A Stranger in Our Midst (by Rona)

Summary:  The prequel to ‘Payback Time’. A college friend of Adam’s comes home with him. 12 year old Joe is jealous. Or is he?

Category:  Bonana
Genre:  Western, prequel
Rated:  T
Word Count:  5,690


 

“Joseph!” Ben Cartwright thundered. “Will you please sit still and eat your breakfast!”

Twelve-year-old Joe Cartwright wriggled on his seat once more before lifting meek, puppy dog eyes to his father. “Sorry, Pa,” he said, contritely.

Ben hid a smile in his napkin, knowing perfectly well why his youngest son could not sit still that morning. Adam, the oldest Cartwright son, was due home from college sometime that day. Adam had been away for several years, and was missed sorely by all the family.

The middle son, Hoss, dragged his attention away from his plate to give Joe a smile. “Don’t worry, Shortshanks, Adam’ll be here afore you know it. Jus’ you get them chores o’ yours done, and the time’ll speed past, you see if it don’t.”

Joe scowled at this, his handsome child’s face screwed up in disgust. Chores were not Joe’s favourite form of entertainment. However, after a glance at his father, he rearranged his face into more pleasant lines. “It seems ages till he gets home.”

“As Hoss said, Joe, time will pass more quickly if you’re busy.” Ben finished his breakfast and gave his youngest son a pointed look. Joe hastily took himself off to begin his chores.

*****

Shortly before suppertime, Adam rode into the yard. Joe had been in a frenzy of impatience all day. When he heard the hooves, he yelled “Its Adam!” and jumped to his feet, and ran to fling the door open.

It was indeed Adam, but he wasn’t alone. A stranger rode at his side, and he was saying something to Adam, who was grinning back at him. Joe skidded to a halt, taken aback by the unexpected company. Adam, attracted by the movement, slid from the back of his hired horse, and smiled at Joe. “Joe!” he exclaimed, and opened his arms wide.

It was all the invitation Joe needed, and he threw himself into Adam’s embrace. After a minute, he looked up. “Adam, are you really home for good?” he asked.

“For good, Shortshanks,” Adam assured him, and saw Joe’s face light up with delight. Then Ben and Hoss arrived, and Adam was hugging his father and brother. After the greetings were exchanged, he introduced his companion. “Pa, this is Jeff Randall. We were in the same classes at college. I invited him to stay for a while.”

“Welcome, Mr Randall,” Ben said, shaking his hand, and smiling welcome.

Joe, still in Adam’s embrace looked at this unwanted newcomer, and was shocked to see that Jeff Randall had different coloured eyes – one blue, one brown. He found himself staring, although he knew it was rude. He felt Adam’s arm tighten round his shoulders and looked up. Adam shook his head slightly, and Joe flushed. He knew then that Adam didn’t want Joe to say anything to Jeff.

“Please, call me Jeff,” the man was saying to Ben. “I’m sorry to drop in like this, with no warning.”

“Its no problem,” Ben assured him. “Any friend of Adam’s is welcome here. Come inside. Joe, could you put the horses away?”

“Sure,” Joe mumbled, and sulked off to the barn, feeling excluded, as Ben drew Adam into another hug, and laughed at something Jeff said. Joe took his time putting up the hired horses, and walked slowly back to the house.

It looked like the family scene that Joe had dreamed of. Adam was sitting in his favourite blue chair, Hoss was perching on the fireplace, and Ben was in his big leather chair. But Jeff was sitting on the settee. Joe looked at the one seat left – beside Jeff – and went to sit on the arm of Adam’s seat. Adam smiled at his younger brother, and rubbed his back gently, while listening to the conversation.

Joe had been bursting to tell Adam everything that had happened to him lately, but his natural ebullience was dampened by Jeff Randall’s presence in their midst. He didn’t like the way Randall looked at him, Joe thought. And it wasn’t just because of the strange eyes, although they played their part. No, there was simply something about the stranger that Joe didn’t like.

