Settling the Score – #2 (by DebbieB)

Summay:  A month after coming out of a coma caused by a head injury, Little Joe is full of hate for the one responsible and wants to get revenge.  His father however, has other plans for the persons responsible for nearly killing his son.  Can father convince son that vengeance is of the Lord and not of man?

Rating:  PG  Part two of three. (12,800 words)

The Score Series:

A Score to Settle
Settling the Score
The Final Score

 

 

                  Settling the Score

 

It had been nearly a month since his accident, as Joe’s family called it, and the boy was happy to be allowed out of the house at last. It had taken quite a bit of pleading and beseeching on his part to finally get his father to agree to let him go for a ride. Joe had felt as if the walls had begun to close in on him and he had wanted desperately to get away for a short while to be alone. Now, as he headed to the small rise just above the lake, he felt relaxed and at peace with himself. He had, over the last several days, given a lot of thought to what had happened to him and just how he would settle the score with his old rival, Lucas Tatum.

Joe swung his leg over Cochise’s back and slid from the saddle. Leading the horse to the water’s edge, he allowed the animal to satisfy his thirst and then looped the reins over a low hanging branch of a nearby tree. Joe kicked at the stones beneath his feet as he walked along the shoreline. He picked up a flat stone and tossed it into the water, watching as the stone skipped several times across the top of the glass-like water. He sighed, thinking back to that day…

The day had been hot and humid, with huge dark thunderheads off in the distance, a sure sign that a storm was brewing. Tempers that day among the boys at school had been short and more than one scuffle had broken out between several of the older boys, namely himself Joe recalled, and two others, Lucas Tatum, and his constant companion, Timothy. Joe had been forced to defend himself as both of the two older boys had cornered him behind the schoolhouse and had begun pounding on him. By the time that the teacher, Miss Abigail Jones, had been made aware of the fight going on, Lucas and Timmy had already finished what they had started. Joe lay face down in the dirt, groaning from the onslaught of punches to his mid-section. When he finally was able to pull himself to his feet, Lucas and Timmy had made a string of feeble excuses about what had happened, all lies. Luckily for Little Joe, several of the other kids had explained to the schoolmarm what had really taken place and Joe was soon vindicated. Lucas and Timmy where forced to remain after school as punishment and so, by the end of the day, Joe had started home, believing that for the present, he would no longer be troubled by the bothersome pair of hooligans.

He had ridden less than halfway home when the sudden, piercing pain had hit him in the back of the head. In spite of his efforts, he had felt himself falling ungraciously from his horse and landing face down in the dirt. As he struggled to stay conscious and raise his head, he had seen dusty, dirty and worn boots standing inches from his face. He gathered what dwindling strength he had remaining and cast his eyes upward, startled by the piercing blue eyes that glared down at him.

“I told ya, I’d get even with ya Cartwright,” Lucas had laughed. “Old Miss Jones’ had a last minute meetin’ and let us go, so…” the laughter was wicked as Joe fought to focus his eyes. “Today was payday. Happy dreams,” sneered Lucas as the sound of his evil laughter resounded in Joe’s ears.

Joe’s head had fallen back into the dirt, his eyes closed, his mind began slipping further and further into the dark world of obscurity. The last words he remembered were those of his attackers as Lucas proudly bragged to his cohort, “I ain’t such a bad shot with this here slingshot, am I?”

Joe picked up another stone and tossed it into the lake, caring not that the stone refused to skip along the smooth still water. He glanced around at his surroundings, taking in the beauty of the mountains and green forest that circled Lake Tahoe. Quite unexpectedly, he felt a smidgen of guilt sweep over him as he considered what he felt he must do. He sighed deeply, all of his life he had been taught that vengeance was something that only God had the right to do and that it was up to man to allow God to even the score, in His own way and time.

Joe removed his hat and with his left hand, ran his slender fingers through the thick mass of dark curls that crowned his head. He wanted nothing more than to settle the score between him and Lucas Tatum himself, yet the nagging feeling that retaliation would be in the wrong, continued to haunt his thoughts. For years, since his first day at school when he had been but six, Lucas and his buddy, Timmy, had made his life miserable any way that the obnoxious pair could find to torment him. Lucas was older by at least a year and a half, bigger, stronger and never without his sidekick. For years, Joe had been forced to take on not just one but both boys and had never come out the victor in any of the scuffles that they had been involved in.

‘Just once,’ thought Joe to himself as he turned back toward his horse, ‘I’d like nothing more than to take Lucas in a fair fight.’

Joe untied the reins and sprang into his saddle, remaining motionless as he stared out across the lake. He had been filled with hate by what had happened. He had nearly died from the blow to his head, his father had been made to worry himself sick, and his brothers had spent hours after he had finally awaken from the coma, entertaining him and keeping him company. Adam had sat up far into the nights when Joe had been unable to sleep and read to him from his various books. On other nights, Hoss had played checkers, allowing him to win more often than loosing. Each member of his family had suffered in some small way because of Lucas’ cruel actions, and for those reasons, Joe was having trouble finding it in his heart not to be bitter.

Joe turned his horse toward home, it was getting late and the last thing that he wanted to do was to give cause for his father to start worrying about him. Joe remembered the anxiety that his father had during the time that Joe had come out of the coma, fearing that his son had suffered some sort of brain damage and Joe resented the fact that Lucas had been the cause of that worry. Joe kicked gently at Cochise’s sides and urged the pinto toward home. Joe could not pull his thoughts from Lucas and just how much he wanted to get his revenge, it was beginning to eat away at him, making him lose sleep and even have nightmares. His mind and his heart battled over which of the two was right and which one was wrong. Joe dabbed at his eyes, ‘this is ridiculous,’ he whispered to himself, ‘all I gotta do is face him, and then throw the first punch, that should rile him good.’

Joe was nearing home as he forced himself to shake the wicked thoughts from his mind. It was wrong, his heart screamed, but it would make you feel so much better, shouted his brain. Joe felt as if he had an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other as he continued to allow the two to debate the issue.

Cochise had stopped at the hitching rail. Joe was so lost in his thoughts that he had not even realized that he was home until he felt his father’s hand on his knee and the gentle sound of Ben’s laughter.

“Joseph?” Ben repeated for the second time. “Son, are you all right?” questioned Ben, suddenly afraid for his son, as his laughter died.

Joe glanced downward and when he saw his father’s frightened look, he suddenly snapped from his daydream.

“I’m sorry Pa,” Joe said as he swung his leg over his horse’s back and dismounted in front of his father. “I guess I was daydreaming,” he smiled shyly as he wrapped the reins about the post.

Ben laughed softly, happy to see the smile that crossed his young son’s face. “I guess perhaps you were.”

Joe turned suddenly, his smiled vanished as he met his father’s gaze. “Pa, I need to talk to ya about something, it’s sorta important,” Joe said in a soft voice.

“Is something wrong, son?” Ben questioned as he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe shook his head as he walked along side his father toward the house. “No, I mean…well…can we just go inside and talk? I’ll try to explain it to you.”

They had reached the front of the house and Ben pushed opened the door to allow Joe to enter in front of him. “Do you want to sit down on the settee, or is this something that we should talk about privately, in your room?”

“My room, if that’s okay with you?” Joe replied as he looked imploringly into Ben’s eyes. “I thought that if you felt the need to yell at me, then it might be best that no one hears, ya,” Joe said quietly.

“My, this does sound serious, son,” Ben commented as he followed Joe up the stairs. He smiled behind the boy’s back knowing that Joe could not see his expression. “I hope you aren’t in trouble, you’ve only been gone for a couple of hours,” Ben teased lightly.

Joe stopped and turned around, his eyes meeting the chocolate ones that sparkled with amusement. He couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face when he realized that his father was teasing him.

