Synopsis: Helping and not expecting anything in return. It’s a matter of paying it forward.
Word Count: 20,000
Muttering a curse under his breath, Joe Cartwright swung the ax into log, splintering the wood with a loud crack. A rivulet of sweat ran down the side of Joe’s face, and he paused in his work for a moment to wipe his face with the back of his arm. He shook his head and wished for the hundredth time that he was anywhere but chopping wood in the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house.
The fact that it was his own fault – well, perhaps his bad luck – that he was stuck with this chore on the hottest day of the summer didn’t improve Joe’s mood. Normally, today would have been his brother Hoss’ turn to chop wood. Joe had persuaded Hoss to trade with him, however, getting his big brother to do the chore on his day earlier that week. Joe had wanted time to look at a string of horses that were being offered for sale in Virginia City last Monday, and figured taking his turn at this onerous chore later in the week was the best way to get the time he needed to go to town.
But things hadn’t worked out quite the way Joe planned. The horses had turned out to be a string of nags – old animals doctored with every trick in the book to appear younger and fitter than they really were. The pleasantly cool weather in the early part of the week had disappeared, replaced with uncomfortably hot, sticky air. And now he was stuck sweating in the heat, chopping wood while Hoss was taking a comfortable ride to the south pasture to check the herd. Joe wished he was riding with Hoss, or in town helping his father pick up supplies, or riding through the cool hills with his brother Adam, marking trees for cutting. He wished he was almost anywhere except chopping wood in the sweltering heat.
Sighing, Joe picked up the ax and swung it again. Although he knew it was no one’s fault, at the age of 22, Joe was still young enough to feel resentment when things didn’t go the way he wanted. So he took out his frustration on the wood, slamming the ax into the logs with an unusual force while cursing his fate in a low breath.
The noise of the ax and his own grumbling deafened Joe to the sound of the rider coming into the yard. He didn’t realize the man was there until he heard a shout. Joe turned and his eyes widened.
It wasn’t the grizzled old man wearing a battered hat and a shirt streaked with sweat and dirt that surprised Joe. Nor was it that the man was sitting a horse almost as old and tired as the ones Joe had seen in Virginia City. What shocked Joe was the stranger was leading a big chestnut, and that a man dressed in black was slumped in the saddle on the chestnut.
“Adam!” cried Joe, as he dropped the ax and rushed across the yard.
“Found him a couple miles back,” the old man explained as Joe hurried past him. He swung his leg over the horse and eased himself to the ground. “Said he belonged to the Ponderosa.”
“He’s my brother,” Joe replied with a distracted air. Reaching up, he took Adam’s arm and gently eased him upright. His eyes searched for signs of blood, a wound, or any other indication of injury.
“I don’t think he’s hurt too bad,” commented the old man as he watched Joe. “Got a knot on his head and his thinking is kind of fuzzy.”
As if to give proof to the old man’s statement, Adam turned his head toward Joe. He blinked twice, and said in a thick voice, “Joe? Where am I?”
“You’re home, Adam,” answered Joe in a soothing voice. “We’ll get you all fixed up.” Joe turned to the man standing behind him. “Help me get him down and into the house, will you?”
“Sure,” replied the stranger. He reached up and helped Joe ease Adam off the big chestnut.
As he slipped Adam’s arm over his shoulder, Joe asked, “What happened to him?”
“Can’t rightly say,” answered the old man who was imitating Joe by slipping Adam’s left arm over his shoulder. “Found him sprawled in the grass a ways back. I brought him around enough to get him to tell me he lived at the Ponderosa. But he was kind of fading in and out so I figured I’d better getting here.”
“I’m all right,” Adam mumbled, his words slurred a bit.
“Sure you are,” agreed Joe. He started walking slowly, gently urging Adam forward by pressing a hand against his brother’s back. Adam took a few steps with rubbery legs, swaying a bit as he walked.
Looking past Adam at the stranger, Joe said softly, “Let’s get him into the house.”
The old man nodded, and hitched Adam’s arm a bit tighter over his shoulder.
Walking slowly, Joe and the stranger helped Adam shuffle across the yard and to the house. Pausing only to open the door, Joe urged his brother forward.
“Hop Sing! Hop Sing!” Joe shouted in a loud voice as the trio entered the house. “Adam’s hurt. Come help!” Without waiting to see if the cook responded, Joe turned to the old man. “Upstairs,” he said quickly. “First bedroom on the right.” The stranger nodded and pushed Adam toward the stairs.
The three men were still slowly and awkwardly climbing the stairs when Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s Chinese cook hurried into the room. “What happen?” he demanded in broken English. “How Mr. Adam hurt?”
“He got knocked in the head,” answered Joe over his shoulder, continuing to work his way up the stairs “Get some water.” As Hop Sing scurried back toward the kitchen, Joe helped Adam to the top of the stairs.
It was only a few feet to the bedroom, but Joe felt as if the trio had to walk a mile. Adam was sagging against his supporters and mumbling incoherent phrases. The two men carrying him were no longer helping Adam walk but rather were dragging him across the floor. A knot of worry was beginning to form in Joe’s stomach.
As he eased his oldest brother onto the bed, Joe looked closely at Adam. His brother’s breathing seemed fine, and his face did not appear to be pale or flushed. Joe lightly ran his hands over Adam’s arms and chest, and was relieved to find no evidence of broken bones. The only injury Joe could see was a large bump on the side of Adam’s head, toward the back of his skull. A small cut split the top of the lump, but only a trace of blood was visible.
As Joe began unbuckling Adam’s gunbelt, he could see the old man from the corner of his eye. The stranger was standing at the end of the bed, seemingly unsure about what to do next.
“Are you sure you don’t know what happened?” Joe asked without looking up. “You didn’t see anyone around? Any sign of trouble?”
“Nothing,” the old man replied. “I just came down out of the trees to the flats and there he was, laying on the ground.”
Joe turned at the sound of footsteps, and saw Hop Sing bustling into the room. The cook was carrying a large basin of water and a towel was thrown over his arm. Hop Sing brushed past Joe and carefully set the basin on the table next to Adam’s bed. With a gentle nudge, he pushed Joe back from the bed.
Rolling Adam’s holster in his hands, Joe took a few steps back and watched as Hop Sing imitated his own examination of his older brother, running hands over arms and chest. Then the cook turned to the table. After dipping the towel in the water, Hop Sing held the cloth against the wound on Adam’s head.
“You and the Chinese the only ones here?” asked the old man as he watched Hop Sing’s ministrations.
“Yes,” answered Joe in a distracted voice, his attention also fixed on the bed. Suddenly, Joe looked up at the stranger. The grizzled man didn’t seem like the type who might be scouting the house for a gang of thieves or want to cause some kind of trouble himself, but Joe knew appearances could be deceiving. “My father and brother should be home any time now,” Joe added as his eyes narrowed. “And the hands are due back shortly.”
The old man must have seen the suspicion on Joe’s face. He held up his hands as he spoke. “Hey, boy, I didn’t mean nothing. I was just asking in case there was something I could do to help, like maybe ride for a doctor.”
Turning his attention back to the bed, Joe’s brow furrowed. He had been knocked silly enough times himself to know that often a few hours rest was the best cure. On the other hand, Adam’s injury could be more serious, and a delay in sending for the doctor could be harmful to his brother.
It was Hop Sing that made the decision for Joe. “No need doctor,” the Chinese cook stated firmly. “No fever. Skin not white. Mr. Adam’s eyes look right. All he need is sleep and some of Hop Sing’s tea.”
“Are you sure, Hop Sing?” Joe asked doubtfully.
“Hop Sing sure,” replied the cook confidently. “Little Joe come and keep cold cloth on cut while Hop Sing make tea.”
“All right,” agreed Joe. He walked to the bed and took the cool, damp cloth from Hop Sing.
“Keep cold and keep on Mr. Adam’s head,” Hop Sing instructed Joe. “Hop Sing be back soon.” With a quick nod, the cook walked out of the bedroom.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do?” asked the old man almost plaintively from his spot at the bottom of the bed. “Maybe I could put up his horse or something.”
With a sudden flash of insight, Joe realized the man was looking for some sort of reward. Judging from the stranger’s rough clothes and battered hat, the old man could use a few dollars. And Adam’s life was certainly worth more than that, in Joe’s opinion.
“No, we’re fine,” Joe told the man. “But we do owe you something for bringing my brother in. Why don’t you go downstairs and make yourself comfortable. It’ll take Hop Sing a little while to make the tea and I need to stay with my brother right now. I’ll be down soon to talk to you.”
“Thank you, son,” the old man said gratefully. He put his hand to the brim of his cap in a sign of respect, then quickly left the bedroom.
Joe wasn’t sure how long he sat by his brother’s bed before Adam began to stir. It seemed like a long time as the minutes ticked by while the man on the bed laid still and silent. Joe kept the cloth against the lump on Adam’s head, periodically dipping the towel in the basin of water to keep it cool and wet, and tried to keep the knot in his stomach from growing.
When Adam finally stirred – grunting a bit and moving his head from side to side – Joe breathed a sigh of relief. He sat back in the chair and waited for Adam to fully regain consciousness. His patience was rewarded when his older brother turned his head to Joe and blinked his eyes several times.
“Hi,” said Adam slowly. He blinked once more, then added, “Aren’t you suppose to be chopping wood or something?”
“I’d have time to do my chores if I didn’t have to keep looking after you, older brother,” Joe retorted, trying to keep the relief out of his voice. “We can’t leave you alone for a minute, can we?”
“Well, you can get back to work now,” said Adam. He started to push himself up from the bed, then suddenly stopped. Putting a hand to the bridge of his nose, Adam groaned softly and fell back to the bed.
“Lay still,” Joe ordered his brother. “Hop Sing is brewing one of his teas to help your headache.”
“I hope it’s strong,” muttered Adam, “ ‘cause I could use it.”
“When has Hop Sing not made his tea strong enough to walk on its own?” asked Joe with a smile. Then his face sobered. “What happened, Adam?”
Looking off to the side a bit, Adam frowned. “I’m not sure exactly,” he admitted slowly. “I remember riding down from marking those trees. Then there was a noise – the growl of an animal, I think – and my horse shied.” He shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure what happened after that.”
“Your horse shied and you fell off?” said Joe in surprise. “You’re a better rider than that, Adam. Something else must have happened.”
A wry grin crossed Adam’s face as he turned back to his brother. “Well, the fact that I was reading a book of poetry while I was riding might have contributed to it,” he confessed.
“That explains it,” agreed Joe with a smile. “I always said those books of yours were dangerous.”
“Ah, Mr. Adam awake. That good,” said a voice behind Joe. Joe turned to see Hop Sing walking into the bedroom carrying a tray with a teapot and a cup with no handle.
“He woke up a few minutes ago, ornery as ever,” Joe told the cook.
“The fact that I have a splitting headache just might have something to do with my bad disposition,” Adam observed.
“You drink tea,” Hop Sing ordered Adam. Setting the tray on the bed, Hop Sing reached down and poured some amber liquid from the teapot to the cup. Handing the cup to Adam, Hop Sing added, “Tea good for you. Cure headache. Drink tea then sleep. You be fine.”
“Hop Sing, is that old man still downstairs?” asked Joe as he watched Adam sip the steaming brew from the cup.
“No see man,” Hop Sing replied. He turned to Adam. “You drink.”
“What old man?” asked Adam curiously.
“Some old fellow found you and brought you in,” explained Joe. “He was hinting around at a reward; he looked like he could use the money. I told him to wait downstairs.”
“I hope you’re going to give him an appropriate reward,” said Adam. “If he hadn’t found me and brought me in, there’s no telling what might have happened to me.”
Putting his hand to his chin and rubbing it a bit as though he were considering the idea, Joe answered, “Well, it might be worth $20. I know that seems a mite high but he did bring the horse in too. We can’t afford to lose a good horse.”
