The Letter of the Law (by Susan)

Summary:  This is a Ben and Joe story. Adam and Hoss are back at the Ponderosa getting into mischief and do not appear in this story.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17,289


 

On a trail cutting through dense woods, two men pulled their horses to a stop at the crest of a hill. One turned to look over his shoulder, watching tolerantly while a third rider bounced uncomfortably on his horse as he guided the animal. The third man looked out of place in his three-piece suit and bowler hat as he rode awkwardly up the trail through the rugged mountain terrain. The other two men, dressed in western garb, looked much more at home as they paused among the tall pines and thick brush.

“I’m sorry to make you wait, Ben,” gasped the man in the suit as he jerked on the reins to stop his horse. The horse tossed its head in protest and the man grabbed the horn of his saddle to steady his seat. The rider was a smaller, older man, perhaps in his fifties. His bowler hat slid a bit, and tufts of white hair were visible. He quickly righted the hat and pulled it firmly down on his head.

“Don’t worry about it, Fred,” replied Ben Cartwright with a smile. “We’re in no rush.”

“That’s right, Mr. Harding,” added Joe Cartwright with a twinkle in his eye. “Besides, I have to take it easy on Pa. He’s not as young as he used to be, you know.”

“Why, you young whippersnapper!” retorted Ben in mock anger. “The day I can’t ride you into the ground is the day I’ll retire to my rocking chair.”

Joe grinned at his father. “Well, I think it could be a few years before you’ll need that rocking chair.”

Fred Harding smiled at the Cartwrights’ jibes. Harding considered Ben Cartwright an old and valued friend, and he had watched his friend’s sons grow from boys to men. He knew the good-natured banter was a sign of the affection between father and son. The confirmed bachelor enjoyed the fact that he could witness such a warm and easy relationship between two family members.

Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, Harding began mopping his face. “I’m a good lawyer,” he said, as he wiped his brow. “But I’ll have to admit I’m not a very good horseman.” He shook his head as he placed the handkerchief back in his pocket. “Why Mr. Grant wanted me to assess this mine as an investment, I’ll never know. He should have gotten an engineer or a mining expert.”

“Bill Grant knows he can trust you,” Ben pointed out. “That means more to him than any engineer’s advice could mean to him.”

“I suppose,” answered Harding with a sigh. “Sometimes I wish he would trust me a little less.”

Both Ben and Joe laughed at the lawyer’s lament. “It’s only about another hour’s ride to the mine,” Ben said in a soothing voice. “We’ll be there soon.”

Nodding, Harding smiled. “Ben, I can’t thank you enough for going with me. I doubt if I could have made this trip on my own, much less known what to tell Mr. Grant.”

“I told you, Fred, this really isn’t out of our way,” Ben assured his friend. “Joe and I were going to ride up here to check on that timber stand that’s up for sale. Joe can check out the timber while you and I are at the mine. It’s really not going to cost us any time. After we’re done, Joe and I can head on over to Donner Flats and you can go back home.”

“Nevertheless, I am still grateful,” stated Harding primly. “I just hope I can return the favor some day.”

“Well, I don’t plan to need a lawyer anytime soon,” Ben replied with a smile. “But I’ll keep it in mind the next time one of my boys pulls some crazy stunt.”

“Pa, you know we just do those things to keep you from getting bored,” remarked Joe, flashing a wide grin.

“I could do with a little more boredom in my life,” Ben declared with a shake of his head. He looked up at the sky. The position of the sun told Ben that it was early afternoon. “We’d best get moving if we want to visit that mine and still get you heading toward home before dark.”

“Yes,” sighed Harding with obvious reluctance. “Let’s continue on. The sooner I look at this blasted mine, the sooner I can get back behind a desk where I belong.”

Ben and Joe smiled as they nudged their horses forward and headed down the trail.

The three men rode slowly for the next two miles. The deliberate pace was not only to compensate for Harding’s poor horsemanship but also because the trail became more narrow as it wound through the trees. The trio rode until the trail brought them to a clearing. Ben raised his hand to stop the other riders.

“This is where we split off,” announced Ben, looking around. He peered down the trail, then pointed to a thick stand of trees in the distance. “That’s timber I want you to check, Joe,” Ben added. Joe nodded his understanding.

“Now, remember,” continued Ben, “I want you to check the growth and thickness of the trees. But I also want you to look at how difficult it will be to get the timber out. And be sure we can harvest sufficient trees to make it worthwhile without losing the watershed.”

“Pa, I know how to check out a stand of trees,” Joe protested, his voice filled with exasperation.

“I know you do,” Ben admitted with a smile. “It just makes me feel better to remind you.”

“Consider me reminded,” Joe told his father. “Where do you want to meet?”

Ben rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Why don’t we meet down where the road starts into the valley,” he answered. “Right where the trail starts to flatten out. As I recall, there’s some large boulders by the side of the trail. We’ll meet there.” He looked up at the sun. “It should take us about forty minutes to get to the mine, and we shouldn’t need more than an hour or so to look around. I’ll meet you there in about three hours.”

“Three hours,” Joe repeated, nodding. He turned to Harding. “It was nice seeing you again, Mr. Harding,” he added in a polite voice. “I hope you have a productive trip.”

“Thank you, Joseph,” replied the lawyer. “I enjoyed riding with you also.”

Giving a brief nod, Joe kicked his horse forward. “See you, Pa,” he yelled giving a cheery wave as he started down the trail.

As Ben watched his youngest son ride down the trail, he felt familiar emotions stir within him. Those emotions were a mixture of pride and love, with a bit of self-satisfaction thrown in. Ben Cartwright knew he was a lucky man. He had three healthy, intelligent, and loyal sons. It was almost more than a man could expect in one life.

Shaking his head quickly, Ben turned to Harding. “We’d better get moving. Be careful. The ride gets pretty rough from here on.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” muttered Harding.

Ben smiled as he turned his horse to head up the mountainside.

*****

Even Fred Harding could tell when the two riders reached the mining site. He was amazed at how abruptly the landscape changed. Harding and Ben had traveled for almost an hour through tall trees and thick brush. But the lush foliage ended abruptly when the two reached the edge of the land being mined.

The land in front of the pair now looked barren and scored; not a single plant could be seen. Deep gouges had been dug into the side of the mountain. A pit filled with rocks sat in the middle of a flat piece of land, and two narrow ditches ran down the mountain on either side of the pit. A few tents were set up on the far edge of the mining site, but the rest of the area was dotted with rocks, wagons, equipment and dusty sacks.

“Does a mine always do this to the land?” Harding asked his friend in amazement.

“No always,” answered Ben with a shake of his head. “This is a strip mining operation. They strip away the side of the mountain, rather than digging into the mountain to get the ore.”

Harding turned back to study the site. “Seems a shame to tear up the land like this,” he commented.

“I agree,” Ben said. “But not everyone feels the same way. Some miners feel that they just have to do this to get the ore. The ore is more important to them than what happens to the land.”

Harding nodded thoughtfully.

Urging his horse forward, Ben headed toward the tents. Harding followed slowly, his head turning to study the mining operation as he rode. Both men stopped their horses near the tents.

A big man with wide shoulders and a barrel chest came out of one of the tents. He wore a checked shirt and his black pants were tucked into tall boots. His dark hair was flecked with white; it was hard to tell if the flecks were gray hairs or simply dust from the work around him. The man studied the two riders for a moment. Then his face broke into a wide but less then genuine smile.

“You must be Fred Harding,” called the man as he crossed toward the riders.

After climbing slowly off his horse, Harding walked stiffly toward the man who was approaching him with an out-stretched hand. “Yes, I am,” replied the lawyer. “And I presume you are Nicholas Burns?”

“Just call me, Nick,” offered Burns in an affable tone. He grabbed Harding’s hand and began to shake it. Harding winced slightly as the miner’s thick fingers seemed to crush his palm.

“Ah, yes, well, I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Burns,” Harding acknowledged as he extricated his slightly bruised hand. He turned toward Ben. “I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Ben Cartwright. He was kind enough to guide me here.”

“Ben Cartwright!” boomed Burns in a happy voice. “I sure am glad to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you. Are you interested in investing in our little operation too?”

A strange expression crossed Ben’s face as he walked over toward the two men — one of distaste mingled with a bit of anger. Quickly, though, Ben pulled his features into a more neutral look. “I’m afraid not,” he replied. “I’m simply acting as a guide for Mr. Harding, and perhaps answer any questions he might have.”

“Well, you might just change your mind when you see what we have going here,” declared Burns in a confident voice. “We’re making good money out of our operation. With a little more capital, we can set up operations like this all over the West. Come on, let me show you around.” Burns turned and started to walk toward the gouged mountain.

“I’m not sure I want to see this throughout the West,” murmured Harding as he and Ben began to follow Burns.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Burns showed his two visitors how his miners stripped the ore from the mountain. The men cleared the hillside, destroying or discarding anything that stood in their way before digging into the earth to pull out the ore. Harding’s eyes widened, then narrowed as he envisioned the mountain literally being destroyed. Ben’s face remained impassive, but his lips were pressed into a tight line.

As the trio turned toward the pit filled with ore, Harding noticed the dusty bags piled over to the side. “What are those?” he asked curiously.

“That’s the chemicals we use for the leaching,” explained Burns.

“Leeches?” said Harding, looking around nervously. “You have leeches up here?”

“No,” laughed Burns. “Leaching. L-E-A-C-H-I-N-G. It’s the way we extract the silver from the rest of the ore.”

Harding turned to Ben with a frown. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said.

“It’s a relatively new process,” explained Ben. “I’ve read about it, but I’ve never seen it. The idea is to mix chemicals with water and then pour the water over the ore. The chemicals loosen the silver from the rest of the rocks and make it easy to mine the silver.”

“That’s right,” agreed Burns. “It’s a cheap, easy way to extract the silver. You don’t have to transport tons of ore to a milling plant. You can leach the silver from the ore right here.”

“From what I’ve read,” said Ben with a frown, “you have to use some pretty dangerous chemicals to extract the silver. Poisons like arsenic and cyanide seem to work the best.”

“That’s right,” Burns confirmed. “We use arsenic mostly.”

“Arsenic!” cried Harding in alarm. He quickly reached into his pocket to pull out his handkerchief, then put the white cloth over his nose and mouth.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Burns assured the lawyer. “It’s perfectly safe. We mix the arsenic in water. We’re very careful to keep the chemicals and the water away from everything else.”

