Precious Possessions (by Susan)

Synopsis:  After spending twenty years in prison, has a man returned to Virginia City to exact revenge?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  11,540


 

“Ha! Finally beat you, little brother,” Hoss Cartwright exclaimed triumphantly.

Ben Cartwright, sitting in his favorite chair by the fireplace, looked up from his book. Hoss, Ben’s middle son, was perched on the sofa, pointing to a checker board on the low table in front of him. Joe, the youngest of the Cartwright brothers at 22, was sitting curled on the table, frowning at the board in front of him.

“How did that happen?” Joe muttered disgustedly. “I always win at checkers.”

“Not tonight!” Hoss said. “I finally won a game.”

“Joseph, take your feet off the furniture,” Ben ordered with a sigh.

“Yes sir,” Joe answered automatically. He quickly uncurled his legs and put his left foot on the floor. He continued to sit on the table with his right leg bent in front of him, but was careful his foot was over the edge of the table. He scowled at the board in front of him.

Ben nodded approvingly and went back to reading his book.

“How about another game?” Hoss asked with a grin.

“Sure,” replied Joe, picking up the checkers. “This game was a fluke. I’ll show you how to really play checkers.”

The brothers were lining up the pieces on the board when Adam Cartwright, the oldest of the brothers, walked through the front door and into the living room. The rest of the Cartwrights looked up as he walked in.

“What’s new in town?” asked Joe.

“Well, I’ve got some news for Pa,” answered Adam as he removed his hat and gunbelt. Ben looked at him curiously. Adam walked over and sat on the arm of the sofa. “Andy Pettigrew is out of prison. He’s back in Virginia City.”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked with a frown.

Adam nodded. “I didn’t see him but Roy Coffee told me that Pettigrew was in town. Roy said he was released about six weeks ago.”

“Who’s Andy Pettigrew?” asked Joe.

“He’s a man who was convicted of murder,” answered Ben still frowning.

“I don’t remember hearing about him,” said Joe.

“You wouldn’t,” Adam told his youngest brother. “You were just a baby when this happened. I barely remembered him when Roy mentioned his name.”

“Yeah, I was just a kid but I remember the trial. Pa was the judge,” commented Hoss.

“Pa was the judge?” Joe said in surprise. “How did that happen?”

“Oh, this happened over twenty years ago,” explained Ben. “Back then, Virginia City didn’t exist. All we had here was a saloon, a trading post and a couple of other buildings. We didn’t have any judges or lawyers around. We didn’t even have a jail. So when there were any crimes, we either had to wait for the circuit judge, or handle things ourselves.”

“Who did Pettigrew kill?” Joe asked, his curiosity growing.

“A man named Pete Bradshaw,” replied Ben.

“What happened?” Joe asked.

“Andy Pettigrew and Pete Bradshaw were both trappers, mountain men,” Ben answered. “One day, they got into a fight in the saloon. Andy accused Pete of stealing furs from his traps. They went at it pretty good. It took five men to break up the fight. Anyway, the next day, a hunter found Bradshaw’s body in the woods, buried in a snowbank. Two days later, Pettigrew showed up at the trading post with a bundle of furs. More furs than he could have trapped himself. Some men grabbed him, accused him of murdering Bradshaw and locked him in a store room.”

“How did you get involved?” Joe asked.

Ben shrugged a bit. “It was the middle of winter, and people felt Pettigrew couldn’t be kept in the storeroom until the judge arrived. It would probably be six months or longer before the judge showed up. They decided to hold a trial. Since I’d been a ship’s captain and had held a couple of trials on my ships, they asked me to act as the judge. I didn’t like the idea, but I agreed.”

“Pettigrew was found guilty,” added Hoss. “I remember that part of the trial. Pettigrew roared like a bear when he heard the verdict. He swore he was innocent.”

“Was he?” asked Joe.

“Well, the evidence was certainly against him,” Ben said. “He had been fighting with Bradshaw the day before, and he almost certainly had some of Bradshaw’s furs, if not all of them. The hunter who found Bradshaw said he had been shot, and he still had his knife in his belt. If Piautes had killed Bradshaw, they wouldn’t have shot him. They didn’t have guns back then. And they surely wouldn’t have left the knife or tried to hide the body. Nobody else had any reason to kill Bradshaw.”

“If he was guilty, why didn’t Pettigrew hang?” asked Joe.

“The evidence against him was mostly circumstantial,” replied Ben. “And I didn’t feel comfortable about hanging a man without a real judge and a proper lawyer. So I sentenced him to twenty years in prison. I felt if new evidence came to light, or another judge overturned the sentence, he could be released. If he was hung, we couldn’t undo the damage.”

“Twenty years in prison,” observed Hoss. “You didn’t do him any favors, Pa.”

“I know,” admitted Ben. “But no new evidence ever came up, and his case was reviewed several times without any new sentence being handed down.”

“Twenty years in that hellhole they call Nevada Prison,” said Adam with a shake of his head. “For a mountain man, that must have been sheer torture. I’m surprised he lasted.”

“I am, too, Adam,” Ben agreed. “I asked about him several times. The warden told me that he was too mean and full of hate to give in.”

“Do you think he came back here to make trouble?” asked Hoss with a worried expression.

“I don’t know,” answered Adam. “Roy said he’s been over at the Silver Dollar saloon for the last three days. He claims he’s just getting caught up on old times. But he’s been asking a lot of questions about Pa, Charlie Tobler and Matt Benson.”

“Why Tobler and Benson?” asked Joe.

“Charlie Tobler acted as prosecutor,” explained Ben. “Back then, he was running the trading post. Matt Benson was foreman of the jury. That’s when Matt was still prospecting, before he hit it big with his silver mine.”

“That sounds like trouble to me,” said Hoss. “You’d better watch yourself, Pa.”

“Roy Coffee thinks the same thing,” added Adam. “He figures the best thing for you to do is stay on the Ponderosa for awhile, and don’t come to town.”

Ben was silent for a few moments, then shook his head. “No, that’s not the answer, Adam. I can’t hide out here forever. The best thing for me to do is to go to town tomorrow and confront Pettigrew. Get everything out in the open.”

“We’ll go with you, Pa,” offered Hoss.

“No,” said Ben. “I can handle this by myself. Pettigrew is not going to do anything in broad daylight, right in the middle of Virginia City.”

*****

Ben rode into Virginia City the next morning. He stopped his horse in front of the bank, wanting to take care of some business before he confronted Pettigrew. He was coming out of the bank and walking toward the Silver Dollar saloon when he heard his name being called.

“Ben, wait a minute!”

Turning around, Ben saw two well-dressed men hurrying toward him. Charlie Tobler was a short man, with silver hair and a neat mustache. Matt Benson was several inches taller, and built like the miner he used to be. Benson’s broad shoulders and his heavily muscled arms seemed to be straining his suit.

“Charlie, Matt, good to see you,” Ben greeted the approaching men.

“Ben, have you heard that Andy Pettigrew is back in town?” asked Tobler in a worried voice.

“Yes, I’ve heard,” replied Ben. “In fact, I was just heading over to the saloon to see if I could find him.”

“Find him?” Tobler exclaimed. “Why do you want to do that?”

“To have a talk with him,” explained Ben. “To find out why he came back to Virginia City.”

