Lost Son (by Susan)

Synopsis:  It’s never easy being the youngest of the family.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  30,750


 

“Hold the rein tighter, Joe!” shouted Adam Cartwright from his perch atop the corral fence. “You’ll never keep her head up that way!”

Joe Cartwright ignored his brother’s advice as he eased himself onto the saddle of the horse being held tightly by two other riders. The mare’s eyes were wide with fright, and her body quivered when she felt the unfamiliar weight on the saddle.

“Shorten the rein,” called Adam again as he watched his brother catch the stirrups of the saddle with his feet.

Joe continued to ignore his brother’s shouts. He settled himself on the saddle and gripped tightly the rope which was serving as a rein.

“Let her go,” he said the riders with a brief nod.

The riders on either side of the horse released their hold on the animal’s halter. Immediately, the mare began to buck, trying to throw the weight from her back. Joe gripped the saddle tightly with his legs and knees as his body was jerked forward in the saddle.

After two bucks in a standing the position, the mare decided to try a new tactic to rid herself of the unwanted burden. She started forward, taking a step, and then began bucking again. The weight on her back stayed firmly attached. The mare began to run, throwing her back legs into the air at every few steps, hoping that one of these bucks would toss the weight from her back.

Joe quickly found the rhythm of the mare’s bucking and began shifting his weight slightly in anticipation of each move the horse was going to make. He vaguely heard the shouts of encouragement from the other riders and the men sitting on the fence, but his concentration was centered on keeping his seat firmly atop the mare. His arm was jerked as the horse dipped its head, but Joe held on to the rope tightly.

The mare soon tired of the bucking and gradually realized the weight on her back wasn’t going away. She gave a few more kicks into the air but they were more of a feeble protest than bucks. Soon she simply began to run around the corral. She felt the bit in her mouth pulling her slightly to the right and followed the command reluctantly.

She ran toward the center of the corral, and slowed when she saw another horse and rider approaching. The rider grabbed the halter and the mare pulled herself to a stop.

Joe slid off the saddle and onto the ground. He watched for a moment as the mare was led away, then turned to walk toward the fence where Adam was sitting. Joe rotated his left shoulder slightly as he approached the fence.

“Good ride, Joe,” said Hoss Cartwright. Hoss was leaning against the fence post near the board on which his older brother was sitting. Joe smiled briefly in acknowledgment.

“You should have kept the rein shorter,” commented Adam from the fence. “That way she couldn’t have lowered her head. She wouldn’t have jerked your arm as much, and she couldn’t have bucked so hard.

Joe looked up at his brother. “I know how to break a horse, Adam,” he said tersely.

“Just giving a little advice,” replied Adam.

“Yeah, well, thanks for the advice,” said Joe, “but I don’t need it. I know what I’m doing.”

Adam shrugged. “It’s your body. If you want to be stiff and sore, that’s your decision. I was just trying to keep you in one piece.”

Joe glared at Adam. “Look, Adam, I’ve been breaking horses almost since I could walk. I know keeping the rein short keeps a horse’s head up. But I also know if you keep it too tight, you can ruin a horse. That mare had a real soft mouth. I didn’t want to take the chance on ruining it.”

“Don’t you think it’s better to take a chance on ruining the horse than getting yourself jerked around and maybe thrown?” suggested Adam.

“No, I don’t,” replied Joe angrily. “I’d rather give a horse a little more rein and try to stay with her.” Joe’s eyes narrowed. “You know, Adam, sometimes if you can keep a rein too tight. Then it doesn’t control a horse. It only makes the horse work harder to get a little freedom.”

Adam looked back at Joe with a steady gaze. “Some animals need a tight rein than others.”

Joe’s reply was cut short by a shout from across the corral. Joe turned to look at the cowboy who called his name.

“What did you say?” shouted Joe.

“I said, do you want to try that black?” yelled the cowboy. He was sitting on top of the fence on the other side of the corral. Behind him, six or seven horses were milling around in a small enclosure. The two riders sat on their horses in the middle of the corral, watching expectantly.

“No, that’s enough for today,” shouted Adam before Joe had a chance to answer.

Joe spun back to face his brother. “Don’t you think that’s my decision?” said Joe angrily.

“Look, Joe,” said Adam in a reasonable voice. “You’ve ridden six horses already today. There’s no sense in overdoing things.”

“Joe, it’s getting on toward supper time,” added Hoss hastily. “Why don’t we call it a day?”

Joe didn’t answer for a minute, but his mood lightened at the sound of Hoss’ voice. Joe knew he was tired and probably irritable as a result. Adam always seemed to know how to rub Joe the wrong way, Joe thought, just as Hoss always seemed to know how to nudge his brother out his black moods.

Joe turned to Hoss. “How come you always know when it’s time to eat?” he asked with a smile.

“Just a natural gift, I guess,” replied Hoss with a grin. He glanced up at Adam. “You’ve a gift at breaking horses, and I have a gift at knowing when it’s time to eat.”

Adam slid off the fence and stood next to his brothers. “Dinner sounds like a good idea,” he said. Adam began walking across the corral, shouting to the other men that their work was over for the day.

Joe watched Adam, then shook his head. “Just once I’d like to do something without him telling me how I’m doing it wrong,” muttered Joe.

“Aw, Joe, he don’t mean anything by it,” said Hoss in a conciliatory tone. “You know Adam. He’s just naturally got to butt into things and tell people what to do.”

Joe gave Hoss a wry grin. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “Guess that’s Adam’s gift. Being able to tell everyone else what to do.”

Hoss laughed and clapped his brother lightly on the back. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go eat.”

*****

Conversation around the dinner table at the Ponderosa ranch house covered the usual topics of the day’s activities and ranch chores. Joe had shaken off his earlier irritation at his brother Adam. A good washing and a brief nap had restored his good humor by the time he had come down for supper.

“Pa, I think I found three good horses for Mr. Ferguson over in Twin Pines,” said Joe when there was a lull in the conversation.

“Which three?” asked Adam curiously.

“The sorrel, the roan and that mare I broke today,” replied Joe.

Adam cocked his head. “I don’t know about that mare. She seemed kind of skittish. Ferguson wants some stock he can count on for work around the ranch. I don’t know if that mare would be right for that.”

Joe felt his irritation at his older brother returning. “I rode the mare, Adam, not you,” he said in an annoyed voice. “She needs a little work, but she’s a good animal.”

Ben Cartwright could see a dispute starting to broil between his two sons. He decided to intervene before things got out of hand. “Why don’t I take a look at those horses tomorrow?” he suggested. “See if they’re what Ferguson is looking for.”

“Fine,” said Joe in a flat voice. He looked at Adam. “I’m sure you’ll be surprised to find that I can actually judge horses.”

“Hey, Joe, you want to play some checkers after dinner?” asked Hoss, also trying to diffuse the tension around the table.

A peculiar look flashed across Joe’s face. He looked down at his plate for a minute as if trying to decide something. Then he looked up at Hoss.

“No, I can’t,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “I have to go out for a little while tonight.”

“Go out?” said Hoss in surprise. “What you going to do?”

Joe shrugged. “Just something I have to take care of.”

“Sounds kind of mysterious,”’ said Adam, raising his eyebrows.

“Yeah, Joe, what are you up to?” asked Hoss.

Joe’s eyes flashed with irritation. “That’s my business,” he said curtly to Hoss. Joe turned to Ben. “Is it all right with you if I go out?” he asked.

Ben saw the challenging look on Joe’s face. He decided now was not the time to ask his youngest son why he was going out. After all, Joe was 22, no longer a child. He didn’t need to account to his father for his every move, even though Ben’s curiosity was piqued. But Ben knew now was not the time to press the issue with Joe.

“Of course,” replied Ben with a nod. “Just be sure you’re home at a reasonable hour. We have a full day of work tomorrow.”

Joe smiled briefly at Ben’s reminder. His father had been giving him the same instructions for as long as he could remember. “Don’t worry, “ Joe assured Ben. “I won’t be gone long.”

“Be careful,” said Ben, adding another often repeated instruction.

“I will,” said Joe with a nod, barely hearing the words said to him a hundred times. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and threw the cloth on the table. “See you later, Pa,” he said, pointedly ignoring his brothers.

Joe pushed back the chair from the table and walked from the dining room. A minute later, the men around the table heard the front door open and close.

“Where do you suppose he’s going?” asked Hoss. “That’s the third night this week he’s been out.”

“Couldn’t be a girl,” commented Adam. “He didn’t spend his usual hour primping like he generally does when he’s seeing someone.”

“Now that’s enough, boys,” said Ben in mild rebuke. “If Joe doesn’t want to tell us where he’s going, that’s his business.”

“Yeah, but Pa, you have to admit he’s acting kind of mysterious,” said Hoss.

“When Joe doesn’t want to talk about what he’s doing, that usually means he’s up to something,” added Adam. “Something that’s going to mean trouble.”

“We don’t know that,” said Ben. “He could be doing something perfectly innocent.” But a concerned look crossed Ben’s face, belying his words.

“Yeah, like what?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t know,” admitted Ben. The frown of concern on his face deepened.

“Why don’t Hoss and I ride out after him,” suggested Adam. “Just to see what he’s up to.”

Ben hesitated, then shook his head. “No, I don’t think you should do that. Joe can look after himself.”

“Pa, you know Joe,” pressed Hoss. “He gets involved in things and sometimes he gets in over his head.”

“We’ll stay way behind him,” promised Adam. “He won’t even see us.”

“I don’t know, Adam,” said Ben, his voice full of doubt. “I don’t like the idea of Joe thinking we’re checking up on him.”

“Pa, we’re just going to make sure Joe ain’t involved in something he can’t handle, that’s all,” said Hoss.

“It won’t hurt just to find out what he’s up to,” said Adam. “We might be able to keep him from doing something he would regret.”

“All right,” said Ben reluctantly. “But I want your word that all you are going to do is follow him. I want you to promise you won’t interfere in…in whatever he’s doing.”

“We won’t,” said Adam, pushing back from the table. “We’re just going to make sure Joe doesn’t need protection.”

“Protection?” said Ben in surprise. “From whom?”

“From himself,” replied Adam.

*****

Adam and Hoss were buckling on their holsters as they crossed the yard from the house to the barn. Now that they had decided to go after Joe, they both realized that trying to find their youngest brother could be a challenge.

“Hey, Hank,” Adam called to one of the hands as he and Hoss neared the barn. “Do you know which way Joe went when he left?”

“Yeah, he was heading up to Rim Rock Canyon,” replied the hand.

“How do you know that?” asked Hoss in surprise.

“Because he told me,” snorted Hank.

“He just told you?” said Adam, his surprise equal to Hoss’.

“Well, not exactly,” admitted Hank. “I asked him if he was going near Virginia City ‘cause I needed some tobacco. He said no, he was going to Rim Rock Canyon.” Hank looked at the two men curiously.

“Why do you want to know where Joe went?”

“We, um, we just need to find him, “ said Adam vaguely. “Do us a favor and saddle our horses for us?”

Hank nodded briefly, and walked into the barn.

“Rim Rock Canyon? What do you suppose he’s doing up there?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t know,” said Adam with a shake of his head. “But whatever our little brother is involved in, I don’t think it’s planning a Sunday social.”

*****

Adam and Hoss had no trouble picking up Joe’s trail as they approached Rim Rock Canyon. Daylight lingered until almost nine in the early summer, and Adam had guessed it was only a little after seven when they had left the Ponderosa. The sun was bright enough for the two Cartwrights to see the tracks a horse had made through the tall grass.

As they neared the canyon, Adam put up his hand to halt his brother. “We’d better go slow from here,” suggested Adam. “We don’t want to ride right up to him.”

Hoss looked around. “I bet he’s heading for Piaute Rock,” he said. “If he was meeting somebody, that’s the easiest place to find around here.”

“You’re probably right,” agreed Adam. “Let’s leave the horses a little way off from Piaute Rock and go the rest of the way on foot. If we keep to the brush, Joe won’t see us.”

A troubled look crossed Hoss’ face. “Adam, you sure we’re doing the right thing? It don’t feel right sneaking after Joe like this.”

“We’re only making sure he’s not getting himself into some kind of trouble,” Adam replied patiently. “It’s for his own good.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” said Hoss. “I just hope Joe feels that way.”

Adam and Hoss left their horses about twenty yards from Piaute Rock, and walked as quietly as possible through the trees and bushes toward the landmark. Hoss was beginning to think that Joe was someplace else when Adam suddenly grabbed his arm and pulled him down. Hoss looked at Adam in surprise and started to say something, but Adam quickly put his finger to his lips. Then Adam pointed through the brush.

Joe was sitting at the base of a tall rock decorated with drawings and figures. His horse was tied to a bush a few feet away. Joe was patiently whittling on a stick as he obviously waited for someone.

Adam and Hoss crept through the brush toward Piaute Rock. They stopped a few feet away from the tall and crouched down to watch and listen. They didn’t have to wait long. The sound of a horse approaching drew both their attention and Joe’s.

Joe threw away the stick he was whittling as he saw the rider. He got to his feet and closed his pocket knife as the rider approaching.

“You finally got here,” said Joe to the rider as he stuck the knife in the pocket of his jacket. “I thought maybe you weren’t coming.”

“That’s Pete Gordon,” whispered Hoss.

“Shhhh,” cautioned Adam.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Pete in an apologetic voice as he pulled his horse to a stop. “I got hung up.” He shook his head. “This whole thing is getting a lot more complicated than I thought.”

Joe looked up to the rider from the ground. “You’re telling me!” said Joe in an exasperated voice. “When I agreed to help, I didn’t think I was going to get sucked in this deep.”

“I know, Joe, I know,” said Pete. He let out a sigh. “I thought this was going to be simple but it’s not.”

“How much longer is this going to take?” asked Joe. “My Pa is starting to ask where I’m going after dinner.”

“You didn’t tell him?” said Pete in alarm.

“No, I didn’t,” Joe assured the man on the horse. “I haven’t said anything to anybody about this.” Joe cocked his head. “So how much longer?”

“Tonight should be the last night,” promised Pete. “After tonight, I can put my plan into action.”

Joe shook his head. “You know I still think you’re going about this all wrong. There’s a whole lot easier way to get cattle.”

“You’re still going to help me, aren’t you?” asked Pete in alarm. “I need you, Joe. I can’t tell one cow from another. I need you to tell me which ones to take.”

“Yeah, I’ll help you, like I said,” replied Joe with a sigh. “Just don’t let anyone know I was in on this.”

“Don’t worry,” Pete assured him. “I’m not going to tell anyone.” Pete looked at Joe, his gratitude evident on his face. “Joe, I owe you for this. I really do.”

Joe shrugged, then grinned. “Just don’t ask me to help you change those brands.” With a nod, he walked over and untied his horse, then vaulted into the saddle. “Come on,” said Joe. “We only have an hour or so of daylight left. Let’s go look at some cattle.” Joe gave his horse a light kick and started to ride off. Pete turned his horse and followed Joe down the trail.

Adam and Hoss stood as two riders rode off. Bushing aside the brush, the two walked toward Piaute Rock.

“What do you think they’re up to, Adam?” asked Hoss in a puzzled voice.

“I don’t know for sure,” replied Adam grimly, “but it sounded an awful lot like Joe was scouting some cattle for Pete to rustle.”

“Aw, Adam, Joe wouldn’t do anything like that,” said Hoss. A flicker of doubt crossed his face. “Would he?”

“Joe and Pete have been friends for a long time,” said Adam. “And I know Pete is unhappy with working in the office at the Lucky Dollar mine. Rustling some cattle would be a good way for Pete to make some money.”

“But Joe wouldn’t help him do anything illegal?” protested Hoss.

“I wouldn’t have thought so,” said Adam. “But Pete doesn’t have a ranch. If he isn’t thinking about rustling, why does he want Joe to help him pick out cattle?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Hoss. He looked at Adam with a troubled face. “What do you want to do? Follow them?”

“No,” replied Adam with a shake of his head. “By the time we get our horses and try to find their trail, it’ll be getting dark. Besides, it didn’t sound like anything was going to happen tonight. I think the best thing to do is go back to the ranch and tell Pa what we heard. Maybe he can talk some sense into Joe.”

“I hope so,” said Hoss. The big man shook his head. “This is going to break Pa’s heart when we tell him.”

*****

Joe was surprised to see three grim-faced men sitting by the fireplace as he walked in the front door of the Ponderosa. He couldn’t imagine what had happened to cause such somber looks on his father and brothers’ faces.

“What’s wrong?” asked Joe as he shut the door behind him. He quickly pulled his hat off his head and stuck it on the peg next to the door.

“Joseph, we need to talk,” said Ben from his red leather chair near the fireplace.

“Sure,” said Joe, as he untied his holster from his leg and unbuckled the gun belt from around his hips. He threw the gunbelt on the top of the bureau near the door.

“What’s wrong?” said Joe again as he crossed the room. A feeling of alarm was growing in him as he studied the grim faces around the room.

“Sit down, Joseph,” said Ben in a serious voice.

Joe slid down on the sofa across from the fireplace and looked around the room. Adam was sitting in the blue chair near the staircase and Hoss was perched on the ledge in front of the fireplace. Adam’s face was wrinkled into a frown. Hoss simply looked sad.

Joe turned to his father with an expectant look. “Pa, what’s going on?” he asked, his alarm growing.

“Joe,” started Ben. Then he hesitated. He had been anxious to talk to his youngest son, but now that Joe was here, Ben wasn’t sure what to say. When Hoss and Adam had told him about the overheard conversation, Ben had been angry at first. Then his emotions had changed to disappointment and fear. Now, looking at Joe, he didn’t know what he felt. Joe’s eyes were wide with both innocence and concern.

“Joseph,” said Ben again. “I know how you feel about helping a friend, but it’s wrong to get involved in rustling.”

“Rustling?” said Joe in a puzzled voice. “What are you talking about?”

