. Once she started worrying, there was no stopping her, so I thought I’d better ride over and collect Bobby and bring him home.”

By this time Ben had dismounted and was stood next to his friend. “But Little Joe said he was staying with you, not the other way round.”

Matt Wilkinson sucked in his breath and counted to ten. “That boy of mine has been getting away with far too much lately. His mother’s influence,” he added by way of explanation. “I think you better all come inside.”

It was a very surprised Molly that looked up from her needlework when the four men walked into the house.

“Oh Matt!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet, trying to straighten her dress while at the same time pushing loose strands of hair back over her ears. “You might have given me some warning we had company.”

“Molly, nice to see you again,” Ben acknowledged removing his hat.

“Mrs. Wilkinson,” Adam and Hoss chorused, nodding their heads in greeting.

Realization seemed to hit Molly all at once. “Bobby?” she cried. “Has something happened to Bobby?”

“Not yet,” her husband growled in return,” but believe me, woman, when that boy gets home, all your pleas won’t save his hide this time.”

Matt then explained to his wife how Bobby and Joe had each said they were staying at the others home when in fact they weren’t. Of course, that now begged the question where in fact the boys were and why hadn’t they returned home?

“I wonder if the girls know anything about it,” Matt asked, before calling to the twins to join them.

The sisters came shyly into the room, holding tightly onto each others hand. Picking up the little girls and sitting them on his knees, Matt looked very seriously at his daughters.

“Now, girls,” he began, “do you know where Bobby was going when he left home yesterday afternoon?”

With wide eyes fixed on their father, both little girls shook their heads furiously.

Knowing he would need to be more specific to get any real information from the children, Matt tried again. “Did either of you speak to Bobby before he left?”

This time only one little girl shook her head; the other one dropped her chin onto her chest. Matt smiled; now he was getting somewhere.

Handing Josie to her mother he concentrated on Jenny. “Jenny, did you speak to Bobby?”

This question was met with a bottom lip being sucked firmly between her teeth. “Jenny?” Matt asked in a slightly sterner voice. That was enough to get a response and Jenny nodded her head. “What did Bobby say to you Jenny?”

“He said he was going to buy me some candy on Saturday,” Jenny replied now beginning to smile.

“Now why would your brother offer to buy you candy, little girl? He isn’t usually so generous with his money.”

“It’s a secret,” Jenny whispered. “I’m not supposed to tell.”

Matt looked at the assembled men and smiled; it was like drawing teeth, but he would get there in the end.

“Now you have a choice young lady,” Matt determined. “You can tell Papa what Bobby was up to and forego the candy, or you can keep quiet and get a tanning alongside your brother.”

“MATT!” Molly exclaimed.

“Quiet Molly,” Matt barked. “Now what’s it going to be, Jenny?”

Jenny swallowed hard; it really wasn’t much of a choice. “Bobby took his rifle with him,” she said quietly.

“AFTER ALL I SAID,” Ben exclaimed so loudly that both little girls burst into tears.

“Oh, I-I-I’m so sorry,” Ben apologized, blushing with embarrassment. His own children had grown up with his deep, gruff manner, but he easily forgot how frightening his booming voice could appear to someone else’s small children.

Molly cuddled the small girls to her, but couldn’t wait for Ben to elaborate on his statement.

“There has been a wolf bothering the herd this past week and Joe was all for hunting it down. I said no, but it looks as if that young man has gone strictly against my wishes and dragged someone else into his little escapade.”

The two fathers traded angry looks and consoled each other with how they would chastise their errant offspring. It was several minutes before Molly could get their attention drawn back to her fears.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” she asked in a voice shrill with emotion.

“What’s that?” her husband queried as four sets of eyes turned in her direction.

“Where are the boys? They should have been home long before now,” she stated. “While you are standing here deciding how they should be punished, something must have happened to them; otherwise, they would have been home and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Molly’s words sunk in and all four men looked suitably chastised. “Where do we start, Pa?” Hoss asked anxious to get going.

“We’ll start where the wolf was last seen,” Ben replied, already heading towards the door.

As they rode out of the yard, the sense of foreboding that Ben had been feeling returned and all thoughts of punishment left his mind. Getting the boys home, safe and well, was now his first priority.

*****

The light was fading fast as the men approached the herd and there had still been no sighting of Bobby or Joe. As they rode forward, Adam, who had gone on ahead, came riding back towards them.

“Charlie and the boys haven’t seen or heard anything Pa,” Adam said, trying to keep the concern from his voice. “Do you want Hoss and me to ride over by Turner’s Rock?”

Ben nodded his head. “If you find anything, you know the signal. What about Charlie and the rest of the men?”

“They’re going to start looking as well, Pa. I’ve sent Freddie Baxter back to the Ponderosa to have as many men as possible ready to ride out at first light. There doesn’t seem much point in having them start looking in the dark.”

Ben looked at the darkening sky and acceded; there wasn’t much of a moon tonight and really it would make more sense for them all to wait until morning, but he couldn’t bring himself to ride home.

Adam and Hoss rode together in silence, neither of them wanting to voice what the other was thinking. Much as their little brother had no business doing what he did, the fact he hadn’t returned did not bode well for his safety.

Finally Hoss could stay silent no longer. “What do you think can have happened to them Adam?”

Adam took a deep breath as he thought how best to answer. Hoss was one of the biggest men he knew, but he also had a heart to match. If anything happened to Joe, Adam dreaded to think of the effect it would have on his middle brother. Then again what would it do to his father? What would it do to him?

“There’s no point speculating, Hoss. We just don’t know.”

Hoss’ face pinched with concern and Adam felt it necessary to add, “Look, Hoss, we may ride round the next corner and find the young fools walking home because they didn’t tie their horses securely. There’s no reason to think the worst.”

Hoss smiled but the smile never reached his eyes. There was no way Joe would be out there for a second night through choice. He just didn’t want to think of all the things that could have happened to two half-grown boys who had more bravado than sense.

Several more minutes passed without another word being spoken before Hoss again voiced his concerns. “Do you think they could have found the wolf?”

Before Adam had time to answer, three shots rang out into the night in quick succession. The hairs on the back of Adam’s neck stood on end as he glanced over at Hoss. As his brother’s concerned eyes focused on him with hopeful expectation, no words were needed; the brothers turned their horses as one and rode off in the direction of the signal.

Colin Curtis had been the one to fire the shots and he sighed with relief when he saw Ben Cartwright and Matt Wilkinson riding towards him only minutes later.

“What is it?” Ben asked anxiously, as his eyes scoured the surrounding area trying to ascertain why the man had raised the alarm.

Hoss and Adam arrived just as Curtis was leading the two men over to a clearing through the trees. Moments later the disappointment showed on everyone’s faces; he had not found the boys. What he led them to was the boys’ camp from the night before.

It was obvious that no one had been back there for quite a while. There was evidence of their meal from the previous evening but the provisions they had packed for breakfast were untouched.

Hoss voiced what everyone was thinking. “Now we know for sure something’s very wrong.”

Ben was about to add his own concern to that of his son, when three further shots rang out into the night. The men assembled quickly remounted and once again rode off in the direction of the gunfire.

This time they were lucky, and even before they arrived at the spot, they knew someone had been found. Several men were kneeling on the ground, obscuring the view, but it was obvious there was someone injured…..or worse!

The two fathers were the first to dismount and each ran forward hoping it was their son and that he was safe, but at the same time feeling great sympathy for the man that would be disappointed.

The child on the ground was in a sorry state and the men visibly flinched when they got their first look at him. Dried blood stained the earth beneath his injured head and his right leg was twisted and gnarled beneath him.

“Is he….” Matt Wilkinson began, too afraid to voice the dread that filled his heart.

“N-n-no, no,” the man kneeling next to the boy whispered a little unsure of himself. “He’s breathing, but he’s in a bad way.”

Matt and Ben quickly took charge of the situation. Ben instructed one of the men to ride as quickly as possible for Doc Martin and escort him to the Wilkinson house. He then sent Hoss on ahead to warn Molly that they were bringing Bobby home and to have everything prepared for them. He could have sent one of the men, but he knew that Hoss would be the best one to break the news to the worried mother without causing undue alarm.

Adam and Matt Wilkinson tended to Bobby as best they could. They cleaned away the dirt and blood and bandaged his head and leg with the materials they had to hand. He was no longer bleeding, but he was unconscious and that was always a bad sign. The leg injury they suspected was caused by an animal, and that alone could bring its own problems, but they didn’t have time to dwell on the matter just then.

