The Land Dispute (by Claire)

Summary:   The return of old friends revives memories and leads to trouble.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,447


 

The fire burning in the hearth was the only sign of life in the living room, which suited Joe Cartwright perfectly. He smiled happily to himself, pulled off his boots and padded through to the kitchen in stockinged feet. Moments of privacy were few and far between on the Ponderosa and he fully intended to make the most of this unexpected boon. Vague sounds traveled through the stone floor: Hop Sing was sorting vegetables in the root cellar. Acting quickly before he was disturbed, Joe set the kettle to boil, squeezed a lemon into a glass and added hot water, some honey, and a good slug of the whiskey he retrieved from its hiding position on the top shelf of the dresser. Back in the living room, he flung himself into a fireside chair, draped his legs over the edge and sipped his drink slowly, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the inner glow from the whiskey.

He woke up with a start, hearing the sound of voices and the clump of boots on the porch. Adam and Hoss burst into the room and surveyed the sleepy figure staring blearily at them from the depths of the large armchair, hair wildly tousled and standing on end.

“Looks like our little brother’s been taking a nap.”

“Aw, Hoss!” Joe whined automatically, then realized what he had done and clapped his hands over his mouth in almost comical dismay. It was too late. Adam strode across the room and stood before him, arms folded across his chest and generally doing the concerned elder brother act to perfection.

“You don’t sound too good there, Joe. Bit hoarse. Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine, really!” The protest was automatic and all three knew it. “Just got a bit of a cold, that’s all. I’ve had a hot drink and I’m feeling much better now, honest!”

Adam surveyed him closely, then picked up the glass and sniffed the dregs. A slow smile curved across his face.

“I’ll bet you are! In fact, I’d say you’re feeling no pain at all!”

After a little more teasing, Adam and Hoss left Joe in peace and went to get washed for dinner and Joe subsided back into his chair, staring dreamily into the flames. From the kitchen came the sounds of chopping, of oven doors opening and closing and then a delicious scent began to drift through into the living room. It smelled awfully like pot roast, Joe thought sleepily.

“Joseph!” For the second time that afternoon Joe awoke with a start. Why couldn’t his family leave him alone? They were keen enough to send him up to bed in the evenings, yet when he was actually tired, all they wanted to do was wake him up. Joe cleared his throat carefully before attempting a reply.

“Hi Pa. Had a good day?”

“For heaven’s sake boy, take your feet off the furniture. How many times do I have to tell you?” Clearly not expecting a reply, Ben hung up his hat and removed his gunbelt before striding across to the fireplace to warm his hands at the flames. Glancing down, Joe was relieved to see that someone had removed his tell-tale glass with the remains of the toddy in it. That was one less thing to get into trouble about.

Ben looked at Joe, who had swung his legs around and was now sitting in a conventional position in the armchair. The boy had a familiar look on his face, a mixture of guilt and anticipation of richly deserved consequences. It was a look that Ben knew only too well. He sighed and enquired “Well, what mischief have you been up to now?”

Joe jumped up, highly indignant. “Why do you always assume I’m in trouble?”

“Years of experience, perhaps?” a dry, sardonic voice replied from the staircase. Adam continued speaking as he joined his father and brother at the fireplace. “How are you feeling now anyway?”

Joe brushed away the hand Adam reached out towards him. “I told you, I’m fine. It’s just a cold!”

Ben suddenly noticed how husky Joe’s voice was and regretted his unfair accusation. He perched on the arm of the chair and put his arm around Joe’s shoulders, noting how they were hunched up defensively.

“Son, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were feeling unwell and I’m afraid I jumped to the wrong conclusions.”

Joe muttered something that sounded like “S’okay” and reluctantly let his father place a large, cool hand on his forehead.

“A little hot, perhaps, but no real temperature. I think you’re right Joe, it’s probably just a cold.”

Joe gave Adam a triumphant “told you so” look, which his father studiously ignored.

“But you must promise to tell me if you begin to feel any worse, all right?”

Joe agreed reluctantly and was very relieved when Hop Sing announced that dinner was ready. Hoss helped himself to a hearty plateful of food before announcing,

“You’ll never guess who I met today in town.”

Ben considered this statement carefully. The possibilities were endless and he was really in no mood to play Twenty Questions. Luckily, Hoss continued without the need for further prompting

“It was the Frasers! All of them! They’re back!”

Although Ben and Joe looked delighted at this news, Adam merely studied his napkin with interest, carefully stifling a sigh of dismay. He would never forget his first meeting with the Frasers. At the time, they had seemed a perfectly nice, if slightly eccentric family.

 *****

 The Past

 “But why can’t I have a pony?” Little Joe exclaimed petulantly. Adam was busy concentrating on the road ahead and did not look down, but he had no doubt that the boy was pouting. He sighed and launched once again into a well-rehearsed explanation.

“Well, first of all we have to find the right pony. At the moment, all the ponies round here are too big for you.” This was more tactful than saying that Joe was still too small. The boy squirmed around in the saddle to face his brother.

“I’m a real good rider, ain’t I? I bet I could ride any pony!”

“Yes, Little Joe, you’re a good rider, but you’ve always ridden with someone else. Riding alone is quite different and that’s why your Mama and Papa want to make sure they find the right pony for you.”

The child looked immensely sad. “It’s ‘cos I’m too small, isn’t it” he said mournfully, twisting his fingers together.

Adam tried hard to remember what it was like to be four years old, inhabiting a world where everyone else was twice your height. “I wouldn’t worry about it, you know. Everything will turn out just fine: you’ll grow a bit more and then maybe the right pony will come along. Besides, once you get your own pony you won’t want to ride with me and I’ll get lonely!”

Joe laughed at this and the journey continued in relative peace until they took the turnoff towards the lake path. There, riding towards them three-abreast came a man on a large bay gelding, accompanied by two small children riding miniature ponies. The children were clearly brother and sister, sharing the same pale blonde hair and dark eyes. Joe squealed in delight as the two groups met.

“Them ponies are the right size!” He started to scramble out of the saddle, heedless of any danger from the horse’s hooves. Adam grabbed him quickly and held the child safely as he dismounted.

“I thought you were just telling me what a good rider you are?” he admonished. Little Joe hung his head sheepishly. Adam hugged him briefly and then set him down on the ground and watched him run joyfully towards the nearest pony. The man smiled pleasantly and touched his hat.

“Ah, the exuberance of youth! It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Andrew Fraser and these are my children, Michael and Alison.”

Adam introduced himself and Joe, and the man nodded. “You must be Ben Cartwright’s sons then? I’ve heard some excellent things about your ranch.”

Adam flushed with pleasure. “Yes sir. My Pa built the Ponderosa up himself through hard work and we all help out.” He looked across at Joe, who was petting a pony, completely unfazed by the baleful look the animal was giving him from under its long forelock. “Well, that’s to say, my other brother and I help in the ranch. Joe’s still a bit young to be much help yet!”

Andrew Fraser looked down at Little Joe and smiled in a friendly manner. “Would you like a ride on the pony, son?”

Little Joe nodded eagerly. “Can I, Adam? Please?”

“If it’s all right with …” For a moment Adam racked his brains and then remembered “Alison.”

“It’s Allie, really,“ the child confided, as she scrambled off the pony. “Alison is only ever used when I’ve been naughty.” Joe gave her a sympathetic look. Whenever his father called out “Joseph Francis Cartwright!” it was a sure sign of trouble.

Adam watched as Andrew lifted Little Joe onto the pony and then began to walk up the trail, leading both Shetlands. Adam felt a small, rather sticky hand ease itself into his own and looked down into a pair of deep brown eyes.

“What’s your horse called, Mister? Can I pet him?”

“Sure you can. His name’s Mistral.” Adam swung the child up into his arms and introduced her to the horse. Allie promptly dug a squashed peppermint out of her pocket and offered it to the horse. Mistral smacked his lips and took the sweet, drooling joyfully over Allie’s outstretched palm. Adam was attempting to wipe off the worst of the slobber with a pocket handkerchief when Andrew and the boys came back along the trail.

Joe bounced excitedly in the saddle, doing a fair imitation of a rising trot and called out happily “He’s called Kelpie and he’s from Scotland! And he’s just the right size for me!”

“So he is, Little Joe. You’ll have to tell Mama and Papa when we get home, won’t you?”

Joe was grinning from ear to ear, suffused with joy. Adam felt his heart sink. He’d heard of Shetland ponies before, but had never seen one or heard of any breeders in either Nevada or California. Adam cringed at the thought of shattering his little brother’s happy dreams. Catching his look, Andrew Fraser handed across a small piece of pasteboard.

“That’s my card. If your father would like me to put out any feelers for another Shetland, tell him to get in touch.”

Joe talked about nothing else all the way home. “His real name’s Michael but he’s called Mike – just like I’m called Joe, see?” Adam nodded to indicate that he understood. “And he’s the same age as me. And so’s Allie, ‘cos they’re twins, which means they were born together. I never met twins before, did you?” A shake of his brother’s head was all the reply Joe needed. “And their Papa got these ponies and they’re just right! Do you think I can get one too?”

