Paying the Price (by Susan)

Synopsis:   Is it worth the cost to refuse to sell lumber to a new mine owner?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  20,180


 

“Hey, Pa, we’re home!” shouted Joe Cartwright as he walked through the door of the ranch house. Joe hung his tan hat on the peg by the door and slipped out of his green jacket. He tossed the jacket on a peg also. “Pa!” he shouted again as he began to unbuckle his gunbelt. “We’re back!”

“I can hear you, Joseph,” said Ben Cartwright with a smile as he descended the steps to the large room below. “In fact, I think most of the Ponderosa heard you.” Ben looked around the room. “Where’s Hoss?” he asked curiously.

“He’s putting up the horses,” answered Joe as he took off the gunbelt and rolled it into a ball. “I cooked the last two days on the trail so he’s got to put the horses away.”

“And he managed to survive your cooking?” Ben asked in mock horror.

“Just barely,” Joe replied with a grin. “Hop Sing better be cooking up enough feed to an army tonight. Otherwise, the rest of us aren’t going to get anything to eat.”

Crossing the room, Ben put his arm affectionately around his youngest son’s shoulder. “Well, what did you think of the stock Jamison is selling?” he asked. “Are they worth the price?”

“Pa, those horses are the best I’ve ever seen,” declared Joe in an enthusiastic voice. “They’re all sound, with chests like barrels. And not one older than seven or eight. If we buy them from Jamison, they’ll improve our stock a lot.”

“Good, good,” said Ben. “And how much is he asking for them?”

Joe’s face grew serious. “The price is high, Pa,” he admitted. “Real high. He wants $20,000 for the whole herd.”

“$20,000!” exclaimed Ben. “He must be mad. There’s not a herd of horses in Nevada worth that much.”

“Jamison thinks his are,” Joe said. “He’s not willing to come down. I tried everything I could think of, but he’s stuck on the price.”

Suddenly, Hoss Cartwright pushed open the front door and walked into the room. “Hot diggity! Something smells good.” He tossed his big white hat on the peg by the door. “When’s dinner?” asked Hoss, rubbing his hands together.

“It’s nice to see you, too, son,” said Ben pointedly.

“What? Oh yeah,” replied Hoss apologetically. “It’s good to see you, Pa.” Hoss sniffed the air hopefully. “Is Hop Sing cooking chicken for dinner?”

Ben threw his hands up in the air. “I give up,” he said with resignation. “I swear if it came down to a choice between me and Hop Sing, you’d choose Hop Sing first.”

“Now that’s not true,” protested Hoss. “It’s just I’ve been eating what passes as Joe’s cooking for the last two days. I’m getting plum puny and weak. You wouldn’t want me to waste away, would you?”

“That’d take two, three years,” said Joe, grinning at his massive brother.

Ben laughed. He was happy to have his two youngest sons home. The house had seemed awfully quiet without their banter and teasing.

“Joe was telling me about Jamison’s string,” Ben said.

“They’re good stock,” agreed Hoss. “Not a bad one in the bunch.”

“But the price!” said Ben, shaking his head. “$20,000 for a herd of horses!”

Hoss scratched his neck. “It’s high,” he admitted. “I’m not sure they’re really worth that much.”

“Hoss, those horses are worth every penny,” protested Joe. “You saw them…”

“Well, it doesn’t make any difference,” Ben interrupted his youngest son. “We don’t have $20,000 available right now to pay for them. We’ll just have to tell Jamison that we’re not interested.”

“But, Pa, he’s got another buyer,” said Joe in alarm. “If we pass now, those horses will be sold to someone else.”

“Then I guess they’ll be sold to someone else,” stated Ben firmly. He saw the disappointed look on Joe’s face. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he added, putting his hand on his son’s shoulder. “But right now, we can’t afford to buy those horses.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I understand,” he acknowledged, but his voice reflected his disappointment.

Ben clapped Joe on the back. “Why don’t you go upstairs and get cleaned up. Supper will be ready in about an hour,” suggested Ben, trying to lighten his son’s mood. Joe nodded and walked across the room. Ben watched as Joe slowly climbed the stairs.

“He sure did want to buy those horses, Pa,” said Hoss as he watched his brother disappear at the top of the stairs.

“I know, Hoss,” Ben  agreed. “But we don’t always get what we want in this life.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” said Hoss. Then he grinned. “You said supper will be ready in about an hour?”

“Yes,” answered Ben with a smile. “And don’t you try to talk Hop Sing into feeding you before then. Now go get cleaned up.”

“Yes sir,” Hoss replied. He hitched his pants. “I just hope I can last another hour.”

*****

Dinner talk turned into a monologue as Joe enthusiastically described the horses he had seen at the Jamison ranch. Adam Cartwright had arrived at the dinner table just as his father and brothers were sitting down to eat, and made the mistake of asking Joe what he thought of the horses he and Hoss had seen. Joe spent the next forty-five minutes describing the perfection of the horses and how they would improve their stock. Joe glanced at his father from time to time as he talked. He was lobbying hard for his father to change his mind about buying the horses.

“And how much does Jamison want for these equine masterpieces?” asked Adam with a wry grin when Joe finally stopped to take a breath.

Before replying, Joe glanced at Ben once more. “$20,000,” answered Joe softly.

Adam whistled. “$20,000!” he said. He turned to Hoss. “What, are these horses made out of silver or something?”

Up to now, Hoss had been too busy eating to contribute anything to Joe’s description of the animals. He looked up as he realized Adam had spoken to him. “They’re real good horses,” replied Hoss, as he continued to eat.

“But $20,000!” Adam said, shaking his head in amazement.

“I’ve already explained to Joe that we don’t have that kind of money available right now,” stated Ben. “So it really doesn’t make any difference how good those horses are.”

“You’re right,” agreed Adam. “Until we sell the herd in a few months, our cash flow is pretty tight. We’d be lucky to able to buy just one of Jamison’s horses at that price.”

“If you weren’t going to buy the horses, then why’d you send me and Hoss all the way up there?” asked Joe in a voice tinged with disgust. “We wasted a week on the trail for nothing.”

“I sent you up there because I wanted someone I could trust to look at those horses,” replied Ben patiently. “I had no idea how good they were or the price Jamison was asking. I thought maybe he had a few decent horses that he was willing to sell at a reasonable price.”

“He’s got some really great horses,” Joe said, trying one last time to convince his father.

“No horse is that good,” declared Adam.

“These are,” insisted Joe. He looked around the table. Joe could see by the firm look on Ben and Adam’s faces that they were not going to be talked into buying the horses. “But I guess you’ll never get to see them,” added Joe, his voice full of discouragement.

“There’ll be other horses, Joe,” said Ben in a placating voice. “Now eat your dinner.”

“Yes sir,” replied Joe in an unhappy voice.

“I heard some news today,” said Adam, pointedly changing the subject. “They hit a big vein at the Last Dollar mine.”

“The Last Dollar?” asked Hoss in surprise. “Wasn’t that Harry Jackson’s mine?”

“It was,” confirmed Adam. “Sam Parker bought it from Harry’s widow about two weeks ago.”

“It’s a shame Harry was killed in that wagon accident,” said Joe with a shake of head. “He was just on the verge of hitting it big and never knew it.”

“That’s the third mine Parker has bought in the last year that has produced a big strike,” Ben observed with a frown. “He bought all three from the widows of owners who were killed in some type of accident. And found a big strike in each mine shortly after he bought it.”

“That’s kinda of stretching the idea of coincidence” remarked Hoss, raising an eyebrow.

“Sounds to me like  Parker may have had a hand in those ‘accidents’,” added Adam.

“I know Roy Coffee looked into all three deaths. He couldn’t find any evidence of foul play,” Ben told his oldest son.

“But that doesn’t mean anything,” said Adam. “Just because the sheriff couldn’t find anything doesn’t mean Parker wasn’t involved.”

“What’s Roy going to do about it?” demanded Joe.

“Not much he can do,” admitted Ben. “Unless he finds some evidence that Parker caused those accidents, his hands are tied.”

“That doesn’t seem right,” said Joe with a frown.

“It may not be right, but it is legal,” answered Adam.

“I don’t care much for the way Parker does business,” added Ben. “Most of the mine owners are good men. But Parker….” Ben shook his head. “He’s made a lot of money from those mines, but he’s also caused a lot of misery. I know there’s been several accidents in his other mines. And even if he didn’t have anything to do with the death of those mine owners, he’s caused their families to miss out on the profits from those strikes.”

“If he’s got all the money, maybe he’d like to invest in some horses,” suggested Joe with an impish smile.

Ben frowned at his son for a moment until he realized Joe was joking. “You don’t give up easy, do you?” Ben acknowledged with a smile.

“Well, Pa, you always taught us that whatever is worth having is worth fighting for,” said Joe, his grin widening.

Ben smiled at Joe indulgently. “I guess I did,” he admitted. “Tell you what. Why don’t you go into Virginia City tomorrow with Hoss to pick up those supplies? You can send a telegram to Jamison and ask if he’s willing to hold on to those horses until August. If he is, you can buy them then.”

“I don’t know, Pa,” replied Joe doubtfully. “He said he had another buyer.”

“Joe, you know that ‘other buyer’ ploy is one of the oldest tricks in the book,” said Adam.

“I know, Adam,” Joe agreed. “But he seemed awfully confident about selling those horses.”

“If you don’t ask, Joe, you’ll never know,” remarked Hoss. “What’s the harm?”

Joe looked around the table. “You’re right,” he said. “Asking never hurt. Jamison might be willing to wait if the price is right.”

*****

The Cartwrights were relaxing by the fire after dinner when the knock on the door came. Adam was sitting in a blue chair near the stairs. He looked up from the book he was reading and stared pointedly at Joe. Hoss was sitting on the sofa, bent over a checker board on the table in front of him. He also looked up at Joe, who was sitting on the table on the other side of the checker board. Joe looked down at the pieces on the board, ignoring a second knock on the door and his brother’s stares.

A third, louder knock echoed through the house.

Ben lowered the newspaper he was reading as he sat in his favorite red leather chair by the fireplace. “Joseph, would you please answer the door,” he said sternly.

Joe looked around. “Why do I always have to answer the door?” he complained.

“Please, just answer the door,” replied Ben in a weary voice.

“Yes sir,” grumbled Joe as he untangled his legs from under his body and got off the table. “I have to do everything around here,” muttered Joe as he walked toward the door. Adam and Hoss grinned at each other.

Joe pulled open the door. A middle-aged man wearing a dark suit, string tie and tan hat stood on the porch. His hand was raised as if he were going to knock again. Hastily, the man lowered his fist.

“Is Mr. Ben Cartwright at home?” the man asked formally.

Joe smiled at the formal tone of voice. “Yes,” he replied, his mouth twitching with a smile. “Whom shall I say is calling?” asked Joe, his voice imitating the man’s formal tone.

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Samuel Parker of Parker Enterprises,” said the man, handing Joe the card.

Joe looked at the card briefly and pulled the door open. “Come in,” he invited the man.

Nodding, Parker walked into the house, removing his hat as he entered. Parker’s dark hair was slicked back against his head, and his hand patted his hair in an unconscious gesture. “Thank you,” replied Parker, walking past Joe toward the other men in the room.

Ben watched Parker approach with suspicious eyes.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry to disturb you at this late hour,” said Parker, holding out his hand. Ben took the hand and shook it briefly, but didn’t reply. Parker looked around, then sat on the sofa, making himself comfortable.

“I’m sorry to be bothering you at this hour,” repeated Parker. “But I have a business proposition which I think you’ll find of interest.”

“And what would that be?” asked Ben coldly.

“As you may have heard, I’ve recently had a good strike at one of my mines,” replied Parker.

“The Last Dollar,” stated Adam. “Harry Jackson’s old mine.”

“Correct,” acknowledged Parker. “Unfortunately, the vein runs deep into the ground, and we’re going to have to do a lot more digging than we anticipated to get the ore. I need lumber to act as shoring. I would like to buy that lumber from you.”

“We have no lumber for sale,” answered Ben shortly.

“I know that you have contracts with the other mines,” said Parker, unfazed by Ben’s tone. “And those contracts do take most of your available lumber. But I also know you aren’t cutting any of the trees on Willow Ridge. I took the liberty of sending one of my men to look at those trees. The trees on Willow Ridge would meet my needs.”

“Those trees are all pretty new,” Adam told Parker with a frown. “They’re not ready for cutting yet. We only replanted that ridge about six years ago.”

“Some are relatively small,” agreed Parker. “But others are nice and tall. If you cleared all the trees off the ridge, there would be enough lumber to meet my needs. The combination of both the old and new growth would be sufficient.”

