No Greater Love (by Susan)

Synopsis:  Life changes when the Cartwrights return home find the folks in Virginia City scared of those offering ‘protection’.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  23,380


 

The morning sun shone brightly as the wagon, followed by three riders, rolled into Virginia City. Hoss Cartwright was driving the empty wagon, and his father and two brothers followed on horseback.

“It feels like a year since I’ve been to Virginia City,” remarked Joe Cartwright to his brother Adam.

“Well, it’s been a while,” admitted Adam. “Let’s see, three weeks for the round-up, two weeks driving the cattle to the railhead, and another week to get back…it’s been almost two months.”

“Doesn’t look like it’s changed much,” said Joe, looking around.

“What were you expecting? Dancing girls in the street?” said Adam.

Joe grinned. “Now that’s not a bad idea,” said Joe.

“Remember what I told you, “ said Ben sternly over his shoulder to his sons. “Work first, and then, if we have time, you can have a beer. We’re low on just about everything at the ranch so we have a lot of supplies to load.”

“Yeah, and you fellows better not leave me to do all the loading,” said Hoss as he pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the general store.

“Hoss, we wouldn’t do that,” Joe said in an innocent voice.

“You won’t, ‘cause I’m going to make sure you won’t, “ Hoss said.

“Adam, I don’t think older brother trusts us,” Joe said in an injured voice.

“He’s gotten down right suspicious,” Adam agreed as he dismounted.

“Wonder where I got that idea?” said Hoss. “Just cause you two had me chasing strays and riding drag on the herd most of the last two months.”

“Hoss, it’s just that you’re so much better than us at that,” Joe said with a grin as he sat on his horse. Hoss climbed down from the wagon and walked over to his brother’s horse. He reached up and grabbed Joe by the shoulders, pulling him off his horse.

“C’mon, little brother, you can show me how much better you are at loading supplies,” Hoss said.

“Doggone it, Hoss, now you got me all dusty,” Joe said angrily as he laid sprawled in the dirt. Hoss hauled Joe to his feet and put his massive arms around Joe’s shoulders. “Mr. Perkins don’t care how dusty you are,” Hoss said as he guided his brother not too gently toward the general store. Adam and Ben laughed as they followed Hoss and Joe into the store.

“Good morning, John,” Ben said heartily to the store owner as the Cartwrights walked into the store. Ben pulled a sheet of paper from his shirt pocket. “I have a long list of supplies we need.”

“Morning, Ben,” Perkins said in a subdued voice. “I’ll be happy to fill your list.”

Ben handed the list to the owner and started looking at items in the store. Adam, Hoss and Joe followed suit.

“John, the price on these shirts must be wrong,” exclaimed Ben as he looked at some clothes. “They’re at least a dollar more than the last time I looked at them.”

“Yeah, and look at the price on these boots,” added Adam, holding up a pair of boots. “They’ve gone up, too.”

“The price of everything has gone up,” said Perkins nervously.

“But why?” asked Ben. “I know you, John. You don’t gouge people. You charge an honest price. What’s cause this sudden increase?”

Before Perkins could answer, two rough looking men walked into the store and started looking around. Perkins watched them for a minute, then turned back to Ben.

“I’ve had some new expenses,” Perkins mumbled. “I’ve had to pass on the cost to my customers.”

“Expenses? What expenses?” asked Ben curiously.

Perkins licked his lips nervously and looked at the two men lounging at the back of the store. “Just expenses,” said Perkins quickly. “I’ll start filling your order,” the man said and disappeared quickly into the back of the store. Ben frowned. He had known John Perkins a long time and never knew him to cheat his customers. He also knew him to be a friendly merchant, ready to gossip for a while whenever Ben visited his store. Perkins’ behavior and his raising prices seemed out of character. Joe was looking at some knives in the back of the store. As he put them down and started to walk to the other side of the building, he accidentally stepped on the foot of one of the cowboys who had followed the Cartwrights in.

“Sorry,” Joe said as he started to walk away.

“Watch it, sonny,” said the cowboy in an angry voice.

Joe stopped. “I said I was sorry,” Joe said, his voice cold as ice.

“You’re one of those Cartwrights, ain’t you?” said the other cowboy. “One of those high and might Cartwrights who think they own all of Nevada.”

“Yeah, I’m Joe Cartwright,” Joe said, bristling at
the man’s tone. “What of it?”

Ben walked quickly to the back of the store and grabbed Joe by the arm. He knew his son’s temper and didn’t want him to cause any trouble. “Joe,” Ben said, “we have some other errands to run while Mr. Perkins starts working on our list. C’mon, let’s get to them.”

Joe stared at the men in front of him, ignoring his father. His face was hard and his fists were balled.

“Joe,” Ben repeated, pulling at his son’s arm. “Let’s go.” Ben looked around and saw Adam and Hoss were standing still, ready to help Joe. “Adam, Hoss, let’s get to work,” Ben said loudly. Ben literally pulled Joe away from the men and pushed him out the door. Adam and Hoss followed slowly, never taking their eyes off the two cowboys.

“Pa, why did you drag me out of there?” Joe said angrily as Ben pushed him on down the street.

“I just got you out of there before you started something,” Ben said sternly. “I don’t want my sons brawling around Virginia City.”

“I wasn’t going to…” Joe started to say.

“Yes, you were,” Ben interrupted. “In one more minute, fists would have been flying and I would have had a bill at Perkins store that would take you a year to work off.”

Adam and Hoss came up to Ben and Joe. “What’s wrong with Perkins, do you think?” asked Adam. “He sure didn’t seem like himself. And those prices! It’s a wonder he’s selling anything.”

Before Ben could answer, he heard a voice calling his name. Ben looked around and saw Roy Coffee walking toward him.

“Ben! I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays,” the sheriff said with a grin as he reached the Cartwrights. “Boys, good to see you,” said Roy, acknowledging the rest of the Cartwrights.

“Hello, Roy,” said Ben. “We’ve been busy out at the ranch. This is the first chance we’ve had to get to town in almost two months.” Ben inclined his head toward Perkins’ store behind him. “What’s going on with John Perkins?” Ben asked. “He was acting kind of strange.”

Roy shook his head. “Same thing that’s been going on with most of the merchants in town,” said Coffee grimly. “I think he’s paying protection money, but I can’t prove it.”

“Protection money?” said Hoss with a frown. “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, about six weeks ago, a man named Walter Brady showed up in town with about six gunmen,” explained Coffee. “The mine owners hired him to help guard the mines. They’ve been having some trouble with men sneaking into the mines at night and stealing equipment. I can’t be everywhere, so I thought it was a good idea. It turned out to be a bad idea…a real bad idea.”

“Why’s that?” asked Adam.

“Brady’s men stopped the stealing all right, but then, they moved into town. Near as I can tell, they’re forcing merchants to pay them each week to ‘protect’ their businesses. If someone doesn’t pay, something bad happens.”

“Roy, you’re the sheriff,” said Joe. “Why don’t you put a stop to it?”

“Believe me, Joe, I’ve tried,” said Coffee in an exasperated voice. “But I can’t arrest anyone without evidence. And no one will testify against Brady and his men.”

“No one?” said Ben in surprise.

“Charlie Burns over at the livery stable complained about Brady,” said Coffee. “The next night, there was a fire in his stable. Burned about half the building before it got put out. After that, Charlie didn’t have anything to say.”

Ben shook his head. “I can’t believe it, Roy,” he said. “I’ve heard about this in other towns, but I never thought I’d see this in Virginia City.”

“And that’s not the worst of it,” continued Coffee. “Now I hear they’re moving onto some of the smaller ranches. If the ranchers don’t pay up, their fences get torn down or their cattle get stampeded.”

“Roy, you’ve got to do something,” Adam said. “If this goes on, there won’t be a Virginia City left.”

“Believe me, Adam, I’m open to any ideas,” Coffee said with a tinge of despair in his voice. “If I could get someone to testify, I’d arrest Brady in a minute. But everyone is too scared.”

“Hello, Ben,” a woman’s voice interrupted. Ben turned around and smiled as he saw a woman coming up behind him. Her dark hair was sprinkled with gray, and her face was lined with age. She wore a gingham dress, neat but not new. She had a trim figure, and moved with an easy grace that belied her age.

“Hello, Maggie,” Ben answered in genuine warmth. “It’s good to see you.”

Maggie Corcoran smiled back at Ben. She turned to the other Cartwrights. “Hello, Adam, Hoss,” she said. Maggie seemed to have a special smile for Joe.

“Hello, Joe,” she said.

Joe reached over and pecked her on the cheek. “Hi, Maggie,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “How’s my favorite girl?”

“Still old enough to tan your britches, you impertinent boy,” Maggie replied with a snort. But the smile on her face showed her words were an empty threat.

“Better watch yourself, Joe,” Hoss said with a grin.

“Maggie, when are you going to give in and marry me?” Joe continued with a smile.

“About the same time that hell freezes over,” Maggie answered. Roy Coffee and the Cartwrights laughed heartily at her answer.

“You fellows looked awful serious,” Maggie said when the laughter subsided. “What’s going on?”

“Roy here has been telling us about the trouble in town,” answered Adam. Maggie shook her head. “It’s getting bad,” she said. “I don’t understand it. You think someone in this town would have enough guts to stand up to Brady. When my husband was alive and running his mine, he would have thrown Brady and his bullyboys out of Virginia City on their ears.”

“Has Brady been giving you any trouble?” Joe asked in alarm.

“No, he hasn’t bothered me,” said Maggie. “Got no reason to. I don’t have a business or a ranch. Besides, he knows I wouldn’t stand for his men threatening me. I’d take a shotgun to ‘em.”

“I bet you would,” Ben said with a grin.

Roy Coffee sighed. “Well, Ben, I’ve got to get going,” the sheriff said. “If you get any ideas about what to do about Brady, you be sure and let me know.” With a wave, the sheriff walked off.

“We had better get about our business, too,” said Ben. “I’ve got to go over to the bank. Adam, Hoss, you go to the feed store and get that grain. Joe, go over to the hardware store and pick up a keg of nails. And, listen, boys. I don’t want you causing any trouble.”

“There won’t be any trouble,” Adam promised.

“That goes for you, too, Joseph,” Ben said firmly.

“Pa, I didn’t start that trouble in Perkins’ store,” Joe protested.

“I know, but let’s not cause any more problems for Roy,” Ben said. “He’s got his hands full right now. Let’s just get our business done and get out of town. We can talk about this situation later and try to figure out the best way to help Roy.”

Adam, Hoss and Joe nodded. As they started to walk away, Adam and Hoss said goodbye to Maggie. Joe tipped his hat and grinned. “You let me know when to get the preacher, Maggie,” he said as he strolled away. Maggie laughed as she waved him on.

“Maggie, where are you heading?” asked Ben. “Can I walk you some place?”

“Just going to Perkins’ store,” Maggie replied. She suddenly got a serious look on her face. “Ben, this Brady fellow, he’s trouble,” she said. “You’d better watch your step around him”.

“I will, Maggie,” Ben promised.

Joe walked into the hardware store and was surprised to see the shelves almost empty. Normally, the store was crammed with ropes, fencing and other miscellaneous items. But only a few ropes laid on the middle shelf, and two ax handles stood in a barrel near the counter. The rest of the store was practically empty.

“Joe Cartwright, how can I help you?” a voice said from behind the counter.

Joe looked up to see a middle age man smiling at him. “Hello, Mr. Timmons,” said Joe, still looking around. “Where’s all your stock?”

Timmons smile faded. “Things have been kind of rough lately,” he said. “I haven’t been able to afford to buy as many items from the wholesaler as I used to.”

Joe nodded. “We heard about this Brady character,” he said. “Looks like he’s been hitting your place, too.”

Timmons looked down at the counter. “I didn’t say anything about Brady,” Timmons said in a low voice.

“You don’t have to,” answered Joe. “All you have to do is look around your store to see what’s been happening. Why didn’t you just raise your prices, like Perkins did?”

“I tried,” admitted Timmons. “But people wouldn’t pay the prices I had to ask. They just went over to Carson City or someplace else to get what they need. Hardware isn’t something people usually need right away. They can wait a while until they can buy it cheaper some place else.”

Joe leaned over the counter. “Mr. Timmons, why don’t you do something about Brady and his men,” he urged. “Roy Coffee says he could arrest him if someone would testify against Brady. If you testified, you could get him off your back.”

“Oh, no, not me,” said Timmons. “I don’t want my store burned…or worse.”

Joe looked around the empty store. “Looks to me like you’re going to lose your business anyway,” he said.

“You’re right about that,” said Timmons sadly.

“You don’t have to,” Joe said. “All you have to do is sign a complaint against Brady and stand up in court to testify. Brady and his men will go to jail.”

“I’d be dead before I could testify,” said Timmons.

“Roy Coffee would protect you,” Joe said urgently. “You could even come out and stay at the ranch with us. We’d protect you.”

“I don’t know,” Timmons said in a hesitant voice.

“Mr. Timmons, it’s the only way you are going to save your store,” Joe said. “You can either stand up to Brady or go bankrupt.”

Timmons nodded. “Let me think about it,” he said. The tone of his voice changed. “Well, in the meantime, what can I do for you?”

“I need a keg of nails,” said Joe. “Do you have any?”

“In the back,” Timmons said. “I don’t have much left, but I do have nails.”

“I’ll get them,” said Joe walking into a back room.

As Joe walked into the store room, the door opened behind him. One of the cowboys who had been in Perkins’ store strolled in.

“I’m here for your weekly payment,” said the cowboy.

“I don’t have the money,” Timmons said in a desperate voice.

“Oh, I think you do,” the cowboy said easily.

“Listen, Marsh, I’m almost broke. Look around you. Does it look like I’m doing a booming business?” Timmons said.

“I don’t care where you get the money,” Marsh replied. “All I know is you owe Mr. Brady for his protection. If you don’t pay, well, we won’t be able to protect you from all those bad things that can happen. You know, things like a fire. Or maybe, some night you get jumped as you’re walking home. Virginia City can be a very dangerous place.”

Timmons face turned red. “No, I’m not paying you any more,” he said angrily. “You tell Brady that. And if anything happens, I’m going to Roy Coffee and file a complaint.

