Summary: This story is set in a post-Adam time frame. Adam has left the Ponderosa by the time the events in this story occur, so he doesn’t appear in this tale.
Word Count: 9206
The timber crew was starting to drift into camp for their noon meal as the man on the pinto rode into camp. Hoss Cartwright looked up from his seat on a log with surprise. “Joe,” he shouted at the rider. “What are you doing up here?”
After dismounting and tying the reins of his horse to a tree, Joe Cartwright walked toward his brother. “Well, big brother,” he replied with a grin, “I figured you couldn’t finish this job with out a little help from the timber expert in the family.”
“Timber expert, eh?” said Hoss, as he got to his feet and went to meet his brother. “There must be some really terrible job brewing back at the Ponderosa to drive you up here.”
The two men clapped each other affectionately on the shoulder and then Hoss suddenly turned serious. “There’s nothing wrong, is there?” he asked anxiously.
“No,” Joe answered reassuringly. His voice dropped. “Pa just sent me up here to tell you that the word is out in Virginia City about Jim Brenner bringing the money for the timber contract and payroll up here on Friday.”
Hoss looked at his brother with a frown. “How’d that happen?” he asked.
“That new bank clerk got drunk last week and started bragging to one of the girls in the Silver Slipper saloon about this big deal he was pulling together, “ Joe explained. “He told the girl about the large amount of money he was gathering for Brenner. A couple of people in the saloon heard him and the news spread. It’s probably nothing, but Pa thought you should know. He wants you to be careful about hiring any new men.”
“It’s too late for that,” advised Hoss with a shake of his head. “I hired about eight new men in the last week or so. We needed them to make sure we finished the job on time.”
“Are you going to make the deadline?” Joe asked.
“We will now,” Hoss assured his brother. “Those extra men are just what I needed. In fact, we’re a day or so ahead of schedule.”
“That’s good news,” said Joe with genuine enthusiasm. “Pa also said that he’s going to ask Brenner to get here before noon on Friday, rather than late afternoon. He thought the change in time would mess up any plans anyone had to try and take the money. Brenner will be a happy man if you have everything done when he gets here.”
“We’ll make it,” Hoss confirmed. “Especially now that you’re here to help us for the next few days.”
“Help you?” Joe protested. “I’m just delivering the message. I’m not here to work!”
Hoss laid his arm across Joe’s shoulders and started guiding him firmly toward the center of the camp. “Little brother,” he said, “there’s work enough for everyone. It’s time you started earning your keep for a change.”
Joe continued to protest as Hoss pushed him firmly and not too gently toward the camp. The pair stopped when they reached the cook fire in the camp where a black man was stirring a pot hanging from an iron frame above the flames. The man’s age was hard to determine, but the flecks of gray in his hair and the lines on his face were evidence that he was no longer young. The black man looked up at Joe and Hoss with a grin. “Well, Little Joe Cartwright,” he greeted the younger man. “What are you doing here?”
Joe smiled at the man. “Howdy, Moses. Hoss seems to think I’m up here to work. I really came up because I know you make the best flapjacks on the Comstock. I miss your good cooking.”
“Better not let Hop Sing hear you say that,” suggested Hoss. “If he does, you’ll never get another meal at the Ponderosa.”
The men laughed as Joe shook Moses’ hand in greeting. It was obvious the two were old friends. More men started drifting into camp as Joe and Hoss settled on a log near the fire. Moses began handing plates and dishing out food to the timber crew.
Three men started out of the woods toward the camp but one of them stopped abruptly and ducked behind a tree. The other two looked at him curiously. “What’s wrong with you?” asked one.
The man peered out from behind the tree and gestured toward the camp. “See that kid in the green jacket?” he answered. “He knows me.”
“Are you sure?” asked one of the other men anxiously.
The man moved back behind the tree. “I’m sure,” he replied in worried voice. “He rode with the posse that caught me after that bank robbery in Arizona two years ago. It took them two days to get me back to Tucson. He knows me. He also knows I’m supposed to be in prison. If he spots me, I’m back in jail.”
The three men looked at each other glumly. “What do we do now?” asked the third man.
The second man shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He turned to the man behind the tree. “Look, you stay out of sight. We’ll figure out something. Just don’t come into camp until it’s dark.”
The man nodded from shadow of the tree, then turned and disappeared back into the woods. The other two watched until the first man was out of sight, then strolled into camp.
Occupied with eating their meal, Hoss and Joe paid no attention as the timber crew wandered into the camp. Joe was asking Hoss about a strand of trees when a big man in a plaid shirt walked up. He greeted Joe and then turned to Hoss. “Hoss, we got troubles,” said the big man.
“What’s wrong now, Sam?” Hoss asked.
“There’s a break in the log flume. We had to shut it down,” answered Sam.
“Dagnabit,” complained Hoss. “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”
“Relax, big brother,” Joe told Hoss. “Soon as I finish eating, I’ll go up and take a look. I should be able to fix it.”
“Thanks,” said Hoss gratefully. “I knew you’d come in handy.” Neither Hoss nor Joe noticed the two men in the camp who were watching and listening to them.
About an hour later, Joe was up on the flume with a hammer, nails and some wood planks. He had found the break easy enough and now was busy replacing the timber flooring. Concentrating on the repairs, Joe paid no attention to anything other than the flume until he heard a rumble and felt a vibration. Looking up, he was shocked to see a log speeding down the flume, heading directly toward him. Immediately dropping the hammer from his hand, Joe started to scramble off the wooden structure. He was almost over the side panel when his foot slipped and he lost his balance. Joe felt himself plunging toward the ground and instinctively stuck out his arm to try to break his fall. Then he hit the earth with a loud thud.
