Burden of Guilt (by DebbieB)

Summary: When Joe is shot by an intruder, Ben blames himself for his son’s injury. Things go from bad to worse, deepening Ben’s burden of guilt.

Rated:  PG for Mild language (14,550 words)

 

 

                                    Burden of Guilt

 

Jarred from a deep sleep, Ben rolled over onto his back, opened his eyes and listened closely. There it was again…the sound of someone walking around downstairs. Easing from of the bed, while still half asleep, he opened the drawer of the nightstand and pulled out the revolver he kept hidden there, for occasions such as this. As he silently made his way to the door, he checked the gun’s chamber, being sure that it was loaded and ready to fire. Ben opened the door slowly, to avert the usual squeaking and then slipped softly into the hallway. Looking both ways, he noted that his sons’ bedroom doors were all closed, a sure sign that the boys were sleeping soundly and had not been awakened by the noise downstairs.

At the top of the staircase, Ben paused, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light that emitted from the dying embers in the oversized fireplace located on the front wall in the main room of the downstairs. When he felt sure his night vision was clear enough, Ben moved to the landing. Noises around his office area drew his attention in that direction.

“Who’s down there!” he demanded in a roaring blare.

Suddenly, the reverberation of breaking glass resounded as an echo to the older man’s booming voice. The scurrying of feet and the clicking of heels on the hard wooden floor added to the unanticipated chaos in the room. Ben had stumbled blindly down the remainder of the steps, desperately trying to keep his balance all the while clinging tightly to the weapon in his right hand.

From the hallway above, the sound of slamming doors and loud shouts added to ignite the fury down below.

“STOP! I’LL SHOOT!” Ben bellowed.

From the front door, a loud blast rippled through the darkness. A shrill cry of agony sent shivers of fear coursing down the backs of the three young men racing down the steps. The door banged shut with a noise so loud that it rattled the windows, as Little Joe seemed to trip and tumbled to the bottom of the staircase, landing at his father’s feet. Behind the youngest member of the family, Hoss and Adam somehow managed to keep their footing as they continued into the great room.

“What on earth is going on?” Adam said with a twinge of anger in his voice.

“Someone broke into the house,” Ben said in a rush as the wind expelled from his lungs. “Hoss, light the lamp…Little Joe…get up!”

Hoss stepped over his brother’s still form to do as his father ordered, but Little Joe lay where he had fallen.

“Joe?” Ben said, suddenly aware of the soft moaning that arose from the young man lying in the floor.

“Pa…” Joe mumbled. “I’ve…been…shot!”

“DEAR GOD! WHAT HAVE I DONE?”

“Hoss…quick, get some bandages and warm water…Pa…don’t just stand there, help me get him on the settee!”

From the chaos of all that had just occurred, the level headed Adam Cartwright, Ben’s eldest son, suddenly became the man in charge, keeping his calm composure even as he bent down and spied the pool of blood in which his youngest brother now lay. Together, Hoss and Adam gently lifted their brother’s body from the floor and placed him on the settee. Ben bent down over his son, and quickly arranged the red satin pillow beneath the boy’s head.

“Joe,” he cooed, “I’m so sorry son, I shouldn’t have shouted out and frightened the intruder…”

Joe slowly opened his eyes, searching for his father’s face. His hand reached out and quickly, Ben grabbed the groping fingers and held them warmly within his own hands.

“Not…your…fault,” the wounded man murmured.

Gritting his teeth to ward off his own anger at himself, the worried father disagreed. “Yes…it was my fault and…a foolish…stupid thing to do!” he scolded himself aloud to his son. “Adam, fetch the doctor, hurry, and stop by the sheriff’s office and let him know what’s happened here!”

“I’m on my way,” Adam responded, already heading for the door.

Hoss, who was just then returning from the kitchen where he’d gone to do his father’s bidding, glanced quickly at Adam’s retreating back and then, without spilling the sudsy water, set it on the table in front of the settee.

“He’s gone for the doctor,” Ben said as he began to rip open Joe’s nightshirt in order to clean the bullet wound.

“How is he?” Hoss asked worriedly, watching his father closely.

Ben glanced momentarily up at his middle son and slowly shook his head. “Not good,” he answered in a whispered voice.

“P…a…”

“I’m here son,” Ben told Little Joe. “Adam’s gone for the doctor, you just lie still and let me get this wound cleaned as best I can…I’m sorry, Joseph…the bullet went deeply into your side…”

Joe swallowed hard. His father and brother could easily read the pain in the hazel eyes that tried desperately to focus on them. “It…was…” Little Joe stammered, this time, closing his eyes and allowing himself to drift into the dark abyss that beckoned to him to enter the sanctuary of painless blackness beyond.

“He’s fainted,” Hoss muttered.

“Thank goodness…at least this way, he won’t suffer while I clean this wound,” Ben responded.

For the next several minutes, Ben busied himself with cleaning the wound in his youngest son’s side. Only he was award of the gnawing guilt that had taken root in his soul and had begun to eat its way into his heart. Each time that Little Joe flinched or arched his back in pain, the guilt cut deeper into the older man’s heart.

“Joseph, I’m so sorry, son,” Ben, leaning down over the boy, whispered softly as he worked to squelch the blood flow from the opened wound.

The worried father knew that Joe, in his unconscious state, was unable to hear the muffled apology. The burden of guilt had already taken root and the mumbled words continued to flow softly from Ben’s shattered heart until, at last, he had the bleeding under control though his quilt had yet to be squelched.

When he raised his head, he was surprised to see Hoss sitting along side of him on the heavy wooden table. His eyes, dark and brooding, Ben looked into the soft, compassionate blue eyes of his middle son.

“I…didn’t mean…to get him…hurt,” he uttered lowly.

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss said, placing his large, muscular hand down on his father’s shoulder. “I know that…so does Little Joe…he don’t blame ya none.”

Ben turned his head, looking into the ashen face of his wounded boy. “Maybe not Hoss, but I…blame myself. I shouldn’t have called out…I should have just shot the son of a…scoundrel,” he said, changing his mind quickly as to what he might have called the intruder.

Hoss stood silent, watching his father’s agonizing expressions that flickered across his parent’s weary face.

“Why don’t we take’em upstairs and clean him up…Adam shouldn’t be too long in fetching the doctor, Pa,” Hoss said at last.

Ben’s eyes never strayed from his wounded son’s face, but he nodded his head. “Be gentle, son…” he said as he stepped aside, allowing the bigger man to carefully scoop the smaller man into his arms.

“Hop Sing…hurry, bring us some more fresh water and clean bandages, we might need them again before Adam gets back with the doctor,” Ben said as he rushed ahead of Hoss in order to reach Joe’s bedroom and have the covers turned back so that Hoss could place his younger brother on the bed.

For the next hour, Ben and Hoss worked at removing Little Joe’s soiled nightshirt and cleaning the wound a second time where the stray bullet had pierced the young man’s flesh. Finally, there was nothing left to do but wait. Ben leaned back in the chair that Hoss had pulled along the side the bed for his father; the elder Cartwright’s eyes slowly closed, but he did not sleep. Hoss stood at the window, watching, waiting and praying that Adam would return soon with the doctor. Ben’s thoughts were racing through his head, which had begun to hurt. He chastised himself for having been so foolish as to call out to the intruder and more so for arriving home much later than what he’d told his younger son that he and his brothers would be. They had ridden over to Carson City early that morning to finish up on some cattle business with the promise of returning before dark. But as it were, things stood in their way of finishing business in a timely manner, thus forcing the three elder Cartwrights to arrive home long after Little Joe had retired for the night. Ben felt a sense of having betrayed his youngest son, putting the boy in danger, allowing his son to get shot and for the suffering the boy was having to endure. The burden of guilt weighed heavily on Ben Cartwright’s tired shoulders.
Adam knew he was pushing his horse hard, but the lingering vision of his brother’s painful expression, the flushed cheeks and the fear that shone in Little Joe’s hazel eyes, was reason enough for his older brother to ride hard and fast. The night seemed darker than usual, the path hard to follow and the knowledge that his mount might stumble and fall, causing injury to both animal and rider, was pushed to the back of his mind as Adam pressed onward. The doctor was needed. Joe had lost an extraordinary amount of blood even before he had been on his way. A sense of urgency drove both rider and his steed.

“Adam! ADAM…ADAM CARTWRIGHT!”

The sound of his name being shouted from the darkness caused Adam to pull back on the reins and bring his horse to a grinding halt. Sport spun nervously around in circles.

“Whoa…Boy…easy,” Adam called as he searched the darkness for the one who had called out to him.

From the depth of blackness, a lone figure suddenly appeared.

“Adam…”

“Tate…Tate Wills…”

“Yeah…” the man said as he moved his horse close to Adam’s. “What on earth are ya in such a hurry for…you passed me back on the trail and I’ve been tryin’ to catch up with you since…somethin’ wrong?”

Tate Wills was an old friend of his father’s. He and Ben had known each other since before Little Joe had been born. Though the men weren’t close, they had been neighbors throughout the years. Times had been hard for Tate, though Adam had never heard the man complain, even through the death of his wife and young son.

“Little Joe’s been shot, I’ve got to get to town and fetch the doctor…” Adam rushed to say and then turned his mount toward Virginia City.

“Lord have mercy,” Tate Wills moaned. “Anything I can do?” he called after Adam.

“No…but thanks,” Adam shouted over his shoulder just as he kicked his horse into action.