“Aw Pa,” laughed Joe, “that ain’t even funny.” Joe continued up the stairs but even with his back to his father, Ben could hear the soft chuckles that Joe tried to hide.

Joe eased opened the door and led the way into his room. He suddenly felt awkward standing alone with his father. Had he made the right decision, he questioned himself as he moved to the window and pushed back the sheers. He was surprised when he saw his hand, for it trembled slightly as he gripped the curtains.

“Joe?” he heard his father softly say.

Joe gulped and slowly turned to face his parent. “I lied to you, Pa. I know what happened to me…and who did it, I’m just not sure why,” Joe blurted out as he dropped his head, ashamed to face his father.

He heard the air expel from his father’s lungs and he tipped his head up just enough so that he could peep from beneath his thick lashes to examine Ben’s expression. It was unreadable.

“I…hadn’t meant to lie…” he stammered.

“Joseph,” Ben said calmly, “why don’t we sit down and then you can tell me all about it?” Ben pointed to the bed and Joe moved quickly to obey his father. He sat silently as Ben pulled the chair to the edge of the bed and sat down, facing his son.

“I have to be honest with you son,” Ben proclaimed when Joe had made himself comfortable on the bed. “I’ve known all along that you weren’t telling me everything, that you were holding something back from me.”

“You did?” Joe asked in a surprised tone as he stared in shock at his father.

Ben’s lips formed a tight smile. “Yes, that day I asked you about what happened, I could see it in your eyes that you weren’t telling me everything that you knew about how you got hurt. Would you mind telling me why and what?”

Joe dropped his head, suddenly concerned about what his father would think of him once he told Ben the truth. Joe cast a wary glance at his father and cringed slightly when he saw that his parent was watching every move that he made.

“I…I wanted to get him back…for what he done to me. I hate him, Pa…he’s done nothing but cause me misery from the moment I met him, ten years ago. He’s gotten me into more trouble, called me names, laughed at me, my family, Hop Sing, even my friends. He’s pounded me more times than I care to remember, or admit to anyone and I’ve never, not once in all these years have I been able to take him in a fight,” Joe blurted out.

He felt the sting of tears and quickly wiped them away. “Wanna know why?” Joe looked up into his father’s face.

Ben nodded his head. “Why?” he answered with compassion.

“Because the…cause he don’t fight fair, he always has his side-kick with him and I always end up having to fight two instead of one, unless Mitch is around. And he ain’t always there, cause those two somehow manage to catch me alone or behind the school on my way to or from the outhouse.” Joe dabbed at his nose. “It’s not fair, Pa…and I swear, one of these days, I’m gonna catch Lucas Tatum alone and I’m going to pound him so darn burn bad…”

“Joseph,” Ben said sternly, “that will be enough of that kind of talk, young man.”

“But Pa…”

“Joseph, it’s not your place to go looking for a fight, not with that kind of attitude,” Ben stated. “Now, please, start from the beginning and tell me what happened. I take it that it was Lucas Tatum and Timmy who caused your injury?”

It was Joe’s turn to nod his head, “He used his slingshot, I heard him bragging about what a good shot he was,” Joe said softly.

Ben saw the unhappiness in his son’s eyes and it hurt him to see it. “By he, I take it you mean Lucas, am I right?”

Joe sniffed and nodded his head. “Yeah, it was Lucas, and when I fell off my horse, I looked up cause I saw someone’s boots in front of my face. It was him and he was looking at me like he thought it was funny, and then the last thing I remember before I passed out was the sound of his laughter.”

Tears filled the hazel eyes and when Joe blinked, two tiny beads of water rolled slowly down the front of his face. “He…thought it was funny…I nearly died because of him…and he laughed. I will never forgive him for that and the first chance I get, I’m going to make him regret what he did to me.”

Ben could plainly see the tears that rolled down his son’s face and he ached to take the boy into his arms and comfort him in some small way, but Ben held back. His son’s words frightened him for in Joe’s voice he could hear something that he had never heard in his youngest son’s tone before. It was hatred, raw, unbridled hate for another human being. The sound of Joe’s voice seemed to drip with loathing and it unnerved the older Cartwright and sent spasms of fear shooting into his heart. Ben took a deep breath and moved from his chair to sit next to Little Joe on the bed, he knew what that type of hate could do to a man, even more so, to a young boy. He slipped his arm about his son’s shoulders and was not the least surprised to feel the tremors that shook the slender body.

“Joseph, the good book says, ‘vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. I shall repay’.” Ben gently tightened his hold for he could feel his son’s body becoming rigid. “I know that sometimes it’s hard to let things such as what happened to you, go unpunished, but for you to plan to seek revenge, is wrong, Joseph. In a court of law, that’s call premeditation and that’s a crime…and is…”

“So is attempted murder,” Joe said as he turned and looked at his father. “He tried to kill me, Pa, isn’t that reason enough to hate someone? He put you and Adam and Hoss through hell…and he laughed Pa…he laughed!”

“I realize that son, but had I known who it was that hurt you, I could have had Roy take care of things for us. Lucas can still be arrested and if convicted, he could be sent to prison for a very long time. Would that not be the right thing to do, to let the law take care of matters instead of you go looking for a fight? Anything could happen, Joe, you might even end up hurt much worse than before, or maybe killed…I don’t want that to happen,” proclaimed Ben.

“Joseph, we will let Roy deal with this. What worries me right now, is what is going on inside of you. All this talk of hate and revenge scares me…”

Joe stood to his feet and began pacing back and forth. Ben could see the imaginary wheels turning in his son’s head as Joe continued to pace.

“Joseph, please stop that pacing and come over here and sit down,” Ben directed. “We need to talk more about this…please.”

Joe stopped and returned to the bed, “Pa, I can’t help how I feel. I’ve been years trying to brush this off, but this time I can’t seem to shake the feeling. I don’t like what I’m feeling inside, but I can’t help it either, honest,” Joe cried as he swiped his hand across the front of his face. “Tell me how to stop hating him, and I will.” Joe’s hazel eyes filled with more tears as he studied his father’s face.

Suddenly, Joe leaned over and rested his head on Ben’s shoulder. Instinctively Ben’s arm circled the boy’s body, drawing him closer in to his own body.

“I’m scared Pa,” confessed Joe.

The statement caused Ben to shudder slightly. “Of what?” he asked in a whispered voice.

“Of what I might be capable of doing, if I ever once took a swing at Lucas. I’m not sure that once I got started, I could quit,” Joe explained.

“Then my suggestion would be to avoid him at all cost. Simply, just stay away from him, and give yourself time to work through this hatred you’re carrying in your heart. Joe…son, look at me,” Ben said as he cupped the quivering chin with his hand and gently guided Joe’s head upward.

“Please promise me that you will not seek out Lucas, or Timmy. Promise me that you will give me time to talk to Roy and do things the legal way. Will you make me that promise?” Ben asked as he studied the face of his youngest son.

Joe squeezed his eyes tightly shut and for several moments, refused to answer his father. After what seemed like forever to the worried father, Joe opened his eyes and nodded his head.

“I promise Pa, but I’m going back to school on Monday. If he starts anything, anything at all, I’ll not back down, I’ll not walk away from him again. And I won’t be called a chicken or a coward or yellow. All I can promise you is that I will not start anything, I give you my word on that,” promised Little Joe.

“That’s all I ask, Joe. Thank you son,” smiled Ben, releasing his hold on Joe’s chin. “Now, what got all of this started in the first place?”