Making the best of a bad situation, Bobby was soon ready to travel and Adam lifted him into his father’s arms as he sat on top of his horse. Swaddled in blankets and without regaining consciousness, Bobby was very carefully transported back to his home and mother.

Molly Wilkinson had everything ready by the time her husband arrived. Bobby’s bed was stripped and changed, pans of water boiled on the stove and liniment and bandages were laid out in readiness. From Hoss’ description of her son’s condition, she knew the doctor would be in need of all those things and besides, keeping busy kept her from dwelling on Bobby’s injuries.

Matt carried his son to his room, and together with his wife, he did his best to cleanse Bobby’s head and leg while waiting for Doctor Martin. The twins, woken by the disturbance, looked on in fear and confusion as their big brother showed no signs of life. Hoss intervened, and taking the little girls by the hand, he led them back to their own room and sat with them, talking soothingly, until they fell asleep once more.

Hoss was in the yard loading a buckboard with blankets and anything else he thought might be needed when a buggy pulled up and Paul Martin descended carrying his black bag.

Hoss breathed a sigh of relief and said with feeling, “Thank goodness you’ve arrived, Paul; the little guy’s in a bad way,”

“And Joe?” the Doctor asked, knowing full well that one child was still missing.

Hoss shook his head. “We ain’t found Joe yet, Doc. Pa asked me to wait here until you arrived, but now I’m gonna head out and rejoin the search.”

Doc Martin laid a comforting hand on Hoss’ shoulder as he passed. “Good luck, Hoss. When you find him, it’s best you bring him here. It’s going to be a long night.”

*****

Joe heard voices; they were calling his name over and over again. At one point, he felt that if he could move his hand he could reach out and touch them, tell them he was here and ready to go home. But Joe couldn’t move, he couldn’t talk; in fact, he couldn’t even open his eyes.

The agonizing pain of before was gone and had been replaced with a dull ache that came and went in waves, washing over his body with persistent never-ending regularity. He no longer writhed in agony but lay passive and accepting of his fate.

The cold of the night had penetrated Joe’s clothes and the dampness seemed to have seeped through his very being, but he didn’t care, it didn’t matter; he just wanted the darkness to claim him and his world to be at peace.

The voices were calling his name again, they were growing louder and more and more insistent, but they were too late, way too late. Joe was no longer listening; his brain along with all of the rest of his bodily functions was shutting down and soon the welcoming oblivion he desired took him to a place of safety.

*****

Pulling his thick jacket closer to him, Ben Cartwright shivered; this surprised him because he wasn’t feeling cold. It happened again. Icy fingers seemed to take hold of his spine and grip with such force he sucked in his breath and waited for the moment to pass.

“You all right, Pa?” Adam asked, noting the distressed look on his father’s face in the half light that announced that dawn was almost upon them.

“We have to find him, Adam,” Ben replied desperately. “We have to find him and we have to find him quick.”

“We’ll find him, Pa.”

“You don’t understand,” Ben whispered, fighting to hold the tears at bay. “He’s dying. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do. I can feel him slipping away from me and I have to get to him before it’s too late.”

Adam didn’t know what to say, but he didn’t doubt his father’s words. Joe and his father had always had a link between them that was difficult to understand. So often in the past each of them had somehow known when the other was in danger or hurt.

There was the sound of horse hooves, and within moments Meadows rode up alongside them.

“What is it, Bart?” Adam asked, glad of the distraction.

“Just wanted to let you know that a couple of the men back at the bunkhouse found the kids’ horses out on the range. One of horses not far from Turner’s Rock and Joe’s horse looked to be on its way home.”

“Was there any sign of….?” Ben started to ask, almost afraid to put his fears into words.

Before he could finish, Bart reassured him. “There was no blood or anything on the horse Mr. Cartwright. Fact is, apart from being hungry, it was fine.”

Ben took small comfort from the words; whether the horse had been involved or not, he knew Joe was injured, perhaps dying, somewhere out there, helpless and all alone.

“Where are you, son?” Ben whispered to himself. “Just give me a sign and I’ll come and get you.”

The words were hardly spoken, when the eerie low-pitched hoot of a Great Gray owl rang out into the early morning light. Each of the men sat silently on their horses looking up into the sky; the “whooo-ooo-ooo-ooo” of the bird was the only sound to be heard.

There was a flapping of wings in the distance and Ben instinctively turned his horse in that direction. He didn’t know why he felt this way, but Ben knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was the sign he had been waiting for.

Calling over his shoulder to Bart Meadows, Ben instructed. “Find Hoss and get him to bring the buckboard, best ways he can, over to where that owl is flying.”

Bart raised his eyes in askance of Adam at the strange request. “Just do as Pa says,” Adam ordered and turning his horse he rode off after his father.

As it turned out, the owl was almost half a mile away and Adam marveled, not for the first time, at just how far its calling could be heard on a clear night. Adam recalled that this particular bird was often referred to as the ‘Great Gray Ghost’, which made him shudder, and he sent up a silent prayer of hope that this was not an omen of death.

The bird now hovered not twenty feet above Ben and Adam’s heads and the two men looked at each other and then surveyed the ground in front of them. Nothing! Even in the half light their eyes could scan most of the surrounding land and it didn’t reveal anything to alarm them. Then without warning the bird swooped down to the ground and became hidden in the undergrowth over by the rocks.

Father and son dismounted and hurried forward on foot. As they neared the rock base, the owl let out a bloodcurdling screech and with much flapping of wings, it soared high into the sky once more. The long grass, from where it came, covered the bird’s secret for a moment longer, but as the men rushed forward, it very quickly became apparent that their search had finally come to an end.

Lying on his stomach, curled almost into the fetal position, was the motionless form of Little Joe Cartwright. Even in the dim light, both men noted the dry pool of blood stained earth that surrounded the body and marred the land.

“J-J-Joe,” Ben croaked, in a voice so full of emotion that Adam felt as if his own heart had been torn out.

The distressed father was almost too afraid to touch his son, not knowing if he was alive and, if so, how serious his injuries were. With a shaking hand, he lightly pressed his fingers to Joe’s neck. Adam held his own breath and waited.

“T-t-there’s a pulse, I’m sure there’s a pulse,” Ben finally declared, wiping his moist eyes with the back of his hand. But now was not the time for weakness; he must be strong for his child and take control of his emotions.

With the help of Adam, they slowly turned Joe over onto his back so they could see the extent of his injuries.

“Dear God” Adam exclaimed, at the first sighting of his little brother’s broken body. Besides the obvious wound to Joe’s chest, his face was almost unrecognizable and his body looked twisted and misshapen. Dried blood marred his handsome face where it had run unchecked from his mouth and the stench that came from his soiled clothes was almost enough to make them gag.

The sound of the buckboard was heard before they had time to make a full examination and Adam stood up and shouted to his middle brother to ‘hurry’ with the blankets and bandages.

Hoss, together with Bart Meadows and several of the men from the ranch gathered provisions and ran over to where Ben and Adam were once again kneeling in the grass. Surprisingly Hoss felt almost elated; the fact that Adam was shouting for blankets meant that his little brother was alive and as Doc Martin always said “Where there’s life, there’s hope!” And now he had hope!

As Hoss looked down on his baby brother, he pulled his lips back in a tight grimace. Things looked bad, but they could be worse, and, like his father before him, he steeled himself to keep a grip on his feelings; now was not the time to break down.

Adam was unbuttoning Joe’s shirt to look at his chest injury when Hoss placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Best leave that be Adam,” he advised. “Joe’s shirt’s stuck good to that wound right now and if you go pulling at it, he’s likely to start bleeding again.”

“Yes you’re right,” Adam conceded. “Let’s just bandage him over the top of his clothes and hope the wound doesn’t open up when we move him. The quicker we get him to the Doc, the better.”

Ben had been busy checking Joe’s limbs and as far as he could make out there were no broken bones, but under the circumstances that was probably the least of their worries.

Bart Meadows looked on with dismay. How could it be the kid was still alive? He would shoot Dusty himself next time he saw him for not checking to see if the boy was dead or not. There was nothing else for it; he would just have to find a way to finish the job himself. But looking at the state the kid was in, he might not have to. Bart’s mind was in turmoil. After all, he didn’t just have Joe to worry about; there was also the Wilkinson kid. What if Joe had been lying and the other kid also knew that Bart was involved with rustling.

“Bart,” a gruff voice called out for a second time.

“Y-Yeah. What?” Bart answered as he tried not to let his feelings show.

