Synopsis: Rustler strike the ranches around Virginia City, leaving one family grieving and a second worried they too might lose a loved one.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 25,550
The sidewalks of Virginia City were crowded but Joe Cartwright’s eyes were fixed on only one person. A pretty blonde in a print dress strolling down the sidewalk held Joe’s gaze as he walked slowly down the street. She seemed to feel Joe’s look; the girl glanced over her shoulder a few times. Joe smiled at her but the girl didn’t notice him in the crowd. Suddenly, Joe felt his shoulder bump into someone.
“Hey, Cartwright!” said a voice. “Watch where you’re going, will ya?”
Joe looked to his left, ready to offer apologies. He stopped and grinned when he saw the smiling cowboy he had run into. The young man was wearing a blue shirt with a dark bandanna tied loosely in around his neck. He had a dark hat pushed back on his head. The hat covered a mop of unruly strawberry blonde hair, and tufts of the hair were peaking out everywhere. A spray of freckles dotted the man’s nose, making him look younger than his true age of 22. His dark blue eyes seemed to dance with amusement, and his lips formed an easy smile.
“Dave Marshall!” exclaimed Joe. “I haven’t seen you in weeks.”
“You didn’t see me now,” replied Dave with an ironic smile. “You were too busy watching someone else.”
Joe glanced down the street. The girl had disappeared into the crowd. “Yeah,” admitted Joe. “I guess I was.” He turned back to Dave. “What brings you into Virginia City? I thought you and your Pa were busy breaking that string of horses.”
“We were,” answered Dave. “Pa had to come in and testify against Pete Bishop. I came along because I thought I might have to testify, too.”
“Pete Bishop?” said Joe with a frown. Then his face cleared. “Oh, yeah, I heard he was arrested for rustling. Your Pa caught him on your place with a running iron, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Dave. “I wasn’t with Pa when he caught Bishop, but I helped Pa bring him into the sheriff.”
“So what happened?” asked Joe curiously. “How long did he get?”
“He didn’t get anything,” replied Dave, his voice filled with disgust. “The judge let him off. Said there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him.”
“Wasn’t enough evidence!” exclaimed Joe. “Didn’t you tell the judge Bishop had running iron?”
“Yeah, but the judge said having a running iron wasn’t illegal,” said Dave with a shake of his head. “Pa told him about the cattle we’re missing, and how he found Bishop with a running iron. But the judge said that wasn’t enough. He said Pa had to actually see him changing brands or herding the stolen cattle.”
“We’ve lost some cattle, too,” said Joe thoughtfully. “I’ll bet Bishop had something to do with it.”
“He probably did, but according to the judge, we’d have to catch him in the act,” said Dave. “It isn’t just Bishop, either. Near as Pa can tell, a lot of the ranches around here are missing some cattle. He figures there’s a whole gang involved.”
“Probably is, for an operation that big,” agreed Joe. Joe clapped Dave on the shoulder. “Listen,” he said. “I was heading over to the Silver Dollar to get a beer before I head for home. Why don’t you come and have one with me.”
Dave turned back to Joe and smiled. “I sure would like to,” he said. “But I can’t. I got to meet Pa and head back to the ranch. We got a lot of work. a is letting me break most of those horses we caught.” Dave’s chest seemed to puff out a bit. “He promised to let me take over that part of the ranch business soon.” Dave’s face grew serious. “I’d like to help out Pa a lot more. He could use it.”
“Yeah, he probably could,” agreed Joe.
“Joe, do you know if there’s a reward out for those rustlers?” asked Dave.
“I don’t know,” replied Joe. “Why? Think about going after them?”
Dave flushed. “No, not really,” he said. “It just be nice if I could figure out a way to make a few extra dollars.”
“Catching rustlers is a pretty dangerous way of making some money,” commented Joe.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” said Dave vaguely. “I got to run. You keep an eye out for those rustlers, you hear?”
“I will,” said Joe. Joe hesitated. “Dave, don’t go after those rustlers by yourself,” Joe cautioned. “It’s too dangerous.”
“I won’t,” replied Dave. “I promise.”
Talk at the dinner table at the Ponderosa that night centered as usual around activities on the ranch. Joe only half-listened to his brother Hoss talking about how fat the herd was getting, and his brother Adam making plans for his trip to San Francisco. Joe was thinking more about rustlers than ranch work. en Cartwright noticed that his youngest son seemed less interested than usual in the conversation at that table. He wasn’t concerned; Joe had more of a distracted look than a worried one. But Ben was curious about what seemed to be drawing Joe’s attention away from family business . Finally, he could contain his curiosity no longer.
“Joseph,” said Ben during a lull in the conversation. “You seem a million miles away tonight. Isn’t our work on the Ponderosa of interest to you?”
Joe looked up at his father with a startled expression. “What?” said Joe. “Um, I mean, yes, sir, it is. I was just thinking about something else.”
“Probably some pretty little blonde he saw in Virginia City today,” said Hoss with a grin.
Joe grinned back at his brother. “As a matter of fact, I did see a nice looking young lady in Virginia City,” he admitted. Then Joe’s face grew serious. “But I was thinking more about rustlers.”
“Rustlers?” said Adam in surprise. “What brought that on?”
“I ran into Dave Marshall in town,” said Joe. He smiled briefly thinking how that statement was literally true. “Dave told me his father testified against Pete Bishop in his rustling trial but the judge let Bishop go.”
“Let him off?” said Hoss in surprise. “How come?”
“Dave said the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence,” explained Joe. “The judge said that you had to actually catch someone in the act to get them convicted.”
“Well, that’s not exactly true,” said Ben. “People can be convicted on circumstantial evidence. But for serious crimes, like rustling, most judges and juries like to have some hard evidence.”
“Hard evidence?” said Joe with a frown. “But Dave’s Pa caught Bishop with a running iron. And he caught him near the tracks of some cattle.”
“That probably was too circumstantial,” said Adam. “The judge probably wanted some one who actually saw Bishop using the running iron or driving the cattle.”
“That’s what Dave said,” admitted Joe. Joe shook his head. “It seems like the only way to be sure some is convicted of a crime is to catch them in red-handed. That’s pretty tough to do.”
“Well, it’s not the only way to get a conviction,” said Ben. “But judges and juries do seem to find it easier to convict someone if there’s an eyewitness to the crime.”
“Sometimes an eyewitness doesn’t even guarantee a conviction,” said Adam. “Remember last year when Cindy Bennett swore she saw the man who robbed the Wells Fargo office in Carson City? By the time the lawyers got finished with her, she was so confused she could barely remember her own name. The fellow they accused went free.”
“Yeah, and remember that guy who was accused of killing the old miner a few years ago?” added Hoss. “Four people said they saw him go into the mine and heard the gunshot. But he came up with two other people who said he was in Virginia City at the time. The jury couldn’t make up their minds who to believe and he got off.”
“So even with an eyewitness, people get off,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “That’s a pretty lousy system.”
“People do sometimes go free,” said Ben. “Even when they’re guilty as sin. You can never be absolutely certain what a judge and jury are going to decide. But most of the time, the system works. The laws may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve been able to come up with. Without trials and evidence, people could be accused and convicted of crimes by someone who simply didn’t like them. We’d end up with a lot of innocent people in jail.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Joe. “But I’ve seen plenty of wanted posters marked dead or alive. Those posters don’t seem to mind if someone doesn’t stand trial.”
“In most cases, the men who are wanted dead or alive are known killers,” said Adam. “Men facing a hanging have nothing to loose. That makes them dangerous. They’re not likely to surrender. Dead or alive simply means the law wants them caught, no matter how someone has to do it.”
“But any judge will tell you that the law prefers to have them alive,” said Ben quickly. “Justice is best served by legally trying a man.”
“Except when they manage to wriggle out of it,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “I wonder if those rustlers will ever get convicted.”
“Well, first we have to catch them rustlers,” said Hoss. “They’re pretty slick. They’ve been taking only a few head from a lot of ranches. People barely notice and no one’s been upset enough to get a posse together.”
“But their tally is beginning to add up,” said Adam. “Based on what I’ve been hearing, they must have over a hundred head by now.”
“Wonder where they have them stashed?” speculated Hoss.
“I don’t know, but we’d better plan to go looking for them soon,” said Ben. He turned to Adam. “How long do you think you’re going to be gone, son?”
“Well, it’s going to take me awhile to get those timber contracts signed,” said Adam thoughtfully. “Then I’ve got to arrange for the wagons, and the ships. I’d say at least six weeks, maybe longer.”
“Six weeks in San Francisco!” exclaimed Joe. He turned to Ben with a twinkle in his eye. “How come you never let me go to San Francisco for six weeks?” Joe complained.
“Because you’d never last six weeks in San Francisco by yourself, little brother,” interjected Hoss with a grin before Ben could reply. “I figure it’d only take a week for some hoppin’ mad daddy to be chasing you home with a shotgun.”
“Why, Hoss,” said Joe in mock surprise. “I figure it’d take at least two weeks. The first week I’d be busy down on the Barbary Coast.”
“Yeah, and probably end up shanghaied on some boat to China,” added Adam with a grin. He turned back to Ben. “I’ll stop by Roy Coffee’s office tomorrow when I go to Virginia City to catch the stage. I’ll talk to him about looking for those rustlers.”
“I’m sure Roy’s doing the best he can,” said Ben. “But it’s not a bad idea to let him know we’re concerned. Tell him if he needs any help to let me know.”
“The sheriff had better catch those rustlers red-handed if he wants to send them to jail,” grumbled Joe. “Otherwise, he’s going to waste his time.”
“Roy knows what he’s doing,” said Ben with a frown. “He’ll get the evidence he needs. He’ll make sure those rustlers go to jail.”
Joe looked thoughtful. “Maybe I ought to take a look around,” he said. “See if I can find any trace of those rustlers.”
“You have enough to do around here without chasing after rustlers,” Ben said quickly. “You let Roy worry about catching law breakers.”
“Catching them is evidently the easy part,” said Joe with a shake of his head.
“Joe, I have a couple of jobs I need you to do for me today,” said Ben to his youngest son over the breakfast table.
Joe groaned to himself. Adam had left for San Francisco three days ago, his father’s advice and admonitions still ringing in his ears as he rode away. Since then, Joe’s workload at the ranch seemed to have doubled. Every time he turned around, his father seemed to have another task for him to do. Joe wondered where all the work was coming from. Having one less hand around the Ponderosa shouldn’t have made that much difference.
Joe turned his father, his face reflecting weary resignation. “Yes sir,” Joe said with a sigh. “What’s on the list for today? Want me to plow and plant hay on the whole south range?”
Ben’s lips twitched with amusement at Joe’s exaggerated complaint. He knew he had been working Joe hard for the last few days. With Adam gone, there were extra chores for each of them to do. But mostly, Ben had wanted to keep Joe so busy that he wouldn’t have the time or energy to think about chasing after rustlers. Rustlers were usually dangerous, desperate men, and he had no desire for his son to confront such men. But after three days of hard work, Ben figured Joe had earned a break. Besides, Joe hadn’t mentioned the rustlers since Adam had left. Ben hoped Joe had forgotten about them.
“No, I think we can leave the south range as it is,” Ben said, trying to hide his smile. “I want you to ride over to the Marshall place and pay Grant Marshall for those horses we’re buying. Then I want you to ride into Virginia City and pick up the mail.”
“But, Pa, Mr. Marshall said those horses wouldn’t be ready until next week,” said Hoss with a puzzled air from across the table. “Why do you want to pay for them now?”
“Because Grant Marshall has a cash flow problem,” explained Ben. “When I was at the feed store yesterday, I overheard one of the clerks gossiping. The clerk shouldn’t have been talking about it, but he mentioned that Grant Marshall has a big bill there that he can’t pay. Grant’s got everything tied up in stock, in those horses and his herd. Until he starts selling the stock, Grant’s got no money. It won’t hurt for us to pay for those horses now.”
“Yeah, that’s got to hard for him with all those youngsters of his,” agree Hoss. “Seems every time I’m in the store, Mrs. Grant is buying shoes for one of them.”
“Pa, it’s not that I don’t agree with you,” said Joe. “But Mr. Marshall is a pretty proud man. He’s liable to look at it as charity or something if we pay him in advance.”
“You just tell him that I have a business reason for paying him in advance,” advised Ben. “Tell him we don’t want a lot of cash money around and we’ll be too busy to get to the bank next week.”
“All right,” said Joe doubtfully. He faced lit up with a thought. “Uh, Pa,” said Joe, “it’s liable to take me quite awhile to get to the Marshall place and then into Virginia City. I could be gone most of the day.”
“That’s true,” agreed Ben with a nod. He looked at his son with a stern expression. “You just be sure you’re home in time for supper.” Ben’s stern expression melted into a warm smile.
“Yes sir,” said Joe with enthusiasm.
Hoss shook his head. “Pa, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that he finds a reason to be late,” predicted Hoss.
Joe looked around the Marshall ranch with surprise as he rode up to the house. The ranch looked unusually quiet. Dave Marshall had five brothers and sisters, and usually the place was bustling with activity. Dave’s two older sisters were married, but one or the other of them always seemed to be visiting their parents. The younger two boys and girl were school-age, but they had a talent for finding excuses not to go to school. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he rode up to the Marshall house when one of the kids wasn’t around. Joe stopped his horse in front of the hitching post in the front yard and tied the reins lightly around the post. He took another look around. He could see a herd of horses in a large corral some distance away, behind the barn. An unhitched wagon was parked in front of the barn. The ranch had a neat, tidy look, albeit a surprisingly empty one. Joe knocked loudly on the front door, wondering if anyone was home. The door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair stood on the other side. The man’s weather-beaten face showed surprise.
“Joe Cartwright!” said Grant Marshall. “What brings you over this way?”
“Hi, Mr. Marshall,” returned Joe. “My Pa sent me over on some business.”
“Business?” said Marshall with a frown. His eyes looked wary. “What kind of business?”
“Whatever it is, you don’t need to be discussing it on the doorstep,” called a woman’s voice from behind Marshall. “Invite Joe in.”
Grant grinned and shrugged his shoulders. He pulled the door open and stepped aside. “Peggy’s right,” said Grant. “Come on in, Joe.”
Joe stepped into the large house. He entered into a small foyer, flanked by two large rooms. The sitting room was to Joe’s left, and he glimpsed the large fireplace and worn sofa in the room as he entered. To his right was the dinning room, with a large table covered by a white cloth. Peggy Marshall walked toward Joe from the dinning room.
“Hello, Joe,” said Mrs. Marshall warmly. “We haven’t seen you in awhile.”
Joe quickly removed his hat. “Hello, ma’am,” he said quickly.
“Well, what’s this business you got for your Pa?” asked Marshall from behind Joe.
“Grant, I swear, you have no more manners than our youngsters,” said Peggy with a sigh. She turned to Joe. “Come on into the dinning room. I just made some fresh coffee. You can join us.” Peggy turned and walked back into the room.
Joe turned to Marshall and looked at him with a quizzical expression. Marshall grinned and clapped Joe on the back. “Come have some coffee,” said Marshall.
Joe walked into the dinning room. He was surprised to see Dave sitting at the table. Papers and ledgers were spread across the table, and it was evident that the Marshalls had been using the table as a desk. A pot of coffee with several cups sat on the end of the table.
“Hi, Joe,” Dave greeted his friend. His voice tried to convey enthusiasm, but Joe could see a worried look in Dave’s eyes.
“Let me get you some coffee,” said Marshall, moving to the end of the table.
