The Prodigal (by Susan)

Summary:  Joe runs from the law to avoid facing a lynch mob after he is accused of murdering a woman.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,856


 

Joe Cartwright could hear the angry shouts of the mob from his jail cell. The noise was coming from the Silver Dollar saloon, where beer and whiskey fueled the throng’s antagonism. For now, the crowd was content to just voice their anger in the saloon, but Joe knew that the more they drank, the more likely they would be to decide to head for the jail to hold a lynching.

Peering out the cell window, Joe looked hopefully down the dark streets of Virginia City. He knew Sheriff Roy Coffee would do his best to stop the mob, but one man against a whole town weren’t very good odds. Joe wished his father and brothers were there to help. The 22 year-old suddenly felt very alone.

Only a few steps were needed for Joe to walk across the cell to the wood-framed bed with a thin mattress. He sat down on the bunk and put his head in his hands. How did I ever get into this mess, he wondered. And who killed Mary Hawkins?

Mary Hawkins. A pretty girl, Joe recalled, but one he didn’t know well. She had been found dead, the back of her head crushed against a rock. Her father had found the body near Willow Creek. No one had thought of Joe in connection with Mary’s death until Bob Deters claimed he saw Joe riding away from Willow Creek on the day of the murder. Joe knew he hadn’t been near Willow Creek that day; he had been up in the hills, hunting deer. But for some reason, Bob insisted he had seen Joe. Mary Hawkins’ father believed Deters, and now he was in the Silver Dollar, stirring up the mob.

Joe’s only chance to clear his name depended an old mountain man named Cherokee Pete. Joe had seen Cherokee Pete from a distance while he was hunting and had yelled a greeting at him. He wasn’t sure if the old man had heard or seen him, but Joe knew the mountain man was his only hope to prove where he was that day. His father and brothers were searching the hills for Cherokee Pete; Joe hoped they found him soon.

The noise from the saloon grew louder, and Joe could hear words like “Hang ‘im” clearly through the din. He began to pace the cell nervously. When he heard the door to the cell area open, Joe looked up, expecting to see Roy Coffee. He was surprised to see Bob Deters come through the door, carrying a large ring of keys and a holster.

“C’mon, Joe,” urged Deters as he unlocked the cell. “You need to get out of here.”

Joe hesitated. “If I run now, they’ll be sure I’m guilty,” he protested.

“If you don’t get out of here now, you’ll be lynched. That mob over at the Silver Dollar is working themselves into a real lather,” declared Deters.

Still Joe hesitated. “Where’s Sheriff Coffee?” he asked. “And why are you doing this? You’re the one who put me in here.”

“The Sheriff’s fine; he’s just having a little nap,” Deters replied. “I feel real bad about you’re being here on my say-so, and I don’t want to see you hanged by that mob. Now, c’mon! I’ve got a horse out back for you, with a bedroll and supplies. Here’s your gunbelt. You’ve got about one minute to make up your mind.”

But Joe continued to waver. He knew that escaping jail was the wrong thing to do. On the other hand, he sure didn’t want to be lynched. Suddenly, Joe realized the noise seemed to be getting closer. The mob was heading to the jail.

With a quick move, Joe snatched his hat and jacket off the bunk. “Let’s go,” he called, grabbing the gunbelt from Deters’ hand. The two men went to a side door. Deters looked cautiously out into the night, then motioned to Joe. They left the jail and headed to the back of the building.

A saddled horse, laidened with a rifle, bedroll and saddlebags, waited patiently, just as Deters had promised. Joe buckled on the holster, then turned to the young cowboy, extending his hand. “Thanks,” he said gratefully. “I’ll never forget what you did.”

“Forget it. Just get out of here,” advised Deters, shaking Joe’s hand briefly. “If I were you, I’d head for the mountains. That lynch mob is sure to head for the Ponderosa once they find out you’re gone. There’s enough supplies in the saddlebags to last you a week or so, and plenty of ammunition. You should be able to manage fine for quite a spell. Whatever you do, don’t come back to Virginia City for long time. Give your Pa and brothers time to cool things down. A couple of months ought to do it.”

Swallowing hard, Joe nodded. A couple of months! It suddenly hit Joe that he might never be able to come back. Joe realized he had no choice, though, not if he wanted to keep breathing. He vaulted onto the back of the horse and rode off into the night.

Deters watched Joe ride safely out of town, then sighed with relief. At least that’s one hanging I won’t have on my conscience, he thought. He heard the shouts of the mob getting even closer, and then the pounding of fists on a door.

Hurrying around the building to join the crowd, Deters hoped to lose himself among the milling men. He reached the group just as they were breaking open the front door of the sheriff’s office. Four men rushed into the office, while the rest of the throng waited impatiently in front of the building. Suddenly, one of the men came out of the office. “He’s gone!” the man shouted angrily.

“What do you mean, he’s gone?” a voice from the crowd yelled.

“Just what I said,” answered the man from the door. “The sheriff’s unconscious on the floor, the jail cell door is open, and there’s nobody in there. Cartwright’s escaped.”

An angry roar erupted from the crowd in front of the jail. The men started shouting and shaking their fists, but they seemed uncertain about what to do next. “Get your horses!” one of them yelled. “He couldn’t have gone far. We’ll track down that killer and hang him from the nearest tree!”

Shouting their approval, the enraged men turned as a group to head up the street toward the livery stable and toward horses tied to hitching posts. The crowd had traveled only a short distance when they found their path blocked by four men on horses.

“What’s going on here?” demanded Ben Cartwright.

“Your boy’s escaped from jail,” called a voice from the crowd. “We’re going after him and hang him!” The crowd murmured its agreement and started to surge forward.

“Nobody’s going anywhere,” declared Hoss Cartwright in a loud voice from the horse next to his father. He pulled his rifle from his saddle and cocked the weapon. “My little brother is innocent,” Hoss added.

A tall thin man pushed to the front of the crowd. John Hawkins, Mary’s father, faced the Cartwrights angrily. “You Cartwrights would say anything to protect that boy,” Hawkins bellowed in a bitter voice. “He murdered my Mary. Deters saw him riding away. I’m going to find that kid of yours and make sure he hangs for what he done.” The crowd behind Hawkins shouted their agreement.

“Hold it!” yelled Adam Cartwright, aiming his rifle at the mob. “Joe didn’t kill anyone, and we can prove it.” He turned toward an old man sitting on a scrawny horse next to him. “Go ahead, Pete. Tell them.”

The old man studied the crowd in front of him for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders. “I saw Joe Cartwright up in the mountains last Tuesday. No way he could have been at Willow Creek that afternoon,” the man stated in a firm voice.

“You’re lying!” cried Hawkins. “The Cartwrights paid you to lie for them.”

“Now hold on,” replied Cherokee Pete heatedly. “No one calls me a liar. I wouldn’t lie for any reason, and not for a few dollars. What am I going to do with money? I got everything I need up in those mountains.”

As the crowd started to hum with uncertainty, Hawkins turned to face the men behind him, ready to urge them on again. Suddenly, he spotted Bob Deters in the back of the mob. “Deters, get up here,” Hawkins ordered. “Tell them what you saw.

Reluctantly, Bob Deters emerged from the crowd, pushed forward by the men around him. His eyes were wide with fear as he stood in front of Hawkins. “I don’t think this is the time…” he began.

“Tell them what you saw!” interrupted Hawkins, lifting his rifle toward Deters.

Deters swallowed hard. He looked at the rifle in Hawkins’ hands, then at the Cartwrights. “I was up by Willow Creek,” Deters told Hawkins in a shaky voice. “I saw Little Joe riding away. I recognized that pinto he rides.”

“See!” said Hawkins triumphantly. “We got an eyewitness.”

“Now hold on,” answered Ben. “Deters here only says he saw a man on a pinto. He can’t be sure it was Joe. And he sure didn’t see anyone kill your daughter. Anything could have happened up there.”

Leaning forward in his saddle, Cherokee Pete was silently studying Deters. Suddenly, the old man grabbed Adam’s arm. “I know him,” the mountain man stated. “I saw him with a girl about two weeks ago. They was up at Willow Creek, kissing and tumbling in the grass.”

“No,” Deter shouted in a frightened voice. “I wasn’t; I didn’t even know the girl.”

“Wait a minute,” Hawkins snapped. “Mary said she was sparking some young fellow but didn’t say his name. I just assumed it was young Cartwright. Maybe it was you. Were you courting my Mary? Did you take her up to Willow Creek?”

“No, No!” said Deters desperately. “It wasn’t me. I was just riding by; I saw Joe. I wouldn’t hurt Mary. I loved her.” The crowd fell silent as Deters realized what he had said. He looked around as the men stared at him. Suddenly, his shoulders slumped and Deters began to cry.

“It was an accident,” the young cowboy admitted. “Mary and I were just having some fun. She got up suddenly and I started to chase her. She tripped and hit her head on the rock. When I realized she was dead, I panicked. I knew her father would kill me. So I said I saw Joe. I figured the Cartwright’s had enough money and influence to clear him. I never thought it would go this far.” Deters began sobbing.

Hawkins pushed his rifle against Peter’s chest. “You’re right,” he declared furiously. “I AM going to kill you.”

Ben Cartwright jumped from his horse and grabbed Hawkins rifle. “John, wait,” he ordered. “You almost hanged one innocent man tonight; don’t make the same mistake twice. Let the law handle this. You heard the boy. It was an accident.”

Hawkins looked at Ben uncertainly. “My Mary’s dead,” he cried. “Someone has to pay for this.”

Ben put a comforting arm around Hawkins shoulder. “John, I know this is hard. But if what Pete says is true, no one is really to blame. Go home. Mourn your daughter. She wouldn’t want you to do this. She wouldn’t want you to hang someone for no reason, especially if it was a man she loved.”

Hawkins put his head down for a moment. Then he nodded and wiped his eyes. “You’re right,” Hawkins acknowledged as he lifted his head. He turned to the crowd. “Go home,” he commanded the men. “It’s all over.”

As the crowd started dispersing, Ben took Deters gently by the arm and turned him toward the jail. “Let’s go, son,” he said quietly. With his head still down, Deters started walking. Ben looked over his shoulder at his sons and Cherokee Pete. “We’ve got to find out about Joe,” he added. The men nodded and began to walk their horses slowly down the street behind Ben.

As the five men walked into his office, Sheriff Roy Coffee was pulling himself up to a sitting position. Ben rushed to Coffee’s side and helped the sheriff to his feet, and then guided him to a chair. “Adam, get some water,” ordered Ben as Coffee slumped into the chair, moaning and holding his head.

Quickly, Adam moved to the stove in the corner of the office. He poured some coffee from the pot on the stove into a cup and then walked rapidly to his father. “This will probably work better than water,” he suggested as he thrust the cup toward Ben.

Nodding his thanks, Ben took the cup from Adam and put it to Coffee’s mouth. “Drink this slow; it’ll make you feel better,” offered Ben with concern.

Coffee took a sip, then shook his head to clear it. He looked up at Ben with surprise. “Ben, what are you doing here? What happened?” asked the sheriff.

“We’re not exactly sure,” admitted Ben. “We rode into town just as a lynch mob was coming down the street. They said Joe’s escaped.”

Springing to his feet, Coffee hurried to the door of the cell block. He looked in, then back at Ben. “They’re right,” he called. “The cell is empty.” The sheriff shook his head again, then glanced around the room. He fixed his gaze on Deters, who was standing dejectedly next to Hoss by the door. “All I remember is that fellow Deters coming to the door,” the sheriff added. “He said he had something important to tell me about Joe. I let him in and then everything went black.”

Deters looked up at the sheriff. “I hit you with my gun,” he mumbled, “And then I let Little Joe out of the cell. I gave him a horse and supplies and told him to head toward the mountains. He’s probably miles away by now.”

“You what?” shouted Coffee angrily. He began to walk toward Deters but Hoss moved to stand in front of the young cowboy. Hoss put out his hand to stop the sheriff’s progress.

