A Wanted Man (by Susan)

Summary:  Far from home, Joe is charged with a crime he didn’t commit, and the dead man’s brother wants justice…or is it revenge?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  14,535


 

“Get in there,” growled the man as he pushed Joe Cartwright in the back.

Stumbling a bit, Joe entered the sheriff’s office and then turned to face the individual behind him. He saw a small, wiry man holding a rifle pointed right at his chest. The thought fleetingly crossed Joe’s mind that this guy didn’t look like any lawman he had seen before. Dressed in a faded checked shirt, worn brown pants, and scruffy boots, the man looked more like a farmer than a sheriff. Only the tin star pinned to the man’s suspenders gave any indication of a lawman’s authority. Joe knew River Bend wasn’t very big, but he still found it hard to believe this rather non-descript person could keep order in the town.

“Now look, sheriff…” Joe began.

“I ain’t the sheriff,” the small man wearing the badge interrupted. “The sheriff’s off chasing rustlers north of here. Don’t when he’ll be back.”

“Okay, deputy…” Joe tried again.

“I ain’t the real deputy,” the man announced before Joe could go further. “He broke his leg yesterday. I’m just filling in.”

“Well, whoever you are…” Joe started once more.

“Jakes, Bob Jakes,” declared the temporary deputy.

Losing what little patience he had left, Joe yelled, “Would you let me finish a sentence!”

“Sure, go ahead,” Jakes agreed.

Taking a deep breath, Joe calmed himself before continuing. “Look, Jakes, I haven’t done anything wrong. I don’t know why you arrested me.”

“You killed Billy Fulton,” Jakes replied.

“I didn’t kill this Fulton or anyone else,” Joe argued. “I was having a beer in the saloon, just wasting time until tomorrow when I’m taking the stage home to Virginia City. A fight broke out in the back of the saloon, and someone pulled a gun and shot a man. That’s all I know. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I wasn’t even in the fight.”

“You say you weren’t in the fight. That bruise on your face says different,” said Jakes with a smirk.

“All right, I admit it. Someone hit me and I hit him back,” Joe conceded. “But I never drew my gun and I sure never fired it. Check it. You’ve got my gun right there.”

Pulling Joe’s revolver out of his waistband, the deputy looked at the gun and then sniffed it. “Don’t smell like it’s been fired lately,” agreed Jakes.

“See. Now just let me go, and I’ll go back to the hotel and wait for the stage,” Joe said with relief.

“Sorry, can’t do that,” Jakes replied in an indifferent voice as he returned the pistol to his waistband.

“Why not?” asked Joe angrily.

“Well, you were the only stranger in the saloon,” explained the deputy. “If you didn’t kill Billy Fulton, that means someone who lives here in River Bend did. Once Billy’s brother Ed finds out that Billy’s dead, Ed ain’t gonna wait around for a trial. He’s going to hang whoever did it. I’d rather Ed hang a stranger than someone I know.”

“That’s crazy!” exclaimed Joe. “You’d rather that they hang me, an innocent man, than one of your friends. That’s murder!”

“Maybe, but the murder will be on Ed’s head, not mine,” Jakes said with a shrug. “Now go on; get into the cell. It’s right through that door.”

“Wait a minute,” Joe protested. “Are you just going to lock me up and wait for this Ed Fulton to come get me?”

“That’s about the size of it,” agreed Jakes. “Ain’t had a lynching in this town since Sheriff Burns took over. Kind of missed seeing ‘em.”

“How long until Ed Fulton gets here?” Joe asked nervously.

“Hard to say,” Jakes admitted. “Someone has got to ride out to their ranch and tell Ed about Billy, and then Ed will have to round up his men. Could take some time. But he’ll get here soon enough.”

“Will Sheriff Burns make it back before Ed gets here?” Joe pressed the deputy.

“He might, but I wouldn’t count on it,” Jakes replied.

“Could I at least send a telegram to my family and let them know what’s happened?” asked Joe. “Maybe they’ll get here before Ed does.”

“They over in Virginia City?” Jakes asked with a cocked head. When Joe nodded, the deputy continued, “Sure, go ahead and write it out. I’ll send it. Don’t think they’ll get here before the lynching but they can claim the body. Save the town the cost of burying you.”

Looking around, Joe spotted some paper and a pencil on the desk in the middle of the office. He hurried over to the desk and bent over it. Jakes followed close behind him, keeping the rifle aimed at Joe’s back.

Picking up the pencil, Joe wrote some words on the paper, then stopped. He looked over his shoulder and asked, “How much is this going to cost?”

“Let me see how many words you got,” stated Jakes, leaning forward to look at what Joe had written.

Suddenly, Joe’s elbow jerked upwards and landed square against the deputy’s jaw. Jake’s head snapped back and the temporary lawman took a small, staggering step. In one quick motion, Joe knocked the rifle out of Jake’s hands and then landed a hard punch on the small man’s jaw. Jakes fell to the floor in a heap.

After checking to make sure the deputy was unconscious, Joe stood still, biting his lip as he decided what to do next. As much as he hated the idea of running from a murder charge, staying in River Bend certainly wasn’t an option. Based on the way Jakes had acted, Joe was sure that everyone in that saloon would swear he had shot Billy Fulton. He couldn’t afford to wait for the sheriff to return and get to the truth. Joe decided that the only thing he could do was to “borrow” a horse and head for Virginia City. Once he was home, he could explain the situation to Sheriff Coffee and let Roy sort things out. He was confident that Roy Coffee would make sure any charges against him were dropped.

Bending down, Joe took his revolver from Jakes’ waistband and then checked again to make sure the deputy was simply unconscious. Having a bogus murder charge hanging over his head was one thing; killing a deputy – even a temporary one and by accident – was an entirely different matter. Satisfied that Jakes was just out cold, Joe moved to the door and looked out cautiously.

The main street of River Bend was deserted and the town seemed unusually quiet. Even the saloon appeared unnaturally silent. Joe guessed that everyone had hurried home, wanting to be as far away as possible from the jail when Ed Fulton showed up.

A roan horse was tied to the hitching post in front of the sheriff’s office. The animal had its head down and looked half asleep. Walking quickly, Joe untied the reins of the horse from the hitching post and vaulted into the saddle. The horse seemed startled when Joe pulled up its head and turned him to the right, but the animal responded when Joe gave him a quick kick in the sides and started to trot. Another kick sent the horse into a gallop.

Without looking back, Joe rode out of River Bend.

*****

Three hours later, Joe was walking the roan through a forest of trees and brush. While he was fairly sure that so-called deputy Jakes would have a hard time rounding up men for a posse to chase him, Joe had decided staying off the roads and trails was a wise move. Now he rode cautiously through the dark, letting the horse pick his way between the trees. Joe thought he was heading north toward Virginia City, but the truth was he had no idea which direction he was going. He was more intent on getting as far away from River Bend as possible than following a true course. He figured that once morning came, he could use the position of the sun and perhaps a landmark or two to guide him.

Joe yawned and then rubbed his eyes. Now that he was safely away from River Bend, Joe was starting to feel tired. He noted the horse’s head was beginning to droop a bit also. Joe decided to ride for another hour or so and then find some place where both he and the roan could rest for awhile. He nudged the horse’s sides with his heels to keep the animal moving. Joe’s eyes began to close a bit as he was lulled by the soft chirping of the crickets in darkness.

The quiet of the night was broken suddenly by the loud scream of a mountain lion. The horse stopped abruptly and whinnied, frightened by the roar.

“Easy, boy,” Joe said in a soothing voice as he patted the horse’s neck. “That cat’s nowhere near us.” He pressed his heels against the roan and the horse started forward but now the animal’s head was up and its ears were forward. Joe could feel the tension in his mount, and he gripped the reins a bit tighter. Joe could understand the horse’s nervousness; an unfamiliar rider was taking him through the night into some woods full of mountain lions. He guessed the roan was wondering what the heck was going on.

Once again, the scream of the lion split the air. The roan started at the sound and took a few quick steps, preparing to run. Joe pulled hard on the reins and the horse stopped, but the animal began tossing its head, trying to loosen the bit that was now pressing hard against its mouth.

A third scream filled the air, and that was all it took to start the horse running. Joe pulled hard on the reins again but the horse ignored his command. Joe flattened himself against the roan’s neck, hoping to avoid any low hanging branches, while continuing to tug hard at the reins. The terrified horse, more frightened by the sound of the mountain lion than bothered by the metal sawing against its mouth, kept running through the dark woods despite Joe’s desperate attempts to stop him.

