The Guardian (by Susan)

Synopsis:  A sequel to Lost Son.  There’s someone keeping an eye on Joe.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  41,740


 

“Hey, Joe! Have you seen an ax around any place?” Hoss Cartwright shouted toward his younger brother. “We’re one short.” Hoss looked down and frowned at the tally sheet in his hand, a small paper on which he had been making marks as men loaded equipment into the wagon next to him.

As soon as Hoss asked the question, a picture flashed in Joe Cartwright’s mind – an ax buried in the stump of a freshly cut tree. He had plunged the ax into the stump this morning so he could easily find it when he returned to get it. Except he hadn’t returned. “Yeah, I know where it is,” replied Joe in a voice tinged with disgust at himself. “I left it by that last stand of trees we cut this morning. I was going to go back and get it after I helped Jack with the problem loading the logs, but I forgot.”

“Well, little brother,” said Hoss as a smile twitched on his face. “Since you’re the only one who knows where it is, I guess you’ll have to go get it.”

Sighing, Joe tugged at the black leather gloves covering his hands. “Doggone it, Hoss, it’s way up the hill,” complained Joe. “It’s going to take me at least twenty minutes just to get up there.” He cocked his head and looked at his older brother. “Maybe we should just forget about it,” he suggested hopefully. “It’s only an ax.”

“Why sure, Joe,” replied Hoss, nodding his head. A solemn look crossed his face. “Only you’re the one who’s going to have to explain to Pa why we left with a dozen axes ten days ago to cut the lumber for the Silver Slipper mine contract, and came home with only eleven.”

Looking down, Joe blew out a breath of air. “No thanks,” he said. “I’d rather take a forty minute hike than have to listen to one of Pa’s lectures on laziness and responsibility. I’ve had 22 years of those lectures, and I don’t think I’m ready for another one.” Joe looked up at the hill and grimaced a bit. “I’ll go get the ax,” he said in a resigned voice.

“I kind of thought you’d say that,” Hoss answered with a grin.

Turning, Joe started to walk toward a hill a few feet away. “Don’t leave without me,” he said over his shoulder to Hoss. “I don’t mind hiking up that hill but I sure as heck don’t want to walk all the way back to the ranch.”

“Don’t worry,” said Hoss. He looked toward where a group of men were folding tent canvass and sorting through equipment. “It’s going to take us awhile to get the rest of this gear loaded.”

Nodding, Joe started up a path worn into the grass on the hill, heading toward a grove of trees at the top of the rise. He was silently cursing himself for his forgetfulness and thinking of getting home rather than paying any attention to the landscape around him. Joe had seen everything there was to see as he had made the climb from the camp at the bottom of the hill each morning for the past ten days, and as he had traveled down again at the end of each day’s work of felling and trimming trees. His mind was on a soft bed and dinner at a table. That’s why he was so startled when he reached the top of the hill and saw an ax jutting from the side of the first tree on the crest of the hill.

Surprised, Joe stopped and looked around. The woods were quiet, with no sign of any movement and only the twittering of a few birds breaking the silence. He pulled the ax from the tree and looked at it with a puzzled expression. The small pine tree brand burned into the wooden hilt confirmed the ax was the missing tool from the Cartwright’s gear. Frowning, Joe looked around again, trying to figure out how an ax he knew he left in a stump deep in the woods had come to be buried into a tree near the path. Obviously, whoever left the ax there meant it to be easily found. Joe wondered, though, about who had put it there for him to find.

Once more, Joe looked around, trying to identify who his benefactor might be. But all he saw were the trees and bushes of the woods, and all he heard was the quiet chirping of the birds.

Shrugging, Joe put the over his shoulder, turned and started down the hill.

It was Hoss’ turn to be surprised when he saw Joe walking toward the wagon a scant twenty minutes after his brother had left. “Hey, Joe,” he said, “what’d you do, run up that hill?”

“No,” said Joe, shaking his head as he handed the ax to Hoss to put into the wagon. “It was the oddest thing. I found the ax in a tree right at the top of the hill. It was like somebody put it there for me to find.”

“You sure you didn’t leave it there yourself?” asked Hoss with raised eyebrows.

“I’m sure I left it in the stump,” Joe stated positively. “Besides, if I had put in the side of that tree, one of the other men would have seen it for sure when they came down the hill.” Joe shook his head again. “Wonder how it got there?”

“Well, it was there, that’s all that’s important, “ said Hoss in a dismissive tone. “Throw the ax in the wagon. Then, why don’t you go over and help Charlie load those chains into that third wagon. He’s got a lot to load and he could use a hand.”

“All right,” agreed Joe, tossing the ax into the wagon next to Hoss. As he started toward a wagon a few feet away, though, Joe stopped and looked up toward the top of the hills, a thoughtful expression on his face. He stared at the trees on the crest of the hills for a minute, his face reflecting the puzzlement in his mind. Taking a deep breath, Joe shook his head and headed toward the wagon.

In the woods at the top of the hill, the man sat on a log watching the activity below. He had made sure he was hidden by the foliage and shadows before settling down in this spot. As he watched, a satisfied smile crossed his face. He knew it had probably been a mistake to put the ax near the path for the boy to find. But he so seldom got a chance to help that he couldn’t resist. Usually, all the man could do was watch, as he had watched the timber operation for the past ten days. Not that he didn’t enjoy watching. It gave him a sense of pleasure to do so. But he so much wanted to help, and at the same time, knew he couldn’t. When the rare occasion came along when he could do something, he just had to take advantage of it.

As he watched the men below finish loading the wagons, the man stood and stretched a bit. He knew it was time to leave, but he waited a few more minutes. He saw the men climbing into the wagons, settling themselves on the driver’s seats or on top of the gear in the back. The wagons started to move slowly, rolling over the grass toward a trail several yards away. Hoss was driving the first wagon, and the man admired how he handled the team. The boy was driving the second wagon, and while he wasn’t quite as expert as his brother, the man was proud of the way he

guided the heavily loaded wagon smoothly over the grass.

As the wagons began to pull out of sight, the man turned and walked through the woods toward his own camp. There was no need for him to keep watch for awhile. He knew what would happen over the next few days. There would be a family dinner at the ranch tonight, and conversation around the fireplace as everyone got caught up with each other’s news. Probably an early evening, thought the man as he continued walking. Tomorrow would be spent stowing gear and finishing up the all the little details of the project. The day after tomorrow was Saturday, and that’s when he would need to be in Virginia City. He knew that the reward for a successful job would be a Saturday night in town. He would resume his watching then. But until then, he had things to do. The man’s pace quickened. Yes, he thought, he still had a number of things to do, although most of his work was done. The time was getting close, he thought, and a feeling of pleasure coursed through him. It wouldn’t be long now.

*****

“Hey Pa, we’re home!” shouted Hoss as he banged open the front door of the ranch house.

“So I hear,” said Ben Cartwright with a smile as he walked from his study toward the door. Seeing his sons almost always brought a sense of happiness to Ben, but it was especially true today. The house had seemed lonely with Joe and Hoss at the timber camp and Adam in Denver. “Welcome home,” he said, his smile broadening to encompass not only Hoss but also Joe who had followed his brother into the house.

“It’s good to be home,” Hoss said, returning his father’s smile. His tall white hat was already hung on a peg by the door, and Hoss began to unbuckle his gunbelt.

“Hi Pa,” said Joe briefly with a smile. Following Hoss’ example, he hung his tan hat on a peg, and began removing his green jacket.

A small frown creased Ben’s face as he listened to Joe’s somewhat subdued greeting. “Everything go all right?” he asked.

“Smooth as glass,” answered Hoss as he began rolling the belt of his holster. “The trees we cut were just the right amount to thin out that growth. The logs are on their way to the mill. The Silver Slipper will get the timber they need right on schedule.”

The frown on Ben’s face deepened as he looked toward Joe. His youngest son was also removing his gunbelt, but Joe was staring at the floor as he did so. “Joe? Everything all right?” asked Ben with concern.

“Huh? What?” Joe looked up, startled at the question. “Everything’s fine, Pa,” he said with a smile. “I was just thinking.”

“Well, that explains why you’re so quiet,” said Hoss with a grin. “It ain’t something you do often enough to have a lot of practice at it.”

“At least I do it from time to time,” Joe shot back, his smile widening. “You ought to try it once in awhile, older brother. It’s a wonderful exercise.”

“I get all the exercise I need working around this ranch,” Hoss assured his brother.

“Yeah?” said Joe in a skeptical voice. He gave Hoss an exaggerated look from head to toe. “You couldn’t tell that by looking at you.”

“It’s all muscle, little brother,” answered Hoss, patting his stomach. “All muscle.”

Ben smiled as he listened to his sons’ jibes. He was relieved that whatever was bothering Joe wasn’t serious. He knew his youngest son well enough to know that he wouldn’t be trading insults with Hoss if he was really upset. “What were you thinking about, Joe?” asked Ben curiously. “Unless it’s something you don’t want to talk about,” he added quickly.

“No, it’s nothing like that,” Joe assured his father. “It’s just that something kind of strange happened when we were breaking camp. I left an ax up in the woods, and when I went to get it, I found somebody had put it in a tree near the path where I could find it.”

“Maybe someone just found it and didn’t have time to go all the way down to the camp to return it,” suggested Ben.

“Maybe,” said Joe doubtfully. “But there wasn’t anyone around, Pa. We didn’t see another soul except the men on the timber crew the whole time we were up there.”

“Somebody could have been riding through up there while we were breaking up camp,” Hoss said. “We were down at the bottom of the hill for a couple of hours before you went back after that ax.”

“That’s possible, “ admitted Joe. Then he shook his head. “But it’s not just the ax. Some other strange things have happened. About a week before we left on that timber job, I went down to the breaking corral to get a bridle I had left there. When I left it, it was all tangled up. I threw it over the fence because I figured to get it and untangle it later. Only when I got back to the corral, the bridle was hanging on a post, and it was straightened out.”

“One of the hands could have done that,” said Ben with a shrug.

“Then why did they leave the bridle at the corral?” asked Joe. “Why didn’t they bring it back to the tack room? And another thing. Twice when I was out chasing strays last month, somebody had herded in some cattle to the pasture while I was gone. I knew because there were more cattle in the pasture than when I left, and they were all bunched up.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound like anything to be concerned about, Joe,” said Ben with a smile. “You got a helping hand a couple of times, that’s all. You should be grateful, not worried. Besides, you don’t even know if it was the same person who did each of those things. It could be just coincidence.”

“That’s not very likely,” said Joe, shaking his head. He gave his father a wry smile. “I find it hard to believe that suddenly everyone is going out of their way to help Joe Cartwright.”

“Maybe you got yourself a guardian angel doing your work for you,” suggested Hoss with a grin. “That don’t seem like anything to complain about.”

“I guess,” Joe said, but his voice still reflected an element of doubt.

“You boys go get cleaned up,” said Ben abruptly changing the subject. “Dinner will be ready in about an hour, and you don’t want to miss it. Hop Sing has been cooking all day.”

“He has?” said Hoss, his face lighting up with anticipation. “What’s he making?”

“Chicken and dumplings for you, Hoss,” replied Ben with a smile. “And apple pie for Joe.” Ben shook his head ruefully. “Hop Sing said he was saving his really big dinner for when Adam gets home, although I can’t begin to imagine what he’s planning for that.”

“When does Adam get back?” asked Hoss, rubbing his hands together.

Ben wasn’t sure whether Hoss’ eagerness was for his brother’s return or the huge dinner that would accompany Adam’s homecoming, but he smiled nonetheless. “I got a telegram today. He’ll be back on Monday, on the afternoon stage.”

“Did he say whether he closed the deal on those cattle?” asked Joe.

“Yes, the wire said the contract was signed,” replied Ben with a nod. “He didn’t give any details, but knowing your brother, I’m sure he got the price we wanted.”

“The way Denver is growing, I could have probably gotten the price we wanted,” said Joe dryly. “They want beef pretty bad up there.”

“I don’t know about that, Joe,” said Hoss thoughtfully. “You would have been so distracted by them pretty gals in Denver that you probably would have given the cattle away.” Hoss took a few steps quickly to the side to avoid the playful swipe Joe made at him.

“Go get cleaned up,” said Ben with a laugh. He watched as Hoss and Joe climbed the stairs to their room. His expression grew thoughtful as he pondered what Joe had said about getting a helping hand lately. He had to agree with Joe that it seemed to be more than just coincidence. Then Ben shrugged. He couldn’t see any harm in what was happening. He turned and walked back to his study, already forgetting about Joe’s comments.

*****

The next few days played out just as the man in the woods had predicted. Dinner on the evening that Hoss and Joe had returned was a quiet one, although that was more the result of the Cartwrights enjoying Hop Sing’s cooking than anything else. Friday and Saturday were spent checking the gear and stowing it in a shed behind the barn. Joe had volunteered to check the axes and sharpen them as needed. He wanted to take another look at the ax he had found in the tree. But Joe found nothing unusual. In fact, he wasn’t even sure which ax was the one he found. When he checked the tools, all of the axes looked exactly alike. Joe couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something strange about what happened, but he couldn’t seem to put his finger on what was bothering him.

As the man had guessed, Joe and Hoss headed to Virginia City on Saturday night. They got to town early, eager for a long evening of play after the hard work they had put in.

“Looks pretty quiet for a Saturday night,” commented Hoss as he and Joe rode down the main street.

“It’s early,” replied Joe. “The sun hasn’t even gone down yet. Wait until it gets dark. Things will be really hopping then.” Joe looked around. “Let’s head for the Bucket of Blood,” he suggested. “If anything is going on, it’ll be there.”

The Cartwrights guided their horses toward the saloon. Neither noticed the man who stepped quickly into an alley as they passed him.

As Hoss and Joe entered the saloon, they looked around. The Bucket of Blood also was relatively quiet for early on a Saturday night. A few tables were occupied, mostly by older men nursing a beer or playing cards. Two men in suits stood at the bar talking. At a table to the far right, four saloon hostesses sat, talking among themselves.

“I sure hope things pick up or this is going to be really wasted visit to town,” said Joe shaking his head. “Let’s grab a table.”

As Joe led Hoss to a table in the middle of the saloon, he looked toward where the girls were sitting. A smile crossed his face as he saw Sally, one of his favorites, sitting at the table. Joe liked Sally – she laughed at his jokes, and even told a few bawdy tales herself. He had exchanged a few kisses with the girl from time to time, but knew neither one of them took the kisses seriously. She was exactly what a hostess should be – someone with whom Joe could have a drink and enjoy himself without worrying about either one them getting too involved.

“Hey, Sally,” yelled Joe as he and Hoss began to sit at the table. Joe waved his hand, gesturing the girl to join them.

One of the girls looked toward Joe, then turned to say something to the other girls at the table. Slowly, the girl got to her feet. In reality, Sally was no longer a girl, but rather a woman about thirty. She was wearing a jade dress that clung tightly to the upper half of her body, but revealed her white shoulders and arms. The dress flared into a skirt at the waist, a skirt which ended at her knees and showed off her well-formed legs in dark mesh stockings. The green dress was in contrast to the auburn hair pinned up on her head, but seemed to match the green in the woman’s eyes.

“Hello, Joe, Hoss,” said Sally in a cautious voice. “What can I get for you boys?”

“We’d like a couple of beers,” answered Joe with a warm smile. “And why don’t you get one for yourself and join us.”

Looking down, Sally said in a hesitant voice, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Joe. I’ve been warned to stay away from you – twice.”

“Stay away from me?” repeated Joe with a frown. “Who said that?”

“Well, Jake Fallon from over at the Flying M for one,” admitted Sally. “He keeps telling me that he’s coming after you if I don’t stay away from you.”

“Jake,” said Joe with disgust as he shook his head. “He’s said that about every man he’s seen you with, but he never does anything about it. He’s all talk.”

“He can get kind of crazy when he’s drunk,” Sally said. “A couple of day ago, he was in town. Jake had been drinking pretty heavily and by the end of the night, he was telling me how he was going to shoot anyone who came between him and me. He even pulled a gun from his holster and was waving it around.”

“Did he use it?” asked Hoss, his voice reflecting his concern.

“Well, no,” admitted Sally. “This fellow at the next table just kind of knocked the gun out of Jake’s hand, told him to be careful. Jake yelled some stuff at him, but that’s all he did. Jake left right after that. But I’m afraid he might actually use the gun next time.”

“Jake couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a gun even when he’s sober,” said Joe with a smile. “He’s the worst shot in the county. Like I said, he’s all talk.”

“That may be,” said Sally, nodding her head. “But the fellow who came in this afternoon seemed pretty serious when he told me I shouldn’t being seeing you.”

“What fellow?” asked Joe, more curious than alarmed.

“I don’t know his name. I’ve never seen him before. He was about fifty, white hair and a white beard. He talked real nice, kind of formal. Didn’t look like a cowboy, but he wasn’t wearing a suit or anything.” Sally shook her head. “Kind of hard to figure out what he was.”

“What did he say, exactly?” pressed Joe.

Looking off and frowning, Sally tried to remember the conversation. “He said something like it would be better if I didn’t see you when you came to town. He said you weren’t the right kind of guy for me.”

“Sounds like your reputation is starting to catch up with you, little brother,” said Hoss with a smile.

“Shut up,” Joe snapped at his brother. His tone was more exasperated than angry. Joe turned back to Sally. “What else did he say? Did he threaten you?”

“No, it wasn’t like that at all,” insisted Sally. “He was real nice, real reasonable. It was more like he was trying to warn me than threaten me. He kept saying things like you needed a different kind of girl, just like I needed a different kind of guy. He said us being together would just make both of us miserable.”

“What happened to him?” asked Joe, his curiosity growing. “Where did he go?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Sally. “He finished his beer and walked out. Anyway, after what he said and what Jake said, I figured maybe it would be best if I didn’t sit with you.”

“Sally, my girl, I don’t want to marry you,” said Joe with a smile. “I just want to have a beer with you. One beer, that’s all. How much trouble can that cause?”

Studying the men at the table, Sally considered what Joe said. Suddenly, she smiled. “You’re right,” Sally agreed with a brief nod. “Besides, that’s what I get paid to do, entertain the customers.” Sally winked at Hoss. “If I stayed away from every cowboy who had a bad reputation, I’d never get any work.” Sally laughed at the expression of mock injury on Joe’s face. “I’ll get us some beers.”

“Wonder who that fellow was?” Hoss mused as Sally walked toward the bar.

“Don’t know,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “From the way, Sally described him, it sounded a little like Pa. But unless he’s grown a beard overnight, it couldn’t have been him.”

“Maybe it was your guardian angel,” suggested Hoss with a laugh.

“Who’s guardian angel?” asked Sally as she returned to the table with three beers. She put the beer glasses on the table, and eased herself in a chair close to Joe.

“Joe’s, “ explained Hoss. “We figure he’s got a guardian angel looking out for him lately.”

“Well, I hope he’s off duty right now,” replied Sally as she leaned toward Joe and put her hand on his arm.

Putting his hand on top of Sally, Joe replied softly, “So do I.”

Just outside the door, the man peered into the saloon. He could see the two Cartwrights laughing and drinking with the hostess. The man shook his head, more in sadness than anything else. He had heard the threats against the boy from the cowboy, and he had tried to protect him. Besides, the man knew a saloon hostess wasn’t the right kind of woman for the boy. The man knew he couldn’t approach the boy himself, so he tried to warn him off through the woman.

Sighing, the man took a step away from the door. He had half-guessed that his warning would be in vain. Young men never seem to know what’s best for them. That’s why they needed someone wiser to guide them. The man looked around, noticing that the street was getting busier. More cowboys were riding into town and heading toward the saloons. He was glad, in a way. The more people who crowded into town, the easier it would be for him to keep watch without being seen. Once more, the man sighed. He hated towns, hated the crowds. But he was willing to put aside his own feelings to watch, to make sure nothing happened to the boy. Tomorrow he would finish what he needed to do. Then he would be ready. All he had to do was wait – and watch.

*****

“Hey, Pa, is Adam here yet?” Joe said in a loud voice as he walked into the ranch house on Monday afternoon. He felt a trickle of sweat running down his face, and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his shirt.

“Don’t any of you boys ever enter the house without yelling?” complained Ben as walked down the stairs toward the main room. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, and a frown creased his face as he looked at Joe. His

son’s shirt was dusty and stained with sweat. Joe’s pants were also dusty, and Ben could see the beads of sweat on Joe’s face and neck. “What have you been doing?” he asked.

Wiping the sweat again from his face, Joe gave a lopsided grin. “Chasing horses,” he answered. “You know those wild horses I thought would be so easy to round up in the canyon? Well, it turns out they were smarter than I figured. Instead of heading toward the canyon, they took off across the ridge. We ended up chasing them half-way across Nevada before we finally got them herded back to the ranch.”

“How many did you get?” asked Ben.

“Twenty, and some pretty good looking animals,” answered Joe. “I figure about two weeks to break them and train them. We should have them to the Army remount post by the end of the month easy.”

“Good,” said Ben, nodding. “We really needed them to fill that contract. I hate to have to buy horses just to turn around and sell them to the Army.”

“Is Adam back yet?” Joe repeated his question.

“No, Hoss went into town to pick him up about an hour ago,” said Ben. “They should be back soon.” He looked at Joe, trying his best to hide his fatherly concern. “Why don’t you go upstairs and get cleaned up? Maybe take a nap? I’ll call you when Adam and Hoss get here.”

“Sounds good to me,” agreed Joe. He unbuckled his gunbelt from around his hips, and rolled it into a ball. “It was a long day, and a hot one.” Placing the rolled holster on the table by the door, he removed his hat and hung it on the peg by the door. Joe ran his fingers through his hair, doing his best to brush the dust from it. Turning back to his father, Joe said, “I probably should have just headed toward the lake and jumped in. Would have been faster than trying to wash all this dust off.”

“Do you want me to have Hop Sing heat up some water for a bath?” asked Ben.

“No,” said Joe shaking his head. “If we interrupt him in the middle of his cooking that big meal he’s planning, we won’t get a decent meal for a week.” Joe rubbed his eyes. “Besides, I’m too tired. I’d rather have a nap than a bath.”

“Go on upstairs,” Ben said. “I’ll let you know when Adam and Hoss are home.” Joe nodded and walked past his father, climbing the stairs to his room.

When Joe woke from his nap, he knew he had been asleep for quite awhile. His room had been bright from the sun as he had stripped off his shirt and removed his boots, then washed about a ton of dirt off his body. The last thing he remembered was stretching out on the bed, planning on getting a few minutes of sleep. Now the room was dim, indicating Joe had been asleep for a couple of hours. Someone – probably his father – had covered him with the bedspread.

Suddenly, Joe sat up, remembering that Adam was due home. His oldest brother had been gone for three weeks, and while Joe had his run-ins with Adam from time to time, he missed his brother when Adam was gone. Joe jumped from the bed and walked quickly to the dresser. He pulled open a drawer and grabbed a clean shirt, a dark blue one. As Joe struggled into the shirt, he walked over to the wash stand. Even in the dim light, he could see the basin was still filled with dirty water. Joe decided not to bother with throwing it out and simply poured a little water from the pitcher on his hands.

Splashing the water on his face to help himself wake up, Joe walked over and sat down on the bed. He quickly pulled on his boots and buttoned the shirt closed. As he stood, Joe tucked the shirt into his pants. He walked toward the door, stopping only for a minute to wipe his face with the damp, wrinkled towel on the wash stand. Then he hurried out of the room.

As Joe descended the stairs, he saw Adam and Hoss sitting comfortably on the sofa, and Ben relaxing in his favorite red chair by the fireplace. “Adam, welcome home,” said Joe as he bounded down the stairs.

“Well, Sleeping Beauty finally awakes,” replied Adam with a smile. “Hello, Joe. It’s good to be home.”