“I’ll tell you why he came back,” Benson said. “He wants the three of us dead.”

“Now, Matt, you don’t know that,” countered Ben. “He could have come back because this is the only place he knows. After all, he’s been locked up for twenty years.”

“I think Matt is right,” said Tobler nervously. “He’s going to kill us, I know it. He swore revenge twenty years ago, and now he’s going to make it happen.”

“Charlie, you’re getting yourself all worked up over nothing,” replied Ben soothingly. “Let me talk with Pettigrew and find out why he’s here.”

“I suppose you’re right, Ben,” Benson agreed. “Besides, I’ve got my hands full at the mine. I don’t have time to worry about Pettigrew. If he wants me, he’s going to have to go through fifty miners to get me.”

“When are you going to give up that mine and retire?” Tobler asked with a smile.

“And do what?” snorted Benson. “Sit around in a fancy house all day like you do? No thanks.”

“Well, at least I have the finer things in life to enjoy,” argued Tobler. “I worked hard, and now I can take it easy. You should try it.”

As he listened to the two men, Ben smiled. Benson and Tobler had been having this same argument for two years, ever since Charlie had built one of the finest houses in Virginia City and filled it with artwork and books he had purchased from around the world. Matt, on the other hand, seemed to relish working in the mines every day. He thought the idea of retirement was just about the worst idea he had ever heard.

“You two head on home,” Ben said. “I’ll let you know what Pettigrew says.”

Both Benson and Tobler nodded. “I’ll be at the mine if you want me,” added Benson. He and Charlie walked off in opposite directions.

Ben continued down the street until he reached the Silver Dollar. He pushed opened the doors and looked around. Sitting at the corner table was a grizzled old man wearing a buckskin shirt and dark pants. His face was lined and worn, ringed by a white beard and a head of thick white hair. A bottle of whiskey sat on the table, next to an empty glass. Ben looked around the saloon and saw no one else he didn’t recognize. With a purposeful stride, Ben walked to the corner table.

“Andy Pettigrew?” Ben asked in a tentative voice.

The old man looked up. “Ben Cartwright,” the man said. “You ain’t changed much in twenty years.”

Pettigrew certainly had, thought Ben. The once powerful mountain man now looked old and beaten. “May I sit down?” Ben asked.

“Sure, pull up a chair, have a drink,” answered Pettigrew. He poured some whiskey into the glass.

“Thanks,” said Ben, sitting down in a chair at the table. “I heard you were back in Virginia City.”

“Yep, it took me twenty years, but I’m back,” Pettigrew replied.

Ben fiddled with the glass before him. He didn’t know exactly how to broach the subject of why Pettigrew had returned.

“Are you looking for a job?” asked Ben. “We can always use hands at the Ponderosa.”

“Nope,” answered Pettigrew. “My brother died a few years back and left me some money. Not much, but enough to tide me over for a while.”

Nodding, Ben continued to play with the glass. He wasn’t sure what to say next.

Pettigrew watched Ben for a few moments. “You’re wondering why I’m back, ain’t you?” Pettigrew stated.

“Yes, Andy, I am,” admitted Ben. “Like you said, it’s been twenty years. A lot has changed. I’m curious why you came back.”

Pettigrew took a swig of whiskey from the bottle, and wiped his mouth. “Ah, that’s good,” he said. Then he looked at Ben. “You’re right. A lot has changed in twenty years. I hear you’ve got a big ranch now. Also heard Tobler is a rich fellow, and Benson has himself a silver mine. All I got to show for twenty years is some scars.”

“Andy, I’m sorry about what you went through. I know Nevada Prison is a hard place,” replied Ben. “But you were found guilty. I had no choice but to send you to prison.”

“I didn’t deserve it,” declared Pettigrew in an angry voice. “Them furs was mine. I just took what was mine.”

“But you killed to get them,” Ben pointed out. “That was wrong. You had to pay for what you did.”

“Yeah, I had a nice fair trial, didn’t I,” said Pettigrew bitterly. “You and Tobler and Benson, you made sure I had a trial and got sent to jail.”

“What are you planning to do now?” asked Ben.

Pettigrew took another drink of whiskey before answering. “You’re afraid I come back to kill you. Well, don’t be. I ain’t gonna kill you fellows. I learned a long time ago that there’s a lot worse things than dying. Dying only takes a few seconds. Living without the things you want most is a whole lot harder.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Ben.

“I mean, you should try being locked up for twenty years and never seeing the stars at night. I mean, you should try being caged up when all you want is to roam the hills,” said Pettigrew angrily. “You should have hung me, Cartwright. It would have been easier on all of us.”

Ben shook his head. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Andy. I honestly hoped that some day we’d find something that would set you free. I hated having to send you to prison, but I had no choice.”

“Yeah, I bet you hated it,” Pettigrew replied with a sneer. “I bet you and Tobler and Benson all thought of me every night as you sat in your nice fancy houses, and ate your fine meals. Well, you can just think about me now.” Pettigrew pushed himself away from the table and stood up. He pointed a gnarled finger at Ben. “You’ll think about me now. ’Cos I’m going to be around to remind you.” Pettigrew turned and stalked out of the saloon.

Ben sat at the table for a few minutes. He wondered what Pettigrew had in mind. Whatever it was, Ben felt he was going to regret that Andy Pettigrew came back to Virginia City.

*****

Ben returned to the ranch to find his three sons waiting anxiously for him. They were pretending to do work in the yard, but Ben could see they were just marking time. The three instantly dropped what they were doing when he rode into the yard. Ben rode over to the hitching post and dismounted.

“How did things go in town?” Adam asked as he and his brothers crowded around Ben.

“About what I expected,” answered Ben. “Pettigrew is a bitter man, but he swears he’s not here to kill anyone.”

“Do you believe him?” asked Hoss.

Ben shrugged. “I’ve got no reason not to,” he replied. “But he’s got Charlie Tobler and Matt Benson plenty worried. I talked with them after I talked with Pettigrew but they didn’t seem reassured.”

“What are you going to do?” Joe asked.

“Well, first, I’m going to do some work on the books and then I’m going to ride over to the south range to check the herd,” Ben answered.

“I’ll go with you,” Hoss offered quickly.

“Hoss, I think I can find the south range by myself,” Ben said with a smile.

“I know, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “It’s just that…”

“That you boys think the old man can’t take care of himself,” Ben finished for his son. “I don’t need anyone to watch me.”

“Pa, it might not be a bad idea for someone to watch your back for the next few days,” said Adam firmly. “Just in case.”

Ben sighed. “All right, if it will make you boys feel better,” he reluctantly agreed. “I’ll be ready in about an hour. Hoss, you can go with me. Adam, Joe, I want you two to get back to work.”

*****

For the next few days, Ben was busy with the herd and other jobs which needed to be done on the ranch. Everywhere he went, one or more of his sons followed him like a shadow. Ben appreciated their concern but was becoming irritated that his sons felt they needed to protect him. He had decided he was going to put an end to what he considered a foolish waste of their time. He felt a talk after dinner was in order.

It was about mid-day when Ben rode back to the house with Adam and Hoss following behind him. He was surprised to see Roy Coffee standing in the yard, waiting for him.

“Hello, Roy,” Ben greeted the sheriff as he dismounted from his horse. “What brings you out here?”