Joe never knew what tripped the horse – it could have been a root, a fallen branch or simply the roan’s legs getting tangled – but he knew when the horse started to fall. One minute he was pressed against the roan’s neck and the next he was flying through the air over the animal’s head. An instant later, he hit the ground, landing on his side. Stunned by the fall, Joe couldn’t move, couldn’t get out of the way of the frightened horse. He felt something hard clip the side of his head, and then everything turned black.

*****

“Come on, Matilda, get moving,” shouted the woman as she lightly kicked the gray mare she was riding. “You keep going this slow and we won’t get home until noon.”

The mare ignored both the woman’s voice and kick; the gray continued to plod slowly through the forest of trees, deftly stepping over any debris in its path.

“I swear you’re as old and stubborn as I am,” the woman grumbled in a loud voice. “I should have turned you out to pasture years ago.” She pushed up on the brim of the straw hat that covered all but a few loose strands of her dark hair, exposing a face lined by both age and weather.

“I know it was the crack of dawn when we left McGrevey’s salt mine,” continued the woman, speaking aloud. “And I know how much you like sleeping in. But we got things to do today, so don’t take your mad out on me by pretending you got sore feet.”

Despite her complaints, the woman was enjoying the ride through the woods. The mid-morning sun was filtering through the trees, spotlighting a patch of purple wild flowers. The air smelled fresh with just a hint of dampness from the morning dew. She saw a rabbit hopping into the underbrush and heard a dove cooing in one of the branches overhead.

Lost in her observation of the nature around her, the woman didn’t see the body lying on the ground until her mare came to a halt. She started to rebuke the animal for stopping but then became abruptly silent as she saw the man sprawled on his stomach in front of her horse.

“What do we have here, Matilda?” the woman asked as she slid off the saddle. She walked slowly toward the man, noting his stillness as well as his green jacket and gray pants. A tan hat laid nearby. The woman didn’t know it, but she had found Joe Cartwright lying in the woods.

“Mister, you all right?” she called as she approached the figure on the ground. Mentally she berated herself for asking such a silly question. Obviously the man wasn’t all right. The only question was whether he was dead or not.

Bending down, she put her hand on Joe’s neck and felt the warmness of his skin as well as the pulse of his heart. “Well, he’s alive, Matilda,” she told the mare in a loud voice. The woman lifted Joe’s shoulder and slowly turned him onto his back.

“He’s just a boy!” exclaimed the woman loudly as she looked at the young man’s face. She could see a small cut and a large bruise on the left side of Joe’s forehead; a trickle of blood, smeared and now dried, had run down his face. “He must have been laying here awhile,” she said. “I wonder what happened to him.”

Kneeling down, the woman began to check Joe’s injuries. Moving her hands expertly over Joe’s body, she felt for broken bones and discovered some damaged ribs and a displaced wrist on his right side. “Probably got some more bruises under his shirt, too,” she declared. Sitting back on her heels, the woman stared at the young man. “What are we going to do, Matilda?” she pondered aloud. “I can’t leave him here like this. But I sure can’t lift him on to you either.”

Scrambling to her feet, the woman walked back to the mare and grabbed a canteen hanging from her saddle horn by its strap. Returning to the young man, she knelt down again and poured some water from the canteen onto Joe’s face. “Come on, wake up, boy,” she said a forceful voice. “Wake up. You have to wake up if you want me to help you.” The woman poured some more water on Joe’s face.

Slowly, almost imperceptively, Joe moved his head. He groaned softly, then moved his head a bit more.

“That’s it,” said the woman enthusiastically. “Come on now. Open up those eyes. You can do it.”

Joe heard the voice, although he couldn’t quite make out what it was saying. His head was pounding and it hurt every time he took a breath. He moaned and was about to slip back in the darkness when he felt a slap on his cheek.

“Wake up!” urged the voice and this time Joe understood the words. He understood them but didn’t want to obey them. He felt another slap followed by a splash of water and decided to open his eyes just to find out what was going on.

Joe blinked a few times then squeezed his eyes shut; the light made the pain in his head even worse. He felt a slap against his cheek again and more water. Joe forced his eyes open, trying to see who seemed to be intent on drowning him.

“That’s my boy,” declared a voice from the hazy figure hovering a foot or so over Joe’s head. “Now keep those eyes open and listen to me. You got move, got to stand up. I’ll help you all I can, but you’ve got to do a lot of the work.”

“I…can’t,” Joe mumbled. He started to close his eyes but felt the slap and water once more. He decided keeping his eyes open was better than being battered and soaked, so he forced his eyelids up.

“Listen to me,” the hazy figure stated in a no-nonsense voice. “You got yourself banged up. I can patch you up but I can’t do it here. I can’t lift you up on to my horse either. So you have a choice to make. You can either get up or you can lay here and hope somebody stronger than me comes along before a bear or mountain lion decides to make a meal of you. Now what’s it going to be?”

Even though his thinking was muddled, Joe could understand enough of the words to know his choice was to try to move or simply lay here and die. Considering the pounding in his head, the pain in his side and the throbbing in his wrist, Joe briefly thought dying might not be a bad option. But Joe knew he didn’t really want to die, so he slowly lifted his shoulders from the ground. He felt a hand on his back, pushing him forward. Joe felt his head begin to spin and a sharp pain in his side. He moaned and started to lie back down.

“No you don’t,” declared the voice, pushing on his back again. “You got this far; you can’t stop now. I know it hurts but it’s got to be done. Come on, keep going.”

Despite the pain and dizziness, Joe forced himself to sit up. He tried to take a deep breath and grunted as he felt a stab in his side. He was still trying to make up his mind what to do next when a pair of hands grabbed him under his shoulders and started tugging him to his feet. Another sharp pain in his side caused Joe to groan loudly.

“There’s nothing wrong with your legs, as near as I can tell,” the voice stated firmly. “It’s not going to hurt any worse if you stand. In fact, you might even feel better. So, up you go.”

Deciding he had nothing to lose if he obeyed the voice, Joe put his left hand on the ground and pushed while the hands kept pulling. The pushing and pulling bore fruit as Joe somehow managed to get to his feet. Almost immediately, he felt his left arm being thrown around a pair of shoulders; Joe slumped against a body next to him but managed to stay standing.

“Matilda, get over here,” shouted the voice.

In his foggy mind, Joe wondered who Matilda was and why she wasn’t helping. But the thought disappear as he felt himself dragged forward a few steps.

“All right,” said the voice with a sigh. “Now we have to get you up into the saddle. Lift your hand and grab the saddle horn. Do you understand me? Lift up and grab.”

Obediently, Joe lifted his arm and a hand guide it until his fist wrapped around the hard leather on the front of the saddle. He leaned against what seemed to be the warm body of a horse and waited for further instruction. A hand lifted his leg and placed his foot into a stirrup. Joe stood in this awkward position for a moment, then felt something grasp the back of his belt.

“On the count of three, we’re going to get you into the saddle…I hope” stated the voice. “When I say three, you pull yourself up. Ready?”

Nodding slightly, Joe waited as the voice counted. At three, he felt something tugging on his belt and he used the last of his strength to pull himself up. He slid his right leg over the top of the saddle and then slumped in leather seat. Joe felt like the top of his head was going to explode and ache in the other parts of his body got worse. He closed his eyes and let his body go limp. The last thing he heard as the darkness enveloped his mind was a voice saying, “Lord Almighty, boy, I sure hope you’re worth all this effort.”

*****

Three men rode their horses down the main street of River Bend and pulled to a stop in front of the sheriff’s office. Silently, the trio dismounted, tied their reins to the hitching post and then walked rapidly into the office.

“Sheriff, I’m Ben Cartwright,” declared the oldest man of the three as they entered the building. “These are my sons Adam and Hoss. We got a telegram from you telling us to come to River Bend about an urgent family matter. What is this urgent family matter?”

Sheriff Tom Burns leaned back in the chair behind his desk. A big man with solid muscles, the sheriff couldn’t have looked any different from his temporary deputy if he tried. Neatly dressed in a light blue shirt and black pants, the sheriff had an air of authority that seemed to fill the room.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Cartwright,” answered the sheriff. He hesitated and then continued. “Do you have a relative – another son, maybe – who’s missing?”

“I have another son, Joseph, but he’s not what I’d called missing,” replied Ben. “He’s on his way home from delivering some timber to the mines down near Beaver Creek. Why do you ask? What’s this all about?”

“Could you describe your son Joseph to me?” asked the sheriff, ignoring Ben’s question.

“He’s 22, small build, dark hair,” replied Ben. “Why do you want to know?”

“Was he wearing a green jacket and gray pants?” Burns inquired.

“Probably,” Ben answered. A knot of fear was beginning to form in his stomach. “Why do you want to know? Where’s my son? What’s happened to him?”