“Hold on now, Roy,” Hoss declared. “Deters here has confessed to being there when Mary Hawkins died. He said it was an accident and Joe was nowhere near the place when it happened.”

For a moment, Coffee blinked his eyes in confusion, then turned to Ben. “Is what Hoss is saying true?” he asked.

Ben nodded. “Cherokee Pete here confirmed Joe’s alibi. When Mary’s father began pressing Bob about what happened, he broke down and confessed.”

Walking over to Deters, Coffee stared at the miserable expression on the cowboy’s face and then nodded slowly. “I knew Little Joe couldn’t have done something like that,” conceded the sheriff. He grabbed Deters’ arm gently. “C’mon, son. I need to lock you up until we get this thing straightened out.”

Deters nodded and followed the sheriff without resistance.

After locking Deters in the cell that had recently held Joe, the sheriff walked back into his office and saw the three Cartwrights and Cherokee Pete waiting for him.

“It’ll take awhile to sort this thing out. But if what he says is true, he shouldn’t be in too much trouble with the law,” stated Coffee.

“The important thing now is to find Joe. He could be anywhere, and he thinks he’s a wanted man. We’ve got to find him before he does something foolish,” declared Ben grimly.

“I’ll get a posse organized right away,” Coffee offered.

“That’s no good, Roy,” Adam countered. “If Joe sees a posse, he’ll think they want to take him back to jail…or worse.”

“Adam’s right,” added Hoss. “The only ones he’ll trust now is Pa or Adam or me. We’ll have to be the ones to go after him.”

“I believe you boys are right,” Coffee acknowledged. “But it’ll take a miracle for you three to find him.”

“I’ll help,” Cherokee Pete offered. “I’m the best tracker around these parts. If he’s left any kind of trail, I’ll pick it up.”

“Thanks,” said Ben gratefully. “We’ll head out as soon as it’s light. In the meantime, Roy, why don’t you get the newspaper to run a front page story about Deters’ confession. That way no one will go off half-cocked and take a shot at Joe if they see him.”

“I’ll do that,” Coffee agreed. “I’ll also wire every sheriff within fifty miles, telling them what happened and giving them a description of Joe. They can wire me back if they spot him.”

“Be sure to tell them not to try and approach Joe,” advised Adam. “If he sees a sheriff coming after him, he’s liable to shoot first and ask questions later.”

“All right,” answered the sheriff. He grabbed his hat from his desk and started toward the door. “I’ll get started on the telegrams now. Then I’ll wake up the newspaper editor and get him working on that story.” Coffee pulled open the door and walked out into the night.

“Pa,” Hoss asked anxiously, “do you really think Joe would take a shot at a sheriff? He’s hot-tempered sometimes, but he wouldn’t shoot anyone deliberately.”

“I don’t know what he’ll do,” admitted Ben, shaking his head. “Joe thinks he’s running for his life.”

Adam put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “We’ll find him.”

“I hope so,” replied Ben. He took a breath and squared his shoulders. “Let’s go get some supplies and head out. I want to be at the base of those mountains as soon as it’s light.”

*****

Joe rode hard for three days, stopping only when his horse needed rest. He used every trick his father and brothers had taught him to hide his trail. He brushed out his tracks and rode through streams. He looked for hard ground, and rode over rocks and soil where he wouldn’t leave any tracks.

Finally, he stopped. For three days, he had been grabbing only snatches of sleep. He had eaten in the saddle, munching on the beef jerky that Deters had put in his saddle bags. Joe was exhausted; his body was tired and sore. He couldn’t seem to think clearly. He knew he had to rest. Fatigue was his enemy now.

Joe halted his horse at the top of a hill. After dismounting, he looked down into the valley below. There was no sign of riders behind him. A tired grin crossed Joe’s face; he had lost whatever posse was chasing him.

After leading his horse to an outcropping of rocks, Joe tied the animal to a small bush; the horse began to eat the tufts of grass on the ground. Joe patted the horse on the neck, and then untied the bedroll and saddle bags as well as the saddle. He carried the gear to the rocks, spotting a small opening between two boulders. Joe propped the saddle against the rocks, with the seat toward the ground, and unrolled the bedroll. He eased his tired body against the underside of the saddle, welcoming the cushion it gave him. Pulling the blanket over him, Joe closed his eyes and fell asleep.

The sun was setting as Joe began to stir from his sleep. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes; he still felt tired and sore. Joe yawned and stretched his arms, then sat up abruptly as he remembered where he was and why. He scrambled to his feet and peered over the rocks to the valley below. As he stared hard at the empty landscape, Joe sighed with relief. Still no sign of a posse. Joe slid back to a sitting position, resting his aching back against the saddle. He knew he probably should move on, but he didn’t have the energy to do it. Looking at the setting sun, he figured he had slept about six hours; he felt like he could sleep for about sixteen.

Joe turned to the horse patiently standing a few feet away. “Well, boy, what do you think?” he asked the animal. “Think we’re safe here for awhile?” He grinned as the horse looked at him blankly. “Guess you don’t have any answers either,” Joe remarked.

Getting to his feet, Joe picked up a canteen from his gear. He walked over to the horse and untied the animal from the bush; the grass around the shrub was eaten to the ground. Joe led the horse a few feet away, where the grass was plentiful. Using his hand as a cup, he gave the horse some water, then tied him to a small tree, leaving the reins loose enough for the horse to graze.

A rumble in his stomach reminded Joe that he needed to be fed also.

Walking back to the rocks, Joe flopped wearily onto the ground. He opened the saddle bags and started sorting through the hardtack and jerky, looking for something more appetizing. He spotted some smoked ham at the bottom of the bag and pulled it out. After taking a bite, he smiled at flavor.

Sitting back, Joe thought as he ate the ham. “What should I do now?” he wondered. He wasn’t really sure where he was. Somewhere northwest of Virginia City, he figured. Should he head for a city? Someplace big like San Francisco where he could get lost in the crowd of people? Joe shook his head. That was no good. He really didn’t like big cities — too crowded for his taste. Besides, what would he do when he got there? He was a rancher, not a clerk or a storekeeper.

He could double-back and head for Mexico, but that seemed dangerous. He might accidentally run into the posse that was following him.

Joe frowned as he deliberated. Pa had friends all over the West. Could he go to one of them? Would they turn him in or help him? He couldn’t be sure. Joe sighed. Nothing he thought of seemed like a good idea. He finished eating, licking his fingers to get the last taste of ham, then swallowed some water from his canteen. He stared at the darkening sky, looking for some answers. But the only thing he saw were the stars beginning to twinkle in the night. Finally, his fatigue overcame him. Joe closed his eyes and slept again.

The bright morning sun woke Joe this time. He felt refreshed; some solid food and a good night’s sleep revived his spirits. Getting to his feet, he looked one last time down into the still empty valley. Joe was positive he had lost the posse now. Grabbing his saddle and gear, he walked over to his horse. As he saddled the animal, he began thinking again about his destination, but continued to have no answers to his dilemma.

As he mounted, Joe took one more look around. “Well, boy, I guess you and I will just see some country for awhile. Maybe I’ll think of something later.”

*****

Ben, Adam, Hoss and Cherokee Pete spent nearly a week searching the mountains, looking for Joe’s trail. At first, the mountain man was able to spot a few signs, but the trail always disappeared. They searched for several days in vain for any clue to where Joe might have gone. Finally, they split up, each taking a different area to cover. They agreed to meet in two days at the top of Pine Tree Ridge.

Ben and Adam were sitting around a campfire on the crest of Pine Tree Ridge when Hoss rode up. Ben looked at his son hopefully as Hoss dismounted and approached the fire. “Nothing, Pa” Hoss said in response to Ben’s unasked question. “I didn’t even find a twig bent the wrong way. How about you two? Any luck?

Adam shook his head. “No, we didn’t find anything. We were hoping you or Cherokee Pete might have spotted something.”

Almost as if Adam had conjured him up, Cherokee Pete rode into the camp as Adam finished speaking. He dismounted and dropped his reins, rubbing his hands as he neared the fire. “Whew, it’s getting cold,” observed the mountain man. “Adam, pour me a cup of that coffee, would you?”

“Pete, did you find any sign of Joe?” Ben asked impatiently.

The mountain man sipped his coffee and then looked at Ben. “No, I didn’t find anything, and I don’t think we’re going to. That boy of yours really knows how to hide his tracks.”

As Ben’s shoulders slumped, Adam and Hoss glanced at each other, trying to think of something to say. “Pa,” said Adam finally, “Joe knows how to take care of himself. He’ll be all right.”

“I know that, Adam,” Ben agreed. “It’s just that I’m worried about where he’ll go and what he’ll do. He could get into real trouble.”

“Pa, he could be anywhere,” Hoss pointed out. “We’re not doing any good up here. Maybe we should head back to Virginia City. Roy Coffee might have some news by now.”

“I suppose you’re right,” admitted Ben reluctantly. “We’ll head back in the morning.”

“Then, I’m taking off,” announced Cherokee Pete. “I don’t much like towns. Too noisy, too many people. I’ll keep my eyes peeled and let you know if I spot anything.”

“Thanks, Pete,” Ben said gratefully. “We appreciate all you’ve done.”

“Shucks, I ain’t done nothing,” replied the mountain man with an embarrassed look. He walked back over to his horse and mounted. “Your boy will be all right,” he called to Ben. “You wait and see. He’ll come home soon enough.”

“I hope so,” Ben said with a sigh. He watched Cherokee Pete ride off then turned to stare at the fire. Adam and Hoss sat next to him, both wishing they could say something to comfort their father, but no words came.

*****

It was midday when the three Cartwrights rode into Virginia City. The town was quiet, with only a handful of people strolling the sidewalks. A few stopped to stare at the trio as they rode slowly down the street but no one spoke to them. The discouraged slump of Ben’s shoulders told anyone who cared to look that the Cartwright’s search for Joe had been unsuccessful.

The three men rode to the Sheriff’s office and tied their horses to the hitching post in front, then climbed the stairs to the office and went in.

Roy Coffee was sitting at his desk when the men entered the office. He gave them a searching look as he watched them cross the floor toward him. “I don’t have to ask,” observed Coffee. “I can tell by the look on your faces. You didn’t find him.”

“No, we didn’t find him,” acknowledged Ben. “Did you find out anything?”

The sheriff shook his head. “Sorry, Ben. I’ve got nothing to tell you. I’ve sent telegrams to every place I could think of, but no one’s seen Joe.”

“Well, he must be someplace,” declared Adam with exasperation. “He just didn’t drop off the face of the earth.”

“Adam, if I had any idea where Joe could be, I’d tell you in a minute,” Coffee assured him. “But the truth of the matter is, no one knows where he is.”

“Pa, what do we do now?” asked Hoss with a frown.

“I don’t know,” admitted Ben. He thought for a few minutes then turned to the sheriff. “Roy, did you send any wires to the big cities, like San Francisco?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Coffee. “I didn’t see much point. If Joe’s in San Francisco, the police there wouldn’t take the time to look for him. They’ve got too many other problems to worry about to bother searching for a missing boy.”

Ben nodded. “You’re probably right. But I’ve got a friend who’s a newspaper publisher in San Francisco. I’ll write him and ask him to print the story on the front page of his paper. If Joe’s there, maybe he’ll see it. Even if he doesn’t, the San Francisco papers have a big circulation. Someone else is liable to see it and recognize Joe.”

“That might work, Ben,” agreed the sheriff.

“Pa, maybe we should offer a reward,” Adam suggested. “You know, something like ‘$500 for information leading to the whereabouts of Joe Cartwright’.”

“That’s a good idea, Adam,” declared Ben, his voice rising with enthusiasm. “Only let’s make it $1,000. That will really get people’s attention.” Ben jumped to his feet. “Come on, boys, let’s get back to the ranch. I want to get a letter off to San Francisco as soon as possible. There are a couple of other friends who I want to contact also. If we spread the word; someone is bound to spot him.”

