Black Stallion (by Susan)

Synopsis:  Pa’s away, leaving the boys in charge of….what else?  Trouble.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  36,380


 

The moonlight glistened off the black coat of the stallion as he circled the corral. The horse held himself with almost regal dignity as he trotted slowly around his small kingdom. He knew who was the master of the corral, as did the mares that stood patiently in the center of the pen. The mares watched the stallion with unconcerned eyes, deferring to the male but not afraid of him. The stallion ignored the mares as he once more circled the corral, a king guarding his small realm. If the horse had understood what price he was going to command at the auction tomorrow, he might have been proud. But then, maybe not. He might not have been proud of what it was going to cost several men in their quest to own him.

*****

“Eat up, boys; we’ve got a lot of work to do today,” declared Adam Cartwright as he began to cut up the pancakes on his breakfast plate.

Sighing, Joe Cartwright took a sip of coffee. He looked almost wistfully at the empty chair at the end of the table. It had only been three days since his father, Ben Cartwright, had left for Sacramento. To Joe, it felt like three weeks. He didn’t understand how his brother Adam always seemed to find twice as much work that had to be done than their father.

“Come on, Joe, don’t dawdle,” Adam urged his brother. He glanced at his brother Hoss, sitting opposite Joe. “You need a hearty breakfast, like Hoss is having.”

“Adam, how come you always get to be in charge when Pa’s away,” asked Joe in an exasperated voice. “How come I never get to be in charge?”

“Because you’re 20, and I’m not,” answered Adam in an overly patient voice. He had heard this complaint many times. “Your signature on contracts isn’t even legal until next year.”

“Well, maybe that’s right,” conceded Joe grudgingly. “But how about Hoss? Why can’t he be in charge for a change?”

“Don’t want to be in charge,” said Hoss with a shrug as he chewed the large bits of pancake in his mouth.

“Don’t talk with food in your mouth,” advised Adam in an automatic tone.

“If Hoss waited until he didn’t have any food in his mouth, he’d never say anything,” cackled Joe with a grin. “He’d be known at the silent Cartwright!”

“I’ve got a big frame,” Hoss said as he speared a sausage. “I need a lot to fill it up.”

“Yeah, your frame is about as big as the one around this house,” commented Joe laughingly.

“All right,” interrupted Adam. “That’s enough fooling around. Joe, I want you to check on the herd in the south pasture. See what the grazing is like and let me know if we should think about moving them. And check the water in the creek. I saw some beavers there last week, and they might decide to build a dam on that creek. On the way back, stop by the sawmill and make sure they’re on schedule. That broken blade they had a few days ago slowed things down. I’m meeting with Vern Higgins today about renewing the timber contract for his mine, and I want to be sure we don’t commit to anything we can’t deliver on.”

Sighing again, Joe nodded. “Anything else you’d like me to do?” he asked in a weary voice. “Maybe I could stop at the lake and drain a few feet from it.”

Ignoring Joe, Adam turned to Hoss. “You ready? We’ve got a lot to get done before that horse auction.”

Wiping his hands on a napkin, Hoss nodded. “Yeah, I just got to get that list of supplies from Hop Sing.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Where are you going, Hoss?” he asked in a dark tone.

“Getting supplies today, little brother,” answered Hoss nonchalantly.

“Now wait a minute,” said Joe. He looked back and forth at his brothers. “You’re going to meet with Vern Higgins, Adam, right?”

“Right,” agreed Adam with a confused look.

“And his office is in Virginia City, isn’t it?” continued Joe.

“Yes,” Adam acknowledged with a nod. He looked at Joe cautiously, beginning to understand what his brother was thinking.

Turning to Hoss, Joe said, “And you’re going to pick up supplies, right? I assume you’re going to do that in Virginia City.”

“Sure,” replied Hoss with a frown, not understanding the question. “That’s where the store is, little brother. Been there for years.”

“Now, let’s see if I’ve got this right,” declared Joe, glowering at Adam and Hoss. “I’m making the long ride to the south pasture, checking on a bunch of dumb steers and maybe undamming a creek. Then I’m making a ten mile detour to the sawmill on the way back. You two, on the other hand, are going into Virginia City.” Joe cocked his head and his eyes narrowed again. “Doesn’t that strike you as just a tad unfair?”

“Why?” asked Hoss, genuinely not understanding Joe’s complaint. “We’re going to be working, too.”

“Oh, yeah, you’ll be working all right,” agreed Joe with a tinge of disgust in his voice. “Adam will be sitting in a nice cool office, maybe drinking lemonade, while he works on that contract. And after Hoss loads those three or four sacks into the wagon, he’ll be so tuckered out that he’ll just have to go get himself a beer. Meanwhile, I’m stuck on a dusty trail, sucking warm water from a canteen. Something is just not right with this picture.”

“Look, Joe,” explained Adam in a patient voice. “We’ve all got work to do. It just happens that Hoss and I need to be in Virginia City today.”

“Why can’t you pick up the supplies after you meet with Harris?” asked Joe. “Then Hoss could check on the sawmill.”

“Because Sam Bennett is having a horse auction, and I won’t have time to pick up the supplies and make the auction,” Adam replied, his patience starting to wear thin. “This way, Hoss and I can both take care of our business and both go to the auction.”

“It doesn’t take two of you to look at some horses,” grumbled Joe.

“You know Sam Bennett,” said Hoss. “He mixes in some good horses with some pretty average stock. It’s always a good idea to have two of us looking at his animals.”

“I can tell a good horse from a bad one just as well as Adam can,” complained Joe. “Maybe even better. Why can’t I go to the auction?”

“Joe, I’m not going to argue with you,” said Adam in a heated voice. “Now I’ve told you what I need to you to do, and I expect you to do it.”

“And just who put you in charge?” Joe asked angrily.

“Pa did!” replied Adam in a loud voice.

The mention of their father’s name brought the budding argument to a screeching halt. All three brothers glanced around the dining room with guilty looks, as if they expected Ben Cartwright to magically appear and chastise them.

“Look, Joe,” Adam continued in a reasonable voice. “I know you’re getting the rotten end of the stick today. I’m sorry, but there’s not much I can do about it. I promise we’ll make it up to you.”

“Yeah, little brother,” added Hoss in a soothing voice. “We’ll give you a nice easy day tomorrow.”

“Well, I’ve got a better idea,” said Joe with a calculating look on his face.

Now it was Adam’s turn to look suspicious. “And just what is that?” he asked in a skeptical voice.

“Well, since you’re meeting with Higgins, I think it would be better if you went out to the sawmill and made sure they can meet his schedule,” Joe answered. “I’ll check on the herd, then meet Hoss in town for the auction.”

“Sounds reasonable to me,” agreed Hoss with a shrug.

“You keep out of this,” Adam said with a frown to Hoss. He turned back to Joe.
“Why are you so anxious to go to that auction?”

“No reason in particular,” admitted Joe. “I just think we should all concentrate on what we do best. You’re good at timber contracts, and you should keep your focus on that. I’m good at horses, so I should go to the auction. Besides, you’ll know better what to check on at the sawmill than I would, especially after you’ve talked with Higgins.”

A thoughtful look crossed Adam’s face as he tried to find a flaw in Joe’s argument. As Adam considered his idea, Joe looked down, trying to hide the smug expression on his face. But Joe couldn’t resist watching Adam out of the corner of his eye.

“All right,” sighed Adam. “I guess your idea makes sense, although for some reason, I get the feeling I shouldn’t agree to this.”

Smiling, Joe attacked his breakfast with gusto. “Relax, Adam,” he said as he forked a piece of pancake into his mouth. “It’s only a horse auction. What can happen?”

*****

Leaning against the fence of the corral, Joe studied the horses Sam Bennett was offering for auction. His face was impassive, showing virtually no interest in the animals he watched. Only a close inspection would have revealed the gleam in his eye as Joe observed the black stallion circling the pen.

“Hey, Joe, see anything of interest?”

Turning, Joe saw his brother, Hoss, nearing the corral. Joe shrugged with an exaggerated air of indifference. “There’s one or two in there that might be worth bidding on.”

Leaning against the fence, Hoss peered at the horses. His practiced eye immediately spotted the stallion prancing around the pen. “That black don’t look too bad,” he said, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice.

“Yeah,” agreed Joe. “He’s got a nice build. Might be some Tennessee Walker in him. Look at the way he lifts his feet.”

“Any idea how old he is?” asked Hoss.

“I took a close look at him awhile ago,” answered Joe. “I figure he’s about five or six years old.”

“You boys ain’t thinking of buying that black stallion, are you?” said a man standing to Joe’s right. His voice was tinged with alarm.

Turning a bit to his right, Joe recognized the speaker as Abe Stevens, a rancher who had a small spread west of the Ponderosa. Stevens was an older man, as evidenced by the white hair that was visible under his battered hat and the gray in his beard.

“We might be,” acknowledged Joe in a cautious voice. “Any reason we shouldn’t?”

“Ain’t you heard?” Stevens replied. “That horse is bad luck. I’d stay far away from that animal if I was you.”

“Bad luck?” said Hoss in a puzzled voice. “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, I hear tell that the night he was born, lightning struck the barn,” explained Stevens in a serious voice. “Burned about half the place down. Then Bennett’s top hand broke his leg trying to ride him. Sam sold him about three months ago to a fellow over near Dawson. Two days later, the fellow was killed in a stampede. His widow sold the horse back to Bennett because she needed the money. About a week after Sam got him back, the horse got loose. Bennett’s men finally found him up in Coldwater Canyon. Right after they roped him, there was a rock slide. Two of Sam’s men got hurt real bad, and a horse was killed.” Stevens shook his head. “That animal don’t bring nothing but bad luck.”

“I hardly think the horse caused the barn to burn or started a rock slide,” Joe observed in a dry voice.

“Some animals is just cursed,” insisted Stevens. “And anyone who hangs around them, well, they just get cursed too.”

“Aw, Abe,” said Hoss in a skeptical voice. “You don’t believe that, do you? That’s just superstition.”

“You boys suit yourself,” Stevens responded, shaking his head. “But I wouldn’t buy that stallion, if I were you.”

“Well, you’re not us,” Joe asserted. “If the price is right, we can use that stallion to improve our stock. We’re not going to be scared off by some wild tales of bad luck and cursed animals.”

Pulling his battered hat down over his eyes, Stevens turned away from the Cartwrights. “You’ll be sorry if you buy that horse,” he muttered as he walked away.

“Hey, Joe,” said Hoss, eyeing the stallion nervously. “You don’t think there’s anything to what Abe was saying, do you? You don’t think that buying that stallion is, well, a bad idea?”

“No, I don’t,” Joe declared firmly. “Abe’s just telling tales. Nothing bad is going to happen if we buy that horse.” He clapped Hoss on the shoulder with a reassuring gesture. “Come on; help me decide which of those mares are worth bidding on.”

Joe and Hoss were still studying the horses when the four men approached them. Joe saw them coming, and watched them out of the corner of his eye. The men were dressed in worn but clean clothes. They looked like miners, with their tall boots and woven pants held up by suspenders. Each man wore a holster, but the leather belts were wrapped high around their hips, as if the men weren’t used to having them on. The holsters and the pistols in them looked new, further evidence that these were not men who were comfortable with guns.

A heavy-set man with thick arms seemed to be the leader. He walked purposely toward the Cartwrights, while the other three followed on his heels. As they came closer, Joe wondered who they were and why they were at the auction. To Joe, they looked like men more comfortable holding a pick or shovel, than the reins of a horse.

“Old man over there says you are planning to bid on that black horse,” announced the leader as he stopped next to Joe.

Turning slowly, Joe faced the men. “I don’t see where that’s any business of yours, Mr.…” answered Joe in a voice than implied curiosity rather than offense.

“Townsend, Harry Townsend,” the leader supplied. “This here is my brother Jed.” Townsend cocked his head over his shoulder toward a younger man. “The other two are our partners, Ed Neeley and Jake Campbell.”

“Please to meet you,” Joe acknowledged the men with a nod. He looked at Townsend. “I don’t want to sound rude, but it’s really none of your business whether we bid on that stallion.”

“I’m just trying to save us both some money,” replied Townsend. “We want that horse, and we aim to have him.”

“Well, then I suggest you bid on him,” said Joe politely.

“We will and we’ll get him,” Townsend stated confidently. “You won’t be able to out-bid us and all your bidding will do will raise the price. I’ll pay whatever it takes to get that horse but I don’t want to have to shell out a lot of money just because you are upping the price.”

“And why should I be concerned about the price if you’re going to buy the horse?” asked Joe.

“That stallion is coming up last,” explained Townsend. “Now if you were to hold back on buying other horses ‘cause you’re saving your money for that stallion, you’d come up with nothing. I figure I’m doing you a favor by telling you up front you won’t get him.”

“Why is that horse so important to you fellas?” asked Hoss in puzzlement.

“Me and my brother and our partners, we just bought ourselves a piece of land with some money we made from a silver strike,” Jed answered. “We got ourselves some brood mares, but we need that stallion to get our horse ranch really running.”

“But there’s lot of places where you can buy a stallion,” commented Hoss, still puzzled.

“Yeah, but we don’t know much about horses,” replied Jed. “Even a fool can tell that stallion is a good one. My brother got taken before when he brought some broken down old nag. We don’t aim to let that happen again.”

“Shut up, Jed,” snarled Townsend. He turned and slapped his brother across the face. “You don’t need tell everyone our business.” The two men standing next to Jed seemed unconcerned by Townsend’s conduct toward his brother.

Rubbing his cheek, Jed looked down. “Sorry, Harry,” he mumbled apologetically.

Turning back to Joe, Townsend demanded, “What about it? You going to stay out of the bidding?”

Joe looked at Townsend with distaste. He disliked men who used their fists to make a point. He deliberately turned his back on the four men and looked into the corral. “I’ll think about it,” said Joe, his tone clearly implying that he was dismissing the men.

The narrowing of his eyes and the red flush that was creeping up his neck showed the anger growing in Townsend. “You be smart and don’t bid on that horse,” he shouted.

Ignoring the men, Joe continued to stare into the corral.

The anger continued to grow in Townsend as he saw that Joe wasn’t going to respond. Finally, he stamped his foot. “Come on, boys,” he snapped to his brother and partners, “let’s get out of here.” Townsend turned on his heel and stalked away, the other three men following in his wake.

Leaning against the corral next to Joe, Hoss didn’t say anything for a minute or two. Finally, he asked, “Are you going to bid on that stallion, Joe?”

“Yes,” replied Joe without looking at his brother. “Whatever it costs, we’re buying that horse.”

“Townsend’s not going to like that,” advised Hoss shaking his head.

“That’s too bad,” Joe said evenly. “But I’m not going to let him have that stallion.”

“Why not?” asked Hoss.

Turning, Joe rested his shoulder against the corral and looked at Hoss. “Men like Townsend expect to get their way, and if they don’t, they get mad,” explained Joe. “You heard his brother say they don’t know much about horses. And based on what Abe said, that stallion is a handful. If Townsend gets him, he won’t be able to handle the horse. When the horse doesn’t do what he wants, Townsend probably will get angry and abuse the animal. I would hate to see that happen to a fine young stallion.”

Looking away, Hoss thought about what Joe had said, and then he slowly nodded his head in agreement. “Let’s buy ourselves a stallion,” Hoss told his younger brother.

*****

Sam Bennett’s auctions always followed the same format. Bennett brought out the average horses first, which sold for average prices. Joe supposed that Bennett hoped that one day an unsuspecting buyer would pay a lot for one of those average horses, but so far, that hadn’t happened.

The auction was being held just outside of Virginia City, in a corral with a barn attached. The site was rented regularly for horse auctions, and Bennett was a frequent customer. The horse breeder acted as auctioneer, standing on a crate in the middle of the corral. The horses had been herded into the barn, and then brought out one at a time. Bennett extolled the virtue of each horse as one of his men led it around the corral. When the bidding was over, the horse was returned to the barn for collection by its new owner after the auction price had been paid.

The Cartwrights leaned against the fence surrounding the enclosure, looking as bored as they felt while the first few horses were sold. Bennett had looked expectantly in their direction as he opened the bidding on each animal, but he wasn’t surprised when Joe and Hoss made no move to buy any of them.

When horse number six, a bay mare, was trotted out, Joe’s attention was drawn to the animal, although the bored expression on his face hadn’t changed. “That one of them?” he asked in a low voice.

“Yep,” replied Hoss, his voice equally as low.

The bidding started slowly. Joe waited until the price had reached $35, then offered $40. His bid drew looks from a number of people around the corral. The Cartwrights were known to be pretty fair judges of horses. If Joe Cartwright was interested in a horse, then the animal must be pretty good. The bidding proceeded at a much brisker pace until Joe finally bought the mare for $70.

As Sam Bennett pounded his gavel and yelled “Sold for $70 to Joe Cartwright”, Joe looked toward Townsend who was leaning against the fence a few fee away. When Townsend stared back with a malevolent expression on his face, Joe shrugged and looked away. Evidently, the name Cartwright didn’t mean anything to the miner turned horseman. It wasn’t often that Joe wanted to use his family’s name to impress someone, but in this case, he had been hoping the name Cartwright, and the imposing amount of resources attached to it, might discourage Townsend from trying to out-bid him on the stallion.

Horse number seven was trotted out as Joe walked slowly to a table near the corral gate. He glanced at the horse to confirm that it wasn’t an animal on which he wanted to bid, then continued to the table. Sam Bennett’s foreman was sitting at the table, acting as cashier.

“You got yourself a good one,” the man at the table said with a smile as Joe counted out $70 and handed it to him.

“I know,” agreed Joe with a nod. He cocked his head and studied the man at the table. “That stallion is going to cost me a lot more than $70.”

“Yeah, he should go pretty high,” confirmed the foreman. “Unless the rumors about him being cursed scare people off.”

“You don’t believe he’s cursed!” exclaimed Joe a bit alarmed that Abe Steven’s story might actually be taken seriously.

“Well, he did break my leg,” the man at the table told Joe solemnly. “And he’s black as the devil himself.” The foreman shook his head, then broke into a grin. “Naw, I don’t believe that horse is bad luck. He’s frisky, that’s all. It’s my fault my leg got broke. I didn’t check the saddle cinch, and it came loose when he bucked. I got all tangled up in the stirrup. If I had done my job right, it never would have happened. Makes a good story, though.”

Grinning back at the man, Joe declared, “Well, it will either drive up the price or drive people away. I’m betting it will drive the price up.”

“I hope you’re right, for Sam’s sake,” remarked the foreman.

Glancing at the wallet from which he had taken the bills for the first horse, Joe said, “The price might be more than I brought with me. Think Sam would be willing to wait an hour or so for his money if I have to go to the bank to get it?”

“Sure, Joe,” answered the man at the table, nodding. “We know the Cartwrights are good for the money.” The man grinned again. “Besides, if the price goes as high as you think, Sam will be more than happy to wait a bit to get that much cash.”

Nodding his thanks, Joe took the bill of sale for the mare and walked back to the corral fence.

Waiting patiently, Joe and Hoss watched as horses number eight, nine, and ten were sold to other buyers. Several of the men around the corral glanced at the Cartwrights before bidding on the animals, looking for some sign that the two men might have an interest. The buyers had conflicted feelings about any sign of interest from the Cartwrights. A Cartwright bidding on a horse confirmed that it was a good one, but none of the buyers wanted to get into a bidding war with the men from the Ponderosa. They all knew they could never match the resources available to the Cartwrights.

Horse number eleven, a roan, brought a quick nod from Hoss. “That’s the other one,” he said in a low voice. Joe gave no sign that he had heard his brother, but when the bidding was done, he had bought the animal for $85 dollars.

Seeing that the stallion was the next – and last – horse to be brought to the center of the corral, Joe sent Hoss off the pay for the mare he had just purchased. He didn’t want to take a chance on missing the bidding for the black animal.

“Now, here’s a fine young stallion,” announced Bennett as the horse was trotted around the corral. “Four years old and sound as a dollar. You can use him as working stock, breeding stock or both. You can see what a fine chest and strong legs he has, and the animal has a lot of spirit.”

“Spirit or the devil in him?” shouted one of the men from the fence. A low murmur from the other buyers buzzed around the corral.

“The horse has a lot of spirit, that’s all,” repeated Bennett in a firm voice. He looked around at the men leaning against the corral. “What am I bid for this magnificent animal?”

“A hundred dollars,” yelled Townsend.

The bid caused another buzz of comment and even Joe’s eyes widened in surprise. An opening bid of a hundred dollars was way too high, in his mind. The stallion was a fine animal, even if Sam had cheated a bit on his age, but not worth an opening bid of a hundred. Joe could only guess that Townsend was trying to keep all the other buyers from bidding.

“A hundred and twenty,” called Joe. Once more, a hum seemed to speed around the fence.

“A hundred and fifty,” countered Townsend.

“Two hundred,” shouted Joe in a firm voice.

An almost eerie quiet descended on the corral. The other men watched silently as the bidding progressed. They knew a bidding war when they saw one, and no one wanted to miss the action.

“Two fifty,” yelled Townsend. He turned and glared at Joe.

“Three hundred,” replied Joe almost indifferently.

“Four hundred dollars,” said Townsend. He shrugged off the hand one of his partners had put on his shoulder as a warning.

“Four fifty,” offered Joe.

Swallowing hard, Townsend turned and talked with the three men behind him briefly. His brother stood impassively as the other two men shook their heads. Townsend made an angry comment which Joe couldn’t hear. Joe saw Townsend push the two men away with a violent shove, and again he vowed the young stallion would not fall into the hands of such a man.

“Five hundred dollars,” shouted Townsend. He gave Joe a nasty grin, confident that he had out-bid his opponent at last.

“Five fifty,” said Joe immediately.

“You can’t do that!” cried Townsend. “Five hundred dollars is all we have!”

“Then you should have brought more money,” replied Joe in a cold voice. He turned to the man standing on the crate in the middle of the corral. “What about it, Sam? Is the horse mine?”