“But Mr. Parker, if we cleared that ridge, there’d be nothing up there,” declared Hoss with a touch of alarm in his voice. “No watershed, no shelter for the animals, nothing.”

Parker shrugged. “I suppose,” he said. He leaned forward on the sofa. “I’m willing to pay you a nice price for those trees.”

“They are not for sale,” answered Ben in an icy voice.

“Ah, but you haven’t heard my offer,” said Parker confidently. “If you can deliver the lumber I need, I’ll pay you $25,000.”

“$25,000!” exclaimed Joe. He was standing behind Ben’s chair. Now he looked down at his father. “That’s a lot of money, Pa,” Joe added.

Ben ignored his youngest son. “Mr. Parker, you wasted a trip out here,” said Ben. “We’re not going to do any cutting on Willow Ridge until I think the trees there are ready to be harvested. And they are NOT ready to be harvested.”

“I could go as high as $30,000,” offered Parker.

“The price won’t change my mind,” replied Ben.

“Why are you so anxious to have our lumber?” asked Adam curiously. “Surely there are a lot of other places that can supply your needs.”

“Yes, yes there are,” agreed Parker. “But those places aren’t near Virginia City. It would take time to get the lumber here. Could be as long as two months. Your timber could be arriving at the mine within a week. Without the shoring, we can’t work the mine. I’d have to shut down the mine, and that will put a lot of miners out of work for awhile.”

“And decrease the money you’re making,” added Adam wryly.

“Couldn’t you put the miners from the Last Dollar to work at one of your other mines?” asked Hoss with a frown. “I mean, it’s only for two months or so.”

“Pay for a double crew?” said Parker in an astonished voice. “Why would I do that? The extra silver they would mine wouldn’t cover the cost of paying them!”

Ben sighed and shook his head sadly. “Mr. Parker, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time,” he said. “We’re not interested in selling you any lumber.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I don’t think you understand…” began Parker.

“I understand perfectly,” Ben cut in. “You’re willing to ruin Willow Ridge just to make yourself richer. You’re willing to lay off the miners because keeping them on your payroll might cut into your profits. And your profit come from mines that were bought under, well, let’s just say, under unusual circumstances.”

Parker’s eyes narrowed. “Cartwright, are you accusing me something?” asked Parker in a threatening voice. “Because if you are, you’d better have the proof to back it up.”

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” replied Ben, his voice rising in anger. “But I’m not going to do business with you, Parker.”

Parker looked around the room, hoping to spot one of the Cartwrights who might be sympathetic to his offer. Adam and Hoss stared at him with stony expressions. Joe’s face showed interest, but Joe looked down when Parker looked at him.

Abruptly, Parker rose. “If you change your mind…” he said as he stood. He pulled another business card from his pocket and held toward Ben.

“I won’t,” replied Ben flatly, ignoring the card.

“We’ll see,” said Parker ominously. Parker replaced the card and put his hat on his head. He turned and walked out of the house.

Hoss watched Parker leave, then turned to Ben. “I see what you mean about Parker,” Hoss told his father shaking his head. “He’s a piece of work, ain’t he?”

“Pa, are you sure those trees on Willow Ridge aren’t ready to cut?” asked Joe as he eased himself around his father’s chair and sat on the sofa. “If we sold some of them to Parker, we could make a tidy profit.”

“Enough to buy those horses you want, you mean don’t you,” suggested Adam in a  cold voice. “Grow up, Joe. You’re acting like you’re two instead of 22.”

“I didn’t say anything about buying horses, Adam,” declared Joe in a heated voice. “I was just asking.”

Trying to forestall an argument, Ben put up his hand. “Now hold on; Joe has the right to ask,” he said. Ben turned to his youngest son. “Joe, we’ve talked about this before. This is our land but we have an obligation to use it responsibly. We’ve agreed that we want to build the Ponderosa into something that we can be proud of, something that we can pass on. Cutting those trees in Willow Ridge would not be using the land responsibly. Losing some money now is just the price we have to pay for building toward the future.”

“I know we’re building something for the future,” replied Joe. “But it’s just one strand of trees.”

“Joe, you start making compromises and it don’t end,” Hoss told his younger brother. “First it’s a strand of trees that shouldn’t be cut, then it’s a river that shouldn’t be damned, and next thing you know, there’s a whole passel of land that’s messed up.”

“Besides, I don’t fancy doing business with the likes of Parker,” added Adam.

Reaching forward, Ben put his hand on Joe’s knee. “Joe,” he said gently. “I know how tempting it is to sell that lumber so you can buy those horses. I have to admit the thought crossed my mind briefly when Parker was here. But that’s short-sighted. You have to think to the future.”

For a moment, Joe just looked at the earnest expressions on the faces of his father and brothers. Then he smiled wryly. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to convince Jamison to sell me those horses in August,” said Joe with a shrug. He turned to Hoss. “Who’s move is it?”

Ben sighed as he watched Joe and Hoss returned to the checkers game. Joe was so young and impulsive, thought Ben. He hoped Joe understood his decision not to sell to Parker. Because Ben was determined that Sam Parker would not get that timber on Willow Ridge.

*****

The bell tinkled as Hoss pushed open the door to the General Store. Joe followed his brother into the store, content to let Hoss place the order for supplies. He walked around the store as Hoss talked with the owner behind the counter. He idly looked at some items on the shelf, but he wasn’t really thinking about the shirts he saw. Joe’s mind was working on the wording to the telegram he was going to send to Jamison.

The bell tinkled again, and Joe looked curiously to see who had entered the store. He was surprised to see a little boy about ten walking in. It was mid-morning, and Joe would have thought all the children would be in school. Joe took a closer look, and thought the boy was the dirtiest child he had ever seen.

The boy was dressed in brown, ragged pants with a split in the knee. He was wearing a checked shirt that looked about a size too small. Dirt and grime stained the boy’s clothes. His face was smudged, and his light hair was covered with something that looked like dust. Joe wondered what the boy could have been doing to get so filthy.

Walking slowly, the boy approached the counter of the store and stood next to Hoss.   Hoss looked down at the boy and smiled. The boy looked back at the biggest Cartwright with solemn eyes.

“Frank, why don’t you take care of this young fella,” suggested Hoss with a wink to the store owner. “His business looks mighty important.”

The owner nodded and turned to the boy. “Well, Billy, what can I do for you?” asked Frank.

Reaching into his pocket, Billy pulled out something with his fingers. Then he held out a dirty hand toward Frank. On the palm of his hand were some coins.

“Here’s 28 cents,” said Billy in a tired voice. “That’s my week’s pay plus some pennies I earned cutting wood. Ma says you should take half of it toward our bill, and give me as much food as the other half will buy.”

“Billy, I told you Ma she doesn’t have to worry about paying her bill for awhile,” replied Frank in a kindly voice.

The boy stood straight and held his head high. “Ma says we don’t take charity,” Billy declared. “That’s why I’m working in the mine and she’s taking in wash. We aim to pay the bill we ran up before my Pa died.”

Hoss looked over the boy’s head toward Joe, who shook his head in sympathy. Frank sighed and reached toward the coins in the boy’s hand. “All right, Billy,” said the store owner taking the coins. “That’s 14 cents toward the bill and 14 cents worth of food.” The owner looked around the store. “That should buy five potatoes and a slice of ham.”

“Is that all?” asked Billy, his eyes widening. “Me and Ma and the three little ones got to live on that until I get paid again next week.”

“I’m afraid…” started Frank.

“Frank, I think you figured wrong,” interrupted Hoss, winking at the man. “I figure 14 cents should get this young fella about ten potatoes, half a ham, and a loaf of bread.”

“Er, um, yeah, I guess you’re right, Hoss,” agreed the owner. “I forgot we’ve got a sale going on. You wait a minute, Billy. I’ll gather up the groceries.”

Billy nodded solemnly, and watched as the store owner started putting the food into a cloth sack.

“Where you working?” Hoss asked the boy.

“Last Dollar mine,” answered Billy proudly. “I got a job right after my Pa got killed in an accident.” Billy’s face darkened. “Course it’s only for another week. Then Mr. Parker says he’s shutting down the mine. I don’t know what Ma is going to do if I ain’t working.”

“Hey, Frank,” called Joe stepping up to the counter. “Didn’t I hear you say you were looking for some help?”

Frank looked up, two potatoes in his hand. “Did I?” he said in a puzzled voice.

“Yeah, I heard you say you were looking for someone to help clean up, run errands, that sort of thing,” Joe continued, looking at the man with an even gaze. “Said you’d pay fifty cents a week.”

“Fifty cents!” exclaimed Billy. “That’s twice what I’m making now!” He turned to the store owner. “Mister, can I have that job? I’d work real hard.”

“Well, er, I don’t know,” said Frank, obviously confused by Joe’s announcement.

“Why don’t you give him a try, Frank?” Joe suggested. “He looks like pretty good worker.”

“Please, mister,” begged Billy. “I’d do anything, anything you told me.” He shuddered slightly and then mumbled, “Nothing could be worse than going down into that mine.”

Frank looked at Billy, his face softening. “All right, Billy,” agreed Frank. “You can start tomorrow. Be here at 9:00 sharp.” He handed the boy the sack of groceries.

“Yes sir!” said Billy excitedly, his face breaking into a grin. “And thank you.” The boy turned to walk out of the store.

“Hold it a minute,” Joe called after the boy.

Billy froze, and turned slowly. His face showed fear. “What…what’s wrong?” asked Billy.

“Nothing,” said Joe in a reassuring voice. “Frank here just forgot to tell you about his policy. All new employees get a nickel’s worth of candy.” Joe turned to the store owner. “Right, Frank?”

Frank shrugged. “Whatever you say, Joe,” agreed the man.

“Gee, thanks, mister!” said Billy. “I really appreciate it, Mr…” Billy’s voice trailed off, as he obviously was unsure what to call Joe.

“Just call me Joe,” said Joe with a grin. He pointed across the store. “That big fellow over there is my brother, Hoss.”

Billy nodded. “Thanks, Joe,” he said gratefully. “I really appreciate your putting me on to this job.”

“Happy to do it,” Joe replied with a wave of his hand.

Joe and Hoss grinned as they watched Billy carefully select his candy. When the boy was sure he had what he wanted, he watched as Frank carefully twisted the small bag closed and put it into the sack of food the boy was carrying. Billy was all smiles as he turned and waved to the Cartwrights. He walked proudly out the door.

“Thanks, Frank,” said Joe as he walked toward the counter. “Just put the groceries on our bill.” Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. “Here’s $5. That should cover Billy’s wages for awhile. Remind me the next time we’re here, and I pay you some more.”

“You don’t have to do that, Joe,” protested Frank. “I could probably use some help around here.”

“I want to do it,” Joe stated firmly. He shook his head. “Imagine. A little kid like that working in the mines.”

“Yeah,” agreed Frank. “Parker likes to hire kids to work in his mines. He only has to pay them a pittance and he uses them for all the dirty and dangerous jobs that a lot of men won’t do. Most of the kids don’t know any better, and they need to work to help support their families.”

“That’s terrible,” Hoss said angrily. “Those kids ought to be in school, not working in some dark, dangerous mine.”

“I agree,” Frank told the big man. “But there’s no law against it.”

“Well, there ought to be,” declared Hoss. He shook his head, then suddenly looked at Joe. “You going to send that telegram?” he asked his brother.

“Yeah, I’m heading over there right now,” Joe answered with a nod. “How about I meet you over at the Silver Dollar for a beer when you’re done here?”

“Ain’t you gonna help me load the supplies?” asked Hoss, his eyes narrowing.

“Hoss, I’d like to, but it’s going to take me awhile to get that telegram off,” Joe replied in a solemn voice, but his eyes were dancing. “And Pa wants us back at the ranch before too late.” Joe patted his brother on the stomach. “Besides, I figure you can use the exercise.”

“Joseph…” started Hoss in a threatening voice.

“Hoss, I’m only doing this for your own good,” said Joe in an earnest voice. “I don’t want you to run to fat.” Joe tilted his head. “You know, you’re getting a little bit of a weight problem there, brother.”

Hoss looked down at his stomach as a grinning Joe turned and sauntered out of the store. Hoss looked up and glared at the back of his brother’s head. Then with a sigh, he turned back to Frank. “Well, let’s get those supplies,” said Hoss in a resigned voice.

*****

Joe was sitting in the Silver Dollar, enjoying his beer, when Parker walked in. Parker stood at the bar for a minute, watching Joe. He remembered the interest he had seen in the young man’s face last night when he talked about buying the timber. But Parker also remembered the stony looks on the face of the rest of the Cartwrights. Parker turned to the bartender and ordered a whiskey. He decided he needed to think about what to do next.