“I wanted to talk with you, Ben,” said Coffee.

“Well, come on into the house,” Ben invited with a smile. “No sense standing out here in the yard.” Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “You boys can go join Joe checking those trees. I should be safe enough with Roy around.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other. “Think we’ll stick around for a while, Pa,” stated Hoss firmly.

Ben sighed. “All right,” he said in a resigned voice. He turned to the sheriff. “Come on in, Roy,” he said, “before my sons decide to protect me from you.” Ben walked into the house, with Roy, Adam and Hoss trailing behind him.

Once inside the house, Ben walked over to his favorite chair and sat down. Coffee settled himself on the sofa, while Adam and Hoss stood nearby.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” asked Ben.

“It’s about Andy Pettigrew,” the sheriff said. “I understand you had a talk with him a few days ago.”

“Yes, I talked with him,” acknowledged Ben. “Why?”

“What did he say? Did he tell you why he came back to Virginia City?” asked Coffee.

“Not exactly,” answered Ben. “He said he wasn’t here to kill anyone. But he did sound pretty bitter. Why? Has he caused some trouble in town?”

“That’s the problem, Ben,” admitted Coffee. “I don’t really know. Two nights ago, Charlie Tobler’s house burned down.”

“Oh no!” cried Ben in alarm. “Are Charlie and his wife all right?”

“Yes, they’re fine,” the sheriff assured Ben. “They weren’t home at the time. But Charlie lost everything. His house, those pictures he collected, everything’s gone. He’s pretty torn up about it.”

“Do you know how the fire started?” asked Adam.

“No,” answered Coffee with a shake of his head. “By the time anyone saw it, the house was pretty much gone. There wasn’t any sign of arson, but that doesn’t mean that Andy Pettigrew couldn’t have set it.”

“Did anyone see Pettigrew around?” asked Hoss.

“No, but like I said, that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it,” said the sheriff.

“Now, Roy, you know as well as I do that you can’t accuse a man of something without evidence,” Ben advised.

“Yes, I know,” said Coffee. “But then last night, there was an explosion at Matt Benson’s mine.”

“An explosion?” exclaimed Ben, his alarm returning. “Was anyone hurt?”

“No,” replied the sheriff. “There wasn’t a crew working, and the night guard was hit over the head and dragged away.”

“And you think Pettigrew set the explosion,” said Adam.

“I don’t have any evidence of that, either,” admitted Coffee. “The guard didn’t see who hit him. But it’s pretty strange that two of the men that Pettigrew swore to get even with have had these things happen to them right after Pettigrew got back in town.”

“How’s Matt taking it?” asked Ben.

“Ben, I’ve never seen a man so low,” Coffee answered. “The mine’s pretty well closed up for good. The explosion brought down a ton of rock. Benson just sits in his office and stares. He won’t leave. He just keeps saying that he hasn’t any reason to go on.”

“Poor Matt,” said Ben sympathetically. “Poor Charlie, too.”

“That’s why I came out to see you, Ben,” Coffee explained. “If Pettigrew is the one doing these things, I figure you’re next.”

“Don’t worry, Roy,” Adam reassured the sheriff. “We’ll make sure Pa is protected.”

“That’s the thing, Adam; Pettigrew doesn’t seem to want to hurt anyone. All he seems to want to do is cause problems.” Coffee clarified.

Ben sat thinking quietly. “No, Roy, I think there’s more to it than that,” he said pensively. “When I was talking with Pettigrew the other day, he told me that I wouldn’t understand how it felt to have the most important thing in your life taken away. I think that’s what he’s trying to do to us. He’s taken away the house and possessions that Charlie loved. He’s taken away the mine that Matt Benson lived for.”

“Well, if that’s the case, you boys better keep an eye on the Ponderosa,” Coffee said grimly.

“There’s not much chance of him taking the ranch away,” suggested Hoss.

“No, but he can cause a lot of damage,” stated the sheriff. “A fire in those trees up on the mountain, or a stampede of your cattle could really cause problems.”

“We’ll alert the men,” Adam agreed. “I’ll tell them to keep an eye out for any strangers.”

Ben had been silent during the exchange. Suddenly, he stood up. “Adam, Hoss, I want you to go find Joe,” he said urgently. “Stay together, but find Joe!”

“Find Joe? Why?” asked Adam.

“Because if Andy Pettigrew wants to take away my most precious possession, he’ll go after one of my sons,” replied Ben in alarm.

*****

Joe was riding in the hills, marking trees for cutting. He had been working since early morning and was tired. Stopping to rest for a bit, he saw the old man riding through the meadow below him. Joe was curious about why someone would be riding through the meadow. There was nothing to see up here and no place to go. He decided he had better ask the old man what he doing up here.

It took some time for Joe to get down the hill and reach the meadow. He could see the old man riding far ahead of him. He gently kicked his horse into a slow lope so he could catch up with the distant figure.

The old man had stopped at the ruins of a cabin. When Joe rode up, the man was simply standing, staring at the fallen roof and what remained of the walls.

“Can I help you?” Joe asked as he halted his horse.

The old man turned to him. “Don’t need no help,” he answered gruffly.

“Well, what are you doing up here?” asked Joe as he dismounted and walked over to the man.

“Ain’t none of your business what I’m doing,” the man replied.

“I think it is,” declared Joe sternly. “This is Cartwright land.”

“Cartwright land,” the man said. “That figures. Who might you be?”

“I’m Joe Cartwright,” Joe replied. “Who are you?”

The man didn’t answer; he just looked around. “This used to be the prettiest spot in Nevada,” he mused. “I built this cabin more than twenty years ago. Now, look at it. The cabin’s a wreck, game is all gone, and a lot of the trees been cut down.”

“You built this cabin?” Joe said in amazement. Suddenly, he realized who the man was. “You must be Andy Pettigrew.”

“Yep,” acknowledged Pettigrew. “And you must be one of Ben Cartwright’s boys.”

“We heard you were back,” said Joe warily.

“Did you?” Pettigrew narrowed his eyes. “Your Pa tell you what he done to me?”

“He told us about the murder and the trial,” replied Joe. “Seems to me you ought to be grateful to him. You could have been hung.”

“Grateful,” spat Pettigrew. “For taking twenty years of my life away. I ain’t grateful. Ben Cartwright owes me.”

“I think you’d better leave,” said Joe firmly. “And let me warn you, you try to do anything to my Pa, I’ll come after you.”

“You?” laughed Pettigrew. “You ain’t nothing but a half grown kid. I ain’t afraid of you.”

Joe’s temper got the better of him. “Get on your horse, and get out of here,” he shouted. He walked over and gave Pettigrew a shove. “You hear me? Get going.”

Pettigrew turned suddenly and punched Joe in the jaw, knocking him to the ground. As Joe laid stunned for a moment, Pettigrew laughed again. “Don’t be telling me what to do, you young whelp.”

Joe scrambled to his feet. As he neared Pettigrew, the old man gave him a shove. Joe fell to the ground again. Pettigrew walked over to him and grabbed the back of Joe’s jacket. He jerked Joe to his feet and pushed him forward again. Joe went sprawling face first into the dirt. Pettigrew walked toward him again as Joe scrambled to his feet.

“I don’t want to hit you,” warned Joe. “You just ride out…now.”