Adam was relieved to see the Ponderosa in sight at last. He felt exhausted by Joe’s constant chatter and never-ending stream of questions. How on earth did Marie cope with this all day long?

“Well, why don’t you ask Pa yourself?”

Ben reached up and took the excited child in his arms. Little Joe gave him a rather wet kiss and exclaimed “Papa, me and Adam found a pony that’s just right! Can I get one? Can I? Please?”

Ben raised one eyebrow in quizzical fashion, as Joe continued to babble in an over-excited, slightly incoherent way. Adam grinned at his father and said “I’ll tell you all about, when I can get a word in edgeways!”

Little Joe literally bounced around the house for the rest of the afternoon, still regaling his family with tales of the wonderful pony and his new friends. By now, everyone was rather fed-up with these topics of conversation, but Joe refused to be distracted. After dinner, he suddenly fell quiet and was soon asleep in his mother’s arms.

Marie smiled tenderly at her exhausted child. “I think you should visit Mr. Fraser tomorrow. I don’t think any of us can stand this excitement much longer!”

*****

Ben, Marie and Little Joe drove to the Fraser’s the next day. In front of the house was a large, grassy paddock with two Shetland ponies in it. Spotting the ponies, Joe bounced up from his mother’s lap and shouted “There they are! That’s Kelpie and Corrie!”

“You’ll notice how he’s more interested in the ponies than the children!” Marie laughed, grabbing onto her son’s belt to stop him from falling out of the carriage. “Your son has certainly inherited all your single-mindedness!”

“I’d say he got a good share of your temper too!” Ben retorted, glaring at Little Joe, who was squirming around, desperate to go over to the paddock. “Behave yourself, young man!” Then he saw the barely restrained excitement on the child’s face and relented. “Come on then, show me these wonderful ponies”

They made their way over to the paddock, where two children were solemnly trotting the ponies around and around their father in neat circles.

“Keep you heels down, for goodness sake!” Andrew called to Mike, who hastily adjusted his position. “That’s better, but remember to keep your elbows in too. Okay, hold it there for a moment. We’ve got visitors.”

The two men shook hands and chatted for a few moments, discovering they had several business acquaintances in common. Then a figure appeared at the door of the house.

“Andrew Fraser!! Where are your manners! Invite our guests in immediately!” The young woman held out her arms and the children ran towards the house, with the Shetland ponies firmly in tow. She laughed at the scene.

“No, not in the house today, I don’t think. They really are much happier outside.” Turning to Marie, she smiled broadly and explained. “They decided the ponies were lonely last week and would be much happier living inside the house with us. I still haven’t got the hoof prints out of my rugs!” Laughing at the memory, she ushered her guests into the morning room, followed by her husband, who was carrying a very young baby.

“This is my baby, David. He’s only six weeks old and he’s not got the hang of sleeping through the night yet, so I’m rather beside myself.” She took the baby and sat down with a sigh. “I’ve heard all about Joe and Adam and I’ve been longing to meet you both. I haven’t met a soul since we arrived. Oh, I nearly forgot! My name is Elinor!”

Marie giggled and decided she liked her new acquaintance very much. After a couple of glasses of amontillado sherry and some ratafia biscuits, the men departed to discuss business, leaving the woman to sit and gossip as the children rampaged around their feet.

Two weeks later, a small, rotund Shetland pony arrived at the Ponderosa, complete with miniature saddle and bridle. After much deliberation, Little Joe decided to call him Glen, in honor of his Scottish ancestry and then insisted on mounting him immediately. The effect was rather comical: the boy’s short legs stuck out almost at right angles to the pony’s fat belly. But Little Joe was in ecstasies: at last he had his very own pony!

*****

The Present

 “That’s great news, Hoss! We haven’t seen Andrew or Ellie for nearly five years now. How wonderful to be able them again. I wonder how many children they have now!” It was a standing joke that each time the Frasers departed on their travels they would return with another child in tow.

“Let me see,” Joe stopped to think for a moment. “There’s Mike and Allie, David, James, Peter and Robert. I think that’s all.”

“Could be another one added by now” Hoss suggested.

“God knows how they managed to get there with that all that brood, their traveling menagerie and luggage for eight people too. Probably had to hire the entire stage coach line.” Adam mused, then realized his father and brothers were giving him strange looks and prudently decided not to continue this line of conversation.

“I can’t wait to see them!” Joe was saying. “Can I go over first thing in the morning Pa?”

Ben considered this carefully. “Well, if you have a hot bath and go to bed early tonight.” Joe nodded in eager agreement. “And if your cold’s no worse tomorrow, then perhaps we could all go and pay a visit.”

Hoss and Joe were delighted at this idea. Adam stared down into his lap and concentrated on folding his napkin into a series of tight folds.

Joe departed happily for a soak in a hot bath. His nose was starting to get a bit stuffy and the steam would help it. Plus, Pa had said another hot toddy was probably a good idea and would help him to sleep. Life seemed very sweet to Joe Cartwright.

Ben sat back in his chair and regarded Adam thoughtfully. “You’ve been very quiet all evening. Do you want to talk about it son? I thought you’d be pleased to see the Frasers again. After all, they’re old friends of ours and they’ve been very good to us.” He fell silent, remembering how the Frasers had rushed back from New York the moment they had heard of Marie’s death. Andrew had been a true friend then, sitting up with Ben late into the evening, listening with quiet sympathy as his friend poured out his grief. Ellie had looked after the boys, helping to ease them through the first bitter pangs of grief. Ben was anxious to see his good friends once again.

Adam felt rather uncomfortable. At heart, he was very fond of the family. It was just that whenever the Cartwrights and the Frasers were together, trouble seemed follow as surely as the sun rose in the east.

*****

The Past

The Frasers next visit to Nevada, complete with their latest baby, James, came three years after Marie’s death. By this time, Joe had long outgrown Glen and had graduated to a strawberry roan called Dandy. He was anxious to see if his friends had new ponies too. As he, Adam and Hoss rode up to the Fraser’s house, they could see a small child riding a pony around the paddock, while two older children perched on the railings, shouting out encouragement. As they watched, the child fell off, landing on the ground with a resounding thump and started to howl piteously.

Adam rushed over, full of concern, while Mike and Allie greeted Joe and Hoss with glee.

“You all right there, David?” called Allie nonchalantly, after a few moments.

Secure in Adam’s arms, the child sniffed, wiped his hand on his trousers and nodded. “I forgot to bounce,” he said.

Mike explained “David keeps falling off his pony and breaking things, so Papa jokes that he has to learn to bounce.”

His sister added “He’s broken the family record already” and David looked very pleased with himself. “Both arms broken before the age of five!” the Frasers chorused gleefully. Joe was impressed by this statistic, but Adam looked vaguely horrified. Little Joe was reckless enough on his pony and needed no encouragement from the Frasers.

Unfortunately, when he related the story that evening, Ben did not see it that way. “Come on now, Adam, you’re being unreasonable. Those children are excellent riders for their age and Andrew’s coaching them every day. Joe can only benefit from being with them. Let the children have a little fun”.

What concerned Adam was the thought of what the children were doing once their riding lessons were over. He resolved to keep a close eye on their exploits, having no desire to see his brother enter the Fraser annals of broken bones. The next day he was horrified to see Joe slowly cantering Dandy bareback around the Fraser’s paddock, rising into a crouch and then preparing to stand upright.

Without thinking, Adam bawled “Stop that at once!” and spurred Sport into a gallop. Joe wobbled, lost his balance and tumbled off the pony’s back into the grass.

“I nearly did it that time!” he exclaimed joyfully, brushing himself down. Mike jumped off the fence and went to catch Dandy, who had trotted off to munch an appealing clump of thistles.

“You certainly have done it this time, little boy” Adam yelled, grabbing his brother roughly by the arm.

Allie glowered at him and muttered “Spoilsport” under her breath, which made Joe giggle. Unfortunately, this enraged Adam still further and he dragged his brother along unceremoniously, threw him up onto Sport’s back and rode home, lecturing Joe on his iniquities the entire time.

“Gosh,” Joe thought, “Adam sure does know a whole lot of different words for the same thing: reckless, heedless, irresponsible.” He’d lost interest at that point, but knew they all meant one thing and one thing only: he was in for a licking.

Adam rode straight to the stables and told Joe to get off the horse. His voice was clipped and his lips were pursed in a thin line. Joe shivered slightly and wondered if he should try to make a dash for the house.

“Don’t even think about it, little brother” Adam advised, pulling the boy across his knee. “Maybe a sore butt will make you think twice before you try to kill yourself again.” He gave him six firm swats with the flat of his hand. By this time, Joe was sobbing, the cries catching in his throat. Relenting, Adam lifted him up and held him in a close hug.

“Little Joe, you could have broken your neck trying a stupid stunt like that. Do you have any idea how worried I was when you came off like that?” Surprisingly, his voice was shaking, and Adam found he could not continue. He simply pulled Joe closer and dropped a kiss onto the boy’s curly head.

“I’m sorry too, Adam. I didn’t mean to worry you and I won’t do it again, I promise.” Joe had never seen Adam so upset and started to cry again, large tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Okay there, calm down now. But, please, please don’t ever do that again – promise me, please?”

Joe flung his arms around Adam’s neck and hugged him tightly. “I promise.”