*****

It was a relief to Ben when everyone went off to bed that night. The atmosphere had been a little strained by Joe’s unaccountable silence. Even Jeff, stranger though he was, had seemed to notice that this was not normal behaviour. Of course, he was Adam’s friend, and so had probably been told stories about Joe and his impulsive nature. It was also because Adam had been away from them for the last year. He was finally finished with college, and Ben was glad to have him home. His vacations were almost always too short to allow him to travel back from Boston, so they had only seen him in the summer time. Joe was at that difficult age, and Ben shrugged. He would need to watch the boy, but he was sure Joe would snap out of the mood as quickly as he’d got into it.

*****

Joe seemed more like himself at breakfast next morning and Ben was thankful. Adam had to return the hired horses, and he asked Joe to go along with him. Joe lit up like a Christmas tree, and turned a smiling face to his father. Ben nodded approval. But Joe’s happiness was dimmed when Jeff asked if he could go along, too. Adam saddled a couple of the ranch horses, and Joe saddled his pony. They set out, but it wasn’t long before Adam and Jeff’s horses had out distanced Joe’s little pony. Joe’s sulks returned in force.

It wasn’t helped by Jeff calling Joe ‘Little Joe’, like his brothers did. Joe hated his nickname of ‘Little Joe’, because it reminded him of how much younger he was, and how much smaller. He’d been a premature baby, and was undersized for his age. In fact, he could pass for a few years younger than he was, which only riled him the more. Ben assured him that he would grow when the time was right, but it was doubtful if he’d be as tall as either of his brothers. Joe favoured his mother very much, and Marie had been slender and dainty.

Reminded that he’d brought Joe along, Adam turned to look for him. He recognised the rebellious set of his baby brother’s mouth, and sighed. “Come on, Little Joe, I’ll buy you some candy when we get to town.” Joe tried to keep the smile from his face, but he wasn’t successful. Before long, Adam had Joe chattering away, and he hid the superior smiles, which threatened to break free.

Not used to, and not liking, children, Jeff didn’t bother to hide his smiles. He was an only child, and his parents hadn’t been well off. They had left him enough money to get through college, but now he had to go and find a job. He did quite like Adam, but he assumed that because Ben Cartwright was rich, Adam didn’t actually have to work unless he wanted to. Jeff was sure that if he hung around with Adam long enough, he would get a cushy job from Adam’s precious Pa. But he hadn’t counted on the kid hanging around them all the time, so he made no attempt to befriend Joe.

When they reached Virginia City, Adam returned the horses, leaving Joe and Jeff standing together outside the general store. Joe patted his pony, and tried to pretend that Jeff wasn’t with him. Jeff watched, amused for a few minutes. “Hey, kid, let’s get this out in the open. I don’t like you any more than you like me, so let’s agree to stay away from each other. All right?”

Joe’s mouth was hanging open. He shut it hastily. “All right, I guess.”

There was a nasty smile of Jeff’s face, and he chuckled. Joe didn’t like the sound of it. “Adam says you’re a smart kid. I’m just giving you the chance to prove it. Keep out of Adam’s way, and you’ll keep out of mine.”

Joe had no idea what to say. He was still gaping at Jeff when Adam returned, but Adam didn’t notice. He led Joe into the store, and bought all his favourite candies. Jeff persuaded Adam to tell him what Ben liked, and bought some tobacco and a bottle of brandy for him. Adam protested it wasn’t necessary, and Jeff argued back, and had his way. Adam made several comments to Joe about how nice that was of Jeff, but Joe didn’t respond. Adam shrugged, not having been home long enough to get irked by Joe’s moods. When they set off for home again, Joe made sure that he led the way for the first little while. Once again, the horses’ longer legs allowed Adam and Jeff to overtake Joe, and he could hear them comparing Boston with Virginia City.

At the ranch, Joe took his pony into the barn, having been taught from an early age to care for his mount himself. He was unprepared for Jeff to follow him in, and give his and Adam’s horses a very cursory seeing to. He went across to where Joe was grooming his pony, and grabbed the boy’s shoulder, digging his fingers into the tender part between his collarbone and shoulder blade. Joe winced, and tried to shrug off Jeff’s hand.