Tate watched for a minute longer until Adam had disappeared into the blackness of night.

“BE CAREFUL, ADAM!” Tate shouted, as if an after thought. “My, my…tisk…tisk,” the man mumbled as his horse pivoted around. “Let’s pay my old friend a visit, Sunny,” he said softly to his horse.
“A rider’s comin’, Pa,” Hoss said, turning from the window.

“Alone? Is it Adam?” Ben glanced down quickly at Little Joe and then turned to join Hoss at the window.

“No sir…I’d best go see who it is…” Hoss hurried from the room, leaving Ben to tend to his younger brother.

Hoss jerked the door opened, startling the older man who was just about to knock.

“Tate!” Hoss said sounding surprised.

“Hoss…” Tate greeted, his look of surprise disappearing. “I ran into Adam a little while ago, he said that Little Joe’d been shot…anything I can do?”

Hoss sighed in relief as he stepped aside to allow his father’s friend and neighbor to enter into the house.

“Naw…but thanks, Tate. Pa’s with Joe now. Ya said ya seen Adam…was he on his way to town…he’s suppose to fetch Doc Martin…”

“Yeah…he flew passed me like I was standin’ still,” Tate said, almost chuckling. “I had to chase after’em for a spell, but I finally caught up to’em. That’s how I knew what happened so I decided to stop by and see if I could help out.”

“Well, we appreciate that Tate, but there ain’t much we can do until the doc gets here,” Hoss explained.

“What happened?”

“I ain’t too sure, it all happened so dang fast. But from what Pa said and what little I seen, someone broke into the house. Pa must’va heard some noise cause by the time the rest of us heard the commotion and got halfway down stairs, Pa was shoutin’ at the top of his voice, a gun blast ripped through the dark and then the person was gone. Joe was lying on the floor, bleedin’…that stray bullet hit the boy in the side…and…naturally, Pa blames himself for gettin’ Joe hurt,” Hoss went on to explain.

“That’s ridiculous…it ain’t his fault…any ideay who it was that broke in?”

“No…it was too dark to see…”

“Hmm,” the man muttered, glancing sideways and catching the look of deep concern on the younger man’s face. He cleared his throat. “Reckon the boy’ll be alright?”

Hoss, lost in thought, looked up at last. His blue eyes reflected the nagging fear deep in his gut.

“I don’t know, sir, the bullet went deep. Pa was gonna probe for it, but he decided to wait on the doc…too risky he said, and said he’d already done enough to hurt Little Joe,” Hoss explained.

Tate put a reassuring hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Reckon ya pa’s done right…being too risky I mean…well, Hoss, I gotta get home but if ya need me…just send word.”

“Yeah…thanks Mr. Wills. I’ll tell Pa that ya stopped by…say…by the way…what brings you out so late anyway?”

Tate lowered his head and chuckled softly. “Now don’t ya go spreadin’ it around Hoss, but see…well…I sorta got me a lady friend over towards Genoa…”

Hoss grinned knowingly. “I see…so’s ya been courtin’?”

Tate laughed softly, embarrassed, “Ya might say so…but don’t…I don’t want the entire county talkin’ about it…understand?”

Hoss opened the front door for Tate, still smiling. “Yes sir, I understand…ya won’t hear it from me, my lips are sealed,” he said, a bit more light-hearted.

“Thanks Hoss. ‘Member, if’n ya need me, you know where to find me.”

“I will sir, and thanks again for stopping by…hey…by the way…who’s the lucky lady?”
Tate seemed to blush but then smiled broadly at Hoss. “Emma Sue Rawlins…she works at the café on Main Street…and if’n I can get my affairs all straightened out…Emma Sue just might become the next Mrs. Tate Wills…but don’t ya go tellin’ no one!”

Hoss chuckled and winked at the man, “Don’t worry Mr. Wills, my lips are sealed!”
“Alright Adam, just give me a minute to get my bag,” Doctor Paul Martin stated.

Paul Martin had been a physician for many years, most of those years he had attended the folks in and around Virginia City. He and the Cartwrights were old friends. It had been a young Paul Martin who had put in an appearance in the wee hours of the morning, not more than nineteen years ago when Ben had sent word that his wife, Marie, had gone into labor and that things didn’t seem to be going so well for the young mother-to-be. That night, Paul had fought long and hard to save the wife of his best friend and to deliver into his friend’s waiting arms, a young, wee son whom the family quickly dubbed Joseph Francis Cartwright, lovingly referred to as Little Joe. Many times throughout the years, Paul had been called to the home to tend to some sort of injury or illness…mostly for the youngest, most energetic of the four Cartwrights. Tonight was no different. The physician sighed.

“I’m ready Adam, let’s go.”

Adam raced ahead of the doctor, who was driving his buggy. He was anxious to get home, to see how his brother was faring to let his father know that the doctor was on his way and would arrive soon after. But first he had to see the sheriff.

“You go ahead Doc, I need to let Roy Coffee in on what’s happening. I’ll catch up to you.”
Hoss, hearing another rider, hurried down stairs and opened the door. His heart fell when he spied Adam alone.

“Where’s the doc?” he said as he stepped out into the night. His voice sounded demanding.

Adam, dismounting, paused to study his middle brother’s face. He sensed Hoss’ concern.

“Right behind me…how’s Little Joe?” Adam said as he tossed his horse’s reins over the hitching post.

“Not good, Pa’s real worried Adam. That bullet went deep…too deep for Pa to probe for it…”

“You mean he’s still carrying that bullet?” Adam was a bit surprised by the news. He’d figured that by now, his father would have at least tried to remove the bullet.

“Yep…Pa thought it best to wait for the doctor. He’s really tore up, Adam…about this. He blames himself for Little Joe gettin’ shot and all…”

“I know,” Adam replied, hurrying inside. “How about waiting here for the doctor, I’d like to check on Joe? Oh, by the way, Roy’s on his way out too,” he added as he scrambled for the stairs.

“Sure,” answered Hoss, standing behind the sofa. “The kid’s still unconscious though,” he called as Adam took the steps in multiples.

Opening the door softly, Adam slipped into the room and eased his way to the bed. Ben was bent over the bed, dabbing a cool, wet cloth on Joe’s brow. He barely looked up when he sensed Adam standing behind him.

“He’s bad, Adam…where in blazes is that doctor?”

“He’s on his way Pa,” Adam explained as he touched his hand to his father’s shoulder. “He was right behind me…”

“I still cannot believe this has happened…it’s all my fault!” Ben grumbled, aggravated with himself and sick to death with worry.

“No it’s not! You’re just making things harder on yourself than need be…now stop thinking like that, it isn’t doing Little Joe any good to hear you talking that way…”

Though Adam tried to comfort his father, seeing his youngest brother withering in pain even in his unconscious state, tore at his heart. He looked into his father’s face and saw the torment there.

“Pa…please, don’t let Little Joe hear you…”

“He’s unconscious, he can’t hear me!” Ben retorted.

“Well, well…what on earth has happened here?” Doc Martin entered the bedroom, followed by Hoss.

Forgetting their anger, both Ben and Adam spun around and then stepped aside as the physician neared the bed.

“It’s his left side…”

“Yes…yes…I see,” Paul exclaimed, examining the wound closely as he pulled back the cover that Ben had placed over his son. Lifting the makeshift bandage, he sighed heavily as he then placed his hand on Joe’s brow. “How long has he been unconscious?”

“Almost since it happened,” Ben explained.

Paul straightened, keeping his eyes fixed on Joe’s face. When he turned, he hoped the worry that had suddenly washed over him was not evident in his expression.

“I’ll need to operate…now,” Paul stated firmly. “I want all of you, except for Hop Sing, to wait downstairs…please,” he added after seeing the horrified expressions on the faces of the three Cartwrights.

“Alright,” Ben agreed. “I knew you’d have to probe for that bullet…”

“Try not to worry, Ben…I’ll let you know something the minute I’m finished. I just want to do this while he’s still unconscious…less likely to hurt as much…”

Paul gently ushered the men to the door and once they entered the hallway, he quickly closed it tightly. When he turned around, Hop Sing’s dark almond eyes were watching him closely.

“Number three son…not doing so well, is he?”

Paul shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not, Hop Sing. But with a little help from the man upstairs, maybe together, you and I can change that…”

“Hop Sing do whatever needed to help Lil’l Joe…” Hop Sing lowered his head. It was no secret to the physician just how much the little oriental man loved his boss’ number three son.
“Ben,” began Roy, tapping his fingertips together. “Tell me what happened here tonight?”

Ben turned from the fireplace where he’d been standing and faced the sheriff. “Didn’t Adam tell you?” he asked in a gruff tone.

Roy’s eyes widened slightly as he nodded his head. “He said someone broke into the house, you came downstairs, called out and the next thing any of you heard was a bullet ripping through the silence and then the sound of Joe falling down the stairs…”

“Then you already know the story…except that if I had just kept quiet, Joe wouldn’t be suffering now…”

“Aw…Pa…” Hoss said worriedly.

“I don’t think you had anything to do with Joe getting hurt, Ben…more so like his being in the wrong place at the wrong time…”

“Maybe so,” growled Ben, “but I should have known better than to call out…I should have known that an intruder would be armed…”

“He’s gonna be alright, Pa…” Adam said softly.

Ben’s eyes became lumps of fiery coal as he spun around and glared at his eldest son. “You don’t know that!”

