The Price of Friendship (by Susan)

Synopsis: Joe isn’t as accepting as the rest of the family when a man from their past returns.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating: PG
Word Count: 14,550


 

It was the smoke curling above the trees that caught the posse’s attention. “Look over there” shouted Adam Cartwright, pointing toward the smoke.

“I see it, Adam,” answered Sheriff Roy Coffee.

“Do you reckon he’s hit another place?” Hoss Cartwright asked his brother.

“I don’t know,” Adam replied grimly. “I hope not.”

“If he has, that four places in the last two weeks,” said Joe Cartwright.

“We’d best go check it out,” the sheriff ordered. “Boys, let’s head toward that smoke,” he shouted to the dozen or so men sitting on their horses around him. The posse turned their horses, and headed in the direction of the smoke. The posse moved slowly through the thick growth of trees and bushes. The men were in the hill country, where the natural growth was dense. They had been resting on the crest of a bluff when Adam spotted the smoke. Now they headed down into the woods below them, carefully guiding their horses around the tall pines. It look the posse almost an hour to reach the source of the smoke. When they arrived, they knew they were too late. A small area of land had been cleared of trees and brush, and what was once a cabin sat on the edge of the clearing. Near the structure, a corral stood empty. The cabin was burning and obviously had been for some time. All that was left was the stone chimney and a few pieces of the frame. The rest of building was now smoking logs and ashes. Flames licked through the wood. Scattered in front of the burning cabin were a few of its owner’s possessions. A bible laid open on the ground, it’s pages flickering in the wind. A wooden keg with its top smashed was a foot or so from the bible. A small iron chest laid open nearby.

“This is Fred Thompson’s place, isn’t it?” asked Sheriff Coffee as the men rode up to the cabin.

“Yes,” answered Adam, looking around. “I don’t see him any place, though.”

“If he’s like the others, he’ll be tied up in the woods,” said Hoss.

“A couple of you boys put that fire out,” ordered the sheriff. “The rest of you spread out and start searching the area. Look for a man tied up. Also look for tracks.”

Three men dismounted and started throwing dirt on the burning cabin. The rest of the posse scattered back into the woods, moving slowly.

“Whoever is doing this really likes destroying things,” remarked Joe as he headed into the woods with his brothers.

“It’s got to be one man,” insisted Adam. “He’s only hitting the small places. And there’s only been one set of tracks leading away from each place.”

“Yeah, but those tracks keep petering out,” said Hoss. “We ain’t never found enough of a trail to follow.”

“Well, whoever it is, he’s looted and burned four places now,” continued Joe. “I wonder how long he’s going to keep this up.”

“Just keep your eyes peeled for Thompson,” said Adam. “He’s the important thing now. We can wonder about who did it later.”

“Right,” replied Joe in a serious tone.

The Cartwrights hadn’t ridden very far when Hoss saw the red-shirted arm sticking out of the thick green foliage. “There he is,” said Hoss, pointing at the splash of red. The Cartwrights quickly guided their horses toward the patch of red Hoss had spotted. They dismounted and pushed aside the bushes. A man about 40 laid on the ground. He was wearing a patched red shirt and brown pants held up by thick suspenders. His hands and feet were tied with rawhide strips, and a blue bandanna was wrapped around his mouth. The man’s eyes were closed, as if he were sleeping. Adam quickly pulled a pocket knife from the front pocket of his pants. He unbent the knife and sliced the strips from the man’s hands and feet. Hoss untied the gag from the man’s head, and slowly turned the face toward him. Hoss could see a small area of blood matting the man’s thick black hair.

“Is he alive?” asked Joe as he stood watching his brothers.

Hoss felt the man’s neck. “Yeah,” he answered. “Get me some water, Joe.”

Joe hurried back to the horses and grabbed a canteen off his saddle. He walked back to his brothers, tossing the canteen to Hoss when he got there. Hoss was cradling the man’s head and shoulders in his left arm. He picked up the canteen that had landed at his feet, and pulled the top off with his teeth. He began trickling water down the man’s face. For a few seconds, the man had no reaction. Then a low groan escaped from his lips. Hoss put the canteen back on the ground as the man began moving slowly and moaning louder.

“Take it easy, Fred,” said Adam as he crouched near Hoss.

The man moaned again and then his eyes flickered open. He blinked several times, as if trying to clear his vision. “Cartwright?” he said in a weak voice.

“Yeah, it’s Adam Cartwright,” answered Adam.

The man groaned once more and then sat up. He grabbed his head and squinted in pain. “What happened?” Thompson asked.

“That’s what we were going to ask you,” said Hoss.

Thompson shook his head. “Don’t know,” he replied. “I heard a banging on the door and I went outside to look. That’s the last thing I remember.”

Adam glanced up at Joe. What Thompson had described was exactly the same thing as the other three men who were attacked had said.

“What brought you boys up here?” asked Thompson. “Not that I ain’t grateful, but this isn’t exactly your normal stomping grounds.”

Joe looked at Adam, who nodded slightly. “We were riding with the posse and saw the smoke,” Joe said.

“Smoke? What smoke?” asked Thompson.

“From your cabin,” said Hoss as gently as he could.

“My cabin!” cried Thompson in alarm. He scrambled to his feet but stopped as his knees began to buckle. Hoss rose and grabbed his arm.

“Take it easy, Fred,” Hoss said. “You got quite a lump on your head.”

“Never mind that,” Thompson spat out. “I got to get to my cabin.” He brushed off Hoss’ hand and started walking unsteadily through the woods.

The Cartwrights watched him for a minute. “He’s not going to like what he’ll find,” said Hoss in a grim tone.

“Come on,” said Adam. “Let’s follow him.”

Adam, Hoss and Joe walked back to their horses and grabbed the reins. They walked the animals slowly through the woods, following Thompson’s trail. They emerged from the woods a few minutes later. Thompson was standing in shocked silence in front of what was left of his cabin. The men who had put out the fire was standing nearby, watching in sympathy.

Adam walked up and put his hand on Thompson’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Fred,” he said. “It was like this when we got here.”

“Who’d want to do this to me?” moaned Thompson.

“I don’t know,” said Adam. “We think the same man hit three other places. The same thing happened. The owners were tied up and dragged into the woods. The cabins were looted and burned to the ground.”

“But why?” Thompson said. “I don’t have much. Maybe forty dollars and a rifle with some silver scroll my father gave me. The rest, it couldn’t be worth more than twenty, thirty dollars.”

“I don’t know,” Adam repeated. He looked over his shoulder toward his brothers. “You’d better signal the rest of the posse.”

Joe nodded and pulled his gun from his holster. He fired twice into the air. Hoss walked up to Thompson. “We’ll help you rebuild it,” Hoss said in a comforting tone. Thompson shook his head. “No, I ain’t gonna stay here,” the man answered. “I can’t stay here. Everything I owned was in that place.” He looked around. “That buzzard even took my horse.”

Hoss looked at Adam. Adam shrugged his shoulders. “What will you do?” asked Hoss.

“Guess I’ll go to Virginia City,” said Thompson in a discouraged voice. “Find me a job and make some money. Then I’m getting out of this territory.”

The sound of horses drew the Cartwrights’ attention. The rest of the posse rode out of the woods from several directions.

“See you found him,” said Roy Coffee as he rode up. “You all right, Fred?”

“No, I ain’t all right,” answered Thompson in a low voice.

Coffee looked at Adam in surprise. Adam quickly told the sheriff everything Fred had said.

“You find any tracks?” asked Joe.

Coffee shook his head. “Same as before,” he answered. “We found the tracks of one man riding a horse and leading another. We followed them for awhile but they disappeared. Looks like they were brushed out. We headed in the same direction, but the ground got hard and rocky. No way to follow any tracks after that.”

Adam glanced at the sky. “It’s getting late,” he said, looking at the sun. “We’d better head back to the ranch.” He turned to Thompson. “You’re welcome to stay with us for a while, if you want.”

“Thanks, Cartwright, but I’d rather not,” replied Thompson. “I just want to get as far away from this place as possible.” He turned toward Roy Coffee. “Sheriff, can I ride into town with you?”

“Sure thing,” said Coffee. “You can climb on behind Andy there. His horse can carry two.”

Thompson nodded his thanks and started toward a man on a big gray horse. As Thompson mounted, Joe hurried toward the cabin. He picked the bible off the ground and walked toward the gray horse.

“Here,” said Joe, handing the Bible to Thompson as the man settled on the back of the horse. Thompson took the Bible from Joe. “Thanks,” he said. He looked sadly at the book. “That’s all that’s left from two years work. Two years of clearing the land and building the cabin, and hunting these woods. Not much to show for it, is it ?”

Joe nodded in sympathy.

“I’ll have a posse out here again tomorrow,” Coffee stated as the men started to ride away. “Adam, will you and Hoss and Joe meet us here?”

Adam nodded grimly. “We’ll be here,” he declared. “We’ll meet you here about ten o’clock. We’ve got some chores to take care of at the ranch first.”

Coffee nodded. “Ten o’clock, it is,” he agreed. “Thank you for the help.” The sheriff turned his horse and followed the rest of the posse. The Cartwrights stood in silence for a few moments, watching the riders. Finally, Adam sighed. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s head for home.”