Almost too astonished to speak, Bennett turned toward Townsend. Bennett had expected a good price for the stallion but never in his wildest dreams had he expected to the bidding to pass five hundred dollars. “Are…are you done, mister?” he asked Townsend in a shaky voice.

Reaching into his vest, Townsend pulled out a wad of bills. “This here is my five hundred dollars,” he declared. “I want to see the color of his money.”

“I don’t need to see Joe Cartwright’s money,” replied Bennett, his eyes narrowing. “I don’t know who you are, mister, but I do know the Cartwrights own the biggest ranch in Nevada. And they have never, ever failed to pay a debt. Now, unless you have more than five hundred and fifty dollars in that bankroll, you put it away and shut up!”

If looks could kill, both Bennett and Joe would have been dead men. Townsend’s eyes burned as he slowly put the money back in his pocket.

“Anyone want to go higher than five fifty?” asked Bennett in a hopeful voice as he surveyed the men around the fence. The breeder’s comment broke the tension and laughter greeted his question. Bennett grinned in return. He pointed to Joe. “Sold to Joe Cartwright of the Ponderosa for five hundred and fifty dollars!” said Bennett in a gleeful voice. “Joe, I do believe you’ve just sent my wife on a shopping spree!”

“Glad to do it, Sam,” responded Joe as the laughter reverberated around the corral once more. He turned his head and watched as Harry Townsend and the other three men walked away. Jed Townsend walked a few feet behind the others. The younger man stopped and stared into the corral for a minute, the disappointment clearly evidenced on his face. Jed watched carefully as the stallion was led back into the barn. Almost as if he felt Joe’s eyes on him, the younger Townsend turned and looked across the corral at the man who had out-bid his brother. The disappointment on Jed’s face turned into a look of determination. Then he spun around and rushed to catch up with his brother.

“Whoowhee! Five hundred and fifty dollars!” a voice exclaimed behind Joe. “That’s a lot of money.”

Turning, Joe looked into Hoss’ broad face. His brother’s big white hat was pushed back on his head and Hoss was shaking his head.

“We agreed we were going to buy that stallion no matter what it cost,” said Joe defensively.

“I know we did, Joe,” Hoss acknowledged. “I just didn’t think it would cost that much.”

“Would you rather have had that stallion go to Townsend?” demanded Joe.

“Nope,” Hoss answered in an agreeable voice. “You did the right thing. I’m just wondering what Pa is going to say when he hears about it. I got a feeling that he’s not going to be too happy with us.”

“Well, that depends,” replied Joe slowly.

“On what?” asked Hoss.

“On whether we can figure out a way to blame this on Adam somehow,” said Joe with a grin.

*****

Standing in the shadows at the side of the barn, Jed Townsend watched as one of the buyers led a horse away. Bennett’s foreman stood near the door, next to another hand. “That the last one?” asked the hand.

“All except the stallion,” confirmed Bennett’s foreman. “Joe Cartwright is going to come get him as soon as he settles up with the boss.”

“All right with you if I head for town?” asked the hand. “I could sure use a beer.”

“Sure,” agreed the foreman. “Cartwright should be along soon. I’ll meet you over at the Silver Dollar as soon as he collects his horse.”

Watching Bennett’s man walking toward town, Jed moved a bit deeper into the shadows. He wanted to wait until he knew Bennett’s foreman was settled on the bench by the barn door. As he waited, Jed thought again of the stallion. While his brother and their partners drowned their sorrows in beer at the saloon, Jed had sat outside the Silver Door, his thoughts consumed with the black horse and his desire to have it. He had seen the Cartwrights leading the two mares they had bought down the street, and watched as the animals were tied to the back of a buckboard near the general store. The mares had stood placidly behind the wagon.

When Jed had realized the stallion wasn’t being led into town, his hopes had soared. He began to think that something had gone wrong with the deal, and that he still had a chance to own the horse he coveted. But his hopes were dashed when he saw Joe Cartwright walking toward the bank. Jed saw Sam Bennett standing outside the door of the bank, waiting patiently. As the two men entered the bank, Jed knew the deal was done. The stallion belonged to the Cartwrights.

As Jed waited in the shadows, he thought again of the animal inside the barn. Jed was honest enough with himself to admit that he wanted it horse not only because it was a fine animal, but also to prove to his brother that he wasn’t as useless as Harry thought he was. All right, maybe he had messed up things more than once, Jed thought to himself. But this time, he was going to make things right. He was going to take that stallion and ride him up to their ranch in the hills. They would have to keep the horse hidden for a bit, but once the furor died down, they could breed the horse as they had planned. Jed was sure that his brother would be proud of him.

Bennett’s foreman had settled on the bench by the barn door. The man was leaning back, his hat pulled low over his eyes. Jed knew the time was right. Creeping around the side of the barn, he walked silently toward the foreman. Jed pulled the new pistol from his holster, the shiny gun that his brother had insisted Jed and their partners needed now that they were ranchers instead of miners.

As Jed raised the gun, the shadow of his arm crossed the foreman’s face. “Hey!” shouted the man, looking up into the face of his assailant. Jed brought the gun down swiftly, knocking the foreman to the ground in an unconscious heap.

Holstering his pistol, Jed hurried into the barn. He stopped inside the door, giving his eyes a minute to adjust to the dim light. All the stalls were empty, except the one in the middle on the right. There, in the middle stall, stood the black horse.

Hurrying forward, Jed rushed into the stall. He was as ignorant about horses as his brother, so he didn’t bother to stroke the horse to let the animal know he was approaching. Jed also didn’t realize he was sweating both with excitement and the fear of getting caught.

Startled by the sudden appearance of the man in the stall, the horse shied and whinnied. The stallion smelled the excitement and fear of his intruder, and that made the animal even more nervous. The horse began to prance in the stall, his whinnies growing louder.

“Shut up,” Jed hissed at the horse, as if the animal would understand him. He quickly untied the lead rope from the ring in the stall. The other end of the rope was attached to the halter around the stallion’s head. Jed snapped the rope, hoping that would make the horse back up.

Frightened, the stallion backed up quickly, yanking Jed from the stall. Jed fell to his knees, dropping the rope as he hit the straw-covered floor. The horse backed away even further from the intruder.

Scrambling to his feet, Jed grabbed the lead once more, and again he snapped the rope. “Settle down,” he ordered the animal in a loud voice.

The voice and the snapping rope scared the stallion even more. The horse began to scream and tried kick the man in front of him. Jed saw the hoof coming toward him, and jumped out of the way.

“Try to kick me, will you!” snarled Jed. He shortened his grip on the rope, and picked up the loose end with his right hand. Jed flicked the end of the rope into the stallion’s face, stinging the animal’s nose.

Thoroughly panicked, the stallion began to rear and scream. Jed held the rope even tighter, preventing the horse from raising its feet more than a few inches from the ground. Jed began to whip the rope across the horse’s face.

“What do you think you’re doing?” yelled a voice from the front of the barn.

Surprised, Jed dropped the rope and spun around. Standing in the doorway with their guns drawn were Joe and Hoss Cartwright.

Suddenly free, the stallion ran forward, brushing Jed and knocking him to the ground as the animal made a break for freedom through the open door. Joe and Hoss jumped aside, letting the horse go. Both were smart enough not to try to stop a horse running right at them. Distracted, they didn’t realize Jed had scrambled to his feet and pulled his gun until they heard the click of the hammer.

“Drop your guns,” Jed ordered.

Turning slowly, Joe and Hoss faced Jed, their guns both still in their hands.

“You ain’t dumb enough to think you can shoot both of us, are you?” asked Hoss in a menacing tone. “You hit one of us, and the other will kill you before you can cock that gun again.”

“Drop your guns,” Jed said again, but this time there was more than a trace of doubt in his voice.

“Put the gun down,” Joe advised in a cold voice. “Nobody’s gotten hurt yet. Let’s keep it that way.”

Staring at the Cartwrights, Jed saw the guns in their hands were steady. His own gun was wavering, and Jed could feel the sweat on his fingers and palm.

“Put the gun down,” Joe repeated. “I’m not going to tell you again.”

The two parts of Jed’s brain warred with each other. One part insisted he be reasonable and drop the gun. The other part insisted that he could get away if he pulled the trigger. For a moment, it looked as if the reasonable side of Jed’s brain would win. He lowered the gun. But then, for some inexplicable reason, the other half of Jed’s brain took over. He quickly raised the gun again and pulled the trigger.

The three shots rang out almost as one. Jed’s bullet went wild, digging into a post several feet away from the Cartwrights. But Hoss and Joe’s bullets were true. One burrowed into Jed’s shoulder while the other put a hole in Jed’s thigh.

As Jed fell to the floor screaming in pain, Joe and Hoss rushed forward. Hoss quickly kicked away the gun the younger Townsend had dropped. Joe bent over the form on the ground, then called over his shoulder. “Get the doctor, Hoss – and the sheriff.”

Looking up into Joe’s face, Jed had one last conscious thought. Boy, thought Jed as he drifted off into the pool of darkness, Harry is really going to be mad this time.

*****

By the time Harry Townsend reached the barn, the building was filled with people. Townsend shoved aside several curious on-lookers standing just inside the door and pushed his way into the barn. “Where’s Jed?” he shouted to no one in particular. “Where’s my brother?”

Gesturing with his head, Sheriff Roy Coffee replied, “He’s over there. The doc is still working on him.”

Looking toward the middle of the barn, Townsend recognized the figure sprawled on the floor as his brother. Jed was partially concealed by an older man in shirt-sleeves who was kneeling next to him. A thick white bandage was wrapped around Jed’s thigh. Jed’s shirt was open, and the kneeling man was tying a bandage around Jed’s shoulder. Townsend took a few steps closer, his legs suddenly feeling shaky.

“How is he?” Townsend asked the man next to his brother. “Is he going to make it?”

Getting to his feet, Doctor Martin brushed the knees of his gray trousers before answering. “He’s going to need a few weeks rest but he’ll be fine.”

“He’ll get plenty of rest in my jail,” declared Sheriff Coffee grimily.

“Your jail!” exclaimed Townsend with surprise. “What happened? All I know is some fella ran into the saloon and shouted my brother had been shot.”

“He was trying to steal that black stallion,” explained Coffee.

“You can thank the Cartwright boys that he’s still alive,” added the doctor. “They’re dead perfect shots. If they had wanted to, they could have put those bullets in your brother’s chest, and not just his shoulder and leg.”

“Cartwright!” Townsend spat out the name. “They the ones that did this? Where are they?”

“We’re right here,” said Joe in a quiet voice. He was standing a few feet to Townsend’s right.

Spinning toward the voice, Townsend shouted, “Cartwright! You the one who tried to kill my brother? I’ll get you for this!”

“We didn’t try to kill him,” replied Joe in an even voice. “Your brother was trying to steal the stallion. When we stopped him, he pulled a gun on us. We told him to put it down, but he fired instead. We shot him in self-defense.”

“That’s a lie!” cried Townsend.

“It’s true,” said Bennett’s foreman, who was standing next to Joe. He rubbed the side of his head. “Your brother clubbed me. I got a good look at him before he hit me.”

“No!” shouted Townsend. He looked around wildly as if he were trying to find someone who would confirm the men were lying to him.

“I’ve got some men coming with a stretcher,” interjected Doctor Martin in a soothing voice, trying to distract Townsend. “We’ll take your brother to my office. The bullet went through his shoulder, but there’s another one in his thigh I need to take out. He can rest there for a day or so before…”

“Before we move him over to my jail,” Coffee finished for the doctor.

“No!” This time the word escaped from Townsend as almost a whisper. He swallowed hard. For a moment, Townsend stood still, his eyes wide with fright. Then he spun around. Townsend grabbed the front of Joe’s shirt.

“This is all your fault, Cartwright!” Townsend shouted to a startled Joe. “If you had let us buy that horse like we wanted, my brother wouldn’t be in this mess. Now they’re going to hang my brother as a horse thief!”

Raising his fist, Townsend appeared to be ready to punch Joe. Although the two men were about the same height, Townsend outweighed Joe by almost a hundred pounds and years of mining had turned his arm and fist into a powerful weapon. Joe put his hand up in an ineffectual effort to ward off the blow.

Taking a step forward, Hoss quickly grabbed Townsend’s wrist with an iron grip. Townsend looked up, surprised that he couldn’t move his arm. “Mister, you hit my brother and you’ll regret it,” declared Hoss in a threatening voice. He shoved Townsend a bit. The startled man released Joe’s shirt and took several steps backward. Hoss took another step forward, putting himself between Townsend and Joe.

“That’s enough, mister,” said Roy Coffee, moving quickly to grab Townsend’s arm. “You’re brother isn’t going to hang. We gave up hanging horses thieves in this county years ago. But I expect that your brother is going to prison for a stretch.”

Looking at the sheriff, Townsend’s face showed both relief and worry. “To prison? For how long?” he asked.

“That’ll be up to the judge,” replied Coffee. “But I’m charging him with three cases of assault in addition to trying to steal that horse. My guess the judge will give him a couple of years, at the very least.”

Townsend’s eyes drifted from Coffee to the figure lying on the floor. “Jed,” he said softly. “What have you done?”

Turning his head a bit, Jed looked up at his brother. His eyes were filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Harry,” he answered in a choked voice. “I just…just wanted to get you that horse.”

Two men pushed through the crowd, one of them carrying a stretcher. They laid the canvass carrier on the ground next to Jed, and, with Doctor Martin’s help, moved the young man onto the litter. Townsend watched, his face reflecting his brother’s pain as he was moved.

“Take him over to my office,” the doctor directed the two men. As they lifted the stretcher and started toward the barn door, Martin turned to Townsend. “My office is in the middle of town, near the hotel,” he said in a sympathetic voice. “You can wait there until your brother is ready to see you.” The doctor followed the two men toward the door.

With a grim look on his face, Townsend’s eyes followed the men out the door.

“Mister, this is over,” stated Sheriff Coffee in a firm voice. “Your brother got caught and now he’s going to have to pay for what he did. I don’t want any more trouble out of you, you understand? You cause any grief to the Cartwrights, and you’re going to end up in a jail cell next to your brother.”

Townsend looked at Coffee, and then turned to glare at Joe. “Cartwright, this is all your fault,” he snarled. Then he brushed past the Sheriff and headed for the barn door.

“Joe, I’d watch my back for a while,” advised Coffee as he watched Townsend leave. “That fellow looks like he could be trouble.”

Giving the sheriff a small smile, Joe said, “I can handle a man like Townsend. He’s more talk than anything.”

“I don’t know, Joe,” remarked Roy Coffee, shaking his head. “He seemed pretty upset. With you outbidding him for the horse and then shooting his brother, well, he’s liable to want to even things up.”

“Don’t worry, Roy,” Hoss advised in a confident voice. “Townsend won’t bother Joe.”

“And why are you so sure of that, big brother?” Joe asked curiously.

“Well, little brother, I figure when Pa finds out you spent $550 on that stallion, he ain’t gonna let you off the Ponderosa for at least a month,” explained Hoss with a grin. “By that time, that fellow Townsend will have forgotten about you.”

“Oh,” said Joe biting his lip, “yeah.” He pulled nervously at the black gloves which covered his hands. “We’d better go find that horse. If I’m going to have to tell Pa I spent over five hundred dollars of his money, I’d at least better have the horse to show him for it.”

“The horse is outside in the corral, Joe,” Sam Bennett announced as he walked into the barn.

“Where’d you find him?” asked Joe in a surprised voice.

“Darn fool animal ran right into the middle of town,” answered Bennett, shaking his head. “I saw him and grabbed him. Figured something must be wrong if he got loose like that, so I brought him back here. Couple of fellows outside told me what happened.” Bennett looked at his foreman. “You all right?”

“Yeah,” replied the foreman, rubbing his head. “I’ve just a got a bit of a headache.” He grinned at his boss. “Ain’t nothing that a few beers couldn’t fix.”

“Thanks for bringing the horse back,” said Joe. He gave Bennett a speculative look. “You, uh, wouldn’t be interested in buying him back, would you?”

“No thanks,” Bennett responded, shaking his head. “I thought that story going around about that horse being bad luck was just that – a story….something that might get people interested in him. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe that horse is cursed.”

“Ah, Sam,” scoffed Hoss. “That’s just a bunch of baloney. Ain’t no such thing as a cursed animal.”

“Maybe,” agreed Sam. “But seems like nothing good ever happens when that horse is around. I’m glad to be rid of him.” He looked at the Cartwrights. “I hope he don’t cause you fellows any grief.”

“He just a horse, Sam,” Joe observed. He grinned at Bennett. “And an expensive one at that.”

“I don’t know, Joe,” said Sam, shaking his head. “That horse seems to cost people a lot more than just money. “

*****

Driving slowly, Hoss guided the buckboard into the yard in front of the Ponderosa ranch house. The two mares tied to the back of the wagon trotted along willingly, content to be led to their new home. Joe rode his pinto into the yard, also, keeping his distance behind the mares and the buckboard. He was leading the stallion, who was prancing nervously. The black horse hadn’t quite recovered from his fright, and being brought to a new place wasn’t calming him down any.

“I’m going to put him right in the corral,” Joe called to Hoss as he led the stallion to a small pen next to the barn. Joe was so busy getting the stallion into the corral, and then tying his own horse up to the fence that he didn’t notice Adam walking toward him.

“Well, you two are finally home,” Adam commented wryly. “I was just about to send out a search party.”

Nervously, Joe finished tying the reins of his pinto to the fence rail. “How did things go at the sawmill?” Joe asked quickly.

“Just fine,” replied Adam as he leaned against the fence and looked in at the stallion. “That’s a good looking horse,” he noted

“Yeah, the best of the bunch,” Joe proclaimed. He glanced over his shoulder at Hoss who had walked up behind Joe. “Um, we going to have any problems filling that contract?”

“No,” said Adam still looking into the corral. “We’re right on schedule. “ He shook his head a bit. “I would have never guessed Bennett would have a horse that good. How much did you pay for him?”

“He’s a real fine horse, Adam,” answered Joe nervously.

“Yes, he is,” agreed Adam. He turned to look at Joe. “How much did he cost?”

“Did you see the two mares we bought?” said Joe quickly. “They’re real good animals and I got them each for under a hundred dollars.”

Crossing his arms, Adam gave Joe a stern look. “How much did he cost?”

“I figure we can always use good stock,” continued Joe nervously. “A horse like that, well, he don’t come up for sale every day.”

“How much did he cost?” asked Adam again, his voice growing more insistent.

Joe looked toward Hoss, but found no help. His big brother was looking away, suddenly finding the barn an interesting structure. Joe swallowed hard and nervously ran his finger around the collar of his shirt. “F-F-Five…hundred and fifty,” answered Joe in a tentative voice.

“Five hundred and fifty dollars!” exclaimed Adam incredulously. “Have you lost your mind?”

Wincing at Adam’s tone, Joe added quickly, “He’s a real fine horse. You said so yourself, Adam.”

“I don’t care if he’s Pegasus,” said Adam with disbelief. “He’s not worth five hundred and fifty dollars!

“Adam, let me explain,” pleaded Joe. “See there was this fellow Townsend. He was a real mean guy.”

“Yeah, real mean,” Hoss chimed in helpfully.

“And see, he wanted to buy the horse,” Joe continued rapidly. “Well, Hoss and I knew that he’d probably mistreat him, and we decided to buy him. It just cost a little more than we thought it would….” Joe’s voice trailed off as he finished.

Frowning, Adam looked at his brothers. “Let me get this straight. You bought a horse for over five hundred dollars because you thought someone else might buy the stallion and possibly mistreat him?”

“Well, not just for that,” explained Joe. “I mean, you can see he’s a good horse, Adam. He’s young and strong and he’ll really add to our stock.”

“So you plan to breed this horse,” Adam stated.

“Sure,” replied Joe. “But he’s good riding stock, too. I mean, we can use him as a remount.”

“Have you actually ridden this horse?” asked Adam, arching his eyebrows.

“Well, no,” admitted Joe. “But Bennett’s foreman has.”

“This wouldn’t happen to be the horse that broke his leg, would it?” asked Adam, his face darkening.

“That was just an accident,” Joe insisted. “His foreman told me so.” Joe glanced over his shoulder once more toward Hoss, then turned back to his oldest brother. “Adam, he’s a real fine horse. Maybe he cost a bit more than we had thought but…”

“A bit more?” interjected Adam, cocking his head to look at Joe.

“All right, a lot more,” admitted Joe. “But he’s worth it, Adam. He really is. Besides, I just couldn’t stand by and let a bully like Townsend buy him. I just couldn’t do it, Adam.”

“Well, I suppose since you’ve already bought him, we’re stuck with him,” agreed Adam in a tone that indicated he was somewhat mollified. “But you’re the one who is going to have to tell Pa what you paid for him.”

Blowing out a breath of air, Joe scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, I know,” he acknowledged. “But Pa will understand.” Joe looked at his brothers for confirmation, but found none on their faces. “He’ll understand, won’t he?” Joe repeated, this time his voice more tentative. “Don’t you think he’ll understand?”

Clapping Joe lightly on the shoulder, Hoss nodded. “Sure, he will, little brother. You just explain it to him.” Hoss looked at Adam. “How far away do you think we should be when Joe tells him?”

“Oh, I think California sounds about right,” Adam noted dryly.

Joe looked at his brothers, his face reflecting the misery he was suddenly feeling.

*****

For the next three days, Joe’s new stallion was the center of attention on the Ponderosa. Unfortunately, the attention the horse gathered wasn’t the kind that Joe had in mind.

Someone in the bunkhouse had heard the rumor about the stallion being bad luck, and spread the story. The men repeated the rumor to each other, and with each telling, the tale became slightly more exaggerated. By the end of the first day, the men were convinced the animal would cause harm to anyone who came near him. The fact that the first time he had taken the horse out for a ride, Joe had ended up walking almost a mile back to the barn because the stallion threw a shoe only added to the rumors of ill fortune.