“It’s nice to know I’m valued at least as much as a horse,” Adam stated sourly. Joe grinned at his brother’s complaint.
“Hop Sing no have time for foolishment,” the cook scolded at the brothers. “You drink tea. You go see man. No waste Hop Sing’s time when dinner still to be made.”
“All right, all right, I’ll go,” said Joe in a soothing voice. He noted that Adam was meekly sipping the tea again.
As Joe descended the stairs to the main part of the house, he wasn’t entirely surprised that the area near the fireplace was empty. He was sure Hop Sing would have noticed a stranger sitting on the settee or in one of the chairs. But Joe frowned a bit as he reached the bottom of the stairs and looked around. No one was in the den or the dining room either. Thinking that the old man must have gone outside, Joe walked to the front door and pulled it open.
Joe’s frown deepened as he walked into the yard in front of the house. Adam’s horse was tied to the hitching post near the house. But the old animal that the stranger had been riding was gone.
Walking quickly across the yard, Joe went to the barn and looked in. Except for the horses in their stalls, the barn appeared empty. Nevertheless, Joe called out, “Hello! Anyone here?” The only answer was the soft nicker from his pinto in the second stall.
Puzzled, Joe walked back to the house. He was sure the old man had been hinting for a reward, and would have stayed around to receive it. As he entered the house, Joe looked around again, then walked over toward his father’s desk in the den. Thinking the old man might have left a note, Joe checked the papers on the desk. The papers were the usual accumulation of bills and notes on ranch business. Not expecting to find anything, Joe picked them up anyway and looked on the back for any scrawled message. As he anticipated, the back of the sheets were blank.
Just as he was about to turn away from the desk, Joe noticed the top drawer was ajar. Moving around the desk quickly, he pulled the drawer open fully and looked inside. Joe saw bits of string, an ink bottle and a few other odds and ends. What Joe didn’t see was the small stack of money that his father usually kept there.
Pushing the drawer close, Joe looked around the den. Nothing else seemed to have been disturbed. The pictures of Ben Cartwright’s wives with their gold frames sat on the far corner of the desk. The bookcase was still firmly closed and all the books appeared to still be there. The small statue still stood on the bureau behind the desk.
As Joe walked into the main room, his eyes searched the area carefully. Again, everything seemed to be in order and nothing was missing. He scanned the rifle rack and that’s where he saw it. The last slot of the rack was empty.
Joe knew a rifle had been in that slot earlier in the day; he had seen it himself when he had brought in some wood for the box by the fireplace. He also noted that where there had been three boxes of bullets for the rifles, only two boxes now sat. If Joe hadn’t been looking around, he might not have noticed the missing rifle and box of ammunition. Whoever had taken them did his best to make their theft less than obvious.
Shaking his head angrily, Joe turned and climbed the stairs at a rapid pace. He strode into Adam’s bedroom, and stopped in surprise to see his older brother was the only one in the room. “Where’s Hop Sing?” he asked his brother, who was sitting up in the bed and sipping from the teacup.
“He went downstairs a few minutes after you did,” Adam answered. “Said something about needing to have dinner ready when Hoss got home in order to avoid an angry bear.” Adam cocked his head a bit. “What’s wrong with you? You look like you could chew nails.”
Ignoring his brother’s question, Joe asked, “Are you sure that knock on your head was caused by an accident? I mean, you weren’t bushwhacked or something?”
“There wasn’t anyone else around,” replied Adam calmly. “And I distinctly remember that growl and my horse moving suddenly. Why the questions? Is there some reason to think it was more than that?”
Shrugging, Joe explained, “Well, it’s possible that old man who brought you in caused the accident somehow. Maybe he wanted to you knocked out so you wouldn’t know who he was.”
“And then brought me back here?” Adam said a bit incredulously. “I hardly think that’s likely. If he wanted to harm me, he could have left me out there or even killed me. I was out cold. He could have taken my horse and anything else I had, and no one would have ever known.”
“Maybe he was after something more,” insisted Joe.
“Why would you think that?” asked Adam
“Because that kindly old man who rescued you is gone,” explained Joe. “And he took the money from Pa’s desk along with a rifle and some shells when he left.”
“Is anything else missing?” Adam asked, a tone of alarm in his voice.
“Not that I can tell,” admitted Joe.
“Well, he probably just got tired of waiting,” replied Adam in a calmer voice. A small smile appeared on his face. “He probably didn’t think you looked like the generous type and took his own reward.”
“I’m going to go after him and bring him back,” stated Joe angrily, turning toward the door.
“Wait, Joe!” Adam shouted. He saw his brother pause, and continued quickly. “You don’t even know which way he went. And he’s probably riding fast. You’d be wasting your time.”
“He stole from us, Adam, and no one gets away with that,” Joe declared, the anger still evident in his voice.
“He took, what, about $50 and a rifle and some shells,” argued Adam. “Even if you caught him, the most he would get is maybe thirty days in jail. Besides, you would have given him that if he asked, wouldn’t you?”
“Sure I would have,” said Joe. “But that’s just the point, Adam. He didn’t ask. He just helped himself. That’s not right.”
“No, it’s not right,” Adam agreed. “But it’s also not worth calling out the cavalry for. The old man did me a good turn. Let’s do the same for him and just forget it.”
Blowing out a puff of air and running his fingers through his hair, Joe tried to make up his mind. As angry as he was at the old man, Joe also knew Adam’s assessment of the situation was right. “I’ll let it go,” Joe said finally, “but I’m not going to forget it.”
“You should be resting in bed,” Ben Cartwright told his oldest son. “Hop Sing could have brought you a tray.”
Sighing softly, Adam tried to keep his irritation in check. “I’m fine, Pa,” he said for the third time since he had sat down at dinner table. “I’ve got a bit of a headache, that’s all. I promise I’ll go right to bed as soon as I finish my dinner.” He forked one of the last pieces of meat from his plate to his mouth to avoid adding a comment he might regret.
“All right,” agreed Ben, somewhat mollified. “But if you start feeling dizzy, you let me know right away.”
“Yes sir,” said Adam, his eyes rolling toward the ceiling.
“Pa, I don’t know what your so all-fired worried about,” commented Hoss with a grin. “You know Adam has a hard head. A little tap like that ain’t going to bother him.
“This is no joking matter,” Ben replied in a stern voice. “Head injuries can be tricky, and it’s important that we keep an eye on Adam to make sure he hasn’t any side affects.”
“Yes sir,” Hoss agreed solemnly, but he turned his head to give Adam a wink.
“And, Joseph, you did the right thing by staying here and looking after your brother,” Ben continued. “Chasing after that old man would have served no purpose. It was more important that Adam was being cared for than retrieving some money and an old rifle.”
“I still would like to get my hands on that old goat,” grumbled Joe. “I thought he was bringing Adam in as a favor. All he really wanted to do was rob us.”
“Looks like what he took were just some things he needed,” suggested Hoss. “What he took might keep him from starving or maybe doing something worse to somebody else.”
“He could have asked,” Joe argued. “All he had to do was come upstairs and ask. But instead he robbed us. I’m still not convinced he didn’t have something to do with Adam’s so called accident.”
“Boy, you’re getting downright mistrustful,” Hoss remarked, shaking his head.
“It’s pretty easy to do,” said Joe defensively. “You can’t trust anybody these days. Those horses I went to look at, for example. That horse trader had doctored them up, trying to make them look better than they were. He probably ended up selling them to some greenhorn who didn’t know any better, and laughed all the way to the bank. And Pa had to send that contract back to the railroad because they had made a ‘mistake’ and tried to underpay us for the lumber. If Adam hadn’t checked those figures, we would have been out a lot of money.”
“Joe, that could have been an honest mistake,” Ben countered. “It happens, you know. People do make mistakes.”
“All right, maybe it was,” acknowledged Joe. “But it still proves you can’t just take somebody’s word. You have to check everything. And you have to watch out for everybody.”
“That’s a pretty cynical view, Joe,” commented Adam.
“You trust us, don’t you, little brother?” asked Hoss, a trace of hurt evident in his voice. “Me and Adam and Pa, we wouldn’t let you down.”
Seeing the look on his brother’s face, Joe tried to soothe his brother’s feeling. “I wasn’t talking about you, Hoss,” Joe said apologetically. “I know I can rely on you and Pa and Adam. You’re family, though, and that makes a difference. Family sticks together. What I’m saying is you can’t depend on anyone else. Everyone is out for themselves. Nobody is on nobody’s side except their own.”
“Joe, I don’t buy that,” argued Adam. “Sure, there are some people who take advantage and some you can’t trust. But the majority of people are good and honest, and they’d give you the shirt off their backs.”
“You’ve had a run of bad luck lately, Joe,” Ben added. “You just happen to have met a string of people who were, well, less than trustworthy. Those people are the exception, not the rule.”
“Look, all I’m saying is that people have a reason for doing things,” argued Joe. “No one does anything unless it’s going to get them something in return.”
“You really are turning into a cynic,” Adam said, shaking his head.
“I prefer to think of it as being a realist,” Joe shot back.
“I still think people are basically good, Joe,” stated Hoss. “People do things all the time without wanting something in return.”
“You think the best of everyone, Hoss,” said Joe. “Just because you think someone is a good guy doesn’t necessarily make it true.”
“We can’t sit here debating this subject all night,” Ben interrupted. “Adam needs to get some rest. And so do you, Joe. I want you to up at the sawmill early tomorrow to start loading that lumber for the railroad. You need to make sure that lumber gets to where they are laying tracks by the end of the week.”
“Think you can trust Joe to do that, Pa?” asked Hoss, feigning a look of innocence.
“Sure he can, Hoss,” Adam answered in a dry voice. “After all, Joe’s family, and the only ones you can trust these days are family.”
“Bet he counts every board to make sure the men at the mill don’t shortchange him,” said Hoss.
“Maybe Joe had better load all the boards by himself,” suggested Adam. “That way he can be sure no one makes a mistake.”
“Naw, he don’t want to do that,” Hoss replied, shaking his head. “Somebody is liable to steal the horses while he’s working on the back of the wagon.”
“He’ll have to stand on the wagon seat so he can watch both the horses and the lumber at the same time,” Adam advised. He started laughing at the image he had conjured up in his mind, and Hoss joined in.
“Go ahead and laugh,” said Joe with a scowl on his face. “You’ll be sorry when you find out for yourself that you can’t rely on other people.” He turned to his father. “I’m going to bed, Pa. I’ll see you in the morning.” Giving his laughing brothers a look of disgust, Joe pushed back from the table and walked toward the stairs.
“You boys were a little hard on Joe,” commented Ben as he watched his youngest son climb the stairs to his room.
“Aw, Pa, we was just funning,” answered Hoss.
“Yeah, he’s just such an easy target when he gets all puffed up and self-righteous like that,” Adam added.
“I just wish he would look for the good in people, instead of being so suspicious,” sighed Ben shaking his head. “Joe will find life more pleasant if he does.”
Bouncing in the seat of the wagon, Joe guided the horses along the dirt path that served as the road. He glanced up at the summer sky, trying to decide how much daylight he had left. Joe knew he had two choices – spend the night in Benson’s Crossing or keep going until dusk and find a place to camp on the trail. He calculated that this time of year, he would have sun until early evening, probably three or four more hours. Benson’s Crossing was less than an hour away.
But Benson’s Crossing held little appeal for Joe, other than offering relief from the jostling of the wagon as it traveled along the uneven road. It could hardly be called a town. The settlement was just a collection of a few buildings – general store, saloon, livery, feed store and so on. The businesses were important to the ranchers in the area but few people from outside the area bothered to visit the small community.
Glancing back, Joe eyed the empty wagon behind him. The bed of the wagon would probably be as comfortable as anything he could find in Benson’s Crossing, and the meal he would fix on the trail wouldn’t be much worse than the food in the saloon. By skipping the somewhat doubtful comforts of the settlement, Joe could travel a good number of miles before dark, miles that would bring him closer to the soft bed and good meals of home. So, like numerous other travelers, Joe dismissed the idea of stopping at Benson’s Crossing from his mind.
