Heart of Clay (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,414


 

Joe stopped and leaned against the tree trying hard to fill his lungs with air while wiping the sweat from his brow.  Somewhere behind him, he had lost his hat and the hot sun felt as if it were baking his head.  Casting an anxious glance over his shoulder he could see in the distance the dust billowing up from the dry ground as the riders rode quickly in his direction and Joe knew it was only a matter of minutes before the four riders caught up with him.  Looking out beyond him, Joe could see nothing on the horizon that would offer any type of protection from the outlaws that had been trailing him for the last several hours.  The closest rocks that even looked as if they might offer some form of protection looked to be better than a half mile away and Joe knew that as tired as he was, he could never out run the horses that were gaining at an alarming pace on his hideaway.

Joe had managed to escape earlier that morning and had made good time putting as much distance between himself and the pursuing gang of bandits as possible until his horse had stepped into a hole and fell, breaking his leg as he tumbled to the ground.  Joe had had neither pistol nor rifle and had to leave the suffering animal to the fate of the buzzards in order to keep his own life.  Joe had been thankful that the horse he had been riding had not been his own, for he knew had the animal been Cochise, Joe would have found it difficult to leave the injured animal behind.  As it stood, Joe’s own fate was about to be decided as he pressed his body tightly against the trunk of the tree in hopes that the approaching men might not see him and pass him by instead.

Joe’s luck had run out as it had that morning in the bank when he had walked in on the robbery that was in progress and had been taken hostage.  Now his luck had ended for the second time today as the four riders pulled their horses to a sudden stop.  Joe made a lunge for the first rider as the man jumped from his horse and started in his direction.  Joe was able to get in a good left punch before the others grabbed him from behind and spun him around.  One man’s fist connected with the end of Joe’s chin and the force of the blow knocked Joe around backward causing him to stumble into the arms of the first man.  The man immediately slipped his arms about Joe’s, locking his fingers tightly around the back of Joe’s neck and raising Joe’s arms high over his head leaving him wide opened for the punch he knew was coming at him.  As the third man stepped forward in an attempt to deliver a punch to Joe’s mid-section, Joe braced his back against the body of the man who held him and kicked out both of his feet, knocking the advancing assailant to the ground.  Joe bent over frontward and the man behind him was thrown over his shoulders but before Joe could recover two men grabbed an arm each and held Joe tightly in their grasp.

“I’ll teach you who is boss, you’ll not be crossing me again,” shouted the man who Joe had first encountered.  The man began punching Joe first in the face and then in the stomach.  Blood spewed from a gash over his right eye then as the man threw a punch to his mid section, Joe doubled up from the pain and Joe’s cries of agony seemed to ignite the man’s wrath causing the man to became relentless in his abuse of his prisoner until Joe’s body at last became limp and was allowed to fall in a heap to the ground, unconscious.

“Tie him up, and make sure he can’t get away this time,” ordered Max dusting the dirt from his hands and replacing his hat on his head.  Max looked back over his shoulder to be sure that the others where doing as he had ordered. He was worried; the boss would be fit to be tied when he found out that they had let their prisoner get away.  It was just lucky for them that the boy’s horse had stepped into that hole and gone down, better yet that the boy was forced to make his getaway on foot, which made his capture that much easier for the four of them who were on horseback.

*****

“Pa, I cain’t figure out what’s takin’ Joe so long in getting’ back; he said he’d be back before lunchtime,” worried Hoss as he closed the door for the fourth time and turned to his father who was seated in his favorite red leather chair sipping his coffee.

Hoss noted the dark scowl that had embedded itself into his father’s brow and knew that Ben Cartwright was angry.  Hoss had no need to ask why, Pa had sent Joseph into town early that morning with orders to pick up the payroll from the bank and return immediately so that he might pay the ranch hands.  As it were, Ben had had to put the men off and sensing that they were quickly growing impatient wanting their pay so that they might spent Friday night in town, Ben’s anger was quickly growing to match that of his hired help, for young Joe was well passed the time he should have arrived home.

“You don’t suppose that somethin’s happened to him do ya?  I mean what with carryin’ the payroll…” asked Hoss, pacing in front of the fireplace.

“Nothing has happened to him Hoss,” spoke up Adam.  “Knowing Joe, he got side tracked, probably either a game of poker or a pretty little lady, more than likely both, you know how he is.”  Adam set his book that he had been reading on the table next to his chair and rose from his seat.

Turning to his father, Adam crossed his arms and stood before the elder Cartwright a look of total disgust on his otherwise handsome face.  “When are you going to do something about that kid?  Seems like all he wants to do lately is goof off.  I am tired of picking up his slack and if Hoss would be honest enough to admit it, so is he.  If Joe were my son, I’d….”

Ben jumped to his feet, his anger showing in his eyes, “Well, he’s not your son, he’s mine and I will be the one to determine how he should be disciplined.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Pa, calm down, I didn’t mean….”started Adam.

“I know full well what you meant.  Adam, I happen to be just as tired of his slacking off as you are.  I know better than anyone how Joseph is; I don’t need you to tell me.  I will handle it when he gets home.”  Ben’s voice had become calmer, and he took a deep breath before speaking again.  “I don’t mean to snap at you son, I’m sorry, it’s just that I am about at my wits end with that boy myself.  I’ve been meaning to have a long talk with him, I suppose today is as good as any, if and when he should decide to come home.”

Ben had no more than finished his sentence when the sound of horse’s hooves could be heard in the yard.  Giving each of his older sons a quick glance, Ben hurried to the door, Hoss and Adam following more slowly behind.

“I hope that’s Little Joe,” whispered Hoss to Adam as they made their way out the door.

“Me too, though I can’t say I’d want to be in his boots right about now,” replied Adam, shutting the front door behind him and following Hoss to the end of the boarded porch.

Ben was attempting to grab hold of Cochise’s reins that dangled from his bridle.  Adam and Hoss swapped worried looks and rushed to their father’s side.  Ben had managed to gather the loose reins into his hands and was making a quick survey of the horse.  Quickly he ran his hands over the horse, stopping long enough to look into the anxious eyes of his two sons.

“This horse has been running hard, look at that lather,” said Ben as he swiped his hand through the white foam and showed it to Adam and Hoss.

“He came in without Joe,” Ben told them, worried and suddenly frightened that something awful had happened to his youngest and most impish son.

“Can you see any signs of blood?” questioned Hoss as he moved to the other side of the horse and quickly ran his large beefy hands down the sides of the horse’s legs and thighs searching for a sign that perhaps Joe had been injured.  Hoss felt the animal’s body quiver as his hands slid downward.  “Easy boy, easy,” Hoss spoke in soft tones to the nervous horse.

“Nothing,” Ben straightened his back and faced Adam, “have one of the hands give Cochise a thorough rubdown, will you son?  Hoss saddle my horse, I’m going into town.”

Ben hurried back to the house to retrieve his hat and sidearm while Adam and Hoss did as their father had asked.  Ben was worried, he had checked the saddlebags and there had been no payroll.  Now Ben suspected that either Joe had not made it all the way into town or worse, had been robbed, maybe even killed, after he had picked up the money from the bank and had started home.  If that were the case, several hours had passed since Joe had made his stop at the bank, giving whoever was at fault, several hours head start.  But was Joe with them or lying wounded or dead somewhere on the road between town and his home?

When Ben returned to the yard, Adam and Hoss had his horse saddled and waiting for him, they were sitting astride their own horses and when Ben approached, Adam handed his father Buck’s reins.

Ben looked questioningly up at his oldest son.  “Where do the two of you think you are going?”

“With you,” both said in unison.