“I thought you were going to wake me when Adam and Hoss got here,” Joe said to his father in an accusing tone.

“I was,” replied Ben. “But you were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t have the heart to wake you. You were pretty tired when you got home, and I decided to exercise my rights as a father to make sure you got some rest.

“I didn’t miss dinner, did I?” asked Joe as he turned to look at the tall clock near the door.

“Don’t worry, little brother, “ Hoss assured Joe. “We wouldn’t dare let you miss dinner tonight. Hop Sing is bent on having a special family meal for us, and they’d heard the screaming all the way to China if you weren’t at the table.”

“Dinner won’t be ready for another half hour or so,” added Ben.

Turning to his oldest brother, Joe asked, “How was Denver, Adam?”

“Fine,” replied Adam. “I was just telling Pa and Hoss that we’re going to sell our cattle for four dollars a head higher than we figured.”

“That’s great,” said Joe, with a nod. “So did you do anything in Denver besides negotiate that cattle contract?”

Adam looked down as if weighing was he was about to say. He looked back up at Joe and said, “I met someone in Denver who might interest you. His name is David Williams.”

“Who’s David Williams?” asked Joe curiously.

“He works at the Denver Mint,” answered Adam. “He’s a friend of Don Parker. I met David and his fiancée at a party at Parker’s house.”

“What’s so special about David Williams?” asked Joe.

Biting his lip a bit, Adam hesitated, then said, “His father is Tyler Williams.”

Joe’s eyes widened at the name, and he felt the familiar conflict of emotions rising him as he thought of Williams, a man Joe always thought of as Paul. That was the name Joe had called the man for weeks, until Joe had found out the reason why Williams had called himself by that name.

Turning to look into the flames burning in the fireplace, Joe could feel the usual combination of both fear and gratitude that thinking about Paul seemed to cause. Joe had thought about Paul often over the last year or so, and each time he did, he was never quite sure what he felt about the man. Paul had found Joe in the mountains, shot in the side and with his leg caught in a bear trip. He had rescued Joe, taking him back to his house in the mountains and nursing Joe back to health. Joe had been grateful to the man, and found he liked his intelligent, witty rescuer. He had enjoyed his stay with Paul – the two had played chess and cribbage,

while Joe recovered, as well as having long discussions on every subject under the sun. Joe had felt he had found an interesting new friend.

But Joe’s enjoyment of staying with Paul had ended abruptly when the man declared that he was going to force Joe to stay with him and become a surrogate son. Joe shuddered a bit when he remember that time – Paul’s sudden shift from intelligent friend to violent madman had frightened Joe. Paul had been willing to chain Joe, and perhaps worse, in order to prevent him from leaving. Only a daring escape through a window and a desperate trek through the rough mountain forest with an injured leg had enabled Joe to avoid becoming part of Paul’s sick plan. Even then, Joe almost had failed to get away. By a stroke of luck, Joe had been found by his father in the woods as Paul was catching up with him. Ben had convinced Paul to leave Joe with his father, to allow Ben to take Joe home. But Joe had never forgotten the look on Paul’s face as the man had stared at Joe before disappearing into the woods. He had seen the determined look on Paul’s face – and the hint of madness in the man’s eyes.

“Has David seen his father lately?” Joe asked, still looking into the fire.

“Not since he left that house in the mountains almost two years ago,” replied Adam. He waited, letting Joe take the lead. Adam wasn’t sure how much he should tell Joe about his conversation with David Williams, so he decided to let his brother ask the questions. Whatever Joe wanted to know, Adam would tell him. And whatever Joe didn’t want to know, Adam would keep to himself.

“Did David say anything about why he left?” Joe asked.

“He told me that he got tired of living up in the mountains with only his father for company,” Adam said slowly, framing the answer in his mind as he spoke. “He wanted more out of life, but his father refused to let him leave. He also said that his father had started acting a bit, well, odd. From what he said, I gather David wasn’t willing to put up with his father any longer. So David waited until his father was out hunting, and then simply took off. He had some money, and took the stage to Denver. He told me he had been an accountant in St. Louis before…before his father’s troubles, so he got himself a job at the Mint.”

Nodding, Joe didn’t say anything. He thought about David’s story, and decided it matched what Paul had finally told him about his son’s departure. For awhile, Joe had thought David had died. It was only when Paul tried to claim Joe as a son that he had admitted his real son had left him.

“So he’s found a girl and getting married,” Joe said, not really caring. He was only making conversation as he tried to decide whether he wanted to ask the next question.

“Yes, he’s getting married at the end of the summer,” said Adam in a quiet voice.

Taking a deep breath, Joe turned slowly. He wasn’t sure why he was so reluctant to ask what he wanted to know most. Looking at Adam, Joe swallowed hard, then said, “Did you ask… Joe stopped and took another breath. “Who does David think killed his mother?”

“Well, as you can imagine, it’s difficult to ask a man if he thinks his father killed his mother, especially in the middle of a dinner party,” Adam replied. He looked toward Ben, seeking some guidance on whether he should continue. Seeing Ben’s encouraging nod, Adam added, “ But David and I had lunch the next day. He told me he still thinks his father is innocent although he admitted he’s not as sure as he once was. David evidently had some rather fierce arguments with his father up in those mountains, and well, he’s just not sure as he once was that his mother was killed by someone breaking into the house.”

Turning back to look into the fire, Joe thought about the story Paul had told him, of how Paul had been falsely accused of murdering his wife. Joe had been sympathetic at the time to Paul’s tale of languishing in jail for months until David had proved his innocence. He had even understood Paul’s bitterness toward the people who had turned their backs on him, and had snubbed him even when released from jail. Joe could see why Paul had wanted to live in the mountains, away from people with accusing looks. It was only later, when the man’s madness had become evident, that Joe had wondered what really happened to Paul’s wife.

“Did you tell David about what happened between me and …and his father?” asked Joe in a hesitant voice.

Once more, Adam glanced at his father before continuing. “Yes,” said Adam. “David told me he wasn’t all that surprised. He said his father is the kind of man who thinks he always knows what’s best for everyone. Apparently, he was always telling David and his mother how to live their lives, not to mention his students at the university. And he would get very upset when his advice was ignored. That’s one of the reasons David left his father, I gather. David got tired of never being able to make any decisions, of never being allowed to live his own life. Anyway, he said that he wasn’t surprised that his father found someone else to, well, ‘guide through life’ as David put it.”

Standing mutely by the fireplace, Joe thought back over his time in the mountains with Paul. Images of events and bits of conversation flashed through his mind. Joe hadn’t realized it at the time, but during his entire stay with Paul, he hadn’t really made a single decision. Paul had been in control of everything – what they did, what they discussed, even what they ate. And when Joe had ‘disobeyed’ Paul, the man had become enraged.

Suddenly, Joe realized his father and brothers were staring at him, waiting for him to say something or do something. He turned back to face them. “I..I think I’ll go outside and get some air before dinner,” Joe said, giving his family a shaky smile. He didn’t wait for anyone’s response, but rather walked quickly across the room and out the front door.

Watching his son leave the house, Ben commented, “He’s still bothered when he thinks about that man.”

“I know,” agreed Adam. “That’s why I didn’t want you to wake him until we had a chance to talk. I thought my meeting with David might upset him, and I wasn’t sure whether I should even tell him about it.”

“Keeping it from Joe wouldn’t have served any purpose, Adam,” said Ben.

“And telling him what David Williams said about his father might help Joe sort out his feelings about that man.” Ben shook his head. “I know from the little Joe has told me that he feels a huge sense of gratitude and maybe even a bit of affection for the man for having saved Joe’s life and treated him so well for all those weeks. But I also know that what he tried to do — and why — scared Joe.” Ben looked toward the door again. “I imagine it’s difficult for Joe to figure out exactly what he does feel about that man.”

“That Williams fellow is sure a strange one,” said Hoss, shaking his head.

“Imagine him thinking he could just keep Joe with him, like he was a stray pup or something.”

“Well, he would have had his hands full,” said Adam with a wry smile. “Joe isn’t exactly known for following orders and taking advice.” Adam turned to his father. “Isn’t that right, Pa?”

Still staring at the door, Ben nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said. “Joe goes his own way, sometimes. That’s what worries me most about him. He keeps things to himself, especially when he’s upset. I wish he would…” Ben shook his head. “I guess it’s a little late to expect him to change.”

“Aw, Pa, you worry too much,” said Hoss, trying to ease his father’s concerns. “If it’s something really important, Joe would talk to you about it.’

“Hoss is right,” said Adam. “It may take Joe a little while to get around to it, but eventually, he lets you know what he’s thinking.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Ben. But his voice held even less conviction than his words.

*****

For the next few days, Joe went about his work on the ranch in a quiet, almost distracted manner. It was the same demeanor he had brought to the dinner table when he had finally returned to the house for Adam’s homecoming meal. Ben, Adam and Hoss refrained from commenting on Joe’s subdued manner, both at dinner and over the following days. They knew there was little they could say to help Joe. All they could do was give him time to work out his emotions for himself.

Just after lunch on Wednesday, Ben was in the barn currying his horse when Joe rode in. Ben had tired of working on the accounts, and decided he needed some physical activity for awhile. He hadn’t expected to see Joe until dinner.

“Hello, Joe,” said Ben, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice as he saw Joe leading his pinto into the barn. “You’re back early.”

“Didn’t find many strays,” answered Joe, “so I thought I’d head on in.”

Continuing to brush his horse, Ben said nothing. He knew Joe’s excuse for riding out this morning had been to look for strays. Ben suspected that Joe had really wanted an opportunity to have some time to himself. He waited, knowing it was up to Joe to decide if he wanted to tell him what was on his mind.

As Joe led his horse into the stall, he wondered what he should say. He knew his family had been giving him a lot of space lately. He was grateful for their concern, but he also was tired of it, just as he had grown tired of thinking and brooding about Paul. Nothing was being accomplished. Joe hadn’t come any closer to resolving his feelings about the man, and he suspected he never would.

“I’m going to start breaking those horses tomorrow,” said Joe, as he began to unsaddle his pinto.

Ben’s hand stopped moving over the back of his buckskin. “Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked cautiously.

“Sure, why not?” replied Joe with a shrug as he picked up a brush and began working on his own horse. “Those wild horses should be settled down enough for us to start working on them. And we need to get them to the Army by the end of the month.”

“Breaking horses takes a lot of concentration,” said Ben, his tone still cautious. “A rider can get hurt if he’s not paying attention to what he’s doing.” Ben swiped the brush over his horse quickly. “I can have Adam start on them if you want.”

“There’s no need for that,” Joe said in a firm voice. “Look, Pa, I know I’ve been kind of moody the past few days, but I’m done with that. We’ve got a ranch to run, and it’s time I started pulling my weight again.”

Letting out a sigh of relief, Ben began to brush his buckskin with vigorous strokes. “I’m glad you feel that way,” said Ben. “I’ll tell the boys in the bunkhouse tonight to plan on starting with those horses first thing in the morning.”

“Good,” said Joe, as he continued to curry his pinto.

Smiling a bit, Ben said, “You know, Joe, since you’re back early, there are a few things we could use some help with.”

This time it’s was Joe’s hand that stopped in mid-air. “Um, well, Pa, I was kind of thinking I would take it easy this afternoon. You know, breaking horses is tough work, and I want to be rested when I start.”

“I know,” answered Ben, trying to hide his smile. “But what I have in mind should tire you out too much.”

“Yeah?” said Joe, a hint of suspicion in his voice. “And what did you have in mind?”

“Well, Hoss is going into town to pick up supplies and the mail,” said Ben. “I thought you might go along with him and help out.” Ben brushed a few finishing strokes over his horse’s flanks. “Of course, on a hot day like today, you boys might want a little refreshment while you’re in town.”

Grinning, Joe swiped the brush over his horse. “You’re right, Pa,” said Joe. “I ought to help Hoss with those supplies. It’s not right that he should have to do all that work by himself.”

“I thought you might feel that way,” said Ben with a smile.

*****

On a hill overlooking the Ponderosa ranch house, the man frowned as he watched Hoss and the boy hitching up the buckboard. He had settled down on the hill, several yards from where he had built a rough camp in the trees. He had been sure the boy was going to be home for the rest of the day, and had planned to watch for only a little while before returning to his camp. Now it appeared he had guessed wrong. Obviously, Hoss and the boy were getting ready to leave the ranch, and since they were taking the buckboard, the man guessed they were heading for Virginia City.

Cursing silently, the man scrambled to his feet and hurried back to his camp. He hated going into Virginia City, and even more so when he didn’t have time to plan his actions. He thought briefly about not making the trip but quickly decided against it. The boy needed someone to watch over him, and if he didn’t do it, who would? He couldn’t count on Hoss and the others to watch over him like he did. They simply didn’t understand how much guidance the boy needed. They had a tendency to let him handle things on his own, and the man knew that wasn’t right. He knew the boy needed a guardian, someone to show him the right way. And soon, he thought, the boy would know it too.

*****

“Hey, Hoss, why don’t you go pick up the mail?” suggested Joe as he put a small box into the back of the buckboard. “I’ll meet you over at the Bucket of Blood.”

Carrying a large sack over his shoulder, Hoss approached the buckboard.

“You all tuckered out from all the work you done?” asked Hoss sarcastically as he tossed the sack into the back of the wagon. “Seems to me I’ve been toting all the heavy stuff.”

“Well, I was out chasing strays all morning,” explained Joe solemnly. “All that riding, it tires a man out. Then I had to carry those three boxes from the store on top of it.” Joe wiped his face with an exaggerated gesture. “I’m lucky I have enough strength to go over and get a beer.”

“We all admire the way you manage to keep yourself going no matter what,” agreed Hoss. “It’s an inspiration to the rest of us.”

“I know,” said Joe, nodding. His face broke into a grin. “Besides, Pa was the one who suggested we might need a little refreshment. And you know how I always do what Pa says.”

“Since when?” snorted Hoss.

“Since he started suggesting cold beers on hot days,” answered Joe, his grin widening. “How about it? You get the mail, and I’ll buy you a beer.”

“Well, if you’re buying, that’s different,” Hoss said, smiling.

“I said A beer,” replied Joe quickly. “I don’t have enough money to fill up that big frame of yours. Anything after the first one is on your tab.”

“I’ll take whatever I can get, even if it’s only one beer,” said Hoss. “I’ll meet you at the saloon.” He turned and started walking down the street toward the post office.

Smiling, Joe turned in the opposite direction and strolled slowly toward the Bucket of Blood. He smiled and tipped his hat to two pretty girls who passed on the sidewalk. Both girls smiled back at Joe but continued on their way. Joe stopped for a moment and considered whether he should follow the girls. But after a few seconds of thought, he decided he was more interested in a cold beer than romance right now. Joe didn’t notice the man taking advantage of Joe’s distraction to hurry across the street and into an alley near the saloon.

Stepping off the sidewalk, Joe began to cross the wide dirt street toward the Bucket of Blood. He was only a few feet from the saloon when a man lurched out of the swinging doors and staggered toward him. Joe put up his hands to prevent the man from running into him.

“Whoa, easy, Jake,” said Joe as he steadied the obviously drunken cowboy. “You’d better be careful. You’re liable to hurt yourself.”

Peering at Joe through bleary eyes, it took Jake Fallon a minute to recognize his rescuer. But as soon as he realized that Joe was standing in front of him, Jake became enraged.

“Joe Cartwright!” shouted Jake in slurred tones. “You mangy dog! What are you doing here? Come to see Sally, have you?”

“I’m just going in to get a beer, Jake,” said Joe in a reasonable voice.

“You come to see Sally, ain’t you,” Jake shouted again. He pushed Joe away from him. “Sally’s my girl.”

“Sure she is, Jake,” replied Joe in a soothing voice. “Everyone knows that.”

“You stay away from her, you hear,” Jake said in a loud voice. “I don’t want no Cartwright moving in on my girl.”

“I wouldn’t think of it,” said Joe, nodding slowly. “Now why don’t you go on back to the Flying M and sleep it off.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” growled Jake. “You’d like me to leave so’s you can have Sally all to yourself. Well, we’re going to settle this right now.

“Get ready to draw, Cartwright.” Jake staggered back a few steps into the street and stuck his arm out a bit, positioning his hand over the gun in his holster.

Joe watched Jake carefully, not particularly alarmed but still being cautious. He knew Jake Fallon. The man wasn’t particularly good at drawing his gun when sober, and Joe wasn’t sure he could even pull the gun out of his holster when drunk. And even if he did manage to draw his gun, as Joe had told Sally, he knew Jake was probably the worse shot in Nevada. Nevertheless, he kept a careful eye on the drunken cowboy. He had no desire to be felled by a lucky shot. Joe was pretty sure he could talk Jake out of drawing, but just in case, he kept a close watch on Jake’s hand, already fixing his aim on the man’s wrist in case he had to shoot. Joe knew he could outdraw Jake any day of the week, even when Jake was sober. He really didn’t want to put a bullet into the cowboy’s arm, but was confident he could do so if he had to.

In the alley, the man felt the cold hand of fear around his heart. He could see the cowboy was drunk, but even drunks could draw their guns swiftly and shoot someone. Even more alarming to the man was the fact that the boy seemed unconcerned. He didn’t seem to realize the danger he was in.

The boy merely stood there, arms at his side, talking to the drunken cowboy.

The man reached down and pulled his own gun from the holster on his hip.

He seldom used the gun, and usually only wore it when he was in Virginia City. A man without a gun stood out like a sore thumb in town, and the man had no desire to be noticed. He aimed the pistol at the drunk in the street. He knew he wasn’t very accurate with a handgun but he had no choice. He had to protect the boy.

“Jake, I don’t want to hurt you,” said Joe in a calm voice. “Now, why don’t we call this thing off. I’ll buy you a beer and we can talk about this.” From the corner of his eye, Joe saw several figures gathering nearby in the street to watch. He hoped somebody had enough sense to go get the sheriff.

“I ain’t going to let you weasel out of this, Cartwright,” said Jake. He frowned as he looked at the blurry figure in front of him. He had already forgotten why he was mad at the man.

“It’s a hot day,” said Joe. “Don’t you want a beer?”

Listening to Joe, Jake suddenly had an urge for a cold beer. He decided that things could wait to be settled until after he had had a beer. Besides, he wasn’t sure any more what needed to be settled. Jake dropped his arm, intending only to let it hang at his side. He never meant to go for his gun. Almost everyone watching could tell that. Almost.

Suddenly, a shot rang out and Jake clutched his chest. His eyes opened wide in surprise as he felt the sticky blood on his hand and the piercing pain in his body. His mouth worked as if he were going to say something. Then he pitched forward, face first, into the dusty street.

Shocked, Joe watched with an open mouth as Jake fell to the ground. For a few seconds, he merely stood still, too surprised to move. Then Joe rushed forward.

Kneeling on the ground, Joe gently turned Jake onto his back. He put a hand on Jake’s neck, feeling for a pulse, even though he knew he wouldn’t find one. The gaping wound in the middle of Jake’s chest told Joe that the man was dead.  Suddenly realizing that a crowd of people had formed a ring around him and the body on the ground. Joe jumped to his feet. “Who fired that shot?” he demanded, looking around. “Who killed Jake?”

At first, no one said anything. The people crowded around Joe looked at each other, their faces reflecting both the puzzlement and surprise that they felt. Finally, one man said, “I think it might have come from the alley, Joe.”

Pushing his way through the crowd, Joe hurried to the alley next to the saloon. As he neared the narrow opening, Joe pulled his gun, ready to take on the coward who had killed Jake from ambush. But when he entered the alley, Joe saw it was empty.

With a frown on his face, Joe whirled back to face the crowd who had followed him to the alley. “I thought you said the shot came from here,” he said angrily.

“I said I thought the shot came from here,” the man who had spoken up corrected Joe. “It could have come from someplace else. Or maybe whoever fired took off right away.”

Joe looked over his shoulder and back into the alley, as if expecting to see someone. Then he turned back to the people standing in front of him. “Didn’t anyone see who fired that shot?” he asked in an exasperated voice. His own answer was a few heads shaking and a telling silence.

Pushing his way through the crowd once more, Joe walked slowly toward the spot where Jake laid on the hard packed dirt of the street. He could see Sally standing a few feet away from Jake, looking down at the body with an expression of both shock and grief. Joe hurried forward to stand next to the woman. “I’m sorry,” said Joe in a quiet voice.

Turning her head, Sally looked at Joe with wide eyes. “Who’d want to do a thing like this?” she asked. “Who’d want to kill Jake?”

“I don’t know, Sally,” answered Joe, shaking his head. He put his arm around her.

Hearing the sound of rapid footsteps, Joe turned and looked down the street. He could see Sheriff Coffee hurrying toward him, with Hoss following the lawman. Joe waited.

“What happened?” Coffee asked Joe, clearly surprised to see the body on the ground. “Somebody came by the office and said Jake had called you out. I was coming over to break things up.”

“I didn’t shoot him, Roy,” Joe replied. “I just about had him talked out of doing anything. All of a sudden, there was a shot and Jake was dead.”

“You see who shot him?” asked Hoss as he stood a few feet away.

“No,” answered Joe with a shake of his head. “And nobody else seemed to, either. Somebody said they thought it came from the alley next to the saloon, but nobody was there.”

“Poor Jake,” said Sally in a choked voice. “He never meant any harm. He was a good guy.” She looked at Joe for confirmation. “He was, wasn’t he, Joe?”

“Yeah, Jake was all right,” Joe said in a soothing voice.

“Joe, I’m going to need a statement from you,” said Roy in a firm voice. “But I want to talk to these folks here first. Why don’t you go over to my office and wait for me.”

Glancing at the woman standing next to him, Joe said, “I’ll be there in a little while, Roy.” He turned and gently guided Sally away from the body.

A few buildings away, in the shadows of another alley, the man stood watching. He was breathing hard, both as a result of running from the alley near the saloon and from a rush emotion. He hadn’t meant to kill the drunken cowboy; his aim had been poor. He had only meant to wound the man, to protect the boy from harm. He kept telling himself that killing the cowboy had been an accident. But he was having a hard time ignoring the knot of excitement in his stomach and the feeling of power that raced through him. He had to admit it was a pretty heady feeling – the feeling that he had the power to decide whether someone lived or died.

*****

At the dinner table, Joe was twirling his fork in his mashed potatoes, his mind a thousand miles away from the conversation which was swirling around him.

“Joseph!” said Ben sharply. “Either eat your dinner or leave the table. Don’t sit there and play with your food.”

“What? Oh, yeah, sorry, Pa,” Joe replied, startled to hear his name. He quickly forked some potatoes into his mouth.

“Joe, I know you’re upset by what happened in town today,” continued Ben in a sympathetic voice. “But it wasn’t your fault.”

Looking across the table at his father, Joe replied, “Pa, I just keep thinking if I had handled things differently, Jake would still be alive.”

“And what could you have done differently?” asked Ben. “You didn’t draw your gun. You said you had him talked into going into the saloon with you. How were you to know someone else would shoot Jake down like that?”

“I don’t know, Pa,” answered Joe sadly. “I just have the feeling that somehow it’s my fault Jake’s dead.”

“Joe, you don’t know who shot him or why,” Hoss said from the other side of the table. “It was probably somebody who had a grudge against Jake, and just took advantage of the situation.”

“But who?” insisted Joe. “Jake didn’t have any enemies. He got drunk and acted a little crazy sometimes, but he never hurt anyone.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” commented Adam from the end of the table. “You just said Jake acted crazy when he was drunk. He could have done something by accident, or somebody could have thought he was threatening them. Not everyone might have known Jake was all talk and no action.”

“I suppose,” Joe said morosely. He pushed the pieces of meat around n his plate. “I just wish I knew who killed him.”