Adam sighed and turned away to avoid the sharp retort that tickled the tip of his tongue.

“Ben, any idea who the intruder might have been?” Roy hurried to ask.

“No…I couldn’t see a thing, it was too dark…”

“Hoss, Adam…what about either of you?”

“Naw…like Pa said, it was too dark,” answered Hoss.

“I was behind everyone else, Roy…”

“Hmm…was anything taken?” the sheriff asked, looking around toward Ben’s desk.

It was as if a light had come on in everyone’s head. The three Cartwrights glanced first at each other and then toward Ben’s desk.

Ben walked quickly to the area. “Everything happened so quickly, Joe getting shot and all, I never took time to look,” he told Roy.

All the men gathered around the desk and waited as Ben searched the top, moving things around and then pulling out drawers, closing them and suddenly, spinning around to look down at the safe.

“Looks like the intruder tried to open it,” he said, squatting down in front of the iron box. His fingers moved slowly over the cool metal door, pulling gently at the handle. The door to the safe failed to open.

“Seems he didn’t have time to attempt to work out the combination,” he said, standing up and facing the men. “But it’s been tampered with…”

“What’s in there?” the sheriff questioned. “I mean, was there enough money to warrant a robbery attempt?”

“The payroll,” Hoss said quickly. “The miners and the crew at the lumber camps are due to be paid…tomorrow,” he explained.

“Ben…how much money, exactly is in there?”

“Several thousands of dollars, Roy…do you want to see it?” Ben responded.

“No, I don’t need to…but I’d feel better if’n you’d open it up and make sure the money’s all there…that is, if’n ya don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” Ben answered, already turning the dial. The other men in the room were standing over the senior Cartwright when Ben pulled the heavy door of the safe opened. They waited anxiously, swapping glances between them. Each one heard Ben gasp as Ben starred blankly into the empty box.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked.

Slowly, Ben rose and turned, holding the moneybox out to his son. “It’s…empty!”

“What…” stammered Hoss.

“That’s impossible,” Adam proclaimed, snatching the little metal box from his father’s trembling fingers and glancing inside to see for himself whether his father was imagining things. “Damn!” he muttered, looking into the disbelieving eyes of his middle brother.
“Bullet in deep?” Hop Sing asked as he stood over Little Joe’s bed holding the lamp high in the air in order to give more light for the doctor to conduct his surgery.

“Very deeply, Hop Sing,” Paul Martin stated, taking half a second to swipe his shirtsleeve across his sweaty brow. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a bullet do this much damage. Hop Sing help me turn him over just a little. I’m going to make an incision here, in his waistline and see if I can reach the bullet that way,” Doc explained as he and Hop Sing turned Joe enough so that the physician could do what needed to be done in order to get the slug that threatened to claim the life of his best friend’s youngest son.

“We’re going to need more water and bandages,” Paul stated in a solemn tone.

“I get…be back quick…”

Hop Sing hurried down the stairs to the kitchen to heat more water and to fetch more clean bandages.

The men waiting anxiously for news turned when the upstairs door shut. Ben was at the bottom of the stairs by the time his servant descended.

“Hop Sing?”

“Need more clean water and bandages,” the little Chinese man stated as he attempted to pass.

“Wait just a minute,” Ben said, restraining his friend by placing a hand on Hop Sing’s shoulder. “How is he…what’s taking so long…did the doctor get the slug out…answer me Hop Sing…”

“Pa,” Adam said softly, placing his own hand over his father’s and gently removing the elder Cartwright’s grasp on their old friend. “He needs to get the things the doctor wants…”

“Lit’tle Joe not awake. Doc dig for bullet but not have luck, he cut into Lit’tle Joe’s belly…”

The color drained from Ben’s face and his dark eyes suddenly turned black. Fear was evident in every fine line of the worried father’s expression.

“What?” he stammered.

“It alright, Mr. Cart’lite…Doctor Paul know best. You try not to worry…”

“HOP SING!”

“I go now, doctor need me,” Hop Sing explained as he trotted by and into the kitchen. Ben and the others watched silently as Hop Sing rushed back through the living room. This time, no one stopped him from returning to the sick room.
It seemed like hours to those that waited anxiously, before the physician reappeared. Worried eyes and frightened expressions greeted Paul Martin as he descended the wide steps, stopping on the last one to face the most worried of all, the father, Ben Cartwright.

“He’s resting right now,” Paul explained right away. “And he’ll sleep for several hours.”

“Will he be alright?” Ben quizzed. “Did he wake up at all…has he asked for me?”

“No, Ben, he hasn’t awakened, therefore, he’s not asked for you.”

“But he’ll be alright?”

“Ben, I won’t lie…that bullet was in deep…and it wasn’t easy to remove. I had to make an incision right about here, near his waist in order to probe for the bullet. I was lucky, here’s the slug,” he explained as he dropped the slug into Ben’s hand. “Right now, what he needs most is rest…to give the body time to start healing it’s self. I can’t and I won’t, make you promises I can’t keep.”

“What’s that suppose to mean?” Adam said in a demanding tone.

“It means that I’ve done all I can, at this point leastways, now the rest is up to your brother.” Paul turned to face Ben for the second time. “He’s young and healthy Ben, and he’s a fighter…that’s all in his favor. The most we have to fear right now is infection, so I’ve instructed Hop Sing on how to care for the incision and the entry point and how to change the bandages and when. I’ve left him some sleeping medicine and some pain killers…in a few hours, when Little Joe wakes up enough to do so, we’ll see what he can hold down as far as food is concerned,” the kind family doctor explained.

The sighs were loud, but each man knew within their hearts that the trusted doctor had done his best and would continue to do so until such a time that the youngest Cartwright’s fate was determined.

“Can I go sit with him?” Ben asked with a heavy heart.

“I figured you’d want to,” smiled Doc Martin. “Go ahead, I’ll feel better knowing that a family member is with him at all times.”

Ben turned and started up the steps but was halted by his old friend’s hand on his arm.

“Ben…don’t blame yourself…Little Joe wouldn’t want you to…”

“I know that,” sighed Ben. “But I can’t help but think…what if…”

“You can’t think like that. Things happen, accidents happen…” paused Paul. He smiled warmly. “Go on Papa…I know your heart’s up there…but take turns, let Hoss and Adam sit with Little Joe as well…understand? I don’t want another patient!”

Ben’s smile was forced and his eyes failed to respond. His old friend, the physician, knew him all too well.

“I will…I promise!” he said sternly and then hurried on his way.
Ben watched from the upstairs bedroom window as his friend Tate Wills rode into the yard. He had completely forgotten that his neighbor had stopped by the very night of the break-in after meeting Adam on the road, to inquire about Joseph. He sighed, remembering the visit of three nights ago when Tate had approached him about a loan to pay back taxes and to make much needed improvements on his place. Ben had promised the man that after he had his crews and ranch hands paid, he’d see what he could do to help out. Then the break-in and the mysterious disappearance of the money in the safe and most of all, the shooting of his youngest son, Ben had completely forgotten the promise. He assumed that Tate was here now, to inquire about both, Joe and the forgotten loan.

Ben glanced at his sleeping son and softly whispered to Hop Sing, who had just brought in some fresh water in which to bathe Joe’s face.

“Hop Sing, we have a guest…please stay with Joseph and I’ll be back just as soon as I can,” he muttered and then slipped quietly from the room.

“Mr. Wills, come on in,” Hoss greeted the elderly man. “What brings ya out this way?”

“Oh,” said Wills, removing his hat and smiling friendly like, at Hoss. “I just came to inquire about Little Joe…and…to speak with your father.”

“Tate! Welcome,” Ben greeted as he came down the steps and crossed the room, taking the older man’s offered hand. They shook firmly. Tate noticed how tired and worried Ben appeared.

“Howdy, Ben. Ya lookin’ mighty tired…how’s the boy?”

“I am tired, but…I’ll survive. Joe’s resting, sleeping still. The doctor said he’d sleep for several hours. Thanks for asking. Won’t you have a seat? Hoss…how about getting out the brandy…”

“No…no…don’t go to any trouble,” Tate said, shaking his head. “I can’t stay but a minute or two…”

“Nonsense…I need a drink…and I’ve never known you turn down a good brandy,” grinned Ben. He turned to Hoss. “Please, son, the brandy.”

“Yessir.”

Hoss quickly did as his father had asked and minutes later the three men were enjoying the fine liquor.

“Hmm…this sure is good tastin’ Ben,” commented Tate. “Say, Ben…any leads on who it was that broke into your house?”

Ben swallowed what was in his mouth and set the little glass on the table. “No…Roy’s working on it though…however, there isn’t much to go on since we weren’t able to provide him with much information,” he explained.

“Well, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear about your loss…and your boy.”

Ben hadn’t mention the fact that they’d found the safe locked but the money gone. For now, until they could figure out just how the money came to be missing, he, Adam, Hoss and the sheriff had decided to keep the information quiet for awhile. He just nodded his head in agreement.

Tate stood to his feet, reaching for his dusty hat he’d tossed down beside him. His head was bent low and when he looked over at Ben, it was with downcast eyes. The old gentleman spoke lowly.

“I…um…suppose that losing the money means ya can’t…um…give me that little loan we talked about a few days back?”

Ben hated for even his old friend to know for sure about the moneybox and the missing contents. Thoughts shot through his mind at a reckless pace, trying desperately to come up with an answer. After several awkward moments he straightened his back and smiled.