“I just asked you to turn the buckboard round,” Adam barked with impatience.

“Sure, boss,” Bart replied, making his way over to the buckboard and taking hold of one of the horses’ bridles. He maneuvered them backwards and forwards in the tight space, until the buckboard was facing the way they had come and in the direction of the Wilkinson ranch.

Ben climbed into the back of the buckboard and placed the remaining blankets on the hard floor as a makeshift bed to protect his youngest. Hoss climbed into the driving seat and Adam, for the second time in a matter of hours, handed a gravely injured child to its father.

Leaning back against the front side of the buckboard, Ben cradled his son’s head in his lap. Pouring water onto one of the clean bandages, he placed the wet cloth between the boy’s dried and cracked lips and slowly dripped more water onto it. Joe’s skin looked dried and parched after such a long time without water and this was the only way Ben could try to rectify the situation.

They had travelled for almost a mile before Ben was rewarded for his efforts. Even though mentally Joe had given up the will to live, his body was fighting back and Ben could see small movements as Joe began to suckle like a baby on the cloth between his lips. It wasn’t much, but Ben began to feel the same elation his middle son had felt back at the clearing. There was still hope.

On arrival at the Wilkinson home, Hoss climbed down from the buckboard and rushed to help his father with his little brother. Ben very gently lifted Joe into Hoss’ outstretched arms before jumping down himself. As they headed towards the door, Adam was quick to follow, when he felt a hand on his arm.

Bart Meadows held out a rifle in his hand. “This was lying on the ground up where Little Joe was found. I figured the boy must have tripped and fell and the gun went off.”

Adam looked at Little Joe’s rifle for a second before taking it from Bart’s outstretched hand. “Yeah,” he said distractedly. “You’re probably right. You best get back to the ranch and let Charlie and the others know what’s happening.”

“Okay, boss,” Bart Meadows replied. “I’ll call back here in the morning and see how things are.”

Adam walked on as Matt Wilkinson opened the door to the ranch house and ushered them inside. Without any hesitation, he took them straight to his and Molly’s room.

“Put him in here; Molly’s got it all ready,” Matt insisted. “I’ll fetch the Doc.”

Moments later, Doc Martin and Molly Wilkinson came bustling into the room.

Without time for idle conversation, Doc Martin took charge. “Adam, Hoss I need room to move in here. Bring some hot water from the stove and then make some coffee; we’ll be needing plenty of it before this day is over.” He knew better than to ask Ben Cartwright to move; it wouldn’t be worth the fight.

The two men stood for but a moment before leaving the room. The Doc was right. He needed to get on with his job and they would only be in the way.

Molly had everything prepared, and once Hoss had returned with hot water to fill the bowls they were ready to start.

“Let’s get him stripped off and cleaned up so I know what I’m working with here,” the Doc instructed, opening his black back and laying out his instruments on a clean cloth.

Ben and Molly quickly but gently stripped most of Joe’s clothes away, only leaving one side of his shirt intact, afraid to disturb the injury before the doc was ready. With a mother’s gentleness and experience, Molly washed Joe’s battered body, but all the time, tears flowed unchecked down her beautiful face.

*****

Something was happening inside Little Joe’s head. The peaceful oblivion that he had been lingering in was disturbed and he was transported back in time to a place of long ago. The feeling was familiar and reassuring. He was a baby again and suckling at his mother’s breast. His mother’s comforting hand stroked his head as the milky liquid trickled down his throat and sent him to sleep once more.

The hand was in fact his father’s and the milk was nothing more than water, but to Little Joe in his limbo state between life and death, it was the deciding factor that gave him the will to live.

The second time Joe became conscious, his thoughts were less confused. He could hear his father’s voice and that of Doc Martin. There was also another voice, speaking quietly and softly. Again Joe thought of his mother, but even in his perplexed state, he knew it couldn’t be. In a moment of realization he recognized Mrs. Wilkinson’s voice and relaxed; he must be at the Wilkinson ranch. Pain was only just starting to penetrate his barely conscious mind, but so far it was not enough to make him panic.

Gentle hands were touching him and he was aware of his clothes being removed. Mrs. Wilkinson was talking to him, reassuring him he was going to be all right, and he felt at peace. Her hands were now moving over his body again, and he could feel the warm water’s sting as it penetrated the many cuts and scratches on his skin.

Then it hit him; in a moment of clarity, Joe realized what was happening. Mrs. Wilkinson was washing his naked body. Under other circumstances, that thought alone would have made Joe die of embarrassment. This was the women who he thought was the most beautiful creature God had ever made. He had never allowed his mind to go much further than that; after all, she was a married woman, the mother of his best friend! And besides his Pa would kill him if he thought he was having unclean thoughts about anyone, let alone Mrs. Wilkinson.

But somehow, he wasn’t embarrassed and he wondered why. The realization was a while coming, but when it did he smiled wistfully to himself. Mrs. Wilkinson was without doubt a beautiful woman, but that’s not what Joe would see when he looked at her in future.

She was a mother — a very caring loving mother — and maybe that’s what Joe had craved from her all along. Mothering. Deep in the recess of his mind, she reminded him of his own mother, and if he could have moved or talked, he knew he would be bawling now, bawling like a baby for the mother he had lost and never would see again.

All these thoughts were quickly ripped from his mind, because in the next instant the excruciating pain that had eluded him for the last few hours came back with a vengeance.

*****

Doc Martin ignored most of Joe’s superficial injuries; he knew before he looked that the injury to Joe’s chest was going to be the one that decided whether the boy lived or died. His own personal skills and expertise were probably going to be one of the biggest deciding factors in the situation.

Taking the cloth from Molly’s hand, Doc Martin began to soak Joe’s shirt gently away from his skin, but even so, when he eventually began to tug on it, the wound immediately began to ooze more blood from the opening.

“Gun shot,” Doc Martin declared unnecessarily. Then lifting Joe up gently, he hopefully checked his back for an exit wound, but there was none. “Right, let’s operate; we can’t waste any more time.”

Everyone in the room, as well as the men outside, were shocked and upset at the heart-wrenching scream that escaped from Joe’s lips when the knife went in. Doc Martin had wrongly assumed that his patient was deeply unconscious and was as distressed as Ben to know that Joe was in fact awake and in agony.

“Sorry, Ben,” Doc Martin apologized. “I can’t stop now; you’re going to have to hold him.” Then to make sure his patient remained as still as possible, he shouted to the men outside. “Hoss, get in here now; we need you.”

Ben Cartwright took hold of Joe’s shoulders, and with a firmer grip than he would have liked, he pressed Joe’s body back against the bed. Hoss entered the room and, quickly assessing the situation, took up a position at Joe’s feet and held the flaying legs between his strong arms.

The bullet had gone into Joe’s chest at an angle and lodged itself not far below Joe’s left shoulder. It was difficult to get to and Molly Wilkinson wiped the sweat from Doc Martin’s brow several times as he sought to dig deeper into the boy’s flesh.

Joe was on fire; the agonizing pain that had consumed his body while lying on the plain was back with the same intensity as before and he screamed for a return to the oblivious state from which he had come. His wish was finally granted and, to the relief of all those assembled, his body went limp and the screaming finally stopped.

Just for a moment, Ben felt the panic rise up in him, but Doc Martin was quick to reassure. “It’s all right, Ben; he’s still with us thank God. At least this way he’s out of pain and it’ll make my job a lot easier.”

True to his word, seconds later Doc Martin announced ‘Got it’ and pulled the bullet from Joe’s body. Within thirty minutes, Joe’s wound was stitched and bandaged and his other injuries attended to.

“Well?” Ben asked once the doctor finally stood away from the bed.

“What do you want me to say, Ben?” Paul Martin replied testily. It had been a long night for them all. Then seeing the distress on his friend’s face, he added more gently. “Look Ben, you know as well as I do, any gunshot wound is serious. Little Joe’s holding his own for now but the next few days will be crucial.”

“But what about his insides?” Ben stated in dismay. “All that blood from his mouth?”

Doc Martin smiled reassuringly, “He bit his tongue, Ben; that’s where all the blood was coming from. Don’t worry; he may not be able to talk quite as much as he usually does, but it’s nothing to worry about. And now, I have another patient to look after.”

Guilt crossed Ben’s face. In his concern about his own son, he had completely forgotten about Bobby Wilkinson. Ben turned with embarrassment towards Molly, who was doing her best to look busy. “I’m so sorry,” he began.