“Just remember what I said, boy, keep away from Adam!” Jeff gave a final squeeze, and let go, walking away from the boy, who dropped to his knees, tears oozing from his eyes.

Joe was devastated. He couldn’t really believe Adam didn’t want him around, and yet Adam’s friend had said so, twice. Joe decided that he’d better talk to his Pa about it. He was frustrated in this desire, as Jeff was talking to his father when Joe went in. Joe hesitated, and caught a black look from Jeff. Confused and hurt, Joe headed for the stairs. Adam was on his way down, and put out his hand to stop Joe’s headlong rush. “Hey, buddy,” he said, “you’ve been pretty quiet so far. Are you okay?”

To his horror, Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “What do you care?” he snapped, and fled up the stairs and into his room. The door slammed behind him.

He had no idea how long he lay and sobbed on his bed before Ben appeared in his room. Some of the tears were simply reaction to what had happened in the barn. His shoulder was sore enough, and he could see bruises forming already. Some of the tears were because he thought Adam was playing a game with him, and it hurt. Joe idolised his big brother, and although they were often at odds, Joe had missed Adam more than he could say. Now, it seemed like Adam hadn’t missed him at all.

All this, Joe sobbed out incoherently to his father, who understood only that Joe was jealous of Jeff, but didn’t understand the emotion. “Joe, listen, of course Adam still loves you. But its only natural that he wants to spend some time with his friend. After all, Jeff will be leaving soon, and who knows when he and Adam will next see each other?”

“I don’t like him, Pa,” Joe stormed. “He hurt me in the stable!”

Ben frowned, and Joe’s sobs renewed. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me!” he accused. “Look!” He ripped back the collar of his shirt, and showed Ben the bruises on his thin shoulder.

“Joe,” Ben said, gently, “tell me what happened. I’m sure Jeff didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“He did,” Joe cried. “He grabbed me and told me to keep away from Adam, that Adam didn’t want me hanging around all the time. He said so in town, too.”

Confused, Ben tried to find out more, but Joe was crying too hard, and Ben was reluctant to push him too hard. Joe was volatile at the best of times; now he was working himself into hysterics. Finally, Ben was able to calm Joe down, and the exhausted boy fell asleep. Ben gently disentangled himself and tucked his youngest son in. He was deeply concerned. Even for Joe, this was a major tantrum. Perhaps puberty was about to make its mark on the youngest member of the family. It wasn’t something Ben was looking forward to.

*****

Joe didn’t wake for supper, and Ben apologised to Jeff. After the meal was over, Ben got Jeff alone, and asked him about the incident in the stable. “I’m sorry to bring it up, but Joe was upset.”

“I understand, Sir, but I didn’t intend to hurt Joe. He tripped, and I reached out to grab him, and got his shoulder. He did say something about Adam, but I didn’t catch what he said. He is very young, and I’m sure it came as a surprise to him when Adam brought someone home with him. I certainly didn’t tell him to keep away from Adam. I simply said that he was like Adam’s shadow – something like that. Oh dear.”

Ben smiled. “Not to worry, Jeff. Joe has just picked you up wrongly. Its probably just his age.”

“Poor little chap,” Jeff said, condescendingly. “But I suppose, he’s never met anyone with odd coloured eyes before. It can be quite off putting. Please, Ben, tell Joe I must leave soon anyway.”

“But you just got here,” Ben protested.

“I must find a job, and start to earn my living,” Jeff said.

“I understand,” Ben said. “But please stay as long as you like.”

“Thank you,” Jeff said.

*****

Overhearing part of the conversation, Adam had an idea. Later, after Jeff and Hoss had gone to bed, Adam sat down near Ben. “Pa, can I ask you something?”

Ben put aside his book. “What is it, Adam?”

“Pa, I heard what Jeff said about a job. Couldn’t we give him a job here? He could do the books for us. That would allow both of us to be outside working more. We would have to help him to start with, but it would be good to have someone like that around. Jeff doesn’t have a family, so he’s looking for someplace to stay.”

“Well, I’ll think about it,” Ben replied. “It would be nice to have somebody else to do the books, and you have known him for a while…. I’ll think about it.”