“As far as I know, your son is fine. As to where he is, I can’t exactly tell you right now,” the sheriff admitted.

“Stop playing game, sheriff,” Adam Cartwright demanded as he stood at his father’s side. “What happened to Joe?”

Sighing, Burns shook his head a bit. “I’m sorry to be so vague. I guess I’m trying to avoid having to tell you an ugly story about justice here in River Bend.”

“I don’t care how ugly the story is,” Hoss Cartwright stated with a frown, taking a step forward. “You better get to telling it. What happened to my little brother?”

Putting up his hand, the sheriff sighed again. “Nothing happened to him, at least not here.” Burns took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “A young man whom I believe to be Joseph Cartwright was arrested here two nights ago. The charge was murder.”

“Murder!” exclaimed Ben. “Who was he supposed to have killed?”

“Well, as it turns out, he didn’t kill anyone,” explained Burns.

“Sheriff, you’re not making a lick of sense,” Hoss declared angrily. “What happened to Joe?”

“Let me start from the beginning,” the sheriff said. “I was out of town chasing some rustlers, and while I was gone, my deputy broke his leg. Some of our citizens got the bright idea to make Bob Jakes the deputy while I was gone. Bob Jakes can be kindly described as an idiot. Anyway, there was a fight in the saloon and a man named Billy Fulton was killed. Jakes decided that the only stranger in the saloon at the time must have done the killing.”

“And that stranger was my son Joseph,” Ben stated in a flat voice.

“It seems so,” acknowledged Burns. “Jakes is so stupid that he never bothered to get the name of the man he arrested. Apparently Jakes told the man that he was going to get lynched by Billy Fulton’s brother before I got back to town. Naturally that idea didn’t set well with the fellow, so he knocked out Jakes and took off.”

“But my brother didn’t kill this Fulton, right?” Adam declared firmly.

“It took me a little while to find out the truth of the matter, but no, your brother didn’t kill Billy Fulton,” acknowledged the sheriff. “One of the hands from the Double B ranch was playing poker with Fulton and accused Billy of cheating, which he probably was. There was a fight and Fulton pulled his gun. The ranch hand was faster and he shot Billy Fulton in the chest.”

“So Joe’s on the run, thinking he’s going to get lynched for a murder he didn’t commit,” Hoss declared, his frown deepening.

“That’s about the size of it,” admitted Burns.

“What are you doing about the situation?” asked Ben in a voice that clearly showed his displeasure.

“Not much, I’m afraid,” the sheriff confessed. “Up until a few minutes ago, I didn’t know the name of the fellow Jakes had arrested. All I had was a vague description from that idiot the town gave a badge.”

“If you didn’t know who Joe was, how did you know to contact us?” Adam asked with a puzzled expression.

“I found a piece of paper on my desk with what looked like the start of a telegram addressed to Ben Cartwright, Virginia City,” explained Burns. “From what Jakes told me, your son was writing the message when he – and these are Jakes’ words – ‘viciously attacked’ him and knocked him out. Jakes said the fellow told him he had family in Virginia City, so I figured I send a telegram and see who turned up.”

“All right, we’re here,” Ben said. “Now, what are you going to do next?”

“Not a lot I can do,” stated the sheriff. “If your boy has any sense, he’s out of my jurisdiction by now. Besides, I have my hands full trying to keep Ed Fulton from lynching the man who killed his brother. I haven’t got time to go chasing all over the territory looking for a man who isn’t wanted for any crime. But considering this mess got started here in River Bend, I thought the least I could do is find someone who knows the fellow and tell them what happened.”

“Do you at least have any idea which direction Joe went?” Adam asked in an exasperated voice.

“When he left, your brother took Jakes’ horse, which I figure seemed fitting,” answered Burns. “A rancher who’s got a big spread north of here found the horse wandering around in one of his pastures and brought him in. So I’m thinking your brother headed north. Maybe he was heading for home.”

“That don’t make sense,” Hoss said, looking confused. “Why would Joe take a horse to ride home and then just turn him loose like that? He sure wouldn’t be thinking he’d walk home.”

“Son, nothing about this situation makes much sense,” Ben stated, shaking his head.

“That’s the truth,” admitted Sheriff Burns. “I’m real sorry this all happened. If I had been in town, this all would have been avoided. But I wasn’t, so…”

“All right, sheriff, I’ll agree none of this is your fault,” Ben said. “But that doesn’t help us find Joe. He could be anywhere. He might head for Virginia City, but if he thinks there’s a murder charge hanging over his head, he might decide to hide out for a while. There’s no telling where he is. And if he thinks he’s a wanted man, Joe might do something that will really get him into trouble. We have to find him.”

“I’ll do whatever I can to help,” Burns offered. “I just don’t know that there’s a lot I can do.”

Pursing his lips a bit, Ben thought for a moment. “If Joe is on foot, he’ll head toward a town or a ranch to get supplies. There are at least half a dozen towns between here and Virginia City, and any number of farms and ranches.” He sighed. “The only thing we can do is check all of them to see if anyone has seen Joe.”

“But Pa, that could take weeks!” protested Adam. “And even if we find someone who’s seen Joe, that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to catch up with him.”

“I could wire the sheriffs in three of those towns and explain the situation to them,” suggested Burns. “The rest don’t have a telegraph line, but if your son shows up in any of those three, they’ll let me know.” The sheriff looked down in thought and then raised his head. “I could probably round up four or five men to help you search,” he added. “They could cover the ranches and farms closest to River Bend.”

“That would help,” acknowledged Ben.

“The thing is, I only have a vague description of your boy, Mr. Cartwright,” Burns said. “It would be better if I had a picture or something to give them to show around.”

“Adam, you can draw,” Ben stated, turning to his oldest son. “Do you think you can draw a sketch of Joe?”

“I could come up with a pretty fair likeness,” Adam agreed. He turned to Burns. “Do you have a newspaper office in this town?”

“We do, and we have a real fine printer,” the sheriff declared. “You draw you picture and I’ll have them print up enough copies to cover the territory with them.”

“Have them make up a poster offering a $500 reward for any information about the whereabouts of Joe Cartwright,” Ben told the sheriff. “That should get some attention.” He turned to Hoss. “Hoss, send a telegram to Roy Coffee and let him know abut this. Tell him to send someone out to the ranch and explain things to Hop Sing also. If Joe shows up at the Ponderosa or in Virginia City, have Roy wire us in…” Ben hesitated, trying to think of the best place to get a message.

“How about Deerfield?” suggested the sheriff. “That’s about as far north a town with a telegraph. I’ll send a message there if one of my people find out anything.”

“Deerfield,” agreed Ben. “We’ll split up the search and plan on meeting there. And the first one to find Joe should hog-tie him and not let him out of their sight.”

*****

The warmth of the sun on his face woke Joe, and he slowly opened his eyes. He waited for a moment and was gratified to find that his head and body ached only with a dull pain. He looked down a bit and saw his right arm, splinted and neatly wrapped in bandages, resting on his chest, just above another series of bandages wrapped around his ribs. A thick blanked covered him to his waist. Joe moved his legs and was happy to find that the limbs not only worked but also didn’t add to the pain when he flexed them.

Lifting his head, Joe looked around. The room he was in was large and comfortable furnished with overstuff chairs and tables made of dark walnut. The walls, painted in light blue with white trim, were dotted by small pictures in gilded frames. He could see a doorway at the far end of the room which seemed to lead to a dinning room containing large table and a number of chairs. Joe realized he was resting comfortably on a long sofa sitting just in front of a large window.

Turning his head a bit, Joe could see a fireplace framed by the dark walnut in the wall behind him. On a small mantel over the fireplace sat a clock in a gold case, flanked by small statues. Continuing to survey his surroundings, Joe noted another doorway past the end of the soft which led to a hallway. He could make out a wide staircase built against the far wall of the house. Leaning back again the pillow under his head, Joe wondered just where he was.

“Well, you’re finally awake.”

Joe turned his head to see a woman coming through the doorway from the dinning room and walking toward him. He guessed she was at least forty, her age betrayed by the streaks of gray in her dark hair and the lines creasing the skin on her face. She was wearing a dark blue blouse and ginger-colored skirt, and holding a glass of water in her hand. When she reached Joe, she put the glass to his lips. He drank the water eagerly, grateful for the liquid that cooled his parched mouth and throat.

“I imagine you’re pretty thirsty,” said the woman as she watched Joe drink. “I haven’t been able to get much into you but a little broth from time to time.”

Joe didn’t know the woman but he sure recognized the voice. “You’re…the one…” Joe started. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You’re the one who tried to drown me,” Joe finished, giving the woman a weak smile.