“Roy Coffee is investigating,” said Ben in a firm voice. “He’ll tell us if he finds out anything. In the meantime, you need to stop worrying about who shot Jake Fallon, and start thinking about all the work we have to do. You need a clear head if you’re going to start breaking those horses tomorrow.”

“Yes sir,” answered Joe, but his tone implied his response was more automatic than heartfelt. Joe pushed his food around on his plate once more. Then he dropped his fork. “I’m not very hungry,” said Joe, getting up from the table. “I think I’ll go on up to my room.” Without waiting for a comment from his father and brothers, Joe walked quickly away from the table.

Ben watched his son as Joe crossed the living room and headed up the stairs. Turning to Hoss, he asked, “Are you sure Roy doesn’t know who killed Fallon?”

“Pa, I was right there when the sheriff talked to all those people,” replied Hoss. “Nobody saw who fired the shot. They weren’t even sure where it came from.”

Shaking his head, Ben said, “Joe is taking this whole thing on himself. I wish he would understand that it wasn’t his fault.”

“It’s pretty disturbing to see a man killed right in front of you like that,” said Adam. “It’s only natural that he’s upset. But you know Joe. In a day or two, he’ll forget about it.”

“That’s right, Pa,” added Hoss. “Once he starts breaking those horses tomorrow, he’ll be too busy to worry about what happened.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Ben fervently.

*****

“Ride him, Joe!” Hoss shouted his encouragement from his perch on top of the corral fence. “Hang on to him!”

In the middle of the corral, Joe heard Hoss’ voice but was too busy to try to listen to the words. He was concentrating on keeping his seat atop a bay mare as the horse twisted and bucked, trying to dislodge him. The horse jumped and kicked, but Joe stayed on the animal as if glued to the saddle. Finally, after a few more seconds of bucking, the mare realized she wasn’t going to rid herself of the unwanted weight on her back, and that life would be much easier if she simply gave in to the rider. The mare gave one more buck and then slowly began trotting around the corral.

Thighs pressed against the horse’s side, Joe let the mare trot for a minute, then slowed the animal to a walk. After another minute, he halted the horse. Another horse and rider came along side. Joe tossed the reins to the rider, and slid off the mare. He watched as the rider started to lead the mare away, then turned. He wiped his sweaty hands on his pants as he began to walk toward the fence.

“Nice ride!” called Hoss from his seat on the fence.

“Thanks,” Joe acknowledged his brother’s praise with a short nod.

“Good job, Joe,” added another voice from behind the fence.

Looking to Hoss’ right, Joe saw his father leaning against the corral fence. Joe grinned at him. He hadn’t known his father was coming down to the corral. Joe was glad he had ridden the mare to a stop, glad that he could show off his expertise in breaking horses to his father. “Thanks, Pa,” Joe said. his grin widening as he came to the fence.

“How many horses have you broken?” asked Ben.

A thoughtful expression crossed Joe’s face as he mentally counted. “Let’s see,” he said. “Since we started day before yesterday, we’ve been breaking about five or six horses a day.” Joe frowned a bit as he thought. “We have 17 horses green-broke,” he said finally. “Another day and we ought to be able to start schooling them.”

“17!” exclaimed Ben. “That’s great, Joe. You’re doing a real fine job, son.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said, trying to sound modest but not succeeding. His voice reflected his pride in both his accomplishment and his father’s compliment.

The sound of shouts from the middle of the corral told all three men that another rider was trying his hand with a wild horse. Joe turned and watched for a minute as the rider tried to stay on the animal’s back. He winced a bit as he saw the horse buck and the rider slip to the ground. Quickly, another horseman rode forward and guided the bucking horse away from the cowboy on the ground. The cowboy scrambled to his feet, and started walking rapidly toward one of the fences on the opposite side of the corral. Joe smiled as he saw the man rubbing his backside as he walked.

Turning back to his father, Joe asked, “What are you doing down here, Pa?” He wasn’t alarmed to his see his father, only curious.

Leaning against the fence, Ben looked into the corral for a minute before answering. “Roy Coffee rode out to the house a little while ago. He wants you to come into town and see him tomorrow.”

“Yeah? What for?” asked Joe, again more curious than alarmed.

“He found someone who thinks they saw who fired that shot at Jake,” answered Ben. “He wants to talk to you about it, see if you know the man.”

“Who saw the shooting?” Joe asked with quickening interest.

Ben hesitated a minute before he answered. “Andy Wilson said he thought he saw someone in the alley next to the saloon with a gun just before the shot was fired.”

“Andy Wilson!” exclaimed Hoss. “That poor old guy is about half-blind. He wouldn’t recognize his brother if he was standing right next to him.”

“I know,” said Ben with a sigh. “But so far, he’s the only one Roy’s found who even thinks he saw something. Apparently, everyone was so intent on watching Joe and Jake that no one noticed anything else.”

“Did Andy recognize the person in the alley?” asked Joe.

“No,” answered Ben with a shake of his head. “And he could only give Roy a pretty vague description. But Roy wants to ask you about it anyway. He’s hoping that you might recognize the man Andy told him about. Roy’s not too optimistic but he has to try.”

“I’ll ride in tomorrow morning,” said Joe. “We should finish up with breaking these horses today, and the hands don’t need me around to start schooling them.” Joe gave his father a small smile. “You going to stick around and watch for awhile?”

“I thought I might,” Ben said mildly, but his smile matched his son’s.

“Good,” replied Joe. “I’m up again right after Charlie.”

In a small cluster of trees on a nearby hill, the man sat with a pair of binoculars in his hand. He was a good distance away from the corral, father than he would have liked. But he couldn’t get any closer without being seen. The ground around corral was flat and without cover. It had taken the man awhile to find a spot where he could even see the corral and the men working with the horses. He easily picked out the boy among the distant figures. He recognized the clothes – the brown shirt, tan pants, and light colored hat — but even more, he knew how the boy walked, how he acted. He didn’t need the glasses in his hand to find the boy; he could have picked him out in a crowd from even further away. He used the binoculars only when he saw the boy mounting one of the horses in the middle of the corral, so that he could have a clear view of the boy’s ride.

Clutching the binoculars tightly, the man watched as the boy talked with his father and brother by the fence. He recognized the other men also, and he felt angry at them. How could they let the boy put himself at risk by riding those wild horses, he wondered. He knew the boy was good at riding the bucking animals; he had been watching most of the last three days. But nevertheless, the man felt the boy shouldn’t be allowed to do it. Riding those horses was much too dangerous, and the boy’s family should have realized that. He was angry that the men who should have been watching out for the boy seemed to care so little about what happened to him.

Shaking his head, the man told himself that it was just another reason why he was needed. If nothing else, this callous disregard for the boy’s safety reinforced the reason why the plan he had formed made sense. At least, it made sense to him. He would have been surprised that others might have found his plan and the logic behind it a bit twisted.

Down in the corral, Joe had moved to the other side, in anticipation of riding another horse. He sat on top of the fence near the small pen where three or four horses were waiting. He whistled and shouted encouragement as one of the hands rode a horse to a trot, almost the same way he had done earlier. Joe jumped down from the fence as the man finished his ride and slid from the horses back.

“Good ride, Charlie,” said Joe to a rangy cowboy with a face burned brown from sun and wind.

“Thanks, Joe,” replied Charlie as he walked toward Joe. A horse snorted and whinnied, and both Joe and Charlie looked to where a rider was leading a black horse to the center of the corral. “You gonna try that black?” asked Charlie.

“I thought I would,” said Joe. “Why?”

“Watch out for him,” said Charlie. “He pretty tricky. He tossed Sam yesterday and me this morning.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Joe. “But I think I have him figured out.” Joe grinned. “That’s why I let you boys ride him first. So I’d have a chance to see what not to do.”

“You’re all heart, Joe,” said Charlie with an answering grin.

Joe walked to the center of the corral where two riders had the black horse pinned between them, each man holding a piece of the leather bridle the circled the animal’s head. The horse pawed the ground nervously. Twice before he had been in this position, and he knew what was coming. The horse didn’t like the idea of yet another man trying to ride him.

Moving cautiously, Joe climbed up behind one of the riders, then eased himself into the saddle on the black. The horse took a small step to the right as he felt the weight on his back, but the horses on either side of him prevented the black from moving further. Joe carefully set his feet in the stirrups of the saddle and gathered up the reins. He pushed himself down, making sure his seat was firmly in the saddle, and tightened his thighs. His knees gripped the side of the black horse tightly. Joe reached up pulled his hat down on his head. Then with a quick nod, he said, “Let him go.”

The riders on either side of the black horse released their grip on bridle and quickly rode off. For a moment, the black stood still, not realizing at first that he was free. But as soon as the animal realized the confining riders were gone, he started bucking.

Anticipating the horse’s move, Joe leaned forward and rode out the buck. The black took a few steps forward then kicked out his back legs, hoping to dislodge the rider. But Joe had anticipated this move also, and stayed in the saddle. Unsuccessful with his first few moves, the horse tried something else, kicking and twisting his back legs to the right. But once more, Joe was ready for the horse and he stayed on the animal’s back.

For the next few minutes, a battle of wills was fought. The black horse kicked, twisted and bucked, trying everything he could to throw the rider from him. Joe answered every move with one of his own, shifting his weight to maintain his balance, and moving his legs to keep their grip on the horse’s side. Neither the horse nor the rider was willing to concede to the other.

The encouraging shouts from the men around the fence grew louder as they recognized the fierce battle that was evolving between the horse and the rider. Joe heard none of the shouts; his concentration centered on trying to anticipate the horse’s next move. He knew it was only a question of which one of them tired of the fight first, and Joe was determined that he wouldn’t be the one to give in.

At last, the black horse seemed to realize he wasn’t going to rid himself of the rider. He stopped bucking and circled the corral a few times at a run, trying for a last bit of freedom. Joe let him run for a bit, then gradually slowed the animal. Finally, Joe brought him to a halt in the middle of the corral.

Sitting on top of the horse, Joe could feel the animal breathing hard. He relaxed his grip on the horse’s sides, and sat back in the saddle, confident that he had won the battle.

Suddenly, without warning, the horse kicked up its rear legs and bucked once more.

Unprepared for the move, Joe bounced in the saddle. His feet slid out of the stirrups as he was thrust forward. The horse kicked out again and Joe fell out of the saddle. He landed on the ground on his left side, hitting the hard dirt with a loud thud.

“Joe!” Ben shouted in alarm as he saw his son lay unmoving on the ground. He scrambled over the fence and rushed forward, racing past Hoss who had also jumped from the fence. Ben had seen his son thrown by horses before, but Joe had been ready for the fall and knew how to land. Ben had seen Joe relax in the saddle just as the horse began to buck again. He knew Joe hadn’t been ready this time.

The two out-riders were forcing the black horse to the other end of the corral as Ben reached the spot where Joe laid. He could hear footsteps and from the corner of his eye, saw the other men running toward the same spot. Ben knelt, and gently turned Joe on his back.

Mouth wide open, Joe gasped for air. He had the awful feeling that he couldn’t breathe, that he couldn’t get any air into his lungs. His eyes were closed as he thought of nothing but sucking in as much oxygen as possible. Joe felt a large arm reach under his shoulders and push him up, not quite to a sitting position but enough to allow him to inhale air more easily. Grateful, Joe leaned against the large shoulder and chest at his back. His breathing changed from desperate gasps to deep, rapid intakes of air. As Joe continued to breathe deeply, he felt a hand brushing gently against his side, then fingers probing his shoulder. The hand moved slowly down his left arm. He heard a familiar voice say, “I don’t think anything’s broken.” The hand began to brush the dirt carefully from his cheek. Joe opened his eyes and looked into his father’s face.

“Are you all right?” Ben asked anxiously as he peered into Joe’s eyes.

“Yeah,” answered Joe between breaths. “I just…got the wind…knocked out of me.”

“Here, take a drink,” said Hoss as he continued to support his brother’s back. Hoss put a canteen that someone had handed him to Joe’s lips. Joe took a few sips of water, then nodded his thanks.

“Do you think you can walk?” Ben asked with concern.

“Yeah, just help me up,” replied Joe.

Two pairs of hands pushed gently against Joe’s back as they simultaneously pulled on Joe’s arms. As Joe stood, he was surprised at how shaky he felt. His knees buckled a bit, but the hands around his arms kept their grip and held him up.

“Let’s get him over by the fence and sit him down,” said Ben. He gave Joe a small push on the back. Joe took a step forward on rubbery legs, but he managed to walk.

The hands who had been crowded around took a step back to give the Cartwrights some room. As Ben and Hoss helped Joe across the corral, Charlie said, “Told you that black was tricky.” Joe gave him a shaky grin.

It seemed to Joe that the walk to the fence was a long one. His legs felt weak, as if they wouldn’t support him. He knew that only the firm hands of his father and brother kept him from falling to the ground. When the trio finally reached the fence, Ben and Hoss turned Joe so he could lean against the post. Joe sank to the ground and closed his eyes. He leaned his back against the post and tried to stop his body from shaking.

Up on the hill, the man also was shaking, but his tremors were caused by rage and fear. He had jumped to his feet when he saw the boy fall, and it had taken every ounce of will power he had to stop himself from running down the hill to join the men who crowded around the boy. He had put the binoculars to his eyes, desperately trying to see through the gaps between the men. His sigh of relief when the boy got to his feet was audible.

Once he knew the boy was all right, the man’s anger took over him. He knew the boy would be hurt riding those wild horses. It was a miracle he wasn’t killed. If he could see that, why didn’t his father and brothers see it.

Why didn’t they stop him from doing something that obviously so dangerous. The man was angry, both at the boy for doing something so foolish, and at the men who let him do it.

As he watched the boy being helped to the fence, the man decided he could wait no longer. The men below obviously had no idea how to take care of the boy. He couldn’t trust them to watch over him, to protect him.

Mentally, the man went over the preparations he had made and he was satisfied. He was ready and the time had come. As soon as he got the chance, he would put his plan into action.

*****

At breakfast the next morning, Joe eased himself gingerly into the chair. He knew he was late coming down – Ben, Adam and Hoss had already finished eating and were sipping their last cup of coffee – but Joe also knew this was one of the few times his father wouldn’t complain about his being late for breakfast. In fact, Ben had encouraged Joe to sleep in when Joe had headed for bed last night, an action that occurred almost immediately after dinner.

“Good morning,” said Joe with a nod. He reached for the coffee pot and winced as his sore shoulder protested the action.

Seeing Joe’s wince, Ben asked with concern, “How are you feeling this morning?”

“A little stiff,” admitted Joe as he poured himself some coffee. “But I’ll be all right.”

“I saw that nice set of bruises you have when I helped you off with your shirt last night,” commented Hoss. “I expect they’re a pretty color of purple about now.”

“Purple and a few other colors,” said Joe with a wry smile.

“You know, Joe, it works a lot better if you actually stay on the horse when you’re trying to break him,” said Adam, his tone serious but his eyes twinkling with humor.

“Ha, ha, very funny,” answered Joe as he filled his plate. “Somebody’s got to break those horses. I didn’t see you out there, older brother.”

“That’s because I’m the smart brother,” said Adam with a smile. “I leave breaking horses to the younger, not quite as smart brothers.”

“Adam has gathered his own collection of bruises over the years,” commented Ben. He took another sip of coffee. “Are you still planning to go into town and see Roy Coffee today, Joe?”

“Might as well,” said Joe with a shrug as he began to eat. “I’m in no shape to break horses today. The boys can finish those last few horses.” Joe grinned. “I hope Charlie gets that black one.” Joe reached for his coffee cup and winced a bit as he did so.

“Are you sure you feel up to riding to town?” asked Ben with a frown.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe assured his father. “Just a little stiff and sore. Besides, Cochise has a gait like a rocking horse. Riding him into town is probably the easiest thing I could do today.”

“Why is Joe going to see Sheriff Coffee?” asked Adam curiously.

“Andy Wilson thinks he might have seen who shot Jake Fallon,” answered Ben. “Roy wants to talk to Joe about it, see if he might recognize the man.” Ben shook his head. “Roy’s not too optimistic, though. I gather Andy’s description of the man is pretty vague.”

“Does Roy have any idea why Jake was shot?” Adam asked. “If he can figure out the why, it might be easier to figure out the who.”

“Roy thought of that,” Ben said. “But so far, he can’t come up with a motive. He told me he’s talked to all the hands at the Flying M and just about everyone in town. Nobody seemed to have a reason to want Jake dead.”

“I still can’t shake the feeling that somehow I was the reason,” said Joe with a frown. “If I hadn’t let him call me out like that…”

“Joe, we’ve been over and over this,” interrupted Ben. “Everyone saw the way you had talked Jake down. The shooting had nothing to do with you.”

Forking the last of the eggs from his plate into his mouth, Joe didn’t answer. He knew what his Pa said made sense. But he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that his showdown with the drunken cowboy had caused Jake to be shot, especially when there didn’t seem to be any other reason.

Wiping his mouth with his napkin, Joe pushed back from the table and stood. “Well, I’m going out and saddle Cochise,” he announced. “Might as well get this over with.”

“Need some help, little brother?” Hoss asked as he stood up also.

Flexing his bruised shoulder a bit, Joe nodded. “Thanks. I think I could use some help.” Joe took a few steps from the table, moving stiffly as he walked.

“While you’re in town, stop by and have Doctor Martin look at that shoulder, just in case,” called Ben.

“Aw, Pa…” Joe started to protest.

“It won’t hurt to have him take a look at it,” interrupted Ben in a firm voice. Then he smiled and said in a gentler voice, “It will only take a few minutes and I’d feel better if the doctor checked it.”

“All right,” said Joe in an exasperated voice. “If he’s in his office, I’ll let him take a look.” Secretly, he hoped the doctor might be out on a call.

“Thank you,” said Ben, satisfied with Joe’s compromise.

“I should be home by noon,” said Joe with a nod, and he headed for the front door.

*****

Half an hour later, Joe rode slowly on the road to Virginia City, his head filled with thoughts of his upcoming conversation with Roy Coffee. For about the hundredth time, Joe went over the confrontation with Jake in his mind, trying to remember something new. It wasn’t the words he had with Jake that he tried to recall as much as the people who had been around him. Joe tried to remember if he had seen anyone who seemed out of place, or had done something odd. Sighing, Joe shook his head. His attention had been fixed on Jake, and everyone else in that street day were merely blurred images in his mind.

As he thought about the shooting, Joe also remember how upset Sally had been. She really liked the guy, thought Joe, more than anyone realized. He wondered what her reaction would have been if he had been the one laying face down in the street that day. Joe resolved to see Sally while he was in town, to offer her whatever comfort he could. Grinning wryly, Joe admitted to himself that the visit also would give him an excuse to have a beer or two. Not that he really needed an excuse, but somehow visiting Sally would make his trip to the Bucket of Blood in the middle of the day seem justified.

Distracted by thoughts of what he planned to do in Virginia City, Joe paid little attention to the landscape around him as he rode. He had made the trek to Virginia City thousands of times, as had Cochise. The horse needed little direction to follow the road, and the familiar scenery held little interest for Joe.

Far behind Joe, the man followed the boy slowly. He wanted only to be sure the boy was heading for Virginia City. Now he pulled his horse to a stop on the road and watched as the boy disappeared around a small curve. He was convinced the boy was headed for town, and he didn’t need to follow him further. He tugged on the reins of his horse and started the animal off the road, heading across a small field. The man had broken his camp early this morning, erasing all traces of it in the woods near the ranch house. He had been sure that today was going to be the day he would get a chance put his plan into action. He was pleased with himself for being right.

He was a bit surprised to see the boy heading for town, but it didn’t really matter. Being in Virginia City made things both easier and more dangerous, but he could do what he needed to do in the town. He took one last look over his shoulder toward the road and saw the boy in the distance, a barely visible figure continuing toward Virginia City.

Nodding with satisfaction, the man turned and kicked his horse into a faster gait. The waiting and watching were over. It was time to begin his work.

*****

Pushing open the door to the sheriff’s office, Joe called a hearty “Hi, Roy” as he walked in.

Seated behind a desk strewn with papers, Sheriff Coffee looked up from the wanted poster he was reading and gave Joe an answering smile. “Morning, Little Joe,” said Roy in a voice filled with both greeting and affection.

Sighing to himself, Joe walked across the room. He had long ago given up trying to get Roy not to use the nickname with which he had been tagged as a little boy. Roy Coffee had been the sheriff of Virginia City for as long as Joe could remember, and he supposed he would always be “Little Joe” to the lawman.

Lowering himself slowly into the chair in front of Roy’s desk, Joe said, “Pa said you wanted to talk with me about Jake Fallon’s shooting.”

Roy nodded as he sat back in his chair. “That’s right,” he answered. “I appreciate your coming into town. I would have talked with you yesterday when I was out at the Ponderosa, but your Pa said you busy breaking horses. I don’t think much is going to come of this, so I didn’t want to bother you when you were busy.”

“I kind of wish you would have,” said Joe with a rueful smile. He winced a bit as he shifted his weight in the chair.

“Got thrown, did you?” asked Roy with a grin.

“Yeah,” said Joe with an answering grin. “I’ve got enough bruises to make me wish I had a nice soft job like yours.” Joe’s face grew sober as he added, “Pa said Andy Wilson saw the man who shot Jake.”

“He thinks he might have,” amended Roy. “Andy said he heard the ruckus in front of the saloon, and was heading down that way to see what was going on. When he passed the alley next to the saloon, Andy saw a man standing there in the alley, just watching. He thought it was kind of strange that someone would stay in the alley like that when everyone else was rushing toward the street.”

“Did Andy get a good look at the man?” asked Joe.

“No,” replied Roy, shaking his head. “Andy’s eyesight isn’t too good, and the man was standing in the shadows. That’s why I don’t think it’s going to be much help, but I have to check it out.”

“Well, what did this man in the alley look like?” Joe asked curiously.

“According to Andy, he was a big man, not fat but tall with broad shoulders,” said Roy as he picked up a piece of paper from his desk. He read for a minute, then added, “Andy thinks he might have been an older fellow. He said he remembered the man had a white beard. He was wearing a white shirt and dark pants. According to Andy, he didn’t look like a cowhand but he didn’t strike Andy as someone who worked behind a desk either.” Roy put down the paper, and looked across the desk at Joe. “Sound like anyone you know?” he asked hopefully.

Joe’s first instinct was to say no. Roy’s description didn’t bring anyone to mind. But then Joe hesitated. Something Roy had said has triggered something in the back of his mind. He frowned as he tried to get a seed of memory to blossom into a full-blown thought.

Sitting back in his chair again, Roy waited patiently. He had been a lawman long enough to know that sometimes it paid simply to be quiet.

He could see Joe was thinking hard, and he had no intention of interrupting or trying to rush the young man who sat on the other side of the desk. He also felt a glimmer of hope that Andy’s information might not be quite as useless as he had thought.

“I don’t know him,” said Joe slowly as he began to recall a conversation. “But Sally over at the Bucket of Blood told me about a man who might be the same guy.”

“Who did she say he was?” asked Roy sharply.

Shaking his head, Joe answered, “Sally didn’t know his name. She said he came by a week or so ago to talk with her.” Joe gave Roy a small smile. “According to Sally, he was warning her to stay away from me. Said I wasn’t the right kind of man for her.” Joe frowned a bit as he tried to remember what Sally had said about the man. “She described him the same way – about 50, white hair and beard, a big man. She also said she didn’t think he was a cowboy or a banker. She couldn’t quite figure out what he was.”

“Well, that doesn’t help us much,” said Roy almost sadly.

“Don’t you see, Roy,” said Joe, his voice rising with excitement. “That could be the reason for the killing. If the man warned Sally to stay away from me, he could have done the same with Jake. Only Jake didn’t listen to him.”

“I talked with Sally after the shooting,” Roy said doubtfully. “She said she didn’t know any reason why anyone would want to shoot Jake.”