The thought of home caused a wry smile to appear on Joe’s face. He was sure his brothers would ask him about the load of lumber. Hoss might not bring up the subject, but Joe was sure Adam would. His oldest brother could be like a terrier sometimes, holding onto an idea until he had shaken everything he could get out of it. Joe would be forced to admit that he had counted the boards as they were loaded at the mill, making sure the number was right. But he would also point out that the supervisor of the railroad crew laying track had done the same thing, making sure Joe hadn’t shortchanged him on the boards needed for the track bed. The rather harried supervisor had been reluctant to take the time to give Joe a receipt for the wood but Joe had insisted. And he had carefully read the scrawled receipt from the supervisor before leaving. Shaking his head a bit, the wry smile on Joe’s face grew. There had been a lack of trust all around.
With his thoughts miles away, Joe didn’t see the man ahead of him until the fellow emerged from the brush, frantically waving his arms. Quickly, Joe pulled the wagon to a stop.
“Mister! Mister!” called the man as he ran toward the wagon. “I need help. My friend’s hurt.”
“What happened?” Joe asked.
“We was cutting through the woods and he tripped and fell,” answered the man quickly. “I think he broke his leg or something. I don’t know what to do.”
Sitting on the wagon, Joe studied the stranger standing on the side of the road. He was about Joe’s size, wearing old brown pants streaked with dirt. The man’s plaid shirt was faded and his dark hat was dotted with holes and marks of sweat. Joe could see a bit of sandy hair jutting out from under that hat, and that hair seemed strike a chord in Joe’s mind.
Frowning a bit, Joe said, “Haven’t I seen you before? Maybe up where they’re laying the track?”
The man’s eyes widened a bit and an expression – surprise or maybe fear – flickered across his face. Joe couldn’t be sure because the look was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
“Maybe,” admitted the man, shrugging a bit. “Me and my friend was up there looking for work but they didn’t have none.” He suddenly seemed to remember why he had stopped the wagon. “Look, my friend needs help, mister,” the man insisted in a more frantic tone of voice. “Can you just take a look? Please?”
“Drop the gunbelt and I’ll help you out,” answered Joe, cocking his head a bit.
“Um…sure,” agreed the stranger, looking a bit surprised. He reached down and unbuckled a worn belt from his hips. The leather strap fell to the ground, along the old gun inside the holster.
Giving a nod of satisfaction, Joe reached behind the wagon seat and grabbed a canteen. He took a quick look around, then jumped down from the wagon. “All right, show me where your friend is.”
“This way,” replied the man. He started walking through the brush.
As Joe followed the stranger through the woods, he kept his left hand on his pistol and his eyes searching the bushes. While the man had done nothing to arouse suspicion, Joe still felt uneasy about walking away from the trail with someone he didn’t know. At the same time, in his head, Joe could almost hear his brother Adam laughing at him for being overly cautious as well as his father chiding him for being so unwilling to help someone in need.
The stranger led Joe toward a strand of trees, looking over his shoulder from time to time to make sure Joe was still behind him. He seemed anxious to insure Joe was following him. Joe wondered if the man was worried about getting help for his friend or if the man had some other purpose in wanting Joe to follow him. When the pair passed a large elm tree, Joe got his answer.
A few feet past the elm, Joe heard a noise behind him. He started to turn but froze when he felt the barrel of a gun in his back.
“Get your hands up,” a voice growled. “Billy, get his gun.
Cursing himself silently for not trusting his instincts, Joe slowly raised his hands. The man walking in front of Joe hurried back to him, and pulled Joe’s gun from his holster. As Joe watched from the corner of his eye, the man behind him moved slowly to his front.
The rifle in the second outlaw’s hand looked shiny and new, not unlike the rifles Joe had seen at the railroad work site. Joe guessed the big man in the faded red shirt had stolen it.
“All I have is about $30,” stated Joe in a resigned voice. “It’s in my wallet in my coat pocket.”
“We don’t want just your $30,” declared the big man. “We want what the railroad paid you for that lumber.”
“You fellows sure don’t know much about the lumber business,” said Joe with a touch of sarcasm in his voice. “The railroad buys the lumber with a contract for the whole lot. They don’t pay off every time a load is delivered.”
“Don’t try to trick me,” snarled the man with the rifle. “I heard the guy there call you Cartwright. Cartwright’s a big name in these parts. You wouldn’t be delivering the lumber if you weren’t getting paid. A Cartwright don’t just haul things.”
“I’m just doing a chore, just like any other hand,” explained Joe. “My Pa and older brother handle all the finance stuff. I’m just a working stiff on this job.”
“Do you think he’s telling the truth, Lou?” asked Billy anxiously.
“Shut up!” snapped Lou. He frowned at Joe and lifted his rifle menacingly.
“Look, just check my wallet,” offered Joe quickly. “All you’ll find in there is the $30 and a receipt for the boards. There isn’t any other money.”
With a quick jerk of his head, Lou ordered Billy to get the wallet. Joe stood unmoving as Billy cautiously approached him and patted Joe’s chest. Feeling the wallet, Billy reached inside Joe’s jacket and pulled out the leather billfold. Then he hurriedly took a few steps back.
“He’s telling the truth, Lou,” said Billy as he opened Joe’s wallet. “Nothing in here but a couple of bills and a piece of paper with some writing on it.”
Seeing the frown deepen on Lou’s face, Joe decided he needed to convince the robbers to leave before they took their disappointment out on him. “You’ve got my money and my gun. That’s all there is. Take them and let me go.”
“That ain’t all there is,” stated Lou, giving Joe a hard look. “Them horses and that wagon, they’ll fetch a pretty good price.” He looked Joe up and down. “What do your think, Billy? He’s about your size. You fancy a new jacket and some boots?”
Joe’s eyes narrowed as he sized up the two outlaws in front of him. He didn’t want to be shot, but at the same time, walking barefoot to Benson’s Crossing was a less than appealing idea. “You can have the jacket. Here take it,” said Joe as he began to slowly peel the green coat off his back. “I’d prefer to keep my boots, though.”
“I don’t care what you want…” started Lou. The big man never got to finish his sentence.
With a sudden move, Joe whipped the jacket across Lou’s face. The big man’s head jerked to the side, his face stung by the rough cloth. Joe rushed forward and threw a punch into Lou’s midsection, causing the man to double over and drop the rifle. Without a pause, Joe swung around and threw a punch at the astonished Billy’s jaw. Billy’s head snapped back and Joe landed another blow to the man’s stomach. As Billy fell to the ground, Joe pivoted back to Lou. He threw another punch at the big man, this time hitting him on the side of the face. Joe started to take a step forward so he could land another punch. But a pair of hands grabbed Joe’s ankle and pulled. Losing his balance, Joe fell forward and landed on the dirt with a soft thud.
Without looking, Joe kicked his leg backward. He heard a small shriek of pain and felt the hands release his ankle.
Joe started to scramble to his feet, but his advantage had been lost. Lou was standing over Joe, waiting. Before Joe was fully erect, Lou smashed a fist into Joe’s face. Joe staggered back a step and felt his arms being grabbed from behind. As he struggled to free himself, Joe could see Lou approaching. He tried to duck, but the big man’s punch found its mark on the side of Joe’s face. A second punch followed quickly, this one smashing under Joe’s chin.
Once more, Joe kicked out his leg, this time forward toward Lou. But the kick was too slow and weak to be effective. Lou grabbed Joe’s leg and twisted it hard, causing a shooting pain in Joe’s knee. Then Lou pulled on Joe’s leg, jerking him free from Billy. Joe fell on his back, landing on the earth with a bone-jarring crash.
Almost in a frenzy, Billy rushed up to Joe and started kicking him, yelling, “Kill him! Kill him!” each time his foot landed on Joe’s body. Lou pushed Billy aside, then reached down and grabbed the front of Joe’s shirt with his fist. He pulled Joe up a bit, then punched Joe hard in the face. Joe’s head jerked to the side, then jerked again as another blow landed. Finally, Lou threw Joe’s limp body back to the ground.
Barely conscious, Joe felt hands grabbing at him. His boots were yanked off his feet by one set of fingers while another set unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it from around him. Hands roughly unbuckled his gunbelt and the belt around his waist, and both were slipped away from his body. Through a fog of pain, Joe could hear voices.
“You get the hat, shirt, jacket, boots and socks,” Lou announced. “I’ll take the belts. We’ll sell the horses and wagon, and split that and the money he had on him.”
“Shouldn’t we finish him off?” Billy asked.
“Why waste the bullet?” answered Lou. “If some animal don’t get him, he’ll freeze or something anyway.”
Joe heard the sound of footsteps approaching him. “So long, sucker,” muttered Billy. He kicked Joe hard in the side, sending the helpless man spiraling downward into darkness.
The first sound Joe heard was the cawing of a crow nearby. He wondered what the crow was doing in his room, as well as why his bed was so hard and cold. His muddled brain was insisting that, if he was laying flat on his back, he must be in his bed. It wasn’t until the pain of what seemed like a hundred hurts reached his brain that Joe realized he wasn’t in the safety and comfort of home.
Groaning as the pain started radiating through him, Joe tried to open his eyes. Only one eye worked; the left one was so swollen that it opened only a bit. Joe could make out some branches and leaves above him, as well as the annoying crow sitting in a tree.
Joe tried to lift his head, but the world started spinning as soon as he raised it. He lowered his head back to the ground and closed his eyes. As he felt the throbbing of his sore face, body and leg, Joe tried to remember where he was and why he hurt. For a moment, nothing came to him; then, in an instant, the memory of the two thieves and the brutal beating came flooding back.
Shivering, Joe wrapped his arms around his naked chest. His feet felt like cubes of ice. Joe knew he had been beaten and robbed of everything except his pants. What he didn’t know was what to do next.
Lying on the dirt, shivering and wracked with pain, Joe tried to think. The first thought that came to him was that he would never offer to help a stranger again. His second thought was that, if he didn’t do something, his vow to never offer aid again would come true very soon. If he simply laid on the ground, he would die.
Moaning from the agony of merely moving, Joe turned himself over. He didn’t try to stand; the effort would have been a useless gesture. Joe doubted whether he had the strength to get to his feet, and even if he somehow managed that task, he doubted if his throbbing leg would support his weight. Joe knew he had only two options – to crawl toward the road and pray for help, or lay down where he was and die. He let out a grunt at the irony of the situation. A little while ago, he had been trying to decide where he could most comfortably spend the night. Now he was trying to decide whether to live or die.
Reaching out his arms, Joe pulled himself across the ground. He could feel the sticks, gravel and small rocks scratching his unprotected chest but he ignored the scrapes. In his current situation, those nicks could be barely felt. The pain of the scratches was minor compared to the aches and throbs emanating from the other parts of his body.
What had been no more than a five minute walk from the trail now turned into an hour-long ordeal. Joe pulled his body slowly across the ground, using his uninjured leg to push himself forward from time to time. Joe could feel the rough ground scraping his bare feet, another set of minor hurts among a host of major ones. He stopped often to rest, exhausted by both the pain and his efforts. He could tell the light was fading and knew that night was fast approaching. Joe knew that there was little hope that a traveler would come down the seldom used trail, but if he was to have any chance at all, he needed to reach the road before dark.
After an hour of pulling and pushing, Joe fell to the ground and simply laid there. He was too tired and in too much pain to care any longer. He knew he was near the road but that no longer mattered to him. All Joe wanted to do was close his eyes and sink into the darkness which offered him a refuge from his agony. Joe gave a small sigh and let himself escape to the darkness.
“Can you hear me, boy?”
Joe heard the words spoken softly as a wet cloth gently dabbed the side of his face. He suddenly was aware of a rough but warm blanket wrapped around him, and a hand that seemed to be supporting his head.