*****

The Present

 Joe wandered back into the living room, feeling much better after his bath. His father frowned to see his son clad only in a flannel night-shirt and sent Hoss to fetch his robe and slippers. Naturally, these were untraceable in Joe’s extremely messy room, so Hoss merely selected a pair of relatively clean socks from a pile on the floor and went along to Adam’s room. There, hanging neatly on the back of the door was Adam’s cozy woolen robe, which Hoss calmly abstracted and went downstairs.

Adam raised his eyebrows as Ben solicitously helped Joe into the robe, turning back the cuffs for him and wrapping the soft folds warmly around the boy, but thought it best not to say anything. With any luck, when Pa made the kid his toddy, he’d pour his elder sons a glass of whiskey too.

The toddy certainly seemed to work, for the next morning Joe was sniffing a bit, but otherwise seemed perfectly healthy. A couple of glasses of whiskey had helped his father and brothers to sleep well too. They were discussing their plans for the coming day over breakfast when there was a knock at the door.

“It’s a bit early for callers” Ben remarked, as he got up, taking a last sip of coffee. He opened the door to Charlie, the ranch foreman.

“Come in Charlie, come in. Will you join us for a cup of coffee? What brings you here so early?”

Charlie looked uncomfortable. He held his hat in his hands, twisting it nervously, round and round and took a large gulp of air before beginning.

“I hate to disturb you Mister Cartwright. I know you’d planned on visiting the Frasers today, but I thought I’d better come and tell you right away.”

There was a dramatic pause as the clearly discomfited man stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. His audience regarded him with rapt attention. Charlie cleared his throat and continued:

“Jack just got back from checking the eastern fence line early this morning. He was checking the boundary over by Stone Creek, when he noticed the boundary markers had been moved. I thought I‘d better let you know right away”

An angry look came over Ben’s face. He was very proud of his ranch, which now stretched to over 1000 square miles. In fact, he’d had an illustrated version of the deed plan made and it hung proudly on the wall of his study. Now it appeared as if someone was attempting to steal his land!

Ben stood up slowly and shook Charlie’s hand. “Thank you very much Charlie. Can you get the men together in half an hour please? I’d like to go and inspect this mischief for myself.”

“I’ll come with you Pa,” Adam said firmly, leaving no room for argument. “But I think Hoss and Joe should go on over to the Frasers as planned. They’ll think it strange if none of us call on them today”

Joe was delighted with this proposal. He had no especial inclination to spend a day looking at boundaries, taking measurements and making calculations. He’d gladly thrown away all his math books when he’d left school and had never understood how Adam could find the subject so absorbing.

Adam was actually quite looking forward to this new challenge, but one small shadow of doubt remained in his mind. The Frasers had returned from a trip to England and he wracked his brains to think what latest nonsense they might have latched on to now. He still woke up in a cold sweat some nights when he remembered the events of their last visit …

*****

The Past

As ever, the return of the Frasers meant there was a new member of the family to meet. This time, it was four month old Peter. Adam admired the baby dutifully, dandled him expertly upon his knee and chatted politely. David had taken Hoss out to the stables to inspect his beloved tamarind monkey (“Don’t ask how or why we got that animal – just don’t ask!” Andrew had advised) and Joe had disappeared somewhere in search of Mike and Allie. They had been gone for some time and Adam was starting to get worried, when he heard a door opening and the sound of running footsteps.

“Uncle Ben!” Allie threw herself at Ben and hugged him fiercely. “Oh, it’s wonderful to be back at last! I have missed you all!”

Ben kissed her cheek lovingly and thought how like her mother the girl was becoming. Allie wandered over to Adam and sat down beside him. “It suits you, you know.”

“What does?”

“Holding a baby. Aren’t you ever going to get married, Adam? You don’t want to wait too long, you know.” She smiled sweetly at him and he grinned back, amused despite himself.

“Cheeky brat. Perhaps I’ll just get you to look after me when I’m in my dotage.”

“No chance of that, I’m afraid. I plan to be just like Lord Byron – “mad, bad and dangerous to know. I’m afraid my plans don’t include pushing you around in a bathchair!”

On the other sofa, Mike was telling his father all about Joe’s paint, Cochise and pleading with his father for a pinto horse too. Joe’s voice could be heard clearly above the general chatter. ”This summer’s going to be the best ever!”

Despite the heat of the day, Adam felt a small shiver run down his spine, as he wondered what life-threatening mischief was planned. Over the next few days, he tried to keep Joe within his sight at all times. However, the boy was remarkably adept at disappearing and Adam decided a little more detective work was necessary. The next time Joe rode out, Adam left a discreet gap before following cautiously and made sure he kept well to the shadow of the trees. By this time, Joe was fairly confident that Adam was bored by his fruitless tracking endeavors and had grown careless. It was therefore relatively simple for Adam to track his brother up to a large pasture some two miles from the ranch house.

Allie and Mike were sitting on small, nimble-looking horses. They seemed to be wearing white helmets of some sort and as Adam watched, Joe rode up, tossed his own hat onto the ground and took a helmet from Mike’s outstretched hand. At this point, Adam realized that the children were wearing solar topees, no doubt purchased for a Fraser family trip to India and began to get a familiar sinking feeling in his stomach. He noticed that David and James were seated some distance away on their ponies and felt thankful that at least they seemed the smaller members of the family were safely removed from the action.

Adam tied up Sport and crept closer to the pasture. With an increasing sense of horror, he saw that Mike was now handing out long handled mallets, while his sister tossed a ball idly from hand to hand.

“Are you ready?” Allie cried shrilly. “I’ll throw in and play on Mike’s side until the first goal, then I’ll change sides.”

The boys positioned their horses, so they were facing one another and Allie moved until she was at right angles to them. With a deft flick of her wrist the ball traveled downwards and the boys began to swipe wildly at it with their sticks. Adam groaned out loud. The little idiots had got hold of polo sticks from somewhere and now fancied they could play the game! It would be a miracle if the ponies escaped without broken legs, not to mention the danger of one of the players getting knocked out, or breaking a wrist or worse. He got up and walked purposefully towards the makeshift polo field.

By this time, Joe and Mike had got their sticks well and truly entangled and were galloping down the field, leaving Allie swinging her stick wildly at the ball. She only managed to make contact a couple of times, but the ball traveled a fair distance. Adam could stand it no longer.

“Get over here at once, all of you! AT ONCE!”

His voice carried effortlessly on the still air. Joe’s back stiffened and he sat bolt upright in the saddle, remained perfectly motionless for a moment and then turned around slowly. The color drained slowly from his face until it was as white as the solar topee.

“Oh brother!” he muttered regretfully and reined Cochise around to trot demurely back up the field.

Adam was trying very hard not to laugh at the pathetic looks on the five faces looking up at him. “Which one of you would like to explain what is going on here – if you can?”

“We-ell, “Joe began slowly and Adam recognized a familiar, wheedling tone in the boy’s voice.

“The facts Joe! Just the facts” he barked, somehow managing to keep a straight face as Joe flinched. Mike shot Joe a look of sympathy and began to relate the whole sorry tale: the chance purchase of the polo mallets in a junk shop; pouring over newspaper stories of polo matches in India; questioning various friends and relatives who had actually played the game, and finally, the fortuitous discovery of the solar topees in an old trunk.

“So whose bright idea was this?” Adam glared meaningfully at Joe and was shocked when a small voice piped up

“Mine Adam, it was mine!”

“David!” Adam was genuinely shocked and for a moment was lost for words. Then he gathered himself together, delivered a brief but pithy lecture on the iniquities of small children sneaking off to play dangerous games, confiscated the polo mallets and dispatched the dispirited children to their respective homes. Once they were out of sight, he lay down on the ground and laughed until his sides hurt.

*****

The Present

 The men rode at a fast pace, for Ben was eager to sort out matters as quickly as possible. Land incursion was a serious crime and he was determined that no part of the Ponderosa would be taken from his ownership. Riding alongside his father, Adam looked at the firmly clenched jaw and hoped this would prove to be a simple misunderstanding. Stopping only for a brief rest, they reached Stone Creek and surveyed the scene.

Stone Creek fed a pond in the central pasture lands and acted as a very necessary source of water for the cattle. The Ponderosa holding extended five feet beyond the eastern bank of the Creek, but as the men rode up, new boundary posts were clearly obvious. Painted white and emblazoned with a boldly lettered “SV” in red, the posts marked out a new boundary, one that was on the western edge of the Stone Creek.

In a cold fury, Ben Cartwright dismounted and tossed the reins to Adam. He walked over to the first post and started to rock it slowly back and forwards. Gradually, the post began to move, tearing free from the heavy ground. Ben pushed harder, the veins in his neck standing out in thick corded ropes with the effort, until the post finally fell onto the ground, clods of earth clinging to its base.

“That’s the first!” he called triumphantly. “Adam, mark out the correct boundary, will you? Charlie, get the men set to removing the rest of these posts and we’ll put them back on other side of the stream. Jake, you get your team set to unloading our boundary posts from the wagon and we’ll dig them in once Adam’s plotted out the boundary.”