“No, that’s all right,” said Joe. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out an envelope. “I just stopped by because Pa wants to pay you for the horses he’s buying.” Joe dropped the envelope on the table.
Peggy Marshall looked at her husband with arched eyebrows. Dave also turned to his father, a look of relief on his face. Grant Marshall glanced at the envelope on the table, then looked at Joe with a stony expression. “Why is he paying for them now?” asked Marshall coldly. “I told him those horses wouldn’t be delivered for another week or so.”
“Pa doesn’t want a lot of money around the ranch,” explained Joe. “And he’s not sure when he’s going to get to the bank again. He just figured it was better to pay you now.”
Marshall looked down at the envelope, obviously trying to decide what to do.
“Grant,” said Peggy in a soft voice. “Ben’s just paying us in advance. He’s not giving us anything. You’re going to deliver those horses next week anyway.”
Marshall continued to stare at the envelope. Finally, he took a deep breath and reached for the envelope. “Tell your Pa I said thanks,” said Marshall gruffly.
Dave’s face broke into a smile, and Peggy let out a sigh of relief. Joe grinned at the pair.
“I’ve got four of those horses ready to go,” said Marshall. “You’d best take them back to the ranch with you so your Pa will have something for his money now.”
Joe looked at Marshall in dismay. “Uh, well, I’m not exactly heading right back to the ranch,” said Joe. “I was heading to Virginia City to get the mail. We’ll get the horses next week.”
Marshall dropped the envelope back on the table. “Well, then I can’t accept this, Joe,” said Marshall firmly. “I don’t take money without giving something in kind.”
Joe saw the look of worry flash back across Dave and his mother’s face. Joe sighed. “All right,” he said. “I’ll take the horses.”
“Of course, it might be easier if Dave here helped you with the horses,” said Marshall, picking up the envelope again. A smile creased the man’s face. “He could deliver the horses to the Ponderosa and then go into Virginia City with you. We probably got some mail stacked up there, too.”
“I think that’s a good idea, Pa,” said Dave, trying to keep the grin off his face. “Four horses is a lot for Joe to handle by himself.”
“Yeah,” said Joe with an answering grin. “I could probably use some help.”
Marshall reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. He flipped the coin to Dave who caught it in the air. “You boys might want to get a beer or something while you’re in town,” he said, his smile widening. “Delivering horses is hard work.”
“Thanks, Pa,” said Dave gratefully. He turned to Joe. “Well, don’t just stand there, Cartwright. We got some horses to deliver.”
Half an hour later, Joe was standing next to the corral admiring two bay and two roan horses which Dave was holding by their halters. Joe nodded as he looked over the animals. “There good stock,” said Joe to Grant Marshall, who was standing next to him. “Pa is going to be pleased.”
“I’m glad,” said Marshall. He turned and looked over the rest of the animals in the corral. “We’ll have the rest of them ready next week, like I promised.” Marshall took a deep breath. “You tell your Pa thanks,” he added without looking at Joe. “That money is sure going to come in handy.”
Joe nodded and walked over to his pinto which had moved down by the corral. He vaulted into the saddle, then walked the horse over to the corral. Reaching down, he grabbed the lead to the halters from Dave, then waited while Dave also mounted. Dave brought his horse near Joe’s and took two of the leads.
“I’ll see you at supper, Pa,” said Dave, chucking his horse forward. He led two of the horses away from the corral, and Joe followed with the other two.
Dave and Joe were passing the house, heading toward the road, when Peggy Marshall ran from the house, waving a jacket in her hands. “Davey! Davey!” she shouted. “Don’t forget your jacket!” She rushed up to her son who had pulled his horse to a stop. She handed the jacket up to Dave. “It’s liable to get chilly,” she said. “You’d best take this with you.”
Dave rolled his eyes and took the jacket. “Thanks, Ma,” he said briefly. He quickly stuck the jacket under the back of his saddle.
“Now you boys be careful,” she admonished. “And be sure to eat something.”
“We will, Ma,” said Dave. “We’ve got to go.” Dave chucked his horse forward and started down the road. Joe nodded toward Mrs. Marshall and followed his friend.
“Don’t say a word,” said Dave tersely as Joe rode up next to him on the road.
“Hey, you’re not going to get any grief from guy who’s family still calls him ‘Little’ Joe sometimes,” said Joe with a grin.
Dave grinned back. “Do you think our folks are ever going to figure we’re grown up?” asked Dave.
“I doubt it,” answered Joe. “I figure I’m going to have explain to my grandchildren why my Pa still calls me Little Joe.”
“Well, maybe we can do something to show them we’re not kids any more,” suggested Dave.
“We can try,” answered Joe. “But I have feeling we’re always going to be about 12 to our folks.”
Dave nodded in agreement. “You know what we were doing when you came by?” he said. “We were trying to figure out how to pay the bills and make ends meet until Pa sold those horses.”
“I thought it might be something like that,” said Joe, remembering the papers and ledgers on the table.
“This is the first time I can ever remember my Pa including me in something like that,” said Dave. “Usually, he and Ma work on things like that without me.”
“Well, doesn’t that prove your Pa doesn’t think of you as a kid?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, maybe,” agreed Dave thoughtfully. “I’d sure like to do something to help him more, though. It be nice if I do something to show him he doesn’t need to think me as just one of the kids.”
“Yeah, right,” said Joe with a distracted air. He was looking up at the sun. “Dave, you know, it’s going to take us all day to get these horses back to the Ponderosa if we follow the road,” said Joe. “That won’t give us much time in Virginia City.”
“I think that’s what my Pa had in mind,” said Dave with a grin.
“I’ve been thinking. If we cut over Sutter’s Ridge, that would save us some time,” said Joe. “We could go into the Ponderosa by the back road, drop off the horses and still have plenty of time for Virginia City.”
Dave thought for a minute. “Sutter’s Ridge is kind of rough trail,” he said.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you think these nags of yours can make it?” teased Joe with a grin.
Dave looked at this friend and smiled. “I think Sutter’s Ridge is a good idea,” said Dave.
An hour later, Joe and Dave were slowly guiding the horses down the backside of the ridge. The trail curved through large rocks and dense brush, masking the riders from anyone’s view. The trail led to a flat stretch of ground that wound through the tall rocks. Canyons and ravines were carved into the thick rock on either side of the flat ground. Not many people traveled the rough country; there were easier trails to almost anywhere. That’s why Joe and Dave were surprised to see another rider in the distance as they reached the bottom of the ridge trail.
“Hey, Joe,” said Dave, peering at the rider. “Isn’t that Pete Bishop?”
Joe looked down the trail. “It sure looks like him,” agreed Joe. “Wonder what he’s doing up here?”
“Nothing good, I’d guess,” said Dave. He looked around. “You know, there are two or three places around here where some rustlers could hide a herd.”
Joe nodded in agreement. “It wouldn’t be easy to get cattle in here,” he said, “but you could do it.” Joe looked at his friend. “Why don’t we just follow Mr. Bishop for a bit and see where he’s going.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” said Dave.
Joe and Dave turned their horses in the direction of the distant figure. They rode slowly, keeping a good distance between themselves and the rider far ahead of them. The man ahead seemed unconcerned about being followed. He never looked back. Joe and Dave increased their pace, wanting to make sure they didn’t lose sight of the man in the twists and turns of the trail. They had been following the lone rider for about twenty minutes when Dave pulled his horse to a halt.
“You know where he’s heading?” asked Dave. “Fish Hook Canyon. That’s the only place he could be going if he keeps riding east like this. And that’s a pretty good place to hide a herd of cattle.”
Joe thought about the canyon. It has been named Fish Hook because of the tall hills on one side and half way up the other. The tall hills formed a J around an expanse of grassy meadow and a small stream. Where the hills abruptly stopped, there was a steep ravine that led to a narrow cleft in the rocks. A few men could easily keep a big herd bottled up in Fish Hook Canyon.
Joe put his hand on the holster tied to his hip. “Let’s cut through the gorge,” he said. “I’ve got a real interest in seeing what’s in Fish Hook Canyon.”
The sun was high in the sky as Joe and Dave crept through the brush above Fish Hook Canyon. They had tied the horses near a stream on the far side of the hill, and climbed through the rocks and brush to the top of the canyon. It had been a hard climb, but now as they looked down into the canyon, both felt the climb had been worth the effort. At the far end of the canyon, where the rocks formed a U, a herd of cattle stood grazing. Joe figured there must be close to a hundred cattle standing placidly among the rocks. Dave nudged Joe and pointed directly below them. Near the area where the hills ended and the ground dropped off into the ravine, four men sat around a campfire. Two were drinking coffee, while a third poked at the fire with an iron rod. The fourth seemed to be calculating something on a piece of paper. None were paying any attention to the hills above the canyon.
“You know any of them?” said Dave in a low voice to Joe.
Joe studied the men below. “Besides Bishop, I can see Carl Sand,” answered Joe in an equally low voice. “He’s the one in the red shirt. The one in the blue shirt is named Perkins, I think. I don’t know the fourth one.
Dave looked at Joe. “What do you want to do now?” he asked.
“Well,” said Joe slowly. “We could ride out and get the sheriff.”
“By the time we get back with the law, they could be gone,” protested Dave. “Besides, there’s only four of them.”
“Yeah, but there’s only two of us,” answered Joe.
“We can handle them,” said Dave confidently. “We’ll get the drop on them. They won’t even know we’re here until we right on top of them. We’ll take them back to Virginia City all tied up. ” Dave’s eyes took on a dreamy look. He was obviously picturing a triumphant ride into Virginia City. “That’ll show my Pa,” he said softly.
Joe didn’t reply. He chewed his lip thoughtfully and stared down the hill. “Maybe it’d be better to get the law,” said Joe slowly.
Dave could see the hesitation in Joe’s eyes. “We’ve got them red-handed, Joe,” he said. “We’ve got all the evidence that any judge would want. We can get them, Joe. You know we can. I promise you nothing will go wrong.”
Joe studied the hillside below. It was heavily covered with brush and rocks. A man could climb down the hill without being seen. “All right,” agreed Joe.
He turned to Dave and grinned. “Let’s go, hero.”
Joe and Dave worked their way down the hill slowly and carefully, keeping an eye on the camp as they descended. The four men seemed unaware of their presence. It seemed it took a long time to climb down the hill, but in reality, Joe and Dave were at the bottom in just a few minutes. Joe stopped and crouched behind a rock near the bottom of the hill. Dave slid in next to Joe. Joe pulled his gun out and checked to make sure it was fully loaded. He glanced at his friend to make sure Dave had his gun out and ready. Dave waved his gun, signaling his eagerness to move forward. Joe took a deep breath and jumped out from behind the rock.
“All right, get your hands in the air!” shouted Joe, pointing his gun at the men around the fire.
The four men turned toward the direction of the shout, their faces clearly showing their shock and surprise.
“You heard him,” shouted Dave, stepping out from behind the rock. “Get those hands in the air!”
The four men around the fire slowly raised their hands. Joe and Dave walked closer to the campfire. Joe kept his eyes on the men, ready to shoot if any made a move toward a gun. But the four men simply sat by the fire with their hands in the air.
“Looks like we got ourselves a couple of pups trying to act like men,” snarled Pete Bishop as Joe and Dave approached.
“These pups got teeth,” said Dave. “So don’t try anything unless you want a bullet.”
“Careful, Dave,” muttered Joe. Dave nodded once.
Bishop glanced at the man to his right, Carl Sand. Sand looked back with a steady gaze. Joe and Dave stood over the men with their guns. “Throw away your guns,” ordered Joe. “Do it nice and easy.” The four men reached down slowly. Each pulled a pistol from a holster and each tossed the pistol away. Joe let out a sigh of relief.
“All right, now lay face down on the ground,” ordered Joe.
Bishop glanced again at Sand. This time Sand made an almost imperceptible nod. Bishop leaned forward as if he were going to follow Joe’s orders. Suddenly, he grabbed the running iron that was laying next to the fire. He swung the iron quickly from the ground, crashing it into Joe’s wrist. Joe let out a yelp of pain as he felt the iron smash into his wrist. He heard a crack as if a bone were breaking and felt his hand go numb. His pistol dropped from his fingers. Almost simultaneously, Carl Sand reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt. He threw the dirt directly in Dave’s face. Dave put his left hand to his face instinctively, trying to brush the dirt from his eyes. Sand brought his foot up and kicked Dave’s gun out of his right hand. The four rustlers sprang at the two young cowboys. Joe tried to grab his gun from the ground, but a body slammed into his as he bent down. Joe flailed at the body with his right fist, and felt his fist land solidly against a jaw. Joe heard a grunt of pain and surprise, but another fist pounded into Joe’s side before he could take another swing. Joe struggled and kicked, trying to get away from the two men on top of him, but it was a useless exercise. He was pinned to the ground by one set of arms, while another delivered repeated blows to his face. A small groan escaped from Joe’s lips as his body went limp. Bishop and Perkins climbed off Joe and looked around. Sand and the fourth rustler were standing over Dave. The rustler’s would-be captors were now sprawled unconscious on the ground. Bishop picked up Joe’s gun and pointed it at Joe.
“What do you think you’re doing?” yelled Sand.
“I’m going to finish me off a young pup,” snarled Bishop. He cocked the gun.
“You fire that gun and you’re liable to stampede those cattle,” replied Sand. “I don’t know about you, but I’m in no mood to go rounding them up.”
Bishop uncocked the gun and looked around uncertainly. “Well, what do you want to do with them?” he asked. “We can’t just leave them here. They’ll have the law after us in no time.”
Sand looked around, trying to decide what to do. A slow smile crossed his face as he saw the ravine. “Let’s toss them down the ravine,” he said. “If the fall doesn’t kill them, they’ll die from cold or thirst. Ain’t no way they’ll be able to crawl up that ravine.”
Bishop looked to the ravine and nodded his agreement. “After we get rid them, we’d better light out,” he said, turning back to the other men. “If they found us, a posse might.”
Sand jerked his head toward the fourth rustler and the two men moved toward Dave. Bishop and Perkins turned to Joe. A stab of pain from his injured wrist pulled Joe back to at least semi-consciousness. He felt a pair of hands gripping each of his arms, and felt himself being dragged over the ground. His boots scrapped the dirt, and his legs were jolted by the rough ground. Joe lifted his head and saw the ravine looming in front of him.
“No!” cried Joe as he realized he was about to be thrown into the chasm. He struggled to free his arms, but the hands only tightened their grip. Joe dug his feet into the ground and jerked his right arm. The grip on his arm seemed to loosen, and Joe pulled it free. Joe swung his arm around quickly, landing his fist into the midsection of the body to his left. The punch was a weak one, but it had enough power to force a small grunt from the body. Joe felt the hands on his left arm go slack and he pulled that arm free. Joe fell to the ground. He winced with pain as his injured wrist hit the hard ground. Joe tried to scramble to his feet but he could only put his weight on one arm. He managed to push himself off the ground, but he felt awkward and unsteady. Suddenly, Joe felt a strong push against his side and back. He tumbled to his left, landing on his side. Almost instantly, a foot pushed him over the edge of the ravine. Joe felt himself rolling down the steep slope. His body seemed to bounce off the hard ground, and his right leg twisted under him. Joe reached out his right arm, trying to grab something that would stop the fall. All he managed to do was turn his body so he was now sliding down the hill on his stomach. Dirt and gravel scraped the skin from his face and chest, and his leg twisted even further underneath him. Joe felt his upper body angling to the right, and his ribs slammed into a rock. Joe bounced off the rock and continued what felt like an endless slide down the slope. Joe could feel the rough ground jarring his body. Finally, Joe’s left leg hit the bottom of the ravine, stopping the slide with a jolt.