“I’m the one who found you in the woods and tried to help you,” the woman corrected him primly. Then she smiled. “I guess I did get a bit carried away with the water. But it was the only way I could think of to keep you awake. I needed you awake to help me get you on my horse.”

“The water tastes good now,” Joe said, handing the glass back. “Thank you.” He looked around the room again. “Where am I?”

“You’re at my place,” answered the woman. “I brought you here, let’s see, I guess about three days ago. I found you in the woods. You’ve been unconscious most of that time. I had to drag you into the house, and that probably didn’t help you any. For a while there, I wasn’t sure if you were going to die on me. But you started stirring around this morning, so I decided you were a long way from dead.”

“Three days!” Joe exclaimed. “I’ve been here three days?” He started to sit up but his head, side and arm protested the move simultaneously by shooting pangs of pain through his body. Falling back against the sofa, Joe laid still for a moment. Then he turned his head and said in a weak voice, “Thank you. Thanks for looking after me.”

“You’re welcome,” replied the woman. “I’m Amanda Davis. You can call me Mandy.”

“Nice to meet you, Mandy,” Joe responded. “I’m Joe Cartwright.”

After acknowledging the introductions with a nod, Mandy turned and walked back into the room a bit. She put the glass on a table and then pulled a chair toward the couch. She settled herself comfortably in the chair. “You feel up to talking, Joe Cartwright?” she asked.

For a moment, Joe considered the question and then answered, “Yeah, I can talk. Moving might not be a good idea, but I can talk.”

“So what caused you to end up in those woods all broken and battered?” Mandy inquired curiously.

“Well…” Joe took a deep breath then immediately regretted the action as he felt a sharp pain in his side. He winced and let out his breath slowly until the ache subsided. Turning his head, Joe saw Mandy sitting patiently, waiting for him to continue. He took another, much shallower, gulp of air and then went on.

“I was having a beer in the saloon over in River Bend when a man got killed,” Joe explained.

“Did you kill him?” Mandy posed the question more as a clarification of the facts rather than with alarm.

“No!” declared Joe forcefully, then winced again as he felt a pang in his side. “No,” he said again, this time more quietly. “I had nothing to do with it. But I was arrested for it anyway.”

“If you were innocent, why were you arrested?” Mandy asked with a frown.

“The sheriff was out of town and this yahoo they made a deputy decided it was easier to blame a stranger than someone from the town,” replied Joe. “He was going to hold me in jail until the man’s brother came to town to lynch me.”

“And you didn’t much fancy that idea,” interjected Mandy with a smile.

“No, I didn’t,” agreed Joe, giving the woman a grin. “So I knocked out the deputy and took off. I grabbed a horse and got out of town as fast as I could. I was going to ride to Virginia City and turn myself in there. The sheriff in Virginia City is an old friend of my family and I figured he could get it all sorted out.”

“Boy, you’re a long way from Virginia City,” observed Mandy, shaking her head.

“Yeah, I know,” admitted Joe. “I was riding in the general direction of Virginia City when I saw the woods. I thought they’d make good cover in case someone was chasing me, so I headed for them. I was making my way through the trees when a mountain lion scared the horse I was riding. The horse bolted, and then tripped. I remember hitting the ground. The next thing I knew you were trying to drown me.”

Sitting back in her chair, Mandy stared at Joe as she pondered his story. After a moment, she seemed to make up her mind. “No reason not to believe your story,” she declared. “You told me your name right off and didn’t hem and haw about what happened. A guilty man wouldn’t have done that. Besides, I’ve heard of the Cartwrights. Word is they’re good people. I like helping good people. So you can stay here until you’re fit to travel”.

“Thanks,” acknowledged Joe with a smile. But his smile quickly turned into a frown. “It might be a good idea if you didn’t tell anyone I was here,” Joe added cautiously. “I don’t know who might be looking for me. The people in River Bend might still be after me.” He looked Mandy straight in the eyes. “I’m innocent; I swear I am. But the people in River Bend may not think so. I might still be a wanted man.”

“You’re right,” agreed Mandy. “It’s probably a good idea that no one knows you’re here. Once you’re fit, you can ride to Virginia City and get things cleared up.” A smile crossed her lips. “I don’t get many visitors, so it shouldn’t be much of a problem. The people in Elk Grove think I’m a bit strange so they don’t come to call.”

“Elk Grove?” Joe repeated.

“That’s the town at the bottom of the hill,” Mandy explained. “It’s not very big but it’s got everything the folks around here need. People in these parts mostly just go about their own business, and don’t bother me.”

“What about your husband?” pressed Joe. “Will he keep quiet about me being here?”

“No husband, at least no any more,” Mandy answered. “No children either.”

“You live here alone?” Joe asked, his eyes roaming around what seemed to be a very large house.

“Just me,” Mandy acknowledged. “Well, me and my menagerie.” Seeing the puzzled expression on Joe’s face, she went on. “My father was a mine owner, a man who became rich by taking silver out of the land and destroying everything as he did it. He bought this hill and the land around it, then built a house on top of the hill so everyone in Elk Grove could see how rich and important he was.” Mandy shook her head. “I hated what he did – cutting down trees, scarring the land, sending the animals away or shooting them. It seemed a terrible thing to do just to make money. So I started taking care of the animals around here – putting out salt for the deer, patching up any injured creatures I found. I guess that was my way of trying to put right the awful things my father did to the land. After my mother died, I married a man who worked for my father – an engineer – and he and I lived here in this house until he was killed about a year later in a cave-in.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe murmured sympathetically.

“It was a long time ago,” said Mandy with a shrug. “When my father died, he left me with a pile of money, this house and a lot of land. So now my land is a sanctuary, so to speak, for any animal that wants to live on it Lots of days, I just go out in to the woods and sit, watching the deer or feeding the squirrels. I call them my menagerie. I like them a whole lot better than most people I know.”

Nodding his understanding, Joe offered no comment. He knew quite a few people who preferred animals over people – his brother Hoss, to name just one. While that wasn’t his view of life, he could appreciate the value of people who watched over the creatures who shared the land with people, who protected the animals who had no defense against guns and traps.

“Who patched me up?” asked Joe, already guessing the answer. “Is there a doctor we need to ask to keep quiet?”

“No doctor in Elk Grove. I took care of you,” replied Mandy, confirming what Joe already suspected. “As I said, I’ve been taking care of animals for years. Not much difference between patching up animals and patching up people.” She gave Joe a smile and added, “Now you get some rest. When you’re feeling up to it, I’ll help you move to…” Mandy suddenly stopped, her eyes fixed on something she had seen through the window over the sofa on which Joe was lying.

“What’s wrong?” asked Joe, alarmed. “Is there someone out there?”

Ignoring Joe’s questions, Mandy hurriedly got to her feet and rushed to the front door.

The feeling of alarm grew in Joe. He wondered if a posse had somehow tracked him to the house. Pushing himself up gingerly, Joe peered over the top of the sofa and out the window.

Now standing on the porch in front of her house, Mandy was looking into the woods which began about ten yards from the building. Her hands were on her hips and her body seemed rigid with anger. “Rufus! Charlie!” she yelled. “You come out of there. I see you. Now you come out of there right now!”

For a moment, Joe could see nothing but the yard in front of the house and the forest which began on the other side of it. Then two shadows started to emerge from between the trees. Joe saw two men walking a bit sheepishly toward the house. Both looked like they had seen better days. One wore a faded undershirt and soiled vest; the other sported a dingy gray shirt. Both men had on dark pants that were as dusty and dirty as their boots, and battered hats with tears and holes in the brim. The only thing that looked even reasonably cared for were the rifles each carried in their hands.

“You two know there’s no hunting allowed on my land,” Mandy shouted. “Now you take those guns and get out of here.”

“Aw, Miss Mandy, we ain’t doing no harm,” the man in the gray shirt called back. “Rufus and me, we’re hungry. We just wanted to take down that buck we’ve been tracking.”

“You wouldn’t be hungry, Charlie, if you’d stop drinking up every penny you come across,” Mandy replied angrily. “Now get off my land.”

“But we been tracking that buck for hours,” complained Rufus, the man in the faded undershirt. “It ain’t our fault he wandered up here. It ain’t like he’s one of your critters.”

“Any animal on my land is safe from being shot; you know that,” retorted Mandy. “Besides, I find it hard to believe you’ve been tracking a deer for hours. I haven’t seen either of you spend more than ten minutes doing anything that takes work.”

“Now that ain’t very nice of you to say, Miss Mandy,” growled Charlie, the one in the gray shirt. “Besides, how you gonna stop us? You ain’t got no gun. We can shoot that deer and there ain’t anything you can do to stop us.”

“No, I can’t stop you,” Mandy admitted. “But I can tell the sheriff what you’ve done. You want to spend some time in jail for poaching?”