*****

Ben Cartwright was coming out of the barn when his sons rode into the yard in front of the ranch house. He yelled a greeting and hurried toward them.

“Did you have any luck?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, all bad,” answered Hoss. “We didn’t find a trace of that yahoo who has been causing all the trouble. And Fred Thompson’s place was robbed and burned.”

“Fred Thompson?” said Ben in alarm. “Is he all right?

“Well, he’s not hurt,” answered Adam. “But he lost everything. Like the others, he’s going to pack up and clear out.”

“Why would he go after Thompson?” said Ben with a frown. “I wouldn’t think he had much worth stealing.”

“He didn’t,” replied Adam. “About forty dollars and a rifle with some silver on it.”

Ben shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Whoever is doing this can’t be getting much. He’s hit two small farms, a mine which was barely producing, and now a hunter without much money. Why would he do it?”

“I don’t know, Pa,” admitted Adam with a sigh. “I just can’t figure it out.”

The snicker of a horse drew the four men’s attention. They turned to see a rider coming slowly toward the house. The rider was a big man, wearing a buckskin shirt trimmed with fringe and dark pants. The man had a gray beard, and long gray hair which curled over the collar of his shirt. A black hat with a wide brim was perched firmly on his head. Ben looked at the man curiously. “Can I help you?” he asked as the rider neared the house.

“Ben Cartwright, I’m surprised at you,” the man said. “I thought you’d recognize an old friend. I didn’t know you’d gone soft in the head in your old age.”

Ben stared at the man for a moment with a puzzled expression. Suddenly, his face cleared. “Josh!” Ben shouted with glee. “Josh Bodine! Is it really you?”

The man grinned and dismounted. “Yeah, it’s me, Ben,” he replied. “Still alive and kicking.”

Ben rushed forward and grabbed the man’s hand. “Josh,” he said with a huge smile on his face. “I can’t believe it. It’s good to see you again.”

“Good to see you, too, Ben,” Josh agreed. He looked around. “You really did a nice job building up this spread. Last time I saw it, it weren’t more than a few acres with a shack.”

“It’s because of you that the Ponderosa even exists,” declared Ben. “If you hadn’t helped me get started and showed me how to get through the winter, I would have never made it here.”

“Looks like you learned pretty good,” said Josh.

“The Ponderosa is the biggest — and best – ranch in Nevada,” Ben acknowledged proudly. “Thanks to you.”

Josh just nodded.

Ben turned back to his sons who were watching the two old friends in amazement. “Boys, come over here and say hello to Josh Bodine, the best mountain man in the West. When I first got out here, Josh helped me settle this land and showed me how to find good grazing. He also taught me a lot about hunting and fishing.”

Adam hurried forward. “I remember, “ he said with a smile. “I’m Adam.”

Josh squinted at him. “Adam?” he repeated. “Little Adam? You sure have grown up. Last time I saw you, you were skinny little kid who always had his nose stuck in a book.”

“Well, I still read a lot,” Adam admitted with a grin. “But I also hunt and fish like you taught me.”

Ben gestured toward Hoss. “And this is Hoss. He was hardly more than a toddler when you left,” said Ben.

Josh looked in amazement at the big man who walked toward him. “Hoss! This can’t be that chubby kid who was always following me around,” the mountain man declared.

“Yep, it’s me,” replied Hoss with a grin. “I never forgot you, Josh. I played with that toy bear you carved for me for years. I always told Pa I wanted to be big and strong like you when I grew up.”

Josh looked Hoss up and down. “Looks like you passed me up and then some,” he said with a laugh.

Joe approached the group almost shyly. He had heard stories about Josh Bodine all his life, but the man was more like a legend than a flesh and blood human being to him. Joe found it hard to believe he really existed.

“And this is my youngest, Joseph,” Ben announced, putting his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “He was born after you left.”

Josh studied Joe carefully. “The runt of the litter, heh,” Josh said in a dismissing tone. “Didn’t know you’d married again, Ben.”

Ben felt Joe stiffen. He knew how sensitive Joe was about being younger and smaller than his brothers. Josh’s comment was sure to get Joe’s back up.

“Yes, I married again,” Ben answered abruptly, trying to prevent Joe from saying anything his son would regret later. “Joe’s mother was killed in an accident soon after he was born.”

“Must have been a puny thing,” Josh commented, turning away from Joe.

Ben felt Joe’s shoulders tighten. He squeezed Joe’s shoulder as a warning. “Josh, what brings you back here?” Ben asked quickly. Ben could feel the anger building in his youngest son.

“Just passing through, Ben,” Josh answered, unaware of the dark look on Joe’s face. “Been in California for the last couple of years, but it’s gotten too crowded there. Why, you can’t ride for more than a day without running into someone. So I decided to look for someplace where a man can live on his own. Since I was passing this way, I thought I’d stop and visit for a spell.”

Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder again and then released his son. “Josh, why don’t you come into the house,” Ben suggested. “Dinner will be ready soon. And maybe we can find some good whiskey for you to sip in the meantime.”

“Well, thank you, Ben,” Josh replied with a grin. “I was kinda of hoping you’d ask.” Josh tossed the reins of his horse in Joe’s direction. “Here, boy, why don’t you put up my horse. I don’t expect a young ‘un like you is much interested in whiskey.”

Joe stood glowering Bodine. He let the reins fall to the ground and made no attempt to pick them up.

“Adam, Hoss, why don’t you take Josh in the house,” Ben said hastily. “I’ll join you in a minute.”

“Sure,” replied Hoss, aware of the angry look on Joe’s face. He felt bad about Josh’s comments, but was sure the man hadn’t meant to be cruel. “Josh, follow me.”

The mountain man strolled toward the house with Adam and Hoss, ignoring Joe as he passed him. Ben watched in dismay. Ben turned to Joe. “Joe, I’m sorry about what Josh said,” Ben advised softly. “I’m sure he didn’t mean them the way they sounded.”

Joe said nothing for a moment, then looked at Ben. “So that’s Josh Bodine,” he observed. “He’s not exactly what I expected. I thought he’d be at least ten feet tall.”

“I guess we have been building him up over the years,” admitted Ben. “But, Joe, he is one of my oldest friends. I owe him a lot. Adam and Hoss and I would have never made it through that first winter here without him.”

Joe just nodded.

“He’s a rough mountain man,” Ben continued. “Says and does whatever he wants and doesn’t care what people think about him. He doesn’t always realize how he’s hurting people. He gave me many a tongue-lashing when I first came out here.”

A wry smile appeared on Joe’s face. “I would have loved to have seen that,” Joe said.

Ben grinned. “I’m just glad you weren’t around to see all the mistakes I made when I got here.” Then Ben turned serious. “Joe, I would appreciate your forgetting what Josh said.”

Joe looked at his father. “All right,” he agreed grudgingly. “For your sake, I’ll try.”

Ben patted Joe on the back. “Thank you. Would you mind putting up Josh’s horse?”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I’ll take care of the horse.” He grinned suddenly. “Maybe you can find me a sasperilla when I’m done.”

“Oh, I think we can do a little better than that,” replied Ben with a smile. “And, Joe, thank you again.”

Joe walked back to the house slowly after stabling Josh’s horse. He had taken his time caring the for horse, reluctant to join the men inside the house. As Ben asked, he tried to forget the mountain man’s earlier comments, but it rankled Joe to be dismissed as a kid. He had just turned twenty, and considered himself grown. Josh’s comment about his mother bothered him also. Joe tried to make himself like the man who was obviously highly thought of by his father and brothers. But he knew it would be difficult. He had already decided Josh Bodine was someone he didn’t care to be around. Joe entered the house and saw that Josh was sprawled in Ben’s favorite chair by the fire. The mountain man had a glass of whiskey in his hand. Ben was standing near the fireplace, with a glass in his hand also. Adam and Hoss were sitting on the sofa. They looked over their shoulders as Joe walked in.

“Joe, how about joining us for a whiskey?” Ben said pointedly as Joe strolled over to the group.

Josh raised his eyebrows in surprise as Joe walked over to the low table in front of the fireplace. But he said nothing as Joe poured himself a small drink of whiskey from the bottle on the table.

“Josh was just telling us about California,” Hoss explained as he watched Joe settle himself into the blue chair near the stairs. He hoped Josh wouldn’t say anything more to upset Joe. He wanted his younger brother to like the mountain man as much as he did.

“What part of California were you in?” Joe asked politely, sipping his drink.

“All over,” Josh replied. “Saw the ocean more times than you can imagine. Also saw some trees that were as wide as this house and over a hundred feet tall.”

“You’re making that up,” said Adam with a grin.

“No, I ain’t,” Josh declared. “They’re big redwood trees, hundreds of years old.” Then Josh shook his head. “Course, folks have cut some down,” he added in disgust. “It ain’t right the way some people just come in and spoil what nature took a hundred years to make.”

“Well, it’s unfortunate that some of the land has to be cleared,” admitted Ben. “But I guess that’s the price of progress.”

