Bushwhacked (by DebbieB)

Summary: The Cartwrights become the target for murder when cattle thieves decide they want more than just the herd; they want the entire Ponderosa empire.

Rated: PG; mild curse words, just 3 or 4  (14,900 words)

 

 

                              Bushwhacked

 

Adam Cartwright pulled his hat off his head and swiped away the beads of perspiration that had collected on his brow. He was hot and tired. The trail was dry and dusty and all that thrown together had made for a long day in the saddle. He had spent the first half of the day looking for strays and those he did find he had managed to drive them into the makeshift corral he had built the day before in a boxed canyon. Then, late this afternoon when he was herding the second small band of cattle back to the corral to join the first group of steers, Adam was astonished to see that the first few heads of cattle had broken down the corral fence and had wandered away. Gone as well as the team of horses used to haul the rails for the corral. The only thing left was the wagon and what remained of the logs for the fence. Talk about bad luck!

He had studied the fence closely, reminded himself that had made double sure the corral was secure enough to hold the fifty or more strays that he planned on housing in the enclosure until his brother could get there to help him herd them back down to the lower pasture. Now it appeared that all his work had been in vain.

Disgusted with how his day had gone thus far, Adam returned his hat to his head and urged his mount forward. “Let’s go you mule headed bovines,” he shouted as he drove the band of strays into the boxed canyon. Once the steers were inside, Adam set to work mending the downed fences. It was only then that he saw evidence that the fence had actually been tampered with, and not by the cattle. Cautiously, he glanced around at his surroundings and realized that his boxed canyon would make the perfect spot for cattle thieves to hold up. If he got caught inside the walls of the canyon, anyone who had a will to do it, could keep him there for days, until either he ran out of ammunition and killed him or simply starved him out. Adam felt his body shudder. ‘Why didn’t I realize that yesterday?’ he mentally asked himself.

Adam settled into camp, just outside of the walled canyon. The rocks had formed a small cave-like enclosure where neither wind nor rain could reach. A large crack in the top of the formation served as a sort of chimney to let the smoke from his campfire spiral upward. He was safe and warm and out of sight of prying eyes, should there be any. Adam kept his fire small, just enough flame to cook the rabbit he had caught earlier. He poured a small amount of water over the flame to extinguish the fire to nothing more than smoldering embers once the rabbit had finished cooking. All afternoon, after rounding up the second herd of steers, Adam had gotten the eerie feeling that he was being watched. The notion kept him alert and on his toes. He’d sleep little this night, he surmised.

 

It was near dawn when the sound of bawling cattle woke Adam from a sound sleep. He rubbed his eyes trying to clear his vision. Suddenly, the sound of gunshots and then cracking fences brought the sleepy man fully awake. Adam grabbed his gun and crept to the opening of his rock hideaway. The cattle were running through the make-shift fencing for the second time. Loud voices rang through the night air and as Adam inched his way closer, with the aide from the glow of the moon he could see three riders chasing his steers out of the boxed canyon.

Quickly Adam saddled his horse. Apparently the rustlers had not known he was in his hideaway thus failing to see him or know that he was even there. His plan was to follow them, find out where they were taking the herd and then wait for his brother to get there. Together they would get their cattle back. Or so Adam thought.

It was just before noon when the rustlers finally stopped. They had herded the steers into their own makeshift corral. Adam hid behind the high rocks overlooking the camp that the rustlers had made. As far as he could tell, there were four men, two watching the herd and two squatting down near the fire. Quietly, he inched his way back to his horse. He was forming a plan in his head. He’d go back to his own boxed canyon, wait for his brother who should be there sometime tomorrow and then together they’d find some way to get their cattle back.

Adam swung his long legs over the top of his horse and settled himself in the saddle. It would take him a couple of hours to get back to camp. Then all he had to do was wait until Little Joe arrived. As far as the cattle thieves, Adam figured they weren’t going anywhere any time soon. The two men beside the fire were nursing a bottle. It wouldn’t be long before they were totally wiped out. Adam pulled his mount to a stop. Perhaps it would be to his advantage to wait until all the men were stoned and then just ride in and claim his herd. He shook his head. ‘Nope, better odds once my kid brother arrived.’ Besides, he knew the thieves would have to change the brand on the entire herd before being brave enough to move them to another location. If they were smart enough.

 

“Follow him. And get rid of him. If he sends for his family, we’ll all be strung up; cattle rustling is a hanging offense and I don’t aim on swinging. Gus, Smithy and I will start changing those brands. Now get going…and stay out of sight!”

“Don’t worry none about me boss. But I still don’t see why I gotta be the one to kill Cartwright,” Bert said. He was saddling his horse and turned back to face his boss. “If I get got, I’ll hang for sure if they find out it’s me what killed him!” he grumbled.

Dave Jordan grinned at his partner. “Look at it this way Bert, they can’t hang ya but once. Might as well make it worthwhile,” he snickered. “Besides, ain’t no one gonna know who killed the man, so don’t fret about it. Just get it done; now get goin’,” he ordered.

“That’s not funny, ya know,” Bert bellyached as he swung into the saddle. He turned his horse in a circle. Dave had to step back. “What about the body?” Bert wanted to know.

“Leave it. Buzzards’ have’em half eaten before his family finds him. Won’t be nothin’ but bones. Now for the last time, move!”

“Alright, alright,” gripped Bert as he kneed his mount into action. “I’ll be back before nightfall.”

 

Bert followed Adam from along the ridge of the rocks, being sure to stay out of sight. He could see the man clearly and was just waiting until the perfect time. What he was hoping for was that Adam would stop, perhaps dismount and when he did, bam…he’d blow a hole in the middle of Cartwright’s back. Bert almost snickered. Ever since he’d been a kid, he had wondered what it would feel like to back shoot a man. He knew it wasn’t what you would call fair play, but who cared? He didn’t. Besides, old man Cartwright had two more sons, one less wouldn’t matter either way determined Bert.

Suddenly, as if he’d waved a magic wand Bert watched as Adam pulled his mount to a stop, reached for his canteen at the exact moment that Bert pulled his rifle from his scabbard. Raising his rifle to his chin, he sighted in his target and just as Adam tossed back his head to drink, Bert fired his gun.

The gunfire was loud, causing his horse to step wildly. “Whoa,” Bert muttered to the startled animal. His eyes never left his target. He watched as Adam Cartwright was tossed backward from the force of the bullet, the canteen tossed into the air, and then crumbled to a heap in the hot dusty dirt.

“Ye haw!” Bert shouted as he nudged his horse down the embankment. He needed to see for himself that the man was dead. Bert reined in his mount and with his pistol now drawn, dismounted and inched his way over to the lifeless body. With no concern for the man he’d just murdered, Bert kicked at Adam. When he got no response, he used his booted foot and turned the body over. A stain of dark red blood tarnished the back of the man’s shirt and pooled in the dirt beneath him. His aim had been off just a little and the bullet had pierced Cartwright in the shoulder blade rather than in the middle of his back. But the shooter didn’t care, as long as the man was dead. One more time, Bert nudged the body with the toe of his boot. There was no response. He had shot a man in the back, well almost. Mounting up, Bert headed back to camp, leaving Adam’s body to rot in the hot afternoon sun. Bert glanced back one more time. “Buzzard bait,” he snickered. Had he been closer, he might have heard the soft moan that escaped from the injured man’s mouth.

 

Adam had no idea as to how long that he laid in the hot sun. When he tried to open his eyes, the glare from the sweltering rays all but blinded him. Pain surged through his body and it took all the will power he could muster to keep from crying aloud. Using his good arm, he struggled to push himself into a sitting position. The burning sensation in his shoulder seemed to radiate down his arm and into his fingers. Though he tried, he could not see the wound, but from the pool of dried blood around him, he knew he was in trouble if he didn’t get help soon. With the last bit of strength he could gather together, he pushed himself to his feet. For several moments he stood in the same spot, waiting for his head to stop spinning. When he was sure he could move without falling, he glanced around for his horse. Sport stood a short distance away and eyed him with caution as Adam attempted to take hold of the reins.

“Easy, boy,” Adam said in a weak voice. Once he had control of his horse, Adam managed to mount up. Expecting Little Joe sometime that day, Adam determined that his best bet would be to return to their corral. With a little luck, maybe Joe would be there and waiting for him.

It was slow going. Adam’s body burned with heat, both from the sun and from his wound. The injury had started to bleed again. Adam could feel the warm thick liquid creeping down his back. His right hand felt numb and he was forced into using his left instead. The weary man’s head had begun to spin or so it seemed. Everything became blurry as if he was wandering through a fog and Adam could not make out the trail. His head slumped forward, resting on his chest. The reins slipped from his hand. Sport stopped, waiting for his rider to make a command. Adam’s body went slack as he slouched forward over his horse’s neck. The nervous horse stepped sideways causing his rider to drop from its back. Adam hit the ground with a thud where he laid motionless lost in a world of darkness.