Knowing he couldn’t ask for more than that, Adam nodded. But the seed had been planted, and he thought his father might go for it.

*****

A few days later, Ben formally offered Jeff the job of bookkeeper to the Ponderosa. Jeff asked for time to think, and the following day accepted. Joe was horrified. He’d managed to keep out of everyone’s way over the past few days, and they had let him go, not anxious to have another major tantrum on their hands. Now, Joe tried again to explain to his father his feelings, but he was unable to articulate them enough to make Ben understand. What followed was a major row, more tears, and bad feelings all round.

Except on Jeff’s part. He was delighted that Joe was getting all this grief, and the feelings of jealousy weren’t simply on Joe’s side. But Jeff had had years of practice at hiding his feelings. At college, he’d been jealous of nearly everyone, because they’d had so much more money than he’d had. They all seemed to have families, too, and Jeff didn’t. Now, he wanted to be a part of this family, but he wanted rid of Joe.

*****

“Can I ask you something?” he said to Adam, the next day, as they sat drinking coffee on the porch, before tackling the books. “You say that you all had different mothers. So why do you all call Joe’s mother Mama?” He caught a look on Adam’s face, and began to back off. He knew Adam could be as black as the clothes he habitually wore. “Don’t answer if its too personal.”

“Well,” Adam said, slowly. “You see, Jeff, Marie was the only mother any of us really knew. My mother died when I was born, and Hoss’ mother, Inger, when he was a babe in arms. Pa met and married Marie in New Orleans, without either Hoss or I meeting her. It was difficult for her at first, but then Joe was born, and Marie acted the same way towards us as she’d always done – loving and kind. She treated us like we were her own. I knew what it was to have a mother. Hoss had called her Mama from the start, but I only did it after Joe was born.” Adam cleared his throat. “Marie was very special. We were good friends, and when she died, I promised that I would look out for Joe.”

There was a silence. Adam was remembering the terrible day when Marie died, and Jeff was thinking that his actions were reaping more reward than he’d first imagined. “Thanks for telling me,” he said, in what he hoped was an appropriate tone. “It must’ve been tough on you.”

“Yes, tough on us all, but especially Joe.” Adam made a face. He wasn’t comfortable being as open as he had just been, and his natural reticence was reasserting itself. “But that’s the past, and life must go on.” He rose, and walked towards the house. “Let’s get stuck into those books.”

*****

Summer was the busiest time of the year on the ranch. There was branding to be done, cutting out of barren heifers, horse breaking, hay making, and a million other chores. Everyone helped out where they could, but Joe was still too young to do a full day’s work with the men, and much to small to ride herd. So he was often at home, under Hop Sing’s watchful eye. It also meant that he came more into contact with Jeff, who was now doing the books unsupervised.

The weather was good, so Joe was able to play outside quite a bit, and contrived to have his friend Mitch over a few times. But when it rained, Joe was stuck in the house, which was always a chore for him. The mis-understandings between Joe and his family had never really been resolved, despite the efforts of all concerned. Joe continued to suffer odd bruises given by Jeff during supposed ‘play’ wrestling matches. Jeff, to all intents and purposes, appeared to be making every effort to break past Joe’s dislike. Joe was polite in company, but stuck to his dislike with all the tenacity of a much older person.

Not being stupid, Joe realised that he looked very bad, and it gradually dawned on him that his family thought it was just his jealousy that made him act that way. Joe could admit to himself that he had been jealous of the time Adam spent with Jeff, but he seemed unable to tell his family that he wasn’t jealous any longer. He was simply scared. Being Joe, he retreated into himself when questioned, and so became more isolated from the ones he loved. He had no idea how to resolve the situation.

*****

As the summer wore on, Joe found himself longing to get back to school. Everyone seemed to be on his back, and he could barely remember a time when he’d been more miserable. He took to spending a lot of time at his mother’s grave, where he poured out his woes. Ben had told Joe that his mother was his guardian angel, but she didn’t seem to be helping him much this time.