Marsh pulled his gun from his holster and pointed it at Timmons. “I think you had better re-consider that idea,” Marsh said in a low voice.

Timmons swallowed hard. “Marsh, you wouldn’t,” he said in a shaky voice.

“Oh, yes, I would,” said Marsh.

Joe came out of the storeroom with the keg of nails in his hands. As he walked back into the main room of the shop, he stopped. He saw Marsh with his gun pointed at Timmons. Timmons pushed Marsh away from him. Marsh took a step back and fired his gun, hitting Timmons in the middle of the chest. Joe dropped the keg and pulled his own gun, firing in a instant and hitting Marsh in the shoulder. Marsh spun around and dropped to the floor. Joe rushed over to Marsh and kicked the gun away from his hand. Then he rushed behind the counter where Timmons had fallen. The noise of the gunshots brought a crowd of people rushing to the store. Three or four stood in the doorway. Roy Coffee pushed his way through the crowd and entered the store. Roy looked at the man laying on the floor, groaning in pain as he clutched his bleeding shoulder. Roy also saw Joe Cartwright kneeling near the counter. Joe was staring at Timmons, who was laying lifeless on the floor.

“Joe, what happened here?” asked Coffee.

Joe continued to stare at Timmons body. “That fellow shot Timmons,” Joe said in a low voice. “I winged him, but it was too late. Timmons is dead.”

Ben Cartwright pushed through the crowd into the store. “Joe!” Ben shouted. “Are you all right?”

Joe looked up at his father and nodded. “I’m fine,” he said in a flat voice. “But Mr. Timmons is dead. That man shot him.”

Ben looked at Marsh sprawled on the floor. “Who is he, Roy?” Ben asked. “Why would he shoot Timmons?”

“He’s one of Brady’s men,” answered Coffee in a grim voice. Roy turned to the people still standing at the door. “Somebody get the doc over to the jail,” said Coffee.

Coffee walked over and pulled Marsh to his feet. “Ben, help me get him over to the jail, would you?” Ben nodded and grabbed Marsh by the collar. Roy turned to Joe. “Joe, I need you to come with us, “ Roy said. “I want you to write down a statement about what happened.”

Joe nodded and stood. He turned and took another look at Timmons’ body on the floor. Joe squared his shoulders and his face hardened. “I’ll write down what happened,” Joe said grimly. “I want to be sure there’s no mistake.”

Two hours later, the Cartwrights were still sitting in Roy Coffee’s office. Adam and Hoss had rushed over to the office as soon as they heard what had happened. As the doctor patched up Marsh, Joe wrote out a statement about what he had seen. Roy had asked the Cartwrights to stay around the office until he could talk with them. Ben sat in a chair next to Joe as Adam and Hoss stood against the wall. Ben was concerned about the troubled look on Joe’s face.

“Joe, you had to shoot Marsh,” Ben said. “He might have killed you if you hadn’t.”

“I know that,” Joe said. “That’s not what’s bothering me.”

“What is bothering you?” asked Ben.

Joe hesitated. “I feel responsible for Mr. Timmons’ death,” he admitted. “If I hadn’t told him to stand up to Brady and his men….” Joe shook his head. “It’s my fault that Timmons is dead.”

“Joe, you can’t say that,” Adam said. “You don’t know what Timmons said to Marsh before Marsh pulled his gun. Maybe Timmons said something that made Marsh angry.”

“I know how I feel, Adam,” insisted Joe. “If I hadn’t opened my big mouth, Timmons would still be alive.”

Roy Coffee came out of the cell block, and locked the door behind him. He walked over to the desk and sat down. “Joe, are you sure you wrote down everything you saw and heard?” he asked.

Joe nodded. “Everything. Why?”

“Well, Marsh refuses to talk. Won’t say what happened or why he shot Timmons,” answered Roy. “If he won’t talk, I can’t arrest Brady.”

“Why not?” asked Hoss. “You said he worked for Brady. Why can’t you arrest Brady for putting Marsh up to shooting Mr. Timmons.”

“Because I have no evidence that Brady did that,” Coffee replied. “Joe here only said that Timmons pushed Marsh and Marsh shot him. Joe didn’t hear Marsh threaten him or mention Brady’s name. I can have Marsh tried for murder, but I can’t do anything about Brady. I told Marsh if he would admit Brady put him up to this, I’d make sure he went to prison instead of hanging. But he said he won’t say anything until he talks to Brady.” Coffee shook his head. “Joe, I’m afraid Brady is going to try and keep you from testifying,” said the sheriff in a grim tone. “That’s the only way he can keep from going to prison. Because if you do testify, Marsh will talk.”

Just then, the door of the jail opened, and a heavy-set man in his early 40’s walked in. He was dressed in a suit and walked with the air of a confident man. “Hello, sheriff,” the man said pleasantly. “I understand you have one of my men in jail.”

“Hello, Brady,” Roy Coffee said. “Yes, Marsh is here.”

“Can I see him?” asked Walter Brady.

Roy hesitated. “I guess so,” he finally said. “You’re not wearing a gun, so I guess it’s all right.” Roy stood and walked to the cell block door. He unlocked the door, and led Brady to Marsh’s cell. Marsh was lying on a bed in the cell, his right arm heavily bandaged. He sat up when he saw Brady near the cell. Brady turned to Coffee. “I’d like to talk with him privately,” he said.

Coffee shrugged. “You have five minutes,” he said as he walked away. As soon as Brady heard the cell block door close, he leaned over to the bars of the cell. “What were you doing?” Brady asked in an angry voice. “Why did you shoot Timmons?”

“He wouldn’t pay up,” said Marsh. “I pulled my gun to make sure he paid.”

“You fool!” said Brady. “Timmons is dead. He’s never going to pay now.”

Marsh shrugged. “It was an accident. Timmons shoved me and I shot him before I realized what I was doing. Besides, what are you so upset about. The rest of your so-called ‘clients’ should be more than ready to pay up when they hear about Timmons.”

Brady studied the man in the cell. “You’re awfully calm for a man who is facing the gallows,” Brady said.

“That’s because I’m not going to the gallows,” Marsh replied. “The sheriff offered me a deal. If I testify that you’re the one who told me to collect the money from Timmons, he’ll arrange it so that I go to prison instead of hanging.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a deal,” said Brady.

“You’ll get twenty years.”

“Beats hanging,” said Marsh.

“Now, wait a minute,” said Brady hastily. “We can work something out here.”

“I haven’t told the sheriff anything,” said Marsh. “And I won’t, at least, not until that trial starts. You get me out of here by then, I’ll just disappear. But if I go to trial, I’ll tell the sheriff everything.”

“How am I suppose to get you out of here?” said Brady. “This place is built like a fort. I could never break you out.”

Marsh grinned. “Mr. Brady, you just don’t think right,” said Marsh. “The only reason I’m in here is that Cartwright kid saw me shoot Timmons. If Cartwright don’t testify, then I’m a free man.”

Brady nodded. “It could take a little time,” Brady said. “Those Cartwrights don’t scare easy.”

“No, but they bleed easy,” said Marsh.

Brady looked alarmed. “Cartwright is a powerful man,” he said. “If I kill one of Ben Cartwright’s sons, he’ll have every lawman in the territory after me.”

Marsh laid back down on the bed. “It’s up to you, Mr. Brady,” he said. “I don’t care what you do. All I know is if I go to trial, you’re going to prison. Maybe we can share a cell.”

“There’s other ways of handling you,” said Brady in a threatening voice.

“Don’t try it,” Marsh said, sitting up quickly. He winced at the pain the sharp motion caused. “Billy and Fred, they’re friends of mine. Anything happens to me, they’ll come after you.”

Brady swallowed hard. Billy and Fred were two of the men who worked for him. He knew Marsh’s threat was no idle boast.

“All right, all right,” said Brady. “I’ll handle things. You just keep your mouth shut.”

Marsh laid back on the bed. “Fine with me,” he said with a grin. “I ain’t going anywhere. I got a soft bed and fine food until my shoulder heals. And until that trial begins.”

Brady turned on his heel abruptly and walked away from the cell. He left the cellblock and walked into the sheriff’s office. Roy Coffee and the Cartwrights looked at him curiously. Brady straightened his jacket.

“It appears this is all a misunderstanding,” Brady said. “Marsh tells me that Timmons threatened him, and he shot in self defense.”

“That’s a lie,” said Joe in an angry voice. “Mr. Timmons wasn’t wearing a gun. All Timmons did was shove him. Marsh shot him down in cold blood.”

“Now, son, you don’t know that,” said Brady.

“I was there; I saw it,” Joe said.

Brady looked at Joe. “Maybe that’s only what you thought you saw. Maybe after awhile, you’ll change you mind,” Brady said pointedly.

Ben stood. “Don’t threaten my son,” he said in a grim voice.

“Threaten? I didn’t threaten anyone,” Brady said. “All I said was maybe your boy would change his mind.” Brady turned to Sheriff Coffee. “When is Marsh’s trial?”

“I figure it will take about three weeks for the circuit judge to get here,” said Roy.

“Three weeks,” said Brady. “That’s a long time.” Brady looked at Joe. “A lot can happen in three weeks,” he said.

Adam and Hoss moved closer to Brady. “Nothing is going to happen,” said Adam in a grim voice.

“You can count on that,” added Hoss.

Brady just smiled. “We’ll see,” he said. With a nod to Roy, he walked out of the office.

Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Joe,” he said in a comforting voice. Joe just nodded.

“Joe, I think it would be best if you stayed out of town until the trial starts,” said Roy Coffee. “You should be safe at the Ponderosa.”

Joe turned to Coffee. “I can take care of myself,” he said confidently. “If Brady or his men come after me, I’ll take care of them.”

“Joe,” said Ben, “I think Roy’s right. There’s no sense asking for trouble. Besides, we’ve got plenty to do at the ranch. You just stay out of Virginia City until the trial starts.”

“Besides, little brother, think of all the money you’ll save,” said Hoss with a grin.

“That’s right,” said Adam, trying to lighten the mood also. “If you really get an urge to lose all your money playing poker, I’ll be happy to oblige you.”

Joe grinned ruefully. “All right,” he said. “I’ll stay at the ranch. But, I think it’s going to be a long three weeks.”

*****

Ben Cartwright was laying on his bed in a dressing gown, reading. Although it was late, he didn’t feel much like sleeping. The events of the day had him too agitated to relax. When they left the sheriff’s office, the Cartwrights had quickly loaded their supplies and rode out of town. As they went down the Virginia City road, each of them had scanned the rocks and brush on the side of the road nervously. Even though none of them wanted to admit it, all four were worried that some of Brady’s men might be waiting in ambush for them. All of them were relieved when they reached the ranch without incident. Ben was convinced that Brady would do something to prevent Joe from testifying against his man. He wished he knew what Brady had planned, and how best to protect his son. He knew Joe would chafe at being guarded, but that’s what he planned to do. No matter how old his sons got, Ben still thought of them as his little boys. Ben frowned as he heard a noise from downstairs. At this hour of the night, the house should be quiet. He grabbed his robe and the lamp from the table next to his bed, and went to see what had caused the noise. Ben stopped at the landing on the stairs. He could see Joe, still dressed, sitting on the low table near the fireplace. Joe was staring into the fire, an intense look on his face.

“Joe? Are you all right?” asked Ben quietly from the stairs.

Joe turned quickly to the stairs. “Sorry, Pa,” he said in an equally quiet voice. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Ben descended the stairs and put the lamp on a table. He walked over to Joe. “You didn’t wake me,” he said. “Are you all right?” he repeated.

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I just couldn’t sleep,” said Joe.

“Worried about Brady?” asked Ben.

“No,” Joe said with a shake of head. “I can take care of any trouble Brady might cause. I was thinking about Mr. Timmons.”

Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “You can’t blame yourself for what happened to Timmons, Joe,” he said.

“Pa, it wouldn’t have happened if I had kept my mouth shut,” Joe said. “I’m the one who told him to stand up to Brady. I’m the one who got him killed.”

“Joe, it’s not your fault,” said Ben. “Timmons made his own choice.”

“I don’t know, Pa, if I hadn’t encouraged him…” Joe’s voice trailed off.

Ben sat down next to Joe. “Joe, listen to me,” he said. “Timmons decided not to knuckle under to Brady any more, for whatever reason. Maybe he decided he had enough, maybe he just didn’t have the money. We really don’t know. But he decided to stand up to Brady’s man. Unfortunately, it cost him his life. The best thing you can do now is to pick up where Timmons left off. You must continue his fight.”

“Sort of pick up the fallen flag on the battle field?” said Joe with a wry smile.

“Something like that,” admitted Ben. “Don’t kid yourself that this is going to be easy. I know men like Brady. They’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. He’s going to do anything he can think of to convince you not to testify.”

“I’ll testify, Pa,” said Joe firmly. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“I said Brady would do anything,” Ben said. “He might even try to have you killed. Are you willing to risk that?”

Joe thought for a minute. “Timmons was willing to risk his life to stand up to Brady. I guess I can do the same,” he said.

“Then you have nothing to feel guilty about,” said Ben. “Timmons was willing to risk his life, and so are you. You didn’t ask him to do anything you aren’t willing to do.”

Joe nodded. “You’re right, Pa,” he said slowly. “I guess I didn’t think about it that way. Thanks.”

Ben slapped Joe lightly on the back. “Come on upstairs,” he said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

Joe and Hoss were checking fence in the north pasture the next day. Normally, checking fence was a one-man job, and it was Joe’s turn to do the work. But Ben insisted that Hoss accompany Joe. Given Brady’s threats, he was not about to let Joe ride around the ranch by himself. So far the day had been uneventful. Joe and Hoss had ridden several miles, checking the fence, and stopped twice to repair broken sections. As they neared a section that shielded a steep drop into a gully, Hoss pulled his horse to a stop.

“Look at that, Joe,” Hoss said in disgust. “Another fence down. At this rate, we’re never going to get home in time for dinner.”

“Tell you what, Hoss,” Joe replied. “We’ll fix this fence and then head for home. The rest can wait. I know you don’t want to miss dinner.”

Hoss’ face brightened. “Good idea,” he said. “Hop Sing is making fried chicken for dinner. I hate cold chicken.”

“You’d eat it, though,” said Joe with a smile as he dismounted near the fallen fence.