For the next few days, every time the Cartwrights looked around, there seemed to be several men leaning over the corral fence, watching the stallion. The hands seemed drawn to the animal, fascinated with the reported omen of doom in their midst. But Joe and Hoss had no luck in convincing any of the men to even get near the horse, much less ride him. Joe found himself putting the horse in the barn each evening, as well as cleaning and feeding the stallion. He was beginning to regret he had bought the horse, but for reasons different from the men in the bunkhouse. Never one to volunteer for extra work, Joe wasn’t pleased that the animal added to his chores.

Coming out of the house after lunch on the fourth day after the stallion’s arrival, Joe was surprised to see one of the hands leaning against the fence of the corral next to the barn. Seeing a look of interest on the man’s face, Joe hurried up to the corral.

“Hi, Pete!” Joe called in a voice that was a bit too exuberant. “What are you doing here? I thought you were out chasing strays.”

At first, Pete didn’t answer. In his early 40’s, Pete had worked for the Cartwright for a long time. He was confident enough of his place on the ranch that he wasn’t worried about being reprimanded for returning to the barn in the middle of the day. Pete watched the stallion circling the pen, seeming to the study the horse. Then, he sighed and shook his head. Turning to Joe, Pete finally answered. “My horse came up lame,” he explained. “I came back to get me another mount.

Joe’s face brightened, and his mouth broke into a smile. “That’s too bad about your horse,” sympathized Joe, trying to keep the excitement out of your voice. “Why don’t you take this one? He’s a good animal.”

Looking over his shoulder into the corral, Pete watched the stallion for a minute before replying. “No,” he said as turned back to Joe. “I ain’t getting near that animal. I heard he’s cursed.”

“Aw, Pete, you don’t believe that,” countered Joe, his voice filled with disgust. “That’s just a story.”

“Maybe,” answered Pete doubtfully. “But I heard he tried to kick Charlie to death in the barn the other night.”

“The horse was standing in his stall when Charlie dropped a bucket right behind him,” explained Joe in an overly patient voice. “It scared him and he kicked out, just like any horse would. It was only one kick and it didn’t even come anywhere near Charlie.”

“What about yesterday in the breeding pen?” asked Pete insistently. “I heard none of those mares would even come near him. Animals, they can sense things. Those mares knew they should stay away from him.”

“He a young stallion, Pete,” Joe replied, with a wry smile. “He just got a little, um, enthusiastic about his work. He scared those mares, that’s all. They’ll be fine around him once they get used to him.”

“I don’t know, Joe,” said Pete, shaking his head. “Some animals, you just don’t want to be around them.”

“Why don’t you try him?” urged Joe. “I’ll bet you’ll find he’s the best horse you’ve ever ridden.”

Looking back into the corral, Pete considered Joe’s suggestion for a minute, then shook his head again. “No, I ain’t going to take the chance,” Pete stated. “I’ll just go get me one of the horses out of the barn.” Pete started walking toward the structure next to the corral, then stopped. He turned back to Joe. “Sorry,” he said almost regretfully. Then Pete walked into the barn.

Sighing, Joe leaned on the fence of the corral and pushed back his hat a bit as he watched the stallion trotting around the pen. The sound of footsteps behind him made Joe turn, a smile ready to lighten his face. He was hoping that Pete had changed his mind. When Joe saw the big figure of his brother, Hoss, he sighed once more, and turned back to the fence.

“No luck getting Pete to ride him, uh?” said Hoss as he leaned against the fence next to his brother.

“No,” Joe conceded morosely. “He said he didn’t want to take the chance of riding a ‘cursed’ horse.” Joe shook his head. “I don’t get it, Hoss. This horse hasn’t done a single thing, and everyone is afraid of him.”

“Aw, you know how people get,” replied Hoss. “They hear a story, and they start believing it, even if there’s nothing to it.”

“I suppose,” agreed Joe with resignation. He put his arms on the top of the fence and rested his chin on his crossed hands. He watched the stallion as the horse continued to trot around the corral with nervous energy. “We’re going to have to do something with him. When Pa gets home tomorrow, I’m going to have to tell him what I paid for the horse. He’s going to be even more unhappy if he finds out that all this stallion has done for the past few days is eat and pace around the corral.”

“Why don’t you put him out in the pasture?” suggested Hoss. “Being all penned up like this ain’t helping the horse calm down any.”

“Yeah, I know,” Joe said. “I’m just afraid that if I let him out in the pasture, he’s going to run off or something. When I tell Pa about what I spent, I want to at least be able to show him the horse.”

Leaning against the fence, Hoss watched the stallion continuing to circle the corral. “Joe, that horse has got to get some exercise,” insisted Hoss. “You keep him penned up like this and he’s going to go crazy.”

“You’re right,” Joe admitted sadly. He stared into the corral, then suddenly his eyes widened. Joe glanced sideways at his brother, and a smile crossed his face. Straightening, Joe said, “Hey, Hoss, why don’t you take him out for awhile?”

“Me?” answered Hoss in a surprised voice.

“Sure, why not?” Joe urged his brother. “You’ve got to go down and check the herd this afternoon. Why don’t you ride him?”

“Well, um, I would, little brother,” said Hoss, looking around nervously. “But, um, I, er, I’ve got to give Chub some exercise. He’s just not getting worked like he should.”

“You can ride Chub tomorrow,” Joe persisted.

“I want to ride him today,” Hoss stated firmly.

Frowning, Joe looked at Hoss. “You’re not afraid of that horse, too, are you?” he asked.

“Me? No, no, I ain’t afraid,” replied Hoss quickly. “I just got to give Chub some work, that’s all.”

Joe stared at Hoss and said in amazement, “You are, aren’t you! You’re scared of that stallion.”

“I am not,” insisted Hoss. “I just want to ride Chub, that’s all.”

“You’re scared,” repeated Joe, beginning to laugh. “All this talk about bad luck and curses has you spooked.”

“Joe, I ain’t scared,” Hoss declared as his nose wrinkled into a frown and his chin jutted out defiantly.

“If you’re not scared, why won’t you ride the stallion?” asked Joe, his grin widening.

“I just…well, I just fit better on Chub,” answered Hoss lamely.

“You fit better on Chub!” howled Joe. He couldn’t contain his laughter any longer. Joe began to shake as his high-pitched giggle filled the air. “You’re… chicken,” gasped Joe as he began to laugh even harder.

“Now cut that out!” shouted Hoss angrily as he grabbed Joe by the arm.

“Chicken!” Joe repeated with glee.

“Dadburn it, I ain’t chicken!” insisted Hoss.

“Puck-puck-puck,” clucked Joe, sounding like a hen in a barnyard.

“Joseph, if you don’t stop right now, I swear I’m going to bash you,” threatened Hoss angrily, tightening his grip on his younger brother’s arm a bit.

“All right, all right,” said Joe with a grin. He pulled his arm away, and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. “It’s all right, big brother. I won’t let that mean ol’ horsy hurt you.” Joe patted Hoss lightly on the arm.

Hoss’ eyes narrowed. “Little brother, you are getting on my nerves,” complained Hoss, his voice reflecting his anger. “I got a good mind to teach you some manners.”

“Don’t come to close, Hoss,” Joe advised, unfazed by his brother’s threat. He put up his hands in mock alarm. “You might get too near that stallion and then who knows what might happen?”

Startled, Hoss looked up to see where the horse was. He gave a sigh of relief when he saw the animal was on the other side of the corral, then reddened a bit with embarrassment when he realized what he had done. As he heard Joe’s laugh, Hoss turned back to his brother, caught between feeling angry and ashamed.

“If you’re so sure that horse ain’t bad luck, why don’t you ride him?” Hoss dared his brother. “You keep telling us what a hot-shot horseman you are. Why ain’t you taking that stallion out?”

“I already rode him once,” protested Joe.

“Yeah, for about a mile and ended up walking home, as I recall,” said Hoss, a bit smugly. “You ain’t been on him since them.”

“The only reason I haven’t ridden him is because Adam has been keeping me so dog-gone busy with that branding schedule,” insisted Joe. “I haven’t been more than twenty feet from the house in the last two days. Adam has me practically chained to that desk in Pa’s study.”

“Yeah, that’s your story,” Hoss noted skeptically. “I don’t see you working on branding schedules right now.”

“I came out to check on the horse,” Joe explained. “Since no one will go near him, I wanted to make sure he was all right. Adam is inside waiting for me, probably tapping that pencil of his against the desk, counting the minutes till I get back.”

“Sure he is,” said Hoss, his voice showing he didn’t believe Joe.

“Go see for yourself if you don’t believe me,” Joe told his brother earnestly.

“You don’t have to prove anything to me, little brother,” Hoss told Joe with an exaggerated tone of understanding. “If you don’t want to ride the horse, you don’t have to.”

“I do want to ride him,” said Joe, becoming exasperated. “And I’ll prove it to you. I’m going to take him out tomorrow and ride him all day.”

“Yeah? Doing what?” asked Hoss.

“Doing…whatever,” replied Joe vaguely. He blew out a breath of air. “Adam hasn’t decided what little chore he is going to give me for tomorrow yet,” added Joe in an unhappy voice. He shook his head. “I’ll sure be glad when Pa gets home.”

“If I were you, little brother, I wouldn’t be so anxious for Pa to get back,” suggested Hoss.

“Why?” asked Joe. Then he remembered he still had to tell his Pa about the horse and the money he had spent on him. “Oh, yeah,” said Joe, wincing a bit. Then his face took on a determined look. “But I am going to ride that stallion tomorrow,” he asserted.

“Sure you will,” said Hoss in a voice full of skepticism.

“Watch me,” declared Joe with a grin.

“Seeing is believing,” replied Hoss.

Glancing over his shoulder toward the house, Joe took a deep breath. The look of unhappiness returned to his face. “I’d guess I’d better get back inside,” he conceded reluctantly. “Otherwise, Adam will be coming out here looking for me.” Joe turned and started walking slowly toward the house, his pace showing how little he wanted to return to the wooden building. Suddenly, Joe stopped and looked down, as if a thought had just struck him. A grin slowly spread across his face. He looked back toward Hoss, who was still leaning against the corral fence, watching the stallion.

With a twinkle in his eye, Joe gave out with a loud, “Puck-puck-puck!”

Hoss spun around, his face showing his fury. But Joe was already running toward the house, laughing as he rushed away.

*****

“Now that we’ve got the branding schedule done, we can start rounding up the herds,” announced Adam over dinner that evening. “We’ll start with the cattle in the north and work our way south.”

“Do you think those spring storms scattered them much?” asked Hoss.

Distracted by other thoughts, Joe was only half-listening to his brothers discussing the work that needed to be done over the next few weeks. His attention kept straying to the empty chair at the head of the table. He was keenly aware that his father would return tomorrow, and that he would have to explain about buying the stallion. Joe’s mind was working hard on how to deflect his father’s unhappiness with the price of his purchase. He didn’t even realize Adam was talking to him until his brother said his name several times.

“Huh?” said Joe as he looked up. “Did you say something, Adam?”

“I said you did a good job on those branding schedules,” answered Adam with almost exaggerated patience.

“Oh, thanks,” acknowledged Joe with a shrug. He glanced toward the empty chair again. “What time does Pa get back tomorrow?”

“Late afternoon,” Adam replied. “His telegram said he’d be on the two o’clock stage.” He looked at Hoss and winked. “You, um, want to go into town and meet him tomorrow, Joe?”

“No, that’s all right,” said Joe quickly. “We’ve got lots of work to do, Adam. I’d better take care of things here.”

“You ain’t reluctant to see Pa, are you, little brother?” inquired Hoss innocently.

“No, no,” Joe answered. “Just that, you know, the ranch has got to come first. That’s what Pa always says. Got to make sure we take care of things here.”

“I’m glad that you’re so anxious to work,” declared Adam in an amused voice. “I’ve got a whole list of things that still need to be done.”

Sighing, Joe looked down at his plate. He knew when he was caught. In his attempt to delay facing his father, Joe had managed to put himself directly into Adam’s hands. “All right,” said Joe in a voice that showed he was resigned to his fate. “Let me have it, Adam. Give me a list of chores for tomorrow.”

For a minute, Adam was tempted to give Joe an impossible list of things to accomplish. It wasn’t often that his brother asked for work. But, seeing the mixture of resignation and misery on Joe’s face, Adam decided to take it easy on him. Joe had worked hard for him while their father was gone and deserved to be rewarded for it. Besides, Adam had a feeling that Pa was going to make Joe’s life miserable enough when he heard what the stallion had cost.

“I want you to ride up to Willow Ridge tomorrow,” Adam told his youngest brother. “Check to make sure we can move part of the herd to the pasture there. I want you to make sure that there’s enough grass and water, and that the ground is solid. It rained pretty hard up there this spring, and I don’t want to move the cattle there unless I’m sure it’s not a sea of mud.”

“Check the pasture. Got it,” confirmed Joe with a nod. “What else?”

“Check the two line shacks up that way, too,” continued Adam. “Make sure the storms didn’t damage them and make a list of anything we need to do to get them in shape and fully supplied. Once we move the cows up there, I want some men to stay there and keep an eye on them. When you’re finished with that, take a look at that strand of fir on the ridge. Make sure the rains haven’t washed them away. Then you can come home.”

“That’s it?” said Joe in surprise. “That’s all you want me to do?”

“Yes, that’s it. Unless of course you want me to try to think of some other chores for you to do,” Adam observed with a wry smile.

“No, that’s fine,” replied Joe quickly. He ticked off the list on his fingers. “Ride to Willow Ridge. Check the meadow, check the line shacks and check the fir trees.” Joe grinned. “I can do that.”

“Willow Ridge? That’s a long ride in some rough country,” observed Hoss with a frown.

“It’s not exactly the ends of the earth,” said Adam in a puzzled voice. “And it’s not like Joe hasn’t been up there before.”

“I was only thinking,” Hoss answered slowly, “Joe’s planning to ride that new stallion tomorrow. Willow Ridge isn’t exactly the best place to be if you end up on foot.”

Now it was Joe’s turn to frown. He had forgotten his vow to ride the stallion tomorrow. And Hoss was right – that country around Willow Ridge was pretty wild. But Joe quickly shrugged off his concern. He was confident he could handle any horse – including the stallion – up there.

“Don’t worry, Hoss,” Joe assured his brother. “I’ll get there and back in one piece.”

“Maybe Hoss is right,” suggested Adam, his voice full of doubt. “That’s no country to be riding an untried horse. I think you should take Cochise.”

“Adam, somebody has got to ride that horse,” said Joe in exasperation. “We can’t just let him sit around and eat all day.” He looked at Hoss. “Besides, you’re the one who dared me to ride him.”

“That was before I knew you were going up to Willow Ridge,” replied Hoss. “I thought you were just going to ride him down to the south pasture or something.”

“Don’t be foolish, Joe,” added Adam. “It’s not worth taking chances just to prove you can ride that horse.”

“You two are acting like a couple of old women,” said Joe shaking his head. “It’s not like that horse hasn’t been broken or ridden before. There’s nothing wrong with him except everyone thinks he’s bad luck or something. He’s a perfectly good horse, and I’m going to ride him to Willow Ridge.” Joe glanced at Hoss, and his lips twitched in a smile. “I’m not afraid of that horse,” Joe added. “Unlike some others on this ranch.” He picked up the platter in front of him and held it toward Hoss. “More chicken, brother?”

“Now just a dadburn minute,” Hoss said angrily, pounding the table with his fist. “If I told you once, I told you a hundred times. I ain’t afraid to ride that horse.”

“I never said you were,” stated Joe innocently. He looked at Adam with wide eyes. “Did I mention any names?”

“You didn’t have to mention any names,” growled Hoss. “You go ahead and ride that stallion up to Willow Ridge, Joe. I hope he dumps you on your head. Maybe that will drum a little sense into that puny brain of yours.”

“Oh, Hoss, I do believe you don’t care about me any more,” said Joe in an overly dramatic tone. He crossed his hands on his chest and closed his eyes. “I’m wounded that you would wish such ill luck on your baby brother.”

Shifting in his chair, Hoss tried to ignore the uncomfortable sensation he suddenly felt. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, Joe, not really,” Hoss admitted. He gave Joe a shaky smile. “Maybe just a few bruises to teach you a lesson.”

“It’s nice to know you care,” Joe told his big brother with a laugh. “Relax, nothing’s going to happen. I’ll ride that stallion up to Willow Ridge and back. Maybe that will prove to people that he’s just a horse.”

Adam looked at Hoss, then back to Joe. “All right, it’s your hide,” he agreed with a shrug. “Just remember, it’s long way to Willow Ridge and back.”

“I know, Adam,” Joe acknowledged. Suddenly, he grinned. “It’s a real long ride, isn’t it,” he added.

Ignoring the puzzled looks from his brothers, Joe was already thinking of tomorrow. His father was bound to be home by the time he got back from Willow Ridge. Someone was sure to have told Pa about his buying the horse before he got back. Joe knew his father would still be unhappy about the cost of the horse, but if he had a couple of hours to think about it before Joe got back, he might not be quite as upset with his youngest son.

“Willow Ridge,” remarked Joe with a nod. “Maybe that horse will bring some good luck for a change.”

*****

When it came time to saddle the black horse in the morning, Joe hadn’t expected to have an audience. As a result, he was surprised when he led the stallion out of the barn to find not only his brothers but also over half a dozen ranch hands standing in the yard, looking expectantly toward the barn. Joe had decided to saddle the horse in the yard, rather in the confined space of the barn, just in case the stallion got frisky when the weight was added to his back. He hadn’t realized that the word he was going to ride the supposedly cursed horse had spread through the bunkhouse like wildfire. Any of the men who didn’t absolutely have to be some place else were standing in the yard, waiting to see what would happen.

Grinning, Joe decided to make a show out of saddling the horse. As best he could, given that he held the reins of the bridle that circled the horse’s head in one hand and his saddle in the other, Joe bowed toward his audience. He held his arm out and let the reins drop to the ground. As he had been taught, the stallion stood still when the reins were dropped, but his eyes watched Joe nervously. Joe patted the horse a few times on the neck and murmured a few reassuring words.

With a flourish, Joe put the blanket and saddle on the stallion’s back. He saw the horse’s muscle tense up, but the black didn’t move. Patting the horse again, Joe began to tighten the cinch. He jabbed the animal lightly in the side a few times, making sure the horse expelled any air he was holding in, then tightened the cinch again. Joe shook the saddle horn a bit, making sure the saddle wasn’t going to slip. Then he picked up the reins and vaulted onto the back of the stallion.

Once more, the horse’s muscles tensed as Joe settled his weight into the saddle. But the stallion stood absolutely still, waiting for a command.

Taking off his hat, Joe waved it to the men in the yard, and bowed again to them. He grinned broadly when he saw the disappointed looks on the men’s faces as they started to drift away. Putting his hat back on his head, Joe twisted in the saddle a bit, so he could see Adam and Hoss.

“I’ll be back this afternoon,” said Joe. “I’ll see you then.”

“Have a good ride,” replied Adam with a nod.

“Be careful, Joe,” added Hoss. Then he grinned. “I’ll tell Pa you’re anxious to see him when you get back.”

A sick look came over Joe’s face at Hoss’ words. He turned to sit straight in the saddle, and kicked the stallion lightly to get him moving. “Come on, horse,” he said in a low voice as the horse started forward. “We’ve got to prove what a good buy you really are.”

As he watched Joe ride out of the yard, Hoss’ face grew serious. “You don’t think Joe’s going to have any trouble, do you?” he asked Adam anxiously.

“No,” answered Adam in a reassuring voice. “You saw how well behaved the animal was. He won’t give Joe any trouble.”

“I wasn’t worried about the horse exactly,” said Hoss. He shook his head. “It’s just that there always seems to be trouble whenever that’s horse is around.”

“Joe’s right,” Adam replied with disgust. “You’re beginning to sound like some superstitious old woman. Come on, we’ve got work to do.”

Two hours later, Adam was sitting at the desk in the study when he heard a knock on the front door. He had been going over the books and making a list of the work that had been done in preparation for his father’s return. The knock surprised Adam. It wasn’t often that visitors came to the Ponderosa in the middle of the morning.

Pushing himself back from the desk, Adam rose and quickly walked to the front door. He pulled it open and was even more surprised when he saw Roy Coffee standing on the porch.

“Morning, Adam,” said the sheriff in a pleasant voice.

“Hello, Roy,” Adam greeted the lawman in return as he pulled the door wide. “Come on in.”

“Thanks,” replied Coffee pleasantly as he entered the house. He looked around briefly, familiar with the interior of the building. “Your Pa home yet?”

“He gets back this afternoon,” answered Adam. “You need to see him?”

“No,” said the sheriff shaking his head. “I was just wondering. We missed him at the poker game last week.”

“I’m sure he would have rather been there than in Sacramento,” Adam told Coffee with a smile. “Negotiating with the railroads is not one of his favorite things to do. Can I get you a cup of coffee or something?”

“No thanks,” replied Coffee. “I just stopped by for a minute. Is Hoss or Joe around?”

“Joe’s riding out to Willow Ridge and Hoss is chasing strays,” answered Adam. He looked at the sheriff curiously. “What did you want them for?”

“They’re not in any trouble, if that’s what’s worrying you,” said Coffee with a smile. “I just came by to tell them that fellow Townsend and his partners left Virginia City this morning.”

“Townsend?” For a minute, the name meant nothing to Adam. Then realization came to him. “Oh, right, the fellow they had the run in with. Hoss and Joe told me about that. That was four or five days ago, wasn’t it. I’m surprised he stayed around this long.”

“Well, his brother was still over at Doc Martin’s place until yesterday,” explained the sheriff. “Once he was well enough, though, I had him moved to my jail. Townsend stuck around to keep an eye on his brother.”

“Why did he leave, then?” asked Adam.