*****

Joe moaned and tried to turn his body to a more comfortable position but the pain in his side forced him to cease moving.  He tried to look around and get his bearings but even that slight movement was cause for his temples to throb and the nausea to turn his stomach over in flips.  The gag that had been stuffed into his mouth prevented him from crying out for help and Joe knew it was useless to struggle against his restraints so he returned his head to the musty smelling pillow that had cradled his head.  He had no idea where he was or how he came to be there.  The only thing he could remember was the fight he had had with the four bank robbers when they had caught up to him earlier, which was before they had pounced on him and beat him into unconsciousness.

Joe closed his eyes trying to eliminate some of the pounding in his head, in the other room he could hear voices and it sounded to him as if the persons there were arguing amongst themselves.  Try though he might, Joe could not make out what was being said, not that it mattered at this point, he was in no position to do anything other than to listen to the bickering that was taking place on the other side of the door from where he laid immobile upon the small cot.  Joe closed his eyes as an unexpected wave of nausea swept over him and minutes later slipped once again into the world of darkness from which he had emerged just moments ago.

Ben rode hard, his sons by his side.  It was well past the noonday hour, closer then to suppertime by the time that the three elder Cartwrights rode into Virginia City.  The townspeople milled in the street, men stood with rifles in their hands, women whispered amongst themselves and children could be seen clinging to the skirts of their mothers.

Ben led the way down the middle of the street and wondered at the strange looks that were cast in his direction.  Something deep within his soul told him that something bad was wrong and for just a brief moment, fear that his youngest son might have been found dead pierced his heart.  Ben finally pulled Buck to a stop in front of the sheriff’s office and as he dismounted the door to the office was flung opened.

“Ben,” Roy Coffee nearly shouted as he hurried to Ben’s side.  “I was just going to send a rider out to get you.”

“What’s wrong Roy, is it Joseph?” Ben knew the answer to his question even before the sheriff answered, he could see the look on his friend’s face, felt the rush of fear seeping into his heart once again and unexpectedly his stomach gurgled filling his mouth with hot tasting bile.  Ben swallowed several times, forcing the vile tasting liquid back down.

“Ben, Little Joe walked into the bank right in the middle of a robbery.  It was Pete Fisher’s gang; they took Joe hostage.  We were able to fire off some shots at them but I was more afraid of hitting the boy so I let them ride on out of town.  I’ve got the posse ready to go, you and your boys are comin’ along, aren’t you?” asked Roy, knowing that Ben would not refuse.

“Yeah we’re comin’ sheriff,” Hoss called out, remounting his horse and anxious to be on his way.

“Good, I figured you would.  We leave in ten minutes Ben,” Roy informed them.

“We were just about ready to go look for Joe ourselves when his horse came in without him,” Adam told the sheriff, ready to begin the search for his brother and the gang who had forced him to go with them.

Ben climbed up on his horse, his expression dark for he knew that his son was in grave danger.  Pete Fisher was an old enemy of his from long ago.  Ben had testified against the man once before when Fisher had been accused of robbing a stage and with Ben’s testimony against him, Fisher had been sent to prison for ten years.  Ben had been unaware that the man had been released and surprised to find that he was in the area and up to no good once again.  What worried Ben more than losing his payroll was what the man might do to Joe if he realized that Joseph was his son.  Fisher had sworn to him that he would seek revenge if he ever got the chance and now Joseph had unwittingly given the despicable man his golden opportunity to do just that.

Within minutes, twenty men, including the Cartwrights, were mounted and ready to ride out.  Roy gave the signal and taking the lead, the men raced from town, leaving in their wake a gray cloud of dust that billowed up behind them.

*****

The boss and his right hand man stood over the small cot where Joe lay, just now beginning to awaken.  The boss jabbed Joe roughly in the ribs, the action causing Joe to moan and draw up into a tight ball, the pain from his ribcage still close to being unbearable.

“Wake up kid,” the boss, none too gently, jabbed him a second time.

“Take it easy Pete, the kid’s in a bad way,” said the boss’ right hand man as he bent over Joe and gently turned him onto his back.  “Wake up boy,” the man spoke softly as he gently shook Joe’s shoulder and when Joe opened his eyes at last, the boss shoved the other man aside.

“It’s about time you opened your eyes,” snapped Pete glaring angrily down at Joe.

Joe’s eyes had fixed on the face of the softer speaking man and though he knew Pete was speaking to him, he could not draw his eyes away from the man who stood behind the man whom Joe presumed to be the leader.  Joe squinted his eyes tightly together, trying to focus on the man’s face, his mind not believing who his eyes were seeing for the face was that of…

“Why’s he lookin’ at ya like that, Wade?”  Pete turned to face the man who had caught his captive’s attention.  “You know this kid or somethin’?”

Wade forced his eyes from Joe’s and turned to face his boss, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen him before.  I believe his name’s Joe Cartwright,” said Wade, totally unaware that Pete had a long-standing hatred against the boy’s father, Ben Cartwright.

“Cartwright!”  Pete jerked his head back to Joe.  “Is your name Cartwright, kid?” he demanded of Joe.

Joe hesitated slightly, giving Pete the opportunity to jab him in the ribs once more.  Joe moaned as the pain pierced his side.

Quickly Joe glanced at Pete and nodded his head slightly then turned once again to watch the expression on Wade’s face.

“Whew…” Pete blew the air from his lungs.  “Ben Cartwright’s kid?” he asked.  This time Joe was quick to nod his head yes.

“Whewie…from what I’ve heard, Ben Cartwright prizes his sons.”  Pete grinned at Wade, his yellowed teeth showing in the broad smile.  “We’ve struck the mother lode, Ben Cartwright!”  Pete’s loud evil laugher caused Joe’s attention to rivet to the man’s face and what he saw in the menacing ebony eyes of his captor caused his body to shiver in fear.

“This couldn’t have worked out better if’n I’d planned it.  Ben Cartwright stole ten years of my life from me, I vowed to pay him back for that,” Pete laughed again.  “Now’s my chance, I’ll take something from him that will cause him more sufferin’ than he could ever imagine, a pain so unbearable it’ll last him a lifetime.”

“What are you talking about Fisher?” questioned Wade, suddenly aware that his boss’ mood had had taken on a menacing manner, and Wade did not like the glassy look that had suddenly appeared in his boss’ eyes.

“I’m gonna give Cartwright a present…his son, only his son ain’t gonna be alive when I do.  I plan on killin’ the boy!”  Pete gave one last look at Joe and smiled.  “Don’t worry kid, I’ll make it quick, ya won’t feel a thing.” Laughing at his good fortune, Pete turned away from Joe, whose eyes followed Pete to the door.

Pete headed out the door; Wade moved to follow, though going much slower and as he reached the door he cast another glance over his shoulder at the battered young man on the cot giving Joe the slightest of nods with his head.  Joe tried to speak but the nasty gag prevented his words from forming, instead, tiny tears welled in his eyes as he watched the retreating back of the man whom Joe knew, slip silently out the door, closing it softly to leave him alone to wonder.

Jumbled thoughts began shifting about in Joe’s mind, thoughts as to why and when, and what for, thoughts that caused his already aching head to throb that much more.  Joe tried to get his bearings but his restraints were so tightly holding his body immobile that he was unable to move very much at all.  Looking around with his eyes, Joe concluded that he was in an old shack, but where and for how long had he been there.

Joe couldn’t help but wonder what his father and brothers were thinking, he had promised Pa that he would hurry into town, pick up the payroll and come straight back home.  He knew Ben had been angry at him, as well as his brothers, for Joe was aware that he had been slacking off on his share of the work and just last night he had promised himself that he would do better.  Then this morning when he had pleaded with his father to be allowed to be the one to go for the payroll, promising to come straight home, his father had finally relented.  Joe had been hoping to make up for some of his failures by bringing the men’s pay home in a timely matter.  Joe groaned; not only had he failed to do just that, but also in the process had lost the payroll that the ranch hands were at home waiting for.  Joe felt the tears of self-pity and disappointment mix with tears of fear roll slowly down his bruised face as he glanced again at the closed door, wondering why a certain person was involved with such men as the ones who had robbed the bank and beaten him nearly to death.