 

Little Joe Cartwright, youngest son of Ben Cartwright tossed more twigs on the cold fire. It was obvious that his brother Adam had been camping here in this space between the rocks. Joe thought the spot was pretty neat seeing how it was out of sight not to mention the fact that it was protected from the elements such as wind and rain and would make a great hideout, if a man needed to hide out. He snickered softly. ‘I’ll have to remember this the next time Pa starts shouting at me and I need to get away for a couple of days,’ he told himself. Joe led Cochise into the tallest section of the walled hideout sure from the looks of the droppings Adam had also stabled his horse there. Once he had tended to his mount, Joe went back to starting a fire.

‘Wonder where older brother is, Cooch,” Joe said as he glanced back at his horse. He looked around for more twigs and then lit the fire. In seconds the dry kindling caught and soon the boy had a small flame flickering. Joe took a can of beans from his supply pack and using his knife, opened the can and placed it on a rock close to the fire. While he waited for his beans to warm, he went out to look over the downed fencing. He was left wondering. ‘Adam sure hasn’t rounded up many strays.’ He mused. As he leaned down to study the fallen railings, it became clear to him that the fencing had been tampered with. The fine hairs on the back of his neck rose as a feeling of dread washed over him. Joe stood to his feet, shuddered slightly and glanced around at his surroundings. When he looked at the ground and saw the prints that the cattle had made in the dirt, he walked deeper into the corral to study the signs. As he worked his way up and around one gathering of rocks, he spotted tracks that were obviously made by men on horseback. ‘Hmm…I thought Adam was alone,’ he pondered. It dawned on him then that Adam hadn’t driven the cattle out of the canyon, someone else had…three men on horseback judging from the tale-tale signs in the dirt. And not only were the cattle gone, but the team of horses used to pull the wagon was missing as well. Joe’s thoughts turned to his brother. Where was Adam, was he hurt, had the men taken him hostage? Too many unsavory thoughts and images began to crowd into his mind. He feared for his brother’s safety and well-being.

Joe rushed back to his camp and began kicking dirt on the fire. The can of beans, now too hot to eat fell into the dying fire. Joe could hear then sizzle and pop as the hot embers consumed them.

He had to find Adam. The feeling of dread returned and Joe worried that something bad might have happened to his oldest brother. He swallowed down the bile that suddenly burned his throat and once the fire was safely out, Little Joe saddled his horse. Glancing at the lowering sun, Joe determined that it was near suppertime. He realized that he’d have only two or three hours before dark to search of his brother. ‘I’ll stay the night in the open if I have to,’ he told himself. ‘I have to find Adam…something’s wrong; I can feel it in my bones, as Hoss would say.’

It was almost dark by the time that Joe spotted his brother’s horse standing in the shade of the big boulders. Dismounting his own horse, Joe walked slowly up to Sport, talking softly so as not to frighten of the spirited animal. “Whoa there big fella,” Joe cooed. The nervous horse jerked his head upward in an attempt to escape the man, but Joe was quick enough to grab the reins. Sport bulked; he tossed his head and then reared up, pawing at the air. Joe clung to the reins, tugging gently till the horse’s hooves were safely on the ground. “Easy now you cantankerous cuss,” Joe said between gritted teeth. The young man approached the horse, gently petted the animal’s neck all the while looking the horse over. He was searching for signs that might give him a clue whether or not his brother might be hurt. The left side of Sport and Adam’s saddle showed Little Joe nothing. He breathed a sigh of relief. When Joe looked at the right side, his heart stopped beating. The entire side of Adam’s saddle was covered with dried blood. It had turned dark and had congealed slightly. Joe cast worried eyes all about him hoping to spot his brother. He also searched the rocks overhead wondering if one or more of the rustlers might this minute have a gun pointed at him. With his left arm, the worried boy wiped away the droplets of perspiration that had gathered on his upper lip.

“Come on Sport, he couldn’t have gotten far,” he said as he led both horses. Joe searched the ground for prints that would show him from which direction his brother’s horse had come. When he spotted them he silently prayed that he would find Adam before the sun dropped behind the rocks. God surely must have heard the young man’s prayer for it was only a matter of a few feet before Joe saw his brother lying face down and motionless in the dirt. “ADAM!” shouted Joe as he ran to his brother’s side.

With his heart beating wildly, he dropped to the ground and gathered Adam into his arms. His hand touched the dampness of his brother’s shirt where blood had collected. “Dear God,” sobbed Joe as he felt for a pulse and almost shouted with joy when he found one. Gently, he laid Adam down. “I’ll be right back Adam; I’ll get you some water.” Joe rushed to his horse, grabbed his canteen and returned to his brother’s side. Adam had not moved nor had he made a sound. Joe pulled his neckerchief from around his neck, dampened it with the cool water and gently cleaned his brother’s face. Adam stirred slightly. “That’s it, Adam, open your eyes,” Joe pleaded. He was scared, Adam was burning with fever and the color of his skin was pale and pasty looking.

“J…Joe?”

“Yeah, Adam, it’s me, Joe,” the younger boy answered. “You’ve been shot, Adam. I have to get you home, you need a doctor,” Joe told his brother in a voice that trembled. He knew his brother was hurt badly and he was scared that Adam might die and if that happened, he’d never be able to forgive himself.

“Adam, I’m going to turn you over. I need to make sure the bleeding has stopped,” Little Joe explained as he turned Adam slightly. Adam moaned loudly as the searing pain consumed him. His body went slack. Adam had passed out. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to hurt you,” wept Joe.

The bleeding had almost stopped but Joe washed the wound as best he could and then pulled bandages from his saddle bag and stuffed a wad into the gaping hole in the back of Adam’s shoulder. “We have to get back to the camp. It’s too cold for you to spend the night in the open and I have a gut feeling those rustlers aren’t too far from here,” he told the unconscious man.

It took all Joe’s strength and then sheer determination to get his brother up on his horse. Joe feared Adam might not be able to ride, so he tied his rope the best he could around Adam and the horse and saddle in hopes of keeping his brother from falling off.

It was slow going. Joe had to stop several times to readjust his brother’s body. It was dark but the stars shone brightly. The air was clear and with the soft glow of the moon, Joe was finally able to get them back to Adam’s camp. Joe’s fortitude was all but drained by the time that he was able to get Adam bedded down and as comfortable as possible. He managed to get a small fire started and clean Adam’s wound a second time. Within minutes the warmth of the fire filled the little cave like cavern. At least for now the Cartwright brothers were safe. In the morning, Joe would make a travois out of the fallen rails from the fence and take his brother home. There would be no sleep for the young man who had just celebrated his eighteenth birthday. Tonight he’d sit with his beloved brother and keep Adam’s brow wiped and cooled. Age was on his side. He’d spent many nights staying up the entire time; he could do it he told himself. Hours later and from sheer exhaustion, the lad had fallen asleep next to his brother. It would be sunrise before he woke and began the long trek home.

 

“I thought you said he was dead?” growled Dave Jordan.

“He was!” stormed Bert. “I made sure.”

“Oh for God’s sake Bert, dead men don’t just get up and walk away, or ride off in this matter,” snorted Smithy. His statement caused Gus to laugh. Jordan shot both men a look that meant shut up, which both men did immediately.

“Maybe someone found him and took his body home to his pappy?” Bert suggested. “Look, there are two sets of prints. So someone must have been here.”

“Yeah, Stupid and there is also two sets of boot prints,” barked Jordan. He looked up at Gus and Smithy, “say, maybe dead men do walk…and they can ride horses too.” Dave turned around to face Bert and backslapped the man across the face. “Idiot!” he screamed.

The four men had left the stolen cattle in their hidden corral and were heading back to Adam’s corral to round up more steers and had decided to check on the body of the Cartwright that Bert had shot. Bert had led them to the exact spot and had been taken by total surprise to find that there was no body. Dave Jordan who was the ringleader was furious with his partner.

“What are we gonna do now boss?” Gus asked. “If’n that boy ain’t dead, someone’s for sure gonna come lookin’ for us.”

Dave scratched his head. His eyes were dark with both anger and worry. “Don’t you think I know that?” he stormed. He was silent for several moments before he spoke again. When he did, he looked up at Smithy. “Smithy, I want you to follow those tracks. Find out who has Cartwright’s body, be it dead or alive. When you find them, kill them. And dangnabit, make sure they’re dead this time. Reckon you can do that?” Dave snapped.

Smithy glanced at Bert. He had a smirk on his face. “I reckon I can; should have sent me the first time,” he sneered.

Dave mounted his horse and turned again to Smithy. “Don’t come back till ya know for a fact that whoever took Cartwright’s body is dead…and make sure Cartwright is actually dead. Now scat.”

 

Little Joe worked most of the morning building the travois so that he could get Adam home and under a doctor’s care. Earlier, he had cleaned the wound in his brother’s back, and saw that the bullet wasn’t as deep as he had first feared.