“But…but…I see dust on those sacks,” said Harding in a muffled tone from behind the cloth.

“Oh, a little escapes,” agreed Burns. “But it’s nothing to worry about. It’s only a trace. It can’t hurt you. In fact, I hear some people regularly use a bit of arsenic to look better.”

Harding looked to Ben for confirmation.

“It’s true,” Ben acknowledged, a bit reluctantly. “I’ve read where it was the rage in Europe for awhile. People believed a pinch of arsenic would clear their skin and improve their appearance. There was talk that arsenic was regularly used by Napoleon and Josephine.” Ben looked pointedly at Burns. “But it can be dangerous if it’s not handled properly.”

“Oh, we know what we’re doing,” assured the miner, waving his hand airily. “Come over here. I’ll show you.” Burns started walking toward the pit in long, confident strides. Ben followed while Harding trailed slowly behind, the cloth still pressed firmly to his mouth and nose.

“We’re just getting ready to leach some ore now,” noted Burns, standing on the edge of the pit. He pointed to four men who were mixing something in tall barrels. The men had bandannas covering the lower part of their face as they stirred something in the barrels with tall wooded sticks.

“We pour the mixture over the rocks and let it work for awhile,” Burns explained. He pointed to the narrow ditches on either side of the pit. “Then we let the water run out and we extract the ore.”

“Where does the water go?” asked Ben with a frown. “That’s a pretty deadly mixture.”

“It flows down the ditches and into the ground,” Burns answered. “The ground absorbs the water. We’re real careful that it doesn’t run into a stream or anything.” The miner turned to the men near the pit. “You boys ready?” he yelled.

One of the men waved in assent. With the muscles in their arms bulging, the men dragged the barrels to the edge of the pit and poured the water over the ore. Almost at once, a hiss came out of the crater, as if the hole was now filled with snakes. The water covered the ore and filled the pit almost to the top.

“We’ll let things soak for a while, and then release the water,” Burns continued to explain. He turned to Ben and Harding. “Why don’t you fellows come join me in my tent for a cup of coffee? I’d like to show you some figures on expenses and profit, and then talk about how much capital I need to expand.” He turned and walked around the pit toward the tent.

Ben started to follow Burns, but stopped suddenly as Harding grabbed his arm. “Ben, if I were you, I wouldn’t drink any coffee,” suggested Harding nervously. “You don’t know what’s in the water around here.”

“I wouldn’t worry, Fred,” advised Ben, clapping the lawyer on the shoulder. “I’m sure Mr. Burns isn’t going to poison you. At least, not until he knows whether he’s going to get some money from you!”

*****

Riding through the thick stand of trees, Joe mentally estimated the lumber that could be potentially harvested. He was pleased with what his rough calculations showed. He felt confident that the Cartwrights could cut enough trees to make the lumber operation profitably without stripping the land and hurting the watershed.

One thing nagged at Joe, however. He had seen quite a few saplings and small plants that were yellow and appeared to be dying. He wondered if some type of blight was affecting the plants. But the older, mature trees seemed unaffected. They stood tall and straight, thick at the base, with roots reaching deep into the ground. Joe shrugged aside his concern. Whatever was affecting the smaller plants didn’t seem to bother the large trees, and those trees were in which Joe was interested.

After about an hour of riding among the trees, Joe decided he had seen enough to report back to his father. He turned his horse and headed toward the flat land below.

As Joe rode, he realized his mouth felt dry and thirsty. He was reaching for his canteen when he spotted a small stream. Joe let the canteen fall back against the saddle, deciding the save the water in the container for coffee later. He guided his horse to the stream and dismounted.

Kneeling down, Joe cupped a handful of water from the stream. “Drink up, Chooch,” he advised his pinto. “It’s nice and cold.” The pinto bent down to take a drink as Joe brought the water into his mouth. Suddenly, the pinto shied away from the water and whinnied.

Joe looked at the horse in surprise as he began to swallow the water in his mouth. Almost immediately he realized the liquid had a funny taste, and spat it out onto the ground.

“You’re smarter than I am, Cooch,” said Joe as he stood. “There’s something wrong with that water.” He wrinkled his nose and worked his mouth. He could still taste something unpleasant.

On the other side of the steam, a bush thick with blueberries stood invitingly. “Come on,” Joe urged as he pulled his horse across the water. “Let’s get something to get rid of this taste.”

Quickly, Joe began pulling the blueberries off the bush and popping them into his mouth. The tart tang of the berries erased the unpleasant taste of the water. He grabbed another handful and began eating them. He laughed as a thin rivulet of blue juice ran down his chin. “Those berries sure taste good,” commented Joe as he wiped his chin with the back of his hand. He shoved some more berries into his mouth, then turned to wash his hand in the stream. He splashed a little water on his chin also, careful not to get any of the liquid in his mouth.

As Joe bent by the stream, his back to the berry bush, he didn’t notice the underside of the plant. He didn’t see the yellow leaves and withered branches dotting the bottom of the bush.

*****

Ben and Fred Harding emerged from the tent, with Burns close at their heels. “I hope the figures I showed you were clear,” said the miner as he followed the two men toward their horses.

“Perfectly clear, thank you,” replied Harding in a non-committal voice.

“Then you’ll recommend Mr. Grant invest in our operation?” asked Burns hopefully.

“I will discuss my findings with Mr. Grant,” Harding answered carefully. “I will let you know what he decides.”

“What about you, Cartwright?” asked Burns, turning to Ben with a smile. “Seen enough to make you change your mind and invest also?”

Almost abruptly, Ben stopped and looked at Burns. “I won’t be investing in your operation,” he stated shortly.

“I don’t understand,” said Burns, frowning at the tone of Ben’s voice. “You’ve seen the books and what we do here. You could make a nice little profit.”

“It depends on what you mean by profit,” declared Ben in a cold voice.

Burns’ frown deepened. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Ben bit his lip as if trying to decide something. He glanced at Harding who was watching him expectantly. Finally, Ben decided to say his piece. “Mr. Burns, I wouldn’t invest in your operation for any reason,” blurted Ben. “Frankly, I don’t like the way you mine ore. It destroys the land, not only with the strip mining but also with the leaching. There’s no telling what damage those chemicals might be doing.”

“What are you getting so high and mighty about, Cartwright?” demanded Burns in an angry voice. “You run timber operations all over Nevada. Don’t tell me that you aren’t doing the same thing.”

“I hope not,” stated Ben through tight lips. “For every tree I cut, I make sure I plant another. I won’t harvest timber if it destroys a watershed. I do my best to make sure we leave the land fruitful and growing after we take down the trees.”

“Fruitful and growing?” Burns looked at Ben in astonishment “For what? There’s nothing out here. No farms, no ranches, no people. Who cares what happens to the land.”

“I care, Mr. Burns,” Ben declared. “And just because there’s nothing here now doesn’t mean we have to destroy the land. All this land was empty at one time. What happens in twenty years, or fifty years, when more people move West? What happens when our grandchild want to grow something on this land? How will we tell them that we destroyed their future?”

“Bah!” exclaimed Burns angrily. “You’re an idealist, Cartwright. Well, maybe you can afford those high ideals. Me, I’m just a guy trying to make some money. And I’m not going to let you stand in my way.” Burns turned and stalked away.

“I’m afraid you’ve made yourself an enemy, Ben,” commented Harding as he and Ben mounted their horses.

“Perhaps,” Ben agreed with a shrug. “But with any luck, I’ll never have to see Nicholas Burns again.”

*****

Spotting the boulders as he rode down the trail, Joe turned his horse toward the meeting place. He rode slowly, hanging on to the horn of his saddle. He felt a bit dizzy and his head was aching. His stomach seemed to be churning and he had an odd tingling in his hands also. Joe couldn’t wait to get off his horse.

After guiding his pinto to a stop next to the rocks, Joe gratefully slid off the saddle. He flopped to the ground, leaning his back against the rocks. Joe closed his eyes, hoping that the dizziness and nausea would pass.

Puzzled, Joe wondered what was wrong with him. He had felt fine until a little while ago, and then he had started to feel sick. He thought about the water he had almost drank. He didn’t think he had swallowed any, but even if he had, it would have been too little to affect him like this. Joe shook his head. Maybe he was just tired. Maybe a little rest was all he needed.

“Well, I see you found your way,” said a hearty voice.

The voice startled Joe. He had been concentrating on trying to ease his aching head and queasy stomach, and hadn’t heard the rider approaching. Joe opened his eyes and looked up into his father’s face. Ben was sitting on his horse, looking down at his son with a smile on his face.

“Hi, Pa,” called Joe, giving Ben what he hoped was a smile. Joe rubbed his stomach lightly. His insides seemed to be churning again and his throat felt raw. “Mr. Harding head for home?” asked Joe in what he hoped sounded like his natural voice.

Ben didn’t seem to notice anything was wrong with his son as he dismounted from his horse. “Yes, I pointed him in the right direction down the trail,” answered Ben as he walked toward his son. He chuckled softly. “I hope he makes it in one piece. Fred Harding is an excellent lawyer but this certainly isn’t his element. He’s much more at home in a courtroom than on the trail.”

Distracted by the sick feeling in his stomach, Joe merely nodded.

“What did you think of those trees?” asked Ben as he settled on the ground next to Joe.

“They look good,” replied Joe, trying to concentrate on his father’s question. “We can get a lot of lumber out of them.”

Suddenly, Ben noticed the look on Joe’s face. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked with concern. “You look a little pale.”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe assured his father, giving Ben a small smile. “Just a little tired.” He tried to turn the smile into a grin. “Guess you can still ride me into the ground.”

Ben nodded but his brow furrowed with concern. Joe definitely looked pale and he could see beads of sweat on his son’s forehead. “Joe, are you sure you’re all right?” pressed Ben anxiously.

Closing his eyes briefly, Joe swallowed hard, trying to ease the churning in his stomach. “I’m all right,” he said again. “My stomach just feels a little queasy.”

“Do you want to stay here for awhile?” asked Ben with concern. “We can make camp and head to Donner Flats in the morning.”

Shaking his head, Joe replied, “No, I’ll be all right.” He smiled again. “Besides, I’d rather sleep in a nice soft bed than on the hard ground.”

Trying to keep the dizziness at bay, Joe stood slowly. He had taken only a step or two toward his horse when he suddenly felt a sharp, agonizing pain in his stomach. Joe let out a gasp and clutched his belly as his knees began to buckle. He felt another sharp pain, and fell to the ground, clutching his stomach even tighter and writhing in pain.