Wade picked up from the table the plate of stew he had ready for Joe and started to the back room where Joe could still be heard moaning, but was stopped by Pete’s strong hand on his arm.

“Where ya think ya goin’ with that?” Pete nodded his head to indicate the plate of stew.

“I’m going to feed the kid,” Wade replied, pulling his arm free of Pete’s strong grasp.

Pete jumped quickly to his feet and snatched the plate from Wade.  “Like hell ya are.  I ain’t wastin’ this grub on the likes of him.  I’m gonna kill him anyway, so why bother?” snarled Pete as he picked up the fork and started eating what Wade had dipped into Joe’s plate.

Fury shone on Wade’s handsome face, his eyes burning black with anger but he forced himself from voicing his resentment at his boss’ neglect of his prisoner for Wade knew that it had been hours since Joe had probably eaten anything.

Forcing his face into a mask, Wade could only stare back at Pete.  “Suit yourself. I’ll just give him a drink; that is, if you don’t have a problem with that as well?”  Wade headed for the bucket of water; lowering the dipper he filled it to the rim.

Suddenly the dipper was knocked from his hands; instinctively Wade made a grab for his pistol as water spewed from the dipper and splashed about him.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” laughed Pete.

Wade turned; five guns were pointed at him.  Slowly, Wade looked around at the faces of each man and slid his pistol back into his holster, the anger now apparent on his face.

“I ain’t wastin’ water on him either.  Now get outside and keep watch, that posse’s liable to be snoopin’ round out there.”  Pete ambled back to his chair and sat down as Wade turned his back and went out the door.

Much later Wade was relieved of his guard duty by Max leaving him free to return to the house.  Ross, Kirk and Sam were sleeping scattered about the room tucked into their bedrolls.  Wade quickly scanned the room for Pete who was nowhere to be seen.  As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the shadowed room, Wade saw the soft glow of light that filtered from beneath the closed door to the room where Joe was currently being held.

Panic suddenly swept over him as he jerked the door opened.  Pete was bent over his prisoner holding him roughly be the collar.  The back handed slap that Pete used across Joe’s face sounded hollow in the smaller room.  Blood seeped from Joe’s nose and from the corner of his mouth beneath the gag where Pete had struck him repeatedly.

Unaware of Wade’s presence behind him, Pete drew back his hand to strike Joe again. Wade grabbed the outlaw’s arm preventing him from hitting the dazed boy.  Pete quickly released his hold on Joe’s shirt; Joe’s head fell limp onto the pillow as Pete jumped up to face the angry man who still held his arm in a vise like grip.

“What the hell are ya doing?” shouted Pete trying to wrench free of the strong fingers.

“There’s no need to beat him, he’s already unconscious, look,” Wade pointed down at Joe who did not move.

“So?  I was just havin’ some fun with’em.”  Pete pulled away from Wade and without another word, strolled from the room.  Pete glanced back over his shoulder at Wade who bent over the bed surveying the damage that his crazed leader had caused to Joe’s already battered face and then pulled the door closed, leaving it opened by just inches.

For just an instant, Pete had been scared; the look of unrefined fury that he had seen in his partner’s eyes had sent a shiver of fright coursing through his veins.  The dark handsome man had startled him by grabbing his arm and Pete had been surprised at the strength that the younger man possessed.  The outlaw, puzzled over his partner’s seemingly concern for the prisoner, gave Pete reason to doubt the other man’s trustworthiness.  Pete knew that from now on, he would be more cautious in his dealings with his new partner for Pete had just learned a valuable lesson, never turn your back on a man, even if he is your partner.

Wade dipped the rag into the cool water and washed the blood from Joe’s face.  The coolness of the water brought Joe back from his dark world and his pain filled eyes sought the other man’s in the soft glow from the light.

“Take it easy Little Joe,” Wade looked over his shoulder, noticed the partly opened door and not knowing whether Pete listened or not, dropped his voice to a whisper.

“I’m sorry about all of this.  Honest Joe, please, just trust me.  I’m gonna get you out of here, I just haven’t figured out how yet, but I will,” whispered Wade, dabbing at the blood that oozed from the cut above Joe’s eye.

Joe tugged at his bounds, his eyes pleading with the other man to loosen them and free his mouth of the gag.

“I can’t Joe, I can’t take the risk.  Fisher will kill you for sure if I let you go.  Just hang in there, I promise, I’ll think of something.”  Wade moved from the bed and Joe struggled harder, grunting loudly in frustration as he watched Wade back out the door.

“Try to rest friend, you’re going to need all your strength.”  Wade closed the door, the frightened look on the face of his captive causing his stomach to churn.  Wade knew that time was running out, he would have to think of something quickly if he planned on saving the life of that special person in the opposite room.

*****

The posse had ridden for hours and the men had grown tired and hungry, and it was getting late.  Several of the men had started complaining that they needed to get back to their own families and more than half mentioned work that needed tending too. Roy held up his hand, reined in his horse and stopped.

Hoss had picked up a trail that they had hoped would lead them to the band of outlaws that held his sibling prisoner. Quickly he dismounted and began searching the ground for further clues.

“Pa, lookit here, this trail is headin’ back to the Ponderosa.  Ya reckon them varmints are ahidin’ out somewheres on the ranch?” asked Hoss as he studied the ground.

Roy and Ben dismounted and joined Hoss as he studied the tracks.  “Looks like they’s aheaded into high country, Pa.  Their tracks will be harder to follow in the rocks.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement.  “Roy, we’re going to need fresh horses.  We can ride to the ranch from here, get fresh mounts and pick up the trail just over that rise.  Looks to me that they’re headed in that direction.”

“Well, Ben, I’ll tell ya.  Some of the boys here are ready to turn back.  Cain’t say as I blame them; they have families.  I’ll ride back into town with the men; see if I can get a few new volunteers to help us.  It’ll be dark soon; we can meet here at daylight and start again in the morning, how’s that?”  Roy inquired.

Adam and Hoss swapped looks, dark or not, neither one was ready to call it quits.  Both were anxious to find their brother, Adam felt the need to ease his conscience and Joe’s absence left him feeling very much put out with himself.  Joe was young, he tried hard and when he worked, Adam had to honestly admit to himself that his youngest brother was a go-getter often working circles around him self and Hoss.

Hoss was just worried about his younger sibling.  Joe was his best friend; he had on more than one occasion come to the boy’s defense when Joe had been out numbered or in some odd situation where his added prowess was needed.  He enjoyed being with his brother even during those times that the younger boy often had led him into some sort of shenanigans that had more than once gotten him into trouble.  Now with Joe’s own safety being threatened, Hoss felt the urge to find and protect the brother he thought so much of.

“Roy, I think the boys and I will high tail it back to the ranch and get fresh horses.  We might keep looking,” Ben glanced at his sons, reading what he saw in their eyes, and knew that his older boys would not give up so easily.

“All right Ben, you do what you think is best.  The others and I will start from here in the morning.  Good luck,” said Roy as he turned and remounted.

Ben waited until the posse had ridden off before mounting his own horse.  “Come on boys, let’s get back to the ranch and get fresh mounts. I’d be willing to bet that those outlaws are hiding out in one of our line shacks.  We might have better luck with just the three of us.  If they are in one of the shacks, we best not going riding in on them with twenty men; they’d kill Joe before we got within a hundred yards of one of those cabins.”  Ben kicked his horse’s flanks and headed toward home, Adam and Hoss quickly catching up to him.

*****

“What is it with you and this kid?  Ya got somethin’ goin’ on with him?  You’ve been tryin’ to protect that boy since the boys brought him in here,” demanded Pete, furious with Wade that his right hand man had been so attentive toward their captive.