“Tate…I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll have Adam ride into town in the morning and have a talk with Mr. Furrow at the bank and set something up for you. He can have some papers drawn up…something that we can both agree on. You’ll have your loan…and be able to pay your taxes and have a little something left over to fix things up a bit. How’s that?”

Tate smiled broadly, obviously relieved. He stretched out his hand, offering it to Ben who took it. The men shook on it.

“I knew I could count on you, Ben…you’ll never know just how much this means me to…though I’m a bit disappointed that we couldn’t work something out between the two of us…you know…a gentleman’s agreement?”

Ben looked down and sighed softly. “I’m sorry Tate…but for now…”

“Aw…that’s alright Ben. I…um…expect to be coming into a goodly amount of money soon…I can pay the loan off then…”

Ben’s eyebrows rose slightly and he stole a quick glance at Hoss. He hadn’t heard that Tate Wills had any money coming to him. He was somewhat taken back.

“Oh…I…didn’t realize you had rich relatives?” he stated somewhat off-handedly.

“Yeah…well…I have an aunt back in St. Louis…she sent me a wire sometime back saying that my uncle wasn’t in the best of health and that he wanted me to have something to remember him by. I gotta be honest, Ben, it couldn’t have come at a better time…ere…not that I wanted my uncle to pass, understand…”

“Oh, sure…”

“But, what with the back taxes coming due and the place falling down around me…well…you know…you understand…I’ll pay you back just as soon as I can…”

Ben put his hand on the old man’s shoulder and smiled down at him. “Don’t fret Tate…I’ll have Adam make the loan for 60 days…will that give you enough time?”

“Yes, sir…that’ll be just fine and dandy. Well, Ben, I gotta be goin’, I got to feed the stock and whatnot…”

Ben and Hoss walked their neighbor to the door and bid him good night.

“I’ll have Adam meet you first thing in the morning. You be careful on your way home, it’s getting dark…”

“Thanks, Ben…I will. You take care of that boy of yours…”

“Thank you Tate, we’ll do our best.”

Ben shut the door and turned towards the stairs, he was anxious to return to Joe’s bedside. Hoss, who had been standing in front of the fire moved to speak with his father.

“Pa,” he said, scratching his head.

“Yes, son…what is it?”

“Don’t ya find it rather peculiar?”

Ben, looking a bit puzzled by the question, shrugged. “Find what peculiar?”

“Mr. Wills…well, not him, but the fact that he still had an uncle living…I mean…ere…Tate’s older than you, Pa…how dang old do ya reckon his uncle is?”

Looking even more puzzled, Ben shook his head. “Hoss…I don’t know…ninety maybe…I really don’t have time right now to ponder the fact, Joseph needs me,” he said as he made his way up the stairs.

Hoss sighed, shrugged his massive shoulders and returned to warming his backside in front of the fire. Minutes later the door opened and Adam entered. He instantly spied Hoss.

“Hey…how’s the kid?”

“Sleeping.”

“Still?”

“Yeah…most likely will for sometime.”

“I suppose. Say, wasn’t that Tate Wills I saw leaving a few minutes ago?” Adam asked as he moved into the room and to the fireplace where he turned to warm his hands.

“Yeah…he came by to check on Little Joe. Adam…did you know that ole Tate had an uncle…probably ninety years old, that just died and left him a bundle of money?”

Adam rubbed his hands together and then turned his backside to the warmth of the fire.

“No, but I suppose that’s not unusual, why?”

“Nothin’ really…just wonderin’. Oh, by the way, Pa wants you to meet Tate at the bank in the mornin’ and set up a loan for him…just until his inheritance gets here. Pa said for about 60 days…”

“I thought you said he just inherited a bundle?”

“He did…or so Tate says, but the loan’s to pay the taxes and fix up his place…just until the money get to him,” Hoss explained.

“Alright…I’ll go up and talk to him about the amount…and I want to see how Little Joe’s doin’…you coming?” Adam asked.

“Sure…I wanna see how he’s faring too.”
It was in the wee hours of the morning when Little Joe first began to stir, waking his father who sat slumped over in the over-sized chair by the bedside.

“Joseph?” Ben said softly as he gently caressed the young man’s face. “Can you wake up, son…your Pa’s right here.”

Moaning lowly, Little Joe tried to respond to the familiar voice. His eyelids fluttered and finally the dazed man was able to open his eyes just enough so that he could make out his father’s face looming before him.

“Pa?” Joe muttered in a voice that was obviously weak from both his condition and the medication.

“Yes, son…I’m here,” Ben said, smiling after hours of intense worry. “How are you feeling?”

“I…hurt…”

“I know son, but the doctor left some medication for the pain…and something to help you rest,” Ben hurried to explain, already mixing the pain powder in a glass of water.

“No…medicine…need…to…tell you…”

“Shh…we’ll talk later son, when you’re better…here take this,” Ben said, gently lifting his son’s head and putting the glass to Joe’s lips.

The glass was practically knocked from Ben’s hand by Joe’s who tried to push his father away.

“Talk…”

“No, Joseph…you need to take this first, we can talk later, now, please do as I say,” Ben stressed that his son was so persistent.

Unable to argue with his father, Joe allowed the glass to return to his lips and drank the bitter tasting formula. Ben carefully lowered Joe’s head back down onto the pillow.

“There, that’s good…now you can rest. The medicine won’t take long, son; soon you’ll feel more comfortable.”

Ben heard the boy sigh. He watched Joe’s face carefully and how already the medicine was making his son sleepy.

“I…know…” the drowsy young man mumbled.

Puzzled, Ben moved in closer in order to hear Joe’s mumbled words.

“You know…what do you know, son?”

There was momentary pause before Joe answered, though his answer was so muted by the weariness of his voice, that his father was barely able to understand what was being said.

“Who…I know…who…sho….” Unable to finish the sentence, Joe’s eyes closed and once more the young man was lost to a world of blackness where nothing mattered at all to him.

Ben straightened up and stood quietly over the sleeping form and totally unaware that Adam had entered the room.

“Pa?”

Ben jumped as if frightened and spun around.

“Sorry,” Adam claimed. “Didn’t mean to spook you.”

“Oh…that’s alright, I suppose I was deep in thought,” Ben said.

“I noticed. I heard you talking…did Joe wake up?”

Ben glanced back down at his sleeping son and then sat back down in his chair.

“Yes, but only for a moment…just long enough to take some painkiller.”

Adam crept close to the bed and for several seconds, watched the changing expressions on Joe’s face.

“He did say anything?” he asked his father, turning.

“I asked him how he felt and he said he was hurting…so I gave some of the medicine Paul had left.”

“That’s all?” Adam inquired, noting the troubled expression on the older man’s face.

For the first time, Ben’s eyes rested on Adam’s face. “No…he said he wanted to talk. I’m afraid I didn’t give him much of a chance…now I kind of wish I had.”

“Why…what did he want to talk about?”

“I’m not sure, Adam,” Ben said, rising and walking across the room to peer out into the darkness of night. “It was hard to understand him, his voice is so weak…but it sounded as if he was trying to tell me,” Ben took a deep breath and turned around again, meeting Adam’s intense gaze. “I think he was trying to say that he knew who it was that…and then he went out again and couldn’t finish telling me…”

“He said he knew who…who what?” growled Adam, not angry with his father, but angry at not knowing what it was that his kid brother was trying to tell them.

“That’s just it Adam, I don’t know what he was trying to say! Like a fool, I wouldn’t let him talk when he first woke up, when he was better able…this is my fault…again…” Ben grumbled in deep disgusted tone of voice.

Ben was beside the bed again, fiddling with the hem of the blanket, straightening an already neat cover.

“Pa,” Adam said softly. “He’ll wake up again in a little while…you can ask him then…”

“Yes…if he can even remember what it was he was trying to tell me. He’s so drugged up Adam…his mind might even be playing tricks on him…but…what if…what if he was trying to tell me who it was that was in the house?”

“Not likely, Pa…it was too dark…I couldn’t even make out who it was, Hoss said he didn’t even see anyone and you said…………”

“I know what I said!” snapped Ben. “But what if??”

Adam sighed deeply, feeling the frustration that emitted from his father. “Then if that was so, we can do nothing right now, Pa but wait…and…when I go into town in the morning to meet Tate…I’ll let Roy in of the fact that maybe…just maybe, Little Joe knows who the shooter was…”

Ben let the air expel from his lunges, taking in another gulp of air to refresh himself. “I’m sorry, Adam…I didn’t mean to snap at you…but I just can’t shake this burden of guilt I’m feeling…”

“I understand, Pa…try not to be so hard on yourself…no one, not even your youngest cub over there, blames you…don’t blame yourself,” Adam said, trying to reassure his father.

“Easier said than done I’m afraid,” Ben answered.
“Where’s Hoss?” Adam asked as he stood at the door donning his hat and then his gun belt.

“Oh…I guess I forgot to mention, he’s gone over to Genoa to see about some mares that Gil Norton just got in…he’ll be back late this afternoon,” Ben, who had taken a break from sitting with Joe in order to have breakfast with his eldest son.

“Oh no,” Adam said in a teasing voice, “there goes the stock line,” he snickered.

“Now, Adam, your brother knows more about horses than any man I know,” Ben argued in his middle son’s defense.

Adam laughed. “I know…say, I won’t be long in town. Do you need anything else other than to fix up that loan for Mr. Wills?”