“Townsend’s brother is going to be all right,” Coffee replied. “Ain’t nothing for him to do now but lie in bed and he can do that in my jail. The circuit judge won’t be here for about six more weeks. Townsend finally decided to head home and come back when the trial starts. He can’t do anything for his brother until then, and he said he had a ranch over in Paradise Valley he had to get back to.” Roy shook his head. “It won’t be much of a trial. We caught his brother red-handed, and there’s three eye witnesses. Best the lawyer will be able to do is convince the judge to give him a light sentence.”

Frowning, Adam said, “I don’t understand, Roy. Why did you want to let Joe and Hoss know Townsend left town. It’s really not any concern of theirs, except testifying at the trial.”

“Well, this Townsend fellow, he was pretty mad at your brothers, particularly Joe,” answered the sheriff. “I warned Joe to be careful around him. I just wanted to let them know that Townsend was gone so they wouldn’t have to worry about him when they came to town.”

“I appreciate that, Roy,” said Adam. “But surely Townsend isn’t still mad about what happened. All Joe did was out-bid him for the horse. Townsend’s brother was the one who decided to steal it.”

“He was still pretty upset yesterday, especially when we moved his brother to the jail,” replied Coffee. “Kept saying that none of this would have happened if Joe had just let him buy that stallion.” Roy shook his head. “Townsend is blaming the Cartwrights for all his troubles.”

“Well, he gone so we don’t have to worry about him now,” said Adam.

“At least not until he comes back for the trial,” agreed Coffee. “We’ll see what happens then.” The sheriff turned toward the door. “You tell Hoss and Joe about Townsend leaving for me. Let them know they won’t have to worry about him when they come to Virginia City.”

“I will,” Adam promised, “although, frankly, I don’t think either one of them have given him much thought.”

“Probably not, but I wanted to let them know,” said the sheriff as he walked toward the door. “You tell your Pa we’ll expect him at the poker game on Wednesday,” added Coffee as he opened the door to leave.

“He’ll be there,” replied Adam with a smile.

As he closed the door behind the sheriff, Adam paused. He wondered about Townsend and what trouble the man might cause for his brothers when he returned for the trial. Then Adam shrugged. The trial was six weeks away. They could worry about Townsend then. He walked back to the desk to finish the list he had been working on for his father.

*****

Holding the reins tightly, Joe kept the stallion to a walk as they crossed the meadow near Willow Ridge. He could feel the horse pulling at the bit, and knew the stallion was eager to run. The horse had been anxious to stretch its legs ever since the two had left the Ponderosa, but the stallion’s eagerness had increased when they reached the meadow.

Riding slowly, Joe checked to ground to make sure it was solid and there were no holes or mud spots. The meadow looked like a perfect place to let the horse have its head, but Joe was smart enough to know looks could be deceiving. The thick grass could be hiding a muddy bog or other elements that would cause the horse to loose its footing. So far, Joe hadn’t found any dangers, but he wanted to be sure.

Patting the horse lightly on the neck, Joe said, “Soon, fellow. Just be patient.” The horse tossed his head as if he were indicating his agreement.

Grinning, Joe relaxed in the saddle as he rode slowly across the meadow. The ride from the Ponderosa had been an easy one. The stallion had a comfortable gait, and, although eager to run, had obeyed when Joe kept him at a slow pace as they covered the miles to Willow Ridge. Joe had wanted to be sure he had the animal under control as they made the trek to the ridge, so he had kept a tight rein on the horse. As the horse carried Joe further and further from the ranch house, Joe had begun to relax. The stallion had obeyed every step of the way, despite the horse’s desire to run. Joe could understand the stallion’s eagerness to break into a wild gallop after being penned up for so long. After spending two days cooped up in the house with Adam working on the branding schedule, Joe felt the same way.

As the horse and rider reached the edge of the meadow, Joe reined the stallion to a halt. The two had crossed the length of the field, and Joe hadn’t seen any evidence of muddy patches or debris. The ground was as solid as it looked. Joe turned the horse around so they were facing the length of the meadow. He was curious to see what kind of speed the horse had. Joe already was impressed by the animal’s stamina. After the long ride to the Willow Ridge, the stallion was still fresh and ready to run. If the horse had any kind of speed at all, Joe thought, they might be able to race him. He smiled at the idea. If the horse could race in addition to being good riding stock and being able to sire more horses, his father might not think the large amount Joe spent had been so foolish.

Patting the horse once more on the neck, Joe said to the stallion, “All right, boy, let’s see what you’ve got.” He kicked the horse into a gallop. The horse responded immediately, and began to run. As he realized the rider wasn’t going to stop him, the stallion lengthened his stride. The animal ran hard, and both horse and rider enjoyed a feeling of freedom that neither had enjoyed for quite some time.

Up on the ridge, three riders came to the crest and reined their horses to a stop. All three looked down into the meadow below.

“Hey, look, Harry,” said Jake Campbell, pointing to the horse and rider below. “Ain’t that the Cartwright kid and the stallion you tried to buy?”

Peering down, Harry Townsend watched for a minute before answering. “Yeah, that’s him,” answered Townsend in a voice tinged with anger.

“Whew! Look at him go!” exclaimed Ed Neeley as he saw the horse racing across the meadow. “That’s some horse. Too bad we didn’t get him. We could have really made something of that ranch with a stallion like that.”

“I can understand why Jed made a try for him,” added Campbell. “I might have done it myself if I had thought of it.”

The mention of his brother fanned Townsend’s smoldering anger into flames. “That Cartwright!” he spat. “First he steals the horse out from under us, then he shoots Jed, and gets him put in jail. Now he’s out here flaunting that animal in front of us.”

“Aw, Harry, he didn’t know we was coming this way,” said Neeley in a mild voice. “We didn’t even know it ourselves until we decided to take the ridge trail. We just run into him by accident.”

“Accident? Maybe,” countered Townsend. “Or maybe just a bit of luck on our part.” He turned to partners. “I aim to get me that horse. Are you two with me?”

Neeley and Campbell looked at each other. “Guess so,” agreed Campbell with a shrug. “I sure would like that horse.”

Nodding, Neeley added, “For sure, no one’s going to stop us. Ain’t nobody out here but us and the Cartwright kid.” He looked at Townsend. “How you gonna get the horse, though?”

“Let me think on it a bit,” said Townsend, his eyes narrowing.

Below in the meadow, Joe was unaware that he was being observed. He was having too much fun racing the stallion across the grass to worry about who else might be around. After crossing the meadow twice, however, Joe pulled the stallion is a slow walk and then halted him. The horse obeyed his rider reluctantly. Although breathing hard, the stallion was ready to continue running the length of the field.

“Easy, fellow, easy,” crooned Joe in a soothing voice as he patted the horse and calmed him. The stallion had stopped running, but he demonstrated his eagerness to continue by pawing the ground. “I know you want to keep going,” said Joe as he continued to rub the horse’s neck, “but we got some work to do. Besides, I don’t want you to be too tired to carry me home.”

As if he were answering his rider, the horse snorted and tossed his head. Joe grinned at the animal’s actions. “You’re almost as stubborn as I am,” he laughed. “Come on, let’s cool you down, and then get up the ridge.”

For about ten minutes, Joe walked the horse in a small circle, cooling him off and slowing the horse’s breathing. When he felt the animal was sufficiently recovered from the run, Joe guided the stallion to a small stream at the edge of the meadow and dismounted. He let the horse drink while he filled his canteen, keeping an eye that the animal didn’t consume too much from the stream. After he had gotten back on the horse, Joe pulled the reins lightly and steered the horse away from the stream. “Come on, fellow,” he said in a reluctant voice. “We’ve got work to do.”

Joe guided the stallion to a path at the side of the meadow, where a small trail that led up the ridge. Horse and rider began the gradual ascent to the top of the ridge. As he rode, Joe could feel the easy gait of the stallion underneath him, a much more relaxed walk than before. The run had allowed the animal to expel its pent-up energy.

As he led the horse up the ridge, Joe didn’t pay much attention to his surroundings. His thoughts were busy with forming the discourse he was going to give his Pa on the advantages of owning a stallion that possessed both speed and stamina, in addition to being good riding stock and a potential sire. By the time he had reached the top of the ridge, Joe felt he had put together a pretty good argument on why buying the horse was a good idea. Or at least, one he hoped was going to be convincing to his father.

Once Joe reached the tope of the ridge, he pulled his horse to a halt. Looking around, he said, “Which way do you think, fellow?” The horse stood patiently, waiting for Joe to give him direction. “No opinion, eh?” continued Joe with a chuckle. He glanced to his left, his eyes following the worn path through the rocks and grass. Then Joe shifted in the saddle, and looked a bit to his right, toward a stand of trees which grew sparsely in front, but seemed to thicken in the distance.

“Let’s check those trees first,” Joe advised the stallion. “We can swing back to the line shacks later.” He pulled the reins gently to the right and lightly kicked the horse. The black animal began to walk toward the trees.

It was less than a mile from the edge of the ridge to the trees. As Joe neared the tall firs, he looked off into the distance, rather than at the closest trees. He was trying to judge the density of the growth, and trying to determine if there were any bare spots or other signs of damage in the grove. As a result, Joe was totally unprepared to for the sight of three men emerging from the trees, holding pistols and blocking his path.

“Well, well,” said Townsend as Joe jerked the stallion to a stop in surprise. “Look who we have here. Hello, Cartwright.”

“Townsend!” exclaimed Joe in astonishment.

“We were all set to follow you,” Townsend stated with a nasty grin. “And here you ride right up to us. Looks like this is our lucky day.” Gesturing with his gun, Townsend added, “Drop those reins and get down off the horse.”

His eyes narrowing, Joe tried to judge the chance of leaping from the horse onto Townsend or one of the other men. But his practiced eye told him the men were too far from the horse. And all three had guns aimed at Joe. While Joe suspected none of the three were expert gunmen, even a poor shot would be have a hard time missing him from such a close range.

Dropping the reins, Joe swung his leg over the saddle and slipped off the stallion. “What do you want Townsend?” he asked as his feet hit the ground. Joe took a step from away from the horse and moved closer to the men.

“Hold it!” shouted Townsend as Joe came nearer. As Joe stopped, Townsend continued, “Take that gun out of your holster and throw it away. And do it real slow. I’d just as soon have an excuse to shoot you so don’t try anything.”

Reaching down, Joe pulled the pistol from his holster with his fingertips and threw the gun into the tall grass. “If you’re looking to rob me, it’s going to be slim pickings,” Joe advised the man.

“I don’t want your money,” sneered Townsend. He gestured with his head. “But I do want that horse.”

“I would have thought you learned from your brother’s mistake,” Joe declared with a bravado he didn’t really feel. “You’re going to end up in a jail cell next to him.”

“Jed ain’t the smartest guy,” admitted Townsend. “Trying to steal that horse in broad daylight, right there in town, well, that was pretty stupid. Out here, there ain’t nobody but us. No witnesses, if you get what I mean.” He turned toward Neeley who was standing near the head of the stallion. “Ed, lead that horse over by ours and tie him up real good. I don’t want him running off while we take care of things here.”

As Neeley led the stallion away, Joe inched a little closer to the two remaining men. He didn’t know what Townsend had in mind, but he suspected he wasn’t going to be allowed to simply walk away. Joe wasn’t eager to take on two armed men, but two would be easier to handle than three. If he was going to make a move, he had to do it while the third man was busy with the stallion.

Inching a bit closer, Joe said, “You’ll never get away with this Townsend. Give me the horse back. I’ll ride away and forget all about this.”

“Generous, ain’t you,” replied Townsend with a laugh. “Only this time, I’m the one who’s going to call the tune, not you. I’m going to make you pay for stealing that stallion from me, and it’s not going to cost you money.”

Tensing his muscles, Joe decided he couldn’t wait. He didn’t have a firm plan in mind, only some vague notion of knocking the guns from the two men in front of him. Joe kicked out his leg, hitting Campbell in the knee, and brought his left hand down hard on the man’s wrist. As Campbell howled in pain and fell to the ground, Joe spun around toward a startled Townsend. He chopped his right hand onto Townsend’s wrist, then threw his balled left fist at the man’s jaw. Townsend’s gun fell from his fingers, and the man staggered back.

Bending down quickly, Joe reached for the gun on the ground. But his punch had surprised Townsend more than hurt him. Before Joe could grab the gun, Townsend rushed forward and pushed Joe aside, knocking him to the ground.

As Joe scrambled to his feet, Townsend grabbed Joe’s arm with his left hand, pulling the young Cartwright toward him. Townsend’s massive right fist connected with Joe’s jaw. Stunned, Joe’s knees buckled and his body sagged. Townsend hit him again, this time in the side of the head. Joe fell to the ground.

“What happened?” shouted Neeley as he ran toward where Townsend was standing over Joe.

“Cartwright here got a little frisky,” replied Townsend. He looked toward Campbell, who was slowly getting to his feet. Campbell rubbed his knee then limped forward. “You two hold him. I’m going to teach the rich kid a lesson.”

Still stunned by Townsend’s blows, Joe tried to get to his feet. He shook his head quickly, trying to clear it, as he pushed himself up from the ground. Suddenly, his arms were grabbed by two firm grips, and he was pulled up. Joe lifted his head and looked into the face of Harry Townsend. The look of hate on Townsend’s face sent a shiver up Joe’s spine. He tried to twist away from the two men holding him, but their grip was too tight. Then the first blow landed.

Joe had been in fights before, and had even been beaten up a few times. But he had never experienced as brutal a beating as Townsend administered. The man was almost methodical in punishing his helpless victim. Joe felt, rather than saw, the iron fist land in his face several times and then attack his body. Joe’s head snapped to the left and then the right. He gasped for air as the wind was knocked out of him. The blows were spaced, rather than a flurry of punches, designed to inflict the maximum pain as each one landed. Joe felt as if he was being pounded by a sledgehammer, and he had no possible way to escape the blows. He tried to slip in the oblivion of unconsciousness but as each blow landed, a stab of pain jolted him back.

The beating went on for what Joe felt was an endless period of time. As the punches landed incessantly, the pain was no longer specific. A sea of agony swept over Joe’s face and body. His knees buckled but the hands gripping his arms held firm. Joe’s shoulders began to ache as the muscles in his upper arms were pulled and twisted.

Whether it was because Townsend finally got tired, or because the man didn’t think Joe could feel the blows any more, Joe wasn’t sure. All he knew was the beating finally ended. His arms were released, and Joe collapsed to the ground.

Laying on his side, Joe curled himself into a ball, trying to ease the ache in his stomach and chest. He laid as still as possible, willing to let his attackers walk away without retribution. He foolishly believed his ordeal was over. A swift kick to his ribs told him he was wrong.

As Joe lay virtually defenseless on the ground, Townsend’s boot landed hard on Joe’s ribs twice more. Each kick extracted a moan from Joe, a fact Townsend seemed to find satisfying. Through his haze of pain, Joe could hear the man laughing.

“That’s enough, Harry,” Campbell said in a nervous voice as he watched Townsend’s foot jerk against the body on the ground. “You’re going to kill him.”

“That’s kind of the idea,” answered Townsend with a laugh. “No witnesses.”

“I ain’t going to go along with murder,” declared Campbell, grabbing Townsend’s arm.

“Who’s going to know we did it?” asked Townsend, pushing Campbell away. “By the time anyone finds him, we’ll be long gone.”

“I’m with Jake,” said Neeley in an alarmed voice. “I’m not going to stand by and watch you beat the kid to death. Not over a horse. It’s not right, Harry.”

“You two are gutless,” snarled Townsend.

“Maybe,” agreed Neeley. “I’ve done a lot of things, Harry, but I’ve never killed anyone. I don’t aim to start now.”

“Ed’s right,” said Campbell. “And I don’t much like the idea of being partners with a murderer. Sort of makes me wonder what might happen to me.”

Seeing the determined look on the two men’s faces, Townsend relented. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. He looked at Joe, lying on the ground clutching his sides. He could see the boy was barely conscious, his face bruised and bleeding. He knew he had hurt Joe, maybe had hurt him enough to accomplish his goal anyway.

Suddenly, Townsend’s eyes narrowed and a smile twitched at his lips. He turned to Neeley. “Get me a rope.”

“Why?” asked Neeley. “What are you gonna do?”

“I’m going to drag the kid into the trees,” answered Townsend. “Get him out of sight just in case someone comes along. That will make sure we have plenty of time to get away.”

“What do you need the rope for?” asked Campbell suspiciously.

“I just want to tie his hands and legs,” replied Townsend almost innocently. “Make sure he don’t walk away too soon and send someone after us.”

“Where’s he going to go?” asked Neeley with a frown. “Besides, it don’t look like he’s going to be able to walk anywhere.”

“Do you know this area?” demanded Townsend. “How do you know there ain’t a farm or maybe a trappers place close enough for him to get to? I just want to make sure we don’t end up in jail like Jed.”

Still not sure about the logic of Townsend’s argument, Neeley walked over to the horses. He stopped next to the stallion, which was standing patiently near the other three horses. Neeley untied the rawhide string that held the rope onto Joe’s saddle, and pulled the coil of heavy cord from the leather seat. Then he hurried back to the other men.

As Neeley approached, Townsend was standing over Joe, watching as the young man moaned and rocked on the ground in agony. Townsend tried to keep the look of satisfaction off his face, but he didn’t succeed.

“Here’s the rope,” said Neeley, handing the coil to Townsend. He looked at his partner, his suspicions again aroused. “You want us to help you?”

“No, I can manage,” Townsend replied, pulling the coil over his shoulder. “You two get the horses ready. Make sure that you put a lead rope around that stallion. I don’t want to try to lead him by the reins. We might loose him.”

“Harry…” said Campbell in a hesitant voice.

“Just do what I said!” shouted Townsend. “Move!”

Neeley and Campbell looked at each other, unsure what to do. Finally, Neeley shrugged and the two men walked back to the horses.

Reaching down, Townsend grabbed Joe under the arms and began dragging him toward the trees. Joe’s groans grew louder. Any movement at all hurt him, and being dragged across the rough ground only added to Joe’s agony. Townsend ignored Joe’s moans, and dragged his victim deeper into the trees.

A hundred feet or so into the grove, Townsend finally halted and dropped Joe to the ground. He turned Joe on his side and pulled the green jacket Joe was wearing off of him. Then Townsend dragged Joe a few more feet, and pushed him up against a tall, thin tree.

Slipping the rope off his shoulder, Townsend walked behind the tree. He crouched and reached forward, grabbing Joe’s arms and pulling them back on either side of the trunk. He tied Joe’s hands together behind the tree. Then Townsend grabbed the end of the long rope and moved to the front of the tree.

Reaching down, Townsend grabbed Joe under the arms again and pulled him to his feet. Joe’s arms scrapped against the rough bark of the tree as Townsend yanked him upward until he was standing. Joe’s knees buckled and he started to slide down, but Townsend pulled him up again. Leaning his shoulder into Joe’s chest, Townsend began to loop the rope around the tree. As the rope circled both Joe’s chest and the tree, Townsend pulled the cord tight. The rope held Joe upright while Townsend reached around again. Three times the rope circled the tree and Joe’s chest, just under his arms. Each time he brought the rope around, Townsend pulled it tightly. When there wasn’t enough rope left to circle the tree again, Townsend reached up and tied the end of the rope to a branch just over Joe’s head, insuring his victim wouldn’t be able to slide down the tree.

Stepping back, Townsend admired his handiwork. Joe was pinned against the tree, held up by the rope, with his hands tied behind the tree. Joe’s head was down, his chin resting on his chest. Townsend lifted Joe’s chin.

Blood was trickling down the side of Joe’s face from cuts above his left eye and on his cheek and chin. Joe’s right eye was bruised and beginning to swell. Dark red spots which would turn into bruises were visible on Joe’s chin, cheek and forehead. The left side of Joe’s mouth was swelling and his lip was split.

Dropping Joe’s chin, Townsend took a step back. “Cartwright, I told you that you were going to pay for taking that horse and for sending Jed to jail,” he said. “You’re going to die here, and you’re going to die slow. My only regret is that I’m not going to be able stick around to watch.” Townsend laughed. “You know, it was just your bad luck that you came out here as we happened along. And even worse luck that you rode right up to where we were waiting.” He shook his head. “I heard the stories about that horse being bad luck. Maybe those stories are true. They are for you, that’s for sure.” Townsend laughed again.

Raising his head slightly, Joe peered at Townsend through his battered face. “You’ll get yours,” he said in a thick voice.

“Sure I will, kid,” replied Townsend in a voice of disbelief. “But you won’t be here to see it.” Townsend reached down and picked up Joe’s jacket. He balled the jacked up and threw it into the trees. Townsend turned back to Joe one last time and grinned at the battered form bound to the tree. Then he spun around and walked away.

*****

Leaning against the front wall of the stage depot, Adam watched as the coach rolled down the main street of Virginia City. As the stage came to a halt in front of the building, Adam pulled himself upright and took a step forward. He waited as the stagecoach door opened, and an overweight man climbed out, followed by a young cowboy. The third person to leave the stage was the individual for whom Adam was waiting. He took another step forward as he saw his father emerge from the coach.

“Hi, Pa,” said Adam with a smile as his father left the stage. “Welcome home.”

“Adam,” Ben greeted his son with his own smile. His greeting was filled with warmth. Ben reached out and grabbed Adam’s hand with his right, while his left hand patted his oldest on the back. “How are you, son?” asked Ben.

“Fine,” replied Adam with a nod. “Did you have a good trip?”

Before Ben could answer, the driver called to him from the top of the stage. “Here’s your bag, Mr. Cartwright.” The driver held a large brown satchel in his hand.

“Thank you, Frank,” called Ben as he reached up to take the bag. “It was a nice easy ride. Thank you.”

“Any time, Mr. Cartwright,” the driver accepted the compliment with a nod of his head.

Turning back to Adam, Ben said, “How are things here, Adam? Everything all right at the Ponderosa?”

“Everything is fine,” Adam assured his father. “We missed you, though.”