Laughing, Pettigrew pushed against Joe’s chest causing the youngest Cartwright to stumble backwards. Suddenly, Joe’s left foot had nothing under it. Joe twisted as he felt himself falling. Then he disappeared.

Pettigrew was startled to see Joe disappear into the ground. He walked over and stopped near the edge of a large hole. He suddenly remembered that this was the old well he had started digging many years ago. The well was dry; he had never found any water in it. Pettigrew looked down into the hole.

Joe was laying on his right side at the bottom of the well, about twenty feet below Pettigrew. He was not moving.

Pettigrew stared at the figure below him for a minute, then laughed to himself. Fool kid…if the boy wasn’t dead, he would be soon, Pettigrew thought. He walked over to the ruins of the cabin and picked up some planks of wood from the fallen roof. He dragged the timber over to the well and covered the top. Unless someone stood close, they wouldn’t be able to tell that there was a hole under the planks. The wood looked like just more scattered debris from the ruins.

This wasn’t exactly what he had in mind for Ben Cartwright, Pettigrew thought as he mounted his horse and grabbed the reins of Joe’s horse. But it would do. It would do.

*****

Ben Cartwright paced anxiously in front of the fireplace as he waited for Hoss and Adam to return with Joe. Roy Coffee watched him pace.

“Ben, I think you’re getting yourself all worked up over nothing,” said the sheriff. “If Pettigrew is the one who started the fire and set the explosion, he hasn’t hurt anyone. There’s no reason to think he would harm one of your boys.”

Stopping his pacing, Ben stared at Coffee. “You don’t understand. Pettigrew wants his revenge. We took away the thing most precious to him, his freedom. Now he wants to take away the things that mean most to Charlie, Matt and me. And there’s nothing more precious to me than my sons.”

Coffee and Ben looked up as they heard the sound of horses approaching. Both men rushed to the front door.

Racing out the front door, Ben stopped abruptly when he saw only two riders coming. Coffee stopped right behind him and swallowed hard when he saw the same thing.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked anxiously as Adam and Hoss rode up.

“Pa, we couldn’t find him,” Hoss replied with a frown.

“We found where he was marking trees, but then the markings just stopped,” added Adam.

“You didn’t find any sign of him? Anything?” asked Ben, his anxiety growing.

Hoss shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “Pa, the floor of those woods are covered with pine needles and leaves. Nothing that would pick up a horse’s tracks. Adam and I looked around for a while, then we figured we’d better head back here.”

“Adam, I want you to round up every hand you can find and get them here quick,” Ben ordered. “We need to organize a search party.”

“Pa, aren’t you going a little overboard?” asked Adam. “I mean, Joe might be perfectly all right. He might have decided to take a side trip or head home from a different direction. We’ll look pretty silly if we run into him with a search party.”

“And what if he isn’t all right, Adam?” said Ben. “I’d rather look silly than waste time if he needs help.”

Adam suddenly looked grim. “You’re right, Pa. I’ll get the men.” He turned his horse abruptly and galloped out of the yard.

“Hoss, I want you to gather up every lantern and torch you can find,” Ben told his middle son. “We’ll look all night if we have to.” Hoss nodded and turned his horse toward the barn.

“Ben, I’ll get to town and round up some men there,” offered Coffee.

“Thanks,” said Ben gratefully. “We’ll meet up at Cedar Creek. And Roy, please hurry.”

*****

Joe woke slowly; he wasn’t quite sure where he was. He could taste dirt in his mouth. He opened his eyes and found his face shoved against a slab of dirt. He began to panic, fearing that he had been buried alive. He tried to sit up quickly, and felt an excruciating pain in his side. The pain was so bad it took his breath away. Joe fell onto his back and panted for air, trying to catch his breath. Gradually, the pain subsided and Joe was able to breathe a bit more easily. He found that taking short breaths prevented the pain from coming back too strongly.

Opening his eyes again, Joe found he was staring at a ceiling far above him. He could see cracks of light in the ceiling. He began to remember the shoving match with Pettigrew and the fall. Joe figured he must have fallen into a hole of some kind. Pettigrew must have covered it with something because Joe could barely make out the top.

Joe started to sit up but quickly stopped when he felt another stab of pain in his right side. He gingerly felt the injured area with his left hand. His ribs were sore; he figured he had cracked or broken several of them.

In the dim light, Joe could see his right arm bent at an awkward angle. His arm felt numb; he couldn’t move his fingers. He gently felt the arm with his left hand and wasn’t surprised to feel a broken bone. Joe’s legs were bent at the knees. He fearfully tried to move them, and was relieved when he was able to straighten them. His legs were stiff and sore, but he was sure nothing was broken.

Moving as slowly as possible, Joe raised himself to a sitting position and rested against wall of dirt behind him. Well, it could have been worse, he told himself. Some busted ribs and a broken arm. At least, he didn’t break his back — or his neck.

Joe’s next thoughts were about how to get out of his dark prison. Pa would probably miss him when he didn’t turn up for supper, and come looking for him. The only problem was, Joe was a long way from where he was suppose to be. There was no telling how long it would be before someone would find him — if ever.

As Joe sat thinking, he heard a noise. At first, he thought he might have imagined it. He sat quietly and listened. He was sure he heard a horse, and the sound of a rock being kicked or thrown.

“Help!” Joe cried as loud as his injured ribs would let him. “I’m down here! Help me. Please!”

Joe stopped shouting and listened. He wasn’t sure his cries had been heard. The earthen walls would absorb most of the sound.

“Help me!” Joe shouted again, more urgently than before. “Can you hear me? I need help!”

Once again, he stopped and listened. This time, he was sure he heard the sound of a horse being ridden away at a gallop.

Feeling despair washing over him, Joe slumped against the wall. Whoever had been at the ruined cabin had ridden away, and left him here.

Suddenly, Joe squared his shoulders and lifted his head. All right, he thought, that’s enough. If you want to get out of here, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Joe slowly pulled himself up until he was standing. Each movement sent a stab of pain through him. He stood still for a few minutes, eyes closed and teeth clenched, until the pain subsided. Then he opened his eyes and looked up.

The top of the pit was ten or more feet above his head. The only way to reach it was to climb. Joe wasn’t sure he could pull himself up with just one arm, but he was determined to try. He felt the wall in front of him. The dirt was loose. He’d have to be careful or he really would bury himself. Joe looked to the floor, and saw a small rock in the dim light. He picked up the rock, wincing at the pain that bending and straightening caused. He lifted his right hand above his head, and with as much force as he could muster, drove the rock into the dirt. He pulled on the end that was jutting out from the wall and was satisfied that the rock was firmly embedded in the dirt.

Reaching up, Joe took a firm grasp on the rock. Slowly, he began to pull himself up, until he was about six inches off the ground. He began kicking the dirt with the toe of his right boot until he had a small toehold. He stuck the toe of his boot into the small hole, taking some of the strain off his aching arm.

It wasn’t much a climb, Joe thought, but it was a start. He grasped the rock tighter and began to pull himself a little higher. However, before he could start kicking the dirt again, the earth around the rock began to crumble. The rock flipped forward and Joe fell back to the ground.

Joe cried out as he felt the intense pain from his injured arm and ribs. Then, mercifully, a curtain of blackness descended around him, and he passed out.