“Not that I can think of…you might stop by and tell Doc Martin that Little Joe woke up last night…oh, and see the sheriff about what we talked about last night.”

“I will, as soon as I meet Tate at the bank…”

Adam opened the door and stepped into the morning light. The air was crispy, causing Ben to shiver slightly as he stood on the porch watching Adam cross the yard to the barn.

“Don’t forget to get the mail, son,” he reminded Adam as the younger man began to mount up.

“I won’t. See you tonight, Pa.”

“Have a safe trip,” Ben called out.
Tate Wills wasn’t hard to find. He was waiting for Adam just outside the bank. Adam had barely time enough to dismount when Tate approached him.

“Mornin’ Adam,” he smiled.

“Tate…”

“Um…Adam…ya don’t have to fret none about that loan,” stammered Tate, gazing off at something down the street.

Adam stopped short of stepping onto the boardwalk and studied the older man.

“How come?” he asked.

Tate scratched his head, glancing sideways at Adam. “I done got my money…you know, the inheritance I was lookin’ to git…well, it already came in…”

Adam knew his surprise must have shown. The time when Tate had told his father about the upcoming inheritance and the time it took to arrive were somewhat surprising.

“Really? Gosh…well, do you have enough…not that it’s any of my business, but do you have enough to cover your taxes and make the repairs to your place?” Adam inquired.

Tate’s eyes beamed as he smiled broadly at Adam. “Yep…I’d say I do Adam. That and more, praise the Lord!”

Tate’s excitement was infectious and Adam grinned. “Good,” he said, “use it wisely Mr. Wills…”

“Oh don’t ya worry ya self none, boy. I aim on doin’ things right, this time,” the old gentleman boasted. “Tell ya pa I said thanks just the same.”

“I will, he’ll be glad to hear the good news. Well, I need to go on down to the sheriff’s office and have a little talk with him,” Adam explained as he untied Sport’s reins from the hitching post and began walking down the street, leading his mount.

“Mind if’n I tag along?”

“No, suit yourself,” Adam said.

The men walked side by side, chatting until they reached the sheriff’s office. Roy was just coming from his office and almost collided with the pair.

“Oh Adam, Tate…I didn’t see ya! How ya doing?” Roy said, greeting the men with a friendly smile and handshake.

“I’m fine, thanks,” Adam answered.

“Me too,” chirped Tate.

“Say Roy, Pa asked me to drop by and see you…he wanted you to know, Little Joe woke up around three this morning and tried to tell us something,” began, unaware that Tate had moved a wee bit closer so that he could hear what was being said.

“No kiddin’? What was it that Joe was tryin’ to tell your father?” Roy asked.

Another man joined them on the boardwalk just as Adam began to tell the sheriff what they suspected Joe of trying to tell them.

“Mornin’ Adam, Roy…Tate. Say, how’s your brother, Adam?” Silas Martin, a neighbor of the Cartwright’s asked.

“Morning Mr. Martin. Little Joe’s doing a bit better…thanks for asking,” Adam answered.

“What was it ya was it you were about to tell me?” Roy asked, slightly put out about the interruption.

“Well, that’s just it Roy, Pa’s not real sure, but he believes that Joe was trying to tell him who it was that had shot him…”

“Ya mean he seen who done it?” Roy asked, shocked by the information.

The two older men, Tate Wills and Silas Martin, swapped bewildered looks as they leaned in closer in order to hear better.

“From what Pa can make of it, Joe said, ‘I know who…’and then he fell back asleep. Pa’s almost certain Joe was trying to tell him that he knew who was in the house,” Adam explained. “Pa just wanted you to know…we’ll keep you posted, just in case.”

“That would be great Adam, if Joe actually saw the shooter, it certainly would make my job easier. It’s hard tryin’ to track down an intruder when no one has a clue who might have done it…”

“I can imagine…but hey, I need to be going, Pa wanted me to stop by the doc’s office and tell him Joe’s been trying to wake up and…oh yeah…I need to stop by and get the mail. You take it easy, Roy.”

“I will and…tell your Pa, I’ll try to get by later today…”

When Adam turned around, Tate and Silas both had left. He looked up and down the street but the elderly men was nowhere to be seen.
The gnawing in the pit of his stomach caused the big man to inhale sharply. His massive hand rubbed across the center of his belly as he glanced up at the sun to check the time.

“I’m dang near starved to death,” he muttered to himself.

Hoss Cartwright paused briefly and glanced up the street, opposite from where he’d just finished his business with Gil Norton. The mares he’d been looking to buy would be delivered by the end of the week. Meanwhile, Hoss had grown hungry and had decided to stop off in town on his way home to fill the emptiness in his gut. He had a certain place he was looking for and since Genoa wasn’t a big place, it was only minutes before he found himself seated in a comfortable spot in the Laid Back Café just off the main street.

Hoss had only seconds to wait before a friendly but older woman greeted him and asked for his order.

“A beef steak and potatoes…and some of these fresh carrots…and I’ll have a piece…no…two pieces of that apple pie, like that fellow over there’s havin’…please, ma’am,” Hoss said, smiling up at the lady.

“Alrighty…it’ll be right out,” the waitress replied, returning the friendly man’s smile.

True to her word, it was just minutes before the lady returned and placed his meal on the table before him. “Is there anything else I can get for you?” she asked politely.

“No,” mumbled Hoss, his mouth already full.

The lady smiled in return. “Then I’ll check back with you in a few minutes…”

“Um…wait…” Hoss said, swallowing what was in his mouth at the same moment.

The waitress paused, waiting. “Yes?”

“Do ya happen to know a lady…well, I mean…a friend of mine is…oh, shoot…what I’m tryin’ to say is…is there a lady by the name of Emma Sue Rawlins’ that works here?” Hoss finally managed to ask.

The waitress seemed a bit surprised as she eyed the giant of a man, but she smiled just the same. “I’m Emma Sue…why…am I suppose to know you?”

“No,” Hoss said, shaking his head. “Well, I mean…not personally…but ya know a friend of mine…”he stated, his merry blue eyes twinkling mischievously.

“Oh, and who might that be?” Emma Sue asked.

Hoss almost blushed. He remembered that Tate’s courtship with this woman was supposed to be a secret and he suddenly was hesitant.

“Umm…a friend of mine…over in Virginia City…”

Emma’s blue eyes widened even further. She appeared to be thinking for she barely knew anyone from Virginia City.

“Tate Wills…” Hoss said quietly. He noted the furrows that suddenly appeared in the woman’s brow. Unsure what to say, Hoss began muttering lowly. “I know, ma’am…Tate said it was sort of a secret…you and him…I didn’t mean to embarrass you…”

“Embarrass me?” Emma Sue proclaimed in a voice that seemed loud to Hoss. “My goodness boy, you’re not embarrassing me…I’m just trying to figure out who the blazes is Tate Wills!” she laughed. “I ain’t never had myself a secret admirer before, just wait until Sam hears about this!” she laughed as she turned to go.

Puzzled, Hoss reached out and touched Emma’s arm. “Wait a minute,” he said politely. “Who is Sam?”

Emma Sue, her hands on her hips turned to face Hoss. He noted the merriment in the lady’s dancing eyes. “Sam is…my husband…and I don’t know no Tate Wills…never heard of the fellow!” she proclaimed as she hurried back into the kitchen.

Stunned and not knowing what else to say, Hoss quickly finished his supper, anxious to return home…where things were more normal, or so he thought to himself.
Adam stopped at the post office, waiting for the man in front of him at the little window, to finish his business.

“Well howdy, Adam,” Pete, the postmaster, greeted.

“Hi Pete…I’m here for the mail,” Adam said, smiling at the man behind the counter.

“Ain’t run yet, Adam…sorry…”

“What?” Adam, taken off guard by the comment, could only gaze at the man in wonder.

“Sorry…but the stage’s late coming in. Just got a wire about half an hour ago saying it won’t be in until this evening. You expecting something special…I could have a messenger bring it out to the Ponderosa later tonight…”

“No…no…nothing in particular…just the regular mail. Don’t trouble yourself, Pete, someone will be in tomorrow to get it,” Adam said as he turned to go.
“I just don’t understand why he lied about it!”

Just then, the door opened and Adam appeared. “Who lied…and about what?” he asked of his father and middle brother who were both standing in the center of the living room.

Removing his hat and then his gun belt, Adam quickly joined the pair. “Well…who lied?” he asked a second time.

“Oh, Hoss here thinks Tate Wills lied to him about having a…sweetheart over in Genoa,” chuckled Ben, glancing sideways to check Hoss’ reaction.

“Ain’t no thinkin’ to it, Pa,” Hoss said defensively. “Tate told me plain that he was courtin’…Miss Emma Sue Rawlins…’ceptin’ she ain’t Miss, she’s Mrs…married she said…to a man named Sam Rawlins!”

“I think you probably misunderstood, Hoss,” Ben said. He took a sip of coffee from the cup he held in his hand. “I need to check on Little Joe,” he said, moving towards the stairs.

“I’m not so sure about that…”

Both Ben and Hoss paused and turned to look at Adam.

“How’s come?” Hoss inquired, curious.

“Well…to be honest with you…I think I caught Tate Wills in a lie as well,” Adam explained, sitting himself down on the edge of the wide wooden table that sat in front of the massive fireplace.

“What do you mean, Adam” Ben, also curious as well.