“Hoss, Hoss, come quick,” shouted one of the timber crew as men began running toward Joe from all directions. Hoss was halfway up a hill, yards away from the log flume, when he heard the shouting. He turned and saw the crumpled form on the ground near the flume; Hoss dropped the ax in his hand and ran.
Pushing aside the group of men crowded around Joe, Hoss knelt next to his brother. Joe was laying on his right side, not moving. As Hoss gently turned his brother onto his back, Joe moaned softly. Joe’s right arm was bent at an odd angle and Hoss could see a piece of bone jutting from Joe’s bloody sleeve.
“Joe? Joe? Can you hear me?” Hoss asked desperately. Joe moaned softly in reply. Hoss started running his hands lightly over Joe’s left arm, his legs and chest; he frowned as he felt some broken ribs. Hoss looked up at the men standing around. “Bob, run back to the camp and get Moses,” he ordered one of them. “Tell him what’s happened. Tell him we need a blanket or something to carry Joe.” As Bob ran back up the hill, Hoss quickly turned to another man. “Gus, get the fastest horse we got in camp and get to Virginia City. Get the doctor up here fast.” A second man nodded and hurried up the hill also.
Turning back to Joe, Hoss stroked his brother’s head gently. “Don’t try to move, Joe”, he counseled in a soothing voice. “Help’s on the way. Just lay still.” Joe’s eyes were closed but his jaws were clenched in pain. Hoss wasn’t sure if his brother heard him.
It seemed like a long time, but in reality it was only a few minutes before Hoss spotted Moses coming down the hill. The black man had a roll of canvas under his arm. The men standing near Hoss separated to let Moses near the injured man.
“How is he?” asked Moses as he dropped the bundle and knelt next to Joe.
“His arm’s broken, and so are some of his ribs,” answered Hoss. “I can’t tell about his insides.”
Giving a brief nod, Moses started to run his hands over Joe’s chest, side and stomach. Joe groaned loudly as Moses pushed lightly on Joe’s side. “You send someone for the doc?” Moses asked. Hoss nodded. Then Moses looked Hoss straight in the eye. “I think you ought to send someone to get your Pa, too,” the black man added.
Hoss swallowed hard and nodded again. He turned to one of the men standing nearby. “Clem,” he said, his voice shaking. “Ride back to the Ponderosa and tell my Pa to get up here. Tell him to ride fast.” Clem started running back toward the camp.
Moses unrolled the canvas and laid it next to Joe, then looked at the men around him. “We need to put Joe on the canvas and carry him back to camp. I’m going to need all of you to help. And I want you to be very careful and very gentle. Understand? Very careful.” Slowly, the crowd of men began moving forward.
The trees were casting their late afternoon shadows as Ben Cartwright rode his buckskin horse rapidly up the mountain. He pushed the horse as hard as he could up the rough trail. His sense of urgency was communicated to the buckskin, and the animal climbed as fast as possible.
As he reached the camp, Ben pulled the horse to a stop, dropped the reins and literally jumped out of the saddle. Ben saw Moses and Hoss standing outside a tent and began running toward them. Hoss raised his hand as his father neared the tent.
“Hoss…” Ben started to say, his voice filled with dread.
“Pa, he’s going to be all right,” Hoss told his father reassuringly. “The doc’s here. Joe took a bad fall, but the doc said he’ll mend.”
Ben sighed in relief. “I was so worried,” he declared in a shaky voice. “Clem said…” He took a deep breath. “I was so worried.”
A gray-haired man exited the tent behind Ben. “I thought that was your voice, Ben” said the man.
“Doctor, how is he?” Ben asked.
“He’s lucky boy,” answered Dr. Paul Martin. “He’s got a broken arm, four broken ribs and two cracked ribs. He’s also got some pretty nasty bruises. But there’s no sign of internal injuries or a head injury. It will take some time but everything should heal fine. He’ll be good as new.”
“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully, giving the doctor a shaky smile. “Can I see him?”
“Of course,” replied Dr. Martin, opening the flap of the tent. “The medicine I gave him for the pain is pretty strong, so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make much sense.”
Ben entered the tent, followed closely by Hoss and the doctor. The tent was just big enough for two cots and two small tables at the foot of each bed. Joe laid on the cot to the right, a blanket covering him to about half-way up his chest. His right arm was in a splint and heavily bandaged. His chest and ribs were wrapped in bandages also. Joe’s eyes were closed; his face was pale and his breathing, slow.
After settling on the empty cot, Ben leaned toward Joe lying on the other bed. He gently stroked the top of his son’s head. “Joe?” he said quietly. There was no response. “Joe?” Ben repeated.
After slowly opening his eyes, Joe turned his head toward his father. His eyes had a glazed, unfocused look and he blinked twice. “Pa?” he murmured in a thick voice.
“How are you, son?” Ben asked anxiously.
“I’m fine. How are you?” answered Joe almost politely as he looked at his father through half-opened eyes. His words were slurred.
“I’m fine,” said Ben with a smile.
Joe blinked again slowly. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I came to see you,” replied Ben.
Joe closed his eyes. “That was nice; that was real nice of you,” he stated, a silly smile on his face. He opened his eyes again. “Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine,” Ben answered soothingly, patting Joe’s head.
“That’s good,” murmured Joe. “I feel good; I feel real good.”
“I’ll bet you do,” observed Ben with a grin. “Why don’t you get some rest now?”
Joe blinked slowly, as if he were having a hard time understanding his father. “I’ll rest,” he declared finally. “I just want to take a nap first. Then I’ll rest.”