“Joe!” cried Ben in alarm. He ran to his son’s side. “What’s wrong?”

Joe writhed on the ground as his stomach seemed to burn in agonizing pain. “Stomach,” he gasped. He turned on his side and began to vomit. A bit of liquid trickled from his mouth, but for the most part, his retching produced only dry heaves.

“Joe!” exclaimed Ben, his eyes wide in terror. He pulled his son from the ground and held him. “Joe! Tell me what’s wrong, son!”

With the agonizing sickness wracking his body, Joe rocked in his father’s arms. “Stomach,” he muttered in a barely audible voice. “Burning. Head hurts.” Another spasm shook Joe’s body.

“Joe, we have to get you to a doctor!” cried Ben, his voice filled with panic. He gathered his son into his arms and stood. Ben carried Joe over to his own buckskin horse, then gently lowered Joe’s legs to the ground. Joe grabbed at the saddle as his knees buckled, trying to keep himself from falling. Quickly, Ben grasped his son’s belt with one hand and put the other hand under Joe’s arm. With a strength he didn’t realize he had, Ben lifted Joe into the saddle in one easy motion.

Almost as soon as he had forced his right leg over the side of the horse, Joe bent over, wracked by another spasm which shook his body. Ben reached up to steady his son on the saddle, his fear growing with every minute. He had never seen Joe so sick.

“Cooch,” gasped Joe from the saddle. “Get Cooch.”

Glancing over his shoulder. Ben saw Joe’s pinto was standing patiently a few feet away. He turned back to Joe. “All right, all right,” said Ben quickly. “I’ll get him. You just hang on.” Rushing over to the black and white animal, Ben grabbed the reins of his son’s horse. He tugged at the reins and, with short, quick steps, led the animal near his buckskin. Ben tied the leather leads to the back of his saddle, then climbed up on his own horse to sit behind Joe.

Moaning and clutching at his stomach, Joe was bent so far forward that his head was almost touching the buckskin’s mane. Reaching down, Ben grabbed the reins of his horse, maneuvering the reins into his right hand while wrapping his left arm firmly around Joe.

Nudging his horse with his toes, Ben walked the animal slowly toward the trail. Ben knew he had to go slow; Joe was in enough pain without the rough jolting of a fast horse. But the slow gait was agonizing to Ben. He could feel Joe’s spasms and see his son’s head jerking as the dry heaves continued. He also heard the moans escaping from Joe’s lips. Ben began to fear that his son was going to die in his arms.

His heart filled with fear, Ben kept his horse moving as fast as he dared down the trail. He knew Donner Flats was a good hour away, and he doubted if Joe would make it that far. Ben began to pray, begging God for assistance. Ben needed help and he needed it right away.

As Ben followed the trail around a bend, he let out a sigh and a brief prayer of thanks. Up ahead, Ben saw a large house made out of logs.

The building reminded Ben a bit of the ranch house at the Ponderosa. Dark, thick logs formed the sides, and a small porch jutted from the front. This house was one story, however, and instead of being surrounded with trees, the structure was on cleared land. A large field with some type of crop growing on it spread from the back of the house. In front of the building, a tall, thin man was chopping wood. The man wasn’t young; his gray hair and weather-beaten face showed his age.

Ben’s impressions of the house and its presumed owner flickered through his head in an instant. He really didn’t care what the building or the man looked like. All he cared was that here was help for his son.

Even though he was a good distance from house, Ben nevertheless began shouting for help. The man in the yard looked up, surprised by the noise. He dropped his ax and watched as Ben guided his horse toward him.

“I need help!” shouted Ben. “My son, my son is very sick.”

Giving a quick nod, the man hurried forward. “What’s wrong with him?” asked the man as he neared Ben.

“I don’t know,” Ben answered, his voice reflecting his panic and fear. “He just suddenly doubled over in pain and collapsed.” He stopped his horse a few yards from the log building.

“Here, hand him down to me,” said the man, reaching for Joe.

Easing his son’s shoulders toward the stranger, Ben watched as the man pulled Joe gently off the horse. Joe moaned as his legs slid away from the saddle and his feet hit the ground. Ben quickly jumped off his horse and grabbed Joe’s feet.

“Let’s get him into the house,” suggested the man, backing toward the building. As he and Ben carried Joe toward the log house, the man began to shout. “Annie! Annie!”

A door opened as the men reached the porch. A small woman wearing a white blouse and dark skirt stood in the doorway. Her face was with lined with age, and her hair was gray. But she had a ready smile and a twinkle in her eyes.

Both the smile and the twinkle quickly faded as she viewed the scene in front of her. “James, what’s wrong?” asked the woman, her eyes wide with surprise.

“Boy’s sick, Annie,” answered James as he and Ben approached the doorway. Pulling open the door, the woman stood out of the way at the two men carried Joe into the house.

“Put him in the spare bedroom,” ordered Annie. James nodded briefly, and led Ben across a long, narrow front room toward a door on the left wall.

Pushing open the door with his shoulder, James carried Joe into the room with Ben’s help. Joe continued to moan as the men laid him gently on a bed a few feet inside the room.

As soon as the men laid him on the bed, Joe turned on his side and clutched his stomach. He bent his legs until his knees were almost near his chest. Sweat poured from his body, running down his face and neck in thick rivulets.

“Do you know what’s wrong with him?” asked Annie in concern as she stood by the door to the bedroom.

“No,” replied Ben, shaking his head. “He just collapsed. He’s got a terrible pain in his stomach.” Ben looked at James. “Where’s the nearest doctor?”

“Doc Granger’s got an office in Donner Flats,” answered James. “But he isn’t there now. I saw him about an hour ago heading up the road.” He stroked his chin. “He must have been heading to Bill Foreman’s place,” added James thoughtfully. “Bill broke his arm a week or so ago. If I ride hard, I bet I can get him back here real soon.”

“Yes, yes, please,” urged Ben in a pleading voice. “Go get the doctor. Take my horse. He’s already saddled and he’s fast. Please, hurry.”

Nodding, James turned and, in three quick strides, was out of the room.

The woman moved up next to the bed. “I’m Annie Callahan,” she said in a quiet voice. “My husband, James, is the one riding for the doctor.”

“Ben Cartwright,” answered Ben in a distracted voice. He looked at the figure lying on the bed. “This is my son, Joe,”

Annie nodded at the brief introductions. “Why don’t you see if you can make him comfortable,” she suggested in a kind voice. “I’ll get some cold water and we can try to cool him off.” Annie turned and left the room.

Moving to the top of the bed, Ben gently stroked his son’s head. “It’s going to be all right, Joseph,” he crooned in a soft voice. “The doctor’s on his way. Everything is going to be fine.”

Flickering open his eyes, Joe looked up at his father. “Pa, help me,” he murmured in a weak and strained voice. “Please. Help me.” Suddenly another spasm shook Joe’s body. His eyes closed tightly and a loud groan escaped his lips.

Quickly, Ben grabbed his son’s shoulder. “Hang on, Joe,” he ordered in a voice filled with fear. “Hang on.”

*****

Realistically, Ben knew it hadn’t taken very long for James to return with the doctor, but it had seemed like hours to him. Each passing minute Joe seemed to be getting sicker. His moans had faded into soft grunts of pain. Joe’s breathing was rapid and his body was bathed in sweat. Ben had undressed Joe, and was surprised that his son’s skin had felt cold and clammy. He had laid Joe on his back after undressing him, but Joe had immediately turned on his side again and pulled himself into almost a fetal position. Joe hugged his stomach as he seemed to be racked with wave after wave of pain.

Ben desperately wanted to do something to ease his son’s distress, but he had no idea what to do. All he could do was sit on the edge of the bed and hold Joe’s hand, murmuring words of comfort. Annie had brought water to wipe Joe’s sweaty face, and piled blankets on the bed when Joe began to shiver. Her small round face reflected Ben’s distress and worry. He nodded his gratitude to her, not only for her help but also for her concern.

After what seemed like a year to Ben, James finally burst through the bedroom door followed by a man in a gray suit and carrying a small black bag. The doctor was a younger man, no more than 30, with strawberry blonde hair. He had an average build and was of average height, but the look of intensity and commitment on his face showed he was not an average man. His blue eyes darted around the room, taking in the scene at a glance.

“Here he is, Doc,” declared James. “Just like I said, the boy is real sick.”

Nodding, the doctor moved toward the bed. “I’m Kenneth Granger,” said the man in way of introduction to Ben. The doctor didn’t wait for a reply. He was already opening his bag and pulling out his stethoscope. In quick, competent movements, Granger listened to Joe’s heart, felt Joe’s forehead and briefly lifted one eyelid to study Joe’s pupils.

“Tell me exactly what happened,” demanded Dr. Granger as he continued to examine his patient.

“Joe said he was tired and that his stomach was queasy,” replied Ben. “He started to get up and then he had a sudden pain in his stomach. He collapsed, and started to vomit. The pain seemed to get worse.”

“How long ago did this happen?” asked the doctor.

Frowning, Ben tried to remember. “About two hours ago, maybe a little more,” he answered.

“Two hours,” said Granger almost to himself. “Well, we still have a chance.”

Looking up at the doctor, Ben asked fearfully, “What’s wrong with my son? Do you know?”

“I know,” answered the doctor grimly. “He’s been poisoned, probably arsenic poisoning.”

“Poisoned!” exclaimed Annie. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Granger stated firmly. “I’ve seen a few cases from up at that mining operation, although none near as bad as this.”

“But how?” asked Ben in astonishment. “Joe was no where near that mine!” He shook his head quickly. “It doesn’t matter. Can you help him?”

Doctor Granger took a deep breath before he spoke. “I can. It’s not going to be pleasant, but it is necessary.” The doctor turned to Annie. “Do you have any soap that doesn’t have any lye or sulfur in it?”

“Yes,” replied Annie in surprise. “I’ve got some milled soap that James bought me for Christmas.”

“Good,” said Granger. “I want you to make up a big pitcher of soapy water using that milled soap. The more soap you can put it, the better. Then bring it in here with a glass.” The doctor turned to James. “I’m going to need a bucket or pail. Do you have one?”

“Sure, Doc,” answered James. He looked at Annie with a quizzical expression on his face then shrugged shoulders. Both James and Annie left the room.