“Hello, Joe,” said a blonde in a short silky purple dress. She sat down at the table with Joe. “Buy a girl a beer?” she asked.

“Sure, Francie,” answered Joe with a smile. He turned and signaled to the bartender.

“Thanks,” Francie said with a smile that matched the young man’s. She nodded as the bartender set a mug of beer on the table. “I haven’t seen you for awhile,” remarked Francie as she sipped her beer.

“Been out of town,” Joe told the girl. “Hoss and I rode up to see some horses that a  rancher named Jamison is trying to sell.”

“I’ve heard about those horses,” commented Francie. “Couple of fellows were talking about them a few days ago. Said they were the best horses in the state of Nevada.”

“I can’t disagree with them,” said Joe.

“Are you going to buy them?” asked Francie curiously as she sipped her beer.

“Maybe,” answered Joe. “Jamison wants $20,000 for the herd.”

“$20,000!” exclaimed Francie. “That’s a lot of money.”

“Yeah, it is,” agreed Joe. “More than we’ve got available right now. I’ve sent Jamison a telegram, asking if he’d hold off selling the horses until we get the herd sold at the end of the summer. Don’t know if he will.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Francie said, her voice full of sympathy.

“Yeah,” agreed Joe. He shook his head. “I sure would like to buy those horses.”

“Young man, I couldn’t help overhearing,” said Parker as he strolled to Joe’s table. “You know, if you could convince your father to sell me the timber I need, you’d have more than enough for those horses.”

Joe looked up at Parker, then turned to take a sip of his beer. “Pa won’t sell you that lumber,” Joe stated as he put down his glass.

“Perhaps you could persuade him?” suggested Parker. “I might even throw in a few hundred dollars extra for you for your trouble.”

Joe took another sip of his beer. “Mr. Parker,” he said in an even voice, not bothering to look at the man, “I don’t do business with someone who steals mining claims and puts kids to work in those mines.” Joe drank once more from his glass. “I wouldn’t sell you one tree from Willow Ridge.”

“Now, see here, you young pup…” sputtered Parker.

“No, you see,” said Joe, turning a fierce glare on the man. “Parker, you’re a bully, and probably a thief and a murderer. You may have the people in this town fooled, but not me and not my Pa. There’s nothing that could convince us to sell you that lumber. Now why don’t you just leave and let me have a drink with the lady.”

“You can’t say that to me,” screamed Parker.

“Seems to me I just did,” said Joe in a low voice. He deliberately turned his back on Parker.

Parker stood next to Joe, his face almost red with rage. “You’ll regret this,” he shouted. “You Cartwrights think you’re so high and mighty. Well, you’ll sell me that lumber. I promise you. I’ll have you begging me to take that lumber.”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” said Joe, his back still to the man.

Parker turned and stormed out of the bar.

“Joe, you shouldn’t have said that,” offered Francie in a frightened voice. “Parker’s a mean man.”

“He doesn’t scare me,” Joe replied, finishing his beer. He turned and gestured to the bartender, then he turned back to Francie. “Let’s forget Parker,” said Joe, giving the girl his most winning smile. “Let’s talk about something more important, like where you got that pretty dress.” He reached out and took Francie’s hand. “Or how you keep your hands so soft,” he murmured. Francie blushed and smiled back at Joe. Joe put Francie’s hands to his lips and kissed her fingers softly.

Joe was still murmuring soft endearments to Francie a few minutes later when a big, burly miner strolled into the bar. The man looked around, then frowned when he saw the table where Joe and Francie were sitting. Joe’s head was bent toward Francie, and he was holding her hand. Francie was smiling back at Joe.

The miner walked over to the table and grabbed Joe’s shoulder, pushing the young man roughly back in his chair.

“Hey!” protested Joe as he looked up at the man. “Why’d you do that?”

“Francie’s my girl,” growled the miner.

“Jake,” protested Francie, “we weren’t doing anything.”

“Didn’t look like nothing to me,” growled the big miner. He turned to Joe. “I think you’d better leave, sonny.”

“I’ll leave when Francie tells me to,” replied Joe, his eyes narrowing.

“Joe, maybe you’d better go,” said Francie fearfully. “I don’t want any trouble.”

Joe turned back to the girl. “There won’t be any trouble,” he promised. “Are you really his girl?”

“Well, Jake and I have been seeing each other for awhile,” admitted Francie. Then she looked up the miner and glared. “But that don’t mean I can’t talk with another man,” she added defiantly.

“Talking’s one thing,” said Jake. “That’s what you get paid to do. But what you were doing wasn’t talking. You was acting like some, some…”

“Jake!” exclaimed Francie in a shocked voice. She turned her head and lifted her nose in the air. “I think you’d better go, Jake.”

“I’m not leaving,” answered the miner. “Not while pretty boy here is still around.”

“The lady asked you to leave,” said Joe, his voice menacing. “I think you’d better do just that.”

“Yeah, and who’s going to make me?” sneered Jake.

Joe stood, his eyes blazing with anger. “You have about ten seconds to get out of here.”

“Hold it!” a third voice shouted from behind Joe. Joe turned his head slightly, and saw Hoss entering the bar. Quickly, Joe turned back to face Jake.

Walking quickly across the bar, Hoss stood between Jake and his brother. “What’s going on here?” asked Hoss with a frown. “You two look like a couple of big horn sheep ready to butt heads.”

“Pretty boy here was moving in on my girl,” snarled Jake.

“You insulted the lady,” replied Joe angrily. “And she asked you to leave.”

“All right,” said Hoss with a sigh. “Both of you got a little hot, but let’s not break up Sam’s nice bar. Why don’t you both cool down and shake hands.”

“Stay out of this, Hoss,” ordered Joe, his anger spilling over to his brother.

“Sonny, I’m going to re-arrange your face,” threatened Jake. “By the time, I ’m done you ain’t gonna be so pretty.”

Frowning, Hoss looked over the miner who was at least twice the size of Joe. “Mister, I think you’d better pick on someone your own size,” suggested Hoss, his eyes narrowing. He took a step forward. “I figure I’m just right for you.”

“Hoss, I can fight my own battles,” sputtered Joe.

Hoss ignored his brother and stared at the miner. “Well, what do you say?’ Hoss asked Jake. “You want to go outside and have a go at it with me?”

As he studied Hoss, who was a bit bigger and taller than him, Jake hesitated. He was used to threatening and beating up much smaller men. The thought of taking on someone who was his equal gave Jake pause. The miner shifted his eyes away from Hoss.

“Maybe some other time,” mumbled Jake.

Nodding, Hoss turned to Joe. “C’mon, little brother, let’s go,” he said grabbing Joe by the arm.

But Joe dug his heels in. “Hoss, stay out of this,” declared Joe angrily.

Ignoring his brother’s statement, Hoss pulled Joe’s arm. “Joe, cool down,” he said. “Now it’s over. Let’s go home.” Hoss yanked harder on Joe’s arm and pulled his brother a few steps from the table. “Let’s go,” he added firmly.

Joe’s eyes were still fixed on Jake, but he allowed Hoss to pull him across the room. As they reached the door, Joe turned and walked out.

“Why’d you interfere?” complain Joe as he pulled to a halt on the sidewalk a few feet from the door to the saloon.

“Did you see the size of that fella?” asked Hoss almost incredulously. “He would have beaten you to a pulp!”

“I would have been willing to take him on,” stated Joe stubbornly.

“I’m sure you would have,” agreed Hoss. “And then I would have got stuck doing your chores while you were sitting around nursing your bruises.”

Suddenly, Joe gave his brother a weak smile. “I guess he was kind of big,” acknowledged Joe.

“Yeah,” said Hoss ironically. He looked curiously at Joe. “Just what have you been up to, little brother?” he asked. “I saw Parker a minute ago and he was madder than a wet hen. I heard him tell some fella that you insulted him.”

Joe shrugged. “All I said was that we wouldn’t do business with him.”

“Is that all?” pressed Hoss.

“Well, I may have called him a thief and a murderer and a few other things,” admitted Joe.

“Oh, well, then that’s all right,” Hoss said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Joe, I let you out of my sight for ten minutes, and you end up causing trouble with Parker, sparking some other fella’s girl, and almost getting into a fight.” He shook his head ruefully. “Little brother, you sure got a nose for trouble.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a gift,” conceded Joe with a grin.

“It’s time we got that gift of yours home,” Hoss said, taking Joe firmly by the arm and pushing him down the street. “We got some troublesome steers down on the south range that are just perfect for you.”

*****

Over the next ten days, Parker sent two messages out to the Ponderosa. The first raised the price he would pay for the lumber by another $5,000. Ben simply marked “no interest” on it and sent it back. The next message was a bit more pointed; Parker implied that he could make life uncomfortable for the Cartwrights if they continued to refuse to sell him the lumber he needed. Ben threw that message into the fire.

“Parker sure don’t give up, do he?” said Hoss after Ben told his sons about the second message at dinner that night.

“No, he doesn’t,” agreed Ben. He looked around the table. “I want you boys to watch yourselves when you go into Virginia City tomorrow,” warned Ben.

“Parker wouldn’t try anything in the middle of Virginia City,” said Adam. “Even he wouldn’t be that stupid.”

“Probably not,” agreed Ben. “But just the same, I want you to take care of your business and come right home. Don’t do anything that Parker might use as an excuse to start trouble.” Ben looked pointedly at Joe. “No defending young ladies in bars, you hear me?”

Looking up from his dinner plate, Joe reddened a bit. “Yes sir,” he mumbled.

“You know if Parker just spent all the time and energy that he’s spending on us on getting some timber, he might have the Last Dollar open in a few weeks,” remarked Adam.

“Men like Parker are always looking for short cuts,” replied Ben. “Eventually, he’ll go too far and find himself on the short end. People like him never understand that there’s a price to be paid for success. And that price is plain old hard work”

“Well, I hope he gets his comeuppance soon,” said Hoss. “I’m getting mighty tired of Mr. Sam Parker.”

*****

Adam, Hoss, and Joe rode slowly down the main street of Virginia City the next afternoon. As they rode, Adam pointed out several groups of miners standing idly on the streets. “Looks like Parker has made good his threat to shut down the mine,” he remarked.

“Yeah,” replied Hoss. “We ain’t gonna be too popular with the miners around here for a while.”

“You two worry about the miners,” said Joe with a grin. “I’ve got other people I want to be popular with.”

“Joe, remember what Pa said,” warned Adam. “Let’s just do our business and get home.”

“Oh, all right,” agreed Joe with an exaggerated sigh. “You two will be sorry, though, when all those lonely young ladies are teary-eyed and there’s nobody to comfort them.”

“They’ll be teary-eyed all right,” said Hoss with a laugh. “Teary-eyed with relief that you ain’t around!” Joe scowled at Hoss.

The three Cartwright brothers stopped their horses in front of the General Store and dismounted. Hoss nudged Joe as a boy came out of the store carrying a broom. Joe barely recognized Billy. The boy was wearing clean, almost new clothes, and his hair was neatly combed. A long white apron, rolled up at the waist, covered the lower half of his body. Billy wore a serious expression as he began to vigorously sweep the walk.

“Hey, Billy,” said Hoss in a greeting. “Looks like you’re doing a good job there.”

Looking up from his sweeping, Billy frowned, as if he were disturbed by being interrupted in his work. But his frown turned to a grin when he recognized Hoss and Joe. “Hi Hoss! Hi Joe!” called the boy cheerfully.

“How’s the new job working out?” asked Joe with a smile.

“It’s great!” replied Billy enthusiastically. “I’m making more money than I ever did in those mines. And the work ain’t near as hard and dirty.” Billy puffed out his chest proudly. “Mr. Harris says that since I work here, I can buy things at half price. And I get stuff he can’t sell, like these clothes.”

“That’s terrific,” said Joe, ruffling the boy’s hair.

Billy looked solemnly at Joe. “I owe you for getting me this job.”

“You don’t owe us anything,” Joe told the boy. “You just do a good job and help out your Ma. That’s all that’s important.”

“Well, maybe I can do a good turn for you someday,” Billy suggested. “I’d sure like to pay you back somehow.”

“Well, maybe you will,” replied Joe nonchalantly. He turned to Hoss. “While you and Adam are talking with Frank about that fencing, I think I’ll go down to the telegraph office. I want to see if Jamison sent a reply yet.”

“Joe, you ain’t figuring to get into any trouble, are you?” asked Hoss in a worried voice.

“Hoss, I’m just going down to the telegraph office,” Joe assured his brother. “What trouble can I get into there?”

“I don’t know,” stated Adam. “But you’ll think of something.”