Joe laid on his stomach against the steep hill, winded and dazed. His body felt pummeled, and pain seemed to flood through him. Joe heard another object crashing down the ravine to his right, but Joe didn’t have the strength to open his eyes to look. Every nerve in his body seemed to be sending messages of pain to his brain. Joe felt as if he couldn’t breath, and when he tried to gulp for air, his side and chest radiated with a fiery protest. Joe tried to move, but movement set off another wave of agonizing pain. Joe felt himself sliding again, but this time it was into a dark pool of unconsciousness. And this time, Joe did nothing to stop the slide.
“Hey, Pa, I got all that hay into the loft,” said Hoss as he sauntered into the ranch house of the Ponderosa.
Ben looked up from his desk where he was working. He watched as Hoss casually tossed his hat on the bureau near the door and walked over to the desk. “Did you leave four bales near the stalls?” he asked his middle son.
Hoss nodded. “Yep,” he said. “Just like you said. Four bales near the stalls and the rest in the loft. Everything is neat and stacked.” Hoss rubbed his hands. “I worked up a bit of an appetite,” he added, looking back toward the kitchen. “I thought I’d have myself a little snack to tide me over until dinner.”
“You work up an appetite walking to the barn,” said Ben gruffly. Then he smiled. “But I think Hop Sing can manage to find something to hold you.”
A knock on the door cut short Hoss’ reply. Hoss looked toward the door, his eyebrows arched in surprise. “Wonder who that could be?” he asked.
“Why don’t you answer it and find out,” replied Ben with an exaggerated air.
“What? Oh, yeah, sure, Pa,” said Hoss quickly. He walked to the front door of the house and pulled it open. Hoss’ look of surprise widened when he saw Grant Marshall standing on the porch.
“Mr. Marshall,” said Hoss. “What are you doing here?”
“Hello, Hoss,” replied Marshall. “I came to see your Pa. Is he around?”
“Yeah, he’s right here,” answered Hoss. He pulled the door wider. “Come on in.”
Marshall walked into the house with wide strides and looked around. Ben was coming from around the desk. Marshall saw him and walked toward the desk.
“Hello, Ben,” said Marshall.
“Hello, Grant,” said Ben with a welcoming smile. “What brings you to the Ponderosa.”
Marshall shifted his weight and looked at a point past Ben. “Ben, I want to thank you for paying for those horses now,” he said in an uncomfortable voice.
Ben waved his hand. “Don’t think anything of it,” replied Ben, dismissing Marshall’s thanks. “It helped me and you to take care of it now.”
“I don’t know about you,” said Marshall. “But that money is going to be a big help to me now. I want you to know that.”
“Well, I’m glad,” said Ben with a small shrug. “But I’m even happier to be getting those horses. We need your stock. Those horses will fill out the herd we’re trying to build, and improve our bloodlines.”
Marshall seemed relieved. He gave Ben a small smile. “I’m glad we’re both going to benefit from this deal,” he said.
Ben nodded. “Grant, you didn’t have to ride over here to tell me that,” said Ben.
“I didn’t,” admitted Marshall. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Here’s the bill of sale for those horses. I forgot to give it to Joe when he was at my place.”
Ben held out his hand. “You don’t have to give me that now,” he said. “Wait until you deliver the horses.”
“This isn’t for all of them,” explained Marshall quickly. “This is just for the four horses Joe brought back. I meant to give it to him before he left, but it slipped my mind.”
Ben frowned and looked at Hoss. “Did Joe come back with any horses?” he asked Hoss.
Hoss slowly shook his head. “I haven’t seen Joe since breakfast,” said Hoss. “We haven’t fixed the fence on the south corral, so the only place Joe could have brought them horses is either the corral outside or the barn. I’ve been in the barn all day unloading the hay. Joe hasn’t been there.”
Ben turned back to Marshall. “When did Joe leave your place?” he asked, his voice tinged with concern.
Now it was Marshall’s turn to frown. “A couple of hours ago,” he answered. “He and Dave were going to bring those horses back here, and then they both were going to Virginia City.” Marshall looked toward Hoss. “Are you sure they didn’t get here?”
“They never showed up here,” answered Hoss. He looked at Ben. “Do you think Joe and Dave headed right for Virginia City?”
“With four horses in tow? I doubt it,” said Ben, his concern growing. He turned to Marshall. “Are you sure they were heading to the Ponderosa?”
“I’m sure,” said Marshall, his voice echoing Ben’s concern. “I saw them leading those horses down the road toward here. Virginia City is in the opposite direction from my place.”
“Do you see any sign of them along the road?” asked Ben. “Any sign of any trouble?”
Marshall shook his head. “No, nothing,” he replied. He looked at Ben with a troubled face. “Where could they have gone?”
“I don’t know,” said Ben. His frown deepened.
“Pa,” said Hoss thoughtfully. “You don’t think Joe and Dave could have cut over Sutter’s Ridge, do you? Going over the ridge would have save them some time.”
“Dave knows better than that,” protested Marshall. “Those horses were green broke, and that trail is pretty rough. He wouldn’t have gone that way.”
Ben cocked his head. “You said they were planning to go to Virginia City after they delivered the horses?” asked Ben. “Maybe they decided to try it if they were in a hurry.”
“Well, maybe,” admitted Marshall. He took a deep breath. “Those horses were broke good. Dave and Joe could have gotten them over the ridge. I’m sure if they went that way, they would have managed all right. Those boys, they know what they’re doing.”
Ben nodded, but his face reflected his uncertainty.
Suddenly Marshall turned and started walking toward to the door.
Ben watched him for a minute. “You going to Sutter’s Ridge?” he called after Marshall.
Marshall stopped and turned back to Ben. He nodded curtly.
“I’m going with you,” said Ben, hurrying toward the door.
“Me, too,” added Hoss.
Joe felt himself drifting slowly out of the fog that seemed to engulf him. He could feel the hard ground under his body, and he could smell the dirt. Joe heard a crow screeching somewhere in this distance. And he could feel the fiery pain that seemed to be burning through his body. Joe lay still. He sensed that any movement was just going to make things worse. He concentrated on taking small, short breaths and hoped that would ease the pain. Joe wondered for a moment about where he was, about what had happened to him. Then the memory of the rustlers and that terrible slide down the ravine came flooding back. Joe wasn’t sure how long he lay on the cold ground without moving. Time had lost all meaning for him. But finally, the pain seemed to ease into a dull, throbbing ache. Joe decided to take inventory, and to try to find some part of his body that would work. He opened his eyes a fraction, not enough to focus, but enough to enable him to see the blurred image of his own arm and hand. Joe’s right hand was laying near his face. He concentrated on moving his fingers on his right hand, and was rewarded by being able to curl them without another stab of pain. He lifted his right arm and moved it slowly before letting it fall back on the ground. Joe noted with satisfaction that at least his right arm obeyed his commands. Joe’s left arm was curled under his body. He started to pull his arm free, and felt a jolt of pain from his wrist. Joe groaned and quickly stopped the movement. All right, Joe thought. Legs next. Joe’s right leg was twisted under his left. Joe could feel a throbbing in his right knee, and the unnatural position seemed to be putting pressure on his leg. Joe concentrated on curling his toes in his boots, and felt the toes moving. He lifted his left leg slightly, and started to slide his other leg out. Joe felt a stab of pain in his knee, and the muscles in his leg seemed to burn. But this time Joe didn’t stop. He gritted his teeth and pulled his leg free. He straightened his leg as much as his throbbing knee would allow. That movement eased the pressure and the pain.
Joe laid still again, his breath coming in short pants. He felt something trickle down into his eye, and his eye blinked away the irritation. Joe’s face and chest burned, and he figured he must have scraped away a layer of skin in the fall. Each breath brought a small stab of pain from his ribs. Joe wonder briefly about the fact that so many parts of his body seemed to be competing to cause him pain. Joe considered his situation carefully, and he didn’t like what he concluded. No one knew where he was. His father and brother wouldn’t even know he was missing until after dinner, and it would be morning before they could start looking for him. Even then, it might be days before they headed toward Fish Hook Canyon. There would be no reason for them to search in the direction of the canyon. If he was going to get out of this, Joe decided, he was going to have to do it by himself. Joe let out a short, bitter laugh. Right, he thought. All he had to do was climb out of the ravine, then walk almost twelve miles to the nearest ranch. All on one good leg, and with one good arm. An unmeasured time past before Joe decided to try moving again. His numerous aches seemed to be receding into dull throbs. Joe pressed his right hand into the ground and slowly lifted his head. He winced as he felt his face being ripped from the ground. His cheek had seemed glued to the dirt by some sticky substance. Joe blinked his eyes open and looked up. Joe could see the edge of the ravine about thirty feet above him. As far as Joe was concerned, the edge of the ravine might have been thirty miles above him. The hill was steep, almost vertical, and the ground looked hard and solid. Joe knew climbing up the ravine was an impossible task. Joe turned his head. His eyes widened as he saw another body to his right. The body seemed curled around a large rock. Joe could see an arm resting against the hillside. A shock of strawberry blonde hair rested on the edge of the rock.
“Dave!” cried Joe in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
Joe felt his right arm begin to tremble, and he fell back to the ground. Joe let out a grunt of pain and winced. He laid still for a minute, then forced his eyes open again.
“Dave,” said Joe again, his voice slightly louder. “Dave, can you hear me?”
The body on the rock lay still.
Joe took a deep breath, wincing again at the pain the effort caused. “Dave! Answer me!” ordered Joe. He watched the body carefully, but there was no movement. “Dave, we’ve got to get out of here,” said Joe in a softer voice. “You hear me? We’ve…we’ve got to get those rustlers.” Joe waited and watched, his breaths coming in short gasps. There was no movement, no sound from the rock. “Please, Dave,” Joe pleaded. “Answer me.”
The still body on the rock seemed to mock Joe. Joe felt an irrational rage at being ignored. “Dave,” said Joe in an angry voice. “You hear me? You promised me nothing would go wrong.” Joe gasped for breath and winced.
“You promised me, Dave,” Joe said in a quieter voice.
Joe felt a stab of pain from his ribs. His breathing was more labored and his body seemed to conspiring once more to cause him a lot of pain. The agonizing pain caused his stomach to churn and his head to ache. Joe wondered if he how long he could endure such misery. The answer, it seemed, was not long in coming. Joe sensed the fog descending slowly around him again. “You promised,” Joe muttered as he began to drift into now familiar the fog. “You promised.”
The three riders slowly descended the steep trail on the far side of Sutter’s Ridge. Their slow progress was only partially caused by the tricky trail. Each man was also looking for some sign of other riders who might have recently used the trail.
“Somebody sure came this way,” said Grant Marshall when the riders reached the bottom of the trail. “There’s tracks and broken branches all over the place.”
Ben looked around the empty expanse of the flat ground. “If it was Joe and Dave,” he said in a puzzled voice, “where did they go?”
Hoss slipped off his horse and knelt on the ground. He studied the tracks, his heading turning as his eyes followed the prints. “Pa,” said Hoss, “these tracks lead away from the Ponderosa. They’re heading toward the canyons.”
“The canyons?” asked Marshall. “Are you sure?”
Hoss nodded as he stood. “Yep,” he said as he climbed back on his horse. “You can see the prints of five or six horses. Two sets are pretty deep, like the horses are being ridden. The rest of are lighter, and closer together. Like the horses were being led.”
“It has to be Joe and Dave,” Ben declared. He looked in the direction of the tall rocks in the distance. “But why would they go in that direction?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Pa,” answered Hoss as he turned his horse. “But I’m sure going to find out.”
Joe felt the sweat running down his face and into his eyes. He shivered, and wondered how he could be hot and cold at the same time. He knew he wasn’t thinking straight. His mind seemed crowded with all kinds of blurred and unrelated thoughts. He wondered how he could be hurting so much and still be alive. He had given up on the thought of movement. He knew it was probably cowardly of him, but he just could bear to cause himself any more pain. It was easier to simply lie still, hugging the dirt, and praying for any kind of relief. A cloud passed over the sun, and Joe wondered if a rainstorm was going to add to his misery. The thought of rain brought the suggestion of water to his mind. Joe wished he hadn’t thought of that. His mouth felt dry and gritty, and his thirst was growing. Joe tried to push the thought of water from his mind.
Joe looked toward the body still curled against the rock. He was no longer angry at it. It’s presence actually brought him comfort. Somehow, Joe felt less alone, less abandoned when he could see his friend. Dave hadn’t answered any of Joe’s repeated calls. Somehow, Joe knew he wouldn’t. But that didn’t stop Joe from trying.
“Dave,” Joe croaked through dry lips. “Dave, your Pa is sure going to be mad at you. He’s going to be real upset. You shouldn’t have done this to him.”
Joe knew he wasn’t making sense, but he couldn’t seem to stop talking. He felt himself babbling on about Dave and his Pa, about the rustlers, and about the horses they had been bringing to the Ponderosa. He talked until his dry throat stopped him.
A moment of clarity seemed to break through Joe’s tortured thoughts. He looked across to the rock. “Dave,” Joe whispered. “I’m going to make them pay for this. I promise you. They’re not going to get off this time. I’m going to make sure they pay for what they did to us.”
Joe closed his eyes and felt the dull, throbbing pain cascading through him. Joe gritted his teeth. He was determined to survive. Somehow, some way, he was going to stay alive until he was found. He was going to make sure those rustlers were caught and punished. Staying alive was the only way he could be sure it would happen. Joe’s thoughts drifted to the four men who had so callously pushed him and his friend into the ravine and then left them. Joe concentrated on their faces, burning the images into his mind. He felt a hate growing in him, and he nourished that hate. The hate would help keep him alive. Joe felt himself drifting into a fog yet again. The pattern was becoming familiar. The pain would pull him out of the fog and he would endure the agony until his brain could no longer stand it. Then he would drift back into the fog. Joe wondered how many times he would drift back and forth like this, how long he would have to endure the bouts of agony until someone found him. Each time he woke, Joe felt weaker. Joe reached inside him and felt for the hate. It was there, deep down, like a knot in his stomach. Joe let himself drift off into the fog. He knew he would drift out of it again. The hate was like an anchor, pulling him back. Joe kept a firm grasp on the hate as he slowly lost consciousness again.
Hoss led Ben and Grant Marshall slowly down the trail toward the canyons. Hoss kept his eyes glued to the faint tracks while the other two men called for their sons. Their shouts seemed to grow more desperate as the only answer was their own voices echoing through the canyon walls. Hoss abruptly pulled his horse to a stop and held up his hand. Ben and Grant Marshall stopped their horses also.
“What’s wrong, Hoss?” asked Ben in an anxious voice.
Hoss didn’t answer. He slipped off his horse and knelt on the ground, studying the tracks in front of him. Hoss looked up and toward the canyon. Then he looked down to the trail again.
“Hoss, what do you see?” asked Marshall, his voice filled with an urgent plea.
Hoss stood up and turned to the two men on the horses behind him. His face had a puzzled expression.
“This don’t make any sense,” said Hoss. “The horse tracks…they’re gone. They’re covered up with a bunch of new tracks. It looks like a herd of cattle came through here. But that doesn’t seem likely. Who’d have a herd of cattle way up here?”
Ben and Marshall turned to each other, both their eyes wide with fear.
“Rustlers,” said Ben in a soft voice.
Marshall swallowed hard. “If those boys ran into the rustlers….,” said Marshall in a trembling voice. He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t have to.