“As it were,” began Adam. “I met Tate this morning at the bank like you asked me to do…and he informed me that he no longer needed the money…the loan…in order to pay his taxes and fix his place up…”

“Really…why?” Ben wanted to know.

“Well, you remember he mentioned that he was inheriting a large sum of money?”

“Yes, I recall him saying something along that line.”

“Tate said the money came in…just that morning. So I didn’t have to make him the loan,” explained Adam.

“And he lied about that? Why would he do that?” Hoss puzzled.

“I didn’t say he lied about that,” Adam stated.

“Then just actually, what are you saying?” Ben wanted to know.

“I’m saying, Tate claimed his inheritance had just come in that morning but when I went by to pick up the mail, Pete told me that the stage hadn’t come in…and…that it was late, and wouldn’t come in until this evening…”

“And Tate lied about…I don’t understand, Adam…just what did Tate lie about?” Hoss quizzed.

The air in Adam’s lungs expelled. “I don’t know!” he growled. “Not exactly…I mean…he claimed to have received his money…but how…if the mail hadn’t even arrived? We knew…just last night…that he was expecting his inheritance…how’d he get it so soon without…the mail even running? Who gave him the money?”

The thought even made Ben’s brow wrinkle with wonderment. Adam glanced back and forth between his father and his brother, watching both as they puzzled through the disturbing thoughts.

“I don’t know, Adam…” he said softly as he turned to climb the stairs. “I certainly have never known Tate Wills to lie before…I don’t understand why he would be doing so now. But it’s not any of our business…I need to see about your brother.”

A moment later, Ben was gone from sight. Adam and Hoss heard the upstairs bedroom door close and knew that it would be several hours before either of them would see their father again, unless they too visited the sick room.

“How’s Joe?” Adam asked after a brief silence.

“He’s still sleeping. Doc came by and gave him some more medicine and checked the wound.”

“I went by to see him while I was in town, but he wasn’t there. Guess he was here instead,” Adam explained. “What did he say about the wound?”

“Doc said that it seems to be getting a little infected, which of course is worrying Pa some,” Hoss explained.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Adam said, concerned.

“Doc put some medicine on it and said he thought maybe they found it soon enough…why’d ya reckon Tate Wills lied to us, Adam?” Hoss asked suddenly.

Adam watched the worried expression that crossed his brother’s face and shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know…I’m just wondering though, where’d the old man get that much money?” Adam said more to himself than to Hoss.

“I can’t rightly say,” Hoss responded, “but it does sound strange…”

“Yeah,” said Adam, agreeing. “How’d he get the money when the mail hadn’t even come in?”

For several long moments, the two young men were lost in their own private thoughts. At last, Adam stood and stretched.

“Adam…”

“Yeah?”

“You…don’t suppose…naw…never mind,” Hoss grumbled.

“I don’t suppose what, Hoss…that Tate had anything to do with the missing payroll?” Adam said firmly. He watched as Hoss rose slowly from the hearth and met his gaze.

“How’d ya…know I was…goin’ ask ya that?”

“I didn’t know…I was wondering the same thing,” Adam Cartwright answered.

There was another long pause and then Hoss spoke up.

“Ya…reckon?”

Adam shook his head at the same time he shrugged his shoulders. “I…can’t imagine how he’d pull it off…or…when. It certainly wasn’t the night the intruder was here…the money was already gone…”

Hoss’ blue eyes rounded in enormous blue lakes. His voice was low, almost a whisper when he spoke.

“Or was it?”
Dozing lightly in his chair near the bed, Ben was awakened by a soft voice calling out to him.

“Joseph…I’m here, son,” he said in a low voice. “Welcome back.”

“Pa…”

Ben noted how pale and drawn his son’s face appeared and how the dark circles beneath the eyes made the boy’s expression even more pallid. When Joe’s hand extended upward, searching for a familiar touch, Ben was quick to grasp hold with both of his larger hands. Joe’s palms were damp with moisture.

“Pa…I need…to…tell you…” Joe muttered weakly.

“Son…it can wait, you need to rest…you’re so very weak…”

“No…I’m…fine…really Pa…I know who…”

“PA! PA! Come down here…” Adam’s tone sounded urgent as he stood at the bottom of the steps and called out.

Sighing and torn between the urgency downstairs and the need for Joseph to tell him what was on his mind, Ben gently placed Joe’s hand on the cover and patted it tenderly.

“Joe…I’ll be right back son…” he said as he walked backwards toward the bedroom door, his eyes never leaving the haggard face.

Joe inhaled deeply. “But…Pa…” he said though it came out only as a muted whisper.

“I’ll be right back, I promise,” Ben said as he disappeared through the doorway and into the hall.

Joe sighed heavily as he struggled to push back the heavy quilts and sling his legs over the side of the bed. His head felt light for a moment and he was forced to remain perched on the edge of mattress to give his head time to stop spinning. Downstairs he could hear voices. His father’s deep voice could be heard over the others though Joe was unable to make out what was being said. Struggling to push himself up from the bed, Joe staggered towards the door, grasping the chair and then the table to brace himself against falling. By the time he was able to pull open the heavy door, the voices below had stopped. From the partially opened window, Joe knew that whomever had come calling was now standing outside with his father and brothers finishing their conversation. As a wave of nausea washed over him, Joe suddenly regretted his weak attempt at getting out of bed. He inhaled deeply, trying to ward off the sick feeling gathering in the pit of his stomach and began inching his way back to his bed. Once back beside the bed, he all but fell into the soft folds of the mattress, leaving the blankets dangling over the edge. With sweat dotting his brow, Joe closed his eyes, took another deep breath and succumbed to the drowsiness that overtook him.

“I don’t understand why Roy needs all three of us to come into town,” Ben grumbled, unwilling to leave Joe alone for such a long period of time.

Silas Martin shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know Mr. Cartwright, ‘ceptin’ he asked me to fetch you and your boys for’em.”

“Well…” stammered Ben, glancing toward the upstairs window that was Joe’s. “I…can’t leave my son alone…he’s been wounded and…and, our housekeeper’s already in town helping out a cousin…he left earlier today…so…”

“That’s alright, Mr. Cartwright…I’ll stay with the boy until you get back. Won’t be no problem…” Silas explained.

Ben seemed hesitant as he shook his head. “I…just don’t know…Joe was about to tell me something…”

“It can keep, Pa…Roy’s probably found out who broke into the house and stole…”

“HOSS!” barked Ben. He gave the boy a stern look, telling Hoss he’d said enough in front of their neighbor.

“Sorry, Pa,” Hoss muttered under his breath.

“Let’s just ride into town and see what Roy needs. Silas here has offered to stay with Joe…he’ll probably be sleeping anyways,” Adam suggested as he placed a quieting hand atop his father’s shoulder.

Ben’s lips were pressed tightly together, making them to appear thinner than what they actually were. “I suppose it would be alright,” Ben said half-heartedly.

“I’ll saddle the horses,” Hoss rushed on to say, already turning towards the barn.

“I’ll show you in,” Ben said to the messenger as he led the way into the house. “He’s upstairs…”

Silas followed Ben up the stairs and into the room. Ben went straight to the bedside. It was evident that Joe had tried to get out of bed and for a moment Ben almost changed his mind about going into town.

“He’s sleepin’ like a baby,” Silas said softly as he watched Ben straighten Joe’s legs out and then pull the blankets up and over the sleeping boy.

Tenderly, Ben brushed back a stray lock of chestnut curls that had fallen onto Joe’s brow. “Make sure he doesn’t get out of this bed,” Ben said, straightening himself but never allowing his eyes to wander from his son’s face. “He’ll probably sleep the entire time, just as Adam said.”

“Don’t worry yourself none, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll stay right here with’em and make sure he don’t do nuthin’ he ain’t suppose to.”

Ben glanced at the man with a twinge of doubt but turned without another word and left the room. Silas made himself comfortable in the chair that remained beside the bed and watched the sleeping boy. An uneasy feeling gnawed at Ben’s gut. He wasn’t quite sure what it was that made him feel that way. As he mounted his horse, Ben turned again to glance up at the front window. Against the darkness of the night and the light that burned within the room, he could see the silhouette of his guest, Silas Martin and knew the man was moving about the room.

“You comin’ Pa?” Hoss called out.

Ben sighed heavily, trying to shake the uneasy feeling. He wheeled his horse around and following his two sons, the trio headed for town.
The lone figure of a man knocked on the heavy wooden door. With his rapping, the door opened slightly, for it had not been shut tightly. The man allowed himself to step just within the entry, calling out softly.

“Hello? Mr. Cartwright?” He waited for an answer but receiving none, inched deeper into the room. The room was empty, seemingly sounding hollow as he walked across the wooden floor towards the stairs. There he stopped, resting his hand on top of the post.

“Mr. Cartwright…are you up there?” With no answer coming down to him, he eased his way up the steps, taking them slowly, one at a time. About halfway up, one of the steps squeaked. He paused, almost frozen to the spot. Something wasn’t right. His heart suddenly began to beat wildly, a sense of dread mingled with a dull feeling of doom. He inhaled deeply, death filled his nostrils, causing him to rush ahead toward the first door on the right, the one he knew to be Little Joe’s bedroom.

With a sudden rush of force, he shoved the door opened, stopping dead in his tracks. His mouth flew opened, but no words came out though he felt as if he were screaming, but in truth, he’d been stunned into silence by what he was seeing.