The men set to work as Ben rubbed the dirt from his hands, smiling with grim satisfaction. Adam gathered his equipment together and started to take measurements, noting his calculations exactly. He stopped regularly to consult the a copy of the original disposition and worked carefully to ensure the boundary was restored to its correct position.

They finished work just as the light was beginning to fade, leaving a restored boundary and a neat pile of posts lying on the far side of the stream. Ben gave orders for a daily inspection and set off for home, happy with the day’s work. Adam was doubtful that their actions achieved anything beyond sore hands and aching backs, but he held his tongue. After all, a man could hope, couldn’t he?

Joe and Hoss had given little thought to the boundary dispute and had spent a wonderful day with the Frasers. Elinor had hugged them both, exclaiming happily about their growth, good looks and charm and generally fussed over them in a motherly fashion. For the most part, neither Hoss or Joe particularly noticed the lack of a female presence at home, but they secretly enjoyed the attention and love Elinor poured on them. Andrew had also greeted them warmly and promised they should try a pair of shot guns he’d bought in London. Finally, Mike, Allie and David appeared.

Like Joe and Hoss, the elder Frasers had grown considerably. Over three years had passed since they had last met and they were all a little shy with one another. Joe was shocked to see that Mike was now a half head taller than him and was stunned to hear how deep David’s voice was. But the real shock was Allie: she had put her hair up and looked positively elegant. Allie laughed at the incredulous expression on Joe’s face.

“We’re all getting so old, aren’t we? What’s next I wonder? Has Adam gone suddenly grey? Or … or even worse! Don’t tell me he’s married!”

The idea was so ridiculous that they all joined in her giggles, and the initial shyness was broken.

“The next thing we know, the little one’s will want to join us too,” David gasped between peals of laughter. An indignant voice behind him exclaimed

“Wouldn’t want to anyhow! We’re off fishing and you’re not coming.” James and Peter stalked off in high dudgeon, leaving their elders gaping behind them.

“Was I ever as annoying as that” Joe asked in astonishment. Hoss regarded him gravely.

“Oh no, Joe. You were much worse! Still are in fact.”

Joe punched Hoss on the arm, but he shrugged off the blow. David looked at Hoss admiringly and wondered if he’d ever be half as strong. It seemed unlikely, but there was no harm in hoping. Still slightly in awe of Hoss, he managed to stammer nervously “I’ve got a couple of new pets in the barn. Do you want to come and look at them?”

“Sure thing” Hoss agreed amiably.

Waiting until they were out of earshot, Mike gathered his fellow conspirators together. “Now that we’re finally alone, let’s discuss our plans. Allie and I have got this great new idea and you’re going to love it!”

Elinor popped her head through the door “Up to no good again? What mischief are you plotting now, I wonder?” she enquired teasingly. Without waiting for a reply, she thrust Robert into his sister’s arms.

Allie shook her head at her mother’s departing back. “That was close, but I don’t think she heard anything, do you?”

“No chance” Joe replied cockily. “There is one thing that’s worrying me thought …” He stopped, unsure of how to continue. The Frasers regarded with him solemnly, two pairs of identical brown eyes gazing intently. “Well, I mean … hang it Allie, you’re a girl!”

“Don’t go there Joe” advised Mike in an undertone. “Just don’t go there.”

“Joe!” Allie sounded shocked. “That’s not fair. I can ride just as well as you and Mike.” She blinked furiously, and Joe had a sudden dread that she was going to cry. Surely not! He’d never seen Allie cry, not even when Kelpie had refused a fence and she’d gone sailing over it on her own, breaking her collar bone on impact. He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a consoling hug.

“I’m sorry, really I am Allie. I wouldn’t hurt you for anything. You know I think you’re good as a boy any day!”

Allie really didn’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted, but at least this way, she got to enjoy the fun, so she decided not to pursue the argument any further. However, she resolved to make Joe Cartwright eat his words.

*****

Joe and Hoss were in the stables, rubbing down their horses and settling them down for the night when their father and elder brother rode in. They were tired, dirty and exhausted.

“Hi Pa, Adam. How did things go today?”

“Well, we got the boundary moved back, so we’ll just have to see what happens now.”

“You go and get washed up. Me and Joe’ll take care of the horses.”

They accepted the offer gladly and walked slowly towards the house. Over dinner, Hoss talked excitedly about the day spent with the Frasers.

“You should see all the animals David’s got now! There’s an armadillo, a gecko and even a tame rat.”

Adam shuddered delicately. He detested all rodents and could not begin to imagine why anyone would want to keep one as a pet. He looked across the table at Joe, who was spooning down chocolate pudding with great industry.

“What sort of day did you have Joe? Hatching any more mad escapades with Mike and Allie?”

Joe shot him an angry look. “Give us a little credit, please! It’s not as if we’re children any more.”

Adam looked highly amused at this statement, but decided not to pursue matters any further: not this evening at any rate. He still harbored a suspicion that the combination of Joe and the Fraser’s automatically equaled trouble. Heaven knows, Joe needed little enough encouragement when it came to reckless behavior, but the Fraser factor always seemed to add a little extra danger into the equation..

The next few days passed without incident. Sure enough, Joe met up with the Fraser twins on a regular basis, but their meetings seemed innocent enough, consisting of riding and schooling some new horses over jumps. Adam briefly wondered if it was just possible that the three finally discovered a degree of maturity, but there were other more pressing matters concerning him: the land dispute was continuing and things were starting to take a turn for the worse.

The day after reinstating the boundary posts, Ben rode into Virginia City to try to discover the identity of the mysterious “SV”. The Land Register revealed that the adjoining property had been deeded to one Stephen Vardon six weeks previously. Ben read the deed carefully: the boundaries were painstakingly detailed and included the phrase “the south south east boundary extending 1000 yards along the eastern side of Stone Creek”, which caused him to exclaim outloud in pleasure. However, there was a troubling phrase at the beginning of the deed, which read “All and whole the property known as Pine Creek ranch, extending to 300 acres, as detailed on the plan attached hereto”. Close examination of the plan showed the property extending to the west side of the stream and beyond.

“Come on, Jonas! You’ve been my attorney for years – surely there can be no doubt that the Ponderosa land includes Stone Creek? Why, you did the conveyancing yourself.” Ben was getting frustrated with the attorney’s reluctance to commit himself to an unequivocal statement of fact. Jonas White looked up over the rims of his glasses, pursed his mouth and returned to reading the Ponderosa land deeds. Ben sighed in exasperation and then leant back in his chair and began to fill his pipe.

The office was small and stuffy, its walls lined from floor to ceiling with large, leather bound books. Occasionally, Jonas would rise, peruse the shelves, pick out a particular book and then return to his desk to study it. Ben tilted his head towards the window and watched the dust motes circling idly in the air. Despite his anger, he was feeling rather sleepy …

The silence was broken by the sound of Jonas clearing his throat, causing Ben to sit up with a start. “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that?”

“I was saying that I’ve made a careful study of the facts, as laid before me,” Jonas began. “The problem is this: where there is a discrepancy between the description of the land and the boundary shown on the plan, which is binding? It is generally accepted that the description within the deed, that is the actual narration of the boundaries, is the legally binding one, with the plan as a mere appendage. The plan is not actually part of the deed itself, you see?”

Ben nodded: so far so good. The lawyer continued.

“However, nothing in the law is ever final my friend. For every law that is made, a precedent is required. In other words, a court must decide if the law can and indeed does work in practice. No court in Nevada has set such a precedent in a case of narrated boundaries versus those shown on a plan.

Jonas sat back and watched as Ben Cartwright digested this unpalatable news.

“Are you saying we will have to go to trial over this?”

“Not trial, my friend. This is a land dispute, so it will be heard by a tribunal, composed of experts in conveyancing law.”

“And how long will it take to set up such a tribunal?” Ben was getting impatient: he’d been hopeful that the matter would resolved quickly, now it appeared as if this was only the start of what promised to be a long and expensive process.

Jonas put his hands together, flexed them thoughtfully and regarded his fingernails with concentration. “I will wire the circuit judge right away and recommend that a tribunal be convened with all speed. These matters can get out of hand rather easily, and none of us want that, do we?” Once again, he looked at Ben over the rims of his glasses. It was rather like being back at school again, being reprimanded by an irate master and Ben shifted uncomfortably in the chair. The lawyer smiled contentedly. “Oh, and Ben? I will get in touch with Mr. Vardon’s attorney. I really would recommend that you do not approach him yourself. Ben smiled grimly, nodded and stalked out of the office.

The ride back to the Ponderosa did little to soothe his mind, especially when he caught sight of Joe and the Frasers racing at full pelt along the lake shore road. He resolved to have a little chat with Joe that evening. Adam was in the stables when Ben rode in. One look at his father’s face told him that the day had not gone well, and he listened with growing concern as the unfolded.

“But that creek is ours! It always has been – how can this newcomer suddenly lay claim to it? For this Vardon to claim our land as his own – why, it’s nothing more than daylight robbery! We should go over there and get this sorted right now – by whatever means necessary!”

Looking at his son’s growing agitation, Jonas White’s words echoed in Ben Cartwright’s head. He looked at his son, and for one single, heart-stopping moment saw him taking matters into his own hands, guided by a white hot rage and a sense of deep injustice. These were powerful emotions, and could make even the most pragmatic, calm and logical man lose his head.