“Older brother, you worry too much,” said Joe with a grin. He tilted his hat back on his head, and gave Hoss and Adam a jaunty wave.

As Adam and Hoss entered the store, they didn’t notice Sam Parker talking to a group of miners standing across the street. Joe didn’t notice those same miners were starting to follow him as he walked down the street. His attention was fixed on a pretty young woman who was strolling down the street ahead of him.

But Billy noticed the men. His eyes grew wide as he saw the miners trailing Joe. Billy looked around, trying to decide what to do. He quickly put his broom aside and started walking down the street behind the men.

Admiring the view ahead of him, Joe followed the young woman toward the telegraph office, He hesitated a moment when she crossed the street, trying to decide if he should continue after the girl. Then he shrugged and walked on toward the telegraph office.

The miners who were following Joe were being led by the big man named Jake. He stopped when he saw Joe halt at the window of the telegraph office, then motioned to the others to follow him into an alley a few buildings away from the telegraph office. Billy slipped behind some boxes near the entrance to the alley and crouched down to watch.

Joe talked for a minute with the telegrapher through the window, and the disappointed look on his face told anyone who was watching that there was no message. Joe nodded his thanks, then turned to walk back to the General Store.

As he slowly walked back down the street, Joe’s eyes were searching the street, looking for the girl he had seen a few minutes earlier. His attention was fixed on the far side of the street as he passed the entrance to the alley. Suddenly, several hands grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him into the alley.

“Hey!” yelled Joe heatedly as the hands unceremoniously pushed him to the ground. Joe scrambled to his feet, losing his hat in the process. Before he could react, several more hands pushed him roughly against the side wall of the alley.

As he looked up and saw the scowling faces in front of him, Joe swallowed. “What can I do for you fellows?” he asked, trying to keep his growing fear out of his voice.

“You can tell your Pa to sell that lumber to Mr. Parker, pretty boy,” growled Jake. “Because of you Cartwrights, we’re out of work.”

Joe’s eyes darted around the alley as he looked at the unhappy faces of the miners. “We’re not selling any lumber to Parker,” replied Joe in what he hoped was a firm voice. “We’re trying to protect our land from men like Parker.”

“Guess we’ll have to show your Pa what can happen when you don’t cooperate,” said Jake with a grin. Before Joe could react, Jake punched him twice in the stomach. As Joe bent forward, gasping, Jake laid an upper cut on the young man’s jaw. The blow snapped Joe’s head back, cracking it hard against the wall.

Billy’s eyes grew as wide as saucers when he saw Jake hit Joe. He crawled out from behind the boxes, then turned and ran down the street.

In the alley, Joe shook his head, trying to clear it. He felt his arms being grabbed, and realized he was pinned against the wall. Joe shook his head again and looked up into Jake’s face.

“See what can happen when you aren’t helpful?” sneered Jake. “Now, are you going to be smart and tell your Pa to sell that timber to Parker?”

“Go to hell,” mumbled Joe. Even as he said the words, Joe realized how unwise they were, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Seemingly enraged by Joe’s comment, Jake’s fist smashed into Joe’s jaw, snapping the youngest Cartwright’s head to the side. Joe felt his face scrape the rough wood of the wall. He struggled to free his arms, but his efforts were in vain. He was pinned against the wall by the two miners, and defenseless against the on-coming blows.

Jake landed three more blows on Joe’s face, then plunged his fist twice into Joe’s stomach. Joe’s knees began to buckle, but the two men who held his arms pulled him back up. Jake punched Joe in the face again, smiling as he watched his helpless victim react in pain. Twice more, he hit Joe in the face and once again in the stomach. Jake nodded, and the two men holding Joe let him fall to the ground.

Barely conscious, Joe laid sprawled on his face in the dirt. Jake stood over him, not yet finished with the punishment he was delivering. Jake grinned as he brought his foot down hard on Joe’s right hand, and seemed pleased with the yelp of pain this elicited. Jake kicked Joe in the ribs with a swift swing of his leg.

Groaning, Joe twitched on the ground. Jake’s grin grew wider as he kicked Joe again in the ribs.

Jake’s leg was pulled back for a third kick when a shot startled him. Jake froze and looked up. Before he could make a move, a large hand grabbed Jake by the shoulder and shoved him, causing Jake to fall to the ground. The miner looked up to see the massive form of Hoss Cartwright standing over him. Jake shuddered as he saw the look of pure rage on Hoss’ face.

“The next man who makes a move toward my brother gets a bullet,” announced Adam in a cold voice from the entrance to the alley. He had his gun pointed directly at the miners. The angry look on Adam’s face told the miners that he meant what he said.

Hoss took a step toward Jake but stopped when he heard a soft groan from the figure on the ground. He whirled around and knelt next to the bleeding form laying in the dirt. Hoss turned Joe gently onto his back. A combination of both fury and pain flickered across Hoss’ face as he gazed at Joe’s battered face.

“Get your hands in the air and back away,” Adam instructed the miners angrily. He cocked his pistol. Six sets of hands went swiftly into the air and each of the miners took a few steps backwards. Jake quickly stood and raised his hands into the air.

“Adam, what’s going on here?” a new voice asked from the entrance to the alley.

Adam glanced to his left and saw the sheriff standing next to him. “Roy, I want you to arrest these men for attempted murder,” said Adam grimly, his eyes never leaving the miners.

“Attempted murder!” exclaimed Jake. “It was just a fight, and the kid here started it.”

“Yeah,” said Adam sarcastically. “I’m sure my brother decided to take on seven men all by himself. One half-grown kid against all of you.” Adam turned his head slightly toward the sheriff. “Roy, look what they did to Joe,” declared Adam. “They practically beat him to death. If we hadn’t stopped them, they might have killed him.”

Looking at Joe’s bruised and bleeding face, Sheriff Roy Coffee swallowed hard. “I believe you’re right, Adam, ” agreed the sheriff. He pulled his gun from his holster. “You men are all under arrest.”

“Now, wait a minute,” protested Jake, taking a step forward.

Glancing over his shoulder at Jake, Hoss kicked out his leg, hitting the miner hard on the shin. Jake howled in pain and fell to the ground. A brief look of satisfaction crossed Hoss’ face. But then his face turned grim.

“Adam, Joe’s hurt bad,” said Hoss with concern. “We’ve got to get him to the doc.”

“Don’t worry, Adam. I’ll see these fellows are all put in jail,” promised Coffee in a hard voice.

Nodding, Adam quickly holstered his gun. He walked forward and knelt next to Joe. Up close, Adam could see how badly Joe had been beaten, and he winced as he looked at his younger brother.

Both Adam and Hoss put their arms under Joe’s back and legs, and lifted him as gently as possible from the ground. Joe’s head fell back against Hoss’ arm, and his arms fell limply to his side. Adam and Hoss began walking slowly out of the alley. As they reached the entrance, Hoss noticed a small figure standing nearby. Billy’s face was white with fear.

“Thank you, Billy,” said Hoss quietly as he and Adam walked past the boy. Billy just nodded and watched as Adam and Hoss carried their injured brother down the street.

*****

Adam sat in a chair in the waiting room of the doctor’s office while Hoss paced back and forth in front of him.

“It’s been over an hour, Adam,” complained Hoss. “What’s the doc doing in there?”

Adam shrugged. He had no answer for Hoss. He felt the fear growing inside him with each passing minute. He knew Joe was badly beaten. He was beginning to worry that Joe’s injuries might be even worse than he thought.

Hoss stopped his pacing as the door to the doctor’s office opened. Roy Coffee walked in, surprised to see Adam and Hoss still in the waiting area. “How’s Joe?” asked the sheriff.

“The doc’s still working on him,” answered Hoss grimly. Coffee nodded and swallowed hard.

“Did you get those miners to jail?” asked Adam His face darkened with anger as he thought of what the miners had done to Joe.

“Yes, I did,” replied the sheriff. He hesitated. “Adam, I wanted to talk with you about them miners…..”

Roy stopped in mid-sentence as the door at the other end of the room opened. Adam jumped to his feet while Hoss looked anxiously at the man in shirt-sleeves walking into the waiting room.

“How is he?” Adam asked Doctor Martin, his voice a mixture of anxiety and fear.

“That’s as bad a beating as I’ve ever seen,” replied the doctor with a shake of his head. “But he’s going to be all right.”

The three men in the waiting room let out a sigh of relief.

“He’s got a concussion, a broken hand and some broken ribs, in addition to all those abrasions and bruises,” continued the doctor. “But he was lucky. No broken bones in his face, and no sign of any internal injuries.” Doctor Martin shook his head once more. “Whoever did this really meant to hurt Joe, though. This was a deliberate beating.”

For a minute, Adam looked meaningfully at Roy Coffee, then turned back to the doctor. “Can we see him?” he asked.

“For a minute,” the doctor agreed. “He’s drifting in and out of consciousness because of the concussion. He was awake when I left him a few minutes ago, but I don’t know how long it will last.”

Without waiting for any further discussion, Hoss walked past the doctor, with Adam and the sheriff following in his wake. He pushed opened the door of the room that the doctor had just left and walked in.

Joe was laying an examining table, covered with a blanket and his head resting on a small pillow. The edges of the bandages around his ribs peeked over the top of the blanket. Joe’s heavily bandaged right hand was resting across his chest.

Walking to the table, Hoss looked down at Joe. He winced as he stared at Joe’s face.

Joe’s left eye was already turning a deep blue. Another large bruise covered Joe’s left cheekbone, and two smaller bruise were evident on the young man’s jaw. The left side of his mouth was red and swollen. A scab was forming on the right side of Joe’s forehead where the skin had been scrapped, and a thin cut ran across his right cheek. Joe’s eyes were closed, and his breathing sounded labored.

Putting his hand gently on the top of Joe’s head, Hoss slowly stroked his brother’s hair.  “Joe?” he said softly. “Joe, can you hear me?”

Turning his head slightly, Joe gave a small grunt. His eyes flickered opened, and stared up in an unfocused gaze. He blinked his eyes slowly. Then the right side of Joe’s mouth twitched upwards. “Hi Hoss,” said Joe in a barely audible voice. “I guess I forgot to duck.”

“How are you feeling, Joe?” asked Adam who was standing behind Hoss.

Joe’s gaze shifted a bit. “I’ve felt better, Adam,” admitted Joe. He tried to take a deep breath and winced with pain.

“Joe, can you tell us what happened?” asked Coffee. He was standing at the end of the table, watching Joe anxiously.

Once more, Joe’s gaze shifted, this time toward the end of the table. He seemed to be trying to make sense of the sheriff’s question. “Those miners jumped me….pulled me into the alley,” answered Joe slowly. He winced again, as if it were painful to talk. “They wanted me to tell Pa…tell Pa to sell the lumber to Parker.” Joe turned his head slightly to look at Adam. “I told them to go to hell,” he added, trying to smile. “It made them mad.”

“Joe, the miners said you started the fight. The big one, Jake, said you have a grudge against him because he stole a girl from you,” Coffee stated. “Did you start that fight?”

Joe shook his head slightly and winced again. “No,” he replied, his voice beginning to fade. He lifted his bandaged hand. “Never laid a finger on them…” Joe’s voice trailed off; his hand fell back to his chest, and his eyelids drooped.

“Doc?” said Hoss in alarm, turning to Doctor Martin. The doctor had been standing behind Adam, watching. Now he pushed Adam aside. The doctor pulled a stethoscope from his pocket and quickly put the tubes in his ears. He bent down and listened to Joe’s heart beat and breathing. Then he stood up.

“He’s all right,” the doctor reassured Joe’s brothers. “He’s just drifted off again. The best thing is to let him rest for a bit. I’ll wake him up again in a little while.”

“When can we take him home?” asked Hoss anxiously.

“Not until tomorrow at least,” replied Doctor Martin firmly. “I want to keep an eye on him for awhile, and make sure there’s no complications.”

“Hoss, why don’t you get us a couple of hotel rooms?” Adam suggested. “We’ll send  word to Pa.”

“Adam, I don’t think you and Hoss ought to stay in town,” declared Coffee.

“Why not?” asked Adam.

Looking decidedly unhappy, the sheriff answered reluctantly. “Those miners are out on bail, and they’re mad. I heard them swear they were going to get even with the Cartwrights.”

“Out on bail?” said Adam in an astonished voice. “How could that happen? You just arrested them.”

“I know, Adam,” replied Coffee. “But Parker showed up at my office not more than 30 minutes after I locked up those miners. He had an order from the judge to release them on bail. He paid the bail. I had to let them out.”

“They were in jail  for 30 minutes and they’re mad?” remarked Hoss incredulously.