“It was hot that day, I remember hearing the thunder, but it never did materialize into a storm like it usually does. It was one of those days when nothing went right and everyone’s nerves seemed to be on edge, even Miss Jones’ was grumpy that day. It was lunch break and I had to go to the outhouse. When I came out, Lucas and Timmy were waiting for me, as usual. Lucas wanted my homework, cause he didn’t do his and when I wouldn’t let him have it, he slugged me, right on the chin. I was knocked to the ground but got right up. That’s when Timmy had slipped in behind me and grabbed my arms and held me so that I couldn’t get away. Lucas started punching me in the stomach and after several blows, Timmy let me go and I fell in the dirt. Lucas grabbed my papers, I had them with me cause I was going to work on a that math problem I was having trouble with, you know, the one that Adam helped me with the night before.”

Ben nodded his head, remembering that Joe had had a hard time trying to figure out the correct answer. “I remember, go on, please.”

“Well, anyway, Lucas got my homework and he and Timmy started inside. That’s when Miss Jones came running over, she had seen Lucas punching me. She thought I was the one who started it, according to the lies that Lucas and Timmy were telling her, but some of the other kids saw what happened and told her. She acted like she didn’t want to believe I wasn’t the one who started it, but when I told her to check in Lucas’ pocket, and she did, she found the homework papers with my name on it. That’s when Lucas promised to get even with me for ratting on him.”

Joe stopped and took a breath, glancing sideways at his father.

“That’s the way it’s been since that day at school when Lucas told me that girls can get pregnant just by kissing a boy.”

Ben’s lips curled briefly into a tiny smile, he remembered that day very well. Hoss and Joe both had nearly gotten into trouble, Miss Jones had nearly fainted and the entire classroom had broken out in pandemonium.

“I can understand your frustrations son, but do you think all of those times in your life when Lucas was the cause of your problems, is sufficient enough to warrant hating him?” questioned Ben. “Hate is a very strong emotion, a very dangerous and threatening feeling.”

“How would you feel, Pa, if someone made your life a living hell? I’ve tried not to hate him, but after this…well, I do hate him and I’d give anything, just to be able to wipe that nasty smirk off his face.”

Joe balled up his fist and slammed them into the mattress. “I wish he were dead….”

“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben, totally taken off guard by Joe’s statement.

Ben looked directly into his son’s eyes, gripping Joe by the shoulders and turning him so that they faced each other. There was no denying it; Joe was filled with hatred for the Tatum youth.

“I do not ever, want to hear you say anything so appalling as that again. Do I make myself clear? I’m ashamed of you,” he added in a lower tone of voice.

Joe dropped his head and instantly his eyes over flowed with tears. “I’m sorry Pa…honest,” he sniffed. “I didn’t mean it…really…I just don’t know how to handle what I’m feeling.”

He sniffed again and leaned his head over on his father’s shoulder. “I told ya, I was scared…I don’t want Lucas to die…I just want him to leave me alone. I don’t even want him to go to prison…but Pa,” Joe raised his head up again, “He won’t stop hounding me, unless I make him. Don’t you understand…anything that someone else does to him, like if Roy arrests him, that only makes Lucas madder at me and when he gets a chance, he’ll come after me. What then, do I just stand there and let him beat me into a bloody pulp…maybe even kill me next time, or what?”

“Of course not Joseph, you have every right to defend yourself, I would expect you to…”

Joe wiped at his tears with the backs of his hands. “That’s just it Pa…that’s what scares me…I have taken so much off him for so long, I’m afraid that if I have to fight him again, I might hurt him badly…or worse. What if I can’t stop, once I get started? What if I were to hurt him bad enough that he…died? I’d be the one in trouble again, but this time it might be for murder!”

Joe’s voice had begun to quiver as he tried to explain his feelings and his fears to his father. “Pa…please…tell me what to do,” sobbed Joe.

Ben clung tightly to his weeping son. Though Ben hesitated to admit it, Joe was right. He was stuck in the middle of something that had not been of his own making. Ben silently cursed himself for not having paid enough attention over the years to a growing situation that had skyrocketed and left his son to suffer the consequences.

“I’m sorry Joe, for not having been more aware of the problem. I can plainly see how you have been made to suffer for so long. I just wish that you had come to me sooner, maybe if you had, we could have had this taken care of years ago,” Ben whispered.

“It’s not your fault Pa, you had no idea. I never told you, I just tried to take care of it myself. Guess I didn’t do such a good job, heh?” smiled Joe.

“Oh Joseph, you only did what you thought was best. I’m just sorry that I couldn’t have helped you more. But I promise, after what you just told me, I will do all I can to get his straightened out. Maybe we can even get Lucas some kind of help. I’d hate to think that he was aiming to kill you…”

“Pa,” Joe interrupted quickly, “I don’t honestly think that Lucas was intending to kill me. At least I hope he wasn’t. I think he was probably more surprised than I was, that he even hit me with the rock. I think he meant to hit Cochise and cause him to run away with me or maybe throw me off, but to kill me? No. But that doesn’t change the way I feel, I still hate him.”

Joe stood to his feet and walked back to the window gazing out before turning and facing his father again.

“Pa…I didn’t get to feeling this way overnight, I’ve felt this way for a long time. What he did to me this time, he did to all of us. I saw how worried you were, I know how scared Adam and Hoss were, even Hop Sing. I can’t forgive Lucas for hurting my family like that, do you understand?” Joe said, his voice near pleading with his father for tolerance.

“Son, I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never hated anyone in my lifetime. I have. I’m not proud of the fact, for hate can destroy a man. It corrodes a man’s heart and suffocates a man’s soul. Hate can turn a good man into someone who is just as bad as the man who was hated. I’ve been almost to that place son, and it’s not a place that I’d ever want to return to; and I’d not like to see you go down that same road,” smiled Ben.

Ben moved to stand close to Joe as they both watched out the window at the activities that were going on in the yard.

“Let it go son. Please?” Ben gently turned his son around to face him and drew him into a warm embrace. “It’s not worth dying and going to hell for, because if you don’t let it go, it could send you there, you don’t want that now, do you?”

Joe shook his head back and forth, his damp cheek brushing against his father’s chest. “No sir,” he whispered. “But how?”

“Let me go see Roy, maybe he can take some sort of action against Lucas and Timmy that could put a stop to their harassment once and for all, without either of you getting hurt again,” suggested Ben.

“All right Pa. I’ll let you do it your way. But do I have to go back to school on Monday? There’s only two months left in this term and you promised me I could quit after this year, why can’t I just quit now?” questioned Joe.

“I thought you said that you wanted to go back to school, why have you changed your mind?” Ben asked.

Joe swallowed the lump in his throat and looked up at his father. “I…I only wanted to go back so I could…could…” Joe hung his head in shame, half-afraid to speak his words aloud, for they had suddenly frightened him. “So I could start a fight with Lucas and make him…pay for what he did,” Joe whispered.

Ben’s thick brows raised up slightly as he studied his son’s face. “I see,” he said calmly. “And now?” He tilted Joe’s chin upward so that Ben could study Joe’s face.

“I don’t wanna…what I was planning to do was wrong…I know that and…I’m sorry, Pa,” sniffed Joe.

Ben pulled Joe into his arms and held him closely. “I’m glad you changed your mind son, very glad.” Ben raised Joe’s chin a second time and smiled, “but I think you should go back. You have to face him, both of them, at some time. It won’t do you any good to hide from them…”

“Hide? I ain’t hiding from them, Pa…I just don’t want to have a confrontation with them. I just told ya why!” Joe said anxiously as he pulled free of Ben’s embrace and backed up.

“Joe, I didn’t mean it that way, I don’t want you to hide from him, but you need to be in school, to finish. You cannot allow someone like Lucas Tatum to stand in your way of finishing something as important as your education. I want you go back to school, I want you to finish out the term, and I do not want you to allow those boys to prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Joe took a deep breath and sighed, looking up at his father with a slight smile on his face. “I guess if I didn’t show up after all of this, he would think I’m afraid of him. But I’m not, I won’t ever be afraid of Lucas Tatum or his side-kick, Timmy, no matter how many times I get my butt whipped by them, they’ll never make me afraid,” stated Joe with determination.