Ben turned to Hoss. “Can you see any sign of the horse tracks?” Ben asked. “Anything at all?”
Hoss walked up the trail a bit, studying the ground. He turned back to the two men who were watching him with both hope and fear in their eyes.
“It was a pretty good size herd,” said Hoss in a tight voice. “They wiped out all the tracks.”
Marshall stood up in his stirrups and looked around. “Dave!” he yelled at the top of his voice. “Dave! Where are you? Answer me!” Marshall’s voice bounced off the tall rocks. He waited anxiously for a reply. The only answer was the caw of a crow. Ben looked off into the distance, his mind working furiously. He tried to think logically, to decide what was the best thing to do. He knew that panic could cause them to lose time, and he had a terrible feeling that time was running out for his son.
“Hoss,” said Ben suddenly. “Can you tell where those cattle came from?”
Hoss studied the tracks, and walked further down the trail. He left the trail, and walked slowly through the brush on the side. He looked up and seemed to be staring at some place far away. Hoss turned and walked back to the horses.
“Those tracks come from one of the canyons down there to the left,” said Hoss. “I’ve been thinking, and if I was going to stash some cattle, I might just put them in Fish Hook Canyon. There’s good grass and water, and the rocks would make it easy for someone to keep them penned up.”
“Let’s get to Fish Hook Canyon,” said Marshall, pulling on his horse.
Hoss held up his hand to stop the man. “Hold on, Mr. Marshall,” he said quickly. “I’m just guessing. I ain’t for sure. It could be one of them other canyons.”
“We have to start looking someplace,” said Marshall. “Fish Hook Canyon is as good a place as any.”
Hoss looked to his father. Ben nodded his agreement.
“All right,” said Hoss, climbing back on his horse. “Let’s go see what’s in Fish Hook Canyon.”
The three men rode toward the canyon at a gallop, all of them eager to find some sign of Joe and Dave. As they neared the canyon, however, Ben held up his hand to halt the other riders.
“We’d better go slow from here,” said Ben. “If those rustlers are in the canyon, we want to surprise them, not the other way around.”
Marshall and Hoss nodded their agreement.
Ben led his horse at a walk toward the canyon. He had only gone a few yards when he heard the whinny of a horse. He pulled his horse to a stop and listened. The faint sound of a whinny and the snort of two others horses seemed to be coming from Ben’s left. He pointed with his arm and guided his horse toward the sound. Ben saw six horses tied securely in the brush. He didn’t recognize five of them, but the pinto was unmistakable. Ben stopped his horse and jumped from the saddle. He pulled his gun and walked slowly forward to the horses.
“Joe!” called Ben in a loud whisper as he reached the horses. “Joe, are you here?” The horses moved uneasily at the sound behind them.
“Any sign of them?” asked Hoss as he came up to the horses. His gun was also drawn. Ben shook his head.
“That’s Dave’s horse,” said Marshall as he walked up. “And Joe’s pinto, plus the four horses they were taking to the Ponderosa.” Marshall looked around anxiously. “Where are they, Ben?”
“I don’t know,” answer Ben, thinking furiously once again. He cocked his head. “The rustlers wouldn’t have left these horses behind if they knew they were here,” said Ben in a slow voice. “So that means that Joe and Dave tied the horses here, out of sight, and went some place on foot.”
“But where?” Marshall asked again, his anxiety growing. “Where did they do?”
Ben looked up, and studied the hill next to them. “If you climbed that hill, you could see into the canyon,” said Ben. His face cleared as understanding seemed to dawn on him. “That’s what they did!” said Ben excitedly. “They climbed the hill, so they could look into the canyon from the top. They wanted to see what was in there without being seen.”
“But, Pa, they ain’t there now,” said Hoss with a frown. “You can see that.”
“They must have gone into the canyon,” said Ben. “They must have climbed down the other side of the hill and into the canyon.” He quickly shoved his gun back into his holster. “Come on,” he said, as turned and began walking quickly toward his horse. Hoss and Grant Marshall followed him at a run.
Ben hoisted himself on his horse and turned the animal toward the mouth of the canyon. He resisted to urge to ride at a gallop into the canyon. Ben didn’t know exactly what was in that canyon, and he had no desire to ride into an ambush. More importantly, he didn’t want to do anything that might end up getting his son killed. So Ben rode slowly to the mouth of the canyon. But his hand opened and closed in anxious movement as he rode. Ben stopped at the entrance to the canyon, and dismounted. He crept to the edge of the rocks and peered around them. The inside of the canyon looked empty, deserted. Ben could see the remains of a fire near the edge of the ravine, and blades of grass that had seemingly had been trampled flat. Ben turned back to the two men he knew would be behind him. “Looks empty,” said Ben. He turned and mounted his horse once more.
Ben, Hoss and Marshall rode slowly into the canyon. Each man had a pistol in his hand and each was alert for any sign of trouble. Ben guided the horses toward the ashes of the fire. He pulled his horse to a halt and his heart seemed to leap into his throat. Near the fire lay a familiar tan hat. The hat was crushed and battered. Ben slid off his horse and ran to the hat. He picked it up off the ground and looked around. “Joe!” cried Ben in a frantic voice. “Joe, where are you?”
Marshall and Hoss both dismounted and began to look around. Hoss walked to the edge of the ravine and looked down.
“My God!” said Hoss in a whisper. Then he turned. “Pa, Mr. Marshall,” bellowed Hoss. “Over here. Quick!” The two men ran to Hoss. Hoss pointed wordlessly into the ravine. Both men took a sharp breath as they looked down. One body was curled around a rock a few feet from the bottom of the ravine. The other was at the bottom of the ravine and was laying unmoving against the side of the hill. Ben and Grant Marshall looked at each other with wide, fearful eyes.
“Get a rope!” cried Ben.
Hoss ran back to his horse, and started to take the rope off the saddle. He froze suddenly, and frowned in thought. Hoss took the rope off the saddle, and walked to the other horses. He grabbed the ropes off both saddles also. Then he rushed back and grabbed the reins of his horse. He led his horse to the edge of the ravine.
Both Ben and Marshall were kneeling on the edge of the ravine, calling to their sons. Neither of the bodies below moved or called back. Hoss swallowed hard, then made himself get down to business.
Hoss tied one end of a rope around the horn of his saddle. He unlooped the rope and found the end. Working quickly, he tied the end to the beginning of the second rope, pulling on the knot tightly to make sure it would hold. He quickly unlooped the second rope, and repeated the process with the third rope. Hoss scooped up the scatter rope from the ground and moved to the edge of the ravine.
“Pa,” he said, putting his hand on his father’s shoulder. “It’s got to be close to thirty feet to the bottom of that ravine. I tied all the ropes together. I hope they’re long enough.”
Ben looked over his shoulder to Hoss. “They will be,” said Ben. He grabbed the end of the now long rope and began to tie the rope around his waist. “I’ll go down first,” he said, without looking at Marshall. “As soon as I’m down, I’ll untie the rope and you can come down.” Ben looked at Hoss. “Think you can ease me down there?” he asked.
“I’ll get you there,” said Hoss grimly. He turned to his horse, and quickly pulled a pair of gloves from under the saddle. Hoss slipped the gloves on his hand, then picked up the rope. He nodded his readiness.
Ben slipped over the edge of the ravine, and slowly started to climb down the steep slope. He held on to the rope, which Hoss kept taut. As Ben worked his way down the slope, Hoss let out more rope. It seemed to Ben it took a long time to work his way down the hill. He wanted to sprint down the side, but he knew that would be foolish. He would be of no help to the boys on the floor of the ravine if he fell. So Ben forced himself to ease down the slope carefully. As he neared the bottom, Ben got a better look at Dave Marshall. He briefly closed his eyes. Then he looked up at Hoss and pointed to the body on the rock, indicating he was heading there first. Hoss’ eyes widened in surprise, but he nodded his understanding. Ben was sure that he was only going to need a few moments with Dave. The way Dave was twisted around the rock and the unnatural angle of Dave’s neck told Ben that he wasn’t going to be able to help Grant Marshall’s son. But he had to be sure.
Ben eased himself down next to Dave Marshall and knelt next to the body. He put his fingers on Dave’s neck and lowered his ear to the boy’s chest. Ben listened and felt for any sign of life. Then he straightened and turned toward the top of the ravine. He looked up at the men staring anxiously down at him. Slowly, Ben shook his head. He saw Grant Marshall cover his face with his hands. Ben turned quickly and eased himself down toward Joe. Ben felt his heart hammering in his chest and a thick lump seemed to have formed in his throat as he climbed down. He could see Joe was laying flat against the dirt, and he didn’t seemed twisted unnaturally as Dave had been. But Joe was not moving, and he was unresponsive to Ben’s calls. Ben knelt next to his son and quickly put his hand to Joe’s neck. He closed his eyes and sighed with relief when he felt the steady throb. Ben turned to the top of the ravine. He could see Hoss staring down with an anxious expression.
“He’s alive!” Ben shouted in a voice choked emotion. Ben saw Hoss’ shoulders sag with relief. He also saw Grant Marshall staring transfixed at his son’s body.
Ben quickly untied the rope around his waist. “As soon as you get Mr. Marshall down, get a canteen and toss it down to me,” shouted Ben. He turned back to Joe without waiting for an answer.
Ben gently felt along Joe’s neck and ran his hand down his son’s spine. All the bones seemed to be aligned and intact. Taking a deep breath, he slowly turned Joe over on to his back. Ben took a sharp breath as he looked as his son. The side of Joe’s face and his chest were scraped almost raw. Ben could see blood and tissue as well as the torn skin. Flecks of dirt and gravel were clinging to both wounds. As ugly and painful as the wounds looked, Ben knew they weren’t serious enough to keep Joe at the bottom of the ravine. Ben began to check his son for other injuries. He could see some small cuts and bruises on Joe’s face. Several bigger bruises, already turned to a deep blue, were peeking out of Joe’s shirt. Ben suspected Joe had a large collection of bruises. Ben began to run his hands lightly over Joe’s body. As he probed his son, Ben heard the scrape of boots behind him and a soft sob. Ben didn’t look around. He knew there was nothing he could do to help Grant Marshall or his son right now, and Ben had bigger worries. Ben felt the depression on Joe’s right side, and knew his son had several broken ribs. He could see some small scrapes on Joe’s right palm. Joe’s left wrist laid at an odd angle and Ben felt the swollen tissue and ragged sharpness of the broken bones under the skin. Ben ran his hands over Joe’s leg, and felt the swelling around his son’s left knee and the swollen tissue of his lower leg. Ben couldn’t feel any broken bones in either leg, but there was no question the muscles were bruised and damaged. Ben was feeling Joe’s chest and abdomen when he heard the canteen land with a thud and start its slide down the ravine. He quickly turned to catch the canteen. He hadn’t felt anything unusual around Joe’s midsection and Joe hadn’t reacted to his probing. Ben hoped that meant his son had no internal injuries but he couldn’t be sure. Ben uncorked the canteen and gently lifted Joe’s head from the ground. He pour a small trickle of water into Joe’s mouth. At first, the water simply ran out of the side of Joe’s mouth, but then Joe’s throat began to work, and Ben could see Joe swallowing the water. Ben waited a moment then trickled some more water into his son’s mouth.
Joe felt the cool liquid sliding down his throat and he swallowed it greedily. He didn’t care where it was coming from. It tasted too good to worry about. The small tickle increased a bit and Joe swallowed again. He opened his mouth wider, hoping to gather more of the water. Joe coughed as a bit more water trickled in, and the water abruptly stopped. Joe didn’t realize the water had stopped, because he was groaning and wincing at the pain his cough had caused. A sharp pain came from his ribs, and the rest of his body seemed to ache. Joe felt his head being gentle laid back on the ground. He heard a voice saying his name. Joe forced his eyes open. He looked at the slightly blurred face above him in confusion. Joe thought he was dreaming. The face looked like his father’s.
“Easy, Joe,” said the face. “Lie still. Everything is going to be all right.”
Joe stared at the image that appeared to be his father. He still couldn’t believe his eyes. Joe lifted his right hand, fully expecting to feel nothing but air. Joe’s body sagged with relief and his eyes welled with tears as he felt solid flesh and bone.
“Pa,” croaked Joe in a voice that was barely a whisper. “Pa.”
“Easy, son,” repeated Ben in a soothing voice. He slowly stroked Joe’s head. “You’re going to be all right now. Just lie still.”
Joe grabbed at Ben’s shirt. “Dave,” he said in an urgent voice. “You’ve got to help Dave. He’s hurt bad.”
Ben looked over his shoulder. He could see Grant Marshall cradling his son in his arms. Ben turned back to Joe. “Don’t worry about Dave,” said Ben softly. He glanced upward to the sky. “Dave’s with his Father now.”
Joe nodded, not understanding but finding comfort in Ben’s words. Joe closed his eyes and shuddered as the familiar wave of pain seemed to cascade through him again.
Ben turned toward the top of the ravine. He could see Hoss still peering anxiously over the edge. “Hoss, he’s alive, but he’s hurt bad,” yelled Ben.
“Go get some men, some ropes and a wagon. We’re going to need some help getting him out of here.” Ben saw Hoss hesitate, and then saw a quick nod of his middle son’s head. Hoss disappeared from the top of the ravine. Ben turned back to Joe. He stroked his son’s head again. Then he untied the bandanna from his neck and wet the cloth. He began gently to clean the scrape on Joe’s face.
Joe felt the wet cloth, and winced at burning pain the cloth cause as it traced the side of his face.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Ben softly. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I’ve got to clean out those wounds.” Ben could see the flush of fever on Joe’s face and feel the heat. He knew the fever was caused by more than those scrapes on Joe’s face and chest, but for now, this was about the only thing he could do to help his son.
“Joe, what happened?” asked Ben as he worked. He wanted to know but he also thought talking might distract Joe from the pain.
Joe looked up at Ben. “We found the rustlers,” he said slowly. “We thought..”
Joe stopped and winced in pain again. He took a breath and grunted at the pain in his ribs. “We thought we had the drop on them,” finished Joe.
Ben heard some movement behind him and he glanced over his shoulder. Grant Marshall had worked his way over to the Cartwrights and was standing behind Ben, listening.
“We thought….we had them,” continued Joe in a weak voice. “They jumped us. Beat us up.” Joe closed his eyes, trying to remember exactly what happened. His thoughts seemed jumbled for a minute. Then the picture of what happened came back to him in sharp focus.
“They pushed us into the ravine,” said Joe in a bitter voice. “And they left us here.”
Ben glanced over his shoulder to Marshall. Both men’s faces were clouded with anger.
“I tried…I tried to get out,” said Joe. “I tried to get help.” Joe’s eyes began to fill with tears again. “I couldn’t do it,” said Joe in a choked voice. “It hurt too much…too much to move.”
“Sssh, it’s all right, son, it’s all right,” said Ben quickly. He stroked Joe’s head once more.
“Joe, who did this?” asked Marshall in a tight voice. “Who did this to you and Dave?”
Joe closed his eyes and thought about the face he had burned into his memory. He could feel the hate for the men inside him. He hated them for what they did to him and Dave, and he hated them for making him feel so helpless.
“Joe, do you know who it was?” asked Marshall. His voice grew urgent. “Tell me who did this?”
Joe opened his eyes and looked past Ben to Grant Marshall. “There were four of them,” Joe said slowly. “Pete Bishop. Carl Sand. I’m…I’m not sure about the other two.”
Joe winced as the pain seemed to be growing again. He could feel the fog once again descending around him.