*****

The search parties look throughout the night for Joe. The men could hear each other calling Joe’s name in the dark. Flickers of light from lanterns and torches could be seen through the trees. They were still searching when the faint rays of the sun dawned over the hills.

Sitting on his horse, Ben’s eyes searched the terrain around him as the sun lit the area. His voice was hoarse from calling Joe’s name for hours. Even worse was the fear he felt in the pit of his stomach. He knew Joe was in trouble, and it was his fault.

As Adam and Hoss came riding up to him, Ben looked expectantly at them, then let his shoulders sag when he saw the discouragement on their faces.

“Nothing,” Ben stated in a dull voice. “You found nothing.”

“Pa, we searched every inch of this mountain,” said Hoss in frustration. “There ain’t no sign of him.”

“If it’s all right with you, I want to take the men back to Cedar Creek and have them make another sweep,” Adam suggested. He hesitated, hating to say what he had to. “Now that it’s light, we can see better. This time, I want them to keep an eye out for something that might look like a…” Adam hesitated again. “A grave,” he finished in a choked voice.

Ben felt the fear claw at his stomach even tighter. He knew Adam was right, but the thought of Joe dead was almost more than he could bear. He nodded silently, unable to trust his voice. Hoss’ face showed the pain he also felt. Adam turned his horse and rode a short distance, then fired his gun twice into the air. Men began pouring out of the trees, riding toward the sound. Ben watched silently as Adam began talking to them. He couldn’t bear to hear Adam’s words again. Ben turned his horse and began to ride slowly toward Cedar Creek.

*****

Joe wasn’t sure how long he had been asleep. He knew it must have been a long time. He vaguely remembered waking for a brief time and being in total darkness. Now, he could seem some rays of light coming through the cracks of whatever was covering the top of the hole. He figured he must have slept through the night.

The pain in Joe’s side had subsided into a dull ache. However, his broken arm was beginning to throb. He felt feverish and cold at the same time. He also was thirsty, as thirsty as he could ever remember being. His mouth was dry and tasted gritty.

Moving slowly, Joe inched himself into a sitting position. Each movement caused another wave of pain. He was shivering, but didn’t know whether it was being caused by the cold, the pain, the fever or a combination of the three. He finally managed to sit up but felt exhausted by the effort it took just to move that small bit. He began to feel lightheaded and dizzy.

Closing his eyes, Joe slumped back against the wall of dirt. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stand up, much less try to climb out again. All he could do now is wait. And hope and pray that someone would find him in time.

*****

Ben wasn’t sure whether he felt relief or increased worry as the men gathered at the top of the hill. No one had found any trace of Joe.

“Pa, he’s not here,” declared Hoss. “We would have found some trace of him if he was.”

“Maybe Joe just rode off someplace,” suggested Roy Coffee. “Maybe he went to Virginia City or to another ranch.”

“No, Roy,” replied Ben in a tired voice. “Everyone knows we’re looking for Joe. If he showed up in Virginia City or any place else, we would have heard by now.”

“What should we do now?” asked Adam.

Before Ben could answer, his attention was distracted by a rider galloping in their direction from the hill below. As the rider neared, Ben recognized him as one of the men they had left at the ranch house, in case Joe showed up there. Ben felt a surge of hope.

“Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Cartwright,” yelled the man as he approached.

“Jake, what is it?” asked Ben urgently. “Did Joe show up?”

The rider reined his horse to a halt. “No,” said the rider. “Joe didn’t show up, but his horse did. Came wandering in this morning.”

“Any sign of where the horse came from?” asked Ben.

“No,” admitted Jake. “We tried to back-track him but lost the trail on the Virginia City road. He could have come down that road from any direction.”

“Maybe Joe’s horse threw him,” suggested Coffee.

Hoss shook his head. “No, Roy. There’s no way that pinto could have thrown Joe. Joe’s too good of a rider. Besides, he’s had the horse since he was a kid. He knows every move that horse can make.”

Ben sat quietly as he listened to the conversation. He was thinking hard. “Adam, send the men back to the ranch to get some food and some rest,” he said quietly.

“What are you going to do?” asked Adam with a frown.

“I’m going to do what I should have done in the first place,” Ben answered grimly. “I’m going to Virginia City and have a talk with Andy Pettigrew.”

*****

Joe drifted in and out of consciousness. He had no idea how long he had been in this hole; he had lost all track of time. All he knew was the pain was getting worse, and his fever was going higher. He took a deep breath and gritted his teeth at the pain this caused.

Joe was determined not to give up. Where’s there’s life, there’s hope, he thought with a grim smile. He remembered hearing his Pa say that. Joe never really thought about it before. Now, he understood what the saying meant. As long as he stayed alive, there’s was a chance to get out of this mess. He knew that his father, brothers and most of the hands on the Ponderosa would be looking for him by now. Just keep breathing, he told himself. Just keep alive.

*****

Ben rode into Virginia City as fast as his horse would carry him, with Adam, Hoss and Roy Coffee close behind. He stopped his horse in front of the Silver Dollar saloon and jumped from the saddle. Pushing open the doors of the saloon, Ben quickly looked around. Andy Pettigrew was sitting at the same table where Ben had talked with him a few days ago. Ben walked quickly to the table.

“Where’s my son?” Ben demanded in a loud voice.

Pettigrew looked up with a quizzical expression on his face. “What are you talking about, Cartwright?” he asked.

Leaning over, Ben put his hands on the table. “No more games, Pettigrew,” he said. “I want to know what you’ve done with Joe.”

Pettigrew took a drink of whiskey from the bottle in front of him. He was secretly enjoying the look of anguish on Ben’s face. “Cartwright, I have no idea where your kid is,” he stated slowly.

Rushing around the table, Ben grabbed Pettigrew by the front of the shirt. With a jerk, he pulled Pettigrew to his feet. “You’ve got exactly ten seconds to tell me where my son is,” Ben shouted angrily. “If you don’t, I’m going to kill you with my bare hands.”

“I don’t know where your son is,” repeated Pettigrew.

Enraged, Ben put his hands to Pettigrew’s neck and started to choke him. “Tell me,” Ben bellowed. “Tell me or I’ll squeeze the life out of you.”

Roy Coffee rushed up to Ben and began pulling Ben’s arms away from Pettigrew’s neck. “Ben, let him go!” shouted the sheriff. “Let him go!”

Adam and Hoss were standing behind Roy. Adam took a step and grabbed one of Ben’s arms.

“Pa, stop!” Adam yelled. Ben ignored the two men pulling at his arms. His only thought was that Pettigrew had killed Joe. Now he was going to kill Pettigrew.

“If you kill him, we’ll never find Joe,” Adam cried out desperately.

At first, Ben continued to resist the men pulling at his arms. Gradually, as Adam’s words sunk in, Ben released his hold around Pettigrew’s neck. Pettigrew fell to his chair, gasping for air and rubbing his neck.

“All right, all right,” muttered Ben. He twisted out of the grasp of both Adam and Coffee. He looked at Pettigrew, and his expression changed from anger to desperation.

“I’m sorry,” Ben apologized. “Please, you have to tell me where Joe is. I promise I won’t send the law after you. Please, just tell me where Joe is.”

Pettigrew looked up at Ben with an expression of pure hate. “I don’t know where your kid is,” he replied, still rubbing his neck. “But even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you now.”