On the bed, where Little Joe Cartwright was suppose to be, a man dressed in dark clothing appeared to be straddling the middle of the bed. The man on the bed turned and glared at him, evil and wickedly the man’s eyes seemed to bore right through him. Tate felt a cold chill of fear race through his entire body, causing him to shiver slightly. The man appeared to be struggling with what was supposed to be Little Joe’s pillow, pushing it deeply into the mattress at the head of the bed.

A muted groan sounded from beneath the pillow, jarring Tate from his stupor. “What the hell’s goin’ on here! Where’s Little Joe?” he demanded of the man as he hurried forward to the bed. His eyes opened wide, startled to see his old friend, his neighbor…

A grunt and then an arm, fraying loose from beneath the blankets brought a dash or realization to the situation. Tate Wills in that moment knew that this man…his friend and neighbor not only to himself, but to the Cartwrights as well…was trying to…to…murder Joe Cartwright!

Tate sprung into action, throwing his body onto the back of…the man attempting to kill the youngest Cartwright. Tate put the man into a headlock and pulled back, struggling to wrench the man, whom he now realized was straddling the entrapped body of Ben’s youngest son, beneath the blankets that held him prisoner.

“LET GO! YOU’RE KILLIN’ HIM…YOU DAMN FOOL….” Bellowed Tate as he twisted and pulled on the man until at last the man lost his grip and turned his wrath on the man behind him.

“I GOTTA KILL’EM, YA IDIOT!” shouted the would-be murder. He felt Tate’s arm lessen the hold on his neck and he took advantage of the opportunity to ball up his fist and punch Tate square on the chin.

Startled by the blow, Tate’s body fell backward causing him to fall from the bed. Joe, gasping deeply for air to fill his starving lungs, tried to push the intruder from the bed, but in his weaken state his effort was futile. The man, still intending to kill the boy, slugged Joe hard on the left side of his face. Joe groaned as his upper body fell back against the pillows.

But he was just conscious enough to see the man grab the other pillow and start downward towards his face. Joe’s right arm flew upward, warding off the man’s attempt while his left fist made a weakened attempt at punching the man’s chin. The sound of the man’s laughter as he knocked Joe’s arm away, left Joe with a sudden dread that this would be the night he died. Unable to free himself from his blankets and having no more strength to fight the man, the thought raced through his head that his father would, in all probability, blame himself for this, his son’s dead, as well as blaming himself for Joe’s getting shot. Joe could not allow that to happen. He moaned as a wall of pain from his injury attempted to devour his body, pushed himself upward and tried to shove the pillow away. For a brief moment, it appeared that he might be successful, but then his strength, which was nothing, evaporated into thin air. The man, pushing downward, was forcing Joe back into down onto the bed, the back of his head pressed into the other pillow…

It was growing dark…all light had vanished…was his eyes opened or closed? He really couldn’t tell. He couldn’t breath either. His head hurt…there was ringing in his ears. His lungs burned, his chest ached. He could feel himself slipping away…further…further… Off in the distance, he could hear voices…soft voices, muted, like whispering…Oh God…when will the pain cease? Suddenly, Joe was able to open his eyes…but something wasn’t right…WHAT?? He saw his bed…and the two men, one bending over his prone body, pushing heavily on the pillow that Joe knew covered his face. And the second man…who was that…oh…that was Tate Wills…what was he doing? He’s struggling with…with…NO…that couldn’t be…but it was…and he was trying to…kill him. No…wait, I’m already dead…I’m…floating…NO…NO…I can’t be dead…poor Pa…PA! PA! HELP ME!! I DON’T WANT TO DIE….NOT LIKE THIS…NOT WITH YOU BLAMING YOURSELF….PA! ADAM…HOSS…SOMEONE…HELP ME!!
“What in blazes!” stormed Ben as he rushed into the room, shocked at what he was seeing. Behind him, Adam and Hoss thundered into the room as well. Ben had convinced his sons that something wasn’t right. He’d had a gut feeling that had churned in his stomach that he should not have left Joe alone with their neighbor and thus had returned to the ranch, and apparently just in the nick of time, or was he?

Adam moved swiftly, grabbing Tate from the bed and flinging him to the floor. Hoss was on the second man and roughly jerked him from the middle of the bed, spinning the man around to face him and then delivering a solid blow to the man’s upper jaw. The man was knocked across the room, Hoss close behind, grabbing him up from the floor and with a fist of steel ready to strike, froze in mid act as the sound of his father’s deep voice blared loudly…

“JOSEPH! DEAR GOD, JOE…COME BACK TO ME…TO US…YOU CAN’T DIE…NOT LIKE THIS…PLEASE SON…COME BACK!”

Over head where he floated, Joe watched the entire event take place, Adam’s removal of Tate…did his brother actually think that it was Tate who was trying to kill him? And Hoss grabbing…the man, I can’t believe that…and slinging the man across the room as easily as if he’d been a scrape of garbage. But it was the sound of his father’s voice, sopping, pleading, beseeching of him, not to die…to come back to him… The sound of his father’s wailing tore at the core of his heart. How could he deny the man…the man who had given him life? But here, in the place of in-between, where the light was warm and inviting, he felt no pain, no misery…he could breathe freely, his chest didn’t hurt; his lungs had stopped burning, even the pain in his side from the bullet wound had stopped hurting…

“Son…please…I…I…can’t bear to lose you…” Ben’s head was bent low near the boy’s as his work-worn hands gently stroked his son’s ashen face. “I love you, Joseph, I…need you.”

Joe felt the tug on his heart. He glanced upward. The bright light was beginning to fade. From far away, a soft, tender voice whispered to him… ‘Go back to thy father, he needs you…I can wait…’

Joe closed his eyes and when he opened them again, he was back…back from where ever he’d gone and the face that loomed before him now was that of his father.

“Pa?” he murmured lowly.

“Joe?? Joe…” Ben’s lips parted into a wide smile of pleasure and joy. “You’re back!!” he wept as he brushed the back of his hand gently across Joe’s cheek.

The boy forced a smile for his father. “He was…trying to…kill me…” Joe claimed in a weak voice. “With…my pillow…”

“I know, son…your brother’s stop them both.”

Joe swallowed hard and slowly moved his head back and forth. “No…”

“It’s alright, son…it’s over now and I’m here. Adam and Hoss are taking those two into town, to Roy…”

Again, Joe moved his head back and forth. He was so tired; the effort drained him completely after all he’d just been through.

“No…not…Tate…” he muttered. “He…”

“Joe…it’s alright son, we saw what was happening…”

“PA,” Joe said in a gargling voice that stopped his father’s words.

“What is it, Joe…what are you trying to say?”

“Tate…he…was…trying to…save my…life…not kill…me…” The air rushed from Joe’s lungs as his eyes slowly began to close. “If…he…hadn’t…been…here……………”

Ben sighed deeply, just as deeply as his thoughts formed in his mind. So, from what Joe was claiming, Tate Wills wasn’t about to kill his son…but stop…a murder. But…for what reason would…someone want Joe dead? None of it made any sense to him. Quickly, Ben went to the bedroom window and pushed it opened.

“ADAM…Wait a minute,” he called just as Adam and Hoss were about to leave the yard. “I’ll be right down…” Shutting the window and turning to Joe, he quickly pulled the blankets up around the sleeping young man and then hurried downstairs.

Outside, Hoss and Adam were waiting with their prisoners. Both men had their hands tied together and then to the saddle horn of their saddles to prevent either of them from making an escape.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked.

“I have some questions first,” he said as he walked up to Tate’s horse. “Joe said you were trying to…save his life?”

Tate, frightened nearly out of his mind, nodded his head instantly. “Yessir Mr. Cartwright…why, I wouldn’t hurt that boy for nuthin’. I stopped by this evenin’ to see how the boy was doin’ but when I knocked on ya door, no one answered. I just let myself in…I know it t’weren’t right, but I thought maybe ya was upstairs tending the lad. So I called out for ya, but ya didn’t answer, so I just…I just went on up to see for myself…that’s when I saw…him…in the middle of the bed, shovin’ that pilla down on ya boy’s face. All I done was to pull’em off…or…I mean, I didn’t do such a good job, but I tried. I t’weren’t about to let him kill ya son, Mr. Cartwright…’specially after how good ya been to me…”

“Yeah…that’s what Joe said…that you were trying to help him…I appreciate that…but just the same, I’m sending you on into town with Adam and Hoss…you can tell your story to the sheriff…”

Tate nodded his head. “Yessir…I understand, Mr. Cartwright…honest…I do, I’d probably feel the same way as ya do…”

Ben moved to the other man’s horse and stopped. His dark eyes grew dark with embedded anger at the man who refused to look down at him.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” he asked the man.

“I ain’t sayin’ nuthin’!”

Hoss gently pushed his father aside as he reached up and grabbed the man.

“My father asked you a question, now if’n ya don’t want to eat my fist, I suggest ya show a little respect…!”

Hoss could feel the shivers course through the man’s body and saw the sudden fear that shown in his troubled eyes.

“Alright, alright…I admit it…I was tryin’ to kill the kid…and with good reason!” snarled the frightened man.

“But why…what reason would you have to harm my son? What’s he ever done to you?” Ben demanded.

“Cause…he’s…a…Cartwright…and I hate Cartwrights,” the man grumbled, giving each of the three standing Cartwrights a look that bespoke loudly of his hatred toward them. “Ya Cartwrights always did think ya was better the rest of us folks…rich sons-of-bitches…the lot of you. Always braggin’ about ya got and what we ain’t got…”

“That’s a lie!” proclaimed Hoss in defense of his family.