“Well, they’re mad they were arrested at all, and mad that they’re going to have to stand trial,” explained Coffee. He looked at Adam and Hoss. “I think it’s best you boys get out of Virginia City.”

“What about Joe?” said Adam angrily. “You just heard the doc say we can’t move him. What happens if they come after him again?”

“I’ll keep an eye on things,” promised the sheriff “If it looks like there’s going to be trouble, I’ll come over here and protect Joe.”

“That’s not good enough,” Adam replied heatedly. “What if they get here before you? What if you don’t realize they’re going after Joe?”

“Adam, I’ve got a whole town to protect and only one deputy,” protested Roy. “I can’t spend the whole night here.”

“I’ll keep an eye on Joe,” Doctor Martin assured the Cartwrights.

“And what if you get an emergency?” demanded Adam. He shook his head. “No, I ’m not leaving Joe here by himself.”

“Just what do you aim to do?” asked Coffee

Ignoring the sheriff, Adam looked to Hoss. “You head back to the Ponderosa and tell Pa what happened,” Adam told his brother. “I’m going to stay here and guard Joe.”

“Maybe I ought to stay with you,” suggested Hoss. “Those miners won’t be too anxious to take on both of us.”

Adam shook his head. “No, you’ve got to keep Pa at the Ponderosa,” Adam replied. ”He’s going to want to come to town to see Joe. If those miners spot Pa in town, they’ll go after him. And they may use more than their fists.”

“Adam, I don’t know if I can keep Pa at the ranch,” Hoss stated with a frown. “Once he hears what happens to Joe…”

“Hoss, tell him he can’t do anything for Joe right now,” interjected Doctor Martin. “Joe’s going to be all right. What he needs now is plenty of rest. Ben won’t be able to do anything to help him tonight.”

“I don’t know,” said Hoss doubtfully.

“Tell Ben he can come in the morning,” suggested Coffee. “By then, those miners should have cooled off. And probably sleeping off the whiskey I saw Parker buying for them.”

“Hoss, you have to keep Pa at the ranch,” insisted Adam. “I don’t care if you have to hog-tie him. Just don’t let him come to Virginia City tonight.”

“All right,” Hoss agreed reluctantly. He looked down at Joe, then looked at Adam. “You take care of him, you hear,” ordered the big man.

“Don’t worry,” said Adam grimly. “No one is going to get near him.”

Once more, Hoss looked down at Joe, then took a deep breath. He turned and walked out of the room. Roy Coffee followed Hoss out of the room.

As the two men walked to the waiting room, they were surprised to see Billy standing near the door. The boy had Joe’s hat, now dusty and flattened, in his hand. Billy took a step forward and held out the hat to Hoss. “I thought Joe might want this,” said the boy, his voice trembling. He looked past Hoss. “Is he going to be all right?”

“He’s going to be fine,” replied Hoss reassuringly. “The doc says he’s pretty bruised and he’s going to need some rest, but he’ll be back to his old ornery self in no time.”

Billy smiled with relief. “That’s good,” he said. “I got real scared when I saw those men hitting him.”

“Billy, did you see what happened?” asked Coffee.

Billy nodded. “Yeah,” he replied, his eyes wide as he remembered what he had seen. “Those miners followed Joe down the street. I thought it looked like trouble so I followed after them. They waited in the alley, and grabbed Joe. I saw the big one hit Joe. He just hit him, for no reason. That’s when I ran and got Hoss.”

“Billy, you more than likely save Joe’s life,” Hoss told the boy. He started to reach into his pocket. “That deserves a reward.

“Oh no,” said Billy with a shake of his head. “I don’t want no reward. I’m just happy I could help Joe, ‘cause of what he did to help me.” Billy turned and ran out of the office.

“He’s a good boy,” remarked Roy Coffee.

“Yeah, he is,” agreed Hoss as he watched Billy running down the street. Suddenly, he turned back to the sheriff. “Billy confirmed what Joe said,” added Hoss. “Ain’t that enough to put those miners back in jail?”

“No,” answered Coffee with a shake of his head. “As long as their bail is paid and they stay out of trouble, I can’t do anything to them until the trial.”

“Roy, you know Parker’s behind this,” Hoss pressed the sheriff. “What about him?”

“I can’t prove Parker was involved,” Coffee replied with a shake of his head. “Unless one of those miners tells me he put them up to it, I can’t arrest Parker.”

“They all get to run around free while Joe’s in there barely able to take a breath without hurting?” said Hoss in disbelief. “That ain’t right, Roy.”

“I know, Hoss,” admitted the sheriff. “But that’s the price we pay for obeying the law.” Coffee looked at Hoss with a grim face. “I’ll make sure those miners stand trial. They’ll be punished.”

“They’d better be, Roy,” stated Hoss in a grim voice. “Because if the law don’t make them pay for what they did to Joe, I swear I will.”

*****

Ben was relieved to hear the heavy tread of steps on the porch. For the last hour, he had been sitting at his desk, supposedly work on the accounts, but really listening for his sons. He was concerned that they had not returned from Virginia City sooner, and as the time passed, his concern had turned into worry. But now, Ben let out a sigh of relief. No one but Hoss had such a heavy step.

Rising from behind his desk, Ben walked to the front door, reaching it just as Hoss opened it and walked in. “Well, you’re finally back,” said Ben in a hearty voice. He looked past Hoss. “Where are Adam and Joe?” asked Ben.

Hoss hesitated, then answered slowly. “There was some trouble in town, Pa,”

“I knew it,” Ben declared, shaking his head, “I just knew it.” He let out a sigh. “All right, let’s have it. What kind of trouble did Joe start this time?”

“Pa, Joe didn’t start any trouble,” replied Hoss, his face grave. “In fact, he wasn’t doing anything. But some of the miners who got laid off, they jumped him. Pa, they beat up him. They beat him up bad.”

A look of fear and worry crossed Ben’s face. “How bad?” he asked in a whisper.

“Bad enough we had to take him to the doc’s,” Hoss told his father. He saw the stricken look on Ben’s face. “The doc said he’s going to be all right,” Hoss added quickly. “He’s hurt but he’s going to mend.”

“Is Adam bringing him home?” asked Ben in a concerned voice.

Hoss shook his head. “No, the doc wants to keep him in town for awhile to keep an eye on him.”

“Just how badly is he hurt?” asked Ben fearfully.

“Lots of cuts and bruises,” answered Hoss. “Some busted ribs, a broken hand and a concussion. Doc Martin says he thinks his insides are all right. But he wants to make sure before Joe comes home.”

Brushing past Hoss, Ben walked to the door. “Get my horse saddled,” Ben ordered as he reached for his hat.

“Pa, the doc says there’s nothing you can do for Joe right now,” said Hoss quickly as he moved to block the door. “He says Joe needs some rest and the best thing you can do is wait ‘til morning to see him.”

“I’m not waiting,” Ben told his middle son. “Get out of my way.”

Hoss continued to block the door. “Pa, there’s something else.”

Ben froze. “What?” he asked.

“Those miners who beat up Joe? Well, Adam had them arrested,” explained Hoss. “Only Parker bailed them out right away. Those miners are mad, and they’re looking to take their mad out on a Cartwright.”

“Even more reason for me to get to town,” stated Ben. “Go get my horse.”

“Pa, if you go to town, you’ll be riding right into a hornet’s nest,” said Hoss patiently. “Those miners will see you and they’ll go after you.”

“I don’t care,” replied Ben. “I’ve got to get to town. If those miners are as mad as you say, they might go after Joe.”

“Adam is staying at the doc’s with Joe,” Hoss said. “He’ll make sure nothing will happen to Joe. But he can’t protect you and Joe both. You won’t be helping Joe any by going into to town and getting yourself beat up…or worse.”

Standing by the door, Ben was torn by indecision. He knew Hoss was right. Going into town would only stir up more trouble. But he desperately wanted to get to Joe, to be with his injured son.

Hoss could see the indecision on his father’s face. “Pa, the doc says Joe should be  able to come home tomorrow,” Hoss advised. “By then those miners will have cooled off. It’ll be better for everyone if you wait till morning to go to town.”

For several minutes, Ben stood still as conflicting emotions waged a battle within him. Finally, he slowly hung his hat back on the peg by the door. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. “I’ll wait until morning. But this is going to be one of the longest nights of my life.”

*****

Adam sat by the window, staring out into the dark. He could hear the tinkle of music from the saloons and the boisterous shouts echoing through the night. He watched the street carefully, looking for any sign that the miners were coming back after Joe. So far the street had been quiet. But Adam refused to let himself be lulled into a false sense of security.

A soft groan pulled Adam’s attention to the table behind him. He quickly rose from his chair and walked over to the table on which Joe still lay. The doctor had decided not to move Joe. Instead, Doctor Martin had made his patient comfortable, or as comfortable as Joe could be given the bruises and broken bones, on the examining table. Joe had drifted in and out of consciousness all day, waking either on his own or at the doctor’s urging every few hours.

The soft groans from the table told Adam that his brother was coming around again. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Easy, Joe,” he said softly.

Joe’s head rolled to the side and his eyes opened slowly. “Adam?” mumbled Joe  thickly, through swollen lips.

“Yeah, it’s me,” replied Adam with a smile.

Frowning a bit, Joe looked around the room. “Where am I?” he asked in a confused voice.

“You’re at the doc’s office, remember?” answered Adam in a soothing tone. “You’ve  been here most of the day.”

Joe’s frown deepened as he thought, then he nodded. “I remember,” he said slowly. He looked into Adam’s face. “What time is it?”

Taking a quick look over his shoulder, Adam glanced at the clock on the wall. “About midnight,” he answered. “Doc Martin went to catch a few hours sleep. I’ve got nursing duty for awhile.”

“I’ve had prettier nurses,” observed Joe. He tried to smile, but winced at the pain the effort caused.

“Well, you’re stuck with me for awhile,” said Adam lightly. He put his hand gently on his brother’s forehead. Joe had a fever, but the doctor had assured Adam that was to be expected. Adam was relieved that his brother didn’t feel exceptionally warm.

Joe’s eyelids started to droop again, but they sprang open at the sound of gunshots from out on the street. “What’s that?” asked Joe in alarm.

Quickly, Adam looked  out the window, then turned back to Joe. “Just some fellows whooping it up,” answered Adam in a reassuring voice. “Nothing to worry about.”

Despite his confident words, however, Adam watched the street for several minutes, making sure no one was approaching the doctor’s office. The street remained empty.

“Sorry to be so much trouble,” mumbled Joe as he began to drift off to sleep again.

“We’re used to it,” Adam assured him with a smile. He watched as Joe fell into a deeper sleep. For a moment, Adam could see past the cuts, bruises, and swollen tissue, and see how young and vulnerable Joe looked. His brother was more than a boy but hadn’t quite grown into a man yet. Then the bruises came back into focus. Joe had come close to never growing any older, his brother realized. Adam could feel the anger building in him all over again.

“Joe, Parker’s going to pay for this,” Adam vowed softly. “I promise you. He’s going to pay for this.”

*****

The sun was barely up as the wagon rolled down the deserted streets of Virginia City. Ben guided the team toward the doctor’s office at a sedate pace, but it took all of his will power to do so. What he really wanted to do was to send the team down the street at a gallop, running down anything in his path.

Sitting on the wagon seat next to his father, Hoss felt tired. He was sure his father was tired also. No one at the Ponderosa had gotten much sleep last night. Hoss had laid in bed, listening to Ben pace in his room most of the night. He had half expected Ben to insist on coming to town in the middle of the night.

But Ben had kept his promise and waited until dawn to hitch the wagon and load the back with mattresses, blankets and pillows. He had kept the wagon moving at a steady pace all the way to town. But Hoss knew how anxious Ben was. He could tell by the grim expression on his father’s face and the way his hands tightly clutched the reins.

Now, at last, Ben was able to pull the wagon to a halt in front of the doctor’s office. Throwing down the reins, He jumped from the driver’s seat and rushed to the door of the doctor’s office, pushing it open with a bang.

“Morning, Ben,” Doctor Martin greeted Ben in a cheerful voice as the worried father entered the office. The doctor had a cup of coffee in his hand. He glanced at the clock.   “Seven am,” observed Doctor Martin with a smile. “Not bad. I was figuring you’d be here by six.”

“How is he?” Ben asked, not needing to explain the “he”.

“Joe’s doing fine,” replied the doctor. “He’s sore but there’s nothing wrong with him that a little time and care won’t cure.” Doctor Martin turned and walked toward the back of the waiting room. “Adam is giving him breakfast.”