“Adam,” Joe gulped. “That bullet needs to come out,” he told Adam. Though Adam was in pain, he fought against showing it, for fear of scaring his younger brother. “Just get me home…Joe…Doc Martin…will do it. But…hurry…please…” he said in broken words.

“I will Adam, I will…I promise,” Joe said in a trembling voice.

Joe fixed a quick breakfast and had managed to get Adam to eat a few bites and drink a bit of coffee. Adam’s fever had not seemed to have spiked, which encouraged Little Joe and eased part of the worry he carried in his heart.

“The travois is finished Adam,” Little Joe told his brother as he squatted down beside Adam. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

Joe’s lip twisted upward slightly. “Liar,” he teased. “Really Adam, how do you feel?”

Adam’s eyes sought the boy’s face. Little Joe was frightened and worried. He tried to smile.
“Just get…me…home kid…and…I’ll be…fine. I…promise,” Adam told his brother. Adam reached out and touched Little Joe’s arm. “You’ll…do…fine.” His eyes closed as his hand fell away. Little Joe swallowed the lump that had grown in his throat.

After moving Adam’s horse closer to where Adam lay, Little Joe worked several minutes getting his brother settled onto the travois and tied down. Using Adam’s bed roll, he covered the unconscious man, pulling the blanket over Adam’s head to keep the sun from burning his face. Joe made sure the fire was doused, quickly packed up their gear and then mounted up. He glanced back at Adam’s body. It was lifeless and the way it looked with his entire body covered made it appear as if Little Joe was taking home a dead body. Joe shuddered at the thought.

The journey home was a long one. Joe had to stop several times to check on Adam. His brother’s fever had risen and Adam moaned as if the pain in his shoulder was getting worse. “We’ll be home in a couple of hours, Adam,” he told his brother, though he knew it was a lie. It would be double that before they even reached the Ponderosa and another hour after that before they reach the house.

 

Smithy had seen the boy and recognized the pinto as the one that the youngest Cartwright kid rode. He was a bit surprised that it had been the boy who had found his brother. He wasn’t liking the idea of murdering a kid. But the boss had said to kill whoever it was that had found Adam Cartwright, so he had no other choice than to do what the boss ordered him to do. He had watched the man on the travois and saw no movement. The man’s entire body, even his head was covered with a blanket from one of the brothers’ bedroll. Adam Cartwright was dead after all. Jordan would be pleased to know that. All that was left for him to do now was to kill the kid.

Smithy made his way around the trees that now served as his cover, until he was slightly ahead of the boy. The kid had no idea that he’d been followed for the last hour or so and certainly hadn’t a clue that he was about to join his older brother in the hereafter. Smithy urged his mount into a faster gait and when he was far enough ahead of the Cartwrights, he dismounted and pulled his long barrel rifle from the scabbard on his saddle. Killing the boy left a bad taste in his mouth. Bert might be able to back shoot a man, but not him…at least not a kid who could not have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old. Nope, he’d shoot him alright but not in the back. The chest or the gut was always a sure thing. Smithy took aim and cocked the trigger; he aimed, waiting until the boy was within two hundred yards of him. When his target was within the range of fire, Smithy pulled the trigger. “Sorry kid,” he muttered. Seconds later, the shooter watched as the boy was knocked from his horse by the force of the bullet. Smithy shook his head in disgust with what he’d been made to do. He stayed where he was for several moments to be sure that the boy did not get up. When Little Joe did not move, Smithy pushed his rifle back into his scabbard, drew his pistol and stepped out of his hiding place. He made five steps before Joe Cartwright raised his head and shouted at him to stop. Smithy was stunned. He had thought the boy dead. Suddenly he laughed and aimed his pistol at the boy who had managed to get to his knees. When Joe saw the stranger aim his gun towards him, Joe fired his own. Smithy was knocked backwards, screaming in pain. Somehow, Little Joe got to his feet and with faltering steps walked over to the man. It was obvious that the stranger was dead. Briefly Joe studied the man’s face, deciding that he’d never seen the man before. He wondered whether or not the stranger was one of the rustlers who had stolen their cattle and perhaps the man who had tried to kill Adam as well.

Turning, Little Joe felt his head spin. Taking a breath was painful. His right side was on fire and when he pulled opened his jacket, his shirt was covered in blood. Suddenly he felt sick to his stomach. He’d been shot! He glanced back at the travois. Adam was fighting with the blanket and ropes. Joe pulled his jacket closed so that his brother might not know he’d been wounded. When he got closer, he could hear Adam’s muted voice calling his name. “Joe…Joe!”

Joe squatted down and unwrapped his brother’s face. He tried to hide the pain he knew must surely be showing in his eyes. “It’s alright Adam,” he told the wounded man.

“Shooting…I…heard…shots.”

“It’s nothing…really. We need to be on…our way,” Joe said. He started to rise, but Adam took hold of Little Joe’s sleeve.

“I…heard someone…shouting. Now don’t…lie…what happened?” Adam managed to ask.

Joe tried to take a deep breath; it felt like his lung was burning. “It was some guy…he tried to bushwhack me. I…I…killed him, Adam.”

“Do…ohm… whew,” spewed Adam. “Who…was…he?”

Little Joe shook his head. “I don’t know, ain’t seen him before. Look Adam…he must have been the…one who shot you.”

Adam’s eyes were closed, but he nodded his head. “Leave him, Joe…gotta get…me home. I’m not feeling…to…well.” He said and then opened his eyes to look up at Little Joe. Joe was holding his side and trying to close his jacket. But Adam saw the blood. “You’ve…been shot,” he told the boy.

“No,” Joe said too quickly. “It’s nothing Adam, honest. The bullet just grazed me. I’m fine, really.”

Little Joe tucked the blanket back around Adam, leaving his brother’s face uncovered so that Adam could get some air. Trying hard not to cry out in pain, Joe mounted his horse. He’d have to hurry this time. Both he and Adam would need the doctor’s services. Joe felt the bullet buried deeply in his side. “Lord, please help me, I need to…get home,” he muttered softly to himself. He was a bit more than two hours from home.

It seemed to the weary boy that the further they rode, the harder it became to breath. Joe was nearly gasping for air and several times he’d had to stop. He was forced to hold tightly to the saddle horn when it appeared that he might pass out. Each time he’d muttered a soft prayer, inhaled as deeply as he could and then continue on. His body was hunched over the saddle horn and he swayed from side to side. It was by sheer strength of mind that the wounded boy held himself in the saddle.

Two and a half hours later, Joe was on the road home. It would be only a matter of minutes now before he rode into the yard. Not wanting to worry his father, Joe forced himself to straighten his body and ride as if he had not suffered a gunshot wound and controlled his breathing to normal least his father notice.

Ben must have sensed that his sons were home, because as soon as Joe had reached the hitching post, the front door was opened and both Ben and Hoss hurried to greet……..Little Joe. Ben paused in front of Joe, but he had seen Adam’s horse and the travois behind him. When he looked up at Little Joe…the boy explained. “Adam…he’s been shot.”

“Dear God,” Ben shouted as he ran to the travois. Quickly he knelt down and began to untie the rope that had kept Adam from sliding off the travois. “Adam?” he said softly.

Adam’s only response was to moan. “Hoss, help me get him into the house. Send Hop Sing into town to get the doctor,” beseeched the worried father.

Hoss and Ben finished untying the ropes and pulled off the blanket. “I’ll carry him,” Hoss said as he slipped his arms under his wounded brother and carefully lifted him. Moments later, Hoss was rushing into the house. Ben followed. Little Joe had remained in the saddle unable to move for fear of passing out before his father could tend to Adam. Now he slid down, keeping a tight hold on the horn of his saddle. He leaned heavily against Cochise’s side. Ben was almost to the door when he suddenly remembered his youngest son. “Come into the house son, I want you to tell me how this happened,” called Ben.

Joe took as deep a breath as he could. His side had a searing pain burning through it. He nodded his head. “I will…in a minute,” called, hoping that his voice did not betray his weakness.

“Alright son…I need to see about Adam,” Ben called in return. He hurried into the house and closed the door. Ben rushed up the stairs and into Adam’s room. Hoss had placed his brother on the bed and was working at pulling off Adam’s boots. He looked up when his father came in.

“He’s been shot in the back, Pa…right back shoulder. The bullet doesn’t look like it’s too deep, though,” Hoss explained.

Ben leaned down so that he could hear Adam who was mumbling, trying to tell him something.

“It’s alright son. You’re home now and Hop Sing has gone for the doctor,” Ben said trying to soothe the boy.

“No…” murmured Adam. “Joe…”

Ben sat down on the side of the bed. “Adam, Joe’s fine, he brought you home. He’s tending to the horses.”