“I’ll keep sending wires,” added Roy Coffee as the Cartwrights walked out of his office. “I’ll let you know if anything turns up.”

Ben, Adam, and Hoss were walking to their horses, when a man approached them. “Ben,” called John Hawkins, “did you find him?”

Ben turned to Hawkins. “No,” he said shortly.

“Ben, I’m real sorry about what happened,” Hawkins stated in a voice full of regret. “I really thought Joe had killed my Mary. I hope you find him. And I hope you can forgive me.”

“I can forgive you for thinking my boy killed your daughter,” Ben told the man in a tight voice. “And I can forgive you for hating him when you thought he did. But what I can’t forgive is your taking the law into your own hands. If you hadn’t stirred up this town, if you hadn’t decided to be judge and jury, Joe would be home now, safe and sound.”

Lowering his head, Hawkins had the grace to look ashamed. “I know you’re right, Ben. All I can say is that I’m sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t going to bring my son home,” declared Ben heatedly. He turned and mounted his horse. “Come on, boys,” he said to Adam and Hoss. “Let’s get back to the ranch.”

*****

For the next two weeks, Joe rode in a northwesterly direction. He took his time, stopping to hunt fresh game and resting when he felt tired. He had no particular destination in mind; he just wandered. He stayed away from any trail that looked like it might lead him to a town or a ranch. He lost track of time. He wasn’t even sure where he was, although he felt sure by now he must be in the Oregon territory. The loneliness of his trek was starting to wear on him; he thought longingly of his home and family as he rode. He missed joking with Hoss and arguing with Adam. Heck, he even missed his father’s lectures.

Coming to the crest of a heavily wooded hill, Joe looked down and was surprised to see a house and barn in the clearing below. It seemed odd for the structures to be out here in the middle of nowhere. He could see a corral with some horses behind the barn, and a wagon next to the corral. A few cows grazed in the open field behind the house.

Shrugging, Joe turned his horse, giving the animal a gentle kick. Suddenly, he lurched forward as the horse stumbled.

After the horse righted itself, Joe dismounted. He looked at his mount and saw the horse pawing the ground with its right front hoof. Joe patted the animal and murmured soothing words as he picked up the horse’s leg. He examined the hoof and cursed as he saw the shoe on the hoof was missing. Looking around, Joe saw the horseshoe a few feet away. He picked up the shoe and put it in his saddlebag, then patted his horse on the neck again and started to lead him down the hill.

A woman was scattering grain from a pail toward some chickens as Joe approached the house he had seen from the hill. She wore a print blouse and a dark skirt; her brown hair, streaked with gray, was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her neck. The woman eyed Joe suspiciously as he neared the house.

“Afternoon, ma’am,” Joe said politely. The woman nodded back, still watching the young man cautiously. “My horse threw a shoe,” Joe continued. “I was wondering if you had something I could use to put it back on.”

The woman studied Joe for a minute. “You been walking him?” she asked.

“For the last mile or so,” Joe acknowledged with a wry grin. “I was taught never to ride a horse that had lost a shoe.”

“Someone taught you good,” agreed the woman. “Well, there’s tools in the barn. Help yourself.”

Joe touched the brim of his hat. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said and led the horse to the barn.

Inside the barn, Joe looked around. Six empty stalls – three on his right and three on his left – were just inside the doorway. Beyond them was a wide, open space. On the back wall hung a hammer and other tools. A cot was pushed against the side wall in the back, and a tall cabinet was standing against the opposite wall.

After leading his horse into the barn, Joe tied the reins loosely around one of the stall posts. He walked to the back of the barn and took the hammer off the wall. Looking around, he spotted a box of horseshoe nails on the floor. Joe grabbed a handful of nails and headed back to his horse.

Joe took the horseshoe from his saddlebag and lifted the horse’s leg. Balancing the leg on his knee, he fitted the shoe back on the hoof and began tapping nails lightly into the rim of the animal’s foot. Only a few minutes had past when he heard the barn door open. He looked up and saw the woman come in. She stopped near the door.

“Find everything you need?” she asked.

“Yes, thank you,” Joe answered. He went back to work. The woman watched as he finished nailing the shoe on. Joe let the horse’s leg drop, then bent to examine it. He ran his hands over the limb, looking for any indication of heat or swelling.

“Any sign of a pulled tendon?” the woman asked from the doorway.

“No ma’am,” Joe replied without looking up. He felt the leg some more and then stood, satisfied that the animal wasn’t seriously injured. He turned toward the woman at the door. “He’s got a stone bruise but that should be all right in a day or so. Thank you again for the help,” he stated politely.

The woman nodded with a distracted air. Suddenly, she seemed to make up her mind about something. “It’s getting late,” she said. “If you want, you can stay here in the barn tonight. There’s a cot over in the corner and some bedding in the cabinet.”

Joe smiled gratefully. “Thank you. It’s been awhile since I’ve slept on anything but the cold, hard ground.”

“Well, if you’re going to stay, you might as well have supper with me,” invited the woman. “Get yourself cleaned up. We’ll eat in about an hour.” She turned abruptly and walked out.

Joe looked down at his shirt and pants, surprised to realize how dirty he was. He rubbed his chin and felt the stubble of a beard. He had been pretty lax about washing and shaving on the trail.

An hour later, Joe rapped lightly on the door of the house. His face and hands were scrubbed clean, and the dirt brushed from his clothes. After using an old razor and a piece of soap he found in the cabinet in barn, Joe was freshly shaved and his dark, curly hair was washed. He knocked again on the door.

The woman opened the door and raised her eyebrows in surprise at Joe’s appearance. “Come on in,” she said with a smile and held the door open for him.

After scrapping his dirty boots on a mat in front of the door, Joe followed the woman into the house and walked into a large room. To his left, a few feet from the door, he could see a table with four chairs. Two doors were fitted snugly into the wall behind the table. To his right, against the back wall, was a fireplace. Two overstuffed chairs, separated by a small table, sat in front of the fireplace. Several other small tables with lamps were scattered around the room. Joe could see a doorway in the wall to the right of the fireplace.

“Well, just don’t stand there, boy. Come on in,” ordered the woman as she observed Joe looking around. He grinned sheepishly and walked further into the room.

“My name’s Molly Branson,” the woman said, holding out her hand.

“Joe Cart…Carter” Joe answered awkwardly, taking the woman’s hand.

“Nice to meet you, Joe,” Molly declared. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable. Dinner will be ready in a minute.”

At dinner, Joe ate like a starving man. He devoured the chicken, potatoes and greens on his plate and had second helpings of everything. Molly grinned as she watched him eat. Finally, Joe’s appetite was satisfied, and he gave Molly a guilty look. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I’ve been eating my own cooking for so long that I almost forgot what a good meal tastes like.”

“Don’t be,” returned Molly with a smile. “It does my heart good to see my cooking appreciated.”

Joe sat back in his chair. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Go ahead,” Molly agreed.

“What are you doing living out here in the middle of nowhere? Not that it’s any of by business,” added Joe hastily.

“I don’t mind. It’s really not in the middle of nowhere. It’s only about a day’s ride to Caldwell — that’s the nearest town.”

“What made you settle out here?” Joe asked curiously.

Molly’s face turned to the window and then slowly back to Joe. “My Will brought me here about three years ago. I knew when I married Will that he was a wandering man, that he wouldn’t be happy in one place. But I loved him so. And for awhile, it was exciting moving around so much. Always new places, new people. But eventually, I got tired of it. I made Will promise to build me a proper home and settle down. He found some gold up Colorado way and had some money. So he bought this land and timber rights up on the mountain. He built me a proper home, just like he promised, and started a timber operation.”

“Where’s Will now?” asked Joe, his interest piqued.

“About a year ago, he started getting that look in his eye,” Molly explained wistfully. “I knew he was itching to travel, so I told him to go. He promised me he would be back in a couple of months that he was only going to do some trapping up north. I ain’t seen him since.”

“I’m sorry,” said Joe sadly.

Molly sniffed indignantly. “I can take care of myself, boy. I don’t need your sympathy.”

“I’m sure you manage just fine,” Joe agreed with a smile.

Molly smiled back. “What about you?” she asked. “A young fellow like you should be home with his family, not wandering around these mountains. Where is your home?”

Suddenly a look of misery crossed Joe’s face, and his shoulders sagged. He looked like the weight of the world had descended on his shoulders.

“I don’t have a home,” Joe replied softly, looking down at his plate. “I’m just drifting around.”

Molly studied the boy. Somehow, she knew there was more to his story, but she didn’t press him. Whatever was bothering him was his business. She stood and started picking up dishes from the table. “Well, I’d better start cleaning up,” she said abruptly.

Getting to his feet also, Joe began to help clear the table, but Molly waved him away. “This is women’s work. You go take care that horse and get yourself a good night’s rest. You look like you could use it.”

Joe thanked Molly again for the meal and for the bed in the barn, but she just shrugged off his thanks. She watched from the door as Joe left the house and strolled to the barn. Slowly she shook her head. Poor kid, she thought, he’s got some real troubles on his mind. With another shake of her head, she headed back into the house.

*****

The next morning, Molly had just started cooking breakfast when she heard the sound of an ax. Walking to the window in the front of the house, she smiled as she looked out. Joe was in the front yard, splitting logs into kindling. Moving to the door, Molly pulled it open it. Joe looked up from his work when he heard the creak of the door.

“Morning,” Joe called cheerfully. “I watered the stock for you and put out some fresh hay in the barn. Thought I’d do a few chores to pay for last night’s supper.”

“And maybe for this morning’s breakfast?” Molly asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“Well, yes,” Joe admitted sheepishly. “That meal was awful good; it could be a long time before I get another one like it.”

“You’re invited,” Molly said. “Finish that log and bring in the kindling. Breakfast is almost ready.”

With a big grin on his face, Joe started splitting the wood with fresh enthusiasm.

Breakfast was hot cakes, eggs and biscuits, and Joe ate every bite. Molly sipped her coffee thoughtfully as she watched Joe clean his plate. He drained his coffee cup, and then smiled at Molly. “That was great,” he complimented the woman.

“Glad you liked it,” Molly replied with a distracted air.

“Well, I guess I’d better be going,” Joe said reluctantly. “I sure do thank you for your kindness. “

“Joe, do you know anything about logging?” Molly asked abruptly.

“Logging?” repeated Joe with a surprise in his voice. “Yeah, I’ve done some. I can fell a tree and handle a two-man saw. Why?”

“I told you last night that Will bought the logging rights up on the mountain,” Molly answered. “We’ve got a crew working a couple of miles from here, cutting timber for the sawmill in Caldwell. They could always use another hand.”

“I don’t know,” replied Joe doubtfully. “I was planned to move on.”

“Why not?” Molly pressed him. “You said you’re just drifting. Couldn’t you use the work?” When she saw the hesitant look on Joe’s face, she continued. “Of course, it’s awfully isolated up there. No newspapers, no visitors. It’s the kind of place a man could get lost in.”

Joe looked at Molly suspiciously. Did she guess he was on the run? She smiled back at him innocently and continued to sip her coffee. Finally, Joe shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t have a better plan, and a logging camp could be just the place to hide out for awhile. “All right,” he agreed. “I guess I could try it for a spell.”

“Good!” exclaimed Molly with pleasure. “Get your horse saddled, and hitch up the wagon for me. I’ll clean up here, then show you the way.”

*****

As Molly drove her wagon up the mountain, Joe followed her on horseback. She guided the team confidently, with no doubts about where she was going. The pair came to a camp about halfway up the mountain.

Several large tents dotted the area, and a man about forty was sitting at a table in front of one of the tents, a map spread out before him. He looked up in surprise as Molly and Joe stopped near the middle of the camp.

“Molly, what a nice surprise,” called the man enthusiastically as he stood and walked toward the pair. “What brings you up here?”