“Got to catch them,” mumbled Joe as he drifted off. “I promised Dave. I promised I’d get them for him.”
Ben looked down at his son. “Don’t worry, Joe,” said Ben grimly. “I’ll make sure they pay for what they’ve done.”
Ben stood staring at the fireplace, not seeing the flames dancing in front of him. His thoughts were upstairs, in a bedroom, where the doctor was working to put his son back together again. Ben had wanted to stay with Joe, to hold him and comfort him while the doctor worked on him. But Doctor Martin had chased him from the bedroom. The doctor insisted that Ben was more a hindrance than a help as he set bones and cleaned cuts. Ben didn’t realize the anguish that showed on his face as Doctor Martin worked on Joe’s bruised and battered body. The doctor decided it would be a kindness to his old friend if Ben didn’t have to see Joe’s many injuries so closely. Ben’s thoughts turned to the ravine as he stared into the fire. It had taken Hoss over two hours to get back with help. Those were two of the longest hours of Ben’s life. Two hours of Joe drifting in and out of consciousness. Two hours of Ben feeling a choking fear when Joe laid still and unmoving, and feeling a helpless rage when Joe was awake and moaning in pain. Two hours of being able to do virtually nothing to help his son. Ben tried not to think about the tortuous task of getting Joe out of the ravine. He tried to block his mind from the moans and grunts of pain from Joe as Hoss and the six hands he had rounded up lifted Joe gently on to the old wooden door Hoss had brought as a stretcher. The journey up the ravine had been slow and difficult, punctuated by soft groans from Joe. The make-shift stretcher jolted him as it traveled over the rough ground. Even the journey back to the Ponderosa in the wagon was painful for Joe. Despite the thick mattresses in the wagon bed, the ride was hard on Joe. It seemed even the littlest movement had caused a wave of agonizing pain though Ben’s youngest son.
“Pa,” said a voice from behind Ben. Ben turned to see Hoss standing a few feet away. Ben hadn’t heard his son come in.
“Pa,” repeated Hoss, his voice tinged with concern. “Is the doc still working on Joe?”
Ben nodded and turned back to the fire, his thoughts straying to the upstairs bedroom again.
Hoss studied his father for a moment. He knew the worry Ben was feeling. He felt it himself. He had heard those terrible moans of pain from his little brother, just as Ben had.
“Joe’s going to be all right, Pa,” said Hoss, trying to comfort himself as much as his father. “You heard the doc. He’s going to make it.”
Ben nodded mutely, not turning to look at Hoss.
Hoss pursed his lips, wishing there was something he could do to help. He silently cursed those rustlers who had caused his family so much pain.
“Pa, Roy Coffee has a posse out after those rustlers,” said Hoss. “Charlie Andrews came by while I was outside. He said Roy sent him to tell us they had followed the tracks into the mountains.”
Ben didn’t answer. Hoss wondered if he had heard him. He was about to repeat what Charlie had told him when Ben turned around.
“Roy won’t find much in those mountains,” said Ben in a discouraged voice. “The rock is so hard up there that nothing makes a track. Those rustlers could have led those cattle down any one of those passes.”
“Maybe,” agreed Hoss. “But Roy won’t give up looking. And even if he don’t find anything, he’ll make sure the word gets out. Those rustlers won’t get away.”
Ben nodded, but his face clearly showed that he didn’t believe what Hoss had said. Ben turned back to the fire. “Did the hands get back yet?” he asked in a disinterested voice. Three of the Ponderosa hands had stayed behind to help Grant Marshall retrieve his son’s body and bring it home. The other three hands had been charged with bringing in the horses Dave and Joe had left near the mouth of the canyon.
“Yeah,” answer Hoss. “Jeb rode in awhile ago. He said Mrs. Marshall and the young’uns took the news about Dave real hard. I told him to ride over there tomorrow to see if they needed any help.”
Ben stared into the fire. “Such a waste,” he said in a low voice. “One young man and another seriously injured. I would have given them five hundred head of cattle if they had just let those boys be.” Ben shook his head. “Such a waste.”
“I agree,” said a voice from the stairs.
Ben turned and quickly walked to the stairs. He looked up anxiously as Doctor Martin descended the stairs. The doctor had his coat thrown over his arm and his black bag clutched in his hand.
“How is he?” asked Ben in a voice full of worry.
“He’s a sleep,” replied the doctor in a soothing voice. “I pumped him full of as much pain killer as I could. I doubt if he’ll even stir until tomorrow sometime.”
“But he’s going to be all right?” insisted Ben.
The doctor nodded. “It’s going to take quite awhile,” said Doctor Martin. “But, eventually, he’ll heal.”
“What about his fever?” persisted Ben. “Joe was really hot when we carried him in.”
“It’ll will disappear in a few days,” the doctor assured Ben. “There’s some infection, but mostly, the fever is from the pain and exposure. Keep him warm and make sure he gets plenty of liquids. The fever should break tomorrow and be gone in a day or two after that.”
“Doc, what about the pain?” asked Hoss. “Joe was hurting bad, real bad.”
The doctor didn’t answer for a minute. He set his bag on the table and slipped on his coat. The he turned to Hoss. “I can’t remember the last time a body that battered,” said Doctor Martin slowly. “Five broken ribs, a broken wrist, sprained knee, bruised ligaments in the leg, and more cuts and bruises than I can count. He must have been in a lot of pain. Setting the bones will help, and so will the medicine. But it will be a long time before he can move without pain.”
Hoss looked down at the floor. His stomach had tied itself into knots as the doctor catalogued Joe’s injuries.
The doctor saw the anguish on Hoss’ face. He walked over and put his arm on the big man’s shoulder. “He’ll get better, Hoss,” Doctor Martin assured him. “That’s what we have to focus on. Helping Joe get better.” Hoss nodded mutely but didn’t look at the doctor.
Doctor Martin turned to Ben. “Has Roy Coffee caught the rustlers?” he asked.
“He’s after them,” said Ben. shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t think he’ll have much luck, though. Looks like they headed up into the mountains. The doctor nodded. He looked at the two men in the room. Ben was staring at the top of the stairs, and Hoss’ gaze was fixed on the floor. The doctor shook his head. “I’ll be back in the morning,” said Doctor Martin. He turned and walked to the front door. He hesitated, and looked back into the room. Neither man seemed to be aware that he had left them. The doctor shook his head again, pulled open the door, and walked out.
“I’m going to sit with Joe,” said Ben, heading toward the stairs.
Hoss looked up. “Pa,” he said in a voice filled with anger and determination. “I’m going to see if I can find that posse.”
Ben stopped and turned to his son. “Hoss…” he started.
Hoss held up his hand. “I know what you’re going to say,” interrupted Hoss. “Let the law handle this. And I aim to. But I got to help somehow. And catching those rustlers is the best thing I can do right now.”
Ben pursed his lips and nodded. Hoss turned and walked to the door, grabbing his gunbelt off the bureau, and snatching his hat from the peg by the door. Ben watched as Hoss settled his tall white hat on his head and buckled the gunbelt around his massive girth. “Be careful,” said Ben. Hoss looked at Ben and nodded. Then he turned and went out the door.
Ben looked to the top of the stairs. He took a deep breath and slowly climbed the stairs.
Joe felt as if he were drifting out of a fog once again. But this was a different fog. Joe felt a pleasant lassitude as he slowly tried to clear his fuzzy head. He felt some dull aches, but the sharp, agonizing pain he had experienced earlier was no longer creeping through him. Joe could feel the soft pillows under his head, and the comfortable mattress under his body. Joe wasn’t sure where he was, but he felt safe and warm. For now, that was good enough. Joe shifted slightly on the bed. His body felt restricted. He could feel his left elbow resting on a pillow, and something hard around his lower arm. He felt the tight bandages around his chest and ribs. His right leg was propped up on a pillow under the blankets, and Joe felt something tightly wrapped around his knee. Joe turned his head so the sore side of his face was away from the pillow. He slowly opened his eyes and tried to focus. A slight smile played on his lips as he saw the figure sleeping in the chair by his bed.
“Pa?” asked Joe in a quiet voice.
Ben sat upright and quickly shook his head. He looked down to the bed and smiled at his son. “Good morning,” he said, trying to sound normal. In truth, every time Ben looked at his bruised and bandaged son, he felt something other than normal. He felt angry.
“Resting your eyes?” said Joe with a smile.
Ben grinned. “Yes, I guess I was,” he admitted. Ben looked around the room. Bright sunlight was pouring through the windows. Ben figured the day was well started. He turned back to the bed. “How are you feeling?” he asked gently.
Joe shifted his weight and winced. “Thirsty,” he answered, doing his best to ignore the pain. “And hungry.”
Ben smiled and turned toward a table by the bed. “Well, we can fix the thirsty part,” said Ben pour some water from a bottle into a glass. “And I’ll get Hop Sing working on fixing the hungry part.”
Ben lifted Joe’s head from the pillows and held the glass to his son’s lips. Joe drank deeply from the glass, swallowing most of the water offered to him. When he pulled his head back, indicating he had had enough, Ben eased his head back to the pillow. Ben put his hand on Joe’s forehead. He nodded to himself as he decided Joe’s fever was down.
“Pa, Dave Marshall is dead, isn’t he?” said Joe in a quiet voice.
Ben turned to put the glass back on the table before answering. He took a deep breath and turned back to the bed. Joe was staring up at his father. Ben had a hard time not wincing as he looked at his son’s bruised and battered face.
“Yes, he’s dead,” said Ben, his voice as quiet as his son’s. “We think he broke his neck in the fall.”
Joe looked away. “Did they catch them?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Ben. “Hoss went out to join the posse yesterday. He hasn’t been back.”
“Pa, I want them to pay for what they did to Dave,” said Joe in a bitter voice. “I promised Dave they would.”
“I know, son,” said Ben in a soothing voice. “I want them to pay, too. But the important thing now is for you to get well.”
“When do you think Hoss will be back?” asked Joe.
“Did I hear my name?” said a voice from the door.
Joe and Ben both turned to the voice. Hoss stood in the doorway to Joe’s room. His clothes were covered with dust, and his face showed the lines of fatigue. Hoss had a big grin on his face, but both Joe and Ben could tell it was forced.
“Did you get them?” asked Joe in an anxious voice.
Hoss looked at Ben, then turned back to Joe. “No, we didn’t,” admitted Hoss, looking down. “We searched those passes through the mountains but there wasn’t a sign of them.”
“They’re going to get away with this,” said Joe in an angry voice. “They killed Dave and they’re going to get away.”
“No, they ain’t, little brother,” said Hoss in a grim voice. “They may have gotten away for now, but we’ll catch them. Roy Coffee is wiring every sheriff for a hundred miles around. He’s also printing up wanted posters. He’s listing those rustlers as wanted dead or alive.” Hoss turned to Ben. “I told Roy to put a reward on those posters. I told him we would pay it.” Ben nodded.
Joe didn’t seem to hear his brother. “They got away,” he said again, looking at the ceiling.
“No they didn’t,” insisted Hoss. “I promise you, Joe. We’re going to catch them. They won’t get away. I promise I’ll get them for you.”
Joe looked at his brother. “Yeah, sure,” he said in lifeless voice.
Ben stood in the corral, brushing a horse tied to the fence. His hands moved quickly and expertly as he curried the horse but they moved almost without direction. Ben’s thoughts were elsewhere. It had been three weeks since Joe had been rescued from the ravine. To Ben, it had seemed much longer. In fact, it seemed to Ben like he could barely remember a time when he didn’t spend the entire day worrying about Joe’s agonizing recovery. The first week, Joe had barely moved. He had been too weak and too sore from his injuries to do more than lift his head. As worrisome as that week had been, the last two had been worse….for both Ben and his son. Doctor Martin had insisted Joe get out of bed and both begin walking as well as doing a series of painful exercises. Ben knew the Doctor was doing only what was necessary to insure his son’s full recovery, but he hated hearing the grunts of pain as Joe tried to make his stiff and sore muscles work. He hated seeing the beads of sweat and the exhaustion on Joe’s face as he finished the exercises. Ben admired his son’s determination but he worried about Joe all the same.
It wasn’t only the physical pain which his son was experiencing that caused Ben worry. Everyday for the past three weeks, Joe had asked for news of the efforts to catch the rustlers. And everyday, Joe’s face took on a strange, hard look when he was told no progress had been made. Three weeks, thought Ben as he continued to brush the horse. What a strange time it had been. He and Hoss had gone to Dave Marshall’s funeral, offering words of condolence to a mother who couldn’t seemed to be consoled and a father who seemed unaware of the people around him. Ben had exchanged a series of telegrams with Adam, advising his oldest son of what had happened, and assuring him that coming home immediately wasn’t necessary. Joe had insisted Ben instruct Adam to stay in San Francisco and finish his business. Joe had protested that he was disrupting life on the Ponderosa enough without undermining the work on the timber contracts too. Ben frowned as he thought about Joe’s other comment. Joe had said that he would take care of things himself when he was well. Ben had a feeling that his son was not talking about the work around the ranch.
Ben took a step back from the horse, and, for a moment, interrupted his worried thoughts. He admired the horse, one of the animals that Grant Marshall had brought over last week. Ben frowned as his memories of that event crowded in. Marshall had been awkwardly apologetic for the late delivery of the horses and Ben had felt equally as awkward as he assured Marshall he understood. Both men had seemed reluctant to discuss the reasons for the late delivery, and both had felt uncomfortable in each other’s presence. Neither wanted to offer the other false words of comfort, so their talk was strictly business. Ben had a feeling that he and Grant Marshall would always feel awkward with each other, that the memory of Fish Hook Canyon would come between them from now on. That thought saddened Ben. Ben turned when he heard the sound of a horse riding into the yard, and his face showed surprise as he recognized the rider. He quickly put the brush on the fence, and climbed out of the corral.
“Hello, Ben,” said the rider as he guided his horse toward the corral. The man had a neat, almost business-like look despite his western clothes. He wore a dark string tie and a tan coat over his crisp white shirt. His light gray hat showed none of the wear and dirt that most working cowboys seemed to accumulate.
“Cal Peterson!” answered Ben in astonishment. His face turned to a thoughtful frown. “Did I miss a delivery date?” he asked.
“No, Ben, you didn’t,” said Peterson with a smile as he dismounted. “And even if you had, a cattle broker doesn’t ride over to see a rancher when the cattle don’t show up. That’s why they invented telegrams.”
Ben smiled as he watched Peterson tie his horse to the corral fence. “Well, then, what brings you to the Ponderosa?” asked Ben curiously. “We won’t have any cattle ready for at least a month.”
Peterson’s face grew sober. “I was over at Frank Thompson’s place, trying to get him to agree to a contract on his herd,” explained Peterson. “He told me what happened to Dave Marshall and Joe.”
Ben nodded, his face grim.
“Have they caught the men who did it yet?” asked Peterson. “Thompson wasn’t sure.”
“No, no they haven’t,” replied Ben.
Peterson looked thoughtful. “That’s why I came over,” he said. “I think I might know something that might help.”
Ben started to answer but the sound of the door of the ranch house opening distracted him. Ben turned toward the house and watched. Joe was walking slowly out of the house, his gait more of a shuffle than a walk. He was leaning heavily on a cane in his right hand, and his balance seemed even more precarious because of the large white sling in which his splinted and bandaged left arm rested. Even from a distance, the scabs on his face were visible.
