Synopsis: A cougar is loose on the Ponderosa.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 7,420
Joe Cartwright was surprised to see the cattle shuffling nervously in the pasture. He had been sent to check on the herd and on the riders who were moving them to fresh grazing, but hadn’t expected any problems. As he rode over the crest of the hill, though, he could hear the cattle bawling while the drovers tried to crowd them closer together. “What’s up, Shorty?” Joe shouted to one of the cowboys as he neared the herd.
“We ran off an old cougar a few minutes ago,” replied a bearded rider. “He came down out of the hills and spooked the cows. He came up real close to the herd. We kept them from running, but they’re sure an unhappy bunch.”
Joe frowned. It wasn’t normal for a cougar to want to get close to a whole herd of cows and several riders, and any animal not acting normal could be dangerous. “You keep ’em moving,” Joe yelled. “I’m going to see if I can track that cat.”
Nodding, Shorty watched as Joe began to look for paw prints on the ground. Spotting the prints leading up into the hills, Joe slowly followed the trail.
“You be careful,” called Shorty at Joe’s retreating figure. Joe waved his hand in the air without looking back and disappeared into the trees.
At first, the cougar’s tracks were easy to follow; the animal was making a straight line up to the mountains. However, once Joe reached the rocky area of the foothills, he lost the trail. As he pulled his rifle out of its scabbard, Joe looked around cautiously. Large boulders surrounded the area, with scrub brush and small trees shooting up among the rocks. He couldn’t see anything moving through the brush, but that didn’t mean the cougar wasn’t nearby. He chucked his horse forward as his eyes kept searching the rocks and the brush for signs.
Just as Joe was becoming convinced he had lost the trail, a cougar’s scream filled the air. He looked up to see the cat springing at him from a high rock. The cougar’s paw hit the youngest Cartwright square in the chest, knocking Joe off his horse. The fall separated man and beast for a few seconds while Joe’s pinto ran off. As Joe pulled his gun from his holster, the cougar jumped on him again. Joe gripped the gun tightly as he wrestled with the cat, and after what felt like an eternity, his finger found the trigger.
Jerking his finger, Joe pulled the trigger, sending a bullet aimlessly toward the brush. The loud noise startled the cougar, freezing the animal in surprise. Joe pushed the cat off, then fired again wildly, not caring where the gun was pointed; he wanted only to get the animal away from him. The cougar obliged by instantly turning tail and running into the brush.
Letting the pistol fall from his hand, Joe lay on the ground, breathing hard. Slowly, he pulled himself up to a sitting position and, as he did so, sharp pains shot through his right arm and across his chest. Joe groaned and scooted himself back a few feet until he was leaning against a boulder. He sat with his eyes closed for several minutes, waiting for the pain to ease. Finally, reluctantly, he turned to examine his arm. His forearm was bleeding heavily through his green jacket and he could see punctures from the cougar’s teeth. His upper arm and shoulder were also bleeding, although not as heavily, from deep scratches. He also could feel the burn of scratches across his chest.
For a minute or two, Joe sat staring at his arm, wondering what to do next. Slowly, he shook his head, trying to clear it from the fog that seemed to envelope it. Joe looked up quickly as he heard a rustle in the nearby brush. Snatching up his gun with his left hand, he aimed at the shaking leaves. He looked hard at the brush but couldn’t see any new movement. Joe jerked to his left as a low growl came from the rocks in that direction. His breathing was rapid and his eyes were wide with fear as he swiveled his head back and forth between the brush and the rocks, trying to spot the cougar. Joe could hear the snarl of the cougar but couldn’t tell from which area the noise was coming.
With a sudden, decisive move, Joe jammed his gun back into the holster and used his left hand to pull himself to his feet. He glanced around again and then began to walk rapidly in a direction away from both the scrub brush and the rocks. His right arm was hanging uselessly at his side as he scrambled as fast as he could through a small stand of trees.
Joe stumbled through the trees and brush for several minutes before he felt safe enough to lean against a big oak and rest. His arm was throbbing, and the scratches seemed to burn worse than before. He was breathing heavily and felt a leaden sense of weariness overcoming him.
He knew he should keep moving but he didn’t seem to have the energy to start walking again.
The sound of rushing water finally grabbed Joe’s attention. He looked around and spotted a stream at the bottom of the small hill behind the tree. With a sense of relief, Joe headed toward the stream, half falling down the hill in his eagerness for a cool drink. When he reached the stream, Joe plunged his face in the water and drank heartily. Finally, he lifted his head. Pain shot through his right arm as he collapsed onto his back next to the water. Joe looked at his arm and then at the stream. With a grim expression, he lowered his arm into the cool water. At first, the pain was almost unbearable, but it rapidly eased as the cold began to numb his arm. Joe splashed some water on the scratches on his chest. Then he lay on his back, eyes closed and arm dangling in the stream, and began to slowly drift into sleep.