“Joe, Hoss and I followed you up to Rim Rock Canyon,” said Adam in a serious voice. “We heard what you and Pete Gordon said.”

“We heard Pete asking you to scout some cattle for him to rustle,” added Hoss. He shook his head. “Joe, that’s plain wrong.”

Joe looked around the room in astonishment. He was torn between a desire to burst into laughter and a need to give into the anger he felt growing in him. Joe finally gave into the former and began to laugh.

“I don’t see anything funny about this situation, young man, “ said Ben sternly as Joe began to cackle.

“I do, Pa,” said Joe as he shook with laughter.

Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. They were as stunned by Joe’s reaction as their father.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” said Joe as he took a deep breath and tried to stop laughing. Joe wiped his eyes. “It’s just so….” Joe shook his head and took another breath. “We weren’t talking about rustling those cattle. Pete just wanted me to look at some cattle he’s thinking about buying to make sure he wouldn’t get cheated.”

“What?” said Ben in astonishment.

“Pete’s uncle back East died and left him $10,000,” explained Joe. “He’s going to buy the old Henderson place and stock it with cattle. He asked me to look at some cattle from a couple of the herds he’s thinking about buying to make sure he was getting some good stock.”

“Why all the secrecy?” asked Adam suspiciously.

“That was Pete’s idea,” answered Joe. “Most people know that the only thing Pete knows about cattle is which end has the horns. He was afraid if people knew he was looking to buy cattle, they’d tried to pass their worst cows onto him. So he got it into his head to keep this a secret until he and I could look at the herds. I thought it was only going to take a day or two, but Pete ended up dragging me to every herd on the Comstock.”

“Why didn’t he just buy some cattle from us?” asked Hoss. “He should know we wouldn’t cheat him.”

“I tried to tell him that,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “But he said he didn’t want to trade on our friendship. He was afraid Pa would sell him stock at a low price because we’re friends. He said he didn’t want to start out on his new ranch feeling that he owed somebody something.”

“Then it was all a misunderstanding,” said Adam with a shake of his head.

“We should have known you wouldn’t have gotten involved in something like rustling,” agreed Hoss.

As Hoss’ words sunk in, the situation was suddenly no longer funny to Joe. His merriment turned to anger, with a dose of hurt added. Joe found it especially painful that Hoss had doubted him. “Yeah, you should have,” Joe said coldly. He gave his brothers a hard look. “And what were you doing following me anyway?”

“We were just worried about you,” explained Adam, looking uncomfortable.

“You were acting so funny, well, we just thought maybe you’d gotten yourself involved in something you couldn’t handle,” said Hoss. “We told Pa that maybe we just ought to make sure you were all right.”

Joe turned to Ben. “You knew they were going to follow me?”

Ben looked away for a moment, then turned to meet Joe’s accusing eyes. “Yes, yes I did,” he admitted.

Joe stared at Ben, then turned to look at Adam and Hoss. “Well, thank you,” he said in a voice cold with fury. “Thank you all for showing me how much you trust me.”

“Ah, Joe, it ain’t that we don’t trust you…” said Hoss.

“No?” interrupted Joe. “Then explain why you thought you had to follow me and why you thought I’d do something as stupid as getting involved in rustling.”

“You’ve been known to go off half-cocked on occasion,” said Adam, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. He looked at Hoss for help. Getting none, Adam tried to explain. “We were just trying to help,” he finished lamely.

“Joe, I’m sorry,” added Ben. “We should have never interfered. We should have known better.”

Joe stood and looked at his father in anger. “You’re right. You should have.” Joe turned on his heel and walked toward the stairs.

“Joe, wait,” Ben called after his son. “Joe!”

Joe ignored the calls. He climbed the stairs without a backward glance at the three shamefaced men watching him.

*****

Ben, Adam, and Hoss had finished their breakfast by the time Joe slid in to his chair the next morning. No one said a word as Joe filled his cup with coffee and then spooned some eggs onto his plate.

“Good morning, Joseph,” said Ben quietly, finally ending the awkward silence.

“Good morning,” replied Joe briefly.

The silence descended again as Joe began to fork pieces of egg into his mouth. Ben looked at Hoss, who simply stared at Joe, and then at Adam. Adam shrugged.

“Joe, about last night,” said Ben in uncomfortable voice. “We really are sorry.”

Joe looked up at his father. “You shouldn’t have sent Adam and Hoss to spy on me.”

“I didn’t send your brothers to spy on you,” said Ben. “They were just trying to watch over you.”

Joe looked down at his plate. “You know, Pa, I think that’s worse,” said Joe in a hurt voice. He looked up again, his eyes full of pain. “it’s worse knowing that you don’t trust my judgment.”

“Joe, that’s not true,” protested Ben. “I do trust your judgment. Look at all the times I’ve asked you to take of business for the ranch. And even the ranch itself.”

“No, Pa,” replied Joe sadly. “You trust me to do a job after you’ve told me exactly what to do. That’s not the same thing as letting me make my own decisions.”

“I know you are perfectly capable of making your own decisions,” said Ben.

“Yeah?” said Joe skeptically. He looked around the table. “When was the last time I did something when one of you didn’t second-guess me or check up on me?”

“It’s just that we have more experience than you do,” said Adam.

“Experience?” scoffed Joe. “Don’t you mean that you’re older than I am so that automatically makes you wiser than me.”

“You have to admit that you’ve done some crazy things, little brother,” said Hoss.

“Sure I’ve made some mistakes,” answered Joe. “Everybody makes mistakes. Seems to me that Pa always said making mistakes is how you learn.”

“I did say that,” admitted Ben. “But there’s a difference between making mistakes and making unwise choices. We’re just trying to help you make the right choices.”

“And there’s a difference between helping me and not trusting me,” snapped Joe, his anger flaring.

“Trust is a two way street,” said Adam. “If you had trusted us enough to tell us what was going on, we would have never followed you last night.”

“I promised Pete I wouldn’t say anything,” said Joe. “I didn’t think I would have to break that promise. I didn’t think I had to explain every single thing I do to my family.”

“Of course you don’t,” said Ben in a soothing voice. “But at the same time, you can’t blame us for being concerned about you. Especially when you act so secretive.”

“We didn’t know what was going on, Joe,” said Hoss. “That’s what had us worried.”

“Maybe I overdid it a bit. But you still should have trusted me,” insisted Joe.

“We were only trying to protect you, Joe,” answered Ben.

“Protect me? Like some little kid?” Joe shook his head. “Well, I’m not a kid anymore, Pa. In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t been a little kid for a long time now.” Joe looked down at his half-eaten breakfast. “I think I’ve lost my appetite,” he said.

Joe stood and started to walk from the table. He stopped and turned abruptly. “You know, Pa, you’ve always said that a tree needs some room if it’s going to grow. Maybe that’s what I need. Some room to grow.”

Ben watched in stunned silence as Joe walked away from the table. As he heard the sound of the front door opening and slamming shut, Ben put his hand to his forehead and slowly rubbed it. “I handled that badly,” he said.

“Aw, Pa, you know Joe,” said Hoss. “He gets mad but he cools down after he’s had some time to think things through.”

“He just needs some time,” agreed Adam. “He’ll get over it.

“Will he?” asked Ben. “This wasn’t some prank, something that he can shrug off. I think Joe is deeply hurt by what happened. He doesn’t think we trust him.”

Adam glanced at Hoss, then back to his father. “What can we do about it?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Adam,” replied Ben with a frown. “I just don’t know.”

*****

Ben walked slowly up to the corral that was being used to break horses. He could see Joe in the middle of the corral, getting ready to mount a horse that was pawing the ground nervously. Ben came closer and leaned against the fence to watch.

Ben had spent the morning staring into the fireplace, deep in thought. Adam and Hoss had left the house after breakfast, wisely deciding to handle some chores far from any place where Joe might be. They both agreed that the last people Joe wanted to see that morning was his brothers.

When Ben had finally decided to go looking for Joe, he was surprised when one of the hands told him Joe had been down at the breaking corral all morning, finishing work on the horses. Ben had had the vague idea that Joe would have run off someplace, perhaps to Virginia City or to a friend, to nurse his wounds. Ben hadn’t expected his volatile son would vent his anger by going straight to work.

Ben watched as Joe rode the bucking horse around the corral. The horse jerked Joe forward in the saddle a couple of times but then Joe found the rhythm of the horse’s movements. No matter how hard the horse bucked and twisted, the animal couldn’t rid itself of its rider. Joe stayed on the horse’s back as if glued to the saddle. After a few minutes, the horse gave in to the inevitable and stopped bucking. Joe began to guide the horse around the corral.

“Nice ride!” a voice called out next to Ben. Ben turned to look and saw Hank, one of the hands, leaning next to him against the fence.

“He did a good job,” agreed Ben.

“He sure did,” said Hank. Hank shook his head. “You know, Mr. Cartwright, I’ve seen a lot of bronc riders in my time. Joe’s good at it, real good. Maybe the best I’ve seen.”

Ben’s eye widen as he faced yet another unknown fact about his son. Ben hadn’t watched or thought about Joe breaking horses in quite awhile. He just assumed Joe knew how to do it. He hadn’t thought about how good Joe might have become at taming horses.

A troubled look crossed Ben’s face as he watched Joe pull the horse to a stop and dismount. When had he lost track of his son, he wondered. When had he stopped thinking of Joe as an individual, a son to be nourished and cherished? When had he begun taking Joe for granted?

Joe watched the horse being led away, absent-mindedly swiping the dust from the stiff leather chaps that protected his legs. He turned to walk across the corral and stopped when he saw his father leaning against the fence watching him. Joe tugged nervously at the gloves on his hands then started forward.

“Good ride, son,” said Ben as Joe came up to the fence.

“Thanks,” said Joe shortly.

Ben chewed his lip for a moment, then said. “Could we talk?”

“Sure,” answered Joe in a cautious voice.

Ben glanced at Hank standing next to him, then cocked his head to the right. “Why don’t we go over here.” Ben walked a few feet away from Hank and waited.

Joe climbed over the fence and jumped to the ground. He followed Ben, rubbing his hands nervously on his thighs as he walked.

Ben looked Joe straight in the eyes as his son stopped next to him.

“Joe, I’m sorry about what happened last night,” he said slowly. “But I’m even more sorry about what you said at breakfast this morning.”

Joe looked away, feeling embarrassed. He felt his complaints had been valid, but he hadn’t meant to be so strident when voicing them.

“Pa, I didn’t mean to…” started Joe.

“Let me finish,” interrupted Ben. “Joe, being a parent is hard. It’s probably the toughest job in the world. You have to find that middle ground between guiding and protecting your children and giving them the freedom to lead their own lives. It’s not easy. There’s no sign posts to tell a parent when they’ve strayed off that middle ground. Somehow, somewhere, I’ve strayed over the line. And I’m sorry.”

Joe looked up at his father. “Pa, I know you were only trying to do what you thought was best. But sometimes, you have to let me decide what’s best for me.”

“I know that, son,” said Ben. He sighed. “Life can be a long and treacherous road. I just worry that somewhere along the way, one of my sons will get lost along that road.”

“But it’s a road I have to walk myself,” said Joe in a serious tone, continuing the analogy. “You can’t do it for me.”

“I know that, too,” agreed Ben. “It’s just hard for me to remember you and your brothers are grown men. To me, you’ll always be my little boys.”

“Pa, I’m not ten years old any more,” commented Joe wryly.

Ben sighed. “Sometimes, I wish you were only ten again. Things seemed a lot less complicated when you were younger.”

Joe grinned. “Yeah, but then you’d be yelling at me for skipping school or not doing my chores. I’m no angel, Pa. I’ve given you reason to worry over the years.”

“To worry, yes,” said Ben with a nod. “But never a reason not to trust you. I do trust Joe. I only hope you’ll believe that.”

Joe studied the ground, not sure how to answer. He wanted to believe what his father had said, but the thought of being followed last night still rankled. Joe cleared his throat. “Those three horses for Ferguson,” he said changing the subject, “you want to take a look at them?”

“I’m sure the three you picked out are fine,” said Ben.

Joe looked up and gave his father a wry grin. “Are you sure you don’t want to take a look at them?”

“No, no, I’m sure they’re fine,” said Ben.

“Well, why don’t I show them to you any way,” said Joe, his grin widening. “I think it would make both of us feel better.”

A thought struck Ben. “Joe, why don’t you plan to deliver those horses to Ferguson,” suggested Ben. “A little time away from each other might be a good idea – for all of us.”

Joe looked away for a minute then nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Right now, I think I could use a little time away. Especially from Adam and Hoss.”

“Your brothers were only trying to help, Joe,” said Ben in a mild tone.

“Yeah, well, I don’t need their help,” said Joe, his irritation returning.

Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Everyone needs help sometimes, Joe,” he said.

“I just wish you hadn’t felt like you had to send Adam and Hoss after me,” said Joe, his irritation growing.

Ben looked away, trying to decide what to say. “To be honest, it was Adam and Hoss’ idea to go after you,” Ben said slowly.

“That figures,” said Joe, his irritation turning into anger.

“But I agreed to the idea,” said Ben, trying to mollify Joe. “I’m just as much to blame. I should have known better.”

“Pa, I can understand you worrying,” said Joe. “But Adam and Hoss, well, they just plain like butting their nose into my business.”

“Joe…”started Ben.

“You know it’s true, Pa,” said Joe, his voice full of anger. “To them, I’m just a kid. I don’t know anything. Well, I’m getting tired of them treating me like I don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.”

Ben could see the stubborn look returning to Joe’s face, and felt the ground he had gained in rebuilding things with Joe was starting to slip away again. “You take those horses to Ferguson, Joe.” he said quietly. “It will give us all a little time to cool off and think about things.”

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah, I think you’re right, Pa,” he said. “Remember what I said this morning about needing some room. Well, maybe that’s what I need. A little room.

*****

Ten days later, Joe was riding slowly through the mountains on his way back from Twin Pines. He was in no hurry to get home. His Pa had told him to take as much time as he needed to deliver those horses to Ferguson. Joe knew what he really meant was to take as much time as he needed to think through his relationship with his father and brothers.

The two days before Joe had left for Twin Pines were uncomfortable around the Ponderosa. Adam and Hoss had been unfailing polite and considerate around Joe. Joe, for his part, had remained cool toward his brothers. Ben had tried his best to restore a sense of normalcy around the house, but hadn’t had much success. It was a situation which they all found to be awkward. But none of them seemed to know what to do to break through the barrier that the argument and Joe’s hurt feelings had built.

Time and distance from the Ponderosa had dissipated Joe’s anger but his anger had been replaced with frustration. Why was it, Joe wondered, that it was only on the Ponderosa as a child? When he was away from the ranch, people treated him as the rational, competent person that he was. He had delivered the horses to Ferguson and received the payment without any hitches. Ferguson had been pleased with the horses Joe selected. The rancher hadn’t questioned him about his choices. He had paid Joe the money and even bought Joe a beer in the saloon in Twin Pines before Joe left. Not once had Ferguson seemed to think that Joe was too young, too inexperienced to handle the transaction.

Joe sighed as his sense of frustration mounted. He could understand his Pa fretting over him – that’s what fathers did. But why couldn’t Adam and Hoss see him as an equal? Why did they always treat him as incompetent child, someone who had to be watched and checked on to make sure he did things right.

Maybe he should just stay away from the ranch for a while, thought Joe. Maybe a few months on his own would show his brothers that he could manage without their constant supervision. Joe shook his head. The thought of being away from the Ponderosa for that long was a troubling one. Despite his problems with Adam and Hoss, the Ponderosa was home.

Joe debated the issue with himself as he rode, coming to no conclusion. He chafed at what he felt was unwarranted intrusion into his life by his father and brothers but at the same time, he felt no great desire to leave his home. For one thing, he didn’t know where he would go or what he would do. And Joe knew himself well enough to know that, as much as he complained, he would miss the companionship of his family.

Joe pushed the thought of his family aside for awhile, and resolved to simply enjoy the trip home. He had decided to travel through the mountains back to the Ponderosa, taking the slower but more scenic route home. He enjoyed riding through the lush growth of trees and flowers. The weather was pleasantly cool and there was a scent of pine and honeysuckle in the air. A few birds twittered in the trees but otherwise, the only sound Joe heard was the noise of his own progress through the woods. Joe rode slowly, enjoying the peace and solitude of his trip.

This ride would be perfect, Joe thought, if only he hadn’t had to leave his pinto behind. Cochise had a stone bruise, nothing serious but it prevented Joe from riding his usual horse to Twin Pines. Instead, he was on a big roan. The horse was comfortable and did what he told it, but Joe felt no connection with the horse. It was just transportation. Somehow, Joe felt that he would have enjoyed the trip more if he was sharing it with Cochise.

A small stream trickled along near the trail. Joe decided to stop and fill his canteen. He drank from the cool, fresh water and filled the canteen to the brim. Joe led his horse to the stream and watched as his horse drank its fill.

Joe looked up abruptly as he heard an odd noise. He looked around, alert and straining to hear the noise again. A first, all he heard was the silence of the woods. But then he heard a branch snap, and the thud of a hoof. His horse snickered, smelling another horse nearby. There was no question another rider was coming up behind him.

Joe wasn’t particularly alarmed. After all, there was no reason why another rider shouldn’t follow the same route he was taking. But at the same time, he decided to act cautiously. Few people traveled through the mountains; most preferred the easier, more direct trails in the flat lands. It seemed a bit more than a coincidence that another rider would be traveling through the mountains at exactly the same time Joe was there.

Joe led the roan away from the stream and into the brush, choosing an area where he could see through the trees, but would be difficult to be seen by someone else. Joe eased the loop off the hammer of his pistol in his holster, and pulled the gun up slightly to make sure it would be easy to draw. Then he stood next to his horse and patiently waited.