“All right,” agreed Ben with a laugh. “You take a nap.” Joe nodded and closed his eyes. Ben watched his son for a moment, then rose from the cot. He gestured to Hoss and the doctor, and the three men left the tent.
“Well, he’s sure not feeling any pain,” remarked Hoss with a smile as they emerged from the tent. Moses was still waiting outside the tent.
“No, he’s not,” Ben agreed. He turned to the doctor. “When can we take him home?”
“Not for three or four days,” answered Dr. Martin. “I want those broken bones to start knitting before you take him over these rough mountain roads.” The doctor reached into his bag and pulled out a small glass vial containing a dozen or so white pills. “What he needs now is a lot of rest. These pills will ease the pain and help him sleep. Dissolve one in a cup of water and give it to him about every six hours or so. But, be careful. These pills are strong. Don’t give him more than one at a time, and make sure it’s at least six hours between doses.”
Moses reached for the pills. “I’ll take care of these, doc,” stated the cook. “Don’t worry. I’ll see to it that he don’t get more than he should.”
“I’ve got to get back to town,” said Dr Martin, handing the small glass jar to Moses. He started walking toward the edge of the camp, followed closely by the other three men. “I’ll come up and check on him in a few days. If everything still looks all right, you can take him home then.” The doctor looked at the road and sighed. “I don’t look forward to riding up here.”
“Jim Brenner is coming up in his buggy on Friday. He’s leaving Virginia City about nine. Why don’t you ride up with him?” suggested Ben.
“That’s a good idea,” Dr. Martin stated as he approached his horse. None of the men noticed a shadowy figure in the nearby woods, listening to their conversation. The doctor mounted and turned his horse, then looked back at Ben, Hoss and Moses. “Send for me if Joe develops a high fever or if he has any trouble breathing. Otherwise, I’ll see you on Friday.” The three men waved as the doctor rode off. The figure in the woods also moved, going deeper into the forest.
Ben turned to Hoss. “What happened?” he asked. “Clem said Joe got knocked off the flume by a log.”
“I don’t know what happened exactly, Pa,” Hoss admitted. “I was working on the hillside. All I know is the flume was shut down while Joe was fixing it. Somehow, a log rolled on to the flume and started down toward Joe. He tried to get out of the way, but he lost his balance and fell off the flume.”
Before Ben could say anything else, one of the men from the camp approached the trio. It was Sam, the big man who had first seen the problem with the flume.
“Some of the men asked me to find out Joe is doing,” explained Sam. “Is he going to be all right?”
“He’s hurting right now, but he’s going to be fine,” answered Hoss.
“Sam, do you know what happened?” asked Ben.
Sam hesitated before answering. “Well, I was pretty far away,” he said slowly. “But when I looked at the flume, it seemed to me that somebody was at the top, messing with those logs.”
“Do you know who?” asked Hoss.
Sam shook his head. “I was too far away. I couldn’t tell. All I saw was somebody or something moving at the top of the flume.”
Ben turned to Hoss. “Did Joe have a disagreement with any of the men?”
“No,” answered Hoss, with a shake of his head. “He was only in camp a couple of hours before the accident. He barely had time to say anything to anybody.”
“Have you had any problems with the men?” pressed Ben. “Anything happen that would cause someone to want to get back at the Cartwrights or shut down this operation?”
Hoss shook his head again. “No, Pa, nothing. Things have been going fine. I promised the men that bonus for meeting the deadline. They’ve been working real hard.”
Ben turned back toward Sam. “Sam, don’t say anything about what you’ve told us to anyone else,” he cautioned. “Keep it quiet while we check things out.” Sam nodded his agreement and walked away.
“I’m going to stay with Joe,” Ben told Moses and Hoss. “You get the men back to work. We’ll talk about this later.” The other two men walked back to the camp; Ben watched as they talked to the timber crew, and saw the men in the crew head back to the woods. He looked thoughtfully at the camp as it emptied. Finally, with a shrug, he turned back to Joe’s tent and entered it.
The camp had settled down for the night when Ben emerged from the tent again. The sky was dark and the only light was from the fire in the middle of the camp. Moses was sitting on a log near the blaze as Ben approached. When he saw Ben coming, Moses filled a cup with some coffee from a pot on the edge of the fire and handed the steaming cup to Ben.
“Thanks,” said Ben gratefully as he sat on the log next to Moses.
“You want something to eat?” asked Moses. Ben shook his head. “How’s Joe?” the black man inquired.
“He’s sleeping,” answered Ben. “That medicine really knocked him out.” He sipped his coffee. “I’ll probably need you to help watch over him for the next few days.”
“Don’t worry,” Moses promised, “I’ll keep an eye on him. You know how I feel about Little Joe.” The black man suddenly chuckled. “I remember the first time you brought him up to a logging camp. That’s when I was still cutting trees. He was a skinny little kid, barely big enough to lift an ax.”
“I remember,” recalled Ben with a laugh. “He was only about 15. That was the summer Joe decided he was all grown up and he could do anything his brothers could do. You gave him the biggest tree you could find to chop down. That showed him.”
“Well, he showed me something, too,” admitted Moses, grinning. “He worked on that tree all day. He must have spent six or seven hours chopping at that thing. But he wouldn’t give up, no matter how tired he was. He brought that tree down.”
“Yes, he sure did,” acknowledged Ben with a smile. Suddenly, serious expression crossed his face. “Moses, what do you make of what’s happened?”
“Well, I’ve been around lumber camps most of my life,” observed Moses. “I never heard of a log going down a flume on its own. Mostly, it takes a lot of effort to get a log onto the flume and then started down.”
“That’s was I was thinking, too,” said Ben. “But who could want to hurt Joe? And why?”