“Progress!” Josh spat out. “Ain’t progress, Ben. Just laziness. People don’t care what they do to the land.”

“Where you headed?” said Hoss, trying to change the subject.

“No place in particular, “ Josh answered. “I was thinking about staying around here for a spell, but don’t think I’ll do that now.”

“Why not?” asked Adam.

“Seen what’s happened to this part of the country,” replied Josh. “Don’t like it much. Too many people.”

“You’re going to have a hard time finding someplace without people,” observed Joe wryly. “There’s new settlers coming all the time.”

“I know,” admitted Josh wearily. “Them tenderfoots are the worst. They cut down trees and mess up the land. Then, when they decide they don’t like it or they can’t make it work, they move on. And leave the spoiled land behind.”

“Do you still do much hunting?” asked Ben.

“When I can,” answered Josh. “Not much game left. Things have been pretty slim for me over the past couple of years. That’s why I’m trying to find someplace where I can hunt like I did before.”

“Well, I hope you’ll plan on spending a little time with us,” said Adam.

Josh looked at him and smiled. “I guess I can spare a few days,” he agreed.

Dinner was a lively affair for most of the Cartwrights. Josh kept them laughing with stories of his adventures over the years. Ben added to the gaiety by telling them stories of his first few years in Nevada, and all the problems he had. Josh added a few stories of his own about the early days. Joe sat quietly during dinner, saying nothing and only occasionally joining in the laughter. He still didn’t feel good about Josh Bodine. Josh, for his part, ignored Joe completely.

“Josh, I hope you’ll stay with us,” said Ben as dinner ended.

“Well, I’ll stay tonight since it’s getting late. But I got a little camp set up in the woods,” answered Josh. “Got a few furs and other things up there. Don’t want to leave it alone too long.” Josh turned to Adam and Hoss. “You boys want to go hunting with me tomorrow?”

“Joe’s a pretty good hunter, too,” interjected Hoss hastily. Josh looked at Joe and just nodded.

“We can’t go hunting anyway,” added Adam. “We have to ride with the posse tomorrow.”

“Posse?” Josh said in surprise. “What’s that all about.”

“Somebody has been raiding the small places in the hills,” explained Ben grimly. “Looting the places and then burning them. We’re trying to help the sheriff catch whoever is doing this.”

“You are?” said Josh. “Wouldn’t think that would be any of your concern.”

“It is,” stated Ben. “These are our neighbors, Josh. And one of the things you taught me was you help each other out around here.”

Josh nodded thoughtfully.

“Hey, Josh, why don’t you come with us tomorrow?” asked Hoss.

“That’s a good idea,” added Adam. “We could use somebody who really knows how to track. We haven’t had much luck finding a trail.”

“Maybe Josh would prefer to hunt tomorrow,” said Joe quietly. He was dismayed at the thought of having Bodine ride with them.

“Nah, that’s all right,” replied Josh. “Ain’t much hunting around here. I already seen that. I’ll go with you boys and see what I can do to help.”

“Great!” said Ben with a grin. “I’ll feel better if you’re along to watch over my sons.”

“Ben, I’ll watch ‘em like a hawk,” promised Josh.

*****

Joe was up early the next morning. He wanted to eat breakfast and start work before the others came down. Mostly, he wanted to avoid having to spend more time with Josh Bodine. He knew his dislike of the man was unreasonable, but something about the mountain man rubbed him the wrong way. His father and brothers liked and admired Josh, and Joe wished he felt the same way. But he didn’t. So he decided the best course of action was just to avoid the man as much as possible. He didn’t want to spoil what seemed to be a happy reunion for the others. Joe was finishing repairing a bridle in the tack room when he heard Hoss calling his name. “In here,” Joe shouted as fixed the last straps of leather on the bridle. Hoss came into the tack room a few minutes later.

“There you are, little brother,” Hoss said. “I’ve been looking all over for you. We’re getting ready to leave.”

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” replied Joe. He pulled on the bridle one more time to make sure the repairs would hold and then hung it on a peg.

“We missed you at breakfast,” said Hoss as he watched Joe.

“I had a lot to do,” explained Joe with a shrug. “I wanted to get everything done before we rode out.”

“You’re not still upset over what Josh said yesterday, are you?” asked Hoss. When Joe didn’t answer, Hoss continued. “He didn’t mean anything by it, Joe. That’s just his way.”

Joe merely nodded.

“Josh is a good man,” Hoss added. “And one of Pa’s oldest friends. I was hoping you’d like him.”

Joe brushed his hands on his pants. “We’d better get going,” he said and walked past Hoss out the door. Hoss sighed and followed his brother. Two hours later, the posse was searching the hills for some sign of the man who had burned the four cabins. Sheriff Coffee had been delighted when Adam introduced Josh to him and explained who he was. He had heard stories about Josh Bodine over the years, and was happy to have his help. The other men in the posse also knew of Josh Bodine. They greeted the mountain man with respect.

The posse was spread out in the hills, and Joe was riding by himself. He searched the ground carefully, looking for tracks. So far, he had seen nothing suspicious. Joe pulled his horse to a stop when he spotted some broken branches tossed carelessly into the bushes. He dismounted and carefully studied the ground. The ground was swept clean, as if someone had dragged the branches over their tracks. Joe followed the marks of the branches, carefully guiding his horse behind him so the animal wouldn’t walk on the brushing. He followed the marks for several yards and was about to give up when he saw some hoof prints in a patch of mud. The branches hadn’t wiped out the prints. More importantly, he could tell the rider had doubled back and headed off to Joe’s right, into the woods.

Joe pulled his gun from his holster and fired two shots into the air. If the man they were seeking had made the tracks, Joe knew it wasn’t a good idea to go after him alone. Joe waited patiently and soon the rest of the posse joined him.

“Did you find something?” asked Hoss as he rode up.

Joe nodded. “Found some tracks,” he said. “Looks like someone tried to brush them out, but he missed the ones in the mud. Not only that, but the man doubled back.” Joe pointed into the woods. “Looks like he rode off in that direction.”

“Let me take a look,” offered Josh, dismounting. Josh walked over to Joe and knelt down, peering closely at the tracks in the mud. After a minute, the mountain man stood. “Them ain’t the tracks you want,” he said, shaking his head. “Those are old tracks, maybe a week or so.”

“They look pretty fresh to me,” remarked Joe doubtfully.

“I’ve been tracking for more than forty years,” Josh said indignantly. “I think I can tell fresh tracks when I see them.”

Joe looked at the tracks again. They still seem pretty fresh to him. “Maybe we ought to follow them anyway,” he suggested. “Just to be sure.”

“Waste of time, boy” Josh declared. “More than likely just a hunter, maybe the fellow that got burned out.”

“I still think we ought to follow them,” Joe insisted.

“Joe, if Josh says those aren’t the tracks we want, then they aren’t,” Adam said. He was sitting on his horse, a few yards away.

“How can you be sure?” argued Joe. “You haven’t even seen them.”

“Because Josh here is one of the best trackers I know,” said Adam patiently. “Come on, we’re wasting time. While we’re arguing, that outlaw could be getting away.”

“I agree with Adam,” said Roy Coffee from his horse. “Let’s forget these tracks.”

Josh walked back to his horse and mounted. “I’ve been thinking. I think we should try the other side of the ridge. There’s some places there where a fellow could hole up. We ought to check those out.”

“Good idea,” agreed Coffee. “Josh, why don’t you lead the way.”

The men in the posse turned their horses and started away, following Josh through the trees. Hoss stopped his horse and looked back at Joe. Joe was still staring off into the woods. “Coming, little brother?” he asked.

Joe hesitated. He was sure he was right and Josh was wrong about the tracks. But no one else agreed with him. But he wasn’t confident enough to follow the tracks on his own. Finally, Joe shrugged his shoulders and mounted his horse. “Yeah, I’m coming,” he answered reluctantly. The posse spent the rest of the day searching out caves and clearings that Josh showed them. They found no sign of anyone hiding there. Finally, Roy Coffee called a halt to the search.

“We’re getting nowhere,” said the sheriff. “I think we’ll have to give it up.”

“We could go back and check those tracks I found,” suggested Joe.

“Joe, will you quit about those tracks!” said Adam heatedly. “Josh already told you that those were too old.”

“But we haven’t found anything else,” Joe argued. “It couldn’t hurt to look again.”

“Boy, I done told you those weren’t the tracks we want,” Josh stated.

“I agree with Josh,” said the sheriff. “Joe, those tracks don’t mean a thing.”

“You didn’t even see them,” Joe said bitterly.

“No, I didn’t,” replied Coffee, his voice rising in anger. “I didn’t need to. If Josh Bodine says those aren’t the tracks, that’s good enough for me.” The sheriff turned back to the rest of the posse. “Thank you for looking,” he said. “I’ll let you know if we find anything else. But for now, I’m going to call off the search.”

The men nodded and started to drift away. Coffee turned back to Bodine. “Josh, I appreciate your help,” he said.

“Anytime,” the mountain man replied.

Coffee nodded and rode away.

Adam turned to Josh. “How about having supper with us?” he asked.