Suddenly, Joe heard a low growl. He sat up quickly and pulled his pistol from the holster, then sat still, listening. He had just about decided that he had imagined the noise when he heard the growl again. Joe looked up toward the top of the small hill. The bushes moved, but he couldn’t tell if the movement was caused by the wind or the cougar. Joe frantically searched the brush with his eyes. He couldn’t see anything, but he knew the animal was nearby.
With a great effort, Joe forced himself to stand. He knew in his weakened state he couldn’t fight off the cougar again. But he also knew he had only a few bullets in his gun and he couldn’t shoot what he couldn’t see. His only hope was to get to open ground. If he could get the cat out into the open, he could shoot it.
Gripping his handgun tightly, Joe began to walk parallel to the stream. He looked both for movement and a break in the brush. His arm began to throb again, and he gritted his teeth against the pain. Finally, he spotted a break in the bushes. He headed toward the opening, aware that it was becoming harder to keep moving. Rivulets of blood were running down his arm and hand. He felt lightheaded, and longed to close his eyes and rest.
As he pushed through the bushes, Joe was relieved to see a patch of open ground. The area wasn’t very big, but there were some boulders at the far end. His strength ebbing, Joe walked to rocks, then sank to the ground. He could rest and wait. The cougar would have to cross the open area if he wanted to get to Joe.
Sitting with his back against the rocks, Joe anxiously watched the bushes and open area. He gripped his pistol tightly as he heard a low rumble from the right side of the bushes. Then the scrub brush on the left began shaking. It seemed as if the cat was pacing, trying to decide his next move. Joe took a deep breath and fired two shots, one to the right and one to the left. He watched the bushes carefully. Everything was quiet.
Joe wasn’t sure how long he watched the brush before his eyelids began getting heavy. He felt so weak and tired. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to close his eyes for just a minute…..
With a start, Joe woke up. How long had he been asleep? From the position of the sun, he could tell it was more than just a few minutes — maybe an hour or longer. He looked anxiously around him, but couldn’t tell if the cougar was still around. He knew he was lucky the animal hadn’t jumped him when he was asleep. He tried to stand but his legs buckled. Felling dizzy, Joe collapsed back against the rock.
Suddenly the bushes in front of him moved again. Joe lifted his pistol to take aim. He wasn’t sure if he had enough strength to pull the trigger but knew he had to try. He watched the movement of the bushes carefully, trying to pick out a target. He probably only had one shot, so he knew he better make it good. Whatever was in the bushes was getting closer. Joe began to squeeze the trigger.
“Joe!” a familiar voice shouted.
Joe looked with disbelief at the figure of his father emerging from the brush. For a moment, he thought he was seeing things. Then his body sagged with relief.
“Adam, Hoss, I found him!” Ben shouted. “He’s over here!” Ben rushed to the side of his injured son. Quickly untying the bandanna from his neck, he began wrapping it around Joe’s injured arm. “Joe, what happened?” Ben asked.
Rousing himself, Joe stared at his father before answering. “Cougar,” he said slowly. “He jumped me…tore me up pretty good. How did you find me?”
“Your horse came back alone, and then Shorty told us where you were headed. Adam, Hoss and I have been looking for you.”
A movement in the brush caught Joe’s attention and he stiffened, then turned toward his father. “Watch out,” he warned, sounding almost desperate. “That cougar is still after me”.
Ben turned toward the brush as Adam and Hoss emerged, then looked back at Joe’s frightened face. “It’s only your brothers,” he explained in a quiet voice. “That cat’s long gone from here.”
“No!” Joe exclaimed, looking around anxiously. “He’s still around. Be careful. He’ll jump you if you don’t watch out.”
“All right, all right,” Ben said soothingly as Adam and Hoss walked up. He turned toward his older sons. “Joe’s hurt. I think he’s in some kind of shock. Go get the horses. We need to get him home.”
It was early evening by the time Dr. Martin finished patching up Joe at the Ponderosa. “He’ll be fine, Ben,” the doctor advised as he walked down the stairs from Joe’s room. “That cat tore up some muscle and tissue, but there are no broken bones and no sign of infection. He’s weak from the loss of blood, but that should pass quickly. Keep him in bed for a day or two just to be sure. He’ll be stiff and sore for awhile but he’ll mend.”