A few minutes later, a rider walked his horse slowly through the natural path between the trees. The rider was a big man, perhaps in his thirties, wearing a checked shirt and black vest. He wore a black hat, and the dark shadow of a few day’s growth of beard. Joe had a vague memory of seeing the man around Twin Pines.

The rider was looking to the ground as he rode, as if he were trying to follow some tracks. He stopped his horse where Joe had pulled the roan to a stop and a puzzled expression crossed his face. He looked around, finally turning toward the brush where Joe was standing the in shadows.

“Looking for something?” asked Joe from the trees.

The rider looked startled at the voice and peered into the trees, finally spotting Joe in the dim light. An attempt at a smile crossed the man’s face, but the smile looked more like a wolf baring his teeth.

“Oh, hi,” said the man. “You surprised me.”

“Why were you following me?” asked Joe.

“I, uh, I wasn’t following you,” replied the rider. “Just cutting over the mountains.”

“Right,” replied Joe in a voice that conveyed his disbelief. “That’s why you were reading my tracks.”

“Well, I was curious when I saw your trail,” replied the man. “Not many people come up this way. I was just kind of amusing myself trying to following your tracks.”

“Why don’t you just amuse yourself by riding on,” suggested Joe.

“Sure, friend,” replied the man. The man looked around. “You don’t mind if I water my horse first, do you?”

Joe did mind. Some instinct told him that this wasn’t a man to be trusted. But Joe couldn’t think of an excuse not to let the rider water his horse. “Go ahead,” said Joe. “Get some water and then move on.”

The rider nodded and slowly dismounted, watching Joe cautiously as he landed on the ground. He led his horse to the stream and watched as the animal drank. The rider cupped some water into his own mouth.

Joe led his horse a few steps forward, out of the brush. He wanted to be able to keep his eye on the rider, and back near the trees, it was difficult to see the man by the stream. Joe held the reins in his right hand, and kept his left hand near the butt of his pistol.

“I saw you around Twin Peaks, didn’t I?” said the rider as he lead his horse back from the stream. “You’re the kid who sold those horses to Ferguson, aren’t you.”

“Yeah,” replied Joe shortly. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothing,” said the man with a shrug. “Just making conversation. Those were nice horses you sold to Ferguson. Must have got a nice price for them.”

“That’s my business,” replied Joe. “Why don’t you get on your horse and move on.”

“Cranky, aren’t you, friend,” said the rider.

“I just don’t like people butting into my business,” said Joe.

The rider looked at Joe, eyes narrow and calculating. Then he made his move.

As Joe saw the rider’s right hand reach for the gun in his holster, his own left hand reached for his own gun as he dove to his right. Both men were fast with their guns. Both pistols fired almost simultaneously.

Instantly, Joe felt a burning pain in his left side as he hit the ground. He watched as the rider clutched his chest and doubled over. Then the pain in Joe’s side seem to intensify. He winced and grabbed his side with his right hand. He felt the sticky liquid and knew he had been hit.

Laying on the ground, Joe closed his eyes tightly as the pain seemed to burn into his side. He could hear the sound of horses running, and the soft grunts of his own agony. He was breathing hard and he could hear his breath escaping in rapid bursts through his mouth.

But Joe was grateful for what he didn’t hear – the sound of the other man moving and the click of a trigger being pulled for a second shot.

Joe wasn’t sure how long he laid on the ground with his eyes closed. No more than a few minutes, he was sure. The pain in his side seemed to ease a bit, and Joe rolled on his right side, pulling his knees up a bit and curling his shoulders forward. That seemed to ease the pain even more. Joe laid on his side for another few minutes and then slowly opened his eyes.

A few feet away, Joe could see the rider on the ground. The man laid on his stomach, face down, his gun a few inches from his hand. Joe couldn’t tell if the man was dead or alive. He knew he should probably check. But he also knew that in his current position, the pain in his side was at least bearable. If he moved, the pain would get worse. So Joe simply laid on the ground and closed his eyes.

It was the sound of the water splashing over the rocks in the stream that finally got Joe to move. He laid on the ground for a long time in not a comfortable position but one which he felt offered him the least amount of pain. A lassitude seemed to be creeping through him, and Joe’s felt no desire to move. Some part of Joe’s brain was telling him that if he simply laid here, he would die. But the rest of his body seemed to reject this notion. Joe lost track of time, and thought he may have even drifted in and out of consciousness for awhile. He knew he ought to care about that, but he didn’t.

But the longer he laid on the ground, the drier his mouth grew and the bigger his thirst. He suddenly wanted nothing more out of life than a drink of that cold water from the stream. The sound of the water tickling over the rocks seemed to beckon him. Joe could hear the water running slowly and an occasional splash as something like a branch or a stone dropped by a bird hit the water. The desire for a drink overcame his desire to lay unmoving on the ground.

Slowly uncoiled his body, Joe grunted as each movement seemed to set off a new wave of pain. He pushed himself up on his elbows, and slowly forced the lower half of his body up until he was on his knees. He thought briefly about standing but quickly discarded that notion. He didn’t think he had the strength, and, besides, being on his hands and knees seemed to ease the pain again.

Turning his head slowly, Joe looked until he could see the stream, and then kept his eyes fixed on his objective. For right now, all that mattered was getting to the water. He slowly began to crawl on his hands and knees, grunting in pain as he moved. He didn’t mark the distance he had to travel. He simply forced himself forward.

Joe was surprised when he found himself next to the rider sprawled on the ground. He hadn’t really had a sense of making progress over the rough ground. Joe stopped and shook his head to clear it. He remembered he should check to see if the man was dead. Joe put his hand on the man’s back and felt no movement. He reached a little higher until his hand found the man’s neck. The flesh was cool and Joe couldn’t feel a pulse. Joe was fairly sure the man was dead.

Seeing the rider’s gun laying on the ground in front of him, Joe brushed it away with his hand. Then he turned once more to look for the stream. Now he could see the water as well as hear it. Joe forgot about the dead man and the gun laying nearby. He began to crawl forward once more.

With a sense of relief, Joe finally reached the water. He collapsed to the ground and plunged his face into the stream. The water flowed into his mouth and he began drinking. The cool water was the best thing Joe had ever tasted.

Joe finally lifted his head from the water, his thirst at least temporarily satisfied. The cool water on his face seemed to clear his thinking and revive his spirit also. For the first time, he began thinking about taking stock of his situation.

Rolling to his right, Joe took a look at the wound in his side for the first time. His shirt and jacket were soaked with blood. He pulled the cloth up and winced both from the pain and the sight of the wound.

The bullet seemed to have taken a chunk of flesh out of Joe’s side. The wound was bleeding freely, but as far as Joe could tell, the bullet hadn’t hit anything but flesh and muscle. Shock, pain and loss of blood seemed to be the worst damage done by the bullet.

With fumbling fingers, Joe searched the inside of his jacket for the small pocket and then for piece of cloth inside the pocket. He finally found the handkerchief and pulled it out. The handkerchief wasn’t very big, and it had the dull white color of much washed cloth. Joe stuck the handkerchief in the stream and waited a moment until he was sure the cloth was thoroughly soaked. Then he pulled the dripping handkerchief out of the water and pressed it against his side.

As he pressed the wet cloth against the wound, Joe yelped with pain but he held the handkerchief firmly against his side. He fell onto his back and pressed even harder against the wound. As he stared up at the sky, Joe tried to think about what to do next.

The horses had run off, that he knew. They had been frightened by the loud shots so close to them. Joe thought briefly about trying to find one of them, but discarded that idea. There was no telling how long and far they would run. He could try to track them for days without success.

What he needed now, Joe decided, was some help. The nearest town was Twin Pines, and that was almost a day’s ride on horseback. For a wounded man on foot, it would take much longer to reach the town.

Initially, Joe thought about simply staying where he was. He had plenty of water and was reasonably comfortable. A rider could come up the trail. Maybe it was just wiser to stay here than try to make it back to town.

Then Joe gave a short, ironic laugh as he thought about what to do. He had told his Pa that he wanted to make his own decisions. Well, now he was faced with one of those decisions. He could try to make it to Twin Pines or take his chances by staying where he was. Joe shook his head. He wished he knew what was the best thing to do. He wished he had someone to tell him what to do.

Turning his head, Joe looked over to toward the body laying on the ground. Ferguson had paid him a hundred dollars for the three horses. A hundred dollars, Joe thought, wasn’t much money. Maybe the man thought he had more money, or maybe a hundred dollars had been a lot of money to him. Joe shook his head. It didn’t matter. That hundred dollars had been the price of the man’s life – and maybe his own.

Staring up at the sky, Joe could see the sun through the trees and knew it was afternoon. Maybe he should simply stay where he was until morning, and then start out for Twin Pines then. He winced as he felt another stab of pain from his side. Walking to Twin Pines would be difficult, painful. Maybe he was better off where he was.

Joe closed his eyes and forced himself to look at the situation he was in. If he stayed where he was, there was good chance he could die. Infection, starvation, even exposure would probably kill him if he simply laid by the stream. If he wanted to have any chance at all, he had to try for Twin Pines, had to try to find help. And he had to do it now, while he still had the strength.

Rolling on his side again, Joe once more he plunged his face into the stream to drink. He drank as much water as he could, not knowing when he might find another stream. He raised his face from the stream. The water dripped from his hair and face. One last time, he put his face in the water, and forced himself to drink again. When he was convinced he had filled himself with as much water as he could hold, Joe raised his head from the stream.

Laying on his side, Joe gathered his strength and telling himself that he could make it to Twin Pines. The closer he got to the town, the more likely he was to find help. He would make it, he told himself over and over again.

Taking a deep breath, Joe pushed himself up on his elbow. He held the handkerchief against his left side firmly as he pushed himself off the ground with his right hand. Joe winced and grunted as he moved his legs. He wasn’t sure exactly how he managed to do it, but somehow, he got to his feet.

Joe stood still for a moment, gathering his strength. His legs felt weak and he seemed lightheaded. He closed his eyes and took another breath. He slowly opened his eyes and looked into the trees in front of him. What had once seemed a peaceful forest now seemed like an expanse of frightening empty woods. Joe gritted his teeth. Then he began walking.

*****

The sun had dipped a bit in the late afternoon sky as Joe staggered slowly between the trees. His side burned with pain as he walked, and his head was aching. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face and neck, caused by exertion, pain and a growing fever. Joe felt as if he had been walking for days, although in reality he had left the stream only a little over an hour ago. Joe had lost all sense of time and direction as he wandered through the woods, his gait more a shuffle than a walk. He vaguely remembered he was trying to get someplace, but he had forgotten where. All of his effort was focused on trying to stay on his feet.

Joe took a few more steps, then rested, leaning against a tree. His right hand still pressed the now bloody cloth against his side, although this was simply another activity which his muddled brain had fixed into place than a conscious act. His knees buckled a bit as Joe’s tired body fought his determination to stay on his feet. Joe blinked as he stared almost uncomprehending at the tall trees and thick brush spreading out in front of him. The woods seemed endless, offering no hint of anyone or anything that might offer help.

Pushing himself away from the tree, Joe shuffled forward, his determination to keep moving winning, at least temporarily, over his fatigue. He walked another ten feet or so before his tired legs finally buckled and he crumbled to the ground.

Joe laid on his left side on the ground, his tired body wanting to stay where it was. Joe could feel the hard ground against his cheek and could the smell the dirt on which he laid. He also smelled another scent, this one unrecognizable. The odor was pungent and the image it flashed into Joe’s brain was that of some type of animal.

It took a few seconds for Joe’s brain to connect the smell with danger, but once it did, Joe felt a new urgency to move. He pushed himself up on his elbow and lifted his head and shoulders. Joe swiveled his head, looking for any sign of the animal and was relieved when he saw nothing. He pulled his left leg forward a bit and his knee brushed against something hard. Joe look back toward his leg and saw an odd-looking pile of leaves and twigs. He looked away, his mind too tired and muddled to consider what the small mound of coverings might be. He decided to roll on to his stomach and try to push himself to his feet. He moved his right leg over his left, dragging it into the collection of leaves.

Joe heard the trap spring an instant before he felt its teeth bite into his leg.

As the bear trap snapped closed around his leg, Joe screamed in agony. The sharp teeth dug into his calf and ground into the bone of his leg. Joe instinctively tried to pull his leg away, but that caused only the trap to tear away more skin and muscle. A wave of agonizing pain radiated up his leg.

Gasping for breath, Joe laid still. The pain was so bad he could barely breathe and he knew any movement would cause the trap to tear at his leg some more. He cursed himself for his stupidity in not realizing the scent had been a lure for the bear and for not seeing the trap in the pile of leaves.

Joe forgot the pain in his side as it was replaced by a more intense agonizing pain. He could barely think; his brain seemed to be filled with urgent messages to do something, anything to ease the pain from his leg.

Moving with almost infinite slowness, Joe pulled himself off the ground. He was careful not to move his leg, not wanting to do anything that cause the sharp teeth of the trap to tear away more flesh. Joe propped himself up on his elbow, and through a haze of pain, studied the trap.

His leg was horizontal in the trap, caught as he had brushed across it rather than stepping into it. Joe assured himself that he had been lucky. If he had stepped directly into the bear trap, it probably would have snapped his leg in two.

The problem now was how to get the trap open far enough that he could pull his leg free. Joe knew the best way to open a bear trap was to put pressure on the levers at either end of the now closed jaws. Joe twisted slowly, trying to position himself to reach the levers. As he did, the pain in his side returned with renewed force.

Closing his eyes and gritting his teeth, Joe tried to ease the pain in his side. It was now a question of which hurt most, his leg or his side. There was no way to tell which injury was causing him the worst pain.

Joe opened his eyes and forced himself to continue to twist his body so his hands would be closer to the trap. He bent his captured leg slightly at the knee, hoping the movement would cause the teeth to dig further into his leg.

For several minutes, Joe bent and curled his body before he finally admitted he couldn’t maneuver himself into the right position to reach both levers. The angle at which he was caught was wrong and he couldn’t twist himself around far enough to reach the lever near his foot.

All right, thought Joe grimly, if I can’t use the levers, I’ll just pull the jaws open. Joe bent his body a bit more, trying desperately to ignore the stabs of pain from his side. He gripped the jaws on either side of his leg.

Joe’s hands were slick from both sweat and the blood from his side. He couldn’t get a good grip on the metal. Joe wiped his hands on the ground, trying to dry them, then grabbed at the jaws of the trap once more.

Pulling with every ounce of strength he had, Joe tried to open the trap. Unfortunately, his strength had been sapped by the gunshot wound and his exhausting trek through the woods. Despite his efforts, Joe couldn’t move the jaws. His leg remained firmly caught in the trap.

Joe fell back to the ground, his small reserve of strength gone. He pounded the ground weakly in frustration and agony. The pain in his leg was an intense throb and his side ached. Joe had heard stories of animals caught in traps gnawing off their leg in order to get free. He had thought those stories incredible. Now he understood why an animal might do that. Joe would do anything to free his leg and end the agonizing pain.

A look of fierce determination crossed Joe’s face as he pushed himself up off the ground again. He forced the pain back to a small area of his mind, and he concentrated every ounce of strength he had into his arms. Once more he gripped the metal jaws and once more he tried to pull them apart. With an almost superhuman effort, his hands began to separate the metal. The trap opened only a fraction, not enough to free his leg, but enough to keep Joe pulling at the metal.

Joe had managed to open the trap a fraction more when his sweaty left hand lost it’s grip on the metal. The jaw of the trap slipped from his hand and snapped closed on his leg again. Joe screamed as once more the teeth dug into his flesh. He fell back to the ground as the agonizing pain radiated up his leg with renewed intensity. Joe’s body went limp and dark spots danced before his eyes. He felt himself slipping into unconsciousness and didn’t resist. He no longer had the strength to do anything but accept the end of awareness.

*****

The dog spotted the figure on the ground as it ran ahead of its master. The animal stopped and growled a bit, challenging the unknown human a few feet away. The black hair on its back bristled and its sharp teeth were visible under its curled lips. When the human didn’t move or respond, the dog moved forward, sniffing cautiously. The scent of bear as well as blood frightened the dog. It ran back a few steps, yelping excitedly, then turned back to the figure which still hadn’t moved. The dog began barking, trying both to warn its master and frighten away the unwanted scents.

“Be quiet, Lucifer,” ordered the dog’s master as he guided his horse toward the excited dog. Lucifer ignored the order, and continued to bark at the figure on the ground.

The man led his horse over by the dog. The rider wore a light blue shirt and a tan vest. His legs were covered by dark brown trousers, and a light brown hat was perched on his head. Thick white hair was visible beneath the hat, and a neatly trimmed white beard and mustache covered his tanned face. Faint lines were visible on his face and around his blue eyes. The man wasn’t young, but neither was he what people would consider old.

The rider held the reins loosely but tightened his grip as he rode closer to the dog. His horse shied a bit, catching the whiff of bear scent and blood also, but the rider pulled on the reins to control the horse. When the horse was quiet, the man looked to see what Lucifer had found.

The man’s eyes widened in surprise as he saw the young man sprawled on the ground with a bear trap gripping his leg. He quickly dismounted and led his horse a step or two away, toward a nearby tree. The rider looped the reins around a low branch and tied them tightly. He had no desire to chase after a frightened horse.

Lucifer continued to bark and dance around wildly, becoming more excited with each passing minute. The rider stopped and knelt by the dog, grabbing the animal’s head and neck in a light grip. “All right, all right,” he said to the dog in a soothing tone. “I see him. You just calm down, Lucifer.” The man patted and stroked the dog’s head until Lucifer stopped barking. “Good dog,” added the man as he gave the dog another few pats. “You stay here and be quiet.”

Lucifer watched as his master got to his fee and walked over toward the figure on the ground. The dog’s body was tense but he obeyed the order to stay still.