Adam, his eyes closed tight against the pain, shook his head. “No…Pa…hurt…”

Ben brushed his fingers through Adam’s damp hair. “I know your hurting, but…”

Hoss had moved to the opposite side of the bed. Adam’s eyes opened wide; he raised his head off the pillow and grabbed his father’s shirtsleeve. “Joe…” he said in a raspy voice. “Hurt…shot…he’s been…shot!” he muttered as his head fell back onto the pillow, lost again in the darkened world of oblivion.

Ben glanced over at Hoss who scrunched up his face. He rose from the bed, thinking that his oldest son was delirious due to his fever. He walked to the window and pulled aside the curtains. Below in the yard, Ben saw his youngest son stumbling across the yard. The boy’s jacket hung opened and Ben could see the blood that covered his son’s shirt. “Good God!” he yelled, as Joe collapsed to the ground.

Ben spun around and ran from the room. Hoss hurried to the window, saw his brother lying in the dirt and rushed to follow his father. Ben had turned Little Joe over onto his back. The boy was unconscious and his breathing was labored. He looked up when Hoss knelt down on the other side of Joe.

“He’s been shot in the side,” Ben explained. “Let’s get him to bed; he’s having trouble breathing, Hoss.” Ben cast anxious eyes up at Hoss. “His lips are slightly blue,” he explained as he scooped the boy up into his arms.

Once Joe was lying on the bed, Ben hurried to strip off the boy’s soiled clothing. Hoss had checked in on Adam who was still out and had returned to help his father. It didn’t take a doctor to tell Ben that his youngest son was in worse shape than his oldest son. He judged Joe’s condition to be grave, and he was scared that if the doctor did not get there soon, he might very well loose the boy.

“Where is that blasted doctor?” he grumbled to Hoss as he dried Joe’s upper body with a soft towel. “This boy has lost too much blood, and it looks as if that bullet might have gone into his lung!” snarled Ben.

“Aw Pa, try not to worry…”

“Try not to worry! Dear God, two of my three sons are shot and fighting for their lives. Don’t tell me NOT to worry!” growled Ben.

“Pa…oh…please,”

Ben turned from Hoss to see Joe tossing his head from side to side. “Take it easy, son,” cooed Ben. “You’re home now…Pa’s here,” he said as he tenderly caressed the boy’s face.

“Ad…Adam…” gasped Joe.

“Adam’s sleeping son. Please, don’t try to talk. Save your breath…”

Hoss heard a buggy enter the yard and went to the window to look out. “Doctor’s here, Pa. I’ll go show him in,” he said as he rushed from the room.

Hoss greeted the Doctor, Paul Martin, at the door. “Howdy Doc.”

“Hoss,” the doctor greeted the big man. “Hop Sing said Adam had been shot? He’s in his room I assume?” he asked as he started for the stairs.

“Yes sir, Adam’s got a bullet in the back of his shoulder, but it ain’t too deep. Little Joe’s the one Pa’s most worried about right now.”

Paul stopped on the landing and looked back at Hoss. “Little Joe?”

“Yes sir, he’s been shot too…in the side and he’s havin’ trouble breathin’. Pa’s afraid the bullet might have hit the lung,” Hoss explained. “He’s in his room…guess you know the way.”

The doctor smiled at Hoss. “Yes, I think I can find it,” he chuckled. “Let’s go have a look.”

Ben looked up when the physician entered the room. “It’s about time you got here! What took you so long?” grumbled the anxious father.

Paul paid little attention to the worried father’s attitude. “Hello to you too, old friend,” he said as he moved to the bedside.

Ben lowered his head in shame. “I’m sorry, Paul. It’s just that I’m so worried about both of my boys.”

Paul looked up at his friend then and offered a smile. “I understand Papa. Now tell me, when did this happen?”

Ben stood behind the doctor and watched as Paul examined his patient. “We aren’t sure…today most likely. The blood was fresh…but Adam, probably yesterday, maybe the day before. If Adam is awake, he might be able to tell you.”

“This is a nasty wound, Ben.” Joe stirred slightly and tried to open his eyes. When he saw the doctor’s face he tried to rise up. “Whoa there Joe…don’t move around so much,” he instructed as he forced Joe back down. “You have a bad injury son. I’m going to have to probe for that bullet,” he explained. He saw the sudden fear that sparked in Joe’s dazed eyes. “Don’t worry Little Joe; I promise you, you won’t feel a thing.”

“Hurts…now…hard…to…breath,” gasped Little Joe.

“Just lie still.” Paul stood up and turned to Ben. “The sooner I get that bullet out of there the better he’ll be able to breathe. The bullet might have splintered a rib and that’s what might have nicked his lung. I won’t know until I get in there. Right now, I’m going to give him something to help him sleep. While I’m waiting for that to take effect, I’ll have a look at Adam.”

Paul hurried to prepare the medication and once he’d given it to his young patient, he went to Adam’s room to see how badly the oldest Cartwright son was hurt. Adam was awake and feeling every bit of the pain that coursed through his body. He raised his hand in greeting to the doctor.

“What in the world have you and your brother been up to this time?” smiled Paul as he leaned over Adam’s bed and began examining the wound.

“Rustlers…they stole my herd and when I went after them, they bushwhacked me. Then one of them bushwhacker Little Joe…how is the boy?” Adam asked.

“Not nearly as well as you are. This bullet has to come out son,” Paul said as he replaced the make-shift bandage that Ben had applied. “Luckily, it’s not deep, shouldn’t take me long. Wanna give it a try?”

“Joe…please, take care of my brother first,” pleaded Adam.

“All in due time Adam. I’ve given Little Joe some medicine to make him sleep and once I’m sure he’s out, I plan on removing that bullet. Until then, I think we have time to remove the one you are carrying.” Paul turned to Hop Sing who had been sitting with Adam since coming home from fetching the doctor. “If you don’t mind, would you get my bag?”

Hop Sing bowed to the physician, “Hop Sing fetch…be right back,” he said as he padded softly out of the room. Minutes later he returned and handed Paul his black bag. Paul took a moment to remove his instruments that were wrapped in a clean sterile cloth. He pulled a vile from the bag as well and handed a tiny pill to his patient. “Swallow this,” he instructed as he poured a glass of water and handed it to Adam as well.

Adam popped the pill into his mouth, chugged the water down and handed the glass to Hop Sing who stood next to the bed. “How long before…this takes affect?” he asked Paul.

“In about ten minutes. It won’t put you all the way under, but I promise you won’t feel too much.”

Adam raised his brows. “How much is too much?” he asked with sarcasm. The doctor chuckled lightly. Adam’s eyes had already begun to droop. Seconds later, he was sleeping.

Quickly, Paul made the incision in Adam’s back and began to probe for the bullet. It took a couple of tries before he found the pellet and in less than twenty minutes it could be heard pinging in the bottom of the China basin. Another ten minutes and the wound was cleaned and stitched. “Hop Sing, would you please take these instruments to the kitchen and boil them. About ten minutes should do. I’ll need them to use on Little Joe.”

Hop Sing gathered the soiled surgical instruments and hurried to do the doctor’s bidding. Once Paul had Adam bandaged, he covered the young man with the blanket, washed his hands clean and went into Little Joe’s room.

“How’s Adam?” asked Ben, rising from the chair where he’d been sitting.

“I removed the bullet and cleaned the wound. He’s sleeping right now. He should be fine in a couple of days. His fever might spike some, but I wouldn’t worry, just keep him bathed in cool water.”

Paul leaned over Joe to check to see if the boy was sleeping. As he called Joe’s name and got no response to his gentle probing, he looked to Ben. “Guess I’d better get started. Why don’t you go sit with Adam for a while? I’ll have Hop Sing help me and then when I’m finished, I’ll come speak with you?”

Ben nodded his head. Tenderly, with the back of his hand, he caressed Little Joe’s cheek. When he looked up at the doctor, tears glistened in his eyes. “Take care of him Paul,” he pleaded as he walked to the door. He paused and looked back one more time before closing the door.

Paul set the newly sterilized instruments on a clean cloth on the table nearest the bed. Gently he turned Joe on his side and removed the boy’s nightshirt and the bandage beneath it. Ben had cleaned the wound and Paul was satisfied with the way it looked. It was somewhat red but there was no infection present. Considering how many hours had passed since both boys had been shot, Paul was encouraged with how both injuries appeared.

The surgeon had his helper move the lamp as close to the bed as possible and when that wasn’t enough, he had Hop Sing light a second lamp and hold it over his patient.

“Ready?” he asked Hop Sing.

“Hop Sing plenty ready.”

Paul made the first cut and stopped long enough to wipe away the new blood and then made another thin slice through the young man’s skin. Once that was accomplished the doctor picked up his probe and began feeling for the pellet. After several fruitless attempts, he glanced at Hop Sing with a worried frown. “I can’t find it,” he said softly and then tried again.

Minutes on the clock ticked by and still Paul could not find the pellet that threatened the young man’s life. Finally he set the probe on the table and with a glance at Joe to make sure he was still soundly sleeping he turned to Hop Sing. “I’m going to have to use my fingers. Will you please get some hot water and if you have any lye soap, I’ll use that to wash my hands.”