“No, no Boss, of course not,” stammered Wade, slightly worried, for he knew what was coming.  Pete had told all of them the night before that he was planning on killing his prisoner and the little Mexican they had brought along to do their cooking for them.

“Then prove it, shoot him and let’s get outta here,” ordered Pete, watching the fear that suddenly crept into Joe’s eyes and laughing loudly at his prisoner’s fright.

“By the time that someone finds his body, we’ll be in California and no one will be the wiser.  Besides, he ain’t no use to us now; we already got his papa’s payroll. And when Ben Cartwright finds his son’s body, that payroll with be the furthest thing from his mind.”

Pete looked down at Joe and smiled, “I think maybe I’ll do it myself. I hate the high and mighty Ben Cartwright, I’d love to be the one to see his heart ripped outta his chest.”  Pete pulled his gun and pointed it at Joe, laughing at his victim.

Joe kept his eyes trained on Wade, waiting for a reaction, fear beginning to steal into his heart as he fought against the ropes that bound his hands and feet. He felt like a trapped animal and he was scared that the angry man might actually shoot him.  Joe forced his body to stop the sudden trembling that had started the instant that Pete had pointed his gun at him.

“Alright, alright, I’ll kill him, but not with all of you in here.  Get my horse and gear ready, I’ll be out in a minute,” Wade ushered Pete and the others from the room and into the front of the cabin.  Pete grabbed his hat and started for the door but stopped and pointed his finger at Wade, his ebony eyes darkening several degrees.

“You make sure he’s dead, or I might just have to kill you,” said Pete replacing his gun into his holster and marching out the door, that he slammed shut.  Pete laughed to himself, he had planned it well, Cartwright’s son would be dead, and his untrustworthy partner had been suckered into killing the kid, leaving him guiltless of the murder.

“Ha ha…” laughed Pete to himself, “I ain’t finished with you either, Mr. Wade whatever-your-name-is, by tonight, you’ll be buzzard bait as well.”

Wade hurried back into the room where Joe still laid tied and gagged.  The sight of the boy, his bruised face, the gash over his right eye where Pete had struck him, the terrified look in his troubled eyes, all tore at his heart.

“Listen Little Joe, I haven’t got much time so I gotta say this fast.  No matter what you think, I’m not on the wrong side of the law.  I can’t tell you what I’m doing ’cause it could cost you your life or that of your family’s, and no matter what, you can’t tell anyone, not even your father, that you saw me.  Do you understand?”  Wade watched as Joe nodded his head and tried to speak while struggling to free his hands from the ropes that held him.

“I can’t untie you Joe, I’m sorry, but it has to be this way, I can’t risk Pete coming back.  Maybe someday I will get a chance to explain it to you.  As it is, you’re just going to have to trust me.”  Wade brushed back the stray curl that had fallen down on Joe’s brow, wishing with all of his heart he could remove the gag.  But he knew if he did, Joe would bombard him with questions that he did not have the time to answer.

“I’m going to have to shoot you Joe, as much as I wish I didn’t, but if Pete should decide to check, he’d not stop until both of us were dead and I can’t risk your life like that pal,” said Wade and saw the look of fear that clouded the hazel eyes that stared wide-eyed at him.

“Don’t worry kid, I’m not going to kill you, just wound you.  I’m sorry Joe, honest I am, but if I don’t do it, Pete will come back and he will kill you.  Joe, there’s one more thing I want you to know and that’s…I love you Joe, I have from the second I found out that I had a kid brother, I’ve loved you.  Please don’t ever forget that.”  Wade balled up his fist and punched the side of Joe’s head, forcing Joe into unconsciousness.

“I’m sorry Little Brother,” Wade could not stand seeing Joe staring at him, the tears that had welled in his brother’s eyes at his confession of loving him had torn away at his heart, and Wade hated himself for what he was about to do.

Wade took a step back, taking careful aim, pointed his pistol and fired.  The bullet struck Joe in the top of the shoulder and Wade felt his own tears slowly slip from his eyes as Joe’s body bounced and jerked on the bed.  Slowly, Wade backed from the room but stopped suddenly.  Shoving his hands deeply into his pants, Wade pulled from his pocket the cameo like picture of the mother that he and Joe shared.  Taking just a moment for one last look at the photograph, Clay slipped the picture into the pocket on Joe’s jacket, bent over his brother and placed a kiss on Joe’s brow, whispering before he turned and ran from the room. “Someday little brother, maybe you can give it back to me.”

Outside, Clay sucked in large gulps of air, filling his lungs to capacity in an effort to fight the rising nausea that had suddenly began to boil in the pit of his stomach.  Pete and the others were waiting on their horses for him.

“Sure took ya long enough,” complained Pete as he eyed Clay suspiciously.

Clay glanced up at the man he had suddenly learned to hate and in a calmer voice than what he actually felt muttered, “I had to be sure the kid was dead, didn’t want to make any mistakes.”

Clay started to mount his horse but stopped suddenly.

“Where’s the Mexican?” he asked, looking around for the little man.

“I thought you might want to kill him too, he’s in the shed…make it quick.  We’ll ride ahead, you can catch up with us; your sure the kid is dead?” snapped Pete, giving a glance in the direction of the line shack, anxious to be on his way.

Clay masked his face so that the leader of the gang would not see his tormented look.

“Yeah, Cartwright’s dead. You want to make sure, that is if you want to take the time?”  Clay was bluffing Pete, knowing that Pete was more than anxious to put as much distance between himself and the posse that they knew was looking for him. Pete shook his head no and spun his horse around, smiling, “No need, by the look on your face, I’d say ya done it.”

“I’ll finish off the Mexican and catch up, you ride on ahead.”  Clay pulled his pistol from his holster and headed for the shed, waiting long enough to be sure that Pete and the others had left.  Once he was positive, he entered the dimly lit remnants of the old lean-to.  Paco was standing in the shadows; ready for what he was sure was coming.

“Paco, don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.  Come over here,” said Clay softly as he inched his way toward the scared man.

“Paco, do you know how to get to the Ponderosa?” inquired Clay; glancing over his shoulder to be sure that one of the men had not returned.

“Si, Si, I know Ponderosa,” answered Paco, not sure why this man who had been assigned to kill him was talking rather than following orders.

“You know Ben Cartwright?” Clay had his hand on the shoulder of the smaller man and could feel the trembling of the man’s body.

“Si, Si, Ben Cartwright old friend,” answered Paco.

“Good, I want you to ride that jackass of yours to the Ponderosa, see Ben Cartwright or one of his sons, Adam or Hoss.  Tell them to bring a wagon and tell them that they will find what they are looking for at Oblivion.  Do you understand?” said Clay.

“Paco understand…but I thought…”

“Never mind what you thought.  Just do as I say.  Here, there is enough money for you to take your family back to Mexico.  Just tell Mr. Cartwright what I told you to tell him and then get your family and get out of here.  Do not come back up here to this shack, you got that?”  Clay was beginning to become impatient; he was worried that Pete might send one of the men back to see what was taking him so long.  He grabbed Paco’s hand and stuffed the rolled up bills into the man’s palm.

“Be sure to tell the Cartwrights to hurry.”  With that Clay fired off a shot just to the left of Paco’s feet sending the dust flying, causing Paco to jump from fear of being shot.

“Who do you want Paco to tell them sent me to them?”

Clay stopped on his way out of the shed to consider the question, he hadn’t thought about Joe’s father wanting to know who had sent the little Mexican with the message.  Clay glanced back over his shoulder, he also did not want Ben to know he was anywhere in the area, it was just too dangerous for all of them.

“Tell them a friend of Little Joe’s, nothing more, now get out of here.”  Clay shoved Paco out the door and toward his mule as he headed in the other direction and mounted his horse.  Giving one more glance at the cabin, Clay tipped his hat, “So long, Little Brother, good luck.”