“Can you hear me? Open your eyes, boy. Let me know you can hear me.”
The voice was more insistent this time, and Joe felt compelled to obey. He slowly opened his right eye and lifted his swollen left eyelid as much as he could. It took a moment for his eyes to focus on the face looking down at him. Once more, Joe was looking into the face of a stranger.
This stranger was a man in his fifties. His chubby face was outlined by a neatly trimmed white beard and shocks of thick but unruly white hair. Joe could make out the sleeves of a faded white shirt under a black vest. But it was the man’s eyes that drew Joe’s attention. The deep blue eyes that were watching him seemed to be filled with compassion. They were the kindest eyes Joe had ever seen.
“Well, you’re still with us,” said the man, relief evident in his voice. “My name’s Sam. Can you tell me your name?”
Joe moved his lips but found talking a difficult task. His side hurt so bad that it was difficult to breathe, much less speak. His swollen lips also were having a hard time forming words. Joe swallowed hard, and made an effort. “Joe,” he managed to croak out. He tried to swallow again, but his mouth felt dry. “Water,” Joe managed to whisper.
Muttering under his breath, Sam reached behind him and grabbed a canteen. He lifted Joe’s head a bit higher and started trickling water into Joe’s mouth. “Sorry, son,” Sam apologized as he watched Joe carefully swallowing the liquid. “I should have given you a drink right away. I just didn’t think.” Sam shook his head as if berating his own stupidity.
After drinking about half the canteen’s contents, Joe turned his head a bit to indicate he had had enough. Sam pulled the canteen away and set it on the ground next to him.
“Can you tell me what happened?” asked Sam as he turned back to Joe.
“Two men…robbed me,” answered Joe slowly. He was still finding talking to be difficult.
“Somebody robbed you, beat you and left you like this?” Sam said in a voice that showed that the idea shocked him. “Who would do such a terrible thing?”
Joe didn’t bother to answer. He couldn’t tell Sam much about the men even if he had felt like talking, which he didn’t. His ribs hurt and his mouth was sore, and Joe was feeling an almost overwhelming need to sleep.
Seeing Joe’s eyelids begin to droop, Sam asked quickly, “Do you live around here, Joe?”
Forcing his eyes open, Joe looked up at Sam. Talking would take more strength than Joe could muster, so he merely shook his head a bit.
“Can you tell me where you live?” pressed Sam.
Deciding that sleep was the most important thing in the world to him, Joe let his eyelids droop. He couldn’t answer Sam; he was too tired. Joe shook his head briefly once more, then allowed himself to drift off to sleep.
A sudden movement shook Joe into consciousness. He woke with a start, confused as to where he was and what was happening to him. A pair of hands seemed to be slowly dragging him over something flat. Joe forced his eyes open and looked up. In the dim light of early evening, Joe could barely see the figure bending over him.
“Sorry, Joe,” Sam apologized. “I didn’t mean to wake you, but I thought it was better that I got you some help than spend the night along side the road. I moved you to my wagon.” Pausing, Sam pulled the blanket up to Joe’s chin, and adjusted Joe’s head a bit on some other blankets he had arranged as a pillow. “I saw a sign a ways back for someplace called Benson’s Crossing,” he continued after making sure Joe was as comfortable as possible. “Might be able to find a doctor there. If not, we should be able to at least find you a bed so you can get some decent rest.”
Once more, Sam stopped talking. He peered into Joe’s face, evidently looking for some sign that Joe understood him. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, Sam went on. “It can’t be too far. I’m sure I can find it even in the dark.” He hesitated, then added, “I’ll drive as slow as I can, Joe, but it’s gone to be a little rough. If it gets too bad for you, you just yell out and I’ll stop. Understand?”
Looking up at the dim figure, Joe wondered why the stranger was going to all this trouble for him. He couldn’t understand what Sam hoped to get in return. Joe obviously didn’t have any money, and Sam couldn’t know his family was well-off. Kidnapping him seemed pointless, and it would be days before his father and brothers realized he was overdue and perhaps posted a reward.
But, for some reason, Joe knew that the man was only trying to help. He instinctively trusted Sam. Nodding a bit, Joe indicated he understood.
“Good,” said Sam, patting Joe lightly on the shoulder. “Now try to rest if you can. We’ll get you some help soon.”
As he drove the wagon into the settlement, Sam was filled with a sense of dismay. Even in the dark, he could tell Benson’s Crossing consisted of only a few buildings, and almost all of them appeared empty or closed for the night. The only light was a dim glow through a window of a building in the middle. Sam guided the wagon toward a weather-beaten structure over which hung a sign proclaiming it as a saloon.
Stopping the wagon, Sam twisted in the seat to look into the back of the wagon. Joe seemed to be sleeping. He had heard some soft grunts and moans from the young man as the wagon had traveled over the rough road, but Joe hadn’t asked him to stop. The last mile or so, the road had been fairly smooth and that’s probably when Joe drifted into sleep. He’s a tough one, thought Sam as he climbed down from the wagon. He looked around again at the darken buildings, then headed for the door of the saloon.
Sam walked into a well-lit room that held three small tables with a couple of chairs around each, and a small bar in the back on which four brown bottles stood clustered together. The only person in the room was a thin man about 40 wearing an apron. The man had thick black hair and a matching mustache. Sitting at one of the tables, he held a cloth in his hand and was polishing a whiskey glass. When he saw Sam, the man put the glass and cloth on the table next to four other glasses.
“You the bartender?” asked Sam as he walked further into the room.
“Bartender, glass polisher and owner,” answered the man, getting to his feet. “Tom Matthews. What can I get you?”
“I found a young fellow along the road a ways back. He was robbed and beaten up pretty bad. I’m looking for a doctor,” explained Sam.
“A doctor?” said Matthews, giving a bit of a derisive laugh. “This town ain’t big enough to have a doctor. Hell, this place ain’t big enough to be called a town. You’d have to go to Virginia City to find a doctor.”
“How far is that?” asked Sam, a sinking feeling growing in his stomach.
“A day, maybe a day and a half, depending on how fast your horse is.”
“Is there someplace I can find a room?” asked Sam anxiously. “The boy is hurt pretty bad. He’s in no shape to travel to Virginia City.”
“I’ve got a couple rooms in the back I rent out,” answered Matthews, jerking his head to a door. “They’re small, but they’re clean, and the mattresses are softer than sleeping on the hard ground. Cost a dollar a day and food is extra.”
Rubbing his chin, Sam tried to decide what to do. Joe needed some care and a decent bed, but Sam wasn’t sure he would get either in this run-down excuse for a tavern. In his heart, though, Sam knew he had no other choice. There was no place else to take the injured man.
Sighing a bit, Sam nodded. “I’ll take a room. Could you help me get the boy into a bed? He’s hurt too bad to walk.”
“Guess so,” agreed Matthews with a shrug. “Let me light the lamps in the back, and then I’ll come out to help you.”
Out on the deserted street, Sam looked into the back of the wagon again, this time from the side. Joe appeared to be still sleeping. Sam felt rather than heard someone coming up behind him. He turned to see Matthews standing a few feet from the wagon, waiting impatiently.
Climbing into the wagon, Sam called over his shoulder to Matthews, “You take his legs. Be real gentle with him.” Sam moved to the front of the wagon and knelt. He tucked the blanket around Joe, then slowly lifted Joe’s head and shoulders.
The two men carried Joe into the saloon, with Sam being much more gentle than Matthews. As he braced Joe’s head and shoulders, Sam glanced down at the young man. This time, the movement hadn’t wakened Joe.
Leading the way, Matthews guided them through a door into the back of the saloon. Sam could see the area had once been a storage space that was now partitioned into two rooms. The construction of the rooms had been cheap – thin slats of wood acted as a dividing wall, and the doors were merely slabs of wood with latches. The rooms were barely large enough to hold the narrow bed, chair and table with a wash basin and lamp that had been positioned in each of them. Matthews led the men into the first room and unceremoniously dropped Joe’s feet on the bed.
Sam was much more careful about positioning Joe, taking care to lay the young man’s head on the thin pillow and moving his body to the center of the even thinner mattress. The oil lamp in the room didn’t give out much light, but the room was so small that the light seemed to fill it. Sam peeled the blanket off Joe’s body so that he could examine the young man closer.
“Boy, someone really worked him over, didn’t they,” exclaimed Matthews, seeing Joe clearly for the first time. He was a bit shocked by the extent of the swelling on Joe’s face as well as by the bruises and scratches that seemed to cover the young man’s body.
“They sure did,” acknowledged Sam as he poked and prodded the sleeping figure. “Don’t seem to be anything broken, but I think some of his ribs are cracked. His knee is all swelled up; must have wrenched it or something.” He turned to Matthews. “Can you get me some water?”
“Sure,” agreed the saloonkeeper, grabbing a pitcher from the table. “I’ve got some bandages and medicines I keep around for when the cowboys take it in mind to beat on each other. I’ll bring those, too.”
By the time Joe started to wake up, Sam had completed bandaging Joe’s ribs and knee and had cleaned the cuts and scratches. He also had daubed some medicine on the deepest cuts, and was using a cold cloth to try to ease the swelling on Joe’s face. Joe tried to open his eyes but the left one was swollen shut and a cold cloth covered the right one. Deciding that moving and talking would take more energy than he possessed, Joe simply laid still – and listened.
“Here’s some more cold water,” declared a voice that seemed to be entering the room. Joe didn’t recognize the voice, and he almost groaned in despair. Yet another stranger with which he would have to contend.
“Thanks,” said a second voice, which Joe recognized as belonging to his rescuer, the man named Sam.
“I appreciate all your help, Tom,” Sam continued.
“Well, I didn’t have anything else to do,” answered Matthews in a self-depreciating voice. “You sure you don’t know who he is?”
“All he managed to tell me was that his name was Joe, and that he had been robbed,” Sam told the saloonkeeper.
“You sure went out of your way for someone you don’t know,” commented Matthews. “I’m not sure I would have done all this.”
“You would have,” Sam asserted. “No decent man could have just left him on the road like that, and you’re a decent man.”
“I thank you for the compliment,” said Matthews, “but I’m still not sure I would have done the same as you. Why’d you do it?”
Joe listened hard now, curious to hear how Sam would answer. He also wanted to know why Sam had taken such an interest in him.
“I’d have done it for any of God’s creatures,” replied Sam. “You see an animal that’s hurt or in need, and you just naturally want to help. That goes double for a man.”
“Anyone?” asked Matthews in a skeptical voice.
“Well, maybe not a skunk,” Sam admitted, giving a small laugh. “I never could quite develop a fondness for them.”
“I know some men I would classify as skunks,” observed Matthews.
“I meant the animal,” stated Sam firmly. There was a pause, then Sam continued. “Speaking of animals, I need to take care of my team. Is there somewhere I can put them up for the night?”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Matthews. “I already took care of it. They’re down at the livery. Jake wasn’t too happy about me waking him up, but he agreed to make sure they’re fed, watered and bedded down for the night.”
“It’s going to cost you two bits,” Matthews added. He laughed a bit. “Jake ain’t quite the charitable fellow that you are.”
“It’s worth it to me to make sure those horses are well cared for,” replied Sam. “I’m going to need them for…for something important.”
“Why don’t you bed down next door for a while,” suggested Matthews. “I’ll sit with the fellow and wake you in a couple of hours.”
Evidently, Sam had agreed because Joe could hear some feet shuffling. Once more, a great weariness seemed to descend on Joe, and he began to drift off into sleep. As he began to lose touch with consciousness, though, Joe wondered why Sam was going to need his horses. He also wondered what he had done to deserve such kindness from two strangers.