“Son, you heard what I said. There will be no confrontations of any sort. I am beginning to wonder if a few feet of land is really worth that much after all. It’s not as if we would really miss it after all.”

Adam stared at his father in bewilderment, not believing his ears. “Are you saying that we shouldn’t defend our land against this claim jumper?”

“No, I most certainly am not saying that! You should know better than to even suggest that. I will defend my right to that land to the full extent of the law. I’ll take it to every court in the land if I have to. But what I will not have, what I will not countenance, is any of sons putting either himself or his brothers in danger over this! Do I make myself perfectly clear?” Ben fixed Adam with a piercing glare and was glad to see his son flush, finally realizing the possible repercussions of hot-headed behavior.

“Yes, sir. That’s quite clear.” Adam dropped his head and scuffed his boots in the dirt. “I’m always telling Joe to think first and act later. Guess I should listen to my own advice, eh?” He tilted his head to one side and looked up at father penitently. For a moment, he looked so like the contrite boy Ben remembered from years before, and he could only smile and put his arm around his son’s shoulders. They started to walk companionably back to the house together.

Joe came clattering in at their heels, jumping off Cochise before the horse had barely stopped. “Don’t ride so fast in the yard!” they yelled in unison, before bursting into laughter and going into the house. Pushing his hat to the back of his head and running his hands through his hair, Joe puzzled briefly over this strange behavior, then went to settle the horse for the night.

He had barely walked into the house when a voice, silky sweet with menace made him jump.

“Joseph? Come over here a moment, please.”

Ben sat staring into the flames that leapt in the fireplace and did not turn around. Joe approached nervously, twisting his hat around in his hands. From the sound of things, he was in trouble again.

“You want to see me, Pa?”

“Yes. Yes I do son. Preferably in one piece, although that seems less likely with each passing day, doesn’t it?”

Joe gulped, licked his lips and said “I don’t think I understand …”

“You don’t think you understand?” Ben turned slowly round to survey Joe closely for a full minute. “That was you racing along the lake shore road wasn’t it?” Joe dropped his head and nodded mutely. “Wasn’t it?” The voice was louder now, so he felt it best to answer.

“Yes sir.”

“Ah, you do understand. Good. And Joseph, that was you coming into the yard as if you were taking part in the Kentucky Derby, wasn’t it?”

Joe was getting rather bored with this game, so he answered sulkily “You know it was. You were there, after all.”

A large hand grasped his shoulder and pressed firmly down. “Don’t you ever speak to me like that! And if I ever catch you riding like that again, I’ll …”

The threat hung heavily in the air between them. Joe’s temper flared again and he wriggled free from his father’s bruising grip and stalked off, blinking hard to hold back the tears which threatened to fall down his face. At the foot of the stairs he stopped and shouted over his shoulder

“You’ll what? Send me to bed like a bad boy? Well don’t bother, I’m going up to my room right now!”

Ben stared at the indignant back of his most aggravating child and wondered why trying to protect his sons got more difficult with each passing year. It certainly seemed to be almost impossible right now. The door to Joe’s room slammed shut and the sound reverberated painfully in his father’s heart.

Joe lay on his bed, his head upon cradled in his arms, truly appalled by his actions. What on earth had come over him? How could he have spoken to his father in that way. The very worst thing of all was the fact that his father had not said or done anything after his childish outburst: he had just looked at Joe with deep sadness in his eyes.

Downstairs, the room was dark. Although dusk had fallen no lamps were lit. The only illumination came from the fireplace, silhouetting the still figure of Ben Cartwright.

“Pa?” The voice was low and hesitant. For a moment, Ben wondered if he had imagined it. “Pa? I … I’m sorry. Really and truly I am. For riding like that and for cheeking you.” Joe came hesitantly across the room, unsure of how his father would react. He came to a stop in front of the armchair and reached out a tentative hand to touch his father’s arm.

“Oh Joseph!” Ben said. Standing up, he took the repentant figure in his arms.

*****

Most uncharacteristically, Hoss had not returned by dinner time. The table seemed strangely empty without his amiable presence, which served as an effective counterbalance to his logical elder brother and mercurial younger brother. The tensions of the day were not entirely dissipated and conversation was rather strained.

“I wonder where Hoss has got to?” Joe said, for the third time and grimaced at the look Adam cast in his direction. ”Well, you’ve got to admit, it’s just not like him to be late for dinner. Downright unusual I’d say. And with everything else that’s going on, I just wonder if he’s all right.”

Adam sat watching his father out of the corner of his eye and wondered if Joe would ever learn to exercise a little tact or discretion. The rather dismal meal came to a sudden end when they heard a familiar voice calling from the yard.

“Pa! Pa! You’ll never guess what that varmint’s done now!”

Ben leapt up and rushed outside to meet Hoss, wondering what new calamity had befallen the Ponderosa.

“You’re late back son. We were beginning to wonder what had happened to you.”

His calm words had no effect. The normally placid Hoss was so riled up he could not stand still and was pacing up and down the yard. Adam and Joe sat on the porch and listened to their brother’s story with an increasing sense of outrage.

“I’d been out checking on the herds in the eastern reaches and I thought I’d swing on by Stone Creek to check things out. Art Stuart was supposed to be out there keeping watch, but when I arrived, there weren’t no sign of him or his horse. I looked around a bit, and eventually found them tied up in a hollow, over half a mile away.”

“Tied up?” Ben asked faintly.

Hoss nodded. “Tied up. Vardon’s men jumped Art from behind, claimed he was trespassing, beat him and hog-tied him. Then they told him that any stock found on Vardon property would be kept in payment for the damage they caused. It ain’t right Pa! That man’s nothing more than a cattle thief and a land thief into the bargain! And I ain’t going to stand by and watch him!”

All of a sudden, Ben felt exhausted. It had been a long, hard day, with no easy solution to any his current problems. And now even Hoss, the peacemaker of the family, was talking of revenge and rough justice. He put his hand on Hoss’s arm and led him into the house, where he explained the legal position once again.

“We have a right to that land and we will see that right proved in law. I will report Art’s beating to Roy Coffee in the morning But in the meantime, I want each of you to promise that you will not try to take matters into your own hands; you will stay away from the east boundary and Stone Creek and, last but not least, that you will stay well away from Steve Vardon and any of his men. Do you promise?”

Three heads nodded. Ben studied each of his sons carefully, his gaze fixed and unmoving until each of them looked up and gave his word. It was a small, cold comfort.

The next day, he presented his sons with a long and detailed rota of chores, carefully designed to keep them fully occupied and well away from any possible source of conflict with Vardon. Joe’s face grew longer as each task was related in detail.

“Is anything wrong, Joseph?”

Joe tried hard not to sound petty. “It’s just that I sort of had plans to meet up with the Frasers this afternoon. We’re working with their new horses, you know? Getting them really fit, putting them over jumps and everything. I’d really hate to miss out.” He gave his father an appealing look, which he knew from past experience could usually be relied upon to soften his father’s heart.

Ben considered the situation carefully. There was no point in keeping the boys on too tight a leash, was there? They’d only rebel at some point. And, after all, they deserved a little freedom and a little fun.

“I’ve maybe been a little over zealous, haven’t I? I should be back from seeing Jonas by mid afternoon, so you could go over to the Frasers then. And if your brothers want to go into town later on …”

Adam and Hoss exchanged smiles. Amazingly enough, for once, they seemed to have benefited from their little brother’s scheming.

Ben decided to make a slight detour on his way to Virginia City to visit the Frasers. To his relief, the younger members of the family were all out, with the exception of baby Robert. He gratefully accepted a cup of coffee, dutifully admired the baby and then explained his dilemma to Andrew and Elinor.

“I know that Joe wants to help, but I can’t help worrying. He’s just so …”

“Impulsive?” Andrew suggested helpfully. Elinor shot him a glance that was heavy with meaning and proceed smoothly.

“He’s still young Ben. Young and full of enthusiasm. It’s easy to get carried away and act without thinking. I wonder …” she paused and looked carefully at both men. “Joe’s been an invaluable help schooling those horses. In fact, we could really use his help over the next few days. If you could spare him, that is?”

This seemed an ideal solution to everyone. Ben left shortly afterwards, clutching a very welcome bottle of single malt that Andrew had pressed upon him, greatly relieved that at least one of his worries seemed to be at an end.

He arrived in Jonas White’s offices shortly before lunch, to be greeted with the news that the tribunal would be convened in five days time. The small room looked more crowded that ever: Jonas had already amassed a great pile of deeds, plans and legal text books on his desk and scarcely an inch of the polished surface of his desk was visible. The normally dapper attorney was disheveled: his hair standing on end, with his glasses perched precariously on top and his waistcoat unbuttoned. Jonas was obviously enjoying himself hugely. Ben looked around at the chaos and quickly suggested that lunch in the hotel would be a good idea.