“I’ve been thinking on that,” declared Moses. “I don’t know the why. But maybe I know the who. Three of the men Hoss hired over the last couple of days, well, they’re not exactly loggers. They came riding into camp, said they needed a job real bad, that they’d do anything. You know how Hoss is when he thinks somebody needs help. He hired them. Those three, they’ve been doing as little work as possible since. I noticed one of them missed dinner.”
“Anything suspicious about them?” asked Ben with concern.
“No,” admitted Moses. “They just don’t seem to fit in.”
Ben looked thoughtfully at the fire as he sipped his coffee. “Moses, do you think you could point them out to me at breakfast tomorrow?”
“Sure can,” Moses said. “You stand next to me when I’m handing out the food and I’ll make sure you know who they are.”
After putting down the empty coffee cup, Ben stretched and got to his feet. “I’d best be getting back to Joe.”
Dawn was breaking when Hoss approached the tent where his injured brother laid. He entered the tent and then stopped as he looked at the two beds. Joe was sleeping peacefully on one cot; Ben was sprawled on the other, also asleep. Walking over to Joe’s bed, he put his hand on his brother’s forehead, checking for fever. Hoss smiled with satisfaction, then turned to his father. He gently shook Ben’s shoulder, waking him.
Ben sat up with a startled expression on his face. “Hoss?” he said in confusion. “Is Joe all right?”
“Joe’s fine,” answered Hoss. “You fell asleep. Moses sent me to get you. He said you wanted to be with the men at breakfast.”
Ben frowned, then remembered his conversation with the cook the night before. “Hoss, you stay with Joe for awhile,” Ben ordered. Hoss nodded as Ben got to his feet and left the tent.
Moses was placing a large pan of biscuits on a table as Ben approached. Plates of eggs and bacon, and pots of coffee were already spread across the table.
“Morning, Mr. Cartwright,” said Moses with a smile. “Sleep well?”
“How did you know I slept?” asked Ben as he picked up a small plate and began filling it with food.
“You told me to keep an eye on Joe,” answered the cook. “I checked on him early this morning. You were sleeping like a baby.”
“Thanks, Moses,” Ben acknowledged gratefully. “I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“We’re ALL not as young as we used to be,” asserted Moses with a grin.
The men started lining up for breakfast, and Moses greeted each man by name as he handed the logger a plate. Ben was leaning casually against the end of the table, seemingly interested only in the food on his plate. But he carefully studied each of the men who approached the table through hooded eyes.
Most of the men greeted Ben by name; many asked about Joe. Ben answered each of them in a friendly way, but his answers had a distracted air as he continued to watch the loggers.
“‘Morning, Mr. Green,” announced Moses as one of the last loggers approached. “I didn’t see you at supper last night.”
Ben looked up sharply and studied the man. He didn’t recognize him. Green had the look of a cowhand more than a logger; he was wearing a Stetson hat and his vest was made of mottled cowhide. Ben watched carefully as Green mumbled something about not being hungry last night and quickly took his plate away.
“‘Morning, Mr. Jones,” Moses said to the next man. “I guess you were hungrier last night than your friend, Mr. Green.” Jones nodded as he took a plate of food. Ben stared at Jones without recognition, but he didn’t like the man’s shifty look. Jones glanced at Ben, then turned and walked away.
“’Morning, Mr. Brown,” greeted Moses to the last man. “Your friends, Mr. Green and Mr. Jones, they got in line ahead of you.” The last man said nothing. He simply took his plate and walked away. Moses looked at Ben. Ben shook his head slightly, indicating he didn’t recognize any of the last three men.
Ben was putting his empty plate on the cook table when he heard someone call his name. He turned to see Hoss standing at the entrance to Joe’s tent.
“Pa!” shouted Hoss. “Joe’s awake.”
With Moses close behind, Ben hurried toward the tent. Both men entered the canvas structure behind Hoss. Joe was lying on the cot with his head slightly propped by a couple of pillows. His face was still pale but his eyes were open. His face broke into a smile as his father, brother and the cook entered the tent. “Hi,” he said weakly.
“How are you feeling, son,” Ben asked softly as he moved to sit on the empty cot.
“I’m all right, Pa,” Joe answered. “Just a little stiff and sore.” He looked toward the entrance of the tent. “And hungry. Moses, where are those flapjacks you promised me?”
The trio surrounding Joe’s bed laughed. “I’ll make you some breakfast,” promised Moses. “But I think some soft eggs would be better than flapjacks, at least for today.”
Motioning Moses to stay, Ben turned back to his son. “Joe,” he asked, “What happened yesterday?”
Joe frowned. “I don’t know, Pa,” he admitted. “I was working on that flume and suddenly I felt a rumble. I looked up and saw the log coming. I tried to get off the flume but I fell. I don’t remember much after that.”
“Did you see anyone else up on the flume?” asked Ben. Joe shook his head. “How about earlier? Did you have any problems with any of the men? Any arguments?” Ben pressed.
Again, Joe shook his head. “No,” he said. “I said hello to a few of the men I knew and then to work on the flume. Why? Don’t you think this was an accident?”
“I’m just trying to find out what happened,” Ben replied soothingly. “We want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Suddenly Joe shifted uncomfortably on the cot, a wince of pain crossing his face. He moved a bit more, clenching his teeth as he did. Finally finding a somewhat comfortable position, Joe let out a sigh.
“You rest for awhile,” advised Moses, “I’ll go make you that breakfast.”
“Yeah, that’s sounds like a good idea,” agreed Joe as his eyes started to close.
After watching his son for a moment, Ben turned to Hoss and Moses and jerked his head toward the front of the tent.