When Joe opened his eyes, he wasn’t very surprised to see a shaft of sunlight coming through the door. He felt weak but rested and figured he had slept through the night. What did surprise him, however, was that he was able to open both eyes. The swelling around his left eye had seemed to gone down. Putting his fingers to his face, Joe gently touched his cheek and eye. Both were tender but not nearly as sore and swollen as he had expected they would be.
Moving a bit on the bed, Joe felt a dull ache in his side rather than the sharp pain he expected. He ran his hand slowly down his chest and was amazed to feel scabs had formed over the scratches. His leg felt stiff but wasn’t near as sore as he had anticipated.
“Finally awake, are you?”
Looking up, Joe saw a tall, thin man with black hair and a black mustache standing in the doorway. “Who are you?’ he asked with a frown. Joe scanned the room with his eyes. “Where am I?”
“Names Tom Matthews,” replied the man in the doorway. “You’re in a room in the back of my saloon in Benson’s Crossing. You’ve been here almost three days.”
“Three days!” exclaimed Joe, astonished.
“Yep,” asserted Matthews nodding. “I’m not surprised you don’t remember. You had a pretty high fever until this morning.”
“Where’s…Sam?” Joe said the name in a hesitant voice, not sure if he had it right.
“So you remember Sam,” noted Matthews. “I’m not surprised. He would be a hard man to forget. He took off a couple of hours ago. He stuck around until your fever broke and then left. Said he was already overdue someplace.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Joe stated with true regret. “I wanted to thank him. Do you know his last name or where he went?”
Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, Matthews answered, “You know, I never did get his last name. The whole time he was here, we either talked about you, or me or some other thing. We never did talk about him. Kind of funny, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, it is,” agreed Joe.
“He said your name was Joe,” said Matthews, looking at Joe with a curious expression. “That right?”
Nodding, Joe answered, “Yeah. My name’s Joe Cartwright. My family has a ranch over Virginia City way.”
“Cartwright?” repeated Matthews in surprise. “Like in the Ponderosa Cartwrights?”
“My Pa owns the Ponderosa,” Joe acknowledged.
“Whew!” exclaimed Matthews. “I didn’t know who you were.” He grinned. “Welcome to Benson’s Crossing, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Thanks,” said Joe. “I’m glad to be here. You don’t know how glad I am to be here.”
“Sam said you were beat up and robbed, and they left you on the road,” Matthews continued. “Is that what happened?”
“Something like that. This fellow lured me into the woods by saying his friend needed help. They got mad when they found out I only had a little money on me,” explained Joe.
“So they beat you up,” observed Matthews. “Took your clothes and whatever else you had and just left you. Sounds like nice fellows.”
Nodding, Joe agreed. “They left me in the woods. I managed to crawl back to the road and that’s where Sam found me.” He shook his head. “I don’t remember much after that.”
“Do you know who the fellows were who beat you up?” asked Matthews.
“I never saw them before,” answered Joe. “One was my size; his name was Billy. The other fellow was a big guy called Lou.”
“Billy Hawkins and Lou Dobbins,” offered Matthews. “I’d stake a month’s profits on that’s who it was.”
“You know them?” asked Joe.
“I’ve seen them around,” replied Matthews with a shrug. “They worked on a couple of ranches around here. The word got around, though; they only worked at a place long enough to figure out what they could steal. They pulled that stunt at two or three places. After that, no one would hire them.”
“They weren’t arrested?” Joe asked, surprised.
“We don’t have a sheriff around here,” explained Matthews with a shrug. “And they never took enough to make it worthwhile to ride all the way to Carson City for the Territorial Marshall.”
“Well, it sounds like them,” said Joe, a bit bitterly. “They had a rifle that I’m pretty sure they stole from the railroad. Too bad nobody ever had them arrested. Might have saved me some bruises.”
“Based on what I hear about your Pa, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about them getting away with this,” Matthews commented with a grin. “They must not have known who you were.”
“They knew all right,” answered Joe. “That’s why they thought I had a lot of money on me.”
“Those two are dumber than dirt,” noted Matthews, shaking his head. “Everyone in Nevada knows that you’re going to pay for it if you go after a Cartwright.”
“Really?” said Joe, a bit surprised.
“Really,” stated Matthews. He smiled at Joe. “Your Pa has a reputation. He’s one of the most honest and decent men around, but if you do something to make Ben Cartwright mad, you’d better head for the hills.”
“I’d say that’s about right,” agreed Joe, returning Matthews smile. “I have some personal experiences that show you don’t want to make my Pa mad.”
“I’ll bet you do,” observed Matthews with a laugh. He looked at Joe closely. “I’d better get you something to eat. You haven’t been able to get much down except for some broth Sam forced into you.”
Rubbing his jaw, Joe said, “I’m not sure how much chewing I can do.”
“I’ve got some soup with some bits of chicken and greens in it on the stove. It should give your belly something to hang on to but it won’t take much chewing to get it down.”
“Thanks,” said Joe gratefully.
“Don’t thank me; thank Sam,” replied Matthews. “He made it. Among other things, Sam’s a pretty good cook. I tasted it, and that soup is purely a delight.”
“I’m sorry he’s not around for me to thank,” Joe told the saloonkeeper a bit wistfully. “He’s a remarkable man.”
“Remarkable?” said Matthews. “Son, I don’t think that even half describes him.”
A day of sleep and several meals made Joe feel almost human again. He was anxious to get out of bed and on his way home, but was at a loss on how to accomplish that. He was stuck in Benson’s Crossing with no horse, no money, and no clothes except a pair of pants. Tom Matthews had done so much for Joe already that he was reluctant to ask the man for more help. But after thinking about alternatives for a long time, Joe was forced to admit he had no choice but to ask for another favor.
Joe was steeling himself to ask Matthews for help when the saloonkeeper walked in with a pile of clothes in his hand. “I got you a shirt and boots and such,” said Matthews in an off-handed manner as dropped the clothes on the end of the bed. He put a pair of black boots on the floor near the bed.
A surprised look came over Joe’s face. “I don’t have any money. I can’t pay you for those things.”
“I know you don’t have any money on you,” acknowledged Matthews with a shrug. “Sam left some money to cover the cost of the room and whatever else you might need. It came up a little short, but I figure you’re good for it.” He grinned suddenly. “Besides, we can’t have you walking around town half-naked. You might scare the horses.”
Reaching forward for the dark blue shirt on the bed, Joe felt a stab of pain in his side. He grabbed his ribs with his left hand but continued to reach forward with his right. He hoped Matthews hadn’t seen the wince on his face.
“I appreciate this,” Joe said as he pulled the shirt toward him. “I hate to ask you for more, but do you think you can advance me the price of renting a horse. I’ll make sure you get paid.”
“A horse? Are you crazy, boy?” exclaimed Matthews. “You’re in no shape to ride.”
“I’ve got to get home somehow,” argued Joe. “I’m two days late already. Another day or so and my family is really going to worry.”
“You try to sit a horse and you’ll never make it home,” stated Mathews firmly.
“I’ll ride slow,” Joe promised. “My ribs won’t get bounced that much.”
“Yeah? And how to plan to stay in the saddle with that sore leg of yours?” asked Matthews. “You can’t even bend that knee yet.”
Biting his lip a bit, Joe pictured himself trying to ride with sore ribs and a stiff leg. He had to admit that Matthews was right. “How about a rig or a wagon? Can I rent one of those?”
“There ain’t nothing down in Jake’s livery except three or four horses,” explained Matthews, shaking his head. “This isn’t Virginia City. The only time someone needs a ride around here is when his horse throws a shoe or goes lame.”
Frustrated, Joe pursed his lips and looked to the side. “There must be some way for me to get home,” he muttered. He thought for a minute, then looked at Matthews. “How about I send a message?” suggested Joe. “Is there someone who would ride to the Ponderosa with a message for me? My Pa could come here with a rig to pick me up. I’ll make sure I tell him to pay whoever the delivers the message as well as brings money to reimburse you.”
Rubbing his chin a bit, Matthews looked at Joe. “I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “Finding somebody who was willing to spend two or three days on that little chore might be tough. People around here got their own places to take care of.”
“I’d make sure he got paid well,” Joe insisted. “There must be someone who could use the money.”
“It ain’t the money, Joe,” explained Matthews. “It’s the time. People around Benson’s Crossing don’t have a lot of time to spare.” He rubbed his chin again as if thinking. “Why don’t you get dressed and come out front,” he suggested. “You’re probably tired of sitting in that bed. In the meantime, I’ll think on what you suggested. Maybe I can come up with an idea.”
“Thanks,” said Joe gratefully. “For everything.”
Matthews waved away Joe’s thanks. “I ain’t done nothing except give you a bed, some clothes and a little food. No need to be thanking me for that little bit.”
“It’s a lot to me,” Joe stated. “I appreciate it, especially since you don’t know me. Not many people would do all this for a stranger.”
“Well, I know at least one other who would,” answered Matthews with a smile. “A fellow named Sam.”
It was almost an hour before Joe limped into the main area of the saloon dressed in the blue shirt, his own pants, and a pair of black boots. Getting dressed had been harder and more painful than Joe had anticipated. He walked gingerly, holding his ribs as he moved. Standing behind the small bar, Matthews watched without comment as Joe eased himself down into a chair by one of the tables.
“Boots fit?” asked Matthews. “I had to guess the size.”
“Everything fits fine,” answered Joe. He gave Matthews a rueful smile. “You were right about sitting a horse, though. I’m still pretty sore.”
“Figured as much,” agreed Matthews with a shrug. He cocked his head a bit. “You want a beer?”
Sighing a bit, Joe nodded. “Might as well. I owe you so much already that adding the price of beer to the bill won’t hurt.”
“This is all probably going to come to the princely sum of about twenty dollars,” remarked Matthews as turned to draw a beer. “I think your Pa can afford it.”
“Yeah, if I can ever figure out how to let him know where I am,” grumbled Joe in reply.
“I been thinking on that,” declared Matthews as he came around from behind the bar with a full beer glass in his hand. He walked over to the table and set the glass in front of Joe, then pulled up a chair for himself. “You ever run a saloon, Joe?”
The beer glass in Joe’s hand stopped in mid-air. “Run a saloon?”
“Yeah,” said Matthews. “Pour drinks, collect money, that sort of thing.”
“I’ve never done it,” admitted Joe. He took a sip of the beer. “But I think I could probably handle it.”
“That’s what I thought,” Matthews stated. “Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll take your message to your Pa over at the Ponderosa. In the meantime, you stay here and run my place for me.”
“You’d trust me to do that?” said Joe in surprise.
“Well, it ain’t like I’m giving you the keys to a bank vault,” Matthews remarked with a laugh. “A barrel beer, couple bottles of whiskey and a few dollars is all you’d get if you wanted to rob me. Besides, I figure you couldn’t get very far.” He grinned at Joe.
“I’d be lucky to make it to the end of the street right now,” agreed Joe. “Which brings up another problem. I’ll admit I’m still pretty sore. I’m not sure I could handle a crowd.”
“It’s the middle of the week, Joe,” explained Matthews. “You’ll be lucky if you have six customers. I’ll be back before the hands from the ranches come in on Friday night.” He looked at Joe. “What do you say? You willing to try it?”
“More than willing,” agreed Joe, sticking out his hand. “You just got yourself a bartender.”
Sitting at a table playing solitaire with an old deck of cards, Joe wondered what Tom Matthews did to keep from going crazy. It turned out that his estimate of six customers had been optimistic. Matthews had been gone a little over two days, and in that time, exactly four people had wandered into the saloon. The thirstiest of the lot had had two beers.
Blowing out a breath of air, Joe moved a red ten onto a black Jack. As he played with the cards, Joe kept listening for the sound of horses. He figured Matthews should be back with his father sometime today. It couldn’t be soon enough, as far as Joe was concerned.
Joe had lost track of how many games of solitaire he had played before he finally heard the sound of hooves and the jingle of a wagon harness from the street. He gave a silent cheer as he began to collect the cards on the table. Joe had just finished stacking the cards when he heard the heavy trod of several boots on the wooden floor of the saloon and the sound of a familiar voice.