“I would,” agreed Hoss. “But just so as not to hurt Hop Sing’s feelings.”

Joe shook his head as he walked to the fallen timber. Hoss would eat Hop Sing’s chicken cold, hot, or anywhere in between. Joe bent to pick up a fallen piece of timber. Just as he bent, a bullet whizzed over his head and struck the fence post behind him. Joe dove into the brush behind him, pulling his gun from his holster as he fell. Hoss landed next to him about a second later, his gun also at the ready. Both men looked around.

“See where it came from?” asked Hoss, his eyes searching the landscape.

“No,” answered Joe.

Another shot struck the ground in front of the brush. Joe and Hoss both ducked, then looked up.

“I think it came from behind the tree up there on the hill,” Joe said.

Before Hoss could answer, another bullet whizzed over their heads. Joe and Hoss both fired their guns in the direction of some trees at the top of the hill. They had only fired two or three shots when Hoss grabbed Joe’s arm.

“Save your ammunition, Joe,” he said. “We can’t hit anything up there with handguns. It’s too far away.”

“Whoever it is must have a rifle,” Joe said.

Two more shots struck the ground in front of Joe and Hoss.

“Whoever it is must be a bad shot,” grumbled Hoss.

“Yeah,” agreed Joe. “The least Brady could do is spend some money to hire a decent gunman.”

“You don’t know that’s Brady’s man up there,” protested Hoss.

“Who else would it be?” asked Joe. “You made some enemies lately that we don’t know about?”

Three more shots whizzed through the air.

“Dagnabit, this ain’t getting us anywhere,” said Hoss. “We can’t just stay here. That fellow up there is liable to get lucky.”

“I agree,” said Joe. “Why don’t you throw a few shots up there to distract him, while I try to flank him.”

“Now wait, Joe,” said Hoss with a frown. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

“Hoss, you’re too slow and too big a target to go,” said Joe. “Besides, if we wait here much longer, Adam will eat all that fried chicken.”

“You be careful, you hear?” said Hoss, reluctantly agreeing.

Joe nodded and pulled himself to a kneeling position. He waited a minute until Hoss started firing up the hill then ran in a zigzag until he reached some boulders to the right. The boulders were about ten feet up the hill from the brush. Joe watched the trees carefully, hoping the gunman would show himself. A minute later, he saw the front of a rifle stick out from the trees and fire. Joe couldn’t see the man behind the trees. He turned and waved at Hoss below him. Hoss fired two more shots up the hill as Joe ran closer to the trees, diving into a clump of bushes. His angle wasn’t much better, but he was closer to his target. Joe waited again. He saw the rifle stick out again from the trees, but this time he could see part of arm with it. He took careful aim. As the rifle fired, Joe fired also. Joe’s bullet struck true. He heard a yell and saw the rifle drop. Joe carefully crept up the hill, gun ready. As he neared the trees, he heard a horse galloping away. Joe stood and ran to the top of the hill. As he reached the trees, he could see a man on a horse, riding at top speed away from the trees. Joe fired twice at the man, but the rider was too far away.

Hoss came panting up the hill behind Joe. “Did you get him?” he asked.

Joe shook his head. “I think I winged him, but he got away,” Joe answered. “Come on, let’s go find our horses.”

Ben and Adam were working on some papers at Ben’s desk when Hoss and Joe walked into the house. Adam looked at his brothers in surprise. “You finished already?” he said. “I figured you two had at least another couple of hours of work to do.”

“We had a bit of trouble,” said Hoss in a serious voice.

“What happened?” asked Ben, instantly concerned.

“A fellow took some shots at us up by Sugar Creek,” said Hoss.

“Are you all right?” asked Ben in alarm.

“We’re fine, Pa,” answered Joe. “The guy was a pretty bad shot.”

“Or maybe he wasn’t trying to hit you,” said Adam. “Maybe that was just a warning.”

“Could be,” admitted Joe. “Whatever it was, the man got away.”

“I thought you told all the hands to keep an eye out for strangers,” said Ben said in a demanding voice to Adam.

“I did, Pa,” replied Adam. “But this is a big ranch. They can’t be everywhere.”

Ben nodded and turned to Joe. “Joseph, I think that you should stay close to the house for awhile. No more riding out,” Ben said sternly.

“But, Pa….”Joe began to protest.

“No buts,” said Ben. “There’s plenty for you to do around here. The barn needs a good cleaning and that tack room is a mess. Not to mention wood that needs to be cut.”

“Pa, I hate those jobs,” said Joe in disgust.

“Nevertheless, you will stay around the house,” Ben repeated firmly.

Joe’s shoulders sagged. “Yes sir,” he said in resignation. He looked at Adam and Hoss. “You know what? I am really getting to hate that Walter Brady,” he said.

Joe spent the next week doing all the unpleasant chores his father had mentioned. The more he worked in the barn, and the more wood he cut, the more furious he became. He hated not being able to leave the area around the house. To make matters worse, it seemed every time he turned around he found his father watching him. He knew his father was just keeping a watch, making sure nothing happened to him, but having Pa hovering over him didn’t improve his temper much. He chafed at the thought of two more weeks of Ben keeping a careful eye on him. He knew his father was right, but that didn’t make things any easier. He was short with Adam and Hoss, and seemed to find everything irritating. Joe just wanted to get the trial over. Joe was working in the tack room when he heard two horses come in at a fast pace. He looked out the door and saw Adam and Hoss dismount and walk toward the house. Adam seemed to be holding his arm. Joe quickly finished hanging up some bridles he had been sorting and walked to the house. Adam was sitting on the couch as Joe walked in. Adam’s arm was extended toward Ben who was sitting on a low table facing the couch. Joe could see a cloth over Adam’s forearm and some blood was seeping through the cloth. As Joe approached the couch, Hoss came out of the kitchen carrying a bowl of water.

“Here’s the hot water,” Hoss said as he put the bowl down on the table. “Hop Sing is getting the medicine and bandages.”

“What happened to Adam?” Joe asked.

Hoss and Adam looked at each other, then Adam shrugged. “We were up by the herd. Two men came riding out of the trees, firing their guns. They stampeded the cattle. We tried to stop them, and I got nicked,” said Adam.

Ben was unwinding the cloth around Adam’s arm. “Doesn’t look too bad,” said Ben as he examined the wound. “You’ll be all right.”

“It was Brady’s men, wasn’t it,” said Joe.

“Aw, Joe, we don’t know that for sure,” said Hoss. “Could have been anybody.”

“And Adam could have been killed,” Joe said. “That’s the third incident in the last week. I heard about the fire up at the timber camp. I also heard about those rocks falling when you two were riding up by the canyon.” He shook his head. “It’s not worth it. I’m not going to risk one of you getting killed. I’ll tell Brady I won’t testify.”

“Joe, you can’t do that!” said Adam.

“Adam, you and Hoss didn’t ask to get in the middle of this,” said Joe. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“You don’t hear us complaining,” said Hoss.

“That’s right,” said Adam. “If the shoe was on the other foot, and I was the one who had the testify, would you ask me not to do it?”

Joe chewed on his lower lip. “That’s not the point,” said Joe. “The reason we’re in this mess is because everyone in Virginia City is too afraid to stand up to Brady. Well, fine. It’s their town. If they don’t want to stand up for it, then they deserve what they get.”

Ben stood and put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, remember what we talked about the other night?” he said. “About picking up the fight for Timmons? You can’t give up now, just because the going is a little rough.”

“I know, Pa, but this is different,” Joe insisted. “If it was just me, I wouldn’t care what Brady did. But you and Adam and Hoss didn’t ask for this. I don’t want something to happen to you because of me. Timmons is dead because of me. I don’t want another death of my conscience.”

“Joe, what do you think is going to happen if you don’t testify?” asked Ben. “Do you think Brady is just going to leave us alone? If he thinks he can scare us, it’s only a question of time before he’s asking us for protection money. We’re going to have to face him sooner or later. I’d just as soon do it now.”

“Joe, nothing is going to happen to us,” said Hoss in a reassuring tone of voice.

“Besides, I’m getting a real big dislike for that Brady fellow. Even If you don’t want to take him on, I do.”

“I don’t much fancy the kind of town Virginia City would be if Brady sticks around,” added Adam. “I’ll take my chances if it’s going to get rid of Brady.”

Joe looked at his brothers. “Are you sure?” he asked in an uncertain voice.

“We’re sure,” said Adam firmly. “Don’t worry about us. You just testify against Marsh and let us worry about everything else.”

Joe looked at father. “Sorry, Pa,” he said ruefully. “I guess I just got carried away for a minute. Don’t worry. I’ll testify.” Joe turned to Adam. “I’ll go see what’s keeping Hop Sing and those bandages.”

Ben, Hoss and Adam watched Joe walk into the kitchen.

“It’s starting to get to him, isn’t it,” said Adam quietly.

Ben nodded. “I’ve been trying to keep him busy, but he knows I’ve been watching him like a hawk,” said Ben. “Staying around the house hasn’t helped things any. He’s used to riding out every day. He’s really on edge.”

“What are you going to do, Pa?” asked Hoss.

Ben sighed. “Nothing. I’m not going to risk anything happening to Joe. We’ll just have to put up with this for another two weeks,” said Ben. “That trial can’t start soon enough for me, though.”

*****

Walter Brady took a deep breath outside the sheriff’s office, trying to calm his nerves. He knew he had to talk with Marsh again, but hated the thought of another angry conversation. Brady took another deep breath and shook his head. Marsh was such a fool, he thought. They had a real sweet set-up here in Virginia City. His plan was to milk the town for another month or so and then move on. If he left now, Marsh would talk and he’d spend the rest of his life as a wanted man. Brady had no taste for that kind of life. But now he was faced with dealing with the Cartwrights. It was not a pleasant thought. Brady took one more deep breath and opened the door. “Good morning, sheriff,” he said in a pleasant voice.

Roy Coffee looked up from the papers he was reading on his desk. “Morning, Brady,” he said shortly.

“I’m here to see Mr. Marsh,” said Brady.

Coffee nodded but continued to sit at his desk. “Ben Cartwright sent me a message yesterday,” Coffee said in a harsh voice. “Some mighty strange things have been happening at the Ponderosa. Yesterday, Adam Cartwright got winged by some men stampeding their cattle. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Brady licked his lips nervously. “No, sheriff,” he said. “I don’t know anything about it. How is young Cartwright?”

“He’ll be all right,” said Coffee. “Ben also sent a message saying that Joe is still going to testify against Marsh. You might as well save yourself the effort if you think you’re going to scare the Cartwrights.”

“I really don’t know what you are talking about,” said Brady smoothly. “But I would imagine that the Cartwrights are finding all these ‘strange happenings’ to be a problem for them.”

“Not really,” said Roy Coffee with the hint of a grin. “Ben Cartwright’s been through a lot worse. These little incidents are going to bother him much.”

Brady nodded. “I’m sure,” he said. “May I see Marsh?”

Roy stood and took a ring of keys from a desk drawer. He opened the cell block and let Brady in. Marsh was lounging on the bed in his cell. He grinned as Brady walked toward him.

“Well, howdy, Mr. Brady,” Marsh said. “How are things going?”

“They are not going well,” said Brady harshly. “That Cartwright kid is still planning to testify, despite all I’ve done to discourage him.”

“I told you, Mr. Brady, there’s only one way to keep him from testifying,” said Marsh.

“And I told you that killing a Cartwright would bring us more trouble than any of us have ever seen,” said Brady.

Marsh shrugged. “Up to you,” he said. “One way or the other, I’m going to prison. The only question is: will you be going with me.”

Brady grabbed the bars of the cell. “Marsh, listen, can’t we work something out?” Brady pleaded.

“I don’t see how,” Marsh said evenly. “Either I tell the sheriff everything I know or I hang. Don’t seem I have much of a choice.”

Brady banged his hand against the cell bars. “All right, all right,” he said angrily. Brady took a deep breath. “I guess I have no choice. I’ll have Billy get rid of the kid.”

“Fred is a better choice,” said Marsh. “Billy can be a bit nervous. Offer Fred enough money and he’d shoot his own mother.”

“All right, Fred, then,” said Brady with disgust. “Just remember to keep your mouth shut.”

“I’ll remember,” said Marsh. “Just you remember that my trial starts in less than two weeks. You haven’t got a lot of time left.”

Joe sighed as he finished cleaning the last rifle. Only about a week until the trial starts, he thought, only a week more and then he could leave the ranch house. Joe was really tired of doing all the mundane chores around the house. He never thought he would be eager to ride out and check fence or round up strays. Joe sighed again as he got up from the small round table near the stairs. He had spent the morning cleaning rifles that probably didn’t need to be cleaned. He gathered up the weapons and carried them to the gun rack on the other side of the room. He carefully put rifles in the gun rack. Joe stretched and started walking to the front door of the house. He was about half way to the door when a voice stopped him.

“Joe, where are you going?” Ben asked in a pleasant voice. Ben had been sitting at his desk all morning. He was working on the books but also keeping an eye on Joe.

“Just going out to the barn,” Joe answered. “There’s a saddle out there that I want to work on. It’s pretty stiff, and a little soft soap would help it.”

Ben frowned. “It’s getting close to noon. Hoss and Adam will be back soon,” Ben said. “Why don’t you let that go until later.”

“Pa, nothing is going to happen to me in the barn,” Joe said with a sigh. “I’ve cleaned every gun we own, and we have enough wood to last a month. I’ve run out of things to do around the house. At least let me do a few things in the barn.”

“Joe, I know it’s been hard for you to stay around here,” Ben said sympathetically. “But it’s the safest thing until that trial starts.”

“Pa, nothing has happened for almost a week now,” Joe replied. “I think Brady has given up.”

Ben shook his head. “No, Brady is not the kind of man to give up,” he said. “He’s probably changing his tactics. He’s also running out of time. That’s why it’s particularly dangerous for you now.”

“I understand that,” said Joe in an exasperated voice. “But I can’t spend the next week hiding under the bed!”

“All right, all right,” said Ben. “Go to the barn, then, but keep your eyes open.”

“I promise,” said Joe with a grin. “If my horse looks at me funny, I promise I’ll lock him in his stall.”

