Summary: A stranger repays more than the value of the original good deed.
Word Count: 3902
The rain pelted the roof of the Ponderosa ranch house like a steady drumbeat, interrupted only by an occasional rumble of thunder. The four men sitting in the house after a hard day’s work in wet weather spoke loudly, trying to be heard over the noise.
“Dagumit, it ain’t never going to stop raining,” groused Hoss Cartwright from his spot on the settee. “This is the fifth day I’ve had to slosh through the mud to get my chores done.”
“It will stop soon,” Adam Cartwright reassured his brother as he looked up from the book he was reading while sitting in his usual blue chair. “It always does.”
“I don’t know, Adam,” remarked Joe Cartwright with a grin. He was comfortably sprawled in the red chair, which was usually his father’s favorite seat. “I heard that it once rained for 40 days and 40 nights.”
“I promise I’ll let you know when I think it’s time to start building an ark and collecting animals,” replied Adam wryly.
“I don’t know what you boys are complaining about,” called Ben Cartwright from behind his desk. “Hop Sing is the one who has to clean up the mud you track in and try to dry your wet clothes. On top of that, he has to cook dinner, like he’s doing now, while you three just sit around and whine. This weather gives him twice the work.”
“Yeah, well, at least he ain’t getting wet and muddy while he’s doing it,” Hoss grumbled.
A sudden knock on the front door interrupted the conversation. Ben looked over to his sons, who seemed to be pointedly ignoring the sound. With a sigh, he rose from the desk and walked to the door.
Pulling open the front door, Ben was a bit surprised to see a man standing there with his hat in his hand. The rainy weather was keeping most people indoors, especially after dark. But this man obviously had made a journey in the rain. His hat was dripping water, his thin coat was soaked, and a puddle was forming at his feet as trickles of moisture ran down his pants. The man’s thin face was mostly covered by a dark black beard, a color which matched his hair.
“Sorry to bother you, mister,” the man said in a quiet voice. “I’m looking to see if you might have some work I can do. I’m a carpenter by trade but I can do most any kind of work.”
Regretfully, Ben shook his head. “I’m sorry. We just don’t have anything available right now.”
“I understand,” answered the man as his shoulders sagged a bit. “That seems to be the case with most folks in this area. I ain’t been able to find any work for weeks. Well, thanks anyway.”
“Wait,” called Ben as the man started to turn away. “I can’t offer you any work but I can offer you a hot meal and a dry place to sleep for the night.”
“Really?” The man seemed surprised at the offer. He considered it a moment before replying. “I sure could use good meal and a dry night. But I don’t want to put you folks out any.”
“You aren’t putting us out,” Ben assured him as he held the door open. “Come on in.”
The man took a minute to scrape his shoes and wring the water from his hat before entering the house. When he saw the three men sitting by the fire looking at him curiously, he nodded a bit hesitantly.
“Boys, this is Mr….” started Ben and then stopped.
“Sam, just call me Sam,” the man interjected quickly.
“Boys, this is Sam,” Ben continued. “He’s looking for work. I told him we don’t have anything right now, but I’ve offered him a meal and a place to sleep tonight.”
“Hello, Sam,” called Hoss. His brothers nodded their acknowledgement of the stranger’s presence.
“Hi,” Sam replied a bit shyly. He turned to Ben. “If you’ll just show me where the kitchen is, I’ll go eat in there. I ain’t exactly dressed to eat at a fine table.”
“This way,” said Ben with an understanding smile. He started to lead Sam toward the kitchen.
As Sam walked behind Ben, his boots began to squeak. Hoss frowned as he saw the man’s boots were so worn that they were tied together with twine wrapped around the foot. “Sam, those the best boots you got?”
Stopping, Sam turned to Hoss. “These are the ONLY boots I have,” he admitted. “They’ll do until I can find some work.” He shivered a bit as he slipped off his jacket to reveal a thin gray shirt that had been patched in several places.
“Hold on a minute, Sam,” declared Hoss. “I got some old boots that would probably fit you. Let me run up stairs and get them.”
“Get that old red shirt from my room,” called Adam as Hoss started up the staircase. “That heavy one that I don’t wear any more. It will be a little big but it’s a lot better than the shirt he’s wearing.”
“You don’t have to do that,” protested Sam.
“Nonsense,” Adam replied with a smile. “We can’t have you freezing to death on the Ponderosa. It just isn’t done.”
“Say, Sam, where’s your horse?” asked Joe.
“Ain’t got a horse,” Sam explained. “Just an old mule. He’s tied up to the post outside. He’ll be fine. He don’t mind the rain.”