Belatedly becoming aware of approaching hoof beats, Joe looked up from his reverie, and recognised the horse that Jeff had been given to ride. Joe started to his feet, panic shortening his breath, and looked around for somewhere to hide, but there was nowhere. His pony was tethered to the fence, and Jeff had already seen him. With a sinking heart, Joe lifted his chin, and waited.

Sliding from his horse, Jeff could see Joe’s fear. He smiled, and hitched his horse beside the pony. “Hello, Joe,” he said, silkily. “Come to talk to the only family member who doesn’t hate you?”

Coloured drained from the boy’s face. “They don’t hate me!” he cried, stung.

Jeff raised an eyebrow. The gesture was so like Adam’s. “Really?” he said, and the sarcasm whipped across the boy’s strained nerves.

“I hate you!” he screamed, and ran past Jeff to throw himself on the pony’s back. He drove his heels into the little animals’ flanks, and the pony gave a startled snort, and set off at a gallop.

Watching, Jeff laughed, pleased with Joe’s reaction. Then he saw that Joe’s saddle was slipping. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, and stopped himself. He stared, fascinated, as the youth became aware of his peril, and tried to stop the pony. But Joe’s panic had infected the pony, and it had the bit between its teeth, and nothing Joe did was going to stop its headlong flight.

The saddle slid very slowly backwards, until the cinch was now around the pony’s loins. There, it abruptly twisted sideways, dumping the young rider unceremoniously to the ground. It was quite a fall, and Joe lay still, knocked cold.

Calmly, Jeff mounted his horse and rode away.

*****

The pony returned several hours later, his empty saddle still hanging sideways round his furry body. Hoss happened to be in the stable, and called for his father. Quickly, Ben, Adam and Hoss saddled their own mounts. Jeff offered to help, but Ben refused him. “No, Jeff, thank you. It’s a kind offer, but you don’t know the ranch, or Joe’s favourite places, as well as we do.” Ben swung into the saddle, and they left.

Jeff stood watching them before going back indoors. He had a smile on his face. Hop Sing watched Jeff unnoticed from the kitchen. He was on Joe’s side, because he, too, didn’t like Adam’s friend. Hop Sing had met prejudice from the moment he had come to America until he’d arrived at the Ponderosa. Ben and the boys had treated him as one of the family, as had Marie after her arrival. He pretended to Jeff that he was just a stupid Chinese, because that was what Jeff expected him to be. But Hop Sing had been offended by several remarks Jeff had made about Joe, which he had disguised as humour. But Hop Sing knew that Jeff liked Joe no more than he liked Hop sing – not at all!

It was nearly dark when the family rode back with Joe. Hop Sing had looked out bandages and potions in case the boy was badly hurt, but it seemed that Joe had just had a bad fall, and a bang on the head. Joe was as white as a sheet, and far too quiet. After a little probing, Ben discovered a gash behind Joe’s ear. It had obviously been bleeding, and Ben cleaned it gently before Hoss lifted the boy and carried him upstairs.

When Ben came back down stairs some time later, they were all waiting for him. “Well?” Adam said. “Did he say what happened?”

“No,” Ben said, sitting down wearily. “He doesn’t seem to remember what happened. Just that he woke up on the ground, and didn’t feel well. I can’t understand how that saddle slipped. After all, Joe knows to check the cinch each time he mounts.”

Sliding forward on his seat, Ben poured himself a cup of coffee. Jeff drank deeply from his own cup, so no one would notice the smile he couldn’t hide. “Joe’s not hurt bad, is he, Pa?” Hoss asked, anxiously.

“No, he’s not really hurt much at all. Just that bang on the head. That could be enough to affect his memory. Don’t pressure him to remember. We’ll keep him as quiet as we can for the next day or so.”

“I’ll sit with him,” Adam volunteered.

“I could, too if you like,” Jeff said.

“Thank you, that’s very kind, but Joe and illness isn’t the happiest combination,” Adam replied. “I’ll go up now.” He rose, and went upstairs.

Eyeing Adam over the top of his cup, Jeff decided he didn’t like the turn events were taking.