“I missed you boys, too,” replied Ben with a smile. “It’s good to be home.”

“The buckboard is over here,” said Adam, pointing to a wagon a few feet away. As the two men started walking toward the buckboard, Adam asked, “How did things go in Sacramento?”

“About like we expected,” Ben answered. “I got the contracts renewed with the railroad to haul our timber and to ship the cattle. The new rates are just about what we had planned on, although it took me awhile to get them.” Ben shook his head wearily. “Negotiating with the railroad is one of those things that I really hate to do.”

“Yes, but you do it so well,” said Adam with a grin as he climbed into the driver’s side of the wagon.

“How are Joe and Hoss?” asked Ben as he climbed into the buckboard next to Adam. “Anything interesting happen while I was gone?”

As he snapped the reins to start the horses, Adam considered his father’s question. “Joe bought a horse while you were gone, a stallion that Sam Bennett had up for auction.”

“Oh?” said Ben with mild interest. “What’s unusual about that?”

“I think I’ll let Joe explain it to you,” Adam replied with a grin.

Ben looked at his son curiously, then shrugged. Whatever story was connected with the horse, he was sure he would hear about it soon.

As Adam and Ben drove back to the Ponderosa, they chatted comfortably. Ben talked about friends he had seen in Sacramento while Adam commented on the sparse news from Virginia City. Neither men felt any sense of urgency in returning home. That’s why both men were surprised when Hoss rushed anxiously from the house as the buckboard pulled into the yard of the Ponderosa. Ben’s middle son had an air of anxious worry about him.

As he looked around the yard, Hoss’ face showed his disappointment when he saw the buckboard. “Hello, Pa,” Hoss greeted Ben in a subdued voice. “Welcome home.”

“You don’t seem very happy to see me,” said Ben with an amused smile.

Looking a bit sheepish, Hoss smiled in return. “Oh, no, Pa,” he replied quickly. “It ain’t that I’m not glad you’re home.” He looked around again. “I was just looking for Joe.” Hoss gave Adam a meaningful look. “He ain’t home yet.”

Frowning, Adam looked up at the sun. “It’s only about three o’clock. Joe probably won’t be back from Willow Ridge for another hour.”

“What’s your concern about Joe?” asked Ben, more with curiosity than anxiety.

Shrugging, Hoss said, “Well, it’s probably just silly, Pa, but I’ve got a feeling that something is wrong. Joe rode that new stallion up to Willow Ridge, and I’m worried about him.”

Climbing down from the buckboard, Ben gave his sons a puzzled look. “I don’t understand,” he admitted. “What new stallion? And why was Joe riding him instead of his pinto?”

Sighing, Adam climbed down from the wagon and stood next to his father. He put his arm around Ben’s shoulders. “Come on inside, Pa,” he told his father in a resigned voice. “You can have a cup of coffee while I tell you all about it.”

*****

Lifting his head, Joe forced himself back into consciousness. He knew he had passed out, but didn’t know how long he had been in that safe haven of darkness. For a brief moment, he hoped that what had happened had just been a bad dream. But the throbbing in his face and head and the ache in his arms told Joe that his nightmare was, in fact, reality.

Joe was finding it hard to breathe. The rope that held him tightly to the tree constricted his chest, and the fact that his arms were tied behind him didn’t help his attempts to suck in air. When Joe did manage a deep breath, the effort caused a sharp pain in his ribs.

Lifting his head a bit higher, Joe tried to open his eyes. His left eye was swollen, and he could only see out a small slit. Joe managed to open his right eye, however, so he could look around.

The woods were deserted. Nothing moved in the shadows of the trees; the leaves of the plants laid limp and unmoving. The air was still, and an almost eerie quiet surrounded Joe. Not even a bird chirped in the trees. Joe had never felt so alone in his life.

Filled with a sense of panic, Joe began to struggle against the rope that held him tightly. He twisted and pulled his body, hoping that he could at least loosen the ropes a bit. But all Joe succeeded in doing was hurting himself. The rough cord burned his skin as he twisted against it, and the coarse bark of the tree scrapped his back and arms. The movement caused the cuts and bruises on his face and body to begin throbbing again.

Gasping for air, Joe slumped against the tree. He knew struggling further was useless; he couldn’t free himself. Joe would have to wait for someone to find him – if they ever did. Peering ahead, Joe could see the edge of the woods in the distance. The sun brightly lit the grass in the area beyond the trees. The distance to the edge of the forest looked like miles to Joe. Anyone riding by could look into the woods and still not see him.

Even though he knew it was futile, Joe began calling for help. It was a painful process for Joe to yell. He could barely open his swollen lips, and breathing was still difficult. Nevertheless, Joe called “Help!” in a hoarse voice for several minutes. He stopped only when his tortured body could no longer stand the agonizing effort.

The silence that surrounded Joe continued unabated. The only noise he heard was his own gasps for air. Joe’s head ached and he started to feel dizzy. His head fell forward and his body slumped deeper against the ropes. Joe’s eyes closed and he slipped into darkness once more.

*****

“Five hundred and fifty dollars! For a horse!” exclaimed Ben with a combination of astonishment and anger. “Just what was Joe thinking?”

Sitting in his favorite red leather chair by the fireplace, Ben had listened with growing amazement as Adam told him about the stallion Joe had purchased. He looked at his oldest son, sitting in the blue chair across from him, then to Hoss, who was perched on the edge of the fireplace. “Did Joe actually think the horse was worth that much?” asked Ben.

“Pa, you have to understand,” answered Hoss as he struggled to explain. “This fellow, Townsend, he was, well, we could just tell he was the kind of man who would mistreat that stallion. We just couldn’t let that poor horse go to a man like that. Joe was determined to have that horse. The bidding just went higher than we expected. ” Hoss’ voice trailed off. He turned to Adam, looking for help.

“It really is a fine stallion,” commented Adam. “Granted he wasn’t worth that much, but Joe didn’t buy a nag. The horse should improve our bloodlines.”

“And he is good riding stock,” added Hoss quickly.

“If he’s such good riding stock, how come no one but Joe will even come near the horse?” demanded Ben.

“Aw, Pa, it’s that story that the horse causes bad luck to anyone who around him,” answered Hoss. “It’s a silly story, but it’s really got the men spooked.” As he spoke, Hoss avoided looking at Adam.

“Joe spent a considerable amount of money to buy a horse that no one will ride? Have I got that right?’ asked Ben.

“Not exactly, Pa,” Hoss replied as he shifted uncomfortably. “It don’t bother Joe none to be around the horse. That’s why he rode it out to Willow Ridge.”

“Why Willow Ridge?” demanded Ben. “That’s a pretty fair ride. Why didn’t he start with something closer? Or just ride him around the ranch?”

Hoss looked down as he answered. “That sort of my fault. I was giving him a hard time about the horse yesterday, and he told me he was going to ride the horse today, regardless of what he had to do.”

“I told him to go up and look around Willow Ridge before I knew he was going to ride the stallion,” Adam added. “It’s partially my fault he didn’t get to ride the stallion before now. I kept Joe busy for the last two days working on the branding schedules here in the house.”

“I see,” said Ben, his tone neutral. He looked off for a minute, clearly in thought. “When did Joe leave for Willow Ridge?” he asked.

“This morning, Pa,” replied Hoss. “That’s why I’m worried. He should be back by now.”

“Not necessarily,” Adam noted. “It’s a long way to Willow Ridge and back.” He suddenly grinned. “I got the impression that Joe wasn’t in any hurry to get back and tell Pa about the stallion. He’s liable to take his time about getting home. I’ll be surprised if he makes before supper.”

“Well, it doesn’t make any difference what time he gets home,” said Ben in stern voice. “After supper, Joe and I are going to have a little discussion.”

*****

Shifting slightly, Joe began to pull himself awake again. The movement caused his back to scrape against the rough bark, but Joe barely felt the wood rubbing harshly against him. His body ached in so many other places that the small discomfort the tree caused was hardly noticeable.

As Joe struggled back into consciousness, he wondered briefly how long he had been out this time. Then he decided he didn’t care. In fact, there wasn’t much that Joe cared about right now, except trying to breathe and endure the aches and pains in his body.

Lifting his head, Joe tried to rest against the tree. He felt hot and sweaty, and some part of his brain told him that he was probably feverish. His mouth felt dry and gritty, and Joe would have given anything he owned for even a sip of something wet. Joe’s mouth was open, his swollen lips parted and his jaw slack, as he suck in air as hard as he could.

Realizing his hands were growing numb, Joe began to flex his fingers and palm, and strained his wrists against the rope that tightly held them. He was trying to get some circulation back into his hands, although a part of him cynically wondered why. Joe was starting to believe Townsend’s promise that he would die tied to the tree.

A distant sound – the first sound Joe had heard in hours – cause Joe to stop his movements and listen. For a moment, Joe thought he had imagined the sound, that it was simply a product of his feverish brain. But the noise came again, a bit closer. Joe heard the faint snap of a twig and a slight rustle, as if the leaves of a plant were being brushed aside.

Opening his good eye as wide as possible, Joe’s head swiveled from side to side as he looked around frantically. He was surprised that he could barely see, that the light was dim. At first, Joe thought that perhaps his eyesight had been damaged in the beating, but quickly realized the woods were darkening as the sun began to set.

Once more, Joe heard some sounds, definitely closer and coming from his right. He turned his head and began to shout but his cries for help came out as only raspy whispers. Joe tried to swallow, desperate to make his voice louder. He shouted, “Help!” again, and this time the desperate cry was more audible.

Staring into the dark shadows of the trees to his right, Joe looked and listened. The woods grew silent again, as if Joe’s shouts had caused whoever was approaching to hesitate. Joe inhaled as deeply as possible, preparing to yell again. But his deep breath caused him to begin coughing, and the precious air was expelled from his lungs. Joe winced as his sore ribs and body were jerked by the abrupt spasm of coughing.

Gasping for air, Joe heard the movement to his right again. Whoever was in the woods was getting closer, perhaps only yards away. Joe turned his head and looked into the trees, his expression both hopeful and desperate. He could see something moving, a shadow among the growth. He opened his mouth to shout again, but froze as the figure finally emerged from the trees.

The figure walking slowly out of the dim light wasn’t a man. It was a mountain lion.

Alarmed at the sight of the big cat, Joe held himself as still as possible. His gaze was fixed on the lion, his good eye wide with both shock and surprised. For a minute, Joe wondered if the lion saw him in the dim light, and desperately hoped the animal would just go away. But that hope died as the mountain lion came closer.

The lion seemed surprised to see Joe also. The cat stopped a few feet away, his tawny coat sharply contrasted against the dark wood of the trees and the deep green of the plants around him. The mountain lion gave a low growl, and took a step forward. Then the cat stopped again, clearly confused by the sight in front of him.

Swallowing hard, Joe watched as the cat stared at him, almost as if the animal were studying the scene. The size of the lion told Joe that it was a young animal, probably one that had left the den only recently. But the lion’s tender age didn’t make his teeth less sharp or his claws less knifelike. If anything, a young lion was more dangerous because it could be so unpredictable. And Joe knew he was completely defenseless if the animal decided to attack.

The mountain lion crept forward and stopped once again. The cat was bewildered, not understanding the mixture of scents in the air. The smell of blood attracted the animal. It was a smell that usually meant food. But the lion also sniffed the odor of a human and he had learned that he should run from that scent. Both attracted and frightened, the lion began to pace, trying to decide if his hunger was stronger than his sense of fear.

If the mountain lion was afraid of Joe, it was minimal compared to the terror Joe felt at the sight of the lion. He tried not to move, and barely breathed. His mind worked furiously, trying to devise a way to scare the animal off. The cynical part of his brain was sending messages again, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to let the animal have its way with him. It would be a painful but quick end to his ordeal. But the rest of his brain rejected that idea, not willing to give up without a fight.

Taking a step closer to figure tied against the tree, the mountain lion growled again. He had never faced a prey that simply stood in front of him, and he wasn’t sure what that meant. The growl was designed to frighten his potential victim, to make him run. The lion knew what to do once his prey began to run. But the fierce growl didn’t cause the figure to run. It simply stood there. The lion stopped again, perplexed and unsure what to do next.

Watching the cat, Joe wondered if the animal would simply go away if he continued to stand still. It was a possibility. On the other hand, the lion might decide that Joe was already dead and his flesh would make a tasty meal. Joe shuddered at the thought of the lion gnawing away at him. He could almost feel the animal’s teeth digging into his legs.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, thought Joe, surprised that he would remember the quote in these circumstances. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He wasn’t at all sure if what he was going to do next was the right thing. If he was wrong, the consequences would be painful and fatal. But he was determined not to simply stand passively as the lion attacked.

Opening his eyes, Joe stared hard at the animal, trying his best to look intimidating. The mountain lion stared back at him, the animal’s dark eyes watching him warily. Joe thought he saw a flicker of doubt in the cat’s eyes, but wasn’t sure if this was wishful thinking. Joe took a deep breath, wincing slightly as his ribs protested the action. Then Joe began to scream.

The scream wasn’t as loud as Joe had hoped, but it was high pitched and piercing, almost a wail. As he screamed, Joe raised his leg and began stomping his foot against the ground. The dirt was hard at the base of the tree, and the heel of his boot made a thumping sound against it. He also kick the tree a couple of times, causing a hollow thud.

The scream and pounding was like nothing the mountain lion had ever heard before, and the noise had its desired effect. The cat jumped back, startled and then frightened by the harsh sounds. The lion stood trembling for only a moment before it turned and began to run. In only seconds, the animal had disappeared into the trees.

As the cat ran off, Joe stopped screaming. He sagged against the ropes, exhausted by both his exertions and his fear. His breath came in ragged gasps, interrupted by deep coughs. His legs felt weak, and his knees buckled a bit, although the rope still held his body upright. For several minutes, Joe just stood limply, his body straining against the rope.

Finally lifting his head, Joe looked around. The woods again seemed empty, and the silence surrounded him once more. Joe’s desperate gamble had worked. He had frightened off the mountain lion, saving himself from a horrible and probably fatal mauling. But as Joe looked around the darkening woods, he wondered about his victory. He wondered if he had saved himself or only managed to delay an inevitable death.

*****

Pulling open the front door, Hoss took a step out onto the porch. He peered into the darkness, hearing rather then seeing signs of a quiet night. The wind rustled the trees, the crickets chirped, and a horse in the corral snorted faintly. Hoss didn’t hear the sounds he wanted, though. He didn’t hear the muted hoofbeats of an approaching horse, or the sound of activity in the barn. There was no evidence that his younger brother had returned home.

Sighing, Hoss closed the door. He walked back to the center of the room, the disappointment clearly visible on his face. Without a word, he plopped down on the sofa and stared into the fire.

Sitting in his favorite red chair, Ben was reading letters that had arrived during his absence. These were personal letters, rather than ranch business, containing greeting and news from friends. Looking up from the letters, Ben asked his middle son, “No sign of Joe?” His question had only the mildest tinge of anxiety to it.

“No,” answered Hoss with a shake of his head. “Pa, I think we ought to go out looking for him.”

Marking the page with his finger, Adam closed the book in his hand and looked up. He was sprawled comfortably in the blue chair near the stairs. “Hoss,” he said in reasonable voice, “it’s dark out. We couldn’t see him if he were riding ten feet in front of us.”

“I still think we ought to go looking,” Hoss insisted stubbornly. “Something’s wrong. I know it is.”

“Don’t you think you’re, well, over-reacting a bit?” suggested Ben. “Joe’s just a couple of hours late. That’s not unusual. Your brother has never been known for his punctuality.”

“Especially when he knows he has to tell Pa some unpleasant news,” added Adam with wry smile.

“He should have been back by now,” Hoss stated firmly. “He said he’d be back this afternoon. It’s two hours past dinner. There’s no reason for him to be this late, unless he ran into some trouble.”

“What kind of trouble could he have run into?” asked Adam. He grinned. “Not that Joe doesn’t have a nose for trouble, but even he would have a hard time finding it between here and Willow Ridge.”

“I don’t know,” admitted Hoss. He looked down. “It’s that horse, Adam. Everyone keeps saying he’s bad luck. Maybe they’re right. Maybe that horse did something to him.”

“So you’re worried that the stallion threw him?” asked Ben. “I hardly think that’s likely. Joe’s a good rider, you know that.”

“Besides, aren’t you the one who wanted that horse to dump him on his head?” joked Adam.

“I didn’t mean that, Adam,” said Hoss with a stricken look on his face.

“No, of course, you didn’t,” agreed Adam quickly. He was surprised at how upset and worried Hoss was. “Relax, Hoss,” Adam added, trying to reassure his brother. “Joe will be home soon. He’ll come sauntering in like he always does, surprised that we were worried about him and wondering what all the fuss was about.”

“Maybe,” said Hoss doubtfully. “But them other times, he wasn’t riding that stallion. They say that animal is cursed, Adam. There’s no telling what he might have caused to happen to Joe.”

“Don’t be silly, Hoss,” Ben told his middle son. “There’s no such thing as a cursed animal; you know that. Things like curses and omens of bad luck are just stories, tales people tell to explain why things go wrong.” Seeing that Hoss looked unconvinced, Ben decided to try a new tactic. “Why don’t you go on up to bed?” he suggested. “You’re gong to make yourself sick, worrying over this. We’ll let you know when Joe gets home.”

Staring in the fire, Hoss frowned. He was reluctant to go to bed before Joe got home, but at the same time, he knew there wasn’t anything he could really do. “All right,” he agreed in a mulish voice. “I’m going upstairs. But I’m only going to get some sleep now because I want to leave at first light to look for Joe.” Hoss hauled himself up off the sofa and walked in big strides to the stairs.

Watching Hoss climb the stairs, Ben said to Adam. “He’s really worried about Joe.” Ben looked at his oldest son. “You don’t think that something has happened to Joe, do you?”

“No,” replied Adam, shaking his head. “Joe’s just late, as usual. I think Hoss is feeling a little guilty because he goaded Joe into riding that stallion.”

“Was the horse acting up when Joe saddled him?” asked Ben.

“He was fine,” Adam assured his father. “He didn’t give Joe any trouble at all.” Adam smiled. “Don’t worry. Joe will be home soon. This is just a tempest in a teapot,” he stated confidently.

But Adam’s confidence was shaken as the clock struck midnight, and still Joe had failed to arrive. Both he and his father had stayed downstairs reading, reluctant to go to bed before Joe got home. But as the hours dragged on, both men read less and less. Their concentration began to focus on the front door, rather than the words in front of them.

“Do you think Joe decided to spend the night at one of the line shacks on Willow Ridge?” asked Ben as the chimes from the clock ended.

“There isn’t any reason why he should have,” answered Adam with a frown.

“Maybe he got caught up doing some work on one of the shacks,” suggested Ben.

“He wasn’t going to do any work on the shacks,” explained Adam. “All I told him to do was ride up to Willow Ridge and look around. He was supposed to come back and tell me what he found. Besides, he didn’t take any tools or supplies with him.” Adam shook his head. “I wanted to give him an easy day. All he had to do was ride up there, check things out and come home.”

“Maybe he got sick,” offered Ben. “If he wasn’t feeling well, he might have decided to bunk in at one of the shacks.”

“He seemed fine when left here,” answered Adam. “He was grinning and making a big deal out of saddling that stallion in front of everyone.” Adam shook his head. “I don’t know what to think, Pa. I don’t know why he’s not home yet.”

Ben stared at the front door, as if trying to will his youngest son to come through it. But the wooden frame remained closed. Suddenly, Ben stood. “I’m going up and get a couple of hours sleep,” he said. “You should do the same.”

“But, Pa…” Adam started to protest.

“Get some sleep,” Ben repeated, interrupting Adam. “You’re going to need it. Because we’re going looking for Joe as soon as the sun comes up.”

*****

The pale light of dawn began to filter through the branches. Joe couldn’t remember a sunrise that he was happier to see. He had honestly doubted whether he would make it through the night.

Joe frankly had little memory of the dark hours. He had tried unsuccessfully to stay awake, to watch for the return of the mountain lion or for other creatures of the forest. But he had repeated drifted off, exhausted by his pain, thirst and increasing fever. When he did wake himself, he had experienced a terrible sense of loneliness and abandonment. He couldn’t see a thing in the inky blackness that surrounded him, and the woods were surprisingly silent. Joe easily could have imagined he was last person left on earth.

When he had drifted off, Joe’s sleep was anything but restful. His mind was disturbed by turbulent dreams — wild images of attacking animals and fantasies of men laughing as they tortured him in various ways. When Joe could clear his head enough to think logically, he tried to dismiss the dreams. He knew they were the product of his fever and his injured body. But as the night had worn on, the periods of clear thinking had grown less and less. He had spent increasing long stretches either lost in his delirious dreams or fading into a frightening blackness.

As Joe woke in the early dawn, he felt surprising clear-headed and aware. His body no longer ached. The pain had been replaced with a numbness that seemed to be spreading rapidly. Breathing wasn’t as difficult has it had been; he had gotten used to inhaling shallowly. Even the swelling in his lips and eye seemed less.

Watching the rising sun slowly erase the darkness of the woods, Joe wondered if this is what it felt like to die. It wasn’t a subject he had ever thought about, and he really didn’t want to think about it now. But he couldn’t help himself. He wondered if dying wasn’t just a gradual loss of feeling, rather than some abrupt ending to life. If that was the case, he wondered how long it took until the last spark of life flickered out.

It was the emptiness of the woods that bothered Joe more than anything else. Other than that mountain lion, he hadn’t seen or heard another living thing in the forest. If he was going to die here, Joe wanted something – even a rabbit or a squirrel – to note his passing.

A sudden wind blew through the trees, and Joe began to shiver. He felt cold, his body thoroughly chilled by the night air. He knew Townsend had taken his jacket in order to make him suffer the cool night air without even the small protection of the thin coat. Joe supposed he should be grateful Townsend hadn’t taken his shirt, boots or other clothes, although gratitude wasn’t exactly what he felt when he thought of the man.