Taking off his coat, Doctor Granger laid it on a large over-stuffed chair sitting against the far wall. He unbuttoned the cuffs of his white shirt and began rolling up the sleeves. “I’m afraid we didn’t have time for introductions,” said the doctor as he rolled up his sleeves. “I don’t know your name.”

“I’m Ben Cartwright,” Ben replied. He looked down at the bed. “This is my son Joseph.”

“Well, Mr. Cartwright, I’m going to need your help,” Granger stated. “Your son is very sick. We’ve got to get that poison out of his system before it kills him. We’re going to have to clean out his insides, and we can’t waste any time.”

Feeling the fear inside him grow, Ben swallowed hard. “Tell me what to do,” he said.

“I’m going to need you to hold your son while I force some soapy water down his throat,” explained the doctor. “That will make him vomit and, I hope, throw up the poison that’s in his stomach. When he starts to throw up, I’ll need you to help me hold his head, to make sure he doesn’t choke. Like I said, it’s not going to be very pleasant.”

Ben ignored the doctor’s last comment. “Do you think that will rid him of the poison?” he asked.

“I hope so,” replied Granger. “The soapy water will force him to expel whatever is in his stomach. If it’s only been a couple of hours, probably not too much of the poison has been absorbed into his bloodstream. The soap will coat his insides a bit and that will slow down the poison also. But we’ve got to work fast, Mr. Cartwright. We don’t have much time to spare.”

James walked back into the room carrying a small wooden bucket. “Will this work, Doc?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s fine,” the doctor agreed. “Put it on the floor next to the bed.”

James placed the bucket on the floor, his face still showing his puzzlement.

Once more, Doctor Granger turned to Ben. “Move your son to the edge of the bed,” he ordered. “Leave him on his side. That will make it easier for us to hold his head and shoulders when he begins to throw up. I want you to hold his head up when I force the water into him to make sure he doesn’t choke on that either. We don’t want to kill him with the cure.”

Slowly, Ben slid Joe toward the edge of the bed, then raised his son’s head and shoulders from the pillows. He sat on the edge of the bed and cradled Joe’s head in his lap. Doctor Granger nodded approvingly.

Holding a pitcher in one hand and a glass in the other, Annie hurried back into the room. She handed both items to the doctor. “Is there anything else we can do to help?” she asked.

No,” Granger answered, shaking his head. “Mr. Cartwright and I can handle it from here. We’re going to make his son expel whatever is in his stomach. It’s going to look and sound pretty nasty. You don’t need to be here for that.”

A bit alarmed, Annie looked at James. He nodded and guided his wife slowly out of the room.

The doctor poured some liquid from the pitcher into the glass. The water was cloudy and a fine line of soap ringed the edge. Granger nodded approvingly at the glass, then looked at Ben. “When was the last time your son had something to eat?” he asked.

“As far as I know, a little before noon,” answered Ben. “We had some coffee and biscuits on the trail.”

“That would be about four or five hours,” mused the doctor. “Shouldn’t be too much left in his stomach. Well, we’ll see. Lift his head.”

As soon as Ben had lifted Joe’s head and turned it slightly, the doctor put the glass to Joe’s lips. At first, Joe began to drink eagerly, but as soon as he tasted the soap, he began to pull away from the glass. Ben put his hand on Joe’s forehead and held it tight, while Doctor Granger pulled Joe’s jaw open and poured some more of the liquid into Joe’s mouth. Reluctantly, Joe swallowed the soapy water.

When about half the contents of the glass had been forced into Joe, the doctor pulled it away “All right,” said Granger. “Let’s bend him over the side of the bed. This isn’t going to take long.”

The men barely had time to move Joe’s head and shoulders over the edge of the bed before Joe started vomiting. For several minutes, Joe retched and threw up the soapy water as well as whatever else that was in his stomach. When his retching finally produced only dry heaves, the doctor and Ben eased him back onto the bed.

With a detached air, Doctor Granger peered into the bucket into which Joe had been sick. “He had something in his stomach,” remarked the doctor, looking at the contents of the pail. “I’m not sure what.” Taking rapid steps, Granger walked to a small window on the far side of the room. He pulled the window open and threw the contents of the bucket into yard, then turned to Ben. “We’d better do it again.”

Once more, the men held Joe firmly as they forced the soapy water down his throat, and once again, they held him over the side of the bed as Joe was violently sick. When the dry heaves began, the two men eased Joe back on to the bed.

“Will that do it?” asked Ben anxiously.

As before, the doctor studied the contents of the bucket. “He threw up something more than just the water again.” Granger looked up at Ben. “We’ve got to be sure that everything is out of him. I’m sorry but we’ve got to do it once more.”

Ben nodded understandingly, but his eyes reflected the pain he felt at the misery they were causing his son.

After emptying the pail, the doctor filled the glass with soapy water again, and held it once more to Joe’s lips. As soon as Joe felt the glass at his lips, he began to thrash, trying to pull away from the glass. “No!” gasped Joe as he struggled to pull his head away. “No, don’t!”

“Joe, I’m sorry,” said Ben, trying to soothe his son. “Joe, we’ve got to do this.”

“No!” cried Joe. His thrashing eased and his voice faded. Joe seemed to have expended what little energy he had. “No,” he finished weakly.

Taking a deep breath, Ben held his son tightly. The doctor also gripped Joe firmly and pulled open his patient’s mouth. Once more, Doctor Granger forced the soapy water into Joe.

The men barely had time to turn Joe this time. He began to get sick almost instantly. A soapy liquid spewed out of Joe’s mouth and into the bucket.

At last, the retching stopped and Ben pulled Joe back onto the bed. Joe reached up and weakly clutched his father’s arm. “No more, Pa,” begged Joe. “Please. Pa. No more.”

With his eyes reflecting Joe’s pleas, Ben looked at the doctor, who was studying the contents of the pail again. Granger gave a quick nod, then turned to Ben. “I think we got it all,” he declared. “Just water came up this time.”

Letting out a sigh of relief, Ben gently stroked Joe’s cheek. “We’re finished, son,” he said softly. “No more, I promise you.” Joe closed his eyes and his body relaxed.

Sliding Joe’s head and shoulders off his lap, Ben moved his son toward the middle of the bed. He made Joe as comfortable as possible, pulling the covers over his son’s shoulders. Joe laid still on the bed, eyes closed and breathing hard, and looking almost as pale as the white cloth on his pillows.

“Will he be all right?” Ben asked the doctor anxiously.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Granger answered cautiously. “Your son is exhausted from the pain and the spasms, and his system has had quite a shock. We need to let him rest and keep him warm. And hope for the best.”

*****

A crack of light shone into the dim bedroom as the door opened. Annie pushed the door wider and looked in.

Ben was sitting in a chair on the far side of the bed, his attention fixed on his sleeping son. The only light in the room was the dim glow from a lamp, a lamp in which the flame had been turned low. Yet, Annie could see the worry etched into Ben’s face.

Scanning the room for Doctor Granger, Annie smiled as she saw him curled into a ball in the overstuffed chair. Granger was asleep, and in repose, he looked younger and much less intense than when he was awake. The sleeping doctor looked hardly older than his patient.

Quietly, Annie walked into the room. She carried two mugs of coffee in her left hand, holding them expertly by the handles, as she moved toward the bed.

“I brought you some coffee,” said Annie to Ben in a quiet voice. “I thought you could use some.”

Nodding his thanks, Ben took the mug. He sipped the coffee. “Thank you,” he acknowledged. “It does taste good.”

With a smile, Annie cocked her head toward the doctor. “I thought Doctor Granger might like some coffee, but I see he’s found a better way to spend the night.” She shook her head. “He’s going to be stiff in the morning.”

Ben nodded distractedly, and turned back to watch over his son.

“How is he doing?” asked Annie, her voice now filled with concern.

“Better, I think,” answered Ben without looking up. “His color seems better, he’s breathing easy, and he seems to be resting quietly.” He turned suddenly, as if a thought had just occurred to him. “I haven’t thanked you for all you and your husband have done,” he added in a contrite voice.

“Pish, we didn’t do anything,” replied Annie. “Just lent you a bed and got the doctor. Anyone would have done that.”

“Well, maybe,” Ben remarked. “But nevertheless, I am grateful. I’m not sure Joe would have made it without your help.”

Annie just shrugged off Ben’s thanks. “Why don’t you get some rest?” she suggested. “I can make up a bed for you on the sofa in the other room. I’ll stay with your son for awhile.”

“Thank you, but no,” replied Ben with a quick shake of his head. “I couldn’t sleep.” He turned back to stare at Joe.

“Having a sick child makes a parent feel so helpless, doesn’t it,” Annie commented as she watched Ben. “You want to do anything to make them feel better and there’s so little you can do for them sometimes.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Ben gave Annie a look of surprise. “It sounds as if you know what it’s like,” he said. “Do you have children?”

“Two daughters,” Annie answered. She looked away for a moment. “One is married and lives over in Dawson. The other one is buried behind the house. Smallpox when she was four.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben stated with genuine sympathy.

For a moment, the woman said nothing. Then Annie nodded, and seemed to wipe something from her eye. “Well,” she said in a brisk voice. “You let me know if you need anything.” She turned and started to leave, then stopped suddenly. “Mr. Cartwright, are you going to find out how your son got sick?” she asked.

Ben nodded. “Yes, yes, I am,” he answered in a grim voice. “I think I know where the poison came from. I just don’t know how Joe managed to get it in him. But I’m going to find out, and I’m going to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

“Good,” declared Annie. “James and I will do anything we can to help you. This is our home, and I don’t much care for the thought of our land being spoiled.”

Ben’s his face reflected his determination as he looked at Annie. “Don’t worry,” he told the woman in an almost fierce voice. “I’m going to make sure no one spoils this land.”

*****

The morning sun was streaming through the window as Joe slowly woke from his deep sleep. He blinked his eyes in confusion as he looked around the room. His mind began working furiously as he tried to figure out where he was and what had happened to him.

Grunting softly, Joe tried to push himself up into a sitting position, and was surprised that his arms felt weak and sore. He fell back against the pillows, but the effort caused the bed to creak.

Despite his intentions, Ben had dozed off to sleep sometime during the night. However, the sound of the bed creaking woke him instantly. He sat up in the chair and looked anxiously toward his son. Joe was staring at him, his eyes wide in surprise.

“Pa?” said Joe in a voice that was filled with confusion.

“Joe?” replied Ben in an anxious voice. “How are you feeling?”