“Nonsense,” Molly replied. “You have no reason to be sorry; you were concerned about your son as you should be. Don’t worry about Bobby; he’s sleeping peacefully and Matt is with him. Now let’s get Little Joe sorted and we’ll all have a bite to eat. You must be starving. I just hope that eldest son of yours has the water boiling and hasn’t gone to sleep.”

Ben and Hoss gently lifted Little Joe from the bed so Molly could change the sheets, then covering him lightly with a blanket, they all left the room.

Adam was immediately on his feet. “How did it go?”

“Fine, just fine,” Ben answered in a voice that spoke of years of practice. “But I think we could all do with a cup of coffee, then I’ll go back and sit with your brother. I don’t think he’ll stir for quite some time.”

After coffee, the good doctor went on his way with a promise that he would return later that day. Ben, armed with a blanket, went to sit with Joe, while Hoss and Adam dozed in chairs by the fire. Matt Wilkinson, like Ben, dozed by his son’s bedside, for he had insisted that Molly climb into bed with the twins for a couple of hours sleep. The woman was completely exhausted and she would need as much energy as she could muster to deal with her extra visitors as well as two very lively little girls during the daylight hours.

It was late morning when Adam awoke with a start. He was momentarily disorientated as he looked into the identical faces of two curious little girls, standing about two feet from his chair in their nightclothes.

“Hello” Adam smiled, trying not to alarm them. “Where did you two come from?”

“We live here,” Josie reminded him, before poking her finger up her nose.

Adam’s face must have displayed his disproval, because the little girl quickly removed the offending finger and wiped it on her nightdress. Memories of Little Joe flooded Adam’s mind and he was glad that at least the boy had grown out of some of his more disgusting habits.

“What are you doing in our house?” Jenny now asked.

Adam was saved from giving an answer when the door to the bedroom opened and Matt Wilkinson came into view.

“So you little mischief-makers have decided to make an appearance,” Matt smiled, pulling the nightcaps from the little girls’ heads and allowing their golden manes to fall over their shoulders.

“Why is Mama asleep in our bed?” Jenny asked. “And why was Bobby hurt?” she added with bottom lip trembling.

Seeing the tears forming in the little girls’ eyes, Matt was quick to scoop them up and sit them on his knees.

“Mama is very tired because she didn’t go to bed until very late. Bobby fell off his horse and hurt his head, but he’s going to be fine. Now, will you do something for Papa?”

Two little heads nodded in unison and Matt continued. “I want you to go to your room and very quietly put your clothes on without waking your mother. Then you can come back here and help me make breakfast. Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes sir,” the girls replied, but then Josie added. “But Papa, I can’t do up the back of my dress.”

“Oh, I think I can manage that,” Matt replied. “Just do what you can, but remember, very quietly.”

Hoss woke up shortly afterwards and went into the kitchen to boil water for coffee. By the time the water boiled, everyone in the house but Bobby and Joe were awake.

Molly emerged from the bedroom fully- dressed with the two little girls in tow. Ben appeared, looking disheveled and in need of a shave, trying to rub the sleep from his eyes.

“How are the boys?” were Molly’s first words.

“Bobby’s fine” Matt assured her. “He had a very peaceful night.”

“What about his leg?” Adam asked. The memory of the boy’s gnarled and twisted leg still fresh in his mind.

“The Doc made a good job of cleaning it up and straightening it out,” Matt replied. The fact that it was an animal bite they couldn’t overlook, but at this time there was no reason to believe the wolf (if that is what it was) was rabid.

“What about Joe?” Hoss asked, anxious for news of his brother.

Ben took a deep breath; his news was not so good. “He’s had a pretty restless couple of hours,” he began. “He feels warm to the touch; I just hope the wound doesn’t become infected.”

“The Doc should be back later,” Adam reassured. “He’ll know what to do.”

“Well if you don’t mind, I could sure use a cup of that coffee I can smell.”

“Certainly Ben,” Molly replied heading towards the kitchen. “After we’ve had some breakfast, I’ll fetch some cool water and we’ll see about bringing Joe’s temperature down.”

Ben smiled his thanks and was just about to head to the outhouse, when Bobby’s voice called from the bedroom.

“Ma, Ma, are you there?”

Molly stopped what she was doing and, together with her husband and the girls, rushed to Bobby’s side.

The Cartwrights’ smiled at one another. “That’s a good sign,” Adam assured. “At least he sounds okay. Maybe now we’ll find out what happened.”

Shortly, afterwards Ben returned to Joe’s room and was busy bathing him with cool water when the door opened and Matt entered.

“If you think it’s okay to leave him for a minute, Ben, I think you should hear this.”

Ben dried his son’s body and covered him with a sheet before leaving the room and following Matt into Bobby’s room.

As everyone crowded round the bed, Bobby began to explain to them in a halting and shaky voice, what had happened.

“We found the wolf Mr. Cartwright and Joe had him in his sights when we saw these men.”

“What men?” Matt asked. Up until this point, he thought all their suspicions were right and the boys had been injured while tracking the wolf.

“Rustlers,” Bobby explained, not prepared for the reaction that word would bring.

“Rustlers!” Ben, Adam and Hoss said in unison. “What rustlers?”

“There were these men taking a couple of dozen cattle away from the herd. Joe and me decided to follow them and see where they were going.”

Matt Wilkinson restrained himself from telling his son what a dumb thing that was to have done as he wanted to hear the end of the story first.

“We followed them for ages and then they took the cattle into this ravine. Joe and I climbed to the top of a rock to watch them and it turned out there wasn’t just those cattle; they had hundreds of them.”

The men looked at each and scowled. How had they not been aware of rustlers?

“Once we saw what was happening, Joe said he would stay and keep an eye on them and I was to go for help.” Bobby stopped talking.

“What happened after that?” Ben asked, anxious for an explanation of how the boys’ received their injuries.

Bobby’s face clouded over in confusion. “I’m not sure, Mr. Cartwright. Last thing I remember was riding towards the ranch; I didn’t see the wolf until it was too late. Then nothing until I woke up in bed just now. I really don’t know what happened to Joe.” Tears pooled in the boy’s eyes and Molly was quick to intervene.

“I think he’s had enough questions for now,” she declared, ushering the men from the room.

Outside the bedroom door, the four men stood deep in thought. Rustlers!! This was something they hadn’t even considered.

Hoss was the first to break the silence. “Do you think the rustlers had anything to do with Little Joe being shot?”

“I don’t think so, Hoss,” Adam replied. “Bart Meadows found Joe’s rifle not far from where we found Joe. I checked and it had been fired. He seemed to think that Joe maybe stumbled and the gun went off, which seems feasible considering where we found Joe. A fall down that hill would account for his other injuries. He must have got fed up waiting for Bobby and come to get us himself.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Hoss answered, still finding it hard to think of his little brother lying out there all day and night injured and alone.

It was later in the day when Doctor Martin returned to the house. Seeing all the serious faces gathered round the dining table, he quickly asked. “What’s wrong? How are my patients doing?”

“Bobby’s fine,” Matt Wilkinson replied. “His leg hurts and I’m sure he has quite a headache but he’s awake and talking.”

“And Joe?” the doctor asked looking at Ben.

“His temperature’s rising,” Ben replied.

“I was afraid of infection,” Doc Martin acceded. “I’ll need to take another look at the wound.”

Doc Martin was right. Joe’s wound was infected and needed immediate attention.

“Better get ready to hold him, Ben, just in case,” Paul Martin cautioned. He wasn’t prepared to take the chance that Joe would regain consciousness in the middle of the procedure.

Adam and Hoss also positioned themselves at each side of the bed in preparation.

The site of the wound was red and oozing puss. Doc Martin had no choice but to open the stitches and clean out the wound. He was as careful as he possibly could be but as soon as he touched the infected area, Joe began to moan and squirm across the bed.

“Hold him tight,” Paul instructed. “Just remember it’s for his own good.”

Joe’s moans turned to cries of anguish as the Doc squeezed and probed the open wound. His cries turned into a long piercing screech of agony when iodine was used to clean the surrounding area, but it had to be done and his family knew it.

When it was over, Ben held his son to him and soothed him until the cries turned to sobs and finally to moans, before Joe finally slipped back into the welcoming darkness of sleep.

Ben was visibly distressed by the experience and Paul put a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Ben, it’s unlikely he will remember any of this when he wakes up.”

Several hours later, the men were talking in hushed whispers around Joe’s bed as Ben bathed his son’s body in an attempt to keep the fever from rising. Joe’s muttering suddenly startled them from their conversation.