*****

Paco kicked the sides of his mule.  The animal was worn out and barely able to place one foot in front of the other by the time that man and beast ambled into the yard of the Ponderosa.  Ben who just mounting his horse, turned at the sound of Paco’s cursing of the animal and gave puzzled glances at his older two sons as they also turned to stare at the approaching duo.

“Mister Cartwright, Mister Cartwright,” yelled the excited Mexican as he jumped from his mule and stumbled forward stopping in front of Ben.

“Paco, calm down, what’s wrong?” asked Ben reaching out to prevent Paco from falling to the ground.

“Mister Cartwright, I have message,” stammered Paco, trying to catch his breath.  Adam and Hoss had hurried to their father’s side and as the three anxious Cartwrights waited, Paco began to relay the important message.

“Man said to tell you, bring wagon…”

“Man?  What man?” interrupted Ben, helping Paco over to a seat where he could sit down.

“Man said to tell Mr. Cartwright bring wagon, find what you are looking for at Obl…Olv…” stammered Paco, not sure now what Clay had said.

“Oblivion?” supplied Adam, glancing at his father.

“Yes, that is the place,” nodded Paco.

Ben looked questioningly at his sons and then back at Paco.  “What man, Paco?  Who sent you with the message?”

“Friend of Little Joe’s.  He said bring wagon.  Mr. Cartwright, I know Little Joe and he is at cabin.  But Paco not tell bad men I know little one, too dangerous for boy.  I hear gunshot in cabin, Little Joe dead.  That’s why man say to bring wagon, to bring son’s body home.”  Paco looked up into the face of his long time friend, saw the tears that had suddenly welled in the dark brooding eyes and shook his head sadly.

“Pa, Joe cain’t be dead…he just cain’t,” moaned Hoss, not wanting to believe that his baby brother was truly gone.  “Are ya sure Paco, are ya absolutely sure that Little Joe is dead?” demanded Hoss in a strained voice as he squatted down to be eye level with the smaller man.

“Paco hear shot, man told to kill Little Joe.  He told to kill me, but man sent me to Mr. Cartwright instead of killing,” Paco said and then turned the cup of water up to his lips that Adam had supplied to him.  “I not sure if boy dead or alive. Paco not see; only hear and man told boss man that he killed boy.”

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Paco looked up at Hoss, “Man say to hurry, you must go, I must go.  Take family back to Mexico; man give Paco money, see,” Paco pulled the wad of bills from his pocket and showed it to Hoss.

“Where did you get all of this money?” asked Adam, staring at the handbills.

Paco turned his attention to Adam.  “Man pay Paco for giving message to your father.  Please Mr. Adam, friend of Little Joe’s say Cartwrights must hurry.”

“Come on Pa.  Let’s get that wagon loaded and get up there to that cabin,” ordered Adam, taking charge.  Adam grabbed his father’s shoulder and shook Ben hard bringing the elder Cartwright out of his stupor.  “Pa, snap out of it, come on, Joe may just be seriously wounded.”

“You’re right Adam; Hoss help your brother with the wagon. I’ll get the medical supplies and some food. Hurry.”  Ben rushed to the house, grabbed the medical supply bag and crammed what little food he could find into a sack he had found in the corner of Hop Sing’s kitchen and hurried back outside.  Adam and Hoss had the wagon ready and his horse ready. Quickly the trio headed out of the yard, each lost in their own thoughts as to the welfare of the youngest family member.

It took Ben and his son’s most of the night to reach the line shack known as Oblivion.  The old shack was seldom used and then when it was, it was only when one of them or some ranch hand stayed there during round up.  The cabin had earned its name due to the distance and isolation from any of the other line shacks and the main ranch house.  It was a place where none of the hands or family members enjoyed having to use. And much to Ben’s distaste, made the perfect hideout for any man on the run.

Ben heard the moaning as soon as he pushed opened the door.  The cabin was pitch black. Darkness had stolen every smidgeon of light from the room. Hoss quickly struck a match, found the lantern and put fire to the wick.  Holding the lamp up over their heads, Ben was able to find his way to the back room where the piteous sounds were coming from.

“Dear God,” muttered Ben seeing his son in the shadows, gagged and bound, blood seeping from the wound in his shoulder where unknown to him, Clay had winged his brother.

“Joseph, it’s okay son, Pa’s here now,” Ben said in a soothing voice, all the while helping Adam to remove the ropes that held Joe’s legs and hands bound tightly.  Ben pulled the gag from his son’s mouth as he knelt down beside the small cot and examined the bullet wound.

“Bring that lamp over closer, please Hoss.  Adam, see if you can find some water and bring the medical supplies.  I need to clean this wound and see where the bullet is.”  Ben began removing Joe’s jacket and shirt, tossing them aside as he did so.  Gently Ben stroked his son’s battered face.

Joe moaned, tossed his head and mumbled incoherently, things that his father could not understand.  “Take it easy son, you’re going to be all right,” Ben softly said as he worked at cleaning the wound with the fresh water that Adam had brought in.

“How bad is it, Pa?” asked Adam looking over his father’s shoulder.

“Doesn’t look too bad, just a flesh wound.  Whoever shot him must have been a terrible shot, to just wing him at such close range. Look, here’s the bullet in the pillow.”  Ben dug the bullet out of the pillow and held it up for his sons to see.  After placing the bullet into Adam’s hand, he wet the cloth again in the water and applied it to the area where blood still oozed.

Adam had moved to the other side of the cot and sat on the very edge, his worry and concern for his younger brother evident on his face.  “He’s burning up with fever,” he told his father, placing the back of his hand to his brother’s forehead.

“I know, we need to get him home in his own bed.  Hoss and I can take Joe in the wagon Adam, I want you to ride into town and have Doc Martin meet us at the ranch.  This gunshot wound isn’t that bad, but someone’s beat this boy pretty badly.  We’ll stay here for the night and get an early start first thing in the morning.”  Ben gently caressed Joe’s cheek when Joe began tossing his head and moaning again.

“Pa…” cried out Joe.

“Shh…Pa’s here son.  Everything’s okay now; try to rest Joe.” Ben held Joe’s hand to prevent him from slinging it about in the air as Joe sought his father’s hand.

“He…shot…me…why Pa?  Why?” whimpered Joe, his pain filled eyes filling with tears as he searched for his father’s face in the dim light.

“Who son?  Who shot you?” asked Ben, fighting the anger that filled his heart at the person who could have so callously shot his son while tied and gag and then gone off to leave him to die, alone and frightened.

Joe momentarily stopped his babbling as something that Clay told him stuck in his befuddled and confused mind, ‘you cannot tell anyone, not even your father.’

Joe squeezed his eyes, the tears slipping slowly downward from the corners.  “I don’t…know…” he lied and turned his head away from the probing eyes of his father.

Even in the dimly lit room, his body hot with fever, Joe could see enough to spy the doubt that had suddenly shone in his father’s dark eyes and he realized in that instant that his father knew he was lying.

“You rest son, we’ll talk later.”  Ben laid the cool cloth across Joe’s forehead and pulled a light blanket around Joe’s shoulders.

Feeling his oldest son’s eyes boring into him, Ben glanced up and locked eyes with Adam.  Ben knew that Adam was also aware that Joseph had lied to him.  But why, who was he protecting?  Surely not the man who left him to die?  Joe knew the man who shot him, of that Ben was certain, but the reason for his son’s dishonestly would have to wait, the boy was too sick, too confused and maybe, thought Ben, just maybe, he was mistaken in what he had seen moments ago in his youngest son’s eyes.

*****

Ben sat near his son’s bed throughout the long night.  Several times, Joe cried out for his father, other times his mumbled speech cried for the brother who had left him tied and wounded but never were his whimpering coherent enough that his father or brothers could make out his jumbled words.

Joe rolled his head about on the pillow, his cries for Adam bringing the brother quickly to his bedside.