With rapid steps, Ben and Hoss followed the doctor to the room in which Joe had been taken. As Doctor Martin opened the door to the room, Ben hung back. He stopped at the  doorway and looked in.

Joe was sitting up on the examining table, his back braced by several pillows. A plate of scrambled eggs sat on Joe’s lap, and a cup of coffee was perched on the side of the table. Joe was awkwardly trying to eat, forking some eggs carefully into a mouth he could barely open. His bandaged right hand laid useless on the table. Adam was standing next to the table, buttering a piece of bread for his brother. Neither Adam nor Joe saw Ben standing in the doorway. Their attention was drawn to Hoss and Doctor Martin as the two men entered the room.

Even though Hoss had described Joe’s injuries, Ben was shocked by his son’s  appearance. Joe’s lip was swollen, and it seemed as if there was more skin on his face that was bruised than not. Ben could see the bandages which were tightly wrapped around Joe’s ribs. The edges of some bruises were visible over the top of the bandages.

Once again, Ben was torn by conflicting feelings. He wanted to rush forward and comfort his youngest son. At the same time, he felt the urge to go find Sam Parker and throttle the man. He knew Parker was behind what happened to Joe. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Ben entered the room.

“I thought I told you to stay out of trouble,” Ben declared in a loud voice, placing his hands on his hips.

Looking up, Joe winced, both his father’s words and the pain almost any movement caused. “Um, hi Pa,” said Joe in a hesitant voice. For a moment, he was concerned that his father was angry at him. Then Joe saw the affection – and the worry – in his father’s eyes. Joe tried to smile, but it was a feeble attempt, given his bruises and swollen lip.

Walking across the room, Ben put his hand on Joe’s bare shoulder and stroked in lightly. “How are you doing, son?” he asked in a sympathetic voice.

“I’m all right,” Joe answered, trying to sound healthier than he felt. He shifted a bit on the table and winced. “Just a little sore,” he added.

“A little?” said Adam with a raised eyebrow. “An hour ago, you couldn’t sit up by yourself.”

“All right, a lot sore,” admitted Joe. He looked up at Ben. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“I know, Joe,” said Ben, his voice full of understanding. “Hoss told me what happened.”

“I just knew I’d have to end up doing your chores,” commented Hoss with a smile. “This is a pretty drastic way of getting me to do them, though.”

“That’s what big brothers are for, isn’t it,” rejoined Joe. He tried once more to smile but his face showed more of a grimace than a grin. “I could have handled Jake but his friends kind of got in the way.”

“You don’t have to worry about Jake,” promised Hoss. “I plan to take care of him myself.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Ben quickly. He looked around the room. “I don’t want any of you going after those miners on your own. Roy Coffee will take care of them legally. Sam Parker is just looking for an excuse to cause us more trouble. Let’s not give it to him.”

“But, Pa…” Hoss started.

“Hoss, I know how you feel,” Ben interrupted his son. He looked at Joe’s bruised and swollen face, and took a deep breath. “But going after those miners isn’t going to help things. You’ll only end up in the jail cell next to them.”

“Parker’s the one we should go after,” said Adam grimly.

Once more, Ben looked around the room, fixing a stern look on each of his sons. “I want you three to give me your word that you won’t harm those miners or Sam Parker,” said Ben in a firm voice. He looked at the three grim faces of his boys. “Please,” added Ben in a softer tone.

For a moment, Adam and Hoss looked at each other, both men struggling with mixed emotions. Finally Adam shrugged. “All right, Pa,” he agreed in a resigned voice. “We’ll wait to see what the law does.”

“Thank you,” said Ben. He turned to Doctor Martin. “Can we take Joe home?”

The doctor nodded. “In a bit. I want him to finish eating that breakfast. And I want to check him over one more time before you take him home.”

“Doc, I don’t need to be poked and prodded any more,” complained Joe.

“Joseph, you do what the doctor says,” Ben ordered his son. “Finish your breakfast.”

Sighing, Joe slowly lifted a fork full of eggs to his lips. He managed to open his mouth wide enough to get the eggs in. But he winced as he chewed.

Ben turned back to the doctor. “How long until Joe’s ready to go?” he asked softly.

“Give me about half an hour,” replied the doctor.

“All right,” said Ben. He looked toward Adam and jerked his head a bit. Adam walked over to his father.

“Any trouble last night?” asked Ben in a low voice.

Adam shook his head. “No. I saw a couple of miners in the street when the saloon closed, but they were so drunk they could hardly walk. Nobody tried to get into the office.”

“Good,” replied Ben. “Hoss,” he said in a louder voice, “you and Adam help the doctor get Joe ready to go. I have to run a quick errand. I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Where you going, Pa?” asked Hoss.

“Just something I have to take care of,” answered Ben vaguely. He looked at Joe. “And you eat that breakfast, young man,” he ordered. Ben turned and walked out of the room.

Walking from the doctor’s office. Ben quickly headed down the street. Virginia City was just beginning to stir; only a few people were up and about. Ben walked by all of them without seeing them.

Ben walked to the edge of town and turned into the yard of a house. The house had a new look; the paint was still a fresh white, and the yard showed only a few tufts of grass. Ben walked purposefully to the front door and banged on it loudly with his fist.

Impatient, Ben continued to pound on the wooden entrance for several minutes before the door was pulled open. Sam Parker stood in the doorway, wearing a partially buttoned white shirt. The suspenders attached to his dark pants were hanging down against the side of his legs. Parker’s face showed surprise and then satisfaction as he recognized his caller. “You’re up early, Cartwright,” remarked Parker.

“I want to talk with you,” said Ben without preamble.

“Of course,” replied  Parker in a smug voice. He pulled open the door. “Come in.” Ben followed Parker into the house.

“Please sit down,” said Parker graciously. “Can I get you some coffee?”

Ben stood just inside the door, ignoring Parker’s offers. “Parker, I know you were behind what happened to my boy yesterday,” declared Ben in a grim tone of voice.

Parker eased himself into a chair. “I had nothing to do with it,” replied Parker easily. “It’s not my fault the miners got mad at you and took it out on your son. It’s understandable, though. Your refusal to sell me that lumber has caused them to be out of work.”

“You bailed them out of jail,” Ben stated.

“Just taking care of some of my men,” answered Parker. He smiled wryly. “Isn’t that what you told me to do?” His face grew serious. “I hope you now understand the ramifications of your refusal to sell me the lumber I need,” the mine owner added. “I hope your coming to see me means that you’ve come to your senses and are ready to make a deal.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Parker, I’m never going to sell you that lumber,” Ben asserted in an icy voice. “I wouldn’t sell you one branch from the Ponderosa. What I came to tell you is that you’re finished in Virginia City.”

Parker looked startled. “Is that a threat?”

“No, it’s a promise,” replied Ben. “Before I’m done, you’re going to wish you never heard the name Cartwright. You made the biggest mistake of your life when you hurt one of my boys. And you’re going to pay for it.”

Nervously, Parker looked around the room. “If you do anything to me, the sheriff will get you,” said Parker, wetting his lips. He patted his hair in an unconscious gesture. “You kill me and you’ll hang.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” Ben told the mine owner, his voice full of contempt. “I’m not  going to do anything outside the law. But I am going to make you pay.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Parker in a frightened voice.

“You’ll find out,” Ben promised harshly. With that, he turned and walked out of the house.

Parker sat staring at the door for several minutes after Ben left. He knew Ben Cartwright’s reputation. He was a man who never went back on his word. Parker tried to figure out what Ben had in mind, but finally gave up. He thought briefly about selling out quickly and leaving Virginia City. Then he shook his head. He had a good thing going and plans to make even more money. He would never have a chance like this again to become rich. Richer, he amended to himself. He already was a rich man. But he could become even richer. No, thought Sam Parker, the money he was going to make was much too important to him. He’d just have to deal with whatever Ben Cartwright planned to do.

*****

The streets of Virginia City were much busier as Ben stood outside the doctor’s office about half an hour after his visit to Parker. Several people looked curiously at the Ben as they walked by. He was standing at the end of the wagon, smoothing blankets and straightening the mattresses.

“Mr. Cartwright?” said a soft voice. He turned from the wagon to see a woman standing a few feet away. She was wearing a short purple dress, and her blond hair was pinned up high on her head. Her hands clutched the ends of the light shawl that was thrown around her shoulders.

“Yes, can I help you?” asked Ben.

“Mr. Cartwright,” the woman repeated nervously, “my name is Francie. I work down at the Silver Dollar.” Ben nodded, indicating he knew who she was. “I’ve been seeing one of the miners regular like,” Francie continued. “His name is Jake. He’s one of the miners your son Adam had arrested yesterday. Jake came over to the saloon last night. He’s real worried about going to jail.”

“Well, I’m sorry for your sake, but I’m afraid he is going to jail,” said Ben.

“Mr. Cartwright, Jake’s not all bad,” Francie claimed. “He just loses his temper. He told me that you’re going to send him to jail just because he had a fight with your son, Joe.”

Ben cocked his head. “It was a little more than just a fight.”

“I know you’re probably mad,” acknowledged Francie. “Jake’s a lot bigger than Joe, and he probably shouldn’t have gotten into a fight with him. But sending Jake to jail just ‘cause of a fight? That ain’t right.”

Ben started to answer, but the sound of the doctor’s door opening drew his attention. He turned and took a few steps toward the door.

Adam and Hoss were helping Joe walk out of the office. Both had their hands around one of Joe’s elbows, and both were holding their brother up as well as easing him forward. Joe walked slowly, and the pain each step was causing was evident on his battered face.

Seeing that Adam and Hoss had Joe well in hand, Ben turned and walked back to the wagon. Once more, he straightened the mattresses. He also pulled the blankets to the side.

As he slowly made his way to the wagon with the help of his brothers. Joe let out a few soft grunts. Adam and Hoss eased Joe down so he was sitting on the end of the wagon. Moving quickly, Adam climbed into the wagon and then gently pulled Joe across the mattresses. Joe winced and groaned as his brother tugged him toward the back of the wagon. When Adam had Joe all the way in the wagon, he helped Joe to lay down. Adam shifted the pillows under Joe’s head, trying to make his brother as comfortable as possible. Once Joe was settled, Adam looked to Ben, who was standing at the end of the wagon with some blankets in his hands. Ben threw the blankets over Joe, and Adam reached down to pull the blankets up to Joe’s shoulders. Then Adam climbed out of the wagon.

“I’m going to get my horse and Joe’s horse,” remarked Adam as he climbed down. “I’ll catch up with you on the trail.” He didn’t pay any attention to the girl standing a few feet away as he walked past her.

“Hoss, you drive,” ordered Ben. “I’m going to ride in the back with Joe.” Hoss nodded and walked to the front of the wagon.

Ben was about to climb into the wagon when he felt a hand grab his arm. Ben turned and looked. Francie stood next to him; her face was pale and her eyes were wide.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Francie asked in a trembling voice. “Did Jake do that to Joe?”

“Jake and several of his friends,” confirmed Ben with a nod. “They jumped him and worked him over pretty good.”

With a shocked expression on her face, Francie looked into the back of the wagon. She could see Joe’s battered face and had heard the soft grunts of pain. Then she turned back to Ben. “Forget what I said,” Francie declared in a firm voice. “You ought to send Jake to jail for what he did.” She looked into the back of the wagon again. “I hope you send Jake to jail for a long time,” she added.

“I’m sorry,” said Ben sympathetically.

“Don’t be,” replied Francie. “Joe’s a good guy. He’s always treated me nice. He didn’t deserve this.” The girl shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll be seeing Jake any more.”

Once more, Francie looked into the back of the wagon. Joe’s eyes were closed, and a fine sheen of sweat was visible on his forehead. Even the short walk from the office to the wagon had obviously been difficult for Joe. He looked exhausted by what should have been an easy stroll.

“Tell Joe I’m sorry,” Francie said in a soft voice. “Tell him I said I hope he feels better soon.” Tears started to well up in her eyes. “Tell him…” Francie turned abruptly and walked away.

For a moment, Ben watched as the girl walked away, then turned and climbed into the back of the wagon. He settled himself next to Joe, making sure he was positioned to hold his son if necessary. “All right, Hoss,” he called over his shoulder to the big man sitting in the driver’s seat. “Let’s get started. Take it slow, though. Take it real slow.”

Hoss nodded and snapped the reins gently. The horses started to walk slowly and the wagon began to roll at a funeral pace. Ben put his hand on Joe’s head and stroked it lightly. “We’re going home, son,” he said softly.