*****

An owl hooted outside, and Jeff looked at his watch for the hundredth time. It was 2 am. The house had been silent for over an hour now. Adam had sat with Joe all evening, and Ben had taken over later, and sent Adam to bed. Joe had been restless, and Ben had popped in and out of the room for a while, getting food and drink for the invalid. But all was quiet now, and Jeff rose and dressed, ready to put his plan into action.

All these weeks on the ranch had bored Jeff to death. Adam seemed a different person on the Ponderosa than he had in Boston, and Jeff didn’t like it. Adam was at home, and it showed. However welcoming the family had been, he was still an outsider. His battle of wills with Joe had been mildly entertaining, but he needed more challenge than a child could provide. Jeff had packed earlier that night, and now he carried his bag in one hand, and his boots in the other, and made his way quietly down to the main room.

Going over to the safe, he knelt before it, and, using the combination he’d been given, opened it. The wages were in there, and it amounted to a fairly tidy sum of money. Ben had been generous in paying Jeff, but it wasn’t enough for him. This money, and the horse he’d been riding, would allow him to move on, and maybe set up his own business somewhere.

*****

Upstairs, Joe was awake again. Ben had tried everything in his power to settle Joe, but when nothing worked, he realised that Joe had something big on his mind. Patiently, he waited, and presently, tears began to fall. Alarmed, Ben pulled Joe onto his lap, and hugged the child close, murmuring wordless sounds of comfort.

Safe in his father’s loving embrace, Joe cried out all the heartbreak and hurt he’d suffered over the summer. It wasn’t long before the words were pouring out of him as fast as the tears. “Jeff hurts me, Pa,” he said. “He told me you all hate me. You don’t, do you, Pa?”

“Of course not, Joe,” Ben responded, horrified. “You don’t really believe that, do you? We all love you very much. If we hated you, we wouldn’t have come to look for you this afternoon.”

“Jeff said so,” the boy persisted. “He found me at Mama’s grave, and said she was the only one who liked me. I was so frightened that I jumped onto Snowy without checking my cinch. I’m sorry, Pa, I know I should have, but I was frightened of what Jeff would do.”

“Its all right, son,” Ben soothed. “Joe, I believe what you’re saying, but how exactly did Jeff hurt you?”

Joe flushed. “He dug his fingers in here,” and he showed his father. “And he nipped me when he went past, and those times he said he was wrestling me, he wasn’t. He trips me up, and twisted my arm up my back.” The other little cruelties came pouring out, and Ben remembered all the bruises and sore places Joe had had that summer. All had be explained away by the fact that he was a normal, active boy. Ben was ashamed of his own short-sightedness. He had been wrapped up in Adam’s return, and hadn’t given Joe the attention he so desperately needed. Joe’s appalling behaviour had been his way of telling his father that all wasn’t well in his life, and he had been too pre-occupied to notice.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you, Joe. Can you forgive me?” Ben clutched his youngest son closer to his chest.

Snuggled there, Joe couldn’t believe his ears. “Forgive you? Pa, you ain’t done anything wrong. Its been me.”

“No, Joe, it hasn’t been you. Tomorrow, I’ll send Jeff away.” Ben was reassured by Joe’s sudden contented sigh. “Tell you what, how about you and I sneaking downstairs and seeing if we can find any of Hop Sing’s cookies before you go back to sleep?”

“Yeah!” Joe exclaimed and jumped to his feet. Ben rose more slowly, and took Joe’s hand, wondering how he could have been blind to the boy’s unhappiness.

They tiptoed across to the stairs, Joe giggling quietly, excited by the unexpected adventure. So it was difficult to tell who got the bigger shock when they rounded the corner of the stairs – the Cartwrights or Jeff.

“What on ….?” Ben exclaimed. “What are you doing?” he demanded, still half thinking there might be a rational explanation.

Jeff cursed, and sprang to his feet, his hands still full of Ben’s money and papers. He wasn’t carrying a gun, and Ben approached him fearlessly, pushing Joe behind him, nevertheless. “Jeff, what are you playing at? Put the money back.”