“Hello, Henry,” Molly greeted the man. “I brought you a new logger.” She turned to Joe who was still sitting on his horse. “This is Henry Walker, my foreman.” She turned back to the foreman. “This is Joe Carter. He’s looking for work.”

Henry studied Joe. “I don’t know, Molly,” he said doubtfully. “He looks more like a cowboy than a logger.”

“I’ve done some logging,” interjected Joe. “I know how to handle an ax and a two-man saw.”

“Henry, he’s young and strong. What else do you want? Besides, you need the help,” added Molly.

“All right,” Henry agreed reluctantly, giving Joe a nod. “You can put your horse in the corral behind the last tent. Stow your gear in the first tent. There are some empty bunks in there; just pick one.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied with a smile. He dismounted and started to lead his horse away. Suddenly, he stopped and turned back to Molly. “Thanks for everything.”

Henry watched Joe lead his horse away, then walked closer to the wagon where Molly sat with a look of satisfaction on her face. “All right, Molly,” he said quietly. “What’s going on?”

“Henry, what makes you think anything is going on?” answered Molly with an innocent air.

“Because I know you. You adopt every stray critter within fifty miles. Now what’s the story with this one?” Henry insisted.

“I don’t know, Henry,” admitted Molly. “He’s a nice kid, but he’s got some kind of troubles. I thought you could keep an eye on him for awhile.”

“Do you think he’s on the run?” asked Henry. “I don’t want any trouble from the law.”

“Since when have you worried about that?” Molly replied with a snort. “There hasn’t been a lawman around here in three years. Besides, I don’t think he’s the kind that will cause you any trouble.”

Henry sighed. “We’ll see, Molly. We’ll see.”

*****

Ben spent days writing letters to everyone he knew. He told them what had happened and asked them to keep their eyes and ears open for any sign of Joe. He also asked them to spread the word about the reward.

Adam and Hoss took over managing the day-to-day activities of the Ponderosa, a fact Ben didn’t even seem to notice. Every day, Ben rode into Virginia City with a handful of letters. He checked with Roy Coffee on each trip, but the sheriff had no news for him. After a while, Ben’s initial enthusiasm about his letter-writing campaign began to flag. He knew it would take some time for the letters to reach everyone, and even longer to get any replies. But his patience was wearing thin.

Sitting at his desk, Ben was writing a letter to a rancher he knew in Mexico when he heard the knock on the door. He put his pen down and walked over to the front of the house. When he opened the door, Ben was surprised to see Roy Coffee standing there. “Roy, come in,” Ben greeted the sheriff heartily.

Roy entered the room slowly and took off his hat, playing with it in his hands as he looked at Ben. He seemed to be searching for some words.

“Roy, what’s wrong,” Ben asked with alarm.

“Maybe nothing,” answered the sheriff slowly. “But I got a telegram this morning from the sheriff over in Black Creek. He says a young fellow matching Joe’s description was killed in a gun fight there last week. There was no identification on the body. He wants us to ride over and take a look at this fellow’s belongings, to see if we might identify him.”

Ben felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. “Oh no,” he said weakly. He took a step back and put his hands to his face.

“Now, Ben, don’t start jumping to any conclusions,” declared Roy Coffee hastily. “The wire just said the fellow matched Joe’s description. It didn’t say it was Joe.”

Ben swallowed hard and nodded. “You’re right. But if it is Joe…..”

“Ben, we don’t know that,” repeated the sheriff firmly.

“I’ll get Adam and Hoss,” said Ben, reaching for his hat and gunbelt.

*****

Ben, Adam, Hoss and Roy Coffee rode as fast as their horses would take them to Black Creek, a small mining town near the border of the Utah territory. It was a two day ride to get there, and Ben kept thinking that Joe could have ended up in Black Creek if his son had headed east. He also might have wandered around for awhile then headed to a small town for supplies. Ben tried not to let the let the fear he felt get the better of him, but it gnawed at his stomach as he rode.

It was dark when the four men rode into Black Creek. They could hear the music and the shouting from the saloon. The noise was punctuated by the sound of gunshots.

“This is a pretty wild town,” remarked Hoss as they rode by the saloon.

“Yeah,” agreed Adam, “it looks like the kind of place where the law pretty much doesn’t exist.”

Ben said nothing. He rode grim-faced to the building where a sign marked “JAIL” was hanging from a post jutting out from the roof. He stopped his horse in front of the building, and dismounted. The others followed suit.

A heavy-set man with a two-day growth of beard was sleeping in a chair in the office as the four men entered. His feet were propped up on his desk, displaying boots caked with mud; his faded shirt and pants showed stains from his last meal.

“Sheriff!” Ben yelled at the sleeping figure. The man woke with a start.

“What do you want?” demanded the lawman, still groggy from sleep.

“My name’s Ben Cartwright. This is Roy Coffee, the sheriff in Virginia City. You sent Sheriff Coffee a wire about a boy that was killed here.”

“Oh, yeah,” acknowledged the heavy-set man. “Fellow got killed here a week or so ago. We buried him on Boot Hill. I heard about the reward you was offering. Thought the man might be the fellow you’re looking for.”

“What did the man look like?” asked Adam.

“Early twenties, dark curly hair, kind of small, real fast with a gun. He killed a miner after losing all his money in a poker game. Claimed the miner was cheating him. The man he killed, he had a lot of friends. A day or so later, the man turned up dead. Some miners said he was killed in a fair fight.”

“And you believe that?” asked Hoss with disgust.

“Sure, why not?” answered the sheriff with a lazy grin. “These things have a way of working themselves out.”

Roy Coffee shook his head in anger. This was the kind of sheriff that gave the law a bad name. “You said you had the dead mans clothes,” said Coffee coldly “Can we see them?”

“Sure,” agreed the sheriff. He slowly stood and scratched his wide belly, then walked across the office and opened a drawer in a chest against the far wall. He pulled a stack of clothes and a gunbelt from the drawer, then walked back and laid the pile on the desk. “Nobody knew the fellow’s name and he didn’t have anything on him to identify him. We kept his clothes and gear in case somebody might recognize them.”

With his hands trembling, Ben picked up the gunbelt. The pistol in the holster had a pearl handle, just like the gun Joe always carried. He unrolled the gunbelt, then let out a sign of relief. “This isn’t Joe’s,” he announced.

“How can you be sure?” asked the sheriff with a frown.

“Because my son is left-handed, and this is a right-handed gunbelt. Joe would never have been able to use this,” Ben stated. He picked up the shirt from the pile of clothes. The shirt was dark blue; a dark splotch of dried blood covered the front. Ben grabbed the shirt by the shoulders and let it unfurl. “This shirt is too small for Joe,” he added. Ben dropped the shirt and gunbelt back on the desk. “The man who was killed isn’t my son,” he declared.

“Well, it could have been,” said the sheriff defensively. “I’m mean, you never know. I thought it was worth checking out.”

“You mean you thought it was worth a $1,000,” remarked Adam angrily. “Come on, Pa. Let’s get out of here.”

After the four men left the sheriff’s office, Ben stopped and took a deep breath of the clean night air. Roy Coffee put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Ben,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean to scare you. But that so-called sheriff was right about one thing. We had to check it out.”

“I know, Roy,” answered Ben. “I was just wondering how many more times we’re going to have to go through this.”

*****

Joe fell quickly into the routine of the lumber camp. He worked hard, cutting trees and trimming the branches off the felled logs. At first, he kept to himself, afraid that someone would recognize him or that he would say something that would be betray him. But he began to relax when he realized no one paid any special attention to him. A couple of times, he had failed to answer when someone called him “Carter”, but none of the men seemed to notice his lapse. After the weeks of loneliness on the trail, Joe was grateful for the company the camp offered.

The routine of the camp was simple. Each day the crew of fifteen or so men cut and trimmed trees. Once a week the logs were loaded into two wagons which were driven to the sawmill in Caldwell. The men took turns driving the wagons, not only because it was a long day’s drive to the mill, but also because the men who drove the wagon got to spend the night in town. The system allowed the loggers to have some time off without shutting down the camp.

When the wagons returned, the drivers brought supplies and any mail with them. Most of the loggers sent or received little mail. The exception, however, was a big, bearded Russian named Yuri. Every Friday, on payday, Yuri faithfully wrote a letter and enclosed his pay. Usually, he received a letter back each week. Joe noticed Yuri’s regular correspondence, and figured the Russian must have a family some place. Joe envied him; he wished he could contact his family. He missed his father and brothers a lot. But he felt it was too dangerous to try to contact them. He didn’t know who might intercept the letter and send the law after him.

Joe liked being in the crew of loggers; they all worked hard for their pay. All, that is, except a man named Pike. Several times, Joe saw Pike behind a tree, drinking from a flask. He also knew the man seemed to disappear whenever a really tough job came up. But Joe kept his mouth shut about Pike. He didn’t want to cause any trouble that might draw attention to him.

Joe was sitting outside a tent, sharpening an ax, on an evening when the log wagons returned to camp. He saw Pike was driving the first wagon and the man looked in a foul mood. Several of the loggers called a greeting to Pike, but the man ignored them. Pike climbed down from the wagon and was walking toward a tent when Henry Walker, the foreman, called after him.

“Pike,” the foreman yelled sharply, “you didn’t unload the wagon. You know how it works. If you drive the wagon, you unload the supplies.”

“Unload it yourself,” Pike shouted angrily and stalked into the tent.

“What’s wrong with him?” Walker asked the second driver.

“Aw, he’s just mad because he lost all his money in a poker game in Caldwell last night,” the driver explained. “He’s been complaining about it all the way from town. Don’t worry, I’ll unload the wagons.”

Walker looked uncertain for a minute, then shrugged his shoulders. “All right,” the foreman agreed.

The next day, Joe came back to camp early. The ax he had sharpened was dull again, and he needed a new one. Joe was nearing the camp when he saw Pike. The man looked around quickly, then slipped into one of the tents. His suspicion aroused, Joe followed him.

After silently pushing open the flap of the large tent, Joe stood watching as Pike began pawing through Yuri’s gear. The logger opened a leather bag and smiled triumphantly as he pulled a letter from the sack. Pike slipped the letter into his pocket.

“I think you’d better put that back,” Joe said in a quiet but insistent voice.

Pike spun around. “What are you doing here, boy?” he demanded.

“I said, put the letter back,” Joe repeated, ignoring Pike’s question.

Pike walked to the flap of the tent. “This ain’t none of your business,” he retorted.

“I’m making it my business,” Joe declared.

“Get out of my way,” said Pike, pushing Joe aside and walking out.

Moving quickly, Joe followed Pike out of the tent and grabbed the logger’s arm. Spinning around, Pike punched Joe on the chin. The blow knocked Joe to the ground and stunned him for a moment. Pike was standing over him, fists ready and a nasty grin on his face, as Joe got up slowly. He was almost on his feet when he suddenly threw a left fist into Pike’s stomach. The logger doubled over and Joe hit him squarely on the jaw. Pike staggered back a few feet, and Joe took a step toward the man. Suddenly, Pike straightened and hit Joe in the face with his right fist. Joe’s head snapped around but he kept his feet. He charged Pike, grabbing the man around the waist and knocking him to the ground. The two men rolled in the dirt, exchanging blows. Finally, Joe managed to get on top of Pike and was about to land another blow when he felt his arms being grabbed. He was pulled off the man on the ground.

Looking around, Joe realized the loggers had returned to camp. Two of them were holding him securely; two more had grabbed Pike.

“What’s going on here?” demanded Walker, approaching the men.

Joe was breathing hard from the exertion of the fight. He could feel a trickle of blood on his chin and his face felt bruised and sore. Pike was struggling with the men holding him; his face also was bloodied and bruised.

“I asked a question,” Walker repeated sternly. “What’s going on here?”

“I saw Pike stealing from Yuri’s gear,” Joe stated with conviction.

“He’s lying,” shouted Pike.