Joe suddenly felt tired and a now familiar fuzziness seemed to cloud his thinking. He fought the feeling briefly, not wanting to fade into an eternal darkness before thinking some profound last thoughts. But he couldn’t get his mind to work in that direction. As Joe drifted into unconsciousness, the only images in his brain were the faces of his father and brothers.

*****

“Doesn’t look like he was here,” said Adam as he emerged from the line shack. “There’s no footprints in the dust on the floor, and that cupboard doesn’t look like it’s been opened since last winter.” Adam took a couple of steps forward to where three men were waiting on horseback for him.

Perched on his big mount, Hoss frowned as he handed the reins of Adam’s horse to his brother. “What do we do now?”

As Adam climbed into the saddle, he replied, “Pa and his men ought to be at that other line shack by now. He said he would fire a couple of shots if he found anything. Did you hear anything that sounded like a signal?”

“No,” said Hoss, shaking his head. “It’s been as quiet as a grave.” A sick look crossed Hoss’ face as he realized what he had said.

Sitting on their horses just behind Hoss, Charlie and Pete looked at each other. They had thought it was silly when Hoss had insisted they add bedrolls, canteens and saddlebags full of food and trail gear when they saddled up in the early morning light. Both had been convinced that they would find Joe quickly, probably weary and footsore as he walked toward home. But after several hours on the trail with no sign of Joe, and now an empty line shack, the two men were beginning to think Hoss had been smart to make them bring the gear along.

“We’ll head toward the woods,” Adam decided as he reined his horse around. “We agreed if neither of us found Joe at the line shacks, both groups would check the woods. Pa and his men will start from the west. Let’s head for the east side.”

Twenty minutes later, Adam raised his hand to halt the riders behind him. The four had arrived at the point where the trails converged. Adam called Joe’s name several times. The four men listened for a reply but the only sound in the still air was the faint echo of Adam’s calls.

“We’ll cover more ground if we split up,” declared Adam, looking around. “No telling which way Joe might have gone.”

“I’m going to check the woods,” Hoss told his brother in a voice that brooked no argument.

“All right,” Adam agreed. He twisted a bit in his saddle to look at the other two men. “Pete, you ride down that trail to the meadow,” Adam instructed. “Charlie, keep going east along the rim of the ridge. I’m going to follow the trail that skirts the edge of the woods. If you find anything, fire a couple of shots.”

Separating, the four men rode slowly in different directions, each of them keeping their eyes to the ground. Hoss guided his horse near the woods, then stopped and dismounted. The growth was too thick for him to get his horse through the trees. After tying the reins around a nearby bush, Hoss cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted “Joe!” twice. Hearing no reply, Hoss started forward into the woods.

After being in the bright sun, Hoss found it difficult to see in the dim light of the woods at first. He stopped a few feet from the edge, allowing his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. As he looked around, Hoss saw something up leaning against one of the trees far ahead of him. It was too far away and the light was too poor for Hoss to make out exactly what it was, but the object seemed odd, unnatural and out of place. He decided to get a better look at it.

Walking slowly, Hoss started forward, his eyes straying to the ground frequently. He was more intent on looking for signs of Joe than paying attention to the odd shape up ahead. However, as he got closer, Hoss stopped and squinted toward the object. It looked like something shaped like a man. Hoss thought it was strange that someone would leave a large doll or scarecrow so far into the woods. Curious, he walked a few steps closer, then stopped abruptly. He was close enough to get a good look at the object, and a look of horror crossed Hoss’ face as he realized what it was.

“My God!” exclaimed Hoss in a shocked voice. He couldn’t believe he was seeing. The thing tied to the tree wasn’t a doll or a scarecrow. It was his brother Joe.

A sense of panic and fear filled Hoss as he began to run, his feet tripping over roots and plants as he rushed forward. He skidded to a stop in front of the tree, and looked at the body lashed to the trunk, a body as limp as a rag doll.

Hoss was convinced Joe was dead. His brother’s chin was resting on his chest, and his body was slumped against the ropes that held him to the tree. Joe’s arms were stretched behind him, obviously tied behind the tree. Hoss couldn’t see anything that looked like a bullet or knife wound, but he also couldn’t see any sign of life in the figure bound to the tree.

“Joe!” said Hoss in a choked voice as he reached forward with a trembling hand. He put his hand to Joe’s neck, afraid that he had found his brother too late. Joe’s skin was cool, almost cold, but Hoss sighed with relief as he felt the faint throb of a pulse.

With a gentle hand, Hoss lifted Joe’s chin and his shock deepened as he saw his brother’s battered face. Dried blood was streaked down the side of Joe’s cheek and chin. Bruises and swelling tissue dotted Joe’s face. What undamaged skin Hoss could see looked pale and pasty.

After lowering Joe’s chin slowly, Hoss reached into his pants and pulled out a pocket knife. “Hold on, Joe,” he said in an urgent voice as he opened the knife. Hoss hurried to the back of the tree, and with two quick motions, cut the rope that was looped around Joe’s wrists.

Joe’s arms swung forward, then swayed loosely at his side. The rope around Joe’s chest began to loosen, no longer held by the knots that also had tied Joe’s wrist. As Hoss realized the rope was unraveling itself from around Joe, he dropped the knife and rushed to the front of the tree. He caught his brother just as Joe was falling toward the ground.

Lowering Joe slowly to the ground, Hoss cradled Joe’s head and shoulder in his arms. He looked for some sign of consciousness, something that would assure him that his brother really was alive.

As he held Joe in his arms, Hoss began to stroke Joe’s neck and chest. “Joe!” he said in an urgent voice. “Joe, can you hear me, boy? Joe, answer me!” But the figure in his arms laid still and silent.

*****

Lying on the ground, Joe was dimly aware that he was no longer tied to the tree. He had felt himself falling forward, but had been unable to lift his arms to protect himself. He felt a surge of gratitude toward the huge pair of arms which had caught him and lowered him gently to the ground.

Feeling the hands rubbing him gently, and the warmth of another body, Joe was suddenly filled with happiness. He didn’t care who held him. He could have wept for joy at the thought that he was no longer alone in the woods.

Joe wanted desperately to move, to open his eyes. He was afraid if he didn’t, the individual who held him might think he was dead and go away. Joe couldn’t face the thought of being abandoned, of being left alone again among the silent trees.

It seemed to take ounce of strength he had left, but Joe managed to open his right eye a bit. He could make out a fuzzy image, a figure bending over him. Despite the fact that his arm and hand were almost numb, Joe forced his right hand up and managed to grab a piece of the shirt next to him. His jaw worked as Joe tried to talk. He finally forced the words out. “Don’t…leave.. me,” he said, his desperation evident in the raspy whisper of his voice.

*****

As Adam guided his horse down the trail around the edge of the woods, his puzzlement – and his anxiety – grew. He could see the faint prints of several horses in the dirt, but there was no telling who had left the tracks on the trail. Nothing indicated that Joe had come this way, but the fact that there had been several riders in the area recently was causing him concern. Unless the Cartwrights were grazing cattle in the area, there was little reason for someone to be up here. He began to wonder who or what Joe might have run into.

But whatever thoughts Adam had on the subject disappeared in an instant. They blew away like smoke as soon as he heard two shots booming in the air.

Turning his horse quickly, Adam kicked the animal into a run. He could tell the shots had come from near the woods. As he urged his horse to speed, Adam prayed that Hoss had found Joe, and had found him alive.

As he reached the grass near the edge of the trees, Adam pulled his horse to a stop and jumped out of the saddle. He could see Hoss a few feet away, bending over a figure on the ground, wrapped in a blanket. Adam ran, covering the few feet in record time.

When he reached his brother, Adam looked over Hoss’ shoulder to the figure on the ground. “Hoss!” exclaimed Adam. “What happened to him?”

Adam could barely recognize Joe. His youngest brother’s face was bruised and swollen. Hoss was wiping the dried blood from his chin with a damp cloth. Joe’s eyes were closed and Adam couldn’t have sworn he was breathing. But he could tell Joe was alive. The blanket which covered Joe was wrapped over his left shoulder and under his right arm. It had to be wrapped that way because Joe’s right hand was reaching up, clutching Hoss’ shirt in iron grip.

Continuing to gently wipe Joe’s face, Hoss didn’t look at Adam as he answered. “Someone beat him, Adam,” said Hoss in a voice as cold as steel. “They beat him half to death, and then they tied him to a tree. They left him there, left him to die all alone in those woods.”

Shocked at Hoss’ answer, Adam swallowed hard. “Who did it?” he asked in a breathless voice.

His back still to Adam, Hoss replied, “I don’t know, Adam. Joe hasn’t said. But I aim to find out. I’m going to get whoever did this.” Hoss’ voice was flat, without emotion.

Adam’s eyes widened as he heard Hoss’ tone. He would have understood if Hoss had sounded angry or upset. But the lack of emotion in his brother’s voice scared Adam. He knew Hoss had moved beyond anger to a deadly resolve.

Hearing the sound of horses approaching, Adam straightened and turned. Pete and Charlie were approaching on their mounts.

“Adam, did you find him?” asked Charlie, craning his head to get a look at the man on the ground.

“Hoss did,” answered Adam.

“Is he all right?’ Pete asked. He knew the answer to that question before Adam replied. He could see the concern on Adam’s face, and the way Hoss was bending over Joe.

Looking over his shoulder, Adam glanced at the figures behind him, then turned back to Pete and Charlie. “He’s in bad shape,” said Adam. “He’s been beaten. And he was in those woods all night.” He hesitated before continuing, almost not believing the words he was going to say. “Hoss said he found him tied to a tree in the woods. Whoever did this just left him there.”

“What!” exclaimed Pete. “Who’d do a thing like that, Adam? And why?”

“I don’t know,” replied Adam, shaking his head. He took a deep breath. His natural bent for taking charge rose to the surface and Adam began giving instructions. “The important thing now is to take care of Joe. It’s too far to get him back to the ranch. We’ll take him to the line shack. Charlie, you go find my Pa and tell him where we are. Pete, get to town and bring the doctor back here.”

With a brief nod, the two ranch hands turned their horses and rode off. Adam watched them depart, then turned back to Hoss.

“Hoss, we’ve got to get him to the line shack,” said Adam in a quiet voice. He took a step forward. “I’ll help you lift him.”

But instead of moving out of the way, Hoss moved his shoulder to his right, blocking Adam from helping. “I’ll do it,” stated Hoss, still not looking at Adam.

Taking a step back, Adam was surprised at Hoss’ reaction to his offer to help. But he shrugged off his surprise. He would deal with whatever was bothering Hoss later. Right now, his concern was for Joe.

Throwing aside the wet cloth, Hoss bent forward until his face was only inches from Joe’s. “Joe,” he said softly, “Can you hear me? We’re going to move you to the line shack. You’ll be nice and warm there. And Pa will meet us there. Do you understand me? We have to move you.”

Joe’s uninjured right eye flickered open. He stared up at his brother, trying to make sense of the words. His thinking was still fuzzy and confused. He managed to understand that Hoss was leaving. “Take me…with you,” he pleaded in a raspy voice. His right hand tightened its grip on Hoss’ shirt, and twisted it a bit.

“I will, Joe,” Hoss promised his brother in a soothing voice. “I ain’t leaving you. Do you understand me? I’ll stay right with you.”

Watching as Hoss lifted his brother gently from the ground, Adam asked anxiously, “What happened to him out there, Hoss?” What did they do to him?”

“I don’t know,” answered Hoss grimly as he walked past Adam, carrying Joe toward the horses. “But it ain’t nothing compared to what I’m going to do to them.”

*****

Huddled together around a small fire, drinking coffee, the Ponderosa ranch hands who had been in the search party waited outside the line shack. The shack was so small there was barely room for all the Cartwrights, much less the hands. So the men camped outside, waiting anxiously for some word on Joe’s condition. They all liked and respected Joe, and were angered that someone would try to kill the youngest Cartwright.

“Is it true that they tied him to a tree and left him?” asked one of the hands.

“That’s what Adam said,” answered Charlie in a grim voice.

“Who’d do a thing like that?” asked another of the hands.

“I don’t know,” replied Charlie, shaking his head. He looked at the other men. “I’ll bet you my bottom dollar that black horse had something to do with this,” he added. “That animal’s pure evil.”

“Charlie, he’s just a horse,” advised one of the men in a reasonable voice.

“Yeah?” said another hand in a voice full of disbelief. “If you think that, how come you wouldn’t ride him?” The first man looked down and said nothing.

“That stallion ain’t a horse,” spat out Charlie in disgust. “He nothing but bad luck on four legs.”

“Do you think whoever did this has the horse?” asked a hand.

“I don’t know,” admitted Charlie. “But I guess I’ll find out.”

“How?” asked one of the men in a puzzled voice.

“Well, I figure Adam and Hoss are going after whoever done this to Joe,” Charlie responded in a determined voice. “And when they do, I’m riding with them.”

“Me, too,” said a hand. The other men’s heads nodded in agreement.

Inside the line shack, Ben sat on a chair next to the bed on which his injured son lay sleeping. The shack was small, and four people almost filled it. A few pieces of furniture, a cupboard and a stove took up most of the space. Hoss sat on the only other chair in the room, while Adam leaned against a small table. All three of the men were watching the sleeping figure in the bed, their faces showing their anxiety and concern.

Reaching over, Ben put his hand on Joe’s forehead. “He’s still feverish,” said Ben. “But I don’t think it’s gotten any worse.”

“Pete should be here with the doctor soon,” Adam assured his father.

“Pa, ain’t there something else we can do for him?” asked Hoss in a pleading voice.

Looking over at his middle son, Ben felt a thread of worry building in a new direction. When he had arrived at the shack, Ben had found Hoss sitting on the edge of the bed, his arms still wrapped around Joe as the youngest Cartwright laid swathed in blankets on the cot. It had taken all of his fatherly persuasion and authority to get Hoss to release his brother. Ben had been more than a little concerned by the rage he saw in Hoss’ eyes as the big man had stepped away from the bed. It was an emotion Ben seldom saw in Hoss.

As he had removed Joe’s shirt, Ben felt the rage building inside himself. His jaw had clenched in anger as he saw the ugly bruises that dotted Joe’s chest and stomach. He had felt the cracked ribs in son’s side, and seen the burns from the rope on Joe’s wrists. Those injuries only added to the tale of abuse that Joe’s battered face had conveyed. It had taken more control than Ben knew he possessed to calmly instruct Adam and Hoss to bring the saddlebag with the bandages and medicine into the cabin.

“We’ve done everything we can for him,” Ben said, finally answering Hoss’ question. “He’s stopped shivering, and he seems to be resting easy. All we can do now is wait for the doctor.”

Watching Joe sleep, Ben was relieved his youngest son had drifted off awhile ago. He knew Joe had been cold and exhausted when Hoss carried him into the shack, but as Ben had wrapped his son’s ribs and daubed his cuts and bruises with medicine, Joe’s eyes never even blinked. It has been almost eerie the way Joe’s eyes had stayed fixed on Ben’s face as Ben had dealt with his son’s injuries. Even more disturbing had been the way Joe grabbed Ben’s arm every time his father began to move from the bed. Joe hadn’t said a word, but Ben hadn’t needed to hear his son’s voice to understand that Joe needed him to near him. Ben’s anger grew as he realized whomever had attacked his son had damaged more than Joe’s body.

“Pa, we have to find whoever did this to Joe,” declared Hoss, his anger evident in his voice.

“Where do you propose we look?” asked Adam reasonably. “We don’t know who we’re after much less where they went.”

“Whoever did this has that stallion,” Hoss stated with certainty.

“You don’t know that,” said Adam. “That horse could have just run off.”

“We find that stallion and we’ll find who did this,” insisted Hoss.

The sound of a groan from the bed drew the three men’s attention to Joe, the discussion about the stallion quickly forgotten. Adam and Hoss both stood and moved closer to the cot, while Ben leaned forward.

Moving his shoulders and legs, Joe shifted on the bed. His movement looked stiff and uncomfortable, and soft grunts confirmed it was a painful process. Joe turned his head and his eyes flickered opened, the right one wide while the swollen left barely moved.

“Pa!” whispered Joe in a panicky voice as he tried to focus on the figure by the bed. Joe reached out and grabbed his father’s arm.

“Easy, Joe,” said Ben in a soothing voice. He reached over and stroked Joe’s arm. “I’m right here, son.”

The gesture and words seemed to cause Joe’s alarm to lessen. He relaxed against the bed, although his hand still held Ben’s arm tightly. “Where am I?” Joe asked.

“You’re in the line shack,” Ben answered. “Hoss and Adam brought you here because it was closer than the house. After you get some rest and feel better, we’ll get you home.” Ben looked up at Adam and Hoss before continuing. He knew the question that they wanted him to ask. He just wasn’t sure whether now was the time to ask it. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Joe, who did this to you?”

Looking up, Joe studied the three faces above him. He needed to reassure himself that he wasn’t alone. That was what he remembered most from the woods – the terrible feeling of being all alone, abandoned by everyone. It was a feeling that he never wanted to experience again.

“Joe, tell us who did this,” Hoss urged his brother.

Swallowing hard, Joe decided he had to answer. He was afraid if he didn’t, his father and brothers might leave him. Joe quickly started to talk. He didn’t realize he was rambling, talking in disjointed phrases. In his feverish mind, Joe was being clear and concise.

“They wanted the horse,” Joe began. “The stallion. Thought they were going to kill me. I tried to fight. Too many, too many of them.”

“Who as it, Joe?” Adam asked from the edge of the bed.

Joe didn’t seem to hear the question. “I rode right up to them,” he continued. “They said it was just luck, bad luck.” Joe gave a short, almost hysterical laugh. “That stallion, he brought me bad luck too.”

Reaching over, Ben took Joe’s chin and gently turned his son’s face toward him. “Joe, listen to me,” he said in a firm voice. “Tell me who did this to you. Tell me a name.”

Frowning a bit, Joe looked at his father. He was puzzled by the question. He thought he had told his Pa who had attacked him. “Townsend,” Joe replied. “It was Townsend. He beat me up, then dragged me into the woods.” Joe’s eyes closed and he shuddered. “Townsend tied me to that tree,” he added softly.

“Townsend!” The name exploded from Hoss’ lips. “I should have known it was him. I should have known it.”

Waving his hand, Ben gestured Hoss to be quiet. “Joe, let me be sure I understand,” Ben said to his son. “This Townsend, he beat you up and left you in the woods because he wanted that black stallion. Is that right?”

Nodding, Joe answered in a barely audible voice, “Yes.” Suddenly, a look of fear crossed Joe’s face, and his grip on his father’s arm tightened. “He’s a good horse, Pa,” said Joe in a urgent tone of voice. “He really is. He runs like the wind.”

“I’m sure he does,” agreed Ben, in a soothing voice, once more stroking Joe’s arm.

“I didn’t mean to spend that much,” continued Joe, sounding afraid. “I’m sorry, Pa. I’m real sorry.”

“Joe, it’s all right,” Ben reassured his son. “The money isn’t important.”

“You’re not mad?” asked Joe, his voice filled with relief.

“No, I’m not mad,” answered Ben quietly. He saw Joe relax against the bed once more. “Why don’t you get some rest,” suggested Ben. “The doctor will be here soon.”

Staring at Ben, Joe tried to decide if he could risk going back to sleep. He was tired, very tired, but he also afraid of waking up to find himself all alone. “Pa, don’t leave,” he pleaded. “Promise me, you won’t leave.”

“I promise, Joe,” said Ben, holding back the emotion in his voice. He felt the anger growing inside of him again. He was beginning to hate this Townsend, not only for the physical hurts he had inflicted on his son, but also for changing Joe into a frightened boy. He loved his son no matter what, but he preferred the independent, almost bull-headed young man who had been at the Ponderosa when he left over the scared boy who clung to his arm for reassurance. “Go to sleep, Joe,” he crooned in a soothing voice. “Go to sleep. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

Blinking his eyes, Joe nodded. His eyes began to close and his body relaxed. He drifted off to sleep once more, but his hand still gripped Ben’s arm.

Watching and listening to Joe, Hoss had felt his fury grow also. He saw his brother clutching Ben’s arm and heard the fear in Joe’s voice. As he watch Joe fall asleep, Hoss took a step back from the bed. His anger at Townsend for what the man had done, fueled by a sense of guilt for encouraging Joe to buy and ride the stallion, sent him into a blind rage.

“We’ve got to get him, Pa,” Hoss stated in an angry voice. “We’ve got to make Townsend pay for what he did.”

Turning in his chair, Ben looked at Hoss, a fear for his second son starting to build in him. “This is a matter for the law, Hoss,” Ben said firmly.

“The law!” replied Hoss disgustedly. “What are they going to do? Send Townsend to jail for awhile?”

“And what do you want to do?” asked Ben in quiet voice.

“I want to kill him,” raged Hoss. “I want to tear him apart with my bear hands.”

“And what will that accomplish?” Ben asked. “Except to land you in the jail cell where Townsend should be. Or worse.”

“I don’t care,” Hoss ranted on. “You didn’t see him, Pa. You didn’t see Joe tied to that tree like some animal. Townsend left him there to die, left him alone in those woods. He’s got to pay for that.”

In his own mind, Ben agreed with Hoss. He couldn’t think of a punishment bad enough to inflict on Townsend for what he had done to Joe. But he couldn’t let Hoss know that. Ben had to work to save two of his sons now. “Do you think killing Townsend will help Joe?” he argued. “Do you think Joe’s going to get any better without you around to help him?”

A stricken look crossed Hoss’ face at Ben’s words. His anger began to cool and as it did, his sense of guilt began to build. “It’s my fault, Pa,” said Hoss, shaking his head. “This would have never happened if I hadn’t dared Joe to ride that horse. Townsend would have never gone after him if he hadn’t been on that stallion.”

“You don’t know that,” countered Ben. “Townsend might have gone after Joe regardless of what horse he was riding.”

“I don’t think Townsend went after Joe at all,” said Adam in a quiet voice.