Joe strolled out the front door. Ben watched with concern as his youngest son left the house. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Joe was in grave danger. He just didn’t know what to do about it. If he had his way, he’d lock Joe in his room for the next week. But Ben knew he couldn’t do that. Instead, all he could do is keep a close eye on Joe. He’d have to find a reason to go out to the barn shortly. Joe wouldn’t like it, but Ben would feel better if he checked on Joe. With a shake of his head, Ben picked up his pen and went back to working on his books.

Joe soaped the saddle with hard, fast strokes, pressing the leather with more pressure than it needed. He was trying to ease the frustration he was feeling. He knew his father and brothers had his best interests in mind, but Joe was tired of being protected. All he wanted was to be able to jump on his horse and ride someplace…any place. Joe was working on the saddle when he heard the footsteps behind him. He turned with a sigh, expecting to see his father. He froze when he saw the figure of a big man, holding a gun, standing just inside the barn.

“Finally,” the man said with an evil grin. “I’ve been waiting almost a week to get you alone.”

“What do you want?” Joe asked.

“What do you think?” said the man. “I want you not to testify against my friend Marsh.”

Joe said nothing. He was unarmed, with only a brush in his hand. He knew the man planned to kill him, regardless of what he said.

“You’re going to testify anyway, aren’t you?” said the man as Joe stood silent. The man cocked his pistol. “Well, I know one way to make sure you aren’t going to testify.”

As the man raised his gun, Joe threw the brush and hit the man square in the face. Startled, the man lowered the gun. Joe charged the man, and knocked the gun from the man’s hand. The big man recovered quickly. With a quick motion, he brought a fist up and hit Joe square in the stomach. Joe bent over as the punch knock the breath from him. The man raised his fist again, but this time Joe ducked the blow. Joe brought his own fist up and hit the man on the jaw. The two grappled for a minute until the big man pushed Joe back. The big man grabbed some reins hanging from a peg and whipped the rawhide at Joe. Joe put his hands up to protect his face and felt the sting of the leather on his arms. Joe charged the man again, hoping to knock him off his feet. But the man was strong. He staggered back a few steps, then regained his balance. The man came at Joe again, fists flying.

Joe felt the blows land on his face. His head snapped back and he fell to the ground. The big man pulled Joe to his feet and landed another punch on Joe’s face. Joe’s legs buckled. The man pushed Joe hard. Joe staggered backwards a few feet and fell to the ground, stunned. The big man stood over Joe for a minute, breathing hard. With a satisfied grunt, the man turned and began searching the ground for his gun. Joe shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. He sat up and saw the man reaching down to pick up his pistol from the ground. Joe scrambled to his feet, just as the man turned to aim the gun. Joe dove into an empty stall as the man fired his gun. Ben was still working at his desk when he heard the shot from the barn. He jumped to his feet and ran to the front door, stopping only to pull a gun from a holster laying on the table by the door. Ben pulled the door open, and ran to the barn, gun ready. As Ben reached the barn door, he saw a man walking slowly toward a stall. The man was moving cautiously, gun poised.

“Hold it!” shouted Ben at the man. The man whirled around, firing his gun as he turned. Ben jumped to the side, and heard the bullet whiz by. Ben fired twice, hitting the man in the middle of the chest. The big man grabbed his chest, then fell face forward.

Ben moved forward slowly. He stood over the man and nudged him with his foot. Satisfied that the man was dead, Ben began to frantically look around the barn for Joe.

“Joe! Joe!” Ben shouted as head went from side to side, searching for his son. He heard a voice answer from a stall to his right. Ben rushed forward and stood at the entrance of the stall.

Joe was huddled in the corner at the back of the stall. His body was tense, and he had a pitchfork in his hands, pointed at the front of the stall. When he saw Ben’s face, Joe’s body went limp. He dropped the pitchfork and rested his head against the back of the stall. Ben stared at his youngest son for a minute. Joe’s face was bruised and a cut over Joe’s eye was bleeding. But even more alarming was a spreading patch of red on Joe’s thigh.

“Joe! You’re wounded!” Ben cried as he rushed forward. He knelt next to Joe and started tearing open Joe’s pants over the wound. He looked at the bullet hole in Joe’s thigh. “The bullet is still in there,” said Ben in a worried tone. He looked at Joe’s face. Joe’s eyes were closed and his face was pale. Joe’s jaws were clenched in pain. “Hang on a minute, Joe,” said Ben. “I’ll get something to stop the bleeding.”

Ben rushed out of the stall and ran to the front of the barn. He turned to his right just before he got to the door, rushing into a work area. He ran to a small cabinet in the area and pulled open the doors. He grabbed some cloth from the shelf and rushed back to the stall. Joe’s eyes were open and he was breathing hard as Ben returned. Ben began wrapping the cloth tightly over Joe’s wound.

“It was one of Brady’s men,” gasped Joe as Ben worked. “He said…” Joe groaned as Ben pulled the cloth tight. “He said he had been waiting for me,” finished Joe in a gasping voice.

“Don’t worry about that now,” said Ben as he worked. He pulled the cloth as tight as he could, trying to stop the bleeding, even though he knew the tight bandaged was causing Joe pain. He knotted the cloth and sat back on his heels. He looked at Joe’s face again. Joe’s eyes were once again closed and his breathing was fast and heavy.

“Joe, if I help you, do you think you can walk?” asked Ben anxiously. “I have to get you to the house.”

Joe nodded and sat up. Ben reached down and grabbed Joe under his arms. He pulled his son to his feet. Joe grunted in pain as he tried to stand. He put his arm over Ben’s shoulders, and leaned heavily on his father. Ben grabbed Joe’s hand with his left hand, and put his right arm under Joe’s left arm. “Easy, now,” Ben said. “Let’s take it real slow.” Joe nodded again.

Ben walked slowly out of the stall. Joe managed a few steps, dragging his injured leg behind him. He was breathing even harder as he tried to walk. Joe grabbed the front of Ben’s shirt with his free hand and hung on. Ben dragged his son slowly out of the barn. The house seemed to be miles away. Ben held on to his son as tight as he could and started slowly toward the house. He was about halfway to the house when he heard horses coming up behind him. He turned to see Hoss and Adam riding into the yard. Both men reined their horses to a stop. Hoss jumped off his horse and rushed to the pair.

“One of Brady’s men got to Joe,” shouted Ben. “He’s got a bullet in his leg. Get to town and get the doctor.”

“I saw the doc heading toward the Miller place a little while ago,” said Adam as he turned his horse. “I’ll get him.” Adam kicked his horse into a gallop.

Hoss slipped Joe’s left arm over his massive shoulders. “I got him, Pa,” said Hoss as he shifted his brother from his father. He reached down and put his arm under Joe’s knees. As he stood, he lifted his brother into arms.

“I can walk,” said Joe in a weak voice. But even as he spoke, Joe’s head flopped against Hoss’ shoulder.

“Sure you can,” Hoss said in a soothing voice. “But this will be faster.” Hoss nodded at Ben who ran ahead to clear the way for Hoss.

As Ben ran into the house, he vowed to himself that Walter Brady was going to pay for what had happened to Joe. He promised himself that he would see Brady in prison. One way or the other, Brady was finished in Virginia City.

*****

Doctor Martin pulled the blanket up under Joe’s chin, and patted Joe lightly on the head. Martin took a few steps back toward the end of the bed, where Ben, Adam and Hoss were standing in anxious anticipation.

“He’ll be fine,” the doctor said, nodding at Joe. “It’s a painful wound, but fortunately, there’s no permanent damage. The bullet nicked the bone. It also nicked an artery, which is why he lost so much blood. He’ll need a few days in bed and a couple of weeks on crutches, but he’ll be fine.”

Ben breathed a sigh of relief. He had had a hard time stopping Joe’s wound from bleeding, and was concerned that the injury might be worse than he thought. He was grateful that Adam had found Doctor Martin so quickly.

“Just make sure I’m up and around in time to testify,” said Joe in a thick voice. His eyes were only half opened and had a glazed, unfocused look.

“You stop fighting that sedative and go to sleep,” said the doctor sternly to Joe. “What you need now, young man, is plenty of rest.”

Joe nodded as his eyelids grew heavy. “Just get me on my feet,” he said in a slurred voice as he began to fall asleep.

“Will he be well enough to testify?” asked Adam anxiously.

“When does the trial start? In about a week?” asked the doctor. “He should be on his feet by then. Just make sure he gets a lot of rest until then. He lost a lot of blood. He’s weak, and I don’t want him picking up any infections.”

Ben nodded. “We’ll watch him, “ Ben said. He looked at the doctor. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t say anything about this to anyone.”

“I don’t go around talking about my patients, Ben,” said the doctor in slight indignant voice.

“I know that,” said Ben. “But no one knows what happened except the people in this room. I want to be sure it stays that way.”

“Don’t you want to tell the sheriff?” asked Hoss.

“Especially not the sheriff, at least not right away,” said Ben firmly. “If Roy knows about this, he’ll do something that will let Brady know his man failed.”

“I don’t understand,” said the doctor with a frown.

“Brady doesn’t know if his man got to Joe or not,” explained Ben. “If we keep this quiet for a day or so, that will buy us that much more time. Brady won’t do anything as long as he thinks his man still has a chance to get Joe.”

“That makes sense,” says Adam. “But, Pa, we can’t keep this quiet for long.”

“I know, I know,” said Ben with a sigh. “But every day we can prevent Brady from finding out about this is a day less that Joe is in danger.”

Doctor Martin walked over to the table and picked up his bag. “I’ll stop by and check on him in the morning, Ben,” the doctor said. “I have to check on Will Miller anyway. I’ll let everyone know I’m heading to the Miller place so no one will think it odd if I’m heading in this direction. And don’t worry, Ben, no one will hear about this from me.”

“Thank you,” Ben said quietly as the doctor left the room. Ben walked around the end of the bed and pulled a chair next to the bed. Ben sat down in the chair and stared at Joe.

Adam nudged Hoss. “Let’s go downstairs,” he said to his brother. “I have something I want to talk with you about.”

Evening was turning into night as Ben Cartwright left Joe’s room. Joe was still sleeping peacefully, and Ben felt he could leave his son for a short time. Adam and Hoss were sitting in the living room, drinking coffee, as Ben descended the stairs. They looked expectantly at their father.

“How’s Joe?” asked Hoss.

“Still asleep,” answered Ben as he walked over and sat down in his favorite chair next to the fireplace.

“Want something to eat?” asked Adam. “Hop Sing has been keeping something warm for you.”

“No, I’m not hungry,” said Ben in a weary voice. “I could use a cup of that coffee, though.”

Adam stood and walked over to the low table in the middle of the room. A coffee pot and several cups sat on the table. Adam poured a cup of coffee and handed it to his father. Ben nodded his thanks and sipped the hot liquid.

“Brady’s man came close this time,” Ben said as he sipped the coffee. “Real close. We’re going to have make sure we keep the front door locked and everyone away from the house. I’m not going to let them have another chance at Joe. I’m going to do whatever it takes to protect him.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other. “We agree, Pa” said Adam. “That’ why we think Joe should be moved to Virginia City as soon as possible.”

“What?” said Ben in astonished voice. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Now hear us out, Pa,” said Hoss. “Adam and I have been talking about it, and we think moving Joe is a good idea.”

“Look, Pa,” said Adam urgently. “Brady is going to get tired of waiting for his man to report back. There’s no telling what he might do. He could attack the house, even burn it. Joe’s liable to get hurt worse if he stays here.”

“That’s right,” added Hoss. “On the other hand, if you announce in Virginia City that we’ve hidden Joe away, Brady won’t know where to look.”

“And he would never think of looking in Virginia City, right under his nose,” said Adam.

“I don’t know,” said Ben doubtfully.

“Pa, Joe is going to have to get to Virginia City to testify,” said Adam. “If we wait for the day of the trial, Brady is liable to have his men waiting on the trail for us.”

“We have enough hands to give Brady a fight,” said Ben stubbornly.

“Yeah, but it’ll be a heck of a fight,” said Hoss. “People are liable to get hurt, even killed, on both sides. I know you don’t want that.”

“No, you’re right,” admitted Ben. “I don’t want anyone hurt. But when and where would we take Joe to Virginia City?”

“When would be as soon as the doctor says he’s fit to travel,” said Adam. “Where is the tough part.”

“We’ve been talking about it,” said Hoss. “We just can’t figure out where to hide Joe.”

“The jail’s no good,” said Adam. “For one thing, it’s a drafty and cold place. With the shape Joe’s in, I wouldn’t want to risk him in there. Besides, it would be too easy for someone to send a bullet through a window.”

“And the hotel is no good, either,” said Hoss. “Too many people around. Someone’s bound to see Joe and report back to Brady. Joe would be too easy to get to if Brady knew he was in the hotel.”

“What we need is someplace in Virginia City where no one would think of looking,” said Adam. “Someplace where Joe can hide out for a few days.”

“And you haven’t been able to think of a place?” asked Ben.

“No sir, we haven’t,” admitted Hoss. “Everyone we think of is either too scared of Brady to take in Joe or has a family or something that makes it too dangerous.”

“If we could find the right place, we could get Joe to town safely,” said Adam. Ben thought for a few minutes, then looked at Adam and Hoss. “I’m still not convinced this is a good idea,” he said. “But if Joe agrees to your plan, I think I know just the place.”

Doctor Martin finished examining Joe’s wound the next day about mid-morning. He smiled at Joe as he stood. “I think you’ll live,” he said with a wry grin. The doctor turned to Ben, Adam and Hoss who were once again standing around the foot of the bed. “Just keep him quiet for another day or so,” the doctor said. “He’ll be fine.”

“How soon could we move him?” asked Adam.

“Move him?” said the doctor in a startled voice. “Move him where?”

“It’s better you don’t know where,” said Hoss. “All you need to know is Joe is going somewhere safe.”

“I’m going to have to know,” said the doctor with a frown. “If nothing else, I’m going to have to take out those stitches. And I want to keep a close eye on Joe to make sure there’s no infection.”

“Don’t worry, doc,” said Joe from the bed. “I’ll be just fine.”

“And where did you get your medical degree?” demanded Doctor Martin. He shook his head. “I appreciate what your trying to do, but I’m sorry. I need to check on Joe.”