The three men left the tent and walked back toward the cook fire. “Hoss, you keep the men working,” ordered Ben. “Moses, after you give Joe something to eat, give him one of those pain pills the doctor gave you.”
“What are you doing to do, Pa?” asked Hoss.
“I’m going to do a little poking around, talk to the men, and see what I can find out. Someone sent that log down the flume. I’m going to find out who… And why,” stated Ben grimly.
The men went their separate ways. Hoss began directing the logging crew, making sure they started the last of the cutting while Ben climbed to the top of the log flume and studied it carefully. It seemed impossible that a log could roll down the flume by accident. He climbed down from the flume, and walked toward the area where the loggers were chopping trees. He talked with several of the men, but all denied any knowledge of the cause of the accident.
After he fed Joe breakfast, Moses carefully shook one pill out of the glass bottle the doctor had left with him. He dissolved the pill in a cup of water as directed, and made sure Joe drank the entire dose. Then he sat with Joe for awhile, talking and passing the time with him until the younger man drifted off to sleep. Moses felt Joe’s forehead, and nodded slightly when he was sure there was no fever. He sat the bottle of pills on the table at the bottom of bed, next to a cup and pitcher of water, and left the tent.
In the late morning, the camp was deserted. Moses quickly cleaned up the breakfast dishes, and then went into the supply tent. Returning with two pails, the cook eased himself down onto a stool near the cook fire and grabbed a potato out of one of the buckets. Pulling a knife out of his pocket, Moses began peeling the potato.
A half-hour or so had passed when Moses stood and stretched his arms. Grabbing the empty bucket, the cook headed toward a nearby stream. A figure standing in the shadows of the trees watched the cook depart. The figure watched for a few moments longer, then walked into the camp.
The man looked around the camp, making sure no one was around. Satisfied, he walked to the tent where Joe was sleeping peacefully. The man entered the canvas structure, and stood for a minute, as if deciding what to do next. Seeing the vial on the table, the man picked up the glass bottle and shook five pills into his hand. He picked up the cup and filled it with water from the pitcher, then dropped the pills into the cup and swirled the water, watching the pills dissolve. With the deadly potion in his hand, the man approached Joe and gently lifted the youngest Cartwright’s head. He put the cup to Joe’s lips.
“Mr. Green! What are you doing?” a voice shouted from behind him. Green let Joe’s head slip from his hand and turned. Moses stood at the entrance of the tent, the peeling knife in his hand.
“I, er, I thought I heard him call out. I was just giving him a drink,” explained Green with a stammer.
Moses looked at Joe, sleeping peacefully. “He don’t look like he needs a drink. He don’t look like he needs anything,” Moses declared, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
Green looked at Joe and then back at Moses. “I guess not,” he agreed quickly. Green tossed the liquid on the ground and set the cup on the table. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he brushed past Moses and left the tent.
After making sure the other man had left the tent and walked away, Moses hurried over to Joe. He checked the sleeping man’s pulse and nodded with satisfaction. He checked for fever and again was pleased with the result. Moses pulled the cover up to Joe’s shoulders and then left the tent. He looked around the empty camp for a moment, carefully searching for any sign of Green or any of the other loggers. The only sound was the call of a bird and the only movement was the wind in the trees. Moses mouth closed into a tight line. With a determined look, he walked over to the center of the camp, picked up the stool, bucket of water and an armful of potatoes. He deliberately placed the stool in front of the entrance to Joe’s tent and sat down. After another look around, he started peeling potatoes again.
When Ben and Hoss returned to the camp for the noon meal with the logging crew, Moses quickly dished out the food, then motioned to Ben and Hoss. The three men walked behind one of the tents.
“What’s wrong?” asked Ben, seeing the grim look on Moses face. “Is Joe all right?”
“Joe’s fine,” Moses answered in a reassuring tone. “But something real strange is going on. I found that fellow Green in the tent with Joe.”
“Green?” repeated Hoss with a frown. “What was he doing with Joe?”
“Said he was giving him a drink,” explained Moses. “He had a cup in his hand and was standing over the boy. Only Joe was sound asleep. And some of those pills the doc left were missing.”
“Did Joe drink from the cup?” Ben asked in alarm.
“I don’t think so,” replied Moses. “He seems fine. He woke up a bit ago, hungry and feisty as ever. But I don’t think we ought to let Joe be by himself. Sam’s with him now. But I think one of you ought to go and stay with Joe for awhile.”
“I’ll go, Pa,” offered Hoss. He turned and quickly walked toward Joe’s tent.
“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully. Moses just shrugged off Ben’s thanks.
“I can’t figure it out,” Ben continued, scratching his head. “I checked the flume, and I agree that what happened wasn’t an accident. But I also talked to almost all the men. No one has any reason to want to hurt Joe.”
“I don’t know the answer either,” admitted Moses. “But I’ll guarantee you one thing. No one’s going to hurt that boy any more, not while he’s here. I’ll see to that.”
Ben, Hoss and Moses spent the next two days taking turns watching over Joe. Joe grumbled about being treated like a baby, but he didn’t mean it. He was bored lying in bed, and grateful for the company. He was also puzzled. No one said anything to him, but Joe had figured out what had happened wasn’t an accident. When he tried to talk about it with Ben or Hoss, they dismissed his concerns and told him not to worry. Joe knew they were trying to protect him, but he couldn’t figure out why. He didn’t know of anyone who had a grudge against him or any reason why he should be in danger.
Friday morning turned out to be cool and clear. Ben emerged from Joe’s tent, stretching and yawning. He had spent an uneventful night watching over his son. He smelled the coffee brewing and smiled. Moses knew what a man needed first thing in the morning.