Surprised, both Ben and Hoss turned to look at Adam. “What are you talking about, Adam?” asked Hoss with a frown.

“I don’t think Townsend went after Joe,” repeated Adam. “I think it was just an accident, just bad luck that Joe ran into him while he was riding the stallion.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Ben.

“Because Roy Coffee came out to the house yesterday morning,” replied Adam. “He came out to tell Joe that Townsend had left Virginia City There was no way Townsend could have known where Joe was, or that he was riding the stallion.”

“You knew Townsend had left Virginia City and you didn’t say anything,” Hoss said to Adam in an accusing tone of voice.

“I didn’t think it was important,” Adam explained. “Roy said he was heading back to his ranch.” Adam shook his head. “The odds of Joe running into him on the trail, especially while riding that horse, well, they have to be astronomical.”

Staring at Adam, Hoss’ eyes widened. “It’s that horse,” he said in a soft voice. “He’s a curse, just like everyone said.”

*****

Two hours later, Joe was once again drifting off to sleep. But this time, his slumber was drug-induced, caused by the sleeping powders in the drink Doctor Martin had given him.

Before the doctor had arrived, Joe had slept fitfully, waking frequently to reassure himself that he was not alone. Ben had tried to persuade Joe to sleep long and hard, knowing that the short naps were offering his son little relief from his exhaustion. But Joe had refused to allow himself to fall into a deep sleep. He was afraid of what he would find when he woke.

When Doctor Martin had finally arrived at the line shack, all three of the older Cartwrights had breathed a sigh of relief. Ben had had a quiet word with the doctor, explaining both Joe’s ordeal as well as his son’s injuries, before Martin had examined Joe. The doctor had listened silently, offering only a curt nod in response before walking to look at his patient in the bed. His examination had been brief – the doctor had listened to Joe’s heart and lungs with his stethoscope and checked the cuts and bruises Ben had treated. The Cartwrights watched anxiously as the doctor gently probed Joe’s ribs and midsection. Joe had emitted a few sharp grunts during the examination but otherwise simply laid on the bed, a guarded look on his face. After daubing a few of the bruises with medicine of his own, Doctor Martin had mixed the potion which would send Joe into the oblivion of sleep.

“He should sleep for six or seven hours,” advised the doctor, with a satisfied nod as he watched Joe sink into a deep sleep. “That’s the best thing for him. Sleep is a wonderful healer.”

“Then he’s going to be all right,” said Ben, relief evident in his voice.

“He should be,” agreed the doctor in a cautious voice. “Assuming there’s no complications.”

“Complications?” asked Adam with a frown. “Like what?”

“Infection, for one thing,” replied the doctor as he got up from the chair by the bed. “That’s always a danger.” Doctor Martin hesitated before continuing. “There’s no sign of any internal bleeding, but his stomach and abdomen are severely bruised. There’s no way to tell how much he’s bruised on the inside.”

“You mean he’s hurt bad inside too?” asked Hoss, his eyes wide with fear.

“Not necessarily,” Doctor Martin answered in a voice that was cautiously reassuring. “It depends on how bad the bruising is. If it’s fairly mild, his ‘insides’ will heal just like the rest of him. But if the internal bruising is too severe, it could cause an organ like a kidney or a spleen to shut down, perhaps even wither and die.”

“How will we know?” asked Ben in almost a whisper.

“There’s no way to tell for sure,” the doctor admitted. “All we can do is watch for symptoms – high fever, sharp pains, nausea.”

Frowning, Hoss said, “Joe’s got a fever now. He’s had one since I found him.”

“Yes,” agreed Doctor Martin. “But his fever isn’t any higher than I’d expect from someone who is badly bruised and suffering from exposure. His body is simply reacting to the punishment it received. That fever will disappear in a day or two – unless there’s some severe damage to his internal organs. If his fever suddenly climbs, then we need to be concerned.”

Walking over to the table, the doctor took the stethoscope from around his neck and replaced it in the bag. “Joe’s a tough kid,” he commented, with a small smile. “I’m betting he’s as tough on the inside as he is on the outside. But we need to keep an eye on him, just in case.”

“When will we know?” asked Ben anxiously.

“A few days,” answered Doctor Martin. “If none of the symptoms have showed up after three days, then there’s probably no reason to worry.” The doctor shut his bag with a snap. “I wouldn’t move him, though. It’s too risky. Riding in a wagon over these rough trails could aggravate any internal injuries. Best thing to do is keep him where he is. Just make sure he gets plenty of rest and lots of liquids.” Martin looked thoughtful for a minute. “I’ll plan to come back up here and check on him day after tomorrow. But send for me right away if any of the symptoms I mentioned show up.”

Nodding, Ben asked in a hesitant voice, “Is there anything else we can do for him? He seems so, well, anxious. He acts as if he thinks we are going to leave him. He keeps checking to make sure someone is here with him.”

Looking down, the doctor thought for a moment before answering. “I can heal his body, Ben,” he said slowly. “But I’m not an expert on the mind. I’m not sure anyone is. There’s no medicine that will erase Joe’s memory of what happened. to him. He was deliberately hurt and put in a position where there was no one to help him. That’s not an experience that he can just shrug off.” The doctor smiled reassuringly. “But, like I said, Joe’s a tough kid. I have a feeling he’ll bounce back. He just needs a little time.” With a nod, Doctor Martin walked toward the door. “I’ll be back day after tomorrow,” he promised as he left the shack.

For a few minutes, the Cartwrights simply stood where they were, silent and unsure what to do. None of them were very good at just waiting, yet that seemed to be all they could do. Finally, Hoss walked over and picked up his big white hat from where he had left it in the corner of the shack.

“Where are you going?” Ben asked sharply as Hoss headed for the door.

“After Townsend,” replied Hoss with a determined expression.

“I thought we agreed…” Ben started with a frown.

“We didn’t agree to nothing, Pa,” Hoss interrupted. “I listened to you, Pa, and I heard you. But I’m still going after that skunk. There ain’t nothing you can do to stop me, so don’t even try.”

“I’m going with him,” added Adam. “There’s nothing we can do here for Joe. If we bring back Townsend, that could be the best medicine for him.”

“This is a matter for the law,” argued Ben. “The best thing to do is ride into town and tell Roy Coffee what happened. Roy can issue a warrant and arrest Townsend. Let the law handle this. Please.”

“The law won’t touch Townsend,” Adam said in a grim voice. “Roy mentioned that Townsend has a ranch over in Paradise Valley. That’s across the state line, in California. Roy has no authority there, and we all know the law in California won’t do anything about a crime in Nevada.” Adam shook his head. “If we don’t bring Townsend back, he’ll get off scott free.”

“And that ain’t going to happen,” added Hoss grimly. “He’s going to pay for what he did to Joe. I’m going to see to that.”

Seeing the determined faces of his sons, Ben gave up trying to talk them out of their quest. If the truth be known, he wanted Townsend as much as Adam and Hoss did. But he was also afraid – afraid that another of his sons might become lost because of Harry Townsend.

“All right,” agreed Ben reluctantly. “You go and bring him back. But you bring him back alive, do you understand? I mean it, boys. I know how you feel and what you want to do.” He glanced over to the bed where Joe was sleeping. “Believe me, I know,” he repeated softly. Turning back to Adam and Hoss, Ben continued in a stern voice. “But I won’t have my sons going outside the law. Find Townsend, and bring him back to stand trial.”

Watching Adam and Hoss exchange looks, Ben tried to read the message in their eyes. He thought he knew his sons, but looking at their stony faces, Ben wondered if he really did. He wondered if they could honestly say they would look at the man who brutalized their brother and not take their revenge.

“We’ll bring him back,” Adam said finally, the words conveying a promise.

“Alive?” pressed Ben.

Adam glanced at Hoss, then nodded. “Alive,” he agreed.

“Hoss?” Ben asked, not needing to finish the question.

Looking down at the floor, Hoss nodded. “Alive,” he said reluctantly. He turned and walked quickly out the door. Adam followed his brother.

The ranch hands huddled outside the shack stood as Adam and Hoss emerged. They looked at the two expectantly.

“The doctor thinks Joe will be all right,” Adam told the men. “Pa is going to stay here with him for a few days though, just to be sure.”

“The doctor told us the same thing when he left,” said Pete, nodding. He looked at the other men, then turned back to Adam. “We figure you’re going after whoever did this to Joe. We want to go with you.”

“This is our business,” advised Hoss. “You fellows don’t need to get involved.”

“We want to go with you,” insisted Pete. “Joe’s a good kid, and what they did to him ain’t right. We want to get our licks at them dirty cowards, same as you.” The men standing next to Pete murmured their agreement.

“Besides, you two might need some help,” added Charlie.

“We can handle this ourselves,” said Adam, frowning.

“Well, maybe you can and maybe you can’t,” replied Charlie. “It won’t hurt none to have us along, just in case.”

Looking at the faces of the men standing in front of him, Adam felt a rush of emotion. “Thanks,” he said gratefully. He looked at Hoss, and saw his brother’s face showed the same feeling. “We appreciate this,” Adam added. He took a deep breath. “But we can’t take all of you with us.”

“Why not?” challenged Pete.

“Because Pa is going to need someone here, just in case,” answered Adam. “If Joe…well, someone should be here to go for the doctor if Joe needs him.”

“Frank, you stay here with Mr. Cartwright,” Charlie ordered, nodding to one of the men behind him.

“We also have a ranch that won’t run by itself,” Adam continued. “Somebody is going to have to look after the stock and keep an eye on things for awhile.”

“You have a point there,” agreed Charlie reluctantly. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then turned to the other men. “Bob, you and Fred go back and keep an eye on things at the ranch. Pete and I will ride with Adam and Hoss.”

“Who put you in charge, Charlie,” complained Fred,

“I did!” answered Charlie, giving the man a fierce look. “You want to make something of it?”

“No,” replied Fred meekly. “I was just asking.”

“Good, it’s settled then,” said Charlie. He turned back to Adam and Hoss. “Pete and I are ready whenever you are.”

Smiling, Adam nodded. “Remind me never to cross you, Charlie. I have a feeling I probably wouldn’t like the outcome.”

“You’d be sorry,” grinned Charlie. Then his face grew grim. “But not half as sorry as those fellows who beat up Joe are going to be.”

*****

Paradise Valley was named by someone who obviously appreciated the assets of the area. Thick grass seemed to grow easily, evidence of the rich soil, and streams with sparkling clear water snaked throughout it. Ranchers and farmers who owned land in Paradise Valley needed to invest only some time and a bit of effort in their property in order to make it productive. As a result, it wasn’t surprising that all of the homesteads in the valley looked prosperous and well run. All, that is, except the Townsend place.

It had taken a little more than a day for Adam, Hoss, Pete and Charlie to reach Paradise Valley, and another half day of asking around before they found the ranch they wanted. Now the four riders from the Ponderosa halted their horses behind some rocks near Townsend’s ranch, making sure they could see the area around the house and barn without being seen. After passing the well-kept ranches and farms in the area, the Townsend ranch looked even seedier than it might have, a sharp contrast to the other residences in the area.

While the houses and yards of the other homesteads had been neat and clean, the Townsend place had an air of neglect. Peeling paint hung from the weathered wood of the house, and a railing was missing from the porch fence. A broken chair sat on the porch, and the front windows of the house were grimy. Next to the house was a patch of land surrounded by rocks – land which had been a garden at one time but now was only a home for weeds. An old wheelbarrow stood a few feet from the house, its pan and wheel badly rusted. The barn was several yards from the house, the wood also looking weathered and splintered and its door hanging open as if broken from the frame.

But it was the small corral next to the barn which drew the men’s attention. Built to accommodate two or three horses, the pen held at least six animals. The horses were crowded together, having barely enough room to move. The animals didn’t seem interested in moving, though. They stood still, with their heads down, their coats matted and manes tangled. The horses looked underfed; hip bones jutted sharply from thin bodies.

Only one animal seemed well fed and lively. That horse pawed the ground as it tried to move around in the crowded pen. But even the coat of this animal was splotched with mud and dirt – the coat of a black stallion.

“Look at those poor critters,” muttered Pete in disgust as he gazed at the corral. “Them fellows are too lazy or stupid to take care of them horses properly. We ought to shoot them just for that.”

Ignoring Pete’s comment, Adam’s eyes searched the ranch looking for any sign of the men they sought. Other than the nervous shifting of the stallion, there was nothing moving around the ranch. If Adam hadn’t known better, he would have sworn the place was deserted.

“Maybe somebody warned them and they took off,” suggested Hoss as he also studied the house and yard.

“I doubt it,” replied Adam. He remembered the looks on the faces of the men at the places they had stopped to get directions to the Townsend ranch. It was obvious Harry Townsend was not well liked. “I don’t think anyone around here feels friendly enough toward Townsend to care what happens to him.”

“Think we ought to go down and check the house?” asked Charlie. “Maybe they’re inside.

Before Adam could answer, the distant sound of a horse whinnying drew all four men’s attention. They turned almost as one to their left. Three men were riding toward the house across the field, the slow walk of their horses showing they apparently felt no sense of urgency or danger. The Ponderosa men crouched low on their mounts, keeping themselves hidden behind the boulders, and waited.

Riding into the yard with his two partners, Harry Townsend looked as shabby and worn as his ranch. A thin layer of dust covered his clothes and boots, and his shirt was stained with sweat. His partners looked no better. Both wore dirty shirts and dusty pants.

“Ed, you put the horses up,” ordered Townsend as he dismounted and tossed his reins to the man on the horse next to him. The third man did the same.

“How come I have to do it?” complained Neeley as he got off his horse. “I’m tired. It’s a long ride from that trading post. And it was all for nothing. There weren’t any women there like you said there would be.”

“So I was wrong,” shrugged Townsend. “You seemed eager enough to go when that cowboy told us about the place the other night.” Townsend laughed derisively. “You sure weren’t getting any looks from them gals in town.”

“They’re all stuck up and snooty,” mumbled Neeley.

“Sure, saloon gals are real picky about their men,” agreed Townsend sarcastically. “Now put up the horses like I told you.”

As Neeley led the horses toward the barn, Townsend turned to Campbell. “Jake, you’d better feed them horses. And while you’re at it, fix that latch on the corral. It’s loose, ready to pop.”

“Feed the horses, fix the corral,” said Campbell in a mimicking voice. “I thought you said a horse ranch was going to be easy. You said all we’d have to do was buy them horses, let them breed and sell them. You never said anything about having to feed them, and water them, and fix the corral.”

“Well, if you’d fix the fence around the pasture, we wouldn’t have to feed them,” answered Townsend angrily. “We could leave them out there. If I told you once, I told you twenty times to fix that fence.”

“I’m your partner, not your hired hand,” replied Campbell with a shrug. “You want that fence fixed, you do it yourself.”

“If Jed were here, he’d fix it,” said Townsend shaking his head. “At least my brother would do some work around here.” He sighed. “Just feed them horses.”

“And what are you going to be doing?” Campbell asked suspiciously.

“I’ve got work inside,” replied Townsend.

“Yeah?” said Campbell, raising his eyebrows. “Like the work you were doing yesterday when I found you sleeping?”

“Feed them horses,” repeated Townsend angrily. His hands balled into fists. “You want me to tell you another way?”

“No, no, I’m going,” Campbell said quickly, obviously not wanting to face Townsend’s anger. He walked a few steps and then stopped. “It’ll take me awhile,” he added in a sullen voice. “I got to clean out those stalls before I bring the horses into the barn. Ain’t no one touched them stalls in days.”

“Get Ed to help you,” suggested Townsend. “Besides, they don’t have to be too clean. They’re just horses. They don’t care.”

Turning on his heel, Townsend walked quickly toward the house as Campbell strolled to the barn.

Watching Townsend and his partners disappear inside the buildings, the four men crouched behind the rocks sat up. “How do you want to do this, Adam” Hoss asked his brother.

Looking thoughtful, Adam replied, “We can’t just ride in there with guns blazing. They’re too spread out. Besides someone might get hurt.”

“I don’t care, as long as it’s one of them,” said Pete.

“Yes, but it’s liable to be one of us that gets hurt and I do care about that,” answered Adam. He studied the ranch for another minute, then turned to Hoss. “Is Townsend the one in the house?”

“Yeah,” replied Hoss. “Why do you want to know that?”

Rubbing his chin, Adam said, “I’ve got an idea. Townsend doesn’t know me. I’ll ride up to the house and pretend I want to buy some horses. Lure him outside where I can get the drop on him. While I’m keeping Townsend busy, you three sneak around the back and take care of the two in the barn.” Realizing what he said, Adam added quickly, “Just tie them up. No gun play unless you have to, understand?”

Exchanging looks, Pete and Charlie nodded. “All right, Adam,” Charlie agreed, obviously reluctant. “You’re the boss.” His face grew grim. “But if they give us any grief, I ain’t going be too nice with them.”

Nodding at Charlie’s comment, Adam turned to his brother. “Hoss?” he said, his question unspoken.

“I heard you, Adam,” answered Hoss in a grim voice.

Deciding he had to be satisfied with that answer, Adam pulled his hat down a bit and turned his horse. “Give me a couple of minutes to get to the house, and then start working your way to the barn,” he told the men. Without waiting for a reply, Adam guided his horse toward the ranch house.

Stopping in front of the house, Adam dismounted and tied the reins of his horse around a post that he supposed was once part of a hitching rail. He walked a few feet and then stopped in front of the house. “Hello!” he shouted. “Anyone around?” Adam waited patiently for a reply. He wanted Townsend to come to him, rather than enter the confines of the house. “Hello?” he shouted again and waited.

Adam’s patience was rewarded when the front door finally opened and Harry Townsend emerged from the house. “Can I help you?” asked Townsend, looking at Adam curiously.

“I hope so,” replied Adam, a friendly smile on his face. “Heard you had some horses for sale. I’m interested in buying.”

“Horses for sale? Who’d tell you that?” Townsend said in a puzzled voice. “Yeah, yeah, we got horses for sale,” he added quickly. “Didn’t plan to offer them up right now, but I’d be willing to make a deal if the price is right.”

“Can I see them?” asked Adam, continuing to smile. He felt as if the false look of friendliness was painted on his face.

“Over here,” replied Townsend with a nod. He walked past Adam and started toward the corral. Adam followed behind, walking slowly, the smile no longer on his face.

“I wasn’t expecting a buyer, so they really aren’t ready for showing,” Townsend said as he stopped near the corral. As he turned toward Adam, Townsend froze, his eyes showing his surprise at seeing the man behind him with a gun in his hand.

“What’s this about?” asked Townsend. “You going to try to steal these horses?”

“I’m not interested in the horses,” answered Adam in a deadly quiet voice. “I’m only interested in you.”

“In me?” said Townsend in surprise. “Why me? I ain’t nobody.”

“You’re a sadistic brute who beat a twenty year old kid half to death, then tied him to a tree and left him,” Adam replied grimly.

Townsend’s eyes widened, reflecting both his fear and his surprise at Adam’s words. But Adam was the one who was astonished when Townsend suddenly began to laugh.

“So the kid didn’t die,” Townsend stated with a sarcastic grin on his face. “He’s a lot tougher than I gave him credit for.” Townsend studied Adam for a minute. “Yeah, Cartwright must still be alive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have known to come after me. You some kin of his?”

“I’m Adam Cartwright,” replied Adam. “You almost killed my brother. Now I’m taking you back to Virginia City to stand trial for attempted murder.”

“Attempted murder?” said Townsend. His eyes narrowed and an almost thoughtful expression crossed his face. “You’ll never make attempted murder stick. Maybe assault, but they might even throw that out. It’s my word against the kid’s, and I got two witnesses. Ed and Jake will back up my story.”

“And what story is that?” asked Adam with a frown.

“Whatever I can come up with,” replied Townsend, with a sly look on his face. “I’ll probably claim self-defense. Yeah, that’s it. The kid attacked us, and we were just defending ourselves. Ed and Jake, they’ll say the same thing.”

“You defended yourself by beating up my brother and tying him to a tree?” said Adam in a skeptical voice. “I think a jury is going to find that hard to believe.”

“Not when I tell them how your brother was acting crazy, practically foaming at the mouth,” sneered Townsend. “We had to tie him up to keep him from coming after us, maybe killing us. Hell, by the time I get finished, you’ll be lucky if they don’t lock up your brother instead of me.”

As much as he hated to admit it, Adam could see the logic of Townsend’s defense. No one had been on that ridge except Joe and his attackers, and the jury might believe the three men if they all told the same story. “There’s still the matter of you stealing the stallion,” said Adam, jerking his head toward the corral.

“Yeah, that might be a bit harder to explain,” agreed Townsend. Then he grinned. “But the sheriff told me horse stealing only gets you three years. Maybe even less if I get me a sympathetic judge. I might even be able to convince him to let me serve it in a county jail.” Townsend laughed. “That’s not all bad. Three meals a day and I don’t have to do anything but lay in bed all day. Probably sell this place. It turned out to be a lot more work than I figured. The money will be in the bank, collecting interest the whole time.” Townsend nodded. “A nice little vacation, and I come out richer than when I went in. Hell, Cartwright, you’ll be doing me a favor taking me in.”

Angered by Townsend’s arrogance and by the fact that what he said was probably true, Adam raised the gun a bit and cocked it. “What if I just take care of things now?” he threatened. “Save the law the trouble of trying you.”

For a moment, a look of fear crossed Townsend’s face. But the look disappeared quickly, and was replaced by an insolent one. “No, I don’t think you’ll do it, Cartwright,” he said smugly. “You shoot me and it’s murder.” Townsend raised his arms a bit. “Look I’m not even wearing a gun. I know you want to get even with me for what happened to your brother, but I don’t think you want it bad enough to swing for it.”

“It’s not murder if I shoot you for resisting arrest,” said Adam angrily.