“Pa, Pa,” Joe called, his voice weak and distorted as a result of the injury to his tongue.

“I’m here, Joe,” Ben reassured, taking his son’s hand while at the same time soothing the boy’s head with a wet cloth. “Everything is going to be okay.”

“There’s rustlers, Pa,” Joe cried out, his head tossing from one side to the other. His eyes opened and he looked at his father in a fevered state. “The rustlers, Pa, where’s the rustlers?”

“Hush,” Ben pacified. “There’s nothing to worry about; the rustlers are gone.”

Joe in his delirious state did not comprehend what his father was saying and he rambled on and on about the rustlers. Ben continued to talk quietly to him, when suddenly Joe tried to sit up and for a second his eyes cleared and he looked at his father and whimpered. “H-h-he shot me Pa, he shot me.”

“Who does he mean, Pa? Who shot him?” Hoss asked, an unbridled anger beginning to rise within him.

Adam leaned over the bed and gently taking hold of Joe’s chin, he looked into his little brother’s pain filled eyes and asked softly, “Who was it Joe? Who did this to you?”

“Rustlers,” Joe stated again, but his eyes had clouded and no one was sure whether he was answering Adam’s question or just rambling again.

Ben wouldn’t allow them to ask him anymore questions; instead, he gave Joe the medicine the doctor had left for him and sat with him until he drifted back to sleep.

As night fell, Adam insisted that Ben take his place by the fireside and he sat next to Joe’s bed. Shortly after midnight, Adam had drifted off to sleep when he was woken by Joe calling his name. Rousing himself immediately, he leaned over the bed and asked, “What is it, Joe? Are you in pain?”

“Thirsty,” Joe answered.

Adam quickly poured a glass of water and held Joe’s head while his brother sipped until he had his fill. Lying Joe’s head back on the pillow, Adam decided to try and get some answers before sleep overtook his brother once more.

“Joe, do you know who did this to you?”

Joe’s eyes were still heavy with sleep but he tried hard to focus on Adam’s face.

“Dusty,” he said simply. “His name was Dusty. He was in on it as well, Adam. He’s one of them.”

Adam was confused. “Who’s one of them, Joe? Do you mean Dusty? Who’s in on it?”

But Joe was already losing concentration, his head sank back into the pillows and he drifted off into a peaceful drug induced sleep.

Adam didn’t know how long he stood there looking at his little brother. When he finally did move, he realized his fists had been clenched so hard that his nails had broken the skin and blood tricked from between his fingers.

*****

Exhaustion and worry had taken its toll on Ben Cartwright and he slept the sleep of the dead that night. When he opened his eyes the following morning, he found the house a bustle of activity around him. The smell of bacon frying and fresh coffee filled the air as Molly sang softly to herself in the kitchen. Hoss was talking quietly in a corner to Matt and the sound of children’s laughter flowed through the window from outside.

Shaking himself awake, Ben stretched out his taut limbs and wished everyone a good morning.

Molly came forward with a steaming cup of coffee in her hand and passed it to Ben. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” she smiled. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible for someone to have a good night’s sleep on those old chairs.”

“I’ve slept in many a worse place, I can tell you,” Ben informed her, taking the coffee gratefully and downing half the cup in one mouthful. “How did the boys sleep?”

Just then the bedroom door opened and Adam stepped outside. “Joe’s doing better, Pa. He still has a temperature, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any worse. The doc was here an hour ago and he thinks we should keep Joe sedated for the next couple of days until the worst is over.”

Ben nodded his head and quietly paid thanks to a higher being for answering his prayers. “What about Bobby?”

Molly Wilkinson couldn’t have looked happier. “Bobby’s doing fine, Ben. He’s got a pretty sore head and won’t be walking around much for a week or two but he’s certainly on the mend. He has his appetite back and has eaten more than two grown men this morning.”

Hoss then chipped in. “The men found the wolf, Pa. They were out all day and night and didn’t return until they caught it.”

“And?” Ben asked, anxious to know the worst.

“There’s no reason to believe it was rabid, Pa. Bobby’s going to be all right.”

“Thank God,” Ben replied for the second time that morning.

Adam stood quietly for a moment longer, but he knew he couldn’t put off the inevitable.

“Hoss and I are riding out after the rustlers once we get packed up.”

“But you don’t know where to start looking?” Ben stated in exasperation. The last thing he needed right now was to be worrying about his older sons.

“Joe was coherent during the night Pa. He told me the name of the man that shot him. When the doc was here earlier, Joe mumbled something about them going to Placerville. They have a head start, but if they still think no one suspects anything, they could get careless.”

His sons were grown men and Ben knew in his heart that if Joe was out of the woods, he would be going with them but that didn’t stop him worrying. Adam had a steely coldness in his eyes that he didn’t often see and he dreaded to think what he would do if he was faced with the man that shot his little brother. Looking at Hoss, he saw the same determined expression on his face and anxiety washed over him. How could he stop his sons doing something they might later regret? Salvation came from an unexpected source.

“I’ll go with you boys,” Matt Wilkinson stated simply, giving Ben a reassuring look that made the older man nod his head in thanks.

“There’s no need, Matt,” Adam rebuffed. “Your place is here with your family.”

“My family is fine,” Matt replied. “Just remember, that could just as easily be Bobby in there with a bullet hole in him. Those men need to be found.”

Less than an hour later, the men were ready to travel. Matt hugged his wife and children goodbye, while Adam and Hoss said their goodbye to Ben and Little Joe.

Joe was oblivious of his brothers’ departure. Hoss stroked Little Joe’s face and whispered. “Don’t worry, Shortshanks, you’re gonna be just fine. We’ll get those varmints that did this, you can bet on that.”

Adam didn’t say a word. His mouth was set in a hard line and the only giveaway to his true feelings was the persistent tic in his left cheek.

As the three men mounted their horses, Bart Meadows came riding into the yard. He was furtive and guarded as he scanned the faces of the men in front of him to see if they showed any signs of knowing his part in the events of the last few days.

“I’m glad you dropped by,” Ben called, unaware of the sigh of relief that his words evoked. “The boys are heading out to Placerville, so I would appreciate it if you stayed here to give a hand, as there’s plenty to do.”

“Placerville?” Bart asked in surprise. “Why Placerville?”

“Little Joe didn’t fire the rifle that shot him,” Hoss stated in a voice so low, it could almost have been Ben talking.

“Then who?” Bart asked, trying to stop his voice from shaking as his throat involuntarily constricted making him swallow several times.

“Rustlers,” Ben said simply. “Little Joe came across them and they shot him to keep quiet.”

“Shot him!” Bart exclaimed, feigning shock. “But he’s just a kid.”

“That’s why they have to be found,” Adam spoke for the first time. “They won’t get away, that I guarantee.”

Bart now swallowed the bile that was rising in his throat. “Have you any idea who they are?”

Hoss shook his head. “Joe mentioned one name, but he’s too sick to say any more. The Doc’s gonna keep him sedated for the next couple of days, but we can’t afford to hang around any longer while those murdering scum get away.”

As the men finally rode off and Ben and Molly returned to the house, Bart Meadows was left alone to ponder. Sedated for the next couple of days. In that case, he needed to act fast; he couldn’t allow the boy to wake up and spill the beans. At least there was one less problem to worry about; the Wilkinson boy mustn’t have seen him otherwise he wouldn’t be standing there now a free man.

*****

There was very little banter between the brothers and Matt Wilkinson during the whole of that day. They all rode hard and fast, only stopping when they needed to rest the horses or answer the call of nature, but when the sky darkened and night began to fall, they finally decided to make camp.

It would have been a cold camp if Matt hadn’t taken it upon himself to light a fire and prepare a hot meal. The brothers hardly tasted the food on their plates, which to Matt’s mind was just as well, as Molly often said his cooking left an awful lot to be desired.

The brothers were in no mind for conversation and it was Matt Wilkinson who finally broke the silence. “What you boys figuring on doing when we get to Placerville?”

Hoss looked to his older brother for guidance, but Adam remained silent.

Matt wasn’t willing to let the matter drop. Ben was a close friend and he owed it to him to steer the brothers in the right direction. “I think we should get the help of the sheriff when we get to town. From what Roy Coffee says, Dan Baker’s a good man; he’ll do what’s right.”

Again Hoss looked to his brother, but Adam still remained silent. “What do you think, Adam?” Hoss finally asked.

Adam took his time, slowly sipping on his coffee before standing up and throwing the remaining dregs into the fire. “We’ll do whatever we have to,” he said quietly, and without further explanation, he pulled out his bedroll and made preparations for sleep.