“Adam…Adam…” wined Joe; his eyes shut tightly, his head tossing back and forth, tiny beads of sweat popping out on his face and neck, his fever climbing to alarming heights that worried not just the father but both brothers as well.

“I’m here buddy.”  Adam took Joe’s hand into his and held it, the moisture from Joe’s sweaty palm making the inside of Adam’s hand damp as well.  Adam felt a sudden surge of guilt at having been so angry with his brother earlier and how he had tried to demand his father to be stricter in his discipline of his youngest son.

Slowly Joe’s eyes opened searching frantically in the dim light for his brother’s face.  Gently Adam cupped Joe’s face and brought it around so that Joe might better see him.

“I’m right here, Joe.”  Adam cast anxious eyes at his father and then back down at his brother.  “What is it you need little buddy?” he asked, brushing at the damp hair that had become glued to Joe’s forehead.

“Adam,” moaned Joe, “Hoss…I…have …to tell…you.”

Hoss was instantly on his feet and joined his older brother who kneeled at Joe’s bedside.

“I’m here too, Punkin, what do ya need to tell us?”  Hoss placed his large hand on Joe’s head and tenderly fingered with damp curls.

“I…love ya…stay…” Joe’s voice faded as his eyes closed once again to the unsettled slumber that claimed him.

Hoss exchanged puzzled looks with his older brother, startled by Joe’s unexpected proclamation of love for his brothers.  When Adam and Hoss’ eyes locked with the dark questioning eyes of their father, Ben only raised his eyebrows in wonder at the statement.

“Wonder what brought that on?” asked Adam softly, rising from his spot at Joe’s bedside.

“I dunno but somethin’ strange has been goin’ on here Adam.  Somethin’ that’s botherin’ Little Joe and somethin’ that he ain’t atellin’ us,” commented Hoss quietly so as not to disturb Joe who had begun moaning and crying out again.

“I agree Hoss.  I think Joe knows who shot him and I think it’s tearing him up inside.  What I can’t figure out is who and why and why would our little brother want to keep it from us?”

Adam had sat down opposite Hoss and was resting his elbows on the table.  Pinching the bridge of his nose as he normally did when troubled, Adam raised his head slowly and looked at his brother.

“I think Joe was lying, no, I know Joe was lying to Pa when he said he didn’t know who it was that shot him.  And I’m positive that Pa knew it also.”

“But why, Adam?  Why would Joe not tell Pa?” worried Hoss.

“I can’t say, but you and I are going to find out, one way or another.”  Adam leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.

*****

Joe continued to toss and turn, crying out in his fevered condition.  His dreams always centered around the lone man who stood over his bed, gun pointed, trigger pulled back ready to fire.  Joe screamed out, jarring his father from his slumber in the chair where he had been sitting keeping vigil over his sick son.

“NO! NO! Don’t do it, don’t shoot me….” Joe’s mind’s eyes locked with those whose own eyes was much like his own.  Joe could see the tormented way in which they stared at him and he again heard the voice of his brother, ‘I love you, Joe; I love you.’

“Please…please, don’t go…don’t leave me,” wept Joe in his delirium.

Ben dampened the cloth in cool water and returned it to his son’s fevered brow.

“Who Joseph, who are you begging not to leave?”  Ben was grasping at straws, Joe was in no condition to answer his questions but something gnawed at Ben’s insides to find the reason for his son’s inner turmoil.

‘You cannot tell anyone, not even your father.’  Clay’s face loomed before Joe’s, even in his altered state of mind, his brother’s warning rang clear and finally just before dawn, Joe lapsed into a deep troubled sleep that brought an end to his aimless muttering.

Early the next morning, Hoss had the wagon ready, Adam left for Virginia City to fetch Doctor Martin and together, Hoss and his father carried Joe outside and gently using care placed the injured boy into the back of the wagon.

“It’s a good thing that bullet just grazed him.  With these busted ribs, an infected bullet wound would have been more than your brother could bear,” Ben told Hoss as he climbed into the back of the wagon and placed the blanket around Joe’s unconscious body.

Hoss tied Buck’s reins to the side of the wagon and climbed up into the driver’s seat.  “I hope this ride ain’t too much for’em.  He’s still burnin’ up with fever Pa,” Hoss gave his Pa a worried look.

“Just try to avoid as many ruts as you can son.  We’ll be fine back here, I’ll take care of your brother, and you just watch the road.  Now’s let get going.”  Ben settled himself next to Joe, taking care to watch his son’s face for any expressions that might tell him that Joe’s pain had worsened.

It was late in the day by the time that Hoss pulled the team to a stop, just feet away from the front door.  Almost instantly, Adam was beside him, the doctor close on his heels.

“Don’t move him yet Ben, let me check him out first,” Paul Martin called out to his long time friend and climbed into the wagon with Ben.

Paul placed the back of his hand to Joe’s brow.  Ben saw the way the physician’s expression changed and noted the worried look that crossed his face.  Next, Paul pulled the blanket from around Joe’s chest and lifted the bandage that Ben had placed over the spot where the bullet had creased his son’s shoulder.

“Well at least that doesn’t look too bad,” Paul muttered more to himself than to the worried father.  Carefully Paul ran his hands downward along each side of his patient’s ribcage and frowned when Joe winced in pain.

“Looks like he’s got some busted ribs here, Ben.  Help me get him into the house.  Be careful, we don’t want to jar him so that one of those broken ribs punctures a lung.”  Paul scooted out of the wagon and made room for Hoss and Adam who had volunteered to carry their brother into the house for their father and the doctor.

The second that his brothers lifted Joe, Joe screamed out in pain.  “No!  Don’t…please don’t…it hurts…it hurts…”

Hoss gulped forcing himself not to cry.  “Take it easy Punkin; ole Hoss’ll have ya in ya own bed in just a couple of minutes.”  Hoss gave Adam a weak smile and together they gently carried Joe into the house and up the stairs.

Hop Sing had the bed ready, covers pulled back, clean water waiting for the doctor’s use and easy as they could, the brothers placed Joe gently down on his bed.  Ben hurried to Joe’s side and pulled the covers around his son attempting to tuck them in around his body.

“Ben, stop, please,” ordered the doctor.  “We’re going to have to bind those ribs first.  Why don’t you and your boys go downstairs and get some coffee.  Hop Sing and I can take care of Joseph.”

“No, I…” started Ben.

“Pa, Doc’s right, come on, let him do his job.”  Adam took Ben by the arm and gently pulled him from the room.  Hoss followed and closed the door behind him as Adam led their father down the stairs.

Ben poured himself a brandy and sat wearily down into his favorite chair.  A loud rapping at the door brought him quickly to his feet and Hoss hurried to answer.

“Howdy, Hoss,” said Sheriff Roy Coffee as he eased himself into the house.

“Howdy, Roy,” replied Hoss taking the sheriff’s hat and placing it on the credenza.

“Roy, come on in,” welcomed Ben, extending his hand in greeting.

“Howdy, Ben.  How’s Little Joe?  I saw Adam in town and he said you’d found him.”  Roy shook his friend’s hand and then made himself comfortable on the settee.  Ben offered the sheriff a glass of brandy, but Roy shook his head no.

“Joe’s busted up pretty badly and he has some broken ribs, bruises that sort of thing.  He’s got a bullet wound in the shoulder but whoever shot at him just creased the flesh.  He’s hurting some and has a fever but Doc seems to think he’ll be fine,” Ben explained and sat back down, giving a glance toward the staircase, his mind turning to his wounded son upstairs.

“Has he said anything about the men who held him?  Did he say who shot him?” Roy pressed his fingers together and waited for an answer to his questions.

“No, not yet Roy, the boy’s too sick to say much right now.  Doc’s with him, he should be down shortly.”