“Let the man talk, Hoss,” Adam said as he stepped up to his captive. “So you hate us…that’s not reason enough to want to kill us, especially a nineteen year old boy.”

The man’s lips twisted into a snarl. “Especially the boy…cause he’s high and mighty…talkin’ down to me like I was nuthin’ more’n white trash…”

“What? When did Joseph ever talk down to you? Why…you’ve know the boy almost his entire life. Joe’s worked for you…helping you fix your place up…he’s friends with your sons…”

“He refused me a loan…said I wasn’t a good risk…said he needed collateral or somethin’ like that…said I couldn’t have no money…and he knew plenty well that the bank had already refused me…so, I snuck into the house that night…cause I was gonna steal the money…I needed it bad like, Ben…but then someone heard me and then someone shouted and the gun went off…I…I didn’t mean no harm…not then…I just wanted that payroll ya always kept in ya safe this time of month…t’weren’t no secret…”

“But why now?”

“Cause…I knew he seen me…the boy I mean…he seen me…he knew who it was that shot him…and…and…I was afraid to go to jail…so…I reckon all this hate built up in me and then I seen Adam in town yesterday and heard’em tell the sheriff that ya boy was tryin’ to tell ya who it was that shot him…so…I…I had to kill him. And I would have too…if’n this low down, sorry ass no account hadn’t burst in on me like he had!” snarled the man.

Anger over the cruel and careless works of a man so deranged by his own hatred burned in Ben’s veins. He’d like nothing better than to pull the old man down from the horse he rode and beat him within an inch of life. He had almost succeeded in doing what he’d set out to do…and for what, a few dollars, dollars that wasn’t even in the safe at the time of the attempted robbery, which brought up other questions, where was the money and who had really taken it? Where was it now if this man hadn’t stolen it, or…had he?

“What do you know about the money…the money that is missing from my safe?”

The man looked away, refusing to meet the dark, angry eyes.

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about…”

“Liar!” growled Hoss, moving again towards the man.

The man glanced down at the giant of a man and gulped. “I don’t…if’n I did know about it, or had it on me, I’d sure not be here wastin’ my time tryin’ to kill a fool ass boy! Now, I wanna talk to the sheriff…can we just go?”

Hoss backed away and glanced over at his father who was studying his neighbor’s face. He turned to Hoss and Adam and nodded.

“Tell Roy I’ll be in, in the morning to discuss this with him,” he ordered as he turned to go. Disgusted with the turn of events, the sense of betrayal by a supposed friend, the guilt of having been the cause of getting his youngest son injured and now the added pressure of his son’s life having been endangered by this manic of a man was more than Ben could bear. Without another word, he returned to his son’s bedside where he remained until early the next morning when he was awakened by the brush of hand on his.
“Pa…Pa…”

Ben’s eyes opened and suddenly he smiled. Joe was watching him closely, his smaller hand resting atop the older hand.

“Well, good morning…how are you feeling?” Ben asked, covering Joe’s hand with his other.

“Better…at least I think I am,” the young man said, offering a return smile.

“Good…I’m glad, son.”

“Pa…about last night,” Joe said hesitantly.

“What about last night?”

“Tate…Pa he really wasn’t trying to kill me…”

“I know son, he explained last night what was happening…”

“But…” Joe squinted his eyes as if he were forcing himself to remember something.

“What is it, son?” Ben asked. He scooted the chair closer to the bed.

“Something happened last night…I’m not sure I can explain it.”

“Why don’t you try?”

“Well, I was sleeping…and then I was awakened, but…I couldn’t see anything and…I couldn’t move. I felt trapped, but…worse…I couldn’t breathe but I didn’t know why. I tried to struggle, but something was on top of me and I couldn’t break free.” Joe took a deep breath and continued. “I felt myself slipping away…I mean, I knew…I knew I was dying…smothering to dead… And then…” he gulped. “I couldn’t do anything about it and then suddenly, I was…I know this might sound crazy to you, but…I was floating…”

Joe heard his father grasp. “Go on.”

“Like I said, I was floating…I could see myself in the bed; I had stopped struggling…but I could breathe again and all my pain was gone. I wasn’t really afraid…but I was confused about what was happening to me. I could see just as plainly as I’m seeing you, I could see Tate fighting with…Pa…I don’t understand this part. Why…why would HE…a man I’ve known nearly all my life…want to kill me?”

“Joe, it’s a long story, but the short of it is, he was jealous, envious and greedy. He wanted money and we wouldn’t give it to him. So, he decided to take it…but the money wasn’t there, it was already gone…”

“I know…”

“And we didn’t…” Ben paused, suddenly aware of what Joe had just said. He eyed the boy closely. “What did you just say?”

“I said I know…”

“Know what?” Ben was getting a bit confused.

“That the money wasn’t there…in the safe…”

“But how? How could you know, Joe?”

Joe almost laughed at the shocked expression on his father’s face. “I moved it…I took it out of the safe after Silas Martin stopped by that night and begged me for money. When I told him no, he got mad…really mad and stormed out of the house yelling at me that I’d live to regret it…so, I took the money out of the safe and hid it…oh, by the way, it’s in your room in that secret little box you keep tucked under the quilts in your wardrobe. Anyway, I was going to tell you about it when you got home that night, but you were so late coming in, that I went on to bed. I was going to tell you in the morning, but then…well, everything else started happening and I didn’t get the chance…”

Ben’s eyes suddenly lightened and be began laughing. “Why you little scamp…the money was right here all the time, under our very noses!”

Joe laughed softly, holding his mid-section as he did so. “Oh…that hurts,” he grinned.

“I guess I made Silas so angry…that when he came back that night, he intended to steal the money…but instead, he ended up shooting me…”

“Oh, which by the way, he claims that was an accident…he said when I yelled out, it startled him and the gun just went off,” Ben explained and then sobered. “Joe…I’m sorry son…for getting you hurt.”

“Pa…it wasn’t your fault…honest…don’t fret over it. I’m going to be alright…honest,” Joe hurried to comfort his father.

“I know son…but I can’t help blaming myself. I’d never do anything intentionally to hurt you, or one of your brothers…”

“We know that, Pa. Don’t we?” he said, looking up just in time to see his two older brothers entering his room.

“Of course we do,” Adam said, smiling at his younger brother and his father.

“Well, I guess if none of you blame me, I’ll have to try not to blame myself,” Ben declared meekly.

“Please don’t Pa…” Joe stated. His eyes held a bit of concern that didn’t go unnoticed by his father.

“Alright, son, I won’t,” he vowed, hoping deep within that could put the burden of guilt to rest.

“We took Silas to the sheriff, he’s locked up and is now waiting for trial,” Adam informed both Ben and Joe.

“Good,” Ben affirmed. “Oh, by the way…I know where the missing money is!”

“What?” Hoss practically shouted.

“You do…where?” Adam said just as surprised.

Both Joe and Ben laughed. “Joe took it out of the safe that night and hid it in my wardrobe…”

“But why?” Adam asked.

“That’s a long story, but for now, the money’s safe, Joe’s safe, which is most important, and…a would be killer is locked up in jail…” Ben said with a lighter heart.

“And,” Joe added, “an accused man is free…Tate Wills is a free man isn’t he?”

“Yes, Joe, he’s free…after a lot of explaining,” Adam explained.

“What do you mean?” Joe wanted to know.

“Well, Little Brother, it’s like this…Tate told me he was courtin’ this here woman…Emma something Rawlins, over in Genoa, but he t’weren’t cause she’s married. He was just sayin’ that cause he was really interested in Sherri Lou down at the Bucket of Blood Saloon but he didn’t want anyone to know…who knows why but then he didn’t steal the money outta the safe like me and Adam done thought he did, but he did get his inheritance like the ole gent said he was gonna, but me and Adam didn’t know that, that’s why we figured he stole our money cause all of sudden he didn’t need that loan Pa promised him…but then we thought he lied about getting’ an inheritance which in truth he didn’t cause he did. Adam done thought the money came in on the stage that morning when in fact the stage hadn’t even run yet, so we believed ole Tate done went and told us another lie, but he didn’t cause the money he was expectin’ came by special messenger, but we didn’t know either that at the time, so he did get the money even though we thought he hadn’t, which he really had………”

There was silence in the room as Hoss paused to take a deep breath. Adam had sat down in a vacant chair and glanced over at his father and Little Joe. Ben was standing at the head of the bed staring blankly at his middle son. Joe’s expression was one of total confussion.

“Joseph,” Ben said, glancing down at his son.

Joe turned his head upward to look into his father’s dancing eyes. “Yeah Pa?”

“Tell me again about how you were floating up in the air…and explain again, so your brothers will know…just what did you see?”

Joe almost laughed when he looked over at Hoss. The giant’s blue eyes were blue pools of curiosity.

“Joe can float on air?” Hoss stammered as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

Adam folded his arms across his chest, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

“Oh, this should be a good one,” he muttered to himself as he rolled his hazel eyes and prepared himself for what he believed to be another of his youngest brother’s hair-brain explanations. At that moment, he wasn’t sure who was worse, Little Joe or Hoss, but he listened just the same, glad that everything had worked out for the best.

Much later, he’d only admit that Joe’s experience was quite a tail…one that he refused to admit as being truth.

THE END

February 2007

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