Joe laid on his side, his back to the approaching man. The man could detect no movement and wondered if the figure on the ground was dead or alive. The man knelt next to Joe to get a better look. He was surprised at how young the man was, little more than a boy. The rider put his hand on the side of the boy’s neck. He could feel a faint pulse, and now that he was near the boy, see the slight rise and fall of the young man’s chest.

“Son, you sure got yourself into a fix,” muttered the man as he turned to look at leg in the bear trap. Joe’s pants leg was soaked with blood, and a few drops of blood fell from the leg into a pool of the red liquid below it. The man shook his head, wondering how long the poor kid had been trapped.

The man moved to the trap and gripped the levers on either side of the jaws. He pushed hard on the levers. The trap had been sitting in the woods for some time, and while it wasn’t rusty, the mechanism of the trap was stiff. The man pushed hard, feeling the trap’s resistance. Slowly the jaws began to separate. The man pushed even harder and the jaws opened.

Joe’s leg dropped to the ground as it was released. The man waited until he was sure he had the jaws re-set, then quickly lifted Joe’s leg out of the trap. He eased the leg to the side, making sure it was clear of the bear trap, then set the leg down gently. The man looked around and saw a small branch a few feet away. He got to his feet and walked over to pick up the branch then returned to the bear trap. He pushed the branch against the bottom of the trap, pulling out the stick just as the trap snapped shut again.

The man threw the stick aside and turned his attention to the boy on the ground.

Joe had laid silent and unmoving throughout the whole process of his release from the bear trap. The man shook his head at that. He wondered if the boy had hit his head or something. He found it curious that the young man had been so still.

The man turned Joe over gently on to his back, and once more his eyes widened as he saw the wide stain of blood on the left side of Joe’s jacket and shirt. “What have you done to yourself?” the man said as he shook his head. He gently pulled up Joe’s shirt. A bloody cloth was pressed again Joe’s side. The man slowly removed the cloth and looked at the wound. He could tell it was a gunshot wound, probably a few hours old. Dried blood crusted the wound, although a trickle of fluid still escaped. The skin around the wound was red and a bit swollen. The man’s conclusion was the same as Joe’s – the bullet had gone through Joe’s side, putting a deep gash in the young man’s flesh, but missing any organs or bone.

The man dropped the cloth to the side, and pulled Joe’s shirt down. He looked up to the face of the boy.

Joe’s face was pale, almost waxen, but two bright spots of red were visible on his cheeks. The red spots and the beads of sweat on Joe’s face and neck told the man that fever and probably infection had already set in.

The man turned his attention to Joe’s leg. Blood was still seeping from the leg, telling the man the injury was newer than the gunshot wound. It didn’t take much for the man to figure out that Joe had been wandering around with the wound in his side and stumbled into the bear trap. “You’re having a really bad day, aren’t you,” said the man, glancing at Joe’s face. “Well, let’s see what we can do about patching you up a bit.”

The man stood and walked over to his horse. As he passed his dog, still standing and watching patiently, he gave the animal a pat on the head. “Good work, Lucifer,” he said. The dog barked once then sat on its haunches.

The man walked over to his horse and pulled open the saddlebag slung across the animals back. He studied the contents with a frown.

There wasn’t much in the bag that would be of help to him. He pulled out a checked napkin, the cloth that had once wrapped his noontime sandwich. The cloth was clean, but he shook it out anyway, just to be sure. He pulled out a knife in a scabbard, and tugged the knife free, dropping the scabbard back in the saddlebag. He looked into the bag again, as if he expected other items to magically appear. Then he closed the bag.

The man slipped off his vest and put it over the saddle. He began unbuttoning his shirt with a sigh. “I did like this shirt,” he said as he shook his head. When the buttons were undone, he slipped the shirt off, revealing a well-formed chest sparsely covered with a fine layer of gray hair. The man put his vest back on, then used the knife to slice the shirt into strips.

When the blue cloth had been cut into several long strips, the man returned to Joe. He pulled up Joe’s shirt and pressed the napkin against the gunshot wound, trying one of the strips around Joe’s body to hold the napkin in place. Then he moved down to take a look at the injured leg.

Using the knife, the man slit Joe’s pants to the knee and pulled the cloth apart. Joe’s leg was covered with blood, so the man used another strip of cloth to clean the leg as best he could. As he wiped away the blood, he could see six puncture wounds, three in the calf and three near the shin. The skin near the wounds was torn and the man figured the boy had foolishly tried to pull his leg free. The punctures were deep, and blood welled up in them almost as soon as the man wiped them clean.

The man felt the bone below Joe’s knee. He couldn’t detect any displaced bone but that didn’t mean the leg didn’t have some kind of break in it. The man took the remaining strips of cloth and wrapped them tightly around Joe’s leg, both to stop the bleed and the hold the bone in place if there was a fracture.

When he was finished, the man wiped his hands on the ground, cleaning them a bit of the blood that now covered them. He sat back, and thought about what to do next.

He knew the boy was in bad shape, and needed some proper attention. The best thing to do, he decided, was to get him to his place as quickly as possible. A travois would take time to build, even if he could manage it with his limited resources. The man shook his head. There was nothing to do but throw the boy on his horse and hope for the best.

The man stuck his knife through his belt, then reached down to pick up the boy. He put one arm under Joe’s knees and another under his shoulders. With a grunt, he lifted Joe from the ground, and staggered to his feet.

Joe moaned softly and his head moved slightly as the man lifted him. The man looked into Joe’s face and a small smile flickered across his face. “Got a bit of life in you yet, don’t you?” he said softly.

It took several minutes of maneuvering before the man got Joe into the saddle. Joe slumped forward over the horn, arms dangling loosely on either side of the animal’s neck. His legs hung against the side of the horse. The man untied the reins and climbed up on the horse behind Joe. He reached forward and pulled the boy back against him. Joe grunted softly but his arms and legs still hung lax. The man pulled the reins and clicked at the horse, turning the animal and starting it at a walk. Without looking, he called to the dog. “Come on, Lucifer,” he said. “Let’s get the boy home.”

*****

The man wiped Joe’s face with a cold, damp cloth, washing the sweat from the young man’s face. It was getting on toward midnight, and, except for a brief respite to put on a shirt and feed the animals, the man had been tending to the boy since late afternoon. As he worked, the man wondered what else he could do to help the boy he had found in the woods. He had managed to get the get injured man home, and after laying him on the bed and striping him of his bloody clothes and makeshift bandages, he had cleaned the wounds as best he could with alcohol. The sting of the alcohol had forced several moans from the boy, but otherwise, Joe had remained silent and unmoving on the bed.

The man had bandaged Joe’s wounds with thick pads of white cloth, and covered him with several blankets, hoping to sweat the fever out of the boy. He had spooned willow bark tea into Joe, a remedy the man’s mother had sworn by to break a fever. The man wished he had some other medicine to offer.

The man thought about going for a doctor, but he quickly rejected the idea. There was no doctor in Twin Pines, and he couldn’t leave the boy alone for the four or five days it would take to fetch a doctor from the next town. Besides, the man had a feeling that by morning he would know whether the boy was beyond help. The young man in the bed looked strong and healthy, but he had lost a lot of blood, and the fever indicated the wounds were infected. A battle was being waged within the boy’s body, and the man felt he would know by morning which side was going to be victorious.

The man looked at the pale, sweaty figure on the bed and wondered who the boy was and what he was doing in the woods. Another thought niggled at the back of the man’s brain: why was he led to the boy? The man pushed the thought aside for now. It was too weighty an idea for him to contemplate as he sat by the boy’s bed.

The man wiped Joe’s face again, and this time the young man in the bed stirred. Joe felt the cool cloth on his face and was grateful for the brief relief it offered him from the burning heat he felt throughout his body. He turned his head a bit and shifted a bit on the bed, wincing and moaning softly at the pain even this slight movement caused. Joe tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. “Water” croaked Joe in a barely audible voice.

Joe felt a hand lifting his head from the pillow. A cup was placed against Joe’s lips. Joe began sipping the liquid slowly, almost too weak to swallow. The liquid had a slightly bitter taste but Joe didn’t care. He drank it gratefully.

After a minute or so, the cup was removed and Joe’s head was laid gently on the pillow. Joe laid still for a moment then forced his tired eyes open. Joe could see a figure next to the bed, but the image was blurry. He blinked twice, trying to clear the haze of fever and pain from his vision. The figure became slightly more distinct, although Joe was still unable to see it clearly. However, he could make out a white shirt and tan vest, and a thatch of thick gray hair.

“Pa?” said Joe in a whisper. He closed his eyes briefly, then forced his lids open again. “Pa?”

The man sitting by the bed was startled by Joe’s whisper. He stared at the boy for a minute. “No, I’m not your Pa, son,” he said slowly.

Joe’s muddled brain didn’t understand the words but he heard what he thought was a familiar deep voice. “Pa,” he said, his voice more urgent. “Pa, help me.” Joe winced and grunted as a new wave of pain wracked his body. “Pa….it hurts…please…Pa…help me,” begged Joe.

Joe turned his face toward the figure by the bed. He moved his hand, reaching out until he felt an arm. He clutched the arm weakly. “Pa… I’m sorry…I’m sorry about…what I said,” said Joe in a breathless whisper. “Please…help me…I’m sorry…please…it hurts bad.”

The man stared at the boy in the bed. He knew the boy was delirious; his eyes were bright with fever and his speech slurred and disjointed. But the man also could see the pleading look on the boy’s face, and he could hear the boy begging for comfort.

The man put his hand over the boy’s hand. “It’s all right, son,” he said in a soothing voice. “I forgive you. Everything is going to be all right now.” He patted the boy’s hand lightly.

“Pa?” said Joe again as he heard the deep timber of the voice if not the words. “Pa…don’t leave me…don’t…” Joe’s voice faded away.

The man patted the boy’s head, and brushed the damp curls of hair from the boy’s forehead. “I won’t leave, son,” he said softly. “Your Pa’s here. Don’t worry. I’m here.”

The man felt the boy’s hand slip from his arm, and he saw the boy’s eyes close. The boy’s chest was rising and falling with a steady regularity that indicated the boy had slipped back into the darkness of sleep. The man sat back the in the chair and closed his own eyes. “Lord,” he prayed softly. “You brought this boy to me. Don’t take him away again. Please. Don’t take him from me.”

*****

Joe slowly opened his eyes, a task that seemed incredibly difficult. He felt as weak as a newborn kitten, and both his side and leg throbbed with a dull ache. Joe’s eyes scanned the room, searching for some clue which would tell him where was.

Plaster covered the walls of the rather large room. Joe saw a window with shutters on the far wall, and a small dresser just to the left of the window. A bookcase, half filled with books, stood next to the dresser. Joe turned his head a bit and saw a small fireplace on the side wall. He turned his head toward the other side of the room. He could see a door, partially open, a few feet away. A table stood next to the bed, the top of which was covered with a pan, cloths, cups and a small teapot. A chair sat next to the bed, and that’s what drew Joe’s attention. The chair and the man sleeping quietly in it.

Joe studied the man, wondering who he was. He reminded Joe a bit of his father – about the same age, same thick white hair, same tan vest. The man’s chin rested on his chest, and Joe could hear the sound of a faint snore. Joe shifted a bit on the bed and instantly regretted the move. He grunted as the dull throbs in his side and leg suddenly turned into sharp pains.

The groan must have wakened the man in the chair, because he instantly sat up. He rubbed his eyes and stared at the figure in the bed. For a moment, the man looked puzzled, as if he were surprised to see Joe. Then a warm smile crossed the man’s face. “Good morning,” said the man in the chair. “How are you feeling?”

“Hi,” replied Joe weakly. He turned his head a bit. “Where am I?”

The man ignored Joe’s question as he reached down and felt Joe’s forehead. “Your fever’s down,” he said with a nod of satisfaction. “You had me pretty worried last night. But I think you’re going to be all right, now.” The man studied Joe for a moment. “You thirsty?” he asked.

“Yeah, I am,” responded Joe with a weak nod.

The man turned to the table next to the bed. “The tea’s gone cold, but it’s wet and it’s good for you,” he said as he poured a light brown liquid from the teapot into one of the cups. He turned back to the bed and handed the cup to Joe. “You drink this,” he ordered the boy.

Joe took the cup and put it to his mouth. He sipped the liquid and instantly made a face as he tasted the bitter brew. “What’s this?” he asked.

The man laughed at Joe’s expression. “Willow bark tea,” he answered. “I know it doesn’t taste very good but it will help bring your fever down. You drink it.”

Gamely, Joe took another drink from the cup. He wrinkled his nose at the bitter taste but he swallowed the tea. “Thanks,” said Joe as he handed the cup back to the man. He watched as the man put the cup back on the table. “Where am I?” asked Joe when the man turned back to the bed. “Twin Pines?”

The man gave a short laugh. “No, son,” he replied. “You’re about as far up the mountain from Twin Pines as a man can get?”

Joe’s eyes widened in surprise and he glanced around the room again. The room had given him the impression that he was in a house, not some cabin in the mountains, and his glance confirmed the size and comfortable furnishings in the room.

The man saw Joe’s expression and smiled. “This isn’t like any other place in these mountains,” he said. “I built a fine, big house out here in the middle of the wilderness.”

Joe nodded slowly. “How did I get here?”

“I found you yesterday afternoon in the woods,” answered the man. “You were just laying there on the ground, your leg caught in a bear trap. When I got you out, I saw the bullet wound in your side. You were in pretty bad shape, so I brought you to my place.” The man looked at Joe with curiosity. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Closing his eyes for a minute, Joe tried to remember clearly what had happened to him. “Some fellow tried to rob me,” Joe replied slowly He nicked me with a bullet. I was trying to make it to Twin Pines. I fell and got caught in the trap.” Joe was too tired to give more than the bare bones of what happened.

“I figured it was something like that,” said the man with a nod.

Joe tried to move his leg and winced at the pain. “My leg,” he asked, “is it broken?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure,” admitted the man. “I couldn’t feel any broken bones, but those teeth probably nicked the bone at the very least. Could be a slight fracture. One way or the other, you’re not going to put any weight on that leg for awhile.”

Too tired to really take in the full meaning of the man’s words, Joe merely nodded

The man could see the boy was tiring. “We’ll talk later,” he said. “You need some rest.”

Joe nodded his agreement. “By the way, my name’s Joe Cartwright,” added Joe in a weak voice.

“Name’s Tyler,” replied the man. An odd look flickered across the man’s face. “You can call me Pa if you’d like.”

Joe frowned, “Pa?” he said in a puzzled voice.

“Paul,” corrected the man quickly.

Joe’s face cleared and he nodded.

“It’s nice to meet you, Joe Cartwright,” said Paul with a smile. The odd look flickered across his face again. “I’m very pleased to have you here.”

“No nearly as pleased as I am to be here,” replied Joe with a tired smile. He blinked slowly; his eyelids were feeling heavy and a weariness seemed to be seeping through him. “Thank you, Paul,” he said in a low voice as his eyes began to close. “Thank you for saving me.”

Paul shrugged off Joe’s thanks. “You get some rest,” he said as he stood and turned to leave the room. Paul stopped by the door and looked back to the bed. Joe’s eyes were closed and his chest was rising and falling in the steady rhythm of sleep. “Welcome, son,” he said softly. Then he turned and left the room.

*****

A hand gently shaking him woke Joe. He twisted a bit on the bed, trying to escape the hand that wanted him to leave the comfortable cocoon of sleep. The hand shook him a bit harder, and Joe reluctantly opened his eyes.

Paul stood over the bed, his face creased with concern. “Joe, you awake?” he asked worriedly.

Joe nodded sleepily in response, then winced as his movement sent a pang of pain from his side. Joe caught of whiff of something that smelled appetizing and his stomach rumbled in response. Joe licked his lips as he opened his eyes wider.

“You’ve been asleep for a couple of hours,” said Paul with a relieved smile. “I was getting worried.” Paul cocked his head toward the table by the bed where a bowl with steam rising from it sat waiting. “I thought you might be hungry, so I made you some soup.”

Pushing himself up a bit on the bed, Joe smiled. “I’m starved.”

“Young fellows your age generally are always hungry,” said Paul as he reached for the bowl. Paul turned back to the bed with the bowl in his hands, then hesitated. “Think you can manage this by yourself?” he asked Joe.

Nodding, Joe reached for the bowl. The bowl was made from wood, wide and thick but not very deep. A wooden spoon rested in the bowl, with only its handle visible. “Smells good,” said Joe as he grabbed the spoon.

“Broth with some bits of chicken and rice in it,” said Paul. “I figured you weren’t ready for solid food, but you need something more than just broth in your stomach.”

With a tentative lick, Joe tasted the soup. “This is really good,” he said and began spoon the soup into his mouth quickly.

“I’m a pretty fair cook,” said Paul with a shrug. He settled back in the chair, obviously meaning to keep Joe company as he ate. “Where are you from, Joe?” he asked.

“I live on a ranch near Virginia City with my Pa and two brothers,” answered Joe. His reply was slightly muffled as he tried to eat and talk at the same time.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Paul. He flushed and looked away. “Sorry,” he said in an embarrassed tone.

Joe grinned. “Don’t worry,” he said. “My Pa is always telling me the same thing.”

Paul gave Joe a speculative look. “You did some talking last night when you were out of your head with fever,” he said. “Kept mentioning your Pa and saying you were sorry. You two have a fight or something?” Paul flushed again. “Sorry if it sounds like I’m prying.”

“No, it’s all right,” answered Joe. He took another spoonful of the soup and made sure he swallowed it all before going on. It gave him a minute to think about how to answer Paul’s question. “I had an argument with my Pa and brothers before I left for Twin Pines. I guess it was on my mind. When I left, things were still kind of tense.”

“If I’m not being too nosy,” said Paul, with a small smile, “what was it about? I’m just curious. If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.”