But Joe wasn’t about to be dismissed. He was beginning to think he might have found a motive for a seemingly senseless killing, and he was relieved that motive didn’t have anything to do with him. “Sally might not have known about it,” insisted Joe. “If he and Jake had words, it might not have been around Sally.”

“But Sally said she didn’t know the man,” said Roy pointedly. “If he and Jake were fighting over her, wouldn’t she have known him?”

“Not necessarily,” answered Joe. “There are a lot of guys who wait until they think they have a clear field before approaching a girl. Maybe this guy was trying to run off the competition before he made his move. Only Jake wouldn’t run.”

“I don’t know, Joe,” said Roy, shaking his head. “It’s a stretch thinking this guy killed Jake just to get close to a saloon girl. He could have been with her anytime that Jake wasn’t around. It’s not like Sally is hard to find.”

Biting his lip, Joe had to agree with the sheriff. “That’s true, but what other motive could there be?” he asked.

“I was kind of hoping you might know this fellow,” said Roy, watching Joe carefully. “He might have been aiming for you and missed, or maybe he thought he was doing you a good turn.”

Slumping in his chair, Joe nodded. “Yeah, I thought of that,” he said in a glum voice. “I hate to think I was the reason Jake Fallon died.” Joe shook his head. “I don’t know the guy.”

Roy could see the thought that Joe might have been the cause of Jake’s dying upset the young man. “We don’t know you were the reason,” the sheriff said quickly. “It might not have anything to do with you. It was just a thought.”

“What other reason could there be?” asked Joe, his voice reflecting his distress.

“I don’t know,” said Roy. “But I’ll find the man who did it, and I’ll find out why he did it. It may take awhile, but I’ll find him.”

“Yeah, sure you will, Roy,” said Joe. His voice clearly showed he didn’t believe the sheriff. Joe looked down and stared at the floor.

Seeing Joe’s distress, Roy tried to think of some comforting word, but all the phrases he thought of seemed trite or insincere. Finally, he said frankly, “I wish I could tell you something for sure one way or the other, Joe. But I just don’t have the answers yet.”

Looking up, Joe nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “Thanks anyway.” Joe stood, moving slowly and wincing as he got up. “I think I’ll go over and talk to Sally. Maybe she remembered something that might help.”

“Go ahead if you’re a mind to,” said Roy. “But I’ll be talking with her later.” The sheriff cocked his head a bit. “You seem pretty sore. Maybe you ought to have the doc check you over.”

“You sound just like Pa,” complained Joe with a brief smile. “He made me promise to see the doctor while I was in town.” Joe gave a brief sigh. “Seems like every time I turn around, somebody is telling me what to do.”

“That’s because you got lots of people who care about you, Little Joe, “ stated Roy. “We’re just watching out for you.”

“Sometimes, I think I have too many people watching out for me,” replied Joe a bit grimly. He started toward the door. “Let me know if you find out anything.”

“I will,” agreed Roy with a nod. He watched as Joe walked out of the office, then shook his head sadly. He wished he had been able to say something to ease Joe’s feelings that he had been responsible for Jake’s death. Picking up a piece of paper, Roy resolved to find out for sure who had fired that fatal shot.

*****

Outside the sheriff’s office, Joe stopped in front of the hitching post where his pinto was tied. He decided to lead the horse down to the Bucket of Blood, which was on the other side of town, so he could leave right from the saloon. His promise to see the doctor pricked at his conscience. He decided he should talk with Sally first. Besides, he thought ruefully, a beer or two would might not only ease the pain in his should but also make being poked and prodded by the doctor more palatable.

Leading his horse, Joe walked slowly down the street. This time of day – late morning – only a few people were on the street. Most people were working or at home. Joe didn’t pay much attention to the people he passed as he walked toward the saloon.

When he reached the Bucket of Blood, Joe looped the reins of his bridle around the hitching post in front of the saloon, and gave his horse a brief, reassuring pat. Then he went into the saloon.

The Bucket of Blood was almost as empty as the street. Two men in suits sat at a far table, papers spread between them. The bartender stood behind an empty wooden bar, polishing glasses. Joe saw Sally sitting at a table in the back, talking with another girl. Joe walked over to the table.

“Hi Sally,” Joe greeted the woman. “Can I talk with you for a minute?”

“Sure, Joe,” answered Sally, obviously surprised to see the young man.

Cocking his head a bit, Joe said, “Why don’t we go over to that table in the middle.” Sally nodded and got up. She looked at Joe curiously as she moved to the table Joe had indicated.

“Two beers, Bruno,” Joe called to the bartender as he followed Sally.

Seating herself at the table, Sally waited until Joe had joined her and the beers had been placed in front of them. Then she asked, “What’s up, Joe?”

Taking a sip of his beer, Joe replied, “I just wanted to see how you were doing. I know you were pretty upset about what happened to Jake. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

Smiling, Sally reached across the table and put her hand on Joe’s arm. “You’re a nice guy, Joe. Thanks for thinking about me.” Sitting back, Sally took a sip of her own beer. “I’m doing all right,” she said.

“I’m really sorry about what happened, Sally,” said Joe in an earnest voice.

“I know you are,” replied Sally. She sighed. “I’m sorry about it, too. I liked Jake a lot. I know he could get loud and drunk sometimes, but whenever he was around me he was always real nice and polite. He treated me like a real lady.”

“You are a real lady,” said Joe gallantly.

“Thank, Joe,” Sally smiled at him. “You’re one of the nice guys, too.” Sally shook her head. “I still can’t figure who would have wanted to shoot Jake like that.”

Rotating the beer glass slowly on the table, Joe looked down. “I was just over talking to Roy Coffee,” he said slowly. “He told me Andy Wilson might have seen the shooter. The description Andy gave Roy sounded a lot like the fellow you told me about, the one who told you to stay away from you?”

“Yeah?” said Sally in a surprised voice. She took a sip of beer. “That’s kind of a funny coincidence, isn’t it.”

“Maybe it’s not a coincidence,” suggested Joe. “Maybe the guy shot Jake because he was interested in you.”

Sally frowned, considering what Joe had said. Then she shook her head. “I don’t think so, Joe. Jake and I weren’t serious about each other, at least I wasn’t. I just liked being around him. But it’s not like I didn’t talk with other men.” She looked at Joe seriously. “That’s my job, Joe. I’ll talk with anyone who will buy me a drink.”

“But Jake was warning people to stay away from you,” pressed Joe. “Maybe somebody took his warnings seriously. After all, that fellow you told me about told you to stay away from me.”

“Two guys fighting over me?” said Sally with a wry smile. “I hardly think so. Besides that guy who talked to me about you seemed more interested in you than me. It was more like I wasn’t the right girl for you than the other way around.”

Joe slumped a bit in his chair. “Well, it was just a thought,” he said, his voice sounding discouraged.

Staring at Joe, Sally frowned. “Look, Joe, you don’t think that you were the reason Jake got killed, do you?”

“There doesn’t seem to be any other reason,” admitted Joe glumly.

“That shooting wasn’t your fault, Joe,” Sally insisted. “I heard you trying to talk Jake out of drawing. You didn’t do or say anything that would have caused someone to shoot Jake.”

“Maybe,” said Joe. He took a big drink from his beer glass. “I just can’t help thinking that someone shot Jake because of me.”

“That’s silly,” Sally said. “Everyone knows you’re the fastest draw and the best shot in the territory. If you had wanted to, you could have taken Jake on and put a bullet in him yourself. But you didn’t.” Sally shook her head. “No, it had to be some other reason, Joe.”

“I wish I could be sure,” said Joe, sadly.

“I’m sure,” state Sally positively. She saw the glum expression on Joe’s face. “Hey, listen, Joe,” she said brightly. “Let me tell you this funny story I heard the other day.”

For the next half hour, Sally joke and kidded with Joe, trying to lift his spirits. Joe smiled back at her and made an attempt to return the kidding, but it was a half-hearted attempt at best. Finally, Joe pushed back from the table. “I’ve got to get going,” he said. “I promised Pa I’d stop by and see the doc before I went home, and I’ve got to be back by noon.”

“See the doctor?” said Sally with alarm. “Why?”

“Nothing serious,” Joe assured the woman with a smile. “I just got thrown hard yesterday, and Pa wants to be sure the bruises I got are just bruises.”

“Oh, well,” said Sally obviously relieved. “You’d better get down there, then.” She gave Joe a wicked grin. “I want you in top shape next time you come to see me.”

“Sally, I’m always in top shape,” Joe replied with a matching grin. He tipped his hat a bit and walked toward the door.

Joe left the saloon and walked to the sidewalk – and froze. The hitching post in front of the saloon was empty. Joe’s head swiveled from side to side as his eyes searched the street for his beloved horse, Cochise. He let out a sigh of relief as he saw the pinto tied in an alley a few buildings away. Joe walked toward the horse with deliberate steps, feeling angry at whoever played such a stupid trick on him.

When Joe reached the alley, he saw the reins of his horse were tied to the back wheel of a wagon parked in the narrow passageway. There was barely enough room on either side of the wagon for a man to walk.

Walking into the alley, Joe patted his pinto on the neck. “So who’s the jokester?” he asked the horse, almost as if he expected the animal to answer. Joe took another step, reaching toward the reins.

Suddenly, a strong arm wrapped itself around Joe’s chest and pulled him back. Almost at once, another arm pushed a cloth over Joe’s nose and mouth. Joe felt himself pulled against another body and he began to struggle to free himself. But the struggle was a brief one. His sore shoulder and ribs prevented Joe from jabbing his elbow into the body behind him, as he normally would have done to free himself. In his surprise, Joe also inhaled deeply, his mouth and nose taking in a sickening sweet odor. Almost instantly, Joe’s head began to spin and he felt like he was in a fog. It only took another second or two before his whole body sagged and Joe was unconscious.

The man held the boy firmly, his right arm supporting the boy’s body and his left hand clasping the cloth to the boy’s face. He let the boy inhale the ether for another minute or so. He knew that the more the boy inhaled, the longer he would sleep. And the man wanted him to sleep for a long time.

Finally, the man removed his left hand from the boy’s face, dropping the cloth to the ground. He dragged the boy a foot or so to the wagon. In the dim light of the alley, Joe had noticed the mattress and pillow in the back of the wagon. Now the man heaved Joe onto the mattress, and quickly climbed into the wagon. The man pulled Joe further into the wagon, making sure he was laying in the middle of the thick mattress. He took Joe’s hat off and laid it carefully aside, then eased the pillow under Joe’s head.

Reaching down, the man unbuckled the gunbelt from around Joe’s hips and pulled the belt out from under him. The man scrambled out of the wagon, knowing he had to move quickly. Throwing the gunbelt over the saddle of the pinto, the man moved to the end of the alley. He grabbed a roll of canvass from the ground, and began to tie the canvass onto the wagon.

Following a routine that he had practice several times, the man had the canvass tied tightly over the back of the wagon in just a few minutes. He checked to be sure that there was a gap between the heavy cloth and the front of the wagon, allowing air to reach the sleeping figure that was now hidden from view. The gap was small; only the closest inspection would have enabled someone to see the tufts of dark hair peeking out from under the canvass.

Inspecting his work, the man gave a satisfied nod. He walked to the end of the alley and to the pinto that was watching him with wide eyes. The man took the gunbelt from across the saddle and rolled it into a tight ball. He stuck the gunbelt onto the horn of the saddle, then reached down to untie the reins from the wagon wheel.

The pinto took a step back and snorted nervously as the man pulled on the reins to lead him away from the wagon. The horse didn’t like the smell of the man, and liked even less the idea of a stranger pulling on his reins. The man reached up and patted the animal’s neck, a soothing gesture that the horse had felt many times from his rider. But the gesture was different this time, and did nothing to calm the animal’s alarm. The man tugged on the reins again, firmly telling the horse to follow him, and the bit in the pinto’s mouth pressed against the horse’s jaw. The pinto started to walk reluctantly. But as he left the alley, Cochise turned his head to look back at the wagon. His eyes seemed sad, almost as if he was going to cry at the thought of leaving his rider behind.

Stopping in the street, the man looked cautiously around him. His luck was holding. The street was deserted. If he had had to, the man would have left the horse tied to the nearest hitching post. But now he could move the horse to where it would be out of sight for awhile.

Walking quickly, the man led the pinto down the street, keeping his head down so anyone looking would have a hard time seeing his face. He had to walk only a short distance to the stable on the edge of town, and as far as he could tell, he passed no one along the way.

Outside the stable, the man stopped. This was going to be tricky, he thought. He doubted if his luck would continue, and no one would be in the stable. He had his story ready, just in case. But so far, things had gone just as he had planned. As he pulled open the stable door, he mentally crossed his fingers.

In the dim stable, the man at first thought his luck was running true. No one seemed to be around. He could simply leave the pinto in one of the stalls. But then he heard a sound at the back of the barn, and saw a man with a pitchfork walking out of the shadows.

“Can I help you, mister?” asked a tall, thin man wearing a battered hat and clothes that had been washed too many times. The man with the pitchfork suddenly frowned. “Hey, what are you doing with Joe Cartwright’s horse?”

“Is that the boy’s name?” said the man with exaggerated surprise. “He didn’t mention it.” He peered at the man with the pitchfork. “Are you the owner.”

“No, I just work here. Name’s Abel Turner,” replied the tall, thin man.

“Nice to meet you, Abel.” the man said. “Look, I need a favor. This young fellow came up to me on the street. He asked me to take this horse out to a place called the Ponderosa for him. I said I would, only now I find I have to leave town right away. I’m hauling some freight to Oregon, and I have to leave now if I’m going to catch up with some other freighters heading that way.” The man shook his head. “Oregon’s a long way to go by yourself and I don’t want to miss the freight train. So I was wondering if you might take the horse out to this Ponderosa for me.”

“Why would Joe ask you to do that?” said Abel suspiciously. “How’s he going to get home without a horse?”

“I don’t know,” replied the man with a shrug. “I didn’t ask him.” The man reached into his pants pocked and pulled out an envelope. “The boy did give me this letter. He told me to give it to his family, that it would explain everything.” The man had planned to leave the letter tucked under the saddle, but delivering it would accomplish the same purpose. Now he looked at Abel with an earnest expression. “Will you do it?”

Scratching the back of his head, Abel said, “I don’t know. Seems kind of funny if you ask me.”

“The boy also gave me this for delivering the horse,” said the man quickly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty dollar gold piece. “Since I’m not going to deliver the horse, I figure the man who does should get this.”

Abel’s eyes widened as he looked at the gold piece. Twenty dollars was almost as much as he earned in a month. “Well, I guess it’s all right,” said Abel slowly, his eyes never leaving the coin in the man’s hand. “Only I won’t be able to take the horse out to the Ponderosa for a couple of hours. I’ve got to wait until Mr. Harris, the owner, gets back.” Abel didn’t add that he would have to wait for an opportunity to leave when the stable owner wouldn’t notice. Abel considered himself an honest man, and if he took the gold coin, he would do what he promised. He just didn’t see any reason to tell anyone else about his little chore – or the money.

“That’s fine,” said the man, trying to hide the gleeful smile on his face. Several hours would suit his purposes. “The boy didn’t seem to be in any rush to get the horse out there. Just wanted to make sure it got done.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Abel with a nod. He reached forward and took the letter and the coin from the man’s hand. He tucked both into his shirt pocket. “You can count on me.”

“I’m sure I can,” agreed the man solemnly. He handed the reins of the pinto to Abel. “Take good care of the horse.”

“Don’t worry, “ said Abel with a grin. “I know how particular Joe Cartwright is about this animal. I’ll make sure he’s treated right. Joe’ll skin me alive if I don’t.”

“I’ve got to get going,” said the man. “Thanks for the help.” He turned and walked quickly out of the stable.

Outside the barn, the man stopped and took a deep breath. He knew his plan had escaped detection. Fortunately, the stableman didn’t think to ask about the holster rolled up on the saddle, or to question where the boy had gone. The twenty dollar gold piece probably had a lot to do with that. Asking questions might have caused the coin to disappear.

Straightening his shoulders, the man started walking quickly down the street. Now was no time to linger, not with success within his grasp. The man hurried back to the alley and quickly ducked into it.

The wagon sat covered, just as the man had left it. He walked to the front of the wagon, and picked up the edge of the canvass. He looked under the cloth, making sure the boy was still sleeping soundly. As far as he could tell, the boy hadn’t moved.

Dropping the canvass, the man walked forward to the horses that were hitched to the wagon. He grabbed the harness and began pulling on it, clucking with his tongue as he did so. The horses took a step back, pushing the wagon with their broad rumps as they did so. The man continued to pull at the harness, forcing the horses to ease the wagon out of the alley.

As soon as the wagon and horses were out of the alley, the man stopped the animals. He climbed up on the driver’s seat and untied the reins that had been looped around the edge of the seat. Settling into the seat, the man looked over his shoulder, peering into the small gap between the canvass and the front of the wagon. Satisfied that there was no movement under the canvass, he turned forward. Snapping the reins, the man started the horses walking down the street. No one paid any attention to the wagon as it headed out of Virginia City.

*****

Hearing the sound of horses, Ben slammed the pencil in his hand down on his desk. He had spent the last few hours working on the books but also listening for someone to ride up to the house. As he pushed back from the desk and stood, Ben couldn’t decide if anger or worry was the paramount emotion he was feeling. He decided it really didn’t matter. He was going to give his youngest son a piece of his mind for causing both feelings.

Ben reached the front door just as it opened. He stopped, surprised to see Adam and Hoss walk in. “Have either of you seen Joe?” he asked without preamble.

“No, why?” replied Adam as he walked into the house.

“He said he’d be back from Virginia City by noon,” replied Ben, “and it’s almost three o’clock. He should have been back hours ago.”

“And that surprises you?” said Adam, arching his eyebrows.

“Pa, if you had a nickel for every time Joe was late coming back from Virginia City, you’d be a rich man,” added Hoss.

“I am a rich man, and an angry one,” snorted Ben. “It’s about time that younger brother of yours learned some responsibility. He should be home when he says he will be.”

“Why the worry?” Adam asked curiously. “Joe will show up soon. He always does.”

Turning away, Ben put his hands in his pants pockets. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve just had this feeling…” Ben stopped and shook his head. “Maybe I’m just worried that Doctor Martin found something seriously wrong with Joe.”

“If he had, he would have sent word,” said Hoss.

“I know,” Ben agreed. He shook his head again. “I just can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. Joe should have been home a long time ago. It bothers me that he’s not here.”

“You want us to go look for him?” asked Adam.

Before Ben could answer, a voice shouted from the yard outside. “Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!”

Giving Adam and Hoss a worried glance, Ben hurried out the front door and into the yard. His sons quickly followed him out of the house.

Looking at the sight in front of him, Ben froze almost in shock. Sitting on an old horse was a tall, thin man wearing a battered hat. The man was holding the reins to a second horse – a familiar pinto who was standing quietly next the aging animal. Wrapped around the saddle horn was a gunbelt with a familiar pearl-handled pistol jutting out of the holster.

“Abel,” exclaimed Ben, recognizing the stableman. “What are you doing with Joe’s horse.”

“Bringing him home, just like I promised,” replied Abel.

“Who did you promised?” asked Adam in an aggressive tone as he came up beside his father. “And where’s Joe?”

“I don’t know,” answered Abel nervously. Seeing the look on the Cartwright’s faces, Abel was beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself into. “This fellow came by the stable. Said Joe had asked him to bring his horse home for him, only the fellow had to leave town sudden-like. So he asked me to do it.”

“Why would Joe ask him to bring his horse home?” said Ben in voice filled with both confusion and worry.

“Don’t know,” said Abel. He reached quickly into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Fellow said Joe gave him this to give to you. Said it would explain everything.”

Rushing forward, Ben snatched the envelope from Abel’s hand. He quickly tore open the sealed paper and pulled a letter from inside.

“Dear Pa, Adam, and Hoss,” Ben read aloud. “I’ve decided I need to change the way I’m living. I’m going away for awhile so I can find a new path, and perhaps someone who can guide me. Don’t worry. I’m fine. I just need to find a new direction to my life. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I will be in contact. Joe.” Ben looked up with a bewildered expression. He turned to Adam and Hoss. “What does this mean?” he asked.

Ignoring Ben’s question, Adam took a step forward. “Who gave you the letter, Abel?” he asked in a harsh voice.

“I done told you, Adam,” said Abel, his voice quivering. “Just some fellow. I don’t who he was. He asked me to do a favor for Joe, and I agreed.” Abel didn’t think it was wise to mention the twenty dollar gold piece.

“What did this fellow look like?” asked Hoss.

“I couldn’t see him too well,” answered Abel. He was quickly coming to the conclusion that whatever was going on, he didn’t want to be involved. “The stable was dark and he was standing in the shadows. I couldn’t see his face.” He quickly dropped the reins to the pinto. “Look, I’ve got to be getting back. I promised I’d deliver the horse and I did. That’s all I know.”

Abel turned his horse and gave the animal a kick, urging the horse to take him out of the yard as fast as possible.

Eyes wide, Ben read the letter in his hand again. The words hadn’t changed, and their meaning wasn’t any clearer to him. He looked up at Adam and Hoss. “Did Joe say anything to you about what might be troubling him?” he asked.

“No, he ain’t said a word,” answered Hoss, shaking his head. “Far as I know, nothing was bothering him.”

“He was upset by Jake Fallon’s death,” said Adam. “You heard what he said at breakfast this morning. But I don’t think he was bothered enough by it to do something like this.”

“Then why?” asked Ben almost plaintively. “Why would he just take off like this? And where would he go?”

“I don’t know, Pa,” said Hoss, his confusion evident. “I just don’t know.”

“Joe went into town to talk with Roy Coffee,” said Adam thoughtfully. “Maybe Roy told him something about the shooting that shook him up. Or maybe something else happened while he was in town.”

Nodding, Ben tucked the letter into the pocket inside his vest. “Get your horses, boys. We’re going to Virginia City.”

*****

Fighting through the fog that seemed to surround him, Joe realized he was lying in a bed. He could feel the soft pillow under his head, and the mattress under his body. He felt a blanket covering him, keeping him warm. Joe’s head ached, and his mouth felt dry. His stomach churned also, and Joe swallowed down the acrid bile he felt rising in his throat.

Eyes closed, Joe shifted his weight on the bed, moving his arms and legs carefully. He waited for a stab of pain to tell him where he had been shot, knifed or otherwise injured. But the only pain he felt was a small ache from his bruised shoulders and ribs.

Confused, Joe tried to think why he might be in bed. The last thing that he could recall was seeing Cochise tied to the wagon in the alley. He realized his thinking was dull, but Joe couldn’t quite figure out what had happened to him. He could tell he was still fully dressed; only his boots had been removed. That fact only added to his confusion.

“Joe? Are you awake? Can you hear me?”

Joe heard the voice, and it sounded vaguely familiar. He turned his head toward the sound, and tried to force his eyes open. His eyelids felt gritty, and when he opened them a bit, all he saw was a blurred image. Slowly blinking, Joe tried to clear both his vision and his head. He brought his hand up and rubbed his eyes. Opening his eyes wider, the image started to come into focus. Joe blinked again, convinced he must be dreaming. The figure sitting by the bed smiled at him, and Joe suddenly knew he wasn’t in a dream. He was in a nightmare, a very real one.

“Paul!” exclaimed Joe in astonishment.

“Hello, Joe,” replied Tyler Williams, the man Joe familiarly called Paul. “I’m glad you’re finally awake. You had me worried a bit. You’ve been asleep for a long time.”

Pushing with his hands, Joe started to sit up and immediately wished he hadn’t. He felt dizzy, and his small headache suddenly became a pounding one. The churning in his stomach turned into a fierce nausea, and Joe felt as if he might throw up. He let his arms collapse and fell back to the bed.