“I’ll give you anything you want,” pleaded Ben. “Money, land, anything. Just tell me where my son is.”

A wicked smile crossed Pettigrew’s face. “I have what I want,” the man declared. “You’re gong to spend the rest of your life wondering what happened to your son. You’re going to spend every day thinking of him, and missing him. You’re going to know what it’s like to have something important taken away and you can never get it back.”

“Pettigrew, I don’t care what you do to me,” Ben said in a low voice. “Kill me, burn me out, I don’t care. But don’t take your revenge out on an innocent boy. Joe had nothing to do with what happened between you and me. Don’t make him pay for whatever you think I did to you.”

Pettigrew hesitated. For a moment, it seemed as if his hate was abating. Then it sprang back into his eyes. “Cartwright, I don’t know what happened to your kid,” he stated one more time. “All I know is, whatever happened, I’m happy about it.”

“Pettigrew, if you know something about Joe Cartwright, you’d better tell us now,” warned Roy Coffee.

“I don’t know anything,” Pettigrew said firmly. “And you can’t prove otherwise. Now, leave me alone.”

Ben’s shoulders slumped at Pettigrew’s words. He knew that Pettigrew was not going to tell him anything. He turned and walked slowly out of the saloon, followed by Adam and Hoss.

Roy Coffee lingered a minute. “Pettigrew, I’m telling you straight out,” said the sheriff grimly. “If I find out you had anything to do with this, I’m going to see that you go back to prison for the rest of your life.” He turned and stalked out of the saloon.

Pettigrew took a long drink of whiskey. He was more frightened of Ben Cartwright than he cared to admit. He figured it was time to leave Virginia City.

Coffee saw Ben standing by the hitching post in front of the saloon. Ben was slumped over, his body showing the despair he felt. Adam was standing next to him, with a comforting hand on his father’s shoulder. Hoss was a few feet away, uncertain about what to do next.

“Ben, I’m going to see if I can round up some more men,” said Coffee. “We’ll get a fresh posse and start looking again.”

Ben nodded. “All right, Roy,” he agreed. “I don’t know what good it will do, but we can try.” Coffee looked at Adam, who just shrugged. He looked at Hoss who just stood there with a shocked expression on his face. The sheriff turned and began walking back to his office.

“Pa, we can’t give up,” urged Adam. “We’ve got to keep looking.”

“I don’t even know where to start,” replied Ben in a flat voice. “He could be anywhere. He’s probably dead, and it’s my fault. It’s all my fault.”

Adam felt at a loss for words. He didn’t know what to say to comfort Ben.

As the three men stood by the hitching post, two men walked up to them. “Ben, we heard what happened. What can we do to help?” Ben looked up in surprise. Charlie Tobler and Matt Benson stood before him.

“Charlie, Matt,” Ben greeted the men with surprise. “I heard what happened. I thought you two had…” Ben’s voice trailed off. He didn’t know exactly how to say what he was thinking.

“Thought we had given up?” asked Tobler. “You’re right, Ben. We had. Both Matt and I were devastated by what happened to us. Then we heard about Joe.”

“Charlie came to see me,” explained Benson. “We talked and realized that we both had put too much stock in owning a mine or a house. Those are just things, Ben, and things can be replaced.”

“Ben, what Pettigrew did to us was nothing compared to what he’s done to you,” added Tobler. “I can always build a new house.”

“And I’m going to finally retire and enjoy not having to worry about that mine,” declared Benson.

Ben nodded. “I’m glad for you,” he said in a sad voice. “I wish I could say Pettigrew took something that I put too much stock in. But I can’t. Joe’s probably dead, and it’s all my fault.”

“Ben, you can’t give up,” said Tobler. “Not until you know for sure.”

“You can have every miner I have on the payroll to help you look,” offered Benson. “And I’ll round up every man in Virginia City. We’ll cover every square inch of this territory.”

“Thank you,” said Ben in a discouraged voice. “I appreciate what you’re saying. But Pettigrew won this time. He’s taken away the thing I value most — one of my sons. ”

Standing a few feet away, watching the scene before him, Hoss was surprised to feel a tug on his pants leg. He turned and saw a small boy, about ten years old, standing behind him.

“Hoss, want to go fishing with me?” the boy asked.

“Billy, I can’t, not today,” Hoss answered in a sad voice. “Little Joe is missing, and I can’t do nothing until we find him.”

“Missing?” said Billy. “What happened?”

“We don’t rightly know,” replied Hoss. “He was checking the timber up by Cedar Creek and just disappeared.”

“Maybe the ghost got him,” suggested Billy.

“Aw, Billy, you know there’s no such thing as ghosts,” said Hoss.

“Yes, there are,” insisted Billy. “I heard one. I was up at that old house near Cedar Creek yesterday, and I heard them.”

“Old house?” said Hoss. “What old house?”

“Well, it’s really an old cabin, all fallen down and stuff. I was chasing rabbits. I stopped at the old cabin and while I was there, I heard the ghost. There was nobody around, but I could hear a voice. It had to be a ghost. I got scared and rode away real fast.”

“Billy, what did the voice say?” asked Hoss cautiously.

“Well, I couldn’t hear for sure,” admitted the boy. “The voice sounded kind of funny. Like it was coming from someplace far away. It was real scary, Hoss.”

Hoss grabbed Billy by the shoulders. “Billy, are you sure this was up by Cedar Creek?” he said urgently. “Are you real sure?” Billy nodded.

Hoss turned to Ben. “Pa, I think I know where Joe might be,” he said.

Ben looked up at Hoss in surprise. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

“Billy here was up at Cedar Creek yesterday. He said he stopped by an old cabin and heard a voice but couldn’t see anyone. That old cabin, that used to be the Pettigrew place.”

“What are you getting at?” said Adam.

“If Pettigrew was going to grab Joe and stick him someplace, he’d put him up by the one place he knew,” explained Hoss. “That one place would be his old cabin.”

“But Billy said he only heard a voice, he didn’t see anyone,” Ben said.

“Pettigrew wouldn’t leave Joe in the open where he could be seen,” argued Hoss. “If it was Joe that Billy heard, he was probably tied up and hidden up there someplace.”

Ben rushed over and knelt in front of the boy. “Billy, tell me again what happened yesterday,” Ben said. After Billy repeated his story, Ben patted the boy on the head, and stood up. He looked at Adam and Hoss, as well as Benson and Tobler. “We’ve been looking in the wrong place,” he said excitedly. “Get your horses. We’re going back out to Cedar Creek. And let’s pray we’re not too late.”

*****

Joe knew time was running out. Pain, fever, thirst – all were making him weaker by the minute. He was trying desperately to stay awake. He was afraid if he fell asleep, he’d never wake up. Keep breathing, he told himself. Just concentrate on staying alive. He tried not to pay attention to the thought in the back of his mind – that he was just prolonging the inevitable. He wasn’t ready to give up, though, not yet. Somebody had come by once; Joe was sure he had heard a horse before he tried to climb out. If somebody had come by once, they could come back. He just had to hang on and wait.

Despite his best efforts, Joe’s eyes began to close. He just didn’t have the strength to stay awake any longer. He fought against it, but slowly slid into darkness.