“Jail?” Rufus said nervously. “You wouldn’t do that to us, would you?”

“Yes she would,” snapped Charlie. “She’s mean enough to do it.” He raised his rifle a bit, not pointing it at Mandy but enough to threaten her.

“Don’t be stupid, Charlie,” Mandy called to the man, sounding more disgusted than afraid. “You don’t look like the kind of man who’d want to be hanged.”

“Charlie, let’s go,” urged Rufus nervously. “That deer ain’t worth it.”

“It is to me,” answered Charlie stubbornly. He raised his rifle a little higher, until it was pointed at Mandy’s legs.

Suddenly, the door to the house opened and a young man walked out on unsteady legs. Rufus and Charlie saw only a man with bandages wrapped around his arm and middle and sporting a number of bruises, including a large one on his head, until the man raised a pistol and pointed it directly at the pair.

“I think you two should do what Miss Mandy said and leave,” declared Joe. “She may not have a gun, but I do.” Joe cocked the gun. “Get moving. Now!”

Neither of the would-be hunters had any interest in taking on a man who seemed prepared to shoot, regardless of what condition he was in. Without a word, they turned on their heels and started hurrying away.

Joe kept his gun aimed at the two men until they were out of sight. Then he lowered the pistol. “So much for no one knowing I’m here,” he said with a wry smile. Then his legs began to buckle and Joe started sliding forward.

Moving quickly, Mandy grabbed Joe, putting one hand on his chest and using the other to throw his arm around her shoulders. “We need to get you back inside before you fall flat on your face,” she declared. “Lean on me. I dragged you in the house once, I can do it again.”

With a nod, Joe let his weight rest against the woman. He felt light-headed and his legs didn’t appear to be working right. He could feel Mandy’s hand helping him to turn and then pushing against his back. The gun was eased out of his hand, and a murmur of words urged him to walk. He took a small step, and then another, staggering more than walking. It seemed to Joe that it took a long time to move to the door and then into the house. The world seemed to be spinning around him as progressed across the carpet and toward the sofa. When Joe finally made out the image of the couch through his blurred vision, he took another step and then collapsed onto the piece of furniture. He winced as a stab of pain shot through his damaged ribs but otherwise laid still.

“You trying to kill yourself?” Mandy asked angrily as she lifted Joe’s legs on to the sofa. She took a step toward Joe’s head, then grabbed his shoulders to pull him further along the couch until his head was resting on the pillows. Joe groaned a bit. “Hurts, does it? Well, that’s what you get for acting so foolish.” Mandy grabbed the blanket Joe had knocked to the floor when he got up, shook it a bit and then laid it gently over the injured man.

“Sorry,” Joe mumbled softly. “Thought they might hurt you.”

“Those two?” snorted Mandy. “I could have handled them. They’re nothing but a couple of lazy no-goods.” Then her voice softened. “But I appreciate the concern. It’s been a long time since someone worried about me.”

Opening his eyes a bit, Joe looked at Mandy. “You’re good people,” he said with some effort. “I like helping good people.”

A smile crossed Mandy’s face. “Joe Cartwright, you are something. I’m not sure what but you sure are something.” Her face sobered a bit. “I wouldn’t worry about those two telling anyone they saw you. They’d have to say where and that would beg the question of what they were doing on my land. Rufus and Charlie aren’t very smart, but they’re bright enough to know talking about being on my land would bring them nothing but trouble.” Mandy reached over and smoothed a lock of Joe’s hair away from his face. “Now you get some rest. You’ve rescued enough damsels in distress for one day.”

After barely nodding his agreement, Joe closed his and fell into a deep sleep.

*****

Riding down into Elk Grove, Hoss ignored the saloon, general store and other buildings he passed on the one street of the town. His eyes sought only one building, and he pressed his horse to go a bit faster when he saw it – the sheriff’s office. For the past four days, Hoss had been looking for his little brother without success. Elk Grove was his last stop before heading to Deerfield to meet with his father and older brother. He desperately wanted to bring them some good news.

After stopping his horse in front of the one-story building with a sign proclaiming it housed both the sheriff and the jail, Hoss quickly dismounted and went inside.

“Sheriff, I’m Hoss Cartwright,” announced Hoss as he entered the building. “I’m looking for some information about my brother Joe.”

Seated in a chair behind his desk, the sheriff looked up. A man in his forties, the sheriff had been around long enough that little surprised him or spurred him to action. He leaned back in his chair and slowly nodded at the big man standing in front of him. “I’ve been half expecting someone to show up,” the sheriff said casually. “I got the telegram from River Bend a couple of days ago about him.”

“The telegram?” echoed Hoss in surprise. “You got a telegraph in this town?”

“Yeah, kinda of shock, ain’t it?” acknowledged the sheriff. “Joshua Davis had it put in a long time ago when he lived here so’s he could keep up with his mining business. Jonah’s long gone now, but no one ever got around to taking it out.”

“If you got the telegram from River Bend, then you know why I’m here,” declared Hoss. “Any sign of my brother?”

“Sorry, afraid not,” answered the sheriff.

“Did you do any looking?” pressed Hoss a bit suspiciously.

“Well, no,” admitted the sheriff. “But I would have heard if there was a stranger in town or if someone saw anything that was out of the ordinary. I ain’t heard nothing like that.”

Sighing, Hoss nodded his head. The answer he got from the sheriff was the same he’d heard over the past few days – no sign of a stranger, nothing that struck someone as odd, and no one looking for someone who wasn’t wanted by the law.

“I got a poster here with my brother’s picture on it,” said Hoss. “Mind taking a look, just to be sure?”

The sheriff took the offered paper out of Hoss’ hand and studied it. Shaking his head, he handed the poster back to the big man. “Nope, ain’t seen anyone that looks like him,” the sheriff confirmed.

“Is it okay with you if I tack this up in the saloon?” asked Hoss. “It’s the last one I got. Always a chance someone might have spotted him and not said anything about it.”

“Okay by me,” agreed the sheriff. He got to his feet. “I’ll walk over with you. Introduce you to Bill, the bartender. He can show your brother’s picture around and put the poster up near the bar. I don’t think anything will come of it, but it’s worth a shot.”

The two men left the sheriff’s office and started down the street to the saloon. They had just started crossing the street when the sheriff suddenly stopped. “You know what you might try?” the sheriff said a bit abruptly. “Ride up to Miss Mandy’s place and ask her about your brother. She’s always tramping around in them woods. She might have seen something.”

“Miss Mandy?” Hoss repeated. “Who’s she?”

“Amanda Davis,” explained the sheriff. “Joshua Davis’ daughter. She lives in that house at the top of the hill.”

Hoss looked in the direction the sheriff was pointing and saw a rise south of the town. The hill was heavily wooded but Hoss could see the roof of a house peaking through the trees at the top. “You think she might have seen Joe?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” the sheriff answered. “But if he was up in that area, Miss Mandy would know about it. She knows everything that happens in those woods of hers.”

*****

Half an hour later, Hoss guided his horse up a path through the trees toward the house the sheriff had pointed out. As the lawman had predicted, showing the poster around in the saloon had resulted in a lot of heads shaking no. The bartender had agreed to keep asking, although Hoss doubted he would pursue it for more than a day at most. The last poster with Joe’s picture and the announcement about the $500 reward for information had been tacked up on the wall near the door of the saloon.

Deciding he had nothing to lose, Hoss made his way toward the house at the top of the hill. He didn’t expect to find anything there, but wanted to make sure he left no stone unturned before meeting up with his Pa and Adam in Deerfield.

Arriving at the house, Hoss was surprised by both how large and how well maintained the building was. Someone spent a lot of effort keeping the place up, he thought. After dismounting from his horse, he strolled up to the front door and knocked on it with his big fist. He waited a moment but there was no answer. He beat on the door again, this time adding a shout of “Hello! Anyone home? Hello!” Hoss was just about to start pounding again when he was startled by a voice behind him.

“Are you looking for someone, young man?”

Surprised, Hoss spun around to see a woman dressed in dark blue blouse and gray skirt standing in the yard behind him. The straw hat on her head hid her face somewhat, but from the little he could see, Hoss guessed she was at least middle-aged.

“I said, are you looking for someone?” Mandy repeated in a stern voice. “State your business or get off my land now. I don’t like the idea of strangers carrying guns roaming around my land.”

“Yes ma’am, I mean, yes, I am looking for someone,” Hoss stammered. “I’m looking for a young fellow, slim build, dark hair, probably wearing gray pants, a green jacket and a tan hat. You seen anyone like that around here?”