Ben cupped the back of Joe’s neck and lovingly pulled the boy back into his arms. “That’s the way, Joe,” he laughed.

Monday morning came sooner than what Joe had hoped. As he hauled himself up from his warm bed, his thoughts went back over what he and his father had talked at length about. He still hated Lucas and Timmy, though after sharing with his father why he hated the two boys, Joe’s hatred had seemed less intense than before. He had promised his father that he would not do anything to evoke a fight with the pair and his goal was to keep that promise. So, it was with grim determination that Joe gathered with his family at the breakfast time.

“Morning, Pa…Adam, Hoss,” smiled Joe as he took his seat.

“Mornin’ Short Shanks,” mumbled Hoss whose mouth had just been stuffed with a large bite.

“Mornin’ Joe,” smiled Adam.

“Son,” Ben smiled, “you all set for today?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be, I reckon,” Joe replied as he slid into his seat and glanced around the table at his family. “I plan on ignoring both Lucas and Timmy,” stated Joe proudly.

“Well, good, I just hope they let ya,” muttered Hoss between bites.

Joe’s face suddenly took on a look of apprehension. “What do you mean by that?” he asked.

“Nothin’, I just figure that they might try backin’ ya up against a wall…” Hoss snickered and then continued, “and knowin’ ya temper, it ain’t likely that you’ll back down.”

“Hoss,” snapped Ben in a deep tone of voice.

“It’s all right, Pa,” Joe interrupted, scowling at his brother. “For your information, Hoss, I promised Pa that I wouldn’t let them dog me into a fight, and I aim on keeping that promise.”

Hoss glanced at Adam who had his head down as if inspecting something on his plate and then met Joe’s scowling glare. “I sure ‘nough hope they don’t short shanks, but trust me, they’ll make it next to impossible for ya to keep that promise.”

Joe glanced at his father, suddenly worried that what Hoss had told him, might prove to be true. Ben was quick to pick up on his son’s doubts and hurried to reassure him.

“Joe, you just avoid that pair as much as possible. I’ll have a talk with Roy this morning and we’ll see what can be done about what happened. As it stands, right now, it’s just your word against theirs, and I have to agree with Hoss some, they might try to start something, but I have faith in you that you will keep your promise,” smiled Ben.

Joe returned the smile, “I will Pa, you can depend on me…no more fights with those two.”

The morning seemed to pass without incident, much to Joe’s relief. The only thing that bothered him were the times that he had caught Lucas staring at him. On more than one occasion, Joe had turned and seen both Lucas and Timmy whispering together and twice he felt as if they were laughing at him behind his back. Joe felt the old feeling of hate returning and tried to do as he had promised his father and ignore the pair. It seemed to work too, until the noon break.

Joe had slipped off to the outhouse and was just rounding the corner of the schoolhouse when he felt hands grab him and sling him to the ground. “Hey Cartwright,” sneered Lucas, “how’s the head?”

Joe stayed down. He deemed it in his best interest not to make any sudden moves. “Just what do you know about my head?” he asked.

Lucas and Timmy swapped glances and then began laughing. “Oh, don’t try to be coy with us, Little Joe,” Lucas taunted. “You know happened to you, and you know who did it,” he jeered. “Thanks for not rattin’ on me.”

Joe felt his anger slowly begin to simmer as he stood to his feet and dusted off his trousers. “I had my reasons,” he proclaimed.

Lucas moved closer to Joe until he stood nose to nose with the shorter boy. “Well, whatever they were, thanks, ya saved my hide. I owe ya one, Cartwright.” Lucas’ smile was lopsided as he glanced over his shoulder at Timmy, winking at his companion and then watched as Joe started to leave. Lucas grabbed a hold of Joe’s shoulder and spun him back around.

“I said thanks,” he muttered, his smile gone.

“I didn’t do for you, and you don’t owe me a damn thing,” Joe snapped back wrenching his shoulder from the vise like fingers. “Just stay the hell away from me from now on or else…”

“Or else what?” Lucas turned to Timmy, the smile, more a smirk, returning to distort his face. “Ya hear that Tim, Cartwright here is threatening me?” laughed Lucas.

“Ya scared?” Timmy questioned his friend, moving to stand with Lucas.

“Of Cartwright? Ya gotta be kiddin’, it’s the other way ‘round; he’s afeared of me! Ain’t ya Cartwright?” laughed Lucas.

Joe was fighting to control his quickly rising temper. He’d love nothing better than to knock the smirk of the other boy’s face, but he had promised his father. Joe took a deep breath to calm himself.

“Think that if you want to Lucas, it makes no never mind to me,” Joe said at last, turning and making his way to the front of the schoolyard.

Timmy glanced at Lucas and noted the shocked expression on his friend’s face. “Ya just gonna stand there and let him talk to ya like that? Ain’t ya gonna pound him?”

When Lucas said nothing, Timmy pushed onward. “Ya scared of him, ain’t ya? I mean, he’s mad ‘nough to rip out ya heart, any fool can see that, just by lookin’ at’em. Ya scared.” Timmy started laughing out loud, angering Lucas to the point that he turned and shoved his fist into Timmy’s face, bloodying the boy’s nose.

“I’ll show ya who’s scared.” Lucas started running toward Joe.

Joe who was no longer paying attention to the two behind him, was caught totally unaware as Lucas plowed into his back and sent him sprawling into the dirt for the second time. Joe felt the air forced from his lungs as he hit the hard ground. He groaned and tried to get up, but was stopped as he felt the tip of Lucas’ boot meet with his mid-section. The sharp pain caused Joe to inhale deeply, filling his deflated lungs and he rolled away from the offending boot before Lucas could inflect more damage to his body. Quickly he was on his feet, his arm pressed across his stomach as he backed up.

“Timmy thinks I’m scared of ya, but ya know better, don’t ya Cartwright?” shouted Lucas, his fingers doubled up to make fists as he danced around Joe who was still struggling to bring his breathing under control.

“Ya gonna fight me, or just stand there?” Lucas dared, confused by the fact that Joe was making no attempt to hit back. Quickly Lucas dashed forward and swung his fist at Joe, but Joe, seeing the move, jumped back just in time.

“Come on, Cartwright, ya chicken?” taunted Lucas, his voice reaching a new level as he swung again and missed.

Joe couldn’t help but smile. The shocked look on Lucas’ face was something that he had never seen before. Joe felt his own anger slowly begin to dissipate as Lucas took another swing at him, missing for the third time.

Joe started to giggle, which only served to deepen the scowl on Lucas’ face and give cause for the other boy’s anger to boil over. Without warning, Lucas dove at Joe, and nearly succeeded in knocking both of them to the ground. Joe’s arms flew upward just in the nick of time and as Lucas came at him, Joe’s hands were able to shove the flying boy off of him. Lucas landed with a heavy thud to the ground, the air expelled from his lungs as he lay face down in the dirt, groaning.

The sound of laughter reached the ears of the one who struggled to his feet. As he raised his head and looked, the other children had made a circle about him and stood over his heaving body, mocking him. Some boys were groaning, girls were pointing and making light of his situation. Anger forced Lucas to his feet and he shoved aside the ones closest to him as his eyes raked the crowd for the one who had humiliated him in front of everyone.

“JOE CARTWRIGHT!” he screamed loudly.

Joe, who was nearly to the front of the building, turned to stare at the angry boy.

“I’LL MAKE YA PAY FOR THIS! YA JUST WAIT!” shouted Lucas who was brushing the dust from the front of his shirt.