Josh shook his head. “No, I’d better go check on my camp.” He looked at Joe, who was still glowering. “Besides, I don’t think I’d be too welcome tonight.”

Hoss shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Josh, you’re welcome anytime,” he stated. “Ain’t that right, Joe?”

Joe looked up at his brother with a startled expression. He knew how much his brothers and father liked Josh. Joe chewed his lip for a minute, then mumbled, “Yeah, you’re welcome to come with us.” Joe didn’t wait for the mountain man’s reply. He turned his horse and rode off.

“Don’t think that boy likes me much,” Josh remarked as he watched Joe ride away.

“Aw, Joe just gets hot sometimes,” said Hoss. “He’ll get over it.”

“How about it, Josh?” pressed Adam. “Want to join us?”

Josh shook his head. “No, I really do need to check on my camp,” he replied. “And I want to do some hunting tomorrow.” He grinned at Adam. “Want to come with me? As I recall, you were a pretty good shot.”

Adam sighed. “I wish we could,” he said regretfully. “But riding with the posse has really put us behind at the ranch. We have a lot to do tomorrow.”

“Josh, how about joining us for dinner tomorrow night?” asked Hoss. “I’ll bet I can talk Hop Sing into fixing some chicken and dumplings.”

“Chicken and dumplings, eh?” repeated Josh with a smile. “Why, Hoss, I think I’ll just take you up on that. I really like chicken and dumplings.”

“Not as much as Hoss does,” said Adam with a wry smile. “He’ll use any excuse to get Hop Sing to cook that meal.”

“Well, then, you’d better tell your cook to make a lot,” Josh stated. “Because between Hoss and me, there ain’t gonna be much left for the rest of you.”

The men laughed. “See you tomorrow,” Hoss said with a wave. He and Adam turned their horses and rode off. Josh watched them thoughtfully for a minute, then turned his horse and rode in the other direction.

*****

The dinner table seemed quiet that night. It really wasn’t any quieter than usual, but without Josh’s booming voice and amusing stories, the meal seemed awfully tame. Hoss and Adam told Ben about the posse’s fruitless search while Joe ate in silence. Ben shook his head. “It’s too bad that Josh couldn’t find any sign of that man,” Ben said. “If Josh couldn’t find anything, my guess is the fellow has pulled out.”

“We didn’t check out those tracks I found,” said Joe quietly.

“Joe, will you let up about those tracks,” Adam told him in exasperation.

“What tracks?” asked Ben.

“I found some tracks near Willow Ridge,” explained Joe. “They showed where someone doubled back and then rode off into the woods.”

“Why didn’t you follow them?” Ben asked.

“Pa, Josh said those tracks were too old,” replied Hoss. “He said they had been there more than a week. Fred Thompson’s place was burned yesterday.”

“I still think we should have followed them,” Joe said.

“Joe, if Josh said the tracks were too old, you would have been wasting your time,” stated Ben.

“I don’t think those tracks were a week old,” Joe asserted.

“Joe, why don’t you just admit you were wrong,” said Adam.

“Because I’m not wrong,” insisted Joe.

“You’ve had your back up about Josh ever since he got here,” said Hoss. “You’re still mad about what he said.”

“No, it’s not that,” replied Joe.

“Josh is one of the best trackers in the country,” said Ben. “I find it hard to believe he could be wrong.”

“Pa, he could have made a mistake,” Joe stated. “He’s not a young man any more. Maybe his eyes aren’t as good as they used to be.”

“He’s not that much older than me,” said Ben, bristling at the comment.

“Yeah, but your eyes are real good,” declared Joe with a grin. “Too good, sometimes.”

Ben laughed.

“It’s not just the tracks,” Joe continued, his voice growing serious. “You heard what he said about people messing up the land.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked Adam.

“We haven’t been able to figure out why someone would be burning out those places,” said Joe. “Maybe it’s someone who has a grudge against those people for spoiling the land.”

“You’re not saying Josh is doing this?” said Ben in alarm. “Joe, I’ve known him for a long time. Josh isn’t the kind of man who would do something like this.”

“Little brother, I think you’re letting your hot head get the better of you,” added Hoss.

“You’d better not say something like that without proof.”

“I don’t have any proof,” admitted Joe. “Just a feeling.”

“Well, I think you’d better keep your feelings to yourself,” said Ben in a stern voice. “I won’t have you accusing a guest of mine based on a feeling.”

“Josh won’t take kindly to your calling him a thief,” added Adam.

“I’m not calling him a thief,” replied Joe, his voice rising in anger. “But I do think he was acting kind of strange today.”

“Strange?” said Adam, his voice also rising. “Why? Just because you didn’t agree with him about the tracks. Don’t you think that’s a bit of a stretch?”

“Joe, you don’t know those tracks were fresh,” added Hoss.

“Oh, now you’re getting in on it,” shouted Joe. “You didn’t even bother to look. You just took the word of the mighty, can’t-do-anything wrong Josh Bodine.”

“That’s enough!” Ben boomed. He slammed his hand on the table. “I want you all to be quiet!”

Adam, Hoss and Joe all looked at their father. When he used that tone of voice, they knew he meant business.

“Now, Joe,” Ben said, his a calmer voice. “You don’t know for sure that Josh was wrong about those tracks.”

“But….”Joe started

“I said be quiet,” Ben said sternly. “You’ve had your say. Now it’s my turn. You say you think Josh had something to do with those raids. But you have no proof. Until you have something more substantial than a ‘feeling’, you will not say anything to anyone about this. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” Joe replied in a low voice. Joe lowered his eyes and stared at his plate.

“If you are finished eating, you may leave the table,” Ben continued, his voice displaying his displeasure with his youngest son.

“Yes sir,” Joe repeated. He wiped his mouth with his napkin, and threw the cloth on the table. Then he pushed back his chair and marched out of the room. Ben watched Joe leave the table and climb the stairs to his bedroom. He shook his head. “Joe really has it in for Josh, doesn’t he?” Ben said sadly.

“He sure does,” Adam agreed.

“Aw, you know Joe,” Hoss said in a conciliatory voice. “He’ll get over it.”

“Joe usually likes everyone,” Ben commented. “I really thought he’d like Josh, too. I don’t understand how he can accuse Josh of these raids. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know Josh as well as we do. If he did, he’d see how outrageous his suggestion is that Josh might be involved.”

“Well, Joe can be stubborn sometimes,” Adam advised. “Josh hurt his feelings. Joe isn’t willing to forgive him.”

“I owe Josh a lot for helping us get started here,” said Ben firmly. “I’m not going to let Joe tarnish our friendship with his wild accusations. His friendship is too important to me.”

*****

The next day, Joe managed to find some work to do away from his father and brothers. He was still fuming over the argument last night, feeling that he had been treated unfairly. He decided that taking his anger out on fixing fences was better…and wiser…than taking it out on his father. He pounded the nails into the fence harder than usual, and with each stroke, felt his anger fading. By the time he returned home in the middle of the afternoon, his temper had cooled considerably. Joe rode back to the house, prepared to apologize to his family for his outburst. However, he was surprised to Sheriff Coffee standing in the yard, talking to Ben, Adam and Hoss when he rode in. Joe pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted, looping the reins around the hitching post in front of the house. Then he walked over to the men.

“Roy, what are you doing here?” he asked curiously.

“Hello, Joe,” Sheriff Coffee said. “I was just telling your Pa that another place got hit by that outlaw today.”

“Another place?” Joe stated in surprise. “Where?”

“Ed Brown’s place,” replied Coffee. Joe frowned, trying to remember who Ed Brown was.

Coffee saw the frown. “He’s got a small farm up in the hills,” explained the sheriff. “Been here only about a month or so. Just started clearing the land.”

“Was it the same way as before?” asked Hoss.

“Same way,” declared Coffee. “Ed was hit on the head as he came out of his cabin. He woke up in the woods, tied up and gagged. Took him a couple of hours to get loose. When he got back to the cabin, the place was burned to the ground.”

Adam shook his head. “I just don’t understand it,” he said. “Who could be doing this?”

“I don’t know, Adam,” admitted the sheriff. “Ed just got to town a little while ago and told me about it. It’s too late to go looking for tracks now. It’d be dark by the time we got out there. I was hoping you boys would go with me tomorrow.”

“We’ll be there,” said Hoss. “Josh Bodine is coming to dinner tonight. I’ll ask him to join us.”

“Good, we can use him,” Coffee admitted. He didn’t see the look of distaste that crossed Joe’s face.

“Well, I’d better be getting back to town,” the sheriff said as he walked toward his horse. “I’ll meet you boys up by Wilson’s Glen tomorrow morning.” Adam and Hoss nodded.

Ben waved as Roy rode off, then turned to his sons. “You’d better get cleaned up for dinner,” he suggested. “And Joe, I expect you to be civil to Josh.”

Joe nodded and walked into the house.

“Pa, you don’t think Josh had anything to do with this, do you?” asked Hoss in a worried voice.

Ben shook his head. “No, I don’t,” Ben said firmly.