“Take it easy,” cautioned Paul in a soothing voice. “It takes awhile for ether to wear off.” Paul stood. “I’ll get you a cup of coffee. It’ll make you feel better.”

Lying in the bed, Joe looked around. He knew he wasn’t in Paul’s rather elegant home in the mountains. He had spent weeks in that place and knew every inch of it. What Joe saw around him was a log cabin – the wooden timbers were evident as walls. He could see a table and chairs in the middle of the room, and a fireplace on the far wall. Paul was bending by the fireplace, pouring coffee from a pot on the fire, Joe presumed. Joe turned his head a bit and saw cabinets and shelves on the left wall. He counted four shelves, the top two filled with what looked liked tins of food. The bottom shelves held books, papers, and a board of some kind. A door with a padlock on it was next to the shelves.

Turning his head further, Joe saw a second bed. The bed was several feet away, separated from his by a table and small dresser. Two lamps sat on the dresser, both shining brightly. Joe realized the cabin was well lit, both from the lamps as well as sunlight that was streaming in from his right. Joe looked to his right and saw another door, this one with a handle and latch. Two windows with open shutters flanked the door. Under the window nearest Joe stood a table with a large basin and pitcher. Another table was under the far window, a larger wider table on which a bucket and small oval tub sat. Leaning against the wall by the door were two fishing poles.

“Here, drink some of this,” said Paul as he came back across the room, a thick coffee mug in his hand. Joe turned his attention to the man who approached, and felt a familiar mixture of confusion and fear. He stared at the big man with white hair and a white beard, and wondered why he hadn’t recognized the description of him.

“Sit up slowly,” suggested Paul as he sat down in the chair by the bed. “You’ll be all right. It just takes a couple of hours for the effects to wear off.”

His eyes still locked on the man in the chair, Joe did as Paul suggested and pushed himself up slowly. When his shoulders and back were off the mattress, Joe scooted back on the bed a bit, then leaned back against the pillows and headboard of the bed. His head ached and his stomach churned, but not as violently as the first time he had tried to sit up.

“Good,” said Paul, leaning forward to hand Joe the coffee mug. “Now drink some of this.”

Taking the mug, Joe continued to stare at Paul. To anyone else, Paul looked like a considerate, friendly man. But Joe knew the violence and madness that lurked under Paul’s seemingly normal exterior.

Bringing the mug to his lips, Joe took a sip of coffee. The coffee tasted good, as Joe knew it would. He had learned from his weeks in the mountains that Paul was an excellent cook. In fact, Joe knew, Paul excelled at almost everything he tried. Those talents were what made Paul such a fascinating man – and such a dangerous one.

“Where are we?” Joe asked finally.

“Not in my house in the mountains, obviously,” said Paul gesturing around him. “This is just a little place I built for us to live in for awhile.”

“Us? Like you and me?” said Joe, trying not to let the fear show in his voice.

“Like you and me,” agreed Paul.

“Why?” asked Joe flatly.

“I thought maybe it would best if we could spend some time alone together, to get to know each other better,” explained Paul. “Maybe we can come to an understanding.”

“I don’t want to know you any better, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” replied Joe in a firm voice.

“Still as stubborn as ever,” said Paul smiling. “That’s one of things we’ll have to work on.”

“Work on?” said Joe suspiciously. “What do you mean by that?”

“Joe, you’re an intelligent, personable boy,” explained Paul. “You have the potential to do a lot with your life. But you need some help, some guidance. I want to give you that guidance.”

“I’m not a boy,” said Joe adamantly, “and I don’t need any help from you.”

“You’re what? 22? Trust me, that’s still a boy,” said Paul with a smile.

Joe didn’t bother to argue the point. “I’m old enough to make my own decisions,” said Joe in a stubborn voice. “I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”

“But you do, Joe, you do,” Paul said gravely. “The decisions you are making are unwise. I hate to see you throw your life away. It’s such a waste. You might say I want to save you from yourself.”

“How do you know what decisions I’ve made,” Joe challenged him.

“Because I’ve been watching over you,” replied Paul. He smiled at Joe. “You didn’t know that, did you? For the last year or so, in between building this place, I’ve kept an eye on you. I’ve watched what you’ve done, who you have been with. Many a time I wanted to step in, but you weren’t ready for me yet. Now you will be. Soon you’ll see the wisdom of my advice and accept me as your guardian.”

Joe felt a shiver up his back. He had figured out that Paul was the mysterious man that had visited Sally, and probably the man who had killed Jake. He also was sure that Paul had been the one “helping” him over the past weeks. But that fact that the man had been watching him for close to a year both surprised and alarmed Joe. He felt a knot of fear inside him, wondering what the man might have done, who he might have harmed during that time, in his insane attempt to help Joe.

“I don’t need your help,” repeated Joe in what he hoped was a determined voice.

“Everyone needs some help from time to time,” Paul said in a gentle voice. “You can’t tell me you’ve never felt the need to ask for some guidance.”

“Maybe I have,” admitted Joe grudgingly. “But if I do, I already have some one I can turn to. I already have a father and he’s pretty good one.”

“Your father!” Paul practically spat out the word. “That man who raised you has forfeited the right to the title,” Paul said angrily. “He’s stood by and done nothing while you have done some foolish things, even some dangerous things. He doesn’t deserve the privilege of having you for a son.”

Paul’s anger worried Joe. He knew how volatile the man could be, moving from reasonable discussion to physical violence almost in the blink of an eye. Joe knew he was in no shape to resist the man if Paul decided to attack him. He quickly decided to change tactics.

“Why do you want to help me? I’m nobody special,” said Joe in what he hoped was a calming voice. “Why don’t you help your own son? He’s the one you should care about most.”

Joe’s question seemed to have a soothing affect on Paul. He sat back in the chair and looked off to the side a bit. “David,” said Paul softly. He shook his head. “I don’t even know where he is.”

“He’s in Denver,” said Joe in a quiet voice. “Adam met him there a few weeks ago. He’s working in the mint.” Seeing the surprise on Paul’s face, Joe continued. “Why don’t you go see him?” Joe urged Paul. “I’m sure he would be happy to see you, to talk with you. He’d want you to meet his fiancée.”

“David is getting married?” asked Paul in surprise. Joe nodded. Paul looked off again, thinking silently for a minute. Joe felt a surge of optimism building inside of him, a hope that Paul would abandon him for his own son. But that hope was dashed with Paul’s next words.

“It’s too late for David,” said Paul in a sad voice. “He’s already chosen his path in life. He’s decided on a career, a girl to take as a wife. It’s too late for me to give him any meaningful guidance.” He looked at Joe. “But it’s not too late for you. I’m going to show you the right path, Joe. I’ll help you find the kind of work and the kind of wife that’s best for you.”

The knot of fear grew in Joe. If Joe had had any doubts, the words Paul said, and the way he said them, confirmed to Joe that the man was mad. Paul honestly believed that he was going to guide Joe through his life, including choosing a wife for him. Joe understood why Paul had visited Sally at the saloon. He had been afraid that Joe was becoming serious about her. Joe also was sure Paul had killed Jake, probably because he thought Jake meant to harm Joe. The fact that Paul had misjudged the situation with Sally as well as with Jake made him even more dangerous, in Joe’s mind. Paul had been increasingly aggressive in his attempts to offer what he saw as help to Joe and there was no telling what other flawed judgments he might make in the future. What frightened Joe the most was the anger Paul had displayed when he had mentioned his father. Joe was afraid of what Paul would do if the man decided his Pa was a danger to Joe, or even merely an impediment to his mad scheme to become Joe’s guardian.

Thinking hard, Joe tried to decide what to do next. His head ached and his shoulder and ribs were sore. Paul was a strong man, and Joe knew he couldn’t overpower him, at least right now. His best bet would be the humor the man until he could find an opportunity to escape.

“What happens now?” Joe asked in a quiet voice.

“I suggest you take a nap while I start making us some dinner,” said Paul with a smile. “Unless you’d like another cup of coffee first.”

Looking down at the mug in his hand, Joe was surprised to see it was empty. He had sipped the hot liquid without even realizing it. “That’s not what I meant,” said Joe, ignoring Paul’s suggestion about the coffee.

“I know, “ said Paul with a nod. “But I imagine you’re still feeling a bit rocky, and I’m getting hungry. I think it would be wise to postpone any further discussions until both of us are feeling up to snuff.”

Looking down into the empty coffee mug, Joe considered the idea. He was feeling a bit sick and his body ached. Joe was sure that Paul wouldn’t harm him. That would be counter to the man’s plan to take control of Joe’s life. A few hours sleep and a little food would go a long way to making Joe feel stronger. And he knew he would have to be strong in order to free himself.

“All right,” said Joe putting the coffee mug on the table next to the bed. He slid down under the covers, deliberately turning his back to Paul.

“You get some rest,” said Paul as he stood. “I’ll wake you when dinner is ready.

Feeling the lingering effects of the ether Paul had used on him, Joe began to drift off to sleep almost at once. But he was awake enough to hear Paul’s next words and they sent a chill through him. As Paul had stood over the bed watching Joe, he said softly, “Welcome home, son.”

*****

“What happens now?” asked Ben, unaware that he was echoing his youngest son’s words. Ben’s question was directed toward Roy Coffee, who sat across the desk from him in the sheriff’s office.

This was the second time that Ben had been in the sheriff’s office today. He had visited it the first time a few hours ago, when the three Cartwrights had raced into Virginia City. Ben had stormed into Roy’s office, demanding to know what the sheriff had said to Joe earlier in the day.

But Roy had been as surprised as Ben when he read Joe’s letter. He had repeated their conversation as best he could remember it, and assured Ben that he had not said or seen anything that would cause Joe to want to leave his family. A hasty conference between Roy and the Cartwrights had resulted in the four men hurrying in various directions around Virginia City, all of them intent on finding Joe, or at least, a clue to where he might have gone.

Now Ben sat in a chair in Roy’s off, his shoulders slumped and discouragement etched on his face. The four men had returned to Roy’s office to exchange information. But the little they had found out was of no help to them in their quest.

“What happens now?” Ben asked again.

“There’s nothing the law can do,” said Roy, shaking his head. “Joe’s of legal age, and according to that letter, he’s gone away of his own free will.  I’ve got no legal reason to go chasing after him.”

“I don’t care about any legal reasons,” said Ben angrily. “I just want to know what we can do to find my son.”

“Ben, I know how you feel,” said Roy in a soothing voice. “But my hands are tied. I can’t go searching every place in Virginia City just because you want me to.”

“But he has to be around here someplace,” insisted Ben. “Vince over at the stage depot told Hoss that Joe didn’t take a stage out of town.”

“That’s right, Roy,” confirmed Hoss from where he was perched on the edge of the desk. “Vince said he hasn’t seen Joe in weeks. And nobody gets on the stage without Vince seeing them. I asked around, and no one saw Joe leaving town. He didn’t hitch a ride on a wagon or anything as near as I can tell.”

“He didn’t buy any supplies at the general store, and Abel brought his horse and gun out to the ranch,” Ben continued. “He wouldn’t have walked out of town without a gun or supplies. That means he must be in Virginia City someplace.”

Leaning against the far wall of the office, Adam had a pensive look on his face. Suddenly, he straightened and walked over to Ben.

“Pa, can I see that letter from Joe?” he asked.

“What? Oh sure,” answered Ben in a distracted voice. Reaching into his vest pocket, Ben pulled out the letter and handed it to Adam. Ben’s attention returned to Roy Coffee while Adam retreated back to the far side of the office.

“Ben, I can’t go searching every building in Virginia City, not with a legal warrant,” said Roy. “And just knocking on doors isn’t going to do much good, not if Joe doesn’t want to be found.”

Sagging back in his chair, Ben admitted in a discouraged voice, “You’re right, Roy. I know that.” Ben shook his head. “It’s just that I don’t understand,” he added in a frustrated voice. “Why would Joe go off like this?”

“He seemed fine when he left my office this morning,” said Roy. “Maybe a little down because of Jake, but nothing that sent off any warning bells to me.”

“Sally said the same thing,” added Hoss. “He was kind of low when she talked with him but she didn’t think anything was really wrong.”

“And he told both you and Sally that he was going to see the doctor,” said Ben. “Only Paul Martin told me he never saw Joe, and he was in his office all day. Something happened after Joe left the saloon, something that stopped him from going to Paul’s office and caused him to write this letter.” Ben shook his head. “I just don’t understand it. What would cause Joe to write that letter?”

“I don’t think Joe wrote this letter, Pa,” said Adam, walking across the office again.

“What are you talking about, Adam?” Ben said with a frown. “That’s Joe’s handwriting.”

“I think it’s a good imitation of Joe’s handwriting,” Adam corrected his father. He looked at the three puzzled expressions that faced him. “Look, we all know that Joe isn’t much of a letter writer. Most of the time, he just scrawls a note when he has to. But he did write me from time to time when I was in Boston. So I’ve seen his handwriting more often than probably anyone. I don’t think Joe wrote this letter.”

“Are you sure?” said Ben, reaching for the letter.

“As sure as I can be,” answered Adam. He pointed to a word. “Look at the r’s in this letter. Each one is exactly the same. In the letters I got from Joe, his r’s tended to vary, sometimes looking like an r and sometimes looking like something else. And each of the dots over the I’s is very visible. When Joe even remembers to dot an I, it’s usually a speck.”

“Maybe he was just a little more careful with his writing this time,” suggested Roy.

“Maybe,” admitted Adam. “But look at the phrases in the letter — ‘find a new path’, ‘new direction to life’. Joe doesn’t talk like that. He doesn’t even think like that.”

“If Joe didn’t write that letter, who did?” asked Hoss. “And why?”

“Someone who wanted us to think that Joe had gone away on his own,” stated Adam. “Someone who didn’t want us to go looking for him.”

“But who?” Ben echoed Hoss’ question.

Looking grim, Adam didn’t answer right away. He had an idea but wasn’t quite sure if he was right. “Pa,” he said slowly. “You’re the only one besides Joe who has ever seen Tyler Williams. What does he look like?”

“Williams?” said Ben in a surprised voice. “He’s a big man, about 50, white beard…” Ben stopped as he realized who he had described. “My God!” exclaimed Ben in dismay. “Williams is the man who shot Jake. Why didn’t I see it?”

“Probably for the same reason that Joe didn’t put it together,” answered Adam. “Neither of you had any reason to think he was around here so it didn’t occur to you or Joe that he might be involved.”

“This Williams fellow sounds like the man who told Sally to stay away from Joe,” said Roy thoughtfully. “That means he’s been around for awhile.”

“Probably,” agreed Adam.

“But if he’s been around for awhile, why would he come after Joe now?” asked Hoss.

“I’m not sure,” admitted Adam, shaking his head. “Williams’ son told me that his father is a man who likes to be in control, who wants to run people’s lives for them. It sounds like Williams has interfered in Joe’s life at least twice – probably doing things that he thinks is protecting Joe, first from Sally, and then from Jake. And we already know Williams was fixed on Joe as some kind of son. My guess is he decided for some reason Williams has decided he can run Joe’s life for him. But he had to take Joe away from here to do that.”

“I think you’re right, Adam,” said Ben nodding slowly. He waved the letter in his hand. “Williams wrote this letter not only to keep us from looking for Joe but also to convince us that Joe had chosen to go with him freely.”

“That’s why the letter said Joe would be in contact,” Adam said, nodding his head. “There’s probably going to be more letters later, telling us that Joe has decided to stay away permanently. Only Joe won’t have written them.”

“If this Williams has snatched Joe, where would he take him?” asked Hoss. “To that house of his up in the mountains?”

“Probably not,” said Adam. “He knows that’s the first place we’d look if we thought he was involved.”

“He wouldn’t keep him here in Virginia City,” said Ben with a frown. “Someone might see him and tell us about it.”

“He’s probably got him in some isolated place,” said Adam. “Someplace where’s there’s no one else around, and where Joe would have a hard time getting away.”

“Then could be almost anywhere,” said Ben, shaking his head.

“I’m afraid so,” admitted Adam.

The four men sat silently, each of them thinking about what Adam had said, and imaging what Joe must be facing.

“We’re not accomplishing anything here,” said Ben suddenly getting to his feet. “First thing in the morning, we’re going to start checking every line shack, cabin and empty ranch in the territory.”

“Pa, that’s a lot of places,” said Hoss. “It could take awhile.”

“I don’t care how long it takes,” stated Ben flatly. “We’re going to find Joe.” A grim expression crossed Ben’s face. “If Tyler Williams thinks he can simply take my son, he’s wrong. Dead wrong.”

*****

A hand shook Joe gently, waking him from a sound sleep. He turned over in bed, and looked up groggily into the face of the man standing over him. It took Joe a few seconds to remember where he was, but when he did, his face took on a stony look.

“Good morning,” said Paul with a smile, ignoring Joe’s obviously cold look. “I had forgotten what a sound sleeper you are. Feel up to having breakfast this morning?”

Last night, Joe had refused to join Paul for dinner, both a small act of defiance as well as the result of a still queasy stomach. Paul hadn’t pressed the matter. He merely brought Joe another cup of coffee and let him go back to sleep. But Joe had a feeling that he wouldn’t be allowed to miss breakfast. Besides, Joe’s stomach was grumbling for food.

“I guess I could eat something,” said Joe indifferently.

“Good,” replied Paul in a hearty voice. “It’s almost ready. There’s some water in the pitcher over there. Why don’t you get yourself cleaned up while I finish cooking.”

Throwing back the covers, Joe sat on the edge of the bed. He was relieved that his headache and nausea were gone. Even his shoulder and ribs felt better. He glanced to where Paul was standing near the fireplace, then looked toward the front door. For a brief instant, Joe had the desire to race to the door and run out. He would be gone before Paul even realized it. But Joe quickly realized how foolish that was. He had no idea where he was or which way to go once he was out the door. And it wouldn’t take very long for Paul to catch him.

Sighing, Joe reached down and picked up his boots from the floor next to the bed. As he pulled them on, Joe tried to figure out what to do. He knew he had to have a plan if he had any hope of escaping forever from the clutches of a madman.

“Hurry up, food’s ready,” Paul called from the other side of the cabin.

Standing, Joe walked quickly to the small table under the window. He poured some water in to the basin and quickly splashed it on his face and neck. A small bar of soap sat on the table. Joe picked it up and worked it into a lather, then rubbed the lather over his face. A few quick splashes rinsed his face, and Joe dried it with a towel sitting by the pitcher.

Tucking his shirt into his pants, Joe walked over to the table. He couldn’t hide his surprise at what he saw. The table was covered with a checked cloth. Plates sat on the table – not china but certainly not the tin plates Joe had expected. Eating utensils and napkins were set next to the plates, as were glasses filled with water and coffee mugs. A platter of bacon and fried eggs sat in the middle of the table. Steam rose from a coffee pot sitting on the corner of the table.

“Bacon and eggs all right with you?” asked Paul as he smiled at the look on Joe’s face. “I guess it will have to be since that’s what I cooked.”

“This isn’t quite what I expected, “ admitted Joe as he sat down.

“I don’t suppose it is,” said Paul in an amused voice. “But you should know I’m a man who likes my comforts, Joe. I wasn’t planning on having us rough it while we’re here.”

“All the comforts of home,” said Joe, his voice full of irony.

Ignoring the irony, Paul smiled, “I do my best. I have a few chickens out back – not many but enough to keep us supplied in fresh eggs and an occasional chicken dinner.”

Beginning to eat, Joe looked around him. The cabin was furnished as comfortably as possible, he admitted. But he wasn’t going to give Paul the satisfaction of knowing he was impressed. “You didn’t figure out how to get some running water in here,” complained Joe.

“You’re right there,” sighed Paul. “I’ve got some full water barrels outside but eventually, we will have to haul water from the lake.”

Hearing his first clue as to where he might be, Joe tried not to show his excitement. “The lake?” he said as indifferently as possible. “There’s a lake around here?”

For some reason, Paul found Joe’s question amusing. “Yes,” he answered with a chuckle. “You could say there’s a lake around.”

“Where is it?” asked Joe, trying to sound casual.

“Not far,” said Paul vaguely. “We can go fishing there sometime if you want. I also brought the chessboard and cribbage board. We had some nice talks while playing chess and cribbage. I’m hoping we can do so again.”

Continuing to eat, Joe carefully chose his words before responding. He wanted to make his position clear but didn’t want to trigger any violent reaction from the man across the table.

“You can’t keep me here,” said Joe slowly.

“We’ll see,” said Paul almost indifferently.

“You know my father and brothers are looking for me,” Joe continued cautiously. “It’s only a question of time until they find this place.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure,” smiled Paul. “This place isn’t easy to find. And your family may not have any reason to search for you.”

A sudden sick feeling robbed Joe of his appetite. “What did you do?” he demanded. “Fake my death or something?” The thought of his family grieving over him was almost unbearable to Joe.

“It crossed my mind,” admitted Paul. “But despite their faults, that family of yours is tenacious. I knew they wouldn’t believe you were dead, not without seeing your body. Besides, it would complicate things. I don’t want us to have to have to worry about someone recognizing you after we leave here.”

Letting out a sigh of relief, Joe began to sip his coffee. “So you don’t plan to keep me here forever,” he said as casually as possible.

“Of course not,” snorted Paul as if he found Joe’s comment ridiculous. “Once we’ve come to an understanding, we can leave. You have a full life in front of you, Joe, and I mean to see that you live it.”

“With your guidance, of course,” said Joe contemptuously.

“With my guidance,” agreed Paul.

“What’s to stop my family from looking for me?” asked Joe, unable to contain his curiosity. “Or come after me once we leave here?”

“You’ve written them a letter,” explained Paul. “The letter tells them how you’ve decided to seek out a new life. In a few weeks, a lawyer in Sacramento will send them another letter on your behalf, telling them how well you are doing and how happy you are. Letters and instructions have been left with lawyers in several towns. Those letters should convince your family not to waste their time looking for you.”

“I’VE written them a letter?” said Joe in surprise.

“Well, of course, I wrote it for you,” admitted Paul. He shook his head. “Lord, that scrawl you call handwriting was almost impossible for me to copy. It took me a long time to get it right.”

Putting down his coffee cup, Joe realized he was on his own. He couldn’t be sure that his father and brothers hadn’t believed the letter Paul had written. And even if they did search for him, his family might not be able to find him. He couldn’t rely on them to find him and save him from the madman who could plan such a devious scheme.

“You can’t watch me all the time,” said Joe angrily. “You know I’ll try to leave. Are you going to chain me up to keep me here?”

“No,” replied Paul shaking his head sadly. “I realize now that my talk of chains last time was a mistake. I know how much I hated those things when I was in jail, and I can only imagine how much the thought of them must have terrified you. I won’t do that to you, Joe.”

“Then what’s to stop me from trying to leave?” said Joe, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“You can walk out that door anytime you want,” said Paul in a mild voice as he sipped his coffee. “I won’t try to stop you.”

Looking at the man across the table suspiciously, Joe said, “You mean I can just get up and leave? Right now, if I want?”

“If you wish,” said Paul in an unconcerned voice.

Pushing back the chair from the table, Joe stood. “Then I’m leaving,” he said. He walked to the door and pulled his hat and jacket from a peg on the wall. Slipping on his jacket, Joe looked back at the table. Paul was continuing to just sit there, sipping coffee. Keeping an eye on the man, Joe pulled on his hat. “Goodbye,” he said briefly and headed out the door.

Once outside, Joe took a quick look around. He didn’t honestly believe the man in the cabin would just let him walk out. There had to be something to stop him – a trap of some kind. But as Joe searched the area around the cabin with his eyes, he could see nothing unusual. Trees had been cleared in the immediate vicinity of the cabin, probably those same trees had been used to build the house. A thick growth of pines and bushes covered the rest of the ground surrounding the cabin.