*****

Ben raced his horse across the meadow toward Andy Pettigrew’s old cabin. Adam and Hoss were with him, their horses matching his, stride for stride. Tobler and Benson were following far behind in a wagon. Neither Charlie or Matt had said anything, but both felt if Joe was at the cabin, a wagon would be needed – one way or another, a wagon would be needed.

Ben started shouting Joe’s name as soon as he approached the cabin. He reined his horse to a stop and dismounted, still shouting Joe’s name. He waited for a response, looking around desperately for any sign of his son. Hoss and Adam sat still on their horses, also looking and waiting. The only sound they heard was the chirping of some birds.

“Adam, Hoss, spread out and start looking,” ordered Ben. His sons dismounted and separated. Hoss headed toward the cabin and Adam, toward some trees behind the building.

Ben started walking toward some boards to the right of the old building. His foot kicked at the boards, and Ben was surprised to see that they covered a hole.

Bending over, Ben pulled the boards aside. As the sunlight streamed in, Ben could see something in the hole. Frowning, he knelt and looked into the hole.

Joe was laying in the bottom of the pit. His back was resting against the wall, and his right arm was laying protectively across his chest. Joe’s head was slumped to the side.

“Adam, Hoss! Over here!” Ben yelled. “I found him!”

Adam and Hoss rushed to their father and looked into the hole. All three began shouting Joe’s name, but the figure at the bottom laid motionless.

“Get a rope,” shouted Ben. Hoss ran to his horse and returned with a rope looped around his shoulder.

Grabbing the rope, Ben tied it around his waist. “You two lower me down,” he said to his sons. Hoss and Adam took a firm grip on the rope and slowly lowered Ben into the hole.

There was barely enough room for Ben to stand when he reached the bottom. Joe’s body covered most of the area. Ben untied the rope and knelt by his unconscious son. He let out a sigh of relief as he saw Joe’s chest rising and falling.

“He’s alive!” Ben shouted over his shoulder to Adam and Hoss who were anxiously peering down at him. “Get me some water.” Ben ran his hands lightly over Joe’s neck, arms, ribs and legs. He could tell his son’s right arm and ribs were broken, but that seemed to be the extent of the injuries. Rivulets of sweat ran down Joe’s dirt-streaked face. Ben frowned as he felt Joe’s forehead. He gently pulled Joe toward him, and hugged his son to his chest. Ben closed his eyes and held Joe tight.

The thud of the canteen landing at his feet startled Ben. He reached down with one hand and grabbed the canteen. Ben gently raised Joe’s head and uncorked the canteen.

*****

Joe tasted the trickle of water in his mouth and eagerly swallowed. A small but steady stream of water filled his mouth and Joe drank gratefully. The water stopped when Joe coughed and winced in pain. He opened his eyes, looking for the source of the cool liquid. His vision was blurry but he could see a face looking anxiously into his. He heard some words but his fever-racked brain couldn’t make any sense of them. He felt a hand gently stroking his head. Joe knew help had arrived. He felt a small surge of triumph. He had done it, he thought. He had stayed alive.

*****

Hoss stood staring into the fireplace, wondering why the doctor was taking so long with Joe. He knew his little brother was hurt. He had seen the broken arm and felt the broken ribs when they hauled him out of that well. But surely the doctor should have him patched up by now, he thought.

Even with Tobler and Benson helping Adam and Hoss, it had seemed like it took forever to bring Joe to the surface. They had to be careful of the crumbling walls of that pit, as well as be careful not to make Joe’s injuries worse.

Thank God Charlie and Matt had brought the wagon and some blankets, Hoss thought. A wave of anger swelled in Hoss every time he thought about carrying his brother’s broken and sick body to that wagon. Joe was hurt too bad to tell them what had happened, but Hoss had a pretty good idea who was responsible. When he got his hands on Andy Pettigrew….

Hoss turned as he heard the front door open. Adam, Charlie and Matt walked into the house.

“Any word yet?” asked Adam.

“No,” said Hoss grimly “The doctor is still working on him.”

Benson and Tobler settled themselves on the sofa. “He’s going to be all right, Hoss,” said Benson is a reassuring voice. “I’ve seen a lot of men hurt in the mines, and they were hurt a lot worse than Joe. They came out of it fine and so will he.”

Hoss nodded. He tried to be comforted by Matt’s words but somehow he wasn’t. Hoss turned back to stare at the fire.

Adam looked at Benson and Tobler, and shook his head. Nothing they said was going to help Hoss right now. Adam knew his brother. Hoss would worry and fret until the doctor told them that Joe was going to be all right. “I’ll go see if Hop Sing’s got some coffee ready,” offered Adam. He started toward the kitchen but stopped when he heard a knock on the door.

Roy Coffee was standing at the door when Adam opened it. “How’s Joe?” asked the sheriff as he walked in.

“We don’t know yet,” answered Adam.

Hoss turned toward the sheriff. “You arrest Andy Pettigrew?” he asked angrily.

“No,” Coffee replied. “That’s what I came out to tell you. Pettigrew’s gone.”

“Gone?” said Tobler. “What do you mean, gone?”

“Just what I said,” answered Coffee. “When Adam here came to get the doctor, he stopped by my office and told me where you found Joe. I started looking for Pettigrew right away. He wasn’t at the saloon so I went by the boarding house where he was staying. His things were gone. His horse was gone from the stable, too.”

“Anyone know where he went?” asked Benson.

“No,” answered the sheriff. “He just took off.”

The sound of footsteps on the stairs drew everyone’s attention. The men turned expectantly as Doctor Martin and Ben walked down the stairs. “He’s going to be all right,” the doctor declared. Relief was visible on every face in the room.

“He’s going to need plenty of rest and plenty of Hop Sing’s good cooking,” continued the doctor. “But he’s young and strong. He’ll be back on his feet soon.”

“Did he tell you what happened?” asked Roy.

“He couldn’t say much,” admitted Ben. “He’s still a pretty sick boy. But he did say that he and Pettigrew were having an argument, he slipped, and fell into that hole.”

“Then it was an accident,” stated Roy.

“It looks that way,” agreed Ben.

“But Pettigrew rode off and left him,” said Hoss angrily. “He just left him there to die.”

“Roy, I’ll ride with the posse after Pettigrew,” declared Benson.

“Me, too,” added Tobler.

“Now, hold on,” Coffee told the men. “I ain’t sending a posse after Pettigrew. He hasn’t done anything I can arrest him for.”

“Hasn’t done anything?” said Adam incredulously. “He left Joe in that pit. He denied knowing where Joe was. If we hadn’t found him when we did, Joe could be dead by now.”

“Adam, listen to me. Ben just said Joe’s fall was an accident,” the sheriff stated. “There’s no law that says a man has to help another, or has to tell something he knows. It may not be right what Pettigrew did, but it isn’t against the law.”

“What about my house?” asked Tobler. “He burned it down.”

“And he blew up my mine,” added Benson.

“I haven’t got any evidence that says Pettigrew is responsible for those things,” Coffee replied firmly. “I’m not going to send men riding out on a posse after a man I’m just going to have to let go for lack of evidence.”

“Fine, Roy,” said Hoss disgustedly. “You just stay here. Adam and I will find Pettigrew.”

“You two go after Pettigrew and something happens to him, I’ll have to throw you in jail,” Roy threatened.

“We’ll take our chances,” Adam told the sheriff grimly.