Adam, Hoss and Ben looked at each other. They had thrashed out a plan last night, examining it from all angles and looking for weaknesses. They were convinced they had thought of every possible problem. Joe had agreed with them when they outlined the plan to him this morning. However, visits from the doctor were a complication they hadn’t anticipated.

“Doc, when do you need to see Joe again?” Adam said thoughtfully.

“Well, he’ll probably be all right for a day or two,” answered the doctor. “But I really should see him again day after tomorrow.”

Ben shook his head. “Maybe we should forget the whole thing,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of moving Joe, anyway. I’d feel better if we kept him here.”

“Pa, we talked about this,” said Joe firmly. “If I stay here, all of you could be in danger. It’s better if I go….someplace else.”

“When can we move him?” repeated Adam to the doctor.

The doctor frowned. “If you must move him, he should be well enough to move tomorrow,” he said in a reluctant voice.

“How about tonight?” asked Hoss.

The doctor looked at Joe with a thoughtful expression. “If he stays in bed all day and rests, and you bundle him up against the night air, and if you don’t take him too far, he should be able to travel tonight,” the doctor said in a reluctant voice.

“All right, then, “ said Adam. “We’ll move Joe tonight. We’ll figure out some way to get the doctor to him.”

“Adam, I don’t know about this,” said Ben again in a doubtful voice.

“Pa, it’s going to be fine,” Joe said with a weak smile. “Besides, all I have to do is lay around for a few days until that trial starts. I can do that anywhere.”

“But if Brady’s men find you….” Ben said.

“I can take care of myself,” Joe said in a confident voice.

“You haven’t exactly done a bang up job of taking care of yourself,” replied Ben. “I’d feel better if you were staying here at the Ponderosa.”

“So would I,” added the doctor.

“Don’t worry,” Joe said. “Pa, you just take care of the things we talked about.”

Ben Cartwright rode into Virginia City with two of his ranch hands. Adam and Hoss insisted that he take the two men with him, in case Brady tried to grab Ben to use as leverage against Joe. Ben reluctantly agreed. He was beginning to understand how Joe felt with someone watching him all the time. Ben reined his horse to a stop in front of a building in the middle of town. The ranch hands dismounted from their horses as Ben did the same. Ben turned to the two men. “You wait here,” he said.

“All right, Mr. Cartwright,” said one of the men. “But if you’re not out of there in fifteen minutes, we’re coming in after you.”

Ben nodded and walked to the door of the building. He pushed the door open and walked in. Walter Brady sat behind a desk in the middle of the room. He had a sheaf of papers in his hand, and a cigar in his mouth. Brady looked up in surprise as Ben walked into the office.

“Mr. Cartwright!” said Brady, trying to keep his voice even. “What can I do for you?”

“You can call off your men,” said Ben in an angry voice.

“Call off my men?” replied Brady. “I don’t know what you’re talking about?”

“I think you do,” said Ben, the anger in his voice growing. “Your men have harassed my sons and disrupted the work on my ranch. I want it stopped – now.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I assure you that I have no idea what you are talking about,” said Brady in a smooth tone of voice.

“Brady, I’m warning you. If anything happens to Joe, or to any of my sons, I’m going to come after you,” Ben said. “And I don’t make idle threats.” Ben turned on his heel and stalked out the door.

Brady chewed on his cigar. From what Ben Cartwright said, Brady surmised that Fred hadn’t made his move yet. Cartwright would have said something if he had. Silently, Brady cursed his gunman. What was taking him so long? If Fred didn’t get to that Cartwright kid soon, he’d have to come up with another plan.

Ben walked out of the office with a satisfied smile. He felt sure Brady still thought his man was laying in wait for Joe on the Ponderosa. If Brady thought his man was still out at the ranch some place, the Cartwrights would have the extra day or two they needed to put their plan into action. Ben turned to the two hands still standing near the hitching post. “Go get yourselves a beer,” said Ben. “I need to see an old friend. I’ll meet you at the saloon in about an hour.”

“I don’t know, Mr. Cartwright,” said one of the hands doubtfully. “Adam said we was to stay with you.”

“I’ll be all right,” said Ben said with a smile. “Brady’s not going to try anything in broad daylight in the middle of Virginia City. Go get that beer.”

*****

The streets of Virginia City were dark and quiet as a buggy drove quietly through down followed by two riders. The top of the buggy was up to prevent anyone from easily seeing into it. But at 3 am, there was no one around to look into the buggy. The saloons were closed and even the most raucous cowboys were sleeping it off. The buggy and riders turned down a back street and came to a halt behind a big house. A single lamp shown in the window of the house, seeming even brighter than usual since all around it was in darkness. A dark figure climbed out of the buggy and walked to the other side, looking around cautiously. The two riders halted their horses behind the buggy and dismounted. Satisfied that all was quiet, the figure reached an arm into the buggy to help a second figure awkwardly climb down. The second figure teetered a bit as his feet reached the ground; his hand grabbed the side of the buggy to steady himself. The first figure reached back into the buggy and pulled out a pair of crutches. He handed the crutches to the figure next to the buggy. It took a minute for the figure to steady himself on the crutches. Then the two figures moved forward as silently as possible, followed on foot by the two riders. As the four of them reached the back door of the house, the door opened. A woman holding a lamp was outlined in the doorway.

“Come on in, Ben,” Maggie Corcoran said in a low voice. “You’re right on time.”

Ben nodded and turned to help Joe up the low steps to the house. Maggie stepped back and pulled the door open as Joe swung himself up to the top step on crutches. He positioned the crutches inside the doorway, and swung himself in. As he moved into the house, Joe was followed by Ben, Adam and Hoss. Maggie quickly closed the door behind them. The group was standing in a large kitchen in the back of the house.

“Maggie, I always knew you would finally relent and let me move in,” said Joe with a shaky grin. His face was pale and sweaty. He was surprised how tired and shaky he felt after just those few steps from the buggy.

Maggie looked at Joe with concern. She could see he was trying to put up a brave front and decided to go along with him. “Don’t be getting any ideas,” she said with a snort. The grins that appeared on the faces of the Cartwrights showed Maggie that her efforts to keep things from being too serious were being rewarded. Maggie turned to lead the men through the house. “Follow me,” she said. “I’ll show you to your room.” Joe followed her slowly, grunting with effort. Ben followed Joe, his hand ready to steady his son if he should falter. Adam and Hoss were behind Joe. A saddlebag was slung over Hoss’ shoulder.

Maggie led the men from the kitchen, and through a narrow hallway. A large room with a sofa and stuffed chairs was visible at the end of the hall. Maggie stopped in front of a door to her left near the end of the hall. She looked behind her to make sure Joe was managing all right, then pushed open the door. Maggie set the lamp on a table next to the bed in the room. Another lamp was on the table, and Maggie quickly lit it, making the room seem even brighter than before. Joe struggled into the room behind Maggie and made his way straight to the bed. He sat down quickly on the edge of the bed, sighing with relief. Beads of sweat were visible on Joe’s face as he rubbed his aching thigh.

Ben, Adam and Hoss followed Joe and Maggie into the room. Hoss walked to the end of the bed and pulled the saddlebags off his shoulder. “This is really nice,” said Hoss looking around at the well furnished room. A dresser was pushed against the back wall, and a desk and chair were against the wall to the right. An overstuffed chair was positioned near the bed. A pitcher and basin were on top of a small table next to the dresser, and fresh towels hung over a bar attached to the side of the table. Several pictures dotted the walls. “Looks like you’re going to be living in the lap of luxury, little brother,” Hoss continued.

“Glad you approve,” said Maggie with satisfaction. “When my husband was alive, he often had the men he was doing business with stay in this room. Said it made them easier to deal with than if they were staying over at the hotel.”

Ben walked over to Joe, and put his hand lightly on his son’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked anxiously.

Joe took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said with a small smile. “Just a little tired.”

“I’ll let you get Joe settled and into bed,” said Maggie, picking up the first lamp. ”I’ve got some coffee brewing in the kitchen if you want some.”

Maggie busied herself in the kitchen. She took the coffee pot off the stove and put it on the center of the wooden table in the middle of the room. She was taking some cups out of a cupboard when she heard footsteps coming down the hallway. She was surprised to see Ben walking into the kitchen.

“Joe kicked me out,” Ben explained with a smile. “Said I was hovering. He said he could manage fine with Adam and Hoss to help him.”

Maggie nodded. “Well, sit down and have a cup of coffee,” she said as she placed the cups on the table.

Ben sat at the table and poured a cup of coffee. “Maggie, I can’t thank you enough for doing this,” Ben said with a sober expression.

“Pish,” said Maggie briskly as she sat down at the table also. “Anything I can do to help get Brady and his men out of this town is fine with me. Besides, you know how I feel about Joe.” Maggie looked at Ben for a minute. “Are you sure he’s going to be all right?” she asked. “He looked awfully pale.”

“He’s not as strong as he thinks he is,” said Ben. “You’re going to have to watch him to make sure he doesn’t try to do to much.”

“I’ll watch over him, Ben,” Maggie said in a reassuring voice. “Don’t worry.” She chuckled suddenly. “Remember the first time he asked me to marry him?”

Ben smiled. “He was about seven or eight, wasn’t he?” said Ben.

“Something like that,” replied Maggie. “I found him in an alley next to the general store, crying his eyes out. His shirt was torn and his face was bruised. He told me he had gotten into a fight with one of the other boys at school.”

Ben nodded. “As I recall, the boy made fun of Hop Sing when Hop Sing brought the lunch Joe had forgotten to school,” said Ben. “When the boy repeated what he said after school, Joe really lit into him.”

“When I found him, Joe was afraid to go home,” Maggie continued with a smile. “He was afraid that you would be mad at him for fighting, even though he gave that other boy a good licking. I brought him here, cleaned him up, and fed him cookies while I mended his shirt. I finally convinced him that I would make things right with you so he would agree to go home.” Maggie’s face softened. “On the way to the Ponderosa, Joe said wanted to marry me. I’m not sure if it was me or my cookies he liked. But he was terribly disappointed when I explained I already had a husband.”

Ben laughed softly. “You were always his first love, Maggie,” he said.

“When my husband died, Joe stopped by the house every day for almost a month,” recalled Maggie. “He always had some excuse but I knew he was just trying to help me get through it. I don’t know if I could have managed without him.”

Ben sipped his coffee. “Maggie,” he said in a serious voice. “You need to be very careful. If Brady finds out Joe is here, he’ll do anything to get to him. He’s liable to harm anyone who gets in his way.”

“I know that, Ben,” Maggie replied in an equally serious voice. “And I know how hard it must be for you to leave him here. Don’t worry. I’ll watch over him as if he were my own. I’m honored you think enough of me to trust one of your sons to me. I know how much they mean to you.”

Ben reached out and covered Maggie’s hand with his own. “I can’t think of anyone I would trust more,” he said.

Ben heard a door close softly and turned to see Adam and Hoss walking into the kitchen. “You get Joe settled all right?” he asked.

Adam nodded. “He’s fine,” said Adam. “We got him into bed.”

“He was pretty much asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow,” added Hoss.

Ben stood. “We’d better get going, then,” he said. “I want to be back to the Ponderosa before it gets light.” Ben turned to Maggie. “Thank you again. I’ll stop by this afternoon like we planned.”

Maggie nodded and followed the Cartwrights to the door. She stood at the door for a minute and watched as Adam and Hoss mounted their horses and Ben climbed into the buggy. She closed the door, and, with a loud click, slammed home the lock on the door.

Joe woke to the smell of coffee and bacon. As he woke, for a moment, he was disoriented, trying to figure out where he was. Then he remembered he was at Maggie’s house. He remembered Hoss helping undress and get into his nightshirt as Adam stored his things in the dresser. Joe looked around the room. The crutches were leaning on the wall next to the bed. His gunbelt with his pistol were hanging on the bedpost at the top of the bed.

Joe shifted his weight on the bed, wincing as he moved. His leg hurt a lot more than he was willing to admit, and all that walking he had done hadn’t helped things. There was a soft knock on the door, and then it opened. Maggie walked in with a smile on her face. “Well, sleepy head, I see you’re finally awake,” she said briskly.

“Morning, Maggie,” Joe replied. “What time is it?”

“Almost nine,” Maggie replied.

“Nine o’clock?” said Joe. “I must have been more tired than I thought.” He started to pull the bed covers off.

Maggie walked to the bed and gently but firmly pushed Joe back. “You stay where you are,” she said in a stern voice. “I’ll bring your breakfast in here.”

“I can get up,” Joe protested.

“You’re spending today in bed, no arguments,” said Maggie. “I told your Pa that I’d take care of you, and that’s just what I mean to do.”

“I’m all right,” he said for what seemed the hundredth time.

“And you’re going to stay that way,” said Maggie. “A day in bed won’t hurt you. Now, I’m going to get your breakfast.”

Joe laid back on the pillows, smiling as Maggie left the room. The truth was that a day in bed sounded awfully good. He still felt tired and his leg ached. He was happy to let Maggie order him around, at least for now. Maggie brought Joe a tray of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. She sat in the chair in his room and chatted idly with Joe as he ate. When Joe was finished, Maggie stood and took the tray. “It must be getting close to ten,” she said. “I’ve got to get over to the doc’s.”

“The doc’s?” Joe said in alarm. “You’re not sick or anything, are you?”

“No, I’m not sick or anything,” said Maggie with a smile. “But I’ve figured out a way to get the doc over here to check on you without anyone getting suspicious. But to do it, I’ve got to be over at the doc’s at ten, when Mary Wilson gets there.”

“What’s wrong with Mrs. Wilson?” asked Joe curiously.

“Nothing, except having too much time on her hands,” said Maggie with a snort. “She imagines all kinds of aches and pains. So every Friday at ten o’clock, she shows up at the doc’s. Doc Martin listens to her complaints and gives her a tonic. Probably just sugar and water. Anyway, that keeps her satisfied until the next Friday, when they go through the whole thing again.”

“I still don’t get it,” said Joe. “What does Mrs. Wilson have to do with the doctor coming here.”

“Mary Wilson is also the biggest gossip in Virginia City,” said Maggie. “I’m going to make sure she knows the doc has a good reason to be visiting here. Because if she knows, then half Virginia City will know by noon.”