Joe thought a minute and then shrugged. “No reason not to talk about it,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to explain. I’m the youngest in the family. Lately, it just seems like every time I turn around, there’s my Pa or brothers telling me what to do or checking up on me. We argued about it before I left. I just can’t seem to get them to realize that I’m not a kid any more.”

Paul smiled a bit a Joe’s words. To Paul, the young man in the bed looked hardly more than a boy. But he understood a young man’s desire to be thought of as an adult, to be able to do things on his own.

“My Pa told me to take some time on this trip,” added Joe. “I think he wanted me to try to work things out in my mind. The only problem is, I can’t seem to come up with an answer. Every time I think of Hoss and Adam, I seem to get mad all over again.”

“Hoss and Adam?” said Paul raising an eyebrow. “Those your brothers?”

“Yeah,” said Joe. “My older brothers. And they never let me forget they’re older.”

Paul nodded. “I can understand how people might get under your skin sometimes. That’s why I came up here. To get away from people.”

“And I dropped in on you, sort of,” said Joe. He smiled ruefully. “Sorry.”

“I said people,” replied Paul with a laugh. “I think I can handle one person.” Paul bit his lip and his face grew serious. “Joe, you said you had a run in with somebody who tried to rob you,” said Paul. “What happened to that fellow?”

Joe looked down into the bowl. The soup was virtually gone, which was good because Joe suddenly lost his appetite. “I killed him,” said Joe in a quiet voice. “He went for his gun and so did I. I guess my aim was better.”

A sympathetic look crossed Paul’s face; he could see that Joe was bothered by the thought of killing a man. He leaned forward and put a comforting hand on Joe’s arm. “A man has a right to defend himself, son,” he said softly. Joe nodded but his face with filled with regret.

Sitting back in the chair, Paul said in a very quiet voice, “So no one knows where you are.,”

Joe wasn’t sure he heard the words correctly. “I guess I’m going to need to let my family know what happened,” he said.

Reaching over, Paul took the empty soup bowl from Joe. “We’ll talk about that later,” he said. Paul looked at Joe, his expression somewhat grim. “Joe, I’m going to have to change the bandages on your leg and side,” he said. “I also need to clean out those wounds again with alcohol.” Paul looked pained. “It’s going to hurt, son. I’m sorry. But I don’t know what else to do.”

Joe swallowed hard and nodded.

“I’ll make you some willow bark tea later,” said Paul with a wry smile, trying to lighten the mood. “I’m sure you’ll like that.”

“Gee, thanks,” said Joe, his voice tinged with sarcasm.

“Always happy to oblige,” replied Paul with a grin.

Putting the bowl on the table, Paul reached for some cloth and a tall clear bottle sitting at the back of the table. He stood and walked around to the other side of the bed. “I’ll be as gentle as I can, Joe,” he promised. “But it’s going to sting. You go ahead and yell if you want. There’s nobody around to hear you.” Joe’s face grew serious and he nodded.

Paul sat on the edge of the bed and pulled back the covers a bit. He untied the cloth around Joe’s waist and gently lift the thick bandage from Joe’s side.

The wound in Joe’s side was beginning to heal, but the edges of the wound were still red and puffy. Paul opened the bottle and poured some the clear liquid onto a small cloth in his hands. He looked up at Joe. “Ready?” he asked. Joe closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and nodded.

To Joe, it felt like Paul was sticking a hot poker into his side. He pressed hard against the bed and clutched at the sides of the pillows with his hands. The burning pain seemed to get worse, and Joe gasped for air, letting out a groan as he did so.

“All done,” said Paul in a quiet voice as he began to bandage Joe’s side again. Joe nodded and tried to relax. The burning was beginning to ease a bit but it was still painful.

“Your side is healing nicely,” said Paul as he pulled up the covers. “I don’t think I’m gong to have to clean it out again.” He turned on the bed and pulled the covers off Joe’s heavily bandaged leg. Paul looked at injured leg then turned back to Joe. “I’m sorry, boy,” he said regretfully. “I wish I didn’t have to do this to you.”

Joe’s eyes were closed and beads of sweat were visible on his forehead. “Just get it done,” he said through clenched teeth.

Nodding, Paul began to unwrap Joe’s leg.

Dreading the next wave of burning pain, Joe waited with closed eyes. ,He didn’t have to wait long. It seemed like only a few seconds before his leg seemed to be on fire. Joe tensed again and once more grabbed at the pillows. The burning seemed to intensify. Joe knew there were several punctures on his leg and it would take Paul longer to clean them out. But knowing it would take longer and being able to stand the pain for a greater length of time were two different things.

Joe began to moan and twist on the bed. He felt a hand grip his leg just below the knee to hold it still. Joe tried not to move, but he couldn’t stop himself from thrashing around as he tried to escape the pain.

After what seemed a lifetime, the burning seemed to ease a bit and Joe felt his leg being gently wrapped. He quieted his body and laid still on the bed, exhausted. He heard Paul moving around the room, but Joe didn’t have the strength to open his eyes. He felt a cloth brush against his forehead and cheek, then felt a hand brushing the hair from his forehead.

“I’m sorry, Joe, I really am,” said Paul. “You rest for awhile. You’ll feel better after you’ve had some sleep.”

Nodding with his eyes still closed, Joe tried to relax his body and was surprised to find he could. He felt peaceful darkness of sleep rapidly overtaking him.

Joe was almost asleep so he wasn’t sure he heard Paul’s next words correctly.

“Go to sleep, son,” said Paul. “I’ll watch over you. Paul’s here.”

Funny, thought Joe as he drifted off to sleep. It almost sound like he said Pa’s here.

*****

Two days of sleep and solid food made Joe feel almost human again. His side felt stiff and his leg still ached a bit, but Joe was able to maintain an almost normal cycle of eating and sleeping. Paul was with Joe much of the time when Joe was awake, talking or playing chess with him. He gave Joe a book from the bookshelf to read, something to entertain Joe when Paul was cooking or looking after the stock.

As Joe’s body grew stronger, so did his curiosity about Paul. The man was obviously intelligent and well-read. He discussed books with Joe as easily as he talked about politics. His chess matches with Joe were mostly one-sided, easily won by Paul. He admitted to Joe that he had carved or built most of the items in his house.

Joe wondered why Paul had hidden himself away in the mountains. Paul seemed to enjoy the trappings of civilization – books, good food and fine furniture – but he didn’t seem to have much desire to be around people. Joe tried to think of a way to ask Paul about his living in the mountains alone, but he couldn’t come up with a question that didn’t seem like prying.

Paul was checking the wounds on Joe’s leg. Joe figured he had been in bed about four days. He was beginning to chafe at the inactivity.

“Leg is looking good,” comment Paul as he wrapped the bandages tightly.

“No more alcohol treatments?” asked Joe.

“No,” said Paul. He looked almost as relieved as Joe at the fact that the uncomfortable treatments could stop. “I think all you need now is some time to heal. I figure about another week in bed and maybe two or three on crutches. I’ll make you a pair,” said Paul as he walked over to settle in the chair by the bed.

“Paul, I can’t stay here another three or four weeks!” protested Joe.

“I don’t see that you have much choice, Joe,” replied Paul in a quiet voice. “You won’t be able to put any weight on that leg for a while, not without risking doing some more damage to it.”

“I hate to impose on you for another month,” said Joe. “You’ve done so much for me already.”

“I don’t mind at all,” said Paul with a smile. “It’s nice having someone to talk with.” Paul looked away. “I’ve gotten lonely over the past few months. Nobody to talk to except Lucifer.”

“Who’s Lucifer?” asked Joe with a frown.

“Lucifer’s my dog…sort of,” replied Paul with a grin. “I found him in a trap, just like I found you. Must have been, oh, a year or so ago. Lucifer doesn’t like people much either. After I fixed him up, he refused to come back into the house. I leave food for him outside. Sometimes he eats it and sometimes he disappears to do his own hunting. But he seems to know every time I leave for one of my little trips. He shows up and comes along with me.”

“What do you do on your ‘little trips’?” asked Joe curiously.

“Oh, sometimes I hunt, sometimes I fish, and sometimes I just ride,” answered Paul vaguely.

“You’re not a trapper?” said Joe with surprise. “I figured maybe that’s why you lived up here.”

“I hate those traps, Joe,” said Paul almost fiercely. “I’ve seen what they do to animals.” He looked at Joe with a wry smile. “I’ve seen what they can do to people.” Paul’s face turned serious again. “Every time I find one, I spring it shut.”

“That won’t make you popular with the trappers who put them out,” pointed out Joe.

“Probably not,” said Paul with a shrug. “But I don’t particularly care if they like me or not.” Paul suddenly grinned. “Besides, they don’t know for sure that I’m the one springing them.”

“What do you do up here, Paul?” asked Joe, his curiosity growing. “I mean, if you aren’t up here to trap, why do you live here?”

Paul chose to answer only Joe’s first question. “I do whatever I feel like,” said Paul. “When I get up in the morning, if I feel like fishing, I go fishing. If I feel like making furniture, I make furniture. If I don’t feel like doing anything, then I go back to bed.” He looked seriously at Joe. “It’s a good life, Joe. No one to tell you what to do or how to do it. And there’s no one to criticize or look down on you.”

For a moment, the thought of such a life had an allure for Joe. He thought about doing whatever he wanted, about having no one second guessing everything he did. It did seem like a good life.

“But it’s lonely up here for you,” said Joe.

Paul looked down, as if trying to decide how to answer. “I haven’t always been alone,” he said slowly. “My son lived with me. He was about your age. In fact, you remind me of him – young, smart, full of life. When David was here, I wasn’t lonely at all.”

“Where’s David now?” asked Joe.

A pained looked crossed Paul’s face. “I…lost him…about six months ago,” he said in a low voice.

“I’m sorry,” said Joe, his voice filled with sympathy.

Paul nodded, then cleared his throat. “Well, how about a game of chess?” asked Paul with a forced heartiness.

Joe didn’t answer. His thoughts were elsewhere. “Paul,” he said, “I’ve got to get word to my family about what happened, where I am. They’re going to worry if I don’t.”

A startled look crossed Paul’s face. “How do you propose we do that?” he asked. “I don’t exactly have a telegraph up here.”

“I thought maybe you could travel down to Twin Pines and send a wire,” suggested Joe.

The startled look now turned to alarm on Paul’s face. “I can’t go down to Twin Pines,” he said. “I can’t leave you here alone.”

“How far is it?” asked Joe.

“Takes about a day to get there,” said Paul. “And another day to get back.”

“Two days,” said Joe thoughtfully. “I bet I could manage on my own for two days.”

“Joe, I don’t want to take a chance,” said Paul in an urgent tone of voice. “What if something happens? Banged up like you are, you wouldn’t be able to fend for yourself.”

“I could manage,” insisted Joe. Now the pained look crossed Joe’s face. “I just hate the thought of my Pa worrying. If I don’t send word soon, he and my brothers are going to come looking for me. They’ll search these mountains until they find me. I just hate the idea of putting them through that.”

The look of alarm grew on Paul’s face. “No,” he said. “We don’t want them to come looking for you. It wouldn’t be right to have them spend all that time looking for you.” Paul took a deep breath and seemed to be trying to control some emotion. “I guess I could go to Twin Pines and send a wire,” he said reluctantly.

“I’ll be fine,” Joe reassured him.

Paul looked thoughtful. “What do you think we should say in the telegram?” he asked. “If I tell your father what happened, won’t he come looking for you anyway?”

“Yeah, I guess he would,” said Joe. “If I tell him I got shot, he’ll be here in no time.”

“This place isn’t easy to find, Joe,” said Paul with a small smile. “It’s not like I can tell him to turn left at the second pine tree. He’s liable to wander all over these mountains looking for this place.” Paul’s face grew serious. “And that’s not good. These mountains aren’t the safest place, as you found out. Besides the men up here, there’s bears, mountain lions roaming around. The hills are pretty steep. A man could get hurt. We wouldn’t want that.”

“You’re right about that,” admitted Joe.

“And I’m not going to wait in Twin Pines for him to show up,” said Paul firmly. “I’m going to worry myself sick leaving you here by yourself for two days as it is.”

Joe blew out a breath in frustration. “What’ll we do?” he asked.

Paul looked thoughtful. “How about I just send a wire over your name telling your father you got delayed in Twin Pines for awhile. Nothing serious and you’ll explain later. That would satisfy him, wouldn’t it. I mean that should keep him from worrying and coming looking for you.”

Joe looked thoughtful. “Yeah,” he agreed slowly. “It would.” He turned to Paul. “When can you leave for Twin Pines?” he asked eagerly.

Holding up his hand, Paul laughed. “Slow down, son,” he said. “We got to get this organized. I’ve got to cook up enough food to last you two days. I also want to make those crutches for you.” Paul gave Joe an almost threatening look. “Those crutches are just for an emergency,,” he said. “I want your word you won’t use them while I’m not here, not unless you absolutely have to.”

Joe raised his right hand. “I promise,” he said solemnly.

“All right,” said Paul with a satisfied nod as he rose from the chair. “I’ll start cooking and making crutches. We’ll go over every possible contingency later today. As long as I’m satisfied we’ve thought of everything, I’ll leave for Twin Pines in the morning.”

“Thanks, Paul,” said Joe gratefully.

Paul waved his hand as he turned to leave the room. “No thanks needed,” he said. “We don’t want your family wandering these mountains looking for you, do we?”

*****

Ben sat at his desk as Adam stood nearby going over the supply list. Ben was suppose to be listening to his oldest son, but he wasn’t. He was thinking about his youngest son.

“Do you think 30 feet of wire, will be enough?” asked Adam.

“What?” said Ben in a startled voice. “Oh, yes, yes, that will be fine.”

Adam put down the supply list. “He’ll be home soon, Pa,” he said in a quiet voice. “You know Joe. It just takes him a while to think things through.”

“I’m not worried,” protested Ben. “I told him to take as much time as he needed. He’s just…taking some time.”

“Sure, Pa,” said Adam. But his voice reflected his disbelief in his father’s protest.

“Joe can take care of himself,” added Ben, trying to convince himself more than Adam. “He doesn’t need us to be running after him. That’s what started all of this in the first place.”

“Joe’s fine,” said Adam with a nod. “He’ll be home any day now.”

“Of course he will,” said Ben as positively as he could. He looked up at Adam. “Now, how many feet of wire did you say?”

Before Adam could answer, the front door opened and Hoss walked rapidly into the house. “Pa,” he said eagerly. “We got a wire from Joe.”

A look of relief crossed Ben’s face. He hurriedly stood up and rushed to where Hoss was standing. Hoss handed Ben a piece of paper.

“Gone to Reno for awhile,” read Ben from the paper. “Will explain later. No trouble. Be home when I can. Joe Cartwright.”

“Reno?” said Adam in a puzzled voice. “Why would he go to Reno?”

“Maybe something came up when he was in Twin Pines,” suggested Hoss.

“What?” asked Adam in a challenging voice.

Hoss shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

Adam turned to Ben who was re-reading the telegram. “Pa, maybe Hoss and I should go to Reno and find out what this is all about,” suggested Adam.

Ben didn’t answer for a minute. He looked up at Adam and Hoss, then slowly shook his head. “No,” he said. “Joe made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want us chasing after him or interfering.”

“But Pa…” started Hoss.

“No,” interrupted Ben in a firm voice. “Now Joseph is old enough to take care of himself. He sent us a wire saying there was no trouble, that he had to go to Reno. There’s no reason to believe he needs our help. We have to trust Joe’s judgment. That’s what he asked of us, and that’s what we are going to do.”

“All right,” said Adam in a reluctant voice. “I just hope Joe hasn’t gotten himself into something that he can’t get out of.”

*****

Joe was bored.

Joe laid in bed wondering what he could do to fill the hours until Paul returned from Twin Pines. Paul had left for Twin Pines yesterday morning, and, at first, Joe had enjoyed having the time to himself. He slept when he felt like it and ate whenever he was hungry, helping himself to items from the small feast of cold chicken, cheese, berries and cookies Paul had carefully left on the table by the bed. In between, he had read or played chess with himself, doing whichever activity he had felt was diverting at the time.

For a day or so, Joe had enjoyed himself, reveling in the freedom to simply do what he pleased. He could understand why Paul found such a life attractive. But Joe’s choices of activities were limited, and now he was becoming bored by those choices. He had slept so much that he couldn’t drop off even if he wanted to. He wasn’t hungry or thirsty, having eaten his fill from the food on the table, and drank what he wanted from the bucket of water Paul had left on the floor by the bed. The book he had bored him, and he was tired of playing chess with himself.

Looking around the room, Joe tried to think of something to do to fill what seemed like a long stretch of time until Paul returned. He saw the crutches standing against the wall next to the bed. He had promised Paul he would use them only if an emergency occurred and absolutely had to get out of bed. Being bored wasn’t an emergency, but Joe did feel he absolutely had to get out of bed. If he didn’t, he’d go crazy.

Throwing back the covers, Joe carefully moved his injured leg off the bed. He swiveled on the bed until he was sitting on the edge. A new problem suddenly struck Joe. He had no clothes. All he was wearing was a pair of thin cotton longjohns which had been cut off and neatly hemmed at the thighs. Joe giggled a bit, laughing at his own sense of modesty. There was no one to see him in the house. He could be stark naked and it wouldn’t have made a difference. The fact that he could roam around without getting dressed added to the sense of new found freedom Joe was enjoying.

Joe pushed himself up off the bed and, balancing his weight on his good leg, hopped a step from the bed to the crutches.

Placing the crutches under his arms, Joe grabbed the handles jutting out of the sticks about half-way down with either hand. The crutches were exactly right, as Joe knew they would be. Paul had measured and fussed with them the night before he left. The top of the crutches were heavily padded with thick cloth to insure they wouldn’t chafe. Paul had insisted on making the crutches as perfect as he could.