*****

Ben stared into the flickering flames of the fire late that evening. As he gazed at the blaze, Ben was finalizing plans in his mind. He also asked himself again whether his actions against Parker were vengeful or justified. He thought about the ride home from Virginia City. It had taken a long time to get home because Hoss had kept the horses to a walk. Even so, the wagon bounced and jiggled occasionally as it rolled over a bump in the road. Each bump caused a small groan from Joe. And each groan hardened Ben’s resolve to rid Virginia City of Sam Parker.

Ben had spent most of the day sitting next to Joe’s bed, watching his son sleep. It had been a difficult and slow process to get Joe to his room once the wagon arrived at the Ponderosa. The climb up the stairs had been a particularly difficult and arduous task for Joe, despite the helping arms of his brothers. By the time they managed to get him into the bed, Joe was exhausted.

As he had watched over his sleeping son, Ben had questioned his motives. He had always taught his sons that pure revenge was wrong, and he truly believed it. But there also was a time when men had to stand up against a growing evil, and Ben also truly believed this was such a time. Sam Parker had done nothing but cause misery in Virginia City, and had lined his pockets with the profits from the misery he had caused.

But Ben continued to question himself. Did he want to lash out at Sam Parker because he had caused such pain to Joe, because Parker had hurt his son? Or did he really want to try rid the community of a man who would continue to cause misery if someone didn’t stop him. Ben was beginning to suspect both motives were behind his plan. But it didn’t really matter, thought Ben grimly. Getting Sam Parker out of Virginia City was the right thing to do, regardless of the reasons.

“Pa?” a voice broke into Ben’s reverie. He looked up to see Adam standing on the last step of the staircase.

“What is it?” asked Ben, rousing himself. “Is Joe all right?”

“Joe’s fine,” replied Adam reassuringly. “Or as fine as he can be under the circumstances. He was having a hard time getting to sleep. He said he couldn’t find a way to lie in bed without hurting. Frankly, I think he’s just slept out.”

“He did sleep most of the day,” agreed Ben. He frowned and sat forward in the chair. “Maybe I should go up…”

“Hoss is with him,” interrupted Adam. “And Joe was practically asleep when I left.” Adam hesitated as he watched his father sit back in his favorite red leather chair. The expression he had seen on Ben’s face when he descended the stairs had scared Adam a bit. He couldn’t remember his father’s face ever looking that fierce. As Adam watched, Ben turned to look at the fire again. Gradually, his father’s features started to harden once more.

“Pa?” Adam said again. “What are you planning to do about Parker?”

Ben looked up at his oldest son, startled at the question. “What makes you think I’m planning to do anything about Parker?” asked Ben.

“Because I know you,” replied Adam with a small smile. He descended the last step and went over to sit in the blue chair near the stairs. “I know you won’t let Sam Parker get away with everything he’s done. That beating that Joe got. That was the last straw, wasn’t it?”

A small smile appeared on Ben’s lips as he looked at Adam. “I guess I’m easier to read than I thought,” said Ben.

“Only because I’ve lived with you for about 30 years,” Adam declared with a grin. Then his face grew solemn. “What do you plan to do?”

Looking in the fire, Ben said nothing for a minute. Then his face took on a determined expression. “I’m going to rid Virginia City of Sam Parker,” Ben told his oldest son quietly. He looked up and saw Adam was frowning. “Don’t worry,” he added, “I’m not going to kill him. I’m not going to do anything that is illegal. But I am going to make sure Sam Parker doesn’t cause any more pain and misery around here.”

“What can I do to help?” Adam asked.

Ben hesitated.   “Maybe you should stay out of it. This is something I should do.”

“Pa, I saw my brother laying in the dirt, beaten to a pulp by Sam Parker’s thugs,” said Adam grimly. “I’m not staying out of it.”

“Neither am I,” Hoss asserted in a quiet voice as he descended the stairs. “Nobody half kills my little brother and gets away with it. Not while I’m around.”

Ben looked at both his sons for a moment, then nodded. “All right, here’s  what I want you boys to do,” began Ben.

*****

Parker sat in his office adding the profits from yesterday’s mining to his tally book. He was pleased with the numbers. Even with the Last Dollar closed, he was still making a tidy sum. Parker sat back in his chair. He wondered about Ben Cartwright and his threat. It had been almost a week since Cartwright had showed up on his doorstep. So far nothing had happened. Parker was beginning to think that Ben Cartwright was all talk. He smiled to himself. Even the great Ben Cartwright couldn’t take on Sam Parker, he  thought smugly.

As the door to his office opened, Parker looked up. He was surprised to see Roy Coffee walk in. “Hello, sheriff,” said Parker without alarm. “What can I do for you?”

Roy Coffee threw a piece of paper on Parker’s desk. “I came to give you this,” Coffee replied. “It’s a new ordinance passed by the town council last night. It prohibits the employment of anyone under the age of 16 in a mining job.”

Picking up the paper, Parker frowned. He read it carefully. “You don’t really think this is enforceable, do you?” Parker asked skeptically.

“Yes, I do,” replied Coffee. “In fact, I’m going to make sure it’s enforced.”

“Sheriff, I employ about 20 kids under the age of 16 in my mines,” explained Parker. “They work there because they need the money. If you try to stop them from working, they’ll starve.”

“The town council thought of that,” replied the sheriff. “They’re starting what they call a ‘work study’ program. Those kids will go to school, and after school, they’ll work around town. And the town will pay the same as what you’re paying them.” Coffee gave Parker a disgusted look. “It ain’t all that much.”

Parker frowned. Finding adults who would do the jobs that the kids were doing would be difficult. And expensive. He looked up at the sheriff as a thought struck him. “Who proposed this ordnance?” he demanded. “Ben Cartwright?”

“No, it was Hoss Cartwright,” admitted the sheriff. “And he’s the one who came up with the idea of hiring the kids after school. The Cartwrights even offered to make up the difference if the town couldn’t afford it.”

“I thought so,” said Parker with a shake of his head. “Well, all right. Go tell those kids they’re fired. If Ben Cartwright thinks that’s going to close me down, he’s sadly mistaken.”

The door to the office opened again, and a man wearing a dark suit walked in. “Mr. Parker?” asked the man. “Mr. Sam Parker?”

“I’m Sam Parker,” confirmed Parker.

The man pulled his wallet out and opened it, showing a card to the mine owner. “My name  is Walt Jenkins,” said the man. “I’m the chief inspector for the mines for the territory of Nevada. I’m here to inspect your mines.”

“Jim Hicks usually does the inspections,” remarked Parker with a frown.

“Mr. Hicks is unavailable,” replied Jenkins, replacing his wallet. “I’m doing the inspections.”

Sighing, Parker opened a drawer of his desk. He pulled out an envelope and handed it across the desk. “I suppose you want the same consideration as Hicks,” said Parker. He glanced at Roy Coffee standing across the room. “Maybe we’d better talk later.”

Picking up the envelope, Jenkins opened it carefully. It was filled with cash. The mine inspector threw the envelope down on the table. “I don’t take bribes,” Jenkins declared in a cold voice. “Maybe I need to look at Hicks’ operation closer.”

“I didn’t mean it as a bribe,” Parker explained hastily. “It’s just money to cover expenses. Inspecting the mines can take some time. I just wanted to make sure you had enough to cover a hotel room and get a decent meal.”

“The territory covers my expenses,” said Jenkins shortly.

Parker nodded agreeably. “That’s fine. When would you like to start your inspection? Tomorrow?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve already finished my inspection,” said Jenkins, reaching into the pocket of his jacket and pulling out a piece of paper. “And I have to say, in all my years of doing this work, I’ve never seen three mines that look less safe. Here’s a list of things that need to be fixed in those mines. Until they are fixed, you’re shut down.”

“What!” exclaimed Parker. He picked up the paper and read over it. “It will take at least a month, maybe longer, to do all this. And it will cost a fortune.”

Jenkins shrugged. “If you say so,” he stated with a lack of concern in his voice. “But you can’t operate your mines until I say so. And I won’t say so until you fix all the things on that list.”

Parker’s eyes narrowed. “Who asked you to inspect the mines?” he asked slowly. “Ben Cartwright?”

“I don’t work for Ben Cartwright,” replied Jenkins in a cold voice. Then he relented. “The governor did ask me to personally check out your mines,” he admitted. “It’s my job to check up on our field inspectors. I often check out mines on my own, so his request wasn’t out of line.”

“And Ben Cartwright is a close friend of the governor?” asked Parker.

“I wouldn’t know,” Jenkins answered with a shrug. Jenkins turned to Roy Coffee. “Sheriff, I want your cooperation in making sure those mines aren’t worked
until I give you the say so,” said Jenkins.

“Happy to oblige,” replied Coffee

“If Ben Cartwright thinks he has trouble now, wait until all those miners are out of work,” said Parker smugly. “He’ll really have his hands full.”

The door to the office opened once again, and Jake walked in. He stopped, startled to see the other two men in the office. Then he crossed the room and slapped a paper down on Parker’s desk. “Hey, boss, have you seen this?” asked Jake. “They’re passing out flyers to all the men on your payroll. The other mines in town are offering them all jobs. And at more than you’re paying them. All the men on your crews are quitting.”

Parker snatched the paper up and read it. He looked at Roy Coffee. “That can’t do that! I want you to put a stop this, sheriff,” demanded Parker.

Coffee shook his head. “Nothing illegal about offering a man a job,” said the sheriff, a smile playing at his lips.

“And I suppose Ben Cartwright is behind this too,” said Parker.

The sheriff  shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. All I know is Ben has a lot of friends.”

Angrily, Parker balled up the paper and threw it in a waste basket on the floor. “Well, if Ben Cartwright thinks he’s going to run me out of town, he’s got another think coming,” stated Parker with bravado. But even as he spoke, beads of sweat broke out on Parker’s forehead.

“Jake,” said the sheriff, taking a step forward. “I’m glad you’re here. Saves me the trouble of trying to find you. The judge has set your trial for the end of the week. You be at the courthouse on Friday morning, you hear.”

“My trial!” exclaimed Jake in a frightened voice. He turned to Parker. “You said there wouldn’t be any trial. You said that you’d talk to the judge.”

“I did,” insisted Parker. “The judge said if I forfeited the bail money, there would be no trial.”

“The judge has changed his mind,” Roy Coffee explained. “He’s going ahead with the trial.” The sheriff looked at Jake. “If you’re convicted of attempted murder, you could go to jail for twenty years.”

“Twenty years?” gasped Jake. “Just for beating up the Cartwright kid?”

“For trying to kill Joe Cartwright,” amended the sheriff. He gave Jake a pointed look. “Of course, the judge might look kindly on someone who told him more about what happened….like maybe who put him up to attacking Joe Cartwright.”

“Jake, you keep your mouth shut,” snarled Parker. “There’s a lot worse things than going to jail.”

Jake looked back and forth between the sheriff and Parker, unsure what to do.

“Oh, and don’t try to leave town,” added Roy Coffee. “I’ve got some extra deputies on duty. They’re going to make sure you and the others are here for the trial. If you try to leave Virginia City, I’m afraid I’m going to have to put you in jail. Just to make sure you’re here for the trial.”

Jake paled and swallowed hard.

Jenkins took a step forward. “Mr. Parker, you contact me when you’ve finished those improvements in the mines,” said the inspector. “I’ll do another inspection then. Until then, don’t try to bring out any ore. If you do, I’ll make sure you’re arrested.” Jenkins turned and stalked out of the office.

“This is all Ben  Cartwright’s doing,” screamed Parker. “He’s trying to ruin me!”

Sheriff Roy Coffee smiled. “Ben isn’t doing anything illegal,” remarked the sheriff. He turned to Jake. “You remember what I said,” he told the miner sternly. Then he turned and walked out of the office.

“Mr. Parker, what are we going to do?” asked Jake. “You gotta protect me. You gotta keep me out of jail.”

Parker put his head in his hands. “Don’t bother me now,” he mumbled. “I’ve got bigger problems.”

Jake glowered at the man behind the desk. “You’re gonna be sorry if I have to stand trial for beating up Joe Cartwright,” Jake threatened.

Parker raised his head. “I’m sorry I ever heard the name Cartwright,” he moaned.

*****

The buggy, followed by two riders on horseback, rolled sedately down the main street of Virginia City on Friday morning. Ben pulled the buggy to a halt in front of the Virginia City Courthouse.

“You two stable your horses,” Ben said to Adam and Hoss who had pulled their horses up next to the buggy. “Joe and I will wait here for you.”

Ben watched Adam and Hoss ride off, then turned to Joe who was sitting next to him in the buggy. The bruises on Joe’s face had begun to fade but a motley collection of blue, green and yellow marks were still very visible. Joe was resting his sore ribs against a pillow in the buggy. His right hand was still heavily bandaged and held protectively against Joe’ chest.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Ben asked his son anxiously. He was still thinking about how gingerly Joe had climbed into the buggy this morning. “I’m sure I can ask the judge to delay things for a few more days if you want.”