“And what will be the reason?” asked Joe, his curiosity growing.

“I’m going to cut my hand,” said Maggie. “Only not really…just a little chicken blood on a cloth wrapped around it. I’ll go rushing over to the doc’s while Mary is there. She’ll spread the word about the accident all over Virginia City. Probably add that I’m getting senile, too.”

Joe laughed. “Maggie, you’re a lot of things,” he said. “But senile ain’t one of them.”

Maggie smiled then sobered quickly. “I’m locking up the house when I leave, Joe,” she said. “If anyone comes by, don’t answer the door. In fact, it probably would be best if you don’t leave this room. Just stay in bed, like I said.”

“You don’t really think Brady would try anything here?” said Joe. “In the middle of Virginia City?”

“Walter Brady is a desperate man,” said Maggie. “And desperate men are dangerous men. I’m not taking any chances.”

“I’m not sure who’s in jail any more…Marsh or me,” Joe complained.

“Well, at least you have the nicer prison,” Maggie said with a grin. “Now, take a nap while I go see the doc.”

Ben Cartwright rode into Virginia City in the early afternoon. He was leading a horse that had a body wrapped in canvas slung over the saddle. Two ranch hands were following him into town again. A crowd of curious townspeople began to follow the men down the Virginia City street. Ben rode slowly but looked straight ahead, his expression grim. He rode straight to the sheriff’s office. Ben halted the horses in front of Roy Coffee’s office and dismounted. The two hands sat in their saddles as Ben climbed the steps to the office. The crowd around the office was growing. Ben knocked on the door.

“Roy, it’s me, Ben Cartwright,” he yelled as he knocked. “Can you come out here a minute.”

Roy Coffee opened the door and stepped outside. “What can I do for you, Ben?” he said. Coffee’s eyes caught the body over the saddle. He looked quickly at Ben and swallowed hard. “Who’s that?” he asked.

“That,” Ben said in a loud voice, “is a man who tried to shoot my son, Joseph. I’m sure he’s one of Brady’s men.” Ben turned to face the crowd. “I wanted all of you to see what happens to anyone who tries to harm a Cartwright. I wanted everyone to know so that the next time Walter Brady tries to get one of you to come after Joe, you’ll know what’s going to happen.”

“Is Joe all right?” asked Coffee anxiously.

Ben ignored Roy’s question and continued to address the crowd. “Joe’s no longer at the Ponderosa,” said Ben. “He’s somewhere safe so he’ll be able to testify at that trial on Monday. You’ve let Walter Brady walk all over you. And the result is that my son has been threatened and forced to leave his home. My son is sacrificing everything to try and save this town. He thinks you are worth it. I hope he’s right.”

A murmur went through the crowd. Most of the people lowered their eyes and looked away from Ben.

Ben turned back to Roy. “What time does the trial start on Monday?” he asked.

“Ten o’clock sharp,” said Roy. “The judge arrives late Sunday night.”

Ben nodded. “Joe will be at the Virginia City courthouse at ten o’clock,” he said. Ben gestured toward the body on the horse. “Will you take care of things?” he asked. “I’ll come by later and write out what happened.” Roy nodded and moved toward the body. Ben scanned the crowd of people who were slowly drifting away. He saw Maggie standing in the crowd with her hand heavily bandaged. Ben hurried down the steps to Maggie.

“Maggie, what happened?” he said in a low voice.

“Oh, I just cut my hand,” Maggie said in a loud voice as she looked Ben straight in the eye. “The doc patched it up this morning. But he said he would stop by and check on me later today, and probably for the next few days. Wants to make sure there’s no infection. He also said something about having to take out stitches.

A smile twitched at Ben’s mouth. “Nothing seriously wrong, then, I presume,” he said.

“Nothing wrong at all,” Maggie said, continuing to look at Ben.

“I’ll walk you home,” Ben said, taking Maggie gently by the arm. He started to ask something more, but Maggie quickly quieted him with a shake of her head. Ben walked with Maggie down the streets of Virginia City until they reached her house. Maggie pulled a key from the purse hanging from her arm and handed it to Ben. “Been keeping the house locked since all this trouble began,” she said. Ben nodded and unlocked the door. He held it open to let Maggie enter first.

Maggie waited until Ben had closed the door behind them before saying anything. “Joe, it’s me,” she said in a loud voice. There was no answer. “Probably asleep,” said Maggie. “He’s been sleeping most of the day.”

Ben nodded but his eyes searched the room for any sign of a disturbance. The house seemed awfully quiet. Ben walked to Joe’s room and slowly opened the door. As he opened the door, he heard the click of a gun being cocked. Ben pushed the door open quickly, his hand on his gun, ready to draw. As he burst into the room, he saw Joe sitting up in bed, with a pistol aimed at the door.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe said ruefully, as he uncocked the pistol and lowered the gun. “I was asleep and something woke me. I heard you coming, but I wasn’t sure who it was.”

“It’s all right, Joe,” said Ben as he moved his hand from his gun. “We’re all a little nervous. I’ll tell Maggie to yell a little louder next time.”

Joe put his gun back in the holster hanging on the bedpost. He laid back against the pillows. “Three more days,” he said. “This could be a longest three days of my life.”

*****

Brady paced back and forth in his office as four of his men watched. “Fred’s dead and the Cartwright kid is hidden away,” he said angrily. “We’ve really botched this up. We’ve got to find that kid before the trial starts on Monday.”

“We can always get him on Monday,” said one of the men.

“One the steps of the courthouse? With half of Virginia City watching?” Brady answered angrily. “Your showing about as much sense as Marsh.”

“Mr. Brady, we’ve talked to just about everyone in this town. Made it real clear what would happen if they didn’t tell us where young Cartwright was,” said another man. “Every one of them swears they don’t know where he is. I believe them. These folks are too scared to lie to us.”

“We’ve got to find him,” said Brady. “Billy, you and Peters start checking around the Ponderosa. Be careful. I don’t want Ben Cartwright or any of his men to see you. Check the line shacks and the cabins. He can’t have gone too far. Not with the trial starting on Monday.” Brady pointed at the other two men. “You two start asking around town again. Keep your ears open. Anyone even mentions the name of Joe Cartwright, I want to know about it.”

The four men nodded and started for the door. “And don’t forget,” said Brady as they started to leave. “You see Cartwright, you kill him.”

Maggie walked into Perkins’ store with an empty basket. Her hand was still bandaged. The doctor had remembered to re-do the bandage when he came by to check on Joe. Maggie was concerned about Joe. He seemed too quiet, and still looked pale to her. The doctor had assured her that there was nothing wrong that rest and some nourishing food wouldn’t cure. While Joe was getting some rest, Maggie was determined to buy some tempting morsels to improve his appetite.

“Afternoon, Maggie,” said Mr. Perkins in greeting as she walked into the store. “I heard about your accident. How’s your hand feel?”

“It’s fine, Mr. Perkins,” she said as she placed her basket on the counter. “I need a few things.”

“Sure, Maggie, what can I get you?” replied Perkins.

Before Perkins could answer, Maggie heard the door behind her open. She turned and saw one of Brady’s men stroll in. Maggie frowned at the sight of him. She turned back to the store owner. “I’ll sure be happy when that trial starts on Monday,” she said in a loud voice. “I can’t imagine what poor Joe Cartwright must be going through.”

Perkins looked nervously at the man standing behind Maggie. “I think we’ll all be happy when that trial starts,” said Perkins. “Now what can I get you?”

“I want a jar of peaches,” she said. “And some of that ham you just got in. Throw in six of those potatoes, also.”

Perkins nodded and began reaching for the items. “Planning to cook for some thing special?” he asked. “This is an awful lot for one person.”

“Maybe,” said Maggie with a distracted air as she looked around. “Do you have any of any saltwater taffy?”

“I’ll have to look,” said Perkins. “Don’t sell much of that except to the Cartwrights. Joe Cartwright can’t get enough that stuff. Eats it every chance he gets. Didn’t know you like it, though.”

Maggie saw the man behind her come to attention. She berated herself silently for asking about the taffy. “Just acquired a taste for it,” Maggie said quickly. “But never mind. I’ll come back later for it.”

“I can look; it’ll only take me a minute,” said Perkins, heading into the back of the store.

Maggie stood nervously at counter. The man behind her was staring at her thoughtfully. Maggie wanted to turn and walk out the door, but felt that would just add to the man’s suspicions. It seemed forever before Mr. Perkins came out of the back room. “Sorry, Maggie,” he said. “I seem to be out. Joe Cartwright must have cleaned me out.”

“That’s all right,” Maggie said. She picked up her basket which Perkins had filled. “Just put this on my bill, please.” With a brief nod, Maggie turned and hurried out the door.

Maggie tried to walk down the street to her house at a normal pace, but she glanced over her shoulder as she walked. The man from the store was following her. She hurried her walk a bit, wanting to get home as soon as possible. Maggie nervously fumbled with the key to her door when she reached the house. She finally got the door unlocked. As she entered the house, she looked over her shoulder again. The man was standing a few feet away, watching her carefully. Maggie slammed the door shut behind her. Joe was sitting in a chair in the living room, his injured leg propped on a footstool. He put down the newspaper he was reading when Maggie walked in. He was surprised at the look on her face.

“Is something wrong?” Joe asked as Maggie sagged against the front door.

“I don’t know,” Maggie admitted. “Joe, I was such a fool. I went to Perkins and bought enough food for the two of us…more than I usually buy. And I tried to get some of that taffy you like.”

Joe grinned. “I hardly think that’s something to get upset about,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” replied Maggie. “One of Brady’s men was in the store and heard everything I said. He followed me home.”

Joe tried to get to his feet quickly, but his injured leg wouldn’t support him. He fell back into the chair, with a grimace of pain on his face.

Maggie rushed to the chair. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded. “You want to break open that wound? You do and your Pa’ll never forgive me!”

“Sorry,” Joe mumbled as he rubbed his sore leg. “I keep forgetting. I was just going to see if Brady’s man was still hanging around.”

“Well, in that case, I’m glad you can’t walk,” said Maggie with a shake of her head. “You’re even a bigger fool than I am. If you start peeking out windows and Brady’s man sees you, he’ll know for sure you’re here.”

A small smile crossed Joe’s face. “You’re right, Maggie,” he said. “We’re not very good at this, are we?”

Maggie smiled back at him. “I guess not,” she said. “Sneaking around has never been one of the things I do well.”

Joe turned serious. “What do you think we should do?” he asked.

Maggie thought for a moment, then sighed. “I think the best thing to do is nothing,” she said. “Your Pa or Adam will be by later today. We can ask them what they think. In the meantime, Brady can’t be sure you’re here. Let’s see if we can keep him guessing for a while longer.”

Ben was filling his saddlebags with some slices of pie and cookies that Hop Sing insisted he take to Joe. Ben knew Maggie was probably feeding Joe well, but Hop Sing was convinced that Joe would starve without some of his delicacies. Ben knew there was no way to talk Hop Sing out of sending the food; it was easier just to agree to take them along. He was buckling the saddlebags closed when Adam and Hoss walked into the house. He was surprised to see the look of concern on their faces. “What’s wrong?” asked Ben.

“Well, Pa, there’s nothing exactly wrong,” said Hoss with an uncomfortable look on his face.

“What Hoss means is we saw some strangers over by the line shacks on Willow Ridge,” said Adam. “They were looking around. We think they were Brady’s men, looking for Joe.”

“What did you do?” asked Ben.

“Nothing,” said Hoss. “We watched them for a while and they rode off. We decided we’d better let you know.”

Ben nodded in satisfaction. “Good,” he said. “If Brady’s men are up here checking the line shacks, that means they have no idea where Joe is.”

“Yeah, but Pa, how long is it going to take them to figure out Joe’s not on the Ponderosa?” said Hoss.

“Probably not much longer,” admitted Ben. “But it’s Saturday, and the trial starts on Monday. We only have to keep them guessing for another day or so. After that, it’ll be too late.”

Ben rode through Virginia City slowly, making sure he was seen. The plan was to ride boldly to Maggie’s house, and not to sneak into town. He, Adam and Hoss were convinced that no one would suspect Maggie of hiding Joe if Ben was open about visiting her. Two hands from the Ponderosa were following Ben once more. Both men were alert, looking for trouble. Adam had made it very clear to them that he would hold them responsible if anything happened to Ben. Ben stopped his horse in front of the saloon. “You boys go get a beer,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll meet you here later.”

“No sir, Mr. Cartwright,” said one of the hands. “Adam told us not to let you out of our sight.”

“Adam is not the boss,” Ben said firmly. “I am. And I will be perfectly all right. You get yourselves a beer.”

The two hands looked at each other in confusion. There was no question that Ben Cartwright ran the Ponderosa. But they also took Adam’s warning seriously. Finally, one of the them shrugged. “All right, boss,” the man said, dismounting. “As along as you explain things to Adam….”

Ben grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll tell Adam you did your job well,” Ben said.

The men sighed in relief, then grinned. They were going to get to spend time loafing around the saloon and would get paid for it at the same time. “Best job I ever had,” one muttered as the men walked into the saloon.

Ben’s smile grew even wider at the comment. But he instantly sobered as he thought about Joe. His concern for his youngest son nagged at him. He was anxious to check on Joe. Ben chucked his horse forward and rode straight to Maggie’s house. He was surprised to see a man lounging near the house. The man was a stranger, but Ben could tell he wore his gun low, like someone who was used to using it. The man was leaning against a tree near the side of the house, watching. Ben frowned as he stopped his horse and dismounted. Ben pulled the saddlebags from his horse and walked to the door. The man continued to watch Ben carefully. Ben stared back at him, hoping his face showed only curiosity. Ben walked boldly to the front door and knocked hard on the door. He waited, then after a minute, heard the click of a lock. Maggie opened the door.

“Why, Ben! What are you doing here?” she said in a loud voice.

“I told Hop Sing about your accident,” Ben replied in an equally loud voice. “He insisted I bring you some of his baking.”

“Isn’t that nice!” Maggie said, her voice still unnaturally loud. “Come on in.”

Ben walked into the house. Maggie quickly closed the door behind him and locked it. Ben looked around and frowned slightly. Joe was no where in sight.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked as Maggie walked up to him.