“Check his right front pocket,” declared Joe. “You’ll find Yuri’s letter with his pay in the pocket.”

Frowning, Walker took a step to Pike. Pike struggled to free himself, but the two loggers held him firmly in their grasp. The foreman reached into Pike’s pocket and pulled out the letter. He read the address on the front.

“Yuri,” called Walker, turning to a group of men behind him, “I think this is yours.”

The big Russian stepped forward and took the letter. He read the address. “Yes, this is mine,” he agreed in heavily accented English.

Nodding, Walker turned back to Pike. “You’ve been nothing but trouble since you got here. I’ve put up with your laziness and your drinking, but I won’t put up with stealing. Get your gear and get out of here. You’re fired.”

Pike looked at the loggers standing around him. The expressions on their faces told him that the sooner he got out of camp, the better it would be for him. He pulled himself loose from the men who were holding him. “I’m going,” Pike mumbled. He started to turn and then stopped to look back over his shoulder at Joe. “I’ll get you for this,” he threatened. Then Pike walked quickly into a tent, emerging a few minutes later with a bundle in his hands. Without a word, the man stomped out of camp and disappeared into the woods.

Walker came over to where Joe was standing. “You better get yourself cleaned up,” he advised kindly. As Joe nodded his agreement, Walker put his hand on Joe’s arm. “I know I should have gotten rid of Pike sooner. I knew he wasn’t doing his share of the work. But I need every hand I can get. I have to keep the timber going into Caldwell — for Molly’s sake.” Joe nodded again, indicating his understanding.

Grabbing a bucket of water and a towel from outside one of the tents, Joe walked over to a stump and sat down. He wet the towel in the water and started dabbing the cuts and bruises on his face.

“Are you all right?” an accented voice asked.

Joe looked up to see Yuri standing over him with a concerned expression on his face. Joe smiled then winced at the pain it caused. “I’m fine,” he answered. “I’ve been in worse fights than this.”

“I want to thank you for what you did,” continued the Russian. “This money, it is very important. I send it every week to my wife. She give it to the bank. Soon, we own a farm in California.”

Joe was surprised. “You don’t look like a farmer.”

“I am good farmer, one of the best in Russia,” Yuri boasted with a smile.

“How did you end up here, in a logging camp?” asked Joe.

“My brother and me, we save a long time to come to America,” the Russian logger explained. “We have friends in California, and they wrote us about the rich land and the freedom here. We came to America by boat, and landed in a town called Seattle. But when we got here, we found things cost more than we thought. By the time we bought wagon, seed, all the things we need, we had only a little money left. We decide to head to California anyway. Along the way, we see sign, saying loggers wanted. My brother and I decide that one of us should stay here and work while the others go ahead. My wife, Olga, went with my brother and his wife. They found a place near our friends in California. Good land, big enough for two fine farms. My brother, he give the last of our money to the bank so we can get land. He has started clearing the land and building houses. I must send the money I earn every week so we can pay bank the rest of what we owe.”

“You must owe the bank a lot,” said Joe.

“Not so much now,” replied Yuri. “My brother, he sometimes find jobs and help pay bank. Soon, the land will be ours and I can go home to my Olga.”

“You must miss your wife,” observed Joe.

Yuri nodded. “Yes, I miss Olga. I miss my brother, too. Is good to have family who will help you.”

Joe swallowed hard. He knew what Yuri meant. He thought of all the times that his brothers had helped him, all the times they had pulled him out of trouble. He wished they were here to help him now.

Yuri clapped Joe on the shoulder. “Thank you again, my friend,” said the Russian. “Yuri will pay you back some day.”

*****

The camp returned to its normal routine after Pike left. Pike hadn’t done that much work so the loggers barely noticed his absence. Joe fell into the habit of working with Yuri. He liked the big Russian; the logger reminded Joe of his brother Hoss. Yuri, still grateful to Joe for saving his money, enjoyed the younger man’s company as well. The two were becoming close friends.

The day Joe was dreading finally came, however. It was his turn to take the wagon into Caldwell. He had been thinking about what to do when his turn came. He knew there was a sheriff in Caldwell; he had heard the other men talking about it. What he didn’t know was if the sheriff had a wanted poster with his picture on it. If he did, and the sheriff spotted him, he would be on his way back to Virginia City to face a gallows. Joe decided the risk was too great.

The day before he was to drive the wagons, Joe approached Henry Walker. “Mr. Walker, would you mind if one of the other men took my run with the log wagons?” he asked hesitantly.

Walker looked surprised. “No, I don’t mind. I’m sure one of them would be happy for another night in town. But what about you? You’ve been working here without a break for over a month. Don’t you want some time off?”

Joe shook his head. “No, I’d rather stay here.”

Walker studied him for a minute, then shrugged. “Well, it’s all right by me. Go find yourself a replacement.”

Joe breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he had another few weeks of safety. He also knew he couldn’t stay in the camp forever, but at least he had some time to think about what to do.

Yuri was happy to take Joe’s turn at driving the wagon into Caldwell. “I get my letter from Olga sooner,” the Russian declared with a grin. “Another favor I owe you.” Joe shrugged off the big man’s thanks. He was just happy not to have to spend a night dodging the sheriff.

When he returned to camp the next day, Joe was surprised to see Molly sitting at a table with Henry Walker. “Molly!” he shouted with pleasure when he saw her. “What are you doing here?”

“Hello, Joe,” Molly called back, smiling. “Just checking on a few things with Henry.”

“You mean, just checking on me, don’t you?” Walker countered with a grin.

“Henry, I never have to check on you,” Molly stated firmly. “Outside of Will, you’re the best man I know.”

As he noted Walker’s blush, Joe smiled at the affection that was evident between the two. He hoped Will was the man Molly thought he was. She deserved the best.

“Joe,” Molly said, “Henry here tells me you haven’t gone into the Caldwell, that you’ve been working here every day.”

“I just didn’t feel like going into town,” Joe explained.

“Nonsense,” retorted Molly sharply. “You can’t keep working all the time. Tell you what — why don’t you come back to the house with me. I’ll fix you one of those dinners you seem to like so well.”

Joe looked at Walker with a question on his face. The foreman just shrugged. “Go ahead. After all, Molly’s the boss,” he agreed.

“And don’t you forget it,” Molly declared with a grin. “Go get your horse, Joe. You’re having dinner with me.”

*****

Molly’s dinner turned out to be everything she promised and more. She cooked the best roast beef Joe had tasted since he left the Ponderosa. She had potatoes, beans and biscuits, too. Joe once again ate like a starving man.

“Don’t they feed you up at the camp?” Molly asked with amusement as Joe was eating his second helping of everything.

“Not like this,” Joe answered with his mouth full. “Molly, you’re the best cook I know; you’re even better than Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing?” asked Molly.

Stopping his fork in mid-air, Joe looked flustered. “Well, um, he’s a cook at a ranch I used to work at,” Joe explained lamely. He put his fork on the table. Suddenly, Joe had lost his appetite.

Molly nodded but didn’t comment on Joe’s strange behavior. She could see the look on Joe’s face every time he mentioned his past. She knew he was hiding something. He would talk about it when he was ready, she decided.

“Molly, you ought to open a restaurant,” Joe advised, trying to change the subject. “You’d have the people in Caldwell lining up to get in.”

“Well, thanks for the compliment, Joe,” acknowledged Molly. “But I can’t leave here. I have to wait for Will.”

“Molly, do you really think he’s coming back?” Joe asked kindly.

Molly didn’t answer. She got up from the table and walked to the window, peering out into the darkness. “I don’t know, Joe,” she admitted still looking out the window. “My head keeps telling me he’s probably dead; otherwise, he’d be back by now. But my heart keeps hoping. That’s the hard part — the not knowing.”

Joe said nothing. He was thinking about how his father must be feeling, not knowing where he was.

“It’s hard not knowing what happened,” she continued. “You begin to look at every face, hoping you’ll see the one you want. Every time I go to town, I check for messages, hoping he’ll send word.”

“Maybe…” Joe started hesitantly, swallowing hard, “maybe he can’t send a message. Maybe sending a message would be dangerous for him.”

Molly shook her head. “No, if he were alive, he’d send word somehow. You don’t leave people you love wondering what happened to you. It’s too cruel.”

Joe stared at his plate. Molly’s words made him feel guilty. He knew his father and brothers must be searching for him, waiting for some kind of message from him. But he just couldn’t bring himself to send a letter. The thought of that lynch mob in Virginia City made him shudder.

A smile now on her face, Molly turned back to Joe. “Well, enough of this. I’m going to clean up. You go out to the barn and make up that bunk. Henry will want you back in camp bright and early tomorrow.”

Getting to his feet, Joe walked over to Molly. He kissed her lightly on the forehead. “Thanks,” he said.

“What for?” asked Molly with surprise.

“For being my friend,” Joe answered.

Molly smiled warmly at him. “Go on, get out of here,” she ordered, her voice choked with emotion. Joe smiled back at her and left.

*****

Two days later, Joe was lying on his cot at the lumber camp. It was early evening, and most of the men were cleaning up and doing odd jobs around the camp. Yuri was sitting at a table, writing to his wife.

Joe stared at the top of the tent, not really seeing it. Molly’s words at dinner still rang in his ears. He had purposely tried not to think about Pa, Adam and Hoss. He had tried not to think about the Ponderosa and the life he led there; the memories were too painful. But Molly’s statement about how cruel it was to leave your loved ones not knowing bothered him. He tried to think of a way to get a message to his family.

Suddenly, Joe sat up on the bunk and looked at his Russian friend. “Yuri,” he said, “would you do a favor for me?”

Yuri looked up. “Sure, Joe. What is it?”

“If I give you a letter, would you send it to your wife and ask her to mail it for me?” asked Joe.

“Sure,” agreed the Russian with a puzzled expression on his face. “But why go to all that trouble. Why don’t you mail it yourself? The next driver, he can take it into Caldwell for you.”

“It’s complicated,” answered Joe slowly. “I want to mail the letter so no one knows where it came from. I can’t explain it. Will you just do this for me without asking any questions?”

Yuri shrugged. “All right. Give me letter and I’ll put it in with the one I’m sending to Olga. She will mail it for you.”

“Thanks,” said Joe gratefully. He walked to the table. “Can I borrow a pen and some paper?”

*****

Ben Cartwright sat at the dinner table, toying with his food and glancing occasionally at the empty chair at the table. Hoss and Adam exchanged looks; they knew their Pa was thinking about Joe. Lately, that was all he seemed to think about. It had been almost two months since Joe had disappeared. The story of Joe’s arrest, escape and being cleared of all charges had run in several newspapers. The offer of a reward for information had been published, and posters announcing the reward had been sent to every town in the Nevada. Letters came in — at first a lot, then just a few. Most were from friends, offering sympathy and agreeing to keep an eye out for Joe. A few claimed to have information about Joe, but each claim proved to be false.

In the last week, they had received no letters.

Both Hoss and Adam wished they could say or do something to help, but they had run out of ideas. Joe had managed to hide himself well. They felt he wasn’t going to be found until he wanted to be.

Adam cleared his throat. “Pa, we’re going to need some help breaking those horses if we want to fill that Army contract,” he announced.

“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss chimed in. “We still have about twenty horses to break. Usually, we could manage. But work seems to be piling up around here. It’s hard to get everything done without…..” Hoss stopped in mid-sentence.

As Adam kicked his brother under the table, Hoss looked at him guiltily. He hadn’t meant to bring up Joe. It just slipped out.

“You mean, it’s hard to get everything done without Joe, don’t you,” Ben finished for his middle son. “Go ahead; you can say it. We can’t ignore that fact that Joe’s not here. “

“I’m sorry, Pa,” apologized Hoss. “I don’t want to make you feel bad.”

Ben sighed. “No, I’m the one that’s sorry. I’ve left all the work in running this ranch to you boys.”

“We don’t mind,” declared Adam.