“Joe! Are you are all right?”
Looking up, Joe smiled at his father. “A little bruised and sore, but I’ll be fine.”
Ignoring his son’s assurance, Ben crossed the room and put his fingers on Joe’s chin and lifted it a bit. Although the bruises had begun to fade, Ben could see the extent of the dark marks and scabs on Joe’s face. Based on what Tom Matthews had told him, Ben could only assume the rest of Joe’s body looked the same or worse.
After enduring his father’s inspection for a minute or so, Joe shook his face free. “Honest, Pa,” he said. “It looks worse than it feels.”
“Well, it couldn’t look much worse, little brother,” observed a booming voice from behind Ben. Joe craned his neck to look around his father and saw his brothers standing in the doorway next to a thickset man wearing a badge on his vest. “You look like you ran into an angry bear,” finished Hoss.
Turning back to his father, Joe said, “I just asked for a ride home. I didn’t expect you to bring the cavalry with you.”
“When Mr. Matthews told us what happened, Adam and Hoss insisted on coming with me,” explained Ben. “Marshall Cody there happened to be in Virginia City at the time so we thought it would be a good idea to include him in our little party.”
The man wearing the badge took a step forward. “From what Matthews said, those two boys have been causing a lot of mischief around here before they went after you. It’s been awhile since I’ve been over in this area, so I figure I’d come along to see what’s going on here.”
“I’m not sure I can give you any idea where to look for them, Marshall,” admitted Joe, shaking his head.
“I’ll find them,” replied the Marshall in a confident voice. “I just need some information from you so I can write up a formal complaint.”
“You sure do manage to get yourself into a pack of trouble, Joe,” noted Adam in a dry voice. “All you had to do was deliver some boards.” He gave his brother a wicked grin. “Did you count them?”
“I did,” Joe acknowledged almost proudly. “And so did the supervisor at the railroad work site.”
“That figures,” said Adam, shaking his head.
Matthews pushed his way into the room and walked over to the bar. “Before we start the festivities, why don’t we all have a beer?” he suggested. “I don’t know about you boys, but I’m dry as a bone.” He looked over to Joe. “That is, if there’s any beer left.”
“Tom, I didn’t sell enough beer to drown a cat,” answered Joe. “How you keep from going stir crazy in this place is beyond me.”
“It livens up a bit on Friday and Saturday,” Matthews assured him. “Well, how about those beers?”
“Sounds good to me,” answered Joe, pushing back his chair and walking toward the bar. Ben, Adam, and Marshall Cody followed him.
“You fellows go ahead,” said Hoss, turning back toward the street. “I want to move that buckboard out of the middle of the road.”
“Yeah, you wouldn’t want it to block the crowds,” commented Joe in an ironic voice.
Leaning on the bar with their backs to the door, Joe and the others waited while Matthews filled the beer glasses and set them down in front of them. The men had just begun to sip their beers when the sound of footsteps on the wood floor echoed across the room. None of the men turned around, thinking Hoss was returning. However, all of them were surprised when a voice snarled, “Nobody move. Just keep your hands where they are, fellows, and no one will get hurt.”
As the men leaning against the bar froze, Matthews looked up to the men across the room. A look of surprise crossed his face, and then a smile seemed to twitch on his lips.
“Billy, Lou,” called Matthews. “You don’t want to do this. Trust me. You really don’t want to do this.”
“Shut up,” shouted Lou. “Billy, you gather up their guns. Then we’ll find out what kind of money these fellows who ride such nice horses carry around with them.”
Billy took a step forward, then stopped when the four men at the bar turned almost in unison. His faced blanched when he recognized Joe then saw the marshall’s badge on the man standing next to him. He saw Ben and Adam put their hands on their guns, and heard Ben say in a tone that sounded like the voice of doom, “You’d better take Tom’s advice.”
“Lou…Lou,” stammered Billy. “Let’s get out of here.”
As he studied the two men across the room, Joe noted that Billy was wearing his green jacket and hat, while Lou was holding his pistol. Billy held the rifle that Joe had assumed was stolen, but the barrel was moving as the man’s hands began to shake.
Lou’s face showed the same shock as Billy’s for a moment, but it was quickly replaced by a look of bravado. “I’ve got them covered,” Lou stated confidently. “And a marshall bleeds just like any other man. Anybody tries anything funny, I’ll put a bullet in them. Now you fellows get your hands in the air.”
Suddenly, a massive hand snaked out from behind Lou’s head and covered his face. The hand jerked Lou’s head backwards while a second large hand pulled the gun out of Lou’s fist. “I don’t think you ought to be playing with guns,” said Hoss. “You might get hurt.”
Seeing the big man grab Lou, Billy threw the rifle to the ground. “I didn’t do nothing,” he shrieked. “I didn’t do nothing.”
Walking with long strides, Adam quickly crossed the room and picked up the rifle from the floor. Pointing it at Billy, Adam asked over his shoulder, “You recognized these fellows, Joe?”
“Yeah,” Joe said, “they’re the ones who robbed me and beat me up.” He walked over to Billy. “I’ll take my hat, jacket and boots back.”
Quickly shrugging off the green jacket, Billy handed it to Joe. He whipped the hat from his head and shoved it at Joe, also. “Here, take them,” he offered in a shaky voice.
“And my boots,” Joe insisted, looking at Billy’s feet.
“I need them boots,” argued Billy. “You don’t expect me to go barefoot, do you? I could step on something and hurt my foot.”
“You didn’t mind me going barefoot when you left me in the woods,” countered Joe, his anger starting to build.
“That’s because we didn’t think it would matter,” Billy answered. He turned even paler when he realized what he had said. “I mean, we figured you’d, um, er, someone would find you or something. You know, that someone would help you.”
“Someone did help me, but no thanks to you,” Joe stated angrily. “If I hadn’t crawled on my belly to the road, I’d have died in those woods.”
“I think you’d better give my brother his boots,” stated Adam in a cold voice. “Otherwise, I’ll take them from you. And you wouldn’t like the way I would do it.”
Swallowing hard, Billy started to kick off the boots. “All right,” he muttered. “But I ain’t walking far.”
“You don’t have to worry,” Marshall Cody assured Billy. “All the walking you’ll have to do is into a prison cell.”
“Prison?” Billy gulped. “We didn’t do anything. This was…just a joke.”
“Let’s see,” said the Marshall, ticking off on his fingers, “we have assault, probably attempted murder, robbery, and attempted robbery. That’s good for about five years.”
“You can’t prove anything,” growled Lou from across the room. He glanced over his shoulder at Hoss, who was holding a gun on him. “Like Billy said, we was just joking. We never actually took anything.”
“You have six witnesses to the attempted robbery, an eyewitness to your assault and robbery, and you had the victim’s clothes,” replied the Marshall. “I think you’ll be lucky if the judge only gives you five years.”
From behind the bar, Matthews shook his head. “I told you they were dumber than dirt.”
After a week of rest in his own bed and Hop Sing’s good cooking, Joe declared himself fit to go back to work. Ben, the ever cautious father, reluctantly agreed that Joe could handle a few light chores – but nothing that involved hard riding or heavy lifting. Those restrictions were fine with Joe. While he was bored sitting in the house, he also had no great desire to take on some of the more onerous chores around the ranch.
Having spent an almost leisurely afternoon in the south pasture checking on salt licks and water holes, Joe rode slowly back to the house. It was a pleasant summer’s day and the path was a familiar one, so Joe let his mind wander. As they had done frequently over the past week, Joe’s thoughts turned to events that had occurred around Benson’s Crossing.
He didn’t spend much time thinking about Lou and Billy or how the marshall had dealt with them. It had taken very little time for the two outlaws to be hustled out of the saloon by the marshall and his two brothers, and even less time for them to be thrown in the back of the buckboard and handcuffed to the side of the wagon.
Joe did think about Tom Matthews, though. After his father had paid the saloonkeeper what he was owed and then some, Joe and Matthews had said goodbye. Both had been a bit uncomfortable, and neither seemed to want an emotional scene. Joe had offered his hand and what he hoped was heartfelt thanks for all Matthews had done. Matthews had shaken his hand and wished him good luck. To someone watching, the gesture and words had seemed simple. Only Joe and Matthews understood what was meant by the long look they had given each other while clasping hands.
As he rode through the late summer sun, Joe thought again about Matthews and hoped the man had fully understood the depth of Joe’s gratitude. He had been paid for his efforts, Joe thought, a bit cynically – first by Sam and then by his father. But Joe also acknowledged the saloonkeeper had done more than just what he had been paid to do. He had offered Joe, a stranger, his friendship and his trust. Shaking his head a bit, Joe wondered if he would have done the same thing.
While Joe thought a bit about Matthews, the figure who dominated his musings was the mysterious Sam.
Over and over, Joe tried to remember what he knew about the man. He could picture the face, especially the kind look in the man’s eyes. Joe could hear Sam’s voice in his head, offering him comfort and a sense a safety. He knew Sam had gone out of his way to help him, delaying his journey and paying Tom Matthews for his care. But that’s all Joe knew. He didn’t know where Sam lived, where he was going, or what he did for a living. Joe didn’t even know his last name.
Joe tried to piece together what had motivated Sam to do so much for him. Sam didn’t know who he was. For all Sam knew, Joe could have been an outlaw or a man so poor that he couldn’t afford to pay him back. But Sam hadn’t seemed to care whether he was going to be repaid. He hadn’t even cared who Joe was, beyond being someone who needed help. Money, gratitude, recognition – all the inducements that Joe might have guessed would prompt someone to help – seemed of no interest to Sam.
As hard as he tried to come up with a reason for Sam’s actions, Joe knew in his heart that there wasn’t one. The man had done what he had done simply as an act of kindness. And that’s why Joe thought about him so much. Joe had convinced himself that people did nothing without expecting something in return, that strangers were not to be trusted. Now he owed his life to someone who had shown that thinking could be wrong. The idea was unsettling to Joe.
With a start, Joe realized he had ridden into the yard in front of the house. He had been so lost in his thinking that he hadn’t realized he was home. He quickly guided his horse to the barn, and spent the next ten minutes unsaddling his pinto as well as filling the animal’s feed and water bins. Once he was satisfied his horse was comfortable, Joe headed for the house.
Joe was barely in the door before a deep voice called out to him.
“Well, you’re finally home,” said Ben, trying to hide the anxiety he had been feeling. “I thought maybe you had decided to spend the night in the south pasture.”
“Sorry, Pa,” replied Joe as he hung his hat and jacket on the peg near the door. “I was daydreaming on the ride home and lost track of the time.” He turned and walked toward the fireplace and the red leather chair on which his father was perched. “Everything is fine,” continued Joe. “Salt licks are still plenty big and all the water holes are filled.”
“Took you all afternoon to find that out, little brother?” asked Hoss from the blue chair near the foot of the stairs.
Grinning, Joe answered, “Pa told me to take it easy. I was just following orders.”
“First time in your life you ever did that,” snorted Hoss.
“That’s enough,” said Ben, trying to forestall the round of insults that Hoss and Joe were about to trade. Even though the jibes weren’t meant or taken seriously, he didn’t feel in the mood to listen to his sons tonight. “Go get cleaned up, Joe. We’ll eat as soon as Adam gets back from town.”
“Right,” answered Joe, heading for the stairs. He stopped near the blue chair and turned to Hoss. “I did notice the fence was down near Rock Creek Canyon, Hoss,” added Joe with a twinkle in his eye. “Maybe you’d better go out and fix it tomorrow. I’d do it but you know how Pa doesn’t want me to do any heavy work for awhile.” He laughed at the scowl that appeared on his brother’s face, and headed up the stairs. From across the room, Ben shook his head and sighed.