“In his room,” she said. “I told him to stay there until I came and got him.”

“Who’s that fellow outside?” Ben asked.

“One of Brady’s men,” Maggie said, her voice full of misery. “Oh, Ben, I made a terrible mistake. I went to the store and bought too much food. Brady’s man saw me and followed me home. He’s been hanging around every since.”

“Does he know Joe is here?” Ben said, alarmed.

“No, I’m sure he doesn’t,” said Maggie. “But I think he suspects it. He’s been watching the house for hours. That’s why I insisted Joe stay in his room. I’ve got all the curtains closed, but I’m not taking any chances.”

Ben patted Maggie’s shoulder. “I’m sure it will be all right,” he said soothingly. In his own mind, Ben was concerned, but he wasn’t sure what to do. They couldn’t move Joe now. “I’ll go see Joe,” Ben continued.

“What’s in the saddlebag?” Maggie asked curiously.

“Oh, slices of pies and cookies for Joe,” Ben said, a little embarrassed. “I wasn’t lying about Hop Sing insisting I bring his baking.”

Maggie laughed. “Hop Sing thinks I can’t take care of Joe?” she said with a chuckle.

“Of course not,” Ben said, his embarrassment growing. “You know how he is about the boys, though, especially Joe.”

Maggie took the saddlebag from Ben. “Well, I have to admit I like Hop Sing’s pies and cookies, too,” she said. “You get Joe while I unpack this stuff and start some coffee. We can sample them in the kitchen. That fellow can’t see into the kitchen.”

Ben smiled in relief, and walked down the hall to Joe’s room. “Joe!” he called loudly, warning his son of his presence. He didn’t want Joe pulling his gun on him again. Ben pushed open the door of Joe’s room and walked in. Joe was sprawled on the bed, fully dressed. He was sitting up, his back resting against some pillows. Joe had a book in his hand.

“Hi, Pa!” Joe said cheerfully as Ben entered the room.

“You look comfortable,” said Ben with a smile. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” replied Joe. “Maggie is taking real good care of me.”

“The doctor looked at you,” declared Ben. “What did he say?”

“Same thing he said before,” answered Joe, with a tinge of disgust in his voice. “Rest a lot, don’t do too much walking, and keep the leg up. I think he worries too much.”

“You just follow his orders,” said Ben sternly.

“All right,” said Joe with a sigh.

“Any trouble?” asked Ben in a serious voice.

Joe shook his head. “No, not really,” he said. “One of Brady’s men has been hanging around, but I’m sure he hasn’t seen me.”

“You be careful,” Ben warned. “If there’s any trouble, I want you to promise me that you’ll send Maggie to get Roy Coffee.”

Joe cocked his head toward the holster hanging on the bedpost. “If there’s any trouble, I can handle it,” he said confidently.

“That’s exactly what I want you to avoid,” said Ben quickly. “If bullets start flying around here, someone could get hurt. And that includes Maggie. Getting her shot is poor payment for her hospitality.”

Joe’s face turned grim. “Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll make sure nothing happens to Maggie,” he said.

“See that it doesn’t,” Ben said forcefully. Then he sighed. “It’s only a few more days, Joe,” Ben said. “Just keep out of sight and I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Joe nodded. Then he sniffed the air. “Is Maggie making coffee?” he asked hopefully.

Ben laughed. “Yes, she’s making coffee. Hop Sing sent some apple pie. She thought you’d want some,” Ben said.

“You bet!” said Joe, swinging his legs off the bed. Joe grabbed the crutches propped against the wall, and started to stand. Ben rushed over to help Joe. Joe winced as he stood. His leg still ached, more than he was willing to admit. Ben put his hand on Joe’s back to steady him.

“All right?” asked Ben with concern.

“I’m fine,” Joe said firmly. “Let’s go get some of that pie.”

Joe started moving across the room awkwardly, trying to use the crutches properly. He was used to rushing around, and hated the need to move slowly because of his injured leg. Ben watched Joe maneuver across the room. He was afraid to help Joe, afraid that he might upset his son’s balance. Joe moved across the room in halting steps. He was hurrying to get to the kitchen and not paying attention to what he was doing. As he got to the doorway of the bedroom, the heel of his left boot caught the edge of the carpet in the hall. His leg was pulled abruptly to a stop by the carpet. Joe lost his balance and fell to the floor. He landed hard on his injured leg.

“Joe!” Ben yelled as Joe cried out in pain. Ben rushed to his son. Maggie came running down the hall, alarmed by the shouts. Joe was laying on his side. He grabbed his injured leg and groaned. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes tightly as a wave of pain traveled up his leg.

“What happened?” asked Maggie in a concerned voice.

“Joe fell,” said Ben quickly. He knelt next to Joe, and slowly turned Joe onto his back. Joe groaned again. A splotch of red appeared on Joe’s thigh, and was quickly spreading.

Ben looked up at Maggie. “I think he’s broken open that wound,” Ben said. “Go get the doctor!”

Maggie nodded and rushed away. Ben put his left arm under Joe’s shoulders and his right under Joe’s knees. He lifted Joe from the floor and carried him back to the bed. Ben looked around the room and spotted the towels on the small table opposite the bed. He rushed over and grabbed a towel, then hurried back to Joe. Ben wrapped the towel tightly around Joe’s thigh. Joe’s eyes opened slightly as Ben wrapped Joe’s legs. He looked up at Ben. “We have to stop doing this,” Joe said in a shaky voice. He winced and grunted. He looked at Ben again. “I’m going to ruin every pair of pants I own,” he said through clenched teeth.

Two hours later, the doctor was washing his hands in the basin in Joe’s room. Joe was laying on the bed, the blankets pulled up to his chest. His eyes were closed, and his face was pale. Maggie and Ben stood by the bed, watching him with concern.

“I told Joe to take it easy,” said Doctor Martin as he dried his hands. “That boy never listens.”

“Will he be all right?” Maggie asked, her voice betraying his worry.

“Yes,” said the doctor as he unrolled his shirt sleeves which had been pushed up to his elbows. “Luckily, he only broke open a couple of stitches. I’ve sewed his leg up again.” The doctor looked sternly at Maggie and Ben. “But I don’t want him to leave that bed!”

“Don’t worry, doc,” Maggie said firmly. “I’ll keep him down if I have to tie him.”

“That’s easier said than done,” said Ben. “Trust me, Maggie, I know.”

“So do I,” said the doctor. “That’s why I gave those sleeping powders. They should knock him out for a couple of hours at least. Give him another dose tonight about eight o’clock. That will keep him asleep through the night and into tomorrow morning.”

“Will he be able to testify on Monday morning?” asked Ben.

Doctor Martin nodded. “He should be well enough by then,” said the doctor. “If he spends the rest of today and all day tomorrow in bed, he should be able to get up on Monday. But you have to keep him in bed!”

The doctor picked up his bag from the bottom of the bed and snapped it closed. “I’ll see my own way out, Maggie,” he said, his voice softer. He knew the fall was simply an accident, and that Maggie felt terrible about it. “I’ll stop by and see him tomorrow after church.”

Maggie nodded distractedly, her attention focused on Joe. The doctor nodded at Ben and walked out of the room. Doctor Martin let himself out of the house and turned to walk back up the street toward his office. Suddenly, a rough looking man barred his way.

“Doc, who’s sick in the house?” the man asked.

“I don’t see where that’s any of your business,” the doctor replied, his voice cold as ice.

“I’m just concerned,” said the man. “I saw Ben Cartwright go in. I thought he might be sick. I was going to ask if I could send word out to the Ponderosa for you.”

Doctor Martin hesitated. He didn’t know if Ben was going to stay at Maggie’s and if he left, the man would know he wasn’t sick. “Ben Cartwright is fine,” the doctor said finally.

“Well, then, who’s sick?” said the man persistently. “I saw the old lady run and get you, so I know it’s not her.”

The doctor pulled himself to his full height. “I don’t discuss my patients,” he said firmly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” Doctor Martin pushed past the man and started up the street.

The man stared after him thoughtfully.

Maggie and Ben sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee. The apple pie was sitting on the table, forgotten. Neither had any taste for Hop Sing’s cooking now.

“Ben, I’m so sorry,” said Maggie, her voice filled with distress.

“Maggie, it wasn’t your fault,” Ben said in a reassuring voice. “It was an accident.”

Maggie shook her head. “You asked me to watch over Joe and I let this happen,” she said. “I can’t tell how sorry I am.”

“Maggie, don’t blame yourself,” said Ben firmly. “I know how hard it is to keep Joe still. Sometimes I feel like dosing him with those sleeping powders myself!”

A weak smile appeared on Maggie’s face. “He does have a lot of energy, doesn’t he?” she said.

“Too much for his own good sometimes,” agreed Ben.

Maggie looked at the clock on the wall. It was close to six in the evening. “You’d better get going,” she said. “Those hands from the Ponderosa must be looking for you by now. And Adam and Hoss will be getting worried.”

“I thought maybe I’d just stay here,” said Ben.

Maggie shook her head. “You can’t do that,” she said.

Ben sighed. “Maggie, I know it doesn’t look right….,” he said.

“As if I would worry about that!” said Maggie. She grinned. “It might even do my reputation some good.” She suddenly grew solemn. “No, I was thinking about Brady’s man outside. If you don’t leave, he’ll be sure Joe’s here.”

Ben’s eyes widened in alarm. “I forgot all about him!” Ben said. “He must have seen you go for the doctor, so he knows you’re not sick. Maybe I should stay here, and let him think I’m sick.”

“No, that won’t work,” said Maggie. “If you stay, Adam and Hoss will come looking for you, and then we’ll have half the town here. It’s better if you leave. Brady’s man is still guessing about Joe. If you leave, he’ll be convinced he’s wrong. He wouldn’t believe you would leave if Joe were here.”

Ben rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He hated the idea of leaving Joe here alone with Maggie. On the other hand, what she said made sense. He just wasn’t sure what to do.

“Go home, Ben” Maggie urged. “I’ll take care of Joe. Don’t worry about him.”

Ben stood. “All right, Maggie,” he said reluctantly. “The boys and I will be coming to town for church services in the morning. We’ll stop by after church. I’ll think of some story to spread around. But you go get Roy Coffee if there’s even the hint of trouble.”

“Don’t worry, Ben,” said Maggie. “I let Joe get hurt once when he was in my care. I’m not going to let it happen again.”

*****

“I tell you he’s in that house!”, the gunman insisted.

“How do you know?” said Brady. “Did you see him?”

“No,” admitted the man. “But I told you. The old lady was buying a lot of food at the store, including some taffy Joe Cartwright likes. Then I see Ben Cartwright visiting the house. A little later, the old lady goes running for the doctor. Then Ben Cartwright leaves. And the doctor wouldn’t tell me who was sick.”

“Do you think Ben Cartwright would leave if his son was there?” Brady said in disgust. “I hardly think he’d leave that precious brat of his with nobody but an old lady to guard him.”

“Where else could he be?” the gunman said. “We haven’t found a trace of Joe Cartwright anywhere on the Ponderosa or in Virginia City. I’ll bet you anything that Fred nicked him before he got killed. That’s why the doctor was there. I know he’s in that house.”

“He could be anywhere,” said Brady. He puffed on his cigar and thought a minute. “But I have to admit it does look suspicious that Ben Cartwright was visiting her.”

“See!” said the gunman triumphantly. “I’ll get the boys.”

“Now hold on,” said Brady. “I said it looked suspicious. We can’t just go shooting up that house without knowing for sure.”

“Let’s just break in,” said the man. “I mean, how hard can it be to break down a door and push an old lady aside.”

“On Saturday night, with the town full of ranch hands? And half those hands being Ponderosa men?” asked Brady. “We cause a ruckus and twenty men will rush to help her.”

“Hmm, you’re right,” replied the man. “Well, what do we do?”

Brady didn’t answer. He simply puffed on his cigar for several minutes while he thought. Finally, he smiled.

“I want you to ride to Gold Hill and send a telegram,” Brady said. “On the way back, you round up the rest of the men. I have an idea on how we can get into that house.”

*****

The sun shone brightly on Sunday morning as Ben, Adam and Hoss rode into Virginia City, heading for church. Ben had spent a sleepless night worrying about Joe. His instinct was to rush back to Virginia City and stay with his son, no matter what Maggie said. But he also had to agree with Maggie’s logic. Staying with Joe could tip off Brady. Ben was happy to be riding into town. He had thought about skipping the church service and going right to Maggie’s house, but decided that also might tip their hand. He wondered if he was going to be able to stand staying in church through the whole service.

“Now don’t forget what I told you,” said Ben to Adam and Hoss.

“Pa, you done told us fourteen times,” Hoss said. “We know what to do. We tell everyone at church that Maggie’s sister is visiting her, and she’s not too well. Then we tell people we are going to go check on her.”

“I only hope no one asks why Maggie has never mentioned her sister before,” said Adam.

“If anyone asks, you can tell them that her sister was back East and just got out here,” said Ben. “That should satisfy them.”

“I guess,” said Hoss doubtfully.

The Cartwrights rode into the center of town. Ben pulled his horse to a stop suddenly. He could see Roy Coffee outside his office. He was checking the cinch on his saddle. Then Coffee mounted his horse and turned to ride off.

“Roy!” Ben shouted and kicked his horse forward. Adam and Hoss followed Ben.

Roy Coffee pulled his horse to a stop and waited for Ben.

“Roy, you going somewhere?” asked Ben.

“Yes, I got a telegram last night from Gold Hill,” said Roy. “The judge wants me to ride over there and meet with him?”

Adam frowned. “Why does he want to meet with you?” Adam asked.

“He didn’t say,” said Coffee. “Just that I was to meet with him today, as soon as I could get to Gold Hill.”

“But what about Marsh?” asked Hoss. “You ain’t leaving him alone in there, are you?”

“Hoss, you know me better than that,” said the sheriff. “Charlie Taylor and Bob Wilson are going to guard him until I get back. They got orders not to leave the office and not to let anyone in.”

“Do you think it’s wise to leave Marsh with them?” asked Ben with concern.

“Well, I don’t like the idea,” admitted Coffee. “But I really don’t have any choice. Those boys will do what I say. And if they don’t let anyone in, no one will get to Marsh. My jail is built solid.” With a wave, Coffee turned and rode off.