Joe kept his promise and said nothing to upset the Cartwright’s guest at dinner. In fact, he said nothing at all during the meal. He listened to Josh boast of his hunting exploits and tell stories of his travel. He ate in silence as Adam and Hoss tried to outdo each other with tales about Josh when they were little. Ben added a few stories of his own. By the time the meal was over, everyone except Joe was smiling. Josh finally noticed that Joe wasn’t joining in the merriment. “What’s the matter, boy?” he asked. “Cat got your tongue?”

“Joe had a hard day,” explained Ben quickly, tossing a meaningful look at his youngest son. Joe just shrugged.

“Josh, we need you to go out with the posse again tomorrow,” Adam added, changing the subject hastily.

“Oh?” said Josh. He waited for Adam to continue.

“Another farm in the hills was attacked today,” Adam told him. “We’re going with the posse tomorrow to look for tracks.”

“We could sure use you,” added Hoss.

“Sure, I’ll come for awhile,” agreed Josh. “I was planning on leaving tomorrow, but I can spend the morning with you fellas if you want.”

“It’s too bad about those places in the hills,” Joe said pointedly. “All those people are leaving. They got wiped out. And after they all spent time working the land.”

“Serves ‘em right,” Josh replied. “Spoiling the land, like that. They deserve to get burned out.”

“Josh, I’m surprised to hear you say that,” Ben said. “I mean, you helped me clear the land for the Ponderosa.”

“You’re different, Ben,” Josh advised. “You only cleared the bottom land, not the hills.”

“But we have a timber operation in the hills,” Adam pointed out.

“Yep, I’ve heard about it,” said Josh. “Every time you cut down a tree, you plant another. These yahoo’s, they just cut down the trees and tear up the hills. They don’t replace nothing.”

“Josh, you wouldn’t do anything about it, would you?” asked Hoss with a frown.

“Me?” Josh replied. He seemed startled that Hoss would ask such a question. “No, I wouldn’t, Hoss,” Josh said quickly.

Hoss looked at Joe with a I-told-you-so expression. Joe gazed back as his brother with a steady look in his eye.

“Josh, I’m sorry to hear you’re leaving,” said Ben, his voice tinged with sadness.

“Got to, Ben,” Josh replied. “I got to find me a place where I can hunt and trap. Ain’t any place like that around here. Not any more, leastwise.”

Ben nodded. “You’re right about that,” he said. “But I was hoping you’d visit with us a bit longer.”

“Been here for long enough, Ben,” answered Josh. “We’ll have a nice long chat tonight, and tomorrow, I’ll ride out with your boys. I’ll try and help them, then be on my way.”

“I’m sorry to see you go,” said Ben.

“Me, too,” agreed Josh. “It’s been a real interesting visit.”

*****

Joe stayed in the barn while Ben was saying his farewells to Josh the next morning. He knew how his father felt about the mountain man, and he didn’t want to spoil things. He also knew he was happy to see Josh leaving. Joe brushed his pinto hard, waiting for his brothers and Josh to leave. He had decided not to go with them this morning and told Hoss to leave with out him. Joe had other plans. Joe looked up as he heard the barn door open. Ben walked in and looked around.

“Joe?” called Ben. “Are you in here?”

“Over here, Pa,” Joe answered from the stall.

Ben walked over to the stall, and looked in. He frowned as he saw Joe was brushing his horse. “I thought Hoss said Cochise had a stone bruise,” he commented . “He said you were staying behind to take care of it.”

“That’s what I told Hoss,” answered Joe, as he put the brush on the edge of the stall. He picked up a saddle and blanket and threw them over the pinto. Then he started buckling the girth.

“I don’t understand,” Ben said. “If your horse has a stone bruise, why are you saddling him?”

Joe turned to Ben. “I told Hoss a little white lie,” he admitted. “Cochise is fine. I just didn’t want to ride with the posse today.”

“Because of Josh,” Ben said, not really asking a question.

Joe nodded.

“Joe, I wish you would get it out of your head that Josh is somehow mixed up with these attacks,” Ben said.

“Pa, I know how you feel about him,” answered Joe. “But I know how I feel, too. There’s just too many coincidences.”

“Coincidences?” said Ben.

“The attacks didn’t start until Josh showed up,” Joe pointed out.

“That’s not true,” said Ben. “He arrived at the Ponderosa after the Thompson place was attacked.”

“We don’t know when Josh got here,” replied Joe. “He said he had some furs from hunting. He could have been here for weeks before he came by the house. He deliberately led the posse away from those tracks I found. And yesterday, when he wasn’t with us, the Brown place was burned.”

“Joe…” Ben started.

“Pa, I know what you’re going to say,” Joe interrupted. “Josh Bodine is a fine man. He helped you get started. He’s your friend, as well as Adam’s and Hoss’. And I don’t have any proof. Well, I’m going up to Willow Creek and follow those tracks I saw. Maybe that will lead me to some proof.”

Ben shook his head. “Joe, I think you’re wrong,” he said. “I’ve known Josh Bodine for a long time. He would never do something like this.”

“And you haven’t seen him for more than twenty years,” replied Joe. “Pa, people change. You heard Josh at dinner last night, what he said about those people getting what they deserve.”

“Yes, and I also heard him say he wouldn’t do anything like this,” Ben said.

“You don’t expect him to admit it, do you?” Joe counered. “He’s said a couple of times how much he resents people tearing up the land. You heard Adam say he couldn’t figure out why this fellow is raiding the small places. I think it’s because he resents the homesteaders taking away his wilderness. The way Josh resents them.”

Ben hesitated. He didn’t know what to say.

Joe led his horse out of the stall. “I’m going up to Willow Creek and look around,” he advised. “Maybe I’ll find nothing. But maybe I’ll find something to show you that you’re all wrong about Josh Bodine.”

Ben watched as Joe led his horse out of the barn, and mounted in the yard. He was thinking about what Joe said as his son rode off. Ben frowned. Joe is wrong, he thought. I’m sure Joe is making a mistake. However, a small seed of doubt had been planted in Ben. But what if he’s not, Ben thought. He quickly dismissed the thought. He was convinced he knew Josh Bodine well enough to know he couldn’t be involved in these raids. Suddenly, another thought struck Ben. What if Josh and Joe ran into each other up on Willow Ridge? Ben knew that Josh would react badly if Joe accused him of attacking those small holdings. The confrontation could get ugly. Ben knew how tough the mountain man was. He had seen Josh Bodine take on five men single handed and beat them all. Joe wouldn’t stand a chance against him alone. Ben hurried to the stall where his buckskin horse was waiting patiently. He pulled a saddle off the wall and began saddling his horse.

*****

Joe rode rapidly to Willow Creek, wanting to get there while Josh was still with the posse. He felt bad about what he had said to his father, but only because it distressed Ben. He was sure he was right about Josh Bodine. He hoped he could find something to tie Josh to the attacks. If so, he wanted to have a posse with him when they arrested Bodine. He had no desire to try and take the man in all by himself. Joe quickly found the muddy patch where he had seen the tracks. He started off into the woods, in the direction the tracks pointed. The tracks disappeared after a few feet, but Joe wasn’t surprised. If Bodine was making the tracks, he would try to hide them. Joe kept riding further into the woods, looking for signs. He was about to admit defeat when he saw some new tracks. It was apparent no one tried to hide these markings. Probably the rider thought no one would follow him this deep into the wilderness. Joe followed the tracks for almost half a mile. He pulled his horse to a stop when he saw the camp ahead of him. A small shelter, open on three sides, was built into the hill. A large piece of canvas, supported by two tall poles, covered the rough lean-to. The remains of a campfire sat a yard or so in front of the shelter. Joe dismounted and tied his horse to a branch. He pulled his gun from his holster and looked around cautiously. The camp seemed deserted. Joe walked slowly toward the shelter, looking around as he walked. No one seemed to be in the camp. Joe could see two bundles of furs, a canvas sack, and a rifle inside the shelter. He crept closer, his senses alert for any sound.

Ducking inside the shelter, Joe put his gun back in his holster. He picked up the rifle and looked at it carefully. The rifle has some silver scrolls on the stock…just like Fred Thompson had described his rifle. Joe put the rifle down and knelt beside the canvass sack. He pulled it open and started looking through the things inside. It was filled with camping gear – a plate, cup, coffee pot — and what looked like some bags of coffee and beans. Joe dug further into the sack and pulled out a small leather pouch, the kind with a flap coming over the top to close it. Joe opened the flap. Inside were some papers and some money. Joe pulled the papers out and started looking through them. All were receipts for the sale of a horse to a stable over in Gold Hill. There were five receipts in all. Joe remember that each of the five places that were ransacked had horses stolen. He looked at the names on the bills of sale. Each bill of sale had the named Josh Bodine as the individual who had sold the horse. Joe smiled in satisfaction. He stuffed the papers inside his jacket and put the pouch back into the sack. Then he picked up the rifle. Joe felt he had the proof he needed to have Josh Bodine arrested.