“No way, old man,” Jeff responded. “You’ve had more than your money’s worth outta me, and I’m takin’ my just due. Now, back off.” He reached under his coat and pulled a knife.

Ben drew in his breath sharply. “Stay back, Joe,” he said.

Jeff made a feint with the knife, which Ben ducked. Jeff lunged for Joe, who dodged backwards, and tripped heavily over the table. Ben let out a shout, and dived for Jeff. The man with the odd eyes avoided Ben easily, and went after Joe again. Joe, crying, couldn’t get out of the way in time. Jeff caught his wrist and reeled the boy in to him.

“Stay back,” he warned Ben.

“What kind of man are you anyway?” Ben demanded angrily. “Picking on a child?”

“Whatever works, old man,” Jeff said. “I wanted Adam to be the same person he was at college, but here he had his precious family, and I was pushed out. He even preferred the kid’s company over mine.”

“So what are you going to do?” Ben asked, keeping a wary eye on the knife. Joe was white faced, his green eyes fixed pleadingly on his father’s face. “Its okay, Joe.”

“No, its not okay, Joe,” Jeff said, savagely. “See how not okay it is.” He whirled Joe away from him, and punched the terrified boy in the face. Joe crumpled to the floor, bleeding.

That was too much for Ben, who charged Jeff. They struggled for control of the knife, two tall, well-built men, both angry enough to do the other real damage.

Sliding across the floor to avoid being stepped on, Joe wiped at his bleeding nose and mouth with his sleeve. “Pa!” he cried. He scrambled to his feet, swallowing down the nausea he felt at the movement and staggered towards the stairs. “Adam, Hoss!” he screamed. “Help!”

He carried on screaming for his brothers for what seemed like an age, as his father wrestled back and forth across the room, still trying to get he knife away from Jeff. Joe was sobbing hopelessly, totally terrified.

Adam barrelled round the corner, and halted at sight of his brother. Hoss was right behind him, and pushed past to help Ben. Adam bent down to Joe, and picked him up, just as Ben let out a great cry. Joe screamed, too, and Adam shielded his eyes from the sight of their father with a knife sticking out of his shoulder.

It was all over. Hoss punched Jeff hard in the face as he stepped back from his victim, and he went down and out.

“Pa, are you all right?” Hoss asked, anxiously, kneeling by his father.

Ben was grey with pain, but he managed a grunt, which satisfied his middle son. “Get the sheriff,“ he whispered, and passed out.

Coming down the last few steps with his sobbing brother in his arms, Adam said, “I think we could use the doctor, too.”

*****

It was past dawn when Roy Coffee rode away from the Ponderosa with his prisoner. Paul Martin was still at the ranch, tending to Ben’s injury. It wasn’t very serious, but bled quite a bit when the knife was removed. Hoss had helped Paul, as Adam had been unable to disentangle himself from Joe. Paul had been shocked by Joe’s hysterics, and had finally persuaded the boy to drink down a sedative, but even in his drugged sleep, he refused to relinquish his hold on Adam.

Only later in the day did the whole story come out. The boys were all in Ben’s room, Joe now snuggled up against his father’s uninjured shoulder. “I can’t believe I was taken in like that,” Adam said, after Ben had finished speaking. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

“We were all taken in, apart from Joe here,” Ben said, squeezing his son’s shoulder. Joe’s solemn green eyes looked up at him with complete trust, but Ben had already had the story of how Joe wouldn’t let anyone out of his sight. It was hard enough for the older boys to deal with, never mind someone so young. He knew that they would have to keep a close eye on Joe, and give him lots of extra love. Fortunately, that wasn’t hard to do.

“Roy says the circuit judge will be here in the next couple of weeks, Pa” Hoss said. “He reckons Jeff’ll go away for a long time.”

“Good,” Joe said. “I really didn’t like him.”

“Not everyone is like Jeff,” Adam said. “But just remember something, Joe. When you have a family who loves you, you’ve got the world.”

He gently took Joe’s hand. Hoss put his huge paw over both their hands, and then Ben clasped his hands round his sons’. “The world,” he said, huskily.

******End*****

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