The doctor stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “You know, it’s odd that Joe was mauled only on the right side,” Dr, Martin added.
“We saw the cougar’s tracks,” Ben explained. “It’s got a deformed paw. That’s probably why it’s hunting so close to the ranches.”
“Well, if that’s true, we’d better get a posse organized,” the doctor replied. “An animal like that can do a lot of damage if it’s not caught.”
Joe slept through most of the next day, waking only when Hop Sing or his father brought him a bowl of broth. By the second morning, he felt strong enough — and hungry enough — to go downstairs for breakfast. He dressed slowly, carefully pulling his shirt over his heavily bandaged arm. He walked stiffly down the stairs and toward the dining room.
“Well, look who’s finally out of bed,” Hoss called from the table with a smile when he spotted his brother coming toward him.
Twisting in his chair, Adam watched Joe’s slow progress toward the table. “I thought you’d sleep for at least a week,” he commented.
Joe smiled at his brothers’ teasing as he gingerly sat down at the breakfast table. “I knew you couldn’t manage without me,” he replied.
Ben watched Joe anxiously from the head of the table. “How are you feeling, son?” he asked.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe answered. “Just a little sore. Is there anything left to eat or has Hoss cleaned the platters?”
“You’re just lucky Adam and I have to get going,” Hoss told his younger brother as he handed Joe a platter. “Otherwise I’d wrestle you for them eggs.”
Ben watched as Joe set the platter on the table and began filling his plate. Joe’s right arm rested limply on his leg as his son awkwardly pushed the eggs to his plate with his left hand. “The doctor wants you to take it easy for awhile,” Ben advised. “Plenty of rest and no riding for at least a week.” Joe nodded as he began to eat.
Suddenly, there was a clamor of voices and horse hoofs from outside the house. Joe looked curiously as Adam and Hoss abruptly rose from the table and started toward the front door. “What’s going on?” Joe asked.
“That’s the posse going after the cougar that jumped you,” Ben explained.
Slowly, Joe got up from the table and followed his brothers out the door. In the yard in front of the house, eight men were seated on horses, waiting patiently as Adam and Hoss strapped on their holsters and checked the saddles on their mounts.
“Joe, it’s good to see you up and around,” one of them said. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, Mr. McMasters,” Joe replied. “Any sign of that cougar?”
“Not yet, but we know he’s around here some place,” McMasters answered. “We saw his tracks not more than 10 miles from here yesterday.”
“He’s probably still looking for Joe,” a man sporting a scruffy beard remarked with a laugh. “I heard-tell of a cat that stalked the same man for six months — finally killed the poor fella.”
Joe paled and swallowed hard.
“You just love telling those tall tales, don’t you, Scruggs,” Adam observed as he mounted and turned his horse toward the posse. “We’re not going to accomplish anything hanging around here. Let’s get going”.
As the posse rode off, Joe watched them intently. He was breathing hard and jumped when Ben laid a hand on his shoulder from behind.
“Joe, you all right?” Ben asked.
Joe smiled shakily and took a deep breath. “Just hungry, Pa. Let’s go finish breakfast.”
Ben and Joe turned and walked toward the house. Ben didn’t notice his son’s anxious glance over his shoulder toward the thick brush near the house.
Ben worked at his desk during the rest of the morning, glancing occasionally at Joe who was sitting in a chair by the fireplace. His son had an open book in his hand, but Ben noticed he seldom turned a page. Joe seemed distracted and startled by every sound. Ben frowned with concern.
“The doctor will by sometime today to check your arm,” Ben called across the room. “Do you feel like resting until he gets here?”
Joe shook his head. “No, I’m fine.”
Ben started to say something more, then hesitated. He looked at his son for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever you think best, Joe.”
The sound of a carriage arriving in the yard caught both Ben and Joe’s attention. Ben walked to the front door and opened it. “We were just talking about you,” Ben said heartily as Dr. Martin stood in the door. “Come in.”
Dr. Martin smiled at Joe as he entered. “Well, I see you’re up. How are you feeling?”
“Fine, except for the fact that everyone asks me how I’m feeling,” Joe grumbled in reply.
Dr. Martin grinned at Ben. “He must be feeling all right if he’s starting to complain.” He turned to Joe. “Why don’t you sit here on the sofa so I can check those scratches.”
For the next ten minutes, the doctor checked Joe’s injuries and put some salve on the scratches.