By the time Joe descended the stairs again, Adam had joined Ben and Hoss around the fireplace. Rubbing his hands together, Joe said, “Good, Adam’s home. Let’s eat.”
“If you can figure out how to get Hop Sing to serve chicken that’s not quite fully cooked, go ahead,” replied Ben. “Otherwise, dinner will be ready when Hop Sing says it is.”
“Go into the kitchen while Hop Sing is cooking?” remarked Joe. “Not me. I’d rather face a band of wild Indians.”
Easing himself down on the sofa next to Adam, Joe asked, “What’s happening in town?”
“I went to see Judge Andrews today,” Adam said, watching Joe carefully. “He had seen me go into the bank and sent his clerk over to get me.”
“What did the judge want?” Joe asked.
“He wanted to tell me that he had just gotten back from Carson City,” Adam explained. “That’s where Billy and Lou were scheduled to stand trial. There’s not going to be a trial, Joe. They both decided to plead guilty and take their chances with the judge.”
For a minute, Joe said nothing. Then he turned to Adam. “What did the judge give them?”
“Three years,” answered Adam. “Six months for each of the robbery charges and two years for assault. The judge didn’t think what they took from you was worth all that much, and they didn’t actually go through with the robbery in Benson’s Crossing. And he felt that there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant attempted murder. I’m sorry, Joe.”
Again, Joe sat silently for a moment. “I guess it was too much to expect he would throw the book at them,” he said slowly. “At least they’ll be out of circulation for awhile.”
“Joe, if you’d like, I could talk to the judge,” offered Ben. “I could try to make him understand how seriously you were hurt.”
“No, don’t bother,” answered Joe with a sigh. “He probably wouldn’t change his mind. Just shows that people usually don’t do what you expect them to do, even when they’re a judge.”
The room was quiet as Ben exchanged a look with Adam. Both of them wanted to tell Joe he was wrong, but neither knew quite how to do it.
“I did hear something else of interest,” Adam said, trying to dispel the somber mood of the room. “You know that parcel of land that belonged to Henry Mason? The one at the foot of Whiteside Mountain? One of his relatives showed up to claim it.”
“Wasn’t there something odd about Mr. Mason’s will?” asked Hoss with a frown.
“I don’t know if you’d call it odd,” Ben replied. “Unusual, maybe. The terms of the will left the land to any of Henry’s relatives who wanted to claim the land and turn it into a working ranch. The catch was that the ranch had to be up and running by two years after Henry’s death.”
“Yeah, now I remember,” said Hoss, nodding. He turned to Ben. “Why do you think he did that? I mean, why didn’t he just leave the land to one of his kin?”
“Henry was a self-made man,” explained Ben. “He always told me that he didn’t believe in simply giving something away, that people should earn what they got. I guess this was Henry’s way of making one of his family earn the land.”
“Well, the fellow who claimed the land is going to have to work pretty hard to earn it,” stated Adam. “The deadline for having a working ranch on that property is less than two weeks away.”
“How come the guy left it so late?” asked Joe.
“The judge said something about the notice not getting to him right away, and then the man was delayed getting here,” Adam replied. “Frankly, Judge Andrews doesn’t think the man has much of a chance of meeting the terms of the will, but he’s going to go out to the property at the end of next week and take a look.”
“Any idea who the fellow is?” asked Hoss.
“The judge didn’t tell me his name,” answered Adam, “but the clerk at the hardware store said he saw him. He said the man was about fifty with white hair and a white beard.”
“White hair and beard?” exclaimed Joe, turning abruptly to Adam. “Are you sure?”
“That’s what the clerk told me,” replied Adam with a shrug.
Seeing the look on Joe’s face, Ben said, “Joe, you can’t be thinking that’s the same man who helped you on the road, can you?”
“Why not?” Joe asked. “It could be. The description fits him. I also heard him tell Matthews that he had something important to do and he was already late getting to it.”
“Do you know how many men in this territory fit that description?” Adam declared in a voice full of skepticism. “There must be at least fifty. The odds are pretty high that it’s the same man.”
“Besides, he’d have come by the ranch to tell us what happened to you, wouldn’t he?” added Hoss.
“I told you, he didn’t know who I was,” Joe explained. “By the time I came around enough to make sense, he was gone.” Joe turned to his father. “Pa, I’m going to ride over to Whiteside Mountain tomorrow. If it’s Sam, I want to see if there’s something I can do to help him. I owe him.”
“I think you’re going to be disappointed,” said Ben, shaking his head. “But I’ll ride over with you. If this is the same man who helped you, I’d like to meet him.”
Riding his pinto at a leisurely pace through a grassy meadow, Joe shifted his weight his saddle a bit. He was anxious to get to the base of Whiteside Mountain as well as frustrated by the slow gait his father was insisting they use. Ben had explained that he wanted to save wear on the horses, but Joe suspected his father wanted to make sure he didn’t ride too hard. Joe also was beginning to suspect that this was one of the reasons his father had offered to accompany him. His Pa knew him well, thought Joe; if he had been alone, he would have galloped his pinto the whole way.
“We should be coming up on the property soon,” commented Ben as he kept his horse to barely more than a walk. He seemed oblivious to Joe’s anxiety and frustration, but, in truth, Ben had seen Joe fidgeting in his saddle and chosen to ignore it. Joe’s assessment had been right. Ben wanted to see if the man working the land near the mountain was this Sam whom Joe had described. However, he also was making sure his son didn’t overdo things in getting there.
Sighing a bit, Joe decided that his father wasn’t going any faster. He looked around, eyeing the land around him. “The grass looks good here,” Joe noted. “He should be able to graze quite a few head.”
“There’s good water, too,” agreed Ben. “The creek runs right through the property.”
“Sam ought to be able to get a working ranch going here pretty quickly,” Joe said.
“If it is Sam,” cautioned Ben. “A lot will depend on what the judge considers necessary for the place to be deemed a working ranch. I suspect there’s more to it than just grazing a few head of cattle.”
The two men guided their horses toward the base of the mountain, then curved around it. Another large meadow came into view. This patch of ground, however, wasn’t simply covered in grass. A corral holding two horses was visible about a hundred yards away, and a wagon was parked next to the corral. A half-built house stood a short distance from the corral, a log structure with three sides and no roof. Trimmed logs littered the ground around the building. A lone worker was slathering plaster between the cracks of the logs on the left side of the half-finished house.
With a sudden movement, Joe pulled his horse to a stop. He leaned forward in his saddle, peering ahead at the solitary man working on the building.
“Is it him?” Ben asked.
“It looks like him,” answered Joe in a voice filled with uncertainty. “We too far away to be sure.”
“Well, then, I suggest we ride over and find out,” Ben told his son.
“Yeah,” agreed Joe. But he continued to hold his horse still.
“Something wrong?” asked Ben, watching his son.
Joe took a deep breath, then turned to his father. “If it is Sam, what do I say to him?” Joe blurted out. “I mean, it sounds kind of funny to just ride up there and say something like ‘Hi, I’m Joe Cartwright. Thanks for saving my life’.”
“That’s a start,” counseled Ben.
But Joe continued to hesitate, rubbing his hand nervously over his saddle horn as he stared at the man in the distance. “Maybe there was some reason why he didn’t wait around. Maybe he didn’t want me to know who he was.”
Reaching out to put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, Ben tried to encourage his son. “Joe, if this Sam is the kind of man you said he was, he’ll be happy to see you. From what you told us, he didn’t sound like a man who was trying to hide or on the run. He sounded more like a man who did what needed to be done, and then went on his way. I don’t think it was a matter of not wanting you to know who he was, but rather that he thought it wasn’t important.”
“You’re right,” acknowledged Joe, nodding. He took another deep breath then kicked his horse forward into a slow lope.
The man plastering the log house was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t hear the approaching horse. Joe pulled his mount to a stop a few feet from the partially built structured and watched the man for a minute. Then he said in a quiet voice, “Hello, Sam.”
Turning to the sound of the voice, Sam’s mouth dropped open a bit. The trowel with which he had been working fell from his hand. “Joe!” he exclaimed. “By golly, boy, it’s sure good to see you. You’re looking a whole lot better than the last time I saw you.” A large grin spread across Sam’s face.
Quickly dismounting, Joe walked over to Sam, his grin matching the one on the older man’s face. “I heard you were working out here. I wanted to come out and thank you for all you did for me. You saved my life, and I’m very grateful.”
“Ah, shucks, Joe, I didn’t do much,” replied Sam, waving away Joe’s thanks.
“You picked me up on the side of the road, took care of me, and paid Tom Matthews to give me all I needed,” Joe stated. “I would say that’s quite a lot.”
“A small side trip and a little money,” Sam said dismissively. “It’s not worth mentioning.” He looked past Joe as a man rode up on a buckskin horse. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“I’m Ben Cartwright, Joe’s father,” answered Ben. “I wanted to ride over and express my gratitude for what you did for my son.”
“Joe’s father, eh?” Sam said. “Good to meet you.” He cocked his head a bit. “Cartwright. You the Cartwright that owns that big spread east of here?”
“Yes, I own the Ponderosa,” Ben acknowledged. “I can’t thank you enough for helping Joe. He might have died on that road if you hadn’t taken care of him.”
“Like I was just telling Joe, I didn’t do all that much. Anyone else would have done the same. I was just the one who happened along,” Sam insisted.
“I’m not sure just anyone would have done with you did,” Joe said. “There aren’t many people who would go to all that trouble for a total stranger.”
Looking a bit embarrassed, Sam glanced down and shuffled his feet a bit. “Well, it’s done with. Let’s not bother with it any more.” He looked up and smiled at Joe. “I’d invite you in the house for a cup of coffee but, as you can see, I’m not quite ready for company yet.”
“This place is going to be a good ranch,” commented Ben, looking around. “Good grass, water, and lots of room.”
“It’s got potential,” Sam agreed. “I’d sure like to make it into something. I’m not sure if I can get everything done in time, though.”
“Everything done?” said Joe, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“I had a little talk with the judge before I came out here,” Sam explained. “He told me that to be considered a working ranch, I’d need a house, corral, barn or storage shed, and at least twenty head of cattle. And I have to have it all done by the end of next week in order to inherit the land. If not, the land will revert back to the state.” Sam shook his head a bit. “It’s going to be a pretty big chore to get everything done by the deadline.”
“Why’d you leave it so late to get started on this?” asked Joe.
“It’s a long story, boy,” replied Sam with a shrug. “I wasn’t interested in this place originally, but then…well, circumstances changed.” He looked off to the side as if thinking of something else, then abruptly turned back to Joe. “Joe, I’m really glad to see you and know that you’re all right,” he said sincerely. “It does my heart good to know things worked out. But now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get back to work. I’ve got a little over ten days to finish the house and furnish it, build a shed, and buy me some cattle.” Sam squared his shoulders in a determined gesture. “I aim to meet that deadline.”
Turning a bit, Joe gave his father a questioning look. Ben understood what Joe was asking, and nodded his agreement.
“Sam, we’d like to help you meet that deadline,” Joe stated. “I’d like to stay here and work with you. My Pa would like to send over some hands to help you, too.”
“I appreciate the offer, Joe; really, I do,” replied Sam. “But it’s not necessary. I’ll manage.”
“Sam, I want to do this,” Ben said firmly. “You helped my son. Now I want to help you. I’ve got half a dozen hands doing nothing but busy work. They might as well do it here.”
Scratching the back of his head, Sam gave Ben a doubtful look. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” advised Ben with a smile. “I’m going to ride back to the ranch right now and round up some men. They’ll be here by the end of the day.”
“I’m going to stay here, Pa,” Joe told his father. “I’ll give Sam a hand until the rest of the men arrive. And send Adam and Hoss with them. I’d like Sam to meet my brothers.”
“The whole family getting involved?” asked Sam, a bit surprised.
“When you’re around here for awhile, you’ll find out the Cartwrights tend to do things as a family,” explained Joe with a grin. “Besides, I’m not sure they believed me when I told them about you. I want to prove to them that someone like you really exists.”