Mandy studied the man standing on her porch. He wasn’t wearing a badge, so he wasn’t a lawman. He could be a friend or relative of the man who was killed in River Bend or even a bounty hunter. Whoever he was, Mandy decided, he posed a threat to Joe.

“No, I haven’t seen anyone who matches that description,” declared Mandy.

“Are you sure, ma’am?” Hoss asked a bit insistently. “Maybe on the road or cutting through them woods? There’s a reward for anyone who’ll help me find him.”

Convinced that the man on her porch was a bounty hunter, Mandy shook her head. “I haven’t seen anyone who looks like the man you described,” she stated firmly. “I can’t help you. Now, I’ll thank you to leave. This is my land and you are trespassing.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss agreed with a sigh. He could tell the woman wasn’t in the mood to be helpful. Besides, Hoss was convinced his little brother wasn’t in this area. He had only ridden up the hill to ask to make sure he didn’t miss anything.

Walking easily to his horse, Hoss mounted and turned again to face the woman, who continued to glare at him. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said politely, then headed his horse toward the path down the hill.

Lying in a bed in a bedroom at the back of the house, Joe turned from his back to his side. He had heard a noise, a pounding of some kind, which had roused him from his sleep. Barely awake, he wondered briefly what the noise had been. Then he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

*****

In the saloon in Elk Grove, Rufus and Charlie sat a table nursing their beers, trying to make the drinks last as long as possible. They’d spent the last of their money buying the beers and were trying to decide what to do next.

“You come up with any ideas, Charlie?” Rufus asked hopefully.

“I’m still thinking on it,” answered Charlie. He shook his head. “I sure do have a hankering for some fresh venison.”

“You ain’t thinking about going back up to Miss Mandy’s place, are you?” Rufus said in a startled voice. “She catches us hunting on her land, she’ll send us to jail for sure.”

“She ain’t going to catch us,” Charlie declared confidently. “She has a lot of land and she can’t be every place. We’ll hunt down toward the bottom of the hill. She’ll never know we was there.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Rufus argued. “That close to town, someone else might see us or hear the gunshots. Everyone knows Miss Mandy don’t allow no hunting on her land. Somebody might tell the sheriff.”

“Well, do you have a better idea?” snapped Charlie. “We ain’t got no money and we ain’t got no food ‘cepting a few tins of beans. Between the two of us, we got maybe five bullets for our rifles. We best make use of them or we’re going to starve.”

“Frank down at the livery said he’d pay us to clean out the stables,” proposed Rufus. “We could make a little money from that.”

“I ain’t mucking out no stalls,” Charlie replied in an irritated tone.

“We ain’t got much choice, the way I see it,” countered Rufus. “We either clean the stables or take a chance of getting thrown in jail. I’d rather clean the stables.”

“I guess you’re right,” Charlie agreed with a sigh. He finished the last of his beer and got to his feet. “At least we’ll make enough to buy something to eat and a few more bullets for the rifles. Come on.”

Rufus and Charlie were nearly at the door of the saloon when Charlie stopped suddenly, coming to a halt so abruptly that Rufus almost ran into him.

“Why’d you stop…” Rufus started to complain. But he grew quiet when he saw the poster on the wall that Charlie was studying. “Hey, isn’t that the fellow we saw at Miss Mandy’s house?”

“Sure looks like him,” agreed Charlie.

“What’s the poster say,” asked Rufus. “You know I can’t read.”

“Says there’s a $500 reward for this fellow,” Charlie replied.

“What’s the rest of them words underneath say,” Rufus asked with a curious expression.

Barely literate, Charlie couldn’t read the rest of the poster that stated that Joe was merely missing, and the reward was for information that would lead to his safe return to his family. “I don’t know,” Charlie admitted. “I can’t make out them big words. Probably just says what he’s wanted for and who to contact for the reward.”

“Is he wanted dead or alive?” Rufus pressed his friend.

Frowning, Charlie tried to find some words he could understand. “I guess so,” Charlie said, finally giving up on trying to read the paper on the wall. “Most of them are.”

“You two seen that fellow?” called Bill, the bartender, as he came toward the end of the bar near the door.

“Sure…” Rufus started, but stopped and let out a grunt as Charlie’s elbow jabbed his stomach.

“Sure haven’t,” Charlie finished for his friend. “But we was thinking about going out and looking for him. Looks like there’s a reward for finding him.”

“Yeah, there is,” agreed Bill. “But I don’t think you’ll have much luck. The sheriff and this big fellow were in here asking about him a couple of hours ago. From what I could tell, the big fellow has been looking all over for him and hasn’t seen hide nor hair of him.”

“Well, maybe he was just looking in the wrong place,” Charlie commented. He turned to his friend. “Come on, Rufus, let’s go.”

Outside the saloon, Charlie stopped and pulled his friend aside. “We could have a real nice payday for bringing in that fellow. Nobody but us knows where he is.”

“He’s a wanted man,” Rufus replied. “You don’t think he’s just going to give himself up to us, do you?”

“We’ll make him give himself up,” Charlie stated.

“But he’s got a gun,” whined Rufus, “and he seemed ready to use it.”

“We got rifles,” Charlie said confidently.

“Yeah, and only five bullets between us,” argued Rufus. “They ain’t going to last long if it comes down to a gunfight.”

“You’re right about that,” Charlie conceded. Rubbing his chin, he thought for a minute, then lifted his head. “Let’s go see Frank about that job at the stable.”

“Frank ain’t going to pay us enough to buy more than a couple more bullets,” Rufus pointed out. “What good is that going to do us?”

“I know Frank has a box of rifle shells squirreled away in the back of the barn,” Charlie explained. “When he ain’t looking, I’ll go get it. That’ll give us plenty of ammo.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’ll work,” agreed Rufus. He suddenly grinned. “Let’s go clean out them stalls and then go do some hunting.”

Inside the saloon, the bartender frowned as he watched Charlie and Rufus huddled together just outside the door. Something didn’t seem right about the way the two men were acting. They had appeared more interested in that poster than Bill would have expected, and now they looked like they were planning something. Charlie’s comment about looking in the right places was a bit odd, too. He had a feeling the pair knew more than they were letting on. Bill looked around the saloon and spotted a man at a table finishing his beer. “Hey Sam,” the bartender called. “On your way home, stop by the sheriff’s office and tell him I want to see him.”

*****

Yawning and stretching a bit, Joe woke up from his long nap and slowly sat up in bed. Mandy must have been listening at the door because she entered the room not more than a minute later, carrying a tray with a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

“I heard you stirring,” remarked Mandy, “and I figured you’d be ready for something to eat. How are you feeling?”

“A lot better,” declared Joe. “My head doesn’t hurt, the room isn’t spinning, and I’m only getting a twinge from my ribs and wrist every now and then.”

“Your bruises look better,” agreed Mandy. “They’re starting to fade to a dull purple. You’re not nearly as colorful as you were a few days ago.”

“Yeah, I think it’s time I got out of this bed,” Joe offered.

“Tomorrow,” Mandy promised. “You can get up tomorrow. Now eat.”

As Joe started munching on the sandwich, Mandy studied the young man. The effect of the knock on his head seemed gone, he had shown no sign of fever and his color was good. Mandy decided he was well on his way to recovery, that he only needed some time now for the broken bones to heal. She gave a satisfied nod of her head.

“Joe,” Mandy started, speaking a bit hesitantly, “there was a man here earlier today. He was looking for you.”

“For me?” repeated Joe, putting down the sandwich in his hand. “Are you sure he was looking for me?”

“He described you to a tee,” answered Mandy. “I think he was a bounty hunter.”

Suddenly losing his appetite, Joe pushed the tray to the side of the bed. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he declared. “There must be a wanted poster out on me. That deputy or the brother of the dead man must have put it out. I’ve got to leave before there’s any trouble. I don’t want you caught up in anything.”

“Now that’s just about the silliest thing I ever heard,” Mandy said in a sharp voice. “I already told him I hadn’t seen you and he seem satisfied with that. He’s not going to come back. I only told you about him because I think it’s a wise idea if you stay inside the house and out of sight when you get out of bed tomorrow.”

“But if one bounty hunter came looking, another one might show up,” insisted Joe. “That could mean trouble. I’ve got to leave.”

“And just where do you think you’d go?” Mandy shot back. “You’re not well enough to sit a horse, much less ride to Virginia City. You leave here, you’ll just be a sitting duck for that bounty hunter. I didn’t fix you up just so you could go out and get yourself killed.”

“But…” Joe started to protest.

“But nothing,” interrupted Mandy. “You’re staying here and that’s final. I only told you about the bounty hunter to make sure you knew to stay out of sight. If he comes back, I’ll deal with him. Now finish you sandwich.” She turned on her heel and walked out of the room.