“You know, everyone is chasing that cat,” the doctor commented as he re-bandaged Joe’s arm. “I heard it hit the Miller place last night. Figured a way to get the barn door open, and then killed one of Miller’s best milk cows. Miller had run him off the night before so the posse didn’t think to check back. I never heard of a cougar who would come back like this one.”
Joe suddenly stiffened. “Do you think the posse will get it?” he asked nervously.
Stopping his ministrations, the doctor looked at Joe curiously. “I suppose they will kill it eventually. Are you all right? Your pulse is racing.”
Joe forced a smile. “I guess I’m just anxious to get rid of that cat. I wish I was riding with the posse.”
With a frown on his face, Ben walked over to the sofa. “Are you sure that’s what bothering you? You’ve been acting kind of restless all day.”
“I’m sure,” Joe said firmly.
It was late by the time that Adam and Hoss got home. Ben and Joe had finished dinner and were sitting in the living room when the other two Cartwrights strode in the door.
“I sure hope Hop Sing’s got something in the kitchen for me. I could eat a horse,” Hoss stated as he unbuckled his gun belt.
“Did you get the cougar?” Joe asked anxiously.
“No,” Adam admitted. “Never even saw him. We found his tracks by the Miller place but lost them. We search the rocks where he jumped you but couldn’t find a sign. It’s almost like that cat can disappear and re-appear anytime he wants.”
As Adam and Hoss walked toward the dining room, seeming unconcerned about the lack of success in their hunt, Joe stared nervously at the front door. He chewed on his lower lip and unconsciously stroked his right arm. Then he abruptly got to his feet. “I think I’ll head up to bed,” he declared. “I’m a little tired.”
Ben nodded and watched Joe climb the stairs.
“How’s Joe doing?” Hoss called from the table.
Ben answered without turning. “The doctor said he was all right. I hope he’s right.”
Joe was sitting alone in the living room when he heard the cougar’s scream. He jumped to his feet, looking around wildly. The noise seemed to come from right outside the front door. Running to the door, he slammed the lock shut. He could hear the animal scratching at the wood, trying to get in. Joe ran to the dining room and closed the shutters, then hurried to window above his father’s desk. He closed those shutters with a bang. He would still hear the animal scratching at the door.
Joe ran to the gun rack, but for some reason, all the rifles were gone. He looked around the room frantically for some type of weapon. As he began searching, he heard a bang and the sound of splintering wood. Joe turned just in time to see the cougar jumping through the window over the desk. He raised his hands to his face as the cougar bounded across the floor. With a mighty leap, the cougar landed on Joe and knocked him on his back.
“No! No!” Joe shouted as he struggled to get the animal off him. “Get away! Help me! Pa, help me! Pa….”
“Joe, wake up, wake up,” a voice said urgently as a hand shook his shoulder. Joe sat up abruptly, not sure of where he was. He looked around and realized he was in bed, with the sheets wrapped tightly around his body. “Joe, are you awake?” the voice asked again.
Turning his head, Joe saw his father standing anxiously next to the bed, holding a lamp. Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “What happened?” he asked.
“You were having another nightmare,” Ben replied. He sat down on the edge of the bed. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Joe shook his head. “I’m sorry I woke you. I’m all right. Why don’t you go back to bed?”
“Joe…” Ben began.
“I’m fine,” Joe interrupted. “Go on back to bed.” He laid back on his mattress and deliberately closed his eyes.
Ben looked at his son for several seconds. Without a word, he stood and left the room.
As soon as he heard the door close, Joe opened his eyes and rubbed his forehead with both hands. He took a deep breath and then lay staring at the ceiling.
Adam and Hoss were already at the breakfast table when Ben came down the stairs the next morning.
“Is Joe up yet?” Adam asked.
“No,” Ben replied. “He’s still asleep and I didn’t want to wake him. He didn’t get much rest last night.”
“Yeah, we heard,” Hoss commented. “That’s the third night in a row he’s had nightmares. Isn’t something we can do to help him?”
“Maybe he should get away for awhile,” Adam suggested. “Go to San Francisco or Salt Lake for a few days.”
“No, that’s not the answer, Adam,” Ben declared with a shake of his head. “For one thing, he’s not well enough to travel. Besides, going away won’t solve the problem.”
“What will?” asked Hoss.
“I want you boys to find that cat, kill it and bring the carcass here so Joe can see it’s dead,” Ben stated grimly. “Maybe that will fix what’s bothering Joe.”
“We’ll find it, Pa.” Adam promised. “Don’t worry. We’ll find it if we have to get every man for 50 miles around out hunting for it.”