Joe took a tentative step with his good leg, then balanced his weight on the leg as he pulled the crutches forward. He pushed his weight down on his hands and pulled the rest of his body through. He experimented with using the crutches for a few minutes, keeping near the bed in case he lost his balance and began to fall. After about ten minutes of tentative and slow movement near the bed, Joe felt he had figured out how to use the crutches. At that point, Joe decided to go exploring.

Having spent hours staring at the walls and furniture around him, Joe knew every inch of the bedroom. He was curious about the rest of the house. Moving slowly and keeping his injured leg off the floor, Joe walked to the door of the bedroom. The door was slightly ajar. He pushed the door open and went out of the bedroom.

Joe walked into a large room that was amazingly well furnished for a house in the middle of nowhere. A large table of polished wood sat in the middle of the room, with four beautifully carved chairs around it. Books, pieces of wood and bits of leather were scattered around on the top of the table. A large stone fireplace stood against the wall, with a decorated mantle. Some small boxes and a clock sat on the mantle. A rocking chair with a padded seat sat near the fireplace. A covered chair stood against the far wall, next to an end table. A lamp stood in the middle of the table, and small coils of what looked like fishing lines sat next to the lamp.

To his right, Joe could see a doorway leading into a small kitchen. Joe could see the edge of a table and part of another fireplace, this one with what looked like an oven inserted into it. Joe glanced through the doorway, but decided the kitchen offered nothing of interest.

Joe turned slightly. Near the front door stood a tall gun rack with a place for three rifles. Only two were in place, and Joe assumed Paul had taken the third rifle with him. Joe could see his own gunbelt resting on a ledge under the rifles and a drawer which Joe assumed held ammunition fitted into the ledge. The gun rack stood between the door and a window.

On the other side of the door stood a tall book case. Most of the shelves held books, but the two middle shelves were almost empty. One held three finely carved wood statues of birds. The shelf in the very middle of the bookcase was empty except for two pictures in ornately decorated wooden frames.

Joe walked over to take a closer look at the pictures. One was a formal wedding picture, with a much younger Paul standing next to a dark haired girl seated to his right. She wore a long dress and veil. Joe wouldn’t have called the girl beautiful, but she certainly was attractive. The other picture was Paul at about his current age, standing with his arm affectionately draped over the shoulders of a boy about sixteen. Both were smiling at the camera and from the blurred images behind them, Joe guessed the picture had been taken at some type of carnival or fair. Joe looked closer at the young man. The boy’s head just barely reached Paul’s shoulder. He was thin, with the look of being all arms and legs that teenage boys often had. The boy’s hair was dark, thick and curly, not unlike Joe’s own. He smiled at the camera with an infectious grin. Joe assumed the boy was David, Paul’s son.

After studying the pictures for a bit, Joe turned to look around the house some more. He saw a closed door to his left, exactly across the room from the door to Joe’s bedroom. He assumed that was Paul’s bedroom. Joe ignored the closed door, feeling that entering the bedroom would violate Paul’s privacy. He already felt a bit guilty about exploring the house as it was.

Moving to the fireplace, Joe looked at the small boxes on the mantle. One held matches and another, small pieces of flint. It was the third box which drew Joe’s attention. The box was bronze with metal scrolling on the top. He opened the box and looked in side.

A rather large decorative coin sat on a bedding of dark velvet in the box. Joe read the lettering on the coin: Tyler Williams, with gratitude. Joe frowned. Tyler Williams? Who was Tyler Williams? Paul had said his name was Paul Tyler. Joe picked up the coin and turned it over. The back of the coin simply said St. Louis Children’s Home and a date about eight years earlier.

Joe replaced the coin and closed the box thoughtfully. It was none of his business, he knew, but he was puzzled by the coin. Why did Paul have a coin belonging to someone else, and why was it displayed so prominently in the room, he wondered.

Slowly, Joe shook his head. It was Paul’s business why he had the coin. Joe had no right to pry into the man’s affairs. He had saved Joe’s life and treated Joe with nothing but kindness. Snooping around Paul’s house was poor payment for all that Paul had done for him.

Feeling guilty, Joe decided to return to his bed. His side was beginning to ache a bit also, and his legs felt tired. Joe had had his little adventure. Now it was time to return to the solitude of his room. As Joe maneuvered the crutches and walked toward the bedroom, he thought about what to do next. With a yawn, Joe decided a nap sounded good as the next order of business.

*****

“Joseph!”

A voice boomed in anger, waking Joe out of a sound sleep. He stirred on the bed, turning drowsily toward the voice.

“Joseph! Wake up!” the voice boomed again.

Half asleep, Joe wondered what he had done to make his Pa so upset. He must have overslept and missed breakfast again. As the fogginess of sleep receded, Joe remembered where he was.

“Joe, I’m very angry with you,” said Paul, unnecessarily voicing the anger in his tone.

Turning, Joe looked up at Paul. He was puzzled by the irate look on the man’s face. “Hello, Paul,” said Joe with a yawn. “When did you get back?”

“Don’t ‘hello Paul’ me,” replied the man standing over the bed. “I thought I told you to stay in bed.”

“I did,” replied Joe. Then he flushed as he guilty remembered his little trip around the house. “Well, mostly I did.”

“Joe, are you trying to hurt yourself worse or do you just not understand English?” asked Paul in a biting tone.

Joe’s lips twitched as he tried to hide a smile. Paul’s question sounded almost exactly like something his Pa would say. “I’m sorry,” said Joe contritely. “I know I should have stayed in bed. I just got bored.” Joe gave Paul a questioning look. “How did you know I got out of bed?”

Paul’s anger seemed to have cooled. “The bedroom door,” he said. “I knew I left it almost closed. When I got home, I saw it standing wide open.” Paul took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said apologetically. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. It’s just that, well, when I came home and saw the bedroom door open, it scared me to death. I thought you had left…I mean, that something had happened.” Paul added the last phrase in a rush, as if trying to hastily correct himself. Paul took another deep breath. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said again.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Joe with a smile. “I’m used to it. Happens to me all the time at home.” Joe shook his head regretfully. “I guess I’m just not very good at following orders.”

“Most boys your age aren’t very good at following orders,” said Paul with a slight frown. He quickly replaced the look with a smile that seemed almost forced. “The important thing is that you’re all right.”

“I’m fine,” Joe assured him. “But we do have a problem.”

“Oh?” said Paul in surprise. “What’s that?”

“I don’t have any clothes,” said Joe with a grin. “I realized that this afternoon when I…when I got my exercise. Unless you want me to walk around almost naked, I’m going to need some clothes.”

Paul laughed. “Well, we can’t have you walking around naked,” he agreed. “Not that it would bother me but you’re liable to catch cold.”

Walking over to the chair by the bed, Paul sat down. “Actually, the same thought occurred to me when I was in town,” said Paul as he settled himself comfortably into the chair. “When I was buying supplies in the store, it struck me that you were going to need some things. I bought you a pair of pants and some shirts. Had to guess at the sizes, but I think I got them about right.”

“Thank you,” said Joe. He shook his head. “Seems like all I do is say thanks. Wish there was some way I could repay you.”

“Well, there might be,” suggested Paul in a serious voice. He saw Joe looking at him curiously. “You play cribbage?” he asked abruptly. “I bought a board and a deck of cards, too. You can repay me by playing cribbage with me.”

Joe had a feeling that cribbage wasn’t what Paul originally had in mind as repayment, but he let it go. He knew by now that Paul would tell him only what Paul wanted him to know. “I play cribbage,” said Joe. “I’m pretty good. Much better than I am at chess.”

“That’s not saying much,” said Paul with a grin.

Joe’s face suddenly grew serious. “Did you get the telegram off to my Pa?” he asked. “I don’t want him to be worrying about me.”

“Yes, I sent the wire as soon as I got to town yesterday,” Paul confirmed. An odd look flashed across his face. “Don’t worry, Joe,” he said. “Your family won’t be coming to Twin Pines looking for you.”

*****

Ben walked into a silent house. Adam and Hoss had left a few days earlier to deliver some cattle to a rancher near Reno and Ben knew he faced another lonely dinner. He put his hat on the peg by the door and walked over to his favorite chair by the fireplace. Ben decided he needed to do some thinking.

Initially, Ben had thought about asking Adam and Hoss to check up on Joe in Reno, but had stopped himself. Sending Joe’s brothers to look for him would only add fuel to the fire of Joe’s unhappiness and anger. Ben had promised Joe that he would trust him, and Ben was determined to keep that promise.

But his determination didn’t keep Ben from worrying. Joe’s telegram arrived over a week ago. Ben couldn’t imagine what was keeping Joe in Reno this long. The sheriff in Reno knew both Joe and Ben, so if anything had happened, Ben would have heard from him. But still, Ben was concerned. Despite Joe’s displeasure with his family, it wasn’t like him to stay away from the Ponderosa for so long.

Sitting by the fire, Ben wondered how long he should wait before trying to find Joe. It was a fine line between interfering in Joe’s business and making sure his son was all right. Joe had been gone almost three weeks. He couldn’t think it unreasonable for a father to be concerned about his son after such a length of time.

Ben sighed. He might think it wasn’t unreasonable, but there’s no telling what Joe would think. Ben knew the situation was delicate. If Joe felt that his searching for him in Reno was just another sign of Ben’s not trusting him, it could drive a wedge between father and son that couldn’t be removed. Ben could lose his youngest son. And that was a risk he wasn’t willing to take.

Slowly, Ben shook his head, wondering what to do. If it were Adam or Hoss, he would have a better idea of what was right. But Joe was young, impetuous, and volatile. Ben just didn’t know how Joe would react to his showing up in Reno.

When he heard the front door open, Ben turned in surprise, and his surprise grew when he saw Adam and Hoss walking hurriedly into the house. He hadn’t expected his sons back until tomorrow. “You’re back early, boy,” he said in greeting. “Good trip?”

“We delivered the cattle fine, Pa,” said Hoss. But his face wore a grim expression. “But we got a problem. We can’t find Joe.”

“What?” said Ben in astonishment. Then his eyes narrowed. “You didn’t go into Reno looking for him, did you?”

Adam looked uncomfortable. “Yeah, we did, Pa,” he said. He held up his hand, stopping Ben’s angry comment. “I know what you’re going to say. We shouldn’t have done it. But Hoss and I got to talking on the trail. We felt something strange was going on.”

“Strange?” said Ben, his anger replaced by concern.

“Yeah, Pa,” said Hoss. “Why would Joe go to Reno like that? And how come he staid away so long without any word?”

“And the telegram,” added Adam. “It was signed Joe Cartwright. Why would Joe sign his last name? He’s never done that before.”

“It is unusual,” said Ben slowly. “But I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation.”

“Well, we couldn’t think of one,” said Adam. “So Hoss and I decided to swing by Reno after we delivered the cattle. We figured a little conversation with Sheriff Brady there couldn’t do any harm.” Adam’s face turned grim. “Brady said he hasn’t seen Joe in months.”

“We checked the hotel where Joe always stays,” added Hoss. “He wasn’t registered there. The clerk showed us the registration back almost three months. Joe wasn’t listed anyplace.”

“Hoss and I talked to a dozen people,” said Adam, “people who know Joe by sight. Nobody has seen him.”

“Are you sure?” asked Ben, his concern growing. “No one had seen him? No one at all?”

“No one,” confirmed Adam. He shook his head. “Pa, Joe didn’t go to Reno.”

“But why would he send us that telegram saying he was going to Reno?” said Ben in bewilderment. “And if he’s not in Reno, where is he?”

“I don’t know where Joe is,” said Adam, “but I have a feeling he didn’t send that telegram. That way it’s worded and signed, well, I don’t think Joe sent it.”

Ben’s face grew as grim as his son’s. “If Joe didn’t send that telegram and he didn’t go to Reno, he could be in some trouble,” said Ben. He looked at Adam and Hoss. “That telegram came from Twin Pines. First thing in the morning, we’re going to Twin Pines.”

*****

Joe sat at the table playing cribbage with Paul. He was wearing the light blue shirt Paul had bought him. It was a bit big on him but not uncomfortable so. The black pants Paul had bought fit loosely also, but that was a good thing. Joe’s leg was still bandaged and the looseness of the pants made it easier to get pants leg over his bandages. Joe’s leg was stretched out, resting on a pillow on top of another chair. The crutches were lying on the floor near the chair.

“Game!” said Joe triumphantly as he moved his peg to the end of the cribbage board.

“I think we need to go back to playing chess,” grumbled Paul. “At least I can win at that.”

“I like playing cribbage” said Joe with a wide grin.

“You mean, you like winning,” said Paul, with a matching grin. “We need to figure out something that we’re both good at, so at least the game is equal.”

“Or maybe something that we’re both bad at,” suggested Joe.

Paul laughed and shook his head. “You do keep me hopping, Joe.”

“Yeah, that’s what my Pa says,” commented Joe with a smile. “I’m not sure he means it as a compliment.”

An odd look crossed Paul’s face for a moment then quickly disappeared. Joe had seen the look before, usually when he mentioned his Pa. Joe wondered about the odd look, but the expression came and went so quickly that Joe wasn’t even sure he really saw it.

Paul began shuffling the decks of cards. “Let’s play another,” he said.

Paul had just begun to deal the cards when a voice called from outside the cabin. “Yo! You in the cabin!” shouted the voice. “Come out here. We got a bone to pick with you.”

Joe looked at Paul in surprise. In the almost three weeks he had been at the house, this was the first time Joe could remember hearing anyone other than Paul. Paul didn’t look frightened or startled. His expression was one of puzzlement. Paul stood up and walked over to the window in the front of the house. He peered outside for a moment, then walked toward the door. “You stay put,” Paul ordered Joe as he grabbed a rifle from the gun rack and walked outside.

Paul stood on the porch in front of the house and looked at the two men standing in the yard. The men were dressed as trappers. One wore a coonskin cap with a tail, and his dirty pants and shirt were made from leather. The other man wore a dark vest spotted with stains over a faded red shirt. His black pants were stuck into tall boots and a black had with a wide brim was perched on his head. Both men carried rifles in their hands.

“Can I help you?” asked Paul politely.

“Yeah,” said the man in the coonskin cap. “You can stop messing with our traps.”

Paul raised his eyebrows. “What makes you think I’ve been ‘messing’ with your traps?”

“Well, somebody has been springing them,” muttered the man in the black had.

“That’s right,” growled the other man. “We’ve been finding our traps sprung and no animals for a while now. We figured you must be the one doing it. And we don’t like it.”

“Why do you think I’m the one?” asked Paul, tilting his head a bit.

“Cause you’re the only one up here!” said the man in the black hat angrily. “Ain’t nobody else up here. And you ain’t a trapper or anything. We seen you just riding around.”

“Gentlemen, what I do is my own business,” said Paul. He shifted his rifle meaningfully. “Now I suggest you leave.”

The two men exchanged glances, and both lifted their rifles. “Them traps are important to us,” said the man in the coonskin hat, his eyes narrowing. “We don’t catch nothing, we don’t eat.”

“Yeah, we got a right to protect what’s ours,” added the other man.

“I’ll remember that,” said Paul coolly. “Now, once again, I suggest you leave.”

The man in the black hat looked at his partner and nodded his head slightly. Both men pointed their rifles toward Paul. Paul quickly pointed his rifle back at the men.

“Maybe we’ll give you a little something to help you remember,” sneered the man in the coonskin hat cocking his rifle.

“I wouldn’t do that,” warned Paul, cocking his own weapon.

The man in the black hat snorted. “Ain’t you forgetting something. There’s two of us and one of you. Think we’ll give you a little reminder and then see what’s in that fancy house of yours.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said a voice from behind Paul.

Paul glanced over his shoulder. Joe stood in the doorway, his weight balanced precariously on the crutch under his left shoulder. His pistol was in his right hand, cocked and pointed at the men in the yard.

The men in the yard looked at Joe and then looked nervously at each other. One licked his lips.

For a moment, there was no movement. The four men pointed guns and stared at each other, each daring one of the others to make a move.

The silence was broken by the sound of a low growl from a small black figure standing at the side of the house. Lucifer stared at the men, teeth bared and body tensed.

“I believe the odds are three to two,” said Paul almost formally. “I think you’d better leave before someone gets hurts.”

The men in the yard looked at the snarling dog, then at the two men on the porch. The one in the black hat lowered his gun. “Come on, Harry, let’s get out of here,” he said in a low voice.

Harry nodded and lowered his gun. He threw an angry look at the men on the porch, then started to back away from the house. The man in the black hat followed him.

Paul and Joe stood unmoving on the porch, watching until the two men disappeared into the woods. Paul lowered his gun, and turned toward the side of the house. “Good dog, Lucifer,” he said in a loud voice.

Lucifer looked at Paul and gave a small yelp. Then the dog disappeared around the side of the house.

Paul turned to Joe. “I thought I told you to stay inside,” said Paul with a frown. “I don’t want to be patching up any more holes in you.”

Joe shrugged and grinned. “I told you I wasn’t very good at following orders.” His face grew serious. “Do you think they’ll be back?”

Paul looked toward the woods thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” he said. “Probably not. But it might not be a bad idea to make ourselves scarce for a day or so.” He turned to Joe and smiled. “Want to go fishing tomorrow?”

Joe glanced down. The bandages around his leg peeked out from the bottom of his pants and his foot was bare. “I’m not sure…” he started in a doubtful voice.

“There’s a stream not too far from here that’s just filled with trout,” interrupted Paul. “I can get you on my horse and have you there in no time.” Paul’s smile widened. “Sitting by a stream holding a fishing pole never hurt anyone.”

Joe grinned in response. “Sounds great!” he replied enthusiastically. “I have to admit I’m starting to get cabin fever. I think I’ve forgotten what the sun feels like.”

“Then it’s agreed,” said Paul in a firm voice but with a smile. “Tomorrow we go catch ourselves some trout for dinner.”

*****

Ben rode his buckskin horse slowly down the street of Twin Pines, with Adam and Hoss following behind him. Ben’s face had a tired, worried look on it. Adam and Hoss looked grim.