“Resisting arrest!” exclaimed Townsend with a laugh. “You ain’t no lawman, Cartwright, and I’m betting there’s not even a poster out on me. You’re just some fellow who rode onto my place and pulled a gun. Resisting? Hell, yes, I’m resisting, just like anyone would. There’s not a man in this country who wouldn’t do the same. They’d probably end up calling me a hero.”

Adam’s hand tightened around the gun. He had killed men before, but always in self-defense. He had never deliberately shot anyone. He had always felt that to do so was morally wrong. But right now, he wanted nothing more than to wipe the smirk off Townsend’s face with a bullet, to punish the man who had treated his brother so brutally. He was convinced the world would be a better place without the likes of Townsend. It took every ounce of willpower Adam possessed to stop himself from pulling the trigger.

“This one’s mine, Adam” said a voice behind him.

Glancing over his shoulder, Adam saw Hoss standing a few feet away. His brother’s face looked grim. “Where’s the other two?” asked Adam.

“Pete and Charlie have them tied up in the barn,” answered Hoss. “They’re keeping an eye on them. I told them I’d take care of this one.”

The smug look faded from Townsend’s face as he turned toward Hoss. He could see the determined expression on Hoss’ face, and the hate burning in Hoss’ eyes. He knew this was a man who would be deterred by mere words. Townsend swallowed hard. “Cartwright,” he said, recognizing Hoss from the auction, “you can’t kill me. Like I told your brother here, that’s murder. You’ll hang for it.”

“I heard what you told Adam,” replied Hoss in a cold voice. “That don’t bother me none. Like you, I got my own witnesses.”

“Hoss, this is a matter for the law,” Adam said quickly. As much as he hated Townsend, Adam couldn’t let his brother kill the man. “Let the law handle it.”

“The law?” scoffed Hoss, his eyes never leaving Townsend. “I heard what he said, about the law giving him a slap on the wrist. That’s ain’t good enough, Adam. Not for what he did.” Hoss took a few steps toward Townsend, and his hand reached down toward the pistol on his hip.

“You don’t know what will happen,” argued Adam. “Neither does he, for sure. He could end up in prison.”

“Prison isn’t enough,” Hoss stated, still staring at Townsend. “He beat Joe, beat him bad. Then he tied him to a tree, like a dog, and left him to die. No one does something like that to my little brother and gets away with it.” Hoss took a step closer to Townsend.

“Hoss, you can’t do it!” exclaimed Adam in a desperate voice. “You promised Pa you’d bring him in alive, remember. You kill him, and all you’ll end up doing is ruining everyone’s life. You’ll go to jail, or worse. Think about what that would do to Pa. And to Joe.”

Adam’s words found their mark. Hoss turned to look at his brother, and his eyes blinked as his thoughts raced. A look of doubt flickered across his face.

“We’ll take him back and make him stand trial,” Adam continued, pressing his home his advantage. “Nobody in Virginia City will believe his story. They all know Joe and they know Townsend wanted the stallion. His brother even tried to steal it. They’ll punish him for what he did to Joe.”

Hoss’ gaze swung back to Townsend. The man’s fear had disappeared from his face, replaced by the smug look once more. Hoss’ eyes narrowed, and he took another step closer to Townsend.

“Hoss, don’t!” shouted Adam. He could see Townsend’s arrogance grated on Hoss as much as it did on him. Adam wanted to see Townsend suffer, just like Joe had. His finger tightened on the trigger of his gun a bit. For a moment, Adam thought about pulling the trigger, a simple solution to what could become a complex problem. But the moment passed as Adam’s moral compass led him away from outright murder. “Hoss,” he said in an urgent voice. “We have to take him back alive.”

Staring at the man in front of him, Hoss didn’t answer. Suddenly, his hands moved to the buckle his gunbelt. “All right,” agreed Hoss, his reluctance evident. “We’ll take him back alive.” Hoss undid the gunbelt and dropped it to the ground. “But I figure we owe it to Joe to bring him back in the same condition he left Joe.” Hoss’ hands balled into fists and he took two more steps, stopping only a foot or so away from Townsend.

Looking up at Hoss, Townsend sneered, “You think you can take me, big man? You’re wrong. I’ve brought down bigger men than you. You’re going to end up looking just like your brother – or worse.”

“You’re going to pay for what you did to my little brother,” Hoss promised Townsend harshly.

Taking a deep breath, Adam lowered his gun and relaxed. He almost smiled as he saw the two men glaring at each other. He was going to enjoy this. It was going to be one whale of a fight, and Adam had no doubt Hoss would win.

Never one to wait, Townsend threw the first punch, a quick blow which landed on Hoss’ chin and snapped the big man’s head to the right. Hoss took a step back and rubbed his chin. Then he threw his own punch, his massive fist crashing into Townsend’s face. The blow staggered Townsend and he reeled a bit. But the man stayed on his feet, and the fight was on.

Holstering his gun, Adam crossed his arms and took a few steps back as he watched the combatants throwing punches at each other. Townsend was obviously getting the worse end of the fight. Twice he tried to hit at Hoss’ face, only to have his blow blocked by Hoss’ huge left arm while Hoss’ right fist rammed him in the stomach. Townsend doubled over both times and fell back even closer to the corral fence. He managed to land a punch to Hoss’ ribs, but Hoss barely seemed to notice. Hoss countered with an uppercut that knocked Townsend to the ground. Townsend pulled himself back to his feet and aimed a blow at Hoss’ midsection, a weak punch at best. Hoss almost ignored the punch as he sent his fist into Townsend’s face again. Townsend fell back once more, this time landing hard against the corral fence. The horses in the corral neighed nervously and began to shuffle around.

Glancing to his right, Adam saw Pete and Charlie coming out of the barn, obviously attracted by the noise. Two men walked between them, looking sullen with their hands tied behind their back. One had a bruise on his cheek and a split lip. Adam motioned to Pete and Charlie to join him.

As the five men watched, Hoss landed two punches for every one of Townsend’s blows. Twice more, Townsend was knocked against the corral fence by Hoss’ blows. Blood was trickling from Townsend’s cheek and lip, and he was breathing hard. But Townsend kept coming at Hoss, refusing to believe he could be beaten by any man. His arrogance was becoming his downfall.

Almost patiently, Hoss waited until Townsend tried to throw another punch. He blocked Townsend’s move and hit the man once more in the face. Townsend fell back again, this time landing against the gate of the corral. The broken latch on the gate snapped, and as Townsend pulled himself away from the corral, the gate swung open. From the corner of his eye, Townsend saw the gate open. His back to the horses in the corral, Townsend moved to his right, to the open area in front of the corral, hoping to give himself more room in which to maneuver.

Inside the corral, the stallion’s head lifted and his ears twitched when he saw the gate open. He pushed aside one of the mares and started for the gap in the fence. Then he saw the man move into the wide space at the front of the pen, and the horse stopped. A man standing in front of him was usually enough to keep the horse from running. But the stallion was angry and frustrated, penned up for days in a small corral with no room to move and little food. He pawed the ground, becoming even more frustrated as he saw his opportunity to escape blocked. Lifting his head, the stallion decided he had had enough. He started forward, picking up speed as he ran to freedom and the mares following in his wake.

*****

Waking from his nap, Joe turned to look drowsily around the cabin. Abruptly, though, his eyes snapped open wide and his head rose from the pillow. Joe saw that he was alone, that the cabin was empty and silent except for the sound of his suddenly panicky breathing.

Throwing aside the blanket that covered him, Joe swung his legs off the bed. He was wearing only a pair of wrinkled tan pants, but Joe didn’t stop to look for his shirt or shoes. He quickly got up from the bed, wincing and clutching his side as his sore ribs protested the movement. Joe stood for a moment, rocking slightly as he tried to get his balance. He forced himself toward the door, his bare feet shuffling over the hard wooden floor. Joe had only taken a few steps when the door opened, and Ben walked in, his arms full of thick, short branches.

“What are you doing out of bed!” exclaimed Ben in alarm as he saw Joe standing near the door. He hurried to the table, and dumped the wood on it, then rushed to his son’s side. Putting his arm around Joe’s shoulders, he gently turned his son and guided him back to the bed.

“I…I woke up and everyone was gone,” said Joe in a tentative voice as he walked slowly. “I was afraid everyone had left me.”

“I just went outside to get some wood for the stove,” explained Ben in a soothing voice. He helped Joe sit down on the edge of the bed. “I was only gone for a minute or two. I thought you were still asleep.”

“I just woke up,” admitted Joe as he eased himself back further onto the bed. He lifted his legs from the floor and swung them back onto the bed. “I guess I got worried when I…. well, I just got worried.”

Nodding, Ben stood by the bed and waited. He had been waiting for the past two days, waiting for Joe to open up and talk about what had happened to him. Ben had decided it was up to Joe to broach the subject, that his son would talk when he was ready. But Joe was apparently reluctant to discuss his ordeal and its effects on him. Joe slept whenever he could, and when he was awake, talked about anything but what had happened. Now Ben waited once more, hoping this was the time Joe would finally talk to him.

Scooting back on the bed, Joe leaned up against the pillows. He looked at his father, then turned his head. “What time is it?” he asked, obviously trying to divert Ben’s attention.

Turning from the bed, Ben gave a small sigh. He knew that Joe was once more avoiding the subject of the woods. “It’s almost noon,” answered Ben as he walked to the table and began picking up the wooden limbs. He walked over to the stove, and dropped the branches on the floor next to it. “We’ve got some of Hop Sing’s beef stew for lunch, and a fresh apple pie. Frank brought them from the ranch when he came back with the wagon.” Ben opened the door of the stove, and started putting a few sticks of wood inside. “It won’t take long to heat up the stew.”

“Where’s Frank?” asked Joe from the bed.

“Down at the other line shack, gathering up his gear,” Ben replied. “I told him to go on back to the ranch. Once the doctor gets here this afternoon and checks you out, I figure we’ll be heading back home too.” Ben was thankful that Joe had shown no symptoms of the complications that the doctor had mentioned. His son was healing nicely, at least physically. Ben wondered, however, whether Joe would heal in other areas. He fiddled with the stove, trying to decide what to say next. “It’ll be good to get home,” Ben said finally.

“I guess,” Joe answered without enthusiasm.

“I know so,” asserted Ben with a smile, turning back to Joe. “I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed. You’ve had that nice soft bed and Frank’s been sleeping at the other line shack. I, on the other hand, have been stuck sleeping on this hard floor.” Ben grinned, trying to convey that his complaint was to be taken lightly. “I’m too old for this. I need soft mattresses.”

Looking down, Joe chewed his lip silently. He knew his father had been sleeping on the floor next to his bed, making sure Joe knew he was there. His father had comforted him when Joe woke with a nightmare, and had stood by the bed with a reassuring smile when Joe woke normally. Joe hadn’t known how to tell his father how much he had needed him to do that. He was grateful that his Pa seemed to know what Joe needed without his asking.

“I know I’ve been acting kind of funny,” Joe said slowly. He looked up at his father. “I don’t want to be this way, I really don’t. I just can’t seem to help it.”

“I know, Joe,” replied Ben in a sympathetic voice. He sensed the opening he had been looking for. “Maybe if you talked about it, it would help.”

Looking down again, Joe sat quietly for a minute. “It’s hard to put into words,” he told his father, obviously struggling to express himself. “When I was tied to that tree, I felt so alone, like no one cared what happened to me. It scared me, feeling that alone. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

Ben nodded his understanding, his silence encouraging Joe to continue.

Now that he had started to talk about what happened, it was if Joe couldn’t stop himself. The words came out in a rush. “Those woods were strange, Pa. I’ve never seen a place so empty. The whole time I was there I never saw even a squirrel. The only living thing in those woods seemed to be that mountain lion.”

“Mountain lion?” said Ben with alarm.

Giving his father a small smile, Joe nodded. “Yeah, a young cat,” he explained. “He came down to see if maybe he’d like to have me for dinner. I managed to scare him off.” Joe’s face grew serious. “But after awhile, I would have been happy to have that lion come back. At least, I would have been able to see something else alive in the woods, even if it killed me in the process. Those woods were so quiet, so empty. I really thought I was going to die there, and no one would even care. I’ve never felt so lonely, so…abandoned, I guess.”

“Joe, you had to know we cared what happened to you,” Ben told his son. “You couldn’t think that your brothers and I would ever abandon you like that.”

“I don’t know, Pa,” said Joe, shaking his head. “I guess I knew, but it didn’t seem to help much.”

Looking thoughtful, Ben asked his son, “Did you even think about us when you were…were in those woods?”

“Sure,” answered Joe in a surprised voice. “I thought about you all the time. I wondered where you were, what you were doing. I kept looking for you, or Adam, or Hoss, hoping one of you would show up.”

“And one of us did show up,” declared Ben. “Hoss found you. It took us longer than any of us would have liked, but Hoss did find you. It could have been Adam or I that found you. We were searching just as hard as Hoss.” Ben shook his head. “It doesn’t really matter which one of us found you. The point is, all of us were looking. You have to remember that, Joe. All three of us were worried, concerned, and looking for you. We all care what happens to you.”

“Yeah, I guess I know that,” agreed Joe with a shrug. His words implied, however, that the knowledge wasn’t much help.

Pursing his lips, Ben looked at his son, trying to find the right words. “Joe,” he said suddenly, “why didn’t you just give up?”

“What!” exclaimed Joe, shocked at his father’s question. “What do you mean?”

“When you were in the woods,” Ben clarified his statement, “you said you felt abandoned, alone. Why did you continue to struggle? Why did you prolong things? Why didn’t you just give up?”

“I don’t know,” Joe answered frowning. He thought about the question. “I guess I just figured there still was a chance that someone would come and find me,” he conceded slowly. “I guess that I thought if I just hung on long enough, just stayed alive, well, things would turn out all right.”

“In other words, you were waiting for us,” stated Ben with a nod. “Whether you realized it or not, you were waiting for one of us to show up. You expected us. That’s why you didn’t give up. Because, deep down, you knew we were looking for you. You knew we would come eventually. It was only a question of when we would find you, not if we would.”

Looking off, Joe thought about what his father said. “You might be right,” he agreed, although his voice still lacked conviction.

“I know I’m right,” said Ben confidently. “The problem is you’ve been focusing on the wrong side of the coin. All you’ve been thinking about is how alone you felt. Try thinking about what else you felt. Try to remember how you were waiting for us, how you knew we would come. It might help.” Ben turned back to the stove. He knew Joe needed some time to consider his words. “I’ll start heating up that stew.”

Sitting on the bed, Joe stared at the floor. He didn’t answer his father. His thoughts were far away. He had avoided thinking about what happened in those woods, afraid of the feelings those thoughts might evoke. But now, for the first time, his mind was returning to the woods.

*****

Sitting in his favorite chair by the fireplace the next afternoon, Ben stared into the flames. He was thinking about his sons – all of them – and wondering what he could do to help them. Ben knew his sons were no longer boys but rather men, and as such, they had to make their own decisions. Nevertheless, Ben worried and fretted over what to do to help them.

At least with Joe, he knew what the problem was and had made some strides. Joe had spent the night alone in his room – no nightmares, no anxious wandering around the house, no searching for reassurances in the middle of the night had interrupted his sleep. Ben knew Joe had had a quiet night, because he had lain awake in his own bed most of the night, listening for sounds from the room down the hall. He knew it would take some time before Joe’s memory of those woods faded entirely, but he was relieved to see the haunted look had left Joe’s face.

With Adam and Hoss, Ben’s worries were different. He didn’t know what his older sons might be facing. He didn’t even know where they were. Ben hadn’t heard from Adam and Hoss since they had ridden away from the line shack four days ago. And with each passing day, Ben’s worry grew. He had seen the anger in their faces when they left, and understood their desire for revenge. He had felt the same emotions. But as Joe’s condition had improved, Ben’s anger had cooled. He still wanted Townsend punished, but he no longer felt the urge to strike back at the man with his own hand. He would be content to let the law deal with Townsend. Unfortunately, Hoss and Adam hadn’t had the opportunity to see Joe getting better, to know their brother would be all right. Ben wondered if their anger had cooled or grown hotter as they rode.

The sound of horses arriving outside the house drew Ben’s attention. He waited, almost without breathing, for footsteps on the porch. When he heard the footsteps and saw the front door opening, Ben jumped to his feet. “Adam! Hoss!” he exclaimed as his sons walked into the house. “You’re home at last.”

“Home and in one piece,” agreed Adam with a smile.

“How…is everything?” asked Ben, his voice sounding shaky even to himself.

“Everything is fine,” Adam replied, nodding. His eyes conveyed the message that Ben wanted to see. Adam looked at his father with a steady gaze, making no attempt at evasion. Ben let out a sigh of relief.

“Where’s Joe?” asked Hoss with concern as he looked around the room. “We stopped by the line shack on the way home and saw it was empty. We figured Joe must have been well enough to come home.”

“Joe’s fine,” Ben assured Hoss. “He’s up in his room.”

“Alone?” said Hoss, looking surprised.

“Well, I certainly hope so,” joked Ben. Then he grew serious. “He’s dealing with things. It’s going to take awhile, but he’s getting there.”

“Good,” said Adam with a nod. “The doctor said he was a tough kid. Guess he was right,” added Adam with a wry smile.

“What happened with Townsend?” asked Ben.

Before Adam and Hoss could answer, a voice called from the stairs. “Adam! Hoss! You’re home!”

All three of the older Cartwrights turned to see Joe coming down the stairs. He moved gingerly, his arm wrapped around his stomach and ribs as he slowly descended the stairs. But Joe was smiling, giving his brothers a welcoming grin.

“Ain’t he the smart one, Adam?” said Hoss with a smile as Joe approached. “He recognized us right off the bat.”

“A real genius,” agreed Adam.

“Well, I see four days on the trail hasn’t made you two any less cantankerous,” Joe snorted. Then he smiled. “It’s good to see you.”

“Good to you, little brother,” replied Hoss, with heartfelt words. He was relieved to see the swelling was gone and the bruises on Joe’s face were fading. “You’re looking almost human again.”

“Yeah, another week or so and I can go out in public,” Joe said. Then the smile faded from Joe’s face. “I heard Pa ask you what happened with Townsend and his partners. I didn’t hear you answer.”

“Neeley and Campbell are sitting in the Virginia City jail,” advised Adam. “When we left, Roy Coffee was making up a list of charges against them a mile long.”

“And Townsend?” pressed Joe.

“Townsend’s dead,” declared Hoss flatly.

“Dead?” said Ben, his eyes widening in alarm. He turned to Adam. “I thought you said…”

“We didn’t kill him, Pa,” Adam interrupted. “Hoss roughed him up some, but we were going to bring him back alive.”

“Then what happened?” Ben asked. “Who killed him?”

“I guess you could say that black stallion did,” replied Hoss. He shook his head. “That horse was bad luck for him, just like he was for everyone else.”

“Stop talking in riddles,” demanded Ben, “and tell me what happened.”

“Hoss and Townsend were fighting near the corral when the gate popped open,” explained Adam. “The stallion decided to make a run for it.”

“And he trampled Townsend,” Joe finished for his brother.

“No, he didn’t,” Adam said, contradicting Joe’s statement. “The stallion tried to avoid Townsend, tried to run around him. But he knocked Townsend down as he went by. Before Townsend could even more, the mares following the stallion ran over him. They’re the ones that trampled him.”

“There wasn’t nothing we could do, Pa,” added Hoss. “It happened so quick. I barely got out of the way myself.”

“So Townsend’s dead,” said Joe, looking at the floor. He tried to figure out what he was feeling. He didn’t regret the man’s death, but he wasn’t glad Townsend had died either. Yet, Joe felt Townsend’s death somehow closed the book on what had happened to him. For the first time, he felt he really could forget about his night in the woods.

“What happened to the stallion?” asked Joe, raising his head.

“Last time we saw him, he was heading up into the hills with those mares,” answered Hoss.

“We thought it was more important to bring in Townsend’s partners and tell you what happened than to chase the horse,” added Adam. “But we can go looking for him, if you want us to.”

Frowning, Joe tried to decide how to answer. He knew he would never ride the stallion again. The horse would bring back too many memories of things he wanted to forget. He turned to his father. “I spent an awful lot of your money to buy that stallion, Pa,” he said in a hesitant voice.

“The money isn’t important, Joe,” Ben replied quietly. “I told you that. It’s your decision, Joe.”

Nodding, Joe turned back to his brothers. “Let him go,” he stated emphatically. “He’s better off where he is. Those stories about him being bad luck are just going to get worse now. Nobody would ever ride him, much less buy him from us. He’d spend the rest of his life penned up,” Joe shuddered a bit as he spoke the words. “That horse doesn’t deserve to be forced to stay confined, not for something that isn’t his fault. He’ll be a lot happier running free.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, little brother,” said Hoss in a relieved voice. “I wasn’t looking forward to chasing that horse, much less having him around the Ponderosa.”

An impish smile twitched on Joe’s face. “Why, Hoss,” he asked innocently. “You aren’t still afraid of that stallion, are you?”

“I am,” Hoss admitted, “and I ain’t ashamed to say it. There’s a reason why that horse was black, just like there’s a reason why there’s black cats. It’s suppose to warn us that they’re bad luck.”

“Hoss, you don’t really believe that, do you?” Adam asked his brother. “There no such thing as black cats – or even black horses – causing bad luck.”

“Adam’s right,” agreed Ben with a nod. “No animal or thing is inherently unlucky. They just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get blamed when accidents happen.”

“I don’t know, Pa,” Hoss said, shaking his head. “If something or someone can be lucky, why can’t they be unlucky? I mean, you hear all the time about how some people are just plain lucky, so why can’t the opposite be true?”

“Success in this world has little to do with pure luck, Hoss,” replied Ben. “Most people make their own luck, through hard work, honesty, and even loyalty.”

“I don’t know, Pa,” Joe said suddenly. “Hoss might have something there.” He looked into the faces of his father and brothers, the men whom he knew had worried over him and searched for him. “Hoss might be right,” Joe declared. “Sometimes, a fellow just gets born lucky.”

*****End*****

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