“Hop Sing get. Hurry right back.” With that the Chinaman was out the door and scurrying down the stairs. Ben opened Adam’s door and stopped his servant. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.

“Doctor need soap and water. Must hurry, no find bullet, will use fingers to find…must be clean, very clean. Hop Sing go now.”

Ben stood there for only a minute and then closed the door to Adam’s room. He walked down the hall and quietly opened the door to Joe’s room and stepped inside. Paul looked up.
“You shouldn’t be in here Ben. I told you I’d come talk to you when I….”

“Talk now,” Ben ordered as he moved to the bedside. The open incision caused him to frown. “What’s wrong, Paul…and don’t say ‘nothing’…I know there is and I want to know right now.”

Ben turned to face his long-time friend.

“I can’t find the bullet. I’ve probed and even went deeper and I simply cannot find it.”

“So what are you going to do now? Is my son going to be alright?”

Paul noted the frightened look on Ben’s face. “Right now I am going to try using my fingers to probe. I’ll be more likely to feel it that way than with the instrument.”

Ben swallowed hard. “Could it have gone into the lung?”

“No.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I’m the doctor, Ben. If it had gone into the lung, Joe would have been dead hours ago. As it is right this minute, his breathing is a bit labored, but he’s breathing. I have an idea that the pellet is wedged between his rib bones. I won’t know until I can feel for it.”

The door opened and Hop Sing entered with the basin of hot water, a bar of his best lye soap and several clean cloths.

“Go Ben, let me finish and I’ll be with you as soon as I can,” Paul gently ordered his friend.

Ben stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him. He bowed his head and whispered a silent prayer that God would guide the physician’s hands to the bullet and that His will and not the worried father’s will be done.

Inside the sick room, Paul scrubbed his hands and dried them on the clean cloth that Hop Sing handed him. When he was finished he crossed the room to the bedside. Joe stirred slightly. Paul whispered his own prayer and carefully slipped his long slender fingers into the opened wound. He could feel the bones that made up the ribs and with painstaking care he explored between them. One rib bone had been splintered and a piece of bone had made a tiny hole in the boy’s lung. His hopes rose that he might find what he was searching for there, between the two ribs. Paul closed his eyes, concentrating on what he was doing as he pushed deeper between the bones. Little Joe groaned and moved slightly. Paul knew that he was hurting the boy, though he knew as well that in order to find the pellet, there would be some pain involve.

Suddenly his hand froze. He glanced quickly in Hop Sing’s direction and smiled. “I’ve found it,” he said happily. Using his forefinger and thumb, Paul slowly backed his hand out of the incision and brought the offensive pellet into the open. “Got it!”

Hop Sing grinned from ear to ear, happy to have the worst of the surgery over.

Paul dropped the pellet into the basin of water that Hop Sing held out to him. “Now to mend the tiny hole in the lining of his lung and then clean and stitch the wound,” he said. He immediately washed the blood from his hands and make quick work of the task. Minutes later he had finished. Joe moaned again and tried to turn over but Paul had piled pillows behind the boy to prevent him from turning. He leaned down and brushed a wayward lock of hair from Joe’s face.

“Just lie still Joseph, you can turn over later, but you need to let that side heal a bit first,” he whispered.

“Pa…” The plea was weak and the tired physician almost had not heard. “He’s coming, Joe.” Paul turned to Hop Sing and motioned for him to get the boy’s father.

Hop Sing slipped quietly out of the room and entered Adam’s room. Adam was awake and talking to his father and brother. All stopped and turned to look in Hop Sing’s direction.

“Mr. Car’lite, doctor say come. Lil’tle Joe waking up,” he smiled.

Ben jumped to his feet as did Hoss. “I’ll be back shortly son,” he told Adam as he started to the door.

“Take your time, Pa. I’ll be fine,” he said.

Ben and Hoss entered Joe’s room quietly. Paul smiled at his friend. “He’s asking for you Papa.”

“How is he?”

“Tired, hurting, scared…but he should be fine in a few days and with lots of bed rest. I don’t want him up until I say so. The bullet was wedged between two rib bones, just as I suspected. One rib was splintered and a piece of it pierced his lung. That’s been taken care of and was why he had such a hard time breathing. And that’s why he has to lie still for the next few hours. I’ve given him something for the pain and something to help him rest. So talk to him for a minute before he falls asleep again. I’ll go check on Adam.”

Paul slipped silently out of the room as Ben and Hoss moved to the side of the bed. Ben pulled up a chair and reached for his son’s hand. “Joe,” he cooed softly. “Can you wake up for a minute?”

Joe’s eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open his eyes. “Pa…”

“I’m here son. The doctor says you’ll be as good as new in a few days.”

“Adam…”

“He’s fine, son. You saved his life,” Ben whispered.

“Bush…whacked. Both…of us…”

“I know, but we’ll worry about that when you feel better. You need to rest now.”

“No…man…dead.” Ben quickly glanced at Hoss and then back at Joe.

“Who son…who is dead?”

Joe’s eyes closed momentarily and then opened again. “He…shot me. Thought…I was dead.”

Joe took a deep breath. “He came…at me…I had…to kill…him.”

“Where?”

“Road… just this…side of mesa at…the tree line.” Joe groaned and closed his eyes. The medication working its magic on the wounded boy had done it’s job.

“Are you sure he’s…” Ben stopped talking. He turned to Hoss. “He’s fallen to sleep.” He stood up. “In the morning, ride out there and see if you can find a body. There might not be much left if the wolves found him. But we need to let Roy Coffee know what’s been going on.”

“I’ll go right after breakfast,” Hoss agreed. “If’n I find the varmint, I’ll take whatever’s left of him into town and have a talk with Roy.”

Hoss glanced down at his sleeping brother. “I know ya’ll want to sit up with Little Joe, so I’ll go keep Adam company until he falls asleep and then I’ll turn in. Call me Pa…if anything changes or you need somethin’”

“Thank you son,” Ben smiled. When Hoss left, Ben pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. He was tired. All the worry and stress had taken its toll on the anxious father. Ben closed his eyes, only meaning to give them a short rest but within minutes the exhausted father was fast asleep and snoring.

The soft but continued moaning and groaning woke Ben from his dreams. When he straightened up and opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was his youngest son trying to get out of bed.

“Whoa, son,” Ben cooed as he gently forced the boy to lie back down. “Where do you think you’re going?” he smiled. Joe’s brow was warm and Ben suspected that the fever Paul Martin had spoken of had spiked somewhat. Quickly he wet a cloth in the cool water beside the bed and placed it across Joe’s forehead. Joe’s eyes fluttered open.

“Pa?” he whispered.

“I’m here son. How do you feel?”

“Hurts…Adam…is he…”

“He’s fine, son. Hoss is with him and they’re both sleeping,” smiled Ben. “Joseph, I need to ask you, do you know the man who shot you and Adam?”

Joe swallowed. His eyes closed momentarily and then re-opened. He shook his head. “No. I’m not even sure they were one and the same. When I went to join Adam, he wasn’t there.” Little Joe paused, took a deep breath and looked up at his father. Joe’s eyes had tears in them. “I…killed a man, Pa,” he stammered.

“I know…but you had to, he was trying to kill you…and he almost succeeded,” Ben said in a reassuring way, hoping to comfort his son.

“Doesn’t make it any easier,” muttered Joe.

Ben pushed back the notorious stray curl from his son’s forehead. “I understand how you feel son. I will never forget the first man I was forced to kill. I hope you never have to kill another.”

“I hope I don’t ever have to either, Pa,” Joe said in a tired voice. Ben sat and watched the weariness that seemed to drain his son’s strength. “You rest now Joseph. I need to have a word with your brother.”

Ben doubted that his son had even heard him for Little Joe had fallen to sleep. Ben rose and covered Joe with the warm blankets. He leaned down and placed a quick kiss to the boy’s brow. “I love you Little Joe,” he muttered even knowing that the sleeping boy had not heard him. Ben had reached the door when he stopped at the sound of his son calling out to him. He turned to see Joe smile at him. “I…love you too, Pa,” he said as his eyes closed again and the smile faded from his face.

Ben stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him. He smiled softly to himself and wiped the dampness from his eyes. He was so very thankful that both of his sons would live. It had filled his heart with fear when he’d found not just one, but two of his sons with gunshot wounds. His life and Hoss’ life came very close to having changed forever. “Thank you Lord,” Ben whispered.

He knocked gently on Adam’s door. “Come in,” came the voice from within. Ben entered and was pleased to see Adam sitting up in the bed. He pulled a chair alongside the bed. “How are you feeling son?”

“Sore, but other than that, I’m fine. Hungry,” he laughed. “Hop Sing won’t give me anything except his mystery broth,” he laughed lightly. “Hoss over there just had to brag about the beef steak he got,” grumbled Adam good-naturally.