But sleep was a long time coming for Adam that night. His thoughts were all on his youngest sibling and he found himself thinking back to their last proper conversation. His little brother had been so curious about Adam’s relationship with Marie, and Adam now wished he had taken the time to talk to Joe about his mother. Little Joe’s memories of Marie were fleeting, and more often than not, were probably fabricated around stories he heard from his father and brothers rather than his own experiences; he craved every little snippet they could give him.

Adam made a promise that night that, when he got home, he would sit with his brother and answer, as best he could, all the questions Joe had, anything to make the boy happy. Marie had been part of Adam’s life for less than seven years, but he had to admit, in those seven years she had changed all their lives for the better.

Ben had been a good father to his two young sons, but lack of money and work, the constant battle for survival, and the pressure of having two small dependents had made him an overly serious, though loving, man. His sons had no doubt that their father cared deeply for them, but Ben was not overly demonstrative and the two small boys had yearned for affection.

When Marie had entered their lives, Hoss was only five years old and he gave himself to her completely. She was the mother he had never known and he loved her from the first moment she had taken him in her arms and cuddled him. At not quite eleven, Adam had not been quite so easy to win over. He would have dearly loved to give her his heart, but he had been hurt too many times in the past and he wasn’t about to let another woman inside the protective wall he had built around himself.

Adam was never sure when the change had come about; it could have been the birth of his youngest brother, but was more likely the time his father was about to thrash the living daylights out of him for his insolence and Marie had stepped between them and defused the situation. From that moment on, Adam found an ally in Marie; she had a way of talking to Ben that helped him see things differently and brought about a new understanding between father and son.

Over those seven years, Ben had softened; he was still a strict disciplinarian and his sons knew only too well the difference between right and wrong, but laughter and fun had become just as important in their lives. When Marie had died, Ben had been lost to them all for a short while, but he never forgot the lessons he learned from his beautiful young wife and his family were the beneficiaries.

The haunting memories made sleep impossible for Adam and he couldn’t shake off an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Guilt for not protecting his young brother against those mindless thugs, guilt for not listening to him when he wanting to talk, but mainly the guilt he felt was for allowing the barriers he had built as a young boy to be erected once again. He loved his family beyond life itself, but he also knew he could appear aloof and unfeeling at times. His father and Hoss understood his need for this semblance of self-preservation, but he had often witnessed the hurt in his youngest brother’s eyes when he had been overly harsh or critical about his actions. Joe didn’t understand that Adam’s harshness was often borne out of concern for the boy’s own welfare.

And with that thought floating in his mind, Adam had hardly closed his eyes before morning was upon them.

*****

When they arrived in Placerville, Matt was determined they would get off to the right start; he owed that much to his friend. “Why don’t we go to the Sheriff’s office first and see if he has any information?”

Hoss looked to his brother, leaving him to make the decision. “You do that,” Adam stated coldly. “I need a beer.” With that he dismounted outside the saloon, tied up his horse and walked between the saloon doors, not waiting to see if the others were following him. Shrugging his shoulders at Matt, Hoss followed in his brother’s footsteps.

Matt decided not to follow. He set off to find the sheriff; he didn’t like the way things were going and they had only just arrived. Before all this happened, Matt Wilkinson would have staked his life on Adam Cartwright doing the right thing; now he was not so sure.

“Two beers,” Adam barked at the bald headed little man behind the bar.

“Coming right up,” the man replied, not fazed at all by the hard-looking man dressed all in black and his much larger friend. They had all sorts passing this way over the years and he had learned to deal with the meanest of them.

The brothers drank their beers in silence, each feeling there was nothing left to say that hadn’t already been said.

Over in the corner of the saloon, a group of men were playing poker. The game had obviously been going on for some time and one man in particular seemed to be having a lucky streak. A pile of notes were stacked up on the table next to him and the saloon girls were buzzing round like bees to a honey pot in the hope of sharing some of his good fortune.

Adam leaned with his back against the bar and took a sip of his slightly warm beer. He surveyed the room in front of him with uninterested eyes; he just wanted to eat, sleep in a real bed for one night and then be on his way. If they could pick up any information about the rustlers at the same time. that would be a bonus, but he didn’t expect to get that lucky.

“Hey Joe, bring another bottle of whisky” one of the saloon girls shouted. “There’s thirsty men over here.”

Hoss visibly flinched at the calling of the name, but if Adam felt anything it didn’t show because his face remained impassive.

Joe came out from behind the bar with a bottle of rotgut in his hand and sauntered over to the poker players. “That’s quite a game you’ve got going,” Joe remarked before heading back to the bar and chalking up the money owed on a slate he was keeping for the man who was having the winning streak.

Adam and Hoss had just downed the last of their beer and were about to head out after Matt when they were stopped dead in their tracks.

“I’m out,” one of the men at the table spat, throwing down his cards in disgust. In quick succession all the other men but one followed suit. “You know Dusty, you are one lucky son of a bitch.”

Dusty laughed loudly and scooped the pile of money from the center of the table over towards him, totally unaware of the interest now being shown in him from the two strangers at the bar.

“Your name Dusty?” Adam asked; his voice so low that everyone in the bar stopped talking and looked in his direction.

“Yep, I’m Dusty,” the man replied, placing his cards face down on the table and letting his right hand slide down his side towards his gun. “Who wants to know?”

“My name’s Adam Cartwright and this here’s my brother Hoss.”

If the brothers had had any doubt that the man in front of them was the one they were looking for, the reaction to their words confirmed their suspicions.

Dusty’s eyes turned from one brother to another and the fear was evident in his voice when he asked, “What do you want with me?”

“Shot any kids recently, Dusty?” Adam growled, standing away from the bar, his own right hand hovering over his gun in readiness.

The men sitting round the table with Dusty were quick to move away from him and out of the line of fire.

Dusty was a lot of things but he wasn’t a fool. If one brother didn’t get him, the other certainly would. He decided to try and talk his way out of the situation.

“What makes you think it was me that shot your brother? I wasn’t the only one there.”

Adam’s eyes darkened even more at the man’s unintentional but stupid gaff. “I never mentioned anything about my brother being shot, but it was your name I was given as the guilty party,” Adam confirmed. Then much to the relief of his middle brother, he added, “But we’ll let the law decide one way or the other.”

“Why that double-crossing murdering scum,” Dusty exclaimed. “It was him that told me to shoot the kid in the first place. If I’d had my way, we would have just tied him up and left him there.”

Everything that happened after that happened so quickly the brothers hardly had time to react. Dusty, knowing the chips were down, unwisely went for his gun and was able to fire one shot before Adam returned fire and brought him down.

Luckily the amount of whisky that Dusty had consumed had affected his aim and he only managed to wing Adam before he himself was shot in the chest and slumped to the floor.

Dusty remained conscious as the brothers hovered above him and Adam asked with a sense of urgency, “Who told you to shoot him?”

“Bart Meadows,” he managed to whisper at he gasped for breath. “The double-crossing…he gets me to kill the kid, then he points the finger at me.”

Hoss and Adam looked at each with open mouths, before turning back to the injured man. “Bart Meadows? What does he have to do with all this?”

A look of puzzlement came over Dusty’s face. “Wasn’t it Bart that told you it was me?” he asked.

“No,” Hoss replied. “It was Joe who told Adam your name.”

Dusty was even more confused. “You mean the kid ain’t dead?”

Adam felt the anger building in him once more. “He’s still alive, no thanks to you.”

The man on the ground flinched away from the angry words, but he had more to say. “I know you won’t believe me, but I’m glad the boy’s not dead. You know, the kid had spunk.” But Adam and Hoss were no longer listening to him.

“Bart Meadows,” Adam repeated through gritted teeth. “You know what this means?”

Hoss didn’t need to reply; words weren’t needed. They had left the one person who wanted their little brother dead to help look after him.

Precious time was wasted explaining to the sheriff what had taken place, and Dusty decided to come clean and tell where the rest of the gang were hiding out as he awaited a visit from the Doctor. So with his prisoner now safely locked up in jail, the Sheriff prepared to form a posse to hunt down the rest of the rustlers hiding out at the Dawson’s old ranch,

However, Adam, Hoss and Matt wanted to be on their way back to Virginia City; already a sense of dread was passing over them and a gnawing fear that they were already too late.

Hoss snapped his fingers together and cried excitedly, “Send a telegram, Adam. Let Sheriff Coffee and Pa know what’s happened and let’s hope that Meadows hasn’t harmed Joe before they get it.”