Joe considered his answer a minute before replying. “A little rocky,” he admitted. “I feel weak as a kitten, and my belly is sore.”

“I’m afraid I’m partially responsible for that,” remarked a voice from the fall wall.

Turning toward the voice, Joe’s confusion grew. A young, blonde-haired man in a rumple shirt was unwinding himself from the chair and standing stiffly. The man stretched briefly, and walked over toward the bed.

“Who are you?” asked Joe.

“I’m Doctor Granger,” the man answered with a smile. “As I said, I’m partially responsible for your sore stomach. I had to clean out your insides pretty thoroughly yesterday, and I’m afraid the treatment was pretty rough.”

Frowning, Joe recalled a vague memory of being violently sick. He also remembered the agonizing pain. “What happened to me?” he asked.

“Joe, you were terribly sick,” explained Ben, in a soothing voice. “The doctor said you swallowed some poison. I’m not sure how you got hold of it, but it made you very, very ill.”

For a moment, Joe looked thoughtful. “It must have been that water,” he said slowly. “But I didn’t think I swallowed enough to make me sick.”

“What water?” asked the doctor sharply.

“I stopped by a stream up where I was checking those trees,” Joe told Granger. “I started to drink from the stream but the water tasted funny. My horse wouldn’t touch it.”

“Joe, you know better than to drink any water that doesn’t seem right,” chided Ben.

“But I didn’t drink it,” protested Joe. “As soon as I tasted it, I spit it out. I might have swallowed a little, but it couldn’t have been much.”

The bedroom door opened, and two more people Joe didn’t recognize walked into the room. By now, Joe was thoroughly mystified about what was going on around him, so he merely nodded at the people.

“We thought we heard voices,” said Annie with a smile. “Looks like your patient is going to be all right, doctor.”

“Joe, these are the Callahans,” explained Ben. “We’re at their place. You were too sick for me to get you to Donner Flats. The Callahans were nice enough to take us in yesterday.”

“Thanks,” Joe acknowledged, still not really understanding what had happened.

“Joe, we need to figure out what made you sick,” the doctor insisted. “You said you didn’t drink the water. What else did you do?”

For several minutes, Joe tried to remember what happened before he became ill. “Well, the water left a funny taste in my mouth,” he repeated slowly. “I saw some blueberries on a bush near the stream. So I ate a bunch of them to get rid of the taste. Then I got on my horse and headed down to meet Pa. I started feeling kind of sick when I reached the boulders.”

“How long did it take you to get to the boulders,” asked Granger.

“I don’t know. Maybe a half an hour or so,” Joe answered with a shrug. He leaned deeper against the pillows. Suddenly, he was beginning to feel tired.

“It must have been the berries,” declared the doctor. “Somehow, the arsenic got into the berries.”

“Arsenic?” said Joe in surprise. He turned to Ben. “What’s he talking about?”

“Joe, you were poisoned by arsenic,” explained Ben. “They’re using it up on top of the mountain in that mining operation I saw yesterday.” Ben turned to the doctor. “Burns told me that they flushed the water with the chemicals into the ground. It must be seeping into the water table.”

“If that poison is getting into the water, it could destroy all the land around here!” exclaimed James in alarm. He looked at Joe. “Where was it you ate those berries?”

“I’m not sure,” Joe answered in a tired voice. “Over near that stand of trees we’re buying.”

Quickly, Doctor Granger motioned to Ben and the Callahans. “We’d better let Joe get some rest,” he said in a quiet voice. “He’s had a pretty rough time of it. We’ll let him sleep for awhile, and then see if we can get him to keep some warm milk down. I don’t think he’s going to be able to eat much solid food for a day or so.”

“Is he going to be all right?” asked Ben anxiously.

“He’ll be fine,” Granger assured Ben. “He’ll need some time to get his strength back but he should be good as new in a week or so.”

Ben let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said taking the doctor’s hand. “Thank you.” He glanced at the Callahans, then added, “How soon can we move him?”

“No sense in moving him,” declared Annie before the doctor could answer. “He can stay here. Won’t be any trouble for us to look after him.”

Ben looked at the doctor.

“It would be better if he could stay here,” agreed Doctor Granger slowly. “What he needs right now is plenty of rest.”

“I’ll see that he gets that,” Annie assured Ben.

“Thank you,” said Ben. “I’m doubly grateful to you.”

The doctor looked at the bed where Joe had already drifted off to sleep. “Let’s talk in the other room.” He grabbed his coat and his bag from the floor next to the chair. The four people moved out of the bedroom, with Ben leaving last. He turned and gave a lingering look at Joe, assuring himself once more that his son was going to be all right. Then he left the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him.

Once again, Ben was reminded of the Ponderosa as he looked around the area outside the bedroom. The room was long and narrow, with a huge fireplace against the wall opposite the front door. A sofa and two chairs faced the fireplace. Two doors flanked the fireplace, one on either side, presumably leading to rooms such as the kitchen and another bedroom. At the far end of the room was the dining area, with a small table and some chairs.

Seeing the Callahans and Doctor Granger standing near the fireplace, Ben hurried to join them.

“I’m concerned that arsenic might be seeping into the water table,” advised the doctor in a grim voice. “I’d like to ride up to where Joe ate those berries and take some samples. If there is arsenic in those berries, there’s no telling where else it could be seeping.”

“Doc, I want to ride up there with you,” stated James in a determined voice. “I want to take a look around myself.”

“I have a pretty good idea of where Joe was,” Ben added. “I’ll show you where to look.”

“Well, nobody is going anyplace until I get some breakfast into all of you,” Annie ordered the men in a firm voice. “I got one sick boy on my hands. I’m not having the rest of you keel over from hunger.” She turned and started toward the far door.

“Annie,” called the doctor. She stopped and turned toward Granger. “Annie, be sure you boil the water before using it,” the doctor advised.

Annie’s face paled a bit. She nodded and hurried toward the door.

*****

Three grim-faced men rode into the mining camp late that morning. It hadn’t taken Ben long to guide Doctor Granger and James to the stream, and it had taken the doctor even less time to make some rudimentary tests on the water, berries and other plants in the area. The tests confirmed what the three men already knew. The whole area was contaminated with arsenic.

The three men had debated the next step for quite awhile. Various ideas had been discussed and discarded. In the end, they decided that the next logical step was a trip to the mining camp and a meeting with Nick Burns.

As he watched the riders coming into camp, Burns knew the expressions on their faces meant trouble. He had no idea what the trouble was, but that didn’t make him less worried. Burns took his time crossing the camp to greet his visitors. He was trying to decide what the problem might be and how to handle it. Finally, he shrugged aside his worry. Whatever was wrong, he would simply deal with it.

“Hello, Cartwright,” said Burns in a hearty voice as he approached the men. “I’m pleased to see you’ve come back. I hope this means you’ve changed your mind about investing in our operation.”

“Mr. Burns, I told you yesterday I would not invest in your operation, and my decision is unchanged,” answered Ben in a grim voice. “I’m here because my son became sick yesterday, deathly sick.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Cartwright,” stated Burns in a voice that was genuinely confused. “Is the boy going to be all right?”

“Yes,” replied Ben shortly. He gave Burns a hard look. “You didn’t ask me why my son became ill.”

“I don’t see what your son’s illness has to do with me,” Burns answered, shrugging his shoulders.

“My son became sick because he ate some blueberries,” said Ben. “Those blueberries were filled with arsenic.”

Burns’ eyes widened, and his mind worked furiously. There was no question now why Ben Cartwright had returned to his camp. “Arsenic?” repeated the miner innocently. “How did those berries get arsenic in them?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” interjected Doctor Granger. He introduced himself briefly. “I ran some tests this morning. The water, the plants, everything in that area is contaminated with arsenic. The water table in that area has been fouled with the chemicals you’re using.”

“How can you say that!” protested Burns. “There’s no proof the arsenic is from my operation.”

“Where else could it have come from?” asked Ben. “You pour your chemicals into the ground. The ground soaks it up. The more you pour in, the more saturated the ground becomes. Eventually, the ground can’t absorb any more and the arsenic begins seeping into other areas. In this case, it has seeped into the water table.” Ben had tried to maintain his control, but now his anger got the better of him. “You poisoned my son and you’re poisoning this land,” Ben finished in an angry voice.

“Now hold on, Cartwright,” objected Burns in a defensive tone. “I don’t know what you think you’re accusing me of, but everything I’m doing here is perfectly legal. I haven’t violated any laws.”

“You may be following the letter of the law,” Ben stated, his anger still evident in his tone. “But what about what you are doing to the land? And what about the fact that my son almost died because of you?”

“I told you yesterday, Cartwright,” Burns replied, his voice rising with both anger and a bit of fear. “You can afford some silly notion about saving the land. I can’t. I’ve got a business to run. And I didn’t have anything to do with what happened to your son.”

“All right, all right,” interrupted Doctor Granger in a calming voice. “Getting angry isn’t going to solve anything. Mr. Burns, we’re here because we want you to stop your leaching operation right away. The land is already damaged, but we can try to prevent any more destruction.”

“Stop my leaching?” Burns was incredulous. “Are you out of your mind? If I don’t leach that ore, I’d have to send tons of rock to be milled. That would cost me a fortune. It would put me out of business.”

“If you say so,” muttered Ben.

Suddenly, James stepped forward. “Mr. Burns, my name is James Callahan. I have a farm not too far from here. I’m worried what your chemicals could do to my land. I’m worried what it could do to me and my wife. And it’s not just me. There’s lots of farms in this area. You could destroy them all.”

“That’s your problem,” snarled Burns. “If you’re worried, go ahead and pull out. I’m not about to worry about a bunch of farmers.”

“Mr. Burns, I don’t think you understand,” replied James in a desperate voice. “I’ve lived here for over twenty years. This is my home. I don’t want to move and I don’t want to see my home destroyed.”

“I already told you,” said Burns in disgust. “That’s not my problem.”

His facing turning red, James took a step toward Burns, and his hands balled into fists. Ben saw him, and quickly stood in front of James, putting his hands on the man’s chest. “No,” advised Ben, pushing James slightly. “That’s not the way.”

Turning back to Burns, Ben said in a grim voice. “We’re asking you once more. We want you to stop the leaching.”

“I’m not going to stop anything,” answered Burns in an angry voice. “And you can’t make me. There’s no law against what I’m doing. Now I’ll thank you to leave.”