“Aw Adam, I’m just a growing boy,” Hoss teased in return. “Sides, ain’t nothing wrong with me,” he grinned.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with my stomach, just my shoulder and I still get broth!”

Ben’s laughter was light, he felt better. “Adam, as soon as Doc Martin says you can have one, I’ll make sure you get the biggest, most tender beefsteak in the house,” Ben promised.

Adam smiled at his father. “Thanks Pa. Say how’s that baby brother of mine?”

“Worried about you, when he’s awake. But he’s better. Temperature is down, finally. But I caught him trying to get out of bed a while ago. He was looking for you,” Ben explained.

“Maybe I’d better go see him, just to let him know I’m okay,” Adam said as he slowly began to push back the blankets.

“Oh no you don’t,” scolded Ben as he pulled the blankets back up. “You are not getting out of that bed until the doc says you can. Do you understand?”

Adam glanced at Hoss and saw the tiny smile on his brother’s round face. “Yes, sir!” laughed Adam.

“Adam, we need to talk son. Do you feel up to it?” Ben asked as he scooted the chair even closer to the bed.

“What do you want to talk about?” Adam said, glancing at Hoss.

“Want me to leave, Pa?” Hoss asked as he started to rise.

“No, no…Hoss. Stay where you are, you might need to hear what Adam says,” Ben reassured his middle son. He turned to Adam. “I’d like for you to tell me exactly what happened out there. How you and Little Joe got bushwhacked,” he requested.

“Not too much to tell, Pa. I got up to the canyon corral and mended the fence the first day. I set up camp, cooked me some vitals and went to bed. The second day, I rounded up a few strays, herded them into the corral and then went back out to look for more. When I got back to camp with the second group the first group was gone. The team was missing as well. When I checked the fencing, I’d seen where it had been tampered with and also found hoof prints, so I knew someone had stolen the herd. I went to look for them, following their tracks of course. I wasn’t going to try taking them on alone. I just wanted to find them and was planning on waiting for Joe.”

“And I gather that you did find them.”

“Yes sir. There were four men. They had the cattle holed up in their own little boxed canyon. They must have seen me at some point, because I was on my way back to camp when I was shot. I have no idea which of the four shot me, but I figured they were aiming for my back,” Adam took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Being shot from behind was something that he was taught was never the way to fight a man, and it galled him that he had been the victim of a coward’s dirty play. He swallowed and continued. “I must have laid there for some time. I don’t know, but the next thing I remember was Little Joe taking care of me back at camp.” He looked up and gave his father a small smile. “I haven’t figured out yet how the little runt managed to get me on my horse and all the way back to camp. But I can tell you this, if Little Joe hadn’t been there when he was, I surely would have died. Joe saved my life, Pa, pure and simple.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement. “I’m thankful he was there too. Is there anything about the men that might stand out in your mind…anything, a scar, a limp, facial hair?”

Adam pinched his lips together and shook his head. “Not really. They were ragged looking, two had short beards. They were about my age, maybe Hoss’ age. One was a tad older than the other three. Medium built, one was husky. Wait, I did notice that there was a horse the husky man was tending to. A black with a big star and a lightening streak on his face, and he wore three white socks, two on the front and one on the right rear,” Adam said with a look of satisfaction on his handsome face.

“A horse like that shouldn’t been too hard to spot,” Hoss said.

“True,” said Ben. “But that still doesn’t tell us who shot Adam and then shot Joe.”

The three men were silent for several minutes before Hoss spoke up. “You can ask Little Joe. He shot the man; maybe he saw the man’s horse.”

Ben chuckled. “I suppose I should. Naturally he would have at least seen the man. With any luck he saw the man’s horse as well.” Ben stood up. “When he wakes up enough to talk sensible, I’ll talk to him. Right now he’s hurting and the medicine Paul left for him, keeps him sleeping.”

He walked to the door. “Hoss, why don’t we let your brother rest while we tend to the chores? Roy will want to talk to you and Little Joe later,” he told Adam.

“I’ll see ya later older brother,” Hoss said as he followed his father. “Sleep well,” he snickered, knowing full well that Adam would not sleep, but most likely would be reading instead.

 

“Wonder how the kid got the drop on ole Smithy?” growled Gus as he and his cohorts stood over the lifeless body of their pal.

“How the hell would I know?” growled Dave Jordan. “The fool was facing the kid, otherwise how’d he get that hole in his chest? I told him to shoot the brat in the back, but no…my uncle had to do things his way…and look where it got’em!” Dave was furious, and deep down he hurt for the loss of his uncle. Smithy had been like a father to him.

“Get something to dig with, we can’t leave him here.”

“You mean we’re gonna bury him?” grumbled Bert.

Dave Jordan scowled wickedly at Bert. “That’s right, now get going before I bury you right next to him!”

It took the three men more than two hours to dig the grave and then place Smithy into the hole and cover him up. They gathered rocks to place over the dirt in order to keep the wild animals from digging the man up.

When they were finished, Dave collected his uncle’s horse and then ordered them to mount up. “What ya gonna do now, Dave?” Gus asked.

“I’m going after the kid, and when I get finished with him, he’s gonna be beggin’ me to kill him,” Jordan said in a voice that rang with venom. “I plan on makin’ him pay…”

“But Dave, you had me kill the kid’s brother. Don’t the good book say an eye for an eye?” Bert stated.

Jordan glared at Bert with hatred burning in his dark eyes. “Don’t ya dare quote the good book to me. I know what it says, now just shut up and get movin’; it’s gonna take us near all day to get to that big ranch his daddy owns.”

“The Ponderosa,” muttered Gus to himself. “Ben Cartwright might not take kindly to you killin’ his son and stealin’ his cattle,” he said aloud to Dave.

“Don’t matter; I can kill him just as easily. In fact, I wouldn’t mind owning me a big ranch like the Ponderosa.” He sprouted an evil gleam in his eyes. “Might just have to kill them Cartwrights and keep that place for my own,” he leered. “Yep, think I just might become a land owner…then I ain’t got to steal cattle, I’ll have all I need.”

 

“Howdy Ben,” the sheriff said when Ben opened the door to see who had come calling.

“Hello Roy, come in,” greeted Ben as he swung the door wide to permit the sheriff to enter.

“Heard ya been having some trouble and needed to see me,” Roy offered.

“Yes, Adam and Joe both were shot, bushwhacked really,” explained Ben. “Have a seat, Roy. Hop Sing, will you pour some coffee please?”

Hop Sing nodded his head and hurried to the kitchen to get the coffee for his boss and the sheriff.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s been going on?” Roy suggested.

“Well, the other…”

“I think I can explain it best.” All heads turned to see Adam making his way slowly down the stairs. Ben stood up and waited for his son to reach the bottom step. “Are you sure you feel well enough to be out of bed, you know what the doctor said?” Ben scolded gently.

Adam gave his father an encouraging smile. “I’ll be fine, Pa, please just help me to the chair.”

Ben took Adam’s good arm and helped the wounded boy to the chair where he sat down and began explaining all that happened to himself and his youngest brother over the last few days. When he finished with his explanations, he leaned his head against the back of the chair.

“And you have no idea who the man was that shot ya or Little Joe?” Roy asked. He’d been sipping his coffee while listening to Adam gave him information into the two shootings.

“None. As I said, there were four men, but I don’t know which one shot me, nor if the man who tried to kill Little Joe was one and the same.” Adam took a deep breath. I only know that after I left the rustlers hide-out, I was bushwhacked and then Joe was shot while bringing me home. The only clue I have is the black horse with the star and lightening mark on his forehead. That is the man who shot Joe. He told Pa that the man who stopped him was riding that same horse.”

Roy nodded his head. “So that’s the fella Little Joe says shot him but you can’t say for sure that he’s the same man what shot you?”

“That’s right, Roy. I’m sorry; I wish I knew because if they think I’m dead and that Joe killed their man, they might come looking for revenge. And Little Joe certainly is not up to another shoot out.” Adam glanced at his father to check Ben’s reaction to his statement. “Neither am I for that matter.”

Ben paced back and forth in front of the fireplace and then stopped to face the sheriff and Adam. His expression was filled with anxiety. His dark chocolate eyes appeared to have grown wide and dark, blackened by his angst.

“The boy’s right Roy. Surely when their man didn’t come back to their camp, they went looking for him. And Joe had to leave the body, he wasn’t in any shape to bury the man, and he thought Adam was seriously hurt and had to get him home. The whole bunch of them sounds ruthless, going around back shooting a man! They might just decide to do as Adam suggested and come gunning for Joe.”

Ben took a deep breath and straightened his back. “What does worry me, Roy,” he said glancing over at Adam. “Is that Hoss rode out this morning looking for the body Joe had to leave…and he all he found was a dry puddle of blood.”

“Maybe some varmints got’em?” suggested Roy.