Joe said nothing as he turned and went back inside. Once out of sight of everyone, Joe clutched his stomach and groaned. His mid-section hurt like blazes, but he would never allow Lucas to see. For an instance, the boy’s words pierced Joe’s thoughts as he recalled another time that Lucas had sworn he would get even with him. It had happened too, when Joe had least expected it, it happened and that time, it had nearly cost him his life. He would have to be careful, watch his back and stay alert to everything that was going on around him. Suddenly Joe hoped that his father had already spoken to the sheriff and that by the time he got home, Ben would have some good news for him.

The remainder of the day past without further incident and for that, Joe was relieved. When Miss Jones dismissed class for the day, Joe’s nerves were about shot. When he spied his father waiting for him under the shade of the old oak tree, he was more relieved than he cared to admit.

“Hi son. I was in town and thought I’d wait and ride home with you,” greeted Ben as Joe joined his father. “Hope you don’t mind?” Ben said as his eyes followed Joe’s tormentors across the yard.

Joe turned to follow his father’s gaze and then quickly looked up at his father. Ben was smiling at him and Joe returned the gesture.

“Naw, to be honest, I’m sort of glad you’re here.”

“Good, I was afraid you might think that I…”

“It’s all right, Pa. I know what you are doing…and thanks,” smiled Joe as he swung his leg across Cochise’s back.

Ben’s eyes danced with pleasure. “Any problems today?”

Joe cast a final glance over at Lucas and Timmy who were standing together beneath a shade tree. “A little,” he confessed and then smiled at his father whose face had suddenly taken on a worried expression.   “I didn’t start anything if that’s what you’re so worried about. They tried to jump me, in fact, they shoved me down, but I didn’t even take a swing at either of them…honest, Pa. And when I wouldn’t fight Lucas, he got so mad, he punched Timmy.” Joe laughed in earnest this time.

“Joe!”

“Sorry Pa,” he said, sobering. “But it was funny, ya should’ve seen the surprised look on Timmy’s face!”

Joe thought it best to omit the part about the threat that Lucas had made to him. He didn’t see any sense in worrying his father more, Ben, had worried enough about him during the time that he had been in a coma and to cause him worry now was senseless. Maybe this time, Lucas was just running off at the mouth. At least Joe hoped that was all there would be to it.

“Pa, did ya talk to Roy about what we discussed earlier?” Joe asked when they were nearly home.

Ben pulled Buck to a halt and motioned for Joe to do the same. He waited until Joe was along side of him and then pushed back his hat.

“Joe, I did talk to Roy. Unfortunately, it was as I suspected, Roy said that there wasn’t much he could do about it, except talk to those two. And he said that he would,” Ben noticed the quick change that swept across his son’s face and hurried to finish.

“Son, Roy said that as it stood right now, it would only be your word against theirs. That’s not much to go…”

“But I saw them, both of them were standing right over me…remember…I told you I looked up and Lucas was laughing at me…he…” Joe suddenly could not talk, it was as he feared, Lucas Tatum was going to go unpunished for nearly killing him. Joe tried to swallow, his eyes stung with unshed tears and he quickly wiped them away before his father could see them.

“It ain’t fair, Pa…they’re going to get away with it. Well, it won’t happen, I promise you that, I’ll get my chance, you just wait and see!” barked Joe in a hoarse voice.

Joe jerked his pinto around and kicked hard at Cochise’s sides, making the horse to bolt into action as Joe headed for home at a full gallop. Ben watched as his son distanced himself from the spot where they had stopped. He understood his son’s frustrations, he had felt the same way after talking to Roy and that was the main reason why he had deemed it necessary to meet his son after school.

Ben was worried as he gently nudged Buck forward. He had seen the angry glares in the eyes of the two boys who had made it their mission in life to make his son miserable. The anxious father could understand Joe’s hatred of the pair, in some small way, he hated the boys as well, for all the hurt and pain that had been inflected on their lives. Yet he judged them not, for they were only boys in his eyes, reasoned Ben. It was up to the sheriff to get things straightened out and Ben prayed hard that Roy would do just that, for in the back of his mind, Ben feared that another confrontation was nearing. This time, Joe might not be so lucky, and worse, what if Joe succeeded in his quest to satisfy his own brewing hatred? Ben shook his head to free himself from the dark thoughts that had plagued him all day long. He best keep his eyes opened for trouble and watch his son closely, he didn’t like the idea that Joe might be caught unaware or that retaliation might be his son’s undoing.

For the rest of the week, Joe stewed about the situation. Nothing further happened at school, Lucas and Timmy had kept their distance. The fact that each day, one or the other of his family members met Joe might have served as a deterrent to the other two, who watched silently from across the schoolyard.

“I’ll catch him, don’t ya worry,” muttered Lucas softly as he watched Joe ride off with his middle brother.

“They can’t protect him all the time. I’ll figure something out; you just wait and see. Come on, let’s see where they go.” Lucas untied the reins from around the hitching post and mounted up.

“Where we goin’?” asked Timmy, following after his friend.

“I dun told ya, we’re goin’ to follow them. I have an idea,” Lucas said as an evil smirk crossed his face. “The Cartwrights always go into town on Saturday for supplies. With any luck, Little Joe will be home alone tomorrow and we can take him then. I owe him big time, and I aim to make him pay!”

Timmy was smiling broadly, “How? What’cha goin’ to do to him?” he asked excitedly.

“Don’t rightly know yet, we’ll have’ta wait and see if he stays behind. If’n he does, I might just slip inta the barn and…hey…I know…I’ve got some horse tonic that my Pa uses on his mares when they’re delivering…it’s pretty powerful…I’ll give his ole pinto enough to make that animal really, really sick. Maybe even enough to kill him; that would serve Cartwright right for humiliating me in front of everyone. You know how much he thinks of that animal!” laughed Lucas.

“Aw geeze, Lucas, I hate to hurt or kill that animal. He ain’t dun nothin’ to us…why not just beat the stuffin’s outta Little Joe?” asked Timmy, as he worried about Cochise’s well being.

Lucas twisted his head around and glared at his buddy. “I’m tired of stompin’ Joe’s butt, it ain’t even fun no more. I’d rather get him back by makin’ him loose somethin’ he loves, like that dang horse of his’n,” growled Lucas. “He thinks just cause his pa’s rich, that he’s better’n the rest of us, well, by the time that I finish with that horse, ain’t no horse doctor gonna get him well enough for Cartwright to ever ride again. Now shut up and let’s go!”

Lucas and Timmy followed at a distance until they were sure that Hoss and Joe were headed home. “Let’s go on home, ain’t no use followin’ them anymore. We’ll slip over to the Ponderosa early in the mornin’ and see who goes into town and who stays. If’n Little Joe has to stay, we’ll be able to get to that pinto without much trouble,” Lucas ordered.

“I gotta get home anyway. I’m already late and my old man will have my hide if’n I don’t get my chores dun for dark. I’ll meet ya at your place first light,” called Timmy as he waved good bye to Lucas.

“Don’t be late!” Lucas shouted over his shoulder, “Or I’ll pound your hide instead of Joe’s!”

By daybreak, Lucas and Timmy were well hidden in the loft above the stalls and sank back into the thick hay as the barn door was pushed opened. “Shh…” motioned Lucas to Timmy.

“I don’t see why I can’t go into town too,” they heard Joe complaining to his father.

“Joe, I’ve already told you, I think it best that you stay here. Besides, I thought you wanted to be here when Hoss and Adam brought those new mustangs down from the hills. They left early this morning and should be back by dinnertime,” Ben explained as he began hitching the team.

“I do, but Pa…I wanna go with you to talk to Roy again. I still don’t understand why he can’t arrest Lucas and Timmy,” grumbled Joe as he handed his father’s saddle up to him.

Lucas and Timmy swapped smiles.