Getting to his feet, Joe walked out of the lean-to. He was heading back toward his horse when he heard the sound of a rifle being cocked. He was starting to pull his gun out of his holster when the shot rang out. Joe felt a blow to his ribs that spun him around. He felt a searing pain in the left side of his chest as he hit the ground. He pushed his right hand against the dirt, trying desperately to get to his feet, but fell back to the ground as a wave of intense pain radiated through him. Joe wanted to get into the safety of the bushes, knowing his attacker must be near. He tried again to move his body. But the pain was too great. He struggled against the feeling of weakness which was beginning to overwhelm him but the effort was futile. Finally, he gave up the struggle and let himself sink into a pool of blackness.

Josh Bodine pushed the branches aside and walked out of the woods. He walked slowly toward Joe, looking around for anyone else who might be with Joe. Satisfied that Joe was alone, he walked over to the body on the ground. Joe was sprawled on his back, and his eyes were closed. Blood was oozing out of a wound in the area of Joe’s ribs. Josh nudged Joe with his toe and was surprised to hear a small groan. Must be getting old, he thought. Used to be he could count on only needing one shot to kill his prey. Josh aimed his rifle at Joe’s head and levered a bullet into the chamber. I’ll finish this once and for all, and then head out, he thought.

“Hold it!” a voice cried as Josh aimed his rifle at Joe’s head. Josh looked up in surprise. Ben Cartwright was standing about ten yards away, his pistol cocked and aimed directly at Josh.

“Drop it, Josh!” Ben shouted. “Drop it right now!”

Josh continued to stand over Joe, rifle aimed downward.

“I don’t think so, Ben,” replied Josh evenly.

“Drop the rifle or I’ll shoot,” Ben declared.

“We have an interesting situation here, Ben,” Josh said. “The question is, can you kill me before I pull this trigger. Because if you don’t, I’m going to blow your son’s head off.” Ben hesitated, not sure what to do. He didn’t even know if Joe was still alive. “If you shoot me, I swear I’ll kill him,” Josh continued. Josh nudged Joe with his foot. Joe groaned softly. “He’s still alive, Ben, but he won’t be if you shoot,” Josh said in a even tone. “If you want your son to stay alive, you drop your gun.”

Ben continued to hesitate. “If I drop my gun, you’ll kill Joe anyway,” Ben said.

“No, I won’t,” Josh replied. “You drop your gun, and I won’t shoot. But if you fire, I swear I’ll kill the boy.

Ben looked at Joe, lying on the ground, bleeding and helpless. “How do I know you won’t kill him anyway?” Ben asked.

“I give you my word, Ben,” Josh answered. “You drop your gun, and I promise I won’t shoot him again. I may be a lot of other things, but I ain’t a liar. My word is still good. I ain’t sunk so low as to go back on that.”

Ben continued to hesitate, still unsure what to do. He was afraid if he dropped his gun, Josh would kill Joe. But he also knew if he fired and didn’t kill Josh instantly, Josh would also fire his rifle…right into Joe’s head.

“What we got here is a Mexican stand-off,” Josh stated. “Now as far as I’m concerned, we can stand here all day. But your boy is bleeding pretty bad. While we’re standing here talking, he could bleed to death.”

Ben looked closer at Joe; he could see a large patch of dark red spreading over Joe’s shirt. Ben knew he had no choice. He slowly uncocked his gun and laid it on the ground. Josh pulled the rifle up and pointed it at Ben. Ben wondered if Josh were going to kill him. Josh looked as if he was considering the idea for a minute, then he gestured with the rifle.

“All right, Ben, you can come over here to your boy,” Josh agreed.

Rushing forward, Ben knelt next to Joe. He pulled Joe’s shirt open and winced at the bullet hole high up on Joe’s side. Ben untied the bandanna from around his neck and quickly covered the wound. He put pressure on the wound, hoping to stop the bleeding. Joe moaned softly as Ben pressed down. Josh watched Ben for a minute as Ben tended to his son. Then Josh turned and walked rapidly to the lean-to. He grabbed the canvass sack and slung it over his shoulder. He stopped briefly to pick up the rifle Joe had dropped and then walked back to Ben.

“All right, Ben, that’s enough,” said Josh. “You’re coming with me. I want to make sure that posse don’t give me any trouble.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Ben stated, not bothering to turn around. “I’m going to stay and help Joe. You go on and get out of here.”

Josh shook his head. “Sorry, Ben, but I need you,” he said. With a quick motion, he crashed his rifle into the back of Ben’s head. Ben crumpled to the ground. Josh looked around and spotted Ben’s horse grazing nearby. He walked over to the buckskin and led the horse back to the camp. He stopped the horse a few feet from where Ben laid on the ground. Laying the sack and rifle on the ground, Josh dragged Ben toward the horse. He was surprised at how heavy Ben was. He grabbed the back of Ben’s shirt collar and belt. With a grunt, he lifted Ben off the ground and flung him on the horse.

Ben lay unconscious in the saddle, his head resting on the buckskin’s neck and his arms on either side of the mane. Josh looked at him for a moment, making sure Ben was still out, then walked back into the woods to get his own horse. He saw Joe’s pinto tied to a tree. He untied the horse and slapped it on the rear, sending the animal running down the trail. Then he walked over to his own horse and led it back to the camp. He picked up the canvass sack and the rifle decorated with silver, and tied both to the back of his saddle. Josh pulled several strips of leather out of his saddle bag. He looped the leather around Ben’s hands and then tied it to the horn on Ben’s saddle. He took another strip and tied Ben’s right foot to the stirrup. Moving around the horse, he took the last strip of leather and tied Ben’s left foot to the stirrup. Then he walked over to his horse and mounted it. Reaching down, he grabbed the rein’s of Ben’s horse. Without a backward glance, he started down the trail, leading Ben’s horse. Josh never looked back to the camp. He never saw Joe’s eyes watching him, almost pleading with him, as he rode away.

*****

The dark mists swirling around Ben slowly faded away. His head hurt; it hurt more than he could ever remember. Ben squeezed his eyes, trying to get his vision into focus. He felt dizzy, and his stomach felt queasy. Ben took several deep breaths, and gradually, the dizziness began to fade. His eyes began to focus. Ben was aware that his hands were tied and he was sitting astride a moving horse. Ben lifted his head and looked around. For a moment, he was confused about where he was. Then he saw Josh’s big black hat and buckskin shirt on the horse ahead of him. Suddenly, everything came back to Ben in a rush.

“Josh!” Ben shouted looking around. “Where’s Joe?”

Josh pulled his horse to a stop and turned the animal to face Ben.

“So you’re finally awake,” Josh observed. “I was afraid I hit you too hard.”

“Where’s Joe?” Ben repeated, his voice in a panic.

“I left him back at the camp,” Josh said.

“Left him?” Ben replied incredulously. “You mean, you just rode away? You left him there to die?”

“I promised I wouldn’t shoot him again, Ben,” Josh answered. “And I kept my word. I never said I wouldn’t leave him.”

Ben began to struggle on the saddle. “Josh, we have to go back!” Ben shouted. “We have to help Joe.”

“Ben, we can’t go back,” said Josh. “That posse is getting close. I saw some smoke awhile back, a lot of smoke. The only thing I can figure is the posse is on my trail.”

“Then, let me go back,” Ben pleaded. “I promise I won’t send the posse after you. Please, let me go to my son.”

“Sorry, Ben,” Josh replied with a shake of his head. “I can’t do that. I need you in case that posse catches up with me. I need you to make sure that posse don’t take me back.”

“Please, Josh,” Ben begged. “Please let me go to my son.”

“Ben, I can’t,” said Josh. “Besides, there’s no point to it. The boy’s dead by now or will be soon. You’ve been out over two hours. It would take you another two hours to get back. Four hours? The way that boy was bleeding, he’ll be dead in four hours. Less than that if some animal, like a bear or a cougar, smells the blood and gets to him first.”

Ben struggled against the leather ties. “Please, Josh, please!” he cried. “I let me go back and help my boy! Please.”

“Ben, I need you more than he does,” Josh stated. “Your son is dead.”

Ben slumped in the saddle. He knew Josh was probably right. Ben’s shoulders began to shake as his grief took hold. His son was dead. Josh Bodine had killed his son.

“Why, Josh?” Ben asked in a choked voice. “Why did you have to kill Joe? You didn’t harm any of the others.”

“None of the others could identify me,” Josh answered. “If I didn’t stop that boy of yours, he’d have told the law about me. I’d spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. I don’t want to live like that.”

Ben shook his head. “Josh, it’s all so pointless,” he stated a low voice. “You couldn’t have gotten much, and yet you ruined so many lives. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t need much,” Josh said. “I just needed enough to get me some supplies and things to tide me over until I can find someplace to hunt and live like I used to.”

“But you burned out those people…wiped them out,” Ben protested.

“Well, that was just sort of an added benefit,” Josh replied. “The first one, that was an accident. Knocked over a lamp when I was searching the place. But I heard the fella lit out, and I got to thinking. I could do me some good and get rid of some of those varmints who were tearing up the land at the same time. So I burned the rest of them out.”

Ben put his head down again as thoughts of Joe overwhelmed him. “And you shot my son, killed him for a few dollars,” Ben said in a voice that could be barely heard.