“Morning, Mr. Cartwright,” Moses greeted his boss as Ben walked toward the cook fire. The area around the tent was deserted. The rest of the crew was still asleep.
“Good morning, Moses,” Ben replied, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Another quiet night. Do you think we’re making something out of nothing?”
“I was starting to think so,” Moses admitted. “But then something strange happened. Those three fellows I told you about? They’re gone.”
“Gone!” said Ben in astonishment.
“Yep, cleared out,” confirmed Moses. “Saw them sneaking into the woods with their horses and gear a little while ago. Didn’t wait for their pay or anything. Seems awfully strange for three men who came begging for a job.”
“Did you say anything to them?” asked Ben.
“Tried to,” answered Moses. “I hollered at them but they kept right on going. No law against a man up and leaving, I guess. But it is strange.”
“It sure is,” agreed Ben with a frown.
Men started drifting out of their tents, and several came to the cook fire, looking for breakfast. Moses hurriedly went back to work and began dishing out food. Hoss joined Ben by the fire, and Ben quietly told him about the three men leaving. “Pretty odd,” commented Hoss, shaking his head.
“What do you suppose they’re up to?” asked Ben.
“I don’t know,” answered Hoss. “But I think we ought to stay close to Joe.”
“Jim Brenner and the doctor ought to be here in a couple of hours,” Ben said. “We’ll take Joe home this afternoon. With the camp closing up tomorrow, this all should be over soon.”
“You don’t think those fellows are after the payroll, do you?” asked Hoss.
“I thought about that,” Ben replied. “But I don’t see how going after Joe would tie in with that. If anything, the accident would make us stay closer to camp. It doesn’t make sense.”
Frowning, Hoss mulled over what Ben had said. Finally, he sighed. “I can’t figure it out either, Pa,” he admitted. Then Hoss sniffed the air. “But I do know I’m going to get some breakfast. I can smell those biscuits that Moses is making!”
Ben grinned as he watched Hoss walk to the serving table. Moses gave Hoss a double serving of everything.
By late morning, Ben was in Joe’s tent, helping his son dress. Joe complained and protested, insisting he didn’t need any help. But Ben ignored him. He could see Joe was still stiff and sore, and even pulling on a pair of pants caused Joe a wince of pain. Joe hadn’t been even able to walk without his sore ribs aching. He had tried to make it out of the tent for breakfast, but had given up after only a few steps. So, as Joe sat on the edge of the cot, Ben helped his son put on socks and boots, and cinched the belt around Joe’s waist. He fashioned a sling for Joe’s arm out of some cloth Moses had produced and gently eased his son’s splintered and bandaged limb into the sling.
Ben picked up Joe’s shirt from the end of the cot, then took a step back and studied his son. “I don’t see how we’re going to manage to get a shirt on you,” Ben declared with a shake of his head. “You’ve just got too many bandages.”
“Forget it for now,” Joe replied in a weary voice. “I’ll throw it over my shoulders or something when we’re ready to leave.” He stifled a yawn. “That medicine the doc left sure makes me sleepy.”
“Why don’t you lay down and get some rest until the doctor gets here,” suggested Ben.
Joe nodded, and pulled his legs up onto the cot. He laid his head on the pillow at the top of the bed, and closed his eyes. In less than a minute, Ben heard a soft snore.
Ben threw Joe’s shirt over his son’s rolled-up gunbelt on the table at the end of the cot. He watched Joe for a minute more, then reached over to the other cot and pulled off the blanket. Ben laid the blanket gently over his sleeping son. Joe never stirred.
The sound of a horse and buggy crunching across the rough ground outside the tent pulled Ben’s attention from his son. Ben gave Joe one last look, then turned and ducked out of the tent.
A few feet away, Doctor Martin was climbing out of the buggy, his black medical bag in hand. Ben walked forward and greeted the doctor.
“How’s Joe doing?” asked Doctor Martin.
“He’s complaining, and grumbling, and generally being a pain,” answered Hoss as he walked up to the buggy from the cook fire a few yards away.
“Oh, then he’s doing fine,” said the doctor with a laugh.
“He’s still pretty sore,” added Ben, “although he won’t admit it. And he’s still sleeping a lot.”
The doctor nodded. “That’s normal,” he declared. “Knowing Joe, he won’t admit how weak he’s feeling.”
A tall, dark-haired man, wearing a tan suit, vest and string tie, and sporting a tan hat, came up to Ben. He had a saddle bag draped over his arm. “Ben, the doc told me what happened to Joe,” stated the man. “I’m sure sorry to hear it. I’m glad he’s going to be all right.”
“Thank you, Jim,” acknowledged Ben. He smiled at the man. “I hope you’re pleased that your lumber has been delivered.
Brenner smiled in return. “You know I’m happy, Ben. The contract was met down to the last foot of wood, and delivered a day early.” Brenner’s face grew somber. “But I would have traded every log for nothing to have happened to your son,” he added. “I’m sorry it was my contract that caused it.”
“Your contract had nothing to do with it,” Ben assured the man. He took a deep breath. “Well, why don’t we take care of business while the doctor checks on Joe.”
Before Jim Brenner could reply, three men emerged from the nearby woods. The three missing loggers approached the group of men near the buggy, their guns drawn and pointed straight ahead. “Everybody just stay where you are,” shouted Brown. “Nobody move.” The two men with Brown walked over and pulled the pistols from Ben’s and Hoss’ gunbelt.
With a frown on his face, Ben looked around. The camp was deserted. The rest of the loggers were busy dismantling the flume and cleaning up the woods. Only Moses sat watching, a few feet away.
Green spotted the cook and walked over to him. “You,” he said, gesturing with his pistol. “Get over there with the others.”