Not wanting to take the chance that Paul might change his mind and come after him, Joe started walking forward. The ground also immediately began to slope downward as he entered the forest. Joe moved cautiously, looking for traps or barriers but nothing in the woods seem unusual or out of place.

The lack of any means to stop him puzzled Joe but he wasn’t about to sit around trying to figure it out. He continued down the slope.

As the ground began to flatten out, the growth in front of Joe thinned. He could see through the trees, and what he saw stopped him. If he continued his path, he would walk straight into water.

An expanse of clear blue water stretched out in front of Joe as far as he could see. There didn’t seem to be any shoreline, any indication of land except for the earth on which Joe was standing.

So this was the lake Paul had mentioned, though Joe. The cabin must be on some stretch of land that extended out into the lake. Joe turned to his left and started walking. All he had to do was find the path that led away from the lake and back up into the hills.

As he continued to walk, Joe kept peering through the trees. At first, he wasn’t surprised to continue to see the water through the growth. He figured the lake must circle the area on three sides. Knowing Paul’s devious mind, Joe guessed there was only one way off the peninsula on which he imagined the cabin was situated, and Paul probably had that blocked. Joe was determined to find the way back to land from which this finger of earth jutted, and to find a way around whatever barrier Paul had constructed.

But as Joe continued to walk, he also continued to see nothing but water through the trees. He became confused by the lack of any indication of a trail away from the lake. He knew that the cabin had to be on the edge of Lake Tahoe; there was nothing else in Nevada which held as much water as Joe was seeing. What Joe didn’t understand why he hadn’t found a way up from the lake and back into the mountains.

Pushing through the woods with a determined stride, Joe continued to search for the trail he knew must exist. He changed his path so that he was closer to the water, wanting to be sure he didn’t miss the land that connected the peninsula to the main shoreline.

With grim determination, Joe walked through the woods for over an hour before he finally admitted the truth to himself. Paul hadn’t been worried about Joe leaving because he knew Joe couldn’t. The cabin wasn’t built on a peninsula. It was built on an island.

Cutting down to the shoreline, Joe continued to circle the island, in the vain hope that his conclusion was wrong. But deep inside him, he knew no matter how long he searched for a path to the mountains, he would never find it, because it didn’t exist.

Filled with frustration, Joe finally stopped and plopped down on the ground. He picked up a rock and threw it as far as he could, feeling a small measure of his anger disappear with the rock that sank into the lake. He stared across the expanse of blue lake, seeing a shoreline in the distance.

Joe tried to figure out where the island might be, but from this view, the mountains looked unfamiliar. He looked to his left and saw another shoreline, this one a bit closer. Seeing the shoreline didn’t ease Joe’s anger and frustration much. It was close enough to see, but too far to reach by anything but a boat.

As he sat and thought, Joe felt a grudging admiration for what Paul had done. Building the cabin from the trees on the island hadn’t been difficult but furnishing it and stocking it with food must have required Paul to row out to the island dozens of times. Once on the island, the man would have had to carry all the items he had brought to the cabin up on the hill. On his last trip, Paul would have had not only supplies to tote up the hill but also Joe.

Joe had to admit it was quite an accomplishment. But, more importantly, if Paul had brought him to the island, then Paul must have a way to get him off. He must have a boat stashed someplace. The question was where.

Getting to his feet, Joe began to search for signs of a landing area on the island, a place where a boat might be hidden in the bushes. He circled the island yet again, this time much more slowly, as he looked for some clue to a hidden boat. When he reached the point where he had started his search, Joe sat wearily on the ground once again. He had suspected from the start that his search would be fruitless, that Paul was too smart to leave any obvious indications of where he had hidden the boat. But Joe had to try. He couldn’t simply give in.

Sighing, Joe rose and started up the hill. It didn’t take him long to find his way back to the cabin. When he got to the small house, Joe pushed open the door and looked in.

Sitting in a chair by the fireplace, Paul had a book in his hands. The table had been cleared and the dishes put away. Paul looked up and asked innocently, “Have a nice walk?”

“Very funny,” said Joe bitterly as he leaned against the door jamb. “All right, we’re on an island. How do we get off?”

“When it’s time to leave, there’s a way,” said Paul as he looked back down to the book.

“I’m ready to leave now,” said Joe angrily. “You’ve got to have a boat stashed around here someplace. Where is it?”

“It would be rather foolish of me to tell you,” said Paul calmly.

“Fine,” Joe said in a flat voice. “I’ll find it myself.”

“Go ahead and look if you wish,” said Paul with a shrug. “You’re free to come and go as you please. “

“Don’t worry, I’ll find it,” said Joe with grim determination. His eyes suddenly strayed across the cabin to the door on the other wall, the one with the padlock on it. Joe tried to remember what the cabin had looked like from the outside, and how large the room behind the door might be.

Seeing Joe’s eyes go toward the locked door, Paul said with amusement, “That would be rather too obvious, don’t you think? No, I can assure you it’s not there.”

“Then why the lock?” demanded Joe. “What’s behind that door?”

“I have my reasons for locking that store room,” replied Paul. He put a slip of paper in the book to mark his place and closed it. “How about some lunch?” he asked. “Maybe we could play a game of chess afterwards.”

Sighing, Joe walked into the cabin. He was hungry and tired, and at least for now, had nothing better to do. “Just out of curiosity,” he said as he slipped off his jacket and hung it on the peg by the door, “exactly where are we?”

“I believe they call this Emerald Bay,” replied Paul. “A picturesque cove, I would say.”

Joe knew exactly where they were. He had ridden the mountain trail past Emerald Bay dozens of times, and had see the island sitting in the middle of the bay. He had never paid much attention to it, and had surely never suspected that it would one day become his prison.

“What would you like for lunch?” asked Paul walking toward one of the cabinets.

“One of Hop Sing’s chicken dinners,” answered Joe in a discouraged voice.

*****

Riding up to the ranch house, Hoss was only mildly surprised to see Adam’s and Ben’s horses already tied to the hitching post in front. They had agreed to meet back at the house after another two days of searching. It was late in the day, and Hoss had figured he might be the last one back.

After tying his horse next to the other two, Hoss looked around. The ranch should have been bustling with activity this time of day. Men should have been returning to the bunkhouse after a day of riding the range or fixing fences. Someone should be in the barn, cleaning and feeding the horses.

There should have been a the noise of shouts and laughter, mingled with jingling harness and the clop of horses’ hooves.

Instead, the area was as deserted as a graveyard. Not a man or horse were visible, and the only sound was the soft chirping of birds. Not that Hoss was surprised by this. He knew every hand they could spare, and probably more than they could spare, was out searching deserted mines, old caves and hidden valleys. For the past few days, very little work had been done by anyone on the Ponderosa except to search for some clue to Joe’s whereabouts. The silence in the yard told Hoss that none of the men had found a sign. If they had, a posse the size of a small army would be assembling in the yard, and Ben and Adam wouldn’t be sitting inside the house.

Blowing out a breath of air, Hoss pushed his hat back on his head and walked into the house.

Ben and Adam were seated in the living room, near the fireplace. Ben was leaning forward from his favorite red leather chair, while Adam was crouched over on the sofa. Both were studying a map spread on the table in front of them.

“Anything?” asked Ben as he looked up as Hoss approached. His tone suggested that Ben didn’t expect a positive answer.

“Not really,” replied Hoss tentatively.

“What does that mean?” demanded Adam in a testy voice.

“What it means is I don’t know where Joe is,” replied Hoss, his voice sounding equally ill-tempered.

“All right, all right,” said Ben putting up his hand. “Calm down, both of you. We’re all tired and worried, and snapping at each other doesn’t help things.”

“Yes sir,” said Hoss, apologetically. “Sorry, Adam.” Adam nodded his apology in return.

“Now, exactly what did you find?” asked Ben.

“Well, I talked to this fellow who’s got a small farm over by Fallen Leaf Lake,” said Hoss. “For the last year or so, he’s been renting out a wagon from time to time to a fellow who sounds likes Williams. The last time was about a week ago.”

“Did he say where Williams took this wagon?” asked Ben, his voice rising with excitement.

“No sir, he didn’t know,” said Hoss. “Said Williams would just show up, pay him some money, and take the wagon. About a week later, he’d bring it back. The farmer didn’t ask any questions. Evidently, Williams paid him pretty good, and he didn’t want to mess up the deal.”

“What about the last time?” asked Adam. “Did Williams bring back the wagon?”

“No, that’s the funny part,” said Hoss. “Williams told the farmer where to pick up the wagon. Told him there would be a saddle horse with it and the farmer could have the animal. He also told the farmer he wouldn’t be coming back.”

“Where did the farmer pick up the wagon?” asked Ben.

“In the middle of nowhere,” replied Hoss. “He found it on the trail that leads around the lake, not too far from Emerald Bay. The wagon was empty, and there wasn’t anyone around.”

“Well, that doesn’t help us any,” said Adam, shaking his head. “All we know is that Williams probably used a wagon to get Joe out of Virginia City. It doesn’t tell us where he took him.”

“I told you it wasn’t much,” Hoss said, shrugging.

Studying the map, Ben said slowly, “It might be a clue. It could mean that Williams has Joe hidden someplace on that side of the lake.”

“Or it could mean that Williams just transferred him to another wagon and rode off in a different direction,” said Adam sounding practical.

“It’s the first real evidence we’ve found,” argued Ben. He leaned forward and pointed at the map. “There’s a little settlement near Fallen Leaf lake. Someone there might have seen something.”

“I thought of that, Pa,” said Hoss. “I rode in and asked around. Nobody has seen Joe. The fellow at the trading post there remembers Williams buying some supplies there but he said that was months ago. He ain’t seen him lately.”

“If Williams was stocking up, he wouldn’t buy supplies in the same place,” said Ben thoughtfully. “But he also wouldn’t want to haul them too far.” He studied the map in silence for several minutes. “I think we should search that area.”

“Pa, there’s nothing there,” said Adam with a frown. “No mines, no line shacks, nothing where he could be hiding Joe. I think we’d do better to concentrate on the north side of the lake. That’s the area that has the most mines and ranches, and the most likely places for Williams to hide with Joe.”

Sighing, Ben said, “I suppose you’re right, Adam.” But his eyes continued to stare at the southern part of the lake on the map.

*****

“I’m going fishing,” announced Joe, clamping his hat down on his head and reaching for one of the poles near the door.

“Perhaps I will come with you,” said Paul starting to get up from the breakfast table.

“No,” said Joe in a flat voice. “I don’t want you to come with me.”

“All right,” agreed Paul, sitting back down. He picked up his coffee cup and began to sip from it. “If you decide to take a swim, be careful. Stay close to the shoreline If you go out too far, you’ll get caught in the current that goes around this island. It’s very strong, and can slingshot you around the island and into the middle of the lake before you even realize it.”

“All right,” Joe answered automatically, then stopped. He scowled as he pushed opened the door, then slammed it shut behind him.

Damn the man, thought Joe angrily as he stomped down the hill from the cabin. It’s almost like he could Joe’s mind. Joe had only half-formed an idea of testing the waters in the lake to see if there was any way he could swim to freedom.

But it was more than just Paul’s warning that angered and frightened Joe. For the past several days, he had spent the daylight hours scouring the island, looking for some indication of where Paul had hidden the boat. Each evening, Joe had returned to the cabin where Paul had solemnly told him that he wasn’t even close to finding the object of his search. Even worse, Joe had played chess with the man each evening, more out of boredom than for any other reason. Although Joe had vowed to play chess only and not say a word, each evening he had found himself engaged in a lively conversation on some subject with Paul before he realized it and clamped his mouth shut.

Joe’s desire to leave the island was growing desperate, not only because he had been here for almost a week, but also because he realized that he was slowly but surely being sucked into playing his role in Paul’s mad scheme.

Arriving at the edge of the lake, Joe settled on the grass and threw his fishing line into the water. He really wasn’t interested in whether he caught anything. Joe only wanted an excuse to sit quietly and think. And there was only one thing he wanted to think about – how to get off the island.

As he sat by the water, Joe had to admit his search for the boat had been in vain. The island was covered with bushes and other plants. In three days, Joe had made only a cursory search. It would take him a year to thorough search the island, and even then he might not find what he was looking for. So now, he had to come up with another idea to get him back to the mainland.

Sitting in the warm sun, Joe thought of and rejected a number of ideas. Signals, such as smoke or cloth, might not be able to be seen, and besides there had to be someone to see them. The land around Emerald Bay was wilderness country – no ranches or farms. Joe couldn’t count on the occasional rider on the mountain trails to spot a signal. And trying to swim to the mainland was suicide. As Paul had pointed out, the current would pull any swimmer to the middle of the lake where the only escape would be drowning.

Distracted by his escape plans, Joe paid no attention to his fishing line until he felt a tug. He quickly turned his attention back to the water, ready to pull in the monster fish he could feel pulling at his line. Joe laughed at himself when he saw that the fishing line had become tangled around a large branch that had been floating by.

Joe pulled his line slowly toward him, pulling the branch toward shore in order to untangle the line. As he did, however, a glimmer of an idea began to form in his head. The branch had floated in the lake. If one branch would float, three or four tied together would surely float also. And tied together, the branches would make a raft.

Pulling harder on the fishing line, Joe managed to get the branch to shore. It wasn’t very big, nor very straight, but it was a start. Joe slowly untangled the fishing line from the branch. As he threw his fishing line back into the water, he began forming a plan. And, for the first time in a week, he also began to have hope.

*****

“Nothing, Pa,” Hoss said as he eased his big frame wearily on the sofa. “We’ve searched every place we could think of, and some we found by accident, and there’s no sign of Joe.”

Nodding, Ben sat back in his leather chair, his body also feeling the fatigue of days in the saddle. “Maybe Adam and his men found something,” suggested Ben, although he knew his son would have been back at the ranch by now if he had.

“Maybe he ain’t around here,” said Hoss. “Maybe this Williams took Joe back to his place in the mountains after all.”

“No, Roy Coffee telegraphed the sheriff up by Three Pines,” replied Ben. “The sheriff checked the house. His wire back to Roy said it looked like the place hadn’t been lived in for months.”

“Pa, we’re running out of places to look,” Hoss said, his voice full of frustration.

“I know, Hoss,” replied Ben with a sigh. “But we can’t give up. Joe’s around here someplace. I know it.”

“But where?” asked Hoss.

Ben didn’t answer. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the chair. Hoss waited, hoping that his father would find some inspiration on where to continue the search. But after a few minutes, Ben opened his eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know, Hoss,” Ben said in voice filled with sadness. “I just don’t know.”

“Well, I’m going up and get a couple of hours sleep,” said Hoss, pulling himself up from the sofa. “I’ll start out again at first light. Maybe we’ll get lucky tomorrow.”

As Hoss climbed the stairs, Ben turned his attention to the fire burning brightly in the fireplace. His thoughts drifted to his missing son and he began to wonder what Joe was doing, what he was feeling. He wonder if his son was lonely or scared or angry. He also wonder what kind of battle Joe was waging to free himself from Williams, because Ben had no doubts that his son would be fighting to escape.

Ben began thinking the thoughts that he couldn’t voice – what if they didn’t find Joe, or if by the time they did, Williams had turned him into something other than the impetuous, fun-loving son that he loved? How long could he put his life and the life of his other two sons on hold while they searched for Joe? At what point could he admit that the search for his youngest son was costing too much – too much time away from the ranch and too much strain on both bodies and emotions?

Shaking his head, Ben tried to rid himself of such thoughts. He couldn’t give up; he wouldn’t give up. Joe was in the area someplace. Ben couldn’t explain how he knew it, but he did. All he had to do was find him.

Slowly, Ben pulled himself up from the chair. He decided that a few hours sleep would help him clear his head. As he climbed the stairs, Ben thought about Williams and how one man’s obsession could destroy his life as well as that of his son. He had hated few men in his life, but as he reached the top of the stairs, Ben cursed Tyler Williams and wished the man a speedy descent into hell.

*****

“Want to play a game of chess?” asked Paul as he slowly dried his hands on a towel. “Dishes are done.”

Stretched out on the bed, Joe looked up at the man. “No,” he said in a flat voice.

“How about cribbage, then?” suggested Paul.

“Not interested,” replied Joe, looking away.

Coming closer, Paul said almost eagerly. “You’ve got something on your mind, boy. Tell me about it.”

Joe had something on his mind all right, but he didn’t feel that planning his escape from the island was appropriate subject to discuss with his captor. “None of your business,” said Joe in a sullen tone.

Sighing, Paul turned away. “All right,” he said. “I suppose it’s too soon to expect you to open up to me.” Paul put the towel on the table near the far window and looked out. “It’s a nice evening,” he said in a thoughtful voice. “Maybe I’ll take a walk. I haven’t been out of this cabin much in the last week.”

Tensing his muscles, Joe felt a sense of alarm. Had Paul suspected what he had been up to all day? Then Joe relaxed. Let him look around he thought. He won’t find anything. It was about time that Paul searched as fruitlessly as Joe had done earlier.

“Think I’ll walk down to the lake,” said Paul, watching Joe out of the corner of his eye.

“Suit yourself,” replied Joe in an tone that clearly showed he didn’t care.

Nodding, Paul walked to the door. “Be back in awhile,” he said as he left.

In the quiet cabin, Joe went back to his planning. He had realized that ridiculous branch he had pulled from the lake would be of little help in making a raft. But the branch had inspired Joe to look for more suitable wood. He had spent the day searching for fallen trees or large branches that he could somehow tie together. He had found six pieces of wood that met his needs. Granted, the branches he found were of different lengths and didn’t fit quite together, but they would do. Joe had spent the rest of the day using a sharp rock to strip the branches of leaves and twigs, and to shape them as best he could. He had even managed to fashion a crude oar from hard tree bark he had found.

It was at that point Joe decided he needed to be as secretive as his captor. He couldn’t leave the branches together. Paul might find them and figure out what Joe was planning. So he had carefully hid each branch in a different place, putting each one under a large bush which he marked with a rock. Even if Paul found one or two of the branches, he probably wouldn’t see them as anything other than branches.

But now Joe pondered his biggest challenge. He needed rope, something to lash the branches together tightly. And that’s what he had been thinking about as he laid on the bed.

The quiet of the cabin intruded on Joe’s thoughts, and he suddenly realized he was alone in the cabin for the first time. His eyes went immediately to the locked storage room. Springing up from the bed, Joe hurried to the door.

The padlock on the door appeared to be tightly closed, but Joe pulled on it nevertheless. Not surprising, the lock failed to open. Joe looked around the cabin, trying to think where the key might be hidden. He quickly decided that searching for a key was a waste of time. It could be anywhere – maybe even in Paul’s pocket. Joe would have to break the lock somehow. Paul would know he had been in the room, but there was no help for that. Besides, if there was something in that room that could help Joe escape, it would be worth whatever consequences he faced from Paul for entering the room.

Joe’s eyes quickly searched the cabin, looking for something heavy he could use to smash the lock. At first, he saw nothing that would serve his purpose, but his eyes strayed to the shelves. Several large cans stood on the top shelf, and one look particularly big. Joe walked quickly to the shelf and reached for the can. It was sealed tightly and had the word coffee stenciled on the outside. But more importantly, the can felt heavy.

Returning to the door, Joe studied the lock. The padlock was hung on a small metal loop bolted to the door. A latch slipped over the loop and the padlock prevented the latch from being opened. Joe took careful aim and then hammered the can onto the metal loop.

It look several minutes of pounding before the loop began to give way. Joe hammered it hard and quickly, as a mental clock in his head ticked away the minutes. He had no idea how long it would be before Paul returned but he knew he didn’t have any time to waste.

A loud crack was the sound of Joe’s success. The pounding had forced the metal to separate from the wooden door. Putting the can down, Joe grabbed the edge of the metal and pulled hard. The wood splintered and the lock came off. Joe pushed on the door and it swung open.

He hadn’t really expected to find a boat behind the door, but still, Joe was disappointed to see almost an empty storeroom. Two axes laid on the floor, along with a small hatchet. A rifle stood in the corner, with several boxes of bullets piled next to it. Several hunting knives laid next to the rifle.

Two ropes laid coiled near the axes as well as a box filled with tools.

At first, Joe was puzzled by the virtually empty room and the lock. And then it came to him. Everything in this room could be used as a weapon. Paul had locked away anything that Joe could use to harm him or force him to help Joe escape.

Thinking quickly, Joe walked into the room and grabbed one of the coils of ropes. This was the item he needed most right now. If all else failed, he would need the rope to lash together his raft. Joe walked out of the storeroom to the middle of the cabin, then stopped. He had to hide the rope, put it someplace where Paul wouldn’t find it or see him retrieving it. Joe looked around the cabin and immediately rejected hiding the rope in the house. He walked quickly to the door of the cabin and pulled it open.

Looking around, Joe couldn’t see any sign of Paul. He hurried down the hill, going deep into the woods. He was looking for a place to hide the rope, someplace where Paul wouldn’t find it, but that he could remember. Joe saw a tall bush with several red flowers growing from the top. He quickly walked to the bush and stuck the rope in the middle of its branches.

Hurrying back up the hill, Joe continued to look for any signs of Paul’s return. He breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the cabin. The man was nowhere in sight. Joe entered the cabin, pulling the door tightly closed behind him.

Inside the cabin, Joe walked back to the storeroom and stood looking in. He tried to decide which of the weapons would be most useful to him. The hatchet would help with building the raft, but so might the tools in the box. But even as Joe considered these items, his eyes went to the most logical choice – the rifle. Holding a loaded gun on Paul might convince the man to show him the boat and row him off the island.

“What do you think you’re doing?” roared an angry voice from behind Joe.

Joe wheeled around to see Paul standing inside the front door, his face almost red with rage. Before Joe could even move, Paul ran across the room and grabbed Joe’s arm. Paul yanked Joe back from the storeroom and pushed him. Surprised and off balance, Joe fell to the floor, landing on his back.

“I told you to stay away from that room,” shouted Paul as he stood over Joe.

Scrambling to his feet, Joe took a step back, giving himself some room. “You can’t tell me what to do,” shouted Joe in a voice as angry as Paul’s.

“Yes I can!” roared Paul in reply. “That’s why you’re here. To listen to me. To do what I say.”

“Then you’re going to be disappointed,” said Joe almost contemptuously.

“You WILL learn to obey me,” shouted Paul. “You will!

“And if I don’t, what are you going to do,” said Joe angrily. “Kill me, like you killed Jake Fallon. Like you killed your wife.”

Giving out an almost animal-like roar, Paul charged across the room. His hands hit Joe in the shoulders, propelling Joe backwards. Joe’s head and back slammed into the wall behind him.

“Don’t..don’t say that,” said Paul, his face only inches from Joe’s. “I killed that cowboy, yes. I admit it. It was a mistake but I shot him. But I didn’t kill my wife. Do you understand me? I never touched her. You must never, ever say that I did. Do you hear me?”

Stunned by his head cracking into the wall, Joe didn’t answer. He was trying to clear his head of the fog that seemed to surround it. Suddenly, he felt a hard slap across his cheek.

“Do you hear me?” repeated Paul. He slapped Joe again. “Answer me, boy!”

“I..I hear you,” replied Joe in a groggy voice.

“Good,” said Paul, taking his hands off Joe’s shoulders and stepping back. “Good. I’m glad you understand.”

No longer supported by Paul, Joe slip to the floor. He put his head down and rubbed the back of it.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Paul in apologetic voice. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. But you have to learn. It’s unfortunate that learning often requires some disciplining.”

Looking up, Joe couldn’t believe the transformation he saw in Paul. His demeanor had changed from a raging madman to a calm, almost serene look in an instant. The sudden shift in moods frightened Joe.

“I..I think I’ll go to bed, “ said Joe in a shaky voice as he slowly got to his feet.