“Well, I mind that he’s standing in the rain,” declared Joe, getting to his feet. He walked to the front door and slipped on a slicker he picked up from the floor. “I’ll put him the barn and give him some feed,” Joe added he as firmly put his hat on his head. “If you’re getting fed and dried out, he should too.”
“You folks are mighty kind,” said Sam in a humble voice. “Thank you. Thank you a lot. I’ll just sleep in the barn with my mule and leave in the morning.” A small smile crossed the man’s face. “I don’t meet many people like you. I’ll sure remember you.”
The sun rose high in the sky the next morning, a welcome sight to the men sitting at the breakfast table.
“Ain’t that a pretty sight,” commented Hoss as he looked out the window. “I ain’t never seen a more beautiful sun.”
“As long as it’s not raining, I don’t care what the sun looks like,” Joe replied before taking a sip of coffee.
“This means that you’re going to have to go up to the north ridge to check the hillside,” Ben reminded his youngest son. “I told you that as soon as the rain stopped that we had to check for any landslides in that area.”
“Why me?” asked Joe in an irritable tone. “That trail is going to be nothing but mud.”
“Because you’re the youngest and therefore you should get the worst jobs,” Adam declared with a grin. “Hoss and I have done our share of dirty jobs over the years. Now it’s your turn.”
“It’s not fair,” Joe insisted.
“It may not be fair, but it IS your job,” stated Ben firmly. He looked up as Hop Sing entered the room carrying a plate of bacon. “Hop Sing, did you give our guest some breakfast before he left?”
“No guest, no breakfast,” replied Hop Sing shortly.
“What do you mean?” asked Ben in a puzzled voice.
“Hop Sing go to barn with plate. Barn empty. No guest,” the cook declared. He put the platter on the table and left the room.
“Wonder why Sam didn’t stay around for breakfast?” Hoss mused.
“Probably thought he’d been too much trouble already,” suggested Ben. “I wish he would have stayed for another meal, though. He looked like he could use it.”
“At least we sent him on his way with some new boots and a new shirt, not to mention a well-fed mule,” Adam commented.
“You know, I don’t think he ever asked our names,” remarked Joe, sounding a bit perplexed. “He said he would remember us. I wonder how he thinks he is going to do that if he doesn’t even know who we are?”
“I’m sure he knew this was the Cartwright ranch,” Ben answered with a wry smile. “We are rather well-known in the area.”
“I guess,” admitted Joe. “But still it is a bit odd that he seemed to know who we were without asking.”
Walking toward the barn door, Joe frowned a bit as he looked at the ground in front of him. The yard was muddy and a few puddles had formed in the dirt. Joe could see some footprints which clearly belonged to Hop Sing; he recognized the distinctive tread from the cook’s shoes. But there were no other marks in the dirt – no boot prints, no hoof prints, nothing. Joe knew the rain had stopped just after midnight last night, so the storm wouldn’t have washed away any tracks. He wondered how Sam had managed to exit the barn without leaving a trace.
Shrugging, Joe dismissed the lack of tracks as just another curious aspect of the man who called himself Sam. He entered the barn to saddle his horse for the ride to the north ridge.
An hour later, Joe dismounted from his horse and walked slowly toward the edge of the hillside. His clothes were flecked with mud, and he knew without looking that Cochise, his horse, was covered in mud from hooves to belly. As he made his way toward the rim of the slope, he thoughts were more on the time he was going to have to spend cleaning his mount when he got home than any slippage that the rain might have caused.
“Son! Stop! Don’t move!” came a shout.
Freezing in his tracks, Joe turned to look in the direction of the voice and was surprised to see Sam a short distance away, sitting atop his mule.
“Don’t go any closer to the edge!” called Sam in an urgent voice. “The ground is about to give away!”
“Sam?” Joe said in a puzzled voice. “How did you get up here? I didn’t see you on the trail.”
“Don’t matter,” answered the man as he rode his mule slowly toward Joe. “The important thing is you stay away from that hillside.”
Turning back, Joe looked at the ground. It seemed solid enough to him. “I don’t see anything…” Joe started as he took a step forward.
Suddenly, the ground gave away under Joe’s feet. He could feel himself starting to slide down the hill toward a rocky stream below. Desperately, he flung his right arm to the side and grabbed onto the branch of a small tree that was now leaning over the hillside. Joe hung on to the branch as he tried to dig his heels into the loose earth. Pebbles and dirt pelted his face as the ground around him started to slip away.
For a moment, the tree held Joe’s weight. Then it began to fall forward, as if eager to join the cascade of debris plummeting downward. Another branch hit Joe in the face, causing him to open his mouth instinctively in pain. A glob of mud quickly fell into Joe’s mouth.
Just as Joe thought he was going to slide down the hill with the tree, he felt a strong tug on the collar of his jacket.
“Let go of the tree!” a voice shouted.