Returning to the Ponderosa later that afternoon, Ben was slightly apprehensive about how Joe would react to the news that he would be staying with the Frasers for a few days. The boy was still apt to be rather touchy if he thought he was being sidelined or deliberately shielded from danger. However, Joe accepted the news with remarkable equanimity and went to pack a bag with almost no fuss at all. Adam regarded this fact with deep suspicion, but the prospect of Joe and the Frasers getting up to some harebrained scheme was infinitely preferable to Joe getting entangled with Steven Vardon.

Predictably, Joe was delighted with this turn of events. He had no doubt that that his father and brothers were about to become embroiled in a long and tedious legal case and was glad to be spared long conversations about obscure points of law. Joe said his farewells and rode out with a happy heart and a large parcel of oatmeal cookies made by Hop Sing.

*****

The Frasers’ horses were larger than Cochise, standing well over 16 hands high. Long hours of schooling had paid dividends and the horses now responded instantly to their riders’ commands, changing gait and direction with smooth precision. All three riders were delighted with their progress and decided to celebrate with a proper ride that afternoon.

“How about we ride around the lake to the south, then cut across the ridge and ride back over the meadows? It’s a not too far for the horses and it’s got a good variety of terrain. And if we’ve got time, we could always call in at the house.”

Although Joe was enjoying his visit, he did miss his family. It seemed strange not to see them every day. In fact, this was the first time he had ever been away by himself. All of a sudden, Joe found himself longing to go home, even if it were just for a visit. Allie and Mike saw the wistful look on Joe’s face and readily agreed to his plans.

“Who wants to race?” Allie asked as they made their way along the lake shore.

Joe gave her a concerned glance. “I’m not sure that would be safe, Allie. I mean, anything could happen. Your horse could catch his foot in a hole and throw you or …” He stopped when he saw the furious expression on her face.

“I don’t need you to try to protect me. The fact is, I can ride just as well as you, Joe Cartwright! In fact, I can probably outride you any day.” With that Allie pressed her heels into the horse’s flanks and galloped up the track that led eastwards away from the lake.

“You really do have a knack of knowing just exactly the wrong thing to say to her, don’t you Joe?” Mike observed, before following his sister’s trail. Joe sighed: somehow the words just came out wrong. But then girls were so darned difficult to understand. And then Allie just wasn’t like any of the other girls he knew. What was a guy to do?

All of a sudden, Joe realized that Allie had sped off directly towards the east boundary. “Women!” he exclaimed and galloped off in hot pursuit. The horse responded automatically to his commands, effortlessly climbing the slight incline and then adjusting to the trail that led eastwards. Shifting his position in the saddle and leaning slightly forwards, Joe felt as if he were flying over the ground and a surge of pure exhilaration swept through him. Up ahead, Allie and Mike had stopped in a small clearing and were waiting for him.

“Some ride!” Joe said breathlessly as he dismounted and led his horse to the creek. He walked up to Allie, took her reins in one hand and smiled up at her. “Are you friends with me again?”

His joy was infectious and, despite her best intentions, Allie found herself smiling in return and even accepting Joe’s help to get down from her horse. She stood for a moment, held within the circle of his arms and then pushed gently free, took the reins and led her horse to the creek. A jumble of thoughts raced through her head. Joe Cartwright was the most annoying, aggravating boy she had ever met! He was also infuriatingly handsome and charming and…

Allie stopped that thought stone dead in its tracks. “But he doesn’t think of you as anything but a childhood friend and he never will” she told herself sadly.

A cry from Mike shook her out of her reveries. “I’m going on ahead for a bit. Won’t be long.”

Allie turned around, to discover Joe standing by her side, his hands on his hips, looking puzzled. “There’s something wrong here.” He walked a few paces upstream and then returned. “This creek’s almost dry and the water level should be much higher for this time of year.”

“Joe?” Allie’s voice was full of concern. “Joe, this isn’t Stone Creek is it?”

He nodded distractedly, still trying to puzzle things out.

“Then we really shouldn’t be here. I mean, you promised your father.”

“I know, I know. But I didn’t come here deliberately – I was following you and Mike!” Allie was not convinced that Ben would see this as any sort of justification. ”Anyhow, we are here now and there’s something strange going on and I’m certainly not leaving until I find out what it is.”

Joe strode off and mounted his horse. “Coming?” His tone was inviting, but it also held more than a hint of challenge. Allie gave a small, almost inaudible sigh and followed him.

They rode slowly until they came to the border of Cartwright and Vardon land. Two rows of boundary posts were now evident: the rough pine posts with the Ponderosa brand along the east side of the creek, while white posts marked with “SV” painted in red marched along the western side. At the point where the disputed land began, someone had partially dammed the creek, diverting it into a newly built channel which took the water onto Vardon land.

Joe swore loudly and then apologized.

“No need,” Allie reassured him. “I’ve heard worse. Do you think your father knows about this?”

“He can’t possibly. There’s no way he’d allow that Vardon to steal our land and our water. Stone Creek feeds a pond in the middle pastures and without water, we can’t use the land for grazing.” Joe’s voice was cold and steady and his face was set with anger. Allie had never seen him like this and it frightened her. The laughing, fun-loving Joe she thought she knew had been replaced by a grown up, furious man.

“Come on!” Joe said imperiously. ”We’ve got to get to the house as soon as possible to tell Pa. Mike! Mike!” He was getting impatient now. “MIKE!”

“Is this who you’re looking for son?” A man stepped out of the bushes, dragging Mike with him and holding a knife to his throat.

Allie managed to stifle a scream and Joe flashed her a brief grin in encouragement. She noticed that the smile went only as far as Joe’s lips: his eyes looked flat and dead and when he spoke, she noticed that his voice was devoid of all emotion.

“He’s got no part in this. Let him go.”

The man moved the knife slightly and a trickle of bright scarlet blood started to run down Mike’s neck, pooling in the hollow of his collar bone. “Well, the way I see it, he’s with you, you’re a Cartwright and you’re all trespassing on my land.”

“I said, let him go.” Joe’s voice was firm.

With one hand, the man thrust the knife into his belt. With the other, he twisted Mike’s arm tightly behind his back, then grabbed one of his fingers and started to force it backwards. Joe and Allie stared in horrified fascination. When the bone finally broke, the sharp sound was quite audible. Mike sagged visibly and went pale, biting his lips to stop himself from crying out.

“Go and tell Ben Cartwright I want to see him. We’ll settle this like real men should, not before some dried up lawmen. Tell him Steven Vardon’s waiting. And don’t be too long. Not if you want this boy to have any fingers left.”

Allie sat motionless in the saddle, the tears rolling down her face. She had never felt so helpless in her life. Joe grabbed the bridle of her horse and wheeled both animals around, calling over his shoulder “Mike! We’ll be back real soon” before setting off towards the ranch house at full speed.

*****

Virginia City had never played host to a land tribunal before, so the courthouse was full with eager onlookers. The format was simple: submissions from both sides had been submitted and considered. Each man’s attorney would have an opportunity to make a further statement, then the tribunal would retire to consider the facts and how the law should be interpreted. Ben listened as argument and counter argument rolled forth. For an affair which had aroused such passions, the hearing really was remarkably dull. It was a relief when the three members of the tribunal rose and retreated into a private room to consider their verdict. Beside him, Adam finished his notes on the proceedings and tucked the small leather-bound book into his jacket pocket. On Ben’s other side, Hoss sat with his head drooped forward. Soft, but unmistakable sounds of snoring could be heard. Ben smiled at the differences between his two sons and for a fleeting moment, wondered how Joe was getting on at the Frasers. The Ponderosa was strangely quiet without his lively presence.

On their way out of the courthouse, Jonas slipped a quarter into the hand of one of the clerks and murmured. “We’ll be at the hotel. Call us when the tribunal reconvenes”.

After the hard benches of the courthouse, it was a relief to sit in a comfortable dining chair. Jonas surveyed the menu with care, selected his meal and then turned to Ben with a smile. “I think I may safely say there is no need to rush our lunch. I know for a fact that the tribunal will enjoy their meal and a glass of wine before settling down to business. And, although I really should not presume, I think I can safely say that our case has a very strong position.”

Adam was relieved to see some of the lines of stress disappear from his father’s face and helped himself to a large glass of claret. It had been a long morning.

Shortly after three o’clock, the clerk entered the hotel dining room, where the four men sat enjoying coffee. He nodded discretely at Jonas and then left silently.

Once again, the courtroom was packed. Local citizens, attorneys and newspaper men from as far afield as Reno thronged the benches as the chairman began to relate the tribunal’s findings. Ben caught his breath, and smiled inwardly at his childishness.

“In the case of Cartwright versus Vardon, the tribunal finds these facts to be clear:

Firstly: that the extent of each holding of land is clearly narrated within the body of the deed and an exact, full-bounding description is given. Where there is any discrepancy between the extent narrated and the boundaries, the tribunal finds that the boundaries should be adhered to.”

Jonas nodded his head in satisfaction. Adam made a careful note in his book.

“Secondly: that each disposition clearly states that the plans are to be considered as “demonstrable and not probative”. Therefore, the tribunal rules that the plans are included for illustrative purposes only and that they cannot be used to support any argument to change the stated boundaries.”

At this, Jonas looked positively animated and even Hoss leant forward in his seat.