“Didn’t kill him because of the money,” Josh insisted. “I had to make sure he wouldn’t talk to the law. Good thing it weren’t Adam or Hoss. Don’t know if I could have it done it if it were one of your other boys. I got a deep feeling for those boys. Didn’t care much for your youngest, though.”

Ben’s grief grew. Joe had died because Josh didn’t like him, Ben thought. It was all so petty. Ben felt tears forming in his eyes. Josh watched Ben in sympathy for a few minutes. He didn’t feel especially bad about killing Joe, but he hated the grief he had caused his old friend. “I’m sorry, Ben,” Josh said softly.

Ben raised his head. Tears glistened in his eyes. But the look of grief turned quickly to another expression. Josh shuddered at the look of pure hate on Ben’s face.

Josh turned his horse and started back down the trail, leading Ben’s horse behind him. Ben stared at Josh, his eyes burning with hate as he stared into the mountain man’s back. Then the grief overwhelmed him again. Ben let his head drop and let his tears flow. Josh led Ben’s horse for another hour or so, leading Ben further and further away from his son. He finally stopped the horses and looked back over his shoulder at Ben. “Getting dark,” he announced. “We’ll stop soon and make camp.” Ben ignored Josh’s comment. He didn’t care any more what Josh did. All Ben could think about was Joe. Josh finally stopped the horses near a stream. He walked the animals slowly through the brush, finally finding a clear patch of ground. He halted the horses and dismounted. After tying the reins of his horse to a nearby branch, he walked back to Ben’s horse.

“Ben, I’ll untie you if you promise not to try to get away,” Josh declared. Ben looked up, the hate burning once again in his eyes. Josh looked away.

“Guess I’ll have to leave you tied up,” Josh mumbled. He untied Ben’s right foot, being careful to stay far enough away that Ben couldn’t kick him. Then he untied Ben’s left foot. Moving carefully, he untied Ben’s hands, then quickly took three steps back from the horse. He kept his rifle aimed directly at Ben. “All right, Ben, get off,” said Josh.

Ben flexed his hands and legs, then slowly dismounted. His stiff knees buckled a bit when his legs hit the ground. Ben hung on to the saddle for a minute, then straightened. He turned slowly to face Josh.

“Over by that tree,” order Josh, pointing with the rifle. Ben stood still. “Ben, getting yourself shot ain’t going to accomplish anything,” said Josh. “I ain’t gonna kill you, but I can put a bullet in your knee if you give any trouble.” Ben stared at the mountain man for a minute, then walked to the tree.

“Sit down,” Josh ordered when Ben neared the tree. Ben obeyed. “Put your hands behind you,” Josh said. “I’m going to tie you to that tree.” Ben put his hands behind him, his eyes never leaving Josh’s face.

Josh took the leather strips in his left hand, carefully keeping the rifle aimed at Ben. He walked behind the tree, and grabbed Ben’s hands. Working quickly, he pulled Ben’s hands to either side of the tree, and then tied them together. Josh stood and took a step back. “Sorry you’re so uncomfortable,” said Josh. “But it’s your own fault.” Ben said nothing. He continued to stare at Josh, with the hate glowing in his eyes. Josh quickly walked away. Josh tied Ben’s horse near his, and unsaddled both animals. Then he made a fire and began to make dinner. A short time later, coffee was brewing in a pot by the fire, and a large pot of beans was simmering over the flames. Josh poured himself a cup of coffee and dished up a plate of beans. He ate quickly, ignoring Ben as he did. Josh finished his meal, then poured another cup of coffee. He dished up another plate of beans. Carrying the cup and plate, he walked over to Ben.

“I’ll feed you,” Josh declared. Ben turned his head away. “Now, Ben, I need you. I can’t have you getting sick from lack of food and drink. Now either you eat, or I’ll force this down you.” Ben turned back to look at Josh. He nodded slowly. Josh smiled. “That’s it,” he said in satisfaction.

Josh began to feed Ben, spooning some beans into his mouth and putting the cup of coffee to Ben’s lips periodically. Ben ate reluctantly and drank the coffee forced on him. Finally, he turned his head. Ben couldn’t stomach any more food.

“Well, I guess that’ll keep you alive,” observed Josh, putting down the plate which was still almost half filled with beans. Josh sat back on his heels. “I’m sorry things turned out this way, Ben,” he said regretfully.

Ben looked at him in disbelief. “You’re sorry!” he shouted. “You killed my son, and all you can say is you’re sorry!”

“It was him or me,” said Josh. “If I hadn’t shot him, Joe would have gotten that posse after me. I had no choice.”

“No choice!” Ben spat out. “No choice but to shoot a half-grown boy. No choice but to cut short my son’s life before he had a chance to really live.”

“Everyone has to die sometime,” advised Josh. “You boy’s time just came a little sooner than most.”

“Not like that,” Ben said, his voice full of grief. “You left my son to die, alone and in agony. No one should have to die like that.”

“Dying is something everyone does for himself,” Josh remarked.

“No,” said Ben bitterly. “It’s not right. I should have been there with him. I should have been able to hold him, to comfort him, to help him. If I’d been there, he might not have died. You took my son away from me, Josh, and did it in the worst possible way. I will never forgive you for that. Never.”

Josh shifted uncomfortably on the ground. The venom in Ben’s voice frightened him. He knew Ben meant what he said.

“You try and get some rest,” Josh suggested as he stood. “We have a long ride tomorrow.”

*****

The gray sky began to lighten as the sun rose. Josh Bodine yawned and sat up, pushing the blankets off his tired body.

Ben was still tied to the tree, his head resting on his chest. Ben hadn’t thought he would be able to sleep. But fatigue and grief had overwhelmed him and Ben had dozed off and on through the night. The smell of coffee brewing woke Ben. Ben shook his head, trying to shake off the sleep. For a moment, he hoped that Joe’s death had just been a bad dream. Then he realized he was still tied to the tree, and Josh was making some breakfast. He knew Joe’s death was reality. Ben’s heart ached and a cold knot formed in the pit of his stomach.

Like the night before, Josh ate, then fed Ben. Ben ate again reluctantly. The food tasted like ashes in his mouth and the coffee was a bitter brew. Ben had no desire to eat and drink, but did so only to prevent Josh forcing the food down him. After feeding Ben, Josh settled once more on the ground near his prisoner. “We ought to be able to get far enough away that we won’t have to worry about the posse after today,” Josh said.

“Then what?” asked Ben in a cold voice.

“Well, I don’t like the idea of having to kill you, Ben,” answered Josh. “If you give me your word that you’ll head straight home, I’ll let you go sometime tomorrow.”

Ben shook his head. “No,” he said. “You’d better kill me Josh. Because, if you don’t, I’m going to kill you. I don’t care how long it takes. I’ll find you, Josh, even if takes the rest of my life. I don’t care what rock you try to hide under, I’ll find you. And then I’m going to kill you with my bare hands.”

Josh considered Ben for a minute. “I believe you,” he acknowledged. “If I didn’t need you, I’d probably kill you right now. But I need you alive, at least until I’m out of this territory. We’ll see what happens then.” Josh stood and walked back toward the fire. He was bending down to pour another cup of coffee when he heard a shout.

“Freeze, Bodine!” the voice shouted from the woods. “You’re surrounded. You make one wrong move and you’re a dead man.”

Josh stood and put his hands into the air.

The bushes around the camp parted and Adam Cartwright walked into the open. He had his rifle aimed directly at Josh. Men started emerging from the woods around the camp. Hoss Cartwright followed his brother out of the brush, and rushed over to Ben. Pulling a pocket knife from his vest, he bent to cut the leather straps from Ben’s hands.

“Pa, you all right?” Hoss asked anxiously as he cut Ben loose. Ben rubbed his wrists, trying to get the circulation back into his hands. He nodded curtly to Hoss, but his eyes were fixed on Josh Bodine. Suddenly, Ben sprang to his feet and rushed over to Josh. He punched Josh hard on the jaw, knocking him down. Ben jumped on him and put his hands around Josh’s throat. He began squeezing Josh’s neck. Ben was strangling Josh, squeezing the life out of him.

Adam and Hoss rushed forward. “No, Pa!” shouted Adam as he grabbed his father’s arms. Ben brushed him off and put his hands back around Josh’s next. Hoss grabbed his father and yanked him off Josh. “Pa, don’t!” Hoss shouted.

Ben struggled in Hoss’ arms. “He killed Joe!” Ben cried as he struggled. “He killed your brother!”

“No, Pa!” Hoss yelled.

“You don’t understand!” Ben insisted. He twisted, trying to loosen Hoss’ iron grip. “He killed Joe and now I’m going to kill him!”

“No, Pa!” Hoss said once more. “Joe’s not dead. Do you hear me? Joe’s alive!”

Ben stopped struggling and looked over his shoulder at Hoss. “What?” Ben said in disbelief. “What did you say?”

“Joe’s alive,” Hoss repeated. “He’s hurt bad, but the doc said he’s going to make it.”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked. He wanted to believe Hoss, but he was afraid to.

“I’m sure,” replied Hoss confidently. “I rode all night to catch up with the posse after the doc told me he was going to be all right.”