Adam readily agreed and the telegram was quickly drafted and sent. Shortly afterwards, the three men were ready to make their two-day return journey, when Hoss remembered that his brother was hurt.

“Better get the doc to take a look at that arm first Adam.”

Adam brushed off Hoss’ concern. “It’s only a scratch, Hoss; we don’t have time to waste.”

“Scratch or not,” Hoss insisted. “Let the doc clean it up and I ain’t taking no for an answer.”

Adam knew it was futile to argue with Hoss when he was being this stubborn, and as soon as the doc attended to the prisoner, he allowed him to quickly clean and dress his own injury.

Luckily, he was right and it was only a flesh wound, but once the iodine and dressing had been applied, it began to sting like red hot needles. Gritting his teeth together and fighting against the pain, Adam mounted his horse and set off after Hoss and Matt with grim determination, praying silently they would not be too late.

*****

As the events in Placerville took their course, Bart Meadows finally got his chance to shut Joe up once and for all. Ben Cartwright had decided Joe was stable enough to be left in the care of Molly for the rest of the day so that he could ride back to the Ponderosa and check that everything was running smoothly.

As Ben left, he called Bart Meadows over to him.

“Meadows,” he began. “I’m going to head back to the ranch and probably won’t be back until early evening, I’d appreciate it if you stay close to the house in case Mrs. Wilkinson is in need of anything. And if the Doctor arrives, can you let him know I would like to speak to him?”

Meadows tried to still his excitement. “How’s the boy doing, Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben’s face softened. “He seems to be doing fine; the fever’s gone and his wounds are starting to heal. I’ve cut back on his medication and I’m hoping the Doc will allow him to wake up, as I think he’s ready.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Mr. Cartwright. All the men have been real worried about the little guy.”

But the words belied his true feelings; inside Bart Meadows was a desperate man. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer; the kid would need to be disposed of.

Later that afternoon, his opportunity finally came.

Molly was outside the house hanging washing on the line when she realized the twins weren’t where they were supposed to be.

“Mr. Meadows,” she called over to Bart. “Have you seen the girls?”

“They were heading towards the creek last time I saw them, Ma’am.”

“Why those little imps,” Molly said under her breath. “They know full well they are not allowed by the creek on their own. As if I haven’t got enough to do…” Then turning back to Meadows, she asked. “Would you mind listening out for the boys, while I go get those little scamps? They’ll not be wandering off again in a hurry when I get my hands on the pair of them.”

Bart was quick to agree. “Sure, Mrs. Wilkinson, don’t you worry about the boys. I’ll be right outside if they need anything.”

Molly gave a last glance back at the house, a worried frown on her face. “Thanks. Bobby’s resting in his room and Joe…well, Joe’s still sleeping, so you shouldn’t have any problem.”

As soon as Molly was out of sight, Matt crept into the house. Standing in the living room, he surveyed the surroundings and tried to judge where Joe would be. Just then he heard a cough behind one of the doors and a shuffling from inside. That had to be Bobby.

With no time to waste, Meadows quietly made his way towards the room he believed Joe to be. Opening the door without a sound, he slipped quickly inside and crossed over to the bed. Subconsciously holding his breath, he finally let the air escape when he realized he had made the right choice.

An unconscious Little Joe lay motionless on the bed. The boy’s breathing was deep and long and his face was pale; the skin cool to the touch. There was no longer any signs of the fever that had ravaged Joe’s body only a few hours before and Bart knew he had to act now or face the consequences.

Lifting Joe’s head slightly, Meadows inched the pillow from beneath him and then allowed the boy’s head to fall back onto the bed. With just a moment’s hesitation, he placed the pillow over the boy’s face and pushed it down as hard as he could, in effect cutting off Joe’s air supply and smothering him.

*****

Joe was dreaming he was home on the Ponderosa in his own bed and everything was fine. He was in that dreamlike state between sleep and consciousness and was happy to stay there, safe and content, devoid of the pain that dogged him in his last wakeful hours.

But Joe’s peace was short lived; one moment he felt safe, then before the next breath left his lungs, his whole body was alerted to danger. He didn’t have time to analyze his anxiety before his airway was cut off and he felt powerless as a great weight seemed to come down upon him.

Joe struggled as much as he could, his hands fruitlessly trying to push the weight from him as his legs flayed under the bedcovers. The blackness was about to claim him once more and as his eyes opened, for perhaps the last time, he was momentarily faced with the demon of his nightmares. Bart Meadows looked back at him without remorse; it was his life or Joe’s, and for him the decision was easy.

As Meadows watched the life draining from the boy below him, he was unaware of the door opening behind him. Ben Cartwright took but a moment to assess the situation, and with the rage of a lion protecting it’s young, he sprang forward and literally pounced on the man before him.

Meadows didn’t know what hit him and he put up no defense against the blows that rained down on him. It may have had a very different ending if Roy Coffee hadn’t entered the room when he did and, with the help of Doctor Paul Martin, pulled Ben away from the beaten man on the bedroom floor.

“Enough, Ben, ENOUGH,” Roy shouted, trying to get through to his friend. “I’ll take over now; you just see to Little Joe.”

At the mention of Joe, the red mist began to clear, and in a rush of realization, Ben released his hold on his son’s attacker and went to Joe’s bedside. “Oh Joe,” he cried, ashamed that in his rage his son had been forgotten.

“He’s all right, Ben,” Paul Martin reassured. “Don’t worry; his breathing is returning to normal. It was close, but thank God you returned when you did.”

Little Joe took his first full lungful of air and started to cough. This was followed by a choked sob and then the boy started to cry uncontrollably.

Despite the Doc’s protests, Ben pushed Paul aside and took his young son in his arms and cradled him protectively, soothing him gently until his sobs ceased and he was quite once more. Ben’s own heart almost broke when the only word Joe could utter was a heart wrenching “Pa”.

“It’s all right,” Ben soothed once more. “It’s over, Joe, it’s all over. He won’t hurt you anymore.” As Ben cradled his son, Doctor Martin decided it would be best if Joe was sedated once more; the boy’s obvious distress was doing him no good.

Just at that moment, Molly arrived home with two chastised children and walked into the confusion. She hurriedly made her way into the bedroom, afraid of what she might find. “What’s happened?” she cried. The room was full and there was no way of knowing just what had taken place.

A quick explanation was given as Roy Coffee handcuffed his prisoner and escorted him from the room. “But how did you know?” she asked Ben. “How did you know to come back?”

Ben couldn’t offer any real explanation, at least not one he could put into words easily. The feeling he had had when riding to the Ponderosa was the same one he had felt just before they found Joe. His boy was in danger, and, even if it turned out to be a wild goose chase, he knew he had to return to the house and make sure that Joe was all right.

“Never mind the reasons why, Ben; it’s just as well you did come back when you did,” Molly said in a grave voice. “But how did Sheriff Coffee come to be here?”

It was the doctor that filled in the gaps. “It seems Adam and Hoss caught up with the one they call Dusty and he pointed the finger at Bart Meadows. Adam sent a telegram to Roy and I met up with him on his way here to arrest Meadows and to let Ben know what was going on.”

Molly sat down on the bed and pushed her hair from her face. With a weak smile, she looked at Ben and asked, “Do you think life will get back to normal now?”

Ben smiled and shook his head. “I don’t think life will ever be normal with those two boys of ours. Do you?” Molly rolled her eyes and Ben added. “And from what I’ve seen over the last few days, even when the boys are grown, I think you’ll likely have your hands full with the twins.”

Molly put her hands over her ears and tried to shut out Ben’s words. “Oh Ben please, I really don’t want to think about it. I sometimes worry that those girls of mine will make the boys look positive angels in comparison.”

Ben drew in a deep breath and looked down at his now sleeping youngest son. “Speaking of angels, I still have one young man to question about telling lies to his teacher and his brothers.”

“But not today, Ben,” Molly whispered, standing up and also gazing down at Joe.

“No, no, not today,” Ben agreed quickly; he could never be that heartless. “I’ll leave that little talk until he’s well enough to appreciate the message I’m trying to get over to him. But it’s my duty to make him see how his lies could so easily have brought disaster upon us all.”

Just then a noise from outside the door caught their attention and Molly rushed to see what it was.

“Bobby Wilkinson,” she said sharply. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“I heard people shouting,” Bobby replied, shuffling along the floor on his bottom. “I didn’t know what was happening. Is Joe alright?”