Moses sat for a moment, his eyes narrowed; he seemed to be deciding whether to obey the one-time logger. Green cocked his pistol. “I said move!” he shouted. Moses got slowly to his feet and walked over to the other men.
The outlaws herded Ben, Hoss and the others toward the edge of the camp. As the captives were pushed together, Brenner dropped the saddlebags he had been holding and kicked them aside. Doctor Martin moved to stand in front of the bags on the ground. Ben glanced at the men standing a few feet away from him, trying to gauge if they saw what happened. He couldn’t tell.
“Check the kid in the tent,” said Brown, gesturing to Jones.
Jones walked a few feet and poked his head into Joe’s tent, then quickly pulled it out. “The kid’s asleep,” called the outlaw. “And I didn’t see a gun.” Brown nodded and gestured for him to return.
While Brown was momentarily distracted, Hoss took a step forward. Green, though, shot into the ground a few inches in front of Hoss, causing bits of dirt to fly up into the air and onto Hoss’ boot. Ben put his hand on Hoss’ arm and not too gently pulled him back.
“That shot will bring the loggers,” advised Moses. “You’d better get out of here now, while you still can.”
Green laughed. “Nice try, Moses,” he said with a sneer. “We checked on the crew. They’re all way down by the flume. No way they could have heard that shot.”
Ben looked at Moses, asking a question with his eyes. Moses shrugged.
“Now here’s what’s going to happen,” explained Brown as he kept his gun pointed at the Ben and the other men. “You’re going to give us the money Brenner brought up here, and then we’re going to leave all of you in one of these tents. By the time the crew gets back and finds you, we’re going to be long gone. You all behave and maybe the crew won’t find five dead bodies.”
“Drop your guns!” a voice barked out suddenly. Green spun to his right and froze.
Joe was standing a few feet away, his chest and ribs swathed in bandages and his right arm in a sling. The edges of some bruises peaked out from the bandages, and were visible on his bare chest and shoulders. Joe’s left hand held a pistol, though, and the pistol was pointed directly at the outlaws. He lifted his gun a few inches. “I said drop the guns,” ordered Joe.
Green studied the young man standing before him. “I thought I took care of you on the flume,” snarled the outlaw.
“And I thought you were still in jail in Arizona, Cutler,” replied Joe. “I guess we were both wrong.”
“You think you can get all three of us?” growled Brown. “We’ll cut you down, boy.”
“Maybe so,” replied Joe evenly. “But not before I get some of you. Maybe you’d like the first bullet.”
Cutler/Green and Jones looked at each other nervously; Brown saw them out of the corner of his eye. “Keep your guns on them,” he snapped. The other two outlaws pointed their pistols at Ben, Hoss, Moses, Brenner and Doctor Martin.
“Now look, boy,” said Brown. “We’re taking that money. And no one is going to stop us. And if there’s any shooting, your Pa and brother here are going to get hurt. Now put your gun down.”
Joe looked at Ben and Hoss. Both gazed back at him evenly. “I don’t think so,” Joe told the outlaw. “I don’t trust you to leave any witnesses behind. I remember Cutler shot the bank clerk in Arizona for no reason. He’s lucky the clerk didn’t die.” He took a step forward and winced. “Drop your guns,” he ordered once more. His voice sounded strained. “Drop them now.” Bead of sweat appeared on Joe’s forehead and his gun began to tremble in his hand. Joe’s jaw clenched as if he were gritting his teeth.
Brown laughed, and turned back to the others. “Don’t worry about him,” called the outlaw to his partners. “I don’t think he’s got the strength to even pull a trigger.”
Ben looked anxiously at Joe. He could see the sweat on his son’s face and shoulders, and could tell Joe was beginning to sway a bit. “Joe…” Ben started, his voice full of concern and warning. Cutler/Green took a step toward Ben, raising his arm to hit Ben.
Suddenly a shot rang out, and Cutler/Green clutched his shoulder. He cried out in pain, but his scream was lost in the sound of a second shot. Brown fell to the ground, grabbing at his leg as he fell.
Jones, the third outlaw, whirled and fired at Joe. But Joe had already sunk to his knees, and the bullet whizzed over his head. Joe tried to raise his gun to fire once more, but the gun fell from his hand. Joe’s eyes closed and then he fell forward to the ground.
Jones never had a chance to take a second shot. As soon as the outlaw fired the first time, Hoss ran forward and grabbed the man’s arm. Hoss spun Jones around and landed a powerful blow on the outlaw’s jaw with his massive fist. Jones crumpled to the ground.
Ben and Moses also had run forward with the sound of the shots. Ben kicked the pistol out of Brown’s hand and picked it up. He pointed the outlaw’s gun directly at the man’s head.
Moses grabbed the gun that had fallen from the hand of the man Joe had called Cutler. The cook aimed the weapon at Cutler, who was lying on the ground, writhing in pain.
“Brenner, keep an eye on these three,” said Ben as he handed the gun in his hand to timber buyer.
“My pleasure, Ben,” replied Brenner in a grim voice as he took the pistol.
Doctor Martin had rushed past the fallen outlaws to Joe. Now Ben ran after him.
Joe was trying to struggle to his feet when the doctor reached him. “Stay still,” ordered the doctor as he knelt next to Joe. Joe gratefully eased himself back to the ground. Doctor Martin ran his hands slowly over Joe’s ribs. Joe grunted a bit. Then the doctor put his hand on Joe’s wrist, feeling the young man’s pulse. After another moment, Doctor Martin released Joe’s wrist and moved his hand to Joe’s forehead.
“How is he?” Ben asked anxiously as he watched.