“Well, let me know when I can talk to him.  We lost the trail up in the rocks just as Hoss predicted.  We covered the entire area and couldn’t find a sign as to where they might have been.  My guess is they high tailed it to Callyfornia by now.  If’n that’s the case, it’s outta my hands, I mean once they cross the border and all.  I sent a wire to Wells Fargo and they said they’d get an agent on it right away.  I’m sorry Ben, I mean about Little Joe and your payroll.  Everyone lost big this time, it’s gonna take some of the ranchers a long time to re-coop their losses,” said the sheriff.

“I know it won’t be easy for them Roy.  I guess I was luckier than most, I’ll see what we can do to help out those that need it most.  Right now though, my main concern is my son.  I’ll let you know when the doctor says it’s all right for you to talk to him,” replied Ben as he walked to the door with the sheriff.

“Thanks, Ben; I know the ranchers will appreciate anything you can do for them.”  Roy placed his hat onto his head and mounted up.  “Take care of that boy of yours,” he called over his shoulder.

*****

A week later, Roy rode again into the yard of the Ponderosa.  Ben sat with Joe on the side porch; Adam and Hoss busy with the evening chores in the barn joined them as Roy dismounted.

“Evenin’ Ben,” Roy greeted his friend, “Little Joe, how ya feelin?”

“Fine.”  It was all Joe said.

Joe had become sullen and withdrawn over the last few days.  Clay was constantly foremost in his mind and the anger Joe felt towards his brother at shooting him and then just leaving him, ate away at him.  It prevented him from eating; his nights were constantly filled with nightmares, Clay’s face staring into his eyes as over and over Joe relived the incident that tore at his troubled heart.  To make matters worse, Ben had questioned him on more than a few occasions as to the person who had shot him and Joe had been forced to keep up the lie he had first told of not knowing who the man had been.  Joe’s anger and hurt feelings at his brother Clay did nothing to erode the trust that Joe held in his heart for the brother who had left him for the second time.  Joe wanted more than anything to think that Clay had his reasons for doing what he had done, though try as he might, Joe could not think of any reason good enough to warrant being purposely shot by one’s own brother.

“We caught the robbers Ben.  Thought you might like to know, well, that is we caught four of them, Pete was killed in the shoot out.  The other four gave up after that, guess they figured without their leader, there was no reason to die.  The man the others said was responsible for shooting Little Joe got away.  Don’t know how he managed it, but he gave us the slip.”  Roy moved to face Joe who had stood to his feet at the news.

“Sorry Little Joe, wish we’d of caught all of them.  I got a wire from Wells Fargo after I reported to them that we had four of them in custody and that Fisher was dead.  They sent a wire back and said they had caught up to that Wade guy themselves and they would take care of him.  I wired’em back and told’em you’d be pressing charges against him for attempted murder,” explained Roy.

Joe jerked his head up, “Pressing charges?  No, Roy, I’m not pressing charges.  You’ll just have to wire them back and tell them that I ain’t going to do it.”

All heads snapped to attention at Joe’s outburst and sudden anger directed at the sheriff.

“What do you mean, you’re not pressing charges?” Adam asked, giving Ben a troubling look.  “That man shot you and left you for dead!” Adam shouted at his brother.

Joe had turned his back to the group, not wanting them to read the turmoil that he was sure now showed on his face.  How could he press charges of attempted murder on his own brother, regardless that he still did not know why Clay had done what he had done?  Joe recalled only that his brother had begged him to trust him and though Joe was mad at Clay for leaving him a second time and under such conditions, Joe told himself he owed it to his brother to do as he had requested.

“You heard me, I’m not pressing charges and that’s final.”  Joe stomped back into the house slamming the door for emphasis.

Adam was furious at Joe, not understanding his younger brother’s thinking in the matter and he started to the house in order to confront Joe.  Ben grabbed Adam’s arm, halting his steps.  Adam’s eyes were dark with anger as he glared at his father but the look that was shot back at him told him to keep his thoughts to himself, so Adam squelched his desire to make public his distain of the matter.

“Leave him be Adam.  I’ll talk to him later, I’m sure he has his reasons,” Ben told Adam.

*****

Ben found Joe standing at his bedroom window.  The bedroom door was standing ajar and Ben slowly eased it opened and stepped inside.  “Joseph, could we talk, son?” he asked softly, moving to stand behind his son.

Joe turned without speaking and moved to sit on the edge of the bed.  “If it’s about pressing charges, forget it Pa.  I’m not doing it.”  Joe hung his head, unable to meet his father’s probing eyes.

“No, that’s your decision, son.  I think I understand why you won’t press charges.  And if I’m right, I can’t say that I blame you.”  Ben pulled the chair that was in the room up in front of Joe and sat down, Ben’s eyes never leaving his son’s face.

Joe glanced up at his father and tried to read the expression on Ben’s face.  “What do you mean, Pa?”

Ben reached into his pocket and pulled something out, holding the object in his closed hand out of Joe’s sight.  Reaching for his son’s hand, Ben gently pried open Joe’s fingers and placed the object into the opened palm before folding the fingers over the unknown object.  Ben held Joe’s hand in his, preventing his son from unfolding his fingers and looking at what he had placed into his hand.

“I found this in your coat pocket Joseph, a couple of days after we got you home.  I dropped your jacket and when I went to pick it up, this fell into the floor.  I don’t think it was meant for my eyes, but I couldn’t help but see it.  After I found this I realized that the man who shot you never intended to kill you and I believe that he wanted you to have this back.  Am I right?”  Ben withdrew his hand and slowly Joe opened his fist.  There in his hand rested the small photograph of his mother that he had given to his brother Clay two years earlier when he had first found out that Clay was his brother.

Instant tears formed in his eyes at the memory of the night he had first given the picture to his newfound sibling.  Swallowing, Joe looked into his father’s eyes; moments later Ben was holding his weeping son tightly in his arms, allowing him to rid himself of his misery.

“I couldn’t tell ya Pa.  I couldn’t, Clay begged me to trust him.  I couldn’t betray him, no matter what he did.  I just couldn’t do it, Pa.  You understand don’t you?” sobbed Joe, hurt by the knowledge that his father had known all along that he had lied to him.

Ben’s hand gently caressed the back of Joe’s neck, “Of course I understand Joe.  I would probably have made the same decision.  I only wish I knew why Clay shot you, that and what that boy was doing riding with a gang like Pete Fisher’s.  I have a lot of unanswered questions as I’m sure you do as well.”

“I do Pa, but I have to believe that Clay had his reasons.  He could have killed me if he had wanted to.  I know that.  What I can’t figure out is how he got tangled up with Fisher and his gang.  He told me that he wasn’t on the wrong side of the law, what do you think he meant by that Pa?”  Joe wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeves and gave his father a beseeching look.

Ben only shook his head in thought.  “I suppose that only Clay has the answer to that question son.  Perhaps one day he’ll get a chance to explain it to you.  For now, why don’t you do as he asked and just trust him?”  Ben had moved to the side of the bed next to Joe and once again slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulder.  Joe gave his father a tiny smile and nodded his head.

“I suppose you’re right Pa.  It’s the least I can do for him right now.”

Ben rose to leave but Joe stopped him before he reached the door.  “Pa.”

“Yes son?” replied Ben, his hand already on the doorknob.

“Thanks for understanding,” Joe’s lips made a tight smile that was forced.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you Pa.  I wanted too, but I…I guess I was afraid you wouldn’t understand, guess I was wrong, heh?”

Ben saw the sadness that reflected back at him and his heart went out to his youngest son.  “I guess you were, Joseph.  Remember?  I told you many years ago that you could come to me with anything.  I hope from now on you will remember that son; I’m always here for you.  I love you Joseph, we all do.”  Ben watched as Joe dropped his head and couldn’t help but smile; the boy looked so young and reminded him so of his mother.

“Why don’t you get to bed son?  The extra rest will do you good,” Ben said in a lighter voice.

Joe met his father’s eyes, saw the love shining within and the smile that Joe gave to his father this time was not forced.  “I will Pa.  Good night.”