“No, Adam,” said Ben firmly. “Roy’s right. We can’t take the law into our own hands. That’s what started all this over twenty years ago. If Andy Pettigrew hadn’t taken the law into his own hands then, none of this would have happened.”

“But Pa, we can’t just let him go!” Hoss protested. “Joe almost died in that hole. Pettigrew’s got to pay for what he did.”

“Hoss, I know how you feel,” acknowledged Ben. “Believe me, I do. But we can’t go after Pettigrew. It’s over; it’s done.”

“So Pettigrew gets away with what he did,” said Tobler sadly. “It doesn’t seem right.”

“It may not seem right, but it’s the law,” Coffee replied.

“Andy Pettigrew will pay for what he did some day,” said Ben grimly. “And he’ll have to answer to a higher court than ours.”

Walking to the fireplace, Ben put his arm around Hoss’ shoulder. “Why don’t you go up and sit with Joe for awhile,” he suggested. Hoss stared into space for a minute then nodded. He slowly walked up the stairs.

“I’ve never seen Hoss so angry,” said the doctor.

“He’ll get over it,” replied Ben as he watched his son climb the stairs. “The last day or so have been hard on all of us. I think we’ve all said and done some things we’ll regret.”

“Ben, I meant what I said,” warned Roy. “You or your boys go after Pettigrew and you’ll answer to the law.”

“You don’t have to worry about us going after Pettigrew,” Ben promised. Ben looked Adam straight in the eye. “Am I right, Adam?”

Adam looked back at his father for several minutes. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You’re right,” Adam said. “We won’t go after Pettigrew.”

*****

Joe healed quickly as the doctor predicted. He complained about having to be in bed, and chafed at being confined to the house after he was allowed to get up. Ben was torn between exasperation and gratification at Joe’s complaints. He knew the more Joe complained, the better he was feeling. But he also found it a chore to keep Joe from doing too much while his injuries healed.

Ben was in the yard putting horse blankets on the fence to dry when he heard the front door of the house open. He also could hear loud voices arguing. Turning toward the house, Ben saw Joe was walking slowly out of the building. His splintered arm was in a sling, and he walked gingerly to avoid hurting his still-sore ribs. Hop Sing was following Joe, yelling at him in Chinese. Ben walked over to the pair.

Joe had stopped and was yelling back at Hop Sing. The two voices mingled; Ben couldn’t understand either one.

“Hold on, hold on,” Ben said. “What’s going on here?”

Joe and Hop Sing turned to Ben and both began speaking at once. Ben put up his hand. “One at a time,” he ordered. “Now what’s going on?”

“Little Joe need nap,” said Hop Sing firmly. “Doctor say he need plenty rest, plenty of Hop Sing’s good cooking.”

“Pa, I don’t need a nap,” interjected Joe disgustedly. “I’m tired of sitting around the house and having Hop Sing stuff me like a turkey. I just want to take a walk and get some fresh air.”

“You take nap!” Hop Sing insisted. “You rest, get plenty better with Hop Sing’s food.”

“I don’t need a nap, I don’t need more food, and I certainly don’t need some Chinese nursemaid looking after me,” replied Joe heatedly.

Ben smiled to himself. “All right, all right,” he said, trying to keep a straight face.

Joe and Hop Sing turned to him, both expecting him to support their side.

“Now I agree that the doctor said Joe needs plenty of rest and nourishing food,” Ben said soothingly.

“Hmmph,” snorted Hop Sing with satisfaction.

“But,” continued Ben before Joe could protest. “I also agree that some fresh air and sunshine would do Joe some good.”

“Hmmph,” snorted Joe back at the cook.

“So, let’s compromise,” Ben suggested. “Joe, you can stay out here for awhile as long as you sit in the rocking chair out front. No walking around.”

“But, Pa…” Joe protested.

“No buts,” said Ben firmly. “You’re a long way from being healed. It’s either the rocking chair or upstairs for a nap. Take your choice.”

Joe looked pleadingly at his father but he could see Ben was not about to change his mind. “All right,” he agreed with a sigh. “I’ll sit in the rocking chair.”

Hop Sing snorted again in satisfaction and walked back into the house. Joe moved slowly to the rocking chair with Ben walking behind him. Joe winced as he lowered himself slowly into the chair, then adjusted the sling on his arm so he could rest his elbow on the arm of the chair.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” asked Ben as he watched Joe settle himself.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe answered. “Stop worrying.”

“Worrying is a father’s prerogative, Joseph,” said Ben with mock sterness.

The sound of horses distracted the pair. Ben and Joe looked up to see Adam and Hoss riding into the yard.

“Well, look at this,” called Hoss cheerfully as he dismounted. “Looks like our little brother is finally up and around.”

“About time,” commented Adam with a smile. “Your chores are really piling up, Joe.”

“Well, I guess you two are having a hard time running the ranch without me,” retorted Joe. “I always knew you couldn’t manage by yourself.”

Ben smiled at his sons’ bantering talk. It was the surest sign that things were getting back to normal. “What’s new in town,” asked Ben.

“We saw Charlie Tobler,” said Hoss. “He’s going to Europe while they build his new house. Said he’s going to look for some new pictures and things.”

“And he talked Matt Benson into going with him,” added Adam.

“Matt’s going to Europe!” exclaimed Ben. “I would have never believed it. He really is going to retire.”

“Well, for a while,” said Hoss. “He’s got a crew working on trying to get his mine re-opened. They figure that it’ll take six months or so to move out all the rocks and dirt. Matt said he’d go crazy sitting around waiting for them to finish. So Charlie talked Matt into going with him.”

“That will be quite a pair traveling the capitals of Europe,” observed Adam with a wry grin. “I hope Europe survives.”

“I never really got a chance to thank them,” said Joe. “I know they helped get me out of that hole.”

Ben put his arm on Joe’s shoulder. “They know you appreciate it, son. And going to Europe is probably the best thing for them. It’ll distract them from thinking about Andy Pettigrew.”

Adam’s face immediately grew grave. “Pa, some hunters found Andy Pettigrew.”

“Found him? Where?” asked Ben.

“At the bottom of Piaute Falls,” answered Hoss. “Looks like he’s been dead about three weeks.”

“Dead!” said Joe with surprise. “Do they know what happened?”

“Nobody knows for sure,” replied Adam.

“Roy said he was scared to death of going back to prison,” said Hoss. “He lit out as soon as he heard we knew where Joe was. I guess he figured you’d have him arrested.”

“Roy figures he was so scared of going back that he tried to cover his trail by cutting over the falls,” Adam added. “He could have slipped, his horse could have thrown him, he might have even jumped. There’s no way to tell.”

Ben shook his head. “Poor Andy,” he said sadly.

“Poor Andy?” retorted Hoss. “That skunk got what coming to him.”

“Maybe,” said Ben. “But Andy never really understood what was important. He killed a man for some furs. He wasted twenty years in prison, hating us for something he did. When he finally got out, instead of going back to the life he loved, he threw everything away to get his petty revenge. The only good thing he did is to remind Charlie, Matt and me about what’s really important.”

“I know what you mean, Pa,” Joe told his father. “When I was stuck down in that hole, all I could think about was staying alive. Nothing else mattered.”

Ben nodded. “You learned something that Andy never did,” said Ben. “You learned that the most precious possession is life.”

*****End*****

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