“Finally, that the Ponderosa has been occupied openly, peaceably and without interruption by Benjamin Cartwright for a period of twenty years. The tribunal therefore declares his ownership of the land to validly constituted by deed and perfected by continuous possession and is therefore inviolate.”

At this, Ben could restrain himself no longer and let out a wild whoop of joy, ringing Jonas’s hand with glee. He did not hear the rest of the judgment: he had defended his land successfully! At last, the attorney finished his statement and the case was completed. Ahead of them, the disgruntled figure of Steven Vardon strode balefully from the courtroom.

“Come on, come on! We must have a drink to celebrate” Jonas exclaimed, still rubbing his hand slightly. “I happen to have a rather fine bottle of brandy I put aside especially for just such an occasion.”

After a short but heartfelt celebration, the Cartwright left town in exuberant mood. Jonas White sat back in his chair and poured himself another measure of brandy. What a day! The Cartwrights were a lovely family, but they were all so large and all shook hands so firmly!. His hand would be sore for days to come. Surveying his reddened fingers, Jonas added a little more brandy to his glass.

*****

Allie would never forget the ride back to the ranch house. It was an almost uncontrolled gallop, for she gave the horse its head and almost stood up in the stirrups. This was riding with a purpose and all sense of pleasure was gone. When the horse would start to slow, she drove in her heels. Speed had never seemed so necessary and she jumped fences with almost reckless abandonment. Joe struggled to keep pace with her. He had always known Allie could ride well, but this was something else altogether. Allie rode as if she and the horse were one, sensing its movements and adjusting with ease, steering a straight and steady path towards the house.

They rode into the yard, neck and neck, shouting at the tops of their voices. But there was no response, the house was still and dark. Joe looked anxiously at Allie and then leapt down from his horse, pulling her into his arms. She held onto him tightly, sobbing helplessly, while Joe stroked her hair and tried to comfort her. After a while, Joe gave her final hug and kissed her gently on the cheek.

“All right, it’s up to us now” Holding Allie’s hand, Joe walked into the house, retrieved the keys for the gun racks and began to select weapons and ammunition.

“You can shoot a rifle, can’t you?”

Allie nodded and then added honestly “I’m not a very good shot though.”

“Doesn’t matter. Hopefully we won’t have use to them. I just want to show Vardon he can’t get away with this.”

Allie smiled weakly. Joe was just loading his own rifle when there was a sound from the yard and Ben Cartwright walked in, still rejoicing in his victory. His good humor vanished when he heard the tale Joe and Allie poured forth and his face grew stern.

“Hoss!” The mighty bellow seemed loud enough to shake the window frames. Hoss came running in, with Adam at his heels. Ben quickly explained matters to them, and they rushed off to dispatch two ranch hands to ride to the Frasers and to fetch the Sheriff.

“Allie?” She had started to cry again, so Joe led her over to a chair, where he sat down, pulled her onto his lap and held her closely.

Ben cleared his throat and said “Joe, when the Roy Coffee get here, you’d better come and show us where you last saw Vardon. You stay here, Allie and … “

“No!” The girl jumped to her feet and ran over to Ben, taking his hands and saying beseechingly “Please don’t leave me here! I have to do something.” Joe joined her and added his appeals. Much to his surprise, and certainly against his better judgment, Ben found himself agreeing that Allie could ride along.

“But you must promise to do exactly what I say and to stay well back.”

Allie agreed to this caveat and smiled as Joe squeezed her hand encouragingly.

*****

Mike leant back against the trunk of a tree and gingerly touched his hand. The finger was already pretty swollen and his whole hand was throbbing with pain. At least the wound on his neck had stopped bleeding. Keeping his head down, he looked at Steven Vardon through lowered lashes. The man seemed absorbed in his thoughts, but two ranch workers slouched at his side and kept a watchful guard. Mike wriggled slightly and watched their reaction carefully. Despite their seeming indolence, each of the men noticed the movement. The ranch hands drew their guns while Vardon walked slowly across.

“Something bothering you?”

Mike tried to sound confident, although by now he was getting seriously worried. “Just getting a bit tired and bored, that’s all. Come mister, it’s getting late and my folks will be worried. Just let me go, won’t you?”

His innocent comments seemed to inflame Vardon, who lashed out with his foot, catching Mike squarely in the stomach. Despite his best efforts, Mike yelped out in pain. This seemed to satisfy Vardon, who spat on the ground and then walked away. Struggling back up into a sitting position, Mike clutched his ribs tenderly and surveyed the scene with increasing despair. Things were looking pretty bleak and he fervently wished he was back at home. Even baby-sitting his younger brothers seemed like a decent way of spending an evening compared with this.

Seven horses stopped on Ponderosa land. Ben Cartwright, his sons, Sheriff Roy Coffee, Andrew and Allie Fraser left their horses tethered a safe distance away from the boundary, fearful that the jingling of bridles might alert Vardon to their presence, decided to walk the last mile on foot. Andrew kept Allie close by his side and noticed that Joe stuck to her like a faithful puppy. Under other, less stressful circumstances, it would have been amusing.

“Pa?” Joe spoke in a low tone of voice. “It’s just up ahead now.”

The men stopped briefly to confer, while Adam moved quietly ahead, to survey the scene. Andrew took this opportunity to have a quick word with Allie.

“Stay right here and don’t move! I’ve got one child in danger and I’ve no intention of seeing another one at risk. Understand?”

“I understand. I’ll stay here.” Her voice faltered slightly. “Papa? He will be all right, won’t he?”

Andrew reassured Allie, with rather more conviction than he actually felt, hugged her tightly and then joined the rest of the men, who were standing in a small group listening to Adam’s assessment of the situation.

“I saw three men, all armed. I can see Mike clearly, he’s about a hundred yards, dead ahead, sitting under a tree. His hands a bit of a mess, but otherwise he seems unhurt. Our problem is that Vardon and his men are all armed and they look pretty jumpy.”

His audience digested this news in silence.

”The way I see it, “ Andrew began hesitantly, “we have a clear advantage. We clearly out-number them and we have the element of surprise. What we need to do is to create a diversion and then set up a two pronged attack, coming at them from front and back.”

Roy considered this proposition carefully. “Could be awful risky.”

“Do you think I don’t know that? For God’s sake man, that’s my son out there!”

Ben agreed. There seemed to be no other option available to them. “It’ll be getting dark soon. I think we should agree a plan of action and get going as soon as possible.”

Allie volunteered to provide a distraction, but was quickly over-ruled. A single look from her father effectively stopped her protests and she subsided rapidly. Joe shot her a sympathetic look: it was reassuring to see he wasn’t the only person with a forceful father.

Hoss went back to the horses, mounted Chub, and rode as quietly as possible northwards. He counted slowly to five hundred and then started to ride hard, yelling loudly and firing his pistol into the air.

Adam and Joe moved cautiously southwards along Stone Creek, until they reached water shallow enough to cross without undue splashing. Once on the other side, they crept stealthily along until they were directly behind Vardon and his men.

A series of wild banshee shouts, the thunder of horse hooves and the sharp sound of gunfire provided the necessary signal. Taken by surprise, Vardon’s men showed their inexperience, firing their guns into the thick undergrowth. Mike struggled to his feet and started to run, but Vardon was ready and grabbed him in a vice-like grip. Ben and Andrew burst through the bushes, and managed to disarm the two ranch hands, sending over to be guarded by Hoss before returning to the fray. However, their progress was brought to an abrupt end when they saw the gun pressing firmly into Mike’s jaw bone, forcing his head upwards.

“Stay right there” Vardon hissed.

Mike saw his father and tried to give him a reassuring smile. “I’m fine, really.” To his credit his voice only wobbled slightly and it carried clearly to where Allie sat in splendid isolation, well away from any danger. Without thinking, she started to move towards the sound of her brother’s voice.

“Vardon.” Ben’s deep voice had never sounded so authoritative. “Your quarrel is with me, not that boy. Let him go and we can talk about this.”

Vardon regarded his nemesis grimly, then coshed Mike roughly over the head with the butt of his gun and pushed his body away.

“NO!” Despite her best intentions, Allie could not help screaming out and rushing forward. Ben caught her by the hand and pulled back, but it was too late. Vardon had seized his opportunity and swiveled around, bringing Ben and Allie into his gunsights.

From his position, Joe could see the whole scene quite clearly. He looked across at Adam, who shook his head firmly and clearly mouthed “Stay put.” Across the creek, Joe could see his father trying to shield Allie with his body. He saw Mike lying still and unconscious and finally, he noted the expression on Andrew Fraser’s face as he stood powerless to help his children. Joe thought of all the times his family had accused him of being too impulsive and of acting without thinking, but this time, he knew quite clearly that he had to act. There was simply no other choice.

Keeping to the darkening shadows as much as possible, Joe crept along as silently as possible until he was directly behind Vardon. Then, with a wild yell, he flung himself at the man’s unprotected back.

Vardon had astonishingly quick reactions. In one smooth movement he whirled around and let off two shots in rapid succession, as the other men rushed forward, horrified at Joe’s precipitous actions. Joe heard the first shot scream by his ear as a cacophony of shouts, footsteps and gunfire erupted around him.