“Night son; God bless.”  Ben quietly closed the door, leaving Joe to prepare for bed and hurried to discuss with Adam and Hoss the possibilities of sending a letter to Wells Fargo in an attempt to find out what would happen to Clay should Joe not press charges.

*****

Adam closed the door softly behind and glanced at his family sitting in the great room surprised that they were so engrossed in what they were doing that they had failed to hear his entrance.  His father was reading his paper, Hoss dozed in the blue chair and Joe sat on the wooden table facing the fireplace staring into the blaze that burned there.  Adam noticed that every so often Ben would glance over the top of his paper at Joe who seemed lost in his thoughts.

“I’ve got the mail, Pa,” Adam informed his father after placing his hat and gun on the credenza.

“Oh, hello son,” Ben acknowledged his son.  “I didn’t hear you come in.”

Adam smiled, “I noticed, here, you got that letter from San Francisco you were expecting,” Adam told his father and handed him the mail, withholding one envelope.

Ben saw the look that Adam gave him and raised his brows slightly in a silent question.  Joe had moved from his spot in front of the fireplace and turned to greet his brother but before he could speak, Adam extended the lone envelope out to him.

“This came for you Joe,” Adam informed the younger man.

“Me?” asked Joe, surprised that he had received mail.

As Joe reached to take the letter from his brother’s hand, Adam spoke again.  “It’s from Clay.”

Ben’s eyes immediately darted from Adam to Joe’s face, as much surprised at the news as his youngest son appeared to be.  Ben noticed the troubling look that suddenly crossed Joe’s handsome face; Hoss who had awakened moved to look over Joe’s shoulder at the envelope that Joe now held in his hand.

“Ya gonna open it or just stand there and hold it, little brother?”  Hoss gently poked Joe in the back, bringing him back to the present.

“I…I…yeah, I’m gonna read it,” Joe glanced into the faces of his family, his heart in his throat as he returned to stand in front of the fireplace, his back to his family.

Ben nodded his head at Adam and Hoss, signaling them to give Joe his privacy.  Adam took the hint.

“Come on Hoss; let’s see if Hop Sing has any of that apple pie left from supper.” Adam slung his arm around Hoss’ shoulder and stirred him toward the kitchen.

Ben moved to his desk and without a word to Joe, who still stared at the unopened envelope, sat down and busied himself with his ledgers.

Joe slowly tore open the envelope and withdrew the letter, taking his time in unfolding the neatly creased paper.  Swallowing the lump that had risen in his throat, and tossing an anxious glance in his father’s direction, Joe allowed his eyes to return to the message on the paper.

Dear Joe, 

By now I hope you have recovered from all that you have been through.  I want to tell you little brother, how very sorry I am for my part in what happened to you.  I hated myself for having to hurt you, to see you lying wounded and tied as you were has haunted my dreams since that awful day.  I know you had questions, Joe.  I wish I could have explained myself to you right then, I wish I could have told you face to face what was going on, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t take the chance, for if Pete had known that we were brothers, he would have killed both of us.  As it were, he already suspected something and I could not take the gamble of him finding out.  I had to protect you the best way that I could, that is why I had to be the one to shoot you, Joe.  Pete hated your father; he would have taken pleasure in killing you, just to hurt Ben.  I could not let that happen, not to you, my own brother. 

Joe, I hope someday you can forgive me, I would have never left you as I did had the circumstances been different, I hope you believe that, for it is the truth.  Joe, the reason why I could not tell you why I was involved with scum like Pete and his gang was because I was working undercover for Wells Fargo.  I went to work with them after I left you that night you gave me the picture of our mother.  I knew that having once met you, loving you as my brother as I do, I knew Joe, that it was time for me to get my life together and make our mother proud of both of her sons, not just one.  I wish I had known her Joe; it might have made a big difference in how I lived my life.  You were lucky that you had her for as long as you did; I envy you that. 

I’m still working for Wells Fargo.  I’m headed up to Montana in a couple of days, seems they are having the same problems there as were taking place in your part of the country.  I don’t know when, if ever, I will get back to the Ponderosa, but I just wanted to clear things with you and to tell you again how sorry I am for what happened.  Remember Little Joe what I told you before, I love you.  I honestly do, Joe, and I wanted you to know what was really in my heart, and how I truly feel about you.  I never meant it when I told you that I didn’t need you or your family; I only said that cause I knew I had to say something to make you see that your rightful place was there on the Ponderosa with Adam and Hoss and your father, not tagging along with me.  I told you before, trouble always seems to follow me and I didn’t want to see you following in my footsteps.  Adam and Hoss are much better role models for you little brother than I could ever be.  Listen to them Joe; they love you and they’ll always be there for you. I can’t even promise you that I’ll ever see you again; I can only tell you that I’ll try.  Please Joe, accept my apology and I hope that someday we’ll meet again. 

Take care pal; stay out of trouble and every once in a while say a little prayer for me, will you? 

Your Loving brother,

Clay Stafford

 

 

Joe slowly folded the letter along the same lines that the paper had been folded and replaced it into the envelope.  He glanced up at his father as Ben approached him and sat down next to him on the wooden table.

Ben noted the tears that had welled in his son’s eyes and couldn’t help from slipping his arm around Joe’s shoulders.  The minute that his father touched him, Ben could feel the tremors that shook his son’s body and Ben pulled Joe close and held him tightly.  Tears slipped slowly down Joe’s face, relief in knowing that his brother had indeed been on the right side of the law and relief in knowing that Clay had cared enough for him to protect him the best he had known how, caused Joe’s anger at his half brother to melt away.

“He was working undercover for Wells Fargo, Pa.  He couldn’t tell me ’cause he was afraid Pete would kill me; that’s why he told them he would be the one to shoot me. He meant to wing me and make them think I was dead, that’s all.”  Joe sniffed his nose and pulled away from his father.

“He really did care about me,” Joe smiled at his father, the new knowledge giving him cause.  “He even said that he’d try to come back someday, Pa.”

Ben noted the shine that returned to the hazel eyes that watched him and the sight made his heart leap with joy and he returned his son’s happy smile.  “I wouldn’t doubt it one bit, Joseph, not with the love he has in his heart for you.”

Joe’s smile broadened as he slipped his letter into his shirt pocket next to his heart.  “Do you think mama knows Pa?”

“Knows what son?” Ben asked, puzzled.

“Do you think that she knows about me and Clay, that we’ve found each other?” Joe’s eyes had begun to mist.

Ben rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder and smiled, “I’m sure of it son, and I think she’s about as proud of Clay as she was of you.  She has two fine sons in my opinion.”

“You mean four Pa.  We can’t forget Adam and Hoss,” smiled Joe.

“Your right…” started Ben when the two sons in question stepped from the kitchen into the dining room.

“Right?  Right about what?  Joe ain’t never been right about nuthin’,” teased Hoss grabbing Joe around the shoulders tightly and squeezing him in a bear hug.

Joe squirmed, trying to break free from Hoss’ embrace while his family laughed at his futile efforts.

“You’re wrong boys, this time your younger brother is right, trust me.  Shall we explain it to them son?” Ben asked Joe and then laughed as he helped Joe free himself from the tangle of arms.

“Naw, let’s just keep’em wondering Pa, we wouldn’t want their heads to swell,” laughed Little Joe darting out of reach of Adam who made a grab for him.

Hoss circled the wooden table on one side; Adam on the other as Joe inched backward and quickly darted behind his father as his brothers moved in on him.

“Help me Pa, help me Pa…” giggled Joe mock fear on his face.

Hoss and Adam had Ben wedged between them as they playfully grabbed for their youngest sibling, all were shouting pretend threats at Joe as they tangled themselves together laughing and teasing one another and anyone who might have been watching could have felt the joy that had once again returned to dwell within the walls of the Cartwright home.

***End***

Return to Debbie B.’s home page

     

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