Glancing at James and then the doctor, Ben could see both men’s faces showed their anger and disgust. He turned back to Burns. “We’re leaving. But don’t think this is over. We’re going to shut you down, Burns.”

“Go ahead and try,” said Burns with a laugh. “You won’t get anywhere. I’m within my rights.”

“We’ll see how you feel when I start spreading the word about what you’re doing,” threatened James. “I’ve got a lot of friends around here, Burns. A lot of families who are going to be angry when they find out what’s going on. We’ll see what you say when you face all of them.” He turned and walked with long strides toward his horse, with Ben and Doctor Granger following him.

Standing still and with a confident look on his face, Burns watched the trio ride away. As soon as they were gone, though, his face reflected his worry. Ben Cartwright was a powerful man. He could make a lot of trouble for Nick Burns. Even more worrying was the threat from that farmer. Burns knew enough about Ben Cartwright to know he would try to stop him legally. That would take some time. But if that farmer organized his friends, they could wreck his operation. And that could happen tomorrow.

“Phillips!” shouted Burns, as he turned back to where his men had been standing and watching. A big man with a beard ran forward.

“Yeah, boss?”

“Phillips, you know where a farmer named Callahan lives?” Burns asked. Phillips was a local man, although one that wasn’t particularly liked in the area. He had a reputation as a brawler.

Phillips nodded. “Yeah, I know where it is.”

“I want you to take two men and pay a call on Mr. Callahan,” ordered Burns. “I want you to convince him that he should keep his nose out of our business.”

“Convince him?” said Phillips. “How?”

“How do you think?” answered Burns pointedly.

A nasty grin crossed Phillips face. “I’ll take care of it, boss,” he said, rubbing his hands.

*****

Joe spent most of the day sleeping. He had wakened a few times for brief periods, but he didn’t seem to have the energy to stay awake for very long.

Every time he had awakened, however, Annie had almost magically appeared. Joe thought of her as Annie because that was what she insisted he call her. Joe liked the older woman, although his acquaintance was limited to several brief encounters. She seemed to be tending to him in a manner that was thoughtful and kind, without fussing over him. Joe hated to be fussed over.

Still confused by the turn of events, Joe didn’t have a clear understanding about all that had happened to him or who exactly Annie was. But that didn’t seem important to him right now. All Joe wanted to do was get rid of the lethargy that seemed to have overtaken him.

As the afternoon sun streamed through the window, Joe woke once more. His stomach was still sore, and his head still ached, but somehow, he felt a bit stronger. Joe smiled to himself. Sleeping the day away will do that, he supposed.

Shifting his weight on the bed, Joe heard the creak of the springs. He quickly arranged the covers around him. He knew that Annie would be in the room any minute.

As if he had conjured her up, Annie opened the door and walked in. “Ah, you’re awake,” she said with a smile. “How are you feeling?” Annie seemed to say the same thing every time she entered the room.

“Better, I think,” Joe answered, giving the older woman a weak smile. “At least, I don’t feel like I’m going to fall asleep right away.”

“That’s a good sign,” Annie stated, nodding a bit. “Do you think you can handle another glass of warm milk?”

Rubbing his stomach, Joe thought about the question. He had had at least two glasses of milk that he could remember, maybe more. The thought of food still made his stomach churn, but Joe wasn’t sure that he could face yet another glass of milk. “I don’t think I need any more milk,” answered Joe with a hint of distaste in his voice.

Annie laughed. “I suppose warm milk is not quite your drink of choice,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Not exactly,” Joe admitted with a grin.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” she offered. “I’ll make some nice custard. That ought to be smooth enough for you to keep down. And a bit of a change from the milk.”

Picturing the custard, Joe waited for a reaction from his body. His stomach didn’t seem to churn at the thought, and he was beginning to feel hungry. The idea of something resembling real food appealed to him. “Custard sounds good,” agreed Joe. He looked past Annie to the door. “Is my Pa around?” he asked.

“No, he and my husband and the doctor are still gone,” replied Annie. She shook her head. “No telling what mischief the three of them have gotten into.”

“Well, I hardly think they’re tearing the town apart,” Joe stated with a grin.

“You can never tell,” answered Annie, smiling. “They may have decided to form their own version of the James gang and taken to robbing banks.” Annie’s face sobered. “More likely, they’re trying to figure out how to stop that mine from killing the land.”

Joe’s grin faded also. “I don’t know that there’s much they can do,” Joe pointed out. “I don’t know how you stop something like that. As far as I know, there’s no law against mining the land anyway you want.”

“I don’t know either,” admitted Annie. “But I have a feeling that if there’s something can be done, those three will figure it out.” She pulled herself up. “Well, now, why don’t you just sit back and rest for awhile, and I’ll get to making some custard. I’m told my custard is the best in three counties.”

“I’ll bet it is,” acknowledged Joe with a smile. He leaned back against the pillows. Once again, the lethargy seemed to be overtaking him and Joe closed his eyes.

For a moment, Annie watched Joe carefully, then turned and walked out of the room. She closed the door softly behind her.

Busy in the kitchen, Annie didn’t realize anyone else was around the house until she heard the front door bang open and the sound of feet tromping into the front room. She wasn’t alarmed at the noise, figuring James had finally returned home. Wiping her hands on a towel, Annie hurried toward the front of the house.

When she entered the room, though, Annie stopped in her tracks. Instead of her husband, three strangers were standing near the door.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded in an angry voice, trying to hide her fear with anger.

“We’re looking for a farmer named Callahan,” stated one of the men. He looked around the room. “Where is he?”

“He isn’t here,” answered Annie. Quickly she decided that telling the men she was alone was a bad idea. “He’ll be here any minute, though,” she added. “Along with some of his friends.”

“Yeah, sure he will,” agreed the man, giving an ugly laugh. He looked around the room. “Nice place you got here. Be a shame if it got messed up.” The man walked across the room, and knocked a lamp off the table. The lamp shattered as it crashed to the floor.

Both the noise and the action caused Annie to jump a bit “What do you want?” she demanded in a quivering voice.

“We want Callahan to keep his nose out of things that ain’t his business,” answered the man. “You tell him to worry about farming, not mining.” The man walked across the room to the fireplace. On the mantle above the fireplace sat a small statue. The man knocked it to the floor with a swipe of his arm. The statue shattered into a thousand pieces.

“Stop that,” ordered Annie in a voice that sounded a lot more frightened than she wanted.

“I think we’d better be sure Mr. Callahan understands our message,” said the man with a nasty grin. “I think a little re-arranging of the house might get our message across loud and clear.”

“I think you’d better turn around and leave right now,” a voice suddenly declared.

The man wheeled around in surprise at the sound behind him.

Standing in the doorway of the bedroom, wearing only a pair of hastily donned pants, Joe scowled at the three men. His feet were bare, and he was shirtless. But he held a pistol in his hand — a pistol pointed directly at the man by the fireplace.

Quickly, Joe cocked the gun. “I said, I think you’d better leave,” he repeated. He motioned toward the other two men standing by the front door. “And take your friends with you.”

The three men hadn’t expected much resistance from a simple farmer, so they hadn’t brought any guns with them. They were shocked to face a young man who seemed pretty handy with a pistol.

The man by the fireplace hurried to the front door. Joe kept his eyes on the man, his gaze steady and his gun hand firm.

Once at the door and next to his friends, the man seemed a bit bolder. He glanced at the other men as if trying to decide what to do.

Joe saw the look and raise the gun a fraction, making sure the trio by the door had no question about his willingness to pull the trigger. “You have about ten seconds,” he told them in a grim voice. “If you’re not gone by then, this gun is going to go off.”

The men at the door looked at each other; without saying a word, the trio quickly turned and left the house.

Slowly, Joe uncocked the gun, and his hand dropped to his side. The gun fell from his fingers, and Joe leaned weakly against the door jamb.

Annie rushed forward as the young man in the doorway began to sway. “Joe!” she cried as she put her arms around his waist to steady him.

“I’m all right,” said Joe in a shaky voice.

“Sure you are,” agreed Annie in a tone that showed she didn’t believe Joe’s statement. “Let’s just get you back to bed before you fall flat on your face.”

“No,” declared Joe, rousing himself. He looked toward the door. “They might come back.”

“And just what do you think you’re going to do if they do?” demanded Annie. “You don’t look like you have the strength to pull a trigger.”

“Help me to a chair,” Joe insisted in a weak voice. He started across the room, staggering rather than walking. Annie held him firmly and guided him to a chair by the fireplace.

“Watch out for the glass,” Annie advised as she eased Joe across the room. Joe nodded and stepped carefully around the broken pieces from the lantern and statue scattered on the floor. As soon as he reached the chair, Joe fell into it.

“Get me my gun,” Joe requested, taking a deep breath and trying to gather strength. “If they come back, I want to be ready for them.”

For a moment, Annie hesitated, then she walked across the room and picked up the pistol. She came back and handed the gun to Joe. “Here,” she said, thrusting the revolver into Joe’s hand. “You take this. I’m going to get some blankets. You not going to be much use as a guard if you freeze to death.”

*****

That evening, Ben, James and Doctor Granger returned to the Callahan ranch after having spent a frustratingly unsuccessful day in Donner Flats. The doctor had used time between patients researching arsenic in his medical books, looking for something that might neutralize the chemicals in the ground. His research had produced no solutions. In the meantime, Ben and James had made visits to the sheriff, the judge and every town official they could find. Their efforts had been fruitless also. Each official told them the same thing: what Burns was doing was not right, but it was legal. About the only productive outcome the three men could point to for the day was the fact that they alerted as many people as possible to the danger.

Now the trio were returning to the ranch, for both a council of war as well as to check on Joe. Doctor Granger had assured Ben again that Joe had probably spent the day sleeping, and that his son would be fine. Ben believed the doctor, but he knew he’d feel better when he saw Joe himself.

Pushing open the front door, James stepped into the house — and stopped dead in his tracks. Ben and Doctor Granger almost knocked him down as they followed close behind. Quickly, Ben pushed James aside, then stared at the scene in front of him.

Wrapped in a quilt dotted with pink and yellow flowers, Joe was sitting in a chair near the fireplace. The lower half of his body was wrapped in another quilt, this one made of blue checked cloth. The only part of his body that was visible was his head and his left hand. That was the hand pointing the gun toward the door.

“Hello Pa,” Joe greeted Ben with an embarrassed grin, as he lowered the gun. Joe leaned back against the chair, his body seeming to sag as the tension left him.