Ben appeared at her side, and bending down, he scooped the young boy up into his arms and carried him back to his own room, saying at the same time, “Joe is going to be fine, but like you young man, he needs to stay in bed if he’s to make a full recovery.”

Molly followed Ben into the room and went about making sure that Bobby was comfortable.

As Ben turned to leave, Bobby looked up at him with pleading eyes. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m real sorry about what happened. Joe and I shouldn’t have sneaked off like that and lied about it.”

Ben turned back into the room and walking over to the bed he asked the question, which he already knew in his heart the answer to. “Whose idea was it?”

Bobby squirmed in the bed and lowered his head.

Taking the boy’s chin in his hand, Ben raised his face and said softly, “I need to know the truth.”

With watering eyes, Bobby swallowed hard and said in almost a whisper, “I guess it was Joe’s idea, but I went along with it, so I’m as much to blame.”

Ben ruffled the boy’s blonde locks. “I agree you should have said no, but Joe should never have asked you to do it in the first place. For that, he has to take responsibility.”

“M-M-Mr. Cartwright, you ain’t gonna tan him are you?”

Ben and Molly exchanged an amused glance. Both boys had suffered so much, but still the idea of a tanning was the worst thing they could think of.

“Well, let me decide how to deal with Joseph, shall we, and I will leave your punishment to your Pa.”

“Yes sir,” Bobby replied, squirming once again as he thought of the talk he still had not had with his own father.

Molly’s face suddenly turned to one of worry. “Where did they go to? Those little scamps have wandered off again.” With that, she hurried out of the room calling the twins names at the top of her voice, but receiving no answer.

*****

The three men rode as if their life depended on it to get home, each harboring dark thoughts as to what they might find when they reached their destination. Adam’s arm ached but he gritted his teeth with grim determination; he wouldn’t be the one to hold them up, no matter how he felt.

As they finally rode up to the Wilkinson ranch, everything seemed unusually quiet. There was no sign of Molly, the children, Ben or Bart Meadows. Hoss glanced nervously at Adam, but it was Matt that put into words what they were all feeling.

“This doesn’t look right; there’s something wrong.”

Adam and Hoss nodded in agreement. Dismounting from their horses, they approached the house almost silently, each of them feeling the others nervous energy.

Matt withdrew his gun and signaled for the others to do the same. Pushing open the door, the men inched their way inside. The front room was empty, the only sign of life being the fire glowing in the hearth. Adam made his way over to the room Joe had been using and pushed open the door with his foot, his gun pointing straight ahead. Again the room was empty. Hoss’ face mirrored the distress of his brother’s. Were they really too late?

Unable to contain his anxiety any longer, Matt began to call out for his wife.

“Molly” he shouted, but when he received no reply, he called out even louder. “MOLLY”.

The door to the twins’ room opened and an angry Molly came bustling out. “What on earth is all the fuss about?” she whispered through clenched teeth. “And for goodness sake, put those guns away.”

The men looked at her with open mouths, all three at a loss for words. “I saw you riding up a few minutes ago,” Molly continued. “But I didn’t come out as the twins were just dropping off to sleep, and if they knew you were home, there was no way I would get them back to bed.”

“B-b-but Joe, what about Joe?” Hoss blurted out, completely confused.

Suddenly realization crossed Molly’s face and she was contrite. “Oh I’m sorry,” she began. “I know how it must have looked. Joe’s gone…..”

“Gone,” Adam cried in disbelief.

“No, no, not gone. Well, yes gone, but with your father. Ben took Little Joe home this morning.”

“He’s okay, Joe’s really okay?” Hoss asked, still not convinced.

Molly smiled warmly. “Yes, Hoss, Joe is going to be fine. Doctor Martin gave your father the all clear for Joe to travel and your brother was anxious to be back in his own bed.”

“But what about Bart Meadows?” Adam interrupted, still not comprehending how things had turned out.

“Why don’t you all sit down and I’ll make some coffee,” Molly instructed. “I have quite a story to tell you and I’m sure you have one to tell me.”

Hoss and Adam realized they were still holding their guns. Putting them back into the holsters, they removed their hats and sat down; the energy draining out of them as the stress of the last week began to take its toll.

“I’ll just check on Bobby and the girls first,” Matt said quietly, leaving the brothers alone so the good news could sink in.

*****

A whole week had passed since Joe had returned to the Ponderosa and the doctor had decided he was well enough to be helped downstairs and spend the day convalescing in the front room.

Once breakfast was over, Hoss helped Joe over to the settee, made him comfortable and then headed outside to saddle the horses. Meanwhile, Adam took last-minute instructions from his father before crossing over to Joe and ruffling his hair.

“You know, Pa, I think we ought to get one of Hop Sing’s basins out of the kitchen and give the boy a haircut. He’s beginning to look like Janie Mills, but not as pretty.”

Adam jumped back laughing as his little brother swung a fist in his direction; things were finally getting back to normal.

Joe glared at his big brother and was about to climb from the sofa and follow Adam towards the door, but a single “Joseph” from his father stopped him in his tracks and he had to content himself with sticking out his tongue in his brother’s direction.

Ben let the childish behavior pass and he waited until he and Joseph were alone before crossing the room and sitting down on his favorite chair. The time had come for him and Joe to have their little talk; it couldn’t be put off any longer.

Joe at once sensed what was to come and he shuffled uneasily on the sofa and his chin fell to his chest as he was unable to look his father in the eyes.

Ben looked at Joe for a long time, waiting for Joe to return his gaze. When Joe eventually raised his head, Ben asked, “Do you have anything to say to me. Joseph?”

Joe bit on his bottom lip, his eyebrows rose and he tried to look as innocent as possible. “Who me, Pa?”

Ben did not answer; he just continued to stare at the boy in front of him.

Joe knew the pretence was pointless, his father could see right through him. Taking a deep breath he said in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

Ben nodded in acknowledgement and then asked. “Now, maybe you can explain to me why you lied to me, your brothers and your teacher?”

Joe tried to defend himself. “I never lied to Miss Jones Pa.”

“Is that right?” Ben queried. “Did or did you not tell Miss Jones that you couldn’t attend school because you had to help out on the ranch?”

“Well, not exactly. I said that it was busy at the ranch and she just assumed that I had to stay home.”

Much as Ben was sympathetic to Joe’s ongoing recovery, he was not prepared to let that pass.

“When you told Miss Jones how busy we were at the ranch, did you imply that you were needed here? Was it not your intention to deceive your teacher?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

Ben was not about to let him off the hook that easily. “Joseph, have you any idea how disappointed I was to learn that a son of mine was lying?”

The idea of his father’s disappointment was the worst possible punishment Joe could think of; his eyes filled with tears and a lump formed in his throat. “I-I-I am sorry, Pa. I didn’t really think of it as lying….j-j-just wanted to have a bit of fun.”

Ben steeled himself not to look into the green orbs; he must be resolute in his chastisement.

“Lying is lying, Joseph; there are no half measures. But more than the disappointment it caused to me and your brothers, have you thought of the almost dire consequences of your actions?”

Joe swallowed hard and shook his head.

“Not content with telling lies yourself, you then encouraged a friend to take part in your deception. When I said that you were not to hunt the wolf, Joseph, I didn’t do it to stop you having fun; your safety is always my main concern.”

“Yes sir,” Joe managed to whisper.

“If it hadn’t been for the grace of God, two families could have been burying sons last week and your brothers could be behind bars for taking the law into their own hands. In fact, Adam was shot confronting that man; I could have buried two sons.”

Joe couldn’t hide his distress any longer; the enormity of what he had done weighed down on him and the tears began to flow. Ben held off as long as possible, but his willpower gave out, and crossing over to the settee, he pulled his young son into a tight embrace.

Sobbing onto his father’s chest, Joe struggled to get out his words, “I-I-I promise Pa, I’ll never lie again. I won’t ever do anything to make you ashamed of me. Pa, really I won’t.”

“It’s not just me you need to apologize to, Joseph,” Ben admonished, trying hard to keep up a hardness he did not feel.

“I know, Pa, and believe me, the first chance I get, I’ll go see the Wilkinsons and Miss Jones.”

“Don’t forget your brothers.”

“I-I-I won’t, Pa, I promise. And from now on, I’ll be as good as Adam; I will, really I will.”

Ben patted his son’s back and smiled, “As good as Adam,” he mused. In that case, he was in for a long hard road. There were more than twelve years between Adam and Joe, and if the past was anything to go by, the next five years were going to be very interesting, very interesting indeed.

***The End***

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