Doctor Martin looked up. “Well, he managed not to hurt himself any worse,” said the doctor with a shake of his head. “He’s lucky he didn’t displace one of those broken ribs.” The doctor turned back to Joe. “Joe, I’m going to help you up,” he said. “But I want you to move slow, real slow, you understand me?”
“Don’t worry, doc,” replied Joe in a shaky voice. “Right now, even slow is going to be a challenge.”
It took awhile to sort out everything in the camp. Once he and Doctor Martin had Joe back on the cot in the tent, Ben went to help Brenner guard the outlaws; he sent Hoss to get several men from the timber crew to help them. Moses set about bandaging the wounded men, tying cloth over their bullet wounds until the doctor could take a look at them. Moses was less than gentle as he tended to the outlaws.
It was only after he made sure that Joe was comfortable that Doctor Martin turned his attention to the would-be robbers. He quickly examined their gunshot wounds, noting that the bullets had passed through the two men and out again. After a few stitches and some bandaging, the doctor declared them fit to ride. Four of the biggest loggers in the camp threw each of the now-sullen bandits on to a horse, and after climbing on their own horses, left for town with the outlaws in tow. Tied up and hurting, none of the three would-be robbers offered any resistance.
After signing the necessary papers and taking the money from Brenner, Ben counted out enough cash to dole out the wages and bonus owed to each logger. While Ben and Hoss were busy paying the timber crew, Brenner made himself comfortable sitting by the cook fire, drinking coffee and trading stories about the “old days” with Moses.
Three hours after the thwarted robbery, the camp had returned to a semblance of normalcy. Doctor Martin had stayed in Joe’s tent, determined to keep an eye on his often rebellious patient. Now he emerged from the canvas structure and looked anxiously around the camp. He spotted Ben, Hoss and Moses standing by a wagon. The doctor walked toward the men.
“Ben, I should be getting back to town,” called the doctor, his voice tinged with concern. “I’ve got other patients to see.”
“We’ll be ready in a few minutes, doc,” declared Hoss as he arranged some blankets and bedding in the back of the wagon.
The doctor looked into the wagon and nodded with approval. “That should keep Joe comfortable,” proclaimed Dr. Martin. “But you take it real slow down this mountain. Joe’s ribs have been bounced around enough for one day.”
“C’mon, doc,” urged Hoss, throwing his arm around Doctor Martin’s shoulders. “Let’s you and me get my little brother into this wagon.”
Moses watched as the two men walked off, then he turned to Ben. “It was close today,” he observed, not needing to explain. “Too close.”
“I know, Moses,” acknowledged Ben with a sigh. “If Joe hadn’t fallen when he did….” Ben shook his head. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
“I know,” agreed Moses. “Somebody was sure watching over him.” Suddenly the cook looked down to the ground. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” repeated Ben in a puzzled voice. “What are you sorry about?”
“I promised you I would be the one watching over that boy of yours,” answered Moses, still staring down. “I didn’t do a very good job of it.”
Ben put his hand on the cook’s shoulder. “Listen to me, Moses,” he declared in a stern voice. “You did more than anyone to protect Joe, even more than I did. You took care of him and guarded him, and did your best to make sure he was all right. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Moses looked up and gazed into Ben’s face for a minute. “Maybe after we’ve closed up the camp, I’ll come down and visit with Joe at the ranch for a spell,” suggested Moses. “It might not hurt if you had an extra pair of hands to help keep him down. If that’s all right with you,” he added hastily.
Ben patted the black man lightly on the shoulder. “Moses, you’re welcome any time,” he assured the cook.
A mischievous smile twitched on Moses’ face. “Maybe I can show Hop Sing how to make those flapjacks that Joe likes so much.”
“You do that,” agreed Ben with a laugh. “Just warn me when you’re going to tell Hop Sing about the flapjacks. I want to be sure I’m on the other side of the Ponderosa when you do.”
The sound of footsteps and some soft grunts drew Ben’s and Moses’ attention. Both turned to see Hoss and Doctor Martin supporting Joe as he walked slowly from the tent. It took several minutes to ease Joe into the back of the wagon and help him get comfortable. But finally Joe was settled.
Doctor Martin looked around and spotted Jim Brenner near the buggy. Then he turned back to Joe. “I’ll be out to see you tomorrow, Joe,” advised the doctor. “Now you do what I said and rest until then.”
“Don’t worry, doc. I’m not feeling up to anything more strenuous than riding home,” conceded Joe. He winced as he shifted his weight in the wagon. “I’ll follow orders.”
“See that you do,” stated the doctor sternly. Then he smiled, shook hands with Ben, Moses and Hoss, and walked over to where Jim Brenner was waiting in the buggy.
Moses turned to Joe. “Joe, you really saved our hides today,” said the cook. He shook his head. “That was some of the fanciest shooting I’ve seen in a long time.”
Joe seemed uncomfortable and shifted a bit in the wagon. He stared down at his feet for a minute, as if deciding something, then finally looked up. “Well, to tell the truth, Moses, it wasn’t all that good,” admitted Joe. “I was aiming for their chests, thinking those were the biggest targets. But my hand wasn’t too steady. It’s a miracle I hit anything.”
Ben, Hoss and Moses looked at each other with astonishment. “You mean, you got those two outlaws with some lucky shots,” stated Ben, his voice filled with wonder.
“Yeah,” acknowledged Joe. Then he grinned. “But Pa, you always say that sometimes it was better to be lucky than good.”
Hoss shook his head. “Joe, you are the luckiest little cuss I know.”
Joe looked around the wagon, at his father, at his brother, and his friend. He thought about how they had cared for him, how they had tried to protect him. “Yeah,” agreed Joe softly. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”