“I’ve already explained it son,” Ben said, turning to rest a reassuring hand on his son’s shoulder. “Roy made it clear that it was your word against theirs. Unless they confess, there is nothing right now that can be done. Look Joe, I understand how you feel…”

“No you don’t,” Joe said, “I nearly died…all because of them. I know they did it, they know they did it and so do you…and it makes me angry that nothing can be done about it.”

Joe had badgered him all morning about going into town with him and Ben’s patience was beginning to wear thin and it showed on his face.

“Joseph, please, I hate to see you so upset, but Roy said to give it time. If the boys are guilty, as you say, they will try something else. And we’ll be ready for them. I promise Joe, you have nothing to fear from those two.”

“FEAR!” shouted Joe, “I don’t fear them, I HATE them!” Joe turned and ran back to the house.

Ben sighed deeply and led the team from the barn. Hop Sing was coming from the kitchen as Ben looped the reins over the hitching post.

“Number three son, not verily happy this morning,” muttered Hop Sing as he approached Ben.

“No, and it’s understandable. Please Hop Sing, keep an eye on him for me while I’m in town, will you?” Ben said in a voice that sounded much like a plea.

“I watch boy, keep him busy…work good for troubled soul…boy need to work off anger…not good to stew,” nodded the faithful servant.

Ben smiled and clasped the shoulder of the smaller man. “Thank you Hop Sing, I won’t be long. I should be home by the time that Adam and Hoss get here with those mustangs.”

Ben climbed into the wagon and turned the team around. In minutes he was gone and Hop Sing had entered the dimly lit barn.

The two boys, who had been hiding in the loft, were unaware that the small Chinaman had slipped quietly into the barn. They were both standing in the stall with Joe’s pinto. Timmy was holding the animal’s head up while Lucas was trying to force the horse’s mouth opened so that he could pour the bottle of tonic into Cochise’s mouth.

Cochise tossed his head, forcing Timmy to lose his grip on his halter. The animal jerked sideways, hitting Lucas’ arm and causing him to drop the bottle of tonic and spill it’s contents onto the ground.

“Damnit, Timmy,” muttered Lucas, “can’t ya do nuthin’ right?”

“Ain’t my fault,” snapped Timmy, glowering at his companion. “This stupid horse won’t hold still.”

“Hey…what you boys doin’ to Mister Joe’s horse?” shouted Hop Sing.

Lucas and Timmy stopped dead in their tracks, startled by the sound of another voice. Quickly the pair stepped from the stall. When Lucas saw that it was only the Cartwright’s house servant, he smiled at Timmy and winked.

“What’s it to ya, Chinaman?” growled Lucas as he took a step toward Hop Sing.

Hop Sing remained where he stood, undaunted by the boy’s threatening move.

“You get ‘way from that animal…I tell Lit’tle Joe…he…”

“He…what? Little Joe won’t do nuthin’,” smirked Timmy moving closer to Lucas’ side as the pair took another step closer to Hop Sing.

This time Hop Sing was forced to step backward as the pair advanced on him. Lucas and Timmy continued to push Hop Sing back until he had gone as far as he could. His back was pressed against the back wall where he was hidden in the dark shadows that filled nearly every corner of the barn.

The first punch to his mid-section doubled Hop Sing over. The second punch was to the back of his neck, causing him to stumble and fall face down into the dirt. Timmy raised his foot and stomped the middle of Hop Sing’s back, making him groan loudly. His moaning caused Timmy and Lucas to laugh out loud as they continued their assault on the smaller man.

Lucas hauled Hop Sing up, onto his feet and held his arms behind his back. “Get that rope, quick. Let’s tie him up,” ordered Lucas.

Timmy grabbed a short piece of leather strap and tossed it to Lucas. While Lucas tied Hop Sing’s hands behind his back, Timmy grabbed the rope and formed a noose on one end. He quickly slipped it over Hop Sing’s neck and pulled the rope taunt, tying the other end to a nearby post.

Lucas grabbed two crates and stacked one on top of the other. “Hurry up, help me get him up here,” he barked at Timmy.

It took both boys to lift Hop Sing onto his feet and stand him on the top crate. Hop Sing staggered slightly but quickly steadied himself. Lucas and Timmy started laughing.

“Better be careful there Chinaman, ya might stumble and fall off. Hate to see that happen, wouldn’t you, Timmy?” taunted Lucas as he cast hate filled eyes at his friend.

“Sure would. Say, Lucas, what’cha gonna do now?” questioned Timmy. “Ya ain’t really gonna hang’em, are ya?” he asked with a worried voice.

“Why not? He’s just a Chinaman, ain’t no good to no one, is he?” laughed Lucas as he shook the crates where Hop Sing stood. “Maybe we’ll make Little Joe come out here and watch, I heared tell, him and this here chink was best of friends.”

“I didn’t bargain for no hangin’ Luke,” Timmy stammered. “That’s murder and they can hang ya for murder!”

“Ya ain’t backin’ out are ya? I thought ya wanted to get back at Cartwright for what he done to me?” snapped Lucas as he stood nose to nose with Timmy.

“Sure Luke, but we cain’t hang the Chinaman…Let’s kill the horse instead…cain’t hang for that…” muttered Timmy, suddenly worried that Lucas would go through with his new plan.

“Aw…ya chicken head…I ain’t gonna really hang the chink, but Cartwright don’t know that. He made his brags that he wasn’t afraid of us, but I bet I can change his mind. Call him out here, I’ll show ya,” laughed Lucas as he slipped his arm about Timmy’s shoulder and guided him to the barn door.

Lucas glanced over his shoulder at Hop Sing whose face wore a look of sheer terror, and then laughed. “Go get Cartwright, and tell him to come into the barn…tell him I have a surprise for him,” gleamed Lucas as he shoved Timmy out into the sunlight. “Hurry up!” he ordered as he slipped back into the shadows.

Timmy took a deep breath and ran to the front door. He pounded several times before Joe finally answered his knocking.

“What the?” stammered Little Joe, surprised to see Timmy standing in his doorway.

“Ya best come to the barn, quick like…Lucas has somethin’ for ya,” he said and then turned and ran toward the barn.

Joe never hesitated but quickly followed Timmy, who had disappeared into the barn. Joe slowed down as he neared the door half expecting to be pounced on the minute he stepped inside. He eased slowly though the opening and stopped, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light.

“I know you’re in here, Lucas. Show yourself,” Joe called from the doorway.

“Lil’tle Joe, watch out, ohhh…”

Joe recognized the voice of his family’s trustworthy servant. “HOP SING!” shouted Joe as he rushed toward the sound of the Chinaman’s voice.

Joe stopped suddenly, staring wildly at the scene in front of him. Hop Sing’s hands were bound tightly behind him as he stood motionlessly atop two crates which had been stacked on top of each other. Joe cringed as he spied the noose that had been tightened about Hop Sing’s neck.

“Don’t move Hop Sing,” cried Joe as he stepped closer to the crates.

“STOP RIGHT THERE, CARTWRIGHT!” shouted Lucas as he stepped from the shadows, Timmy close on his heels. Lucas, who was nearer to the crates than Joe, placed his hand on the top box and shook it gently.

Hop Sing began to sway, his feet sought a sure footing as the sound of Lucas’ laughter filled the barn. “Don’t come any closer Little Joe,” ordered Lucas, a nasty looking smirk on his face. “You do, and I push this crate out from under your friend here.”

Joe, fear for Hop Sing plainly etched onto his face, stopped where he was. “Okay, okay,” he stammered as Lucas shook the crate again. “Just don’t hurt him.” Joe glanced up and saw the fear in the almond shaped eyes that stared down at him.

“What do you want?” Joe barked at Lucas. “Why are you doing this to him?” demanded Joe, watching Lucas carefully.

Lucas turned to Timmy, “Get over here and put your hand on this crate. If Cartwright makes a move, shove the box out from under the chink,” ordered Lucas. Timmy glanced up and the man with the noose around his neck and then at his friend.