Immediately, Joe released his hold on the branch. He was almost instantly pulled upwards to the top of the slope. A few moments later, Joe was laying flat on his back, looking up at the sky.
For a minute, Joe just laid on the ground, grateful to be alive and relatively unscathed. He turned his head to the side and spit the mud out from his mouth. Joe took a few deep breaths and then pushed himself up to a sitting position. He wasn’t surprised to see Sam kneeling next him, watching him anxiously.
“You all right, boy?” Sam asked in a worried tone.
“Yeah, I think so,” Joe answered tentatively.
“Here, drink this.” Sam put a canteen to Joe’s lips.
Joe took a mouthful of water and then almost immediately turned his head to spit it out, clearing the remaining mud from his mouth. He turned back to the canteen and took several gulps of water.
The man next to Joe seemed to be looking him over carefully; then he grinned. “You sure are a sight. If I hadn’t seen you before you went down that hill, I wouldn’t recognize you.”
Joe looked down; his shirt and pants were covered in mud. Joe reached up to his face and felt the wet dirt clinging to his cheek and forehead. “I guess I did roll around in that muck a bit,” he agreed.
“You know, I hear there are folks back East who pay lots of money for a mud bath like you just got,” declared Sam, his grin widening. “You got yours for free.”
Smiling, Joe started to get to his feet. As he stood, though, a pain shot through his head and his legs started to buckle. He would have fallen back to the ground again if Sam hadn’t grabbed him. Sam eased Joe down slowly until he was sitting on the ground again.
“Maybe I should take a closer look at you,” Sam said with a frown. “You don’t seem quite as fit as you thought you were.”
“I think you may be right,” acknowledged Joe in a low voice. He closed his eyes, hoping that would stop the pounding that now starting in his head. He opened them abruptly, though, when he felt a stream of water being poured over his face.
“Sorry,” Sam apologized. “I wanted to take a look at your face, and I couldn’t do that with all the mud on it. I figured you were already wet so a little more water wouldn’t hurt.”
“Yeah, well, I guess you’re right,” mumbled Joe. He was suddenly finding it hard to concentrate and say words that made sense.
Joe sat with his eyes closed, taking deep breaths, as he felt some fingers gently touching his face.
“You got a lump on your head the size of a walnut,” declared Sam as he pulled his hand away. The man quickly ran his hand down Joe’s arm and side. “Don’t seem as if anything is broken. You have a nice set of scratches on your chest, though, to match the ones on your face.”
“I’ll be all right,” Joe stated in a thick voice. “Just let me sit here a minute. I just need to clear my head.”
After waiting a few minutes, Sam asked anxiously, “Help any?”
“Some,” Joe replied. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath. When he opened his eyes again, he winced. “Maybe not as much as I thought.”
“You just sit there, son,” ordered Sam. “I’ll get my mule. I need to get you home.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Joe protested weakly. “I just need a little rest. I can make it home on my own.”
“Sure you can. You’ll make it on your own just as soon as the sun starts rising in the west,” Sam countered. “You just sit there for now. I’ll take care of things from here on.”
Hoss looked up from the corral fence post he was pounding into the ground; his jaw dropped for a moment as he saw the men riding into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house. Joe was slumped on the back of a mule, head down and body covered in dried mud. Sam was sitting behind Joe with his arm wrapped around the younger man, holding him on the mule. Cochise, Joe’s horse, was trotting obediently behind the mule; no reins or rope was guiding the mud-covered animal. The horse just seemed to know it was supposed to follow the mule.
“Pa! Adam! Get out here!” shouted Hoss as he dropped the hammer in his hand and ran toward the mule. Sam stopped his mount and waited.
“What happened?” asked Hoss as he stared at the figure caked in dirt sitting in front of Sam. “Is he hurt bad?”
“The boy here got a bump on his head,” explained Sam. “I don’t think it’s too bad. He should be fine after a little bit of rest.”
“How did he get so dirty?” pressed Hoss as he reached over to pull Joe from the mule.
“Landslide,” Sam replied briefly. “He got caught up a bit in a landslide. That’s how he got knocked in the head.”
As Hoss gently pulled his brother off the mule, Joe roused a bit. He opened his eyes and blinked, as if trying to recognize the big man who was putting Joe’s arm over his shoulders. “Hoss?” he mumbled.
“Take it easy, Joe,” Hoss said in a soothing voice. “You’re going to be all right. Can you walk?”
“Yeah,” replied Joe in a low voice. He took a small step on shaky legs. “Maybe…” he amended his answer.
“I’ll get you to the house, little brother,” Hoss declared. “Just lean on me.”
“My God! What happened to Joe?” exclaimed Ben as he rushed from the house in time to see Hoss slowly walking Joe toward the door.