“Joe!” exclaimed Ben in both shock and surprise. “What are you doing out of bed? And why are you pointing that gun?”

Before Joe could answer, Annie hurried out of the kitchen. “Oh, it’s you, James,” she cried in relief. She rushed across the room and threw herself into her husband’s arms.

James looked at Annie in surprise as he hugged her. “What’s going on?” asked James, clearly bewildered.

“We had some visitors this afternoon,” explained Joe. “Some men who wanted to make sure you got the message to stop poking around at that mine.”

“Annie, are you all right?” James asked anxiously, as he held his wife away from him. He raked her with his eyes.

“I’m fine,” Annie assured James. She cocked her head toward Joe. “Joe ran them off, and he’s been playing watchdog ever since.” Annie’s eyes crinkled with laughter. Now that James was home, she could see the humor in the situation. “I’m not sure how fierce Joe looks, though, wrapped in my grandmother’s comforter!”

Grinning back at Annie, Joe remarked, “Well, I would have gotten a good shot at them while they were doubled over with laughter.”

Hurrying forward to Joe, the doctor immediately began checking his patient’s pulse.

“I’m all right, doc,” said Joe in an irritated voice as he tried to pull his wrist free. The doctor ignored Joe and continued his quick examination.

Trying not to show his anxiety, Ben watched Doctor Granger carefully.

“Doesn’t look like he suffered any ill effects,” advised the doctor over his shoulder. Ben let out a sigh of relief.

But the doctor wasn’t finished. He turned to Joe and gave his patient a stern look. “You are going back to bed. Right now!” ordered Granger in a voice that let Joe know he wasn’t going to be argued with.

Joe started to protest, but a quick look at the faces around the room told him that protest was going to be futile. “All right,” grumbled Joe. He put the pistol on the table next to the chair and started to get up.

Surprised how weak he felt as he tried to stand, Joe began to sway a bit. Doctor Granger grabbed Joe’s arm to steady him, and Ben rushed across the room to help. As the two men led Joe slowly across the room toward bedroom, they passed in front of James and Annie.

“Joe,” said James in a quiet voice. Joe stopped and looked up. “Thank you, son,” continued James in a voice full of gratitude. Joe just nodded.

In the small bedroom, Ben and the doctor helped Joe climb into the bed. Despite his grumbles and protests, Joe found the bed to be a very welcome place. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

As Ben pulled the covers up over his son, Granger stared at Joe. His face showed both puzzlement and admiration. “I’m amazed he had enough strength to get out of bed, much less sit up all afternoon,” commented the doctor softly.

Stepping back from the bed, Ben gave the doctor a wry grin. “It was probably more stubbornness than strength,” he stated. “Joe is pretty hard to discourage once he makes up his mind about something.” The doctor nodded, then motioned Ben out of the room.

The planned council of war took place over dinner, but the tone was much grimmer than any of the three had anticipated. Annie briefly recounted the events of the afternoon, trying to downplay that there was any real danger. But the faces of the men took on a harsh look as she finished her story.

“That does it!” exploded James. “I’m going to round up some men and we’re going to put Burns and his bully boys out of business.”

“James, that’s no answer,” advised Ben, trying to calm the farmer. “All you’ll do is find yourself behind bars. And it won’t stop Burns.”

“A bullet would stop him,” declared James, his eyes narrowing.

“James Callahan!” exclaimed Annie in a shocked voice. “You even think about going after that man with a gun, I’ll….I’ll…” Annie seemed at a loss to come up with an appropriate threat. “I’ll never make another meal for you again,” she finished weakly.

The men laughed and the laughter broke the tension. “All right, Annie,” James agreed, smiling and holding up his hands. “I sure would miss your cooking.” His face suddenly grew serious. “But what ARE we going to do?” James asked for what seemed the hundredth time.

“We need to find a legal way to stop Burns,” declared Granger. “One that’s going to shut him down with the weight of the law behind us.” The doctor looked around the table. “I just can’t figure out how we can do it,” he said glumly.

“I don’t know either,” Ben admitted but a thoughtful expression came across his face. “But I think I know someone who might help us.” The men looked hopefully at Ben. “I don’t want to get your hopes up,” added Ben quickly. “But let me send a telegram tomorrow and see if I can get us a big gun to turn on Mr. Burns.”

*****

A solemn trio of Ben, James and Doctor Granger were waiting on the porch at the Callahan farm when Fred Harding rode into the yard, bouncing uncomfortably on his horse. James’ eyes widen as he saw the man for whom Ben had sent; Harding hardly looked like the “big gun” Ben had described. James had expected a tough, fierce gunman. Instead, he was seeing a meek-looking man who could barely sit a horse properly. He looked at Ben in disbelief.

“Hello, Ben,” Harding greeted his friend as he awkwardly dismounted in the yard. “I came as soon as I got your telegram.” The lawyer looked at the horse on which he had ridden. “I trust you take it as a measure of my sense of urgency that I even chose to ride this miserable beast over here.”

Laughing, Ben shook hands with his friend. “I appreciate your coming so quickly, Fred.”

“Well, from the tone of your telegram, I sense the situation is very serious,” declared Harding. “I promised to repay your kind act of the other day, and I’m a man who keeps his word, although, to be honest, I hadn’t expected you to collect on your debt so soon.” The lawyer looked at the other two men on the porch. “Would you do the introductions, Ben?” he asked politely.

Quickly, Ben introduced Harding to the other two men.

“And Joseph?” asked Harding, looking around. “Where is he? I trust that the situation doesn’t require me to bail him out of jail or something equally as unpleasant.”

“Joe’s inside,” Ben answered with a smile. But his face grew sober. “He was a pretty sick boy for a day or so,” continued Ben. “He might have died. That’s why I sent for you.”

“Oh my!” exclaimed Harding in genuine distress. “Perhaps we had better go inside and let me get all the details.”

Nodding his agreement, Ben showed Harding to the door. As the men started to enter the house, James grabbed Ben by the arm. “Ben,” he said in a quiet voice. “Are you sure this is the ‘big gun’ you were talking about? This fellow doesn’t look like the kind I’d pick to go up against Burns.”

“Don’t let appearances deceive you,” Ben replied with a smile. “Fred Harding has one of the best legal minds in the country. If anyone can figure out a way to stop Burns, Fred can.”

“I guess you know what you’re doing,” acknowledged James, but his doubt was apparent in his voice.

When James and Ben entered the house, they found Harding had already been introduced to Annie and was expressing his concern over Joe’s health. After much pleading, Joe had been allowed out of bed to join the meeting, as long as he followed the doctor’s strict orders to stay put in the chair by the fire and to return to his bed the minute he felt tired. Ben was sure the only way that Joe would confess to be being tired was if he fell out of the chair in exhaustion.

The group settled in the chairs and sofa around the fireplace; Harding looked expectantly at Ben. It took Ben about twenty minutes to tell the lawyer all that had happened since the two had parted a few days ago. Harding listened carefully as Ben spoke, his attention never wavering. His face took on a grim look when Ben described Joe’s illness and the harsh treatment he and the doctor had to administer to save Joe’s life. But Harding didn’t interrupt. He drank in Ben’s words, and waited until his friend was finished.

“Mr. Burns and his mine are a menace,” stated Harding firmly as Ben finished his piece. “But he is correct about one thing. His mining operation is perfectly legal. He has committed no criminal acts.”

“No criminal acts?” said James heatedly. “What about him threatening my wife?”

“Can you prove those men worked for Burns?” asked Harding politely. “Or that Burns sent them?”

“Well, no,” James admitted. “I can’t prove it. But I know it.”

“Knowing and proving are two different things in the law,” counseled Harding. “Without proof, it’s your word against his. I doubt Mr. Burns will admit to sending those men. And legally, he is innocent unless proven guilty.”

“So there’s nothing we can do,” observed Joe bitterly. “Burns is going to get to continue to ruin the land. And maybe end up killing somebody.”

“I didn’t say that, Joseph,” Harding advised. He stared into the fire, his eyes blinking rapidly as his mind worked. He looked at Doctor Granger. “Doctor, are you willing to sign an affidavit as to the extent of Joseph’s illness and the agonizing pain he was in.”

“Yes, of course,” agreed the doctor, mystified at the question.

Nodding, Harding continued, “How long do you think it will be before Joseph is fully recovered? Before he can return to work such as breaking horses and herding cattle?”

“A few weeks at least,” replied Doctor Granger.

“Oh, I figure it could be as much as two months,” chimed in Joe, with a smile.

Harding nodded again, then turned to Ben. “Who owns that timber land you were considering?” he asked.

“A fellow named George Miller,” answered Ben. He appeared as mystified as the doctor at Harding’s questions.

“Is Mr. Miller a local man?” asked Harding.

“He lives in Donner Flats,” Ben told the lawyer.

“George runs the livery stable in town,” added James. “He bought that land with the idea of harvesting the timber himself someday, but he realized he was never going to get around to doing it. So he put it up for sale.”

“Are you willing to buy the land now, Ben?’ asked Harding.

“I don’t know,” admitted Ben in a hesitant voice. “According to Joe, the older trees are still in good shape. We figure their roots go deep enough that they are pulling water from below the water table. The arsenic isn’t bothering them….yet.”

“But are you still willing to buy the land?” Harding asked in an insistence voice.

Ben rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know, Fred,” he said in doubtful voice. “I don’t like the idea of exposing my timber crew to that arsenic.”

“Then you are not willing to buy the land,” stated Harding.

“I guess not,” acknowledged Ben.

“Good,” said Harding with a smile. He looked around the room at the faces staring at him. “We can’t bring criminal charges against Mr. Burns. He has done nothing for which he can be charged under the criminal statutes. However, we can file civil suits against him.” Harding started ticking off the suits on his fingers. “Joseph will sue Mr. Burns for negligence which caused his pain and suffering. Also for his lost wages. Ben will file suit for loss of a valuable member of his staff for several weeks.”

“Two months at least,” corrected Joe with a grin.

“Two months,” amended Harding, smiling. “We will need to persuade Mr. Miller to sue Mr. Burns for devaluation of his properly. I’m sure he’ll agree once Ben tells him that he is no longer interested in buying the timber land. And that’s just the beginning. I’m sure I can think of several other lawsuits to file.”

“What good will all those lawsuits do?” asked James in a puzzled voice. “Sound like just a bunch of lawyer palaver to me.”