Joe laid back against the pillows and thought. Mandy was right; he felt much better but knew he wasn’t ready to ride very far. If he left, he had place to hide until he felt fit. Still, he was worried. The last thing he wanted was to put Mandy in any danger. Reaching over to the table at the side of his bed, Joe pulled his pistol out of the gunbelt that was curled up on top. He opened the barrel and checked to make sure the revolver was fully loaded.

*****

Rufus and Charlie’s grand plan to capture Joe had hit a few snags. First, Frank, the livery owner, had watched them like a hawk as they cleaned the stables, making sure they did the job properly and preventing Charlie from searching for the box of bullets. Then the sheriff had shown up, asking them questions about what they knew about the fellow on the poster. Rufus had almost spilled the beans when he nervously started to answer the lawman, but Charlie quickly intervened. Talking fast, he assured the sheriff that they didn’t know anything but thought it was worth looking for the fellow; the reward money was big enough that it was worth their effort to do some searching. Charlie wasn’t sure he convinced the lawman but the sheriff didn’t have any reason to arrest the duo and eventually left.

Things had improved a bit when Charlie hit on the idea of talking Frank into letting them sleep in one of the newly cleaned stalls for the night. The livery owner had been reluctant but finally agreed after Charlie promised they’d curry the horses in the morning. After Frank had paid the pair the two dollars he’d offered for cleaning the stable and left, Charlie decided that a little celebration was in order and sent Rufus to buy a bottle of whiskey. Rufus returned and settled himself in one of the stalls while Charlie searched for the box of cartridges for almost half an hour before finding them tucked away in a bottom drawer of the desk in the small room Frank used as an office. Returning to the stall to show off his prize, Charlie found half the whiskey gone from the bottle and Rufus asleep on the hay. Shoving the box of shells into his pocket, Charlie settled down to finish the whiskey and soon was snoring away as he laid on the hay next to his friend.

The next morning, the plan ran into more delays. Frank had woken the pair with a kick and then insisted they curry the three horses in the stable as they had promised. Tired, hungry and a bit hung-over, Rufus and Charlie decided to spend the money they had left for some food and coffee at the restaurant. Then the pair decided a little nap was in order and they settled down for a snooze in the shack they called home at the edge of town.

It was mid-afternoon when Charlie woke. Groggy with sleep, he only vaguely remembered that he and Rufus had something to do. It took him several minutes to wake up enough to recall that this was the day he and Rufus were going to bring in a wanted man and get a big payday.

“Hey, wake up!” Charlie shouted, roughly shoving Rufus’ shoulder on the bed next to his. “Get up, you lazy bag of bones.”

“Huh? What?” a startled Rufus replied. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. “What’s going on? Where’s the fire?”

“No fire, just a big chuck of money,” Charlie advised. “We got to go get that wanted man, remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” agreed Rufus, sounding less than enthusiastic. “You figured out how we’re going to do that?”

“Nothing to it,” Charlie assured his friend. “We just go up to Miss Mandy’s and tell him to give himself up. If he don’t, then we start shooting.”

“What if he shoots back?” Rufus asked nervously. “He looked like the kind of guy who was pretty handy with a gun. There ain’t a whole lot of cover there at Miss Mandy’s house.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” agreed Charlie. He rubbed his chin and thought. “Tell you what we’ll do. We’ll sneak around the back of the house and get that buckboard Miss Mandy has and pull it to the front. Then we’ll hide behind that. The wagon will give us some cover. Besides we can use it to haul that fellow back into town once we get him.”

“That’s a good idea, Charlie,” Rufus said, his enthusiasm for the project returning. He got to his feet. “Let’s get going.”

After loading their rifles with the stolen ammunition, the two men left their shack and started walking down the street of Elk Grove. They paid no attention to the three riders who passed them on the street, heading for the sheriff’s office.

*****

“I can’t say for sure Rufus and Charlie know anything about your son, Mr. Cartwright,” the sheriff explained to the man sitting across the desk from him. “But they’ve been acting awful strange. Bill over at the saloon thinks they recognized his picture, and when I asked them about it, they hemmed and hawed around. Then they said they were going looking for your son. Now Rufus and Charlie are about the laziest fellows in this town. They’re not the type to go looking for something unless they think they know where it is. That’s why I sent you the telegram last night. Maybe they’ll tell you what they know, especially if you offer them some money.”

“Do you know where this Rufus and Charlie are?” asked Ben.

“Last time I heard, they were sleeping it off in Frank’s stable,” the sheriff replied. “I expect they’re either there or maybe at their shack at the end of town.”

“Why didn’t you arrest them?” demanded Adam, who was standing behind his father. “You should have kept them in jail until we could talk to them.”

“Arrest them for what?” countered the sheriff. “They haven’t done anything wrong. There’s no law against a man keeping something to himself. It’s not like they were hiding information about an outlaw. Your son’s not a wanted man.”

Standing next to his brother, Hoss shook his head. “Let’s stop all this jabbering and go find them fellows. It ain’t doing us any good just staying here.”

“Just what I was going to suggest,” agreed the sheriff as he got his feet.

It took the four men only a few minutes to walk down the street of Elk Grove to the livery stable, and less time than that to determine Rufus and Charlie weren’t there. The Cartwrights and the sheriff then walked to the shack in which the pair lived but found the small building empty. Next, they tried the saloon but the bartender swore he hadn’t seen Rufus and Charlie since yesterday.

“I sure don’t know where they could be,” admitted the sheriff, scratching his head as he leaned against the bar in the saloon.

“You should have kept an eye on them,” Adam said in angry voice. “They could be going after Joe right now.”

“If they did, then they’ll just bring your brother in,” the sheriff remarked. “No harm done.”

“What if Joe don’t want to come with them?” asked Hoss. “He don’t know the sheriff in River Bend dropped the charges against him. Joe might not be real trusting of a couple of strangers.”

“Well, that could be a problem, I guess,” the sheriff answered. “Charlie and Rufus might insist and thing could get ugly.”

“Do you think they would hurt Joe?” asked Ben anxiously.

Instead of answering Ben’s question, the sheriff turned and faced the large area of the saloon. “Anybody here seen Rufus or Charlie today?” he said in a loud voice.

For a moment, no one answered; then a man at the back of the saloon called out. “I seen them a little while ago. They was walking out of town.”

“Which direction?” the sheriff asked.

“South,” the man answered.

“South? That don’t make no sense,” the sheriff observed with a frown as he turned back to face the Cartwrights. “Ain’t nothing out that way but Miss Mandy’s place. They know better than to go tramping around on Miss Mandy’s land.”

“I rode up that way the other day,” Hoss added. “The woman there said she hadn’t seen Joe.”

“Maybe the reason they were headed in that direction has nothing to do with Joe,” suggested Adam.

“I don’t care why they were heading south,” Ben declared. “Those two know something about Joe and we need to find them. Let’s get our horses and go after them.”

“I’ll go with you,” offered the sheriff. “If they’re hunting on Miss Mandy’s land, then I’ve got a reason to arrest them.”

*****

Seated in the living room, Joe moved a checker on the board atop the table in front of him. Out of bed and fully dressed for the first time in days, Joe felt like a new man. The only sign of his injuries were his arm resting in a sling Mandy had made from an old scarf and the fading bruise on his forehead.

“You’re pretty good at this,” Mandy remarked as she reached from the other side of the table to move a checker.

“Well, I do spend a lot of time beating my brother Hoss,” Joe admitted with a grin.

“I’ll bet you do,” replied Mandy, her smile matching Joe’s. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone to play with. I used to be pretty good…” Abruptly, she stopped talking and stared across the room toward the window. “What in heaven’s name is going on out there?”

Turning to look out the window, Joe saw the two men he had chased off from Mandy’s land. They were moving a buckboard toward the front of the house. One man was in front, dragging the wagon by the tongue, while the other was pushing it from behind.

“You don’t think those two would be dumb enough to try to steal my buckboard in broad daylight, do you?” Mandy asked.

“I don’t know,” Joe answered. He watched out the window for a moment. “They seem to be moving it in front of the house, not trying to steal it.”

“I’m going out to see what they’re doing,” declared Mandy. “You go back in the bedroom, stay out of sight.” Without waiting for an answer, she got up and walked toward the door.

Joe headed for the bedroom, not as a place to hide but because that’s where his pistol was.

Walking out the door to the porch, Mandy called to the two men who were now standing behind the buckboard in the middle of her front yard. “Rufus! Charlie! What are you two doing? You put that buckboard back right now!”

“Miss Mandy, we don’t want no trouble,” Charlie shouted back. “We just came here to get that fellow who’s been staying with you. There’s a reward out for him and me and Rufus aim to claim it.”