“Luke…” he stammered.

“DO IT!” ranted Lucas as he grabbed Timmy by the shirtsleeve and yanked him over to the stack of crates. Timmy had no other recourse but to do as ordered.

Lucas moved around the boxes and faced Joe. “Now then Little Joe,” he said, adding emphasis’s to the nickname. “I heard ya braggin’ to ya pa that ya weren’t scared of me. I bet I can prove ya wrong,” tempted Lucas.

“You can’t scare me Tatum,” responded Joe, his anger and hate plainly etched into his face and gleaming from his hazel eyes.

Lucas took a step backward and kicked out at the bottom crate. The box moved several inches, causing the color to drain from Joe’s face. Hop Sing wobbled about on the top box as it teetered precariously about.

“STOP!” screamed out Joe, seeing the terrified look on his servant’s face.

Lucas laughed loudly, fueled by the sight of fear that spread itself across Joe’s face as well as the Chinaman’s.

“Thought ya said ya wasn’t afeared of me?” teased Lucas. “But you should see the look on your face,” he laughed and pointed at the expression that Joe wore.

“I’m not, I already told you that, but what’s that got to do with him?” Joe pointed to Hop Sing.

“He’s my pawn, I can make you do anything, or say anything I want you to. Cause ya know I’ll kick this box right out from under him, and that makes you afraid of me, don’t it Cartwright?”

Joe glanced up at Hop Sing. Hop Sing was shaking his head no.

“Do not be afraid, Lil’tle One, Hop Sing not afraid to die,” muttered Hop Sing as he smiled at Little Joe. “Bad boys, they only say they hang Hop Sing, they no have courage enough to do.”

Lucas turned dark, angry eyes toward the Chinaman, “Oh yeah!” he shouted as he kicked the bottom box a second time. This time the box scooted more than halfway out from under the top crate. The crate on top dipped forward, the noose tightened considerably around Hop Sing’s neck and he was forced to step backward to balance himself.

“STOPIT!” yelled Joe as he made a dive at Lucas.

Lucas saw Joe coming at him and spun around to avoid the charge. He didn’t move fast enough and when Joe plowed into him; both boys tumbled to the ground in a heap. Joe doubled up his fist and punched Lucas in the face. Stunned by the power behind the fist, Lucas scrambled to get away. As he pulled free from the weight of Joe’s body on his, Timmy moved between his friend and Joe and shoved Joe backward. Joe stumbled into the crates, knocking the top box into the floor as he fell backward onto his back.

From the ground, Joe watched Hop Sing’s eyes begin to bulge as his body swayed back and forth.

“NO!” screamed Joe as he made a dive at Hop Sing’s legs in an effort to take the pressure off the man’s neck.

Timmy stared in horror at the scene in front of him. His eyes instantly filled with tears as he turned and bolted from the barn. Lucas who sat in a heap on the ground, stared opened mouthed and then suddenly began to laugh.

“HELP ME!” screamed Joe. “YA GOTTA HELP ME, I CAN’T HOLD HIM UP! PLEASE!” bellowed Joe as the tears flowed in a stream down his face.

Outside, Ben, who had forgotten something he needed, rounded the corner of the barn and had jumped to the ground when Timmy all but ran him over in his frightened attempt to distance himself from the horror scene taking place within the barn.

“Whoa,” said Ben, catching the boy with his opened arms as Timmy tried to run passed. “Take it easy, boy,” Ben said, as he held tightly to the frightened youth.

“Ya gotta help him, ya gotta help him!” Timmy wailed loudly as he pointed to the barn.

“Calm down,” Ben ordered, shaking the young man gently. “Help who? What’s wrong?” he demanded, suddenly recognizing Timmy as one of the boys who had caused Joe so much misery. Ben’s eyes drifted to the barn door. “Answer me!” he shouted, suddenly fearful for his son.

“In the barn…he hung him…!” wept Timmy, pointing.

Ben’s heart leapt into his throat; his heart began pounding within his chest. Ben’s hand released the boy and he ran into the barn, stopping suddenly at the sight of Hop Sing hanging from the rafters, his young son clinging to his servant’s legs in an effort to save the man from choking to death.

“DEAR GOD!” yelled Ben as he grabbed Hop Sing’s swaying body in one strong arm while he pulled his knife from his pocket and hacked away at the rope.

Joe allowed his father to take the weight from his arms and turned his wrath on Lucas. “I’ll kill ya for this!” he screamed at Lucas and charged the boy.

Fist flew from all directions; the two boys rolled over and over on the ground as Joe pounded away at the boy who had earned Joe’s hatred. Joe was relentless, his anger, his fear and his hate had taken precedence over his thinking and no amount of begging and pleading from his adversary could stop the onslaught of flying fists.

“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben as he lowered Hop Sing to the ground.

Hop Sing was trying to suck in large amounts of air to fill his burning lungs. He lay at in a heap at Ben’s feet, clinging tightly to the sleeve of Ben’s shirt.

“Stop…boy…he not…kill…other…boy…”pleaded Hop Sing as he struggled to voice his fear to his employer.

“JOSEPH! STOP SON!” Ben shouted a second time. “YOU”RE GOING TO KILL HIM!” Ben was struggling to grab at Joe’s arms that had tightened about the neck of the other boy.

Joe used one hand and pushed Ben away as he spun Lucas around to face his father and Hop Sing. He tightened his arm about Lucas’ neck to the point that breathing was almost impossible for the frightened youth. His terrified eyes found Ben’s as they filled with tears.

Lucas’ hands gripped Joe’s arms but were unable to pull free.

“Make him stop, please…he’s gonna kill me!” begged Lucas, his voice cracked and hoarse by the vise like grasp that held his neck tightly.

Ben stopped, afraid to move any closer to his son, whose face had taken on a look of malice. “Joe,” Ben said in a softer tone. “Let him go son, you’re choking him to death,” Ben whispered.

Joe’s breathing was labored; his entire body trembled with hate and when he looked at his father, Ben, could see the pool of tears that streamed from his son’s face. Ben took a deep breath to steady himself and stepped closer.

Joe pulled back and tightened his arm about Lucas’ neck. Lucas’ eyes began to spill over with tears as he looked into Ben’s face. Ben could see the sheer panic in the blue depths that begged him for help.

“Joseph, listen to me son…it’s okay now…see…Hop Sing is going to be fine,” Ben’s eyes never left his son’s face as he pointed his finger in Hop Sing’s direction.

“You can let him up now, Joe…there’s no need to keep on punishing him.” Ben moved closer and slowly raised his arm upward. “Joe, I’m here now sweetheart…let me take him for you.”

“NO!” shouted Joe, his voice thick with emotion. “He tried to kill me…and then he hung Hop Sing…”

“Please son, it’s over…let Roy deal with this. He’s not worth you killing him…Joe, if you kill him son, you’ll hang…please Joe, listen to me, let him go!” Ben’s voice had dropped to a near whisper and Joe had to finally look into this father’s face.

The chocolate eyes that had filled with fear met the hazel, tear filled eyes of his son. Joe saw in his father’s face, an expression of understanding and compassion that went straight to his heart and freed the hate that had stockpiled there. His arms relaxed enough that Lucas jerked free and scooted across the floor, out of harm’s way.

Ben was quick to his son’s side as Joe all but fell into his father’s outstretched arms. “Pa…” wept Joe, “I was so…scared.”

Ben’s arms embraced his son and pulled the sobbing boy to his breast. “I know…I know…but it’s all right now, it’s over Joe, it’s over,” soothed Ben, his hand gently rubbing up and down Joe’s back.

“He tried to kill me!” shouted Lucas from across the barn. He had gotten to his feet and was trying to inch his way toward the door. He would have made it too, had it not been for the giant that blocked his way.