“He got knocked in the head during a landslide,” Hoss answered. “You better tell Hop Sing to bring plenty of hot water upstairs. We’re going to need it.”
Ben started to follow Hoss into the house, but then stopped. He turned back to the man sitting quietly on the mule, just watching. “Sam, thank you for bringing my boy home,” Ben stated with sincerity. “Thank you very much.”
“My pleasure,” the man replied with a nod.
“Please, come into the house. Get yourself cleaned up and something to eat,” offered Ben.
“No, I’m fine,” Sam answered. “Now that the boy is in good hands, I’ll be on my way.
“Please stay,” insisted Ben. “A meal and some soap and water are the least we can offer you. Besides, I want to find out more about what happened.”
Tilting his head to the side, Sam thought a moment. “All right,” he agreed somewhat reluctantly. “Let me take care of my mule and the boy’s horse, and then I’ll be in.”
Two hours passed before Ben descended the stairs to see Sam sitting comfortably on the settee chatting with Adam. The man had cleaned himself up, and now seemed right at home in the ranch house.
Adam immediately rose and walked toward the staircase. “How is he?”
“I think he’ll be all right,” Ben reported. “Joe’s still a bit groggy, but I think after a day or two in bed, he’ll be fine.”
“I sent one of the hands for the doctor,” Adam told his father. “It won’t hurt for Doc Martin to check him out, just to be sure.”
“No, it won’t hurt at all,” Ben agreed. He looked past Adam toward the man sitting on the settee. “Sam, what happened out there?”
Sam briefly recounted the events on the ridge and then added, “I’m just happy I was there to help.” He smiled a bit mysteriously. “I guess I put in a good day’s work today.”
“You certainly did,” Ben said fervently. “Thank you.”
Sam rose to his feet. “Well, I’ll be on my way. I’m glad the boy is going to be all right.”
“Please, don’t go,” Ben stated. “I’m sure we can find some work for you around the ranch. We owe you that much.”
“No, you don’t owe me a thing,” Sam replied, shaking his head. “Besides, there’s other work to be done someplace else. I just have to find it.” With that, Sam got to his feet and walked toward the door. He paused a moment and then looked back. “You folks take care now, you hear.”
“Strange man,” commented Adam as he and Ben watched Sam walk out of the house.
“How do you mean?” Ben asked.
“Well, he seemed so desperate for work when he was here last night,” Adam replied thoughtfully. “Today, he didn’t seem to care very much whether he found work or not. And another thing. Last night, he sounded like someone from the hill country, kind of folksy. But when we were talking, he came across as an educated, well-spoken man. Then, right as he left, he switched back to being folksy again.”
Ben frowned as he thought about what Adam said. “Who do you think he is?”
“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “But he did say something curious. He said one of his favorite lines in the Bible was ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’. He added that he had met a lot of people as he traveled around. Most of them aren’t sowing good crops. He was happy when he met some people who did. He said he always liked to help with a fine harvest.”
“What do you think he meant by that?” asked Ben, sounding puzzled.
Shrugging his shoulders, Adam again conceded, “I’m not sure. I guess he felt like since we offered him some help, he was happy he could return the favor with Joe. One good turn deserves another and all that. But it was the way he said that struck me — like it was almost some kind of verdict or like we had passed some kind of test.” He shook his head. “The whole conversation was just had an odd feel to it.”
A knock on the door halted the discussion between the two men. Ben started toward the door, but it opened before he got there, and Doctor Martin entered the house.
“Your hand said Joe got knocked around in landslide,” the doctor stated without preamble. “How is he?”
“I think he’s going to be all right,” Ben answered. “He’s got a lump on his head and some scratches and bruises, but nothing that looks too serious to me. I’d feel better if you checked him over, though.”
“You Cartwrights all have hard heads,” Doctor Martin declared with a wry smile. “I’m sure Joe will be fine, but I’ll take a look since I came all the way out here.” His smile widened as he added, “Joe is lucky that there’s always one of you around to bring him home.”
“It wasn’t us this time,” replied Adam. “The man you passed on the road – Sam – he’s the one who save Joe from being hurt worse than he is.”
“What man?” Doctor Martin said with a frown. “I didn’t see anyone on the road.”
“You had to,” Ben insisted. “He just left a few minutes ago and there’s only one road he could have taken.”
“He must have found another way to go,” Doctor Martin observed with a shrug. “There was nobody on the road except me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go check on Joe.”
As the doctor climbed the stairs toward Joe’s bedroom, Ben and Adam stared at each other in bewilderment. Finally, Adam broke the silence. “You don’t think…” he started.
“Adam, I don’t know what to think,” Ben interrupted. “But I do know I’m going to church on Sunday. I think I have a thank-you to say.”