Stopping his horse by the hitching post in front of building with a large sign saying simply “Saloon”, Ben dismounted. He tied the reins to the hitching post and ducked under the rail to the other side then waited a moment while Adam and Hoss followed suit.

“What do you want to do now, Pa?” asked Hoss.

“I’m not sure,” answered Ben. He shook his head. “I was sure Ferguson would have some idea where Joe might have gone.”

“But he didn’t,” said Adam grimly. “You heard what he said. Last time he saw Joe was over three weeks ago, riding out of town. He was surprised when you told him Joe never made it home.”

Ben looked around the town. “Adam, why don’t you check with the sheriff. Hoss, you check the hotel. I’m going down to the telegraph office.” Ben glanced at the building behind him. “We’ll meet inside the saloon.”

Adam and Hoss nodded. The three men starting walking, each headed in a different direction.

Less than an hour later, Adam walked into the saloon. He glanced around the bar and saw Ben and Hoss sitting at a table in the middle of the room. Three beers sat on the table. None of the beers had been touched.

“Any luck?” said Adam as he slid into a chair at the table.

Hoss shook his head. “No. Joe checked out of the hotel almost a month ago. The clerk hasn’t seen him since.”

“The telegrapher is sure Joe wasn’t the one who sent the wire,” said Ben in a grim tone. “When I described Joe to him, he was positive he hadn’t seen him.”

“Does he know who did send the telegram?” asked Adam.

“He doesn’t remember,” said Ben glumly. “He said he’d think about it and let me know if anything came to him.” Ben turned to Adam. “Did the sheriff know anything?” he asked hopefully.

Adam shook his head. “No. He hasn’t seen Joe and he hasn’t heard anything that might give us a clue. The only unusual thing that’s happened around here in a month is finding a body up in the woods.”

Seeing the stricken look on Ben and Hoss’ face, Adam added hastily, “It wasn’t Joe. The sheriff knew the man. Said his name was Weaver.”

“What else did the sheriff tell you?” Ben asked, his eyes fixed on his oldest son’s face.

Adam took a deep breath, not surprised that his father could tell he was holding something back. Ben Cartwright could usually read his sons like a book.

“This Weaver, he was a pretty nasty piece of work,” said Adam slowly. “Evidently, he had a history of following people who were carrying money. Sheriff thinks he bushwhacked three or four, although he couldn’t prove it. Anyway, the sheriff said he rode up to where the body was found. He said there were some other tracks up there, and some dried blood that didn’t look like it came from Weaver.” Adam shook his head. “There was not way to tell where the other…tracks came from.”

“No sign of…anyone else?” asked Ben.

“No,” replied Adam. “The sheriff said he looked all around the area. There was nothing to tell him who the other man was or where he went.” Adam shrugged. “The body was almost a week dead when it was found. Sheriff figures whoever else was up there was long gone.”

“What now?” asked Hoss.

Ben stared at the untouched beers on the table. “We’re going to start asking questions,” he said firmly. “We’ll talk to every person in this town if we have to. Somebody must know something.”

“And if they don’t?” said Adam.

“Then we’ll start riding, and we’ll keep riding until we find him,” answered Ben in a grim voice.

“Pa, there’s a whole lot of land between here and the Ponderosa,” said Hoss in a tentative voice. “Those mountains alone could take six months to search.”

“Then we’ll spend six months searching,” replied Ben. “We’re not going home until we find Joe.”

*****

Joe watched as the fishing line floated lazily in the water. He was stretched out on the soft grass next to the wide stream, leaning comfortably against a small hill. Occasionally, he moved his fishing pole to give the hook under the water some movement, but mostly Joe was just enjoying the pleasantly warm sun.

Sitting a few feet away, Paul’s fishing was more purposeful. He was seated upright and he moved his pole regularly. Six trout laid on the grass next to him. Occasionally, Paul would look over to Joe, and an indulgent smile would cross his face.

“This is the life,” said Joe as he watched his line in the water.

“It is, isn’t it,” agreed Paul with a smile.

“I sure am going to hate going home,” added Joe.

Paul didn’t answer for a minute. He moved his pole twice. “You don’t have to go home, Joe,” said Paul, not looking at Joe.

Joe turned his head. “What?” he asked in surprise.

“I said, you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to,” answered Paul. He turned to Joe and smiled. “I like you, boy. I like having you around. You’re welcome to stay permanently if you want.”

Frowning a bit, Joe thought about the other man’s offer, and the relaxed, almost lazy lifestyle that Paul lived. He was briefly tempted. But after a few minutes thought, Joe shook his head. “Thanks, Paul, but no. I have to go home.”

“Why?” asked Paul. “You told me you were unhappy there. That your Pa and brothers treated you poorly. Why go back? Why not just stay here with me?”

Joe looked at Paul in surprise. He had forgotten he had told the man about his disagreement with his family. In fact, he had forgotten about the disagreement. Looking back on it now, the whole incident seemed petty to him. “I might have exaggerated the situation a bit,” admitted Joe. “I didn’t like what they did, but I know they only did it because they cared. My Pa and brothers, well, we all look out for each other. We’re family, Paul, and you don’t turn your back on family.”

“Some people do,” said Paul in a bitter voice.

Joe raised his eyebrows at Paul’s comment, unsure what to say. “Why don’t you come back with me?” he urged Paul. “You could stay at the ranch for awhile. I know you’d like my Pa. And my brother Adam has probably got even more books than you do. You two would hit it right off. And Hoss, well, if you think you’re a good fisherman, then you should see my brother fish.”

“Good, eh,” said Paul, not looking at Joe.

“The best,” said Joe with a smile. “Come back to the Ponderosa with me, Paul.”

“I can’t do that, Joe,” said Paul, continuing to stare at the water.

“Why not?” asked Joe. “Why do you stay up here, Paul? Why have you cut yourself off like this?”

Paul continued to stare at the water. He obviously was considering his answer.

“I was a teacher, Joe, a professor at a college in St. Louis,” said Paul slowly. “I was well respected, active in the community, had a good life. Then one night, I had an argument with my wife. Nothing serious, just some trivial thing that we both let get blown out of proportion. I stormed out of the house, and went to a nearby park to take a walk and cool off. About an hour later, I came home. The front door was open. I walked in and found my wife.” Paul turned to look at Joe. “She was dead. Somebody had cracked her skull with a poker from the fireplace.”

“I’m sorry,” said Joe with genuine sympathy.

“One of the neighbors saw the open door,” continued Paul. “They went out and found a policeman. The policeman came to the door and saw me bending over my wife’s body. Next thing I knew I had been arrested for her murder. I kept telling them I was innocent but no one believed me. No one, except my son David.”

“I sat in that miserable jail for almost three months, waiting for a trial,” Paul said, his voice filled with bitterness. “The only person who came to see me, besides my lawyer, was David. None of our friends, none of my college associates, no one came to visit.”

“How did you get out?” asked Joe.

“David kept searching for someone, anyone, who had seen me in the park that night,” answered Paul. “The police didn’t believe my story, so they didn’t bother to look. But David did. He finally found a young couple who admitted to seeing me. They had kept quiet because the man was married to someone else. David finally convinced him to tell the truth, and the woman confirmed his story. The police finally let me go.”

“What happened then?” asked Joe. “How did you end up here?”

“My arrest made front page news,” explained Paul. “But my release was a small story on page four. When I returned home, I found most people were surprised to see me. My position at the college had been taken by someone else, because the dean was sure I was guilty. Our so-called friends avoided me. Even people on the street would point and whisper when they recognized me from my picture in the paper.” Paul shook his head. “It was intolerable, Joe. My life was in ruins. My wife was dead, I had no job, and everywhere I went, people treated me like a pariah. So David and I loaded up a couple of wagons with everything we could carry. We set off for the West, looking for place with no people, no one who would point their finger at me and stare. We finally ended up here.”

Paul looked away, as if remembering. “David and I spent six months building the house. We slept in the wagons, or under the stars if the weather was nice. We built ourselves a house that was comfortable and had everything we wanted. And we built it where there no other people. I vowed never to go back to the so-called civilized world. And I’ve kept that vow.”

“Did they ever find out who killed your wife,” asked Joe.

“No,” said Paul with a shake of his head. “I figure it was a thief, someone who broke into the house thinking it was empty. My wife must have surprised him and he killed her.”

“What happened to David?” asked Joe.

A pained look crossed Paul’s face. “He’s gone now,” he said. Paul pulled his fishing line out of the water. “We’d better head back,” he said abruptly.

“Paul, I’m sorry for what happened to you, but you can’t stay up here forever,” said Joe. “Come back to the Ponderosa with me. It will be different there, I promise. No one will point fingers at you. No one will treat you with anything but respect.”

“No,” said Paul firmly.

“Paul…”started Joe.

“I said no!” shouted Paul. “Don’t you ever listen to me, boy? I said we’re staying here and that’s final!” Paul threw his fishing pole on the ground in an angry gesture. “I’ll go get the horse,” he said, turning and walking swiftly up the hill.

Joe watched Paul walking over to where the horse was tied. He felt sorry for the man. He also felt sad. Paul was an intelligent, talented man. It was sad that the society had turned its back on him and robbed themselves of such a man.

Paul led the horse to the hill near where Joe sat. “I’ll help you on,” he said in a curt tone.

“I think I can manage,” said Joe, struggling to his feet.

“Don’t argue with me, boy,” said Paul in an angry voice. He reached out and grabbed Joe’s arm, almost pulling him up the hill. Joe winced as he bumped his leg. Paul didn’t seem to notice. He pulled Joe toward him.

Joe grunted as his weight shifted onto his injured leg. “Wait a second,” he said as his a pain shot up his leg.

Paul looked startled. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said apologetically. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Are you all right?”

Joe nodded, although his leg continued to hurt. “I’ll be all right,” he answered but his voice was strained.

“Let me help you up on the horse,” suggested Paul. “Get your weight of that leg.” Joe nodded again.

Paul helped Joe climb up into the saddle and made sure he was comfortable. He handed Joe the reins. “I’ll get the poles and the fish,” Paul said, turning and walking down the hill.

Joe watched as Paul gathered the poles and picked up the string of fish from the ground. He thought about the flash of anger he had seen in the other man. The sudden mood change confused Joe. It also frightened him a bit.

*****

Ben Cartwright walked into the saloon in Twin Pines, his face grim. He saw his sons waiting for him at the table in the middle of the room. Ben ignored the few other people in the saloon – two men lazily playing cards at another table and two trappers standing drinking at the bar.

“Did you find out anything?” Ben asked as he sat down.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other. “No,” Adam admitted. “I talked with everyone in every building on the south side of town. No one has seen Joe since he left here a few weeks ago.”

“And I covered everything on the north side,” said Hoss. “Same answer.”

Ben slumped in his chair. “I checked every ranch and farm outside of town,” he said. “Nothing.” Ben looked at his sons. “Where could he be?” he asked, knowing Adam and Hoss had no answer.

“Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben looked up to see a man walking rapidly into the saloon. “Mr. Cartwright, I thought I saw you riding into town,” said the man as he walked up to the table.

For a minute, Ben wasn’t sure who the man was. Then his face cleared. “Mr. Barrett,” replied Ben in recognition. Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “Mr. Barrett runs the telegraph office.”

“I’ve been thinking about that telegram you asked about,” said Barrett. “The one from your son. I finally remembered who sent it.”

“Who?” asked Ben eagerly.

“Well, I’m not sure of the fellow’s name,” answered Barrett slowly. “He’s kind of an odd fellow. Lives up in the mountains. He comes to town from time to time to pick up supplies but he makes his visits to town as short as possible. Never stays a minute longer than he has to.”

“Are you sure he’s the one who sent the telegram?” asked Adam with a frown.

“I’m sure,” replied Barrett positively. “I remember last night. When he gave me the telegram to send, I was surprised at the name. The name on the bottom of the telegram was Joe Cartwright. But I know the fellow’s name isn’t Joe. It’s kind of a different name, like Taylor or Tyler or something like that.”

“Did he say anything when he sent the telegram?” asked Adam.

“Nope,” said Barrett, shaking his head. “Just wrote it out, paid me the money and left.”

“What does he look like?” asked Ben.

Barrett rubbed his chin. “Well, he’s about your age. White hair, white beard. Has kind of a weathered look, like he spends a lot of time outdoors. Like I said, he lives up in the mountains someplace.”

“Is he a trapper or something?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t think so,” answered Barrett slowly. “He dresses more like a rancher, than a trapper. I’ve never seen him with any pelts.”

“He ain’t no trapper,” said one of the men standing at the bar.

Ben turned to the man with a look of surprise. “Do you know him?” he asked.

The man at the bar was wearing a black hat with a wide brim, and the man next to him sported a coonskin cap. “Harry and me had a run in with him the other day,” said the man in the black hat. “He’s been springing our traps. We told him to stop.”

“Do you know where he lives?” said Ben, his hope growing.

“He lives in some fancy house up in the mountains,” replied the trapper. “He and some young fellow.”

“Young fellow?” repeated Ben. “What does the young fellow look like?”

The trapper shrugged. “About twenty, dark hair,” said the man. “Didn’t get a real good look at the boy.”

“That would be his son,” said Barrett. “I’ve seen the boy with his father a time or two in town.”

Ben’s face reflected his disappointment. He had hoped…Ben shook his head. The man or his son must know something about Joe. It was the first glimmer of a lead. “Can you tell us how to find this place?” he asked the men at the bar.

The two looked at each other. “It ain’t easy to describe,” admitted the man in the coonskin hat.

“How about leading us there?” suggested Hoss.

The man in the black hat shook his head. “Can’t do it,” he said. “Me and Harry got to be over in Corinth day after tomorrow. Got a job waiting.” The trapper didn’t want to admit that he had no desire to face the two armed men in the mountains again. “We’ll do our best to tell you how to get there.”

Adam’s face looked thoughtful as the trappers described how to find the house in the mountains. He didn’t say anything as Ben thanked the telegrapher and bought the two men at the bar a beer.

As Ben settled back in his chair, he looked at Adam. “What’s wrong, son?” he asked.

“Something that the telegrapher said,” answered Adam. “About the man’s son.”

“What about it?” asked Hoss.

“Well, every place I went, I asked if anything unusual had happened lately, something that seemed out of place,” replied Adam. “I thought maybe I could pick up some clue on Joe that way. You know, something that might mean something to us that no one else thought much about. Anyway, the clerk at the store told me about the man the telegrapher described. Said he was in a few weeks ago buying supplies. He also bought some clothes.”

“What’s so odd about that?” asked Hoss

“Well, the clerk said the clothes were obviously for someone other than this fellow,” answered Adam. “He told me at first he thought the man was buying some clothes for his son. But then he decided that couldn’t be.”

“Why not?” asked Ben.

“The clerk told me the man’s son wasn’t around any more,” said Adam. “He told me the son took a stage back East about six months ago.”

*****

Joe sat back in his chair and gave a satisfied grunt. “That fish sure tasted good,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “I ate almost as much as my brother Hoss would.”

Paul didn’t answer. As always when Joe mentioned his family, he grew silent.

Joe bit his lip, hesitant about what he wanted to say next. “I’ve been thinking, Paul,” he said slowly. “I think it’s time for me to leave.”

Paul’s head jerked up. “You’re not well enough to leave,” he said.

“I can’t walk too good,” Joe admitted. “But I sure can sit a horse. I thought if you lent me a horse, I could travel down to Twin Pines. I can send my Pa a telegram from there, and he can come get me.”

“No,” said Paul in a flat voice. He stood abruptly and began collecting the plates off the table.

“Paul, I have to leave,” said Joe in a persuasive voice. “Now is just as good a time as any.”

“You’re not leaving,” said Paul. He banged the plates back down on the table. “You’re not leaving me alone again.”

Joe frowned. “I’ve got to leave,” he said, his voice rising in anger. “I can’t stay here.”

“You’re staying,” shouted Paul. “You were sent here to me and I’m going to keep you here.”

“I wasn’t ‘sent here’ to you,” said Joe. “You found me in the woods, remember.”

“Same thing,” answered Paul. “I lost one son. I was given another. I’m not going to lose a son again.”

“Paul, listen to me,” urged Joe.

“Don’t Pa, me,” said Paul in an angry voice. “You never listen to your Pa. You always want to do what you want. You want to go live in the city. I told you know but you wouldn’t listen. Well, this time, you’re going to listen to me and obey your Pa.” Paul abruptly turned his back to Joe.

Joe looked at the man in astonishment. He looked up and saw the box on the mantle, remembering the name on the coin. He frown as he thought about it, and then his face cleared as he suddenly understood.

“Your name isn’t Paul, is it,” said Joe. “You had me call you Paul because it sounded like Pa.”

Paul whirled around. “What difference does it make,” he said with a frown.

“It makes a difference,” replied Joe. He looked at the man, not sure what to call him. “I’m not your son. You’re not my Pa.”

“I am,” insisted the man. “I’m your Pa now. It’s time you accepted that. You’re my son and you’re going to obey me. You’re not leaving.”

Joe pushed back the chair and stood, putting his weight on his hands as he leaned against the table. “What happened to your son?” he demanded. “What happened to David?”

The man stared at Joe. “He wouldn’t listen to me,” he said. “He said he was tired of living up here all alone. I told him that being up here was best, that he would be hurt if he was around other people. He didn’t listen.” The man looked away. “I came back from hunting one day and he was gone.”

“You can’t force someone to stay where they don’t want to be,” said Joe in a quiet voice.

The man looked back to Joe. “I made a mistake with David,” he said. “I’m not making the same mistake twice. I’m not going to let you leave.”

The man suddenly rushed around the table to Joe. Joe put up a hand defensively, not sure what the man would do. The man knocked Joe’s hand aside, and grabbed Joe under the arms.

“I’m going to make sure you don’t leave,” said the man as he began dragging Joe across the room.