“There’s no one here but me,” Mandy told the men. “Now go on, get out of here.”

“We know that ain’t true, Miss Mandy,” yelled Charlie. “We saw him here. The way he was all busted up, he weren’t fit to go anywhere. Now you send him out so’s we can take him back to town.”

“I’m telling you, there’s no one here but me,” Mandy insisted.

Suddenly Rufus raised his rifle and fired; the bullet smashed the front window and landed somewhere in the house. Alarmed, Mandy turned and rushed back inside.

“Why in tarnation did you do that?” Charlie demanded.

“I saw, Charlie,” Rufus answered excitedly. “I saw him through the window. I figured he’d be much easier to take in dead than alive.”

Inside the house, Mandy rushed to where Joe was crouched behind the sofa. “Are you all right?” she asked anxiously.

“I’m fine,” Joe replied. “I heard what those two said. They want to take me in. Maybe I should give myself up.”

“It doesn’t look like they want to take you in alive,” pointed out Mandy. “I told you before – I didn’t fix you up just so you could get yourself killed.”

Another shot rang out; this time, the bullet hit the wooden frame of the window. Joe raised his head and shoulders a bit and fired through the broken window, putting two bullets into the far side of the buckboard behind which Charlie and Rufus were hiding. Both ducked behind the wagon and then came up again. The pair fired their rifles, sending two bullets into the front of the house.

Half-way up the path leading to Miss Mandy’s house, the sheriff suddenly pulled his horse to a stop. “Did that sound like a gun shot to you?” he asked the Cartwrights, not really expecting an answer. “I swear, if Rufus and Charlie are hunting on Miss Mandy’s land…”

The sound of another shot echoed through the trees, followed by in rapid succession by several more.

“Come on,” Ben said in an urgent voice, and started his horse galloping up the hill. The other three riders followed suit.

Inside the house, Joe and Mandy stayed low behind the sofa. After the two shots hit the house, another bullet had splintered the wood on the porch. Joe lifted himself up just enough to shoot once, and then ducked back down. He turned to Mandy. “Only three bullets left,” he advised.

“Joe, you have to get out of here,” Mandy declared. “Go out the back door to the barn. You can take my horse. I’ll keep those two busy while you get away.”

“Forget it,” Joe answered. “I’m not leaving. Those two are liable to kill you trying to get to me.”

“What are we going to do?” Mandy asked. “We can’t just stay here and wait for them to run out of bullets.”

“You need to leave,” Joe declared. “Go out the back and get the horse. Then ride as fast you can away from here.”

“That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Mandy stated firmly. “I’m not letting anyone run me out of my own house. We’ll just have to come up with another plan.”

Outside behind the buckboard, Charlie and Rufus also were discussing the situation.

“He ain’t coming out, Charlie,” Rufus stated. “What are we going to do now?”

“Keep shooting,” Charlie told his friend. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and hit him.”

“But what if we don’t?” Rufus asked. “Then what?”

“I’ll think of something,” promised Charlie. “Just keep firing.”

So intent were the two men at shooting toward the house that neither heard the horses coming up behind them. Rufus and Charlie fired twice more before both men felt the gun barrels pressing into their backs. Startled, they froze, not daring to turn their heads.

“You two drop those rifles and get up very slowly,” instructed Adam as he pushed his pistol against Charlie’s back. “Don’t make any sudden moves or I’ll pull this trigger.”

“Yeah, I got a mighty itchy trigger finger,” added Hoss from behind Rufus.

Terrified, Rufus and Charlie quickly dropped their rifles and raised their hands into the air. The two stood slowly, still too afraid to turn around.

“Just what the heck do you two think you’re doing?” demanded the sheriff as he walked up to the pair.

Hearing a familiar voice, Charlie took a chance and looked over his shoulder. “There’s a wanted man in there,” he explained. “Me and Rufus was just trying to bring him in.”

“Wanted? For what?” countered the sheriff.

“We saw the wanted poster in the saloon,” Rufus said, turning to face the lawman. “We seen him up here the other day when we was hunting and figured we’d bring him in for the reward.”

“You two are more stupid than you look!” exclaimed the sheriff. “That man isn’t wanted by the law. His family was just trying to find him. You almost killed an innocent man. And what were you doing hunting on Miss Mandy’s land anyway?”

Realizing his mistake, Rufus took a big gulp and determinedly close his mouth.

Hearing Rufus’ explanation, Ben hurried forward. “Joe!” he called toward the house. “Joe, are you in there!”

The front door of the house opened, and Joe walked out, followed by Mandy. “Pa!” he exclaimed. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw you, and Adam and Hoss out there. How did you find me?”

Ignoring his son’s question, Ben rushed to the porch. He put his hands on Joe’s shoulders and raked his son with his eyes, noting the arm in the sling and the bruise on Joe’s head. “Are you all right, son?” he asked anxiously.

“Just a broken wrist and some busted ribs,” Joe replied. “Nothing that’ll keep me down for very long. Mandy here is a pretty good doctor. She’s been looking after me.”

Satisfied, Ben pulled Joe toward him and gave his son a quick hug. Then he turned to the woman standing next to Joe. “Thank you,” he said simply. “Thank you very much.”

“My pleasure,” Mandy answered with a nod.

Since the sheriff was holding his gun on Rufus and Charlie, Adam and Hoss walked to the house.

“Little brother, you sure caused us a heap of trouble,” Hoss declared as came up to Joe. “We’ve been looking for you for days.”

“Yeah, Joe, we’ve got better things to do than chasing around half the country looking for you,” added Adam as he joined his brothers.

“I just figured you two were getting bored doing ranch work,” Joe said with a grin. “I thought I’d give you something interesting to do for a change.” His faced sobered, though, when he turned to his father. “Pa, there was some trouble over in River Bend…”

“We know all about it, Joe,” Ben interrupted his son. “The sheriff arrested the man who killed the other man in the saloon.”

“But I heard one of those fellows out front say there was a wanted poster out on me,” Joe stated, clearly confused.

“We put out a poster asking for information about your whereabouts,” Ben explained. “We thought it would help us find you. Clearly that idea backfired on us.”

Suddenly, Joe realized Mandy was standing nearby. He quickly made introductions all around.

“I thought you were a bounty hunter when you were out here before,” Mandy said to Hoss. “I’m sorry. If I had known you were Joe’s brother, I would have told you he was here.”

“That’s my fault, ma’am,” Hoss replied. “I didn’t really explain why I was looking for Joe.”

“Brother Adam here is the one who is good with words,” Joe added with a smile. “He would have probably given you my life history. Hoss, on the other hand, is better around animals than people.”

“Really,” Mandy said with a spark of interest in her eyes.

“Miss Mandy,” called the sheriff from a top his horse in the yard. He had a rifle pointed at Charlie and Rufus, who were standing with their hands tied behind their backs in front of the lawman’s horse. “I’m taking these two back to town. You all right?”

“I’m fine, sheriff,” Mandy assured the lawman. “Are you going to put them in jail?”

“Yes ma’am,” acknowledged the sheriff. “I’m arresting Rufus and Charlie for assault with a deadly weapon and trespassing. I’ll probably think of a few more things I can charge them with by the time I get to town.”

“Good,” agreed Mandy. “That’ll keep them away from my land for quite awhile.”

“Don’t worry, Miss Mandy,” the sheriff replied. “I doubt if you’ll ever see them around here again.”

As the sheriff marched Rufus and Charlie back toward town, Mandy turned to the Cartwrights. “You all should come in. I think we all have some stories to tell. I think telling them inside with some sandwiches and coffee would be more comfortable for everyone.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Hoss eagerly, rubbing his hands in anticipation. “I could use a bite or two to tide me over. I’m starting to feel kind of puny.”

“You’re unbelievable,” remarked Adam, shaking his head.

As the group started into the house, Joe pulled his father aside. “Pa, I’m really sorry about all the trouble and worry I caused. I wasn’t going to run away from the trouble in River Bend. It’s just when that deputy started talking about lynching, well, I thought going was a better idea than staying. I would have been in Virginia City days ago if that fool horse hadn’t fallen and thrown me.”

“I know, Joe,” Ben told his son. “This whole situation was nothing but a series of misunderstandings.” He put his hand on Joe’s neck and squeezed it lightly. “I’m just glad we found you and that you’re going to be all right.”

“I’ll be you’re glad to know your son isn’t really a wanted man,” Joe said with a smile.

“Oh you’re a wanted man all right,” replied. Ben. “But it’s not the law that wants you, it’s us. We very much want you back home on the Ponderosa.”

“I’m willing to give myself up for that, Pa,” Joe acknowledged, his smile widening into a grin. “Take me in. I’m ready to go home.”

*****End*****

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