It was late morning by the time Joe came downstairs. Deep circles of fatigue ringed his eyes, and his face had an anxious look. Sitting quietly at his desk, Ben watching his youngest son descended into the room. Joe looked nervously toward the front door, then crossed toward the kitchen.
“Hop Sing,” yelled Joe as he entered the kitchen, “anything left to eat?”
“Hop Sing is feeding the chickens,” Ben advised quietly as he followed his son into the kitchen.
Joe jumped a bit, startled by the sound behind him. “Pa,” he said with a shaky voice, “I didn’t know you were around.”
“I know,” Ben acknowledged. “Joe, we’ve got to talk about this. You’ve hardly slept a wink for the last week, and you jump at every sound. You can’t go on like this.”
“Pa, I’m fine,” declared Joe firmly. “I’m just not used to sitting around.”
“Joe…” Ben started.
“Pa, I’m fine,” Joe said again. “I’ll fix myself something to eat.” Pointedly ignoring his father, he walked over to the stove.
Ben watched his with a worried expression. He couldn’t force his son to talk to him; all he could do was wait for Joe to decide he needed to talk. Turning slowly, he left the kitchen. He had work to do in the barn; now was a good time to do it. He could think while he worked, think about some way to reach Joe.
When Ben came in for his noon meal, the house seemed empty. “Hop Sing!” he called.
“What you want?” answered the cook as he shuffled into the dining room.
“I want my lunch,” said Ben patiently.
“Lunch on table,” stated Hop Sing, pointing to a pile of sandwiches on a platter in the middle of the dining room table.
“Where’s Joe?” Ben said as he sat at the table, preparing to eat.
“Little Joe say not hungry. He go to his room,” answered the cook as he headed back toward the kitchen.
Sighing, Ben reached for a sandwich. He knew Joe was avoiding him, and he didn’t know what to do about it. Ben felt if he could only get Joe to talk to him, his son would feel a lot better. But getting Joe to talk was proving to be a difficult task. He hadn’t come up with any ideas while working in the barn. After lunch, Ben planned to ride to the south pasture to check on some steers. He hoped the ride would clear his head and give him some ideas on how to help Joe. Because Joe needed help. Ben knew that as sure as he knew his own name.
It was mid-afternoon when Ben finally re-entered the house. He was surprised to see Joe sitting at the small table near the stairs; rifles, rags and cleaning oil were spread on the table. “Well,” Ben stated with a smile, “it’s about time you started doing some work around here.”
Looking up, Joe returned the smile. “I guess I’ve been loafing around enough. I thought these rifles needed some attention.” He wiped the rifle in his hand with an oily rag, then stood to return it to the gun rack.
Ben was surprised to see Joe was wearing his holster and handgun. “Joe,” he said with concern, “you know how I feel about wearing a gun in the house.”
Joe nodded. “Yes, I know. I was just cleaning it and thought it would be easier to wear it then putting it away. I’ll take it off as soon as I get finished with these rifles.”
Crossing the room to where Joe was standing, Ben inadvertently blocked his son’s view of the dining room. “Why don’t you give it to me…,” began Ben. Suddenly, there was a loud crash behind him.
Turning quickly, Ben looked over his shoulder; he spun back to face Joe as he heard the click of a gun being cocked. Joe had his pistol pointed at dining room, cocked and ready to fire. With a swift move, Ben brought his hand down on Joe’s wrist, knocking the gun to the ground.
“Joe, what’s the matter with you?” Ben shouted angrily. “Are you going to shoot Hop Sing for dropping a plate?”
With a startled expression, Joe stared at his father for a moment, then looked around Ben to the dining room where Hop Sing was standing fearfully by the table, a broken dish at his feet. Then Joe lowered his eyes. “Sorry, Pa,” he mumbled.
“Sorry isn’t good enough,” declared Ben furiously. “I’ve put up with your moodiness long enough. We’re going to have a talk and we’re going to do it now.”
Slowly, Joe raised his eyes and gazed into his father’s face. “I can’t, Pa,” he said, his voice filled with anguish. “I just can’t.” Turning abruptly, he ran up the stairs.
“Joe! Come back!” Ben called after his son, but Joe ignored him and disappeared at the top of the stairs. As Ben started after Joe, he heard a door slam and the distinctive click of a lock being turned. Frowning, Ben walked to his son’s room. When he tried to turn the knob on the door, he wasn’t really surprised that it didn’t move. Ben began to pound on the door. “Joe, let me in!” he yelled. Receiving no response, he shouted again, but still got no answer. Finally, Ben walked away, his shoulders slumped.