Ben watched, his hands clutched with tension, as Joe walked with painful slowness across the wood flooring in front of the house. When he reached the end of the wood, Joe moved on to the uneven dirt of the yard. Joe lurched a bit to his right as he took a step onto the dirt, and he leaned harder on the cane. Ben rushed across the yard.
“Joe, are you all right?” Ben said anxiously.
Joe stopped and looked up. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “Just lost my balance for a minute. That crutch I was using was easier than this cane.”
“You’ve only been using the cane for a day or two,” said Ben. “Maybe you’d better stay in the house until you’re steadier with it.”
Joe shook his head. “No,” said Joe. “I’m sick of the house. I’ve made so many laps around the living room and dining room that I know every inch of the place. The doctor said I had to walk. Well, I’m going to do my walking outside for a change.”
“Joe, I know you’re getting bored in the house,” said Ben in an understanding voice. “But you’ve got to take things slow.” Ben looked at his son, and saw the lines of strain and fatigue in Joe’s face. “Maybe you’d better rest for a bit.”
“I don’t want to rest and I don’t want to take things slow,” replied Joe in a cranky voice. “I just want to get some fresh air.”
“All right, all right,” said Ben hastily. “I think some fresh air is a good idea. But why don’t you sit for awhile. You don’t want to overdo it.”
Joe hesitated. In truth, his leg was beginning to ache, but he hated to admit it. “I guess sitting for a minute wouldn’t hurt,” he mumbled.
Ben watched as Joe turned and slowly maneuvered toward the rocker near the front of the house. Ben followed his son, ready to steady him if he should falter. But Joe made it to the rocker, and eased himself down in the chair without assistance. Ben quickly pulled a small stool over to the chair and lifted Joe’s foot onto the stool.
“You know, a little nap wouldn’t hurt,” suggested Ben.
“I don’t need a nap,” snapped Joe. He immediately regretted his words. He looked at Ben. “I’m sorry, Pa,” said Joe in an apologetic voice.
“Hello, Joe,” said a voice from behind Ben.
Joe looked over Ben’s shoulder. His face showed the same surprise as his father had shown earlier. “Hi, Mr. Peterson,” said Joe. “What brings you to the Ponderosa? Did we miss a cattle delivery?”
“No, just visiting,” replied Peterson vaguely. “I heard about…about the accident. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“Well, I’m not ready to run any races yet,” admitted Joe. “But I’m making progress.”
“You’d make even more progress if you took a nap,” suggested Ben.
Joe took a deep breath. “Pa,” he said through gritted teeth. “Stop worrying. I’m doing fine.”
“All right,” said Ben with a sigh. He turned to Peterson. “Cal, how about a drink to cut the dust?”
Peterson grinned. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he said. He nodded to Joe and started toward the house.
Ben started to say something to Joe, but Joe turned to stare resolutely across the yard, ignoring Ben. Ben sighed and followed Peterson toward the house. Once inside the house, Peterson settled himself comfortably on the sofa while Ben poured them both a glass of sherry. After handing Peterson a glass, Ben sat down in his favorite red leather chair and looked expectantly toward the cattle broker.
Peterson took a sip of sherry, then looked at Ben. He seemed unsure what to say. Finally, he just settled back on the sofa and started talking.
“Thompson told me about what happened to Joe and the Marshall boy,” said Peterson. “That got me thinking. A few weeks ago, some fellows rode into Walnut Creek to see me. They said they had some cattle to sell. I didn’t know the men, and when I looked at the cattle, I thought the brands looked a little funny. So I turned them down. There were four of them, Ben. They could have been your rustlers. They fit the description Thompson gave me of the men you’re looking for.”
“Didn’t the sheriff in Walnut Creek warn you about looking for the rustlers?” asked Ben with a frown. “Roy Coffee sent telegrams and wanted posters to towns for more than a hundred miles. I’m sure he sent them to Walnut Creek.”
“Our sheriff is very good at what we hired him for,” said Peterson with an ironic smile. “Which is breaking up fights and keeping drunken drovers under control. I’m afraid that paperwork isn’t exactly his long suit. There’s no telling how many telegrams and posters like the ones Roy Coffee sent are piling up on his desk unread.”
“Do you have any idea of where they went after they left Walnut Creek?” pressed Ben. “Any idea at all?”
“No, none,” said Peterson with a shake of his head. “Once I turned them down, they had some drinks in the saloon and left.”
“Well, it’s something, I guess,” said Ben in a discouraged voice. “At least now we know what direction they went.”
“There’s more, Ben,” said Peterson quickly. “One of the men in back in Walnut Creek. He showed up the day before I left. Seems he took a shine to one of the girls in the saloon. He was playing poker and sweet talking the girl. He had a wad of bills, and acted like a man who was in no hurry to leave.”
“What does he look like?” asked Ben anxiously.
“Tall, heavy-set fellow, about 30,” said Peterson. “I heard the girl in the saloon call him Pete.”
“Pete Bishop,” said Ben, nodding his head in confirmation. “The thing to do now is to get a telegram off to Walnut Creek and have him arrested.”
“Hold on,” protested Peterson. “I said he might be one of your rustlers. I can’t be sure. I don’t like the idea of having a man arrested on my say without being sure. That’s why I came by the ranch. I was hoping Joe would go back to Walnut Creek with me and take a look at the fellow.” Peterson glanced toward the front door. “I didn’t have any idea he was hurt that badly,” added Peterson softly. “Thompson just said he was pretty banged up.”
“Joe can’t make the trip. He’s not well enough,” confirmed Ben. He thought for a minute. “But I can. I know Pete Bishop. He worked on the Ponderosa for awhile. And Joe said Bishop was one of the rustlers. If I go to Walnut Creek and confirm that the man is Pete Bishop, will that be good enough for your sheriff?”
Peterson nodded. “Your word would be good enough for me,” said the cattle broker. “And if it’s good enough for me, it will be good enough for the sheriff. We can head over to Walnut Creek first thing in the morning. If we cut through the mountains, we’ll be there by early evening. I have a feeling that evening is the best time to find this fellow at the saloon.”
“Why don’t you stay here tonight?” suggested Ben. “We’ve got plenty of room.”
“No,” said Peterson with a shake of his head. “I’ve got some business to take care of.” He smiled wryly. “A couple of other ranchers near here haven’t been convinced to contract their cattle to me yet. I want to give them another try.” Peterson looked thoughtful. “How about I meet you at the foot of Sun Mountain at daybreak.”
“Sun Mountain at daybreak,” agreed Ben. “I’ll be there.”
“Good,” said Peterson, rising to his feet. He quickly finished his drink and set the glass on the table. “I’d better get going if I want to see those other two ranchers today. I’ll just say goodbye to Joe and be on my way.”
Ben followed Peterson to the door, and out into the yard. The cattle broker stopped near the rocking chair and looked down. Joe was asleep in the chair, snoring lightly as he dozed.
“Looks like you got your nap after all,” said Peterson with a smile to Ben.
Ben looked at his sleeping son. “Joe’s not as strong as he thinks he is,” said Ben. He shook his head. “He was hurt pretty bad. It’s going to take awhile for him to recover.”
Peterson nodded his understanding. “Say my goodbyes to Joe for me,” he asked. Peterson hesitated. “I’ll see you at Sun Mountain at dawn?”
Ben looked down at his son. “I’ll be there,” answered Ben grimly.
Dinner that night at the Ponderosa took longer than usual, as it had for the past two weeks. Joe’s broken wrist made eating a difficult process. Ben filled a plate for Joe and cut his meat, just as he had done for his son when Joe was a child. Joe was naturally left-handed, but his left arm was in a sling. So eating with his fork in his right hand was an awkward and time consuming process for Joe. Watching Joe struggle at the table added fuel to the already burning fire of anger Ben felt toward the men who had deliberately harmed his son.
Hoss talked with his father and brother about ranch business over dinner, but Ben didn’t seem to be listening. He answered Hoss’ questions vaguely or not at all. Hoss looked at Joe across the table with raised eyebrows. Joe shrugged his shoulders at Hoss and shook his head in puzzlement. Neither of them had any idea what was bothering Ben.
“Pa, I’m going to start working those horses tomorrow,” said Hoss. “That all right with you?”
“What?’ said Ben in a distracted voice. “Oh, yes, of course, that’s fine.”
“Pa, what’s bothering you?” asked Joe. “You’ve been a million miles away all night.”
Ben shook his head and smiled. “Nothing,” he answered. “Nothing important.” He saw Joe shifting uncomfortably on the chair. The dinner plates were cleaned, and the meal for all intents and purposes was over.
“Why don’t we have coffee in the living room?” suggested Ben.
“Good idea,” said Joe. His knee was beginning to ache again, and the thought of stretching out his leg was appealing.
Joe turned on his chair, sliding his legs around in front of him. He reached across his body with his right hand, grabbing the cane that was hooked on the back of his chair. Joe pressed the cane firmly to the floor and pushed on it.
Ben rose hastily from his seat and grabbed Joe under the arms. He pulled Joe to his feet and held him until he was sure Joe had his balance.
“Thanks, Pa,” said Joe gratefully. Joe shuffled slowly across the room toward the sofa, leaning heavily on the cane as he walked. Ben watched his son, ready to help him if needed.
Hoss also watched until he was sure Joe was going to make it to the sofa. Then he grabbed the coffee pot and three cups from the table. Hoss quickly crossed the room, and put the pot and cups on the low table in front of the fireplace. He seemed to be arranging the cups, but in reality, he was watching Joe ease himself down onto the sofa. As soon as Joe was settled, Hoss grabbed a pillow and put it on the table. Joe nodded his thanks as he lifted his right leg with his hand and eased his foot onto the pillow. He grinned at Hoss as he put his foot on the pillow. He had commented to Hoss earlier that the only good thing about his injuries was that he could put his foot on the furniture without getting yelled out. Hoss saw the grin and knew what Joe was thinking. He smiled back at his brother as he poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Joe.
Ben walked slowly into the living room, his thoughts still seeming to be somewhere else. He eased himself into his leather chair, and stared into the fire.
“Hey, Pa,” said Hoss, as he settled into the blue chair near the stairs, coffee cup in hand. “Joe said Cal Peterson was here today. What’d he want?”
“Yes, Cal was here,” replied Ben. He hesitated, then continued. “I’m going back to Walnut Creek with him in the morning.”
“Walnut Creek? Why?” asked Joe curiously.
Ben took a deep breath. “Cal thinks one of those rustlers is in Walnut Creek,” said Ben slowly. “I’m going with him to see if he’s right.”
“I’m going with you,” said Joe in a grim voice.
“Joe, you’re in no shape to make that trip,” said Ben patiently.
“Pa, I’m going,” said Joe in a determined voice.
“Joe, we’re going to cut through the mountains,” explained Ben. “That’s a rough day’s ride on horseback. You’d never make it.”
“Pa, I have to go,” insisted Joe. “I’m the only one who can identify those rustlers for sure.”
“From the description Cal gave me, I think the man in Walnut Creek is Pete Bishop,” said Ben. “I know Bishop. I can identify him.”
“But what if it isn’t Bishop?” said Joe in an insistent voice. “What if it’s one of the other two, the ones I couldn’t name? You don’t know them.”
“If it’s not Bishop, I’ll have the sheriff talk with him,” said Ben. “One way or the other, we’ll bring him back here for you to take a look at.”
Joe looked away. “Pa, I want to go,” said Joe in a stubborn voice.
“Joe, you ain’t making any sense,” said Hoss. “You can’t even sit a horse right now, much less ride all day through those mountains. Killing yourself ain’t going to accomplish anything.”
Joe looked at Hoss. “I promised Dave I’d make them pay for what they did to him,” said Joe. “I’ve got to keep that promise.”
“I know you want them punished, Joe,” said Ben. “So do I. And the best way to insure that it happens is to let me take care of this.”
Joe stared at his father, as if trying to read the meaning of his father’s words. Finally, Joe looked down. “All right,” he said in a low voice. Joe leaned back against the sofa, his body limp. Ben frowned as he watched his son. Something seem wrong in the way Joe agreed to let Ben go to Walnut Creek. But he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.
Joe took a deep breath, and looked up. “I’m tired,” he said abruptly. “I think I’ll head up to bed.” Joe pulled his leg off the table and set his coffee cup next to the pillow on the table. He grabbed the cane and pushed himself up from the sofa. Walking slowly, Joe headed toward the stairs.
“Need any help?” Hoss asked as he watched Joe shuffle toward the stairs.
Joe stopped. “No,” he said in grim voice. “I think I can get ready for bed all by myself.” Joe started toward the stairs, then stopped. He turned toward Ben. “You promise me that you’ll make sure Bishop pays for what he did?” Joe asked.
“I promise,” answered Ben in a puzzled voice.
Joe seemed satisfied with Ben’s answer. He turned and slowly began climbing the stairs.
Ben watched his son’s slow progress, still puzzled by Joe’s question.
“Hoss,” said Ben as he watch Joe finally reach the top of the stairs. “Forget about those horses. I want you to stay close to the house while I’m gone.”
“Sure, Pa,” replied Hoss. “But why?”
“I want you to keep an eye on Joe,” answered Ben. “He worries me.”
Hoss nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “Without someone around, he’s liable to overdo it. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he takes it easy.”
“Yes, do that too,” said Ben in a distracted voice.
Ben and Cal Peterson rode into Walnut Creek late the next afternoon. Both men and horses were tired and sweaty. Ben had insisted the men keep traveling all day, stopping only briefly to eat and rest the horses. He was anxious to get to Walnut Creek before Pete Bishop left. Peterson understood Ben’s anxiety and didn’t complain. After making sure the horses got a well deserved bag of oats at the livery, Ben and Cal Peterson hurried to the sheriff’s office. They had discussed a plan on the trail, and now wanted to get the lawman’s agreement to their plan. Ben wanted Pete Bishop, but he also wanted to make sure everything was done legally and properly.
At sheriff’s office, Peterson introduce Ben to the lawman, and Ben quickly explained his reason for coming to Walnut Creek. He also outlined his plan. The sheriff listened without making any comments or asking any questions. He merely agreed to the plan. Ben judged the sheriff to be man without much imagination. But that was fine with Ben. His plan didn’t need a man with imagination. All it needed was a man with a badge. The three agreed to meet at the saloon in two hours. That would give Peterson enough time to get home and change, and give Ben time to get a hotel room and refresh himself. The sheriff assured Ben that the man they wanted wouldn’t be at the saloon until then. Ben agreed, but he also knew he’d be at the saloon long before two hours past….just in case.
Two hours later, Peterson and the sheriff walked into the saloon and looked around. Peterson spotted Ben sitting in a table at the back of the room, almost in a shadow. A beer, barely touched, sat in front of Ben. Peterson motioned to the sheriff and the two men joined Ben.
“How long have you been here?” Peterson asked Ben after he ordered two beers from the girl who came to their table. A faint smile of amusement twitched at Peterson’s lips.
“About an hour,” said Ben. He reached down and took a quick sip from his beer.
“I’m not surprised,” said Peterson. He looked around the nearly empty saloon. “What have you been doing to entertain yourself for an hour?”
“Thinking,” answered Ben in a quiet voice.
Ben, Peterson, and the sheriff sat for almost another hour at the table. They didn’t talk much or take more than a sip or two from their beers. The beers were mere props, and talking seemed unnecessary. Ben’s eyes were glued on the door of the saloon, and he watched each man who walked in. Ben stiffed when a tall, heavy-set man walked in.
“That’s him,” said Ben in a low voice. “That’s Pete Bishop.”
“And your son is sure that he’s one of the men who jumped him?” asked the sheriff.