“No, I asked Hoss about that and he said there weren’t any signs to show that animals had gotten to the body. What he did see was fresh tracks both hoof and boot prints.” Ben sat down on the hearth. “Someone found the body and took it with them. He searched a bit more and found a fresh grave. So someone found him and took the time to bury him.” He stood up and started to pace again.

“Pa, please sit down. You’re making me nervous,” Adam said with a hint of a grin on his handsome face.

Ben’s eyes were dark and Adam could easily see that his father was worried. “Sorry,” he said as he sat down in the red leather chair.

Roy stood as he set his empty coffee cup down on the square table. He placed his hat on this head and turned to Ben. “I think I’ll head back to town Ben. I’ll keep an eye out for that black horse Adam. Meanwhile I’ll be nosing around looking for those rustlers. I’ll be in touch, and Ben, Adam you keep your eyes opened just in case those thieves show up. Send me word if’n ya need me,” he said as he walked to the door. “Tell Little Joe howdy for me.”

“I’ll do that Roy. And thanks for coming out,” Ben said as he walked outside with the sheriff. He stood outside watching until Roy had left and then, with worry burrowing his brow, Ben glanced around the yard. It was almost too quiet and a feeling of foreboding swept through him. Sighing, he returned to the house. Adam had gone upstairs, presumably back to his bed. He best go check on the young man and then look in on Little Joe.

It was as Ben thought; Adam had gone back to bed. Hoss was doing the evening chores. Hop Sing was preparing supper. “How are you feeling son?” Ben asked his oldest.

“Tired. My shoulder hurts some but I’ll be alright. Say, Pa…what are you so worried about, is it those men?” Adam asked as he settled himself into bed.

Ben held the blankets up until Adam got settled and then covered him up. He sat down on the side of the bed. “I am worried son. I have this feeling in my gut like something is about to happen and I wonder how I’m going to protect my family…and our home.”

“I’ll help you Pa,” Adam said as he laid his hand over his father’s arm. “You know that.”

Ben smiled at his son, “I never doubted for a moment that you wouldn’t. But you are not in any shape to take on a man in a fist fight. Though to be honest, I suspect that a hand to hand battle is not what those men would be planning. A surprise attack is what I’m thinking is more their style. And my biggest fear is that Little Joe is the prime target.”

“Have you posted some of the men around, just to keep an eye out?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head. “No, but after I check on Joe, I’ll go talk to them. It certainly won’t hurt to have some lookouts.” He rose to go. “You rest son.”

“I will Pa…and try not to worry.”

“Me worry?” he teased. Laughing softly, Ben closed the door and made his way down the hall to Joe’s room. He knocked lightly and without waiting for a response, entered the room. The room was dark, not totally but as night was falling the light in the room had begun to fade. Ben crossed the room. “Joe, are you sleeping son?”

“No,” came the soft answer.

“Feeling poorly are you?” Ben asked as he leaned down and felt Joe’s brow for fever. “You don’t seem to have much of a fever.” Ben smiled at his son and lifted the lid from the tray that Hop Sing had brought for him. “You didn’t eat much,” he said as he cast anxious eyes in his son’s direction.

“I wasn’t hungry,” Joe stated. “Pa, did Hoss find that back shooter?” Ben looked at his son with a somewhat surprised look on his face.

“That’s an odd thing for you to say,” he said to his son.

“Well, that’s what he was.” The tone of Joe’s voice spoke volumes of what the lad must be feeling. Ben pulled the chair closer. “Joseph, to answer your question, no Hoss did not find a body. What he did find was tracks and prints. Someone else found the body and…and buried it.”

Joe scrunched up his face. He looked worried and maybe a bit frightened thought his father. “I wouldn’t worry about it Joe,” Ben said, though he knew he was worried himself and thought that Joe would be able to see right through him.

“Who are you trying to fool?” Joe asked his father. “Those rustlers knew that those steers were Ponderosa steers. They aren’t so stupid to think that it wasn’t someone from the Ponderosa who found Adam or who killed one of their men. They’ll come looking for us…me and Adam anyway, unless they think Adam’s dead…then they’ll come gunning for me,” Joe said.

“Joe…I won’t lie to you boy. But that’s exactly what Adam and I think too. I’m going to have some men posted around the house and barn and at the forks. We’ll know if any strangers come nosing around,” Ben explained. “They won’t get passed the men.”

Joe turned his worried eyes to look at his father. “Pa, they’re killers, back shooters…they won’t stop until I’m dead…maybe even all of us,” he said in a shaky voice. “I hated to have to kill a man, but…they shot my brother in the back, they wanted Adam dead…and when they find out that he’s not, he’ll be a target same as me.” Tears filled his eyes but Joe blinked several times to keep them from falling. “I…brought a passel of trouble to our home…I’m sorry Pa, I never meant…”

Ben leaned over close to Little Joe. “Hush, Joseph. You did no such thing. If there is going to be trouble, it certainly won’t be our doing, it will be theirs. And what is one’s trouble is all of ours. We’re still a family son…remember, one for four, four for one…don’t ever forget that.” Ben patted Joe’s arm. “You try to rest son. I’m going to go talk to Hoss and see if we can’t get some guards posted.”

When Ben left, Joe carefully got out of bed, holding tightly to the furniture as he fumbled his way to the dresser. He pulled out the top drawer and carefully removed the pistol he kept hidden there. After checking to see that it was fully loaded, he slowly made his way back to bed, where he hid the pistol under one of the pillows. Unknown to the youngest Cartwright son, Adam had done the same thing; just in case trouble came knocking at their door.

 

Dave, Bert and Gus hid in the dark shadows of the barn. They had waited until the sheriff had left and now lay in wait for one of the Cartwrights to enter the barn to do the nightly chores. The minute Hoss had entered the dark barn he had been attacked by all three and beaten to the ground. With all his mighty strength, he fought like a raging bear and when it seemed as if he would get the best of them, he was stopped suddenly and painfully by Gus who had grabbed the pitchfork and buried it into the big man’s stomach. Hoss bellowed in pain as Gus yanked the pitchfork from his victim’s gut and then snickered as the giant of a man sank to ground, blood oozing from his mid-section. “He’s dead!” squealed Gus as he kicked the mound of a man with the toe of his boot.

“Drag him into that stall out of sight. Ole man Cartwright’s on his way…hurry it up!” barked Dave in a low, gravelly voice. Gus and Bert grabbed Hoss by his arms and drug the assumed dead man into the shadows.

Ben slowed his steps the closer he got to the barn. The lamp that usually burned this time of night was not. Perhaps Hoss was not in the barn, Ben said to himself as he considered the possibility. Letting the thought slip away, Ben entered the barn, pausing at the door. “Hoss?” he called, turning to light the lamp that hung next to the door. Raising the globe he put the match to the wick and carefully lowered the glass. As he turned, he stopped dead in his tracks. Facing him stood the three cattle thieves, each with their hands spread wide, ready to draw. Naturally reflex took control of Ben’s hands as he went for own gun…forgotten and left on the credenza. Dave was the first to pull his gun and the first to fire at Ben. His mark was accurate; his bullet struck Ben in his mid-section, dropping the elder Cartwright to his knees. Bert, who fired his pistol the instant that Dave’s gun had gone off, hit Ben in the shoulder. Gus held his unfired gun in his hand as all three crossed over into the light of the lamp to stare at the fallen man. Dave kicked at the body. There was no response. Dave Jordan turned to the other two and smiled broadly. “Three down and one to go! Now let’s get the kid!” he said stepping over Ben’s body and heading for the house.

Adam was mid-way in the hall when Little Joe’s bedroom door opened. He carried the pistol he had hidden beneath his pillow. Adam turned to the boy. “Go back to bed Joe, you’re in no shape to be up. I’ll handle this…”

“No, my pa and brother are out there…” the boy growled. “I’m going with you!”

“Joe…”

“No, I’m going to find Pa and Hoss. Stand there if you wanna but get out of my way,” Joe barked as he moved passed his brother. Adam grabbed Joe’s arm, halting the boy. “Alright, but you’ll do as I say. Now be careful…please,” he said, softening his tone.

Together the brothers eased their way down the stairs. They had just reached the main level when the front door burst opened. The house was dark. Just the fire from the fireplace cast a warm glow in the room. Adam grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him down behind the blue chair that sat near the bottom of the staircase. He put his finger to his lips signaling for the boy to remain quiet.

“YOU MIGHT AS WELL SHOW YA SELF KID…YOU KILLED MY UNCLE…I JUST KILLED YOUR OLE MAN!” shouted Dave.

Joe started to stand up, but Adam jerked him back down and glared a warning at him. “Not yet,” he whispered. When Adam peeked from behind the chair, he noted that two of the men were cautiously making their way toward the stairs. The third was headed for the kitchen. Suddenly there was a loud bang, a shriek of pain, and a muttering of Chinese that both Cartwrights recognized as being Hop Sing. Adam turned to Joe and smiled. “Now the odds are on our side,” he muttered.