At the dinner table that night, Joe’s chair remained empty. Ben shrugged off Adam and Hoss’ questions with a comment that Joe wasn’t feeling well. He turned their conversation to their still unsuccessful hunt for the cougar, but didn’t really listen to their answers. His mind was full of thoughts about his troubled youngest son. Joe still hadn’t appeared by the time the trio decided to go to bed.
Ben lay awake in bed, his thoughts preventing sleep. He knew it was late but he couldn’t get his mind off of Joe. He was staring at the ceiling when he heard the creak of footsteps on the stairs. He listened for a few moments, then pushed the covers aside. Pulling on a robe, Ben left his room and started quietly down the stairs. He stopped at the landing and looked in the room below.
Sitting fully dressed on the table in front of the fireplace, Joe was slumped forward, holding a bottle of whiskey in his hands. He took a swig from the bottle, then put it aside and stared into the fire.
“Do you really think that will help?” Ben asked quietly from the stairs.
Startled, Joe looked up at his father, then turned back to the fire. “I don’t know,” he admitted in miserable voice. “But maybe I’ll drink enough so I can sleep.”
With a measured tread, Ben descended the stairs and walked over to his son, then put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Crawling into a bottle isn’t the answer. A lot of men have tried it. None have found it to be of much help.”
Joe nodded. “I know. I just don’t know what else to do.”
“Joe,” Ben said sympathetically. “Being afraid isn’t something to be ashamed of. Fear is natural, especially fear of something that has caused you pain.”
“Pa, you don’t understand,” Joe replied, his voice full of despair. “You and Adam and Hoss, you’ve never been afraid of anything. You can’t possible understand.”
“Joe, it’s not true that we’ve never been afraid,” Ben told his son. “We might have covered it up pretty well, but there’s never been a man alive who isn’t afraid of something.” Ben sat down next to his son. “Can you tell me about it?” he asked gently.
Closing his eyes, Joe took a deep breath, then let the air out with a sigh. When he finally spoke, it was in a voice full of anguish and fear. “I’m scared of a cougar that can’t possibly get me,” he admitted. “I’m scared of some kind of ghost. You’d think I was a little kid, scared of a monster hiding under the bed.”
“People develop a fear of a lot of things. The thing to do is to face that fear, recognize it,” Ben said gently. As Joe sat mutely next to him, Ben tried again. “I knew a ship’s captain back in New England. He sailed the seas for over twenty years. One day, while his ship was still in port, he lost his footing on deck and fell into the water. He nearly drowned before his crew pulled him to safety. For a long time after that, this captain couldn’t go near the ocean. Every time he tried, he began to shake with fear.”
“What did he do?” asked Joe. “Give up sailing?”
“Well, he could have, but he didn’t,” answered Ben. “One day, he just convinced himself that enough was enough. He loved sailing, and he wasn’t going to let some silly accident take that way from him. He marched down to the dock, and climbed on a ship.”
“And that was it?” Joe asked with surprise. “All he had to do was tell himself not to be afraid?”
“No, it wasn’t that easy,” Ben acknowledged. “He told me that for awhile he could barely conceal the shaking that started every time he got near the water. But he kept going down to the dock. Every day. Gradually, he began to stop shaking. He started to get back into his old routine. Eventually, he lost his fear of the water.”
“I still don’t understand,” Joe said with a frown.
“The point is, Joe,” Ben stated, “he faced his fear. He didn’t let the fear rule his life. Despite the fear, he did what he felt he had to do.”
Joe nodded thoughtfully. “I think I understand. I just wish it was a simple as that.”
“It’s not easy,” Ben conceded. “But it’s better than trying to use a crutch like whiskey to make yourself forget.”
Joe looked at the bottle on the table next to him. “I guess I’ll try to sleep without that,” he declared. Suddenly, Joe couldn’t bring himself to look his father in the eye and turned back to the fire. “I’m sorry about what happened this afternoon,” he mumbled.
Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder gently. “Forget it,” he said. “Why don’t you go upstairs and get some sleep?”
Putting his hand over his eyes, Joe rubbed his forehead. “I think I’ll stay down here for a little while,” he decided. “I need to think about some things.”
“Would you like me to stay with you?” asked Ben.
Joe shook his head. “No, I’ll be fine. Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll be up in a bit.”
Slowly, Ben stood, then hesitated as he looked at the whiskey bottle on the table. Joe was staring into the fire, his body betraying the misery he felt. Ben wondered for a moment if he should take the bottle with him, then pursed his lips. He knew Joe had to make his own decisions.
Patting his son lightly on the back of the head, Ben said, “I’ll see in you in the morning.” Joe nodded briefly but continued to stare into the fire. With a sigh, Ben turned and walked up the stairs to his room.