Joe struggled to free himself but the man’s grip was strong and Joe’s injured leg still couldn’t support him. As the man dragged Joe toward the bedroom, Joe’s injured leg bounced and buckled against the floor. Pain shot up Joe’s leg and he let out a cry of pain.

The man ignored Joe’s cry and continued to drag him across the room. When he reached the bedroom, he pushed Joe inside, throwing Joe to the floor. Joe yelled in pain again as his leg hit the hard floor.

“You’re going to stay in your room until you come to your senses,” said the man. He pulled the door shut. Joe heard a lock click closed.

Joe laid on the floor, rubbing his injured leg. He was confused about the turn of events. He was grateful to the man he thought of as Paul, but his gratitude wasn’t strong enough to devote his life to the man.

Paul was mad, insane, thought Joe. Not the raving lunatic kind of insane, but still possessing a madness that prevented him from seeing the truth. Paul thought that Joe was somehow sent to replace the son who had left him, and nothing Joe could say or do would convince him otherwise.

Joe shook his head in sadness. He wondered if living up here all alone had caused the madness or whether it was the ordeal of being jailed for his wife’s murder. Probably a little bit of both, Joe decided.

Pulling himself up slowly from the floor, Joe limped slowly to the bed. Walking still hurt his leg. Joe eased himself onto the bed. He needed to think, to plan. He had to get away from the man in the other room. He just didn’t know how to do it.

*****

The rattle of dishes and the loud click of the lock woke Joe. He looked around the sunlit room in drowsy confusion. He remembered laying on the bed in the dark, thinking about what to do. He wasn’t sure when he had fallen asleep.

Joe looked up as the door opened and the man came into a room carrying a tray. “Good morning,” said the man cheerfully. Joe’s eyebrows rose in the surprise.

“I brought you breakfast,” continued the man, handing the tray to Joe. “Your favorite – blueberry pancakes.”

Joe looked at the plate on the tray. Three fluffy pancakes covered in blueberries and sauce sat on the plate. Black coffee sloshed in a cup on the corner of the tray. The food smelled good, and Joe realized how hungry he was. Joe looked up at the man. “Thanks,” he said in a wary tone.

The man settled himself with familiarity into the chair next to the bed.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he said in a contrite voice as he watched Joe eat. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

Joe moved his leg a big and winced. “I’m a little sore,” he admitted. “But I’ll be all right.”

“I’m sorry, really I am, “ said the man, his voice full of regret. He looked at Joe. “I don’t want us to be enemies.”

Joe said nothing and continued to eat.

“It’s a good life up here,” mused the man. “It really is. Plenty of time to fish or hunt, time to read, time to think. A man can do whatever he wants.”

“Except leave,” said Joe.

The man frowned. “I was hoping you had come to your senses,” he said. “I can see that you haven’t.”

“Paul,” said Joe, not knowing what else to call the man. “I’m not going to stay here. You can’t keep me here. Somehow, some way, I’ll find a way to leave.” Joe ate the last bit of the pancakes. “Thank you for breakfast.”

“You’re welcome,” said the man. He took the tray and stood. “Joe, you’re staying with me. You might as well get used to the idea. It will make things easier on both of us.”

Joe looked away and didn’t answer.

“All right,” said the man with a sigh. “I’m going to lock you in your room. I hate to do it, but it’s the only way for now.”

Joe looked at the man and frowned. He didn’t like the sound of “for now.” “What do you plan to do?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” admitted the man. “I need to think about it. When I was in jail, they used leg irons to keep men from trying to escape. The chains are uncomfortable, but they are effective.”

Joe’s frown disappeared and a look of alarm crossed his face. “You don’t mean to chain me up,” he said.

“I don’t want to you,” the man answered with a shake his head. “But it may be the only answer. I need to think on it.” The man turned and walked out of the room. Joe heard the lock click on the door.

Laying back on the bed, Joe thought hard. Last night, he had decided to wait until his leg was stronger before trying to escape. He wasn’t sure how far he could walk in his present condition. But the talk of leg irons changed Joe’s thinking. He couldn’t wait. He had to try to leave now.

Joe reached under the bed and pulled out the boot for his left foot. He hadn’t tried to wear the boot since he had been caught in the trap. The low half of his leg was still a bit swollen. Now, he slipped on the sock that had been stuck in the boot, and slowly eased on the boot. The top of the boot was tight against his leg. The swelling and bandages pressed his leg tight against the leather.

Swing his legs off the bed, Joe stood. He winced at the pain that resulted from putting weight on his leg. Joe stood still for a minute, and the pain eased a bit. He took a step forward and limped slowly across the room.

As he stopped by the window, Joe studied it. The window was small, but big enough for him to climb through. It stood about chest high on the wall. The shutters were half open, and Joe pushed the shutters until they were flush against the wall.

Grabbing the bottom of the window, Joe pulled himself up. He eased his head and chest through the window, then half fell, and half dove to the ground outside.

Joe had tried to curl his body as he fell, but the fall still stunned him a bit. He laid still, both to catch his breath and to listen for any sign of detection. After a minute, he pulled himself to his feet and started to limp across the ground toward the woods.

Joe was about ten feet from the house when he heard the growl. He looked over his shoulder. Lucifer was standing near the house, watching him. Joe took a deep breath and headed toward the woods as fast as his injured leg would allow him.

Lucifer saw him continue to move and that seemed to anger the dog. He began to bark loudly, and started to run toward Joe. Joe started to run, moving with an awkward gait as he tried to keep as much weight off his leg as possible.

The barking attracted the man’s attention and he burst out of the front door of the house. He saw Joe disappearing into the woods, with Lucifer in pursuit.

“Lucifer! Come here!” the man shouted, fearful that the dog might injure his new son.

Lucifer skidded to a stop, and looked back to the house. He turned to look toward the woods, obviously confused about what to do.

“Lucifer! Come!” shouted the man again.

The dog looked to the woods and saw the figure disappearing through the trees. Satisfied that he had frightened off the intruder, Lucifer turned and trotted back to the house.

The man walked down to the dog and patted the animal on the head.

“Good dog,” he said. He looked toward the woods, his expression suddenly sad. “Fool boy,” he said to the dog. “He can’t get far, and he’s liable to hurt himself. I’ll have to go and bring him back.” The man looked back to the house, indecision on his face. He gave a sigh and walked back to the door. He reached inside and pulled a rifle from the rack by the door. Then he turned and headed across the yard. “Lucifer, stay!” he shouted at the dog who had begun to follow him. Lucifer stopped, then sat down on his haunches. The man nodded briefly, then headed into the woods.

Joe walked through the thick brush as quickly as his sore leg would allow him. He had heard the man call the dog back, and was grateful for that. He had a feeling that if he tried to take on Lucifer, the dog would win.

Joe was breathing hard, and his leg was beginning to ache. He decided to stop and rest.

Resting his back against a tree, Joe eased himself to the ground. Now that he had a minute to think, he realized he had no idea where he was. He had no idea how to get to Twin Pines.

Joe cursed himself for his foolishness. He should have waited, should have figured out a way to get the man to tell him how to get to Twin Pines. He had acted rashly.

Shaking his head, Joe smiled ruefully. Maybe his Pa and his brothers were right after all, he thought. Maybe he really did need someone to watch over him. For sure, he hadn’t done a very good job of watching out for himself lately.

Suddenly, Joe heard the sound of something moving through the woods. He wasn’t sure if it was the man or an animal, but he wasn’t going to wait for whatever it was to find him. Joe pulled himself up and started walking, moving as quietly as he could. He glanced up at the sun. He knew Twin Pines had been to the east of where he had been caught in the trap. For want of a better direction, Joe headed east.

*****

“Pa, we’re lost,” declared Hoss as he pulled his horse to a stop.

Ben looked around him. The trees and bushes grew in thick bunches and the grass was tall. There was no sign that anyone had been in the area recently. “We must have taken a wrong turn someplace,” said Ben.

“Those directions we got weren’t exactly the clearest,” said Adam with a wry look.

Nodding absentmindedly, Ben looked around again. “Let’s go back to where the trail forked,” he said. “Maybe we can figure out where we went wrong.” He turned his horse and started back through the trees.

Adam waited a minute for Hoss to ride up next to him. “Don’t you think we’re going to find this place?” he asked Hoss.

“I don’t know, Adam,” replied Hoss. “But I sure am going to try. Joe needs our help, whether he knows it or not. And he’s going to get it. Whether he wants it or not.”

*****

Joe walked with a painful limp through the woods, his shirt damp with sweat. He wasn’t sure how long he had been walking, but each step seemed to make his leg ache more. The muscles torn by the teeth of the bear trap had only partially healed. Now weight and exertion were causing those to must to protest painfully. Joe tried to ignore the pain in his leg and kept moving. Twice he had stopped to rest, but each stop had been brief. Joe had heard the sounds of his pursuer both times, and he had quickly gotten back to his feet and walked on.

As he moved through the brush, Joe grew thirsty, and he knew he was tiring. The pain in his leg seemed to be sapping his strength. He thought about stopping, about simply letting the man find him but rejected the thought. Somehow, Joe knew if he didn’t escape now, he would never get another chance. He was more willing to face the pain and danger of trying to escape than face the prospect of spending the rest of his life in that house in the mountains.

His pace slowing, Joe walked on. He was breathing hard, and his mouth was open as his body sought more air. Rivulets of sweat ran into his eyes, and Joe wiped them away with the sleeve of his shirt. He was breathing so hard that he was surprised he could hear anything beyond his own tortured gasps for air. But he did hear something. It was the sound of something moving through the woods.

Joe tried to walk faster, tried to force himself to cover more ground. He knew he wasn’t moving quietly, that he was making enough noise that his pursuer could easily follow him. Trying to lose the man in the woods was no longer an option. Joe’s only hope was to try to find someplace to hide.

As he forced himself onward, Joe’s eyes searched the woods, hoping to find something that would offer him cover. Trees and bushes stood all around him but nothing that would offer the type of cover he was seeking.

Joe was searching for cover and not watching the ground. His foot hit a root, tripping him to the ground. Joe landed with a soft thud, and laid still.

He should get up, he should keep moving, though Joe. But his body wouldn’t obey. He was too tired, too thirsty, too sore. So Joe simply laid on the ground and waited for the inevitable.

The sound of someone moving through the woods was coming closer. Joe could hear the brush being moved aside. He laid on the ground, gasping for air, and tried to reconcile himself to being caught. The sound was almost on top of Joe, no more than a few feet away. Joe didn’t turn his head, didn’t look. He no longer cared.

“Joe!”

Joe lifted his head and turned toward the voice. He thought he was imagining the voice. He looked up and saw his father dismounting from his familiar buckskin horse.

“Pa?” said Joe in astonishment. He felt tears of joy and relief filling his eyes. “Pa,” repeated Joe in an exhausted tone.

Grabbing the canteen from his saddle, Ben rushed over to the figure on the ground. He uncorked the canteen and handed it to his son. Joe began to drink from it, greedily swallowing the liquid. As Joe drank, Ben lightly touched his head, then his shoulder. He could scarcely believe he had actually found his son.

When his thirst was at last eased, Joe lowered the canteen. “Pa,” said Joe again in a choked voice. “How did you find me?”

“Joe, we’ve been looking for you for days,” replied Ben, his voice equally choked. “We heard about this house in the mountains, but we couldn’t find it. Finally, we separated. Adam and Hoss are looking for you, too.”

Joe slumped in exhaustion and Ben put his arms around his son’s shoulders. He hugged Joe against him. “Joe, what happened to you, son,” he asked.

Closing his eyes, Joe wondered where to start. “Some fellow jumped me on the trail,” said Joe. “Tried to rob me. There was some shooting. I killed him, but he nicked me in the side with a bullet. The horses ran off, and I started walking toward Twin Pines. Along the way, I managed to get myself caught in a bear trap.”

Ben’s eyes widen as Joe talked. “When did this all happen?” he asked.

“A couple of weeks ago,” replied Joe in a tired voice. “This man found me, took me back to his place. He took care of me.” Joe stopped, wondering how to explain the man to his father. “Everything was fine until I figured out he wasn’t going to let me leave. Not ever. I escaped this morning, and I’ve been trying to get to Twin Pines since then.”

Slowly, Joe laid his head against his father’s shoulder. Joe felt the familiar arm around him, and he smelled the faint aroma that was distinctly Ben. Joe’s eyes began to well with tears again as he realized he was safe at last in his father’s arms. “Pa,” said Joe, beginning to cry. “I’m so happy to see you.”

“I’m happy to see you, son,” said Ben in a soothing voice. He had a hundred questions, but decided they could wait. He could see Joe was exhausted, his face etched with pain. All he wanted to do was take his son home. Explanations could wait.

“Take your hands off my son!”

Ben’s head snapped toward the voice and Joe lifted his head at the sound.

The man stood a few feet away, his rifle pointed at the pair on the ground. “I said, take your hands off my son,” repeated the man.

Ben didn’t move. His eyes narrowed and a hard look came onto his face. “This is MY son,” he said.

The man’s eyes widened in surprise. “Your son?” he said in astonishment.

“Yes,” replied Ben. “I’m Ben Cartwright. I’ve been looking for my son for a long time. Now that I’ve found him, I’m going to take him home.”

The man hesitated, unsure what to do. “I wouldn’t want to separate a father from a son,” he said slowly. But then a determined look crossed the man’s face. “You have two others sons,” he said to Ben. “I have none. None but the one you’re holding.”

“He’s not your son,” said Ben firmly.

“Yes he is,” insisted the man. “I found him, I cared for him. He’s mine.”

“My son is not some stray dog you can claim,” declared Ben. “He’s a boy. He has a family. He’s going back to his family.”

“No!” shouted the man. “He’s mine! I need him. I have to have him with me. I’ll make him want to stay with me!”

“You can’t make anyone want to stay with you,” said Ben in a quiet voice. “Especially not a son. You have to love your sons enough to give them room to grow. You have to love them enough to let them go if they want to.”

The man stared at Ben as he thought about Ben’s words. “But I don’t want to be alone,” said the man in almost a pleading voice.

“You don’t have to be alone,” said Joe quietly. “It’s your choice.”

The man looked at Joe in anger. “You don’t know anything about it,” he said.

“I know you chose to live in those mountains,” replied Joe in a tired voice. He closed his eyes and winced in pain. Then he looked up. “It’s your choice. It’s not mine.”

The anger on the man’s face was replaced with a pleading look. “Come home, son,” he urged Joe. “Please. Come home.”

Joe’s body sagged against Ben’s. “I am home,” said Joe in a barely audible voice.

The man looked at Joe and realized his pleas were in vain. He turned to stare at Ben. The man slowly lowered his rifle. “I was lucky enough to have your son for a little while,” said the man. “I guess I always knew, deep down, I couldn’t make him stay.” The man looked at Joe, then back to Ben. “You found your son. I guess now I have to find mine.”

The man turned and started to walk back into the woods. He stopped and turned back once more. “Good-bye, son,” he said to Joe. Then he disappeared into the woods.

*****

Ben walked from the kitchen toward the living room. He stopped just before entering the room and smiled to himself. Joe was stretched out on the sofa, reading. Ben watched Joe for a minute, savoring the sight.

The memory of finding Joe in the woods a week ago was still fresh in Ben’s mind. He could still see himself helping an exhausted Joe onto his horse, and he could almost feel his son resting against him as they rode slowly through the trees to meet Adam and Hoss at the fork in the trail. Joe had slept during most of the ride to Twin Pines, and then spent another day sleeping in the hotel room in town. Joe had seemed unusually quiet during the ride in the rented buckboard back to the ranch, and Ben had worried until he got his son home.

Doctor Martin had checked Joe, and declared that a week or two of rest was all the medicine Joe needed.

“Joseph, take your feet off the furniture,” said Ben as he started into the room.

Joe looked up and hastily swung his feet off the sofa. “Yes sir,” he said quickly. Joe watched as Ben walked to his favorite chair by the fireplace and sat down. “Where’d you go this morning?” asked Joe curiously. “When I came down for breakfast, Hop Sing said you had gone out.” Joe was still sleeping late, taking advantage of the opportunity to stay in bed until mid-morning while he could. Joe knew in another week, his brief vacation from work would be over.

“Oh, I just rode out to take a look at that dam that Adam and Hoss are building on Willow Creek,” said Ben.

Joe grinned impishly. “It’s nice to know I’m not the only one you check up on.”

“I was not checking up on them,” Ben said firmly. “I just rode out to see if they had everything they needed.”

“Uh huh,” said Joe, his voice reflecting his disbelief.

Ben looked at Joe, then smiled. “All right,” he admitted, “maybe I was doing a little checking. It’s a father’s right to check on his sons.” As soon as Ben said the words, he regretted them. He looked at Joe a bit fearfully.

“Don’t worry, Pa,” Joe reassured Ben. “It took me a while, but I finally figured out that having someone keep an eye on you isn’t all bad. Keeps a fellow from getting himself into a heap of trouble.” Joe’s face suddenly sobered. “Do you think Paul went looking for his son?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Ben with a shake of his head. “From what you said, I think that the man you called Paul was pretty confused. I’m not sure he knows what he wants.” Ben smiled at Joe. “Except maybe wanting you as a son.”

“Having one father is quite enough, thank you,” said Joe. “I don’t think I could survive having two.” Joe grinned. “There are days, I bet, when you wish you could give me away.”

Ben’s face grew sober. “No, Joe,” he said in a serious voice. “I may get angry with you, or exasperated with you, but there’s never a time when I wish you weren’t my son. I’m very proud and happy to have you as my son.”

Joe flushed, a bit embarrassed at Ben’s emotional statement. “I wouldn’t want anyone else as my father,” he said.

“Good,” said Ben with a smile. “Because I’m always going to be your father. I might not be the best father, but I’m the only one you’ll ever have.”

*****End*****

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