Dave and Gus stopped in their tracks. “Bert…what’s going on in there?” Dave shouted. When there was no response, Dave nodded his head at Gus, silently telling him to check it out. Dave stood where he was. As he turned to watch Gus, Adam slipped from behind the chair and pointed for Joe to do the same, in the opposite direction.

“Stop right there!” Adam demanded as he stood and pointed his gun at Dave. At the same moment, Joe rose up and pointed his gun in Gus’ direction. Both thieves turned to face the Cartwrights. Dave’s eyes opened in shock. “I thought you were dead!” he growled at Adam as he raised his gun and fired.

Adam dropped to the floor and returned fire. Joe fired his own gun at Gus who returned the fire. Dave and Gus dropped to the floor at the same time. Adam quickly got to his feet, ignoring the pain that burned in his shoulder as he hurried to Joe’s side. Joe was shaking and was close to passing out. “Are you alright?”

Joe shook his head slightly. Hop Sing who had rushed from the kitchen, helped Adam lower Little Joe into the chair. “You stay with him,” Adam told Hop Sing. “I’m going to find Pa and Hoss.”

“Wait for me,” Joe called as Adam rushed from the house. Joe started to rise, but Hop Sing pulled him back down. “Stay,” he ordered the boy.

“NO!” shouted Joe, defying the little servant man. He stood shakily to his feet and using the furniture as support, Joe made his way to the door. He could see Adam entering the barn. With determination he stood straight and walked precariously across the yard.

What he saw as he staggered into the barn caused his heart to stop beating. “PA!” he cried as he dropped to the ground beside the wounded man. “Pa,” he wept again, looking to Adam for the answer he was too frightened to ask. “He’s alive, Joe,” Adam told the scared boy. “He needs a doctor,” he looked up to see Hop Sing joining them. “Hop Sing, saddle a horse and get the doctor and bring the sheriff back…hurry.”

“Hop Sing go now. Men in house dead. Man in kitchen Hop Sing tie up and lock in cellar.” He hurried to saddle a horse and a minute later was on the dark road to Virginia City.

“Stay here with Pa, I have to find Hoss,” he instructed his brother. Joe was beyond going and in more pain than himself thus Adam wanted him to stay still. Joe could only nod his head; his eyes had fixed themselves on his father’s face.

Ben’s eyes were closed, his face was white and Little Joe thought his father looked dead. Gently he lifted Ben’s head and pulled his father into his arms. Tears filled his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. “Pa,” he whispered. “Please wake up…don’t die…Pa…” cried Little Joe. Ben remained motionless. Joe lowered his head. His tears fell onto his father’s vest.

“Joe,” Adam called from the back of the barn. “I’ve found Hoss. He’s hurt,” he yelled. He glanced back at his younger brother who was now trying to get up. “No, stay put Joe, stay with Pa…he needs you. Hoss is alive and he’s awake,” Adam explained.

Joe glanced at his father, Ben had not moved. When he looked up, Adam stood behind him, Hoss leaning heavily on his good shoulder. “I’m going to get Hoss inside and then I’ll come back and we’ll tend to Pa,” he told Little Joe. “It’s going to be alright, Joe…just be brave a bit longer,” he encouraged. Joe nodded his head.

Ben began to stir. “Pa?” Joe cried.

“Joe?” Ben said in a squeaky voice.

“I thought you were dead…I’m sorry…so sorry, Pa…I never meant to…get you or Hoss…hurt,” wept Joe.

“No…not…your…fault,” stammered Ben. He reached up to caress the boy’s face. “Hoss…hurt?”

“Yes sir,” Joe said. “Adam took him into the house. “Hop Sing’s gone for the doctor. Please Pa…don’t die, don’t leave me…please.” he sobbed.

Ben coughed and closed his eyes. “I’m…not…going…to die.”

It took Adam several minutes to get Hoss into bed. By the time that he returned to the barn, Joe had placed make shift bandages on Ben’s wounds and had covered him with a warm horse blanket. When he looked up at Adam, his brother noticed the boy’s tears. Adam leaned down, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “He’ll be fine, Joe…try not to worry. You did the right thing here,” he said giving the boy praise.

“How are we gonna get him in the house?” Joe asked.

“Guess we can’t…not in the shape you and I are in. We’ll just have to wait until Hop Sing gets back with the doctor. Joe’s face turned into a frown. “Don’t worry Joe, just keep him warm. They’ll be here soon.”

“Alright,” Joe said, glancing again at how pale his father looked. He swallowed deeply. “What if…”

“No, don’t think that buddy. Pa’s strong, he’s healthy…and he…loves you pal. He’s not going to die.” He could only hope that he wasn’t giving the boy false hope. It would destroy his younger brother if his father did not pull through. Adam studied his father’s face and felt the same fear in his own heart that Little Joe was so obviously feeling in his.

Several hours later found all four of the Cartwrights tucked comfortably in their beds. Hop Sing had returned with the doctor and the sheriff along with the sheriff’s deputy. Together they carried Ben upstairs to his bed, helped Little Joe to his and ordered Adam to his. Adam however refused to go to bed until he was sure that his father and brothers were going to be alright. Joe was weary from his own injuries and though he fought it the tired boy had fallen to sleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.

Hoss was conscious and even managed to smile at his older brother. “Good thing I had on my belt,” he told Adam and the doctor. “It helped to deflect the prongs on the pitchfork,” he claimed.

Adam laughed lightly. “More likely it was that thick waist of yours that saved your life,” he teased. Hoss grinned. “I won’t complain again about being so…manly,” he returned.

Adam left his brother with the doctor and went to check on his father. Ben’s wounds had been tended to by the doctor. Paul Martin, the physician, had given Ben enough pain medicine to keep Ben sleeping for several hours. He would heal, but like Joe, it would take time. Adam spoke softly to Hop Sing who remained by his boss’ side. “Wake me please Hop Sing, if Pa wakes up.”

“Hop Sing send for you…I stay till then,” he promised Adam.

Adam left his father in the devoted servant’s hands and made his way to his own bed where he fell asleep almost immediately and spent the next few hours resting. Roy and his deputy gathered the bodies of the two thieves, the third man and haul them into town with them. “I’ll need a full report from you Adam, when ya feelin’ up to it,” the sheriff had explained earlier.

 

When Adam woke the next morning, he arose, got dressed and hurried to his father’s room. When he opened the door, he was surprised to see Little Joe asleep in the chair closest to the bed and his father awake. Ben smiled at his son and motioned for Adam to be quiet. When Adam reached the bed on the opposite side he grinned down at his father. “How long has he been sitting there?” he asked in a hushed whisper.

“Since early this morning,” Ben explained.

“He was scared, Pa…”

“I know. He blames himself for all of us being hurt,” Ben stated. “But it isn’t his fault.”

“Of course not…those men are the blame for all of this,” agreed Adam.

The door opened for a second time. Hoss slipped quietly into the room. “You shouldn’t be out of bed, son,” Ben scolded gently.

“I had to see how ya was feelin’,” the big man responded. “Glad to see ya awake.”

“I’m glad to be awake,” Ben agreed with a grin.

“Pa!” Little Joe, who had just woke up, smiled broadly at his father. He scanned the room. “Hoss, you’re alright…”

“Well of course I am…I got too much…muscle in this here ole belly for that ole pitchfork!” he chuckled. His father and two brothers laughed and each swapped knowing glances with the others.

“We almost weren’t, weren’t we, Pa?” Joe asked.

The men in the room fell silent. “That’s very true son…and we can all be very grateful that we are still all here; and that our family is still in tack.”

Ben glanced at his sons, happy to know that they would all be fine, in time, and that they would all be together. He felt the joy, the love beyond feeling that resonated in his heart as he looked from Adam to Hoss and then to Little Joe.

Ben cleared his throat. “Adam, Hoss…Joseph,” he began. “I want you to know that nothing I’ve ever done has given me more joys and rewards than being a father to each one of you. I want you to always remember what I’m saying so that…in years to come when I’m…gone and you stop to think of me. Remember how much I love each one of you…”

“Pa…” began Joe, suddenly worried that his father wasn’t doing as well as he seemed to be doing. Ben held his hand up, hushing his son.

“Years from now son; but for now, I’m staying right here, with you, Adam and Hoss,” he smiled as he scanned the faces of his children. “Many…many years from now Joseph!”

Little Joe, his eyes damp with unshed tears, smiled happily at his father. Adam nodded knowingly and Hoss lowered his head, a tint of pink showing on his cheeks.

Ben wasn’t sure just how many years each of them had left, but he silently vowed to value each one and to love fully, these would-be men who gathered around his bed. He was a lucky man, in more ways than one. He realized that had he died from his wounds, a part of him would forever live on in the three young men who called him Pa. Ben closed his eyes, silently thanking his maker for all his blessings mainly his sons, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe.

And thus it was written, years passed before the circle would be broken.

The End

November 2014

 

 

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