“He’s sure,” said Ben curtly.
The sheriff nodded but continued to sit at the table. The three men watched as Bishop walked up to the bar and ordered a beer.
“Where’s Katie?” asked Bishop in a loud voice.
“She’ll be here in a little while,” answered the bartender as he set a beer down in front of Bishop.
Bishop began drinking his beer. He turned his back to the rapidly filling saloon.
The sheriff turned to Ben. “Remember what we agreed,” he said in a barely audible voice. “I’ll arrest him on your word. But it would be better if we can get him to admit something.” Ben nodded, his eyes never leaving the man standing at the bar. The sheriff got up from the table and walked over to Bishop.
“Pete Bishop?” asked the sheriff.
“Yeah?” answered Bishop cautiously as he turned to face the sheriff.
In one smooth action, the sheriff pulled his gun out of his holster with his right hand while snatching Bishop’s gun from his holster with his left. “You’re under arrest,” said the sheriff.
“Arrest!” said Bishop in astonishment. “What for? I didn’t do anything.”
“You’re wanted in Virginia City,” answered the sheriff.
“What for?” said Bishop, his eyes narrowing.
“Cattle rustling and murder,” answered the sheriff.
“Sheriff, you’ve got the wrong man,” protested Bishop. “I haven’t done anything. This is all a mistake.”
“There’s no mistake,” said Ben in a loud voice. He got up and walked slowly toward Bishop. Bishop’s eyes widen when he saw Ben. “Cartwright!” he said in a whisper. Bishop’s eyes darted back and forth between the sheriff and Ben.
“Sheriff, this is a mistake,” said Bishop. He looked around the saloon. All movement had ceased and every eye was on Bishop. “Cartwright is a big man in Virginia City,” said Bishop in a loud voice. “I heard some of his cattle got rustled. He looking for a scapegoat and he’s decided on me.” Bishop noted with satisfaction that several pairs of eyes shifted suspiciously to Ben.
Ben ignored the looks. “Bishop, you rustled almost a hundred head of cattle,” declared Ben. “And when you got caught, you attacked the men who caught you. Only they weren’t men. They were two boys, two young men with more bravery than sense. And you helped throw those two boys down a ravine and then you rode away and left them to die.”
All eyes were now riveted on Bishop, and several faces in the room had a look of disgust.
“You don’t know that,” mumbled Bishop uneasily.
“One of the boys died,” continued Ben as if he hadn’t heard Bishop. “But my son didn’t die. He laid in that ravine for hours, too hurt to even move. But he stayed alive. And he identified the men who did tried to kill him.”
Bishop’s eyes widened with fear. “I didn’t do anything, I swear,” protested Bishop in a panic. “It was Sand. He’s the one. He pushed those two kids into the ravine.”
“You’re going to hang, Bishop,” said Ben with grim satisfaction. “My son is going to testify against you and you’re going to hang for the murder of Dave Marshall.”
“No!” shouted Bishop. He turned suddenly and grabbed at the gun in the sheriff’s hand. The sheriff and Bishop struggled as Ben pulled his gun out and pointed it toward the pair. The gun in the sheriff’s hand went off, and Bishop froze. A look of surprise came over Bishop’s face. Then he slowly crumpled to the floor.
The sheriff knelt down and pushed Bishop onto his back, gun ready. But there was no longer any need for a weapon. Bishop had a large hole in his chest, the ragged edges tinged with gunpowder. Blood was slowly seeping from the wound. The sheriff felt Bishop’s neck for a minute, then stood. “He’s dead,” declared the sheriff without emotion.
Ben stood staring at the body on the floor, gun still in his hand. Peterson came up quietly behind Ben and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder.
“You all right?” Peterson asked with concern.
Ben nodded as he holstered his pistol. “I didn’t want it this way,” said Ben in a sad voice. “I wanted to take him back to Virginia City to stand trial.”
“I know,” said Peterson. He looked at the body on the floor. “But he didn’t give the sheriff much choice. I have a feeling he knew it was going to end that way. Probably thought it was better than a rope.”
Peterson pushed Ben gently on the shoulder. “Why don’t you go back over to the hotel?” he suggested gently. “The sheriff will take care of things here.”
Ben didn’t move for a moment, then nodded his head slowly. He took one last look at the body of the floor, then slowly walked out of the saloon.
Ben rode into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house late the next afternoon. He had spent an uneasy night in Walnut Creek, a night of tossing and turning on the bed. Ben’s conscience pricked at him. Both the sheriff and Cal Peterson had assured Ben that Bishop’s death was the man’s own fault. But Ben still felt uneasy about it. He was convinced he could have planned Bishop’s arrest better. He knew his promise that Bishop would hang had goaded the man into going for the sheriff’s gun. Ben hadn’t planned for that to happen. But he had spent a long time sitting in the saloon, thinking about his son and what those men had done to Joe. When Bishop claimed he was innocent, Ben’s anger was stronger than his good sense. He had spoken without thinking about the impact of his words. And those words had caused Pete Bishop’s death. Ben had been up before dawn and on the trail to home as soon as it was light. He didn’t push his horse the way he had traveling to Walnut Creek, but he still made good time. Ben had been anxious to get home to his sons. Ben dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post near the front of the house. As he stood untying the saddle bags from the back of his saddle, Ben heard the front door of the house open. He turned to see Joe watching him expectantly from the doorway.
“Hello, Joe,” Ben greeted his son in a quiet voice. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m all right,” answered Joe. As if to prove his words, Joe walked slowly across the wooden flooring in front of the house toward his father. He was still leaning heavily on a cane as he walked. “What happened in Walnut Creek?” asked Joe. “Was it Bishop?”
“It was Bishop,” confirmed Ben.
“Where is he?” asked Joe, watching his father carefully.
Ben hesitated and then answered. “He’s dead,” said Ben.
An odd look of satisfaction flashed across Joe’s face. “Thank you,” said Joe in a quiet voice.
Ben frowned at Joe’s comment. “Joe, I didn’t gun him down,” explained Ben quickly. “He was killed trying to escape. He died because he was trying to get away.”
“Sure, Pa, I understand,” said Joe.
“No, Joe, really,” insisted Ben. “He did try to get away.”
“You don’t have to explain it to me, Pa,” said Joe with an odd smile on his face. “I understand completely.”
Ben’s frown deepened. He didn’t like the way Joe seemed pleased at Bishop’s death. Ben looked around. “Where’s Hoss?” he asked.
“He’s out riding with the posse,” said Joe. “He left this morning. Two rustlers hit Thompson’s place last night. He trailed them as far as the canyons, then went for the sheriff. Roy Coffee thinks they might be two of the rustlers who…who were in Fish Hook Canyon. He thinks they might have come back to get more cattle.”
“And Hoss is riding with the posse?” said Ben in surprise.
Joe looked away. “Roy Coffee came by to get a description of the rustlers,” said Joe in a quiet voice. “He said he wanted to be sure they were the same men if they caught them. Hoss rode out with Roy when Roy told us they were putting a posse together.”
“Well, I’m glad you had enough sense not to try and ride with them,” said Ben.
Joe turned back to his father. “I wanted to,” he admitted. “But Hoss wouldn’t let me. He told me he’d hog-tie to the bed if I tried to get on a horse.”
“I’m glad at least one of my sons has some sense,” said Ben in a stern voice. He walked over to Joe and put his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder. Ben’s face softened. “I know how much you wanted to go after them, Joe,” said Ben in a comforting voice. “But Hoss was right to make you stay here.”
Joe took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, he was,” said Joe. “I’d probably just slow them down.” Joe looked off to the hills. “Hoss promised me he’d bring them back to me,” added Joe in a barely audible voice.
Ben looked curiously at Joe. Ben had the distinct feeling that he and his son were hearing the same words, but the words had different meanings to each of them.
“Joe…” started Ben.
The sound of horses and riders stopped Ben. He and Joe both looked toward the road leading up to the ranch house. Seven men were riding toward the house, led by a big man in a tall white hat that both Joe and Ben recognized instantly. Two of the riders were leading horses. A large bundle wrapped in a blanket was slung over the saddle of each of the riderless horses.
“Pa!” called Hoss as he led the posse to the house. Ben raised his hand in acknowledgment.
The posse stopped in the yard, and Hoss and Roy Coffee dismounted. Joe took a few steps forward. “Did you get them?” he asked Hoss anxiously.
Hoss’ face turned sober. “Yeah, we got them,” said Hoss.
“Joe, I wonder if you’d mind taking a look at these two,” asked Roy, tilting his head toward the bundles on the horses. “Tell me if you recognize them.”
Joe walked slowly toward the horses, leaning on his cane as he walked. He lifted the blanket covering the bundle on the first horse. The head and shoulders of a man were visible under the blanket. Joe studied the man for a minute, then dropped the cloth. He moved to the second horse and lifted the blanket. Once again, Joe stared at the head and shoulders of a man draped over the saddle.
“That’s them,” said Joe grimly as he dropped the second blanket. “That’s two of the rustlers. This first one is named Perkins or something like that. I don’t know the name of the other one.”
“Johnny Perkins and Ray Green,” said Roy, naming the two dead rustlers.
Ben took a few steps forward. “Roy, what happened?” he asked.
The sheriff scratched his head. “Well, Ben,” he said thoughtfully, “it looks like those two decided to come back and get some more cattle. We trailed them to Fish Hook Canyon. This time, they were changing the brands on those steers, right there in the open, when we rode up. I tried to get them to surrender, but they started shooting. Hoss got one of them. Killed him as he was trying to climb the hill. We’re not sure who killed the other one. There were a lot of bullets flying around.”
“You killed one of them?” Joe asked Hoss, looking at Hoss with a curious expression.
“Yeah,” said Hoss sadly.
Joe stared at his brother for a minute. He nodded at Hoss, his eyes trying to convey some message. Hoss frowned, puzzled by Joe’s actions.
Joe turned and limped slowly back toward the house. His shoulders sagged and his walk seemed slower and more awkward. Ben rushed forward.
“Are you all right, Joe?” asked Ben anxiously.
Joe looked up. “I’m kind of tired,” admitted Joe. “Guess maybe I overdid it a bit today. I think I’ll go in and lie down for a bit.” Joe took another step forward, and stumbled a bit. Ben grabbed him by the arm.
“I’ll help you, Joe,” said Hoss, coming up next to his brother.
Joe looked up and gave Hoss a tired smile. “Thanks,” said Joe.
Ben watched thoughtfully as Joe shuffled slowly into the house with Hoss at his side. He was sure that Joe had tried to convey some message to Hoss when Hoss admitted he had killed the rustler. Ben just wasn’t sure what that message was.
“Say, Ben,” said Roy, interrupting Ben’s thoughts. “Hoss told me about your trip over to Walnut Creek. What happened there?”
Ben turned back to the sheriff and quickly told him what had happened in Walnut Creek.
“I guess that’s three wanted posters I can cancel,” said Roy as Ben finished his story.
Ben look at the sheriff as if he wanted to ask something but was reluctant to do so. Ben bit his lower lip. Roy Coffee watched him expectantly.
“Roy, what happened in that canyon?” Ben said suddenly. “Hoss didn’t kill that rustler deliberately, did he?”
“Hoss?” said Roy in surprise. “No,” continued the sheriff, shaking his head. “I think he was only trying to wing him. That fellow stood up right as Hoss shot, and the bullet got him square in the chest.”
Ben let out a sigh of relief.
“You didn’t think that Hoss would kill him on purpose, did you?” asked Roy Coffee with a frown.
“I guess I wondered,” admitted Ben. “He’s been pretty upset about what happened to Joe. We both are. I was just hoping that he didn’t let his anger get the better of him.”
“Not Hoss,” said Roy, shaking his head again. “It wouldn’t have made any difference if he had killed him on purpose, though. Those wanted posters say dead or alive.”
“I wasn’t worried about the law,” said Ben with a frown. “I was worried about Hoss.”
“Don’t worry about him,” said Roy. He started toward his horse then stopped. “Ben, there’s still one rustler left out there. Carl Sand. I’m betting he’s cleared out and won’t be back, but then, I was surprise that these two came back. You’d best keep your eyes open, just in case.”
Ben looked startled at Roy’s comments. “You don’t think he’ll come after Joe, do you?” he asked.
“Probably not,” said Roy as he mounted his horse. “But it don’t hurt to be cautious.” Roy looked down at Ben. “Don’t worry about Hoss,” he added. “I don’t think any of your boys could kill someone deliberately.”
Ben nodded but his eyes strayed toward the house. “I hope you’re right, Roy,” said Ben in a quiet voice.
An air of normalcy seemed to settle over the Ponderosa for the next week or so. Hoss rode out every morning to take care of the ranch, and talked about his day every evening during dinner. Ben worked on the books, and did the routine chores around the house. Joe worked hard on the exercises that would help his injured body heal. But to Ben, the air of normalcy seemed a facade. Ben kept a covert eye on Joe as he worked around the house. Hoss seemed to avoid talking about any other subject than the ranch. Hoss and Ben both studiously avoided talking about the rustlers, even though Joe continued to ask for information about the fourth man. And Joe worked at his exercises with a fierce determination, showing an almost obsessive desire to rid himself of his limp and his cane as soon as possible. Whenever Joe asked about the fourth rustler, his face took on a strange, hard look — a look that frightened Ben.
Several times, Ben almost broached the subject of the rustlers with Joe. But each time he thought about discussing the rustlers with his son, he stopped. Ben wasn’t sure what to say. He could hardly criticize Joe for feeling a sense of satisfaction that three of the rustlers were dead when, deep down, he had to admit he felt that three men got what they deserved. Joe had done nothing more than ask about the fourth rustler and whether Roy Coffee had caught the man yet. Ben felt Joe’s questions were more than just idle curiosity but Ben didn’t quite know how to ask Joe about it. He had raised his sons to make their own decisions. Whatever Joe was thinking, Ben felt he had to wait until Joe was ready to talk about it. So Ben said nothing. And Ben hoped. Hoped he was doing the right thing, and hoped that Joe was not planning something that his youngest son would regret.
Ben had an uneasy feeling as he rode out to the Marshall ranch on a bright morning about ten days after the two rustlers were killed. Hoss was out taking care of business on the ranch, and Hop Sing was in town getting supplies. Ben disliked leaving Joe alone at the house, but admitted he couldn’t say why. Joe was healing; he shortly would no longer need the cane. Joe easily could manage by himself for a few hours. Three of the rustlers were dead, and there was no sign of the fourth man. There was no reason why Ben should feel a sense of urgency to finish his business and be home. But he did.
Grant Marshall watched from the corral as Ben rode up. He seemed to have aged 10 years in the past few weeks. Marshall had always had a serious air about him but now his demeanor had taken on an air of great sadness, too. Ben stopped his horse next to the corral.
“Hello, Grant,” said Ben quietly. “How are you?”
“Hello, Ben,” answered Marshall briefly.
“How’s Peggy doing?” asked Ben with concern.
“About what you’d might expect,” replied Marshall shortly.
Ben hesitated, not knowing what else to say. Marshall obviously didn’t want to talk about what had happened. Ben respected Marshall’s feelings, and went right to the reason for his visit. “Grant, we’re going to need about 20 more horses to fill out an Army contract,” said Ben quickly. “Do you think you might be able to supply them?”
“Depends on when you need them,” answered Marshall. “It will take me longer to catch and break the horses now that….” Marshall looked way. “Now that I don’t have as much help.”
“I don’t need them until the end of the month,” said Ben quickly.
Marshall looked back at Ben, and nodded. “I’ll supply them by then,” he agreed.