“Havin’ problems in here, Pa?” said Hoss, his massive hand holding tightly to the neck of Timmy’s shirt. “I found him outside, looked like he seen a ghost,” Hoss explained as he took in the situation in the barn.

“Hoss, I’m glad you’re here,” Ben smiled, his arm still supporting his youngest son.

Another shadow filled the remaining space in the doorway as Adam stepped up beside of Hoss. “Looks like someone’s been a mite busy,” he commented. He turned and smiled at Joe.

“You do all of this?” Adam asked with a sweep of his hand at the group of men.

“Lil’tle Joe save Hop Sing life…” smiled Hop Sing as he rubbed at the red mark around his neck. “Bad boy’s try to stretch Hop Sing neck…” Hop Sing turned to Lucas and Timmy who were standing side by side, their faces dark with fear at what would happen to them now. “Verily bad boys!” Hop Sing said, shaking his fingers under their noses.

“Adam, you and Hoss take these two into town to the sheriff. Tell Roy to lock them up. Joe and I will be in later to explain everything. Take Hop Sing with you, I want Paul to check him out,” ordered Ben.

“Sure thing, Pa. Come on you two, get moving,” Adam issued as he gently nudged the two boys forward.

Ben slipped his arm around Joe’s shoulder and after Adam and Hoss had marched Lucas and Timmy outside, he forced Joe to face him. Ben felt the tremors that caused Joe to shiver and quickly pulled his son into his arms.

In the privacy of the barn, alone with his father, Joe’s strength dwindled into nothing as he broke into tears and wept, his arms clinging tightly around his father. Ben felt the sting of tears in his own eyes and using only one hand, brushed them away before they had a chance to roll freely down his face.

Together, father and son remained for several minutes. Joe leaned heavily against his father until he stopped crying and then gently pulled away. He gulped, seeking his father’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to break my promise…but when I saw what they were doing to Hop Sing…” Joe’s voice cracked slightly, “I…I…”

“Shh…it’s all right, son. I know what you were trying to do…you were trying to save the life of someone you loved. I can’t fault you for that,” whispered Ben, tipping the quivering chin upward so that he could look directly into the hazel eyes.

“You did what any man would have done, myself included,” smiled Ben as he brushed back the dampened sweat soaked curls from his son’s brow.

“I hated him, I think I would have killed him if you hadn’t come along when you did,” whispered Joe. “I didn’t know what else to do, when he pushed me into that box and made it slip out from under Hop Sing, I…I…” Joe gulped again, “I was so afraid, Pa…what if…I hadn’t…been here…Hop Sing would be dead now…and I would have killed a man.” Joe began to weep again and buried his face in the palms of his hands, “that scares me Pa…to think I might have actually hated someone enough to kill them.”

“But you didn’t Joe, you stopped before you allowed yourself to do something so horrific,” Ben explained. “Hate can make a man do crazy things, but Joe, obviously, there was not as much hate in your heart as you first thought. If you had hated him as much as you swore you did, nothing I could have said to you would have prevented you from killing him. And Joe…I don’t believe for one minute that you were capable of killing anyone…it just isn’t in you…you are much too good for that,” smiled Ben. “I’m proud of you Joe, you fought for something, someone, you believed in and you won.”

Joe thought briefly on his father’s words and then turned to look up at Ben, smiling ever so slightly as the realization struck him.

“Hey, I did win this time, didn’t I? For the first time ever, I took Lucas Tatum in a fair fight!” giggled Joe, grinning at his father.

“Joseph!”

“I’m sorry Pa, but I can’t help it…it was ten years in the making!” laughed Joe.

“And ten minutes in the ending! Now come on, we need to talk to the sheriff and make sure that those two get what’s coming to them,” smiled Ben as he led the way outside.

Once mounted up, Ben turned to his son, placing a hand on the boy’s arm. “Joe, I have just one question, son.”

Joe glanced sideways at his father. “What’s that, Pa?”

“Is the score settled?”

Joe dropped his head and then looked up from under thick lashes. “I wasn’t even thinking of settling the score, honest,” Joe said softly. “I was scared for Hop Sing…I suppose that whatever happens to Lucas and Timmy, will be in the hands of the man upstairs. It’s like ya said, Pa, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord’. I guess whatever He dishes out, is all right with me,” smiled Joe. “Revenge sort of leaves a bad taste in a man’s mouth, isn’t that what you’ve always told us?”

Ben smiled, his eyes gleaming with pride for his youngest son. “Glad to know you’ve been paying attention. I was beginning to wonder,” he laughed.

“Aw…Pa,” giggled Joe.

                                                               THE END

May 2003

Epilogue:   Lucas Tatum and his sidekick, Timmy, pled guilty to the charges brought against them and each received a five-year prison term. They were carted off to the territorial prison to begin their sentence right away, much to the relief of those involved.

For Joe, the victory was a bittersweet one. For ten long years, the wayward boys had hounded him, taunted him and made his life a misery. Now that they were gone, Joe found the peace to be less than he had always imagined it to be. Several days after the boys had been taken away, Ben found his son alone in the barn, sitting on the very crate that had supported Hop Sing.

Ben eased into the barn; Joe had his back to him as Ben allowed himself to sit next to Joe on box. Joe turned and smiled though the gesture never reached his eyes.

“Hi Pa,” he greeted his father.

“Hello son. Mind it I join you?” asked Ben, watching the expression on Joe’s young face.

“No.”

Father and son sat in companionable silence for several moments.

“Something troubling you, son?” Ben asked.

Joe glanced up at his father and then lowered his head. He sighed deeply and then faced Ben a second time. “He’ll be back,” he said calmly.

For a moment, Ben looked puzzled. “Who?”

Joe stood to his feet and walked a few paces away. Without facing his father, he muttered softly.

“Lucas Tatum, he’ll be back.” Joe turned at last and stared at his father. “When they put him and Timmy in the back of the prison wagon, he whispered something to me.”

Ben stood and moved to place his hands on either side of Joe’s shoulders. He had heard the threat, too, but he hadn’t been aware, until now, that Joe had also heard. Joe cast worried eyes up at his father.

“He said he’d get me…and he will, Pa…he always does when he makes that promise. It’s just a matter of five years and he’ll be back,” Joe whispered.

Ben pulled Joe to him, his fingers clutching lightly at the curls that hung at the back of Joe’s head.

“Five years is a long time, son. Time has a way of changing people, maybe by that time, Lucas and Timmy will have learned that their bad behavior isn’t worth a second prison term,” Ben said hopefully.

“I hope so, but knowing Lucas Tatum, I doubt it,” Joe sighed, relaxing in the security of his father’s arms.

Far away in a dreary prison cell, many miles from the warmth of the Cartwright barn, Lucas Tatum lay exhausted upon the dirty, narrow cot within his cell. Timmy had just closed his eyes but quickly opened them as the sound of weeping pierced through his sleep clogged mind.

“Lucas,” he whispered, rising up on his elbow to look at his partner. “Is that you, cryin’?” he asked.

“I ain’t cryin’ you imbecile,” he shouted; though Timmy knew that his friend was lying.

Timmy turned over on his side and closed his eyes again, waiting for sleep to claim him.

“I hate ya…I’ll get ya for this Cartwright, you’ll pay with your life when I get outta here,” whimpered Lucas Tatum softly, unaware that his friend had heard.

Timmy cringed, he knew Lucas would keep his promise and thoughts of what his friend would do to Joe Cartwright, once their paths crossed again, chilled his blood.

Sleep was a long time in coming for Lucas Tatum. He lay awake long into the night, the first of many, conjuring up ways in which to seek revenge on Joe Cartwright, for it wasn’t over, not yet, not by a long shot.

The End or is it?

Next story in The Score Series:

The Final Score

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