The sun was barely up when Ben once again descended the stairs. He was slipping on his vest as he slowly walked down the steps into the empty room below. Ben noted the whiskey bottle was still sitting on the table. As near as he could tell, the bottle was, for all intents and purposes, still full.
A small, satisfied smile broke out on Ben’s face; he felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He walked briskly into the dining room where Hop Sing was setting out coffee.
“Good morning, Hop Sing,” Ben announced in a cheerful voice as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright,” answered the cook. “Breakfast ready in a minute.”
“Thank you,” said Ben. “Hop Sing, about what happened yesterday. I know Joe is very sorry he pulled a gun on you.”
Hop Sing nodded. “Hop Sing know. He know even before Little Joe tell him how sorry he is.”
“Joe told you he was sorry?” Ben noted with surprise. “When?”
“Little while ago,” replied Hop Sing. “Hop Sing come into kitchen to make coffee and find Little Joe already have coffee ready. Little Joe tell Hop Sing how sorry he was.”
Ben looked around the dining room and into the kitchen. “Where’s Joe now?” he asked in confusion.
“Don’t know,” answered the cook a shrug. “Hop Sing start breakfast. Little Joe, he leave.”
“Leave? Where did he go?” Ben pressed, his confusion growing.
“He just leave,” Hop Sing replied. “I hear front door open then shut. Little time later, I hear horse ride off. Little Joe gone. Why? Something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” said Ben thoughtfully. Getting to his feet, he walked to the gun rack next to the fireplace. He wasn’t totally surprised to see a rifle missing.
As Ben stared at the gun rack, Adam and Hoss were descended the stairs. “Morning, Pa,” Adam greeted his father in a sleepy voice. “You’re up and around early.”
Ben turned to his sons. “Get yourself some coffee while I go saddle the horses,” Ben ordered in a frantic voice. “We have to go after Joe.”
Hoss frowned. “Go after Joe? What are you talking about?” the big man asked in a bewildered voice.
“Last night, Joe and I had a talk,” Ben explained, his voice filled with anxiety. “I told him he had to face his fear. He took my meaning all wrong. He’s gone after that cougar.”
“By himself?” said Adam in surprise. “When?”
“A little while ago, according to Hop Sing,” answered Ben. “We’ve got to go after him.”
“Pa, he couldn’t have gotten very far,” advised Hoss, trying to relieve Ben’s fears. “He’s still pretty stiff and sore. The shape he was in, he wouldn’t be able to stay in the saddle very long.”
“He could stay in the saddle long enough to get near that cougar,” stated Ben. “If that cat jumps him again…”
“Forget the coffee,” Adam advised in a grim voice. “I’ll go saddle the horses.”
“I go with you,” added Hoss.
Riding slowly through the hills, Joe searched the brush for any sign of the cougar. He knew the posse had been searching for the animal for days without success. But, somehow, Joe knew he would find the cat. He couldn’t explain it. He just knew it.
As he rode, Joe groaned softly. His right arm throbbed and the rest of his body was beginning to ache. The rifle in his left hand felt heavy and awkward. Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to will the soreness away. He felt tired; he half-closed his eyes as his horse walked slowly forward.
Joe’s eyes flew open as he heard the growl. His horse whinnied and shied at the noise and it took Joe a minute to bring the animal under control again. Joe looked around, trying to spot the cougar. The only movement he saw was the wind blowing through the trees; the only sound he heard was his own breathing.
Just as Joe began to think he imagined the growl, he heard it again. It seemed to come from the rocks above him and to his right. Joe quickly reined his horse to a stop. Dismounting, he tied the animal to a small bush. He patted his pinto on the neck with a reassuring gesture, then cautiously moved away from the horse. His eyes never left the rocks above him.
Moving slowly toward the rock, Joe was breathing hard and he could feel the sweat running down his face and back. He cocked the rifle, then stood still. The next move belonged to the cougar.
Anxiously, Joe waited, his eyes squinting as he looked into the bright sun. “Come on,” he muttered softly. “Come get me, you ugly brute.”
Joe could feel the fear building inside him. His breathing became rapid and ragged; his hands were shaking. He gritted his teeth and willed himself to stand still. His eyes scanned the rocks above him, looking for any movement, as his apprehension continued to grow. Joe felt a lump in his throat and tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. He began to wonder how much longer he could stand still. He knew he was beginning to lose his nerve.