Joe shook his head. “No, let’s get this over with,” he replied. “We agreed that we want to keep the pressure on Parker,” he added. “This ought to force at least one of those miners to admit Parker put them up to it.” Then Joe grinned. “Besides, I want the jury to see my bruises at their best. If that doesn’t convince them, nothing will.”

Ben grinned back at his irrepressible son. After almost a week of barely being able to talk and eat, not to mention stabs of pain every time he moved, Joe was finally beginning to act like his old self. Ben had sighed with relief when Joe and Adam had argued over dinner last night, and when Joe had kidded Hoss about how much he was eating. Parker’s men may have broken Joe’s body a bit, thought Ben, but they didn’t put a dent in his spirit.

“Hi Joe!” a small voice shouted. Ben and Joe looked toward the voice. Billy was walking up the sidewalk, neatly dressed in a white shirt, string tie and dark pants. Frank Harris, the store owner, was walking with Billy.

“Hi Billy,” said Joe with a smile. “You look awful dressed up.”

“I’m going to testify,” announced Billy proudly. “The sheriff says I have to tell the judge all about what…” Billy hesitated a minute. “About what those men did to you.” Billy’s face grew sad. “I’m sorry you got hurt, Joe.”

“I’m sorry, too, Billy,” replied Joe with a smile. “But it might have been worse if you hadn’t been there. I want to thank you for that. And it’s awful brave of you to testify in court.”

“I was a little scared about it,” admitted Billy. He turned and looked up at Frank. “But Mr. Harris told Ma at dinner last night that he’d go with me. He promised he’d look after me.”

Ben’s eyebrows went up as he looked at Frank. “At dinner last night?” said Ben with a smile.

Looking down, Frank shuffled his feet. “Billy’s mother’s is a good cook, and I get tired of eating my own cooking,” he mumbled in an embarrassed tone. He looked up. “She’s a fine woman,” added Frank.

“I’m sure she is,” Joe said with a grin. “Be sure to invite us to the wedding.”

Nervously, Frank cleared his throat. “Um, Billy, maybe we’d better get inside,” the store owner said quickly. He took the boy’s hand and led him into the courthouse.

“It’s about time Frank got married,” observed Ben. He looked at Joe. “And it’s about time we thought about getting into the courthouse, too.”

Climbing out of the buggy, Ben walked around the back to Joe’s side. He grabbed Joe’s arm and helped his son ease his still sore body out of the buggy. Joe nodded his thanks as he rested against the side of the buggy.

“Cartwright!” a voice screamed from behind Ben. Ben turned to see Sam Parker rushing down the street toward him. Parker’s previous look of confidence and polish were gone. In its place was a look of desperation. Parker’s clothes were rumpled and his hair was disheveled. The stumble of a beard covered his chin, and his eyes had a wild look.

“Cartwright!” Parker shouted again as he came up to the buggy. “You’re ruining me. Do you hear me? You’re going to drive me out of business.”

Ben could smell the whiskey on Parker’s breath. “Parker, get out of here,” said Ben coldly. “I have nothing to say to you.”

Looking around wildly, Parker saw the crowd of people his shouting had attracted. “Do you know what he’s done?” he asked in a loud voice. “Do you know what Ben Cartwright has done to me? He got the state inspector to close my mines. But that doesn’t matter, because I can’t get anyone to work in them anyway. Not since Mr. High and Mighty Ben Cartwright got his friends to offer them all better jobs. And now I find his son Adam has been telling everyone I’m broke. All my suppliers are demanding payment, and they won’t sell me anything unless I pay for it first! And the bank is demanding payment on
their loan.”

“All my son Adam did was to tell some businessmen the honest truth about your situation,” replied Ben. “We felt they had a right to know. Given the way you do business, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you didn’t pay your bills. I didn’t want anyone else to lose money because of you.”

“Lose money!” laughed Parker. “Let me tell you about losing money! I haven’t had a cent coming in for over a week, and I’m paying out money right and left. And it’s all your fault!”

“I haven’t done anything illegal,” said Ben in a cold voice. “All I’ve done is what I promised you.”

“You’re trying to bankrupt me!” screamed Parker. He looked at Joe, who gave Parker an icy stare. “It’s your fault!” ranted Parker, pointing at Joe. “All you had to do was tell you Pa to sell me that lumber. You wouldn’t listen, would you? You deserve everything you got.”

Moving quickly, Ben took a step to stand between Parker and Joe. “I think you’d better leave,” said Ben, his voice reflecting the anger he was beginning to feel. “You’d better leave before I do something I’ll regret.”

“You’ll regret?” Parker laughed wildly. “You Cartwrights don’t regret anything, do you?”

“Ben, what’s going on here?” asked Roy Coffee as he walked up to the buggy. Ben turned to look at Coffee. Ben could see Jake and the other miners standing a few feet behind the sheriff. Four deputies with rifles surrounded the men.

“Parker was just leaving,” said Ben. He looked Parker straight in the eye. “You are leaving, aren’t you, Mr. Parker,” he added ominously.

Before Parker could answer, Jake took a few steps forward. “Mr. Parker, what are you going to do about our trial?” asked the miner in a worried voice. “You promised me I wouldn’t have to go to jail.”

Parker looked at Jake and laughed. “I couldn’t care less about what happens to you. You boys are on your own.”

Jake’s face turned red with anger. “Sheriff,” he said in loud voice, “I think you’d better arrest Parker here, and make sure he goes to jail with us. He’s the one who told us to beat up Joe Cartwright. He promised us $20 each if we made sure the kid got a beating he’d never forget.”

“He’s lying,” shouted Parker, turning pale. “I never said anything like that. He’s just trying to get himself out of trouble.”

“I’m telling the truth,” insisted Jake. He cocked his head. “The others, they’ll back me up.”

Roy Coffee took a step forward. “Mr. Parker, I think you’d better come with me,” said the sheriff, reach his hands out.

“No!” screamed Parker, taking a step back. He looked around frantically. “No, don’t let them do this to me,” he shouted. No one in the crowd moved.

Reaching into the pocket of his jacket, Parker pulled out a derringer. “Don’t come any closer,” he threatened, his arm waving wildly. “I’ll shoot. I swear I’ll shoot. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

“Parker, put that gun down,” ordered Ben. “It’s over. There’s nothing to be gained by hurting anyone else.”

Spinning around, Parker pointed the derringer at Ben. “You!” he screamed. “It’s all your fault!” Parker cocked the derringer.

Roy Coffee had eased his gun out of his holster when Parker pulled the derringer. Now as Parker aimed the small pistol at Ben, the sheriff pulled his gun up to his hip and fired. He had meant only to wound Parker, but he hadn’t had time to aim. The bullet hit Parker square in the chest.

Parker took a step backwards, his face showing amazement. Then he crumpled to the ground.

Everyone stood still, shocked at the tragic turn of events. Slowly, Coffee walked toward the body sprawled in the dirt. Ben walked behind the sheriff, his face showing both shock and sorrow.

Alarmed by the shot, Adam and Hoss came running up the street. They joined Ben and Coffee as they stood over Parker’s body. Adam looked at the figure in the dirt and then at Ben. “Are you all right?” he asked his father. Ben nodded mutely.

Suddenly, Jake whirled to face Joe, who was watching the scene in the street. “This is all your fault,” Jake yelled, grabbing Joe of the lapel of his jacket. “My boss is dead, my girl won’t have anything to do with me, and now I might go to jail.” He shook Joe hard, then pushed him back against the buggy. Joe winced and let out a groan of pain.

Jake raised his hand as if to hit Joe. But before he could deliver the punch, a massive hand grabbed his wrist. Jake turned and found himself looking into the face of Hoss Cartwright.

“I swore if you touched my brother again, I’d come after you,” growled Hoss. He pulled at Jake’s arm and the miner staggered a few steps. Hoss released the man’s arm, and Jake swung hard, hitting Hoss on the jaw. Hoss’ head snapped back but the big man wasn’t fazed. “Is that the best you can do?” asked Hoss in an angry voice.

Taking a step forward, Hoss drove his fist into Jake’s stomach. He landed another blow on Jake’s chin. Jake stepped backwards, then threw another punch. Hoss saw it coming and ducked. The blow landed harmlessly on Hoss’ shoulder. Jake tried to land another blow but it was a futile effort; Hoss merely ducked again. Hoss’ fury made him even stronger than usual. He punched Jake hard in the jaw and in the stomach. Jake tried to fight back, but he was clearly over-matched. Hoss delivered two more blows, and Jake fell to the ground in a heap.

Breathing hard, Hoss stood over Jake for a minute. He heard the miner groan and nodded in satisfaction. Then he turned back toward the buggy.

Standing next to the buggy, Ben and Adam were holding Joe up. Hoss looked at his brother with concern. “Joe?” he asked. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” replied Joe weakly. “Just a few more bruises to add to the collection.” Joe looked toward the miner laying on the ground. “They’re a small price to pay to see you take on Jake,” added Joe with a smile. He looked up at Hoss and the smile widened. “I knew you could take him.”

Abashed, Hoss looked at Ben. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said apologetically. “I saw him push  Joe and I just lost my temper.”

“Hoss, you know how I feel about fighting,” replied Ben, trying to look stern. He gave up the effort. “In this case, however, I think it was justified,” Ben advised with a smile.

Looking relieved, Hoss turned back to Joe and took his brother by the arm. “Let’s get you in the courthouse,” he suggested, “before you figure out any other ways to get some bruises.”

*****

The fire burned brightly in the fireplace of the main room in the ranch house as the Cartwrights relaxed with coffee after dinner. Ben was sitting in his favorite red chair, and Adam had claimed the blue one. Joe was resting his sore body against several pillows at one end of the sofa, and Hoss was sprawled against the other end.

“One year for assault,” said Adam with a shake of his head. “That doesn’t seem like much punishment for those miners.”

“I’m satisfied,” Joe replied. “Parker was the one who was behind it. And he paid a bigger price than anyone.” He shook his head. “Parker paid the ultimate price.”

“I’m sorry about that,” said Ben sadly. “I really am. I never meant for Sam Parker to die.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Pa,” Adam told his father. “He made the choice to go for a gun. You didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Still, I can’t help but feel I drove him to it,” said Ben. He shook his head. “Maybe I went too far.”

“All you did was keep a promise,” Adam declared. “You told Parker he was finished in Virginia City. He didn’t believe you. And when he found out you were right, he just couldn’t handle it.”

“I suppose,” said Ben, still sounding unconvinced.

“Hey, Pa, do you think the families of those mine owners who were killed will be able to buy those mines back?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t know,” replied Ben. “Somebody is going to have to buy those mines. Parker didn’t leave a will, and as far as anyone knows, he didn’t have a family. His estate will probably be handled by the state. I’m sure they’d be happy to try to work something out with the families of the former owners.”

Sighing, Joe leaned back against the pillows. “Well, in a few more weeks, I’ll be all healed up, and then things will be back to normal,” said Joe. He smiled. “I kind of like normal.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Ben suddenly said. “There was a telegram in town for you.” Ben patted his vest, then reached into the inside pocket. “Here it is,” he said, handing an envelope to Joe.

Eagerly, Joe tore open the envelope and read the message. He looked up at the curious faces sitting around him. “It’s from Jamison,” he announced with a smile. “The other buyer could only afford half the horses. So Jamison is willing to sell me the other half, and he’s willing to wait until the end of the summer for payment. Says he couldn’t find anyone else who could come up with that much money.”

“Hey, Joe, that’s great!” said Hoss enthusiastically.

“Yeah, it is,” agreed Joe. “I’ll take any of the horses Jamison had to offer. They were all good.”

“I’ll wire him $1,000 in earnest money,” Ben promised. “That should hold the horses until the end of the summer.” He looked at Joe. “You’d better heal up fast,” added Ben with a grin. “You’re going to have a lot of horses to break.”

“Oh, great!” groaned Joe. “More bruises.”

“Well, little brother, that’s the price you have to pay to get those horses to act the way you want,” observed Hoss.

Joe looked thoughtful. “You know, I think I’ve learned that there’s a price to be paid for everything in this life. You don’t get something for nothing.”

“That’s not entirely true,” advised Ben, leaning back in his chair. “Some things are freely given. They can’t be bought for any price.”

“Yeah, like what?” asked Hoss.

Ben looked around the room before he answered. “Things like love, and loyalty, and friendship,” Ben told his sons. “There’s no way those things can be bought. They’re precious gifts. And they’re worth more than anything on earth.”

*****End*****

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