“Good idea,” agreed Paul. “We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow. We’re going to start discussing some plans I have for you. You want to be well rested for that.”

Not answering, Joe started across the room, teetering a bit as he walked. He fell onto the bed, gratefully resting his sore head against the soft pillow.

Tomorrow was going to be a big day all right, he thought. Tomorrow he was going to leave this island.

*****

“Where’s Pa?” asked Adam as he dismounted from his horse in front of the house. He was covered with dust and sweat, evidence of his days on the trail.

“He left early this morning,” replied Hoss. “Did you find something?”

“No,” replied Adam shaking his head. “But I wanted to talk with him about trying something new. I don’t think this searching is getting us anywhere. I think we need to do something different.”

“Like what?” asked Hoss curiously.

“Like try to think like Tyler Williams,” said Adam. “Try to figure out where he might decide is the perfect place to hole up with Joe.”

“And how just are we going to do that?” asked Hoss, his voice tinged with disbelief.

“I thought we could contact his son in Denver,” said Adam. “Tell him what’s happened and ask him if he has any ideas. After all, he knows his father better than anyone.”

“But he hasn’t seen his father in a long time,” replied Hoss with a frown. “How’s he going to know where he is?”

“Well, it’s worth a try,” said Adam in an angry voice. “We’re not getting anywhere just riding around the countryside.”

“Maybe,” said Hoss, shaking his head.

“At least, let’s talk to Pa about it,” insisted Adam. “Where did he go?”

“He rode down to that settlement near Fallen Leaf Lake,” replied Hoss. “Said he wanted to talk with those people down there again.”

“That’s not going to help,” Adam said with a frown. “You already talked to them.”

“I know,” answered Hoss with a sigh. “But he couldn’t think of anything else to do, and he didn’t just want to sit around.” Hoss’ face soften. “He misses Joe, Adam. He misses him a lot.”

“I know,” agreed Adam softly. “We all do.” Adam looked down for a minute, lost in his own thoughts. Then he looked up. “When will Pa be back?”

“Tonight, probably late,” said Hoss.

Nodding, Adam turned back to his horse. “I’m going to get some food and rest. When Pa gets back, I’ll talk with him about contacting David Williams.”

“Sure, Adam,” agreed Hoss, turning back to the house. “Whatever you say.”

*****

Hidden in the brush, Joe pulled tightly on the rope, testing to make sure the lashing was secure. He glanced around him, checking once more to make sure Paul hadn’t followed him down the hill. He was relieved that all seemed quiet.

Looking up, Joe saw the sun was low in the sky. It was much later in the day than he had planned to come to the lake. But he couldn’t get away from the cabin any earlier. Joe had been forced to endure a morning of lecture from Paul, a lecture that outlined new rules of behaviors as well as elaborate plans for Joe’s future. Joe had sat quietly at the table, his face impassive. He had been afraid not to agree to listen to Paul this morning, afraid that refusal would trigger another violent outburst, that would somehow prevent Joe from leaving for the lake. So he had sat quietly at the table, his face turned to Paul as he talked but his mind on his plans to escape. Finally, after lunch, Paul had agreed that he could go down to the lake. Joe’s excuse what that he wanted to think about what Paul had said that morning. The idea seemed to please the man.

As he pulled on the rope once more, Joe inspected his raft, and he even he had to admit it was a pitiful looking craft. It was small – there would be barely enough room for him to kneel on it – and the thick branches were of different lengths. Though fairly straight, the branches hadn’t fitted tightly, and Joe had caulked the gaps with mud which he hoped had tried into hard dirt by now. He wasn’t even sure the thing would float. But Joe had to try. He couldn’t endure the thought of spending even another hour on this island, trapped with a madman.

Moving to the edge of the water, Joe pulled the raft beside him. He slipped off jacket as well as his boots and socks. He knew there was a fair chance that the raft would overturn or be swamped, and he didn’t want to be pulled down by anything on his feet if he went into the water. Joe looped a the end of the rope that held the raft together around his left wrist and tied it. He also knew if he ended up in the water, his only hope would be to cling to the raft, to use it to keep his head above water. He didn’t want to take a chance on losing the raft.

Taking a deep breath, Joe picked up his make-shift oar and stepped into the water. He slowly pulled the small raft into the water next to him and watched with satisfaction as the craft bobbed and floated on the edge of the lake. Joe pushed the raft out a bit farther taking a few more steps into the water. He could feel the icy cold of the lake already beginning to chill his ankles and feet. Joe pushed the raft in front of him and climbed on.

The sudden addition of Joe’s weight cause the raft to sink under the water, and Joe was afraid his escape plan was going to come to an abrupt end, But the raft bobbed back up, the buoyancy of the wood overcoming his weight. With a triumphant whoop, Joe knelt on the raft and started paddling.

Joe knew the current around the island ran from left to right, so he had entered the water on the far left side of the island. He knew he would have to paddle across the current, and that the current would more than likely pull the raft around the island. He hoped he could get across the current and close to the mainland before he was pulled out into the lake. Joe didn’t care where he landed, as long as it was away from the island.

Paddling furiously, Joe was making good progress away from the island. He was yards away from it when he heard the shout.

“No!” called a voice that Joe knew could only be Paul’s. “No! Don’t do it! Don’t leave me!”

Ignoring the voice, Joe continued paddling. He didn’t bother to look back, both because he was afraid it would tip his fragile balance on the raft and because he didn’t care about Paul’s frantic pleas.

Joe heard the voice shouting more words, but the sound was father away and harder to understand. Joe smiled, knowing he was leaving his island prison behind.

Continuing to paddle, Joe lost track of how long he had been on the water. The raft was drifting and the resistance Joe felt in the water was stronger. He knew he must be in the current, and he dug the paddle deeper into the lake.

Concentrating on staying afloat, Joe didn’t hear the renewed shouts behind him. But he heard the shot, and he saw the bullet whiz into the water.

Startled, Joe froze for a moment. He couldn’t believe that Paul would shoot at him. He had believed that once he was gone, Paul would accept the inevitable. Two more shots were fired and two more bullets splashed into the water. Both were a good distance from Joe. Joe leaned forward and began paddling harder. He was convinced that Paul was only trying to scare him, to force him into turning the raft around. Joe had no intention of turning the raft.

Another trio of bullets splashed into the water, these much closer to the raft. Joe twitched in surprise but continued to paddle grimly. The next bullet came even closer to the raft, but Joe did his best to ignore it.

Joe wasn’t sure if the last bullet was poorly aimed or aimed with great care. It didn’t really matter. The last bullet didn’t land in the water. It struck Joe in the back of the right shoulder, digging it’s way into his flesh.

As the bullet struck, Joe arched his back in shock and pain. Then he toppled forward and to the right. The sudden shift of weight tipped the raft, and Joe plunged into the icy water of the lake.

The shock of the cold water combined with the shock of the bullet paralyzed Joe. For a few seconds, nothing worked – not his legs, not his brain, and not his lungs. Water filled Joe’s mouth, but his frozen lungs didn’t suck it in. Joe simply hung in the water as an unfeeling body, a rag doll being buffeted by the current.

Joe’s left arm was suddenly yanked upward, pulled to the surface by the raft that had bobbed to the top of the water. The movement sparked a survival instinct; Joe’s brain suddenly ordered him to close his mouth, hold his breath and kick. Without conscious thought, Joe obeyed the part of his brain that seemed to be in charge. His powerful legs kicked hard and his mouth clamped shut. Within seconds, Joe’s head broke the surface of the water.

Emerging from the water seemed to clear Joe’s head. Immediately, he began to gasp for air. His legs kicked harder, pushing his shoulders out of the water. Joe coughed up some water, then gasped for more air. He saw the raft floating in front of him, still tied to his left wrist. Joe pulled at the rope and kicked with his legs until the raft was next to his head. He reached out with his left arm and grabbed the rope that lashed the wood together. He pulled and tugged until he somehow managed to get the upper half of his body on the raft.

Breathing hard and coughing up water, Joe laid across the raft, his head resting on the wood. His legs and right arm floated in the water as his left hand holding onto the lashing with an iron grip. For a minute, Joe simply clung to the raft, thankful to be alive. But he felt the raft moving, drifting rapidly, and Joe realized his gratitude might be short-lived. The current was pulling the raft around the island and toward the middle of the lake.

Lifting his head, Joe looked around. He could see the shoreline to his right, but he wasn’t sure if it was the shore of the island or the mainland. He was disoriented and confused. He knew he had to start kicking, start propelling the raft across the current. But he also wanted to go in the right direction. He didn’t think he would be able to bear it if he propelled himself back to the island.

Pulling his right arm toward the raft, Joe felt a searing pain. The cold water had numbed his shoulder but the movement caused his wounded shoulder to begin aching. Gritting his teeth, Joe pulled his arm onto the raft, and pushed his head and shoulders up. Joe looked straight ahead of him, and saw a channel of water, a channel whose not so distant mouth widened into an endless expansion of blue lake.

Quickly, Joe turned the raft to his left and started kicking. He knew if the lake was in front of him, the mainland was to the left. All he had to do was keep the raft heading in that direction – and hope he could cross the current before he drifted past the land.

For a moment, the raft seemed to be stalled in the water, held between the power of the current and the strong kicks of the man who clung to it. But the hours of riding had developed powerful muscles in Joe’s legs, and his strong kicks began to inch the raft forward.

Joe’s world was reduced to two things – holding onto the raft and kicking with his legs. Nothing else mattered. His body felt nothing but pain, a searing pain from his shoulder, and fiery protests from his aching leg muscles. His left hand began to cramp as it held tightly to the rope. Joe’s mind was blank, unable to comprehend any rational thoughts. The pain and increasing fatigue robbed him of the ability to think of anything but trying to survive. His legs continued to churn the water, kicking with an almost mechanical rhythm.

Lost in his mindless activity, Joe had no idea how long he had been the water or that he was slowly approaching the shore. It took Joe a minute to realize his feet were scraping the bottom of the lake, and even longer to understand what that meant. He lifted his head and saw a small beach only yards away. Joe stopped kicking, and eased himself cautiously off the raft, refusing to believe he was in shallow water. But his feet felt the soft mud underneath them and as Joe stood, the water came to only mid-thigh. Joe waded forward, dragging the raft in his wake. He walked through the water until he reached the small beach and even then took a few more steps across the hard sand. He walked until his legs finally buckled and he fell to the ground. Laying on the hard packed earth, Joe fell into an exhausted sleep.

*****

“You’re sure you haven’t seen a man that fits either of the descriptions I gave you,” demanded Ben as he faced the trading post owner. “Neither of them?”

“I already told you, mister,” growled the owner, “just like I told that big fellow. I saw the man with the beard once, maybe three months ago. I’ve never seen the young fella.”

“Maybe someone else saw them, someone else sold them supplies when you weren’t here,” suggested Ben.

“Mister, I’m always here,” replied the owner in exasperation. “Where am I going to go?” He saw the disappointment on Ben’s face. “But you might ask Charlie over at the stable, or check at Bloody Mary’s down the street,” he added sympathetically. “Maybe they seen something, especially at the saloon.”

“I already have,” answered Ben with a sigh. “They don’t know anything.”

“Well, I’m sorry, mister,” said the owner, shaking his head. “I wish I could help. I already promised that big fella I’d send word if I see them.”

“Thank you,” said Ben, with a nod. He turned and walked out of the trading post.

Standing by the hitching post, Ben absentmindedly rubbed the nose the nose of his buckskin. Ben didn’t want to ride home, but he didn’t have any better idea of where to go. Ben decided to ride up the west side of the lake. He had ridden down the east side of Lake Tahoe to get to the trading post. Maybe riding home the other way would give him an idea as where to look next.

Pulling his brown coat closed around him, Ben smiled briefly. He would stop at Emerald Bay and visit his “thinking rock”, at least that’s what the boys had always called the large piece of granite on which Ben had like to perch as he admired the scene below. In his younger days, he had come there often, using it as a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the ranch and to think about his problems and worries. He had often found solutions in the peaceful surroundings. Maybe the “thinking rock” would work once more.

Climbing into the saddle, Ben turned his horse and walked him away from the trading post. The thought of Emerald Bay was drawing him like a magnet. Suddenly, Ben couldn’t wait to get there.

*****

Water lapped gently against Joe’s chin, waking him from his sleep. At first, Joe thought he was still on the raft, still floating endlessly on the lake. But he felt the hard ground under his body, and gritty dirt against his cheek. Joe knew he was on solid land, although for some reason there was water on that land also.

Sitting up slowly, Joe saw the water had risen, covering his legs and inching up his body. He realized the tide must have changed and that his small beach would soon be under water.

Even though he was tired and sore, and his shoulder throbbed with a fiery pain, Joe knew he couldn’t stay where he was. Not only was the water coming toward him, so, he suspected, was Paul.

Looking up at the sky, Joe tried to calculate how long it had been since he left the island. The sun was low, almost ready to dip behind the horizon. Joe figured he had left the island about two hours ago. He had no idea how long it would take Paul to uncover the boat from wherever he had hidden it and to get it into the water, but Joe was sure that was what Paul would do. The man wouldn’t give up on his mad scheme so easily.

For a moment, Joe wondered if Paul thought Joe was dead, killed by his bullet or drowned in the lake. Joe couldn’t take the chance. He had to disappear into the woods, and plan on playing a game of cat and mouse with Paul until Joe could reach help.

Something bumped into Joe’s left arm, and he smiled as he saw his small raft floating on the water, still tied securing to his wrist. The pitiful, dubious craft had held together and done more than it’s job. It had not only taken him from island, the raft had saved his life. Lifting his wrist, Joe used his teeth to undo the knot that held the rope around his arm. As the cord unloosened, Joe could see the rope burns on his wrist and hand – a small price to pay, he thought, for staying alive. Sitting in the water, Joe watched as the raft started to drift away, and he bade it a fond farewell.

The throbbing in Joe’s shoulder reminded him again of the bullet Paul had put in him. Joe looked down at his shoulder, and he could see the front of his shirt was stained with blood. That meant the bullet went right through him. The knowledge did nothing to ease the pain or slow the blood that was oozing from the wound, but Joe was somewhat comforted by the fact that the worry of infection was lessened. The bullet was out, and the lake water would have cleaned the wound.

Laughing ironically, Joe shook his head. He was sopping wet, without anything to protect his feet, and his shoulder was bleeding. He’d probably die of exposure, cold, or bleeding to death, but he wouldn’t have to worry about infection.

Pushing himself to his feet, Joe looked around as the water dripped in steady streams from his clothes. He wasn’t sure where he was, or which way to go. He knew the land behind him would lead to the mountains and the trail that ran through it. He would have to climb to the trail and then follow the trail to the settlement down by Fallen Leaf Lake. It was a trek that would challenging for a healthy man, much less a cold, exhausted man with bare feet and a bullet hole in his shoulder. But Joe was determined to try to make it to the settlement. The only alternative was to wait for Paul to catch up with him, and Joe would rather die than return to that island.

Sloshing through the water, Joe climbed from the beach to the grassy ledge above it. He shivered with cold, as the wind blew against his wet clothes. Joe winced as the throbbing in his shoulder grew. He looked up at the tree-covered mountain looming above him. Taking a deep breath, Joe started to walk.

*****

Tying his horse to the limb of a nearby tree, Ben walked to large, flat boulder jutting out from the side of the mountain. He sat down on the large chunk of granite, his “thinking rock” as the boys had called it, and looked out over the bay.

Emerald Bay was just as beautiful as he had remembered it. The blue waters of Lake Tahoe flowed around the island in the middle of the bay and out the large expanse of water beyond. Ben felt a sense of peace, the first he had felt in over a week.

He remembered how much Marie, Joe’s mother, had loved this sight. She had persuaded Ben to bring the family here often for summer picnics. The boys had usually grown bored at looking at the bay after a short time, and usually scampered off to play some game. But Marie had sat here for hours, just looking at the scenery, usually with Ben perched next to her, his arm wrapped around her shoulders. After Marie’s death, it had taken Ben a long time to return to return to this spot. He couldn’t remember exactly when he had come back. Probably he had stopped when he had ridden the mountain trail for some reason. But after that, he had come here often when he felt worried or overwhelmed by the task of raising his boys and building up the ranch. He always found the view lifted his spirits.

Sitting on the rock, Ben wondered if anything could lift his spirits. His youngest son was missing, in the hands of a madman. Though he hated to admit it, a small part of Ben wondered if he would ever see Joe again. Adam and Hoss were searching diligently for their brother, but Ben knew they were wearying of the search, believing it fruitless. It was only a question of time before they would try to persuade him to call it off. The work around the ranch was practically non-existent as almost all the hands were out searching. Ben could hardly believe how quickly his life had turned into shambles.

Sighing, Ben looked out over Emerald Bay, waiting for the view to work its magic on him.

*****

In the woods, Joe stumbled and fell to the ground, an act he had done more times than he could count in the last hour or so. His legs, already tired and sore from swimming in the lake, protested his demands for more movement with burning muscles. Joe’s shoulder also burned with pain, the blood continuing to tickle from the jagged hole in the skin. Although Joe had tried to walk on soft grass and pine needles, his feet were bruised and scrapped. A soft breeze blew over his wet clothes, and Joe’s teeth began to chatter with cold. Keeping to the shadows of the trees might have kept Joe from being seen, but staying in the dark woods had also prevent his clothes from drying.

You’re a mess, Joe Cartwright, thought Joe as he laid on the ground, too weak to lift even his head off the dirt. His grand plan of climbing to the road and walking to the settlement seemed absurd now. He might as well have planned to fly to the moon.

Wind rustled through the trees and Joe began to shiver even harder. He knew he had two choices. He could simply lay here and wait – wait to die of cold and exposure, or wait for Paul to show up. In Joe’s mind, it didn’t make any difference which of these two events occurred first; either one would mean the end of Joe’s life, as far as he was concerned.

The other choice Joe had was to muster whatever strength he had left and somehow make it to the little-used trail, where he could hope for a stroke of luck and a rider would come by to rescue him.

Although he was cold and exhausted, Joe knew he really didn’t have a choice. He wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and call his life over – not yet, at least. Somehow, some way, he was going to get to that road.

Getting to his feet was a task easier said than done, however. No matter how much his mind and heart desired to continue walking, the rest of his body resisted the idea. Joe felt it took all the strength he had to just move his legs, much less to get those tired limbs to bend and push his back end up from the ground. But somehow, Joe managed to do just that. Next, Joe slowly bent his left arm, and pushed his left hand against the ground. His shoulders and head rose slowly from the dirt. With his right arm dangling uselessly, Joe pushed again with his left hand until he was upright. He saw a bush to his left and grabbed one of the branches. Closing his eyes, Joe used a strength he didn’t know he had to pull himself to a standing position.

Rocking slowly, Joe held on to the bush as he got his balance. He shuffled a bruised foot forward, moving it only a few inches, and dragged his second foot to join it. He released the branch and shuffled forward another few inches. Joe took a deep breath. With his teeth chattering, Joe once more started walking toward the road – and praying for a miracle.

Joe didn’t really believe in miracles. That’s why when he emerged from the woods and saw the granite rock ahead of him, he thought he was delirious or perhaps had gone mad like Paul. It wasn’t just that he recognized the large boulder as what he had called “Pa’s thinking rock” as a kid. It was also that Joe thought he saw a man sitting on the rock, looking out over the bay.

Blinking rapidly in disbelief, Joe waited for the image to disappear. But the man stayed in front of him, a familiar figure wearing a brown coat and tan hat. Joe would have recognized the figure from a mile away, much less the several yards that separated him from the rock. “Pa!” exclaimed Joe softly.

Indescribable relief and joy flooded through Joe. He not longer felt the pain and exhaustion of his body. Taking a step forward, Joe called loudly, “Pa!”

Sitting on the rock, Ben heard a voice and turned his head in surprise, amazed that anyone else would be in the area. His surprise turned to shock as he saw the figure shuffling toward him. At first, he thought he had somehow conjured up an image of his son, that his intense desire to see Joe had caused him to picture him. But Ben knew his imagination would never picture Joe in the way he saw him now – limping barefooted toward him, hair plastered to his head, with dirt and blood smeared over the front of his shirt.

“Joe!” Ben shouted in both joy and concern. Ben jumped to his feet and started to scramble from the rock. His eyes never left the figure coming toward him from the woods, in fear that the figure would disappear if he did. “Joe!” cried Ben again as the image of his son reached out it’s hand – and then collapsed to the ground.

Ben ran to the figure laying face down in the grass and knelt next to it. Turning Joe slowly on to his back, Ben gathered his son into his arms. “Joe,” Ben said once again, this time in a soft voice filled with tenderness and wonder.

“Pa,” replied Joe in a voice filled with same emotions as his father. Joe swallowed hard. “I…got…away,” he said needlessly.

Pulling Joe to his chest, Ben buried his face into his son’s shoulder. He held Joe against him and murmured words of thanksgiving for having his son returned to him.

As he held Joe, Ben stroked his son’s head – and felt the damp hair. He suddenly realized the shirt which his hands grasped was wet. Drawing Joe back from him a bit, Ben put his hand on Joe’s face and felt skin that was cold and clammy. Removed from the warmth of his father’s body, Joe began to shiver.

“Hold on, Joe!” exclaimed Ben as he laid his son gently on the ground. Ben began to unbutton his coat, and as he did so, examined his son with his eyes. Ben could see the tell-tale signs of a bullet hole in Joe’s right shoulder. His son’s shirt was streaked with blood and mud. Large patches of dampness darkened Joe’s shirt as well as his pants. Joe’s face was pale, splotched with dirt and mud. Glancing down at Joe’s bare feet, he could see the bruises and scrapes that covered them.

Removing his coat, Ben lift his son’s shoulders from the ground and wrapped the coat around Joe. His son winced and gave out a small grunt of pain as Ben pulled the coat over his right shoulder. Ben didn’t bother to try to put Joe’s arms through the sleeves.

Holding Joe against him, Ben looked around frantically. The light was fading as day became early evening. The wind was picking up and once the sun disappeared completely, the night air would be cold. Ben had to find someplace to shelter Joe, someplace where he could warm his son.

Looking back toward the granite rock, Ben saw the flat ground underneath it, an almost bare plot of ground several feet below the stone. The rock jutted out, forming a ledge over the ground, and the earth that held the rock so firmly sloped down behind it.

Picking Joe up from the ground, Ben carried his son to the ground under the granite rock. The area didn’t offer much protection from the elements, but it was the best Ben could offer his son.

“Joe, I’ll be right back,” said Ben as he gently laid Joe on the ground. “I’m going to get my bedroll.” Joe indicated his understanding with a weak nod.

Hurrying back up the hill, Ben rushed toward his horse. He had tied a bedroll and saddlebags full of trail gear to his saddle early this morning, in the faint hope that he might learn something at the settlement which would put him on the trail of his son. Ben said another prayer of thanks for whatever divine inspiration had prompted him to bring the bedroll with him.

As Ben reached the buckskin which was contentedly picking at the nearby grass and leaves, he hesitated. He wondered if he should simply throw Joe on the horse and take his son to safely. But Ben knew it would take close to an hour to reach the settlement at the slow pace he would have to travel with Joe, and more than twice as long to get back to the Ponderosa. Joe couldn’t wait that long; he needed to be warm and dry as soon as possible.

Quickly untying the bedroll and saddlebags, Ben pulled the gear from the back of his horse. He also grabbed the canteen that was looped around the horn of his saddle. Ben started to turn away, then suddenly stopped. Dropping the bedroll, leather bags and canteen to the ground, he turned back to his horse. Ben flipped up the stirrup and quickly undid the girth that held the saddle on to his buckskin. He pulled the saddle off the horse, and dropped it to the ground. Ben reached down and grabbed the blanket from under the saddle, then picked up the other items piled nearby.