The second bullet found its mark, and its propelled Joe backwards. As Adam ran forwards desperately towards his brother, Ben let loose an almighty cry and shot Vardon in the chest. The man went down like a stone and was dead before he could comprehend that he had lost the same fight twice in one day.

The impact of the bullet seemed to knock all the breathe out of Joe’s body and sent him stumbling to the ground. His chest hurt dreadfully, it was difficult to breathe and the world seemed to be retreating gradually away from him. Joe was vaguely aware of people calling his name and of someone holding closely, but nothing really seemed to matter very much. All of a sudden, Joe felt very tired and closed his eyes.

“Joe?” This voice was much quieter than the others and there was something oddly reassuring about that. “Joe, stay with me. Stay right here. Open your eyes and look at me.” Joe struggled to obey, but his eyelids felt so heavy. There was a hard pressure on his chest and he tried to push it away, but someone caught his hand and held it firmly.

“Just lie still,” the voice continued. “Everything will be fine. I’m right here. Just stay with me.”

In the background, Joe could hear the voices of his Pa and Adam and Hoss. They all sounded concerned and he wished he could see them. But it was too dark now, everything was black, and besides which, the pain was growing again. The soft voice continued to talk to him, but Joe could no longer make out the words. Nothing seemed to exist except this unbearable pain. His breathing became rapid and shallow and Joe retreated from the world.

*****

“It does SO count!” Mike was quite adamant. “In fact, it should count double. One broken finger, plus a possible skull fracture and concussion.”

Joe lay in bed, propped up on a pile of pillows. His chest and shoulder were swathed in bandages and he looked pale and thin. It was than two weeks since they had brought him back home, covered in blood. He had little recollection of the first few days after the shooting. After that, Joe had felt too ill to take much interest in anything and found that he was sleeping most of the time. Mike was his first visitor outside the family and it was good to see a new face, but after only a short time, Joe began to feel exhausted.

“Hardly compares with a bullet to the chest,” he said languidly.

Mike looked at him suspiciously. “You feeling bad again Joe? You sound kind tired there. Do you want me to go to get your Pa?”

Joe shook his head feebly and instantly regretted it, as the movement sent shivers of pain right down into his chest again. “No, don’t do that – they’ll just fuss over me again. That’s all anyone does and I’m fed up with it. And it still hurts so much.” Joe’s voice was shaking by the end of this statement, so Mike decided he’d better seek some help. By now, the pain in Joe’s chest had grown to epic proportions and the radiating waves of agony forced all coherent thoughts out of his head.

Mike was able to slip out of the room unseen. He walked along the corridor and slipped quietly into Adam’s room, disturbing him as he shaved.

Adam had slept late that morning. In truth, it was the first decent sleep he had since Joe was shot. The first few nights had been the worst: he would never forget how Joe had screamed as the doctor probed ineffectively for the bullet, afraid to give sedative that might interfere with the function of an already damaged lung. It had taken Paul Martin three separate procedures until he had finally located and removed the bullet.

Adam closed his eyes for a second: Joe’s pleas still echoed in his head. In the end, they had to pin Joe down onto the bed to stop his desperate attempts to escape from the source of his misery. Joe had screamed and screamed in agony. He even screamed when he was unconsciousness.

The removal of the bullet was not the end. Paul was worried that Joe continued to struggle for breath and was concerned to see a bluish tinge to his lips and finger tips. Joe was too weak to sit up, so Ben lifted him gently and held him as Paul listened carefully to his chest.

“Please, no more,” Joe pleaded weakly, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.

Paul Martin looked grave and shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry Joe, but your lung has collapsed. That’s why you can’t get enough air in to breathe properly. I have to put a drain into your lung to let it re-inflate. I won’t lie to you: this will hurt like the devil, but afterwards you’ll be able to breathe properly.”

Joe had eyed the scalpel in Paul’s hand suspiciously and then demanded to see the chest drain too. Ben had been shocked beyond words at the sight of the metal tube Paul proposed to insert into his son’s body. He’d reached for Joe’s hand and then held it firmly throughout the procedure, driving back his rising nausea. After making a small incision under Joe’s arm, Paul had thrust the chest drain firmly into place. Adam remembered how Joe’s back had arched sharply off the bed in response to this new torture.

A sharp pain brought him back to the present: carried away by his memories, he had cut upper lip with the razor and a thin trail of blood snaked down his cheek. Adam wiped it away and turned to ask Mike, “How did he seem to you?”

Mike considered this carefully. “Pretty tired and sore and kind of subdued. Not really like himself, I suppose.” He chewed his lip for a second, and then confided “I think he was crying when I left him. Could you …?”

Adam thrust his arms into a shirt and went into Joe’s room. “How are you doing this morning?” he asked casually, sitting on the edge of the bed and starting to do the buttons up.

“Okay, I guess” Joe said, in a voice that didn’t even convince himself. He attempted a smile and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I’m just a bit fed up with lying here feeling rotten.”

“Well, that’s not surprising. The doc’s coming back tomorrow, isn’t he?” Joe nodded carefully. “Well, how about if I ask him if you can come downstairs for an hour or two?” This prospect cheered Joe up considerably and Adam resolved to make sure Paul Martin agreed to his proposal. His surprise, the doctor supported his idea, although Ben worried that the exertions would do more harm than good.

Paul was surprisingly forceful. “Ben, he’s young and strong and, despite the seriousness of his injury, Joe is well on the way to a full recovery. My only real concern is that he falls into a depression. Adam is quite right: the boy needs a change of scene and something new to interest him. Bring him downstairs for a couple of hours a day and let him rejoin family life.”

*****

A week later, Joe was able to walk slowly downstairs, fully dressed for the first time since the shooting. He had lost weight, so his clothes hung loosely and he still looked pale, but his eyes sparkled with joy when he saw the entire Fraser family waiting for him in the living room. As they reached the bottom step, Ellie stepped forward and hugged Joe carefully, her eyes tender with concern.

“It’s good to see you looking so much better Joe. You gave us all quite a shock, you know. You were so brave, but you must promise me never to anything so foolhardy again.”

Joe reddened and looked sheepish, making Ellie laugh and hug him again. “Oh how I’ll miss you when we leave!”

“Leave? But you can’t leave, I mean, I’ve missed so much of your visit and I won’t see you again for ages!”

Ben fixed him with a stern gaze. “Joseph! You can’t expect the Frasers to change their travel plans at the last minute.”

Joe agreed in an undertone and went to sit by the fire. To his surprise, he realized his legs were shaking.

“She sure looks pretty, don’t she?” Hoss asked, settling down comfortably beside him.

“Who?” Joe replied innocently.

“Don’t try to kid me, little brother. Oh, I’d better make myself scarce.”. Hoss leapt up with alacrity as Allie strolled across to join them.

For a long moment, Allie stood before Joe, studying him carefully, as if she were seeing him for the very first time. Then a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth and she knelt down beside the chair, resting her hand gently on Joe’s knee.

“You’re looking good, Joe.”

“I feel good.”

“I was so worried about you. When I saw you rush forward like that and then the gun went off.” She stopped and Joe saw the tears sparkling in her eyes. He placed his hand gently on top of hers.

“I couldn’t let Vardon shoot you or Pa,” Joe explained in a low voice. “I didn’t think. Well, there wasn’t any time to think. I just knew I had to do something.” He looked up and saw she was crying soundlessly. Joe wiped away a tear that rolled slowly down her cheek and continued. “Afterwards, it was your voice I heard. Everyone was shouting and rushing around but all I could hear was your voice.”

“You know we’re leaving?” Allie asked, and the pain in her voice seemed to tear into his chest as sharply as the bullet.

“I know.” Joe tried to smile, but his mouth wouldn’t obey him.

“I will come back. I promise you.” Allie was trying so hard to be brave and Joe loved her for it.

“I know. And I’ll be waiting.”

*****

Steven Vardon had no known family and left no will, so his property was sold at auction and the profits given to the Virginia City orphanage. Ben Cartwright bought the ranch and it became part of the Ponderosa, but he was never able to pass Stone Creek without remembering the day when a dispute over a few feet of land had nearly cost him the life of youngest son.

One evening in late summer, Adam finally confronted Joe. “Do you remember when you and the Frasers were working with those horses earlier this year?”

Joe nodded and a small smile appeared on his face. He knew what was coming next.

“You were up to something, weren’t you? Another of these mad plans you seem to specialize in? Come on, put me out of my misery, won’t you?”

Joe tucked his thumbs into his belt and grinned broadly. “Are you sure you really want to know what we were doing?”

Adam nodded eagerly. “I’ve been puzzling over it for weeks, but nothing seemed to add up I know it had something to do with training the horses, but I just couldn’t work out what it was. I admit it: you were all really clever this time.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint you, Adam, but the joke’s on you this time! The only plan we had was to keep you guessing. All we were doing was training those horses. However, we knew you’d suspect something was up, so we didn’t want to disillusion you!” Joe burst out laughing at the disgusted look on his brother’s face and strolled outside, still chuckling with satisfaction. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and looked up at the stars and the thin sliver of new moon.

“Next time, Allie, we’ll have to think up something really good for poor old Adam to worry about.” He walked a few steps further and then stopped and looked up once more.

“I wish you were here Allie. Come back soon.”

***End***

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