“Well, I mind,” replied Ben. “It’s not right. I’ve been ignoring you two while I’ve been worrying about Joe. I’m sorry.”

“Pa, we understand,” Hoss advised in a sympathetic voice. “We’re worried about Joe, too.”

“Yes, but you’ve kept the ranch going,” said Ben. “If it hadn’t been for you…well, I want you to know how grateful I am. Things are going to change around here, I promise you. I’m going to start doing my share of the work around here again.”

Adam and Hoss said nothing. They were embarrassed by the praise but also saddened by their father’s words. It was almost as if Ben had given up on finding Joe.

Pushing back from the table, Ben stood up. “I’m going upstairs for awhile,” he announced.

Hoss and Adam watched Ben climb the stairs. “You know where he’s going, don’t you,” asked Adam.

“Yeah, I know,” answered Hoss. “He’s going to Joe’s room.”

“I found him up there the other night, just sitting in Joe’s room,” Adam noted. “He wasn’t doing anything; he was just sitting there.”

“I know,” Hoss agreed. “I guess it makes him feel closer to Joe somehow.”

“Well, you’re not much better,” observed Adam. “I see you out there feeding and currying Joe’s pinto every day.”

“What about you?” Hoss countered with a snort. “You’ve polished his saddle so many times that you’ve practically worn the leather off.”

“You’re right,” Adam admitted with a sigh. “We’re as bad as Pa. You know, I keep thinking about all the times Joe made me mad, all the stunts he used to pull. He used to drive me crazy.”

“Yeah,” acknowledged Hoss sadly, “I miss him, too.”

*****

Adam and Hoss were already at breakfast the next morning when Ben came down. “Good morning, boys,” he said briskly as he sat down.

“Morning, Pa,” answered Hoss tentatively.

“Adam, I’ve been thinking about those horses,” Ben continued as he poured himself a cup of coffee. “I bet we could find some men in Virginia City to help us break them.”

Adam looked at Hoss and then back at Ben. “Well, I suppose,” Adam agreed. “I could ride into town and see who’s around.”

“Good, why don’t you do that,” suggested Ben. “Hoss, I’m going up to check on that timber operation on Sun Mountain.”

“Pa, I was going to do that,” Hoss objected.

“You don’t have to; I’ll take care of it. You have plenty of other things to do,” replied Ben.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other. Ben seemed like his old self, taking charge and giving orders. They wondered if he was putting on an act.

The three men continued to discuss ranch business over breakfast. Joe’s name wasn’t mentioned and Ben said nothing about writing letters or checking in town for replies.

Breakfast was almost finished when there was a knock on the door. Ben stood and walked to the door, while Adam and Hoss followed him. All three were curious about who would be visiting this early in the day.

Opening the door, Ben saw a young boy about twelve standing there, holding an envelope in his hand. “Mr. Cartwright?” the boy asked.

“Yes, I’m Ben Cartwright,” answered Ben. “What can I do for you?”

“Mr. Hopkins down at the post office asked me to ride out and give you this letter. He said he recognized the handwriting, and that you’d want it right away,” the boy explained. He looked hopefully at Ben. “He said maybe you’d give me something for my trouble.”

Taking the envelope, Ben stared at the writing. Then he looked up at Adam and Hoss. “It’s from Joe,” he announced in a small voice.

“Mr. Cartwright?” the boy said again, the hope still evident in his voice

Turning back to the boy, Ben reached in his pocket. He pulled out a silver dollar and handed it to the young man. “Yes, thank you. You tell Mr. Hopkins I said thank you, too.”

“A dollar!” the boy exclaimed. “Yes sir. I’ll be sure to tell him.”

Closing the door, Ben continued to stare at the letter. He was almost afraid to open it, afraid what it might say. Adam and Hoss watched him, also feeling a combination of hope and dread. Finally, Ben tore open the envelope. He pulled out a sheet of paper and started reading it aloud:

Dear Pa,

I’m all right. Don’t worry about me. I know I should have stayed and faced my troubles in Virginia City, but I just couldn’t do it. You always taught us to face our problems, and not to run. I know you were right, but I just couldn’t stay.

I think about you and Adam and Hoss every day, and I miss you all a lot. I wish I could come back to the Ponderosa, but I know I can’t. So I’m going to make a new life for myself. I know I won’t be as happy as when I was at the Ponderosa, but I’ll manage.

Don’t try to find me. It’ll only cause trouble. This letter is being mailed by a friend far away from where I’m at. I’ll keep thinking about you. Maybe one day I can come home.

Joe

 

Ben read the letter with mixed emotions. He was happy to know that Joe was safe and well, but disappointed that his son didn’t tell him where he was. He also was upset that Joe obviously didn’t know he had been cleared of the murder charge. Joe still thought he was a wanted man.

Ben looked at the envelope. “The postmark says Eureka.”

“Where’s that?” asked Hoss.

“It’s a little town in California,” replied Adam. “I’ve been through it. Nothing much around there except farms.”

“Come on, boys, let’s saddle up. We’re going to Eureka to look for Joe,” declared Ben.

“But, Pa, Joe said the letter was being mailed by a friend, that he wasn’t there,” protested Hoss.

“I know,” answered Ben. “But maybe we can find out who mailed the letter. If we can, we can find out where Joe is.”

*****

Four days later, three weary riders rode into the small town of Eureka. Ben had pushed his sons to keep riding, stopping only when they had to rest the horses. He knew the chances of finding who mailed the letter where slim, but he couldn’t help himself. He wanted urgently to get Eureka and find out for sure. Any delay meant he might miss whoever mailed the letter.

The town had only five buildings – a bank, a store, a church, a stable and a shipping depot. Ben asked an old man sitting in front of the bank about the post office and was told that the mail was handled by the storekeeper. The trio rode a few feet to the store and dismounted. Ben pushed opened the door, setting off a bell as he entered. Adam and Hoss followed him in.

A middle-aged man wearing an apron stood behind the counter. “Can I help you?” he asked with a friendly grin.

Pulling Joe’s letter from his vest pocket, Ben showed it to the man. “I’m trying to find out who mailed this letter. Do you remember?”

The storekeeper studied the letter, then shook his head. “Sorry,” he replied. “I don’t remember who mailed it. People around here mostly just leave their letters in the basket on the counter. Every day or so, I collect the letters, stamp ‘em with the postmark and give them to the stage driver when he comes through. He takes them to Sacramento, where the letters get sorted and sent on.”

“The person who mailed this might have been a stranger,” Ben went on, pressing the man. “Someone not from around here. He might have had to buy a stamp for it. Do you remember anyone like that?”

Again the storekeeper shook his head. “Nope. I don’t remember selling a stamp to a stranger. Sell ‘em all the time to the folks who live around here, but no strangers.”

“Did anyone mention mailing a letter for someone else?” asked Adam.

“Nope,” answered the man again. “Say, what’s so important about that letter?”

“We’re trying to find my little brother,” explained Hoss. “This letter is from him. If we can find out who mailed it, we might be able to find my brother.”

The storekeeper nodded. “I see. Well, I’ll ask around. Leave me your name and address. If I find out anything, I’ll let you know.”

Thanking the man, Ben wrote his name and address on a sheet of paper. He left the store with a discouraged air.

Adam and Hoss looked at their father with sympathy. “Pa, we knew this was a long-shot,” said Adam.

“I know,” replied Ben. “But I felt so sure we’d find something this time.”

“Well, at least we know Joe’s all right. That’s something,” Hoss noted.

“I suppose,” answered Ben glumly. “Let’s head for home.”

*****

Joe knew that the camp would be shutting down for the winter soon. At night, he could feel a chill in the air. Walker, the foreman, told the crew that the strand of trees they were working on would be last. Joe figured he had about two weeks of work left. He tried not to think about what he was going to do when the camp was closed. He faced the same dilemma as before. Where should he go? What should he do next? He still felt that going back to Virginia City was dangerous. But he had no idea where he could go and be safe.

As he worked, Joe felt a dull ache in his heart. He missed his family, missed the Ponderosa. At night, he dreamed he was home, working on the ranch with his father and brothers. He dreamed of the big living room in the house, with its warm, inviting fire, and he dreamed of his old room. He woke in the morning with a keen disappointment when he realized where he was.

Joe continued to avoid driving the wagon to Caldwell. He also had dinner with Molly on three different occasions. Molly never asked him about his past but she continued to talk about how much she wished Will was back, how important it was to have a home to come back to. Her conversation made Joe’s homesickness even worse.

The work at the camp continued to wind down. One day, Walker declared that the crew would stay in camp. He wanted them to start stowing gear for the winter, to start cleaning up the camp. Joe knew his time as a logger was drawing to a close.

Joe worked with the other men as the crew started oiling tools and wrapping them in cloth for storage. Walker was checking items off a list as the men worked. Suddenly, the foreman frowned.

“Carter!” Walker shouted.

Joe looked up. He was getting used to his new name.

“Carter!” shouted Walker again. “We’re missing two axes. Get over to that section where the crew was working yesterday and see if they got left behind.”

“Yes sir,” Joe replied. He turned to Yuri who was standing next to him. “I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes to help you crate those tools.”

“Fine,” agreed Yuri. “No rush.”

Leaving camp, Joe headed toward the area where the men were working last. It was an usually warm day for the time of year, so Joe didn’t wear his jacket.

When he reached the work area, Joe looked around. He didn’t see any tools. He continued to search, but the axes were no where to be found. Joe was about to return to camp when he heard a voice.

“Well, if it isn’t the busybody,” said the voice with snarl.

Turning quickly, Joe saw Pike standing by a tree. The logger had a knife in his hand and the look on his face was pure hatred.

Joe reached automatically to his hip for his gun, but felt nothing. He had stopped wearing his holster while he was working; he had no need for a gun in the logging camp. Swallowing hard, Joe tried not to show the apprehension he was feeling. “What do you want, Pike?” he asked evenly. “I figured you’d be miles away from here.”

“I was but I came back,” Pike replied with an evil grin. “I decided I owed you something.” The sun glinted off the blade of the knife as Pike took a step toward Joe. “You got me fired from a nice, cushy job. I’m going to carve up that pretty face of yours to remind you to mind your own business.”

Joe watched Pike cautiously as the man came closer. The knife was a large one. Joe wished he had his jacket or something else he could use to blunt the blade.

Suddenly, Pike took a swipe at Joe with the knife; Joe leapt back, the blade barely missing him. He could feel a whoosh of air as the knife went by. Pike’s arm came swishing back. Joe jumped again, but he didn’t quite evade the knife this time. He felt a hot, stinging pain across his chest. Once more, Pike’s arm started forward. This time, Joe grabbed Pike’s wrist with both hands and started pushing it back. Pike pounded Joe in the middle of the shoulders with a fist made from his free hand. Joe arched backward and his knees buckled, but he held on tenaciously to the arm with the knife. Pike hit him again on the shoulder; Joe lost his grip and fell to his knees.

Laughing, Pike once more stabbed at Joe. Joe put his left hand up, instinctively trying to protect himself, and felt the knife slice his palm. The knife came whizzing back, this time cutting deep into Joe’s forearm. Pike slashed at Joe a third time, cutting a long gash into Joe’s upper arm between his elbow and shoulder. Joe pushed himself away from his attacker, scrambling to avoid the lethal blade. He could feel the blood running down his arm and the burning of the cut on his chest. He suddenly felt light-headed and weak.

As Pike took another step forward, Joe realized there was little he could do to stop the attack. He tried to push himself back again, but was only able to move a few inches. Pike stood over him.

“Cutting you up ain’t enough,” Pike snarled. “I’m going to make sure you never butt into my business again.”

Joe felt helpless as he looked up at Pike. He was growing weaker with each passing moment and he knew there was nothing he could do to stop the man from killing him. Joe closed his eyes, and the faces of Pa, Adam and Hoss flashed in his mind. Sorry, Pa, he thought, I never had a chance to say goodbye.