Returning to the flat ground under the rock, Ben dropped the gear into a pile and knelt next to Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed, rimmed with dark circles of exhaustion. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Joe had been in the lake far below and had climbed from the water to the mountain road high above. What Ben couldn’t begin to imagine was how Joe ended up in the lake – or where his son found the strength to make that climb with a bullet in his shoulder.

Reaching down, Ben stroked Joe’s head gently. “I’m back, Joe,” he said in a soft voice. “You’ll be warm and dry soon.” Ben wasn’t sure Joe heard him until he saw his son’s curt nod.

Reaching for the bedroll, Ben quickly untied the leather thongs around it and spread the groundsheet out next to Joe. Lifting his son slightly, Ben pulled Joe on to the heavy cloth. Picking up the saddle blanket, Ben rubbed Joe’s hair vigorously with the thick fabric, drying it as best he could. A small smile crossed Ben’s face as he worked. Joe would smell faintly like a horse when he was done, but that was a small price to pay to ward off the effects of exposure.

Once he was satisfied Joe’s hair was fairly dry, Ben put the saddle blanket aside. He bent over his son and eased the coat from around him. Then Ben began to unbutton Joe’s shirt.

Joe began to shiver violently as Ben pulled open his shirt. Ben worked as quickly as he could, not wanting to expose his son’s bare, damp skin to the cool air any longer than necessary. He tugged the shirt off Joe’s left shoulder and arm, then pulled the damp cloth from under Joe’s back. Grabbing the right side of Joe’s collar, Ben began to peel the shirt off Joe’s right shoulder.

Wincing at the jagged hole in his son’s shoulder, Ben could tell the bullet had hit the fleshing area under the bone. The blood on the back of Joe’s shirt told Ben that the bullet had gone through Joe, probably from back to front judging from the size of the wound Ben could see. Blood was still seeping from the wound, a small trickle of red fluid that ran down Joe’s arm. The wound looked clean, but Ben couldn’t even guess how much blood Joe had lost.

Reaching to his neck, Ben untied the bandanna from around his throat. He wrapped the bandanna around Joe’s shoulder, and tied the make-shift bandage as tightly as possible. Joe moaned and turned his head away. “I’m sorry, Joe,” said Ben softly, truly regretting the pain he was causing his son.

Picking up the saddle blanket again, Ben began rubbing it over Joe’s arms and chest, drying the skin as quickly as he could. Satisfied that he had done at least an adequate job, Ben tossed the blanket aside. He eased Joe’s right arm into the sleeve of his coat, then reached over and did the same with Joe’s left arm. Then he pulled the coat tightly around his son, and buttoned it closed.

Moving down an inch or so, Ben quickly undid Joe’s belt and stripped the lower part of his son’s body of the wet pants. He once more used the saddle blanket to dry the damp skin. He reached for the blanket of his bedroll and tightly wrapped the blanket around Joe, tucking the warm cloth under Joe’s legs and heels. For the last time, Ben picked up the saddle blanket. This time, he folded the cloth, making a square. Lifting Joe’s head slightly, he slid the blanket underneath then eased Joe’s head down on the not-so-soft pillow.

Sitting back on his heels, Ben studied his son. Joe was as warm and dry as Ben could make him for right now. But he knew the blanket and coat wouldn’t offer the warmth Joe needed once the sun was completely down and the cold air of night made its appearance.

Once more, Ben reached forward and stroked Joe’s head. “Joe, I’ve got to get some wood for a fire,” he said. “I won’t be gone long.”

Revived a bit by the warmth of the clothes and blanket wrapped around him, Joe opened his eyes. He looked up at Ben, a desperate pleading in his eyes as he said, “Paul.”

Misunderstanding the word, Ben thought Joe was asking him for something. “What is it, son?” he said with a frown.

“Paul,” Joe repeated, saying the word more clearly but also with urgency. “He might come.”

Ben wondered for a moment who Paul was, then realized that Joe was talking about Williams. He remembered how the man had insisted Joe call him Paul, liking the way the name resembled Pa. Joe had told Ben that he couldn’t help but think of Williams as anyone other than Paul.

“Williams is in the area?” said Ben in surprise. “Is that what you’re afraid of?” Joe nodded quickly.

Once he had seen his son stumbling out of the woods, Ben had completely forgotten about the madman who had taken Joe away from him. Now he realized that if Joe had escaped, Williams must be looking for him. Ben quickly turned his head toward the woods, scanning the area for any sign of movement, any indication that someone was nearby. Ben didn’t see anything but that didn’t mean Williams wasn’t around.

Rubbing his chin, Ben tried to decide what to do. He hated the thought of leaving Joe alone for even a brief period. If Williams showed up, Joe wouldn’t be able to resist the man, and Ben might lose his son again – this time for good. But Ben also knew that Joe might not survive the cold night unless he built a fire, and to do that, he had to gather some wood.

Reaching down, Ben pulled the gun from the holster on his hip. “Here, take this,” said Ben, pushing the gun under the blanket near Joe’s left hand. “If you see Williams, don’t ask questions. Just shoot the son of…just shoot.”

A smile twitched on Joe’s lips as he nodded.

Standing, Ben took another quick look around. Again, nothing seemed to indicate anyone else was in the area. Ben hesitated, then turned and walked quickly up the hill toward his horse.

Stopping only to pull his rifle from the saddle on the ground, Ben hurried past his horse toward the growth of trees beyond the animal. He began picking up sticks and branches from the ground, gathering as much fuel as he could quickly rather than worrying about how adequate the wood might be for a fire. As he gathered the wood, Ben kept an eye out for forked branches over which he could spread Joe’s clothes. Once he got the fire going, Ben wanted to dry the clothes and dress his son again, giving him another layer of protection against the cold.

Ben wasn’t sure how long it took him to collect an armful of wood. The task took longer than he wanted, although he knew he had worked quickly. But Joe’s fear had filled Ben with a sense of foreboding also. He hurried out of the woods with his arms full of wood but also with his rifle in his hand, and his finger on the trigger.

As Ben rushed down the hill, he could see Joe laying as he had left him, alone on the flat ground. He felt a sense of relief that Williams hadn’t shown up, and an odd sense of gratitude that Joe hadn’t been forced to fire a gun at the man who had caused him and the other Cartwright such misery. Although Ben would never had admitted it to anyone, he didn’t want Joe or anyone else to kill Tyler Williams. That was a pleasure Ben wanted all for himself.

*****

The sound of crickets and the crackling of the fire were the only noise the broke the stillness of the night. Sitting next to the fire, Ben edged a bit closer, grateful for its warmth. He fed more fuel into the fire, building it up higher. As he did, Ben looked over to where Joe lay in an exhausted sleep, and felt anger and concern welling up inside him as it had most of the night. Ben gave in to the concern. H reached over and put his hand lightly on Joe’s forehead. The skin felt warm, a natural warmth and not one caused by fever.

The feel of Ben’s hand caused Joe to stir a bit and mumble something unintelligible. Removing his hand, Ben say soothingly, “It’s all right, Joe. Good back to sleep, son. Go to sleep.” Ben waited, watching until the even rhythm of Joe’s breathing told him that his son had obeyed him.

Turning back to the fire, Ben stared into the flames and allowed his anger free rein. His anger was directed at the man who had tried to take his son from him, and who had caused Joe to risk his life in order to escape from his clutches. For a few minutes, Ben indulged himself and imagined what horrible punishments he would inflict on Williams if he ever got his hands on the man. Then Ben sighed, and brought both his anger and imagination under control. His thoughts turned once more toward Joe.

When Joe’s clothes had finally dried, Ben woke his son and helped him back into the now warm albeit dirty shirt and pants. As Joe struggled into the clothes, he had told Ben in disjointed phrases about the island and Williams’ mad plan to keep Joe there in order to mold him into an obedient son. A small smile crossed Ben’s face as he thought of William’s plan. He had been trying to accomplish the same task as Williams for 22 years, and had met with only limited success. But the smile on Ben’s face quickly disappeared as he thought of the bullet hole in Joe’s shoulder. Williams obviously was prepared to use harsh methods to accomplish his aim, much harsher than Ben would have ever dreamed of employing.

Shaking his head in amazement, Ben thought about the island and Joe’s daring escape. He would have never dreamed that Williams had been holding Joe on that small piece of land in the middle of the bay. Ben had stared at the island for a long time as he had sat on his rock, and had never seen any evidence of someone living on it. Joe had downplayed his escape, too tired to give Ben more than the bare bones of what had happened. But even those small bits Joe had told him had amazed Ben. He knew his son was clever and strong, but until now, he hadn’t realized just how clever and how strong Joe could be.

Ben’s stomach rumbled, a reminder that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He glanced over at Joe, and saw his son was still in a deep sleep. Ben decided Joe needed rest more than food. In the morning, he would fix Joe as hearty a breakfast as he could manage, and then – at last – he would take his son home.

Reaching behind him, Ben opened the saddlebags on the ground. He was pawing through the contents, looking for some beef jerky, when he heard a twig snap. Ben spun quickly forward, his hand reaching for the rifle on the ground next too him. But his movement was too slow.

“Hold it!” shouted the man with the white beard as he emerged from the shadows of the night. “You pick up that gun and I’ll put a bullet in you.” The man had a rifle in his hand and it was pointed directly at Ben. Ben’s hand froze only inches from the weapon laying next to him.

“Move away from the rifle,” ordered the man, gesturing a bit with the rifle. Ben hesitated, unwilling to move away from his only means of defense. The man levered a bullet into the rifle. “Move,” the man said again. “I’m not adverse to pulling this trigger.” Believing the man meant what he said, Ben moved away from the rifle on the ground – and closer to Joe.

The man relaxed a bit as Ben moved. “Thank you for leading me to the boy,” he said, a smile crossing his face. “I had almost given up on finding him until I saw your fire. It was a beacon of light in the wilderness. I knew it was meant to lead me to the boy.”

Silently, Ben cursed himself for not shielding the fire. He had been so intent on building up the blaze so it would warm Joe and himself that he hadn’t even think how it might lead Williams right to them. “What do you want?” asked Ben cautiously.

“What I’ve always wanted,” replied the man, his voice showing his surprise at Ben’s question. “To take the boy with me, so I can give him the guidance and counsel he needs.”

“He doesn’t need your guidance and counsel,” said Ben firmly. “He’s old enough to make his own decisions, including when to ask for help. And when he does want help, it’s my job to give it to him, not yours.”

“It’s just like I told Joe,” said the man, shaking his head sadly. “You don’t deserve a boy like him. You don’t understand what he needs.”

“Oh, and you do?” said Ben in a voice filled with contempt. “What makes you think you know how to raise a son? Your own son ran away from you.”

“I made some mistakes with David,” the man admitted. “But I won’t make the same mistakes with Joe. I can show him how to live his life so it will be meaningful. I’ll guide him, and tell him what to do.”

“And what happens when you’re no longer around?” argued Ben. “How was Joe suppose to have functioned when you’re not there to tell him what to do? You would have turned him into an indecisive, unsure man, afraid to make any decisions on his own. You would have made him afraid of his own shadow. That’s no life, and certainly not the life I want for my son.”

“Your son?” said the man in a voice full of mockery. “He’s no longer your son. He’s mine. I’m his guardian now. You no longer have any role in his life.”

Feeling his son stirring next to him, Ben put a warning hand on Joe’s leg. He wasn’t sure if Joe was awake, and couldn’t risk turning to check. All he could hope was that Joe would take the cue and lie still.

“It’s up to Joe how he lives his life,” Ben said, trying to reason with the man. “I think he’s made his decision pretty clear. He was willing to risk his life, to die rather than stay on that island with you.”

“Just another example of the boy’s poor decisions,” replied the man. “He doesn’t understand. That’s why I have to take him back. To make him understand and listen to me.”

“And if he doesn’t listen, what are you going to do? Put another bullet in him?” asked Ben.

“I didn’t mean to hit him,” the man answered. “I just wanted to stop him. It was an accident.”

“An accident?” said Ben with raised eyebrows. “Just like I suppose killing Jake Fallon was an accident? And killing your wife was an accident?”

Ben wasn’t sure what he had said to trigger the sudden rage he saw in the man’s face, but he knew he had made a mistake. The man’s face turned red, and his eyes blazed. “I didn’t kill my wife!” shouted the man. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me!” He took a step forward and pulled the rifle a bit higher, aiming it directly at Ben. “You’re just like all the others,” the man yelled. “You judge and you accuse without knowing. Joe doesn’t need that kind of man in his life.” The man raised the rifle and aimed at Ben. “I’m going to do Joe a favor and remove you from his life forever.”

Seeing the rifle raised to be fired, Ben dove to his right, toward the rifle laying the on the ground. The man shot just as Ben had moved, and his bullet zinged harmlessly into the ground between Ben and his son.

Scrambling forward, Ben grabbed the rifle. He didn’t bother to aim; he merely pointed the gun at the madman in front of him. Ben cocked the rifle quickly. The man was turning his rifle toward Ben, preparing to shoot again. Ben pulled the trigger on his own gun. Almost as soon as he did, he heard another gun fire. But the sound of the second gun didn’t come from the rifle in front of Ben. The sound came from Ben’s left.

The man spun around as two bullets hit him almost simultaneously. His body arched and twitched, and then fell forward to the ground.

Surprised by the second shot, Ben turned his head to the left. He saw Joe was propped up from the ground, leaning heavily on his left elbow. In his left hand, Joe held a smoking pistol.

“Are you all right?” Ben asked his son quickly.

Joe didn’t seem to hear the question for a moment. He continued to stare in to the area where the man had been standing. Slowly, Joe turned his head to face his father. “Is he dead?” asked Joe in a voice devoid of emotion.

Rising slowly from the ground, Ben walked to the body a few away. He kicked the rifle out of the man’s hands, then crouched to turn the body over.

There was no doubt the man was dead. Ben could see that even before he felt for a pulse. The man’s eyes were open, wide with surprise, and blood trickled out of his mouth.

Two bullets had entered the body, one near the shoulder and one in the middle of the chest. There was no doubt which bullet had killed the man. But Ben couldn’t be certain which gun had fired the fatal bullet. Perhaps it was better that way, thought Ben. He knew he hated the man and suspected Joe felt the same way. Neither of them would ever be sure if the hate had caused them to kill Williams. It might ease both their consciences a bit.

Ben stood and turned to where Joe was watching him anxiously. “He’s dead,” said Ben.

“Are you sure?” asked Joe, his voice sounding apprehensive.

“I’m sure,” answered Ben firmly.

Nodding, Joe turned to look away. He suddenly sagged to the ground, and his body began to quiver.

Rushing back to Joe’s side, Ben gathered son into his arms. “It’s all right, Joe,” he said in a soothing voice as Joe sobbed his relief into his father’s chest. “It’s over now.” As Ben stroked Joe’s head in comfort, he looked toward the body laying on the ground. “It’s over, Joe. He won’t ever come after you again.”

*****

“Hey, Joe,” Hoss said with a grin as he walked into the house. “We got another letter from you.”

Looking up from the chair by the fire, Joe asked his brother. “Yeah? Where am I now?”

Looking down at the envelope, Hoss read the postmark. “Reno,” he said. He looked back up at Joe. “Boy, you sure have gotten around these past few weeks,” Hoss added with a grin. “Sacramento, Stockton and now Reno.”

“Well, I like to be on the move,” answered Joe with a tight smile.

The door opened behind Hoss, and Ben and Adam walked into the house. “Is that the mail?” asked Ben, seeing the letters in his middle son’s hand.

“Yeah, Pa,” replied Hoss with a nod. “I was just telling Joe we got another letter from him. This time from Reno.” Hoss turned back to his youngest brother. “Want to read it, Joe?”

Looking down at the book in his hand, Joe shifted his right arm a bit, making it more comfortable in the sling that supported it. “No thanks,” said Joe curtly.

“I’ll take it,” said Ben quickly, snatching the letters from Hoss’ hand. He had no intention of opening the letter and reading the nonsense his son had supposedly written. As soon as Joe was out of the room, Ben was going to throw the unopened letter into the fire.

Looking across the room at Joe, the only visible sign Ben could see of his son’s ordeal was the injured arm resting in the sling. It was hard for Ben to realize that almost four weeks had passed since he carried his son home, his arms wrapped securely around Joe as the two had shared Ben’s horse.

Weak and sore, Joe had said little on the ride; in fact, he had slept most of the way. But Ben remembered Joe suddenly waking during the ride, and frantically struggling to free himself from Ben’s grasp until Joe had realized it was his father, and not Williams, who held him. And what Ben remembered most about that ride was Joe asking him once more if Williams was really dead. Ben could still hear the tremor in Joe’s voice, a reflection of both his son’s unhealthy state as well as his lingering fear.

After the brief but joyous reunion between Joe and his brothers, Ben had carried his son to his bed. The doctor had assured Ben that all Joe would recover, that all Joe needed was rest. But Ben knew the doctor didn’t fully understand the harm that might have done to his son, the injuries that might have inflicted to other than Joe’s body. So for two days, Ben sat by Joe’s bed, wanting his face to be the first one Joe saw when he woke, and the last one Joe saw before falling asleep. He wanted to erase any image of Tyler Williams from Joe’s mind, if he could.

Joe hadn’t asked where Hoss and Adam had disappeared to in the days after his return, and Ben didn’t volunteer the information. Ben had waited until Joe was asleep, and even then, had given Hoss and Adam their instructions in a low voice in the living room below. His older sons had reported back to their father the same way – in low voices, talking after Joe had fallen asleep in his room. Ben had been satisfied with what Adam and Hoss had told him.

What Ben had wanted to do was destroy any evidence that Tyler Williams had ever existed. Hoss assured his father that the body had been buried deep in the woods, far away from the granite rock and the view from the large stone. Adam had told his father of finding the surprising large rowboat beached near the lake. He and Hoss had rowed to the island and had easily found the cabin hidden in the trees. It had taken Adam and Hoss almost three days to destroy that cabin, scattering the logs around the island. Most of the contents had been buried in a large hole they had found in the side of the hill, a hole in which Adam had guessed the boat had been buried while Joe was on the island. What items Adam and Hoss couldn’t bury, they burned or threw into the lake. They had found no personal belongings in the cabin other than a few clothes and books. Adam has assured Hoss that David Williams would want not want those reminders of his father. Adam’s conversation with David in Denver had convinced Adam that the younger Williams was not interested in any legacy from his father. The only things Adam and Hoss had brought back from the island was Joe’s jacket and boots.

The one thing that might remind Joe of his ordeal that Ben couldn’t destroy was Emerald Bay. But Ben was sure he could find reasons to keep Joe from that side of the lake, to make sure his son never had to look at that view again. Ben wasn’t even sure he ever wanted to see the bay again.

Just when Ben had been sure that nothing remained that would remind Joe of Williams, the letter from Sacramento had arrived. Hoss had thought it was harmless fun to announce its arrival and read its contents aloud, which he did before Ben could stop him. Sitting on the other side of the room at the time, Joe had listened with a strange look on his face. Although Joe had joked about the letter, as well as made fun of the words inside which praised Williams and the guidance he was giving Joe, Ben had not been fooled. He had seen the troubled look in Joe’s eyes when Joe hadn’t been aware that he father was watching. The second letter, the one from Stockton, had shown up about a week later. Joe had seen that letter also before Ben had had a chance to burn it.

And now another letter. Ben wondered how many of those accursed things would show up, and over what time period.

“Pa, is there anything in there from Denver?” Adam asked, his eyes sending a message to Ben.

“What?” said Ben a bit startled. He quickly flipped the through the letters. “No, um, no there isn’t.”

“All right,” said Adam, trying to sound indifferent. “I’m kind of expecting something, so keep an eye out for a letter from Denver for me, will you?” He had written David Williams about what had happened and of his father’s death. Adam didn’t really expect a reply – what could David say to the Cartwrights? But he wanted to be sure to intercept any reply that might show up.

“Pa, I think I’m going to go for a ride,” said Joe, putting his book aside.

Frowning, Ben said, “The doctor said to keep your arm in a sling and no riding until Friday.”

“Friday is day after tomorrow,” said Joe with a shrug. “That’s close enough, isn’t it?”

Hesitating, Ben thought before answering. He had been very careful these last few weeks not to give Joe orders. He had vowed to do what he told Williams, to let Joe make his own decisions. But he now he realized that vow was going to be impossible to keep. He couldn’t simply allow his son to do whatever he wanted, not if what Joe wanted to do seemed unwise. Ben looked at Joe and saw his son watching him expectantly. He realized Joe in some way also wanted his father to do tell him what to do – at least, to tell him occasionally.

“No, it’s not close enough,” said Ben in a stern voice. “The doctor said Friday. You will not remove that sling or get on a horse until Friday, do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” said Joe, in a resigned voice. But the look on Joe’s face told Ben that he really didn’t mind his father’s rebuke. Ben gave a small sigh of relief.

“Joe, do you think that Williams fellow really killed his wife?” said Hoss curiously. His question was followed by a quick poke in the ribs from Adam’s elbow, and a stern look from Ben. “I was only asking,” mumbled Hoss, looking down.

“It’s all right, Hoss,” Joe assured his brother. “I don’t mind talking about it.” Seeing the astonished look on Ben’s face, Joe added. “Everyone has been avoiding talking about Williams, avoiding his name like it causes plague or something. It’s better if it’s out in the open. We can’t spend the rest of our lives walking on egg shells around the subject, trying to pretend it didn’t happen.”

“I’m surprised you feel that way,” said Ben carefully.

Shrugging, Joe said, “It happened, Pa. Nothing is going to change that or make me forget about it. The best thing to do is just deal with it.”

Suddenly, Ben wondered if trying to get rid of all evidence of Williams’ twisted scheme had been the right thing to do. He had thought that removing anything that might remind Joe of that man would be best for his son. But hearing Joe’s words, Ben realized he could never eliminate everything that had to do with Williams’ and his sick plan. If there were more letters, Ben couldn’t stop them from showing up. And he certainly couldn’t erase his son’s memory.

Although his intentions had been good, now Ben felt that perhaps Joe needed something different, some reassurance that his life would return to the way it had been despite the disruption Williams has created. Ben wondered what he could do to offer his son that reassurance.

Turning to Hoss, Joe said, “No, I don’t think Williams killed his wife. I think that was his problem, or at least part of it. He didn’t kill his wife, but no one would believe him, not even his own son. He needed to find someone who would listen to him, someone who would believe it when he said he was innocent. I think he was trying to create that person. “

Smiling wryly, Adam said, “I’m not sure he made the best choice in picking you to create into his willing slave. He needed someone a little less bull-headed.”

“You calling me bull-headed?” said Joe, feigning shock.

“And stubborn, and quick-tempered, and rash,” added Hoss, counting off Joe’s faults on his fingers.

“All right, I get the picture,” said Joe with a laugh. He shook his head. “I guess maybe I wasn’t quite the right kind of person for Paul to try to guide through life.” Looking over at Ben, Joe smiled, “Besides, I already have someone to give me advice – whether I want it or not. And we know Pa is always right.”

Thinking of how he had asked Adam and Hoss to destroy all traces of Williams’ island cabin, Ben shook his head. “I’m not always right, Joe. Sometimes I may do things which I think are right at the time, but they may not always turn out to be the best solution.”

“Hey, mark that down,” said Joe with a laugh. “Pa has finally admitted he might be wrong once in awhile.”

Smiling back at Joe, Ben made a decision. “Joe, how would you like to take a ride with me tomorrow?” he asked. “In the buckboard, not on horseback,” he added quickly.

“Sure,” said Joe, a bit surprised. “Where are we going?”

“I thought we might ride out to what you boys call my ‘thinking rock’,” said Ben. “I think maybe you and I should take another look at Emerald Bay.”

*****End*****

Author’s Note: Readers interested in the original meeting between Joe and Paul can go to my story entitled “Lost Son.”

 

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