“In a sense, it is,” agreed Harding. “Each suit independently is more of a nuisance than anything. But the volume of suits is what we want. We want to win a monetary judgment from Mr. Burns for each suit.”

“But why?” asked Ben curiously.

“You’ve forgotten I’ve seen Mr. Burns’ books,” replied Harding. “He is working on a very thin margin. That is why he has been looking for capital from other sources. We are going to seek enough damages from Mr. Burns that he will have to pay us every cent he has. He won’t have enough to satisfy all the judgments, so we will put a lien against any future earnings. I will start everything tomorrow. I think I can assure you that Mr. Burns’ operation will cease by the end of the week. “

Looking around the room, Harding could see the other men and Annie still didn’t understand his strategy. “Gentlemen,” said Harding, “and Mrs. Callahan,” he added with a gracious nod toward Annie. “We are going to shut down Mr. Burns by bankrupting him. By making sure that we collect any profits if he tries to open another mine, we will be able to shut down his operation for quite a long time. And, as Mr. Burns has stated, we are going to do it in a way that is perfectly within the letter of the law.”

*****

Fred Harding was as good as his word. He and Ben rode into Donner Flats later that day – a ride that took considerably longer than usual because Harding insisted they practically walk the horses into town. But once the pair reached town, the lawyer went to work.

While Ben was sending a telegram to Adam and Hoss, explaining in vague terms that he and Joe would be delayed a week or so, Harding had a chat with George Miller. The smile on Harding’s face when he met Ben at the hotel told Ben that his friend’s “chat” had met with success. The lawyer insisted on renting the only suite in the hotel, and once he was checked in, told Ben in a firm voice that Ben should go look after his son. Ben was hesitant to leave, wanting to help in some way. But once he took a look at all the papers Harding had spread over the desk in the suite, and saw that his friend was lost in a happy flurry of legal activities, Ben smiled and quietly left the suite.

At 9 am the next morning, Fred Harding began his assault on Nicholas Burns. He presented himself to the judge as soon as the courthouse opened, and spent an hour explaining the various lawsuits he was filing. The judge was used to dealing with drunks and thieves; lawsuits were something he rarely saw in Donner Flats. Five minutes into Harding’s presentation, the judge realized that he was dealing with a lawyer who was precise, thorough, and had a much better understanding of the law than he did. The judge merely listened, nodded his agreement to everything, and wrote the necessary orders.

At noon, the sheriff rode into Nick Burns’ mining camp, flanked by Ben, James and Doctor Granger. The sheriff had insisted he could deliver the legal papers without help, but Ben, James and Doctor Granger were equally insistent about accompanying the lawman. None of them wanted to miss the look on Burns’ face when the sheriff delivered the papers and Burns realized his mining days were over. Only Ben’s threat of tying him to his bed had prevented Joe from coming along.

Burns saw the sheriff ride into camp with his three nemeses but the sight didn’t worry him. He knew his rights and he knew he was within the law. He strode confidently across the camp to meet the men.

“Hello, sheriff,” Burns greeted the lawman. He pointedly ignored the other three. “What brings you out here?”

“Mr. Burns, I’ve got some legal papers to serve you,” answered the sheriff, pulling a stack of folded documents from his pocket.

“Now, hold on, sheriff,” said Burns putting up his hand. “You can’t arrest me or shut me down. I know the law and my operation is perfectly legal.”

“As far as I know, you’re right,” agreed the sheriff with a nod. “But these here papers have to do with some lawsuits filed against you.”

“Lawsuits?” exclaimed Burns incredulously. “What for?”

“For negligence,” answered Ben, barely able to hide his glee. “We’re suing you for negligence which caused my son harm. And that’s just the beginning. There also are suits for the devaluing of Mr. Miller’s land, loss of my son’s services and just about everything else we could think of.”

“What!” shouted Burns. He grabbed the papers from the sheriff. “Give me those.” Burns started to page through the sheets, reading the legal documents with a shocked look. After a few minutes, Burns looked at the sheriff. “This just a bunch of legal hooey,” he said with disgust. “You don’t mean to try to enforce these, do you?”

“All I’m doing is serving the papers,” replied the sheriff. “The judge will decide what’s right here, and what damages to assess.”

“Damages!” Burns exclaimed as his face grew pale. “What do you mean by damages?”

“What he means,” explained Ben, his smile now breaking through, “is the judge will assess a monetary penalty for each of the suits he deems to be correct. And believe me, we will win each of those lawsuits.”

Quickly, Burns paged through the documents in his hands again. “This would cost me a fortune!” he exclaimed. He looked at the men. “I don’t have this kind of money.”

“The alternative,” suggested Doctor Granger, “is to shut down your operation. We can’t collect if you are no longer in business.”

“Oh, so that’s your game,” said Burns as understanding began to dawn. He narrowed his eyes. “Well, you’re not going to shut me down. I’m getting me a lawyer and I’m getting these thrown out of court.”

“You have every right to fight the suits,” agreed Ben. “However, Mr. Burns, I suggest you get a good lawyer — a very good lawyer.” With a look of satisfaction on his face, Ben nodded to the other men.

As he rode from the mining camp with the sheriff and the other men, Ben looked over his shoulder. Nick Burns was standing where they had left him, papers in hand and a look of shock on his face.

*****

Fred Harding was wrong. It didn’t take a week to shut down Burns’ mine. The deed was accomplished in only four days.

The lawyer Burns hired he thought was good, but Burn’s attorney was no match for Fred Harding. Each time Burn’s lawyer filed legal papers, Fred Harding filed countersuits. When Burns’ lawyer tried to argue with the judge, Harding presented persuasive legal arguments which countered every point. Harding out-maneuvered the miner’s attorney at every turn. And in every instance, the judge ruled in Fred Harding’s favor.

Burns’ lawyer finally admitted defeat and counseled his client to close his mine.

*****

“Mr. Harding,” said James raising a glass in toast, “I have to admit you weren’t exactly what I expected. But Ben was right. You’re tougher in a fight than any gunman in the territory.”

Fred Harding turned pink as the others standing in the Callahan’s living room raised their glasses and echoed James’ praise. Doctor Granger, Annie, Ben and Joe all were there to toast Harding’s victory.

“Thank you,” replied Harding in an embarrassed voice, “but I really didn’t do that much.”

“Didn’t do that much!” exclaimed Granger. “You probably save have this territory from arsenic poisoning. You kept the land from being spoiled. And you sent Nicholas Burns packing. I’d say that was a lot.”

“And all without firing a shot,” added Ben with a grin.

Hand raised in protest, Harding was beginning to speak again when the crash of the front door caused everyone to turn with a startled look.

In the doorway stood Nick Burns — and he had a rifle in his hands.

Slowly, Burns looked at the five people in the room, each in turn, and the hate in his eyes left no doubt about his feelings for all of them. But his eyes seem to take on their fiercest look when his gaze fell on Fred Harding.

“You!” spat Burns in a furious voice. “You ruined me! My mine is shut down, and the bank tells me I can’t get any of my money. Something about a court order. My whole operation is out of business and I’m broke. I’ve got nothing left. And all because of you!”

“Burns,” said Ben in a reasonable voice, “put down that gun and let’s talk about this. Maybe we can work something out.”

“Work something out!” shouted Burns. He laughed almost hysterically. “What are you going to do? Just pretend this all didn’t happen and go away?”

Moving slowly and quietly, Joe eased himself a step closer to the door. Burns saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and turned the rifle on him. “Don’t try it, boy,” threatened Burns.

Joe stopped but his eyes never left Burns.

“Joe, don’t,” advised Ben in a soft voice.

“That’s right, boy,” said Burns with a sneer. “I guess I almost killed you once. You try anything now, and I’ll make sure I finish the job.”

“What do you want, Burns?” asked Granger.

Quickly, Burns swung around. “Now there’s an interesting question,” answered the miner. “What do I want? I want my mine back. I want my money. And I want all of you to pay for what you did to me.”

“Mr. Burns,” said Harding, taking a step forward. “You can’t have any of those things. And killing any of us will not get them back for you. All it will get you is a trip to the gallows. Is that what you want?”

A flicker of doubt seemed to cross Burns’ face.

“So far, you haven’t done anything rash,” continued Harding. “I can assure if you turn around leave now, none of us will press charges.” Harding’s eyes narrowed. “But if you don’t leave, I can also assure you that you will spend the rest of your life in prison. Or worse.”

The doubt grew on Burns’ face.

“Burns,” advised Ben in a soft voice, “you’ve got a lot of life in front of you. You’ve still got a chance to do something with that life. Do you want to throw it all away for one moment of revenge? Revenge for something that you know you brought on yourself?”

For several tense moments, Burns stared at Ben, then turned to look at the other people in the room. Slowly, he lowered his rifle. Moving his eyes around the room, Burns fixed them on Harding for a long time. Then, abruptly, he turned and walked out of the house. A minute later, everyone in the house heard the sound of a horse riding away.

Six people let out a collective sigh of relief.

Pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket, Harding mopped his face. “Ben, you would have made quite a lawyer,” he said in a voice that trembled a bit. “I think that’s one of the best closing arguments I’ve ever heard.”

“No thanks, Fred,” replied Ben with a smile. “Being a lawyer is much too dangerous. I’ll stick to ranching”

Walking rapidly to the front of the house, James closed the front door and then turned to the others in the room. “Do you think he’ll be back?” he asked nervously.

“I doubt it,” Granger stated.

“Well, just in case, I’m keeping my shotgun close by,” declared James.

“If you keep that shotgun close by, I’m sleeping in the barn,” snorted Annie. “You’re more likely to blow my head off than Nicholas Burns!”

The others in the room roared with laughter.

Turning to the doctor, Ben asked, “Is it all right if Joe and I head for home tomorrow?”

“Yes, but take it slow and let Joe rest if he feels tired,” replied Granger.

“I’m fine,” grumbled Joe. “You all worry too much.”

“Nevertheless, we WILL take it slow,” declared Ben. “I want you fit when we get home. We have a lot of work to do.”

“Pa, I won’t be able to work for two months,” said Joe in a solemn voice.

“Two months!” exclaimed Ben. “Why?”

“Well, that’s what Mr. Harding said in his lawsuit again Burns,” replied Joe with a twinkle in his eye. “I wouldn’t want to do anything that made Mr. Harding look bad. Remember, Pa, we’ve got to follow the letter of the law.”

***End***

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