Opening his eyes, Joe saw Pike raise his hand to deliver the fatal blow. Suddenly, an arm reached around Pike’s neck and pulled him back. Joe watched in astonishment as Yuri threw Pike to the ground.

“Pike, you crazy,” called the Russian. “What are you trying to do?”

Roaring in anger, Pike scrambled to his feet. He had dropped the knife when he hit the ground, and he didn’t bother to look for it. He charged at Yuri and the Russian met the charge by grabbing Pike’s arms. The two men grappled for a moment. Then Pike reached out and punched Yuri in the face.

As Yuri fell back to the ground, Pike jumped on him and began choking him. Yuri tried to pull the man’s hands from his neck, but Pike had an iron grip on him.

Staggering to his feet, Joe knew he had to do something quickly. If he didn’t act, Pike would kill Yuri. Joe fell to his knees, too weak to stand. He knew he didn’t have the strength to deliver any kind of blow that would knock Pike off of Yuri. Suddenly, Joe saw the knife on the ground. He picked it up and crawled toward the two men. With all the strength he could muster, Joe raised the knife and plunged it into Pike’s back.

Pike screamed and his hand reached for his back. He stiffened for a moment, then fell forward on to Yuri.

The Russian pushed Pike aside and sat up, his hands rubbing his neck as he gasped for air. He took several deep breaths, then looked around. Pike was stretched out on the ground, his eyes closed. Even from a few feet away, Yuri could see the man was dead. He looked the other way and saw Joe lying on his side, blood streaming from his arm and chest. Yuri rushed to his young friend. “Joe, how bad are you hurt?” he asked with concern.

Joe raised his head. “Is he dead?” he asked weakly. Yuri nodded. Joe started to say something else, but his strength gave out. He crumpled back to the ground.

“I get you back to camp,” Yuri declared. He grabbed Joe’s uninjured arm and pulled the younger man to his feet. He threw the arm around his neck and put his arm around the left side of Joe’s body. “Lean on me,” Yuri ordered. “I get you back.” Joe nodded weakly.

As Yuri dragged him toward the camp, Joe’s legs were barely working. Rivulets of blood streamed down his arm and chest, and Joe was having a hard time staying conscious. He lost track of where he was. He tried to concentrate on moving his feet but even that was difficult. He could feel the Russian tighten his grip and pull him along even more relentlessly.

Finally, Joe saw the camp. He recognized the tents in a hazy blur and tried once more to get his legs to work. He could hear shouts and feel hands grabbing at him to help him. Then a curtain of blackness descended.

*****

Joe woke to find himself in a big bed, covered with sheets and blankets. He started to sit up but pain shot through his arm and chest. He sank back, resting his head on two soft pillows. He still felt light-headed and weak. His arm, hand and chest were heavily bandaged. He tried to move his arm but grunted at the pain the movement caused.

Looking around, Joe saw he was in a small, sparsely furnished room. The only furniture besides the bed was a chair and a small table. A large bowl with a cloth hanging over the side sat on the table next to a lamp. The walls were bare. Joe could see a small window with curtains on his left and a door on the wall opposite the bed.

Suddenly, the door on the far wall opened, and Molly walked in. She looked at him carefully, then smiled. “I thought I heard you moving around. How are you feeling?” she asked.

With a confused expression on his face, Joe looked around the room. “Where am I?” he questioned. His voice was weak and thin.

“You’re at my place,” answered Molly. “Henry and Yuri brought you here three days ago. The shape you were in, you would have never made it to Caldwell. Besides, they figured I could patch you up just as well as some doctor. And they were right.” She grinned in satisfaction.

“Three days?” Joe repeated, even more confused. “I’ve been here three days?”

Molly turned serious. “You’ve been a pretty sick boy, Joe. You lost a lot of blood and had some infection. You’ve been out of your head with fever most of that time. For awhile, I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

Joe shook his head; he didn’t remember a thing after returning to camp. He looked up at Molly. “Thank you,” he said. “I owe you my life.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” replied Molly briskly. “I hate to see anything hurt. However, you do owe your family. You need to go home, Joe.”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked with a frown.

“You did a lot of talking while you were sick,” Molly explained. “I know all about your Pa and brothers, and your ranch. I also know that you were falsely accused of murdering that girl.”

“How do you know I’m innocent?” asked Joe.

“Because you told me. A man who’s out of his head with fever doesn’t lie,” declared Molly. “It takes a clear head to lie.”

“I didn’t kill her, I swear,” Joe stated. “But everyone in Virginia City thinks I’m guilty. If I go back, they’ll hang me.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” countered Molly. “But you do know that you have a family that cares about you, that’s worried about you. You should go home, Joe.”

Joe felt too tired to argue. His arm and chest hurt, and his head ached. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then winced with pain.

Molly came quickly to the side of the bed. “You’re still hurting a lot, aren’t you?” she stated with concern. Joe nodded. Molly put her hand on Joe’s forehead. “You still got some fever, too,” she added. “We’ll talk about this later. You need to get some rest.” Joe nodded again and let himself drift off to sleep.

For the next two days, Joe did little but eat and sleep. It seemed like every time he woke up, Molly was there. She forced soup into him at first, then soft eggs and custards. She also changed his bandages, shaved him and washed him. Joe was embarrassed by her tending to him, but Molly waved away his protests. “It’s not like I’ve never taken care of a man before,” she pointed out. “I patched Will up more times than I can count. “

By the third day, Joe felt well enough to sit up in bed for several hours and to eat some solid food. The pain from his cuts was reduced to a twinge when he moved too much.

Around mid-afternoon, Molly came into the room to check on Joe. She removed his bandages and checked his wounds. “You’re healing. I don’t even think you’ll have any scars to show off,” she said with a grin. She put her hand on his forehead. “Fever’s gone, too,” she declared. “Now all we have to do is get your strength back and you can head for home,” she told him as she started to put clean bandages over his cuts.

“Molly, I can’t go back,” Joe insisted, his voice tinged with despair.

“You have to,” Molly stated firmly. “You can’t just leave your family wondering about you. It’s not right. I know.”

Joe shook his head. “They wouldn’t want me to hang.”

“No, they wouldn’t,” agreed Molly. “But you’ve been here, what, about three months? Do you think they’ve just been sitting around all this time? I’ll bet you by now they have this mess cleared up.”

“But what if they don’t?” pressed Joe. “I just can’t take the chance.”

“You can’t stay in my spare bedroom forever, Joe,” Molly argued. “You’ve got to leave here eventually. Where will you go?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. “I’ll think of something.”

Molly shook her head and pursed her lips. Joe was stubborn, she thought. Stubborn and scared. It’s going to take some time to convince him. She gathered up the old bandages briskly, and stood up. “You rest,” she said. “We’ll talk about this later.” Joe started to protest, but Molly simply turned her back on him and walked out of the room.

For the next two days, Molly said nothing more about Joe’s going home, and he didn’t bring up the subject. He felt bad that Molly was angry at him, especially after all that she had done for him. But he knew going home was dangerous.

Joe was sitting up in bed, staring out the window, lost in thought when he heard a knock on the door. He looked up as Molly entered the room. “Feeling up to visitors?” she asked as she opened the door. Joe looked at her with curiosity. Smiling, she walked in the room, followed by Yuri and Henry Walker. Walker was holding a bundle in his hands.

“Yuri! Henry!” Joe exclaimed happily. “It’s good to see you.”

Both men grinned. “You look better,” declared Yuri. “The last time I see you, you don’t look so good.”

Joe nodded. “I know what you mean. Yuri, I didn’t thank you for what you did. You save my life.”

“Bah, it was nothing,” answered the Russian. “Besides, I still owed you favor. Now, we’re even.”

Joe laughed. “I think I owe you a lot more. But we’ll call it even for now.”

Henry laid a bundle on the foot of your bed. “I brought your gear. Your horse is in Molly’s barn. We’ve closed down the camp for the winter.”

“Thanks,” said Joe. “By the way, is there going to be any trouble over…over what happened to Pike?”

Henry shook his head. “No. I talked with the sheriff in Caldwell and told him what happened. He’s satisfied the killing was justified.”

Joe sighed with relief. The last thing he needed right now was the law coming after him again. He turned to Yuri.

“What made you come after me that day?” Joe asked the Russian with a puzzled expression. “Not that I mind. If you hadn’t shown up, I’d be dead now.”

“Oh, we found missing axes right after you left. I came out to tell you not to look any more,” explained Yuri. “When I see you on the ground bleeding and Pike with a knife, I just grabbed him. It’s good thing you were able to help. I don’t fight so good.”

“You fight well enough,” Joe observed with a grin. “Thank you again.” Yuri just waved away Joe’s thanks.

“What are you going to do now?” asked Joe.

“I’m going home,” Yuri announced with a big smile. “Mr. Walker give us all big bonus for doing good job. It’s enough to pay off bank. I’m going to be farmer from now on.”

“That’s great,” Joe told the Russian. He felt a tinge of sadness, though. “I’m going to miss you,” he added.

“I’ miss you, too, my friend,” said Yuri. “You come to Eureka some day. I show you best farm in California.”

“I will,” Joe promised with a smile. He turned to Walker. “What about you, Henry? What are you going to do?” he asked.

Walker shrugged. “Same thing I do every year, I guess. I’ll hole up in Caldwell for the winter. I’ll find some odd jobs to keep me busy. Then I’ll come back in the spring to set up camp again. That is, if Molly will have me.”

“You know you’re always welcome, Henry,” Molly declared warmly. “I couldn’t manage without you.”

Blushing a bit, Walker nervously cleared his throat. “Well, we better be going,” he said. “I put your pay in with your things. You got quite a bit of money there. Be careful with it.”

Joe nodded and stuck out his hand. “Thanks for everything, Henry,” he told the man with as much sincerity as he could put into those few words.

Henry shook his hand. “If you get a chance, look me up in Caldwell. I’ll buy you a drink.”

Again Joe nodded, then offered his hand to Yuri. “You take care of yourself. Give my best to Olga.”

“Yes,” agreed Yuri as he shook hands. “You come see me sometime.”

After Joe watched the two men left the room, followed by Molly, he turned to stare out the window again. Would his life be like this from now on? Meeting people, making friends and then having to leave them behind? He wondered if he would ever be able to settle down and have a normal life again.

*****

Joe improved steadily and, after another week, was well enough to get out of bed. Molly fixed him appetizing meals and made sure he rested each day. Joe enjoyed being looked after; it reminded him of home. Whenever he was sick or hurt at the Ponderosa, his Pa and brothers took care of him the same way.

As Joe healed, Molly began to ask him about his past. At first, he was hesitant to talk about his life on the Ponderosa; the memories were too painful. Gradually, however, he began to open up. It was relief to be able to talk freely and not have to be careful about what he said. Soon, each night after dinner, he found himself sitting in front of the fire with Molly, telling stories. She grinned when he told her about the time he helped his brothers buy a thoroughbred horse, then beat the horse in a race with another, so he ended up owning both animals. She roared with laughter when he told the story of Hoss trying to fly like a bird. She nodded with sympathy as he recalled the time he desperately tried to bring his Pa a horse as a birthday present, but lost the animal when an outlaw killed it in the desert.

Several times, Molly broached the subject of his return, but each time she did, Joe cut her short. He refused to discuss the subject.

With each passing day, Joe was feeling stronger. He began skipping the afternoon naps Molly had insisted he take, and started doing a few easy chores around the ranch. He also started thinking again about where to go next. The days were growing shorter and he knew winter was only a few weeks away. But Joe was reluctant to leave; he had no place to go.

The two were finishing dinner one night when Molly suddenly looked up at Joe. “You’re leaving here soon, aren’t you,” she stated.

Joe looked at her guiltily. He was feeling fit and had been thinking it was time to move on. He just hadn’t thought of the right words to tell Molly goodbye. He knew it would be hard for both of them.

“Yes, I’m leaving soon,” Joe admitted. “I hate the thought of leaving you here all winter by yourself, though.”