“But…” Ben licked his lips. Suddenly, he found it hard to talk. “How? I saw him, Hoss. He was shot. Josh rode away and left him to die. I saw him!” Ben declared.

Adam walked up to his father. “Joe’s a tough kid,” he stated with a small grin. “Takes more than one bullet to kill him.”

“I don’t understand,” Ben said shaking his head.

“The posse found him,” explained Adam. “He told us Josh had taken you with him. He even told us which way you went. If he hadn’t, we might not have been able to find you in time.”

“But how did you find him?” Ben asked, still not understanding what had happened.

Hoss grinned. “Our little brother is really something,” he replied. “He set that whole camp on fire. Made the biggest signal fire you ever saw. We spotted the smoke and came running with the posse. We thought it was another cabin on fire. When we got there, Joe was sitting by a rock, just waiting on us.”

“He was in pretty bad shape,” Adam admitted. “But he was able to tell us what happened. He also showed us the receipts for the horses Josh sold. Then he pointed us in the right direction.”

“Me and a couple of the boys got Joe home while Adam and the rest of the posse went after you,” Hoss added. “The doctor worked on him for a long time. But once he said Joe was going to be all right, I lit out after the posse.”

“We left a trail a blind man could follow,” Adam said. “Hoss caught up with us a little while ago.” Adam’s face turned grim. “It’s a good thing he did. I would have probably shot Bodine myself if Hoss hadn’t told me Joe was going to be all right.”

Ben shook his head in amazement. He had been so sure Joe was dead. He was still finding it hard to believe Joe was really alive. Ben turned to look at Josh. Josh laid on the ground, rubbing his neck. “You’re a lucky man,” Ben told Josh, his voice filled with disgust. “If my son had died, you would have been dead by now. I feel like putting a bullet in you anyway, so you’d know how my son felt.”

Josh froze, his face filled with fear. Sheriff Coffee had been standing to the side, watching the scene before him. Now he stepped forward. “Ben, we got to do this legal,” he said firmly. “You know how I feel about Joe. But going outside the law isn’t going to help Joe, and it will only makes things bad for you.”

Ben gave Roy a cold look. “You can take him, Roy,” he agreed. “But if Joe had died, I would have killed him, and wouldn’t have cared about what the law said.”

Roy nodded. He knew what Ben was saying was the pure truth. He was glad he hadn’t had to decide what to do if his old friend had killed Josh Bodine. “I’ll see that this, this…” Coffee couldn’t think of a word bad enough to describe what he felt about Bodine. “I’ll see he gets back to Virginia City, Ben. Don’t you worry. Josh Bodine is going to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Ben nodded. For a mountain man like Josh, spending the rest of his life caged was worse than being dead. Ben felt it was a fitting punishment. He turned to Adam and Hoss. “Let’s go see Joe,” he said.

*****

Anxious to get home as quickly as possible, Ben urged his horse forward. Adam and Hoss tried to get him to slow down, to get him to rest after his ordeal. But Ben shook off their concerns. Nothing would satisfy him until he saw Joe for himself.

Ben rode into the yard in front of the house at a full gallop, several yards ahead of Hoss and Adam. He noted the doctor’s buggy in the yard and the men standing around outside the house. He noted these things, but really didn’t think about them. All he could think about was Joe. He pulled his horse to a stop in front of the house, and tossed the reins of the tired, sweaty animal to one of the hands. In the back of his mind, Ben knew he was being unreasonable. If Hoss told him Joe was going to be all right, then it was true. But Ben couldn’t convince himself. He had to see for himself. Ben rushed into the house, yelling for the doctor as he entered. He was relieved to see Doctor Martin walking calmly down the stairs.

“How’s Joe?” Ben asked anxiously as the doctor walked toward him.

“He’ll be a lot better now that you’re here,” replied Doctor Martin. “He’s been worrying and fretting about you instead of concentrating on getting well.”

“Then he’s going to be all right?” Ben stated, his voice filled with relief.

The doctor nodded. “He was lucky,” replied the doctor. “The bullet hit a rib. It broke the rib and tore up some tissue, but the rib prevented the bullet from getting to any vital organs. He’ll be sore for awhile, but he’ll be good as new in a few weeks.”

Ben’s shoulders sagged in relief. “I was so worried,” he admitted. “I saw the wound. There was so much blood.”

“He lost a lot of blood, that’s true,” agreed the doctor. “But not enough to be life threatening. He managed to stop the bleeding. He told me it was your bandanna I found pressed against the wound.”

Ben closed his eyes for a second as the relief flooded over him. Somehow, the thought of his bandanna helping Joe was comforting. Ben knew it was a silly thought. Joe could have stopped the bleeding with almost anything. But he was still comforted by the thought that he played some small part in keeping his son alive.

“Can I see him?” Ben asked the doctor.

“I think you’d better,” replied Doctor Martin. “He’s not going to rest easy and take care of himself until he sees that you’re all right.”

Ben nodded and walked rapidly across the room. He raced up the stairs, and practically ran to Joe’s room. Ben opened the door to his son’s bedroom, then stopped. Joe was lying in his bed, his eyes closed. Blankets were pulled up to his chest, but Ben could see the edge of a white bandage wrapped around Joe’s body. He walked slowly to the bed, almost afraid to believe what he was seeing. Joe was pale, and his eyes were rimmed with the dark circles of fatigue. But Ben could see his son’s chest rising and falling slightly. Ben sat down in a chair next to Joe’s bed. He stared at his son for a moment, reassuring himself that Joe was breathing. He reached out and hesitantly put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. He was relieved to find the flesh warm, and not icy cold as he had feared.

Joe stirred as he felt Ben’s hand on his shoulders. He turned his head and slowly opened his eyes. For a moment, he stared at Ben, almost as if he were dreaming. Then Joe realized it wasn’t a dream.

“Pa!” Joe cried. He started to sit up, but abruptly stopped as he felt a stab of pain. Ben pushed him gently back down on the bed.

“Take it easy,” Ben ordered. “The doctor said you have a broken rib. You need to lay still.”

Joe nodded and closed his eyes for a minute until the pain subsided. Then he opened his eyes again. He felt ridiculously happy to see Ben’s face still peering down at him.

“Pa,” Joe said again. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” answered Ben in a soothing voice as he gently stroked Joe’s head. “You’re the one we were worried about.”

“I’m all right,” stated Joe, in a voice that tried to dismiss his father’s concern. He stared into Ben’s face. “I was afraid Bodine was going to kill you.”

“He probably would have if you hadn’t sent the posse after us,” Ben admitted. He smiled. “Hoss and Adam told me about the signal fire you lit by burning Josh’s camp.”

Joe shrugged. “It was the only way I could think of to get the posse’s attention,” he explained in a tired voice. He looked earnestly into his father’s face. “Pa, I wanted to go after you, to help you, but I just couldn’t do it.”

“I know, I know,” Ben said in a soothing voice. “You probably saved my life by sending that posse after us.” Ben shook his head. “Joe, I begged Josh to let me go back for you, but he wouldn’t listen. I thought you were dead.”

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” Joe replied with a weak grin. Then Joe’s face turned somber. “What happened to Bodine?”

“By now, he’s locked up in the Virginia City jail,” Ben stated in a grim voice. “He’ll never get out of prison, if I have my way.”

“You tell the judge to hold off on the trial until I can testify,” advised Joe. Ben nodded.

“I think that’s enough,” said a voice from behind Ben. Ben turned to see the doctor standing in the doorway, flanked by Adam and Hoss. “You both need some rest,” Doctor Martin stated as sternly as he could. “You can talk later,” the doctor added.

Ben stood to leave.

“Pa, I’m sorry,” Joe said as his father turned to the door. “I know Josh Bodine was your friend.”

Ben looked back at his son. “No, Joe, I’m the one who’s sorry.” .

Joe looked puzzled. “Sorry? “What for?”

“I put my friendship with Josh above everything else and that wasn’t right,” explained Ben. “You tried to tell me about Josh, but I wouldn’t listen. I thought I knew Josh better than you, and I ignored what you said. And you’re the one who had to pay the price for what I did.“

Joe looked uncomfortable. “It’s all right, Pa. Forget it.”

“No, I won’t forget it,” Ben declared. “I’ll never forget that when the price of a friendship is almost losing one of my sons, then that price is too high.”

Joe nodded and shifted on the bed. He winced at the pain from his wound.

“You get some rest,” Ben suggested.

Joe nodded. His eyes began to close. “Pa, I’m glad you’re all right,” Joe murmured as he began to drift off to sleep.

Ben stood watching his son for a moment. “I wasn’t all right, Joe,” he said softly. “For awhile, I thought I’d never be all right again.” Ben sniffed, then cleared his throat. He turned toward the door. “I’m going to take a long nap,” he declared. The doctor nodded approvingly as Ben walked past him. Ben stopped and put his hands on Adam’s and Hoss’ shoulders. “Thank you,” he said. Adam and Hoss just nodded.

Ben walked down the hall toward his room. He suddenly felt tired, as tired as he had ever been. But he also knew what he had told Joe was true. He would not forget what his friendship with Josh Bodine had almost cost him. He would never forget the high price he had almost paid.

*****End*****

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