“Good,” said Ben. Ben shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. There seemed nothing more to say, and he still had a feeling that he should get back to the ranch. “Give my regards to Peggy,” Ben said. He turned his horse.
“Ben,” called Marshall. Ben stopped his horse and looked back. Marshall looked down, as if he were trying to decide about something. Finally, he looked up. “Ben, I hear that fourth rustler, that Carl Sand, might be around here someplace.”
“What!” said Ben in alarm. “Are you sure?”
“No, I’m not sure,” said Marshall. He looked away again. “To be honest, the less I think about those men, the better I feel. I don’t like myself when I think about them.” Marshall turned back to Ben. “But Frank Thompson stopped by yesterday. He mentioned seeing someone who looked like Sand riding up near Sutter’s Ridge.”
“Did he tell Roy Coffee?” asked Ben anxiously.
“No,” admitted Marshall. “Thompson didn’t get a good look at the man, wasn’t sure it was Sand. He just mentioned it because he wanted me to keep a close eye my cattle, just in case. I’m just passing on the news for the same reason.”
Ben swallowed hard. “I’d better get back to the ranch,” he said in an anxious voice. “Joe’s there alone and if Sand is around…”
“Ben,” interrupted Marshall. “I don’t hold with deliberately killing a man, no matter what he’s done to me.”
“Neither do I,” said Ben with a frown.
“That’s not what I heard,” said Marshall. “I heard you killed Bishop, and your son Hoss killed one of those rustlers.”
“The sheriff in Walnut Creek killed Bishop,” said Ben. “And Hoss killed the rustler by accident. Neither one of us wanted those men dead.”
Marshall stared at Ben. “I heard what you said to Joe in that ravine,” he said stubbornly. “When Joe kept saying he promised to get those men, you told him you’d make sure they would pay for what they did.”
“I did, “ agreed Ben. “But I meant I would make sure the law punished them. I didn’t mean I would go after them and kill them.”
Marshall said nothing for a minute, then slowly nodded. “I believe you, Ben,” he said. “But it sure sounded different in that ravine.”
Ben wondered briefly how Joe might also have misinterpreted his words, but he pushed that worry aside for now. All he could think about was getting home as quickly as possible.
“Thank you for the news, Grant,” said Ben, with a brief nod of his head. He turned his horse and headed down the road to the Ponderosa at a gallop.
Joe walked slowly from the barn. His knee was aching, and he leaned heavily on the cane. Joe knew he had probably overdone it with the exercises, and standing for another hour as he brushed his pinto hadn’t helped. But Joe was tired of being an invalid, was tired of the aches and pains. He wanted to get rid of the cane, get rid of the bothersome sling in which his broken wrist rested. He wanted to be whole again. And he wanted to go after the man who had caused him all this grief.
Joe didn’t pay any attention to the trees and bushes near the front of the house as he passed them. He didn’t even see them. He had walked past those trees thousands of times. He didn’t see the shadow by the trees, and didn’t hear the soft rustle of the bushes. He didn’t know anyone was there until he felt the gun in his back.
“Hold it, Cartwright,” growled a voice.
“Into the house,” said the voice. Joe felt the gun nudge him in the back. Joe walked toward the house and heard the footsteps behind him. When he reached the door, Joe stopped and awkwardly lifted his hand with the cane to open the door. Joe fumbled with the latch. The man behind Joe impatiently moved to his side and pushed opened the door. Joe looked at the man. He wasn’t surprised to recognized Carl Sand.
“Inside,” ordered Sand, gesturing with his gun. “I don’t want anyone watching.” Joe lowered his cane and slowly limped into the house.
Joe stopped a few feet from the door, and turned to look at Sand. Sand followed Joe into the house, and shut the door behind him. The rustler kept his pistol aimed directly at Joe.
“You’re a hard one to kill,” remarked Sand. He studied Joe’s cane and sling. “Looks like we came close, though.”
“What do you want, Sand?” asked Joe grimly.
“What do you think?” said Sand with a smirk. “I want to get rid of a witness. I want to make sure you don’t testify against me.”
Joe swallowed hard, and tried not to let his growing fear show on his face. He was alone and virtually helpless against the man who wanted to kill him.
“Another murder?” said Joe, trying to keep his voice steady.
“An accident,” amended Sand. “You’re going to have a fatal accident.”
“You think that’s going to keep you from the noose?” said Joe. “Your three friends are already dead. You’re going to end up the same.”
“Those three weren’t friends, and they were fools,” said Sand with a sneer. “Bishop went back to see that girl, and spent money like a drunken sailor. He practically hung a sign around his neck, begging the sheriff to go after him. And those other two! Spent all their money in no time, and then had the stupid idea of taking rustled cattle back to the same place.” Sand saw the surprised look on Joe’s face. “Oh yeah, I heard,” added Sand. “You hear a lot if you just sit in the corner of a saloon and listen.” Sand shook his head.
“What a pack of fools.”
“You’re the biggest fool of all, coming back here,” said Joe. “If you were smart, you’d ride out of here now and keep going.”
“No, not until I make sure you can’t testify against me,” said Sand. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life wondering if I’m going to see you in a courtroom.”
“You don’t have to worry about that, Sand,” said Joe, his eyes narrowing. “You’re never going to get to a courtroom. You’re wanted dead or alive. Some bounty hunter is going to make sure you never get to a courtroom.”
“Dead or alive?” said Sand in obvious surprise.
“That’s right,” said Joe, a spark of hope flickering in him. “Killing me isn’t going to make any difference. You’d be better off to just leave while you have the chance.”
Sand stared at Joe. “They must want me real bad,” he said slowly.
“Yeah,” agreed Joe grimly. “They do. If you kill me, that will only make them want you more.”
Sand rubbed his chin. “Dead or alive, eh,” mused Sand. “All right, I’m going to leave,” said Sand. Joe felt a sense of relief. “But you’re coming with me,” added Sand.
Joe swallowed hard as he felt the fear returning.
“They won’t be so eager to take a shot at me if you riding with me,” said Sand. “You’re going to be my ticket out of here.”
“I’ll just slow you down,” said Joe, raising his sling slightly.
“Cartwright, you think I’m going to worry about that?” said Sand with a sneer. “I’m just going to tie you on a horse and drag you along until I’m out of this territory. Don’t make any difference to me if it kills you. It’ll just save me from wasting a bullet.” Sand gestured with his gun. “Get moving.”
Joe stared at Sand. The memories of the ravine and the agonizing pain he endured flashed through Joe’s mind. He knew a long ride would be equally, if not more, painful for him. Joe didn’t want to go through that again, he couldn’t go through that again. He’d rather have a bullet.
“No,” said Joe in a determined voice. “I’m not going.”
“Cartwright, you don’t have any choice in the matter,” laughed Sand. “You either walk out of here or I’m going to drag you. Now move.”
“No,” said Joe again, his voice even more determined.
Sand took a few steps forward and reached toward Joe’s arm. Joe dropped his cane and tried to grab the gun from Sand’s hand. But Sand merely pulled the gun away. He pushed Joe hard on the shoulder. Joe took a stumbling step forward and fell to the floor. Joe grunted in pain as his still sore ribs and wrist hit the floor.
Sand laughed at Joe’s discomfort, and put his foot against Joe’s side. He shoved Joe with his foot. “Get up and get walking,” growled Sand, ignoring the moan from the man on the floor.
Sand lifted his foot again, but stopped at the sound of the door opening. He looked up in surprise as Ben burst into the house. Sand recognized Ben instantly, and he didn’t need to think about what Ben would do to a man who had harmed his son. Sand had been around Virginia City long enough to know how Ben would react to him. Sand fired his gun at the door, not aiming. Ben dropped to the floor just as the gun went off, and the bullet went into the door.
Joe saw Ben come in and saw him drop to the floor. Joe turned and grabbed the cane lying on the floor. He whipped the cane upward, smashing it against Sand’s wrist. The gesture was not very different from the one Bishop had used to break Joe’s wrist. But the cane didn’t break Sand’s wrist. It merely knocked the gun from his hand.
Ben scrambled to his feet and saw Joe knock the gun away with his cane. Ben rushed forward. He stepped over Joe, and, at the same time, threw a punch into Sand’s face.
Sand staggered back a step. He lifted his arm to take a swing at Ben but Ben was too quick for the rustler. He ducked Sand’s punch, and quickly landed two jabs to the man’s stomach. Sand bent forward and Ben landed a fist on Sand’s jaw. Sand’s head snapped back. Ben grabbed Sand by the front of the shirt and landed another punch on Sand’s jaw. The rustler sagged in Ben’s grip. Ben released Sand’s shirt, and Sand crumpled to the ground.
Ben stood over Carl Sand, breathing hard and shaking his hand. Suddenly, Ben heard the click of a gun being cocked behind him. He whirled around.
Joe stood a few feet away, Sand’s gun in his hand. Joe had the gun pointed at the unconscious man. “Get out of the way, Pa,” said Joe in a harsh voice. “This one’s mine.”
“No! Joe, you can’t!” said Ben in alarm, stepping in front of Sand.
“You and Hoss took care of the others for me,” said Joe grimly. “I’ll take care of him.”
“Joe, you can’t shoot a helpless man,” cried Ben. “That’s murder.”
“Not according to the law,” replied Joe. He looked at the man on the floor, his eyes burning with hate. “The law says he’s wanted dead or alive. I figure dead is better. No chance of some slick lawyer getting him off. He’s guilty of murder. The law won’t do a thing to me.”
“I don’t care what the law says,” Ben said in an angry voice. “You can’t kill him in cold blood.”
“He killed Dave Marshall, and he tried to kill me,” said Joe in a hard, unyielding voice. “He’s going to pay for it. An eye for an eye.”
“Don’t use the Bible as your excuse,” said Ben angrily. “If you want to quote scripture, what about turn the other cheek and blessed are the merciful?”
Joe looked up at Ben. “Pa, you don’t understand,” said Joe. “I have to make sure he’s punished for what he did. I don’t want to take a chance on the law letting him go. I want to make sure he gets what he deserves. Just like you and Hoss made sure the others got what they deserved.”
“Joe, I didn’t kill Bishop,” said Ben in a desperate voice. “The sheriff in Walnut Creek killed him when he tried to get away. I didn’t want Bishop killed. I wanted him to come back and stand trial. And Hoss didn’t kill that rustler on purpose. It was an accident. He was trying to wound him.”
“But I thought…” Joe started. He shook his head in confusion. “I thought you both were just keeping your promise. You promised they’d pay for what they did.”
“We did promise that,” said Ben. He tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable. “But we meant that we would make sure they stood trial, and make sure the law punished them.”
“But sometimes the law doesn’t work,” said Joe, the anger rising in his voice again. “This way, we don’t have worry about whether he’ll be punished.” Joe looked down at Sand. “I promised Dave I’d make him pay.”
“You promised Dave?” said Ben, his voice rising also. “Or you promised yourself?” Joe looked startled at his father’s words.
“Dave’s dead,” continued Ben. “Killing Carl Sand isn’t going to change that. And Dave Marshall isn’t reaching out from the grave to hold you to any promise of revenge. The only one who wants revenge is you.”
“Pa, I promised Dave,” said Joe in a hesitant voice.
“Oh, that’s your excuse,” argued Ben. “But it’s not the real reason you wanted those rustlers dead. You wanted them dead because of what they did to you. Only you won’t admit it to yourself. So you use some promise to Dave Marshall to justify your hatred. If you’re going commit murder, at least be honest about why you’re doing it. You’re doing it because you hate what those rustlers did to you, the pain they caused you.”
Joe looked away. He knew his father was right. The knot of hate that he had formed lying in the ravine had been inside him for weeks. He had felt it, had known it was there. Joe had kept telling himself that he wanted the rustlers to die because of what they had done to Dave. But Joe knew that was a lie. He wanted them dead because of what they had done to him.
“Joe,” said Ben in a soothing voice as he stepped forward. “It’s only natural to hate something that hurt you. But you can’t use it as an excuse to commit murder.”
Joe turned and looked at his father. Tears welled in his eyes, and his lower lip began to quiver. “Pa,” said Joe in choked voice. He swallowed hard. Joe looked away again. “You’re right,” he said in a barely audible voice. “I hate them. I want them dead.”
“I know,” said Ben, his voice reflecting his understanding. “But killing Sand is wrong. You know it is.” Ben reached out his hand. “Give me the gun, Joe.”
Joe looked down at Sand, and then back at his father. He uncocked the gun and handed it to Ben.
Joe lowered his head. “Pa, I’m sorry,” he said in a quaking voice. “I’m sorry.”
Joe closed his eyes, and tears began spilling down his cheek.
Ben reached out and hugged his son to him. He could feel and hear Joe’s sobs. “It’s all right, Joe,” said Ben in a soothing voice. He stroked Joe’s head. “It’s all right, son.”
Hoss looked up from the log he was sawing as he heard the horse approaching. He had spent most of the morning working on the wood piled in the yard in front of the house, and he was glad for an excuse to take a break. Hoss’ face broke into a wide grin when he saw the rider.
“Adam!” he shouted with glee at the rider. “Welcome home!”
Adam grinned at Hoss as he steered his horse to the hitching post and dismounted. “Well, it looks like things are about the same,” said Adam as Hoss came over and shook his brother’s hand. Adam’s face grew serious.
Before Hoss could answer, the front door opened, and both men turned toward the house. Ben rushed out to greet his oldest son. “Adam,” said Ben with a smile. “It’s good to have you home, son.”
“It’s good to be home, Pa,” said Adam, returning his father’s smile. He looked past Ben at the figure emerging from the house.
Joe walked without a cane, and with only a slight limp. The ends of a small splint and bandages peeked out of his shirt sleeve, but the sling was gone. A few small scabs still dotted the side of Joe’s face.
“Well, older brother, it looks like you managed to avoid getting shanghaied on the Barbary Coast,” said Joe with a smile as he joined the others.
“I spent every night with Shakespeare in my room,” said Adam in mock solemnity.
“Shakespeare, eh?” said Joe with a grin. “Was that her name?” Joe ducked as Adam look a playful swing at him.
“Everything set with the timber contract?” asked Ben.
“Everything’s set,” confirmed Adam. “Just like I told you in the wire. No problems.” Adam hesitated. “How are things around here?”
Ben glanced at Joe before answering. “No problems here either,” replied Ben.
“I heard you caught those rustlers,” Adam said in a cautious voice.
“Yes, yes we did,” answered Ben in a quiet voice. “They sentenced Carl Sand to hang. The others are dead.’
“Joe, I’m glad you’re all right,” Adam said to his youngest brother.
Joe looked at Ben. “I am now,” said Joe, his eyes conveying the full meaning of his words. Ben nodded slightly at his son.
“Adam, I sure am glad you’re home,” said Hoss with a grin. “We got work piling up just waiting for you.”
Adam rolled his eyes and groaned. “I suppose you’ve managed to keep the worst jobs waiting for me,” complained Adam.
“Naturally,” answered Hoss.
“Don’t worry, Adam,” said Joe. “The doc says in another week, I’ll be ready to go back to work.” There was twinkle in Joe’s eye. “Of course, by then, I expect you’ll have all those dirty jobs done.”
“We’ll find something for you to do, Joe,” said Hoss.
“Yeah,” added Adam looking at his brother. “We’ll keep you busy enough so you won’t have time to go chasing after rustlers any more.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Joe. “I’ve given up chasing rustlers.”
“You promise?” asked Ben.
“I promise,” said Joe. “And that’s one promise I intend to keep.”