“Don’t worry about me, boy,” Molly said firmly. “I’ll manage fine. How long do you think it will take you to get home?”

“Now, don’t start that again,” Joe protested heatedly.

“Why not? You know and I know that you want to be back on that ranch with your Pa and brothers more than anything in the world. Why don’t you go?” Molly said.

“You know why,” Joe answered bitterly.

“No, I don’t, and neither do you, not for sure,” Molly argued.

Joe looked down at his plate, the misery plainly evident on his face.

“Joe,” Molly said gently, “what if you had been killed up here? Your family would have never known what had happened to you. They would have spent the rest of their lives wondering about you, searching for you. It’s not fair to them.”

Joe looked at Molly with a startled expression. “I guess I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted slowly. He frowned in concentration. “Things in Virginia City must have calmed down by now. They sure won’t be looking for me at the Ponderosa. I could go back for a day or so. Talk to Pa and Adam and Hoss, and work out what to do, where to go. That way, they would know where to find me and how to keep in touch.”

“That’s right,” agreed Molly enthusiastically. “You could work it out so they could reach you when you’re cleared….if you haven’t been cleared already.”

Joe nodded, then smiled. He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Molly,” he declared happily. “I’m going home.”

*****

Two days later, as Joe was saddling his horse in front of the house, Molly stood on the porch watching him. She was filled with mixed emotions. Molly was happy that Joe was going home; she knew it was the right thing to do. But she was going to miss him.

Once he had finished saddling his horse, Joe walked over to the woman. “Molly,” he said, his voice choked with emotion, “I can’t thank you enough. I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been for you,” He reached out and hugged her.

Molly held him tight for several minutes, then pushed him back. “You take care of yourself, you hear,” she ordered briskly as she brushed a tear from her eye.

“I will,” promised Joe. “You do the same. When Will does come home, you tell him he’s the luckiest man in the world.”

Molly nodded, unable to speak. Then she kissed Joe lightly on the cheek. “Go on,” she whispered. “Your Pa’s waiting for you.”

After hugging Molly one last time, Joe turned and walked to his horse; he mounted and waved farewell to Molly. As she waved back, Joe kicked his horse lightly into a canter. Molly watched until he rode out of sight.

Joe decided to make a quick detour into Caldwell. He felt confident that a short time in town would not endanger him. He was curious to see the town and also wanted to pick up some supplies. Besides, he thought, I could have that drink with Henry.

Caldwell turned out to be a town with about a dozen buildings and a huge sawmill just outside of it. Joe stopped at the general store and bought enough supplies to get him home. Then he headed for the saloon.

Walking into the saloon, Joe spotted Walker immediately, sitting at a table by himself. The foreman was reading from a letter when Joe strolled over to him.

“Henry, how about that drink?” Joe asked pleasantly.

Looking up, Walker stared at Joe as if he barely recognized him. He blinked twice before answering. “Uh, hi Joe,” he said absently. “Sure, let’s have a drink.” He leaned over and called to the bartender. “Two beers, Sam.”

As Joe sat down, the bartender brought two mugs of beer to the table. Walker continued to study the paper in his hand.

“Henry, what’s wrong?” asked Joe, sipping his beer.

Walker looked at Joe, his face full of sadness. “This is a letter from a friend of mine who lives about fifty miles from here. Joe, Will’s dead,” he stated flatly.

“Oh, no,” said Joe with a sinking feeling. “What happened?”

“Nobody is sure,” answered Walker. “They found his body at the bottom of a cliff. Could have fallen or could have been pushed. His horse and gear were gone. Sheriff in the nearest town got Will’s name off a watch in his pocket, but didn’t know where he was from. He made up a poster with Will’s picture and name, asking for information, and put up the posters around town. About a week ago, my friend was in the town on business and saw one of the posters; he knew Will and recognized him right off. He checked with the sheriff and found out what happened. My friend figured it might be easier for me to tell Molly than having the sheriff just sending her a letter, so he wrote me.”

“How are you going to tell Molly?” Joe asked.

“I don’t know,” admitted Walker, the sadness in his voice even more evident. “She’s going to take it pretty hard.”

Joe sipped his beer. “You know, Henry, I think Molly already knows.”

“What do you mean?” Walker asked in a puzzled voice.

“She told me that Will would have been home by now, or sent a message if he was alive,” Joe explained. “I think she already knows he isn’t coming back.”

Henry thought for a minute. “You might be right,” he agreed slowly.

As he watched Walker thinking glumly about Molly, a kernel of an idea started forming in Joe’s head. “Henry, I think you should ask Molly if you can spend the winter at her place,” he suggested. “She‘s going to need some help to get through this, and you’re the best one to help her.”

“I can’t do that,” protested Walker. “It wouldn’t look right.”

“No one is going to care,” argued Joe. “You work for Molly at the timber camp, and people have hired hands stay on their places all the time. Everybody will know you’re just there to help out.”

“That’s true,” Walker agreed. “Besides, everyone around here knows Molly, knows the kind of woman she is.” He mulled over the idea as he sipped his beer. “You know, I think that’s a good idea. I’ll get my things together and ride out there tomorrow. Do you want to come with me?”

“No, I have to be moving on,” Joe told the logging foreman. “But tell Molly I’m thinking of her.”

“I will,” said Walker. He stood and offered Joe his hand. “Thanks”.

Joe shook his hand and watched Walker leave the saloon. He felt sorry that he wouldn’t be there when Walker told Molly the bad news about Will. But he also thought that having Henry there to comfort Molly would be the best thing for her. And, if he read the situation right, next summer there just might be a wedding in Caldwell.

After finishing his beer, Joe left the saloon. He mounted his horse and took one last look around Caldwell, deciding there was no reason to linger. He gave his horse and kick and started riding. Joe Cartwright was heading home.

*****

Ben Cartwright leaned back in his red leather chair, staring into the flames shooting up in the big stone fireplace. On the other side of the fireplace, Adam was in a blue chair, reading a book, while Hoss sat on the sofa, cleaning a rifle. None of the men said anything; each was lost in his own thoughts.

For several days after their return from Eureka, Ben had been unusually silent and distant. He spent hours in Joe’s room, and seemed unaware of what was going on around him. Adam and Hoss worried about their father but didn’t know what to do to help him. Slowly, however, Ben began to come out of his fog. He began asking about ranch business and started working around the Ponderosa again. Ben did his best to act as if nothing were wrong, but Adam and Hoss knew he was still thinking about Joe. They could see it in his eyes when a job came up that needed another hand. They could read it on his face each night at dinner when he would look at the empty place at the table. They could hear it in his voice whenever Ben mentioned Joe’s name.

This night was like many others. Each of Cartwright was trying to act as things were normal. And each of them was thinking about Joe.

Suddenly, Ben sat up in his chair and exclaimed, “New Orleans!”

Adam and Hoss looked at him. “New Orleans?” repeated Adam with a puzzled expression. “What about New Orleans?”

“I haven’t contacted anyone in New Orleans,” explained Ben, his voice filled with excitement. “You remember how Joe always used to talk about going there. He’s been gone over four months. He could have easily reached New Orleans by now. He could have ridden there, or maybe worked his passage on a ship.”

“But, Pa, New Orleans is a big city,” protested Hoss. “How in the world would we ever find him there?”

“My old friend Judge Wilson is still in New Orleans,” replied Ben with enthusiasm. “He has lots of contacts. If I write him, I’ll bet Judge Wilson could put out the word on Joe to the police, to business people, to just about the whole city. And if Joe is there, Judge Wilson is the best person to contact him and tell him that it’s safe to come home.”

“I don’t know,” observed Adam doubtfully. “It’s long odds that he could find Joe, even if Joe’s there.”

“Adam, everything we’ve done since Joe’s left has been long odds,” said Ben firmly. “But we have to keep trying. We can’t give up. I’ll write to Judge Wilson first thing in the morning.”

As Ben sat back in his chair with a smile of satisfaction on his face, Adam and Hoss looked at each other. Then Adam shrugged. What the heck, he thought, if it makes Pa feel better, what harm can it do?

A tentative knock on the door interrupted the thoughts of the men in the house. Ben looked at the door with a startled expression. “Who would be visiting at this time of night?” he wondered aloud as he got up and walked to the door. Ben pulled the door opened and stopped in his tracks.

Standing in the doorway, hat in hand, was Joe. “Hi, Pa,” he said in a trembling voice.

For a moment, Ben simply stared at the figure standing in front of him. “Joe!” he exclaimed softly. Then Ben reached out and grabbed his youngest son. He hugged him close as tears sprang to his eyes.

Leaping to their feet, Adam and Hoss rushed to the door. Both men stood watching as father and son held each other tightly. Hoss had a silly grin on his face while Adam nodded his head in satisfaction.

Finally, Ben released Joe. “Are you all right?” Ben said, his voice barely audible.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe assured his father. He looked over his father’s shoulder. “Hello, brothers.”

“You sure are a sight for sore eyes, little brother,” Hoss stated, his voice choked with emotion.

“Welcome home,” added Adam simply.

Giving a sniff, Ben lightly patted Joe on the back. “Come on and sit down,” he said, guiding Joe gently to the sofa. “Where have you been? We’ve looked everywhere for you.”

“It’s a long story,” replied Joe as he let his body fall wearily onto the sofa. Ben, Adam and Hoss crowded around him. “I don’t know where to start,” Joe continued. “I’ve spent most of the last few months working in a logging camp up in the Oregon.”

“You working?” joked Hoss. “Now that’s a sight I would have liked to see.”

“You would have loved it,” agreed Joe with a laugh. “I met a lady up there who’s the best cook in three territories.”

“Sounds like my kind of place,” remarked Hoss with a grin.

“Well, we’ll have Hop Sing make the best homecoming dinner in the world,” announced Ben. “Tomorrow you’ll have the best meal he can cook.”

“Pa, I can’t stay,” Joe stated, a grim expression forming on his face. “I just came home to let you know I’m all right, and to figure out some way to keep in touch after I leave.”

“Can’t stay?” repeated Ben incredulously. “Why not?”

“You know why not,” Joe insisted. “I’m sorry. I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t stay and stand trial. I’m just not brave enough to face that lynch mob again.”

“Joe, you don’t have to worry about that. We found Cherokee Pete and he cleared you,” explained Adam.

“Cleared me?” Joe repeated in a stunned voice. He looked back to Ben. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“We’re sure,” declared Ben with conviction. “Bob Deters confessed. He said Mary fell and hit her head when he was with her. It was an accident.”

“Deters? He’s the one who helped me escape,” Joe said in astonishment. “When did this happen?”

“The night you…left,” replied Ben.

Joe looked to Adam and Hoss, who nodded in confirmation. Then he looked at the fire in the fireplace in front of him, then shook his head slowly. “Molly was right,” he acknowledged softly. “I should have come home sooner.”

“Molly?” asked Ben.

“She’s the lady I met, owns the logging camp where I worked,” explained Joe, turning to face Ben. “She saved my life. She kept telling me to go home. She told me that you’d be working to clear my name. I wouldn’t listen to her.”

“Saved your life?” Ben said, with a trace of fear. “Then I’m doubly grateful to her.”

Joe put his hand to his mouth and chewed his knuckle as he stared into the fire. He thought about the loneliness and the fear he had felt for the past few months. It was all for nothing.

No, Joe corrected himself, it wasn’t all for nothing. He had met Molly and Yuri and Henry. Three new friends, good friends. His life was better for knowing them. His journey had not been wasted.

“Joe,” said Ben, interrupting his son’s thoughts. “We can talk about this later. The important thing now is that you’re home.”

“Yeah, little brother,” added Hoss. “And you’re going to stay home, even if I have to tie you down.”

“You should see the way your chores have been piling up,” Adam declared with a smile. “You’ll be lucky to get caught up in a year.”

A huge grin split Joe’s face as he looked at his father and brothers. “It’s good to be home,” he announced. “You don’t know how good it is to be home.”

***End***

 

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