Suddenly, Joe heard a loud growl to his right. He turned to see a dark shadow leaping at him out of the bright sun. He didn’t have time to raise and aim his rifle. A scream of fear erupted from his throat as he fired the gun.
Ben, Adam and Hoss were trailing Joe through the hills when they heard the gunshot. All three reined their horses to a stop and looked around.
“It came from over there!” Adam shouted, cocking his head to his left. He turned his horse in that direction and kicked the animal forward. Ben and Hoss did the same.
The Cartwrights rode through the brush and then stopped when they reached a small clearing. The three men stared at the scene in front of them.
Joe was sitting a small rock, his head down and shoulders slumped. The rifle in his left hand was pointed to the sky. At his feet lay the body of a cougar.
“Joe!” Ben cried in alarm. He quickly dismounted and rushed to his youngest son. “Joe!” he repeated. “Are you all right?” He gently laid his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder.
Lifting his head, Joe turn slowly to look at his father. His eyes had a glassy look, and his face was covered with a fine shine of sweat. He was breathing hard.
“Joe?” Ben said once more.
Joe blinked his eyes rapidly for a moment, then ran his tongue over his dry lips. He tried to answer but couldn’t seem to get voice to work. He closed his eyes for a minute and took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes again, all he could do was stare into Ben’s face.
Adam and Hoss rushed to join the pair. Adam had his rifle ready as he slowly approached the cat laying near Joe. He nudged the animal cautiously with his toe, but the cougar didn’t react. He reached down and grabbed the cougar’s front leg, and with a quick movement, turned the animal on its back. He quickly took a step back, ready to fire at the cougar if it so much as twitched.
The cougar laid still. Adam could see a bullet hole dead center in the cougar’s throat.
“Whew!” exclaimed Hoss in admiration as he looked at the dead cat. “That was some fancy shooting, little brother.”
“Got him with one shot,” Adam added.
Looking at his brothers, Joe swallowed hard. “It was a lucky shot,” he admitted in a shaky voice. “He was on me before I knew it. I didn’t have time to aim.” Joe dropped his rifle, and began to tremble.
Ben crouched down next to Joe. “Are you all right?” he asked, looking anxiously into Joe’s face. Joe turned his eyes to stare at his father. He nodded his head but continued to tremble. Ben could see tears welling up in Joe’s eyes.
Quickly, Ben turned to his other sons. “Adam, why don’t you go get Joe’s horse?” Ben suggested. As Adam nodded and walked off, Ben said to Hoss, “Hoss, get rid of that…that thing.” Ben indicated the body of the cougar with a nod of his head.
Frowning, Hoss stood looking uncertainly at Joe. “Hoss, please,” repeated Ben, a bit more firmly. Hoss finally shrugged his shoulders and nodded. He picked up Joe’s fallen rifle, and started dragging the dead cat off into the woods.
Turning back to Joe, Ben sat down on the rock next to his son and put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “It’s all right, Joe,” Ben said in a soothing voice. “You’re safe now.”
Joe slumped against his father, his body shaking. He tried to control himself, but he just couldn’t stop the trembling. Finally, Joe simply laid his head on his father’s shoulder and let his body go limp. His glazed eyes stared at the spot where the cougar had been laying as he gulped in breath after breath.
Murmuring soothing words, Ben stroked Joe’s head gently. He knew it was best if he let Joe deal with the fear and relief he was feeling on his own. When Adam and Hoss returned a few minutes later, Ben waved them away. Adam and Hoss took one look at Joe’s face and tactfully decided they had something to do elsewhere.
For about ten minutes, Ben just held his son. Finally Joe lifted his head from his father’s shoulder. His face looked pale, drained of all emotions.
Ben looked into Joe’s face and simply said, “Ready to go home?” Joe nodded wearily.
Helping his son to his feet, Ben started to lead Joe by the arm toward where Adam and Hoss were patiently waiting by the horses. Joe suddenly stopped and turned to face his father.
“Pa, I’m sorry,” Joe said in a tired voice. “I’m sorry about everything.”
“I know,” Ben answered in a quiet voice.
“But at least I proved I’m not a coward,” Joe continued.
“Joe, I never thought you were a coward,” stated Ben firmly. “There’s a big difference between being afraid and being a coward. You don’t have to be ashamed to admit you’re afraid. Any man who says he’s never been afraid is either a liar or a fool.”
“You had a lot more confidence in me than I had in myself,” Joe acknowledged.
“Maybe I know you better than you know yourself,” answered Ben.
Joe looked startled for a moment. A small grin appeared on Joe’s face as he slowly nodded his head. “Maybe you do,” Joe admitted.
Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “Let’s go home, son.”