“Someone like me?” said Sam. “I’m nothing special, Joe.”
“You’re wrong, Sam,” Joe replied. “You are special. Very special.”
Patting his stomach, Sam sat back in his chair. “Hop Sing,” he commented, “that was the best meal I’ve ever had.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sam,” replied the cook with pleasure. “You eat good. You eat almost as good as Mr. Hoss.”
“No one eats that good,” comment Joe in a dry voice.
Hop Sing smiled as the other men around the table in the Ponderosa dining room laughed. He bowed a bit to Sam in acknowledgment of the compliment to his cooking, then cleared the rest of the dishes from the table.
“I’m glad you were able to join us for dinner, Sam,” said Ben, as he relaxed in his chair at the head of the table. “How does it feel to own a ranch?”
“Feels pretty good, Ben,” Sam admitted. “For a little while there, though, I wasn’t sure the judge was going to give me the place. He went over everything with a fine tooth comb. But when he gave me the deed, the judge said it was a fine working ranch. I owe it all to you and your boys, Ben.”
“It was pure selfishness on our part,” stated Joe. “We wanted to make sure we had you for a neighbor.”
Looking down, Sam stirred his spoon in his coffee cup. He seemed to be trying to decide what to say. Finally, he turned to Joe. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Joe, but I’m not going to be staying on at the ranch.”
“Not staying?” exclaimed Adam in astonishment. “After all the work you did to build up that land by the deadline, you’re not going to stay?”
“I’m a roaming sort of fellow, Adam,” Sam explained. “Always have been. I don’t think I’ve spent more than six months in anyone place in my life. I’m always convinced that there’s something interesting over the next hill, and I’ve got an itch to see it. I don’t think I could stand being tied down to one place.”
“Then what are you going to do with the place?” asked Joe with a puzzled frown. “Sell it?”
“No, I’m going to give it to somebody,” answered Sam.
“Give it away?” Ben’s astonishment was almost as great as Adam’s had been.
Nodding, Sam said, “Yes. It didn’t cost me all that much, just the price of some building materials, furniture and cattle. I don’t think I put more than $100 into that place, and that’s little enough to get a fine ranch in return.”
“Who are you planning to give it to, Sam?” asked Hoss curiously.
“Fellow in Texas named Luke Watson,” replied Sam, smiling. “He don’t know it yet, but he’s getting a fine ranch and some pretty good neighbors to boot.”
“And you’re just going to give it to him?” said Joe, still sounding confused. “Just like that.”
“Luke did me a good turn, probably saved my life,” explained Sam. He saw the curiosity on the faces of the men around the table. With a shrug, Sam continued. “About three years ago, I was in this little town in Texas called San Marcos. A rancher down there got killed and everyone figured I did it.”
“They must have been crazy to think you killed someone,” stated Joe.
“Well, it was circumstantial evidence,” admitted Sam. “I had been in a poker game where the rancher was a big winner, and someone saw me on the street shortly before the man was robbed and killed. But mostly, it was because I was a stranger in town. Sometimes, people can be mighty distrustful of strangers.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Ben, looking pointedly at Joe. “Some people just don’t trust anyone they don’t know.” Joe looked down at his coffee cup, suddenly finding it of great interest.
“Anyway, I was arrested,” continued Sam. “The town was pretty divided on the matter. Half of them wanted to be on the jury to be sure I was convicted and hanged, and the other half just wanted to lynch me. The only fellow who spoke up for me was Luke Watson.”
“Luke must have been a good friend,” Adam commented.
“That’s just it,” Sam replied, shaking his head. “Luke didn’t really know me. We had had a beer together, just passing time for an hour or so in the saloon. But for Luke, it wasn’t about me. He has a powerful sense of right and wrong. Luke argued for me because he didn’t think the evidence really pointed toward me as the killer. He thought it was wrong for people to want to hang me just because I was a stranger. He didn’t know me, but that didn’t stop Luke from arguing with his friends and neighbors that they were jumping to conclusions. He spent two or three days keeping those people from storming the jail. That was long enough for some cowboy to get drunk and brag to a saloon girl that he had gotten even with his boss for firing him. The girl told the sheriff, and the sheriff searched the cowboy’s things. They found the rancher’s watch and wallet in the cowboy’s saddlebag.”
“I can see why you feel you owe this Luke fellow something,” said Hoss.
“The thing is, I never really thanked him,” Sam explained. “Soon as they let me out of that jail, I took off. I didn’t want to stay around in case those townspeople changed their minds. But it kept bothering me that I didn’t thank Luke properly for what he had done. So about six months ago, I went back to San Marcos.”
“Was Luke surprised to see you?” Joe asked.
“He barely remembered me,” admitted Sam. “When I told him who I was, it took him a couple of minutes to place me. I thanked him and asked him if there was anything I could do to repay him. But Luke said no and I was ready to go on my way. I stopped at the saloon to have a beer and that’s when I found out Luke was about to lose his ranch.”
“Lose his ranch? How come?” asked Hoss.
“He had borrowed from the bank to buy some new breed of cattle,” explained Sam. “But the cattle died, and then there was a hard winter followed by a dry summer. The bills piled up, and the bank wanted their money, but Luke had no way to pay them. His herd was down to a few head, and even they looked kind of scrawny.” Sam turned to the head of the table. “I’m sure you know how these can happen, Ben.”
“Oh yes,” agreed Ben. “I remember quite a few times when I was building the Ponderosa when I wondered if I was going to lose it all.”
“I wanted to help Luke,” Sam continued, “but I didn’t know what to do. All I had was a couple of hundred dollars, and that wasn’t enough to pay off all the bills. Then I remembered this letter I got from a lawyer awhile back about the land up here in Nevada. The lawyer said all I had to do to claim it was making it into a working ranch. At the time I got the letter, I wasn’t interested in owning a ranch. But down in San Marcos, I got to thinking that if I could claim the land, I could give it to Luke.”
“So you hustled up here,” said Adam. “You cut it pretty close, Sam.”
“A lot of time had passed since I had gotten the letter,” Sam admitted. “And I got delayed along the way. But I made it, and now I can give the ranch to Luke.”
“You almost didn’t make it because of me,” Joe said in a quiet voice.
Sam looked at Joe in surprise. “No, Joe, I made because of you. You think those two days I spent in Benson’s Crossing would have made any difference if I was working on my own? If you and your family hadn’t helped me, I would have never finished in time.”
“It’s kind of like a circle, ain’t it,” Hoss observed. “Luke helped you and you helped Joe. Then Joe helped you back, and now you’re going to help Luke.”
“That’s exactly what it is, Hoss,” agreed Sam. “I always figure you get back what you give.”
“But the odd thing is that you, Luke, and Joe really didn’t know each other,” Adam mused. “You were all pretty much strangers to one another, and yet each of you came to the aid of another.”
“A stranger is just someone you don’t know yet,” remarked Sam with a shrug. “If you only help people you know, you’re pretty limited. And you might miss out on making a new friend.”
“I don’t know,” said Joe doubtfully. “It didn’t do me much good when I tried to help Billy and Lou. All that did was practically get me killed.”
“I’m not saying there aren’t some bad apples in the barrel,” Sam agreed. “But a lot times, the way you treat people is the way they treat you. It’s kind of like looking in a mirror. If you’re honest and open with people, more times than not, they’ll be the same with you.”
“Except if it’s Billy and Lou,” Joe argued back.
Rubbing his chin, Sam considered Joe for a minute. “Let me ask you something. When Billy stopped you on the road, did you just jump out of the wagon to help him?”
“No,” admitted Joe. “I studied him for a minute and told him to drop his gun. Then I made him walk ahead of me in the woods. I was kind of leery of him.”
“So Billy and Lou knew you were suspicious, and you probably gave them a hard time. Am I right?” asked Sam. Joe slowly nodded his head, wondering what Sam was trying to prove.
“Now what do you think would have happened if you had jumped out of that wagon as soon as Billy stopped you, and walked with him through the woods?” asked Sam. “It’s hard to know for sure, but my guess is those two wouldn’t have been nearly as hard on you. They probably would have thought you were a good guy for trying to help. They might have still robbed you, but I don’t think they would have beaten you up. It’s hard to hurt a good guy; most people find they can’t do it.”
“You’re saying that if you’re suspicious of people, they’re going to act badly around you,” said Joe slowly. “But if you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice to you.” Joe shook his head. “I don’t know. That sounds too simple.”
“I’ve been a lot of places, Joe, and met a lot of people,” Sam declared. “It’s always worked for me. You get disappointed sometimes, but most of the time, you’re pleasantly surprised. It’s worth a try. If it don’t work, you can always go back to being suspicious.”
“Yeah,” agreed Joe thoughtfully. “It might be worth a try.” Ben and Adam looked across the table at each other, both of them trying to hide the smile from their faces.
“Hey, Sam, when you going to send that deed down to Texas?” asked Hoss.
“First thing tomorrow,” Sam stated.
“Do you think he’ll take it?” asked Adam. “Some people are pretty tied to their land, no matter how bad it is.”
“You’re right there, Adam,” Sam admitted. “I never did understand that myself, but I know how some people just don’t want to leave. So I’ll tell Luke if he doesn’t want to move up here, he can just sell the place and use the money to pay off his debts. Either way, I’ll have given him a fresh start. I owe him that.”
“When you write to Luke, tell him to let us know what he decides,” Ben said. “If he wants to come up, we’ll be happy to help him. If he wants to sell the place, I wouldn’t mind having first crack at buying it.”
“Thank you, Ben, I’ll do that,” said Sam.
“What if he won’t accept it?” asked Joe. “I mean, what if he decides he doesn’t want your help and sends the deed back.”
“He won’t have any choice but to keep it,” answered Sam. “But the time Luke gets that deed, I’ll be gone. I won’t be here for him to return it.”
“You’re leaving so soon?” said Joe in dismay.
“Yep, leaving in the next day or so. I’ve got an urge to see what’s in California. Heard it’s an interesting place.”
“I’ll miss you, Sam,” Joe admitted, his voice full of emotion.
“I’ll miss you, too, Joe,” replied Sam in a soft voice. He cleared his throat. “But you never know. I might come back this way some day.”
“You’ll be welcome anytime,” Joe stated.
“Tell Luke we’ll keep an eye on the ranch until he decides what to do,” added Ben.
“Thank you,” said Sam. He looked around the table as if trying to memorize the faces of the men around him. Then he pushed back his chair. “I’d better be going. I’ve got a lot to do, and I want to send off that deed in the morning.”
All of the Cartwrights got to their feet. Ben, Adam, and Hoss each offered their hand to Sam and said goodbye. When Sam turned to Joe, however, the youngest Cartwright offered quickly, “I’ll walk you out.”
As they left the house and walked into the yard, Joe pulled on Sam’s arm to stop him. “Sam, I just want to say thanks again – for everything,” Joe said. “I owe you a lot.”
“Joe, you’ve thanked me a hundred times already,” replied Sam. “And anything you think you owe me, well, that debt has been paid in full.”
“Before you leave, I do have one question,” Joe declared a smile. “Just what is your last name? No one seems to know it.”
A wry grin broke out on Sam’s face and he laughed a bit. “I’m not too fond of my last name, Joe. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“What is it?” pressed Joe.
Sam looked down for a minute then back up at Joe. “It’s Goodfellow. My name is Sam Goodfellow.”
“That figures,” said Joe with a laugh. He held out his hand. “Thank you, Sam Goodfellow.”
“You’re welcome, Joe Cartwright.”
Joe stood watching as Sam climbed up on his wagon. He waved goodbye as Sam clicked the reins and turned his team. As he watched the wagon disappear down the road, Joe said softly, “Thank you, Sam, for teaching me that there are good fellows like you in the world.” Laughing a bit at his own pun, Joe turned and walked back into the house.