“Kinda of funny the judge sending for Roy like that,” said Hoss. “Do you think Brady had anything to do with it?”

“I don’t know,” said Ben thoughtfully. “But I don’t see what Brady would gain sending Roy out of town, unless he planned to break Marsh out of jail. But Roy’s right. If that door stays locked, Brady won’t get to Marsh.”

“Maybe we should go over and help them,” suggested Adam.

Ben shook his head. “No, Charlie and Bob won’t let you in, I’m sure of that,” said Ben. “Besides, we need to check on Joe. I want you boys to start talking to everyone after church, then meet me at Maggie’s house.”

Adam and Hoss nodded. The three men urged their horses forward and rode on to church. Ben was anxious and worried as he sat in the church pew. He mentally urged the minister to hurry. All he could think of was getting to Joe. He wasn’t really paying attention as Reverend Winters began his sermon. But as the minister started speaking, Ben’s attention was pulled toward the man.

“The topic of my sermon today is courage,” said Winters in a solemn voice. “Or rather, the lack of courage I’ve seen lately in this town. The Bible says ‘No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for another.’ I’m afraid there’s very few people in this town who have that kind of love.”

The crowd began to shift uncomfortably. Several people looked down, suddenly finding the floor to be fascinating.

“I don’t have to tell any of you what has been going on in this town,” continued Winters. “The intimidation, the pay-offs. And the death of a good man, Mr. Timmons. And yet no one except Joe Cartwright has had the courage to do anything about it. Here’s a young man who doesn’t even live in this town, but who is willing to sacrifice himself to stop a man like Walter Brady, and not one of you seem to care. Joe Cartwright could have just walked away from what’s been happening here, he could have refused to testify. But instead, he has gone into hiding, away from his home and family, in order to try to put an end to Walter Brady’s reign of terror. He is risking his life to save this town. And not one of you are lifting a finger to help him. I hope you are proud of yourselves.” The minister turned abruptly and walked away from the pulpit. The church was silent. No one moved. The minister had pricked their consciences with his sermon, and everyone in the church was feeling it.

Ben looked at Adam and Hoss, his face showing surprise. Adam and Hoss looked back at their father, the surprise even more evident on their faces. A wide grin split Hoss’ face. “That was some sermon,” he whispered. Ben nodded in agreement.

The service ended shortly after that. The final hymn was sung by less than enthusiastic voices. Most of the people in the church were torn between their shame and their fear. But many felt the minister was being unfair, also. He didn’t have to face the threat of Brady’s men. They all knew what could happen if they tried to stand up to Brady or help Joe. What happened to Timmons could happen to them. The congregation began filing out of the church, many of them quickly leaving. Few stopped to shake hands with the minister at the door.

Ben Cartwright stopped, however. He shook Reverend Winters’ hand hard. “Thank you,” Ben said gratefully. “Thank you very much.”

“Nothing to thank me for,” said the minister. “It had to be said. I don’t know if I did any good, but I had to try.”

“You did more than try,” said Adam. “I have a feeling that there’s a lot of people in this town who will have a hard time sleeping tonight.”

“I hope so,” replied the minister, with a smile. He turned back to Ben. “If there’s anything I can do to help Joe, you let me know.”

“I think you’ve already helped him,” answered Ben.

Suddenly, the sound of a shotgun blast roared through the air. Ben turned, his stomach churning with fear. The blast seemed to come from the next block. The block where Maggie lived. Ben rushed down the steps with Adam and Hoss close behind him. He ran to Maggie’s house. Ben stopped abruptly when he got to Maggie and stared open-mouthed at the scene in front of him. Maggie was standing in front of her house, with a shotgun. The shotgun was aimed directly at Walter Brady and five of his men.

“Maggie, what’s going on?” asked Ben.

“Saw these fellows coming toward my house,” answered Maggie, her eyes never leaving Brady’s face. “I warned them to stay away. When they kept coming, I shot into the air.” Maggie’s face was grim. The shotgun never wavered. “The next shot goes directly at them.”

Brady put his hands up. “Madam, you misunderstand my intentions,” he said smoothly. “I’m just here to help you.”

“I don’t misunderstand anything,” said Maggie. “Now you clear out.”

Brady put down his hands. “May I point out that there’s six of us, and one of you,” he said. “I don’t think you can get us all with that scatter gun. And I assure you if you pull that trigger, my men will shoot.”

Ben reached down for his gun, and realized he was unarmed. Like everyone else in town, he had left his holster on his horse when he went into church. Ben took a deep breath and walked forward. He stood next to Maggie.

“If your men fire, they’ll have to shoot me,” Ben said grimly. “I’m unarmed. It will be murder.”

Brady smiled a nasty smile. “And just who do you think will testify against us?” Brady asked. “As far as anyone in this town is concerned, you are threatening me. It’ll be self-defense. One more body won’t make any difference.”

Adam quickly rushed to his father’s side. “Make that two,” he said grimly.

Hoss walked over and stood by Maggie. “Three,” Hoss said.

Brady looked surprised. He hadn’t counted on any resistance. He turned to the crowd of people standing a few feet away in the street. “You heard me,” Brady said confidently. “I warned them to move away. If anything happens, it’s their fault.”

A murmur went through the crowd. Suddenly, a black coated figure pushed his way through and stood next to Maggie and the Cartwrights. “If you kill them, you’ll have to kill me,” said Reverend Winters. “Because I will testify against you.”

Brady hesitated, unsure what to do. Before he could do anything, he saw some more movement in the crowd. John Perkins, the store owner, silently walked from the crowd and stood next to Hoss. Charlie Burns, the owner of the livery, followed him and stood firmly behind Maggie. Doctor Martin joined the group. One by one, more people left the crowd on the street and joined the people in front of Maggie’s house. Soon there were more than twenty people standing in front of the building.

Joe was awakened by the noise of the shotgun. He sat up groggily, his head still fuzzy from the sleeping powders Maggie had given him last night. He wasn’t sure exactly what had wakened him.

“Maggie?” Joe called in a voice still thick with sleep. “Maggie?”

Joe began to worry when there was no answer. He thought about the noise for a few seconds and began to realize it was a shotgun blast. He swung his legs out of bed and reached for the pants hanging on the bedpost. He quickly struggled into the pants, wincing at the pain from his thigh. He grabbed his gunbelt from the bedpost and strapped it around his hips. Then he grabbed the crutches and struggled to his feet. Joe moved slowly across the room. His feet were bare, and he was finding it hard to walk. He was shirtless, the only clothes he was wearing were his pants. The crutches seemed to dig into his armpits. Joe tried to ignore the discomfort and move faster. He didn’t know what was wrong, but he was sure Maggie was in trouble. He shook his head, trying to clear it. He wished he didn’t feel so groggy. Joe forced himself to continue to walk despite the pain in his leg and managed to get to the front room. He stopped, and leaned on his crutches. He was breathing hard and sweating from the effort of walking. “Maggie?” Joe called again.

When there was no answer, Joe continued across the room to the front of the house. He lifted the curtain slightly to look out. What he saw was an astonishing sight. Walter Brady and five of his gunmen were standing in the street. Between them and the house stood a crowd of twenty people or so. Joe could easily see Hoss standing in the crowd, and thought he could make out Ben and Adam. Joe knew his father and brothers were in danger. Brady and his men could start shooting at anytime. He pulled his pistol from his holster. If his head hadn’t been so fuzzy, Joe would have realized that walking out into the middle of the confrontation would be dangerous for both him and the other Cartwrights. But the sleeping powders hadn’t completely worn off, and he wasn’t thinking straight. All he could think about was helping his family. Joe pulled open the front door and awkwardly stepped out.

Walter Brady stared at the crowd of people in front of him. The situation had rapidly gotten out of hand. He knew he could never shoot all those people and get away with it. And he really didn’t have much stomach for a massacre. He was about to call the whole thing off when the front door of the house opened.

“There’s Cartwright!” one of his men shouted, pointing toward the house. Brady and his men reached for their guns.

Several women on the street screamed at the sight of guns being pulled from holsters. Ben turned toward the house and saw Joe struggling out the front door. “Joe, get down!” he shouted. Brady’s men started spreading out, trying to get a clear shot at Joe.

Suddenly, the blast of a shotgun filled the air again. Three of Brady’s men fell to ground, bleeding from their arms and side. Hoss rushed forward and grabbed another man who had his gun drawn. Hoss pulled the man’s gun straight up with one hand and then hit him hard on the jaw with the massive fist of his other hand. Adam ran toward the last gunman and hit him square in the chest with his shoulder, knocking the man to the ground. Ben hurried toward Brady. He grabbed the pistol from the astonished man’s hand. Maggie stood calmly as the crowd swirled around her, a smoking shotgun in her hands. She watched the chaotic scene for a minute. Then satisfied that Brady and his men were no longer a threat, she dropped the gun and rushed back to her house.

Joe was standing on the porch with a dazed look on his face. His face and chest were covered with sweat, and he was breathing hard. The effort of walking to the porch had taken a lot out of him. His pistol was in his hand, ready for use. He still wasn’t sure what happened.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” demanded Maggie in an angry voice.

Joe shook his head as if to clear it, hen turned to Maggie. “What…what’s going on?” he asked.

“Nothing you need to be concerned about,” Maggie said primly as she took Joe’s gun from his hand. She grabbed Joe’s arm and gently steered him toward the house. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed.”

Doctor Martin shook his head as he pulled the covers over Joe yet again. He had rushed to the porch to help Maggie get Joe back into the house. Ben was close on his heels. The trio had managed to get Joe back to his room without the young man injuring himself further. The doctor had checked Joe’s leg, just to be sure, and was satisfied that the stitches had held.

“Now this time, you stay in bed,” said the doctor in a firm voice. “I haven’t got the time or the energy to keep patching you up.”

“But doc, I was only trying to help,” Joe protested weakly.

“You almost got yourself killed,” Ben said grimly. “What were you thinking?”

“Well, I wasn’t thinking too clearly,” Joe admitted.

“That’s for sure,” said Maggie.

Just then, Hoss and Adam walked into the room. “We finally got Charlie and Bob to open the door of the sheriff’s office,” said Hoss.

“Brady and his men are safely locked up in jail,” added Adam. “Doc, you’d better get over there. Three of them are still bleeding and I think one has a broken jaw.”

Doctor Martin sighed. “I’ll go get my bag,” he said and turned to leave. He stopped at the door and looked back at Joe. “You do what I said,” he declared firmly. “Stay in that bed!” With that, the doctor left.

“Well, little brother, you sure caused some excitement,” said Hoss as he walked over to the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” Joe answered. “Just a little tired.”

“Next time you decide to take a stroll, try not to cause a riot,” added Adam.

“He’s not strolling anywhere,” said Maggie. “At least, not until he has to testify tomorrow.”

“The judge is going to find a lot more on hands than just Marsh’s trial,” said Ben. “When Roy gets back, I’m going to make sure he charges Brady and his men with attempted murder. And this time, Roy will have plenty of witnesses.”

“There will be people lining up at Roy’s office when he gets back,” said Hoss. “I heard a lot of fellows say they were going to tell Roy about Brady and his men threatening them.”

“They’re awfully brave now that Brady and his men are locked up,” said Adam in a ironic voice.

“Don’t discount what those men did,” warned Ben. “It look a lot of courage for John Perkins and the others to stand up to Brady unarmed.”

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

Joe yawned and shifted on the bed. He suddenly felt like he could sleep for a week. Maggie saw him yawn.

“All right, you three, out,” she ordered Ben, Adam, and Hoss. “Joe needs his rest.”

She turned back to the bed. “And you get some sleep,” she said sternly to Joe.

“Yes ma’am,” said Joe meekly. Then he grinned. “Does this mean you’re going to marry me now?”

“Joe Cartwright, you are the most exasperating person I know,” Maggie said. She tried to sound angry, but failed badly. She smiled. “Get some sleep,” she said softly.

She ushered Ben, Adam and Hoss out of the room and closed the door behind her.

“Maggie, I don’t know how to thank you for what you did,” Ben said gratefully as they entered the living room. “You saved Joe’s life. Brady and his men would have killed him for sure if they had gotten into the house.”

“Pish,” said Maggie briskly, waving her hand in a dismissing manner. “I didn’t do anything. Brady and his men made me mad. Just gave me a chance to get back at them.” Maggie’s voice softened. “Besides, Ben, I promised you that nothing would happen to Joe,” she added. “And I don’t break promises.”

“We’ll come get Joe tomorrow and take him to the courthouse,” Adam said. “He’s safe now, but he’s probably going to need help getting down there to testify.”

Maggie nodded. “Do you think Marsh will hang now?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said Ben. “With everyone else willing to testify against Brady, Marsh’s testimony isn’t so important. But the judge may still show some leniency if he adds his story to the others. Either way, we won’t have to worry about him any more.”

“Brady and the rest of his men will be locked up for a long time, too,” added Adam. “Maggie, you managed to clean up this town practically single handed.”

Hoss grinned. “You should have been in church today, “ he said. “The minister could have used you as an example in his sermon.”

“What was his sermon about?” Maggie asked curiously.

“Courage, “ answered Ben. “ And love. The kind of love you showed for Joe. He doesn’t know how lucky he is to have you looking after him.”

Maggie blushed. “Don’t got saying that around Joe,” she said briskly. “He’ll be sending for the minister for sure.”

The Cartwrights laughed. “Come on, boys,” Ben said, heading for the door.

“Let’s head for home. We’ll see you in the morning, Maggie.”

Maggie walked them to the door and waved as they left. She shut the door behind them, and automatically locked it. Then, with a smile, she unlocked it. She leaned against the door. I’ll talk Ben into letting Joe stay here for a few days after the trial, she thought. She knew she was going to miss having Joe around. She was almost grateful to Walter Brady for forcing Joe into her house. Ben’s the lucky one, she thought. I wonder if he knows how lucky he is. Then she remembered the look on Ben’s face when the doctor was checking Joe a little while ago. Ben was at first concerned, then relieved when the doctor said Joe would be all right. There was no mistaking the final look that had come across Ben’s face…the love of a father for a son. He knows how lucky he is, she thought. He knows.

*****End*****

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